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France’s mandatory teen service program draws serious religious freedom concerns

Paris, France, Jun 27, 2019 / 03:17 am (CNA).- France’s soon-to-be mandatory Universal National Service program for teens has drawn serious religious freedom concerns, with critics noting that the program prohibits religious symbols, does not allow conscripts to leave for religious services, and fails to accommodate religious dietary restrictions.

Marc Guidoni, a veteran trainer for the Values of the Republic and Secularism Plan, told the French Catholic newspaper La Vie that the program rules appear to be more extensive than French law requires or allows. He suggested that abstaining from any show of belief is usually required only for civil servants and public servants. Applying this to conscripted teens, he said, is “a strong obstacle to liberty.”

A June 24 article in the French newspaper La Vie suggested that the National Universal Service’s rules mean young believers are “forgotten.” Some program participants will want to exercise their freedom of worship, even in a framework that tends to erase religious difference, it said.

A pilot program of the national civic service began in mid-June with 2,000 teen volunteer participants aged 15 or 16, including high school students, drop-outs and trainees at vocational schools. In mid-June the volunteers left their home regions for service centers at boarding schools, holiday villages and university campuses.

They received training in first aid, emergency response, map reading and other basic skills. They will later volunteer for two weeks of service with a charity or local government.

The national service centers have five houses of 10 young people each, with each center under the management of a “brigade chief.” Each house has an adult supervisor but teens are responsible for tasks and household chores.

They are required to wear French navy uniforms and sing France’s national anthem, the “Marseillaise,” every morning. After training in emergency response, the pilot groups were to respond to simulated disasters such as a major traffic accident or a nuclear accident.

Both supervisors and young people in the program are forbidden from displaying religious signs except in private rooms, La Vie said, citing a source at the Ministry of National Education.

Furthermore, young people will not be released for religious services.

“To maintain cohesion, and respect the commitment they made, leaving the site will not be allowed during these two weeks,” a source at the Ministry of Education told La Vie magazine.

A common “interreligious” room will be provided, but only for individual reflection and not collective worship. Normally only one room will be at each service center, though this could change on a case-by-case basis.

Guidoni objected that worship is not “individual meditation in a common space” but a “collective practice.” The interreligious room is “not compatible with the opportunity to worship collectively,” he said.

Emmanuel Macron during his 2017 presidential campaign had proposed a one-month mandatory national service, saying young people should have “a direct experience of military life.”

The French military did not welcome such an effort, and Macron’s government responded with an alternative plan for compulsory civic service, France 24 reports.

Macron has promoted the plan on the grounds that it fosters social cohesion and patriotism to combat political, economic and religious divisions. The program will give young people “causes to defend” and “battles to fight in the social, environmental and cultural domains,” he predicted.

Cell phone use is also restricted to one hour of free time in the evenings, a rule intended to encourage engagement between the participants.

Gabriel Attal, secretary of state to the minister of national education, said that after dinner the program participants will debate social issues.

“For example, discrimination based on sexual orientation and disability or radicalization,” Attal told the newspaper Le Parisien. After the French women’s soccer game, he said, there was “a discussion of gender equality.”

Attal stressed the need to give new experiences to young people and get them away from habitual surroundings, including their familial and social surroundings.

A source near Attal told La Vie that there will be no accommodation for religious dietary needs, though leaders will ensure “a balanced diet.”

“If you do not want meat, you can take a double serving of lentils,” the source said.

“The diets of the so-called religious are thus forced to give way to republican conformism,” commented La Vie.

Guidoni said that in his view, French law permits much more than is allowed under the rules of the compulsory civic service.

“With the exception of freedom of conscience, the rest of the constitutional framework relating to secularism does not seem to be respected,” he commented. “The citizen is free to express his opinions--including religious ones--as long as this does not disturb the functioning of public order.”

He said that no consideration was given to the idea of having chaplains for the service centers.

Over the next seven years, the compulsory program is set to become mandatory for all French youth age 15-16, who will number about 800,000 per year. The live-in section of the pilot program cost about $2,275 per person, which could mean an eventual cost of $1.8 billion per year.

At present, all French citizens must take part in a one-day Defense and Citizenship course after turning 18 years old. The course includes presentations from the French military and a test on the French language.

In 1997, French leaders abolished the traditional 10 months of compulsory military service for young men.

Student groups were also among the critics of Macron’s new civic service program.

“We share the government’s concerns about the lack of social integration but we think that universal national service is not the right response,” Orlane François of the umbrella group the FAGE student union, told Agence France Presse. “Two weeks in barracks would appeal to some segment of the population nostalgic for military service, but not the young people who are our primary concern.”

Before the present plan was announced, 14 youth organizations criticized the compulsory plan and the lack of freedom to choose a commitment, BBC News reports. A YouGov poll in March suggested about 60 percent of French people backed the plan.

France has historically witnessed conflict between Catholics and secular forms of republican government. The arrival of many Muslim migrants has led to different tensions and responses, including strong legal bans on religious headwear like the hijab.

North Dakota abortion clinic files suit against state requirements 

Bismarck, N.D., Jun 27, 2019 / 12:11 am (CNA).- North Dakota’s sole abortion clinic, located in Fargo, is filing a lawsuit against two state laws that it claims force doctors to present false information, and is asking a judge to block the laws’ enforcement.

The complaint is from the pro-abortion Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of the American Medical Association, the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, and the clinic’s medical director, Dr. Kathryn Eggleston.

The lawsuit alleges that two state laws, set to go into effect Aug. 1, force doctors to “lie”: one requires doctors to affirm that an unborn baby is a “unique, living human being,” and the other requires doctors to inform patients that reversals of medication abortions are possible.

Medication abortions have become an increasingly common method of abortion in the United States, making up 30-40 percent of all abortions.

North Dakota State Rep. Daniel Johnston said he sponsored the bill so that “women having second thoughts” about going through with a medication abortion know they have options, according to the Associated Press.

The AP reports that Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Utah have passed similar laws that require patients to be informed about medication abortion reversal.

The lawsuit asserts that there is no “credible, scientific evidence” that a medication abortion can be reversed.

Medical abortions involve the taking of two pills - the first pill, mifepristone (RU-486) blocks the progesterone hormone, which is essential for maintaining the health of the baby. The second pill, misoprostol, is taken 24 hours after mifepristone and works to induce contractions in order to expel the baby. Some women, after taking the first pill (mifepristone), experience regret and do not want to follow through with the abortion by taking misoprostol.

A study published last year in Issues in Law and Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal affiliated with the pro-life organization Watson Bowes Research Institute, examined 261 successful abortion pill reversals, and showed that the reversal success rates were 68 percent with a high-dose oral progesterone protocol and 64 percent with an injected progesterone protocol.

Dr. Mary Davenport and Dr. George Delgado, who have been studying the abortion pill reversal procedures since 2009, authored the study. Delgado sits on the board of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and co-founded the Abortion Pill Rescue Network, a coalition of 800 medical providers across the country.

“When I learned about the work of Dr. George Delgado...I jumped right on that. I felt we needed to educate women that they had a choice,” Tammy Taylor, a nurse practitioner at Guiding Star, a women’s health care clinic in Tampa, told Pregnancy Help News this month.

Taylor’s Tampa clinic has provided 15 women so far with abortion pill reversals, some of whom have traveled up to two hours for the procedure, Pregnancy Help News reports.

The director of a women’s clinic in Denver told CNA in April 2018 that she has found the abortion pill reversal protocol to be safe and effective with her patients, and her clinic has successfully treated several women who come in seeking a reversal after taking the first pill.

“I think the fact that we have now over 300 successful reversals is evidence that it works,” nurse practitioner Dede Chism, co-founder and executive director of Bella Natural Women’s Care in Englewood, CO, told CNA at the time.

“This isn’t make-believe and it isn’t coincidental.”

Delgado told the Washington Post that he believed more research should be done on abortion pill reversal, but that he believes there should be nothing to stop doctors from using the progesterone protocol in the meantime.

“(T)he science is good enough that, since we have no alternative therapy and we know it's safe, we should go with it,” he said.

The pro-life group Heartbeat International has documented numerous cases of successful abortion pill reversals resulting in healthy babies being born. A recent report from Pregnancy Help News, a service of Heartbeat International, said 750 babies have been saved in this manner.

The AMA also took issue with a law that requires physicians to tell patients that abortion terminates “the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being,” a statement that the AMA deemed a “controversial, ideological, and non-medical message.”

North Dakota’s governor signed into law in April a bill that outlaws the common abortion procedure known as “dilation and evacuation,” also known as “dismemberment abortion.”

Nicaraguan cardinal asks prayers that peace be the fruit of justice

Managua, Nicaragua, Jun 26, 2019 / 11:13 pm (CNA).- The Archbishop of Managua encouraged the faithful Monday to pray so that peace in Nicaragua be the fruit of justice.

“Let us pray together so that in Nicaragua peace be the fruit of justice, that the restoration of trust be cemented in lasting and respected agreements based on the truth of the facts, reparation and reintegration of the victims and their families,” Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes Solorzano said in a video posted June 24 by the Archdiocese of Managua.

Earlier this month, Cardinal Brenes said the results of a law granting amnesty to both anti-government activists and security forces will determine whether the legislation is good for the country.

Nicaragua's unicameral National Assembly passed the amnesty law June 8. Though it has allowed the release of a group of political prisoners, the law has been criticized by the opposition over fears it will also give impunity to troops and paramilitaries responsible for crimes and arbitrary arrests that have taken place during the past 14 months of protests.

The law also requires those released to refrain from future protests.

Deutsche Welle has reported that the released prisoners have not obtained definitive freedom nor have their trials been canceled, which prevents them from going back to work or to studies.

Anti-government protests in Nicaragua began in April 2018. They have resulted in more than 320 deaths, and the country’s bishops mediated on-again, off-again peace talks until they broke down that June.

A new round of dialogue began in February, but the opposition has made the timely release of all protesters a condition of its resumption.

Nicaragua’s crisis began last year after president Daniel Ortega announced social security and pension reforms. The changes were soon abandoned in the face of widespread, vocal opposition, but protests only intensified after more than 40 protestors were killed by security forces.

The pension reforms which triggered the unrest were modest, but protests quickly turned to Ortega’s authoritarian bent.

Ortega has been president of Nicaragua since 2007, and oversaw the abolition of presidential term limits in 2014.

The Church had suggested that elections, which are not scheduled until 2021, be held this year, but Ortega has ruled this out.

Ortega was a leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had ousted the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and fought US-backed right-wing counterrevolutionaries during the 1980s. Ortega was also leader of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.

'Sister Strike' nominated for Best Viral Sports Moment

Chicago, Ill., Jun 26, 2019 / 05:01 pm (CNA).- Maybe it’s the signature bump of the baseball off her bicep before pitching the perfect curve ball. Maybe it’s that she does it all in a full black and white habit with a beaming smile on her face.

Whatever it is, the pitch of baseball whiz Sister Mary Jo Sobieck, OP, that captured the hearts of many over the past year inspired a baseball card, a bobble head, and now a nomination for a national sports award.

“Sister Strike,” as the DominIcan sister has been called, has been nominated for an ESPY award in the category “Best Viral Sports Moment.” The ESPYs (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) are an annual sports awards ceremony honoring memorable people and moments in sports. This year’s ceremony will be hosted by Tracy Morgan in Los Angeles July 10.

The moment for which Sister is nominated? It’s called “Don’t Sleep on Sister Mary Jo’s curveball”, and it’s the moment when she threw a curveball strike to Lucas Giolito at the ceremonial opening of a Chicago White Sox game in August 2018.

The fans went wild and the moment went viral, catching the attention of baseball fans and casual observers on social media and national media. Her strike also aired on ESPN’s Sportscenter highlight reel.

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum now sells a Sister Mary Joe bobblehead for $25. She stands in a pitching stance, wearing a baseball jersey pulled over her habit, and a baseball mitt. Her right hand is cocked back with a baseball, ready to strike.

In April, Topps announced that they would be premiering a Sister Mary Jo baseball card this summer.

Patrick O'Sullivan, Topps Associate Brand Manager, told CNA in April that Sister is a good reminder that: “Baseball is for everyone from every walk of life. That's what makes it so special and fun to be a fan.”

There’s a reason Sr. Mary Jo, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield and a teacher at Marian Catholic High School, seems so comfortable on the pitching mound. She played softball starting in elementary school and through college and has coached high school sports.

She told the Chicago Catholic in December that she wasn’t about to “get ripped” by past coaches and teammates for a lousy pitch, so she gave the White Sox throw her all. But then again, that’s how she lives her whole life.

“Before (the pitch), she was just kind of like that loud nun,” Jen Pasyk, a fellow Marian Catholic teacher, told the Chicago Catholic. “She’s kind of gregarious and outgoing. There’s this image that sisters are kind of quiet and reserved, and that was never her. She is very popular, because she makes it a point to meet the students wherever they are. She really goes out for those shy kids who just want to blend into the bricks. She will learn something about them, so someone knows something about them.”

Since the viral moment, Sr. Mary Jo has been invited to various sporting events and speaking engagements. She wants to use the attention to lead others to God, she told the Chicago Catholic.

“The best gift I can give now is to give a good example of what it means to be virtuous,” Sister Mary Jo said. “It’s transitioned to what happens on the field of life. I try my best and sometimes I fail miserably and I get back up and try again. You get up the next day and try again.”

Chilean diocese concerned for Venezuelan migrants at border crossing

Arica, Chile, Jun 26, 2019 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of San Marcos de Arica expressed Monday its concern over the humanitarian conditions of hundreds of people, mostly Venezuelans, held up at the Chacalluta border crossing between Peru and Chile.

Chile recently imposed stricter controls on those entering its territory, as the number of Venezuelan emigrants swells. More than 4 million Venezuelans have emigrated since 2015.

Since June 22, to enter Chile a passport with visa, proof of the money to support one's stay, and a letter of invitation or a hotel reservation are required.

Since 2018, for residency there is required a temporary residency visa valid for one year and renewable for the same period, no criminal record, and other documents.

Immigrants at the Chacalluta border control would have to process their documents at the Chilean consulate in Tacna, fewer than 25 miles north of the site.

In a June 24 statement, the Arica diocese said that among the 700 people at the crossing, “lamentably there are children of all ages who urgently need better care, pregnant women, sick people suffering  from inclement weather out in the open, unable to resolve their migration problems.”

That day Bishop Moisés Carlos Atisha Contreras, along with his vicar general, Mauricio Cáceres, and Fr. Isaldo Bettin, head of the Chilean Catholic Institute for Migration in Arica, went to the site to “see firsthand the situation experienced by our Venezuelan brothers and sisters.”

"We talked with the central and local government authorities, but the most important thing was to listen to the stories of those affected and to pray with them so that humanitarian solutions with concrete actions could be sought as soon as possible."

“We have to understand the migration reality in the world from principles of humanity, and we are constantly challenged as a society to look for ways to treat people with the dignity proper to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus we put into practice what the Gospel mandates, 'I was a migrant [sic] and you welcomed me.'”

The statement noted that the government authorized the entrance of families with underage children, while institutions such as INCAMI, the Jesuit Migrant Service, the National Human Rights Institute, the Scalabrini Foundation and other migrant associations, consulates, and individuals are providing humanitarian aid.

Different civil society organizations issued a letter in turn expressing the hope that “the states in the region provide a coordinated response commensurate with the situation of the Venezuelans. They're not people invading countries, but families seeking to survive,” they said.

“While  the efforts of the consulates in giving timely responses are appreciated … extraordinary measures must be jointly taken that adapt to the situation the people are going through that need protection, instead of imposing requirements that not everyone has the possibility of fulfilling.”

Millions of Venezuelans have emigrated in recent years, as under the socialist administration of Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has been marred by violence and social upheaval, with severe shortages and hyperinflation.

Some 1.3 Venezuelan emigrants are being hosted by Colombia, and some 800,000 are in Peru.

In a move to restrict the flow of immigrants, Peru mandated June 15 that Venezuelans have a passport and visa to enter the country; previously, only a national ID card was needed.

‘Hear victims, treat the whole problem,’ human trafficking conference told

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2019 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Human trafficking survivors shared their stories of abuse and oppression before an audience on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, kicking off a day of education and advocacy in the U.S. Congress.

Experts, members of Congress, and trafficking victims spoke at a Capitol Hill conference on human trafficking held on June 26. The National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd co-hosted the event, along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the DC Baptist Convention.

“I cannot talk about human trafficking without saying ‘modern-day slavery’. Because when I think about my situation, it was a form of modern-day slavery,” said Evelyn Chumbow, speaker with Survivors of Slavery and a survivor of labor trafficking. 

Chumbow emphasized the importance of not separating sex trafficking from labor trafficking when discussing the problems. “One thing I hate is separation. I hate to separate the issue of sex and labor [trafficking],” she said, because “if you’re going to address the issue, address the whole issue.”  

There are an estimated 40.3 million human trafficking victims worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization; the trafficking industry is estimated to be around $150 billion.

The lack of investigation and prosecution of labor trafficking in the United States is a significant problem, said Hilary Chester, PhD, Associate Director of the Anti-Trafficking Program for United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

While “we do have relatively robust laws” against trafficking, she said, pointing to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), “what’s missing right now is accountability.”

This creates a system of impunity where “there is no consequence for exploiting a worker,” whether it be in a small business, agriculture, or a hotel chain. “There really isn’t much risk for them,” Chester said.

Sister Winifred Doherty, RGS, the United Nations Representative for the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, said there is a common thread running through global systems of exploitation.

“Laudato Si, as I Iook on it and reflect on it, connects the dots,” she said, referencing Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical. Doherty said the Pope has frequently drawn attention to how economies built towards the pursuit of profit rather than respect for human dignity lead to a market culture based on exploitation.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) also spoke at the conference about her service as a U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, during which time she helped to draft the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, and which first exposed her to human trafficking to Europe through the Balkans.

“Then I came home to my own suburban community in St. Louis County,” she said, seeing that trafficking was also “hiding in plain sight in the United States of America.”

In her testimony before trafficking experts and other audience members, Chumbow told of how she wanted to travel to America from Cameroon for opportunity, and at nine years old she came to the U.S. Unbeknownst to her, her uncle had sold her for $1,000 and she was taken to a family home in Maryland where other trafficking victims were put to work cooking and cleaning. 

Chumbow said was promised education and opportunities. “I thought I was coming to America to go to school, to be a lawyer.” “I remember my trafficker’s mother--my uncle was sitting right there--and the mother asked ‘is she old enough for the job?’ I’m thinking, ‘what job?’”

“She turned me around, she opened my mouth, she looked at me to see if I was strong enough to do whatever job I was coming to America to do. Obviously, to the mother, I passed the test,” said Chumbow. 

Her illegal entry into the U.S. and her exploitation were not coincidental, she explained. 

“You cannot talk about immigration without talking about trafficking,” she said, both “go hand in hand.” Chumbow was also sexually assaulted during her time of slavery. 

Then she escaped the home, and went to a Catholic church. She told the priest her story, and he asked her what she wanted to do. Chumbow answered that she wished to return home or go to school. However, she did not have the legal documents that she needed for employment or education. She was able to obtain fake documents to work at Taco Bell.

After spending time later in foster care, during which she says she was nearly recruited for sex trafficking but was able to recognize the threat, she eventually obtained her GED and Bachelor’s degree. She now works at the law firm Baker McKenzie. 

“Healing is a process. I’m 33 years old, I’m still struggling,” Chumbow said.

Abortion is key issue for 2020 voters, new poll says

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2019 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- A new poll has shown that abortion is a top consideration among a large section of voters, indicating the issue may be a crucial policy battleground in the upcoming 2020 elections. 

The study, conducted by Monmouth University, surveyed 751 people from June 12 to 17. It found that over a third of respondents rated abortion as either the “most important” or a “very important” issue for the presidential election. An additional 30% of respondents said that the issue was “somewhat important.” 

The poll found that Democrats were the most likely to rate abortion as the “most” or a “very” important issue for 2020, ahead of both Republicans or independents.

The 2016 Democratic Party platform included a call to roll back both the Hyde Amendment, which blocks the use of federal funds in most abortions, and the Mexico City Policy, which prevents U.S. overseas aid from going to organizations that provide or support abortion.

Abortion has played an increasing role in the Democratic presidential primary race, with Senator Bernie Sanders publicly backing unrestricted access to abortion up to birth, and Senator Joe Biden publicly reversing his decades of support for the Hyde Amendment.

Among Democrats most likely to weigh abortion rights in determining their vote, 28% said they support Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination, 21% prefered Elizabeth Warren, and 18% hoped Bernie Sanders is the nominee. 

The poll also found that while a plurality--32% --of respondents said they thought abortion should be “always legal,” a combined 55% were in favor of making the procedure “legal with limitations” or “illegal with exceptions,” such as in the cases of rape or incest. 

Ten percent of respondents were in favor of making abortion always illegal. 

Of that 10%, nearly two-thirds said that their pro-life stance will play a “very important role” in the 2020 election. Forty-three percent of the people who said they believe abortion should be legal all times said they consider abortion to be one of their key issues for the presidential election. 

Earlier this year, the Trump administration changed Title X regulations, prohibiting funding recipients from co-locating with abortion facilities, a move projected to cost Planned Parenthood approximately $60 million in federal funding. 

At the state level, several legislatures have moved to pass so-called “heartbeat bills” and other restrictive abortion laws, many of which are the subject of legal appeals. Other states, most notably New York and Vermont, have codified the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision into law, allowing virtually unrestricted access to abortion throughout pregnancy. 

Both Democrats and Republicans said that the other party as too focused on this issue.

Among Republicans, 58% said Democrats focused too much abortion but only 26% thought that their own party gave the matter too much attention at the federal level. 

Surveyed Democrats registered nearly identical numbers: only 23% thought federal-level Democrats were spending too much time on abortion, but 64% said Republicans were disproportionately focused on the issue.

After forced abortion threat, disability advocate says support is key to fight eugenics

London, England, Jun 26, 2019 / 01:10 pm (CNA).- In the face of an increasingly ‘eugenic’ mentality toward people with disabilities in Europe -- exemplified in the recent overturned forced abortion case -- a Catholic disability expert says parishes should be looking at how to further support people with disabilities and their families.

“Each and every person has been created in the image of God. There is no decision made about who can or cannot be born -- that's God's choice,” disability theology specialist Cristina Gangemi told CNA.

“It is a type of eugenics here where they are beginning to say for the ‘well-being’ of this person who ‘cannot’ go through birth, who ‘cannot’ look after the child, the best thing to do is to kill their offspring,” she said.

Gangemi is the director of the UK-based Kairos Forum, a consultancy that helps communities and organizations respond to the educational and spiritual needs of people with disabilities. For the past 25 years, Gangemi has worked with people with intellectual disabilities, like the woman involved in the recent attempted forced abortion case.

In this case, “the judge was saying that she wouldn't be able to cope with the birth and she wouldn't be able to cope with the child being taken away, but if she had an abortion, she would, at 22 weeks, still have had to give birth to a dead baby and the baby would have been taken away dead. That is what would have caused psychological problems to the young woman,” Gangemi explained.

“We can always work with her to help her understand the life she has within her and beyond her. And who says that that young woman is not able to give that child an immense amount of love?” she said.

“If I were called into work with this family, or if I were called to advise the parish or the diocese in which the family lived -- because we don’t know who they are -- I would be working with the local church to help them first of all understand the canonical duties that they have toward families such as this, and I would be looking to work with symbols, pictures, body language, and music to help the young woman understand what it means to be a mother,” she said.

“She might not be able to reason out now and we shouldn't even be expecting that, but what we can become is … creative teachers through love,” Gangemi explained.

“In my years working in the field I have never met anybody who can't learn. I've met lots of people who learn creatively, but I've always met people who can learn,” she said.

“We turn our gaze back to God and we begin to work creatively and accompany such a family, helping this young woman and her family not to be burdened by society's judgement, but to be celebrated by the Church's face,” she said.

Concerns have been raised for years over the treatment of those with disabilities in Europe. Disability advocates voiced alarm in 2017 when Iceland declared that it had “eradicated Down syndrome,” because 100% of babies who were diagnosed with the condition were aborted. Many other European countries also have high rates of abortions of children with Down syndrome.

Gangemi is currently working on a program called “Icons of Christ,” which will be a resource to help parishes approach the lives of people with intellectual disabilities pastorally when they request support for marriage preparation and living family life.

“Importance needs to be given to people with disabilities in faith communities. They have to be seen for who they are, members of the Body of Christ, and therefore there have to be creative practices within our Church that are not just special parishes or special Masses,” she said.

“People with disabilities should be catechists, protagonists, active members of the Church. They should be participants rather than recipients ... This is no special program. This is Catholicism at its finest,” she said.

Eritrean Catholics dedicate Apostles' Fast to pray over clinics' closure

Asmara, Eritrea, Jun 26, 2019 / 12:01 pm (CNA).- The head of the Eritrean Catholic Church has called for the Church's faithful to observe the current fasting season in response to the government's seizure and closing of 22 Church-run health clinics earlier this month.

Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam of the Eritrean Archeparchy of Asmara wrote in a June 22 letter that “only the Lord can console us and resolve our problems.”

The Eritrean Catholic Church observes the Apostles' Fast – a fasting season between Pentecost and the feast of Saints Peter and Paul – this year from June 25 through July 11. The Church uses the Alexandrian rite and the Coptic calendar, on which the feast of Saints Peter and Paul is not celebrated until the Gregorian calendar's July 12.

The Association of Member Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa has also condemned the clinics' seizure.

Bishop Charles Kasonde of Solwezi, chair of AMECEA, wrote to the Eritrean bishops saying, “I hereby extend my heart-felt message of solidarity to you and the entire Catholic family in Eritrea over the confiscation of the health institutions owned by the Catholic Church.”

“May the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ nurture you with the hope and give you the necessary courage and stamina to stand strong in defence of the rights of the Church and God’s people in Eritrea,” he added.

In June, military forces arrived at the Church's 22 clinics, telling patients to return to their homes, and subsequently guarding the buildings.

A letter from the Church to the health ministry after the seizure said that “the government can say it doesn't want the services of the Church, but asking for the property is not right.” It added that the Church's social services cannot be characterized as opposition to the government.

Eritrea is a one-party state whose human rights record has frequently been deplored.

According to the BBC, analysts believe the seizures were retaliatory, after the Church in April called for reforms to reduce emigration. The bishops had also called for national reconciliation.

Government seizure of Church property is not new, however.

A 1995 decree restricting social and welfare projects to the state has been used intermittently since then to seize or close ecclesial services.

In July 2018, an Eritrean Catholic priest helping immigrants and refugees in Italy told EWTN that authorities had recently shut down eight free Catholic-run medical clinics. He said authorities claimed the clinics were unnecessary because of the presence of state clinics.

Christian and Muslim schools have also been closed under the 1995 decree, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2019 annual report.

Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern since 2004 for its religious freedom abuses by the US Department of State.

Many Eritreans, especially youth, emigrate, due to a military conscription, and a lack of opportunities, freedom, education, and health care.

A July 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which ended a conflict over their mutual border, led to an open border which has allowed for easier emigration.

House passes emergency border funding, Trump threatens veto

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2019 / 11:00 am (CNA).- The House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday night to provide emergency funding for the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The bill, HR 3401, provides $4.5 billion in emergency supplemental appropriations to address the humanitarian crisis at the border, and to provide for security. It passed the House by a vote of 230 to 195, largely along party lines with the exception of four Democrats voting against the bill, and three Republicans voting for it.

President Trump has threatened to veto the measure, stating that the legislation “does not provide adequate funding to meet the current crisis” and “contains partisan provisions designed to hamstring the Administration’s border enforcement efforts.”

The appropriations would go to the U.S. Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services. According to ABC news reports, $934.5 million would go to funding processing facilities, food, water and personal items, and transportation and medical services.

Last-minute changes to the legislation included requirements that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issue new standards for the care of migrants and requiring HHS contractors to supply sufficient supplies and medical care for migrants in custody.

“We must meet our responsibility to ensure the humane treatment of children and families in U.S. custody, and this legislation further strengthens protections for those individuals and increases accountability,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) stated.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) criticized the legislation as partisan, noting that it included no funding for a border wall and would likely be vetoed by the president if it passed the Senate. Scalise called instead for the passage of legislation to support border personnel and reform immigration laws to address the root causes of the crisis.

Tuesday’s vote came after President Trump postponed nationwide raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that were planned to pick up thousands of migrant families with deportation orders for removal.

The chair of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, stated on Saturday, before the raids were delayed, that “broad enforcement actions instigate panic in our communities and will not serve as an effective deterrent to irregular migration.”

“Instead,” he stated, “we should focus on the root causes in Central America that have compelled so many to leave their homes in search of safety and reform our immigration system with a view toward justice and the common good.”

The situation along the U.S. - Mexico border remains a highly emotive situation, with individual cases drawing comment and attention from civil and religious leaders. A recent photograph showing the bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, floating along the Rio Grande riverbank circulated across the world after they were discovered on June 24.

The image caused Pope Francis to speak of his “profound sadness” at the tragic loss of life and his prayers “for them and for all migrants who have lost their lives while seeking to flee war and misery.” 

On Wednesday, the USCCB released a statement from Vasquez and conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo calling the image “horrific” and the “unspeakable consequence of a failed immigration system.”

“This image silences politics,” DiNardo and Vasquez wrote. 

“Who can look on this picture and not see the results of the failures of all of us to find a humane and just solution to the immigration crisis? Sadly, this picture shows the daily plight of our brothers and sisters.  Not only does their cry reach heaven. It reaches us. And it must now reach our federal government.”