12 March 2020, The Tablet

News Briefing: Church in the World

News Briefing: Church in the World

Pope Francis celebrating a daily mass alone in the Santa Marta
VATICAN MEDIA /CPP/IPA MilestoneMedia/PA Images

A senior Vatican diplomat has condemned a United Nations report, insisting its demand for religious freedom to be made subject to sexual equality would violate fundamental rights (writes Jonathan Luxmoore). “The right to freedom of belief belongs to individuals, not religions. States should not interfere with a religious community's practices or internal organisation," said Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Holy See's Permanent Observer at the UN in Geneva. "Yet here we have a UN report which should defend the fundamental and universal human right to freedom of religion... but is attacking the very reality it is called to defend." Jurkovic, 67, was reacting to a 2020 report by Ahmed Shaheed the UN's Maldives-born Special Rapporteur of Religious Freedom, which accused "religious interest groups" of opposing gender ideology with intimidatory tactics and "invoking religious tenets as pseudoscience" to defend traditional values. Addressing the Geneva session of the UN's Human Rights Council, the Slovenia-born archbishop said the Pope and Catholic Church leaders had noted the rise of "powers and interest groups" imposing their own ideas in international organisations, and "sparking new forms of ideological colonisation, often in disregard for the identity, dignity and sensitivities of peoples". 

The author of a book on Vincent Lambert, the French right-to-die icon whose life support was shut off in 2019 after 11 years in a vegetative state, has said Lambert was sexually abused as a child by a traditionalist priest who is still in ministry (writes Tom Heneghan). Journalist Ixchel Delaporte told two French television channels that Lambert, a hospital nurse who was a comatose quadriplegic after a 2008 motorcycle accident, had attended a boarding school run by the Society of Saint Pius X. The priest, who is named in the book “The Vincent Lambert Affair”, belonged to the SSPX but left it in 2014 for a Catholic group called The Resistance. “The big problem is that this priest has continued his ministry for over 30 years and he is still working ... and still in contact with children,” Delaporte said.

Christian Churches in Europe have called for Europe’s nations to offer more humanitarian support to refugees in the Greek islands (writes Ellen Teague). Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ, Archbishop of Luxembourg and President of COMECE, the Commission of EU bishops’ conferences, has called on the conferences to launch relocation projects for refugees stuck in camps. A letter of 20 February was accompanied by the document “Guidelines on the procedure for the transfer of asylum seekers and refugees from Greece to a European country”, written by the St Egidio community. Religious groups report conditions on the Greek island of Lesbos, which has tens of thousands of migrants, as “intolerable”, with families sleeping outdoors without health and sanitary services. Last week, Greece announced further restrictions towards asylum seekers in response to a migration surge enabled by Turkey. Lesbos has seen heightened political tension with vigilantes saying “No More” to migrants, many of whom are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. European church bodies have expressed alarm over reports of violence against people trying to cross the border between Turkey and EU countries, and those assisting them.  

Christians in Burkina Faso are facing a campaign of Islamist terror that is intensifying week by week. Catholics were among 24 people killed by Islamist gunmen who opened fire on a prayer meeting on 16 February. In the week following, the Church’s northern Dori Diocese closed three of its six parishes “due to terrorism”. On 19 February, Burkina Faso’s bishops’ conference confirmed that Catholic parishes, schools and clinics have been forced to close because of the “widening field of action of terrorism.” Immaculate Conception sisters have taken in hundreds of displaced people at convents in the capital Ouagadougou and other towns. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said last week that more than 4,000 people were fleeing their homes daily in Burkina Faso, with 150,000 “terrified residents” uprooted in February alone. President Roch Christian Kabore signed an accord with the Vatican last July guaranteeing the Church’s juridical status and public activities.

Christian and Muslim leaders in Pakistan are calling for an end to violence against Christians after the brutal murder of a young Christian in Kasur district, Punjab Province. They want the government to bring the perpetrators of Saleem Masih’s murder to justice. At a meeting in Lahore, chaired by Bishop Azad Marshal Raiwind of the Church of Pakistan, all expressed “deep regret” over the killing and the indifference of the police. Fr Francis Nadeem OFM Cap, Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism of Pakistan's Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said, “it is the state’s responsibility to provide security to all citizens of the country without any kind of discrimination”. Saleem Masih, a 22-year-old labourer, was attacked while washing after work in a pool belonging to a Muslim landlord. Accusing him of polluting the water, his killers tortured him brutally and he died on 28 February.

The National Catholic Reporter announced that its national correspondent, Heidi Schlumpf, has been named Executive Editor of the independent Catholic newspaper. Schlumpf is only the second laywoman to lead a major Catholic publication in the United States and replaces Tom Roberts who had served as interim executive editor since the autumn of 2018.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has appealed to all the parliamentary factions in Austria not to follow the German government’s example and allow assisted dying. He recalled the words of his predecessor, Cardinal Franz König who, when he was very old, coined a principle which has become legendary in Austria : “One should die holding someone’s hand but not at the hand of another person”. “We decided on a better way forward than the way Germany has now chosen and I hope we continue with our way”, the cardinal said. Meanwhile euthanasia cases in Belgium grew by 12.5 per cent last year compared to 2018, the country’s oversight commission reported. There was a total of 2,655 voluntary deaths, the commission said. Most patients were between 60 and 89 but one was a minor. 

A Vatican mission to Mexico to investigate sexual abuse committed by clergy has been suspended. The mission was announced on Monday, but by Friday, Mexican bishops said it was suspended due to the rapid spread of coronavirus in Italy. Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Mgr Jordi Bertomeu would have travelled to Mexico from 20 to 27 March to meet with victims, bishops and religious superiors. Both were part of a taskforce that Pope Francis formed to assist countries in investigating sexual abuse. The nuncio to Mexico, Archbishop Franco Coppola, announced on Tuesday that the Vatican began an investigation in May into four Mexican bishops for allegedly covering up or mishandling reports of sexual abuse. Some abuse survivors told the Associated Press that they doubted the coronavirus really caused the mission’s cancellation. 

Followers of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front of Nicaragua interrupted the Requiem Mass in Managua’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral on 3 March of the late poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal, who died aged 95. More than 100 people with red and black scarves gathered in the cathedral before the funeral, shouting “traitor”. The Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, was unsuccessful in trying to calm them before the Mass went ahead, presided over by Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, Archbishop of Managua. Cardenal was named Minister of Culture during the Sandinista revolution (1979-1990), led by current president Daniel Ortega, but later he became a critic, after Ortega’s return to government in 2007.

Slovakia’s newly elected government has bowed to Catholic Church demands and refused to ratify the Council of Europe's 2011 Istanbul Convention outlawing violence against women and families. “The president [Zuzana Caputova] has repeatedly stated that if parliament decides on the Convention in a constitutionally prescribed manner, she will respect this,” explained Martin Stizinec, a presidential spokesman. “Since the necessary condition for ratifying the Convention is consent by the Slovak Republic's National Council, and since this has not been granted, this Convention will not be ratified". The 2011 “Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence”, which creates the world's first legal framework for curbing sexual violence, forced marriages, stalking and female genital mutilation, has been signed by all 47 Council of Europe member states except Russia and Azerbaijan, and ratified by 34, including Italy, Malta, Poland and Spain. Slovak Church leaders have objected that the Convention’s Article 3 defined gender as a social and cultural construction, and complained that provisions for the protection of women were also accompanied with clauses violating fundamental rights to religious freedom and education. In a late 2019 homily, the Bishops’ Conference president, Archbishop Stanislav Zvolensky, said violence against women remained “inadmissible and despicable in any form” but added that “attempts to slip gender ideology” into a measure to protect women were unacceptable. 

Russian parliamentarians have backed calls by Orthodox church leaders and President Vladimir Putin to have a reference to God included in their country's new amended constitution. “Obviously, the state will not lose its secular nature, nor can we provide the precise timing and format of this change,” said Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman. “Before these amendments are finally adopted, there will be a massive campaign to explain them, as both the president and working group members have stated on multiple occasions.” The official was speaking after State Duma legislators gave preliminary approval to the constitutional preamble amendment, tabled by Putin's office, acknowledging the Russian Federation's “millennia-long history” and pledging to safeguard “the memory of forefathers who passed on their ideals and faith in God”. 

The International Theological Commission has issued a new document studying the relationship between faith and the sacraments. Entitled “The Reciprocity between Faith and Sacraments in the Sacramental Economy”, the new document speaks to the problem of so-called “baptised non-believers” – those who have received the sacrament of Baptism, but who do not possess the faith in a meaningful sense.

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