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Federal court reaffirms tax exempt clergy housing allowances

Chicago, Ill., Mar 19, 2019 / 05:02 pm (CNA).- The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld tax-free housing allowances for clergy, a decision welcomed by pastors, religious organizations, and others who say the allowances make their ministries affordable and strengthen limits on the ability of government policy to interfere with clergy.
 
The law’s effect is “neither to endorse nor to inhibit religion, and it does not cause excessive government entanglement,” the March 15 decision said, adding that Congress has provided federal tax exemptions for religious organizations since 1802.
 
The federal law challenged in court is the Administrative Procedure Act of 1954. It provides that a “minister of the gospel” does not pay income taxes on compensation designated as a housing allowance. Religious leaders save about $800 million in taxes a year due to the benefit, the Associated Press said.
 
Among those who benefit are Pastor Chris Butler of Chicago Embassy Church, on the south side of Chicago, Ill.
 
“This ruling is a victory not just for my church but for the needy south side Chicago community we serve — our youth, our single mothers, our homeless, our addicted, and our victims of gang violence,” Butler said in a statement. “I am grateful that I can continue serving them and living side by side with them to make our neighborhood a safer, more peaceful place.”
 
The religious freedom legal group Becket had intervened on behalf of Butler’s and several other congregations. His church cannot afford a full salary for him, so the housing allowance makes it possible to live near his church.
 
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation has been challenging the law for a decade, the Associated Press reports. It argued that the law discriminates against secular employees. It argued that clergy can used untaxed income to buy a home and deduct interest paid on mortgage and property taxes, which constitutes “double dipping.”
 
The group is deciding whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
 
Its leadership saw the decision as a significant defeat.
 
“It’s a blow,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the Associated Press.
 
In 2013 comments on the case, Gaylor criticized “some of these mega-church pastors with huge mansions” who can be paid “an enormous amount in housing allowances.”
 
In 2017 U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the exemption is an unconstitutional benefit to religious persons and no one else, thus violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
 
The three appeals court judges who upheld the law are Republican appointees.
 
The Becket legal group’s arguments in favor of the exception cited treatment of other employers.
 
For the past century, both Congress and the IRS have recognized the convenience-of-the-employer doctrine, which upholds that employees may exclude housing benefits from their income if the benefits contribute to the convenience of the employer. This doctrine has been applied to religious and non-religious groups alike.
 
Becket argued that if the housing allowance is ended, then the IRS would be discriminating particularly against religious leaders, since other secular workers receive a similar exemption.
 
Holy Cross Anglican Church in Wisconsin and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia were among Becket’s other clients in the case.
 
Other backers of the law include the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.
 
“The power to tax is the power to destroy, and so refusing to tax a minister’s housing expenses is simply the best way to ensure the free exercise of religion and prevent the excessive entanglement of government with religion,” Erik Stanley, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said in response to Friday’s ruling.
 
Stanley, who is also director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries, backed the court decision on the grounds that “declining to tax the housing support money that congregations provide to their ministers is not in any way a government establishment of a particular religion or any religion.”
 
Its amicus brief in the case, Gaylor v. Mnuchin, was submitted on behalf of nearly 8,900 ministers and churches.
 
The ADF amicus brief “demonstrated just how many ministers would be directly and negatively affected if those attacking the housing allowance were to prevail,” said Stanley.
 
“The 7th Circuit was certainly right to recognize ‘that the survival of many congregations hangs in the balance’,” he said.
 
The legal group noted that the court decision said a tax exemption does not “connote sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the government in religious activity.”
 
“Congressional action to minimize governmental interference with the decision-making process in religions…does not violate the Establishment Clause,” the ruling said.

Bishops oppose 'absurd' amnesty law for El Salvador

San Salvador, El Salvador, Mar 19, 2019 / 04:15 pm (CNA).- A proposal to grant amnesty to those convicted of war crimes committed during the El Salvadoran civil war has drawn friece criticizm from the country’s Catholic bishops.

 

"It would be a spurious law,” said the Episcopal Conference of El Salvador, which represents the bishops of the country’s eight Catholic dioceses, in a statement released March 17.

 

The bishops compared the proposal to the 1993 Amnesty Law, brought in following a United Nations investigation into human rights abuses during the El Salvadoran Civil War.

 

That measure was declared unconstitutional by the country’s Supreme Court in 2016, which ordered the Salvadoran congress to draft a new version of the law by July of 2019.

 

According to the bishops, the new bill would be a “totally unfair law” that would protect criminals instead of their victims.

 

Instead, the bishops called for “a law of true reconciliation,” that would promote a “transitional justice exercise that protects and provides reparation to victims.”

 

Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador said that the new law “does not make sense,” and is worse than the 1993 version.

 

“It is absurd to issue an amnesty law that seeks to cover all crimes, including crimes against humanity,” said Alas.

 

The 1993 Amnesty Bill notably would have prevented charges being brought against those who orchestrated the assassination of St. Oscar Romero.

 

Romero, who was the Archbishop of San Salvador, was murdered while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. The day before his murder, he had preached a homily that implored the country’s soldiers to stop committing human rights atrocities.

 

It is believed that he was killed by Salvadoran National Police Detective Óscar Pérez Linares, and that his assassination was ordered by Roberto D'Aubuisson, a politician and death-squad leader. Álvaro Rafael Saravia, who was chief of security for D’Aubuisson and involved in the death squads, was found to be liable for Romero’s death, but has not yet been prosecuted.

 

After the 1993 law was repealed, a warrant was issued for Saravia, and the case was re-opened.

 

Saravia remains in hiding. Linares and D’Aubuisson are now both deceased.

 

During El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, an estimated 75,000 people were killed, and a further 10,000 people vanished. The conflict ended in 1992, following the singing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords.

Maryland House votes to remove statute of limitations for child sexual abuse

Annapolis, Md., Mar 19, 2019 / 04:02 pm (CNA).- The Maryland House of Delegates has approved a bill to entirely remove the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits related to child sexual abuse.

The House voted 136-2 to advance bipartisan House Bill 687 on to the Senate, the Baltimore Sun reports. The bill would allow victims of child sexual abuse to file a lawsuit at any time, and those previously barred from filing lawsuits would be given a two-year window to do so.

Maryland had already increased the age limit whereon a victim could file a lawsuit from 25 to 38 years old. The change was made two years ago.

The sponsor of the bill, Maryland delegate C.T. Wilson, cited his own sexual abuse as a child by his foster father, as well as the Grand Jury report that detailed cases of clerical sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, as reasons he supports removing the time limit for when victims can file suits. He told the Washington Post that he thinks the bill is unlikely to be approved by the Senate.

Lawmakers are considering bills that would extend statutes of limitations in several other states.

On March 7, North Carolina’s Attorney General Josh Stein unveiled legislation called the SAFE Child Act, which has gained bipartisan support in the state legislature. The bill would extend the statute of limitations for misdemeanor child abuse from its current two years to 10 years. It would allow victims of child abuse to pursue a civil lawsuit against the abuser until age 50, rather than the current limit of age 21, and would ban high-risk sex offenders from contacting minors on social media.

A New Jersey bill, which the state’s Senate passed March 14, would allow child victims of sexual assault to file civil lawsuits until they turn 55 or until seven years from the time they become aware of the injury, whichever comes later. Adult victims of sexual assault would have a seven-year time frame after the incident to file a civil lawsuit, or until seven years after they become aware of the abuse, the Wall Street Journal reports. The bill would also create a one-time two-year legal window for civil complaints for anyone previously barred from filing civil actions.

New York recently extended its statute of limitations and created a one-year period during which those who were previously barred to bring their case to court may file lawsuits.

 

Lawsuit says West Virginia diocese knowingly hired sex abusers as teachers

Charleston, W.Va., Mar 19, 2019 / 03:58 pm (CNA).- The attorney general of West Virginia has filed a lawsuit charging that the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and its former bishop knowingly employed sex abusers in roles that worked with children and failed to disclose their backgrounds to parents.

The lawsuit alleges that the diocese advertised a safe learning environment in its schools while employing personnel who had been convicted or credibly accused of sexual abuse.

It says the diocese and retired Bishop Michael Bransfield covered up potentially criminal behavior, failing to be transparent with parents while allowing abusers to work around children.

In a March 19 statement, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston said that it “strongly and unconditionally rejects” the assertion that it “is not wholly committed to the protection of children, as reflected in its rigorous Safe Environment Program, the foundation of which is a zero tolerance policy for any cleric, employee or volunteer credibly accused of abuse.”

“The Program employs mandatory screening, background checks and training for all employees and volunteers who work with children,” it said.

The complaint draws attention to the case of Fr. Victor Forbas, saying the diocese knew of a credible abuse allegation against the priest but still placed him in charge of a children’s camp, and later assigned him as a high school chaplain after undergoing treatment for further accusations. The priest eventually pled guilty to sexual abuse of children in Missouri and went to prison.

It also highlights claims that Fr. Patrick Condron admitted to sexually abusing a student but was assigned to a Catholic elementary school after receiving treatment, without parents being notified of his history.

The suit also says that the diocese failed to conduct thorough background checks in hiring employees, and when the diocese became aware of employees’ histories – which included, in at least one case, a conviction for statutory rape –  it failed to notify parents about them.

“Parents who pay and entrust the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and its schools to educate and care for their children deserve full transparency,” Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a March 19 statement.

“Our investigation reveals a serious need for the Diocese to enact policy changes that will better protect children, just as this lawsuit demonstrates our resolve to pursue every avenue to effectuate change as no one is above the law.”

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston said some of the information in the lawsuit is based on the diocesan public disclosure of accusations of clerical abuse against minors from last November, as well as other information given to the attorney general by the diocese in recent months.

Some of the alleged misconduct described in the lawsuit took place over half a century ago, and some “are not accurately described,” the diocese said, noting that in some cases, reports of alleged occurrences were not made until decades later.

The diocese added that the allegations do not fairly depict the overall contribution of Catholic schools and their employees “who work every day to deliver quality education in West Virginia.”

Bishop Bransfield, who is named in the lawsuit, was restricted from ministry last week, following an investigation by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, at the request of Pope Francis last September. The pope had accepted Bransfield’s resignation and asked Lori to look into allegations of sexual harassment of adults against the bishop.

On March 11, Lori announced that the results of that investigation have been sent to the Holy See, where a final decision about Bransfield will be made. Pending that decision, Lori said, restrictions are being placed on Bransfield’s exercise of ministry.

Bransfield had led the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston since 2005. During the 2012 criminal trial of two other priests in Philadelphia, he was accused of covering up sexual misconduct by other priests, as well as molesting a minor.

Two witnesses and a prosecutor alleged that Bishop Bransfield “may have known about sexual misconduct by [another priest] or abused minors himself,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Bransfield denied these allegations, calling them “completely false,” and the alleged victim later came forward to say that he was never abused by Bransfield.

African bishops offer prayers, call for aid after Cyclone Idai wreaks havoc

Solwezi, Zambia, Mar 19, 2019 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- Bishops in Malawi, Mozambique, and elsewhere in Africa are calling for prayers and humanitarian aid following deadly floods and tropical cyclones that have left dozens dead and have displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Bishop Charles Kasonde of Solwezi, chairman of AMECEA (Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa), in a March 15 statement expressed “profound sadness” over the “tragic effects” of the flooding in the area and called on AMECEA partners “to respond to the cry for humanitarian assistance in whichever way possible.”

On behalf of the bishops, Kasonde also expressed “solidarity to all affected families, quick recovery to the injured, (condolences) to the bereaved families and repose for the souls of the departed.” Starting in early March, several countries in southeastern Africa were struck with heavy rains which lead to flooding that displaced thousands and killed dozens of people. But the situation worsened when tropical cyclone Idai struck around March 11, exacerbating the flooding. Death toll estimates now range from 150 to 200, with hundreds more missing or injured and at least hundreds of thousands displaced.

The worst-hit area was the city of Beira, Mozambique, the country’s fourth-largest with a population of approximately 500,000. The New York Times reported that local aid agencies had said that 90 percent of the city was destroyed by the storm.

Tropical cyclones are hurricanes by another name, and bring in massive wind gusts, heavy rains and storm surges when they hit land. According to the U.S.’s National Ocean Service, tropical cyclones are the generic name for hurricanes and typhoons, and all three terms describe the same weather phenomenon. The only difference between the terms is the regions in which they are used.

Tropical Cyclone Idai was rated as a Category 3 cyclone on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Aid agencies have expressed concern about the “inland oceans” created by the flooding that have cut off roads to some areas, making humanitarian efforts more difficult.

Kasonde said the need for humanitarian aid is urgent, as everyone affected is in need of food, clean water, and shelter, with some temporary shelters are already at capacity, he said.

“I pray for encouragement to all those involved in rescue operations and humanitarian assistance that they may not tire of supporting their brothers and sisters who need them most during this difficult time,” he said. “I also pray that our partners and people of good will who have always journeyed with us in both good and bad times may rise up to the call.”

Several Catholic aid agencies have already initiated responses to the disaster, sending workers and setting up shelters in churches and schools. The Catholic Development Commission in Malawi, a part of Caritas International, has been on the ground since the beginning of the flooding to assess the disaster and mobilize support, AMECEA reported.

Independent Catholic News reported that CAFOD, the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development based in the UK, has already pledged £30,000 ($39,800) in aid. CAFOD representative Gabriel Bertani said in a statement that CAFOD is working with local Caritas agents to prioritize getting food and hygiene kits to the hardest-hit areas.

Reporting from Zambia, Catholic Relief Services said on Friday that its aid workers were on the ground to assess needs and to provide emergency shelter and relief items. They reported that 407,434 acres of farmland have flooded, “affecting more than 100,000 farmers that depend on their land as their main source of income and food.”

Erica Dahl-Bredine, CRS’ country representative for Lesotho and Mozambique, said that “These numbers will likely increase dramatically, and we will continue to assess the situation and as the scope of need becomes clearer.”

CRS said that it will also be working to stop the spread of waterborne diseases such as cholera, which can cause severe dehydration and death.

“We are concerned about the possibility of disease outbreaks as sanitation conditions deteriorate,” Dahl-Bredine said. “We will be actively preparing for this scenario and assessing immediate needs to provide the assistance most needed.”

Death tolls are expected to rise before the flood waters recede.

Jackson Muranganwa, a Catholic leader at the St. Charles Lwanga parish in Zimbabwe, told the New York Times: “There are high fears of loss of life...Let’s pray.”

Archdiocese of Milwaukee removes names of two bishops from buildings

Milwaukee, Wis., Mar 19, 2019 / 01:57 pm (CNA).- The Archdiocese of Milwaukee announced Tuesday that it will remove from archdiocesan buildings the names of two former archbishops who were found to have reassigned priests accused of sexual abuse.

“As a sign of repentance, and because of the pain caused to abuse survivors and their families with regard to handling the sexual abuse allegations, I will change the name of the Archbishop Catholic Cousins Center,” Archbishop Jerome Listecki said.

The letters on the sign for the Cousins Center – which received that name in 1983 – were removed Tuesday afternoon. The archdiocese said a new name will be announced Friday.

In addition, the Weakland Center, named for Archbishop Rembert Weakland, will be renamed. Located in downtown Milwaukee, the center holds parish offices.

Archbishop William Cousins led the Archdiocese of Milwaukee from 1958 to 1977.

Weakland served as archbishop from 1977 to 2002. His resignation at the age of 75 came amid revelations that he had paid $450,000 to silence an adult male seminarian with whom he had a sexual relationship.

Both bishops failed to remove priests who had been accused, in some cases by dozens of people, of sexual abuse, archdiocesan documents have found.

Archbishop Listecki noted that the idea of changing the building names had been raised for several years.

“As the Church continues to restore trust in its response to clergy sexual abuse, the timing seemed right to do so now,” he said, according to WTMJ radio.

The archbishop voiced hope that the measure would be a step toward healing for abuse victims.

“Whether it be clericalism, a misguided intent to protect the institutional church or the desire to avoid scandal, regard for priest-offenders often trumped care for victims.  For this, I apologize to abuse survivors and to the faithful of this archdiocese,” he said.

Nigerian bishops: Government should seek the common good

Abuja, Nigeria, Mar 19, 2019 / 01:51 pm (CNA).- After a recent gathering, the Catholic bishops of Nigeria called on local residents and officials to promote the common good by fostering respect for the human person.

“We enjoin all Nigerians, leaders and the led, to abide by democratic principles such as respect for human life, human rights and the rule of law,” they said in a March 15 communique.

“We also encourage the electorate to ensure that those who hold public offices in our country are held accountable. We equally urge all Nigerians to eschew all forms of indiscipline and corruption and be resolute rather than lose hope in our struggle for a better future and nation.”

The bishops of Nigeria gathered in Durumi, Abuja, from March 10-16. The statement released by the bishops’ conference summarized the meeting, was signed by Archbishop Augustine Akubeze of Benin City and Bishop Camillus Umoh of Ikot-Ekpene.

At their plenary meeting, the bishops discussed the recent elections, which were primarily held Feb. 23 after a last-minute delay from the prior week.

In considering the goal of politics, the bishops stressed the importance of the common good, which must be founded in virtue - rooted not only in the practice of social justice but also a culture of life.

“The pursuit of this good must be based on the respect for the sanctity and dignity of human life and the equality of all people. The Common Good presupposes respect for the human person and requires the social well-being and development of the group itself,” the bishops said in their statement.

Also discussed in their meetings was the role of the Church in Nigerian to educate the laity, especially the youth. Catholic social teaching should be simplified and given in practical examples to ensure “an effective socio-political formation of all the people,” the bishops said.

They applauded the behavior of the electorate, who fulfilled their civic duties or accepted defeat without violence. However, they also expressed concern that there may be a trend toward apathy.

“We believe that this apathy may not have been unconnected with among other things, the violence, malpractice and the unnecessary militarization of the process, all of which contributed to eroding the people’s confidence in the electoral process.”

In the days and weeks surrounding the elections, areas including Kaduna State, Taraba, Benue, Kogi, Edo, Rivers, Zamfara, and Adamawa, underwent violent disturbances, the bishops said. They lamented the lack of concern for the human person, saying it was painful to see.

The bishops encouraged the government to uphold just policies. Their statement particularly called on officials to address the continuing dysfunction within the election process, which enabled the purchase of votes and the election quarrels.

They also challenged the officials to enact policies that take into account the needs of the people, especially the vulnerable, and most importantly, that are founded in a respect for the person.

“Governance worth its name is only possible where there is true justice, equality and peace. It demands virtues, such as, patience, modesty, moderation, charity and efforts to share. In governing, leaders have to focus on the Common Good and ensure that the people and their aspirations, both individual and collective, assume paramount importance.”

Especially during this season of Lent, the bishops said, the people of Nigeria have the opportunity to pray and fast to further Christian charity. They reiterated the words of Pope Francis, pointing to this holy season is an opportunity to learn to live as Children of God.

“As we sincerely seek the face of God, let us be steadfast in cultivating those virtues of decency and moral uprightness that will enhance the peace, the unity and the well-being of the whole nation,” they said.

“We must continue to pray to God to help us rediscover our common humanity, cultivate respect for one another, enthrone transparency and accountability in the use of our common patrimony and imbibe apostolic charity towards the poor and the vulnerable in the Church and society.”

Directors speak of ‘spiritual warfare’ while making pro-life film

Los Angeles, Calif., Mar 19, 2019 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- The writers and co-directors of the upcoming film “Unplanned” have spoken of how they prepared for a “spiritual battle” to make the pro-life film in the hopes that it will change hearts and minds through it groundbreaking depiction of the abortion process.

 

“We, from the beginning, knew that it would be spiritual battle, spiritual warfare. It was prophesied over us that this is not a normal movie,” co-director Cary Solomon told CNA in an interview following a screening for press on March 18.

 

“Unplanned” dramatizes the truth-life account of Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson’s decision to leave the organization and become a pro-life campaigner.

 

Solomon and co-director Chuck Konzelman told CNA that they arranged for a priest to exorcise the set, and bless the cast and props.

 

“We tried to do Mass and adoration as much as we could,” said Solomon. For the Evangelical Christians involved in making the film, similar spiritual guidance was offered.

 

Despite anticipating the usual stresses of the production process, Konzelman and Solomon told CNA that they found “profound moments of tremendous peace” on set, which is atypical of the movie-making industry.

 

“It was amazing. We didn’t have any problems that you would normally have on a movie,” said Solomon. Konzelman agreed, and added that the set of “Unplanned” was “the calmest set [he’s] ever been on.”

 

“There was no screaming, there was no tension--the average day would have no incident,” said Konzelman. “That’s just not normal in filmmaking.”

 

Despite the relative calm on set, other incidents plagued the cast and crew, as well as their families. Thankfully, nobody was seriously hurt, but there have been several close calls.

 

“We've had probably 15 accidents where people or family members of people who worked on the movie, were in a car crash, [...] and the person would just walk away,” said Solomon.

 

“They’ve all been crazy violent,”  he explained. One person survived a bike accident that destroyed her helmet, and a producer’s car was split in half after being t-boned.

 

Lead actress Ashley Bratcher, who plays the role of Abby Johnson, survived a near death-car accident under bizarre circumstances.

 

"Ashley herself, she had a deer, a stag, jump backwards--I've never seen deer jump backwards--on the highway into her car and wiped out her car and almost killed her,” said Solomon.

 

The accident saw both airbags deploy and left Bratcher trapped in her car. “And yet, she got out and walked away. She was stuck on the highway, in the dark."

 

Konzelman said that despite the challenges faced during filming, and the financial hurdles to completing production, he never doubted that there was a higher interest supporting the film.

 

"It took two years for us to raise the money for this film, from the production to the marketing, which I never would have expected that would be the case,” he said.

 

“The Lord has told us this from the beginning--and this is obviously putting it in human speak-- ‘I’ve got this. I got you. Do not fear, for this is for my glory,’” said Solomon.

 

The film provides an uncensored, graphic, look at the realities of abortion, and received an R-rating from the MPAA. “Unplanned” is the first R-rated film to be distributed by Pure Flix, a Christian movie production company.

 

The co-directors previously told CNA that they would not be challenging the rating, which they feared was motivated by the movie’s political message.

 

“No one’s ever seen [a graphic presentation of abortion] before. It’s been very carefully and very studiously avoided by the [entertainment] industry,” Konzelman said.

 

He explained to CNA that Planned Parenthood employs a director of arts and entertainment engagement, “who teaches the mainstream film industry and television industry how to film in accordance with their guidelines.”

 

“Unplanned” is unique, Konzelman said, because it tells the story of the abortion industry from the perspective of someone who was once a part of that industry, and does not sugar coat the reality of abortion. He and Solomon hopes her story will inspire other people to either leave their jobs in the abortion industry, or to change their minds on the issue.

 

“Seeing [an abortion procedure] is what changed Abby’s life. No matter how pro-choice you are, you can’t be more pro-choice than Abby Johnson was,” said Konzelman.

 

Prior to becoming clinic director, Johnson herself underwent two abortions. Both of these are shown in the film.

 

“And yet, one look at the process taking place in front of her eyes in real time, changed her entire life,” Konzelman said.

 

In fact, the film has already changed the perspective of one viewer: Solomon’s father.

 

Solomon told CNA that showing his “far left,” pro-choice atheist father a short clip of the film caused him to change heart entirely on the issue. Solomon shared a clip where two volunteers from the Coalition for Life group pray over a 55-gallon drum containing fetal remains.

 

He said his father told him that “Unplanned” was “gonna change the world” because of its unflinching portrayal of abortion, which was something he had not previously seen or thought about.

 

The movie “showed what we [as a society] never wanted to see,” Solomon’s father told him. “And now when you know, you can’t un-know.”

 

Unplanned will be released in theatres nationwide on March 29. The film is rated R due to disturbing images and violence.

Seven 20th-century Romanian bishops declared martyrs

Vatican City, Mar 19, 2019 / 12:01 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis declared Tuesday the martyrdom of seven Greek-Catholic bishops killed by the communist regime in Romania in the mid-20th century.

Bishops Valeriu Traian Frentiu, Vasile Aftenie, Ioan Suciu, Tito Livio Chinezu, Ioan Balan, Alexandru Rusu, and Iuliu Hossu were declared to have been killed “in hatred of the faith” between 1950 and 1970, during the Soviet occupation of Romania and the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu.

Each of the bishops was arrested and held in prisons and camps until he died, often from isolation, cold, hunger, disease, or hard manual labor. Most were never tried or convicted and were buried in unmarked graves, without religious services.
 
A year before his death, Bishop Iuliu Hossu was named a cardinal “in pectore.” After spending years in isolation, he died in a hospital in Bucharest in 1970. His last words were: “My struggle is over, yours continues.”

In addition to imprisonment and isolation, Bishop Vasile Aftenie was tortured at the Interior Ministry, later dying from his wounds May 10, 1950.

After meeting March 19 with Cardinal Angelo Becciu, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Pope Francis gave his approval for the publication of the decrees of martyrdom of the seven bishops, and of another seven people on the path to sainthood.

The pope approved a miracle attributed to the intercession of Maria Emilia Riquelme y Zayas, foundress of the Congregation of Missionary Sisters of the Most Holy Sacrament and the Blessed Immaculate Virgin Mary (1847-1940), who will now be called ‘blessed.’

He also recognized the martyrdom of Italian missionary Alfredo Cremonesi, a religious priest of the Pontifical Institute for External Missionaries, who was born in Italy and killed in Burma in 1953.

The Servants of God declared to have heroic virtue, and who can now be called ‘venerable,’ are: Francesco Maria Di Francia, priest and founder of the Congregation of Capuchin Sisters of the Sacred Heart (1853-1913); Maria Hueber, foundress of the Congregation of the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis (1653-1705); Maria Teresa Camera, foundress of the Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Pieta (1818-1894); Maria Teresa Gabrieli, co-foundress of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Poor - Palazzolo Institute (1837-1908); and Giovanna Francesca of the Holy Spirit, foundress of the Institute of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Word Incarnate (1888-1984).

For families of 21 Copts killed by ISIS, martyrdom is ‘Fifth Gospel’

Rome, Italy, Mar 19, 2019 / 11:00 am (CNA).- The author of a newly translated book has spoken of the “extraordinary” willingness of the Coptic Martyrs to “bear witness to the Christian faith” as they were kidnapped and beheaded at the hands of ISIS in Libya in 2015.

 

Martin Moseback is the author of the "The 21. A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs," recently published for the first time in English. In an interview with CNA, Moseback spoke about his experience in Upper Egypt examining the lives of the 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians.

 

The interview is below; it has been edited for clarity and length.

 

Before writing this book, you traveled to Egypt and met with the families of the martyrs. What message did the families of the martyrs who had lost their loved ones to ISIS share with you?

 

These meetings were indeed extraordinary.

 

They are poor people, not living in utter misery, but people who live a very humble life, small farmers. And many of them have now lost their breadwinner since these men used to send money to their families, their children, their wives, and their elderly relatives back home. But still, these people talked with such peacefulness, such pride of the fact that their family produced a martyr, someone ready to make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the faith.

 

I have noticed that this readiness to bear witness to the Christian faith is particularly widespread in the villages of mainly rural Upper Egypt, where some regions are almost exclusively Christian. I spoke with young people. Young men and women in their twenties told me that they would gladly become martyrs  -- in the same way as an American or a German child might say: “I`d like to become an astronaut.”

 

This readiness was really there, and it was seen as something which gives you energy, fills you with pride and joy.

 

The video that ISIS released in 2015 with the beheading of the 21 men in orange jumpsuits was entitled “A message signed with blood to the nations of the Cross.” How did this message resonated across the Middle East and beyond to the rest of the world, did you see unintended consequences?

 

This video has been seen in the whole world with horror and disgust, of course. And I am sure that this was also the reaction it stirred in many in the Middle East. The Egyptian Christians, however, saw this video with different eyes: they saw it as a precious, rare document of martyrdom.

 

The Coptic Church considers itself a Church of martyrs. They are proud of their martyrs, and thus they considered it as a continuation of martyrdom, a continuation of the readiness to bear witness to Christ.

 

And here we are in Rome -- a city filled with the relics of Christian martyrs throughout the centuries. In your research, what similarities did you find between these modern martyrs, killed at the hands of ISIS and the Christian martyrs throughout the centuries whom we revere?

 

The whole attitude of these families and the attitude of the martyrs themselves reminds us so strongly of the martyrs of the first centuries, of how the early Christian community reacted in the face of persecution. And the communities from Upper Egypt reacted in exactly the same way to modern persecution at the hands of ISIS - or hostile Muslim neighbors. For them, it is the story of a victory.

 

They do not pity their martyrs, and neither do we: in Roman churches, they are depicted with a crown on their head and the palm branch of victory in their hand. And this has not changed. Even now, the martyrs are depicted as priests in a chasuble, as deacons -  and with a crown on their head.

 

This is the very same look of the first centuries: the authentic view early Christianity had on martyrdom.

 

The Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt has faced ongoing persecutions in the last few years, with devastating church bombings and other acts of terrorism committed. What attitude did you find among this Christian community in Egypt and how they faced this continuing persecution?

 

In recent years, in the wake of the so-called “Arabellion” - in which President Mubarak was overthrown by the Muslim Brotherhood and then President Morsi arrested -- there has been a  current hidden civil war in Egypt. Persecution, destruction and attacks against Christians have become worse. But for the Copts, this is nothing new.

 

The actual situation is very difficult, that is true, but the Copts have a history of 1,400 years of oppression, and the recent years are nothing more than a new chapter. The Copts lost their civil rights with the Islamic conquest. There have always been waves of persecution and destruction; they are used to it.

 

Now you wrote in your book that in your conversations with the families, not once did the concept of revenge or justice for the executioners came up. How is forgiveness a part of  the story of these Coptic martyrs?

 

In fact, that is another astounding aspect: There was no talk of revenge at all in these families. There was no talk of revenge, no talk of justice. There were no demands to support the Christian communities, to help and protect them. Let me put it this way: the persecutors simply did not exist; they had no face. And, indeed, they had worn face masks; their whole attitude was that of being simply messengers of Satan.

 

It is the eternal story: The Christians are in the world to fight the good fight, and in every century they have to face new challenges, new temptations. This is only one in a long chain. The individual persecutors were of no interest to them. I would say they lived in a world completely orientated towards the afterlife, and maybe they did not even perceive these persecutors as individuals, but rather expressions of an evil power.

 

I know several of these martyrs were in their early twenties. Was there something, in examining their lives and their formation in the Coptic Orthodox faith, that you saw that gave them the strength to sacrifice their lives for Christ at that moment?

 

In terms of religious education, the Coptic Church is very well organized - at least since the 20th century. Since that time, the Coptic Church has adopted the habit of Sunday school after the liturgical education of the young people. A young Copt knows what he or she believes in.

 

I have often noticed that Christian faith is a very complex thing. And not many Christians know their religion -  but the Copts do! And then they have this long and splendid liturgy, which they celebrate every Sunday. The martyrs, the young people, knew it by heart because they were also church singers, singers ordained by the bishop. So you can say, they have spent great part of their lives and almost all of their leisure time in Church.

 

They were young people who had based their whole life on the Church, on faith.

 

What is the greatest lesson that you think you will take away from spending time with this persecuted Christian community in Egypt?

 

My greatest lesson is that martyrdom has the function of working as a fifth Gospel. The Evangelists were all martyrs, and when the first Christian martyrs entered the scene, the Gospels had not yet been written. The martyrs are the true messengers of Christian faith, and as long as there are martyrs, we do not have to worry about the Church.

 

And this is very important, especially today, in a time where the image of the Catholic Church has been tarnished, and where there are great doubts, especially in the Western world, as far as its responsibilities and its leaders are concerned.

 

The most important thing are not the bishops, the cardinals and not even the pope: the most important thing are martyrs.