Signs of the Times

Caritas Increases Relief Efforts in Myanmar

Caritas Internationalis is offering emergency response efforts in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Division and the Yangon District, two of the areas hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis. An estimated 40,000 people will receive vital relief, including food, shelter, water, medical care and psychological support. Catholic Relief Services is supporting C.I. and partners on the ground after one of the worst cyclones to hit the region in decades struck on May 2.

As of May 10, 1,000 people have received food, and another 16,000 people are expected to receive relief supplies in the coming days. More than 100 local volunteers have been trained to play a critical role with assessments, market surveys, procurement and logistics as well as disposal of dead bodies. Local Caritas partners continue to procure food and shelter materials in Pathein and Yangon districts.


“Survivors have started to relocate into temporary shelters in churches and schools, which has helped us to provide aid more quickly,” said Elizabeth Griffin, director of C.R.S. communications, from Baltimore. “Transportation remains a serious challenge though, and some of the most affected areas can only be reached by helicopter or boat.” The latest government estimate for the cyclone’s dead or missing is 62,000; unofficial reports place the figure closer to 100,000. Increased reports from affected areas indicate the most critical needs are food, shelter, water, sanitation and health care. “The international Catholic community is now providing critical support for our local Catholic Church partners in Myanmar to save lives. Through them, we are able to reach people in some of the most devastated areas with urgent humanitarian assistance,” said Ken Hackett, president of C.R.S.

An added challenge for aid workers is the heavy rain that has continuously fallen in the affected area, with more expected through the weekend. “The weather will exacerbate conditions for the homeless, many of whom are living under an open sky. Thankfully, no serious outbreaks of bacterial, water or mosquito-borne diseases have been reported, but this could change in the next two to three weeks,” said Griffin.

Pope Voices Concern for Mideast Christians

Welcoming Israel’s new ambassador to the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI urged Israel to help its Christian citizens remain in the country, where they could be a force for peace and understanding. “Christians are not alone in suffering the effects of insecurity and violence as a result of the various conflicts in the region, but in many respects they are particularly vulnerable at the present time,” the pope told Mordechay Lewy, the new ambassador.

Presenting his letters of credential to the pope May 12, Ambassador Lewy asked the Catholic Church to continue working with Israel and Jewish groups in combating anti-Semitism, and he warned about increasing instability in the region, apparently in reference to Iran’s nuclear program. “Against the backdrop of our traumatic experience in the middle of the last century,” the ambassador said, referring to the Holocaust, “no one should be surprised that we take such threats seriously.”

Offering his best wishes to Israel as it celebrates its 60th anniversary of statehood, the pope said, “The Holy See joins you in giving thanks to the Lord that the aspirations of the Jewish people of a home in the land of their fathers have been fulfilled and hopes soon to see a time of even greater rejoicing when a just peace finally resolves the conflict with the Palestinians.” Many of the difficulties experienced by Christians in the region and the “alarming decline in the Christian population of the Middle East, including Israel, through emigration,” are connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said. “Accordingly, I would urge your government to make every effort to alleviate the hardship suffered by the Palestinian community, allowing them the freedom necessary to go about their legitimate business, including travel to places of worship so that they, too, can enjoy greater peace and security,” he said.

Pope Benedict also asked the Israeli government to keep its promise to act seriously and quickly in negotiations with the Vatican on a treaty settling questions regarding the tax status and some financial questions related to church institutions in Israel. The negotiations have dragged on for years. Also, uncertainty over the legal rights and status of the Catholic Church in Israel, “especially with regard to the question of visas for church personnel,” continues to create difficulties for the Catholic community. “Only when these difficulties are overcome will the church be able to carry out freely her religious, moral, educational and charitable works in the land where she came to birth,” the pope said.

Chinese Priests Work Amid Quake Damage

Chinese priests worked around disrupted telephone systems and damaged roads as they tried to assess the damage from the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan Province in southwest China. Responding to appeals for aid and prayers on Catholic Web sites, Catholics across China have begun donating money and clothes to help survivors, the priests told UCA News. The Rev. Simon Li Zhigang, administrator of the Chengdu Diocese, told UCA News May 13 that he could not reach by phone the priests serving in Wenchuan and Beichuan. About 100 Catholics live in Wenchuan and several hundred more in Beichuan, he said.

The magnitude 7.9 earthquake, which hit just after midday May 12, had its epicenter beneath Wenchuan County in Sichuan Province. Wenchuan is less than 60 miles northwest of Chengdu, the provincial capital. By May 13, government officials reported more than 12,000 people had been killed in the quake, but the death toll was expected to rise. Officials said that in one city alone more than 19,000 people were buried in the rubble.

African Bishops Seek to End Violence in Zimbabwe

The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference has appealed for international pressure to end violence and torture in Zimbabwe. International election observers should be deployed immediately as the country prepares for a runoff presidential election, said South Africa’s Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg, the conference president, on May 13. “The current environment is not conducive to free and fair runoff elections,” he said, speaking on behalf of the bishops’ conference, which includes South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland. Reports of violence perpetrated by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party in the wake of the loss of its parliamentary majority in March 29 presidential and legislative elections have been widespread. The official presidential election results, published in early May after a delay of more than a month, put opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who garnered 47.9 percent of the vote, ahead of Mugabe, who took 43.2 percent. A minimum of 50 percent plus one vote was needed to avoid a second round of voting for the presidency.

Iowa Immigration Raid Spurs Church Response

The arrest of more than 300 employees at an Iowa meatpacking plant has left countless families in a “state of terror” and once again shows the need for comprehensive immigration reform, according to Archbishop Jerome G. Hanus of Dubuque. “Some of the weakest members among us are bearing the brunt of the suffering, while legislators and other leaders, as well as many of us in the general public, have failed to give this issue the priority that it deserves,” the archbishop said in a statement following the largest immigration raid in the state’s history. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents executed a criminal search warrant May 12 at Agriprocessors Inc. in Postville for evidence relating to aggravated identity theft, fraudulent use of Social Security numbers and other crimes, as well as a civil search warrant for people illegally in the United States. The plant is located in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Scrambling to assist the many people affected by the raids is the newly formed Immigrant Safety Network, which aims to improve services and communications in response to such a raid.

Indulgences Available in Pauline Year

Catholics who participate in events connected with the 2008-9 jubilee year of St. Paul can receive a special indulgence, the Vatican said. Pope Benedict XVI authorized the granting of a plenary, or full, indulgence in order to highlight the Pauline year and open the way to the “interior purification” of the faithful during its celebration, according to a Vatican decree dated May 10. The decree was signed by Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, the American head of the Vatican tribunal that deals with indulgences and matters related to the sacrament of penance. An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment a person is due for sins that have been forgiven. Pope Benedict established the Pauline year to run from June 28, 2008, to June 29, 2009, to mark the approximately 2,000th anniversary of the saint’s birth.

The plenary indulgence is being offered to pilgrims who come to Rome, to Catholics who participate in local events connected to the jubilee year, and to those who may be too ill or otherwise prevented from physical participation.

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