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Bishops visiting Holy Land ask for application of international law

January 17, 2020 CNA Daily News 0

Jerusalem, Jan 17, 2020 / 06:01 pm (CNA).- Following a trip to the Holy Land, a group of bishops from the United States and Europe called on their countries’ governments to acknowledge the state of Palestine and to apply international law in Israel and the surrounding area in order to promote peace and justice.

“We are inspired by their enduring resilience and faith in a worsening situation,” the bishops said of those who live in the Holy Land in a Jan. 16 statement.

The bishops added that the Catholic bishops of the Holy Land have “lamented the international community’s failure to help realize justice and peace here in the place of Christ’s birth. Our governments must do more to meet their responsibilities for upholding international law and protecting human dignity. In some cases they have become actively complicit in the evils of conflict and occupation.”

The bishops are part of the Holy Land Coordination group, which was founded by the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales and is comprised of bishops from the U.S. and Europe. Besides their annual trip to the Holy Land, the group promotes awareness, action, and prayer for the region.

During the Jan. 11-16 trip, the bishops visited Christians in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and Ramallah.

After their recent visit, the bishops said it was “painfully clear” that living conditions for the people of the Holy Land are worsening, particularly “in the West Bank where our sisters and brothers are denied even basic rights including freedom of movement.”

“In Gaza the political decisions of all sides have resulted in the creation of an open-air prison, human rights abuses and a profound humanitarian crisis. We were welcomed by families whose focus is now day-to-day survival and whose aspirations have been reduced to bare essentials such as electricity and clean water,” they said.

The visiting bishops said that local bishops warn “that people are facing further ‘evaporation of hope for a durable solution’.” They added: “We have witnessed this reality first-hand, particularly how construction of settlements and the separation wall is destroying any prospect of two states existing in peace.”

The bishops encouraged their own countries’ governments to find political solutions to the conflicts in the Holy Land, including: “insisting upon the application of international law; following the Holy See’s lead in recognizing the State of Palestine, addressing the security concerns of Israel and the right of all to live in safety, rejecting political or economic support for settlements, and resolutely opposing acts of violence or abuses of human rights by any side.”

The Vatican recognized the state of Palestine in May 2015.

They also thanked the religious sisters, priests, and laypeople in the region who are providing services such as education and healthcare to the vulnerable populations, and encouraged the increasing number of Christians making pilgrimages to the Holy Land to engage with the local communities in the area on their trips.

“In taking these steps the international community can meaningfully stand in solidarity with those Israelis and Palestinians who are refusing to give up their non-violent struggle for justice, peace and human rights,” the bishops added. “We pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

The delegation on the trip included Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton, chair of the Holy Land Coordination; Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. Military Archdiocese; bishops from throughout Europe; and an Anglican bishop.


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Gaza Exodus: Helping Christians caught in a crisis

January 13, 2020 CNA Daily News 0

Gaza City, Jan 14, 2020 / 12:47 am (CNA).- With fewer than 1,000 Christians in a population of 1.8 million, the Christian population in Palestine’s Gaza Strip today is less than half of what it was 10 years ago.

“They are — of all the Christian groups in the Holy Land — certainly by far the group that’s facing the most difficulty,” Robert Nicholson, president and founder of the Philos Project, told CNA.

Nicholson is currently leading an initiative to help Gazan Christians. He insists the world does not need to wait for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to help the dwindling  Palestinian Christian population.

“Christians are often forgotten in this conflict,” he said. “They are really caught between forces that are much bigger than them … They’re looking for stability, they’re looking for freedom.”

“Strengthening these communities need not necessarily be tied to politics,” Nicholson said.

Humanitarian circumstances for Gaza’s Christians have deteriorated since the radical Islamist Hamas takeover in June 2007, which prompted an Israeli blockade restricting the flow of commercial goods into Gaza. According to Caritas International, 80% of Gaza’s population lives below the poverty line.

The Christian minority in Gaza, which is mostly Greek Orthodox, also faces discrimination from the Muslim majority, according to Nicholson. “They are of course in Gaza being ruled by Hamas, a very extreme Muslim group that is rejected even by the Palestinian Authority. And, as Christians in this very difficult fundamentalist society, they face all kinds of social and political persecution,” he said.

This is one of the many factors that has led more and more Palestinian Christians to try to escape Gaza and to relocate to the West Bank, where many end up living with an irregular status and separated from their families.

“They are living in what is essentially an illegal immigrant status because of the way they moved from Gaza to the West Bank. They are washing dishes, they are cleaning homes. If they get arrested at a check-point, they get sent back to Gaza. And so these people, they’re living on the fringes of the society. Even the Christians of the West Bank are not doing that much for them,” Nicholson said.

Witnessing this struggle led Nicholson to start the Gaza Exodus initiative, which seeks to help reunite Christian families divided by the Green Line.

“We’re working with the Israeli and Palestinian governments to get their status normalized, to help them reunite with their families who are still in Gaza and to provide some basic level of financial support for them to make this transition,” Nicholson told CNA in October.

“There’s like social entrepreneurship that can happen that can lift the status of these Christians,” he said.

The Gaza Exodus initiative raised more than $20,000 in a three-month campaign at the end of 2019 to reunite four Christian families for Christmas.

Days before Christmas, Israeli authorities reversed a Dec. 12 announcement barring Gaza Christians from visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem in the West Bank. Of the 800 travel permits requested, 316 were granted by Christmas Eve, Reuters reported.

Through the Philos Project, Nicholson has worked since 2014 to expose young people to the plurality of voices in Israel, Palestine, and throughout the Middle East.

The Philos Project brings Christian college students and young professionals on organized trips to the Holy Land to engage with the local religious and political realities. It is an ecumenical initiative with staff and fellows from Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Assyrian backgrounds.

“What I’m trying to do is bring people into an encounter with the birthplace of their faith because there’s power in that encounter,” Nicholson said. “The Middle East is and will remain important.”


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Four seminarians abducted in Nigeria

January 13, 2020 CNA Daily News 0

Kaduna, Nigeria, Jan 13, 2020 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- Four seminarians, between the ages of 18 and 23, were abducted Wednesday night from their seminary in Kaduna, in northwestern Nigeria.

Pius Kanwai, 19; Peter Umenukor, 23; Stephen Amos, 23; and Michael Nnadi, 18, were taken from Good Shepherd Seminary in Kaduna, around 10:30 pm on Jan. 8 by gunmen. Police are searching for the four young men.

Nearly 270 seminarians live at Good Shepherd.

“The security situation in Nigeria is appalling”, Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of ACN International, said Jan. 13. “Criminal gangs are further exploiting the chaotic situation and making matters still worse.”

He compared the situation in Nigeria to that of Iraq prior to the Islamic State’s invasion: “Already at that stage, Christians were being abducted, robbed and murdered because there was no protection by the state. This must not be allowed to happen to the Christians of Nigeria. The government must act now, before it is too late.”

The gunmen, disguised in military camouflage, broke through the fence surrounding the seminarians’ living quarters and began shooting sporadically. They stole laptops and phones before kidnapping the four young men.

A source in Nigeria told ACI Africa that the kidnappers made contact with family members of the seminarians Jan. 11, “but never pronounced any amount of money as ransom.”

Each of the abductees were first year philosophers, sources told ACI Africa.

Good Shepherd Seminary is located just off the Abuja-Kaduna-Zaria Express Way. According to AFP, the area is “notorious for criminal gangs kidnapping travelers for ransom.”

The news agency said that schoolgirls and staff from a boarding school also located near the highway were kidnapped in October, and were later released.

Kidnappings of Christians in Nigeria have multiplied in recent months, a situation that has prompted Church leaders to express serious concern about the security of their members and to call on the government to prioritize the security of its citizens.


A version of this story was initially reported by CNA’s sister agency, ACI Africa. It has been adapted by CNA.


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Archbishop Warda: US-Iran tensions threaten Iraq’s Christian communities

January 8, 2020 CNA Daily News 0

Erbil, Iraq, Jan 8, 2020 / 11:48 am (CNA).- After Iran attacked an air base in Erbil early Wednesday, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil said the current tensions between Iran and the U.S. threaten the fragile Christian communities in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains.

“The current tensions between the two powers must not escalate. Iraq has been suffering from proxy wars for decades; they have torn our country apart,” Archbishop Bashar Warda told CNA Jan. 8.

In retaliation for the U.S. drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran fired a more than a dozen ballistic missiles at the Al Asad and Erbil air bases, where U.S. troops are stationed. There were no casualties from the attacks, according to U.S. and Iraqi forces.

U.S. President Donald Trump said in a speech Jan. 8 that he is asking NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East, and said Iran appears to be “standing down.”

Warda said his Catholic community in Iraqi Kurdistan is tired of war and its tragic consequences. “They have continually suffered far too much and can no longer face an unknown future,” he said.

“We are a courageous people of hope. Since the defeat of ISIS in May 2017 by the coalition forces, our archdiocese has been working with other church leaders, Christian agencies, humanitarian agencies, governments and NGOs  to help rebuild our fractured communities in Mosul and Nineveh Plain. It has been a very challenging road to raise funds and international support to help us to physically regain what we lost starting in August 2014. The current tensions are threatening the serious fragility of the communities,” Warda said.

Iraqi Christians “need the certainty, reassurance, hope and the belief that Iraq can be a peaceful country to live in rather than being victims and endless collateral damage,” he said.

The Archbishop of Erbil said he was united with the appeal from Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako, Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, prudently to seek civilised dialogue and to pray for peace.

“As Church leaders we will always follow the path of God in seeking peace, reconciliation, mutual dialogue and not conflict,” he said.

Fr. Benham Benoka, a priest of the Syriac Archeparchy of Mosul, said that he hopes the situation of Christians in the Nineveh Plains will be taken into consideration as Iran and the United States confront one another.

“We feel increasingly insecure, especially now that we are talking about the withdrawal of military forces,” Benoka said in an an Italian interview with Vatican Radio Jan. 8.

Fr. Benoka is currently based in Bartella, a Christian city fewer than 20 miles east of Mosul controlled by Shia militiamen.

Following Islamic State’s occupation of the Bartella, the city’s Christian population has been reduced to less than a third of what it was, according to the Associated Press, who reported in 2019 that Christians families were afraid to return to Bartella due to intimidation by the Shabak, a Shia ethnic group who make up the militias controlling the town.

“Since we returned, even if only partially, to our land, after the defeat of IS in October 2016, we have been engaged in the reconstruction of houses and churches. But there are other forces, such as the so-called ‘Thirty Brigade’ of Shiite Shabak Muslims, who have taken control of the Christian city of Bartella and every day we must suffer their aggressive acts against churches and against our Christians, especially against women. This is why we have been asking for a solution to our situation for some time,” Fr. Benoka said.

The Iraqi priest said that he was particularly concerned to hear that the Iraqi parliament voted to ask the government to end the presence of international coalition forces.

“We only have 24 soldiers from the so-called NPU, the Protection Units of the Nineveh Plain, that is, Christian popular mobilization forces, and these 24 soldiers will never be able to defend us. So how can we do it? Where should we go?” he said.

“We truly pray that the military solution is not the only solution, but that there is a diplomatic solution to protect Iraqi blood,” the priest said.

Fr. Benoka said that his community prays the rosary every day for solutions to the problems facing the Iraqi people: “We ask that everyone agree – politicians and everyone else – to solve the problems that our Iraqi people suffer from, instead of chasing the interests of other foreign agendas.”

“We ask that the situation of us Christians here in the Nineveh Plain be taken into consideration: we have neither weapons nor anything,” the priest said.


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Egyptian president commends interreligious ties

January 7, 2020 CNA Daily News 1

Cairo, Egypt, Jan 7, 2020 / 02:30 pm (CNA).- President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt attended a Coptic Orthodox Liturgy Monday, praising cooperation between the Christians and Muslims of the country.

“God saw fit for us to live in difficult circumstances…. But as long as we’re together … no one can do anything to us,” the AP reported him saying Jan. 6 at a Liturgy celebrated by Tawadros II, Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, at the Cathedral of the Nativity in Egypt’s new administrative capital, about 40 miles east of Cairo.

The liturgy celebrated Christmas Eve, as Christmas in the Coptic calendar falls Jan. 7 in the Gregorian calendar. Sisi has made a tradition in recent years of attending Liturgy for Christmas Eve among the Copts.

According to the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, Egypt’s religious freedom conditions “generally trended in a more positive direction related to high-level official discourse and actions” in 2018, while “persistent challenges at the community level and a poor, broader human rights situation remained consistent with recent years.”

In the past year, Sisi’s government has seen both a Coptic activist arrested on terrorism-related charges, and the sentencing of 30 men for planning to bomb a church in Alexandria.

USCIRF said in its 2019 report that Sisi has “heightened the inclusion of religious tolerance in public discourse” and has encouraged “the inclusion of churches in plans for new urban developments and calling for wider freedom of belief and worship.”

The commission also said that “the government’s initial effort to combat Islamist violence and ideology has evolved into a more general and severe crackdown on all perceived dissent or criticism toward the country’s leadership.”

Human rights activists in recent years have warned repeatedly that Christians in Egypt are enduring persecution and violence from Muslim groups, and the government has neglected to act.

The country has seen a number of attacks on churches in recent years, motivated in part by a call from the Islamic State.

Sisi has in the past deployed armed forces to help guard important installations and churches across Egypt.


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Soleimani air strike could mean new danger for Iraqi Christians

January 3, 2020 CNA Daily News 0

Washington D.C., Jan 3, 2020 / 03:45 pm (CNA).- Christian communities in the Middle East are likely to suffer renewed persecution in any instability following recent U.S. airstrikes, experts have warned. 

On Thursday evening Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was killed in an airstrike in Baghdad International Airport, ordered by President Donald Trump. Also killed in the strike was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and Iraqi militia which has fought against ISIS. 

The airstrike followed an attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and U.S. officials claim that Soleimani had planned additional attacks against Americans. 

Christian groups say that in the face of escalating conflict and instability in the country and region, focus must be maintained on the marginalized religious populations in the country. 

“General Soleimani and his Quds Force wreaked havoc on Christians and others in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria for decades. We pray his passing will mark the end of an era of terrorism and instability,” said Peter Burns, director of government relations and policy at In Defense of Christians.

But, Burns added, there are concerns that the region will become unstable, which could have “increased probability of counterattacks on religious minorities.”

“IDC is closely monitoring the situation to ensure that such attacks do not happen,” he said.

His organization is calling for the governments of Iraq and Syria to work to “ensure the safety of protesters who have already been targeted by Iran-aligned thugs,” and, Burns noted, Christians in these countries have protested alongside Muslims while seeking political and economic reforms. 

“Their right to gather and call for change should not be threatened by Iranian retaliation violence,” said Burns.

While it is unclear what the fallout of the Jan. 2 strike will be, many are wanring that Christian populations may be put at an increased risk of terrorism and other attacks. 

“Whatever happens next in Iraq, it is important that we not lose sight of the plight of the Christians in that country who have historically been disproportionately affected–and often directly targeted–in situations and upheaval and violence,” said Andrew Walther, Vice President of Communications and Strategic Planning of the Knights of Columbus in a statement to CNA. 

“The safety and survival of these communities, which were just recently decimated by ISIS’ campaign of genocide, must remain a priority,” said Walther. 

The Knights of Columbus has spent more than $25 million over the last five years to assist the plight of Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria. 

Fr. Luis Montes, an Argentinian priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word and a missionary in Iraq, told ACI Prensa that the attack is “quite serious,” but explained that there has not yet been anything “directly against Christians in this regard.”

Montes told ACI Prensa, CNA’s sister agency, that he was more concerned with the threat of instability in Iraq, which will “make life harder for Christians.” 

“The war affects us Christians more than others because there are fewer of us, we’re more unprotected” from the “the insecurity and violence,” he said. Most Christians have left the region, which further erodes efforts to help stabilize the country. 

“All this instability and violence is the perfect opportunity for violent people, for the terrorists, for interests outside the country interested in the country’s resources, and this is adverse to the population,” said Montes. 

Edward Clancy of Aid to the Church in Need also expressed concern about how the new instability would harm the Christian population. Clancy, who works as the group’s outreach director, told CNA that his initial reaction to hearing about the airstrike was “‘Oh no,’ but also hopeful at the same time.” 

“Terrorist activity will disproportionately affect the Christians. Not necessarily in the numbers killed, but in the numbers that remain. People will leave, because of lack of safety,” he said. 

“So right now, it is of utmost importance, whoever can provide it, give to the Christian community [a sense of] security,” said Clancy. 

Clancy especially highlighted the the Nineveh region, traditionally home to some of the world’s oldest Christian communities, where there is a lack of infrastructure and communication networks, and Christians are left “high and dry” in a “very difficult situation.” 

The community there is “very vulnerable right now,” Clancy said.

“We just have to be really, really vigilant about praying for these people, and we also have to put pressure on people in charge to make sure [the Christian community] is not forgotten.”


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Cardinal Sarah: Nigerians killed by terrorists are ‘martyrs’

January 2, 2020 CNA Daily News 1

Maiduguri, Nigeria, Jan 2, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- African Church leaders have responded to the reported Dec. 26 execution of 11 Nigerian Christians by a terrorist group affiliated with the Isamic State.

“We woke up a day after Christmas to the horrible news of the gruesome decapitation of Christian hostages by the Islamic State terrorists,” Fr. Benjamin Achi told ACI Africa Dec. 28.

Achi is director of communications in Nigeria’s Diocese of Enugu, where abductions targeting priests have been on the rise in recent months.

The priest’s comments referred to a Dec. 26 video depicting militants beheading 10 blindfolded captives, and shooting an eleventh.

The West African province of Islamic State, which broke off from Boko Haram in 2016, said the killings were revenge for the deaths of Islamic State’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other IS leaders, who were killed by a U.S. raid in October.

The captives were taken in recent weeks from the Maiduguri area in Borno state, the IS claimed.

Achi said the December killings might portend even more Islamist violence in Nigeria.

“This latest development gives serious cause for worry, especially in the wake of the latest move by the federal government of Nigeria to throw wide the borders of the country for anyone who wishes from any part of the continent to come in without visas and proper documentation,” the priest told ACI Africa.

The priest was referring to new visa regulations in Nigeria, which make it easier for Africans to enter the country. The regulations have been widely criticized within Nigeria.

“We are indeed concerned that this decision would facilitate the influx of more of these terrorists from other parts of Africa into Nigeria,” Achi said.

“Christians in all parts of Nigeria have been apprehensive overtime and have seen themselves as clear targets of the endless acts of terrorism being witnessed in the country,” Achi told ACI Africa

On Dec. 28, Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments, tweeted about the Dec. 26 killings.

“In Nigeria, the murder of eleven Christians by mad Islamists is a reminder of how many of my African brothers in Christ live faith at the risk of their own lives,” Sarah wrote.

“These baptized are martyrs. They have not betrayed the Gospel,” they have not betrayed the Gospel,” the cardinal added.


In Nigeria, the murder of eleven Christians by mad Islamists is a reminder of how many of my African brothers in Christ live faith at the risk of their own lives. These baptized are martyrs. They have not betrayed the Gospel. Let us pray fervently for them. +RS

— Cardinal R. Sarah (@Card_R_Sarah) December 28, 2019

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Nigeria’s Abuja Archdiocese sees the Christmas Day action by the IS as part of a continued effort to promote antagonism between Christians and Muslims in the country and region.

“They are trying to create a situation of war,” Kaigama told Vatican Radio.

“They want to see Muslims and Christians fighting.”

According to the archbishop, IS members hope that in the midst of the confusion, they might “have the upper hand and be able to destroy Christians, take over the country and even the neighboring countries.”


A version of this story was previously reported by ACI Africa, CNA’s African news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.


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Pope appoints new archbishop for booming African diocese

December 30, 2019 CNA Daily News 2

Bamenda, Cameroon, Dec 30, 2019 / 08:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis has promoted an African bishop known for his emphasis on family, community, and traditional values. In an announcement released on Monday, the Holy See Press Office confirmed that the pope has named Bishop Andrew Nkea Fuanya as the new Archbishop of Bamenda in Cameroon.

Bishop Fuanya, 54, has served as the Bishop of Mamfe, also in Cameroon, since 2014. He came to international attention during the 2018 meeting of the Synod of Bishops on young people, faith, and vocational discernment.

In contrast to the situation in many European countries, Fuanya said during the synod, the Church in Cameroon and in many parts of Africa is growing – including among young peoples.

“My churches are all bursting, and I don’t have space to keep the young people,” Fuanya during a Vatican press conference in October last year. “And my shortest Mass would be about two and a half hours.”

A 2018 study by Pew Research found that church attendance and prayer frequency was highest in sub-Saharan Africa and lowest in Western Europe. Four out of five Christians in Cameroon said that they pray every day.

Bishop Fuanya was born in 1965 and ordained a priest for the Diocese of Buéa, Cameroon, in 1992, at the age of 26. In 2013, he was appointed as coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Mamfe, becoming the diocesan bishop the following year.

Fuanya’s new see, Bamenda, was erected as a diocese in 1970 and elevated to a metropolitan archdiocese by St. John Paul II in 1982. In recent years, the archdiocese has shown clear signs of growth and evalgelization. While the population of the archdiocese remained stable at 1.4 million people between 2015 and 2018, the percentage of Catholics rose from 29% to 42% during the same period.

During the Synod on young people, Fuanya credited the Church’s growth in Cameroon to the alignment between Church teaching and the values of wider society, and the strength of the family as a cultural institution.

“People ask me, ‘Why are your churches full?’” Fuanya said in 2018. “Coming from Africa, the family is a very, very strong institution.”

“We come from a culture in which tradition normally is handed from one generation to the other.”

Fuanya has also spoken about the need for the Church to teach unambiguously on issues of morals and sexuality, remarking during the 2018 synod that he would not accept any usage of so-called LGBT terminology in Church documents because “99.9 percent” of the young people in his diocese would “stand at my door and say, ‘What’s this?’”

“Our traditional values still equate to the values of the Church, and so we hand over the tradition to our young people undiluted and uncontaminated,” he continued, noting that a strong sense of community in the Church is something “very important that Europe can learn from Africa.”

In Africa, the newly-named Archbishop said, “there’s still a lot of things we do as community. That is the difference..”

“What we are trying to do in these small Christian communities is to fight the in-creeping of individualism,” he said.