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Scammer arrested after attempt to sell Turkish basilica

Istanbul, Turkey, Mar 8, 2021 / 09:47 pm (CNA).- Turkish authorities have arrested a scam artist who reportedly attempted to claim ownership of and sell a famous Catholic basilica in Istanbul. 

According to International Christian Concern, Sebahattin Gök and a group of accomplices had gathered and forged documents claiming to show they were the owners of the Catholic Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua, the largest Catholic church in Istanbul. 

The scheme was reportedly discovered last year, while the church was attempting to enhance security measures. 

Gök and his accomplices were found to have been involved in dozens of scams and forgeries involving Christian and Jewish religious sites, International Christian Concern reported.

Bishop appointed for S Sudan's Rumbek diocese after nearly 10 years' vacancy

Rumbek, South Sudan, Mar 8, 2021 / 07:19 pm (CNA).- Father Christian Carlassare, who was appointed Bishop of Rumbek on Monday, nearly 10 years since the death of the diocese’s last bishop, described his appointment as an illustration of “the God of surprises.”

In a message to ACI Africa, Fr. Carlassare said he welcomed his episcopal appointment in a “spirit of faith” even though it was not among his expectations.

“God is the God of surprises. And his surprises, even though challenging, carry always a blessing,” the bishop-elect told ACI Africa March 8.

The member of the Comboni Missionaries added, “I did not expect this appointment, but I welcome it with spirit of faith and availability. May the loving plan of God for the Church of Rumbek and South Sudan be accomplished.”

“I am grateful to Pope Francis and the Church for the love and trust that have shown by calling me to the episcopal ministry and appointing me to be the Bishop of Rumbek.”

Fr. Carlassare, 43, was born in Italy. He studied at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy, and earned a baccalaureate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and a baccalaureate in missiology from the Pontifical Urban University.

He made his solemn profession as a member of the Comboni Missionaries in 2003, and was ordained a priest of the institute in 2004.

The priest went to South Sudan in 2005, and has served as a pastor. He was vice provincial for the Comboni Missionaries in South Sudan from 2017 to 2019, and from 2020 he has served as vicar general of the Diocese of Malakal.

The Diocese of Rumbek became vacant in July 2011 upon the death of Bishop Cesare Mazzolari, who was also a Comboni Missionary.

Fr. Fernando Colombo, another Comboni Missionary, was administrator of the diocese until December 2013, when the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples appointed Fr. John Mathiang as diocesan coordinator.

Fr. Carlassare acknowledged with appreciation the leadership of Fr. Mathiang, alongside members of the clergy ministering in the diocese, members of various religious orders, as well as the people of God.

“My thought goes to all the people of the diocese and their desire to encounter Christ in the Church,” he said, adding, “My obligation goes to all priests that are serving in the diocese, in particular Fr. John Mathiang for his commitment to lead the diocese in the past years as diocesan coordinator.”

“My appreciation goes to all the religious institutes and communities of men and women that enrich the diocese with their charisms, among them I show special gratitude to my confreres, the Comboni Missionaries and Sisters, especially those we have shared in the ministry,” he told ACI Africa.

He recognized the commitment of laity serving in the Rumbek diocese, saying, “I also acknowledge the commitment of many lay people, whether native from Rumbek or from other places and countries, those who work in the offices and institutions of the diocese, and committed Christians such as catechists, members of church councils, associations, men and women, youth and elders who form and build up this family of God.”

“I want to express my readiness to join the Diocese of Rumbek entering in the journey that you have been doing so far and offering my humble self,” the bishop-elect said.

At this moment, he added, “what I ask you more is for your prayer, with the trust that our Lord who started this good work will assist me with his grace and bring it to completion.”
“I also recall the person of the late bishop Cesare Mazzolari who gave his life to the people of Rumbek with the spirit of a good shepherd,” Fr. Carlassare said.

He went on to thank the people of God in the Malakal diocese, among whom he has been ministering since he arrived in South Sudan in 2005, saying, “I am also indebted with the Diocese of Malakal for the spirit of communion, support and kindness: May God reward you.”

Meanwhile, Fr. Mathiang has expressed his best wishes to the bishop-elect, promising collaboration.

In an interview with ACI Africa March 8, he said, “The message is just wishing him the best and then we promise collaboration and a good progress, whatever we have been doing he comes and joins us and we push ahead.”

In his service as diocesan coordinator, Fr. Mathiang told ACI Africa he has learned love, and collaboration from the people of God in the diocese, as well as the “spirit of hard work and interest in development that they have been expressing to me and to the Church for all the things done over the years.”

The love, collaboration and hard work needs to continue, he said, adding, “It's not all about me, it's about Jesus Christ and about the Church. The people have to continue that spirit; what we need is the progress ahead.”

Swiss voters narrowly back ban on burqa, niqab as religious leaders voice concern

CNA Staff, Mar 8, 2021 / 06:33 pm (CNA).- Swiss voters have narrowly approved a proposal to religious facial coverings in public nationwide. Though the move will affect a small minority of Muslim women, commentators voiced concerns about the effect on religious freedom and tolerance for religious minorities.

Over 51% of voters backed the measure in a March 7 vote. The ban on facial coverings in public places does not mention Islam directly but was presented as a burqa ban. It would also affect protesters who wear ski masks and bandanas. The ban exempts venues that are religious institutions, facial coverings used for health reasons and masks used for traditional Carnival celebrations.

Authorities must implement the referendum with legislation within a two-year period.


About 5% of Switzerland’s 8.6 million people are Muslim. Most have ancestral roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo, BBC News reports. Almost no Muslim women in Switzerland wear a burqa, a full body covering that uses a mesh screen to cover the eyes. Perhaps 30 women in the country wear the niqab, which veils the face but leaves the eyes visible.


Foes of the measure had included major religious groups. The Swiss Council of Religion put out a Jan. 25 statement opposing the measure, with support from the Conference of Swiss Bishops.


“The initiative claims to want to strengthen public safety. However, it is in reality directed against a tiny minority of the population. The initiative does not solve any problem, neither for the women concerned, nor in response to the challenges posed by radical religious ideologies in our society,” the Council of Religion said.


The nationalist Swiss People’s Party, which backed the measure, characterized it as “a strong symbol in the fight against radical political Islam.”


“The burqa creates a barrier between the person wearing it and the environment and thus prevents integration into society,” said the party’s president Marco Chiesa, according to NPR News.

The Swiss People’s Party is currently the strongest in parliament. The committee behind the face covering ban, called the Egerkingen Committee, was headed by Swiss People’s Party lawmaker Walter Wobmann, who launched a successful 2009 proposal to ban the construction of new minarets, the Associated Press reports.


One leading Muslim group charged that it was motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.


“Today's decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority,” said the Central Council of Muslims, a Swiss group that plans to challenge the measure in court.

Some Muslims who oppose the clothing backed the ban.

The Swiss government opposed the measure, saying it should be handled regionally. They said the ban will harm tourism, since most women who wear such clothing are visitors from wealthy Persian Gulf states, the Associated Press reports. Two regions already ban such coverings.


The country’s capital of Bern and three largest cities sided against the proposal, as did voters in several major tourist destinations.


France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria have banned the coverings. In February 2020 a German court struck down a school’s ban on niqabs, on the grounds that the law in Hamburg did not allow authorities to implement such a ban.


The Council of Religion statement on the Swiss proposal stressed the importance of freedom of religion, including in clothing. Any regulations on this freedom must have “an overriding public interest” or in the name of “protecting the religious liberty of others.”


It was “disproportionate” to make a constitutional ban for the few women in Switzerland who are fully veiled, the council said, adding that religious motives for facial coverings are not comparable to facial coverings to escape criminal prosecution. It argued that the ban would create “a difficult dilemma” for the women affected.


“They would be exposed to a double injunction: on the one hand the religious requirement to cover their heads and, on the other hand, the state obligation to uncover their heads,” said the statement.


“The initiative claims to want to strengthen public safety. However, it is in reality directed against a tiny minority of the population. The initiative does not solve any problem, neither for the women concerned, nor in response to the challenges posed by radical religious ideologies in our society,” the statement added.


Andreas Tunger-Zanetti, director of the Center for the Study of Religions at the University of Lucerne, discussed the question in a Feb. 19 interview with the Catholic media center Cath-Info, a service of the Conference of Swiss Bishops.


“Many women who wear a nikab especially want to keep religious commandments. This is often based on a fundamentalist interpretation,” Tunger-Zantetti said. “In some cases, there may be a political agenda behind it. But the link with an organized Salafist Islam, political or pietist, is rather weak.”


He voiced concern about the decline in knowledge of religious facts and concepts and in the ability to interpret religious practice. Many people do not know the number of daily prayers Muslims are required to say, and they see even this practice as “a sign of radicalization.”


He saw the measure as “a defensive reflex due to uncertainty.”


Other European countries have passed rules that conflict with religious practices.


In Belgium, both Muslim halal and Jewish kosher slaughter practices have been banned on animal welfare grounds. In December 2020 a European Union court said the Belgian law is justified by the need to promote animal welfare even if it does not accommodate religious freedom.


Belgian’s Jewish umbrella group said they would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.


European Union rules and regulations in many European countries require that animals be made insensible to pain before slaughter. Both Muslim and Jewish rules regarding animal slaughter preclude stunning because they require that the animals be in perfect health. Most European countries and the EU have religious exemptions to the requirement to stun animals. The Belgian rules do not.

Supreme Court rules government officials can be personally liable for religious freedom violations

Washington D.C., Mar 8, 2021 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that government officials can be held personally liable for religious freedom violations.

In Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, the court ruled 8-1 that a college student who was restricted from evangelizing on a public college campus could sue school officials for nominal damages, due to an alleged violation of his religious freedom.

Justice Clarence Thomas authored the majority opinion, while Chief Justice John Roberts was the lone dissenter.

“To demonstrate standing, the plaintiff must not only establish an injury that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct but must also seek a remedy that redresses that injury,” Thomas wrote in the majority opinion.

“And if in the course of litigation a court finds that it can no longer provide a plaintiff with any effectual relief, the case generally is moot. This case asks whether an award of nominal damages by itself can redress a past injury. We hold that it can," Thomas wrote.

The group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which litigates cases on behalf of religious freedom, applauded the court’s ruling.

“When government officials engage in misconduct without consequences, it leaves victims without recourse, undermines the nation’s commitment to protecting constitutional rights, and emboldens the government to engage in future violations,” said Kristen Waggoner, general counsel for ADF who argued the case before the Supreme Court.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court weighed in on the side of justice for those victims,” Waggoner said.

The case involves Chike Uzuegbunam, an evangelical Christian who, while attending Georgia Gwinnett College in 2016, sought to evangelize fellow students. The school had a strict policy limiting where he could evangelize and at what time he could do so.

Even after he obtained a permit to evangelize, he was ordered to stop, supposedly due to complaints by fellow students. When he sued the college officials behind the policy, they ultimately changed the policy and argued the case was now moot.

Uzuegbunam, however, still sought nominal damages for violations of his rights. The court ruled in his favor on Monday.

“For purposes of this appeal, it is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him. Because ‘every violation [of a right] imports damage,’ nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms,” Thomas wrote.

Chief Justice Roberts dissented, writing that “Uzuegbunam and Bradford,” the students in the case, “are no longer students at the college. The challenged restrictions no longer exist. And the petitioners have not alleged actual damages.”

In a similar case in Iowa before the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a Christian student group was kicked off the campus of the University of Iowa because of its policy requiring leaders to be Christians.

The group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship sued The university argued that it was making “good faith” efforts to comply with a previous court order to change their student group policy, and added that public university officials were shielded from the lawsuit by qualified immunity.

Legal group highlights forced marriages, conversions on International Women’s Day

CNA Staff, Mar 8, 2021 / 04:23 pm (CNA).- A Christian group marked International Women’s Day 2021 by highlighting forced marriages and conversions - an ongoing problem for millions of girls in the developing world.

Maira Shabaz, a 14-year-old Christian girl from Pakistan, was kidnapped in April 2020 by Mohamad Nakash, allegedly at gunpoint. She escaped, but not before he forced her to convert to Islam and marry him. 

ADF International, a Christian legal group, highlighted Shabaz’s case on International Women’s Day, March 8. 

According to ADF, the Lahore High Court ruled that the teen had willingly converted and been married, and ordered that she be returned to her abductor.  

Shabaz has been in hiding for several months with her family, and ADF International is working with a local lawyer to annul her marriage certificate. The family has said they will appeal the Lahore High Court’s decision to the country’s Supreme Court. 

“We hope the international community will open its eyes to what is happening in Pakistan and help protect Christians and other minorities who belong to some of the most vulnerable groups in the country,” said Tehmina Arora, Director of Advocacy, Asia for ADF International.

Abduction and forced conversion remain a problem in Pakistan and across much of the world. 

A 2014 study by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace Pakistan found that an estimated 1,000 Christian and Hindu women are abducted, forcefully married, and forcefully converted in Pakistan every year.

Child marriage is technically illegal in Pakistan under the Child Marriage Restraint Act, but courts typically do not enforce these laws. Sharia law, which is used in some judicial decisions in Pakistan, permits a child to be married after her first menstrual period.

One in every three girls in developing countries is married before reaching the age of 18 and one in nine is married under age 15, ADF said, citing data from the United Nations. 

In another high-profile case from last year, Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Catholic girl from Pakistan, was kidnapped in broad daylight by 44-year-old Ali Azhar, who forced her to convert to Islam and marry him. 

Two weeks after her abduction, on Oct. 27, 2020, the Sindh High Court, based on statements the girl gave saying she was 18, ruled the marriage was valid and that Azhar would not be arrested.

By November, the High Court had reversed itself and ruled that police should find the teenager. Raja has since been recovered and Azhar has subsequently been charged with rape.

Full text: Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Iraq

Aboard the papal plane, Mar 8, 2021 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Please read below for CNA’s full transcript of Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Baghdad, Iraq, to Rome, Italy on March 8, 2021.

Pope Francis: First of all, thank you for your work, your company, your fatigue. Then, today is Women’s Day. Congratulations to the women. Women’s Day. But they were saying why is there no Men’s Day? Even when [I was] in the meeting with the wife of the president. I said it was because us men are always celebrated and we want to celebrate women. And the wife of the president spoke well about women, she told me lovely things today, about that strength that women have to carry forward life, history, the family, many things. Congratulations to everyone. And third, today is the birthday of the COPE journalist. Or the other day. Where are you?

Matteo Bruni, Holy See press office director: It was yesterday.

Pope Francis: Best wishes and we should celebrate it, right? We will see how we can [do it] here. Very well. Now, the word is yours. 

Bruni: The first question comes from the Arabic world: Imad Atrach of Sky News Arabia.

Imad Abdul Karim Atrach (Sky News Arabia): Holiness, two years ago in Abu Dhabi there was the meeting with the Imam al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar and the signing of the document on human fraternity. Three days ago you met with al-Sistani. Are you thinking to something similar with the Shiite side of Islam? And then a second thing about Lebanon, which St. John Paul II said is more than a country, it is a message. This message, unfortunately, as a Lebanese, I tell you that this message is now disappearing. Can we think a future visit by you to Lebanon is imminent?

Pope Francis: The Abu Dhabi document of February 4 was prepared with the grand imam in secret during six months, praying, reflecting, correcting the text. It was, I will say, a little assuming but take it as a presumption, a first step of what you ask me about.

Let’s say that this [Ed. meeting with al-Sistani] would be the second [step] and there will be others. It is important, the journey of fraternity. Then, the two documents. The Abu Dhabi one created a concern for fraternity in me, Fratelli tutti came out, which has given a lot. We must... both documents must be studied because they go in the same direction, they are seeking fraternity. 

Ayatollah al-Sistani has a phrase which I expect to remember well. Every man... men are either brothers for religion or equals for creation. And fraternity is equality, but beneath equality we cannot go. I believe it is also a cultural path.

We Christians think about the Thirty Years’ War. The night of St. Bartholomew [Ed. St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre], to give an example. Think about this. How the mentality has changed among us, because our faith makes us discover that this is it: the revelation of Jesus is love, charity, and it leads us to this. But how many centuries [will it take] to implement it? This is an important thing, human fraternity. That as men we are all brothers and we must move forward with other religions. 

The [Second] Vatican Council took a big step forward in [interreligious dialogue], also the later constitution, the council for Christian unity, and the council for religious dialogue -- Cardinal Ayuso accompanies us today -- and you are human, you are a child of God and you are my brother, period. This would be the biggest indication. And many times you have to take risks to take this step. You know that there are some critics who [say] “the pope is not courageous, he is an idiot who is taking steps against Catholic doctrine, which is a heretical step.” There are risks. But these decisions are always made in prayer, in dialogue, asking for advice, in reflection. They are not a whim and they are also the line that the [Second Vatican] Council has taught us. This is his first question.

The second: Lebanon is a message. Lebanon is suffering. Lebanon is more than a balance. It has the weakness of the diversity which some are still not reconciled to, but it has the strength of the great people reconciled like the fortress of the cedars. Patriarch Rai asked me to please make a stop in Beirut on this trip, but it seemed somewhat too little to me: A crumb in front of a problem in a country that suffers like Lebanon. I wrote a letter and promised to make a trip to Lebanon. But Lebanon at the moment is in crisis, but in crisis -- I do not want to offend -- but in a crisis of life. Lebanon is so generous in welcoming refugees. This is a second trip.

Bruni: Thank you, Your Holiness. The second question comes from Johannes Neudecker of the German news agency Dpa.

Johannes Neudecker (Deutsche Presse-Agentur): Thank you, Holy Father. My question is also about the meeting with al-Sistani. In what measure was the meeting with al-Sistani also a message to the religious leaders of Iran?

Pope Francis: I believe it was a universal message. I felt the duty of this pilgrimage of faith and penance to go and find a great man, a wise man, a man of God. And just listening to him you perceived this. And speaking of messages, I will say: It is a message for everyone, it is a message for everyone. And he is a person who has that wisdom and also prudence... he told me that for 10 years, “I do not receive people who come to visit me with also other political or cultural aims, no... only for religious [purposes].” And he was very respectful, very respectful in the meeting. I felt very honored; he never gets up even to greet people. He got up to greet me twice. A humble and wise man. This meeting did my soul good. He is a light. These wisemen are everywhere because God’s wisdom has been spread all over the world.

It also happens the same with the saints, who are not only those who are on the altars, they are the everyday saints, the ones I call “next-door saints.” Men and women who live their faith, whatever it may be, with coherence. Who live human values with coherence, fraternity with coherence. I believe that we should discover these people, highlight them, because there are so many examples. When there are scandals in the Church, many, this does not help, but we show the people seeking the path of fraternity. The saints next door. And we will find the people of our family, for sure. For sure a few grandpas, a few grandmas. 

Eva Fernandez (Radio COPE): Holy Father, it is great to resume the press conferences again. It is very good. My apologies, but my colleagues have asked me to ask this question in Spanish. 

[In Spanish] During these days your trip to Iraq has had a great impact throughout the world. Do you think that this could be the trip of your pontificate? And also, it has been said that it was the most dangerous. Have you been afraid at some point during this trip? And soon we will return to travel and you, who are about to complete the eighth year of your pontificate, do you still think it will be a short [pontificate]? And the big question always for the Holy Father, will you ever return to Argentina? Will Spain still have hope that one day the pope will visit?

Pope Francis: Thank you, Eva, and I made you celebrate your birthday twice -- once in advance and another belated.

I start with the last question, which is a question that I understand. It is because of that book by my friend, the journalist and doctor, Nelson Castro. He wrote a book on [the history of] presidents’ illnesses, and I once told him, already in Rome, “But you have to do one on the diseases of the popes because it will be interesting to know the health issues of the popes -- at least of some who are more recent.” 

He started [writing] again, and he interviewed me. The book came out. They tell me it is good, but I have not seen it. But he asked me a question: “If you resign” -- well, if I will die or if I will resign -- “If you resign, will you return to Argentina or will you stay here?”

I said: “I will not go back to Argentina.” This is what I have said, but I will stay here in my diocese. But in that case, this goes together with the question: When will I visit Argentina? And why have I not gone there? I always answer a little ironically: “I spent 76 years in Argentina, that’s enough, isn’t it?”

But there is one thing. I do not know why, but it has not been said. A trip to Argentina was planned for November 2017 and work began. It was Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. This was at the end of November. But then at that time there was an election campaign happening in Chile because on that day in December the successor of Michelle Bachelet was elected. I had to go before the government changed, I could not go [further]. 

So let us do this: Go to Chile in January. And then in January it was not possible to go to Argentina and Uruguay because January is like our August here, it is July and August in both countries. Thinking about it, the suggestion was made: Why not include Peru, because Peru was bypassed during the trip to Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, and remained apart. And from this was born the January trip between Chile and Peru. 

But this is what I want to say so that you do not create fantasies of “patriaphobia.” When there are opportunities, it must be done, right? Because there is Argentina and Uruguay and the south of Brazil, which are a very great cultural composition.

About my travels: I make a decision about my trips by listening. The invitations are many. I listen to the advice of the counselors and also to the people. Sometimes someone comes and says: What do you think? Should I go or not? And it is good for me to listen. And this helps me to make the decision later. 

I listen to the counselors and in the end I pray. I pray and I think a lot. I have reflected a lot about some trips, and then the decision comes from within. It is almost spontaneous, but like a ripe fruit. It is a long way, isn’t it? Some are more difficult, some are easier, and the decision about this trip comes early.

The first invitation of the ambassador, first, that pediatrician doctor who was the ambassador of Iraq, very good. She persisted. And then came the ambassador to Italy who is a woman of battle. Then the new ambassador to the Vatican came and fought. Soon the president came. All these things stayed with me. 

But there is one thing behind my decision that I would like to mention. One of you gave me a Spanish edition [of the book] “The Last Girl.” I have read it in Italian, then I gave it to Elisabetta Piqué to read. Did you read it? More or less it is the story of the Yazidis. And Nadia Murad tells about terrifying things. I recommend that you read it. In some places it may seem heavy, but for me this was the trasfondo of God, the underlying reason for my decision. That book worked inside me. And also when I listened to Nadia who came to tell me terrible things. Then, with the book… All these things together made the decision; thinking about all the many issues. But finally the decision came and I took it. 

And, about the eighth year of my pontificate. Should I do this? [He crosses his fingers.] I do not know if my travel will slow down or not. I only confess that on this trip I felt much more tired than on the others. The 84 [years] do not come alone, it is a consequence. But we will see. 

Now I will have to go to Hungary for the final Mass of the Eucharistic Congress, not a visit to the country, but just for the Mass. But Budapest is a two-hour drive from Bratislava, why not make a visit to Slovakia? I do not know. That is how they are thinking. Excuse me. Thank you.

Bruni: Thank you, Eva. Now the next question is from Chico Harlan of the Washington Post.

Chico Harlan (Washington Post): Thank you, Holy Father. I will ask my question in English with the help of Matteo. [In English] This trip obviously had extraordinary meaning for the people who got to see you, but it did also lead to events that caused conditions conducive to spreading the virus. In particular, unvaccinated people packed together singing. So as you weigh the trip, the thought that went into it and what it will mean, do you worry that the people who came to see you could also get sick or even die. Can you explain that reflection and calculation. Thank you.

Pope Francis: As I said recently, the trips are cooked over time in my conscience. And this is one of the [thoughts] that came to me most, “maybe, maybe.” I thought a lot, I prayed a lot about this. And in the end I freely made the decision. But that came from within. I said: “The one who allows me to decide this way will look after the people.” And so I made the decision like this but after prayer and after awareness of the risks, after all.

Bruni: The next question comes from Philippine de Saint-Pierre of the French press.

Philippine de Saint-Pierre (KTO): Your Holiness, we have seen the courage and dynamism of Iraqi Christians. We have also seen the challenges they face: the threat of Islamist violence, the exodus of Christians, and the witnesss of the faith in their environment. These are the challenges facing Christians through the region. We spoke about Lebanon, but also Syria, the Holy Land, etc. The synod for the Middle East took place 10 years ago but its development was interrupted with the attack on the Baghdad cathedral. Are you thinking about organizing something for the entire Middle East, be it a regional synod or any other initiative?

Pope Francis: I’m not thinking about a synod. Initiatives, yes -- I am open to many. But a synod never came to mind. You planted the first seed, let’s see what will happen. The life of Christians in Iraq is an afflicted life, but not only for Christians. I came to talk about Yazidis and other religions that did not submit to the power of Daesh. And this, I don’t know why, gave them a very great strength. But there is a problem, like you said, with emigration. Yesterday, as we drove from Qaraqosh to Erbil, there were lots of young people and the age level was low, low, low. Lots of young people. And the question someone asked me: But these young people, what is their future? Where will they go? Many will have to leave the country, many. Before leaving for the trip the other day, on Friday, 12 Iraqi refugees came to say goodbye to me. One had a prosthetic leg because he had escaped under a truck and had an accident... so many escaped. Migration is a double right. The right to not emigrate and the right to emigrate. But these people do not have either of the two. Because they cannot not emigrate, they do not know how to do it. And they cannot emigrate because the world squashes the consciousness that migration is a human right.

The other day -- I'll go back to the migration question -- an Italian sociologist told me, speaking about the demographic winter in Italy: “But within 40 years we will have to import foreigners to work and pay pension taxes.” You French are smarter, you have advanced 10 years with the family support law and your level of growth is very large.

But immigration is experienced as an invasion. Because he asked, yesterday I wanted to receive Alan Kurdi’s father after Mass. This child is a symbol for them. Alan Kurdi is a symbol, for which I gave a sculpture to FAO [the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations]. It is a symbol that goes beyond a child who died in migration. He is a symbol of dying civilizations, which cannot survive. A symbol of humanity. Urgent measures are needed so that people have work in their place and do not have to emigrate. And also measures to safeguard the right to emigrate. It is true that every country must study well the ability to receive [immigrants], because it is not only about receiving them and leaving them on the beach. Receive them, accompany them, help them progress, and integrate them. The integration of immigrants is key. 

Two anecdotes: Zaventem, in Belgium: the terrorists were Belgians, born in Belgium, but from ghettoized, non-integrated Islamic immigrants. Another example: when I went to Sweden, during the farewell ceremony, there was the minister, of what I don’t know, [Ed. Alice Bah-Kuhnke, Swedish Minister of Culture and Democracy from 2014 to 2019], she was very young, and she had a distinctive appearance, not typical of Swedes. She was the daughter of a migrant and a Swede, and so well integrated that she became minister [of culture]. Looking at these two things, they make you think a lot, a lot, a lot.

I would like to thank the generous countries. The countries that receive migrants, Lebanon. Lebanon was generous with emigrants. There are two million Syrians there, I think. And Jordan -- unfortunately, we will not pass over Jordan because the king is very nice, King Abdullah wanted to pay us a tribute with the planes in passage. I will thank him now -- Jordan has been very generous [with] more than one and a half million migrants, also many other countries... to name just two. Thank you to these generous countries. Thank you very much. 

Matteo Bruni: The next question is in Italian from the journalist Stefania Falasca.

Stefania Falasca (Avvenire): Good morning, Holy Father. Thank you. In three days in this country, which is a key country of the Middle East, you have done what the powerful of the earth have been discussing for 30 years. You have already explained what was the interesting genesis of your travels, how the choices for your travels originate, but now in this juncture, can you also consider a trip to Syria? What could be the objectives from now to a year from now of other places where your presence is required?

Pope Francis: Thank you. In the Middle East only the hypothesis, and also the promise is for Lebanon. I have not thought about a trip to Syria. I have not thought about it because the inspiration did not come to me. But I am so close to the tormented and beloved Syria, as I call it. I remember from the beginning of my pontificate that afternoon of prayer in St. Peter’s Square. There was the rosary, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. And how many Muslims with carpets on the ground were praying with us for peace in Syria, to stop the bombing, at that moment when it was said that there would be a fierce bombing. I carry Syria in my heart, but thinking about a trip, it has not occurred to me at this moment. Thank you.

Matteo Bruni: Thank you. The next question comes from Sylwia Wysocka of the Polish press.

Sylwia Wysocka (Polish Press Agency): Holy Father, in these very difficult 12 months your activity has been very limited. Yesterday you had the first direct and very close contact with the people in Qaraqosh: What did you feel? And then, in your opinion, now, with the current health system, can the general audiences with people, with faithful, recommence as before?

Pope Francis: I feel different when I am away from the people in the audiences. I would like to restart the general audiences again as soon as possible. Hopefully the conditions will be right. I will follow the norms of the authorities in this. They are in charge and they have the grace of God to help us in this. They are responsible for setting the rules, whether we like them or not. They are responsible and they have to be so.

Now I have started again with the Angelus in the square, with the distances it can be done. There is the proposal of small general audiences, but I have not decided until the development of the situation becomes clear. After these months of imprisonment, I really felt a bit imprisoned, this is, for me, living again.

Living again because it is touching the Church, touching the holy people of God, touching all peoples. A priest becomes a priest to serve, to serve the people of God, not for careerism, right? Not for the money.

This morning in the Mass there was [the Scripture reading about] the healing of Naaman the Syrian and it said that Naaman wanted to give gifts after he had been healed. But he refused... but the prophet Elisha refused them. And the Bible continues: the prophet Elisha’s assistant, when they had left, settled the prophet well and running he followed Naaman and asked for gifts for him. And God said, “the leprosy that Naaman had will cling to you.” I am afraid that we, men and women of the Church, especially we priests, do not have this gratuitous closeness to the people of God which is what saves us.

And to be like Naaman’s servant, to help, but then going back [for the gifts.] I am afraid of that leprosy. And the only one who saves us from the leprosy of greed, of pride, is the holy people of God, like what God spoke about with David, “I have taken you out of the flock, do not forget the flock.” That of which Paul spoke to Timothy: “Remember your mother and grandmother who nursed you in the faith.” Do not lose your belonging to the people of God to become a privileged caste of consecrated, clerics, anything.

This is why contact with the people saves us, helps us. We give the Eucharist, preaching, our function to the people of God, but they give us belonging. Let us not forget this belonging to the people of God. Then begin again like this.

I met in Iraq, in Qaraqosh... I did not imagine the ruins of Mosul, I did not imagine. Really. Yes, I may have seen things, I may have read the book, but this touches, it is touching.

What touched me the most was the testimony of a mother in Qaraqosh. A priest who truly knows poverty, service, penance; and a woman who lost her son in the first bombings by ISIS gave her testimony. She said one word: forgiveness. I was moved. A mother who says: I forgive, I ask forgiveness for them.

I was reminded of my trip to Colombia, of that meeting in Villavicencio where so many people, women above all, mothers and brides, spoke about their experience of the murder of their children and husbands. They said, “I forgive, I forgive.” But this word we have lost. We know how to insult big time. We know how to condemn in a big way. Me first, we know it well. But to forgive, to forgive one’s enemies. This is the pure Gospel. This is what touched me the most in Qaraqosh. 

Matteo Bruni: There are other questions if you want. Otherwise we can… 

Pope Francis: How long has it been?

Bruni: Almost an hour.

Pope Francis: We have been talking for almost an hour. I don’t know, I would continue, [joking] but the car… [is waiting for me.] Let’s do, how do you say, the last one before celebrating the birthday.

Matteo Bruni: The last is by Catherine Marciano from the French press, from the Agence France-Presse.

Catherine Marciano (AFP): Your Holiness, I wanted to know what you felt in the helicopter seeing the destroyed city of Mosul and praying on the ruins of a church. Since it is Women's Day, I would like to ask a little question about women... You have supported the women in Qaraqosh with very nice words, but what do you think about the fact that a Muslim woman in love cannot marry a Christian without being discarded by her family or even worse. But the first question was about Mosul. Thank you, Your Holiness.

Pope Francis: I said what I felt in Mosul a little bit en passant. When I stopped in front of the destroyed church, I had no words, I had no words... beyond belief, beyond belief. Not just the church, even the other destroyed churches. Even a destroyed mosque, you can see that [the perpetrators] did not agree with the people. Not to believe our human cruelty, no. At this moment I do not want to say the word, “it begins again,” but let’s look at Africa. With our experience of Mosul, and these people who destroy everything, enmity is created and the so-called Islamic State begins to act. This is a bad thing, very bad, and before moving on to the other question --  A question that came to my mind in the church was this: “But who sells weapons to these destroyers? Because they do not make weapons at home. Yes, they will make some bombs, but who sells the weapons, who is responsible? I would at least ask that those who sell the weapons have the sincerity to say: we sell weapons. They don’t say it. It’s ugly.

Women... women are braver than men. But even today women are humiliated. Let’s go to the extreme: one of you showed me the list of prices for women. [Ed. prepared by ISIS for selling Christian and Yazidi women.] I couldn’t believe it: if the woman is like this, she costs this much... to sell her... Women are sold, women are enslaved. Even in the center of Rome, the work against trafficking is an everyday job.

During the Jubilee, I went to visit one of the many houses of the Opera Don Benzi: Ransomed girls, one with her ear cut off because she had not brought the right money that day, and the other brought from Bratislava in the trunk of a car, a slave, kidnapped. This happens among us, the educated. Human trafficking. In these countries, some, especially in parts of Africa, there is mutilation as a ritual that must be done. Women are still slaves, and we have to fight, struggle, for the dignity of women. They are the ones who carry history forward. This is not an exaggeration: Women carry history forward and it’s not a compliment because today is Women's Day. Even slavery is like this, the rejection of women... Just think, there are places where there is the debate regarding whether repudiation of a wife should be given in writing or only orally. Not even the right to have the act of repudiation! This is happening today, but to keep us from straying, think of what happens in the center of Rome, of the girls who are kidnapped and are exploited. I think I have said everything about this. I wish you a good end to your trip and I ask you to pray for me, I need it. Thank you.

Senate sends COVID relief bill back to House without pro-life provisions

Washington D.C., Mar 8, 2021 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- The House could be voting as soon as Tuesday on a COVID relief package that pro-life groups warn would increase funding of abortions.

On Saturday, the Senate passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan of 2021 by a vote of 50-49, sending the legislation back to the House to be reconciled and passed again. The relief bill, which includes funding of vaccine distribution, economic relief, and stimulus checks, does not include abortion funding restrictions that previous relief bills were subject to.

Thus, pro-life leaders have warned that the billions of dollars in health care spending under the legislation could be used to fund abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood, or subsidize abortion coverage in health care plans.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) attempted to insert a “Hyde” provision into the legislation specifying that the funds could not be used for elective abortions. The measure failed to receive the necessary 60 votes for inclusion in the bill, but it was supported by three Democrats—Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), and Tim Kaine (Va.).

However, all three Democrats ultimately supported the bill on its final passage. All Republicans voted against it except for Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) did not vote, while Independent senators Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Angus King (Maine) supported the act.

“Shame on Senate Democrats who exploited COVID-19 relief to expand taxpayer-funded abortion on demand, breaking with more than four decades of bipartisan consensus,” stated Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List.

The Hyde Amendment is 44 year-old policy that bars federal funding of elective abortions. It is normally enacted in law each year as part of budget bills, but more Democratic leaders in recent years have pushed for the policy to be repealed.

A group of House Democrats last week asked President Joe Biden—who now opposes the Hyde Amendment after being a long-time supporter—to not include the policy in the 2022 fiscal year budget.

COVID relief bills in 2020 did keep the policy intact, including the CARES Act which passed Congress in March of 2020. That bill had provisions prohibiting funding of abortions, and was also tailored to exclude Planned Parenthood from emergency small business loans. Planned Parenthood affiliates, however, did ultimately apply for and unlawfully receive $80 million in emergency loans from the Small Business Administration.

On Friday, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference implored President Biden and Congress not to force pro-life Americans to oppose the COVID relief package.

“We urge President Biden and the leadership on Capitol Hill not to force upon Americans the wrenching moral decision whether to preserve the lives and health of the born or unborn, all of whom are our vulnerable neighbors in need,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles on Friday.

The Senate version of the American Rescue Plan also includes an expansion of the child tax credit, paid out through a monthly cash benefit of up to $300 per child, the New York Times reported.

Pope Francis blesses Marian statue desecrated by Islamic State

Erbil, Iraq, Mar 8, 2021 / 01:37 pm (CNA).- A statue of the Virgin Mary that had been desecrated by the Islamic State was present at Pope Francis’ Mass in Erbil on Sunday.

The statue was decapitated, and its hands cut off, in Karemlesh, a largely Christian town 18 miles east of Mosul, during the Islamic State’s occupation of the villages in the Nineveh Plains from 2014 to 2017. It belonged to St. Adday church.

The statue has been partially restored; its head has been replaced, though its hands have not.

Speaking March 7 to ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish language news partner, Fr. Thabet Habeb, the pastor of St. Adday, recalled that when he first saw the image of the beheaded Virgin he experienced “a very sad feeling, because I saw my church like this, along with everything else. We prayed before this Virgin for many years and it was destroyed. It was something very important for the parish, for our church.”

Fr. Habeb said the statue “will return to Karemlesh and will be in our church upon our return.”

The priest hopes that a fruit of the Holy Father's visit to Iraq will be that the government and the world would look at "this martyr Church, which must be aided so it can continue to bring the Gospel."

The Islamic State swept through large swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, giving families of Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities an ultimatum – convert to Islam, die, or leave.

In 2017 the Nineveh Plain the area was liberated from the rule of the Islamic State.

Minneapolis archbishop prays for peace as trial of Derek Chauvin begins

Washington D.C., Mar 8, 2021 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- The archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis urged peace and prayer before the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who faces charges in the death of George Floyd, began on Monday.

“I hope you will join me during the trial by blocking-out time in our busy lives to stop and pray,” said Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis in a statement released on March 5. 

“Whether we can take 30 seconds or 30 minutes, let us commit to praying each day for peace in our communities, peace for the Floyd family and peace for our first responder sisters and brothers working to protect us,” he said. 

“Please join me as well in praying for an end to the scourge of racism in our country,” he added.

Chauvin is being charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter for the death of George Floyd. Floyd, a Black man, died on May 25 in Minneapolis after he was restrained by Chauvin during an attempted arrest. 

Video footage of the arrest taken by bystanders revealed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, as Floyd audibly moaned and said he couldn’t breathe. Floyd appeared to be unconscious by the end of the video, which went viral. 

The incident, and Floyd’s subsequent death, sparked protests, rallies, and riots throughout the country in response to police brutality and racism. The four officers who were involved in the attempted arrest, including Chauvin, were eventually fired by the Minneapolis Police Department.

Archbishop Hebda acknowledged that the start of the trial “brings back memories of the anger that erupted last Spring” following Floyd’s death, and that “many are now fearful about what may happen during the trial and in its aftermath-no matter what the jury’s verdict will eventually be.” 

Following Floyd’s death, riots caused an estimated $500 million in damage in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Two men were killed, and 150 buildings were set on fire.

Hebda noted that the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent included the prayer of Psalm 95, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The archbishop said that this prayer applied to the people of his diocese in the present time.

“God is always asking us to listen for his voice and to allow that voice to penetrate our hearts,” Archbishop Hebda said. “We cannot let our hearts harden. God calls us to be people of peace, hope and love.”

“He also calls us to be people of justice-not revenge,” Hebda said.  “If there was ever a time to join together and ask our merciful God for his help, this is it.” 

On Monday, jury selection in Chauvin’s trial was halted shortly after it began, as district court Judge Peter Cahill will consider whether an additional charge of third-degree murder should be added upon the request of prosecutors. In October, the judge dropped the third-degree murder charge, but kept the charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter.

Vatican COVID-19 commission: Church can help combat rising violence against women

Vatican City, Mar 8, 2021 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- The Vatican COVID-19 Commission called on Monday for the Catholic Church and governments to increase support for women suffering from violence amid the coronavirus crisis.

In a seven-page document released March 8, International Women’s Day, the commission said that the pandemic had “increased the vulnerability of countless women across the globe.” 

The text, entitled “Women in the COVID-19 Crisis: Disproportionately Affected and Protagonists of Regeneration,” said that domestic violence had risen during pandemic-related lockdowns. 

The commission asked governments to provide “safe spaces and services for those facing domestic violence.”

It also encouraged the Church to “denounce direct and systemic violence against women.”

The document suggested that an effective way to do this would be for Church leaders to back an appeal by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres for a domestic violence “ceasefire.” 

It also said that “messages countering violence against women could be encouraged in homilies and in catechesis.”

Domestic violence incidents rose by 8.1% in the United States following lockdown orders, according to a Feb. 23 report by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

Pope Francis dedicated the month of February to prayer for women suffering from violence. 

In a video released Feb. 1, he said: “It is shocking how many women are beaten, insulted, and raped … We must not look the other way.”

Pope Francis asked the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development to create the Vatican COVID-19 Commission on March 20, 2020. Working with other curial departments and outside organizations, the commission seeks “to express the concern and love of the Church for the whole human family in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The body, unveiled on April 15, 2020, consists of five working groups, which focus respectively on “acting now for the future,” “looking to the future with creativity,” “communicating hope,” “seeking common dialogue and reflections,” and “supporting to care.”

A note said that the new document was “elaborated by the four different taskforces of Working Group 2,” which tackles topics related to ecology, economics, labor, healthcare, politics, communications, and security. 

“While women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic, they have been excluded from much of the COVID-19 decision-making in many countries, largely due to enduring underrepresentation in senior positions in key fields of medicine and politics,” the text said.

“This may have contributed to the lack of explicit attention paid to the COVID-19 pandemic’s negative impacts on women and girls.”

“Countries with women leaders, however, have generally fared better overall during the pandemic. These leaders approached the crisis in a similar way: they consulted early with health experts and implemented containment measures early.”