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Togolese bishop, supportive of political reform, targeted by spyware

August 5, 2020 CNA Daily News 1

CNA Staff, Aug 5, 2020 / 02:01 pm (CNA).- Researchers based at the University of Toronto announced Monday that Bishop Benoît Alowonou of Kpalimé was among six targets of spyware in Togo last year. The country’s bishops have supported political reform and denounced the government’s injustice.

The spyware, known as Pegasus and which targets WhatsApp users, was made by NSO Group, an Israeli technology firm. It gives its operator access to the target’s mobile device.

Since 2005, Faure Gnassingbé has been president of Togo. His father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, had ruled the country after a 1967 coup until his death in 2005.

Bishop Alowonou is president of the Togolese bishops’ conference, which in 2017 urged constitutional reform, and earlier this year decried the violent arrest of an opposition leader.

In May 2019 WhatsApp found that spyware from NSO Group could be injected on mobiles phones with a missed video call on the app. Some 1,400 of its users were targeted.

Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary lab based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, said Aug. 3 that it “volunteered to assist WhatsApp to investigate the 2019 Incident as part of the Citizen Lab’s mandate to study digital threats against civil society.”

“During our investigation we identified multiple targets in Togo. These individuals were targeted between April and May, 2019 … We believe the infection attempts would have led to the infection of most targeted devices with NSO’s spyware,” Citizen Lab wrote.

In addition to Bishop Alowonou, Togolese targets of the spyware included Fr. Pierre Affognon, chaplain of the Association of Catholic Leaders of Togo; Elliott Ohin, a former government minister and an opposition leader; and Raymond Houndjo, a prominent member of the National Alliance for Change, an opposition party.

Fr. Affognon’s group had in late 2018 called for democratic reforms and organized protest marches that were barred by the government.

Bishop Alowonou told The Guardian that Pegasus’ use against dissidents in Togo is “dangerous for our freedoms and for democracy”, while Fr. Affognon said, “it’s a violation of the liberty of the citizens.”

According to Citizen Lab, the sole operator of Pegasus in Togo “appeared to be spying only in Togo,” and so it suspects it “was operated by an agency of the Togolese Government.”

Nevertheless, John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, told The Guardian that “Citizen Lab is not conclusively stating which government is responsible for this attack. But the fact that these individuals are all either opposition party members or otherwise critical of the government is troubling.”

In October 2019 WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in the US against NSO Group , claiming it enabled the Pegasus attacks on its 1,400 users.

Pegasus is marketed to governments for crime fighting, but according to Citizen Lab “there are over 130 cases in which NSO Group’s hacking technology has been used to conduct abusive surveillance against civil society around the globe,” including journalists and human rights advocates.

NSO Group dispute’s WhatsApp’s claims.

In an Oct. 29, 2019 statement, it said that “the sole purpose of NSO is to provide technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime. Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists … We consider any other use of our products than to prevent serious crime and terrorism a misuse, which is contractually prohibited. We take action if we detect any misuse.”

There are allegations that Pegasus was used by Saudi officials to monitor Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

Togo has seen political instability and widespread poverty in recent years. Protests in 2017 called for Gnassingbé’s resignation, and resulted in harsh crackdowns.

Gnassingbé won re-election for his fourth term in a February 2020 election, with more than 70% of the vote.

Opposition leaders asserted there was widespread fraud on the part of the authorities.

The Archbishop Emeritus of Lomé, Philippe Kpodzro, was briefly placed under house arrest in March for encouraging protests following the election.

In 2019 Gnassingbé secured constitutional changes to term limits that allow him to be able to remain in office until 2030.


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Maronite Catholic priest concerned by potential shortages after Beirut blast

August 4, 2020 CNA Daily News 0

CNA Staff, Aug 4, 2020 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- A Maronite priest from Lebanon has expressed concern that the country may face food shortages in the wake of Tuesday’s explosion at Beirut’s port.

The explosion “happened at the biggest docks in Lebanon and they also have big reservoirs of wheat, the central reservoirs are there, and these have gone, have gone to ashes. That’s another tragedy in the making because they will have shortages,” Fr. Maxim Baz, who is serving in Rome, told CNA Aug. 4.

The blast killed at least 50, and injured thousands more. Officials have not yet determined the cause of the explosions, but investigators believe they may have started with a fire in a warehouse that stored explosive materials. Lebanon’s security service warned against speculations of terrorism before investigators could assess the situation.

Fr. Baz said that “the most important thing is for people to pray for everybody who has been hurt in Lebanon.”

He said his country “has been undergoing for the past decades one tragedy after another, really suffering in silence,” citing a financial crisis, the coronavirus, and the civil war of 1975-90.

“It seems that this country is just trying to come out of the darkness and every time it does it receives another blow,” he lamented.

“A Catholic is always close to those who suffer. That’s the distinctive trait of a Catholic and that is a distinctive trait of the Church,” Fr. Baz noted. “Wherever there is suffering, or wherever there is extreme, extreme vulnerability, there the Church is because there God is, actually. So a Catholic can not not be there, at least with their hearts, with their prayers, with their moral support.”

The explosion ignited fires and destroyed buildings in the city’s port area, caused damage across the city, and has flooded hospitals with casualties.

The Custody of the Holy Land tweeted showing damage to its monastery in Beirut, adding that none of its friars were injured and urging prayer for Lebanon.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Footage from our monastery in <a href=”;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Beirut</a>, <a href=”;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Lebanon</a> after the explosion occurred in that area. <br><br>No one of the <a href=”;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Franciscans</a> living there were injured. <br><br>Let us pray for Lebanon. <a href=””></a></p>&mdash; Custodia Terrae Sanctae (@custodiaTS) <a href=””>August 4, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src=”” charset=”utf-8″></script>

Raymond Nader, a Maronite in Lebanon, told CNA: “I just ask for prayers now from everyone around the world. We badly need prayers.”


Hannah Brockhaus contributed to this report.


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How Natural Family Planning is spreading in West Africa

August 1, 2020 CNA Daily News 2

Denver Newsroom, Aug 1, 2020 / 02:46 pm (CNA).- In countries throughout Western Africa, the most common religions are Islam and Catholicism. Both of these religions reject the use of artificial means of birth control, such as condoms or birth control pills.

But in government health clinics in most of these countries, artificial birth control methods are often the only options offered for planning and spacing one’s family.

That is what Jennifer Overton and her team with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in West Africa are trying to change.

“There was a need for natural family planning services,” Overton said. “There was a need to learn more about what options were available to [local families] that did align with their cultural and religious beliefs.”

“We found that a lot of the health centers, run by the government, even in countries where you have a high percentage of Catholics or a high percentage of Muslims, were not offering these. Even though that’s what their clients or the local populations followed because of religious reasons, the health centers were only offering artificial methods.”

Overton is the CRS regional director for West Africa, a region of 12 countries. She oversees more than a thousand employees, most of whom are from the countries in which they work. Overton said she and her team started partnering with local and global organizations about five or six years ago to more widely spread knowledge of natural Fertility Awareness Methods (FAMs) of family planning and spacing in the area, where big families with 12 or 13 children are not uncommon in some countries.

“We were really trying to meet a need for culturally appropriate health services for birth spacing,” Overton said.

She emphasized that the goal was not to convince families to have fewer children, as large families are considered a blessing by most cultures and religions in the region.

“We’re just saying space the children, because we have very high maternal mortality and we have very high infant mortality,” Overton said. “A lot of times that’s due to…the pregnancies are spaced too closely together. [The mother] isn’t able to take the two years that’s recommended to breastfeed, to care for that newborn the first thousand days of life, and make sure the child has good nutrition and good health care.”

“There’s a lot of good justification for birth spacing for the health of the mother and the health of baby,” she said.

One of the primary Fertility Awareness Methods being taught in the area by CRS and its partners is the TwoDay method, through which a woman notes her fertility by evaluating her cervical mucus twice a day, sometimes in conjunction with the Standard Day method, by which women track their fertile and infertile days on a string of beads. The Lactational Amenorrhea Method (LAM), which is based on the fertility suppression brought about by breastfeeding exclusively on demand for six months postpartum, is also taught.

These methods are simpler, less expensive, and require less equipment than some of the methods more common in developed nations. Each method is between 95-98% effective with proper use, Overton said.

The biggest hurdle, Overton noted, was working with cultural norms and expectations in some very conservative cultures in the area, in which men only socialize with other men and women only socialize with other women, and joint decision-making between couples was not the norm.

“It’s just a different kind of relationship than what we’re used to in the West,” she said. “It is more traditional, more male-dominated. Men tend to make most of the decisions in the household.”

Strengthening the communication between couples, as well as their willingness to make decisions together, was something that had to come first, before they could dive into even more taboo subjects like a woman’s menstrual cycle, Overton said.

“We found that a lot of the issues come back to the fact that a husband and wife maybe weren’t communicating about these kinds of things,” she said. “Not just about when do they want their next child, but they might not even be communicating about chores in the house, or money for school fees, or money for food, or whatever it is. We have found that this method really helps bring these couples together. We’ve even heard stories of it reducing domestic violence and things like that.”

“We’ve had testimonies from women who say, ‘Oh, now my husband asks me how my day was at the end of the day.’ Or if a husband goes away for three days for a business trip, it would be common in some cultures for the man to just leave the woman to run the house. Now, the man will say, ‘I’m going away for three days and this is where I’m going.’ Then when he comes back, ‘How are you? How are the kids?’”

Overton said once she saw how much communication was lacking among some couples, “you understand how complicated it would be to even start talking about menstrual cycles.”

To do this more effectively, CRS started using what they called SMART Couples programming (Strengthening Marriages and Relationships through Planning and Communication) during a pilot program in 2016-2017, through a partnership with the Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH) at Georgetown University, the Ministries of Health in Niger, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso, Ghana Health Services, and the Catholic Church in the region.

Couples met in groups of 10-12 and learned communication and joint decision-making skills, as well as a method of fertility awareness-based family planning and other tips about healthy marriages, pregnancies and families, Overton said.

The results of the program showed not only results with birth spacing and family planning, Overton said, but other positive effects from improved communication within relationships. She said they noticed an increase of empathy within relationships, particularly among husbands, who were more aware of the needs of their wives.

One of the keys to the program’s success, Overton said, was having the support of the Catholic Church and Muslim leaders.

“A lot of questions are asked about…religion and culture, and do these things go against their religion?” she said.

Overton said to reassure these couples, they bring in religious leaders from both Islam and Catholicism who can talk about why these natural methods do not contradict their beliefs.

“We have sections of the Quran that we quote where the Prophet Muhammad, he talked about maybe a large family, but healthy children. He does talk about caring for your wife. He talks about caring for your children,” she said. “It’s very much respectful of local culture and respectful of local religion. The same for in the Catholic teaching. We have the bishops in Ghana and Burkina Faso – they love this program.”

“When people hear [about Fertility Awareness Methods] from their priest or their bishop, then they know like, ‘Okay. This is okay. This is sanctioned by the Church.’ That really helps to have the support of the religious leaders.”

“Overall, we had like 1,600 couples as a result of the work that we did, adopt these methods. They were actively using these methods. That’s what they told us when we did the survey,” Overton said.

“It’s not millions of people, but we’re in the thousands and that’s pretty encouraging. This was just for this short pilot. It doesn’t include the expansion phase,” she added. “What also is very encouraging is some of these couples, a lot of them, had never, ever used any kind of birth spacing. They had never planned their families, never talked about planning families, never talked about any kind of birth spacing. That is really amazing, that this is the first time people are using it.”

The program was particularly successful in Niger, which has the highest fertility rate in the world, with each woman having about 7 children on average. During the pilot phase of the program, CRS trained 700 couples in 52 villages in Fertility Awareness Methods in the country. They also partnered with the Department of Health with the government of Niger, which then included resources on FAMs in all of their health clinics in the country.

The project continues today together with a food security program funded by USAID, and CRS has trained an additional 150+ health workers at government health centers and more than 400 couples who will serve as trainers in the program at the community level, Overton said.

Across the whole continent, Overton said this method of spreading knowledge about FAMs has been used in 18 African countries and has reached close to 200,000 beneficiaries.

She said she is hopeful that instruction in FAMs will continue throughout her region and reach even more people, as attitudes and practices change. She said she has seen great cooperation with local governments, who know that their populations will reject artificial methods of birth control.

“That’s all we’re saying – let’s have options for everybody.”



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Syrian government to build replica of Hagia Sophia

July 30, 2020 CNA Daily News 0

CNA Staff, Jul 30, 2020 / 04:11 pm (CNA).- The government of Syria plans to build a replica of Hagia Sophia, with support from Russia, as a protest against Turkey’s decision to turn the famous former Byzantine cathedral back into a mosque.

Bishop Nicola Baalbaki, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Hama, has approved the construction of a new church built as a replica of Hagia Sophia in the city of Suqaylabiyah, which has a heavily Greek Orthodox population, according to Lebanon’s Al-Modon media.

The idea for the new church originated with Nabeul Al-Abdullah, a leader of the National Defense Forces militia, which supports the Syrian government. Abdullah has donated land on which the replica will be built, according to Greek City Times. He also secured approval for the project, as well as support from Russian officials, who are now helping plan the construction of the church.

Russia has supported the Syrian government against Turkish-backed rebels in the western part of the country during the nation’s ongoing civil war.

Located in modern-day Istanbul, Hagia Sophia was built in 537 as the cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. After the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453, the basilica was converted into a mosque. Under the Ottomans, architects added minarets and buttresses to preserve the building, but the mosaics showing Christian imagery were whitewashed and covered.

In 1934, under a secularist Turkish government, the mosque was turned into a museum. Some mosaics were uncovered, including depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Justinian I, and Zoe Porhyrogenita. It was declared a World Heritage Site under UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in 1985.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed a decree July 10 converting it into a mosque following a ruling by the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, earlier that day which declared unlawful an 80-year old government decree converting the building from a mosque into a museum.

Religious leaders around the world, including Pope Francis, decried the move, with the pope saying it caused him “great sadness.”

As a mosque, the Christian mosaics in Hagia Sophia will have to be covered during prayers, as will as the seraph figures located in the dome.

Catholic bishops across the United States joined their Greek Orthodox counterparts in observing a “Day of Mourning” on July 24.



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This nun aims to get Ghana’s children off the streets, and into school

July 29, 2020 CNA Daily News 5

Accra, Ghana, Jul 29, 2020 / 03:00 am (CNA).- Salamatu Abubakar spent years of her childhood picking up scraps of plastic on the streets of Accra, the African coastal city that is the capital of Ghana. Her dad took the plastic to an open air market, selling it in bulk to recyclers and scrap dealers, and barely earning enough to get by.

In that same market, Samuel Ganyo, who had come with his mother to Accra from a poorer city in Ghana, sold slices of sugar cane to marketplace vendors, shoppers, and people passing by in cars. A popular snack across Africa, sugar cane didn’t pay enough for Samuel and his mother.

Daniel Lomotey started working in another Accra market when he was 10. He dropped out of school then, and started working for his uncle pushing a handcart hired by vendors to move their products in the Mandela marketplace. It was hard work, and it didn’t pay very much. And because Daniel, like Salamatua and Samuel, wasn’t going to school, his prospects for the future looked grim.

When Daniel was 12, he met Sister Anthonia Orji of the Daughters of Sacred Passion, a Nigerian religious sister working in Ghana. Sr. Anthonia helped kids do hard, heavy work on the streets, and helped them get back to school.

Sr. Anthonia is the centre manager and education officer at the Welfare, Empowerment Mobility Centre in the Archdiocese of Accra. Her work is part of the Rays of Hope project, which aims to help Ghana’s street kids, like Salamatua, Samuel, and Daniel, by giving them a home, and getting them enrolled in school.

Daniel is 18 now. He met Sr. Anthonia in 2014. And he told ACI Africa, CNA’s African news partner, that meeting her is the best thing to happen in his life.

“Through her guidance and support, I am now a final year Junior High student at the St. Peter’s Catholic School in Ayikuma. Apart from that, I have acquired the skills in sewing and barbering through training at WEM,” Daniel said.

Samuel, who is 16, also lives at the center, along with 22 other young people.

“I have learnt a lot like farming and barbering of hair as an additional skill to my schooling and I advise all vulnerable children who have the opportunity like me to make good use of it,” said Samuel.

The center doesn’t discriminate based upon religion. Though a Muslim, Salamatu said she has come to love Catholicism, through the guidance of Sr. Anthonia, whom she said is her mentor and mother.

“I picked polythene on the streets for my dad to sell in the Ashaiman market to earn a living. But thanks to Rays of Hope, I now live a life of dignity,” she told ACI Africa, adding, “Through the skills training and way of life at the center, I can pray the rosary and other Catholic prayers very well even though I am a Muslim.”

Ghana’s constitution prohibits many types of child labor. But Sr. Anthonia told ACI Africa that the constitutional law is not always followed, and that many poor children are put to work because of the poverty of their families.

Sr. Anthonia lamented school drop-out, child mortality, child labor, child trafficking, rape, prostitution and defilement of vulnerable children and urged Ghanaians to create a sense of belonging in street children.

She said that with the outbreak of COVID-19, the children ranging between the ages of 7 and 15 in residence at the WEM Center have been placed in various homes.

All the children, she said, were schooling at the St. Peter’s Catholic School.

“For the fear of the spread of the coronavirus at the WEM Center, 20 out of the 23 children have been placed in various homes of volunteer families and they are monitored daily by our re-integration staff,” Sr. Anthonia told ACI Africa.

The main aim of the center is to help Ghana’s street children get to school, and stay healthy, while staying connected with the parents and extended families of the children. The religious sister said that a lot of effort goes into establishing a frequent contact between the street survivors and their families.

“We believe that what God has created and bound together should not be separated. The connection to one’s family is the most valuable foundation for becoming a successful and responsible member of society. Therefore, we are convinced of putting all our effort, patience and love into the reintegration process of our beneficiaries,” she said.

Sr. Anthonia said that Christians have been endowed with the ability to perceive, appreciate and understand the situation of the vulnerable person, identify their needs, design needed services and facilitate the provision of requisite intervention to bring relief to them.

She appealed to parents and opinion leaders to jointly take steps to curb drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, teenage pregnancies, armed robbery, occultism and cyber fraud among the youth, especially those on the streets.

The work of her project, she said, begins with finding street children eager to go to school, and families willing to approve that.

“We search the streets of Ashaiman, Tema, Accra and its environs from the First Contact Place. Every year, we search for street children in the major cities in Greater Accra and those who are willing to be supported, along with their families, sign a contract for onward enrollment every September,” she told ACI Africa correspondent.

She explained that the center’s educational approach is divided into pre-school classes, formal education and informal education as well as moral and religious aspects of life.

“Pre-school” isn’t for younger kids, as the term denotes in the West. At WEM, all new recruits are prepared for school life through intensive one-year pre-school classes.

“The children who were once on the streets and not schooling will have to be prepared to enhance their reintegration into school life,” the nun said, and added, “This demands patience, energy and love.”

“In pre-school classes, we focus to improve their oral, literary and arithmetic skills through a structured curriculum, and in the later stage of their development in pre-classes, other subject areas are introduced.”

There are 36 children at the collection center who are being prepared for school life. The collection point, in extreme cases, serves as a temporary shelter for beneficiaries, whose relatives or parents have not yet been located.

The Nigerian nun explained that at the collection center, the beneficiaries come on a daily basis to be taught mathematics, english and other subjects by the class teachers and volunteers.

“They are also educated on personal hygiene, social, religious and moral skills through classes and special programs,” she added, and explained that the children have a period of morning devotion after their chores, before they go into their classes for lessons.

The classes, she said, are divided into three levels to meet the children’s individual academic needs, as they undertake five hours of classes per day.

When they complete the one-year pre-class, they are enrolled into basic school after they have met the criteria, which include punctuality and discipline, ability to read and write, to calculate simple arithmetic, personal hygiene like bathing, washing, and neatness in dress, Sr. Anthonia said.

The children are admitted into Catholic schools because “we believe the environment and as well as the Christian routine will help grow their moral and religious values,” said Sr. Anthonia.

As part of its humanitarian activities, Rays of Hope sponsors the former vulnerable children from the basic to the tertiary level of education, providing shelter, food, accommodation, and school fees.

Sr. Anthonia said that passion to restore dignity among young people who have made mistakes in life inspires her apostolate.

“The work at Rays of Hope for me is not just work but rather it is a ministry and a call. Ordinarily, when you look at it with human eyes, you might not want anything to do with it,” she said.

“It is all about a call from God and a passion to make an impact in the young people’s lives.”

A version of this story was first published by ACI Africa, CNA’s African news partner. It has been adapted by CNA.