Catholic US News

The world became more dangerous for religious believers last year

Washington D.C., May 2, 2016 / 04:48 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The right to exercise religion came under sustained assault around the world in 2015, according to a new report from a bipartisan United States commission, affecting Christians, Muslims, Jews, among others.

“By any measure, religious freedom abroad has been under serious and sustained assault since the release of our commission’s last Annual Report in 2015,” Dr. Robert George, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, stated Monday.

He was speaking at the release of USCIRF’s annual religious freedom report.

“At best, in most of the countries we covered,” George noted, the situation of religious freedom “failed to improve” or, worse, “spiraled downward” in 2015.

“I fear … that we’re losing the battle of ideas,” he stated in a May 2 press conference introducing the report. “We need the American people’s support on this,” he added. “The public needs to get behind this. We believe in religious freedom. It’s enshrined in the very first amendment to our Constitution.”

USCIRF is a federal, bipartisan commission that advises the State Department on religious freedom worldwide. It was created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act.

One of the commission’s main tasks is to publish an annual report on the global state of religious freedom, noting the countries with the worst abuses against the freedom to practice religion.

Among the report’s recommendations is a list of countries that should be on the agency’s Countries of Particular Concern list, or the countries where the worst violations of religious freedom are taking place, either at the hand of the government or with impunity from the government.

The current CPC list includes China, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Eritrea. USCIRF has also asked the State Department to designate seven more countries as CPCs: Central African Republic, Nigeria, Iraq, Vietnam, Egypt, Pakistan, and Syria.

Respect for religious freedom declined in 2015 because of multiple factors, the report explained: religious violence by terror groups killing and displacing millions for their religious beliefs, governments continuing to imprison persons for their religious beliefs, and growing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe and Russia.

The terror groups Islamic State and Boko Haram have killed or uprooted millions from their homes in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria in the last few years, inflicting a scourge of violence, torture, and abuse on entire minority populations and contributing to a global refugee crisis.

Meanwhile, the governments in those countries have not been able to protect their religious minorities in harm’s way. Iraq and Syria have shown a “near-incapacity to protect segments of their population from ISIL and other non-state actors, as well as their complicity in fueling the sectarian tensions that have made their nations so vulnerable,” the report noted.

In Syria, the Assad regime “has been guilty of inflaming those tensions” that helped create Islamic State, George said. The regime has been guilty of crimes against humanity committed against Sunnis and others, according to the report.

The U.S. should be a leader in accepting refugees and victims of religious persecution, the report said. The nation should set a goal of accepting 100,000 Syrian refugees and should provide sufficient funding for the vetting of these refugees. Congress should also “reauthorize the Lautenberg Amendment” to accept beleaguered Iranian religious minorities fleeing persecution by the government there, the report insisted.

In Asia, thousands of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority group of Burma, have been disenfranchised by their own government and have fled their homes, having no legal protection. There are 1 million displaced Rohingya, according to the report.

Refugees fleeing Africa, Syria, and Iraq, especially from the onslaught of Islamic State and Boko Haram, either flee to surrounding countries that have become strained from the large refugee population, or make a perilous journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There they are met with an increasing hostility, especially Muslim immigrants who face a rising tide of Islamophobia.

Muslims in Europe are harassed for wearing public symbols of their religion such as headscarves and face cloths. They are even subject to violent attacks. Far-right political parties that profit from xenophobia against immigrants, Muslims, and Jews are rising in popularity.

Furthermore, the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016 “produced backlashes against Muslims by members of the wider societies, many of who blame Muslims collectively, which is of course itself a terrible thing,” George said.

Laws restricting religious acts such as circumcision and halal slaughter of animals have surfaced in Denmark and Holland.

Xenophobia and hate crimes – particularly against Jews – are now being committed with “impunity” in Russia and are a problem throughout Europe, resulting in “an exponential rise in Jewish emigration from Europe,” the report stated. Jews are being targeted by secularists, far-right political parties, and “Islamist extremists who sought recruits from disaffected members of Muslim communities,” George said.

Other governments, including those of China, Iran, Russia, Eritrea and North Korea, are actively persecuting religious minorities and jailing people simply for expressing their religious beliefs.

“The existence of these prisoners [of conscience], people who are being jailed, beaten, tortured simply for expressing their conscientious religious beliefs or beliefs about religion, are an indictment of every government that holds them,” George stated.

In Iran, the number of persons from religious minorities imprisoned because of their beliefs has increased under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, with Baha’is, Sunni Muslims, Christians, and dissenting Shia Muslims all targed.

In China, Bao Guohua, a Protestant pastor, and his wife received 14 and 12 years respectively in prison for leading an effort against the state’s desecration of churches. The bulldozing of unauthorized churches in China has become such a problem that another Protestant pastor and his wife were buried alive in their attempt to stop the bulldozing of a church: Li Jiangong survived, but his wife Ding Cuimei died.

In Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi was jailed in 2012 for on charges of “insulting Islam and religious authorities.” Just “for speaking his mind, speaking his conscience, he has been subjected to horrific abuse,” George said. Another Saudi, Ashraf Fayadh, was arrested for “promoting atheism.”

In Uzbekistan – where Islam is followed by more than 90 percent of the population and where religious groups must register activity with the government – more than 12,000 Muslims have been imprisoned for unsanctioned religious activity.

Another problem for religious freedom is anti-extremism laws, which are often used to crack down on religious minorities under the pretext of fighting terrorism and extremism.

In Russia, such laws have been used against Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims. The law requires no evidence for an accusation of religious violence, and so persons can be convicted and jailed simply for “proclaiming the truth or superiority” of their religion.

Governments enforcing these anti-extremism laws “often fuels the very extremism they are purporting to fight,” George explained, and fighting terrorism “becomes a pretext” for human rights abuses.

This is evidenced in China where the state’s actions against the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority of northwest China, “has simply fueled violence,” he noted.

Blasphemy laws against words or actions showing contempt or mockery of religion are a pernicious problem in some countries as well – most notably in Pakistan, where no evidence is required for an accusation, and the crime can be punishable by death.

Blasphemy “might be insensitive or hurtful to many,” the report’s summary stated, but “blasphemy laws are not the answer. They inappropriately position governments as arbiters of truth or religious rightness, empowering officials to enforce particular views against individuals, minorities, and dissenters.”

Along with the recommendations for CPCs, the commission also has a “Tier 2” list of countries which “are not the worst abusers,” George noted, but where there are still “serious” and “significant” abuses occurring.  These countries are Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Laos, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, and Afghanistan.

Leaders of certain countries such as Egypt and India have said the right things about religious freedom and protecting religious minorities, but their administration is either complicit in the persecution of the minorities or powerless to stop sectarian violence, the report added.

“In a number of nations there has been a continued gap between the rhetoric of the regime and the reality on the ground,” George said, adding that “rhetoric doesn’t really matter unless it is accompanied by action.”

Catholic World News

What might save us from ‘victimhood’ culture

Denver, Colo., Apr 29, 2016 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This quote from British author Evelyn Beatrice Hall (often misattributed to Voltaire) might sound rather foreign on many college campuses throughout the country today, who in many ways seem to prefer to be defended from the First Amendment rather than to defend it.

Last month, students at Emory University in Atlanta protested that their safety was threatened by chalk messages showing support for Donald Trump for president. The president of the University agreed.

In early March, two student government representatives at Bowdoin College faced impeachment proceedings for attending a fiesta-themed party with mini sombreros, since the event was deemed an example of “ethnic stereotyping.”  

This week, North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Dan Forest proposed a policy for the state’s public university system that would punish “those who interrupt the free expression of others,” such as hecklers during a speech.

The rise of a culture designed to protect students from words and ideas that seem threatening has some experts questioning the effect that this hyper-sensitivity could be having on higher education and society at large.

Defining the terms

In a long-form piece in The Atlantic in Sept. 2015, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explored this phenomenon that they dubbed “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Words like ‘microaggressions’, which are small, seemingly harmless words or actions that can be perceived as threatening, and ‘trigger warnings’, which are alerts that professors are expected to issue for potentially offensive or provocative material, haved moved from obscure terms to everyday language on campus, they said.

“This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion,” they wrote.

Another recent piece in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf explored a new scholarly paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, who say that this new cultural phenomenon is different from previous cultures that have come before it, such as cultures that valued dignity or honor when faced with an aggrievance.

Now, the new cultural norm is “victimhood culture”, which values immediately and publicly airing one’s grievances, in hopes to “provoke sympathy and antagonism” toward the initial offender by “advertising (one’s) status as an aggrieved party,” Friedersdorf wrote.    

A Catholic college perspective

While many public universities are in the throes of grappling with the consequences of victimhood culture, some Catholic liberal arts schools say they have not seen the same cultural shift on their campuses.

Anne Forsyth is the Director of College Relations and Assistant to the President at Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), a Catholic liberal arts school in Santa Paula, California. She said she found it concerning when, for the first time a few years ago, she started hearing about “free speech zones” on college campuses.

“I remember thinking ‘What is this? The whole country is a free-speech zone, what are they talking about? This is America, we all have the freedom to speak.”  

But while she was aware of the culture of victimhood picking up speed on other college campuses, Forsyth said the student body of Thomas Aquinas seems to be untouched by the phenomenon.

“What we see here is endless conversation on all subjects, on which people can really disagree,” she said.

The reasons for the differences are complex, she added. One of the reason is the Christian faith of most of the students, she said, and that “where charity and love prevail, hopefully things will go a little bit better, so hopefully feelings won’t be so hurt, people won’t seem so doctrinaire,and those things are somewhat muted.”

Other reasons are likely the differences in pedagogy and curriculum, she said. Every class at TAC is in the form of a conversation-based seminar where the students are able to engage with their subjects on a level that wouldn’t be as possible in a large lecture class of hundreds of students, she said.

This engagement allows students to be able to grapple with differing opinions and ideas in ways that other students may not be being equipped to do, she said.

“I think it’s the advancing of an idea different or contrary to your own is what is triggering this (victimhood cultures), precisely because they just don’t have the tools to deal with it,” she said.

The school also takes steps to reduce “emotional reasoning” in the classroom by requiring students to address each other during discussions as “Mr.” or “Miss”, she added.

“We’re trying to minimize the personal part of it,” she said. “Not that everybody doesn’t have a personal stake in these arguments or discussions, because we do, but we don’t want to be personal about it in the point of feelings.”

Thomas Aquinas College also provides students with a classical education, with required courses in areas of philosophy, theology and literature that used to be the bread and butter of higher education.

What’s God got to do with it?

Dr. William Fahey is the president of Thomas More College, a small, Catholic liberal arts school in New Hampshire. He said that the recent articles about “victimhood culture” are identifying something that’s been happening for several decades in higher education and the culture at large.

“If you have what Benedict XVI called ‘the emancipation of man from God’ in the public square, then it means certain things are going to be absent, certain things are going to become more prominent,” he said. “So if you’re not allowed to talk about God at the center, then you can’t have traditional ethics, you simply can’t. You can’t have virtue, you can’t have justice, you can’t have transcendent things because they actually require some sense of the transcendent.”

“So it’s no surprise if you have a college or university or a country where there is either no discussion allowed or a very perverse discussion of God allowed, you can’t have ethics, you can’t have real solidarity, because there’s nothing that unites everyone,” he added.  

If there is no God, Fahey said, then the only thing that matters is gaining power, and many students have realized the power that comes with claiming victimhood status in today’s world.

But like Thomas Aquinas College, the student body at Thomas More has also not experienced the cultural shift seen at larger public universities for various reasons.

“We have a very traditional Catholic culture here that unifies everyone and we have a sense of justice, so if someone actually feels aggrieved, the categories for understanding that are virtue ethics, you could only understand your irritation as something significant because you perceive there’s a violation of justice here, not merely annoyance,” he said.

Thomas More College is also a unique model in that is has less than one hundred students, allowing the student body to become a very tight-knit Catholic community.

“It would be comical at Thomas More College to talk about being marginalized, because one small single Catholic community, we’re united in our faith, so we’re not going to be prey to the same kind of feeling of alienation that most people in modern society and certainly most college students feel,” he said.

Also similarly to Thomas Aquinas College, Thomas More requires students to take many courses in the humanities and literature, which allow them to see the world through many different perspectives, he said.

“Someone who might be feeling marginalized is going to have a tough time seeing that as significant when they’re reading tragedy and hardship, vice and virtue, they’re reading kind of the broad sweep of human experiences across many different time zones, many different cultures, many different races,” he said. “And you realize, ‘Huh, there is something called humanity, and it’s foolish to say I’m going to define myself and my actions by (a more narrow category).’”

A Catholic psychologist weighs in

Dr. Gregory Bottaro is a clinical psychologist practicing with Catholic Psych Institute in Connecticut. He said that while it’s necessary and important to recognize that some people have experienced real trauma in their lives, the solution is not to shut themselves off to any experience that might be uncomfortable for them.

“The reality is that real trauma happens,” he said. “If you have somebody who’s been raped and they’re hearing a story about (rape)…a trigger warning essentially can be a positive thing to give people a heads up that we’re approaching an area that may trigger something for you, but the fact of the matter is that we are going to approach it,” he said.

“So that’s the intent, to just give people the awareness that if there’s something here you may have struggled with, get ready, get yourself ready for what we’re about to do.”  

But when awareness takes the form of censorship of differing opinions, then it’s gone too far, he said. For example, trigger warnings, which can be used as an appropriate way to alert someone that certain material may trigger something for them, are often used as an excuse to not engage with material at all.

“The problem is that people take them as permission to avoid or stay away from the material that’s being warned about,” he said.

One of the fundamental definitions of overall health, Dr. Bottaro added, is flexibility, and that applies whether one is referring to biological, physical, spiritual or emotional health.

“Flexibility is an intrinsic quality of overall health, and that means that you can have the ability to talk to different kinds of people, have different opinions, dialogue with different people with different perspectives or different cultural views, different world views, and that’s ultimately what’s healthy,” he said.

Therefore, the inability to handle differing opinions could be a sign of psychological sickness or disorder.

The solution?

A Catholic worldview can be extremely helpful for people encountering differing ideas and opinions, because they are grounded in something fundamental, Dr. Bottaro said.

“A Catholic worldview gives us a stable foundation that goes to the very root of what it is to be human,” Dr. Bottaro said. “So if our foundation is at the deepest root, then we don’t have t be afraid to dialogue with other people from different perspectives, we don’t have to be afraid of what other people might say to us, because we’re grounded on the deepest foundation possible.”

“And that’s ultimately what’s missing in our culture, that’s why they need these safe spaces, because they don’t have any kind of deeply rooted foundation, they’re not grounded, and so they need to stop people from saying scary things because it’s going to knock them off balance,” he added.

Some secular universities and institutions are recognizing the “culture of victimhood” as a threat to the First Amendment right to the freedom of speech, and are taking action. A new group at Princeton University, called the “Princeton Open Campus Coalition”, who wrote in an open letter to the University’s president that they “are concerned mainly with the importance of preserving an intellectual culture in which all members of the Princeton community feel free to engage in civil discussion and to express their convictions without fear of being subjected to intimidation or abuse.”

The Arizona state senate has also decided to take action against victimhood culture by passing a bill that would prevent colleges and universities from restricting free speech in a public forum. The Senate approved the bill on a 21-8 vote, and it now goes back to the House for a final vote.

However, Dr. Fahey said, until secular universities and society as a whole once again recognize God and some sense of the transcendent as the center, then there’s no way to escape the rising culture of victimhood as an institutionalized part of society.

“The culture of victimhood can’t really come out of a religious society,” Dr. Fahey said.

“I would go so far as to say that if you have an authentically religious culture of any of the traditional religions, you’re not going to have this sense of victimhood.”

“In the United States, the religious tradition is Christianity. If you don’t recognize that and have some sympathy for the other great religions, then you’re never going to escape this problem, instead you’re going to build an office to deal with victimhood, and in that action, as long as you have that office, you’ve now made it part of your culture, you’ve now made it systemic.” 

Photo credit:

Catholic World News

Benedictine nuns back at it again with a new album

Kansas City, Mo., Apr 27, 2016 / 04:52 pm (CNA).- A new album from the chart-topping community of Benedictine nuns in rural Missouri has an intimate selection of the songs they sing when they gather for Eucharistic Adoration at their monastery.

“We pray that the music on this album will contribute to a more profound belief, adoration, hope and love…in the Blessed Sacrament among many, many souls,” Mother Cecilia told CNA.

She is prioress of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, whose album Adoration at Ephesus is newly available.

Jesus My Lord, My God, My All from Benedictine Sisters on Vimeo.

“This new album contains much of the music we sing for Eucharistic adoration,” she explained. “The Sisters gather for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament every Sunday, Thursday, and Solemnity for just over an hour. As the priest first places Our Lord in the monstrance, we sing a hymn to greet Him.”

Eucharistic Adoration at the community then proceeds with a moment of reverent gratitude for the Lord’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament, chanted Vespers, and often a communal rosary.

“Then there is time for silent prayer, as we converse heart to Heart with the One whom we love.”

Just before Benediction, Mother Cecilia said, “we sing a Tantum Ergo,” the hymn which traditionally concludes communal Adoration.

“After Benediction and the Divine Praises, as Our Lord is placed back in the tabernacle, we chant a final reposition hymn in His honor. There are a variety of these ‘farewell’ hymns on the disk, and (we) were sure to include two of the most well-known, Holy God, We Praise Thy Name and Adoremus in Aeternum.”

Adoration at Ephesus includes 24 tracks, in both Latin and English, that the sisters sing in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. Ten of the tracks, which were recorded this spring, were arranged by the sisters.

In addition to the times of communal Adoration, Mother Cecilia explained that “on the vigil of the Feasts of the Apostles, the Sisters take turns adoring during the day and all through the night.”

“Our main intention during these hours is for our bishops – that they will have great fortitude and fidelity to the Faith, especially amidst growing persecution from all sides.”

Though the community practices limited enclosure, their music albums have brought them international renown and popularity – they have been Billboard’s Best-Selling Classical Traditional Artist for three years in a row, and their albums have topped Billboard’s Top Traditional Classical Albums.

Life in the community is marked by obedience, stability, and “continually turning” towards God. They have Mass daily according to the extraordinary form, and chant the psalms eight times a day from the 1962 Monastic Office. They also support themselves by producing made-to-order vestments.

The proceeds from the sales of Adoration at Ephesus will help to fund the sisters’ new monastic church.

“The chapel in which we now pray was conceived as a temporary one,” Mother Cecilia said. “As the community grows and the hospitality apostolate expands, the necessity of undertaking the design and building of a new church has become a pressing reality.”

“In releasing Adoration at Ephesus, it is our hope to use the funds raised for the construction of a house of prayer – a new edifice where the Lord may truly be adored in spirit and in truth,” she added.

“We have been so touched thus far by the generous response our friends have shown in adding donations for the Church to their pre-orders. It has been tremendously inspiring.”

The sisters’ new chapel “is being built up by faith in the charity of our friends and spiritual family spread across the country,” Mother Cecilia said. “Their faith provides the living stones with which we press on, striving to raise up a beautiful house for God.”

The prioress concluded by reflecting on the link between the album and the apparitions at Fatima, noting that “this very month is the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of the Angel to the three little shepherds near Fatima.”

“I was simply astounded that our album corresponds so perfectly and intimately with the message he brought to the children and the world. If one word had to be chosen to summarize that message, it would be: adoration.”

“We pray that all souls will adore our Eucharistic Lord with great faith, love, reverence and thanksgiving!”

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