Signs of the Times

At Assisi, Pope Appeals for Mideast Peace

On a pilgrimage to the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for peace in the Middle East and a return to responsible and sincere dialogue to end armed conflicts. The popes one-day trip June 17 marked the 800th anniversary of the conversion of St. Francis, a figure the pope described as a one-time king of partying who learned to make space for God.

The pope made a point of praising the 1986 interreligious gathering in Assisi, an initiative of Pope John Paul II, as a prophetic intuition and a moment of grace. Such dialogue is an essential part of Christianity, but must be carried out without weakening the Christian duty to spread the Gospel, he said. The papal visit to the central Italian hill town of Assisi came during heightened tension and violence in the Middle East, especially in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, which was taken over by Hamas militia forces in mid-June.


Count of Murdered Iraqi Christians Rises Dramatically

The number of Christians murdered in Iraq since 2003 has greatly increased compared with the numbers during the period 1995 to 2002, said a comprehensive report based on public accounts from Iraqi Christian sources. The report described in detail the deaths of Christian childrenincluding babieslaypeople, priests and nuns who were burned, beaten or blown up by car bombs over the past few years. From May 2003 to early June, 268 Iraqi Christians were murdered; from 1995 to 2002, 19 Iraqi Christians were murdered, said the report, titled Incipient Genocide: The Ethnic Cleansing of the Assyrians of Iraq. The report, released June 12, was written by Peter BetBasoo, a founder of the Assyrian International News Agency. The agency was founded in 1995 to report on news and analysis of issues regarding Iraqi Christians. The report detailed attacks on Iraqi Christian women and students. Young Christian women are abducted and raped, it said, adding that female students are also targets of ridicule and discrimination.

Nuncio in Poland Criticizes Political Homilies

The Vaticans ambassador to Poland has called on Catholic clergy to stop preaching politicized homilies. I wish liturgical services in Poland would not turn into public rallies and just dispose people to be more human and more Catholic, said Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, the Vaticans ambassador, or nuncio. We need priests, not politiciansand if politicians, then politicians of Gods word, said the archbishop, whose sermon was carried by Polands Catholic information agency, KAI. We also need evangelists, not economistswe have enough of those already in Poland to do the job. Lets work on their spirit and conscience so theyll become true professionals in serving all society. This is the mission of a priest. Preaching June 11 in Czuma, near Lublin, the nuncio said: The times are over when people went to priests on every occasion, to arrange plumbing or telephones for their villages, and they elected priests as council chairmen hoping theyd organize such things. This epoch has ended.

Franciscan Initiative in Bethlehem

Palestinians now can enjoy a new, one-of-a-kind sports center, where they can work out, practice on regulation-sized courts and play safely. Its something good to bring to Bethlehem, such a place. There is no place like this where women and also men can practice sports, said Sylvia Ghattas, 21, as she finished her workout in the gym of the Catholic Action-run sports center. The building, financed by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, boasts the only regulation-sized and equipped basketball court in the Palestinian territories, as well as a gym and two multipurpose halls. Together with Catholic Actions already existing outdoor pool, family center, childrens hall and playground, the new sports center forms a 2.5-acre sports and recreational complex. Before, Catholic Actions sports teams practiced in a haphazard way at various venues throughout the city, said Issa Hazbon, director of the new center. This is a dream come true, and it has come true better than we imagined it could, said Hazbon. Children are frustrated here. We direct them to sports to release their anger. They have nowhere else to go.

Amnesty International Betrayed Its Mission

With its new stance supporting the legalization of abortion around the world, Amnesty International has betrayed its mission, said Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in an interview with the National Catholic Register conducted by e-mail. The Register, based in North Haven, Conn., also quoted Daniel Berrigan, S.J., an iconic figure in pacifist and human rights circles, repudiating the new Amnesty position. One cannot support an organization financially or even individually that is contravening something very serious in our ethic, the priest said. Cardinal Martino said, I believe that if, in fact, Amnesty International persists in this course of action, individuals and Catholic organizations must withdraw their support, because in deciding to promote abortion rights, A.I. has betrayed its mission. Amnesty International, a widely respected human rights organization, had been officially neutral on abortion until this April, when its executive committee adopted a new position.

Pope, Bush Discuss Christians in Iraq

Meeting for the first time, Pope Benedict XVI and U.S. President George W. Bush spoke about the precarious situation of Christians in Iraq and a wide range of other foreign policy and moral issues. The pope and president looked relaxed as they greeted each other and spoke briefly in front of reporters before their 35-minute private encounter June 9. Bush later held a separate 40-minute meeting with the Vaticans top foreign policy officials. A Vatican statement described the meetings as cordial and said they had focused in part on the worrisome situation in Iraq and the critical conditions in which the Christian community finds itself. Tens of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq over the last four years to escape violence and discrimination. The talks also touched on the overall situation in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and developments in Lebanon. The Holy See again expressed the hope for a regional and negotiated solution to the conflicts and crises that are tormenting the region, the Vatican statement said.

Theologians Cautioned: No Public Criticism

In his presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, Daniel K. Finn warned the society against issuing public statements critical of church policies or church authorities. The problem is that these statements become the public face of the C.T.S.A. for nearly everyone who doesnt attend our conventions, he said. Taken together, they present us as individuals who come together as a group primarily to defend ourselves against hierarchical authority. We insiders know this is only a small part of what we are up to, he added. But no group can control its public image completely, and in my opinion we have done too little thinking about this. Finn, who teaches theology and economics at St. Johns University in Collegeville, Minn., spoke on the final day of the societys annual convention in Los Angeles from June 7 to 10.

Volunteer Experience Influences Public Policy

As a college graduate in the early 80s, Senator Bob Casey Jr., Democrat of Pennsylvania, served as a volunteer teacher and witnessed the challenges faced by children in Philadelphias inner city. His students efforts to make good choices for their lives, despite what they encountered at home and on the streets, has inspired his career as a public official and his approach to public policies, he told Catholic businessmen and volunteers. I think its had a transformative impact on my life, Casey said, reflecting on his experience. He gave the keynote address at a breakfast hosted by the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service on June 6 to honor the Catholic Business Network of Prince Georges County, Md., for its service to the local community. During the address, Casey, a Catholic, shared stories of his yearlong service as a fifth-grade teacher and an eighth-grade basketball coach at Gesu School in North Philadelphia.

Jerry Filteau Retires From Catholic News Service

Jerry Filteau, whose byline has become associated with in-depth and authoritative reporting on the Catholic Church, is retiring from Catholic News Service July 1 after 37 years. Major stories he has covered include the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion; the 1978 inauguration of Pope John Paul II; and the 1981 assassination attempt against the pope. For more than 25 years, he has been the main CNS staff member reporting on the semiannual meetings of the U.S. bishops. He also has written extensively on theological, ecumenical, liturgical, interreligious, canon law and social justice issues. In 2003 he won the Catholic Press Associations St. Francis de Sales Award for outstanding contributions to journalism.

Massachusetts Legislature and Bishops

The Massachusetts Legislatures June 14 vote to reaffirm same-sex marriage thwarts the will of the citizens and undermines efforts to protect children, families and society, the four Catholic bishops of Massachusetts said. The bishops made their statement shortly after the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as the legislature is formally named, voted 151 to 45 to reject a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. At least one-fourthor 50of the legislators had to affirm the proposed amendment for it to be placed before voters on the 2008 ballot. Today, the common good has been sacrificed by the extreme individualism that subordinates what is best for children, families and society, said Cardinal Sean P. OMalley of Boston and Bishops George W. Coleman of Fall River, Timothy A. McDonnell of Springfield and Robert J. McManus of Worcester.

Iraqis Living in Jordan Desperate

The thousands of impoverished Iraqis spilling into Jordan each year are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, said the head of Caritas Jordan. However, Jordanian government officials are reluctant to let international nongovernmental organizations offer assistance to Iraqis because they dont want to have a repeat of what happened with the Palestinians, when the Palestinians, fleeing violence from the war of 1948, stayed, said Wael Suleiman, executive director of Caritas Jordan. Suleiman noted that Jordan had allowed the permanent resettlement of Palestinian refugees, 1.5 million of whom currently live in refugee camps in the country. While today the Jordanian government accepts the Iraqis as guests, it is hesitant to give them legal or refugee status, he said. Through two projects Caritas Jordan conducts with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Caritas Jordan recently succeeded in helping 27,000 Iraqis become approved as registered refugees, Suleiman said. He added that Caritas Jordan hopes to have 65,000 Iraqis registered by the end of the year. Only a few humanitarian organizations can assist the approximately 1.5 million Iraqis livingoften illegallyin Jordan, he said.

Catholic Relief Services Work in Lebanon

Amid destabilizing political tensions that sometimes turn violent, Catholic Relief Services reconstruction projects have been rebuilding Lebanese communities and bringing hope, said the C.R.S. country representative in Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanese society is experiencing a kind of schizophrenic existence, said Melinda Burrell, the C.R.S. official, who visited Washington in late May to meet with U.S. government donors. Every three or four weeks, something could trigger a civil war but again and again, the Lebanese do not fight each other, she said. After decades of on-again, off-again violence, many Lebanese have an attitude of been there, done that, she said.

Lebanon, a small Middle Eastern country, has made headlines for its uncomfortable relationship with Syria, political assassinations, power struggles among political factions and recent military action against Palestinian terrorists. Last summer, a monthlong conflict between Israeli military forces and Hezbollah militants destroyed or at least damaged most of southern Lebanons infrastructure, Burrell said. The conflict left hidden cluster bombs in 70 percent of southern Lebanons agricultural fields.

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