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Proposed changes to US Commission on International Religious Freedom draw fire

Washington D.C., Nov 22, 2019 / 04:02 pm (CNA).- With the current authorization for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expiring this year, proposed changes to the independent panel have sparked controversy.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. government commission established in 1998 under the International Religious Freedom Act. It works to monitor the state of religious freedom abroad and make recommendations to Congress, the president and the Secretary of State about policies to advance religious freedom.

USCRIF must be periodically reauthorized by Congress. Its current authorization expires this year.

A bill to reauthorize the commission for four years, with an additional $1 million for the group’s annual budget, was introduced in September. It proposed a single three-year term limit for commissioners, as well as requirements for the group to report regularly to Congress, a change that is described as working toward transparency and accountability.

However, the bill has been met with pushback from current commissioners, who say it would compromise their mission.

Last week, commissioner Kristina Arriaga announced her resignation. Arriaga had served since 2016 and was set to be on the commission until May 2020.

Arriaga told The Christian Post the proposed legislation “would gut USCIRF by changing its mission and burdening commissioners with the very kind of innovation-killing bureaucracy they were designed to fight.”

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, she voiced concern over what she saw as Congressional moves that would impede the group’s ability to function.

“Believing that a bureaucracy can’t be defeated by creating another bureaucracy, Congress ensured the nine USCIRF commissioners were unpaid, independent volunteer voices selected from both political parties,” she said, stressing the independent nature of the commission and its ability to take “direct action” as key factors enabling it to be successful in carrying out its work.

However, she warned, the new legislative proposal would alter the role of USCIRF to include monitoring the “abuse of religion to justify human rights violations.”

“This creates an opening for the commission to enter ideological fights over, for example, sex segregation at religious services, circumcision or same-sex relationships,” Arriaga said. “Part of the reason for USCIRF’s success is avoiding these divisive theological fights and focusing on clear-cut cases of religious freedom.”

She also criticized proposals to create new reporting requirements and to restrict the ways in which USCIRF commissioners use their title when speaking in a personal capacity.

The bill has been pulled amid the controversy, and lawmakers must now work to craft new legislation extending the mandate of USCIRF if the body is to remain in existence.

In a Nov. 15 tweet, Senator Marco Rubio defended the legislation, saying that if it were up to him, he would approve a simple extension of USCRIF’s mandate. But the changes are necessary as part of a compromise to win Democratic support, he said, noting that unless Congress acts to reauthorize the commission, it will disappear.

Commissioner Nadine Maenza stressed that the independent nature of the group over the years has allowed it the freedom to criticize policies enacted by all administrations, without devolving into partisan squabbles.

“We’ve lasted for 20 years because there’s no daylight between Republicans and Democrats on our mission and mandate,” Maenza said, according to the New York Times. “The minute there is, and one side can be pitted against the other side ... the loser will be religious freedom.”

Pa. Catholic conference: Gov. Wolf failed to protect 'humanity's most vulnerable lives' with Down syndrome abortion veto

Harrisburg, Pa., Nov 22, 2019 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf this week vetoed a bill that would have banned the abortion of children prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome. The state Catholic conference condemned the decision. 

“Gov. Wolf’s veto will prevent all children with Down’s syndrome from going on to live happy and fulfilled lives,” executive director Eric Failing said in a Nov. 21 statement.

“Had Gov. Wolf signed this legislation, he would’ve ensured the protection of humanity’s most vulnerable lives,” he said in Nov. 21 statement.

Wolf vetoed the bill on Thursday, stating that the legislation would have hindered the medical decisions between a woman and her doctor.

“This legislation is a restriction on women and medical professionals and interferes with women’s health care and the crucial decision-making between patients and their physicians,” Wolf said in an online statement.

“Physicians and their patients must be able to make choices about medical procedures based on best practices and standards of care,” he further added.

Under the current Pennsylvania law, abortion is permissible for any reason, besides gender selection, until the 24th week of pregnancy. If the bill passed this week had been signed into law, it would have prohibited abortions chosen after a diagnosis of Down syndrome, except in cases of rape, incest, and medical emergencies.

Even though the bill was vetoed, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference applauded the efforts of Democratic and Republican lawmakers who supported the effort.

The bill had passed through the Pennsylvania Senate, 27-22, on Wednesday. It passed through the state’s House of Representatives 117-76, in May.

“We thank all legislators who came together in a bi-partisan fashion to support this common-sense legislation, and PCC looks forward to working with them again to protect the sanctity of life,” Failing said.

Up to 75% of babies diagnosed prenatally with Down syndrome in the U.S. have been aborted in recent decades, according to research conducted between 1995 and 2011.

Opponents of the bill have claimed the legislation would violate women's reproductive rights.

According to Penn Live, Sen. Maria Collett said the bill would not help people with disabilities. She said legislators should instead focus on laws that benefit the caregivers and those already born with disabilities.

“This bill does nothing to improve the lives of people with Down syndrome,” said Collett. “Instead, it uses them to advance a political agenda.”

Sen. Scott Martin disagreed, saying abortion of children diagnosed with Down syndrome is “not health care” but an act of “eugenics.”

“These are parents who actually want to have children, who are presented as if this child will actually be a burden, who cannot live a productive life. ... These children have the ability to live long, productive lives, even past the age of 60,” he said, during floor debate on the bill.


Catholic politician kicked out of UK party over religious beliefs

London, England, Nov 22, 2019 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- A former member of parliament has spoken out after being deselected as a candidate for the U.K.’s Liberal Democrat Party because of his Catholic faith and views on same-sex marriage and abortion. 

Robert Flello sat as a Labour Party MP in the House of Commons for over a decade, representing Stoke-on-Trent from 2005 until 2017. In 2019, he switched parties to the Liberal Democrats and was selected as their candidate for his former constituency. Flello, a practicing Catholic, was informed on Nov. 12--just 36 hours after his selection as a candidate--that he had been de-selected and would not be permitted to represent the Lib Dems in the election. 

Flello is now calling for the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom to “start speaking out” and defend its social teaching, and for Catholics in the U.K. to question their local candidates about their thoughts on religious freedom. 

“However they try to dress it up, the simple fact is that you can’t be a practicing Catholic and a Lib Dem Candidate,” wrote Flello in an op-ed published on Nov. 20 in the Catholic Herald magazine. He said that “someone, somewhere” objected to him within the party and officials “got worried and pulled the plug.” 

“We need Catholics to start contacting political parties to challenge discrimination and anti-religious prejudice,” said Flello. “I’m not going to keep quiet on this and nor, I hope, will others.”

Flello said that he has always been transparent about his opposition to same-sex marriage and aborting children after a diagnosis with Down syndrome, and that this had previously not been an issue. 

“[During the candidate vetting progress] I made clear my views on same-sex marriage during the interview, in the part helpfully titled ‘Having the courage to make and defend unpopular decisions and seeking out opportunities to publicise and defend beliefs’,” said Flello, adding that “maybe I should have written instead about the Lib Dem opposition to state interference and closing down of free speech.”

Another issue the Lib Dems raised with Flello were his tweets critical of a “buffer zones” which local authorites and courts have placed around abortion clinics, preventing prayer vigils and pro-life demonstrations. 

Flello rejected the Lib Dems’ claim that they were unaware of his political views, noting his parliamentary voting record and had tweets about the issues. 

In 2013, Flello defied the Labour Party whip by voting against same-sex marriage. In that same vote, Flello noted, the Lib Dems did not instruct their candidates to vote either for or against the bill. 

“How times change,” he said. 

“The Lib Dems are, of course, claiming they have no issue with my religious views and very helpfully they have told me I am free to have some of my views,” said Flello. 

Flello said that, despite the de-selection, he was happy to place his religious beliefs above his political aspirations, citing St. Thomas More - a former MP who was martyred by King Henry VIII for refusing to break with the Catholic Church.

“To paraphrase one of my favorite quotations, I am politics’ good servant, but God’s first,” said Flello. 

Flello’s de-selection is the latest in a line of British politicians being penalized for their religious beliefs. 

MP Tim Farron, an evangelical Christian, was forced to step down as the leader of the Lib Dems in 2017, after coming under fire for his views against homosexulaity and sin. Farron said he was “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.” Farron had led the party for two years before his resignation. 

“A better, wiser person may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to remain faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment,” said Farron upon his resignation. He said he thought it was impossible to both lead a progressive political party and be faithful to the Bible. 

Conservative MP and practicing Catholic Jacob Rees-Mogg was appointed Leader of the House of Commons by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in July of 2019. Prior to this, Rees-Mogg was criticized as a “thoroughly modern bigot” for holding views against same-sex marriage and abortion. 

Trump asked to oppose funding amendment undermining Mexico City Policy

Washington D.C., Nov 22, 2019 / 12:19 pm (CNA).- A group of pro-life leaders, including the US bishops’ pro-life chair, wrote Thursday to President Donald Trump urging him to tell Congress that an amendment funding overseas abortion providers is unacceptable.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) inserted an amendment to the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs appropriations bill that would increase family planning funding that could go to abortion promoters, would reinstate funding of the UN’s Population Fund, and would provide a mechanism to enforce an Obama-era non-discrimination rule that could essentially “blacklist” pro-life groups from being eligible for U.S. foreign assistance.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas and 17 other pro-life leaders wrote to Trump Nov. 21 saying, “We strongly urge you to communicate to Congress that the Shaheen amendment is a poison pill that violates the Budget Agreement, and that you will oppose it as part of any final appropriations package.”

The amendment “must be removed before final passage of the SFOPS bill,” they said.

Shaheen’s amendment could undercut the Mexico City Policy, which bars U.S. funding of foreign NGOs that promote or perform abortions as a method of family planning. The Trump administration reinstated this policy and expanded upon it, applying the funding prohibition not just to family planning funding, but to $8.8 billion of global health assistance.

The senator’s proposed increase in international family planning funding of $57.55 million could also benefit certain domestic groups which promote abortion.

Shaheen’s amendment would also set up an enforcement mechanism of the 2016 Obama administration “Non-Discrimination Against End-Users of Supplies or Services” rule. This rule essentially required contractors with USAID not to “discriminate” against aid beneficiaries on the basis of sex, “including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy.” 

The enforcement mechanism for the rule targets pro-life and Christian groups “by adding new reporting requirements that are intended to effectively ‘name and shame’ faith or community-based partners, particularly pro-life and pro-family partners,” the letter notes.

“The resulting blacklist is designed to drive qualified faith-based providers away from providing foreign assistance,” said the pro-life coalition.

They added that the amendment “condones a flawed regulation” from the Obama administration “that targets pro-life and pro-family organizations.”

According to the pro-life leaders’ letter, Shaheen’s amendment also “directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a one-sided evaluation targeting the pro-life policies” of the Trump administration.

“In addition to undermining important pro-life actions and policies of your Administration, we believe that the Shaheen amendment, creating new policy, expressly violates the Bipartisan Budget Agreement for Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021,” the letter says.

That budget agreement says that “there will be no poison pills, additional new riders,... or other changes in policy or conventions that allow for higher spending levels, or any nonappropriations measures unless agreed to on a bipartisan basis by the four leaders with the approval of the President.”

Congress was to have had until Nov. 21 to pass appropriations bills funding government agencies for the 2020 fiscal year, but yesterday Trump signed a continuing resolution extending the deadline to Dec. 20.

Last month Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action and one of the letter’s signatories, told CNA that just such a continuing resolution -- which gives a short-term extension of status quo funding -- would be the best case scenario for pro-lifers as the funding deadline neared, as no new problems could be added to the legislation.

Boston seminary report: 'isolated incidents' but no 'culture of abuse'

Boston, Mass., Nov 22, 2019 / 12:05 pm (CNA).- An independent investigation into the Archdiocese of Boston’s St. John’s Seminary has found incidents of sexual misconduct but no seminary-wide culture of abuse.  

“Contrary to some of the reporting surrounding 2018 social media postings, the Seminary is not a den of sexual misconduct fueled by excessive drinking. Instead, our investigation disclosed only isolated incidents of sexual conduct and alcohol use that are inappropriate in a seminary setting,” says a report by the Boston law firm Yurko, Salvesen & Remz, P.C., released on Friday.

The report identified flawed “leadership and oversight” of the seminary’s rector, vice rector, and certain faculty members which contributed to both specific incidents and some cultural problems, and recommended a revision of the seminary’s alcohol policy and the establishment of an anonymous hotline to report abuse. The seminary has been under interim leadership since the investigation was announced last year.

The results of the independent investigation into the Archdiocese of Boston’s St. John’s Seminary were published Friday, Nov. 22, more than a year after Cardinal Sean O’Malley first called for an inquiry in August 2018. The investigation was to review the abuse allegations, the culture of the seminary, and any signs of “sexual harassment or other forms of intimidation or discrimination.”

O’Malley said in a statement that he is “grateful for the thoughtful and comprehensive efforts” of the review team, and for their “candor.”

“The inquiry has presented issues that require remedial action and oversight for ongoing compliance,” O’Malley said on Friday. But the cardinal said he is “confident that the facts brought forth by this report and the actions being taken to address those issues unite us in the commitment to ensure that St. John’s Seminary maintains a standard of excellence for the formation of men discerning the vocation of a life of service to the Church.”

“With the help of God and vigilant attention to best practices, we will continue to provide superior seminary formation.”

O’Malley announced the investigation last year, after two seminarians took to social media to make allegations of a culture of heavy drinking and sexual misconduct at St. John’s. O’Malley placed the seminary’s rector, Monsignor James Moroney, on leave to allow for an inquiry.

In October 2018, the archdiocese announced it was expanding the investigation to include two other seminaries, Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary and Redemptoris Mater Seminary. The cardinal also hired an outside law firm—Yurko, Salvesen and Remz—to take over and conduct the investigations, as the original team, comprised of bishops and an advisor to the U.S. bishops on child protection, had ties to St. John’s Seminary.

Friday’s report, which only concerns St. John’s Seminary, confirmed separate incidents of sexual misconduct at the seminary and an alcohol culture that could encourage immoderate drinking, as well as a lack of proper oversight by the rector, Monsignor Moroney.

The report did not find evidence of a deep culture of sexual misconduct or alcohol abuse, as had been alleged, though it did confirm specific allegations made in social media posts by two former seminarians. Those incidents included the expulsion of two seminarians in 2014 for sexual misconduct, and six seminarians receiving “lewd and anonymous texts” in 2015.

Leadership’s poor response to the 2015 sexting incident was in part caused by to the rector’s distance from the daily life at the seminary due to obligations and his work to raise money and enrollment, the report found.

Cardinal O’Malley reportedly knew about Monsignor Moroney’s absence from the seminary and its negative consequences, as well as his poor stewardship of the seminary’s finances that earned him the nickname “Diamond Jim” among some seminarians for his generosity.

However, the cardinal trusted Moroney to resolve the problems, the report said.

The vice rector, Fr. Christopher O’Connor, who was in charge of seminary student discipline, was found to be at times “bullying or intimidating” in carrying out his duties.

Another faculty member was respected as a “world-class theologian” but “is unquestionably a ‘divisive’ and a ‘toxic’ presence in the Seminary,” the report said. He reportedly used “gratuitous and offensive” language when discussing sexual morality in classes and some Hispanic seminarians claimed he “is biased against them and disparages them.”

The seminary’s alcohol policies, while in need of reform, did not create a culture of drunkenness, the report found.  

A “bachelor party” detailed in the allegations by the former seminarians “was not the bacchanalian affair” as commonly perceived but was still “ill-advised” and featured immoderate drinking by seminarians and by a faculty member.

However, since “the use of alcohol is connected directly or indirectly to most misconduct that takes place at the Seminary” and some seminarians did “have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol,” the firm recommended a change in alcohol policy to aid the “human formation” of seminarians.

Other recommendations of the report include the establishment of a confidential reporting hotline for abuse or misconduct allegations, training to enable seminarians to recognize instances of “grooming,” and a review of alcohol policies.

The firm said its investigation was comprised of interviews with around 80 people, “including current and former seminarians, current and former faculty members, current and former staff, priests in the Boston diocese as well as a number in other dioceses, Msgr. James Moroney, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, and many others who reached out to us.”

The firm also noted the cooperation of the seminary and the archdiocese in the investigation, and that it was able to freely access seminary records.

The reported did record what it termed “isolated” incidents of misconduct.

The seminary respond in a “timely” fashion to allegations of grooming made by a seminarian against a faculty member in 2014, the report said.

In another case, the seminary learned in 2015 that a professor at its Theological Institute for the New Evangelization “engaged in inappropriate conduct with an adult female student in 2011 and 2012,” and cut ties with that professor.

In two separate instances, in 2016 and 2018, seminarians were dismissed for using dating apps.

Two seminarians were found to have engaged in an e-mail and texting relationship with a 15 year-old female student at a Catholic high school, a relationship which continued with one of the seminarians despite the girl’s parents bringing up the matter to the seminarian and then to a seminary faculty member. Despite this, the seminary administration was reportedly not made aware of the situation.

The seminarian was eventually ordained, but claimed to the firm in the report that his texts were not romantic but supportive, although conceding that communicating with a teenager via e-mail and texting was overall “misguided.”

The seminary was made aware of a seminarian sending texts to a woman outside the seminary requesting she send him pictures of herself; after consultations the seminarian stayed at the seminary but received formation on chastity, and subsequently left before the year was over.

One of the former seminarians who made the social media posts that instigated the investigation claimed to have observed two seminarians cuddling together in the common room, but the report found that he was the only person interviewed to have made that claim.

What is Advent, anyway? A CNA Explainer

Denver, Colo., Nov 22, 2019 / 11:30 am (CNA).- Advent starts this year on Sunday, Dec. 1. Most Catholics, even those who don’t often go to Mass, know that Advent involves a wreath with some candles, possibly a “calendar” of hidden chocolates, and untangling strings of Christmas lights.

But Advent is more than that. Here are a few points that might help you have a great Advent this year:

What is Advent?

The people of Israel waited generations for the promised Messiah to arrive. Their poetry, their songs and stories, and their religious worship focused on an awaited savior, whom God had promised, over and over, would come to them to set them free from captivity, and to lead them to the fulfillment of all that God had chosen for them.

Israel longed for a Messiah, and John the Baptist, who came before Jesus, promised that the Messiah was coming, and could be found in Jesus Christ, God’s son, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting, and longing, for the Messiah. Though Christ has already come into the world, the Church invites us to renew our desire for the Lord more deeply into our lives, and to renew our desire for Christ’s triumphant second coming into the world.

Advent is the time in which we prepare for Christmas, the memorial of Jesus Christ being born into the world. Preparations are practical, like decorating a tree or stringing lights, but they’re also intended to be spiritual.

During Advent, we’re invited to enter more frequently into silence, into prayer and reflection, into Scripture, and into the sacramental life of the Church, all to prepare for celebrating Christmas.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the goal of Advent is to make present for ourselves and our families the “ancient expectancy of the sharing in the long preparation for the Savior's first coming.”


Cool. So, it’s like four weeks long?

Advent is a slightly different length each year. It starts four Sundays before Christmas. But because Christmas is on a fixed date, and could fall on different days of the week, Advent can be as short as three weeks and a day, or as long as four weeks. Christmas is on a Wednesday in 2019, so Advent will be three weeks and two days long.


Ok, my priest keeps talking about Advent being the “new year.” But Advent is before Christmas. What’s the deal?

The Church’s feasts and celebrations run on a year-long cycle, which we call the “liturgical year.” The “liturgical year” starts on the first Sunday of Advent. So it’s a new liturgical year when Advent starts. But the Church also uses the ordinary calendar, so it would probably be a bit weird to have a “New Year’s Eve” party the night before Advent starts.

Still, though, Catholicism has a lot of weird feasts, so if you have a “New Liturgical Year's Eve” party, invite me.


And, Advent wreaths. Where do they come from? Is it true that they’re just pagan wreaths borrowed by the Church?

The Catholic Church has been using advent wreaths since the Middle Ages. Lighting candles as we prepare for Christmas reminds us that Christ is the light of the world. And the evergreen boughs remind us of new and eternal life in Christ, the eternal son of the Father. 

It is definitely true that Germanic people were lighting up candle wreaths in wintertime long before the Gospel arrived in their homeland. They did so because, well, candle wreaths in winter are beautiful and warm. That a Christian symbol emerged from that tradition is an indication that the Gospel can be expressed through the language, customs, and symbols of cultures that come to believe that Christ Jesus is Lord.


One candle is pink. Why?

There are four candles on the Advent wreath. Three are purple, and they are first lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. The pink candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, which we call Gaudete Sunday. On that Sunday, in addition to the pink candle, the priest wears a pink vestment, which he might refer to as rose. But rose, from this writer's perspective, is a shade of pink.

Gaudete is a word that means “Rejoice!” and we rejoice on Gaudete Sunday, because we are halfway through Advent. Some people have the custom of throwing “Gaudete” parties, and this is also a traditional day on which Christmas carolers begin caroling door-to-door.

The three purple candles are sometimes said to represent prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the three spiritual disciplines that are key to a fruitful Advent.


I like the Advent calendars that have chocolate in them. Do you know where they come from?

No. But I like them too. The chocolate is usually pretty waxy, but still. I think the idea is to build up anticipation by having only one little treat each day. But sometimes I eat them all in the first week. Oops.


Is it wrong to sing Christmas songs during Advent?

Wrong? No, not immoral or anything. Liturgically inappropriate? Totally. Plus, there are a lot of great Advent hymns and songs: “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “O Come Divine Messiah,” “Come Thou Fount,” “Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding”

Wouldn’t you rather sing those than Rudolph? Or the theologically insipid “Mary, Did You Know?”


When should we put up our tree?

Look, when to put up the tree is a decision that families should decide on their own, through time-honored holiday traditions like, say, arguing about when to put up the tree. I’m not getting in the middle of that.

Some people put up their tree and decorate it on the first Sunday of Advent, to make a big transformation in their home and get them into “preparing for Christmas mode.” That seems cool.

Some people put up the tree on the first Sunday of Advent, put on lights the next Sunday, ornaments the next, and decorate it more and more as they get closer to Christmas. That seems cool.

Some people put up the tree on Gaudete Sunday, as a kind of rejoicing, and decorate it in the weeks between Gaudate and Christmas. That seems cool

Basically, as you can tell, I’m not going to take a side on that question.


What does the word Advent mean?

Oh right. I forgot to mention that, I'm glad you asked. Advent comes from the Latin ad+venire, which means, essentially “To come to,” or “to come toward.” Ad+venire is the root of the Latin “Adventus” which means “arrival.”

So Advent is the season of arrival: The arrival of Christ in our hearts, in the world, and into God’s extraordinary plan for our salvation.




Missing Zanchetta not in 'rebellion' over court proceedings, spokesman claims

Vatican City, Nov 22, 2019 / 11:00 am (CNA).- Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta has denied that he is avoiding a return to Argentina, where he is being prosecuted for “aggravated continuous sexual assault” and fraud. The bishop's whereabouts remain unknown.

In a statement to members of the press released on Thursday, a spokesman for Zanchetta said the bishop was not in “rebellion” over a Nov. 20 request by prosecutors for his arrest, after the bishop allegedly failed to cooperate in his own ongoing trial.

On Wednesday, a prosecutor of sexual crimes in the Argentine city of Orán, María Soledad Filtrín Cuezzo, requested international assistance in Zanchetta’s arrest, saying he had not responded to repeated telephone calls or emails addressed to the contact information provided by his lawyer.

On Thursday, Associated Press quoted the statement released on Zanchetta’s behalf by Javier Belda, saying that the bishop had not received any order from a judge to surrender himself or return to Orán, and that he remained committed to cooperating with the court proceedings. 

The spokesman said that the bishop had only received an email from prosecutors which did not ask for a response.

The letter also said that continued leaks and breifings to the press by local prosecutors had damaged Zanchetta's presumption of innocence.

The statement to the media did not address Zanchetta’s whereabouts. The bishop is believed to by living at the Domus Santa Marta in Vatican City after he was allowed by the court to leave Argentine having presented a document showing that he is employed within Vatican City.

Zanchetta is alleged to have sent sexually explicit selfies from his cell phone, harassed seminarians, and mismanaged the finances of the Diocese of Orán, which he led from 2014 to 2017. 

After being allowed to resign as Bishop of Orán for “health reasons” in 2017, Pope Francis named Zanchetta to the specially created position of assessor at the Administration for the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the body which acts as the Holy See’s central reserve bank and sovereign wealth fund.

Argentine media has reported that the bishop was first accused of sexually inappropriate behavior as early as 2015.

According to a report from El Tribuno, one of the Zanchetta’s secretaries alerted authorities after accidentally finding sexually explicit images sent and received on Zanchetta’s cell phone in 2015. The complaint says that some of the images depict “young people” having sex, in addition to lewd images of Zanchetta himself.

Pope Francis summoned Zanchetta to Rome for five days in October 2015. The bishop claimed his phone and computer had been hacked, and that the accusations were motivated by ill feeling towards the pope. Francis reportedly accepted the bishop’s excuse that his cell phone had been hacked, and took no further action.

Fr. Juan José Manzano, the former vicar general of the Diocese of Orán has claimed publicly that he first reported Zanchetta in 2015, after the pornographic images were found on his phone. Manzano says he also reported him again in 2017.

In January, 2019, the Holy See confirmed Zanchetta was the subject of a canonical investigation and had been suspended from his role at APSA. It is unclear what, if any, active role he currently has in the curia following his presentation of a letter of employment to the Argentine court.

The Holy See authorities have not confirmed if Zanchetta is currently in Vatican City, or if they would respond favorably to a request from the Argentine court to extradite him should an arrest warrant be issued.

Ban on elderly nun’s habit in retirement home went too far, French mayor says

Dijon, France, Nov 22, 2019 / 10:35 am (CNA).- An elderly nun in France has received an apology from a French mayor after retirement home staff wrongly rejected her, citing a strict ban on religious garb and “ostentatious” signs of religion.

The rules would have barred the nun from wearing her religious habit and veil at the publicly funded home.

Alain Chrétien, the mayor of Vesoul in the Haute-Saône region, apologized to the nun and offered to help her find public housing.

“This error of judgment is very regrettable,” he said, according to the New York Times.

The mayor said that the retirement home’s staff had made a “big blunder.” He said state employees are sometimes “paralyzed” by issues of secularism, and worried that “everyone has their own definition” of the term.

The unnamed nun, who is over 70 years old, had decided to relocate from her convent in southwestern France to Haute-Saône, her native region.

She applied to a publicly-funded retirement home in Vesoul, about 55 miles northeast of Dijon. She sought a self-contained apartment with a communal eating area.

The home accepted her application in July but the local authorities said she could not wear her habit and veil.

She declined to reside in the home under those conditions. The local parish helped her rent an apartment.

In a letter to the nun, the retirement home said: “Within our homes, our residents may have preferences and beliefs and these should be respected … with regard to secularism, all ostentatious signs of belonging to a religious community cannot be accepted in order to guarantee everyone’s tranquility,” according to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

“Religion is a private matter and must remain so,” it added. The home told her she could wear a cross so long as it was discreet.

The local parish priest cited her case in his monthly newsletter, lamenting that the elderly sister now had to make her own meals and did not have the care of a retirement home. He said the facility’s actions seemed “anti-Christian.”

“(O)ur ears are being filled with principles of secularism that are not understood,” said Father Florent Belin. “Old demons, mismanaged fears are blocking situations.”

Laïcité, the French version of secularism, has been enforced by law since 1905.

While originally intended to regulate Catholicism in public life and establish strict state secularism, its principles in recent decades have been applied to Muslim women who wear hijabs or other religious garb in public.

In October, controversy erupted after a mother wearing a headscarf accompanied students on a school trip to a regional parliament. She was confronted by a member of the far-right National Rally party, who insisted she remove her headscarf. The confrontation has split opinion in government and in parliament, The Guardian reports.

Nicolas Cadène, a member of the Observatory of Secularism, which helps the French government apply secularist laws, said the rules on religious garb are supposed to apply only to state employees and public servants during work hours.

The nun’s treatment was an example of “a wrong interpretation of laïcité,” he told the New York Times.

Cadène said debates about Muslims in French life have caused confusion about the law and have led to a stricter form of secularism. Targeting specific religions “always winds up extending to other religions and beliefs,” he said, calling this “a real danger.”

Father Belin contrasted the controversy over the treatment of the Muslim woman and the treatment of the nun.

“What is secularism? Surely it’s allowing everyone to live their faith without disturbing anyone else,” the priest said. “I don’t think a nun’s veil is disturbing because it’s not a sign of submission but of devotion.”

Other countries in Europe have drawn criticism for their approach to religion.

In neighboring Belgium, a ban on kosher and halal slaughter of animals took effect Jan. 1.

Backers of the ban said it follows European Union rules and other regulations requiring that animals be made insensible to pain before slaughter.

Such bans particularly affect Jews and Muslims who follow their religion’s dietary rules.

Critics said the ban was intended to stigmatize some religious groups and could have been enacted without violating freedom of religion.

Pope Francis in Thailand: Friendship with Jesus lights your path

Bangkok, Thailand, Nov 22, 2019 / 05:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis told young people in Thailand Friday that the secret to happiness is to be deeply rooted in faith in Jesus Christ.

“The secret to a happy heart is the security we find when we are anchored, rooted in Jesus: in his life, in his words, in his death and resurrection,” Pope Francis said Nov. 22 in his homily at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Bangkok.

“Friendship cultivated with Jesus is the oil needed to light up your path in life and the path of all those around you,” he said.

The pope celebrated Mass for an estimated 10,000 young people in and outside of Bangkok’s Cathedral of the Assumption. The cathedral dates back more than 200 years to an initiative by  French missionaries.

“You are heirs to a precious history of evangelization that has been handed down to you as a sacred treasure. This beautiful cathedral is a witness to your ancestors’ faith in Jesus Christ,” the pope told Thai youth.

“In order that the fire of the Holy Spirit will keep burning, so that you can keep your eyes bright and your hearts aflame, you need to be deeply rooted in the faith of your ancestors: your parents, grandparents, and teachers,” he said.

The Mass concluded Pope Francis’ three-day apostolic journey to Thailand. The pope will depart Bangkok for Japan Nov. 23. There he will visit Tokyo, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima.


<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr"><a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PopeFrancis</a> has left the cathedral in Bangkok, <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Thailand</a> to return to the nunciature to rest before we fly tomorrow to <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Japan</a>! <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Hannah Brockhaus (@HannahBrockhaus) <a href="">November 22, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>


“Dear young people, you are a new generation, with new hopes, dreams and questions, and surely some doubts as well, yet firmly rooted in Christ,” Francis said.

“It pains me to see young people sometimes being encouraged to build a future without roots, as if the world were just starting now. For it is impossible for us to grow unless we have strong roots to support us and to keep us firmly grounded,” he said.

The pope explained that trees without deep roots can fall and die during a storm. He said that likewise young people without a firm sense of rootedness can be swayed by the “voices of the world that compete for our attention” that are appealing and exciting at first, but ultimately leaves one “empty, weary, alone, and disenchanted.”

“Do you want to keep alive the fire that keeps you burning brightly amid darkness and difficulties? Do you want to be prepared to answer the Lord’s call? Do you want to be ready to do his will?” the pope asked young people.

“Rooted in Christ, view all things with the joy and confidence born of knowing that the Lord has sought us out, found us and loved us infinitely,” he said.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">I&#39;m at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Bangkok, <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Thailand</a> where young Catholics are waiting for Mass with <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PopeFrancis</a> and the choir is practicing. <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Hannah Brockhaus (@HannahBrockhaus) <a href="">November 22, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

Pope Francis said not to be afraid of the future because it will bring “the most beautiful thing that it can bring us: the definitive coming of Christ into our lives and into our world.”

“I urge you to maintain your joy and to look to the future with confidence,” he said. “Just as God had a plan for the Chosen People, so he has a plan for each of you.”

Religious freedom a 'moral imperative,' pope tells leaders of major religions in Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand, Nov 22, 2019 / 04:00 am (CNA).- In a meeting with leaders of major religions in Thailand Friday, Pope Francis stressed the importance of upholding human dignity and religious freedom.

“For our part, we are asked to embrace the moral imperative of upholding human dignity and respecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom,” he said Nov. 22 at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Addressing religious leaders, he said “all of us are called not only to heed the voice of the poor in our midst: the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the indigenous peoples and religious minorities, but also to be unafraid to create opportunities, as is already quietly occurring, to work hand in hand.”

“And to do so,” he added, “in a spirit of fraternal solidarity that can help end the many present-day forms of slavery, especially the scourge of human trafficking.”

Pope Francis met the 18 Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh leaders at Chulalongkorn University, which was founded in 1899 and is the oldest university in Thailand. It is considered highly prestigious, and is the university which members of the royal family and nobility have attended.

The university is named for King Chulalongkorn, who ended slavery in Thailand. In his address, Pope Francis recalled a significant moment from 122 years ago, when Pope Leo XIII met with King Chulalongkorn, also known as King Rama V, at the Vatican, the first time a non-Christian head of state was received in audience there.

“May the memory of that significant encounter, as well as that of his reign, whose virtues included the abolition of slavery, challenge us, in our own time, to pursue the path of dialogue and mutual understanding,” Francis said.

He stressed the importance of religions working together to protect the environment, and noted the many challenges faced by society today, such as civil conflicts, which cause mass migration, refugees, famine, and war.

“All these situations require us to be bold in devising new ways of shaping the history of our time without denigrating or insulting anyone,” he stated.

“Now is the time to be bold and envision the logic of encounter and mutual dialogue as the path, common cooperation as the code of conduct, and reciprocal knowledge as a method and standard.”

Pope Francis also asked the religious leaders to build solid foundations, “anchored on respect for, and recognition of the dignity of persons, the promotion of an integral humanism, alert to and concerned for the protection of our common home, and a responsible stewardship that preserves the beauty and richness of nature as a right fundamental for existence.”

“All of us are members of the human family. Each person, in his or her own way, is called to be actively and directly engaged in building a culture founded on the shared values that lead to unity, mutual respect and a harmonious coexistence,” he said.