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Religious freedom cited in first US female genital mutilation case

Detroit, Mich., May 25, 2017 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A U.S. federal law prohibiting female genital mutilation will be challenged for the first time in a case in Detroit, where lawyers plan to cite religious freedom as a defense of the practice.

In the case, two physicians and one of their wives are charged with subjecting young girls to genital cutting. The three adults are members of the Dawoodi Bohra, a small Indian-Muslim sect located in Farmington Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), or the cutting or removal of a female’s clitoris and labia, has officially been illegal in the United States since 1997, under the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act.

Until modern times, the cutting or removal of female genitalia was considered a “cure” for various ills - hysteria, excessive sexual desire, lesbianism, etc. and was covered by some insurance providers well into the 1970s.

Now, FGM is widely understood by the United Nations and numerous other international human rights groups as a “harmful traditional practice”. The procedure has no health benefits for women, multiple health risks, and is considered a human rights violation.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the defense “maintains that the doctors weren't engaged in any actual cutting — just a scraping of the genitalia — and that the three defendants are being persecuted for practicing their religion by a culture and society that doesn't understand their beliefs and is misinterpreting what they did.”

Court documents state that the two Minnesota girls in the case had scarring and abnormalities on their clitorises and labia minora as a result of the procedure.

"According to some members of the community who have spoken out against the practice, the purpose of this cutting is to suppress female sexuality in an attempt to reduce sexual pleasure and promiscuity," a Homeland Security Investigations special agent wrote in an April 20 court filing, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Although it is the first case specifically challenging the law on female genital mutilation, experts believe it is unlikely that the religious freedom defense will work in this case.

“I don’t think the religious freedom argument will work. Based on Jehovah Witness cases of denying blood transfusions to children, the court should decide this type of case on the basis of what’s in the best interest of the child,” Nina Shea, an international human-rights lawyer and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told CNA.

Religious freedom has failed as a defense in numerous cases where a child has either been abused or denied healthcare, because the government has an overriding compelling interest in what is best for the child, a basic standard in the family law codes or statutes of most Western nations.  
 
A complicating factor in cases of FGM is that it is sometimes presented as the female equivalent of male circumcision.

However, “FGM is very different in purpose in that it is to deprive the woman of sexual enjoyment throughout the rest of her life.  Also unlike male circumcision, there are no health benefits and there are health risks to FGM,” Shea said.  

Some of those health risks include severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

"I can't imagine any court that would say that the parents' right to practice their religion gives them the right to inflict this harm on their daughters," First Amendment expert and constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky told the Detroit Free Press.

"It's going to come down to medicine, and if (the procedure) really inflicts great, lifelong harms on those who are subjected to it — that's what is going to decide this case," he said.

Despite the risks, the practice remains deeply ingrained in some cultures and religions where it is seen as a sort of “rite of passage” for young women, who often opt for the procedure themselves, rather than being forced into it by males in the community.   

Anthropologists have found that even educating mothers about the health risks of FGM is not enough to deter the practice in some areas, where it is a matter of cultural pride and a way of ensuring a girl’s future and acceptance in a society where this has been a long-accepted practice.

“What we're coming to realize is that programs that target individual mothers (about the harms of FGM) are completely ineffective. Mothers are not solely in charge of the decisions for their daughters,” Bettina Shell-Duncan, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington, told The Atlantic in 2015.

“We need to be targeting people who are in the extended family, and we know that we need to figure out who are the figures of authority in these families, and who are the influences on them in the community. We need to do male elders, but also female elders.”

“It’s about a conversation about, What is the best way to secure the future for your children? The future for their girls might not be best secured by being circumcised any longer,” she added.

Stronger religious freedoms in Texas could boost Catholic foster care

Austin, Texas, May 25, 2017 / 12:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Catholic Church in Texas will work to promote more foster parenting, following the state legislature’s approval of strong legal protections for religious adoption and foster care agencies.

“Now Catholics can join other people of good will and serve Texas’ children in good faith,” said Jennifer Carr Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops.

This fall, the bishops’ conference has said, it will work with diocesan offices on a campaign to encourage Catholic families to be foster parents.

“Most Catholic Charities in the state had withdrawn from serving foster children,” the bishops’ conference said May 22. “The new law removes a significant barrier to Catholics serving children in the foster care system and will trigger greater recruitment efforts by Catholic parishes and ministries.”

The bill, called the Freedom to Serve Children Act, could protect the ability of organizations and individuals in Texas’ foster care system who have sincerely held religious beliefs to remove themselves from actions that would directly violate their faith.

It has multiple applications. It could allow groups opposed to abortion to avoid helping a minor obtain an abortion. It could allow groups that believe children should be placed only with a married adoptive mother and father to provide foster services without facing lawsuits from same-sex couples.

The bill passed the Texas Senate May 22 on a 21-10 vote. Democratic Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville joined Republicans to support the bill, saying it would help add more private adoption agencies to Texas’ system: “It's about increasing capacity, it's about providing homes for kids.”

The bill now heads to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign the bill.

The Texas House of Representatives had passed the bill by a 93-49 vote on May 10, largely along party lines.

Private foster care and adoption agencies receive about 25 percent of child placement funding in the state, the Associated Press reports. Some groups had suspended services for fear of discrimination lawsuits.

In other states and the District of Columbia, long-serving Catholic adoption agencies have been shut down by laws against sexual orientation discrimination or new state funding rules that would have required them to place children with same-sex couples.

A Texas Department of Family and Protective Services report indicates that 314 children slept in state offices, hotels, shelters and other temporary housing between Sept. 1 and March 31, the Austin American-Statesman reports.

The bill drew opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and LGBT activist groups like the Human Rights Campaign.

Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, charged that the bill would “prioritize discrimination over the best interest of kids in the child welfare system.”

Critics voiced concern the bill would allow foster parents to prevent children from being vaccinated. Some critics objected to protecting foster parents’ abilities to limit children’s access to contraceptives and abortion.

South Dakota passed a similar bill in March, but no other states currently have similar legislation.

Catholic academics urge protection of undocumented students

Washington D.C., May 24, 2017 / 08:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- In the wake of increased government crackdown on immigration, a letter was sent to the Department of Homeland Security voicing Catholic support for programs promoting deferred deportation.

“As leaders of Catholic colleges and universities, we are dedicated to educating students from all backgrounds,” read the May 23 statement with over 65 signatures from presidents of Catholic colleges throughout the U.S.

“In keeping with this commitment, many of our institutions are home to young men and women who are undocumented and have met the criteria for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). We are deeply concerned about the futures of our undocumented students.”

The letter was addressed to John Kelly, secretary of the DHS. It requested that he meet with leaders of Catholic colleges to discuss greater involvement and understanding of current immigration policies aimed at protecting undocumented migrants with no criminal activity.

“We would like to better understand how immigration enforcement agencies in the Department of Homeland Security, including ICE and Customs and Border Patrol, approach DACA holders during targeted enforcement actions, police encounters or in public.”

The statement responds to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement which said that the reprieve granted to undocumented childhood arrivals isn't necessarily legally binding, but that they are less of a priority to deport than undocumented immigrants with criminal charges.

“DACA is not a protected legal status, but active DACA recipients are typically a lower level of enforcement priority,” the group said in a tweet in March.

Individuals who are registered for DACA are also known as “DREAMers,” since many meet the general requirements of the 2001 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was a policy put in place by the Obama administration in 2012. The policy promised to defer deportation for two y ear periods to those who qualified underneath the program’s guidelines.

In order to apply for DACA a person must be under the age 31 before June 2012, moved to the US before turning the age of 16, has a high school degree or are aiming to receive one, and has no record of felony charges, significant misdemeanors, or three smaller misdemeanors.

According to a study released in January by the Pew Research Center, over 750,000 undocumented migrants have received either deportation relief or work permits since the program’s establishment.

The current administration has a stricter interpretation of immigration policy than Obama's, but President Donald Trump has stated that he would not revoke the DACA program. He said targets for immigration enforcement will be criminals and not “DREAMers.”

Cracking down on immigration was a major platform of President Trump’s campaign. According to ICE, over 41,000 suspected undocumented immigrants have been arrested this year, a nearly 38 percent increase since this time last year.

However, just because “DREAMers” aren't targeted does not mean they are not affected.

The letter cited that 10 DACA recipients have been arrested and one has been deported since President Donald Trump took office this year.

DACA does not commission legal protection or defines legal status of the individual. But the policy is rather an omission by the DHS in order to ignore legal action, which they may have been carried out as defined by the immigration laws.

The policy does not necessarily bind the government to inaction, and even though the Trump administration has stressed the arrest of DACA immigrants to be of minute importance, there is still a danger that “DREAMers” will still be subject to punishment.

John Kelly confirmed a statement from President Trump that migrants like “Dreamers” will not be targeted, but only the immigrants with criminal records. However, Kelly acknowledged that laws were already broken in illegally crossing the border, and said “Dreamers” may still be subject to negative ramifications.

“People fall into our hands incidentally that we have no choice in most cases but to go ahead and put in the system,” said Kelly in an April 23 interview with CBS.

The letter stated that protecting the vulnerable is a Christian obligation, and applauded the policy’s ability to help undocumented students within the US.

“The DACA policy has enabled our students to continue their studies and pursue careers in their chosen fields, from education to medicine, despite great anxiety and uncertainty.”

Budget proposal draws concern for cuts to poverty programs

Washington D.C., May 24, 2017 / 05:11 pm (CNA).- President Donald Trump’s budget requests, although applauded for their pro-life measures, were largely met with concern from Catholic aid groups, particularly for their cuts to welfare programs and international aid.

“Rather than balancing the budget on the backs of those who are poor while shoring up military spending, our budgetary policies should reflect compassion for those most fragile and, at the same time, should allocate funds to protect safety and the common good,” Sister Donna Markham, O.P., president and CEO of Catholic Charities, USA, stated on Tuesday.

President Trump released his FY 2018 budget proposal “The New Foundation for American Greatness” on Tuesday, calling for a $54 billion increase in defense spending and an increase in immigration enforcement and border security funding.

To balance the budget over 10 years, these increases would supposedly be offset by cuts elsewhere, including to international aid, the State Department, a $191 billion cut in food stamp funding over 10 years, and cuts to other welfare programs.

The administration also announced a proposed budget increase in fighting the opioid epidemic, including “$12.1 billion for treatment and prevention efforts” and “$10.8 billion in treatment funding.”

In anticipation of the budget proposal, leading U.S. bishops wrote Congress on Tuesday outlining their serious concerns. The goal of reducing the deficit was legitimate, they said, but such deficit reduction must include a comprehensive set of cuts and not just cuts in programs tailored for low-income groups while increasing spending in other areas.

Particularly concerning to them were cuts to international aid programs at a time when conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa threaten to destabilize whole regions, along with droughts and famines. Famine has already been declared in South Sudan, and three other countries are on the brink of famines.

Overall, the proposed cuts to diplomacy and development amount to almost $60 billion, Catholic Relief Services says.

“This budget also shifts attention to short-term ‘strategic’ issues and countries,” Bill O’Keefe, vice president of advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, stated on Tuesday of the proposed cuts. “The danger is that problems elsewhere ignored today become the expensive strategic challenges our military has to address tomorrow.”

“The people who say aid does not work should come stand in my shoes here in Somalia,” said Mohamed Dahir, CRS’ country manager in Somalia. “They should talk to a woman who walked with her children for days and days, trying to escape drought, only to lose some of those children along the way.”

“In previous droughts, people like her found water in the major rivers, but this drought is so bad even the rivers have dried up,” Dahir said. “How can we abandon them – good, hardworking, innocent people who have done nothing wrong? Our aid not only brings them life, it brings them another commodity that is very precious in Somalia – hope."

Cuts to diplomacy are also distressing, CRS and the bishops said, as the international community still has yet to come together to negotiate a peace to end the six year-long conflict in Syria.

 Other Catholic aid groups largely were concerned over the domestic budget proposals.

Catholic Charities, USA “supports efforts to improve vital safety-net programs needed to move people out of poverty and protect life,” Sister Donna Markham said.

Yet “the disastrous, albeit cruel, cuts to anti-poverty programs such as SNAP, Medicaid and jobs training will have a devastating effect on millions of vulnerable individuals and families who depend on them,” she continued.

The Catholic Climate Covenant also expressed serious concerns about Trump’s proposed budget, calling the cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency “dramatic and unwarranted” and saying that they hurt the poor.

This is because the EPA has done “excellent work” for the environment, “yet far too many families, especially in low-income and of color communities, live near heavily polluted areas such as Superfund and brownfields sites, incinerators and coal-fired power plants,” the group explained.

Trump’s budget would cut programs having to do with clean-up of these areas and enforcement of environmental laws, rendering poor people in these communities more “vulnerable” to pollution.

“These cuts threaten the future of our children not only in the U.S. but around the world,” Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, bishop liaison to the group’s board of directors, stated on Wednesday, pointing to cuts of programs working “to help reduce greenhouse gases, the major cause of the global warming we are experiencing.”

“Pope Francis has made it clear that the threat of climate change demands that ‘the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay’,” he said, quoting the encyclical Laudato Si’ paragraph 165.

The pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List, however, approved of the proposal that funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, would be redirected to community health centers. That funding would be estimated at $422 million.

“We’re encouraged to see that the budget released today prevents federal funds from going to the nation’s largest abortion chain, Planned Parenthood,” the group’s president Marjorie Dannenfelser stated on Tuesday. “Taxpayers should not have to prop up Planned Parenthood’s failing, abortion-centered business model.”

 

Cardinal Zen urges prayer for Christians in China

Rome, Italy, May 24, 2017 / 12:43 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As Chinese Catholics celebrate the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians, Cardinal Joseph Zen has asked for prayers on behalf of Christians in the country, who often face difficulty and even persecution for their faith.

“In the history of the Church, Our Lady, Help of Christians always came to help the Church in difficulty,” Cardinal Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, told CNA in an interview, adding that this help has always been particularly strong when attached to the rosary.

Noting how the Church is celebrating the centenary year of the apparitions in Fatima, he noted that in her appearances there Mary “came to ask for prayer.”

“Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady, Help of Christians, they are really interested, concerned or maybe even worried about the situation of the Church, especially in the places where there is no freedom of religion,” he said.

“So please intensify your prayer – this is only thing we can do, and the only thing most useful and efficacious.”

Cardinal Zen, 85, is one of the most prominent Catholic voices in China, and is outspoken when it comes to the country and it’s Christian population.

He spoke ahead of the May 24 feast of Mary, Help of Christians, who is highly venerated among Chinese Catholics. Sheshan Basilica in Shanghai is dedicated to her, where she is also known as Our Lady of Sheshan.

Cardinal Zen recalled that in a letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007, Benedict XVI “composed a wonderful prayer” to Our Lady of Sheshan, suggesting that May 24 could become her permanent feast, and asking that it be a day of prayer dedicated to the Church in China.

In his letter, Benedict said the day is “an occasion for the Catholics of the whole world to be united in prayer with the Church which is in China.”

As the feast is celebrated, then, Cardinal Zen voiced his hope that Catholics throughout the world would pray for Christians in China, who often face persecution for their beliefs while living in an atheistic culture.

When it comes to Vatican relations with China, ever since the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Holy See has had a reduced diplomatic presence in Beijing, with the nunciature being moved to Taiwan in 1951.

China-Vatican relations have been cool ever since, but with some apparent thaws. After Benedict XVI’s letter in 2007, a series of bishops’ appointments approved both by the Chinese government and the Holy See took place.

The Church in China, however, is still in a difficult situation. The government of the Chinese People’s Republic never recognized the Holy See’s authority to appoint bishops. Instead, it established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (PA), which is a sort of ecclesiastical hierarchy officially recognized by the Chinese authorities.

In his letter, Benedict said the PA was “incompatible with Catholic doctrine,” since in their assemblies, held every few years, both legitimate and illegitimate bishops were treated equally by the PA, particularly regarding the sacraments.

For this reason, Chinese bishops recognized by the Holy See entered a clandestine state, thus giving life to the so called “underground Church” that is not recognized by the government.

But despite the hiccups that still exist, the Vatican has been working diligently to come to an agreement with the Chinese government, particularly regarding the appointment of bishops.

Talks with China are currently centered on bishop appointments, but as of now haven’t touched the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties.

The deal currently on the table would essentially allow the government to pick a list candidates for the episcopacy and propose them the names to the Pope for approval or denial.

For Cardinal Zen, the danger of this that it leaves open the possibility that the Pope will either be forced to approve a “bad bishop,” or his denial could be vetoed by the Chinese government.  

Whereas currently the Vatican sends a list of potential candidates to China to approve or deny, in the new deal it would be the clergy who elect candidates, and the Pope giving the final word on people who may or may not be government stooges.

Cardinal Zen said that while accurate information on the deal is hard to find, at the moment “it seems to be stopped,” which in his opinion is good news, because “the whole initiative starts from the government of China and the Holy Father has only the last word. But the last word may not be enough.”

Right now in China “there is no freedom, so people cannot speak out, and those who speak out, it means they have too good of a relationship with the government,” he said, adding that those vocally in favor “seem to hope in this agreement which may confirm their situation of privilege.”

“So I try to tell the people that no deal is better than a bad deal,” he said. “They should really consider the real good of the Church and not just to have an agreement at any cost.”

His recent comments echoed those he made to CNA earlier this year.

Cardinal Zen said he would “never criticize the Pope,” and that what he wants above all is for “everybody to be rational.”

“But I hope the people around the Pope stop giving him bad advice, because the Pope really needs to know the reality, and the reality is that there is no freedom, the reality is that we cannot see any goodwill on the part of Beijing government,” he said. “They are still controlling the Church and they want to control it even more.”

ISIS ally in Philippines storms Catholic cathedral, takes hostages

Marawi, Philippines, May 24, 2017 / 11:48 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Islamic State-allied militants in the Philippines have taken a Catholic priest and a group of church-goers hostage, threatening to kill them if the nation’s military does not cease its current offensive against them.

The hostages were taken during a militant siege in the southern Philippines city of Marawi on Tuesday and Wednesday. Militants also burned the Catholic cathedral of Marawi.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, denounced the hostage-taking. He said the priest and the hostages had no involvement in the conflict between the military and the militants.

“He was not a combatant. He was not bearing arms. He was a threat to none,” the archbishop said. “His capture and that of his companions violates every norm of civilized conflict.”

The country’s Catholic bishops have urged prayers for the captured priest and the other hostages in the area. While the majority of the Philippines is Catholic, they make up only a small percentage of the population in Marawi, a mostly Muslim city of about 200,000 people, located on the island of Mindanao.

About 100 armed militants moved through Marawi on Tuesday, the Associated Press reports. They beheaded a police chief and burned buildings, including the bishop’s residence. They raised the black flag of the Islamic State group while also taking the hostages.

Responsible for the attack is the Maute group, a clan-based group with members in Marawi. It is one of under a dozen new armed Muslim groups that have pledged allegiance to ISIS. The groups have formed a loose alliance, reportedly led by Isnilon Hapilon, a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group.

The militants’ siege of Marawi followed an army raid on the hideout of Hapilon. The militant leader has pledged allegiance to ISIS and the United States has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Bishop Edwin de la Peña of Marawi was not at home at the time of the attack, but his secretary is reportedly among the hostages. He received a phone call from a militant who used his secretary’s phone. The militant introduced himself as a member of ISIS and demanded a unilateral ceasefire.

“They want a ceasefire and for the military to give them access out of Marawi. Otherwise, they will kill the hostages,” Bishop de la Peña told CBCP News.

The bishop reported that he was allowed to speak with Fr. Chito Suganob, the captive priest who is the vicar general of the Territorial Prelature of Marawi, in order to make their demands clear.

In addition to the priest, hostages include three church staffers and ten worshipers, the Associated Press said.

Bishop de la Peña himself barely missed being taken hostage.

“I was supposed to go to Marawi yesterday but I was asked to cancel my trip because of the siege,” he said.

Archbishop Villegas, the Catholic bishops’ conference president, urged prayers for peace and asked the militants to show mercy.

“We call on the Maute group that claims to bear arms in the name of a Merciful and Benevolent God – the very same God we Christians worship and adore – to do the One God true honor by the mercy and benevolence that are two of our God’s most exalted attributes,” he said.

The archbishop also addressed the response of government forces, saying, “We beg of them to make the safety of the hostages a primordial consideration.”

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been heavily criticized for a brutal crackdown on illegal drugs, has cut short his trip to Russia and placed all of Mindanao island under martial law. The president has sought peace talks with two large Muslim rebel groups in the country’s south but has ordered the military to destroy smaller extremist groups like the Maute.

“It is difficult to root out because they are from there,” political analyst Ramon Casiple told the Associated Press. “The Mautes are embedded in the population.”

The group was blamed for a September 2016 bombing that killed 15 people in southern Davao city, the president’s hometown. A military raid on their jungle camp last month reportedly found homemade bombs, grenades, combat uniforms, and passports of suspected Indonesian militants.

 

Ivanka Trump meets with human trafficking survivors in Rome

Rome, Italy, May 24, 2017 / 10:30 am (CNA/EWTN News).- After a visit with Pope Francis Wednesday, Ivanka Trump met a group of human trafficking survivors, calling them examples of strength and addressing various legislative ways the U.S. government can help victims.

Ivanka met with a dozen victims of human trafficking from Nigeria and Eritrea. She described them as “remarkable women,” who are “testaments to strength, faith and perseverance in the face of unspeakable adversity and challenge.”

Ivanka is currently accompanying her father, U.S. President Donald Trump, on his first international tour, which also included stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Earlier in the day, Trump and Pope Francis had their first highly anticipated meeting.

The encounter between Ivanka and human trafficking victims took place at the headquarters of the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood.

Ivanka Trump visited headquarters of the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome. Learn more: https://t.co/3cfk2BrCX7 ???? Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA pic.twitter.com/yr6lw0ITcr

— Catholic News Agency (@cnalive) May 24, 2017 Founded in 1968 by Italian layman Andrea Riccardi, a historian and former minister in the Italian government, the community focuses their mission on service to the poor and refugees, conflict resolution, and both ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue.

Sant’Egidio is a favorite of Pope Francis, who often praises the community for their work. It has long been involved in campaigns to combat human trafficking – also an important topic for Pope Francis – and has partnered with the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See for several events.

Ivanka thanked the community for their work, which she said “resonates strongly” not just in Italy, “but throughout the world.”

She said that in her meeting with representatives of Sant’Egidio, they were able to discuss several programs “that have been successfully launched and developed over many, many years now.”

These programs, she said, “have provided support and help to those who need it most, whether it's the elderly or the disadvantaged, and also victims of human trafficking throughout Africa and the whole world.”

“So it was a great privilege to be able to be here and the hear firsthand from these tremendous thought leaders about the work that's being done, what has worked and what has the potential to work better and to be better executed in the future,” she said, adding that she looks forward to further collaboration.

In comments to journalists following the meeting with Ivanka, two women from Sant’Egidio who work with the trafficking victims said it was an “intense” and “moving” encounter.

Some of the women told their stories, including how they were rescued, how their lives have changed and the situations they are in now.

There was “a lot of interest” on the part of Ivanka, they said, noting that she “listened very carefully” to their stories, but also asked questions about possible legislative initiatives on the part of the government to stop human trafficking, specifically when it comes to women.

Trafficking in the Mediterranean and Africa was mentioned specifically, including the trafficking of children, and a strong emphasis was placed on how the process begins in the countries where the victims originate.

According to the women from Sant’Egidio, Ivanka referred to her brief meeting with Pope Francis earlier that morning, telling the women that he is “a great advocate of your stories” of success and integration.

Ivanka then asked the victims what could be done. They said there is a greater need for communication and the sharing of information in their countries of origin, since many women are tricked into a trafficking ring under the false pretense that they will be moving to Europe for legitimate work, in many cases as a cook or maid.

They said that “public campaigns” are needed, because most women “never imagined” they would end up being trafficked.

In addition to the trafficking of persons, organ trafficking was also discussed, as well as the role of religion in ending violence and achieving peace, the freedom of women and the education of children.

In brief comments to journalists, Sant’Egidio founder and president Andrea Riccardi noted that Ivanka made a strong reference to collaboration with the organization’s projects in Africa, specifically in terms of helping to get legal documents for the continent’s “ghost children,” meaning children who are not registered and therefore have no legal identity, making them extra vulnerable and easy prey for traffickers.

Riccardi said Ivanka also showed a strong interest in an initiative the community is currently trying to push forward in Italy to get legal documents for women rescued from forced prostitution.

Before leaving with her father on his first international tour, Ivanka hosted an anti-human trafficking roundtable discussion at the White House May 17. The event gathered a swath of bipartisan lawmakers and representatives of numerous organizations that deal with human trafficking.  

According to reports, Ivanka spoke during that discussion about the Trump administration’s efforts to combat trafficking not only in the U.S., but throughout the world, telling attendees that “combatting human trafficking and modern slavery is both a moral and strategic interest domestically and abroad.”

That particular roundtable was a follow-up to a February discussion on the same topic, which was also organized by Ivanka. At the time, President Trump said he would use the “full force and weight” of the U.S. government to fight against trafficking.

 

Pope Francis: Even in the darkest moments, Jesus walks with us

Vatican City, May 24, 2017 / 08:39 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Wednesday Pope Francis said that no matter what trials we might face, we have hope because Jesus is always by our side, just like he was for the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

“All of us, in our lives, have had difficult, dark times; moments in which we have walked sad, thoughtful, without horizons and (with) only a wall in front,” Pope Francis said May 24.

However, even in these moments “Jesus is always beside us to give us hope, warm the heart and say, ‘Go ahead, I'm with you. Go ahead,’” the Pope said, adding that “the secret of the road leading to Emmaus is all here: even through unfavorable appearances, we continue to be loved.”

The Pope met with thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly general audience, immediately following his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Francis said that no matter what, God always wants the best for us and “will walk with us.”

“Even in the most painful moments, even in the worst moments, even in moments of defeat: the Lord is there. And this is our hope. Let's go ahead with that hope! Because he is next to us and walks with us always!”

The Pope reflected on hope as it is found in the story of Christ’s appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, when they feel sad, discouraged and defeated because Jesus has been killed, but they do not yet know about his Resurrection.

All of their hopes from before the crucifixion have been shattered, but this is because they “cultivated only human hope,” Francis said.

It is on this scene that Jesus appears. “This scenario – the road – had already been important in the accounts of the Gospels,” he explained, but “now it will become even more, as they begin to recount the story of the Church.”

This encounter of Jesus with the disciples seems “fortuitous,” he said, in the way it resembles the many times we are carrying our own crosses or burdens of sorrow and disappointment. But Jesus joins them, even though they do not recognize him, and he begins what Pope Francis called a “therapy of hope.”

The first step in this therapy, he said, is to “ask and listen: our God is not an intrusive God. Even though he already knows the reason for the disappointment of those two, he leaves them time to be able to gauge the depth of the bitterness that he has undergone.”

Then, listening to their words, we hear “a chorus of human existence: ‘We hoped, but…We hoped, but….’”

“How much sadness, how many defeats, how many failures there are in each person's life!” the Pope said, noting that “we are all a bit like those two disciples.”

“How many times in life we hoped, how many times we felt a step away from happiness, and then we found ourselves disappointed,” he reflected.

“But Jesus walks with all discouraged people who go forward with head down. And walking with them, in a subtle way, he succeeds in returning hope.”

When he does speak to them, Jesus does it first through the Scriptures. In the Bible, you will not find stories of “easy heroism, thunderous campaigns of conquest,” the Pope said. “True hope is never cheap: it always goes through defeats.”

In fact, Francis said, Jesus models this for us by not being the kind of leader that drags his people to victory by violently destroying his opponents. Instead, he takes a position of disdain himself.

Later that same night, when the disciples have invited him to eat dinner with them, they recognize him when he breaks the bread, repeating the gesture of the first Eucharist.

“In this series of gestures, is there not the whole story of Jesus? And is there not, in every Eucharist, the sign of what the Church must be? Jesus takes us, blesses us, ‘breaks’ our lives – because there is no love without sacrifice – and offers it to others, offers it to everyone.”

Jesus’ encounter with the disciples on the road to Emmaus is quick, he said, but in it we find “the fate of the Church.”

“He tells us that the Christian community is not locked up in a fortified citadel, but walks in its most vital environment; namely, the road. And there it meets people, with their hopes and their disappointments, sometimes heavy.”

“The Church listens to the stories of everyone, as they emerge from the depths of personal conscience, in order then to offer the Word of Life, the testimony of love, faithful love to the end,” he concluded. “And then, the hearts of people return to burning hope.”

St. Louis rule creates legal traps for pro-lifers, lawsuit charges

St. Louis, Mo., May 24, 2017 / 06:18 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A St. Louis city ordinance that could force Catholic schools and pro-life pregnancy centers to hire employees who support abortion has drawn legal opposition from the Archbishop of St. Louis and several pro-life organizations.

“As Catholics, we know that all life is a gift from God and our parents, and must be protected at any cost,” St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson said May 22. “Sadly, legal protection for those members of the human family waiting to be born in this country was removed by the Supreme Court in 1973.”

“Now, some of our St. Louis politicians have made a protected 'class' out of 'reproductive health,' which is merely a politically correct euphemism for abortion,” the archbishop said at a press conference on the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

He said the archdiocese will not comply with the “vile bill.”

Archbishop Carlson was joined by Peggy Forrest of Our Lady’s Inn, which promotes abortion alternatives for pregnant women, archdiocesan newspaper the St. Louis Review reports. Also present was Sarah Pitlyk, special counsel for the Thomas More Society, which has filed the lawsuit seeking judicial review.

The Archdiocesan Elementary Schools of St. Louis, Our Lady’s Inn, and the private company O’Brien Industrial Holdings, LLC are parties to the lawsuit concerning St. Louis Ordinance 70459, also called Board Bill 203 Committee Substitute. The ordinance, enacted in February, creates a protected status for anyone who has “made a decision related to abortion,” even in cases where the abortion was not their own. The protections apply to corporations and all businesses, not only individuals.

Opponents said the bill would bar any individual or entity, including Christian organizations, from refusing to sell or rent property to individuals or businesses that promote or provide abortions. It could require Catholic schools to hire abortion supporters or potentially be sued.

The lawsuit notes the archdiocesan schools require teachers and employees to sign a statement saying they will not publicly support abortion and will otherwise live in harmony with Catholic teachings in their professional and personal lives. Organizations that require such a statement face criminal fines under the city bill, while individuals who enforce it face a fine and even jail time.

“The passage of this bill is not a milestone of our city’s success. It is, rather, a marker of our city’s embrace of the culture of death,” said Archbishop Carlson.

Pitlyk of the Thomas More Society further criticized the ordinance.

“The City of St. Louis, by pushing an abortion agenda, is clearly out of step with the rest of the state,” she charged. “The city has taken the protections typically granted to prevent discrimination for ‘race, age, religion, sex or disability’ and applied them to those who have made or expect to make ‘reproductive health decisions’,” she said.

Forrest said that the ordinance would bar Our Lady’s Inn from hiring only individuals who support its mission to provide abortion alternatives.

She said that since the ordinance was passed, her organization has received several suspicious calls that seemed like possible legal traps. She said there is a great possibility “that women either pretending to need services or knowing full well they don't want the services that we provide will engage us just to see if they can catch us in violating the ordinance.”

“It’s insincere and takes up time for women who really are interested in our services,” Forrest added. “We support women who have already made a choice for life. And if that's not the choice they’ve made then our services don’t match them.”  

The ordinance would also require businesses to include abortion coverage in employee health care plans, even if owners object. The Thomas More Society said this requirement is unlawful under the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving Hobby Lobby’s challenge to a federal rule mandating coverage of contraceptive drugs, including drugs that can cause abortion.

The Catholic-owned O’Brien Industrial Holdings, LLC, was also part of the Hobby Lobby case.

The St. Louis legal complaint said the ordinance violates other constitutional protections involving free speech, free association, the religion clauses of the First Amendment, due process rights, and equal protection, as well as several state laws.

Pitlyk also faulted the ordinance’s “extremely limited” religious exemptions for housing and employment, and its lack of exemptions for individuals who have “sincere religious, moral or ethical objections to abortion.”

“That is unconstitutional, and directly violates both federal and state law,” she said.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson defended the law in a statement, saying, “We don’t believe the ordinance infringes on the rights of the Archdiocese,” according to the Associated Press.

While backers of the ordinance said it aimed to address discrimination against individuals who have had, or were planning to have abortions, they could not find examples of such.

Pitlyk said the ordinance was “a remedy in search of a problem.”

 

Pope Francis, Trump hold landmark first meeting (Updated)

Vatican City, May 24, 2017 / 02:48 am (CNA/EWTN News).- After months of anticipation, Pope Francis and U.S. President Donald Trump finally met at the Vatican Wednesday in a friendly encounter which included an emphasis on protection of life and freedom of conscience.

According to a May 24 Vatican communique, Pope Francis and Trump expressed satisfaction "for the good existing bilateral relations between the Holy See and the United States of America, as well as the joint commitment in favor of life, and freedom of worship and conscience."

The Pope and Trump met at the Vatican May 24, at 8:30 a.m., immediately before the weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

Trump arrived to Italy May 23 after stopping in both Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of his first international trip. He is also set to attend a NATO meeting in Brussels on May 25 and a G7 summit in Sicily on May 26 before returning to the U.S.

President Trump arrived to the Vatican via the side entrance by Casa Santa Marta around 8:15 a.m. and was greeted by a group of Swiss Guards in the San Damaso courtyard. After stepping out of the car, Trump and First Lady Melania greeted Archbishop Georg Ganswein and other Vatican dignitaries before entering the Apostolic Palace.

Scenes as @POTUS & @FLOTUS arrive at the #Vatican to meet #PopeFrancis this morning. (pc @dibanezgut / CNA.) pic.twitter.com/Z1xCDhCySB

— Catholic News Agency (@cnalive) May 24, 2017 Pope Francis and Trump smiled as they sat down at the Pope’s desk in the papal library. Pope Francis said, “Welcome!” and Trump responded, “Thank you very much, this is such a great honor.”

Smiling, Francis explained that he doesn't speak English well and needs a translator, but added that he was “very happy to meet” Trump.

After the cameras left, the two began the private portion of their conversation, which lasted about 30 minutes. In addition to Pope Francis and Trump, only the Pope's English translator, Msgr. Mark Miles, was present.

During the "cordial discussions," the two expressed hope for peaceful collaboration between the government and the Catholic Church in the United States, that it may be "engaged in service to the people in the fields of healthcare, education and assistance to immigrants," a Vatican communique on the meeting said.

Pope Francis and President Trump also exchanged views "on various themes relating to international affairs, the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation and interreligious dialogue, with particular reference to the situation in the Middle East and the protection of Christian communities."

After their formal conversation, gifts were exchanged between Francis and Trump. There were 12 people in the president's entourage, including his wife Melania and his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, both of whom are advisors in his administration.

Also present for the meeting with Pope Francis were U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs H.R. McMaster, and Louis Bono, American Chargé d'Affaires ad interim to the Holy See until Calista Gingrich us officially approved as ambassador.  

Pope Francis gave Trump a copy of his environmental encyclical Laudato Si, as well as copies of his 2015 Apostolic Exhortation on the family “Amoris Laetitia” and his 2013 exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium.”

In addition to the customary gift of these three documents, Francis also gave President Trump a copy of his message for the 2017 World Day of Peace, saying: “I signed it personally for you.” Trump responded that he would be reading them.

The Pope also gifted the U.S. president with a medallion he said symbolized peace and unity, which, after the translator explained in English, he added in Spanish: “Have it so that you become an instrument of peace.” In response, Trump said that “we can use peace.”

#PopeFrancis says his desire is that @POTUS be "an olive tree of peace." See the full exchange:@cnalive @EWTN pic.twitter.com/GEa11kf0o2

— Alan Holdren (@AlanHoldren) May 24, 2017 On his part, President Trump gifted Pope Francis a set of books by Martin Luther King, Jr., saying: “I think you’ll enjoy them, I hope you do."

Members of the delegation each received a medal and a rosary from the pontiff. When greeting Francis, First Lady Melania told him that she would afterward be visiting the hospital. Joking, the Pope asked her if they had given her potica, a traditional Slovenian dessert, to eat, to which she responded, “yes, potica,” as they both laughed.

Departing with a handshake, Trump said to Francis: "Thank you, thank you, I won't forget what you said."

The Trump family visiting the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica this morning. Copyright “L’Osservatore Romano” pic.twitter.com/zT2oyHqr0f

— Alan Holdren (@AlanHoldren) May 24, 2017 After meeting with Pope Francis, Trump met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, as is customary for heads of state.

Pope Francis went immediately to begin the Wednesday general audience with thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square.

After the meeting, First Lady Melania paid a visit to the Vatican-owned Pediatric hospital Bambino Gesu, also known as the “Pope’s hospital.”

Bambino Gesu sits next to the Pontifical North American College on top of Rome’s Gianicolo hill, and is among the most important pediatric hospitals in the world. Founded in 1869 by the Duchess Arabella Salviati, the hospital was donated to Pius XI in 1924, with the aim of giving it a more stable future.

At the same time, Trump’s daughter and high-profile adviser, Ivanka, made her way to the Roman neighborhood of Trastevere to meet with the Community of Sant’Egidio to discuss efforts to oppose human trafficking.

The Sant’Egidio Community is often praised by Pope Francis for their work with the poor and refugees, in particular.

Ivanka is participating in each of the seven days of Trump’s first trip abroad as president, and was also present for the public portion of his meeting with Francis.

Before leaving with her father on his first international tour, Ivanka hosted an anti-human trafficking roundtable discussion at the White House May 17.

During her meeting with Sant’Egidio, she is expected to meet with several women who are victims of trafficking, and discuss various ways in which the Church and the U.S. government can collaborate on the issue.

This article was updated at 12:12 p.m. local time in Rome with information from the official Vatican communique.