Campaign Under Way to Introduce Prayer at Mass for Persecuted Christians

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Sources report that high-level Church officials are ‘extremely interested’ in having the petition added to the end of all celebrations of Sunday Mass.

VATICAN CITY — A concerted effort is under way in Rome and in dioceses around the world to have Pope Francis introduce a prayer for the poor, persecuted and oppressed at the end of every Sunday Mass.

The Register has learned that Church officials at the highest levels are “extremely interested” in having such a prayer inserted into all celebrations of Sunday Mass in accordance with the liturgical norms of the Missale Romanum 2002, the Missale Romanum 1962 and the liturgical customs and norms of the Eastern Churches.

The initiative is being taken not only because of the increasing persecution of Christians, but also in view of the many victims of abortion, human trafficking, poverty and oppression around the world.

It follows regular appeals from Pope Francis who has urged people to speak out against persecution of Christians, whom he has likened to the Church’s first martyrs. Cardinal Timothy Dolan also made a point of bringing it to people’s attention. In his final speech as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference last November, he called on his brother bishops to champion the cause of people persecuted for their faith and to fight to protect religious freedom.

“Our Christian brothers and sisters [are] experiencing lethal persecution on a scale that defies belief,” he told the USCCB general assembly in Baltimore.

The issue was also raised by cardinals at the extraordinary consistory in February ahead of the October synod on the family.

The prayer would be reminiscent of the former Leonine prayer which called for the conversion of Russia at the end of Mass. Like the Leonine prayer, established by Pope Leo XXIII and which was removed in 1965, the new petition would also include the Prayer to St. Michael, said to be one of Pope Francis’ favorite prayers.

“Those who are practicing Catholics should be conscious of these unacceptable assaults on the God-given freedom and dignity of human persons,” said one source helping to lead the campaign and speaking on condition of anonymity. “You cannot have a Pollyanna view of the world. If nothing else, the faithful can at least express spiritual solidarity with those suffering persecution.” He stressed the proposal has “enormous support.”

 

Aid to the Church in Need

A number of leading Catholic NGOs are said to have also given the proposal their strong backing. Aid to the Church in Need, which already has a prayer for persecuted Christians, believes such an addition to the Mass would be both appropriate and timely.

“Coming face to face with victims of persecution, as we at ACN do during trips to countries marked by violence and oppression, what we almost always find is that they ask time and again to pray for them,” John Pontifex, ACN UK’s head of press and information, told the Register. “What could be more important an opportunity, than praying for them at Mass?”

Pontifex noted that in countries such as Pakistan, Iraq, China, Sudan and Nigeria, many of the worst atrocities suffered by Christians have taken place while at Mass. “For that reason, it’s all the more fitting that we should remember them when we are at Mass ourselves,” he said.

Many Catholics in the West remain ignorant of increasing persecution against Christians. Lord Alton of Liverpool, a pro-life British peer who has fought for the rights of Christians for many years, told an audience April 11 that the West’s failure to understand the “religious dimension to these terrible atrocities” and the “imperative of harnessing thoughtful and moderate religious leaders from all traditions” leads to a failure to “end the persecution and the unspeakable violence.”

“We in the West, who enjoy so many freedoms and liberties, ignore the systematic violent ideology of an Islamist ‘Final Solution’ directed at Christian minorities,” he said in a speech to ACN’s Lenten vigil in London.

At the same event, British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged that Christians “are now the most persecuted religion around the world” and said “we should stand up against persecution of Christians and other faith groups wherever and whenever we can.”

 

‘The Most Persecuted Religion’

Pontifex, who believes the prayer would “work best if it were short and clearly worded,” said it “would be great if it acknowledged that Christianity is the most persecuted religion.” He also would like it to show “that our compassion and God’s mercy are sorely needed at a time when in parts of the world, the Faith is at risk of being effectively flushed out by oppression, bigotry and other forms of intolerance.”

Some argue that drawing attention to persecution runs the risk of making it worse, and can fuel the fear of those who suffer from it most. Pontifex recognizes the risks, but believes these concerns “are in themselves nothing compared to the value of praying for persecuted Christians at Mass.” He also believes the prayer should not be confined to victims of religious oppression, but that it would be part of “coming together as a family of faith” because prayer is “the most natural expression of our compassion.”

Lela Gilbert, co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians and adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, said she found it “hard to think of anything objectionable” about a prayer for the persecuted Church at the end of every Sunday Mass.

“Not only does it raise awareness and combat ignorance — which is plentiful in places where the media is disinterested in issues related to Christianity — but it also lifts our struggling brothers and sisters before the Lord and invokes His power and grace and comfort into their lives,” she said.

 

Adoration, Fasting and Almsgiving

A separate proposal being forwarded to the Holy Father also suggests adoration before the Blessed Sacrament on Fridays for the intentions of the poor, oppressed and persecuted. It further aims to introduce the other two spiritual weapons: fasting and almsgiving.

The Pope, campaigners propose, should bring back abstinence from meat on Fridays, as the bishops of England and Wales did a few years ago. They would also like the Holy Father to call the Church to a renewed practice of charity and almsgiving in the face of these many evils, all of which are of great concern to the Pope.

In this context, Pontifex said the words of ACN’s founder, Father Werenfried van Straaten, are highly appropriate: “They are being tested in faith,” Father van Straaten once said. “We are being tested in love.”

Following is a draft text of prayer being proposed for the poor, persecuted and oppressed, which would be followed by the Prayer to Saint Michael.

 

Almighty, ever-living God,

Your incarnate Son taught us that those who suffer for Your name are blessed.

Give love for their neighbor to all people of good will.

Inspire rulers and governments to work tirelessly for peace, justice and freedom for all.

Give us a spirit of solidarity and of service for those who suffer and who are poor, that we may bring to them that love Your Son made manifest by His suffering and death on the Cross.

Help us to recognize the face of the Evil One in our day and give us the strength and means to confront his many works.

Amen.

 Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/campaign-under-way-to-introduce-prayer-at-mass-for-persecuted-christians/#ixzz2zLP7pYuf

Looking at Armenia’s Fascinating Christian Past and Present

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Armenia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, and yet, surprisingly, little is known about the Eurasian state and its fascinating, rich Christian heritage.

To help uncover some of its riches, EWTN USA will be showing a film on Thursday, Feb. 6, that explores this long-Christian country with a history of grisly persecution but also great beauty.

Armenia’s Christians has been produced by Rome-based independent Catholic filmmaker Elisabetta Valgiusti, who has made a series of programs highlighting the need to preserve the Christian heritage in lands where Christians face persecution.

Valgiusti sat down with the Register on Jan. 31 to explain more about the program and Armenia.

 

What drew you to make this film?

From the earliest times, Armenians have always been Christians — in fact, Armenia is considered to be the first Christian country. Today, it has changed a lot; the people have suffered a great deal of persecution. One just needs to mention the genocide that took place during the Ottoman Empire. That is still a very sensitive point in their history.

 

How else have the country’s Christians faced persecution, and how has this impacted the churches?

They have faced persecution in different areas. They were spread out in what is today eastern Turkey, so, now, there are a lot of Armenian churches that were left there. Over time, they were vandalized; some are eroding and falling to pieces; and so, of course, there aren’t any more Armenians there. In one case, on the island of Akhtamar, on the lake of Van in eastern Turkey, there is still a functioning church celebrating special feasts, but it’s just one of the few Armenian churches in eastern Turkey that are open. In contrast, in Istanbul, there are different Catholic and Apostolic Armenian churches.

 

Where do most Armenians live today, and what is their contribution to the world?

The Armenians and their churches are spread throughout today’s Middle East. There are very important communities in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Egypt. After more than a millennium and half of history, one can, therefore, refer to a “little” Armenia and a “big” Armenia. And, over all this time, facing all this suffering, they’ve learned to fight, to stand up, and it has naturally affected their culture. They’re very good in business, at music, at art and crafts. They have also been very good at precision engineering. Armenians are very talented, and in the diaspora, they make a big impact, not only in terms of integration, but also in terms of achieving economic results.

 

Would you say that is also related to their long Christian heritage?

Very possibly. Armenia was founded as a Christian country in 301 by St. Gregory the Illuminator and King Tiridates III (whom St. Gregory helped to convert). But after years of Soviet rule, its Christian identity changed a lot.

 

It’s become more atheistic and secularist? 

Yes, but for the past 20 years, since they’ve returned to being an independent republic, the Armenian Church, which is both Apostolic Orthodox and Catholic, has experienced a kind of renaissance. They started reopening churches, retaking possession of them and restoring them. But it’s also quite a new thing for them, and that was a little surprising for me to discover: [the country] having had such a rich Christian history.

Despite this, the country has these beautiful monasteries. They are all from different eras, and they’re really wonderful; they’re really special places. And the locations are really great, because they’re on high levels — always between 1,000-2,000 meters. The country is small but very beautiful, and the monasteries can be found in the most interesting places.

 

Have many been renovated since the communist era?

They did a lot of work, but there are so many — you’ll find hundreds. Most of them are Apostolic Orthodox, and the division between Catholics and the Apostolic Orthodox is part of their complicated history. The Catholics are a very small minority.

 

How does your film show the extent to which Christians have been able to reassert themselves after years of communist oppression?

It shows the conditions facing Christians and the practice of Christianity. The problem is that Armenia is a very isolated country. Politically, there was Nagorno Karabakh [an armed conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan that took place after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991 to May 1994]; there is still no border open with Turkey, although they are in talks again about that.

Azerbaijan is another problem, because of Nagorno Karabakh and because of religious issues. Armenians are very different people to those in the region, and there are many more Armenians in the diaspora than there are in Armenia. So they are trying to develop, to collaborate with the diaspora and rejuvenate the country, economically and socially.

 

Does the film show how other countries can recover after years of communism? Is it a showcase on what can be done?

It shows Armenia to have suffered the same as those other countries — they’re facing the same problems as the other former Soviet republics and all places that faced transitional problems 20 years ago, as in Russia. But it’s a bit different; because they have such a rich Christian history, they live in a very small territory, and they have this unbelievable heritage.

 

Would you recommend it as a pilgrimage destination?

Yes, it’s beautiful; it’s a great place to visit. The monasteries are very impressive. We also interview Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni, the head of the Armenian Catholic Church, and he has interesting things to say. His Beatitude also mentions his concern for the situation in Syria, where there are ancient and populous Armenian communities in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs.

 

What else can you tell us about the Catholic churches?

There are not many of them. They have some communities, schools and churches, which they are rebuilding. They are finishing the reconstruction of the cathedral in Gyumri, and there are different activities among Catholics, but their numbers are so small. There are no official statistics for the number of Catholics in Armenia, but we do know that, before 1926, there were 71 Catholic parish priests serving 172 villages, with 70 beautiful churches and a flock of about 60,000 Catholics. Generally speaking, the number of Catholics should be 10% of the Armenian population, out of a population of 3 million. Most are concentrated in the north, in the city of Gyumri, for historical reasons. There are 9 million Armenians in diaspora through Europe, the Americas and Australia.

 Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

 

Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/looking-at-armenias-fascinating-christian-past-and-present#ixzz2vNXknjZT

Pope, Putin Summit to Benefit Christians

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Pope Francis on Nov. 25, persecuted Christians in the Middle East will be not only central to their discussions but also significant to bringing the Catholics and the Orthodox closer together.

The foreign interests of both the Moscow Patriarchate (the church of Russia) and the Kremlin are dedicated to helping persecuted Christians, and the Kremlin is increasingly disposed to being a mediator between East and West, especially when it comes to Syria.

The Russian government has long had a number of close allies in the region, in part due its wish to safeguard a strategic naval defence in the Mediterranean and energy routes. The region also appeals to Putin’s nationalist tendencies, presenting an opportunity to exert Russia’s status on the world stage. Furthermore, the Kremlin has an interest in stemming rising Islamism in Syria and beyond, particularly in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus republics.

That Putin sees Christians as a key factor in maintaining regional stability is not lost on the local people. Last month, around 50,000 Syrian Christians applied for Russian citizenship and the Kremlin is seriously considering their request.

The letter of application had fulsome praise for Putin’s Russia, which they described as a “powerful factor for global peace and stability.” By contrast, they were critical of the West’s support for “terrorists,” whose aim, they wrote, is “to eliminate our presence in our homeland.”

A spokesman at the Moscow Patriarchate said the request was proof of the “great authority” Russia currently has in the Middle East, “particularly among the Christian minorities living in that area.”

Archpriest Nikolaj Balashov, No. 2 at the Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, pointed out that Russia’s support is not new in the region: For centuries, he said, “no other country would look after their interests in the same way Russia would.”

Both state and church have been increasingly vocal on behalf of Christians in the Middle East. Earlier this year, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill sent President Barack Obama a letter, asking him to listen to religious leaders who “unanimously” opposed military intervention against President Bashar al-Assad.

In an editorial in “The New York Times” on Sept. 11, Putin made a point of mentioning Pope Francis and his warnings against military strikes on Syria.

The article followed a letter from the Pope to Putin at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg in the same month which is said to have elicited a good reaction, especially among the Russian intelligentia.

The alliance between the Pope, Putin, and Patriarch Kirill over Syria, particularly the Pope’s peace vigil on Sept. 7, “was crucial for avoiding the start of a war in Syria whose consequences no one was able to foresee,” says Jesuit professor Germano Marani of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. “The Western press has likely not much appreciated that.”

Putin has also kept up his efforts on behalf of Christians. Last week, in his first telephone conversation with Assad in two years, the Russian leader urged the Syrian president to do all he could to alleviate the suffering of civilians and voiced concern over the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities by extremists in the country.

Just how important the Mediterranean region of Levant is to Russia, both on a church and state level, was underlined recently by the Russian Orthodox Church’s “foreign minister.”

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev told political and religious officials in Beirut earlier this month of Russia’s decision to effectively act as the protector of Christians in the Levant and as their defender and legal representative — perhaps, he said, the only real one they have on an international level.

The goals, principles, and interests of the Russian Federation are predicated on “the survival of Levantine Christians in their countries, and their peaceful coexistence with their Muslim compatriots, away from external attempts to destabilize those countries,” he added.

But what makes Russia’s interests in the region so potent is the alliance between the Kremlin and the Orthodox in support of Christians — which is stronger than at any time in the post-communist era.

The closer ties, though, with obvious associated problems, are nevertheless also strengthening Catholic and Orthodox relations.

A good deal of common ground exists when it comes to the Middle East and moral values, and a unified voice is helping to further the chances of the first, long hoped-for meeting between a Catholic Pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch since the East-West Schism of 1054, in which Chalcedonian Christianity broke into Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) divisions, which later became commonly known as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, respectively.

“Though many have doubted [Putin’s] intentions and continue to do so, at least there is a continual and repeated insistence on the ethical issues that are the order of the day,” says professor Marani. The Russian government, he adds, is one of the “few institutional voices” to raise such ethical questions at the international level.

This and other factors have led to “significant advances” in Catholic-Orthodox relations, the Jesuit says. “A certain attitude of distrust toward Catholics is gradually changing.”

Read Latest Breaking News from Newsmax.com http://www.newsmax.com/EdwardPentin/Vladimir-Putin-Pope-Francis/2013/11/21/id/537865#ixzz2lUTb3D3d
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Fr. Samir on Syria and Egypt – Full Interview

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Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, a professor of philosophy, theology and Islamic studies based at St. Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon, gave a long and very interesting interview to the Register August 27th. Alas I couldn’t include it all, so I reproduce the unedited version here:

Fr. SAMIR 3 oui

What are your main concerns about the current situation in Syria?

The situation is really very bad. We don’t see any solution, and there is none as far as I can see because both sides have decided to take this as far as they can. Why? For Assad, defeat could mean defeat not only for him or the regime, but for the Alawite community. Today the problem is not simply internal to Syria. The Syrian people began by reacting against dictatorship and calling for democracy and liberty. In the meantime, and quickly, elements came from outside, from all over the world, and these elements are essentially fundamentalist Sunnis. The problem became a confrontation between the Sunni on the one side and the Shia on the other, represented by Alawites.

So we have two groups: the army which is geared to fighting and is often brutal, and the other are many groups who have decided to fight in the name of Islam – Sunni Islam. It’s no more a question of democracy and liberty, so that’s the general situation of Syria as we see it.

What do we know about the bigger problem of ‘proxy’ powers?

Syria is at the centre of a larger strategy in the Middle East, involving Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan a little bit, and the West. As the conflict has evolved, Iran has been supporting Assad, as has Hezbollah. This is one side. The Arab peninsula is supporting the opposition, as is Turkey, and other individuals from abroad. Israel is observing the situation but I suppose if Iran enters the conflict, Israel will react. If the West enters the conflict, then we have a conflict between Russia on one side, and the United States on the other. Europe is not unified, thank goodness.

What is your view of the chemical weapons attack? How certain can we be that it came from the Syrian army, as the United States government says?

It could be from both sides. Personally, I would never decide on such an important point without proof. We have seen what happened with Iraq 10 years ago. And those who will pay the price are not the West but the Syrians … The situation in Syria now is very bad, very evil, but how can we be sure that an intervention will result in something better? This is the question. It’s not a kind of game where we succeed or don’t succeed. It is a matter of life or death for tens of thousands of Syrian people.

It’s not clear what the goal is.

It’s not clear at all, and for me what makes the situation more unclear is that there are too many interested parties involved who are not unified. Some have a religious interest. For the Sunni, they view the Shia as Kuffār (plural of Kāfir = infidels), worse than Jews and Christians. We hear this from many Sunni leaders. You have small groups terrorizing others.

What is the solution?

The only solution is to say: OK, we have two Syrians positions: we have the government, with people supporting the government, and we have the opposition with people supporting the opposition.  The only people who can decide are the Syrians themselves, but cannot do so without the help of the world community. Now what is the aim? It’s to come to a common decision, respecting both positions – to find an honest compromise between the two. If one party wins, either Assad or the opposition, we will have war, or we will have a prolongation of the war.

So this is the most important point to make clear: there cannot be one winner, there must be a compromise with both sides placing on the table their criticisms and demands. You cannot put a precondition on it, that this or that group will not take part, or this person won’t take part. Then there must be a neutral arbiter as well, such as the United Nations. It’s not easy but I don’t see any other possibility.

Pope Francis has called on all parties to meet and dialogue. That is your view, too?

Certainly. There is no other way, and with no condition on who represents each other, each party must decide for themselves. One party cannot exclude Assad, for example, or anything like that.

Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronites, recently said he believes there is a plan to destroy the Arab world for political and economic interests, and to achieve this, various groups are stirring up Sunni and Shia conflicts. What is your view on this?

Personally, I think the conflict between Shia and Sunni is something very bad and it’s not good for Islam. It’s not helping Christians either. We are one people in the Middle East. Whether I’m Jew, Christian, Muslim, secular or atheist, is a personal issue, it’s not a political one. We have to move towards a more secular society, not in the negative sense, but one that is open-minded to religion. As Pope Benedict said in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Synod on the Middle East (no. 30), when he spoke of a positive secularism, there must be a distinction, not a separation, between Church and State. Religion gives principles to the State, and at that level, Christians, Muslims and Jews can find a common ethic. But if we go deeper into the more ethical details, then we are divided. So there is nothing positive about the fact that Shia and Sunni are fighting. It is a primitive vision to think that this would be “good” for Christians. Again, we are one people.

How much is this violence to do with Islam itself, and that certain Muslims have always believed in the use of force?

There is something of this in Islam. Pope Benedict made the point, in his famous Regensburg lecture on 12 September 2006, when he was speaking generally, that any religion that uses violence to defend its position, or pretending to defend God, is wrong. We can never ever use violence for a good reason. Violence is bad in itself, so it cannot be used to convince people and so forth. Everyone would agree with that.

What the Pope didn’t say, but in fact what we find in the foundation of Islam, is that violence was used. This is a fact. If anyone denies this, they’re not a historian. We know that, thanks to Muslim sources and to the oldest source that has survived, the Kitāb al–Maghāzī  written by Al-Wāqidī (745-822) , which means the “The Book of Campaigns (or Battles)”. He is describing around 60 battles (ghazwah) led by Mohammad in the years 623-632 against other groups.

I explain this by saying it’s an historic situation, not a principle to be applied everywhere at every time. This is the point. What is happening today is that almost all extremist and fundamentalist groups are using this model – forever. Mohammed was able to unify a great many Arab tribes under the common name of Islam, which was a cultural, social, political and religious reality. This fact, this reality could be understood in two different ways: either, to be taken as a model to be applied forever; or to be taken as a practical situation valid for that time.

We have the same problem with the Jewish Bible, where culture, religion and politics are mixed, and were we read in Exodus how the Jews conquered the Holy Land against the people who were there, following the order of God. But it doesn’t mean that we have to take this as a model and apply it today. It is written in the mentality of that time and reflects their understanding of the prophet. As long as Muslims won’t read their holy Scriptures critically and historically, and as long they will believe it is to be forever applied literally in the world at all times, there will be a problem.

When I look at the history of any religion, I find things which were considered absolutely God’s will, which we consider today as not being so. We have to recognise that humanity – and this is one of the aims of religion – is growing, not only in number but in spirit. And to discover the meaning of a holy document takes time. But we have to do this.

For that reason, I say that at the moment violence is unfortunately widespread in all fundamentalist Islamic movements. Also fundamentalism has spread a great deal in the last 50 years in the Muslim world, but this fundamentalist interpretation is not the official Islam. We can see that in Egypt for instance. Al Azhar university [Islam’s foremost center of learning] which represents the majority of Muslims in Egypt and even perhaps in the world, was against the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Mohammed Morsi and they still are.

So you cannot say the Brotherhood represent the majority of Muslims – on the contrary. So I say fundamentalist Islam is certainly a part of Islam, as opposed to those who say: “This has nothing to do with Islam, Islam means tolerance” and so on. This is blah, blah, blah. This [violence] was always a part of Islam as it is understood. It’s not the whole Islam and the majority of Muslims obviously don’t support terrorism. But those who do support it are doing so not in their name, or in the name of politics, but in the name of God and Islam. They always have a mufti giving a fatwa, saying you must fight this group in the name of God, following the Koran.

You are a native Egyptian – what are your current concerns about your homeland?

I must say, as I’ve said elsewhere: what I hear from the West is absolutely wrong. When I hear “Finally, Morsi is the first democratically elected president” – this is a nonsense! If you take it juridically, he was elected democratically, but juridically so was Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak elected. Since the 1952’s revolution, we had an elected president. So to say this statement, that he’s the first democratically elected president, is one only a non-Egyptian can make.

Secondly, we know there are reasons to explain why Mohammad Morsi was elected: because the youth [the main drivers of the 2011 revolution] were not organised as a party, and because those associated with Mubarak and the old system, were excluded. So finally the only group who was organised politically and who had the right to be elected was the Muslim Brotherhood. But where is the democracy?

The democracy means, etymologically, the power (kratos) of the people (demos). When you see that 22 million adults sign a petition to remove Morsi, saying after a year he’s not worthy to be president – 22 million adults! – this is a number we never reached before. Then there were around 30 million people on the streets a week after. This is the voice of the people, this  is democracy.

The military, traditionally in the last decades, were always with the people, whether the government or the opposition. During the revolution of January 2011 and the weeks after, the army were supporting the opposition. So why didn’t we speak of a military coup? Because the coup was from the people and the military came and said, “OK, the people don’t want this government, and the Brotherhood refused.” So they said, “OK, we’ll nominate a provisional government,” and they nominated a magistrate, not a military, who was already nominated by Morsi himself! And when they asked all parties to take part in the government, the Brotherhood were the only party who refused, but the Salafists, who are more extreme than the Brotherhood, entered into this provisional government. Nobody said anything.

So this means it’s democratic, and it’s provisional. They didn’t make a joke, and say we create a constitution in one month and in one week people will vote for it [as the Muslim Brotherhood did]. I couldn’t read the constitution in one week – I tried. To write a constitution also takes years. To make a constitution in one month – now, that is a coup d’etat. And all we’ve seen, in the so-called democratic government [of the Muslim Brotherhood], is that they put their own people in all the important ministries of the state. They put their own governors into nine provinces before the end of the government, at once!

What they did was to worsen the economy. There was a shortage of food, they sold the petrol or gave it to Gaza. I was there in April and you’d see queues of one 1km of cars waiting 3, 5, or 8 hours to get provisions. They gave to Hamas and Gaza free access to 40 percent of the Sinai to train their mujāhidīn … and they killed a Coptic priest and some Christians, plus 27 soldiers. So it’s good that people threw them out. The people did their part, they expressed themselves, and the army protected the people and did their part.

What are your hopes going forward. Should the Brotherhood be banned?

Not banned, but we should simply say we need a new government. We will give time to all parties, without excluding anyone, and that means some months. We could apply some conditions, such as no terrorist could be accepted, and similar conditions.

And no to Sharia law?

Yes certainly! And then to give time to prepare a well-studied constitution. When they are approved and recognised, they need to decide on a reasonable time for the election and for it to be observed internationally. This is very important to avoid any criticism afterwards. We start with those who are elected by the people, and the parliament and so on, without excluding anyone, even the Muslim Brotherhood, on the condition that everyone signs and is obliged to follow the rule that violence is absolutely excluded.

Why is it, as Cardinal Rai said recently, that Christians must always pay the highest price in the Middle East? Why is this when they the most peaceful of all the people in the region?

First, it’s obviously easy to attack a minority. Second, it’s easier when the minority is peaceful and not armed. You could have a fighting minority, but it’s not the case with Christians.

But these are secondary reasons. The main reason is ideological. Who are fighting Christians, destroying churches and so on? Not my Muslim neighbour, but groups who are excluding the others. If you have Sunni excluding the Shia, they will obviously exclude Jews, Christians and so on. Any exclusivist group is a terrorist ‘in potentia’ – he becomes one when the occasion rises. We have seen this in Egypt for instance. Where were the biggest attacks? In two provinces: Minya and Assiut. These two are well known as centres of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood also did a lot of things there which were against the law, for example, taking a large plot of land in Assiut, which was an agrarian area, and building their Islamic university there. So anything illegal must be excluded.

But what we are asking as Christians – actually I don’t say as Christians, but as citizens – is not to put the word religion in the constitution. We should not put man or woman, rich or poor, or make any distinction. Just put “citizens”. As a citizen I can build a house of prayer, on condition that the same rules are applied to Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus etc.. This is the only acceptable solution – that we speak only of citizens, and do not distinguish between them. What we are asking is to apply honestly and totally the “Universal Charter of Human Rights”, including the liberty of conscience and the right to choose its religion and to change it, if you want.

So for these reasons I think Christians are attacked in Egypt spontaneously. In Syria, under the Assad regime, they were protected no more no less than Muslims, because the regime adopted the Baath Party ideology, which was considered secular. Religion was a positive thing, and seen, by the government, as helping citizens to do good and so on.

So I think this must be the goal, but on one condition: if we want to reach this point in ten years, then we have to start today. But if we say Egypt is not ready for that, and we don’t start making some steps, it’s a joke. We have to start making the necessary steps, like when you start on a construction. If you say it takes a lot of time but never start, you’re not serious. So we have to set rules and put them into practice at this point.

I am sure that Egypt and the Egyptians are willing to start a new stage in their political life. They are willing to have a more democratic government. They are willing to ban discrimination between men and women, Muslims and Christians, rich and poor, etc. This is the true revolution, and I am convinced this is the wish of the people. The army should help people to realize this “dream” until a new government is elected and finally organized. Insha’ Allah!

Celebrating the Beginning of Freedom

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The Edict of Milan turned 1,700 this month. A reflection on what it meant to the Church and the world.

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450px-Rome-Capitole-StatueConstantin

A bust of Emperor Constantine in Rome’s Capitoline Museum.

Unless you were in Milan or the Serbian city of Niš, chances are you probably missed celebrations to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan.

Yet this commemoration, which fell Feb. 3, is one of the most important events in Church history, marking the date when Christians were set free from three centuries of persecution. For the first time, the faithful had the same religious liberties that other religious groups enjoyed: They gained legal protections that allowed them to build places of worship, and had their confiscated possessions restored.

In essence, the Edict of Milan that was signed by Emperor Constantine in 313 heralded the official birth of Western Christian civilization and the free societies so many enjoy today.

The extent of the persecution Christians had hitherto suffered is almost incomprehensible to the modern mind. Countless Christians were tortured and killed under the emperors Nero (who notoriously had St. Peter crucified in 64 AD), Domitian, Marcus Aurelius, and Septimius Severus. They then abated under Severus Alexander (208-235) who was sympathetic to Christians, only to flare up again under Emperors Maximus Thracian, Decius, and Valerian (253-260).

The persecutions culminated with Emperor Diocletian (299-311) and his contemporaries, Galerius and Maximian. Under Diocletian alone, an estimated half a million Christians were killed. The last persecution was organized during the reign of Emperor Licinius (308–324) but by that time, a push for greater tolerance had begun. An Edict of Tolerance was issued in 311, and although property continued to be confiscated, this was soon corrected by Licinius and Constantine, then respective Roman Emperors of East and West, when they issued the Edict of Milan in 313.

Seventeen hundred years on, the extent of the persecution facing Christians is not anything like the tribulations of the early Church. Yet if one compares then and now, disturbing parallels do emerge.

Edmund Mazza, a respected professor of history and political science at Azusa Pacific University, notes that the persecutions “started out innocently enough”: Diocletian wanted to “fundamentally transform” his society “following years of ineffective leaders, wars, foreign attacks, and deep-seated economic problems.” But he was criticized by the Christian author Lactantius for “acquiring monarchical powers not granted him by the Roman Constitution.”

Speaking to ZENIT, Mazza argues that a similar trend can be witnessed today, as Republicans and conservatives make the same criticism of the Obama administration. Critics cite the administration’s “legalization of indefinite detention and suspension of trial by jury against American citizens on US soil simply by categorizing them as ‘terrorists’; its threatening to fine and imprison citizens whose only crime is to fail to purchase government-mandated health insurance; deciding for itself what constitutes a ‘religious organization’; and forcing Christian (and other) employers to give money to insurance companies who will then turn around and cover employee birth control.”

He further argues that since birth control has a .5% to 5% failure rate, and since tens of millions of women are taking them, “we’re talking roughly 10 million abortions a year, or 10 times the number of surgical abortions, millions of early deaths these employers will now be morally complicit in.”

Diocletian’s persecution of Christians is said to have begun after his pagan priests blamed Christian court officials for making the Sign of the Cross, thus spoiling a court ceremony that predicted the future (during an animal sacrifice).The emperor then ordered all Christians in government and the military to sacrifice to pagan gods or be dismissed, but he left civilians alone.

“As the years went by, however, the death penalty was inflicted against Christian bishops and priests, and churches and Bibles were confiscated and burned,” Mazza explains. “Later decrees forced even ordinary citizens to violate their Christian beliefs or suffer martyrdom.”

Mazza says that likewise, the US administration’s actions against religious liberty “have only begun to be felt by military chaplains and Church institutions (and lay business-owners), not the man in the street.”

He adds: “Is it only a matter of time before it proceeds apace to a full escalation? We must pray for God’s mercy and support our bishops.”

Like many others in the Church, Mazza believes that until Russia is consecrated to Mary’s Immaculate Heart by bishops united with the Pope, then “persecutions against the Church” and the “martyrdom of the good” will increase. Such a prediction, he stresses, was made in 1917 when the Virgin Mary appeared at Fatima.

“Every Catholic in America should contact his or her bishop and respectfully request their participation in this act of entrustment, for freedom’s sake,” Mazza says.

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Superior appeal

Life for the post-Constantine Church wasn’t of course plain sailing, but it was not subject to the corruption myths that emerged during the Renaissance and the Reformation, and spread by Enlightenment historians such as Edward Gibbon and Jacob Burckhardt.

Questions over whether the Roman Empire surrendered to Christianity, or Christianity prostituted itself to the empire have long been disregarded in modern times, except in the fictitious works of authors such as Dan Brown and his potboiler, the Da Vinci Code.

“Constantine was far from perfect, but he was neither a corruptor of the Church, nor an intolerant zealot who destroyed all worship that was not Catholic,” Mazza says.

His view is echoed by other scholars such as the sociologist and historian Rodney Stark who has shown that, contrary to the thesis of Gibbon and others, paganism was not rapidly stamped out by state repression following Constantine’s vision and conversion, but gradually disappeared as people abandoned the temples in response to the superior appeal of Christianity.

Mazza concedes that Constantine conferred secular powers and privileges on bishops, but this was in the interests of justice and charity. “Since the bishops had reputations for honesty and resistance to bribery, the emperor, for a time, allowed secular cases to be appealed to Church courts,” he says. In another law, Constantine allowed slaves to be made free, “if the ceremony was witnessed by Christian bishops in churches,” he adds.

Historians have pointed out that in later decades and centuries, close involvement between the State and senior Church officials led to abuses, “but Constantine can hardly be blamed,” Mazza says.

Instead, he is to be remembered for being the protagonist in fostering the advent of Christian civilization in the West. The path for Christians thereafter was never smooth (persecutions would continue, most notably in Persia), but the liberty that Constantine had won allowed the Church to flourish for centuries to come. Furthermore, Mazza stresses, it is a little-known fact that it was actually Christians who were the ones to first develop the notion of religious liberty.

The Serbian city of Niš where Constantine was born is dedicating the whole of 2013 to celebrating the Edict of Milan, hosting concerts and other events. And on Sept. 21, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, will take part in other events in Niš, including celebrating a commemorative Mass.

As it will be a celebration that unites both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox, it is hoped Pope Benedict XVI may also take part. Niš may even prove to be a suitable venue for the Holy Father to finally meet Patriarch Kirill of Russia, but so far the Vatican has yet to confirm such a visit. The city’s celebrations end on Oct. 28.

Milan itself is currently staging an exhibition on the Edict of Milan at the Palazzo Reale until March 17, but strangely, the Feb. 3 anniversary passed without a mention in the Vatican and in Rome.

It will be interesting to see if, as society becomes increasingly secular, future anniversaries of the Edict may not be so blithely overlooked.

(February 07, 2013) © Innovative Media Inc.

Nigeria and US Reluctant to Label Boko Haram a Terrorist Group

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nigeriaMany viewed it as strange that the U.S. and Nigerian governments had refused to label the militant Jihadist group Boko Haram a terrorist organisation. In this Dec. 2012 analysis a U.S. website on national security, I explain that the situation is more complex than it appears.

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Summary

Despite an organized campaign of violence directed against Nigeria’s Christians, the Obama administration and the Nigerian government refuse to formally declare the militant Islamist group Boko Haram a terrorist organization. While this makes little sense given the body count from Boko Haram’s attacks, other factors are at play, as LIGNET explains.

According to Human Rights Watch, about 3,000 people have been killed in the sectarian conflict between Boko Haram and security forces since 2010. Over 815 have been killed in this year alone. Most of the victims have been Muslims or government officials, but increasingly they are Christians, too.

Background

Religious strife has long divided Nigeria, and was a problem even before the country achieved independence from Britain, which ruled the territory as a colony until 1960. The religious divisions in Nigeria as also geographic, with the northern part of the country predominantly Muslim and the Southern part predominantly Christian. Each religion accounts for roughly half of Nigeria’s 160 million population.

Founded in 2002 by Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s goal is to transform Nigeria into an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. It claims that the country’s secular government is godless and therefore illegitimate, and that it has an obligation to convert all Nigerians to the Islamic faith.

Boko Haram is Hausa (a tribal language common in northern Nigeria) for “Western education is forbidden”—a branding that places it squarely opposed to values that proclaim individual rights and religious toleration for all. The group also goes by the Arabic name “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad,” which means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.”

Boko Haram’s militancy began in sporadic violence, mostly targeting the police and army. These attacks in turn led to reprisals against Boko Haram, which ratcheted the level of violence up even higher. While Islamist ideology has fueled the group’s violence, self-defense and revenge are explain its growing wrath, especially after 2005, when the Nigerian government cracked down on the group, and in many instances went outside the boundary of the law to do it.

Since then Boko Haram has expanded its target list, with brutal attacks against Christian civilians in the country’s north more common. In the latest savagery, a group of Islamist attackers went house to house in the predominantly Christian part of the village of Chibok on December 1, setting fires and slitting throats. Ten Christians were killed. Three militants likely affiliated with Boko Haram killed at least 19 Christians at a Bible study in central Nigeria on August 7. High profile Boko Harem attacks on Christians have grown over the last year and include horrific bombings of churches during Christmas and Easter Sunday services over the last year.

Informed observers in Nigeria have stressed to LIGNET that this is not a religious conflict as the media sometimes claims, but rather one fought along ethnic, political and regional lines and fueled by a desire to control the country’s oil (Nigeria is the sixth largest oil producer in the world). Oil “has everything to do with these attacks,” one source told LIGNET.

Before 1975, northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram operates, was very rich through agriculture, but oil brought instant wealth and investment in agriculture fell away. The country’s oil fields, all in the south, belong to the central government, so whoever is in charge has control over the nation’s oil and its distribution.

This has naturally led to power struggles and wealth disparities between the now impoverished north and the relatively prosperous south, further fanning the flames of conflict. Part of the problem also goes back to Nigeria’s colonial era when Britain paid little attention to the nation’s diversity, leading to a battle of internal integration and a civil war fought along predominantly ethnic and political lines in the 1960s. These were never religious conflicts, even though the north is mostly Muslim and the south Christian.

Despite Boko Haram’s increased use of violence in the last few years, the U.S. State Department has refused to add the Islamist militant group to its list of foreign terrorist organizations, even though it took a step in that direction in June when it named three of Boko Haram’s leaders “terrorists.” Nigeria’s government has also refused to label the group a terrorist organization.

Pressure, however, is mounting to change all of this. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and more than 20 American scholars urged earlier this year that Boko Haram be designated a terrorist outfit. And a new group has been formed called the Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans (CANAN) to raise awareness of what it calls the “pre-genocide” conditions in their ancestral homeland. CANAN has organized a petition to get 25,000 signatures by Dec. 29.

The campaign is said to have support from the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Homeland Security Department, as well as several U.S. Congressmen who have recommended FTO designation. Pat Meehan, a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, has said that he would be tabling a draft bill in Congress that will compel the State Department to explain its reasons if it refuses to give Boko Haram the FTO label.

Analysis

The reluctance of the U.S. government to label Boko Haram a terrorist organization appears to reflect concerns that sanctions against the group could be counterproductive and affect oil exports to the United States.

LIGNET, however, has and will continue to refer to Boko Haram as a terrorist organization due to its indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including church bombings and suicide bombers.

U.S. “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO) designation comes with the threat of sanctions, and makes it illegal for individuals or organizations to give material support or resources to the group.

While this seems like a no-brainer, Nigeria is one of the biggest suppliers of crude oil to the U.S. Relations between the two countries are complicated by what could be called “energy politics,” with various interests reluctant to take a step that Nigeria’s government itself has not taken.

Proponents of a cautious approach to the issue believe Boko Haram is a symbol more than anything else, a manifestation of the fragile relationship between the different ethnic and political groups wishing to exercise control over Nigeria and its resources. Religion is merely the tool for this fight, they say, and the glue that holds together fanatic adherents of the Islamic religion.

Opponent of U.S. FTO status believe this label would be a misplaced because, although the Boko Haram has engaged in attacks that clearly appear to be terrorism, labeling it a foreign terrorist group would distort the real reasons driving the violence in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s government opposes FTO designation for Boko Haram. It fears the label would put Nigeria back on the U.S. terror watch list—a move that could make life hard for all Nigerians, including Christians. It also is worried that the designation would erect an obstacle that could prevent a future peace agreement with Boko Haram.

Opponents, both inside and outside of Nigeria, also believe the FTO label could backfire, pouring gasoline onto a fire as it were by giving the group an excuse to expand its operations beyond the north, and attack targets not only in southern Nigeria, but even outside of the country.

These misgivings were on display recently in comments made by the Catholic archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan. In an interview last month, he stressed the importance of having a balanced attitude towards Boko Haram. He noted dialogue was not realistic at this time, but said he did not agree with those who brand the group “assassins.”

“These people cannot be defeated with guns alone,” he said, adding it is certainly not up to the Catholic Church or to Christians to organize their own militias. “We need to make it clear that no claims [of injustice] can justify the murder of innocent people, especially when they are praying.”

Conclusion

Despite levels of violence that equal or surpass that of other terrorist groups in the world, Boko Haram continues to escape official designation as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the U.S. government. This state of affairs will likely continue unless a clear link between al Qaeda and the group can be established or the group kills Americans.

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