China: Historic Christian 1200 year site found

January 18, 2014 by  
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Historic Christian site found in ChinaHong Kong, January 17, 2014: Nestorian Christian site dates back at least 1,200 years.

A recently discovered site may shed new light on historical research into the Nestorian Church, which is believed to be the earliest Christian movement to spread the Gospel in China.

A niche in a stone wall with a cross carved above it has now been verified by experts as a repository for the ashes and bones of Christians. The experts also confirmed that this is the earliest Nestorian burial place discovered so far in China.

The discovery at the Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site in central Henan province, was made in 2009. Its verification was announced to the public this week.

Precise dating has yet to be carried out, but it would have been created at some time during China’s Ming and Tang dynasties of 316-907 AD. It has yet to be established if it is older than the well known Nestorian Stele, an inscribed limestone tablet found in Xi’an, Shaanxi, which dates back to 781 AD and is currently considered the most ancient Nestorian artefact.

The discovery was made by Jiao Jianhui, a researcher at the Longmen Grottoes Research Institute. The grottoes contain thousands of Buddhist and Daoist statues and carvings, But Jiao told ucanews.com that “this is the first discovery of a religious relic other than that of Buddhism and Daoism”.

Jiao recalled the moment when he discovered the site by chance. “I felt instantly that it was different from other niches and grottoes,” he said.

“There are many similar niches at the grottoes, carved with Buddha statues as well as inscriptions to say that the deceased are buried there. So it is certain that the Nestorian site was also for burials.” he said.

Originating in the Middle East in the fifth century AD, the Nestorian Christian Church was initially recognized by the Tang Emperor Taizong but suppressed by his successors.

As Jiao pointed out, the discovery of the site puts a different perspective on historians’ beliefs about those early days in China. “Historical records shows Buddhist suppression of the Nestorian Church in the Tang Dynasty,” he said. “But the niche shows some religious tolerance, as the two religions could coexist harmoniously at the Grottoes.”

Now known as the Assyrian Church of the East, the Nestorian Church was regarded by the Catholic Church as schismatic. But in 1994, the two Churches signed a common declaration of doctrine.

– ucanews

Lanka: Buddhist monks lead mob on two churches

January 18, 2014 by  
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Buddhist monks lead mob assault on two churches in Sri LankaSri Lanka, January 15, 2014: A large mob led by Buddhist monks attacked two churches in Sri Lanka while the congregations were gathered for worship on Sunday (12 January).

Video footage aired on Sri Lankan television showed the offenders throwing stones and bricks at the Assemblies of God (AOG) and Calvary Free Church buildings in Hikkaduwa. They smashed doors and windows, forcing entry to the places of worship. The mob shouted insults, burnt Bibles and Christian books, and destroyed signs and musical instruments.

Nobody was injured in the raid, but a pastor and others at the churches were threatened.

Police were at the scene but failed to intervene. Church leaders told the BBC that the officers appeared unwilling to restrain the monks. A police spokesman admitted police “inaction”, citing insufficient numbers, but said that action would be taken against all those identified as attackers; they intend to arrest 24 people, including eight Buddhist monks, on charges including vandalism, trespass and unlawful assembly.

The AOG and Calvary Free Church have previously been subjected to violent attacks.

Karu Jayasuriya, a senior opposition politican, called on the government to “take steps, corrective actions, to ensure this doesn’t happen again”.

The monks claimed that the AOG and Calvary Free Church are operating illegally. The churches have indeed been ordered to close, as have many others in Sri Lanka, as the authorities are increasingly swayed by an aggressive Sinhalese Buddhist lobby, which is opposed to Christian and Muslim activity in the country.

Churches are being told by the authorities that they must obtain permission from the Buddhist and Religious Affairs Ministry, even though religious groups are not officially required to register with the state in Sri Lanka.

This is proving extremely problematic for Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, because they are not recognised by the Buddhist and Religious Affairs Ministry.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented at least 65 anti-Christian attacks last year. Muslim businesses and mosques have also been targeted.

Another church, near Colombo, was attacked on Sunday. The building was set ablaze, but the fire was put out before any serious damage was done.

– barnabas team

ICC on Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, CAR, Indonesia

January 18, 2014 by  
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Young Christian Killed and Beheaded by Jihadists in Syria

Christians in SyriaOn January 8, 2014 two Christian young men Firas Nader (29), and Fadi Matanius Mattah (34) driving from the city of Homs to a Christian village were attacked by a group of jihadists who opened fire on their car. After seeing a cross worn by Fadi, they pulled him out and beheaded him. Firas, believed to be dead was left after the Jihadists looted the car.  He was able to reach a nearby town and receive treatment. This is just the latest incident illustrating the horrific shadow war on Christians taking place inside the large-scale conflict across Syria that has attracted thousands of foreign fighters from around the world.

  • Pray for the comfort of Fadi Mattah’s family during this time
  • Pray the international community will realize the gravity of the rising persecution of Christians in Syria
  • Pray for the safety and protection of Christians who are being singled out and attacked for their faith

14 Year-Old Christian Girl Abducted And Forcefully Converted To Islam In Pakistan

1/14/2014 Pakistan (Pakistan Gender News)

Pakistan ChristianA 14 year-old Christian girl (name withheld) was forced to marry and convert to Islam after being abducted by a fellow student, Abdullah Shafi. The girl and her mother were threatened separately with dire consequences if they were to speak against him and his family. Both did not remain silent resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of Shafi for abduction under section 365-B Pakistan’s Penal Code. Though the Bhatti family succeeded where so few have in retrieving their daughter, they are planning to leave their beloved homeland due to fears of further attacks.

  • Pray for the safety and strength of all the young girls that have been abducted
  • Pray this family receives spiritual healing wherever their path leads them
  • Pray lawmakers will produce more protective legislation for religious minorities

Muslim Brotherhood Keeps Copts From Polling Stations, Attacks Coptic Homes in Minya Village

1/14/2014 Egypt (Mideast News)

Egypt ChristiansMuslim Brotherhood members were out in force on Tuesday, January 14th trying to prevent Coptic Christians in the villages of Upper Egypt, Reida and Bani Ahmed of Minya, from accessing the polls to vote in Egypt’s constitutional referendum. The members attacked the homes of the Coptics with stones and insults as well as the armed security forces guarding the polls, which resulted in 25 arrests and the Copts continued with their voting.

  • Pray our wonderful God will continue to give the Copts strength
  • Pray our fellow Christians will continue to receive aid and protection from authorities
  • Pray for peace and safety for all Christians in Egypt

Refugees in Central African Republic Struggle To Survive

1/14/2014 Central African Republic (Charisma News)

Refugees in Central African RepublicAid agencies estimate 1 million people have been displaced into refugee camps by violence in Central African Republic where Open Doors co-worker (name withheld) found the conditions for the refugees to be ‘shocking’, ‘tense’, ‘living like animals’ and ‘over-crowded’. The U.N. Humanitarian Agency has reported food and water shortages fearing hard times for many. Despite the poor living conditions and living in fear; especially from the anti-Balaka and Muslim extremists still attacking, these Christians continue to gather and worship. Will newly appointed interim president, Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, make a difference, after he issued this stern warning to ex-Seleka fighters and to anti-Balaka: “The chaos is over, the pillaging is over, the revenge attacks are over.”

  • Pray for the end of violence and persecution in all of Africa
  • Pray for the spiritual and physical healing of all displaced
  • Pray the newly appointed interim president will follow through with his warning and bring peace to all

Construction Blocked On Five Churches In Sumatra, Indonesia

1/13/2014 Indonesia (AsiaNews)

Indonesia ChristiansAt least five Christian churches have been forced to halt construction since December 16, 2013 due to blockades imposed by local authorities, and mounting pressure from Islamic extremists. The cause of the most recent blockade in the district of Bungo is claimed to be ‘due to the lack of a building permit’, and ‘in line of the law’. Though ‘in line of the law’, Christian related construction can take five to ten years to obtain the proper permits, and in addition to this, they must receive permission from local residents and local group for Interfaith Dialogue.

  • Pray local authorities and residents will rise above intolerance, and aid our fellow Christians
  • Pray our brothers and sisters have sanctuary and guidance
  • Pray these churches will be built and reopened with strength in numbers

A parable – Take My Hand

January 18, 2014 by  
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Mulla NasrudinOne day Mulla Nasrudin saw a crowd gathered around a pond. The village miser had fallen in the water and was calling for help.

People were leaning over and saying, “Give me your hand! Give me your hand!” But he didn’t pay attention to their offer to rescue him; he kept wrestling with the water and shouting for help.

Finally Mulla Nasrudin stepped forward: “Let me handle this.” He stretched out his hand toward the miser and shouted at him, “Take my hand!”

The man grabbed Mulla’s hand and was hoisted out of the pond. People, very surprised, asked Mulla for the secret of his strategy.

“It is very simple,” he replied. “I know this miser wouldn’t give anything to anyone. So instead of saying ‘Give me your hand,’ I said, ‘take my hand,’ and sure enough he took it.”

– fwd: reuben tellis

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Andhra: Evangelical clergyman stabbed to death

January 17, 2014 by  
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Andhra Pradesh, January 14, 2014: Four unknown men visited the home of Rev Sanjeevulu, head of the ‘Friends of Hebron.’ After beating beat him and stabbing him seven times, they also attacked his wife, who managed to escape. Christians who asked for justice were arrested by the authorities. “Although the motive of the attack is not yet known,” said a Christian leader, “It could be premeditated murder.”

Pastor Sanjeevulu & Family

Pastor Sanjeevulu & Family

A group of strangers murdered an evangelical pastor in Andhra Pradesh and tried to kill his wife as well before they fled the scene of the crime.

At present, the government appears unable to deliver justice in the case, but was able to arrest a group of Christians who demonstrated to demand the arrest of the culprits.

The murder victim, Rev Sanjeevulu, died yesterday after two days of suffering.

According tosome sources, on the afternoon of 11 January four men visited Rev Sanjeevulu’s home in Vikarabad, a village that is 64 kilometers from the state capital of Hyderabad. The clergyman heads a group called the ‘Friends of Hebron’.

On the door step of the reverend’s home, the men said they wanted to “pray with the pastor,” but as soon as he came out, they stabbed him seven times and beat him with clubs and sticks.

After she heard screams, Sanjeevulu’s wife rushed to him, where upon the attackers tried to kill her as well. Although she was stabbed, she luckily managed to escape and survived.

The pastor was admitted to Yashoda hospital (pictured) where, despite medical treatment, he died yesterday afternoon from his stab wounds.

The day after the attack, many Christians and friends of the clergyman went to the hospital where they expressed their sorrow for the attack.

Christian leaders in Hyderabad organised a dharna (sit-in protest) demanding justice from the government.

Some of thefaithful marched outside the offices of the Chief Minister to demand the arrestof the culprits, but were themselves arrested.

Police did announce that it was launching an investigation into the incident.

Sajan K George,president of the Global Council of Indian Churches, told AsiaNews that he was “deeply saddened” by the murder ofthe clergyman.

“Approximately three months ago,” he added, “we know that Sanjeevulu had a heated discussion with some members of a Hindu fundamentalist group, who threatened him. It could be premeditated murder.”  (N.C.)

– asianews

Kerala: Syrian Christian lunch for Rahul

January 17, 2014 by  
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Rahul gets Syrian Christian lunch in KeralaKerala, January 17, 2014: Gandhi was on a day’s visit to Kerala Monday, to participate in the yatra of Youth Congress state president Deen Kuriakose.

When Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi visited Kerala early this week, he had a traditional Syrian Christian lunch from one of the popular restaurants on the National Highway near Alappuzha.

The Kalapakavadi family was informed Monday around 2 p.m. that Gandhi and his entourage would be over for lunch in their restaurant that serves traditional Kerala food.

“I asked my wife Susheela to see that a Syrian Christian lunch be ready in 45 minutes. She and the others set about getting the meal ready,” said Kalapakavadi.

Gandhi was on a day’s visit to Kerala Monday, to participate in the yatra of Youth Congress state president Deen Kuriakose.

The Kalapakavadi Motels and Resorts at Karuvatta on the National Highway 47 is owned by Congress leader Lal Varghese Kalapakavadi, whose father Varghese Vaidyan was one of the founder leaders of the Communist Party in Kerala.

Kalapakavadi is the president of the farmers’ wing of the Congress party, and also chairs the state-owned Horticorp (Kerala State Horticultural Products Development Corporation Ltd).

Susheela and her kitchen staff raced through 45 minutes and readied a combo of appam (a traditional pancake made of rice flour), fish molly, chicken fry and a prawn dish.

The entourage of Gandhi arrived soon enough, accompanied by Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi, state party chief and Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala and other senior party leaders.

“The security staff checked the food before it was served. He ate four appams, but said he did not want rice. He said he liked the food,” said Kalapakavadi.

The best part of the visit was the chance to interact with Gandhi, a patient listener, Kalapakavadi said.

“I told him that at the national level there is no mechanism in the Congress party to address the issue of farmers. He agreed, and asked me to come to Delhi after the 17th of this month to have a discussion on it,” Kalapakavadi said.

He asked why I joined the Congress when my father was a popular Communist leader, and was surprised when I told him that my son Ambu V. Vaidyan is following in the footsteps of my father, and is a member of the Communist Party of India.

“Please send him to me, I will convert him into a Congressman,” Gandhi said, according to Kalapakavadi.

Before leaving, Gandhi also posed for a photograph with the family.

– ians

Should reservations continue for ever?

January 17, 2014 by  
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Reservations systemJanuary 16, 2014: It is indeed shameful that even after 66 years of independence, a large majority of Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) people live in pathetic conditions, at the mercy of others. This is because only the upper echelons of these groups (a small percentage) are enjoying the provisions of reservation while the majority, the poorest of the poor, working as labourers, remain labourers for generations because of lacunae in reservation, defeating the very purpose of constitutional reservations.

When the condition and circumstances for children of the upper echelons among SC, ST and minorities are on a par with the majority of forward caste children, why should they need reservation in education and employment? The former category includes Class I government officers and above and private sector employees with over Rs.6 lakh in income per annum besides elected representatives.

In the process, these privileged sections within the SC and ST are knowingly or unknowingly depriving the privileges meant for children of the downtrodden from these groups. If reservation is removed for the upper echelons of SC, ST and minorities, lakhs of downtrodden children can get opportunities to become engineers, doctors and other professionals. So, political parties should pledge to enact a law scrapping reservations for upper echelons among Dalits, tribals and OBCs.

And if political parties are indeed genuine, they should immediately provide proportionate representation in their own ranks, from the village to national level, to SC, ST and minorities based on the percentage of population in order to empower them. This is vital as party organisations prepare the agendas of the government.

The upper echelons among Dalits, tribals and minorities should also be barred from contesting elections from reserved constituencies — at all levels up to parliament. Individuals whose annual family income and assets are above Rs.3 lakh at the village level, Rs.10 lakh at the block level, Rs.50 lakh at the state level and double that at the parliamentary level must be treated as upper echelon. As the really wealthy Dalit, tribal and OBCs can enjoy facilities on a par with forward caste candidates, they should contest in the general category seats.

It should also be the moral responsibility of the educated SC, ST and OBC who have gained from reservation in education, employment and electoral system to contribute a fraction of their annual income to a fund to ensure better educational conditions for meritorious students and to provide seed capital for deserving self employment opportunities (to be monitored by experts).

In addition, all those from SC, ST and OBCs employed with sectors such as banking and revenue departments should spend a month in villages auditing government welfare schemes. After all, these measures are meant for the betterment of the downtrodden.

All these measures will bring real empowerment to millions among the downtrodden and sustain economic growth over time. Over the decades, the need for reservation as it now exists may not arise; only reservation based on economic needs will need to be made.

– ians

Pope’s words of warning resonate in Asia

January 17, 2014 by  
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Pope's words of warning resonate in AsiaBangkok, January 14, 2014: We can all learn from his advice to new cardinals.

Almost immediately after announcing his appointment of 19 new cardinals, it has been revealed that Pope Francis has also written them a letter of warning.

“The cardinalship does not imply promotion,” he wrote. “It is neither an honor nor a decoration; it is simply a service that requires you to broaden your gaze and open your hearts.”

Earlier consistories – the Vatican City event where new cardinals are formally inducted – have often been accompanied by a whirl of social functions and dinners. But the pope’s letter seems to have nipped that sharply in the bud.

“I ask you, please, to receive this designation with a simple and humble heart,” it said. “And, while you must do so with pleasure and joy, ensure that this sentiment is far from any expression of worldliness or from any form of celebration contrary to the evangelical spirit of austerity, sobriety and poverty.”

The letter is especially significant for the challenge it offers the Church in Asia where hierarchies are sometimes entrenched parts of local culture. With those hierarchies come an attitude entirely at odds with the sort of Church proposed at the Second Vatican Council; a Church that the present pope wants restored.

Catholicism is enriched when cultures other than those of Europe throw fresh light on the person and message of Jesus and the meaning and celebration of the sacraments.

But sometimes the Church reflects aspects of the local culture that are actually an obstacle to receiving the Gospel and growing in authentic faith. Ingrained attitudes to status and the operations of those in leadership positions can become counter-signs to the life and mode of service suggested by Jesus.

In the letter, which he begins with the simple salutation “Dear Brother” (no titles or formality), the pope continues with his relentless focus on the sort of Church he wants to see flourish; a place where the poor have the only place of privilege and the role of officials in the Church is as servants.

Referring to the appointment as a “designation” rather than an elevation, as is usually done, makes more than a nominal difference. This is the pope who advised friends not to come for his installation as Bishop of Rome and instead give the price of the travel as a gift to the poor. Now he is telling the new cardinals that what they’re taking on is a service; work that will be demanding and at times burdensome.

The reality is that being a cardinal adds nothing more than ordination as bishop achieved. All that being a cardinal means is that the person so designated joins the group who are the elders of the Church of Rome. Their main responsibility is the election of the leader of the Church of Rome.

But then comes reality. The designation, which used to be seen by many as an elevation, brings with it a status that sets them distinctly apart. And some of them in recent years have emphasized just how apart they are by the clothes they wear and the importance they think they should enjoy.

The most obvious, and ludicrous, expression of this aspect of some cardinals’ view of themselves became apparent in their wearing of the Cappa Magna, a form of dress to signify office that was specifically suppressed by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s, only to reappear in the last decade.

It was rightly described by many as the epitome of “dress up Catholicism,” now so condemned in word and deed by Pope Francis. Despite the fashion magazine Esquire choosing him as the best dressed man of 2013, Pope Francis has deliberately ‘dressed down.’

But that is the thin edge of a very large wedge that the pope is looking to drive into the world’s clergy, whom he sees as here for service to people rather than preening for the sake of seeming superior.

And in that, he is doing no more than echoing the teaching of Vatican II, which designated the Church to be the People of God, not an institution that comprises a paid-up work force of clerics and religious who were imagined to be a higher form of Catholicism, better Catholics or even closer to God.

As Vatican II underlined, clerics and religious are there purely to support the baptized who are the front line troops for the mission of the Church.

The message of Pope Francis is simple but also hard to live: learning the hard lessons of how we can share the mission of Jesus requires patience, humility and a readiness for self-sacrificing service.

 

* Fr Michael Kelly is the executive director of ucanews.com

Should the laity have a role in choosing their bishops?

January 17, 2014 by  
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United States, January 15, 2014: An argument in favor.

BishopsPope Francis says that he wants a special kind of bishop for our church—he wants “shepherds who smell of their sheep.” Let us take our Holy Father at his word: Who knows how the sheep smell better than the sheep themselves? No one. So then why not let the sheep make a modest proposal and ask that we laypeople have a significant say in the choice of our bishops.

This proposal is not as radical as it may seem. Once the office of bishop was clearly established in the early church, that office was filled by the choice of the local people and priests, and ratified by the neighboring bishops as a sign of the unity of the church.

Even unbaptized persons were eligible to be chosen for bishop, as we know from the story of St. Ambrose, who was acclaimed by the clergy and people as bishop of Milan while he was still a catechumen. And the very first bishop in the United States, John Carroll, was elected by the priests of Maryland and confirmed by the pope.

Today we are so used to the pope choosing our bishops for us without any input from those whom the bishop will serve that we forget it was not always that way. In fact the right of the pope to choose bishops was only finally settled by the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which clearly allocated that power to the holder of the papal office.

The way bishops are chosen today arguably does have some limited lay input. When a priest is being considered for appointment as bishop, the apostolic nuncio, the pope’s representative sends out what are called apostolic letters. These letters go to select laypeople from the diocese, asking their knowledge of the candidate’s position on some very specific issues, such as birth control, abortion, married priests, female priests, the remarriage of divorced Catholics, and same-sex marriage.

These questions reveal the slant of the Vatican that has given us so many culture warrior bishops, although perhaps the questions will change under Pope Francis. Maybe the apostolic letters will begin to ask new questions: Does this man have a concern for the poor? Does he dress in the best clothes, drive a fancy car, and enjoy fine food and drink? Does he spend more time with rich people than with poor people?

Even better, the letters might possibly go to different people. Right now, the only folks who get those letters tend to be wealthy donors; the poor people of a diocese never get apostolic letters from the papal nuncio. Besides the limited input of such apostolic letters, however, there really is no lay participation regarding which men are chosen to be our bishops.

So then how do bishops come to be chosen today? Dioceses in the United States are divided into what are known as “ecclesiastical provinces,” e.g. every diocese in the state of Illinois is in the province of Chicago, every diocese in the state of Pennsylvania is in the province of Philadelphia , etc. Each of these provinces has a list of potential candidates for bishop, compiled from suggestions of priests favored by the bishops of that province, which they update every so often. No laypeople are given the chance to contribute any names to that list.

Supposedly, when there is a need for a diocesan bishop in the province, the papal nuncio begins the hunt by looking at the candidates on that list. And even more importantly, the papal nuncio is not bound by the list; it is only a starting point. He may place other priests’ names from around the country on the list of candidates that he prepares.

The nuncio narrows the candidates down to a final list of three names (called a “terna”) which is sent to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. The list is vetted, perhaps rewritten with different names, and then sent on to the pope. The pope can pick any name from the list of three that the Congregation for Bishops gives him, or he can go off-list and pick someone completely different. John Paul II, who was well-traveled both before and after becoming pope, supposedly went off-list a number of times to name as diocesan bishops men whom he knew personally.

This current system can result in bishops being parachuted into dioceses by headquarters in Rome, without any knowledge of the diocese, its priests, or its people. Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Some bishops from outside are quick studies, and genuinely get to know their priests and people before they begin making major decisions. Others arrive thinking that they already know all they need to know and proceed from one disastrous decision to another. Usually this system gives us bishops whose only loyalty is upward—to their patrons in Rome or to the national hierarchy who campaigned for them—and not to their own priests and people.

I think that this one fact alone—the way they were chosen as bishops to begin with—helps to explain a lot about the way the American bishops mishandled the clergy child sexual abuse crisis. Recall that the national bishops conference dithered for years, looking for a solution from Rome. Being afraid to act without one, they did nothing while the situation deteriorated in the United States. Bishops who were more accountable to their people would not have acted that way.

What would it look like if laypeople had a real role in the choice of our bishops? In the normal course of events, before a diocese is about to fall vacant—and this is not a surprise date, since bishops must retire when they turn 75, which is right after the year they turn 74—the papal nuncio or someone from his staff should actually travel to the diocese and talk to the laypeople directly. In any given year, there are less than a dozen dioceses that become open, so this will not require a lot of travel.

The nuncio’s staff should visit parishes and ask people to stay after Mass to talk about potential bishop candidates; that way you will get those Catholics who actually participate in the life of the church (anywhere from 27 to 35 percent in most dioceses) to give their opinion.

The nuncio or his staff should then hold a convocation in the diocese where folks chosen by the people of each parish, not by the pastor, would be asked to attend and discuss suitable candidates. The people know who the good priests are. They are the men who Pope Francis described in his recent talk to the episcopal conferences of Latin America (CELAM), as “pastors, close to people, fathers and brothers, and gentle, patient and merciful.”

They must be simple men, devoted to poverty, and not driven by ambition. They must be “men who do not think and behave like princes,” Francis said, but “men capable of watching over the flock entrusted to them and protecting everything that keeps it together: guarding their people out of concern for the dangers which could threaten them, but above all instilling hope: so that light will shine in people’s hearts. Men capable of supporting with love and patience God’s dealings with his people.”

– us catholic

Barnabas Edit: Resurgent Al-Qaeda fights for Islamic state in Iraq, Syria and beyond

January 17, 2014 by  
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The north-eastern Syrian city of al-Raqqah is under al-Qaeda control

The north-eastern Syrian city of al-Raqqah is under al-Qaeda control

January 16, 2014: Since the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the US has proudly heralded the defeat of Al-Qaeda. But contrary to President Obama’s repeated statements that the Islamists have been been “decimated” and are “on the path to defeat”, al-Qaeda is alive and kicking, even extending their territory. The militants are fighting to create a cross-border Islamic state in the Middle East as the conflicts in Iraq and Syria fuel each other and spill over into Lebanon.

The jihadists are fighting in the territory under the name of “The Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIS, sometimes ISIL). The second “S” in the acronym ISIS stems from the Arabic word, al-Sham which refers to the Greater Syria or Levant area. ISIS formed in April 2013, an expansion of an existing group, the Islamic State of Iraq.

It has gained control of parts of northern Syria, though most of ISIS’s fighters are foreigners, including Iraqis, Libyans, Saudi Arabians and Europeans.

ISIS’s campaign is part of a wider regional conflict that pits Sunni and Shia forces against each other in a battle for supremacy. The Sunni militants, backed by wealthy Gulf states, see themselves as the defenders of their co-religionists in places where they are perceived to be oppressed by Shia regimes.

A spokesman for ISIS last week declared war on Shiites in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Sunni minority was dominant politically and economically. But this changed with the removal of Saddam Hussein, and the current government of Nouri al Maliki is Shiite-dominated, which is greatly resented by Iraqi Sunnis.

In Syria, the Sunni majority is ruled by an Alawite (Shia sect) minority. The opposition to President Bashar al-Assad is a patchwork of Sunni rebel groups, of which ISIS has been a leading force.

In Lebanon, the population is fairly evenly divided between Sunnis, Shias and Christians, with power being shared along sectarian lines. The legacy of the country’s civil war of 1975-1990 endures, and tensions between Sunnis and Shias in particular have been exacerbated by theSyria conflict, which has been spilling over into Lebanon.

Fighters from the Lebanon-based Shiite militant group Hezbollah have helped shore up Syrian President Assad’s forces, while ISIS have been launching attacks in Lebanon.

ISIS IN IRAQ

Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists were largely checked in Iraq by US troops, but since the Iraqi security forces have taken sole command, the militants have escalated their terrorist activities. Although al-Qaeda’s hold is weaker than at its peak between 2004-07, it has recently reclaimed vast swathes of the country.

Last year was the most violent in Iraq since 2008; more than 7,000 people were killed, around double the figure for 2003, raising the spectre of a civil war. ISIS has been staging mass-casualty attacks and prison breaks.

It is currently focusing its efforts in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, which bordersSyria. In a highly significant development earlier this month, ISIS seized Fallujah and parts of Ramadi; fighting over the territory continues.

The violence in Iraq over the last decade has resulted in a mass exodus of the country’s historic Christian community; they have been deliberately and mercilessly targeted by Islamist militants who want to purge Iraq of all traces of Christianity.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) recently estimated that 850,000 Christians have left Iraq since 2003. Many fled to Syria, but that is no longer a safe haven for them.

The Islamic State of Iraq, as it was known then, committed the deadliest-ever attack on Iraqi Christians: the hostage siege at a church in Baghdad in 2010 that left 58 people dead. The horrific incident prompted another wave of Christian emigration.

ISIS IN SYRIA

ISIS is one of the militant groups fighting against President Assad’s troops, but increasingly its battle is becoming more about establishing an Islamic state. This has created conflict with other rebel groups, even Islamic ones. Although some share the same ultimate goal, they perceive – correctly – that ISIS’s hardline Islamist approach is alienating both the Syrian people and potential Western backers. This has led to serious rebel infighting, a war within a war essentially, making the prospect of peace all the more elusive for the beleaguered Syrian people.

The rebels are on a spectrum with secularists who want a pluralistic Syria at one end and ISIS who want a strict Islamic state at the other, with a host of others in between; the al-Nusra Front, which has also declared allegiance to al-Qaeda, is close to ISIS on the scale though remains a distinct group.

ISIS has reclaimed significant parts of the north that other rebel groups had wrested away last week. In territory under its control, notably the north-eastern city of al-Raqqah and parts of Aleppo, the militants are imposing strict Islamic law.

A report released by Amnesty International last month said:

The people of al-Raqqah and Aleppo are suffering under a new form of tyranny imposed by ISIS.

Amnesty said that the Islamists had committed serious rights abuses, some of which amounting to war crimes, such as abductions, torture and unlawful killings. ISIS has set up sharia courts, where detainees are said to be subjected to “grotesquely unfair trials”; some are held for “crimes” against Islam, such as smoking and drinking alcohol.

Christians in ISIS-held areas are acutely vulnerable. In September, the militants stormed two churches in al-Raqqah and sent a clear signal of their intentions; they destroyed crosses and other Christian symbols and hoisted a black flag, which represents jihad, over one of the buildings.

Following the church attacks, al-Raqqah residents took to the streets demanding that ISIS leave their city. The militants do not have the backing of the ordinary Syrian people, but ominously, this has not diminished their influence in the country.

ISIS and other Islamist militant bands in Syria are following a set strategy, deliberately destroying Christian areas and engaging in a form of ethnic cleansing.

WILL ISIS SUCCEED?

How likely is ISIS to succeed in its goal of establishing an Islamic state in the Levant? Global intelligence company Stratfor says it will not succeed, as the group does not have the human resources to overcome its many enemies.

But it is certainly capable, as we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria, of causing carnage, exacerbating deep-rooted sectarian tensions and establishing sharia-ruled enclaves. It thus poses an enduring threat to the prospect of peace in the region and to the future of the diminishing Christian community.

If the territory becomes overrun by al-Qaeda, Christianity would be all but destroyed there. And the blowback in Western countries, from where increasing numbers of radicals are coming to fight alongside the terrorists, could be devastating.

As the Geneva II conference gathers next week and world leaders try to find a breakthrough to end the civil war in Syria, they must address ISIS’s wider aspirations and take steps to cut off the group’s supply lines, including weapons from the Gulf and the recruitment of Western jihadis.

The way forward for Syria is extremely difficult to envisage, but what is clear is that the embattled country’s future, and that of its neighbours, must not be allowed to fall into ISIS’s hands.

– dr patrick sookhdeo

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