19 February 2024, The Tablet

News Briefing: Church in the World



News Briefing: Church in the World

Cracks in the thirteenth-century rock-hewn churches of Lalibela – a sacred site for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – are now judged to be in “a critical condition”.
A.Davey / flickr | Creative Commons

The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) has called for better policing to prevent human trafficking and community involvement to raise the voices of its victims. Many African countries corridors for human traffickers, with increasingly sophisticated syndicates targeting young women in particular. 

Bishop Joseph Kizito of Aliwal, who serves in the SACBC's Migrants and Refugees liaison, office said campaigns against trafficking need more community awareness. “Human trafficking is alive in our communities, therefore we are called to become activists, to become the voice of the voiceless,” Bishop Kizito said on 8 February, the feast of the patron saint of human trafficking victims Josephine Bakhita.

“We recall all those young men and women who have been trafficked, who have been stripped of their human dignity, the fundamental human rights,” the bishop added. “The society we are living in today is no longer safe for the young ones.  May we become the voice of the voiceless for all those who are being trafficked.”

 

Pope Francis condemned “violence against defenceless populations, the destruction of infrastructure, and widespread insecurity” in the northern Cabo Delgado Region of Mozambique.

Speaking after the Angelus last Sunday, he said that the Catholic mission of Our Lady of Africa in Mazeze had been set ablaze. “Let us pray for peace to return to that tormented region,” Francis said.  

Islamic insurgent groups raided three communities in Cabo Delgado on 9 February, killing and kidnapping an unknown number of people and forcing hundreds to flee. A local missionary told Aid to the Church in Need that “churches were burned, as were the homes of the population”. 

The Church has been supporting displaced people while trying to mediate a peaceful resolution to the conflict. More than one million Mozambicans – three per cent of the total population – have been displaced by the violence.

 

In a Lenten letter released last week, Zimbabwe’s Catholic bishops voiced concern at the “hopelessness” created by economic hardship. The country has suffered for the past two decades from political and economic turmoil blamed on the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) which has been in power since 1980. 

“The decision by government to raise taxes has worsened the family situation. Prices of basic commodities are increasingly expensive,” the bishops said in their letter titled “Combating the Deficit of Hope”, noting that this had especially affected the elderly. “We need to ‘repent’ our policies that have fuelled the deficit of hope.” 

These sentiments come less than a year after a disputed election and a crackdown on government opponents. “Ours is a stubborn faith that even in the absence of visible signs of hope, continues to hope,” the bishops’ letter said.

 

Church leaders have urged Malawians to protect forests and plant more trees to tackle the climate change driving their country’s hunger crisis. Bishop Alfred Mateyu Chaima of Zomba said that “people need to plant more trees because climatic changes and global warming is affecting the rain patterns resulting in poor harvests and making our people go to bed on an empty stomach”. 

Inspired by Laudato Si’, his diocese is distributing tree seedlings and corn seeds. Bishop Yohane Suzgo Nyirenda, an auxiliary in the Diocese of Mzuzu in northern Malawi, said his diocese has started planting trees in parishes, planning for more than 10,000 by March.

 

The bishops of Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi have expressed deep sadness at the poor relations between their countries, and called for peace in an appeal in January. Recent weeks saw heavy fighting between the Rwanda-backed M23 rebel group and the Congolese army, which has displaced 135,000 people in the region of North Kivu. 

The UN Security Council has expressed concern over the “escalation of violence”, condemning the offensive launched by M23 rebels near Goma. Due to the deteriorating security situation, Goma City’s mayor last week banned church groups from holding prayer meetings in the city’s hills. 

In the capital Kinshasa, protestors have called for international action, targeting the diplomatic missions of the UN, United States, Britain and France, as well as Poland, after the Polish president made some statements in support of Rwanda.

 

The Dicastery for Evangelisation sent a message to Nigeria expressing its “deepest and heartfelt solidarity” following reports that 4,000 people have been abducted in Nigeria since May. Some were murdered when their ransom was not paid.  

The dicactery’s pro-prefect Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle said: “Among those tragically caught in the crossfire of these reprehensible acts are members of the clergy, religious and lay faithful.” Two Claretian missionaries were kidnapped but later released in Plateau State earlier this month. In the message, co-signed by the dicastery’s Nigerian secretary, Archbishop Fortunatus Nwachukwu, Tagle said: “Nothing can justify the evil of kidnapping.”  

A report published last week claimed that more than 8,000 Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2023.  The International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety) described the systematic murder of Christians in Nigeria as “a silent genocide”, due to the lack of media coverage.

 

Pope Francis has condemned the failure of combatants to reach a peaceful settlement in Sudan, 10 months since the latest conflict broke out in the country leading to serious humanitarian crisis.  

“I once again ask the warring parties to stop this war, which causes so much harm to the people and the future of the country,” he said last Sunday. “Let us pray that paths to peace are soon found to build the future of dear Sudan.” 

He urged Sudanese leaders to negotiate a peaceful solution. “Wherever fighting occurs,” he said, “people are exhausted, tired of war, which as always is pointless and inconclusive, and will only bring death, only destruction, and will never solve the problem.” 

Sudan has suffered from the brutal conflict between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces militia since April 2023. More than 10,000 people have been killed in a struggle by two generals over power, with at least 25 million people facing soaring rates of hunger and malnutrition.  

On Monday, the UN World Food Programme warned that hundreds of thousands of displaced people are being forced across borders into Chad and South Sudan each week, countries already suffering their own crises.

 

Cracks are widening in Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches, due to rain and lack of protection, according to priests in the town of Lalibela in the northern Amhara region of Ethiopia.

The town’s thirteenth-century rock-hewn churches are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, most of Lalibela’s churches are judged to be in “critical condition”. Deep cracks line the inside and outside of the churches, whose structures have been degraded by rains and temperature changes over centuries. 

A single block of stone, from which 11 of the churches are carved, has hosted religious rites for more than 800 years. Lalibela remains a deeply sacred place for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  

Since the Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency in the Amhara region last August, Lalibela’s priests have grown increasingly concerned about their ability to safeguard their churches.

 

Saint Saviour in Chora, a former church in Istanbul dubbed “the Sistine Chapel of Orthodox Christianity”, will be reopened as a mosque for Islamic prayers probably this year, according to reports in Turkey.

The plan will cover over priceless wall mosaics and frescos dating from the fourteenth century with curtains. Plaster and whitewash partly hid the church’s Christian images when it was used by Muslims during the Ottoman Empire, until the Turkish authorities turned Chora into a museum in 1945.

It then became a mosque agin in 2020, but did not open for regular prayers amid protests from the United Nations, Orthodox leaders and art historians. The Yeni Safak daily said it would open for worship in late February, but officials said no date had yet been set.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has favoured his Muslim nationalist supporters by transforming former Orthodox churches into mosques. Since the transformation of Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque in 2020, foreign visitors must pay €25 for entry.

 

Greece has become the first Orthodox-majority country to legalise same-sex marriage, despite opposition from the Church and some politicians. The legislation was signed into law on 16 February and also allows same-sex couples to adopt children. 

The primate of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens, said the measure would “corrupt the homeland’s social cohesion”. While people in favour of the vote celebrated on the streets of Athens, those opposed, including many Orthodox Christians, rallied in protest. 

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who championed the legislation, said the reform “will make the life of some of our fellow citizens that much better without – and I emphasise this – taking away anything from the lives of the many.” Greece is the twenty-first country in Europe and the thirty-sixth in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry.

 

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said the death of the prominent Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was “surprising” and “fills us with sorrow”. The Russian government said Navalny, aged 47, had died in a Siberian prison on 16 February. 

Navalny was famous for his fight against corruption and the Kremlin’s abuses of human rights. Formerly an avowed atheist, he described himself as a Christian after returning to Moscow in January 2021 following treatment in Germany for poisoning by the Novichok nerve agent.

He was promptly arrested and sentenced to prison, and in a subsequent interview quoted the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” He said: “I’ve always thought that this particular commandment is more or less an instruction to activity.”

He said this motivated his return to Russia. “While certainly not really enjoying the place where I am, I have no regrets about coming back, or about what I’m doing. It’s fine because I did the right thing. On the contrary, I feel a real kind of satisfaction.  Because at some difficult moment I did as required by the instructions, and did not betray the commandment.”

 

The regional authority has opened an office in the city of Raqqa to “protect” the properties of Christians in north-east Syria.

Raqqa became the capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) between 2014 and 2017, and Christians who fled the region feared they had lost their properties – and many homes and churches were reduced to rubble during the campaign against IS. There is now support from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria to facilitate the return of Christians from native communities displaced during the conflict.

The secretary of the High Committee for Real Estate, Fadj Jajo, is tasked with cataloguing property of Armenian, Syrian and Assyrian Christian owners, with the primary aim of ensuring that property unlawfully expropriated during their exile will be returned to them.

IS drove the majority of Christian families out of Raqqa, and since its defeat security concerns, a lack of adequate housing and delays to property restitution and compensation have hampered their return.

 

The Catholic Church in India has clashed with civil authorities on a series of controversies this month.

The Church called for a government inquiry after a nun was suspended from teaching English at a convent school over allegations she had criticised Hindu beliefs during a poetry class. On 12 February, a group of activists from the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held a protest outside St Gerosa High School, Mangalore, after the claims went viral on social media. 

In a statement, the Diocese of Manglore said the teacher was innocent and the school management had “under immense pressure, suspended the teacher, pending an inquiry, to maintain law and order”. 

In north-east India, a Salesian nun and headteacher requested police protection for Don Bosco School in Dhajanagar after a Hindu group announced it would conduct a ritual to the goddess Saraswati on its premises on Ash Wednesday. 

The head of the Syro-Malabar Church has meanwhile criticised the authorities in Kerala, in southern India, after a man was trampled to death by an elephant. Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, described the death of Ajeesh Joseph Panachiyil, a married father of two in his 40s, as “a disgrace to Kerala”.

 

A Catholic chapel will be built for the indigenous Bunong people of Cambodia in a nature reserve. At a Mass to lay the foundation stone for the chapel in the Keo Seima reserve in east Cambodia, Fr Jean-Marie Vianney Borei Phan said the local Catholic community had begun in 2009 after local Bunong people went to Vietnam and witnessed Catholics there helping the sick and the poor. Several later converted from Animism to Catholicism, and there are now 85 Catholics in the area.

 

A packed balcony in a Catholic church in the Philippines collapsed during a Mass on Ash Wednesday, killing an 80-year-old woman dead and injuring more than 50 people.

Luneta Morales, a grandmother and member of the church choir, died in hospital shortly after the incident on 14 February. There were around 400 people at the 7am Mass in St Peter Apostle Parish Church, in the city of San José del Monte in Bulacan Province, north-east of Manila. 

Massgoers were lining up to receive ashes when witnesses described a loud noise and then the screams from people falling.  Masses in the parish have been cancelled until the condition of the building can be assessed. 

Bishop Dennis Villarojo of Malolos promised prayers and support for the victims and is cooperating with the authorities investigating the incident. “There are many people there and the weight was probably too much for the structure,” he said. He has ordered all Malolos parishes to examine the structural integrity of their church buildings, particularly after claims that the collapsed floor had been weakened by a termite infestation.

 

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán of David, in Panama, a fortnight after his unexplained disappearance. The Vatican expressed “gratitude” as it announced the cardinal’s retirement from his diocese on 15 February, a few days before his eightieth birthday on 24 February when he would cease to be an elector in the College of Cardinals. 

Besides an apology from Lacunza for his “prank”, there has been no official account of what happened after he disappeared on 30 January, before he was found – reportedly “disorientated” – the next afternoon.

 

A Catholic woman, who worked as a radio disc jockey, was killed on Ash Wednesday during a shooting at the end of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory parade in Kansas City, Missouri.

Police said initial investigations indicate 43-year-old Lisa Lopez-Galvan was killed by gunshots exchanged by two juveniles in a personal dispute, which also injured more than 20 others including Lopez-Galvan’s adult son.

She was an active parishioner at Sacred Heart-Guadalupe Church in Kansas City, where Ramona Arroyo, director of religious education at the parish, said her whole family is “devoted to the church”.  

The parish priest Fr Luis Suárez encouraged the community to unite in prayer. Bishop James Johnston of Kansas City-St Joseph, said: “On this first day of Lent, we turn to God for mercy and healing for our broken world.”

 

Vandals have attacked the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC for the second time. A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the north lawn of the basilica grounds, in an area known as Mary’s Garden, was damaged on 15 February. It appeared that intruder had deliberately struck the face with a hammer and shattered the surrounding light fixtures. 

Mgr Walter Rossi, the basilica’s rector, expressed concern not only for the sanctity of the shrine but also for the individual or people responsible for the damage. “While this act of vandalism is very unfortunate, I am more concerned about the individuals who perpetrate such activity and pray for their healing,” he said. Police are investigating the incident as a possible hate crime. 

The basilica is the largest Roman Catholic church in North America and welcomes nearly one million visitors annually.

 

The Vatican “took no interest” in the fate of the abbey of Monte Cassino, which was destroyed during the Second World War with scores of civilians sheltering inside, according to a note left by a Vatican diplomat.

In January 1944, during the Allies’ Italian campaign, the German army made the abbey part of its “Gustav Line” of defences and rescinded its guarantee of neutrality for the site – the first Benedictine foundation – which was then bombed during a futile Allied assault, although in fact there were no German troops inside. 

In a note found in the archives of Pius XII, Fr Armando Lombardi (later an apostolic nuncio to Brazil) said the Holy See had been alerted to the elimination of the military exclusion zone around the abbey. “But nothing was done and nothing was said about it.” Nando Tasciotti, author of Monte Cassino 1944: Who Was to Blame, discovered the note in the course of recent research.

The Allies regarded the bombing as “a tragic mistake”. Writing shortly after the liberation of Rome in June 1944, Lombardi said: “Those who are now studying the question calmly are inclined to believe that the monastery could perhaps have been saved if the principle of the neutral zone had been accepted and respected by both belligerents. With an energetic action, the Holy See could perhaps have obtained this.”

 

Pope Francis will travel to Venice on 28 April to attend the sixtieth Biennale art exhibition. The Dicastery for Culture and Education announced that the Pope would visit the Holy See’s pavilion, entitled “With My Eyes” and dedicated to the theme of human rights. This is the first papal visit to Venice since 2011, and the first time a pope has attended the Biennale, although the Vatican has sponsored a pavilion at each exhibition since 2013.

 

More than 500 people worldwide participated in the first two sessions of an international course on Integral Ecology, held online in January and February and chaired by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. The course comprises six sessions, based on the six chapters of Laudato Si’ and passages from Laudate Deum.

At the inaugural session, Susana Réfega, executive director of the Laudato Si’ Movement, spoke of its work on creation care across 150 countries. Rodne Galicha, an environmental activist from the Philippines, spoke of heading a church-led movement against an illegal mining project on Sibuyan island. Mauricio Lopez, from the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon, spoke of Church work with indigenous communities in the Amazon. Admissions to the course remain open until 31 March.


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