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Syrian priest: After liberation of Aleppo, living conditions still dire

Aleppo, Syria, Feb 24, 2017 / 12:20 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Nearly three months after the Syrian Army liberated the city of Aleppo from ISIS control, the local population is facing harsh living conditions in a city left in ruins after nearly six years of fighting.

In an interview with the French aid organization L´Oeuvre D´Orient, Father Ziad Hilal who carries out his pastoral ministry in Aleppo, said that the cost of living in Syria has gotten more expensive.

“Previously, the dollar used to be worth 50 Syrian pounds, today it is equivalent to more than 520 Syrian pounds. Ten times more! The people of Aleppo lack money to live on, few people have a job.”

“They need food, fuel, they have to pay tuition for the children, university students, for milk for the children. They have to pay for electricity generators for each family,” Fr. Hilal said.

“Several thousand people are there in the Aleppo region. They are often without shelter, or housed in old factories. They need everything. Others are close to Idleb (southwest of Aleppo) on the border with Turkey, in Damascus, in Lebanon. Others have taken refuge in Europe. There are also some who have remained in Aleppo by going over to the west side,” Fr. Hilal said.

The Jesuit priest explained that after the evacuation of the rebels from the eastern part of the city, “the situation has gotten a little better, but a lot of rebels still remain in the surrounding villages. There are exchanges of gunfire and shelling between Aleppo and the outskirts.”

“East Aleppo is almost destroyed. There is a military presence but the people can't return there,” he said.

“Despite that, people are going out on the streets, they can go shopping, the children are calmer. On the other hand, neither electricity nor water have been restored to the city. After the fighting, we had ten days with the water supply cut off which was very trying for everyone. That's why people aren't coming back right now, even if some of them want to. Even more so because it's been a rough winter this year, we've had two snowfalls,” Fr. Hilal said.

“The Church must now come alongside the refugees, the displaced, those marginalized. The people of Aleppo come not just to pray but also to get help.”

He stressed that this situation “is not easy work for the priests, the men and women religious, but we're taking this on.”

For example, the six Catholic churches in Aleppo work together to run an initiative called “the milk place.”

Each month they distribute milk to about 2600 children in Aleppo. The churches also distribute food baskets, hygiene supplies, and pay for tuition and housing for families.

Fr. Hilal said that the reconstruction of Aleppo is premature “as long as there is no peace in the country.” However, he said that they are studying with a number of organizations the possibility of rebuilding some churches and destroyed houses.

“The Apostolic Nuncio in Syria, Cardinal Mario Zenari and Mgr. Dal Toso of Cor Unum, came three weeks ago to evaluate the situation.”

“On the other hand, we can't expect electricity to be restored here for at least a year because the network was completely destroyed by the fighting. It would take millions and millions of euros to rebuild it,” he said. “Who's going to pay for that? You have to invest in the city. You have to have hope.”

 

Texas must fund Planned Parenthood, federal judge rules

Austin, Texas, Feb 23, 2017 / 08:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Amid the controversy over investigative videos appearing to show illegal activities at Planned Parenthood, a federal judge has temporarily barred Texas from denying Medicaid funding to the abortion provider.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said the decision is “disappointing” and “flies in the face of basic human decency.”

“The raw, unedited footage from undercover videos exposed a brazen willingness by Planned Parenthood officials to traffic in fetal body parts, as well as manipulate the timing and method of an abortion,” he said Feb. 21. “Even the remains of the most vicious criminals are treated with respect.”

“No taxpayer in Texas should have to subsidize this repugnant and illegal conduct,” Paxton added. “We should never lose sight of the fact that, as long as abortion is legal in the United States, the potential for these types of horrors will continue.”

U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks issued a preliminary injunction stopping the state from defunding the abortion provider’s 30 health centers, which receive $4 million for services not related to abortion, the New York Times reports.

On Dec. 20, 2016, the inspector general for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission ruled that Planned Parenthood was unqualified to provide medical services “in a professionally competent, safe, legal and ethical manner.”

Judge Sparks said that the inspector general did not present “even a scintilla of evidence” that Planned Parenthood was unqualified, that it had profited from fetal tissue, or that a doctor had altered an abortion procedure for any purpose.

Planned Parenthood came under heavy criticism after undercover investigators with the Center for Medical Progress produced videos appearing to show Planned Parenthood staff and leaders engaged in the illegal sale of fetal tissue and body parts from unborn babies.

Judge Sparks was dismissive of the videos and said the case was about “the State of Texas’ efforts to expel a group of health care providers from a social health care program for families and individuals with limited resources.”

The case will go to trial, and Paxton said Texas would appeal the judge’s injunction.

Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, characterized the ruling as a “victory for Texas women.”

Planned Parenthood said its Medicaid-funded services in Texas include breast cancer and cervical cancer screening and treatment, contraception counseling, sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment, and primary health services.

The abortion provider has denied any accusations of wrongdoing and has claimed the videos were deceptively edited.

The videos, first released in July 2015, prompted a massive response from Planned Parenthood backers.

A grant proposal attributed to George Soros’ Open Society Foundations indicated at least $7-$8 million would be spent in a campaign to counter the videos and “transform the narrative.” While the document charged that the videos were doctored, it said the videos’ release was “severe and without warning” and would require “an enormous amount of resources and staff time” for Planned Parenthood to respond.

The grant proposal particularly voiced concern about state-level investigations, especially in Texas.

Federal courts have blocked at least five other states’ attempts to bar Planned Parenthood from Medicaid reimbursements: Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Iraqi Christians erect large cross in area liberated from ISIS

Mosul, Iraq, Feb 23, 2017 / 04:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After years of darkness, hope has returned to Telekuf-Tesqopa. Located just 17 miles from Mosul, the village is rebuilding after being liberated from ISIS.

As a visible sign of the rebuilding, a giant cross was erected on a hill, marking the victory of the Christian faith against the darkness of the jihadists.

On Feb. 18, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad, Louis Sako, visited the village, where he blessed the large cross and participated in the celebration of the first Mass after two and a half years in Saint George Church.

According to the website of the Patriarchate of Babylon, the authorities and officials of the region were present at the celebration.

In his homily, Patriarch Sako said that this event is “the first spark of light shining in all the cities of the Nineveh Plain since the darkness of ISIS, which lasted almost two and a half years.”

“This is our land and this is our home,” he told the faithful. He also said that now is the time to regain hope and for the people to return to their towns to begin a new stage of life.

The patriarch said that Christians will thus demonstrate to the world that the forces of darkness, which wreaked havoc and ravaged their land, are ephemeral and that the Church of Christ, although it suffers, is built upon rock.

When the Mass was over, everyone went out to a hill located on the outskirts of the city. There Patriarch Sako blessed the huge cross which was raised amid fireworks and with cries of “Victory! Victory! Victory!  For those who chose the faith and those who return!”

The Catholic Patriarch said that this cross will announce “to the world that this is our land, we were born here and we will die here. Our ancestors were buried in this pure land and we are going to remain to preserve them with all our might and for future generations.”

“It is a sincere and great call to return and rebuild. We are joined to our land, to our future on the land of our ancestors. Here we can be proud of our history and here we can obtain the granting of all our rights,” Patriarch Sako said.

Before the celebration of the Mass, a delegation came to Telekuf-Tesqopa to assess the state of damage and to thus ask for the support of international organizations for reconstruction. Saint George Church was cleaned by volunteers from the French aid organization SOS Chrétiens d’Orient. (SOS Christians of the East).

The placement of crosses has become a recurring gesture since the Iraqi Army began the offensive to recover the city of Mosul, the ISIS stronghold in Iraq.

In every village liberated on the Plain of Nineveh, Christians have made wooden crosses and have placed them on the roofs of churches and homes.

Muslims have also participated in these events. Last week, a group of Muslims youths joined those cleaning a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary located in east Mosul, liberated by the Iraqi Army.

This action is part of a campaign that seeks to remember the religious coexistence that was present in the city before the jihadists occupied it in 2014.

 

How old anti-Catholic laws still threaten religious freedom today

Washington D.C., Feb 23, 2017 / 03:54 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Anti-Catholic state laws from the 19th century are today being used by secularists to fight public funding of all religious organizations, warned a religious freedom advocacy group.

State Blaine Amendment laws are utilized today “to counter religious organizations and religious individuals,” said Eric Baxter, senior attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

“The First Amendment was set in place to ensure that religious beliefs and religious exercise could have an equal part in our public life and culture,” he told CNA.

These state laws, however, “are being used to thwart that, to say that somehow religion is like the ugly stepchild of the family of civil rights, and creates this idea that religion should be sidelined in public life.”

What was the original Blaine Amendment, and how were state laws modeled after it?

In the years following the Civil War, there was widespread suspicion and even open hostility toward Catholics in the U.S., especially toward immigrant Catholic populations from Europe.

Public schools at the time were largely Protestant, with no single Christian denomination in charge, and many Catholics attended parochial schools which were seen as “sectarian” by prominent public figures, explains historian John T. McGreevy in his book “Catholicism and American Freedom.”

Public figures, he notes, including one current and one future U.S. president at the time, pushed against taxpayer funding of Catholic schools and even advocated for an increase in the taxation of Catholic Church property in the U.S.

Ohio’s Republican gubernatorial candidate and future U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes opposed Catholic priests being able to visit state asylums.

In a speech to Civil War veterans in 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant insisted that no federal money “be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school.”

And, the former general-in-chief of the U.S. armies during the Civil War added, “if we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.”

As McGreevy noted, “audience members understood” what Grant meant about “superstition,” as he had “referred to a Catholic Church that he saw as increasingly aggressive.”

Grant pushed for a federal amendment by Sen. James Blaine of Maine that prohibited taxpayer funding of “sectarian” schools – the original “Blaine Amendment.” It failed in the Senate, however, although as McGreevy noted some Republican senators, during the debate, cast aspersions toward Catholics as they argued for the passage of the amendment.

Nevertheless, the federal amendment took form at the state level and many states eventually passed versions of the bill barring state funding of Catholic schools.

In the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision Mitchell v. Hobbs, a four-justice plurality insisted that the Blaine Amendment’s motive to deny public funding of “sectarian” institutions was bigoted.

“Finally, hostility to aid to pervasively sectarian schools has a shameful pedigree that we do not hesitate to disavow,” Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, wrote in their plurality opinion.

“Consideration of the amendment arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general, and it was an open secret that ‘sectarian’ was code for ‘Catholic’,” the opinion read. Furthermore, they added, “pervasively sectarian schools” are not blocked by the Constitution from receiving federal funding “from otherwise permissible aid programs.”

“This doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now,” they stated.

While they were introduced more than a century ago, these state laws are still in use today against religious organizations, Baxter said. For instance, a case before the Supreme Court involves the Missouri version of the amendment.

Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo. was seeking to enter a state program to receive “used tires from landfills” in order “to create playground material.” The playground is used by the public, but the state denied the church’s participation in the program because it is a religious institution.   

It is “blatant discrimination,” Baxter said, given that the state used tire program is a “purely secular program” and “open to everyone, and yet the state saying you can’t participate if you’re religious.”

Other Blaine cases around the country include a church-run program in Florida that met inmates released from prison and connected them with programs to meet their needs of housing, mental health treatment, and job training. It had a positive record of preventing recidivism, Baxter said, but atheists sued over the program’s connection with the state.

Although a federal judge ruled in the favor of Prisoners of Christ, “that comes at the cost of years of litigation,” Baxter noted.

In Oklahoma, students with disabilities were not sufficiently helped at the public schools and were instead given scholarships by the government to attend private schools with programs to meet their needs.

A lawsuit was brought against the use of scholarships for religious schools, but the state supreme court ruled in favor of the religious schools despite the state’s Blaine Amendment, Baxter said.

Another state school scholarship program in Georgia was criticized for sending children to Catholic schools on public scholarships, and the state’s Blaine Amendment was used in a lawsuit against the practice.

School cases present a substantial portion of Blaine Amendment cases, Baxter noted, because there are “a number of these programs…where states are trying to figure out how best to provide a publicly-funded education to every student” and incorporate private schools, including religious schools, into the programs.

These state laws are deleterious to religious groups, Baxter insisted, because even if the groups win in court, they are hampered by years of litigation and legal feeds. Also, he added, they “contribute” to “religious strife” in society by marginalizing religious groups.

The laws, when applied against equal participation in state programs by religious groups, are unconstitutional, he argued.

“If they’re applied to discriminate against religious organizations and individuals, and keep them from participating on equal footing with other organizations and state programs, they violate the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses,” he insisted, “by basically trying to suppress religious believers or penalize religious entities on grounds that aren’t applied to everyone else.”

Their main problem is “this idea that somehow religion is not welcome in public life, when really, the First Amendment was created to ensure just the opposite,” he said, “to remind us that religion is a part of what it means to be a human being.”

 

Race-based death sentence rejected at US Supreme Court

Washington D.C., Feb 23, 2017 / 02:34 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A death row inmate in Texas deserves a new sentencing hearing because his own lawyers called on an expert who claimed he was more likely to be dangerous because he is black, the U. S. Supreme Court has said.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the Feb. 22 decision in Buck v. Davis, saying: “When a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant's race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses.”

The man sentenced to death, Duane Buck, was convicted for two 1995 murders, which included killing his ex-girlfriend in front of her children. He also shot his step-sister at close range.

Buck will now be able to argue before a lower court that he should have a new sentencing hearing.

The 6-2 ruling was dissented from by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

The case before the Supreme Court did not argue for Buck's innocence, but emphasized his attorneys’ handling of the sentencing hearing, which considered whether Buck met the standard for “future dangerousness,” CNN reports.

Dr. Walter Quijano, a psychologist retained by Buck’s own defense attorneys, spoke at the sentencing hearing and claimed that the fact that Buck was black “increased the probability” he would commit future acts of violence.

Texas law allowed the jury to impose capital punishment only if it found unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that Buck was likely to commit acts of violence in the future.

Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller defended the sentence before the high court. He said Quijano’s testimony played a limited role at the trial. Other evidence of his future dangerousness cited the brutality of the murders, his lack of remorse, and the testimony of an ex-girlfriend.

During oral arguments, Alito said the race-related testimony was “indefensible” and “bizarre.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked “What competent counsel would put that evidence before a jury?”

In the dissenting opinion, Thomas said the lower courts had followed proper standards in upholding the sentence, National Public Radio reports. He added that the jury that sentenced Buck had sufficient reasons to recommend a death sentence on grounds other than Quijano’s comments.

Thomas wrote that “Having settled on a desired outcome, the Court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it.”

Blessed Maria Adeodata Pisani

Blessed Maria Adeodata Pisani was born into a noble family in Naples, Italy in 1806. Her father was an alcoholic and was exiled after being involved in a revolt. Maria's grandmother raised her. When her grandmother died, the 10 year-old was sent to a boarding school until she was 17.During these years, Maria declined several marriage proposals because she preferred to lead a quiet life of prayer.When she turned 21, she entered the Benedictine Community in St. Peter's Monastery and took the name Maria Adeodata. She made her solemn profession two years later.In the cloister, Maria was a seamstress, sacristan, porter, teacher and novice mistress. Her fellow nuns and many people outside the cloister benefited from her charity.Maria Adeodata wrote various works, the most well-known of these is a collection of her personal reflections between the years 1835 and 1843 titled “The mystical garden of the soul that loves Jesus and Mary�.She was an abbess from 1851 to 1853 but had to retire from her duties because she suffered from heart problems.On Feb. 25, 1855, at the age of 48 and in poor health, she dragged herself to the chapel for Mass, against her nurse’s advice. After receiving Communion, she had to be carried back to bed where she died soon afterward. She had a simple funeral and was buried in the monastery’s crypt the following day.Maria was remembered for her sanctity, love of the poor, self-imposed sacrifices, and ecstasies so complete that she was seen levitating. She was beatified by Blessed John Paul II in 2001.