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Christian advocacy group hails Israel-Emirates deal

CNA Staff, Aug 14, 2020 / 11:00 am (CNA).- An advocacy group for Christians and other religious minorities living in the Middle East has praised an agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced Aug. 13. 

On Thursday, President Donald Trump announced the diplomatic accord, and released a statement on the normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel which included a provision that Israel will “suspend declaring sovereignty” over some areas of the West Bank. 

In Defense of Christians President Toufic Baaklini called the agreement a “historic step in the peace process” in a statement released on Thursday. UAE is now the first Persian Gulf state and, after Egypt and Jordan, the third Arab nation, to have open diplomatic relations with Israel.

“We are pleased that Israel is suspending plans to annex new areas of the West Bank, as the historic Christian communities of the Holy Land have voiced their concern about this issue,” said Baaklini.

Baaklini, however, said that there is still “much more work to be done” for advancing the cause of religious freedom in the Middle East, and that he hopes that Christians in the area are not ignored during the process. 

“We encourage all parties to Middle East Peace Talks to continue to consult with the historic Christian communities of the Holy Land in these negotiations,” he added. 

“IDC hopes that this is a positive step towards establishing a fair and lasting peace among all Middle Eastern nations,” he said.

In February last year, Pope Francis made an historic trip to the UAE, the first by a pope to the Arabian peninsula. While there, Francis signed a joint document on human fraternity with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb. The document condemned “all forms of violence, especially those with religious motivation,” and committed the two leaders “to spreading authentic values and peace throughout the world.”

The UAE has strict laws governing religion, including the death penalty for Musilms who convert to another religion.

Following Thursday’s announcement, leaders from Egypt, Oman, and Bahrain co-signed a letter of support for the agreement. Oman and Bahrain presently do not have embassies in Israel and neither country has ever recognized Israel. 

"I thank Egyptian President al-Sisi, and the governments of Oman and Bahrain, for their support of the historic peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which is expanding the circle of peace and will be good for the entire region,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Aug. 14. 

Other states in the region have criticized the accord. Iran’s state news agency IRNA quoted the country’s foreign ministry calling the agreement a “strategic act of idiocy” and “dangerous.” 

A spokesperson for Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian government “rejects and denounces” the agreement. 

“The Palestinian leadership rejects the actions of the Emirati government, considering it to be a betrayal of the Palestinian people and Jerusalem and [the] al-Aqsa [mosque in Jerusalem],” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh.

Mauritius oil spill: Catholic cardinal says local villages are suffering

Rome Newsroom, Aug 14, 2020 / 10:31 am (CNA).- After a damaged ship leaked more than 1,000 tons of oil off the coast of Mauritius, the Bishop of Port-Louis is worried about the consequences for local fishing villages who depend on the dying sea life in the island’s coral reefs.

“Many families are afflicted by a lingering stench; fishermen and all those who earn their living on the sea, suffer particularly,” Cardinal Maurice Piat said in a diocesan statement Aug. 11.

All Mauritians have been touched by the “ecological disaster,” Piat said, adding that the communities in Mahébourg, Rivière-des-Créoles, and the villages of the east coast of the island have been particularly affected.

The oil spill came from a Japanese cargo ship that ran aground on a reef in late July, cracking its hull. On Aug. 13 the Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said that almost all of the remaining oil has now been removed from the damaged ship.

The cardinal said that there has been serious ecological damage to the bay, coast, and islets. Mauritius is known for its clear blue waters and rich biodiversity, which includes 1,700 species of marine life living in its lagoons and coral reefs.

Piat expressed gratitude to the local volunteers and civil society groups who organized to clean up and protect beaches, and encouraged more Christians to volunteer.

“I appeal to all Christians who can and especially to young people,” Piat said. “If you want to get involved in this cause, you can register with the Ministry of the Environment.”

Mauritius is a small island nation located off the eastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. The whole country is 790 square miles with just over 1.2 million people. It has one diocese and one apostolic vicariate.

Pope Francis visited Mauritius nearly one year ago during his apostolic visit to three East African countries.

In Mauritius, the pope urged civil leaders not to let the country’s economic development come at the expense of the poor and the environment.

Pope Francis encouraged the Mauritian leaders to “promote a change in the way we live, so that economic growth can really benefit everyone without the risk of causing ecological catastrophes or serious social crises.”

Arlington diocese launches online-only Catholic school

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 14, 2020 / 09:05 am (CNA).- The Diocese of Arlington is launching a new virtual school for families who want a Catholic education but are worried about sending their children back to in-person classes this September as the country still comes to grips with the coronavirus pandemic. 

The St. Isidore of Seville Virtual School was announced on August 12, in a press release from the Diocese of Arlington. The school, which is named after the patron saint of the internet, aims to be fully operational on September 8. 

Like most Catholic schools, St. Isidore of Seville will have Mass every week, along with daily prayer and preparation for the reception of sacraments. Unlike most Catholic schools, St. Isidore will have no in-person instruction, by design. 

The school will serve students in kindergarten through grade eight, and class sizes will be capped at 23 people.

“We hope this new virtual school provides parents concerned about their children returning to the classroom an option they are confident will meet the high standard of excellence they have come to expect throughout our schools,” said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington in a statement announcing the school. 

Students at St. Isidore will be taught from the same curriculum as their brick-and-mortar peers in the diocese. 

Burbidge praised the “great creativity and flexibility” among the Catholic school community in the diocese “that has made this new endeavor a reality.” 

Dr. Joseph Vorbach, the Superintendent for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Arlignton, told CNA that the school came about with the assistance of Burbidge during the planning process for re-opening. All of the diocese’s schools will have in-person instruction this coming school year, although some will do a hybrid model of in-person and e-learning. 

Vorbach said there was a realization “that there may be some families who are committed to Catholic education, but not ready to have their child go back into the brick and mortar school building,” as well as teachers who are at increased risk of coronavirus due to various factors.

“It started to coalesce around the idea that, ‘maybe we could develop a virtual school,’” Vorbach told CNA. This virtual school would be able to address both the needs of families, as well as “take advantage of the talents of teachers who find themselves in that situation.” 

Burbidge, he said, was “very supportive,” and that much work was done very quickly to get things ready before the school was announced. 

Tuition is set at $6,000 per year before financial aid--lower than the Catholic rate for diocesan elementary schools--and Catholic families with children at other Catholic schools in the diocese who move their children to St. Isidore will be able to apply their current financial aid discounts. Rebates will also be available if the school’s max capacity of 207 is reached. 

Tuition for other Catholic schools in the diocese varies school-to-school and depends on the number of children sent by a family, and if the family is Catholic and lives within the parish; it can be as high as $11,000 under some circumstances, and as low as $6,200 in others.

The first priority for enrollment at St. Isidore’s will be local Catholic families who were attending other schools in the diocese, said Vorbach. After diocesan families have registered, consideration will be given to those from outside the diocese who are interested in a virtual Catholic learning environment. Standard tuition is the same for all families.

Families who enroll at St. Isidore are committing for virtual education for the entirety of the 2020-2021 academic year, said Vorbach. However, their child’s slot at their previous diocesan school will be reserved for the 2021-2022 academic year if they wish to return to in-person instruction in the following Autumn. 

Vorbach told CNA that the diocese had conducted a series of surveys on virtual learning during the last semester to identify the best practices for a potential hybrid or all-online model for the coming school year. 

“The St. Isidore model is the beneficiary of everything that was learned during the spring, both in terms of technical components, as well as pedagogical components, and so on,” said Vorbach. 

“In the past, you couldn't say necessarily that anybody or any school had really tried to work through ‘What's the Catholic identity of a virtual school look like, and how do you do that?’’ Vorbach told CNA. 

The challenges of running a virtual Catholic school were unprecedented, said Vorbach. He told CNA he was not sure if there is any other entirely-virtual Catholic school in the country, except the Archdiocese of Miami Virtual Catholic School (ADOM-VCS). That school was founded in 2013. 

Unlike St. Isidore of Seville, which is for full-time online students in elementary and middle school grades, ADOM-VCS offers both full-time online programs as well as “blended learning” programs with archdiocesan schools for all grades.   

“In the spring, through the creative efforts of a lot of teachers and administrators, we saw all kinds of ways in which the Catholic identity and the particular Catholic identity of different parish schools was highlighted, reinforced, strengthened,” he said. 

While St. Isidore of Seville Virtual School is set to go for the coming school year, Vorbach told CNA that he is not sure if the school will continue on for years to come. 

“We want to evaluate the service--the niche, if you will--that this school provides,” said Vorbach. 

If things go smoothly, and it makes financial sense to continue the school in the future, “we can really seriously look at it as a component of a thorough, flourishing Catholic education going forward in the future,” he said. 

Arlington diocese launches online-only Catholic school

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 14, 2020 / 09:05 am (CNA).- The Diocese of Arlington is launching a new virtual school for families who want a Catholic education but are worried about sending their children back to in-person classes this September as the country still comes to grips with the coronavirus pandemic. 

The St. Isidore of Seville Virtual School was announced on August 12, in a press release from the Diocese of Arlington. The school, which is named after the patron saint of the internet, aims to be fully operational on September 8. 

Like most Catholic schools, St. Isidore of Seville will have Mass every week, along with daily prayer and preparation for the reception of sacraments. Unlike most Catholic schools, St. Isidore will have no in-person instruction, by design. 

The school will serve students in kindergarten through grade eight, and class sizes will be capped at 23 people.

“We hope this new virtual school provides parents concerned about their children returning to the classroom an option they are confident will meet the high standard of excellence they have come to expect throughout our schools,” said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington in a statement announcing the school. 

Students at St. Isidore will be taught from the same curriculum as their brick-and-mortar peers in the diocese. 

Burbidge praised the “great creativity and flexibility” among the Catholic school community in the diocese “that has made this new endeavor a reality.” 

Dr. Joseph Vorbach, the Superintendent for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Arlignton, told CNA that the school came about with the assistance of Burbidge during the planning process for re-opening. All of the diocese’s schools will have in-person instruction this coming school year, although some will do a hybrid model of in-person and e-learning. 

Vorbach said there was a realization “that there may be some families who are committed to Catholic education, but not ready to have their child go back into the brick and mortar school building,” as well as teachers who are at increased risk of coronavirus due to various factors.

“It started to coalesce around the idea that, ‘maybe we could develop a virtual school,’” Vorbach told CNA. This virtual school would be able to address both the needs of families, as well as “take advantage of the talents of teachers who find themselves in that situation.” 

Burbidge, he said, was “very supportive,” and that much work was done very quickly to get things ready before the school was announced. 

Tuition is set at $6,000 per year before financial aid--lower than the Catholic rate for diocesan elementary schools--and Catholic families with children at other Catholic schools in the diocese who move their children to St. Isidore will be able to apply their current financial aid discounts. Rebates will also be available if the school’s max capacity of 207 is reached. 

Tuition for other Catholic schools in the diocese varies school-to-school and depends on the number of children sent by a family, and if the family is Catholic and lives within the parish; it can be as high as $11,000 under some circumstances, and as low as $6,200 in others.

The first priority for enrollment at St. Isidore’s will be local Catholic families who were attending other schools in the diocese, said Vorbach. After diocesan families have registered, consideration will be given to those from outside the diocese who are interested in a virtual Catholic learning environment. Standard tuition is the same for all families.

Families who enroll at St. Isidore are committing for virtual education for the entirety of the 2020-2021 academic year, said Vorbach. However, their child’s slot at their previous diocesan school will be reserved for the 2021-2022 academic year if they wish to return to in-person instruction in the following Autumn. 

Vorbach told CNA that the diocese had conducted a series of surveys on virtual learning during the last semester to identify the best practices for a potential hybrid or all-online model for the coming school year. 

“The St. Isidore model is the beneficiary of everything that was learned during the spring, both in terms of technical components, as well as pedagogical components, and so on,” said Vorbach. 

“In the past, you couldn't say necessarily that anybody or any school had really tried to work through ‘What's the Catholic identity of a virtual school look like, and how do you do that?’’ Vorbach told CNA. 

The challenges of running a virtual Catholic school were unprecedented, said Vorbach. He told CNA he was not sure if there is any other entirely-virtual Catholic school in the country, except the Archdiocese of Miami Virtual Catholic School (ADOM-VCS). That school was founded in 2013. 

Unlike St. Isidore of Seville, which is for full-time online students in elementary and middle school grades, ADOM-VCS offers both full-time online programs as well as “blended learning” programs with archdiocesan schools for all grades.   

“In the spring, through the creative efforts of a lot of teachers and administrators, we saw all kinds of ways in which the Catholic identity and the particular Catholic identity of different parish schools was highlighted, reinforced, strengthened,” he said. 

While St. Isidore of Seville Virtual School is set to go for the coming school year, Vorbach told CNA that he is not sure if the school will continue on for years to come. 

“We want to evaluate the service--the niche, if you will--that this school provides,” said Vorbach. 

If things go smoothly, and it makes financial sense to continue the school in the future, “we can really seriously look at it as a component of a thorough, flourishing Catholic education going forward in the future,” he said. 

After Beirut blast, what some Lebanese Christians are doing to help their neighbors

Denver Newsroom, Aug 14, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).- Last Tuesday, Julie Tegho and her husband Hicham Bou Nassif were enjoying an ordinary day at their local mall in Beirut, Lebanon. Without warning, they felt what seemed like an earthquake, followed by a mighty blast that shattered the glass all around them.

“For a second I thought the mall was falling on our heads,” Tegho told CNA. “The sound was so strong and deafening that it took us a couple of seconds to realize we had to leave the mall, because it was such a tremendous shock."

The massive explosion in the port area of Lebanon’s capital on Aug. 4 overturned cars, shattered windows, set fires, and damaged buildings across Beirut, a city of more than 350,000, with a metro area of more than 2 million people.

The ABC Mall where the couple was during the blast is located less than a mile from the port, the epicenter of the explosion.

Tegho and Bou Nassif were on different levels of the mall when the explosion hit, and struggled for several minutes to find each other in the ensuing chaos and deafening alarms. The blast had knocked out cellular coverage, making communication that much more difficult.

When Tegho did find her husband, he was bleeding from his forehead. She says they walked from the mall to her parents’ nearby home, to deal with his wound, and later they took him to the hospital.

“It’s only when we started walking that I started to grasp the magnitude of the blast, and we realized it was not just a car bombing, it was something much bigger," she said. “It was just a post-apocalyptic scene.”

Bou Nassif, an assistant professor of government who teaches at a college in California,  is now recovering with several stitches.

The windows of the couple’s house, located further from the blast, were blown out, but their house did not suffer serious damage. Tegho said her sister, who was babysitting, was able to shield their months-old baby from the flying glass.

Tegho, a high school social studies teacher, said she believes there is not a single person in Beirut that was not affected in some way by the disaster— whether they had their home or business damaged or destroyed, had a family member injured or killed, or were themselves a casualty.

Her cousin, who was much nearer to the port, managed to escape serious injury, she said. The school where Tegho teaches has been completely destroyed, she said.

As of Aug. 12, more than 200 people are confirmed dead, more than 5,000 injured and hundreds of thousands have been rendered homeless. The UN Refugee Agency has also reported that at least 34 refugees were among those killed in the blast.

Volunteers have been clearing rubble from houses since the day after the blast, Tegho said.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud has estimated that the explosion has caused as much as $10-15 billion in damages and as many as 300,000 people to be temporarily displaced from their homes, according to the BBC.

Many buildings and warehouses along the docks were completely destroyed, and the explosion’s shockwave caused damage within a six-mile radius.

Bou Nassif said because of where the blast occurred, the worst of the damage happened to majority-Christian neighborhoods. The adjacent areas included Beirut’s mostly Christian neighborhoods of Mar Maroun and Achrafieh.

As a result, he said, most of the aid is coming from Christian aid agencies, as well as the Maronite Catholic Church.

The Philos Project, a group that advocates for Christians in the Near East, as part of a broader goal of religious pluralism in the region and of educating Western Christians on their situation, is one such Christian organization helping those affected by the disaster in Lebanon.

Tegho said she and her husband are spearheading an initiative called Human Chain, which she said was formed in October 2019 to help the poor in the midst of protests against the government.

"In the aftermath of the disaster, we realized we could use our Human Chain network to help in relief efforts," she said.

Tegho said the main goal of the Human Chain at the moment is helping to ensure people’s homes are safe to occupy, and they have a functional living space and bathroom.

“This is where volunteers have been doing most of the work, because there has been no government involved in that [effort,” she said.
“Helping to remove the debris, making sure people who have lost everything have places to go to whether it's the church, whether it's friends, family, et cetera. But it's still too soon for those houses to be rebuilt.”

In addition to delivering food aid, Tegho and Bou Nassif have been helping to clear the rubble and ensure their neighbors do not end up on the streets.

They are also hoping to raise $30,000 for relief efforts through a GoFundMe campaign.

Tegho said the Philos Project has set up a fund of $10,000 to help the Human Chain in its humanitarian efforts. Philos is encouraging donations to its Action Fund on its website.

Bou Nassif said the best way to help the people of Lebanon is to donate to Christian agencies, rather than to the Lebanese government.

“You give money to the Lebanese state, you're not giving money to any poor person in Lebanon, Christian, or not. You're giving money to Lebanon politicians,” he opined.

On Aug. 10, Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic patriarch, Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, called for the resignation of the entire Lebanese government, adding that it is “necessary to hold everyone responsible accountable for this massacre and catastrophe.” The Prime Minister and the rest of the government subsequently resigned later that day.

Though millions of dollars of aid has poured in from Western governments, Bou Nassif said he trusts the Christian agencies much more than the government to distribute aid to the poor.

"Some money will come from governments, but the money that will come immediately, before this is resolved, will be coming from churches, concerned citizens, people with sympathy...to the Christian minority in Lebanon," Bou Nassif said.

“The biggest actors are the Maronite Church, the Lebanese Red Cross, the local Catholic relief or rescue organizations; they should be helped to help people,” he said.

Officials have not yet determined the cause of the explosions, but investigators believe they may have started with a fire in a warehouse that stored 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can be made into an explosive. Lebanon’s security service warned against speculations of terrorism before investigators could assess the situation.

Bou Nassif told CNA that the widespread sentiment throughout the city is that Hezbollah, a hardline Islamic party in Lebanon, is to blame for the accident.

Sixty percent of Lebanon’s people are Muslim, evenly split among Sunni and Shia, and nearly 35% of the country’s population is Christian, most of whom are Maronite Catholic Christians. Lebanon also has a small Jewish population, as well as Druze and other religious communities.

Other Christian aid agencies, as well as the Red Cross, have been active in the city following the disaster.

Despite damages to their own facilities, Catholic Relief Services has provided relief to the victims of the explosion. Caritas Lebanon has offered water and hot meals at several locations throughout Beirut. Caritas health care centers have also opened, and a mobile medical unit and mental health team have been available to the public.

 

‘To share in order to grow’ – Working together to assist internally displaced persons

Ahead of the 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Eric Estrada Buenaño tells his story about being welcomed into a new family in Venezuela.

Israel and UAE announce deal normalising relations

Israel and the United Arab Emirates announce the normalization of relations, marking Israel’s first diplomatic ties with a Gulf Arab nation.

Greece builds diplomatic front against Turkey’s oil prospecting

Greece is continuing to build up a wide-ranging diplomatic front against Turkey, which it accuses of illegal oil-prospecting in Greek-controlled waters.

Korean cardinal to consecrate Pyongyang Diocese to Mary on Assumption

CNA Staff, Aug 14, 2020 / 12:38 am (CNA).- The Archbishop of Seoul, Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, has announced that he will consecrate the Diocese of Pyongyang to Our Lady of Fatima on the Solemnity of the Assumption.

“In this meaningful year, marking the 75th anniversary of [Korean] Liberation and the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, I decided to dedicate the Pyongyang Diocese to Our Lady of Fatima through careful prayer and discernment,” Cardinal Yeom wrote in a message for the Assumption feast published on the archdiocesan website.

“I hope that the North Korean Church will be able to praise the Lord again in joy and peace as soon as possible through the protection and help of Our Lady,” Yeom said.

It will be the first consecration of the Pyongyang Diocese to Our Lady of Fatima since the diocese was established in 1927, according to the cardinal. The dedication will take place in a Mass in Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral on August 15.

The Marian feast on August 15 has a special place in the historical memory of the entire Korean peninsula as it coincides with “Liberation Day,” the date that Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule. It is the only Korean public holiday celebrated in both North and South Korea.

“I hope that the day will come soon when we will be able to share the joy and happiness of the Assumption with our North Korean brothers and sisters,” Yeom said.

The South Korean cardinal said that he asked Pope Francis for a special blessing for the Diocese of Pyongyang and that the pope will ask for the Virgin Mary’s protection on the date of consecration.

Cardinal Yeom serves as both the Archbishop of Seoul and the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.

“In the midst of the division of North and South Korea following liberation and the vortex of the Korean War in 1950, all of our nation suffered beyond words,” Yeom said.

“Religious people had to face greater suffering. Throughout the Korean War, all cathedrals in North Korea were closed and the monasteries were disbanded. In addition, priests, religious, and Christians were mercilessly arrested and suffered torment or killed,” he said.

The suffering of Christians in North Korean continues today. A report published by the United Nations human rights commission on July 28 details sexual violence, forced abortion, and torture of women in North Korea’s prisons.

The report is based on interviews with North Korean women who were detained in North Korea between 2009 and 2019 after attempting to escape by crossing the Sino-Korean border. An informal network of Christian groups and NGOs run an “Underground Railroad” to bring these North Korean escapees out of China, where they face repatriation, to safety.

“If one is found to have gone to a South Korean church while staying in China, they are dead. I therefore tried hard not to reveal my life in China. I was beaten up as a result. I was beaten to a level that my rib was broken. I still feel the pain,” one North Korean defector testified to the UN Human Rights staff.

Cardinal Yeom said that there is not a single active priest in North Korea. “As the head of the Seoul Archdiocese and the Pyongyang Diocese, I believe that God's special grace is necessary to resolve this unfortunate reality,” he said.

The cardinal asked Korean Christians to support and practice evangelization with determination so that North Korean Catholics can someday enjoy the freedom of faith as a fruit of this Marian dedication.

“We must also ask Our Lady, the Queen of Peace, for true peace in our society,” he said.

In a message for the 2020 Day of Prayer for the Reconciliation and Unity of the Korean People, Bishop Peter Lee Ki-heon of Uijeongbu stated that “To nurture peace on the Korean Peninsula, not an easy task, it is essential that the two Koreas join hands.”

He added that peace on the peninsula must be achieved by the Korean people, rather than by the powers surrounding the peninsula.

The bishop urged the South Korean government to arrange for the reunification of separated families, reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex,  resume tourism to Mount Geumgang in North Korea; and develop an inter-Korean railway connection project.

He called it “most important” that a peace agreement be reached, with an official declaration of the end of the Korean War. “Such developments will have to be followed by an authentic peace treaty and new international relations,” he stated.

 

 

PAV: Choosing abortion being confined ever more to private sphere

In a “Note” published on Friday, the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) criticises the Italian health ministry’s decision to change the nation’s “Guidelines” for abortion, which allow for chemically-induced abortions in the home, rather than in hospitals. Support for the life of babies in the womb, and for families, the Note says, "is the litmus test of an attentive and sensitive society that knows how build its own future.”