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Pope offers prayers for victims of terrorist attack in Barcelona

IMAGE: CNS photo/Ana Jimenez, La Vanguardia via Reuters

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VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis offered prayers for the victims of a terrorist attack in Barcelona, Spain, that left at least 12 people dead and injured dozens of others.

"With great concern the Holy Father has learned about what is happening in Barcelona. The pope prays for the victims of this attack and wants to express his closeness to the whole Spanish people, particularly the injured and the families of the victims," said an Aug. 17 statement from Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office.

A speeding van struck pedestrians in Barcelona's Las Ramblas district. The Islamic State took credit for the attack, saying it was in response to calls for its followers to target countries participating in the coalition trying to drive the extremist group from Syria and Iraq, the Associated Press reported.

Spanish church leaders called for prayers.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

U.S. Catholic parishes, schools happy to be in path of solar eclipse

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mario Anzuoni, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- U.S. Catholic parishes and schools located in the 70-mile-wide path of the total solar eclipse Aug. 21 plan to take part in this rare event with everything from providing parking spaces or viewing sites to offering overnight retreats or all-day events with family activities or scientific lectures.

The total eclipse -- to be viewed only with proper eyewear -- begins Aug. 21 in Oregon at 10:18 a.m. PDT and ends in South Carolina at 2:43 p.m. EDT after going over Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

How long viewers will see the moon covering the sun depends on where they will be on its coast-to-coast path. Some may only see it for a few seconds, others for a couple of minutes. Maximum eclipse -- at two minutes and 40 seconds -- takes place in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

But no matter the length of time extent, this historic event is drawing thousands to places where they can get a better view if just for a few minutes and to also celebrate for the day or even a long weekend.

And while they are in the path of the eclipse, some hope they will stay awhile and visit.

Renee Brueckner, operations director of the National Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville, Missouri, one of the sites in the path, hopes some of the eclipse-viewing crowd makes its way to the shrine where they will have extra tour guides on hand the weekend of Aug. 19-20. The shrine, which is just finishing a major capital restoration project, is ready for visitors but its offices will be closed from 12-2 p.m. local time Aug. 21 for sky gazing.

In Perryville, the total eclipse time is slated to be 2 minutes and 34 seconds, beginning at 1:18 p.m. CDT.

Crowds already will be across the street during the weekend for solar eclipse festivities including food and games at a picnic area owned by St. Vincent de Paul Parish.

Brueckner said she hopes visitors will come to the shrine and "get some contemplative and quiet time."

It's not the only place to highlight spiritual renewal. La Salle Retreat Center in Wildwood, Missouri, is hosting an overnight retreat the night before the eclipse and is inviting the public to its grounds on the day of the event, which there will begin at 1:15 p.m. CDT and last 2 minutes and 14 seconds. The center will sell bottled water and viewing glasses.

"Guests will be able to walk around our beautiful grounds with meditation areas, including a labyrinth and grottoes," the center's marketing and program coordinator, Michelle Cook, told the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the St. Louis Archdiocese.

Our Lady of Good Counsel Retreat House in Waverly, Nebraska, is offering rooms and transportation for eclipse viewers. The retreat center, operated by the Lincoln Diocese, is not directly in the path of the total eclipse, but will take guests to and from the airport and to a town an hour away for solar viewing at 1:03 CDT. The retreat center also is providing box lunches for viewers and will have Mass and eucharistic adoration in the morning.

COR Expeditions, a Catholic outdoor program in Lander, Wyoming, that got its start at Wyoming Catholic College, also is offering an eclipse package that involves eight days of backpacking in the Wyoming's Wind River Mountain Range Aug. 19-26. The group is providing food, technical gear, instructors and transportation and says on its website that the trek after viewing the eclipse will give hikers the chance to "allow the awesome beauty of the eclipse to sink in."

For those who might want to take in a lecture or just activities, that's covered too.

Robert Mitchell, professor of engineering and physical science at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, will conduct a live broadcast from Aurora, Nebraska, where the total eclipse can be viewed. The broadcast will be shown at the Putnam Museum in Davenport and will be livestreamed on YouTube. beginning at 11 a.m. CDT with talks and PowerPoint presentations and then a presentation on the eclipse as it happens.

Mitchell said the sky will start to darken around 11:45 a.m. local time but the maximum part of the eclipse will be visible around 1:15 p.m. when it will be dark like night in Aurora, which he noted will confuse birds and other animals.

In an interview with The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Davenport Davenport, the professor echoed the often-said warning of not looking directly at the sun during the eclipse.

"Wear proper viewing glasses, get a filter for a telescope, make a pinhole viewer, make a mirror in an envelope or make your own cardboard projector," he said.

Another Catholic college professor equally excited about the eclipse is Ryan Maderak, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, which is directly in the path of the total eclipse.

"This is literally the event of the century, and it is falling right in our laps," he said. The college will experience about 2 minutes and 18 seconds of total darkness starting at 1:07 p.m. CDT.

The college has a sold-out event the day of the eclipse with seating in its football stadium for viewing and free solar glasses to the first 7,500 at the gate. The day before the eclipse two astronomers from the Vatican Observatory will give presentations.

The big day will include morning and evening Masses, meals at the school's dining hall, activities at the stadium such as face painting, Frisbee games and water balloon tosses and will end with a "celestial concert." During the day, the school, which just opened a new observatory, will have its telescopes rigged for viewing the sun.

The eclipse will also be a big moment for Catholic schools that are in session.

"It really is like heaven" for a science teacher, said Meg Darke, a parent volunteer in the science lab at Christ the King School in Nashville, which is in the total eclipse path. "We're going to see something that day that man can't re-create. We cannot duplicate with all our technology what we're going to witness. "

Julie Petcu, science enrichment coordinator at St. Matthew School in Franklin, Tennessee, hosted a workshop this summer for area teachers, led by an educator from NASA.

St. Matthew's is just outside the total eclipse band but Christ the King School is right in it and on Aug. 21 the school will host a "solar-bration" event for the school community and parents.

"The entire community will be involved in doing activities that are eclipse related," Darke said. All the students and faculty will gather on the field beside the school to watch the eclipse and their parents will be invited to join.

Immaculate Conception School in Clarksville, Tennessee, also lies in a prime viewing location, just south of the center line of the path of the total eclipse, which will pass through Hopkinsville, which is on the other side of the Tennessee-Kentucky state line.

The total eclipse is expected to be visible in Clarksville for 2 minutes and 21 seconds. Immaculate Conception Principal Stephanie Stafford said that from the first day of school to the eclipse, they would be talking about this event.

And even through many local schools will be closed that day, Immaculate Conception will stay open, she told the Tennessee Register, Nashville's diocesan newspaper.

"We're leaving it up to the parents," she said, "to see if they are willing to fight the traffic."     

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Contributing to this report was Andy Telli in Nashville, Anne Marie Amacher in Davenport and Jennifer Brinker in St. Louis.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Kosovo to dedicate cathedral named for Mother Teresa

IMAGE: CNS photo/Valdrin Xhemaj, EPA

By Jonathan Luxmoore

WARSAW, Poland (CNS) -- A cathedral named for St. Teresa of Kolkata is scheduled to be dedicated in Kosovo on the 20th anniversary of her death.

The cathedral will be dedicated Sept. 5 in Pristina. Albanian-born Cardinal Ernest Simoni will represent Pope Francis at the dedication. Celebrations of the neo-classical cathedral, on Pristina's Bill Clinton Boulevard, will begin Aug. 26, the saint's birthday.

"This will be a great event for our church and all people, whatever their faith and background," said Msgr. Shan Zefi, chancellor of Kosovo's Prizren-based Catholic apostolic administration.

"Mother Teresa was a unifying figure, who worked among Christians and Muslims and was admired by everyone. A cathedral in her honor is a great gift for this country."

He told Catholic News Service Aug. 16 that Catholics were grateful to Kosovo's government for backing the cathedral; its foundation stone was laid in 2005 by the late President Ibrahim Rugova, a Muslim.

"Bishops will come from throughout the region, as well as Muslim and Orthodox leaders, in a sign of majority approval," Msgr. Zefi said.

"St. Teresa's sisters have worked for many years here and enjoyed strong support, especially at a time of unemployment and hardship."

Mostly ethnic Albanian Muslims make up at least 90 percent of the 2.1 million inhabitants of Kosovo, whose 2008 independence from Serbia has been recognized by 111 of the United Nations' 193 member-states, but not by the Vatican.

The Catholic apostolic administration, founded in 2000 with 24 parishes, officially accounts for 3.5 percent of the population, although church leaders put numbers higher.

The cathedral was daubed in Islamist graffiti at its September 2010 opening. However, in his interview, Msgr. Zefi insisted opposition had come "only from a few individuals."

"Our church's ties with Kosovo's Islamic community are developing toward ever greater dialogue and tolerance," he said.

Once fully completed, the building will have two 230-foot bell towers, making it one of the city's largest, as well as a stained-glass window depicting St. Teresa with St. John Paul II, and will become the seat of a full Catholic diocese, relocated from Prizren.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Congregation centennial: Supporting Eastern Catholics against all odds

Pope prays for victims of 'devastating' mudslide in Sierra Leone

IMAGE: CNS photo/Ernest Henry, Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis offered his condolences and his prayers to the people of Sierra Leone after flooding and a major mudslide Aug. 14 led to the deaths of hundreds of people and displaced thousands.

"Deeply saddened by the devastating consequences of the mudslide on the outskirts of Freetown, His Holiness Pope Francis assures those who have lost loved ones of his closeness at this difficult time," said a message sent to Archbishop Edward Tamba Charles of Freetown by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

Pope Francis "prays for all who have died, and upon their grieving families and friends he invokes the divine blessings of strength and consolation," said the message, which was released by the Vatican Aug. 16. The pope also "expresses his prayerful solidarity with the rescue workers and all involved in providing the much-needed relief and support to the victims of this disaster."

In an Aug. 16 telephone interview from Freetown, Ishmeal Alfred Charles, who is managing Caritas' emergency response, told Catholic News Service, "There is so much agony and pain here."

"The burials start today," he said, noting that he was on his way to a mortuary to help people identify the bodies of their loved ones.

Caritas' emergency team of 10 medics and about 30 voluntary helpers "needs more resources," Charles said. "We have exhausted all that we have, and the needs are overwhelming."

The team got to the scene of the mudslide early Aug. 15 and "in the first 10 minutes we were there, 11 corpses," including six children, were brought into the tent they had set up to register victims, he said.

One of the survivors is a 16-year-old girl "who had been at a friend's house watching movies when she called her mother to ask if she could stay over because it was getting late," Charles said.

"Her mother agreed on the condition that she return home early the next morning. When she woke up and walked home, there was nothing there," he said. "She is her family's only survivor."

Visiting the hard-hit town of Regent, about 15 miles east of Freetown, President Ernest Bai Koroma described the devastation as "overwhelming" and pleaded for international assistance.

Soon after the disaster struck, Catholic Relief Services, the overseas aid agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, published an appeal to donors.

"More than 300 people were killed and property was destroyed" in the mudslide, CRS said. At least 100 homes were covered and more than 600 people were still missing early Aug. 16.

"The death toll is expected to rise," the CRS appeal said. "Families affected by the Sierra Leone landslide need food, shelter, water and clothing," which CRS and its partner Caritas will strive to provide.

Idalia Amaya, CRS' deputy head of programs and the emergency response coordinator, said: "The devastation is like nothing we've seen before. Entire neighborhoods have been washed away ... People are in a complete state of shock."

CRS said in addition to providing food, water and mattresses to those immediately affected by the disaster, it would support the government and religious leaders with dignified burials of those who perished. The agency said its staffers were drawing from the experience of CRS' Ebola response in 2014.

"People here have already experienced so much trauma having lived through war and then Ebola, and now this," Amaya said. "But at the same time, people from Sierra Leone are incredibly resilient, and I know that with the proper support they will overcome this latest tragedy."

CAFOD, the official aid agency of the bishops of England and Wales, said heavy rainfall was expected to continue, and conditions may deteriorate.

In Freetown, Kayode Akintola, CAFOD's country representative for Sierra Leone, said: "Things are really bad on the ground. Just a few minutes' walk from our office a bridge has been submerged. There are dead bodies in the water and littering some of the streets, and houses are still under water."

CAFOD estimated 3,000 people had lost their homes.

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Contributing to this story was Bronwen Dachs in Cape Town, South Africa.


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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Pope prays for victims of 'devastating' mudslide in Sierra Leone

Ohio community cafe responds to hunger while building a following

IMAGE: CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski

By Dennis Sadowski

PORT CLINTON, Ohio (CNS) -- Bow tie pasta with Chardonnay cheese sauce, fresh focaccia topped with herbs, a salad of fresh locally grown greens and made-from-scratch bread pudding aren't the usual fare for people in need of a free meal.

At Bistro 163 in this lakefront town 38 miles east of Toledo, such tasty delights are the norm though.

Part of the growing community cafe movement, the nonprofit restaurant with a modern, clean decor in the heart of Ohio's Lake Erie vacationland seeks to connect good food with good fellowship while beginning to address the needs of hungry, lonely and elderly people.

Mary Leucht, 52, of nearby Oak Harbor, has been coming for the meal since winter. The housekeeper at a local hotel said the free meal helps to make ends meet on her modest income.

"I come down for the food and the friendship," she said.

For buddies Robbie Floriana, 53, and Ken Ahrens, 56, both of Port Clinton and unemployed, the meal stretches their limited finances. They also like meeting new people because they never know who they might sit next to at the long community table set up in the in the center of the restaurant.

"We like the atmosphere," Ahrens said between forkfuls of creamy pasta.

They're not alone. Dozens of people have been coming for the meal for months. Visitors have included business executives, city council members and single moms with children.

"It's a lot more than food here we offer," said Stacy Maple, a member of St. Joseph Parish in nearby Marblehead, the restaurant's executive chef and general manager. She also is a graduate of the acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.

Maple called landing at Bistro 163 a sign from God soon after she and her family -- a husband and two sons -- returned to Ohio after five years in Atlanta. She said she uses her culinary skills while responding to the Gospel call to respect human dignity.

"Everything we do here we want to be a reflection of the needs of our community," Maple said.

"Hunger, I'm learning quickly, is a symptom of so many bigger problems. Food might get them in here and food starts the conversation. But food is not the answer to the problem. You start to realize there are other things affecting peoples' lives," she explained to Catholic News Service.

Bistro 163 opened in June 2016 and is named for the state route that passes nearby. Jack Resetar, 79, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Port Clinton who helped establish the endeavor, likes to think its name refers to Proverbs 16:3: "Entrust your works to the Lord, and your plans will succeed."

It is one of about 50 such nonprofits that have emerged since what is believed to be the first opened in 2003 in Salt Lake City by Canton, Ohio, native Denise Cerreta. She is the founder of One World Everybody Eats, a network of community restaurants, and works with local groups exploring the concept.

While some community restaurants have come and gone, others have experienced success during years of operation. One philosophy governing them calls for patrons to pay what they think is a fair price for their meal.

Other restaurants, such as Bistro 163, list a suggested price on the menu and encourage patrons to pay a little more to help cover the cost of a meal for someone who cannot pay. Bistro 163 calls its idea "pay it forward."

"There is not one way or right way to do this," Cerreta told CNS. "It's important to free up the food and to eat in community. Building community is so important."

At Bistro 163, which is open Monday through Saturday for lunch, suggested prices for meals are $7 to $8. The menu changes quarterly, offering seasonal dishes to hold to the concept of locally sourcing food.

How local? The Rev. Bob Butcher, a retired Presbyterian minister, showed up during a recent lunch with a bag full of plump cucumbers from his garden. It was his congregation at Firelands Presbyterian Church that broached the idea of a community cafe with other Port Clinton faith leaders in 2015.

The concept has been well received thus far. Since opening in the location of a twice-failed coffee shop, Bistro 163 has served 20,000 meals, 30 percent of which have been for people who could not pay, Maple said. Those who are unable to pay are asked to volunteer for one hour in exchange, and most people have, she said.

In large part, the restaurants have a small number of paid staff and count on a team of regular volunteers to make the concept work. Bistro 163 draws from a team of about 70 volunteers, largely members of local churches, to staff its lunch service.

Maple also leads a staff of 10 people, including a sous chef, two cooks, three cashiers and four dishwashers. She has hired people who recently were released from prison or are recovering from an addiction as well as high school graduates looking to gain skills before enrolling in a culinary arts program.

Ryan Ross, 31, has worked as sous chef since February after being laid off from his job as a cook at the local Moose lodge. And, he said, he is recovering from an addiction. Ross enjoys making the different meals that emerge from Maple's creativity.

"I absolutely love it here," he said. "It has been great to be able to learn from Stacy. She's a great teacher. She's willing to teach you if you're willing to learn."

Keeping the focus on people in need is a key part of the mission of the restaurant, said Resetar, who serves as the greeter at the monthly meal. He would like to see broader outreach to the community though and he suggested that may be possible as the restaurant becomes more widely known.

"I sense a lot of needs are not being met in the community," he told CNS Aug. 14, before guests began arriving for the meal. "How do you build community, bringing the haves and the have-nots?"

Maple agrees. The restaurant was to resume a weekly After School Snack and Study program for kids as school reopened this fall. Maple is thinking about starting a Saturday morning gathering for teenagers to give them a place to talk and feel safe.

"There are a lot of social concerns here," she said. "I've learned a whole lot in a year's time, that's for sure."

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @Dennis Sadowski.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Pope prays for victims, rescue workers of Sierra Leone mudslide

Vatican City, Aug 16, 2017 / 07:54 am (CNA/EWTN News).- With hundreds dead and nearly 600 more still missing as a result of a giant mudslide that ravished Sierra Leone's capital, Pope Francis has prayed for the victims, their families and rescue workers providing relief to those affected.

“Deeply saddened by the devastating consequences of the mudslide on the outskirts of Freetown, His Holiness Pope Francis assures those who have lost loved ones of his closeness at this difficult time,” read an Aug. 16 telegram signed by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin read.

Addressed to Freetown's Archbishop Charles Edward Tamba, the telegram relayed the Pope's sympathies, and assured of his prayer for all who have died.

The telegram comes two days after a flooding and a large mudslide killed some 400 people in Sierra Leone's capital city of Freetown Monday, and have left some 600 still missing.

According to BBC, a mass burial of victims that had been scheduled for Wednesday in order to free up space in mortuaries has been delayed as the “chaotic” disaster continues to unfold.

Flooding is not uncommon in the overcrowded town of one million, leaving those who live in unsafe, makeshift housing especially at risk during natural disasters. However, Monday's slide is thought to be the worst incident in the past two decades.

At least 100 houses were wiped out when a hillside in Regent, a mountain town some 15 miles east of Freetown, collapsed, submerging entire buildings and taking people with them.

Bodies have continued to be retrieved from the mud and rubble, but efforts to identify them are proving difficult in the chaos.

In his telegram, the Pope not only offered his prayers for the victims, but he also extended “divine blessings of strength and consolation” upon their families.

Francis also expressed his “prayerful solidarity with the rescue workers and all involved in providing the much needed relief and support to the victims of this disaster.”

Papal envoy calls Blessed Romero 'martyr of hope'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rodrigo Sura, EPA

By

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CNS) -- Blessed Oscar Romero, the murdered archbishop of San Salvador, is a martyr of hope, said Chilean Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, Pope Francis' envoy to the celebration of the centennial of the archbishop's birth.

Blessed Romero "is a true martyr of hope ... a great martyr of hope," said the Santiago cardinal. "He is so for the continent's poor, he is so for the people of El Salvador, he is so for the hope of our beloved church, for all who struggle for justice, reconciliation, peace and affectionately call him 'St. Romero of America.'"

Cardinal Ezzati gave the homily Aug. 15 at the Salvadoran cathedral, where people gathered for a special Mass. He said Blessed Romero's "closeness to the poor ... led him to see, with his eyes, the injustice the peasants were suffering."

Repeatedly interrupted by applause, the cardinal quoted a letter from Pope Francis to the Salvadoran bishops on Blessed Romero's beatification in 2015: "Those who have Archbishop Romero as a friend in faith ... those who admire him, find in him the strength and encouragement to build the people of God, to commit to a more balanced and dignified social order."

"Those words by Pope Francis confirm our intuition that Blessed Romero is a saint of hope," the cardinal added.

Shortly before he was assassinated in 1980, Blessed Romero promised that if God accepted his martyrdom, he would forgive those who would take his life, the Santiago cardinal said in his homily Aug. 15 at the cathedral in San Salvador.

He also quoted Blessed Romero's words shortly before he was murdered: "Martyrdom is a grace from God which I do not believe I deserve. But should God accept the sacrifice of my life, that my blood be the seed of freedom, it is a signal that hope will soon be a reality. Should they kill me, I forgive and bless them."

Cardinal Ezzati arrived Aug. 12 in San Salvador to take part in different activities to mark the centennial of Blessed Romero's birth, which included a pilgrimage,"Caminando hacia la cuna del Profeta" ("Walking Toward the Prophet's Birthplace"), from San Salvador to Ciudad Barrios, the eastern city where the martyr was born Aug. 15, 1917.

Ordained April 4, 1942, in Rome, the Salvadoran religious leader was appointed archbishop of San Salvador Feb. 23, 1977, and was gunned down during Mass in a hospital chapel March 24, 1980, a day after a sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers to obey what he described as God's order and stop carrying actions of repression.

The archbishop's March 30 funeral at the cathedral, attended by more than 200,000 mourners, was interrupted by gunfire that left 30-50 people dead. It is widely believed direct perpetrators of the unpunished crime were members of a paramilitary squad.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Genocide of Christians continues in Middle East, says new U.S. report

IMAGE: CNS photo/Suhaib Salem, Reuters

By Josephine von Dohlen

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Trump administration renews its commitment to the protection of religious minority groups threatened by the Islamic State in the Middle East, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the preface of the annual State Department report on international religious freedom, released Aug. 15.

"ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims in areas it controlled," Tillerson said in a statement Aug. 15. "ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds and other minorities."

Since the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the State Department documents the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries around the world, reporting to Congress the "violations and abuses committed by governments, terrorist groups, and individuals."

Ambassador Michael Kozak of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which produces the report, spoke about it in a news conference Aug. 15, saying the report is used to create a fact base for U.S. government decision-making.

Kozak reported that while conditions for many do remain critical, there are signs of hope for the future.

"ISIS is being defeated," Kozak said. "Since the defeat of ISIS in great chunks of Iraq, it means that religious minorities can return to their liberated towns and villages and the next challenge is to see that they have security and that their homes are rebuilt."

Over the past 15 years, the number of Christians has fallen from between 1.4 million and 800,000 Christians to 250,000 Christians in Iraq today, with two-thirds being members of the Chaldean Catholic Church and nearly one-fifth members of the Assyrian Church of the East, according to the report. In Syria, less than 10 percent of the entire population is Christian.

"There is a growing consensus on the need to act, the genocidal acts of ISIS awakened the international community to the threats facing religious minorities," Kozak said.

One way the U.S. responds to the threats of IS, as the Islamic State also is known, is through the Global Coalition, which was founded in 2014 as a group of 68 members, formed specifically for the purpose of reducing the number of threats from IS through military and other campaigns against the militant group, as well as providing humanitarian assistance to both Iraq and Syria.

"In the areas liberated from ISIS, the preferred option is to return people to their traditional villages and areas because we don't want to uproot communities that have been there for thousands of years and take them elsewhere, if we can help them with the security and other means that they need to be able to resume traditional role as the valued members of their own societies," Kozak said.

Kozak told the press that the U.S. has a "good record" in fighting against genocide, stating that the U.S. is in the process of "defeating the perpetrators of genocide pretty soundly" in Iraq and elsewhere, as he discussed the legal and moral obligations of countries working to combat genocide.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry first used the word genocide to describe the IS attacks in Iraq and Syria against minority religious groups such as the Christians, Yezidis and the Shiite Muslims back in March 2016.

Trump recently nominated Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to the post of ambassador at large for international religious freedom, whose position would allow him to work with the office of international religious freedom in the U.S. State Department to support religious freedom throughout the world.

In his weekly video address in April, President Donald Trump reminded America of the country's commitment to religious freedom.

"From the beginning, America has been a place that has cherished the freedom of worship," Trump said April 14. "Sadly, many around the globe do not enjoy this freedom. ... We pray for the strength and wisdom to achieve a better tomorrow -- one where good people of all faiths, Christians and Muslims and Jewish and Hindu, can follow their hearts and worship according to their conscience."

In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its own report covering the 2016 calendar year and up to February 2017. Separate from the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, the commission offers similar recommendations to the administration and to Congress on the state of religious freedom worldwide.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.