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Catholic bishops express ‘pain and sadness’ at Poland's ‘rainbow halo’ verdict

CNA Staff, Mar 4, 2021 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- Catholic bishops in the Polish Diocese of Płock expressed “pain and sadness” on Wednesday at the verdict in Poland’s “rainbow halo” trial.

In a March 3 statement, the three bishops said they did not agree with a court ruling that three activists who distributed images depicting the revered Black Madonna icon with a rainbow halo were not guilty of offending religious feelings.

“It is with pain and sadness that we have accepted the verdict of the District Court in Płock, dated March 2, 2021, in the case concerning the profanation of the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa in our city, in April 2019,” they said.

“We note that the actions involved in the court proceedings clearly violated the social order and -- in their essence -- contradict the idea of tolerance claimed by the perpetrators.”

The statement was signed by Bishop Piotr Libera of Płock, auxiliary Bishop Mirosław Milewski, and retired auxiliary Bishop Roman Marcinkowski.

Three women -- Elżbieta Podleśna, Anna Prus, and Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar -- went on trial in Płock, central Poland, on Jan. 13 accused of offending religious feelings, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.

The Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported on March 2 that the judge concluded that the activists did not intend to offend religious sensibilities or to insult the venerated image of the Virgin Mary, housed at the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa.

The judge reportedly added that their actions were aimed at protecting people facing discrimination.

The case concerned an incident in April 2019, when the three women placed posters of the icon with rainbow halos on Mary and the Child Jesus in locations around Płock.

The activists said that they attached the posters to walls and around a church in the city in response to a display inside the church which listed “LGBT” and “gender” -- the Polish term for gender ideology -- as sins. 

Elżbieta Podleśna, a psychotherapist and activist, told the court on Jan. 13 that she regarded the display as “homophobic” and believed it could encourage the stigmatization of “people of non-heteronormative sexual orientation and gender identity.”

She was arrested in May 2019 at her home in Warsaw and taken to Płock for questioning. A court later determined that her detention was unjustified and awarded her damages of around $2,000.

The three women faced trial under Article 196 of the country’s penal code, which says that “Whoever offends the religious feelings of other persons by publicly insulting an object of religious worship, or a place designated for public religious ceremonies, is liable to pay a fine, have his or her liberty limited, or be deprived of his or her liberty for a period of up to two years.”

Speaking after her acquittal, Podleśna said that the prosecutor’s office was likely to appeal against the verdict.

Catholic Action in the Diocese of Płock expressed its “utmost concern” at the ruling.

In a March 4 statement, it said that its members “cannot come to terms with the sentence of the court, which can be interpreted as consent to openly and publicly offend the feelings of believers and to profanation of the Jasna Góra image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

The Płock bishops commented: “We do not agree with the verdict, which has already been described by many as the state’s open consent to actions against the Catholic religion, the honor of the Mother of God and objects of devotion associated with her, as well as the feelings of Catholics.”

“We express our deep hope that the court of second instance, in accordance with the law, will speak out against this profanation, restoring the disturbed sense of justice.”

Pope Francis entrusts Iraq trip to Virgin Mary’s protection

Rome Newsroom, Mar 4, 2021 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- On the eve of his departure for a three-day trip to Iraq, Pope Francis visited a Rome basilica to ask for the Virgin Mary’s intercession and protection on his travels.

According to the Holy See press office, Pope Francis went to the Basilica of St. Mary Major March 4 “for a moment of prayer” before the Byzantine icon of Salus Populi Romani, Mary, Protection of the Roman People.

It has been Pope Francis’ custom to visit the icon before his international trips to ask for the Virgin Mary’s protection.

He also typically visits the icon upon returning to Rome and before re-entering the Vatican.

Pope Francis is visiting Iraq on March 5-8 in a trip intended to strengthen the hope of the country’s persecuted Christian minority and to foster fraternity and interreligious dialogue.

In just over three days, Francis is scheduled to travel 900 miles within Iraq, meeting with political leaders, prominent Muslim clerics, and Christian communities. He will be the first pope in history to visit the Middle Eastern country.

This afternoon, on the eve of his departure for #Iraq, #PopeFrancis went to the Basilica of St Mary Major for a moment of prayer before the icon of the Virgin Salus Populi Romani, entrusting his coming apostolic journey to her protection.

— Holy See Press Office (@HolySeePress) March 4, 2021  

The icon of Salus Populi Romani has been revered by the people of Rome for centuries and is considered a symbol of the city and its people.

In March 2020, Pope Francis visited the icon as part of a short walking prayer pilgrimage he made during Italy’s coronavirus lockdown.

At the end of his general audience on March 3, Pope Francis asked people to accompany him with their prayers during his trip to Iraq, “so that it may unfold in the best possible way and bear the hoped-for fruits.” 

“The Iraqi people are waiting for us; they awaited St. John Paul II, who was not permitted to go. One cannot disappoint a people for the second time. Let us pray that this journey will be a good one,” he said.

Custos Fr. Francesco Patton, O.F.M., wrote March 4 to the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, asking them to accompany the pope’s trip to Iraq with “a special and intense prayer.”

He included a schedule of specific ways to pray each day of the pope’s trip, including fasting and meditation on the Stations of the Cross on Friday, March 5, and praying a rosary and reading chapter eight of the encyclicalFratelli tutti” on Saturday. 

Patton said that the community’s Mass at Calvary on Sunday, March 7, would be offered for the eternal repose of the victims of the war in Iraq and the gift of peace in the entire Middle East.

On the day of the pope’s return, Monday, March 8, he invited the friars to offer their personal prayers.

“Let’s live this moment with faith, in union with the Holy Father and with our brothers in Iraq,” he said.

'He refused to be silent.' What a slain Pakistani religious freedom advocate can teach the world

CNA Staff, Mar 4, 2021 / 10:34 am (CNA).- Ten years after his assassination, various world leaders have praised the life and death of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistan cabinet minister killed after defending religious minorities persecuted under the country’s strict blasphemy law.
His relatives, collaborators, and victims of persecution praised his example and urged continued work.
“My beloved brother, Shahbaz Bhatti, was willing to risk his own life in his fight for the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan,” said Peter Bhatti. “He challenged the forces of violence and darkness who threatened him daily, and refused to be silent… Some of us must take small sacrifices in the fight for justice and equality. My brother Shahbaz Bhatti made the ultimate sacrifice of his life.”
“I am here to share that giving up and letting his enemy win is not an option. It is the duty of all of us to carry on his mission and vision,” said Peter Bhatti, who now chairs the Canada-based advocacy group International Christian Voice.
He was among the many speakers at the March 2 online memorial for Bhatti hosted by the Religious Freedom Institute.
Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, served as Pakistan’s Federal Minister of Minorities Affairs from 2008 to 2011. He advocated for religious minorities and spoke out against the misuse of Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws as a pretext to persecute minorities.
He faced increasing death threats in 2010 after he showed support for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death for blasphemy that year. Bibi would remain in prison on death row until her acquittal by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in October 2018.
The assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, another critic of the blasphemy law, took place just a month before Bhatti’s death.
At the time of his death, the 42-year-old Bhatti was the only Christian in Pakistan’s federal cabinet. He was gunned down by members of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan while driving in Islamabad March 2, 2011.

In a video he recorded before his death, Bhatti had said: “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us, and I am ready to die for a cause. I’m living for my community ... and I will die to defend their rights.”
Bhatti has been declared a Servant of God and the cause for his beatification is under consideration.
His brother Peter Bhatti stressed the need to work to help people of all religions “live in freedom, peace and equality anywhere in the world” and to save minorities from victimization, intolerance, persecution, and inequality.
“I’d like to remind all of you of the value of the importance of human equality and religious freedom. Please do not take it for granted,” he said. “I humbly ask you to join us in our struggle to support suffering religious minorities in Pakistan and others around the world who continue to live in darkness and suffering. The vision, mission and legacy of Shahbaz Bhatti will continue to live forever. His sacrifice will not go in vain.”
Asia Bibi gave her own remarks, saying, “he helped poor women like me who were hopeless and oppressed. He stood with me and doing that he was murdered and gave his life. When I remember him I start grieving deeply.”
When she was in jail and heard of Bhatti’s assassination, she lost all hope. “Then I was encouraged by my Lord Jesus Christ and I got freedom,” she said. “I never can forget the martyrdom of Shahbaz Bhatti. Even today I grieve for him and my heart cries and my eyes weep for him.”
Asia Bibi now lives in Canada. She appealed to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to protect people like Bhatti, “because you need to protect people like him to protect Christians and others.”
Lamenting that some Pakistani girls are targeted for rape, forced conversion, or forced marriages, she said the Christian community needs “heroes” like Bhatti. She urged others to come forward to stand against injustices, victimization, and persecution, saying, “Please help and support us.
Nephew David Bhatti said his uncle Shahbaz showed a charm and sense of humor. Although he “always radiated such happiness,” he carried grief over the unjustly imprisoned and the innocent people  killed at a place of worship by suicide bombers. He also agonized over villagers whose homes were burnt to the ground in attacks on religious minorities.
Bhatti’s dream of a world with dignity for all people, his nephew said, was “born through faith, the kind of faith that shines light into the darkness and conquers the fear of anything that stands in its way.” He showed a hope that “inspires and spreads like fire.”
Knox Thames, a State Department special advisor for religious minorities in the Trump and Obama administrations, reflected on Bhatti’s life and death in a March 1 essay for Christianity Today.
“It is rare to meet someone willing to sacrifice everything for a cause, a person who knowingly faces death out of obedience to God’s call to help others. With Shahbaz’s martyrdom 10 years ago, we lost a hero in the cause of religious freedom,” Thames wrote. “Compared to his saintly efforts, the work of mere mortals like myself feels inadequate and inconsequential.”
“Shahbaz lived an exemplary life, daily demonstrating heroic love of neighbor, speaking out for victimized religious groups in his home country,” he said.
Thames, who is currently a senior fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, said that what individuals do matters. “Our humble contributions can make a difference,” he said, encouraging readers to ask God where they can act, whether locally or internationally.
Before Bhatti began his career in Pakistan’s parliament, he founded Pakistan’s Christian Liberation Front and the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance movement, which fought against blasphemy laws used to persecute religious minorities, particularly Christians.
Joseph Cardinal Coutts, Archbishop Emeritus of Karachi, had known Bhatti before he entered politics. He remembered him as “a great person loved by so many” and a “man of vision” who acted to combat discrimination against religious minorities. The cardinal said Bhatti’s work was consistent with the founding vision of Pakistan as having “equal citizens in a free country, in a democratic country.”
“The memory of Shahbaz is so strong. He was one of the finest Christian leaders we had. We miss him,” he said. Though the cardinal lamented an increase of “extremism” in Pakistan government and society, he added: “the memory of Shahbaz gives us hope to carry on, because there are problems everywhere and we cannot keep silent.”
Benedict Rogers, an East Asia analyst for the human rights group CSW, said Bhatti was “a modern-day martyr.” Every time Rogers visits Rome, he visits Bhatti’s personal Bible on display in San Bartolomeo all’Isola to spend time in reflection and prayer for places of persecution and religious intolerance.
“The best way to honor Shahbaz on this 10th anniversary is to renew our efforts to defend the rights of every single human being to live freely and in peace,” Rogers said in a March 2 essay published by UCA News.
Rogers had worked with Bhatti from 2004 to 2009, watching his rise from grassroots activism to member of the National Assembly to member of the National Cabinet. The two met with a seven-year-old Christian girl and her family after she had been raped and tortured. In 2007, the two helped reassure a Christian community threatened with forced conversion, and the feared attack from Islamic extremists never came.
“He fought for the rights of people of all faiths, for women and for a coalition to stand against extremism and intolerance,” Rogers recounted. “In his final months he was making headway, building relationships with Islamic clerics, visiting mosques, addressing large gatherings of religious leaders and bringing people together.”
Bishop David Malloy of Rockford, who chairs the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, said his committee in 2009 helped arrange meetings between Bhatti and U.S. officials and lawmakers.
Malloy called Bhatti “a man of peace” whose work for justice was “cut short.”
“His death was part of his Christian witness to faith, to religious freedom and to toleration,” said Malloy. Though Bhatti showed “particular closeness” to the Christian faithful, he championed other religious minorities as well.
“He was committed to peaceful coexistence among the religious communities in Pakistan,” said the bishop. After his death, the U.S. bishops mourned his loss and wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State urging the U.S. government to work with the Pakistani government to protect the human rights and religious freedom of all its citizens, including religious minorities.
“May his sacrifice inspire the church in Pakistan and throughout the world to a peaceful but vibrant witness to Christ and to justice for all, even in the most challenging of circumstances,” said Malloy.
Justin Welby, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, remembered Bhatti with “profound gratitude” for his courage and “extraordinary” moral imagination.
“His death posed a challenge to Christians around the world, to Muslims around the world, and to the Pakistani government,” Welby said. He reported that friends in Pakistan say the government is working to improving the situation of Christian and other religious groups.
Ahmend Shaheed, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, called Bhatti a “fearless defender” of religious minorities. Canadian MP Ruby Sahota gave a greeting and message on behalf of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trudeau praised Bhatti, saying he “stood courageously for what he believed in.” He praised his “unwavering sacrifice against injustice.”
Gayle Manchin, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Freedom, said the commission had a “very close” relationship with Bhatti, supporting his religious freedom advocacy and then working with him in his cabinet role. The commission facilitated his visit to D.C. in 2009, introducing him to policy makers and giving him an award for his “courageous work defending the rights of all Pakistanis, especially religious minorities.” The commission knew the danger he faced. Bhatti “forged on and never wavered as a man of deep faith.”
Manchin lamented that Bhatti’s killers have never been prosecuted. She said violent extremism in Pakistan has increased since his death, as has its enforcement of blasphemy laws. She called for targeted U.S. sanctions against responsible government agencies and officials .
 “Mr. Bhatti’s death was not in vain, and his legacy will continue to inspire and encourage us to keep pressing on until his vision is realized,” she said.
Sam Brownback, the U.S. government’s former religious freedom ambassador, characterized Bhatti as “a saint of the modern religious freedom movement around the world.”
“He spoke out with clarity. He pushed laws that were important,” said Brownback. “Even though it cost him his life, he was willing to put that life forward, so that others could live in freedom. So that others could see the day when they weren’t as persecuted, as so many people around the world, and people in his native country are even today.”
Former vice presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, praised Bhatti for speaking out against blasphemy laws, saying in a letter that because of his courage, “he was tragically killed by violent extremists who sought to silence his calls for unity, tolerance and peace.
Former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf said he knew Bhatti and admired him. Not long before his murder, Bhatti asked Wolf and his wife to pray for him. He called Bhatti a “giant” of the faith, and “one of the most courageous and dedicated men I have ever known.” He said Bhatti laid down his life for his friends, as Christ had taught.
“He knew he was putting his life in danger by advocating for Christians and other religious minorities,” said Wolf, who encouraged everyone to pay attention to Bhatti’s final profession of belief in Christ, the “meaning of the cross,” and his willingness to die to defend others’ rights.
Religious freedom in Pakistan has worsened in the 10 years since Bhatti’s death. The U.S. State Department has designated Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” for violating religious freedom since 2018. In January the advocacy group Open Doors’ World Watch List ranked Pakistan among the top five countries where Christians face the worst persecution in the world.

Cardinal Tobin appointed member of Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops

Vatican City, Mar 4, 2021 / 10:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis on Thursday appointed the archbishop of Newark, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, a member of the Congregation for Bishops.

Pope Francis also named Cardinal Sérgio da Rocha, archbishop of São Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, a member of the same 25-member Vatican congregation.

As a member, Cardinal Tobin joins another American, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., was also a member of the Congregation for Bishops until aging out in November 2020 at the age of 80.

The Congregation for Bishops is responsible for overseeing the selection and appointment of bishops. It also deals with the erection and suppression of dioceses, oversight of bishops, and the preparation for and response to bishops’ ad limina visits to Rome.

The prefect of the Congregation for Bishops is Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who turned 76 last June and is one of several cardinals of retirement age leading curial departments expected to soon be replaced by Pope Francis.

Sources in Rome who spoke recently to CNA on background said that Pope Francis may be considering Cupich to replace Ouellet. Another possible replacement, according to sources, is another member of the Congregation of Bishops: Chicago-born Augustinian missionary Bishop Robert Francis Prevost.

Prevost was made one of the few non-cardinal members of the Congregation for Bishops in November 2020. Of French and Spanish descent, he spent a significant amount of his pastoral life in the Northern Peruvian Andes before being appointed Bishop of Chiclayo, Peru, by Pope Francis in 2015. 

Prevost had a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 1, further propelling speculation that he could be headed from Peru to Rome.

The prefect of the Congregation for Bishops does not have unlimited power in episcopal appointments, but plays a significant role in the process, part of which includes meeting with the pope most Saturdays.

The process of appointing a bishop typically begins with a series of consultations at the local level, followed by recommendations made by the apostolic nuncio. Then a dossier is prepared and members of the congregation meet to discuss candidates. Finally, a name or names are proposed to the pope, who appoints the future bishop.

The 68-year-old Tobin has led the Archdiocese of Newark since January 2017. Before that, he led the Archdiocese of Indianapolis after two years in Rome as secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

In 2018, he was one of six U.S. bishops called to participate in the Vatican’s Youth Synod, after he was appointed a delegate by Pope Francis. But he did not attend the event, citing his pastoral obligations in Newark archdiocese.

Tobin was born in Detroit and is a member of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, or Redemptorists. Since 2019, he has also been a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Doctors, hospitals, fight 'transgender mandate' in federal court

Washington D.C., Mar 4, 2021 / 09:32 am (CNA).- Doctors can’t be forced to perform gender-transition surgeries against their conscientious beliefs, argued attorneys for doctors and hospitals on Wednesday before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Fifth Circuit judges heard oral arguments on Wednesday in Franciscan Alliance v. Cochran, the case of the federal “transgender mandate.” The mandate dates back to 2016, when the Obama administration interpreted a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to require procedures—such as gender-transitioning and abortions—to be available upon request.

The 2016 mandate did not include conscience exemptions, thus forcing almost all doctors and hospitals around the country to provide gender-transitioning procedures upon the referral of a mental health professional—regardless of their moral or professional opposition to doing so.

“Religious liberty law protects doctors from having to violate their conscience in order to perform these highly-controversial procedures that they believe harm the patients they are performed on,” said Joe Davis, legal counsel at Becket, in an interview with CNA on Wednesday.

Sec. 1557 of the ACA prohibits discrimination in health care on a number of cases including race, sex, and disability. The Obama administration interpreted “sex” discrimination to include termination of pregnancy and gender identity—thus forbidding denial of abortions and gender-transitioning.

The mandate is attached to federal Medicare and Medicaid funds—which almost every doctor receives, Davis explained. The mandate also could be enforced by private lawsuits against doctors who won’t provide the requested procedures, he said.

After the 2016 mandate, more than 19,000 healthcare professionals, nine states, and several religious organizations filed two lawsuits. Two federal courts in December, 2016, placed an injunction on the mandate.

Two more federal district court judges ruled against the mandate in 2019 and 2020. The doctors and hospitals before the Fifth Circuit on Wednesday were seeking permanent relief from the mandate, Davis said.

The Trump administration issued a new rule protecting doctors who opposed the transgender mandate last summer, but a federal court put an injunction on that action.

President Biden, meanwhile, stated his administration will interpret federal anti-discrimination laws to also cover gender identity discrimination—thus taking the Obama administration’s stance and signaling that they could re-impose the full transgender mandate.

On Wednesday, judges asked attorneys for HHS if they could ensure doctors wouldn’t be forced against their beliefs to provide the procedures.

“HHS couldn’t answer the question, they couldn’t give that assurance,” Davis said. “That’s exactly what they are seeking to do, and that’s why we need protection from the courts.”

The Fifth Circuit, he added, “seemed dissatisfied” with HHS’ answer and “generally seemed to understand the principle that religious liberty is so important, that a violation of religious freedom should result in lasting protection in those cases.”

There is not a consensus within the medical community on gender-transition surgeries, Davis noted.

The mandate "is also a shocking move given the science, in which many doctors disagree for entirely medical reasons about the efficacy of performing these procedures, especially on children, who often desist from gender dysphoria on their own without medical interventions,” Davis said.