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Fortnight for Freedom

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Bishop to celebrate Fortnight Holy Hour

Third Fortnight For Freedom to be observed June 21-July 4

WARSAW (USCCB) — Catholic dioceses and parishes across the United States are once again encouraged to raise awareness for domestic and international religious freedom concerns during the third annual Fortnight for Freedom, June 21-July 4. The two-week celebration will focus on the theme, “Freedom to Serve,” emphasizing the link between religious liberty and service to the poor and vulnerable.

In the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades will celebrate a Diocesan Eucharistic Holy Hour for Religious Libertyon Friday, June 27, the solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, from 7-8 p.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Warsaw. The shrine is located at 225 Gilliam Dr.

“During the Fortnight, our liturgical calendar celebrates great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power — St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul and the first martyrs of the Church of Rome,” said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). “This is a time when Catholics can unite themselves in prayer to the men and women throughout history who spread the Gospel and lived out Jesus’ call to serve the ‘least of these’ in even the direst of circumstances.”

Two nationally televised Masses will bookend the Fortnight. Archbishop Lori will celebrate Mass at the Baltimore Basilica on June 21, at 5:30 p.m. Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington will celebrate Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on July 4, at noon EDT. USCCB President Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, will be the homilist at the July 4 Mass. 

USCCB has prepared materials to help dioceses and parishes participate in the Fortnight, including templates and guides for special prayer services, a list of frequently asked questions about religious liberty, one-page fact sheets on current threats to religious freedom in the U.S. and around the world, and a study guide on “Dignitatis Humanae,” the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom.

These materials and more information on the Fortnight and related issues can be found online at www.fortnight4freedom.org and www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/.

Competition for resources fuels religious conflict in Myanmar

Change has come to Myanmar as the previously authoritarian government has allowed elections and some political, economic and social reforms. Many political prisoners have been released, including Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Investment is flowing into this country. But underneath this apparent progress there is unease and uncertainty about the future. This is manifest in the current ongoing violence between Buddhists and Muslims and in long-standing tensions that can erupt into armed conflict between ethnic/tribal minorities who generally live along the borders, and the Burmese majority who occupy the central plain. In this time of transition, marginalized groups are trying to make their voice heard. 

The conflict between Muslims and Buddhists from the Rakhine ethnic group in the west has garnered the most attention. Those Muslims, who call themselves Rohingya and want to be considered just another of the 135 ethnic groups that make up the country, claim to have come to Myanmar centuries ago although migration from modern-day Bangladesh swelled during the British colonial period. On the other hand, the Rakhine Buddhists view Muslims as Bengali migrants who compete for scarce resources, and would like to expel them. The government has denied citizenship to the Rohingya so they are “stateless” and thus lack access to education, health care, employment and face restrictions on marriage, number of children, residence and the right to own property. 

The 2012 rape of a Buddhist woman and subsequent killing of 10 Muslims drove communal violence to new heights with Muslim properties, villages and mosques being burned, not only in Rakhine but other parts of Myanmar. Over 200 were killed and more than 100,000 Rohingya have been internally displaced and live in squalid camps. Militant Buddhists called for a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses. Tensions are so high that even those selling food to Muslims have been attacked. Catholic groups offering humanitarian assistance to Rohingya internally displaced persons (IDPs) must do so through the government. President Thein Sein visited Rakhine state for the first time in October 2013 and called for a cessation of violence and encouraged dialogue between Muslims and Buddhists to avoid future clashes. 

In addition to the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims, there are other decades-long struggles that have taken on religious overtones. The Kachin in the north, who are 95 percent Christian, had been fighting for years with the government for their rights over land and rich resources (timbers, gems) found in the region. In 2011, about 100,000 fled their homes, many going into China, only to be eventually forced back across the border to live in camps. Other ethnic groups, e.g. Kayah, Shan and Chin (many of whom are also Christian), live in border buffer zones where they have often been persecuted and forced into labor for the military. They have been fighting for equality, justice and freedom since 1948, resisting the loss of their language and culture by “Burmanization.” 

Many religious leaders voiced concern that despite the current religious overtones, the violence is motivated by forces that want to slow the pace of reforms. The Catholic Church has been very active in advocating for dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims to resolve conflicts and is also providing substantial humanitarian assistance and social services to ethnic/tribal populations. 


Redefining marriage and the threat to religious liberty

WASHINGTON (USCCB) — The Catholic Church teaches: “Marriage and the family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself.”  — “Sacramentum Caritatis,” 29. As the following examples illustrate, efforts to redefine marriage are harming our religious liberties: 

New Mexico (2013) — The owners of a photography studio would not take the pictures of a same-sex “commitment ceremony” because they did not want to participate in behavior contrary to their religious beliefs. In 2013, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied the owners’ appeal, affirming the lower court opinion that the studio violated the state Human Rights Act. The owners of the studio have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. 

Colorado (2013) — Two men “married” in Massachusetts requested a Denver bakery make a “wedding” cake for their wedding reception in Denver. For religious reasons, the owners of the bakery declined to make the cake. The two men filed a complaint with the Colorado Division of Civil Rights, which found that the bakery violated that law. After this finding, the Colorado Attorney General’s office filed a complaint against the bakery, resulting in an administrative law judge deciding against the bakery. 

Washington (2013) — A florist who declined to provide flowers for a same-sex “wedding” was sued by the state Attorney General.

Maine (2012) — The State of Maine has informed all notaries public (approximately 25,000) that regardless of religious objections, they must “wed” same-sex “couples,” if they wed opposite-sex couples. Otherwise, these notaries could be subject to a claim of discrimination. In the words of one notary: “I’m a Catholic and under no circumstances would I do a same-sex marriage.” He added, “I’m concerned that if I refused to perform a same-sex marriage, I could be challenged legally.” 

Vermont (2012) — For allegedly not hosting a “wedding” reception for a same-sex “couple,” Catholic owners of a bed and breakfast settled a discrimination lawsuit, requiring them to (1) pay a $10,000 civil penalty, (2) pay $20,000 to a charitable trust, and (3) not host wedding receptions of any kind. Upon settling the lawsuit, the owners of the bed and breakfast said, “But no one can force us to abandon our deeply held beliefs about marriage.” 

New Jersey (2012) — The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights found that a Methodist organization violated a public accommodations law by not allowing a same-sex civil union ceremony at its boardwalk pavilion. 

Catholic Charities — Catholic Charities of Boston (2006), Catholic Charities of San Francisco (2006), Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., (2010), and Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois (2011) had to cease adoption services or face civil liability for not placing children in the homes of same-sex couples.

What can you do to ensure the protection of religious freedom at home and abroad? 

The U.S. Bishops have called for a Fortnight for Freedom from June 21 to July 4. Visit www.fortnight4freedom.org for more information on this important time of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom.


Providing pastoral care to immigrants

WASHINGTON (USCCB) — National and local Catholic charitable agencies around the country have long provided services to people in need, regardless of immigration status. However, several states passed laws that forbid what state legislatures consider “harboring” of undocumented immigrants — and what the Church considers Christian charity and pastoral care to those immigrants.

In Alabama, for example, the Catholic bishops, in cooperation with the Episcopal and Methodist bishops of Alabama, filed suit against a law prohibiting “harboring” of undocumented immigrants. Together, they explained that the “law makes illegal the exercise of our Christian religion, which we, as citizens of Alabama, have a right to follow.” They expressed concern that legally prohibited “harboring” (when there is knowledge of reckless disregard of the fact that persons are undocumented immigrants) would substantially burden their churches in their mission to serve undocumented immigrants in Alabama.

The law would have a chilling effect on their ministries — among other things, these church leaders feared that the prohibition on “harboring” would extend to activities like “(encouraging immigrants) to attend Mass or (giving) them a ride to Mass”; “(counseling) them in times of difficulty or in preparation for marriage’: and inviting “them to come to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings or other recovery groups at our churches.”

Other states have adopted similar laws that threaten the Church’s ministry to undocumented immigrants. In March 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and several other Christian denominations filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Arizona v. United States. The brief discussed how the Arizona law and many state immigration laws like it threaten the Catholic mission to provide food, shelter and other care to all. In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision and found that several of the provisions of the Arizona law were pre-empted by federal immigration law, so these provisions were struck down. 

Aside from Alabama and Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah have enacted laws that generally make criminal the “harboring” of undocumented immigrants. 

Is our most cherished freedom truly under threat? Among many current challenges, these state immigration laws affect the religious liberty of the Church because they have criminalized certain acts of Christian charity and pastoral care. Religious liberty is more than freedom of worship; it includes our ability to make our contribution to the common good of all Americans without having to compromise our faith. Without religious liberty properly understood, all of us suffer, including those who seek a better life here in the United States.

What can you do to ensure the protection of religious freedom at home and abroad? 

The U.S. Bishops have called for a Fortnight for Freedom from June 21 to July 4. Visit www.fortnight4freedom.org for more information on this important time of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom. 


Historic Christian
communities under siege in Syria

WASHINGTON (USCCB) — It has been a long and terrible three years for Syria. The violence continues, despite peace talks taking place periodically in Geneva. Christians, who once comprised 10 percent of the population, are caught in the crossfire between President Bashir al Assad’s military and anti-government forces. Christian communities, schools and homes have been targeted, threatening their historic presence dating back centuries. Seventy churches and monasteries are reported to have been destroyed by warring parties. Christians have been kidnapped, held for ransom, tortured and often brutally killed. Two Orthodox bishops from Aleppo were kidnapped in April 2013; 13 Greek Orthodox nuns were taken in December 2013. The nuns were released in March 2014 but there is no word on the fate of the bishops. But Christians are not the only ones affected. According to the United Nations, over 130,000 Syrians (mostly civilians and many Muslims) have been killed and over 8 million have fled their homes, 6.5 million inside Syria and 2.3 million into neighboring countries, since the conflict began in 2011.

Fighting continues throughout Syria and threatens to spill into surrounding countries where tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims remain high. The Syrian opposition remains a fractious group of political dissidents and militia leaders. Significant numbers are extremists, including many foreign fighters with ties to al-Qaeda style ideologies that have entered the fray. The government of Syria is bolstered by Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported Shiite movement whose presence threatens stability in Lebanon and increases the sectarian (Sunni-Shia) nature of the conflict. Both government and opposition forces are accused of having “disappeared” many civilians.

Many Syrian civilians lack the basics of life — food, water and shelter. Humanitarian organizations have had very limited access to internally displaced persons. The United Nations Security Council has passed a resolution calling both sides to allow access to humanitarian aid. It remains to be seen what impact it will have on a conflict where civilians have been cut off from aid in the past.

The large number of refugees places an overwhelming burden on adjoining countries. Catholic Relief Services, through its local Church partners, is assisting vulnerable people in affected countries. Since 2011, the U.S. has provided over $1.7 billion in humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) continues to urge the United States to work with other governments to obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial humanitarian assistance, and encourage efforts to build an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities. Led by Pope Francis, USCCB vigorously promoted the Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace in Syria on Sept. 7, 2013 and worked successfully to oppose a Congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria in response to heinous chemical weapons attacks. The bishops of the region were unanimous in opposing outside military intervention, which they feared would simply add fuel to the fire.

Syrian Christians have been frustrated that they have not been invited to participate in peace talks or international negotiations about how to resolve the Syrian conflict. They have reached out through the diaspora in Europe, the United States and other countries to share their stories and seek support. They fear that unless their voice is heard and they receive support from the international community, the Christian presence in Syria will dramatically decline, as it did in Iraq.


Current threats to religious liberty

A fact sheet

WASHINGTON (USCCB) — Pope Benedict XVI spoke in 2012 about his worry that religious liberty in the United States is being weakened. He called religious liberty the “most cherished of American freedoms.” Unfortunately, our most cherished freedom is under threat: 

HHS mandate for sterilization, contraception and abortion-inducing drugs

The mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services forces religious institutions to facilitate and/or fund a product contrary to their own moral teaching. Further, the federal government tries to define which religious institutions are “religious enough” to merit protection of their religious liberty. 

Catholic foster care and adoption services 

Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and the State of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services — by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both — because those charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit. 

State immigration laws 

Several states have passed laws that forbid what they deem as “harboring” of undocumented immigrants — and what the Church deems Christian charity and pastoral care to these immigrants.

Discrimination against small church congregations

New York City adopted a policy that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services, even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for many other uses. Litigation in this case continues. 

Discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services

After years of excellent performance by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) in administering contract services for victims of human trafficking, the federal government changed its contract specifications to require MRS to provide or refer for contraceptive and abortion services in violation of Catholic teaching. 

Christian students on campus

In its over-100-year history, the University of California Hastings College of Law has denied student organization status to only one group, the Christian Legal Society, because it required its leaders to be Christian and to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage. 

Is our most cherished freedom truly under threat? Yes. Pope Benedict XVI recognized just two years ago that various attempts to limit the freedom of religion in the U.S. are particularly concerning. The threat to religious freedom is larger than any single case or issue and has its roots in secularism in our culture. The Holy Father has asked for the laity to have courage to counter secularism that would “delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.”

What can you do to ensure the
protection of religious freedom
at home and abroad? 

The U.S. Bishops have called for a Fortnight for Freedom from June 21 to July 4. Visit www.fortnight4freedom.org  for more information on this important time of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom. 


Boko Haram ramps up Nigeria violence  

WASHINGTON (USCCB) — In 2013, the U.S. State Department designated Boko Haram and its more radical splinter group, Ansaru, as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Both extremist movements claim ties to Islam that are repudiated by mainstream Muslim organizations. Boko Haram, whose name translates into “Western education is sinful,” aims to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. To do so, they have stepped up their attacks against Nigerian government offices, media, educational and religious institutions, both Muslim and Christian. Ansaru seems to target Christian churches. The Nigerian government appears unable to control the violence and is slow to address the underlying issues feeding it. 

2013 was a particularly bloody year. Boko Haram militants murdered scores of students and teachers, including some sleeping in their dormitory. Armed with powerful weapons, riding in trucks, and sometimes wearing military garb, some 500 militants overran a military base in December. In February 2014, Boko Haram militants killed over 120 people in a predominantly Christian village in northeastern Nigeria. 

Possible ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) mean that violence is likely to escalate and could spread to neighboring countries. In the past, a number of Christian churches have been targeted, including bombings of a Catholic church on Christmas Day and a Protestant church at Easter, killing many parishioners and wounding dozens. Boko Haram has also targeted Nigerian Muslims who they accuse of being too secular or moderate. Religious institutions are not their only targets. In 2012, the movement attacked a building housing Nigeria’s major daily newspaper and two other newspapers, ostensibly because of what they viewed as inaccuracy in media reporting. With gunshots and blasts directed at schools, students are afraid to continue their education. Police and military have also been targeted. It is estimated that Boko Haram is responsible for the deaths of over 1,200 people since 2009. 

Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa and the seventh most populous in the world. Its over 170 million people are roughly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. Emerging from a colonial past in 1960, ethnic and religious allegiances remain strong, and have been exploited to provoke violence and conflict. Nigeria is the 12th largest producer of oil in the world, but disputes, sometimes violent, over who controls and benefits from the sale of oil has increased tensions. Although Nigeria has a per capita income of more than $2,700, 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In fact, oil wealth has fueled rampant corruption. Inequality and corruption are exploited by extremists in gaining sympathizers and recruits. The government struggles to take action, but is often seen as unresponsive. The targeted attacks by Boko Haram aim to fuel sectarian sentiments and provoke religious conflict. 

The Catholic Church is a major public presence in Nigeria and has worked to calm religious tensions. The president of the Nigerian Bishops’ Conference decried the violence, saying the “authorities have so far failed to fulfill their task of ensuring peace and security to Nigerians in every area of the country.” He called for policymakers and the military to “go to the root of the phenomenon.” Christian and Muslim religious leaders have a strong history of working together for mutual respect and tolerance. The Church in Nigeria is working with the Muslim community to strengthen governance, reduce corruption and marginalize extremists. 


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