The church on the hill

cross background

Browsing News Entries

Browsing News Entries

Mystery surrounds death of priest who went missing in UK

Edinburgh, Scotland, Jun 26, 2017 / 03:23 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A priest who was reported missing last week from his parish in Edinburgh, Scotland was found dead on a nearby beach Friday afternoon.

Father Martin Xavier Vazhachira, 33, was a native of India and was studying for a postgraduate degree in Edinburgh University while serving at St. John The Baptist Catholic Church in Corstorphine.

The priest was last seen at the parish on Tuesday afternoon, June 20.

When he did not show up for morning Mass on Wednesday, his parishioners alerted the authorities.

His body was found on a beach in Dunbar, about 30 miles from the parish, on June 23. Authorities have confirmed that his family in India was contacted about his death.

The cause of his disappearance and death is yet unknown.

Father Vazhachira was a native of Kerala in southern India and was ordained a priest in 2013 for the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate Order. He moved to Scotland in 2016, where he served in several local parishes before his appointment to Corstorphine in October 2016.

“The news of Father Martin Xavier’s death comes as a great shock and a great sadness to all those who knew him and loved him,” Archbishop Leo Cushley of St Andrews and Edinburgh said in a statement on June 24.

“Our thoughts and, more importantly, our prayers are with him and with all his loved ones in both Scotland and India. May he rest in peace.”

Christian leaders in Zambia warn against government abuses

Lusaka, Zambia, Jun 26, 2017 / 02:53 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The leaders of three major Christian groups in Zambia have issued a strongly worded letter on the political state of the country, calling on Zambians to “examine our conscience, seek the truth, and work towards bringing back hope to our people.”

It also accuses the current administration of being a “dictatorship.”

The June 16 letter was penned by Archbishop Telesphore George Mpundu of Lusaka, president of the Zambian bishops' conference; Alfred Kalembo of the Council of Churches in Zambia; and Paul Mususu of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia.

“If these are not signs of dictatorship, what are they signs of?” the letter said. “Certainly not of a democratic dispensation!”

The letter comes as a response to the arrest of Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the opposition party, the UPND.

The current president, Edgar Lungu, has been accused of rigging last year's presidential election. He has been in office since January 2015.

Hichilema was arrested April 10 on charges of treason after his convoy failed to allow the presidential motorcade to pass as both headed to a ceremony in the Western Province. And on June 13, 48 members of the Zambian Parliament were suspended when they boycotted Lungu’s state of the nation address, the BBC reported.

These events mark an abrupt jump by Zambia onto the international scene, a nation that normally has a reputation for peace and stability. Zambia ranked 87 out of 176 in Transparency International's 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, in the company of Mongolia and Panama.

The country's Catholic bishops had voiced their opposition to Lungu's administration previously.

In their letter, the Zambian Christian leaders lamented Hichilema’s arrest and said, “With the current state of affairs, it is difficult to see how the UPND can easily recognize the legitimacy of Lungu’s re-election in August 2016.”

“Leadership, particularly at the national level, requires integrity, truthfulness, honesty and sincerity. We believe that the political leadership has failed on this score.”

“Institutional violence is a fundamental measure of a dictatorship,” they said. They lamented the use of dogs in Hichilema’s arrest, noting that canine forces were a frequent characteristic of the British occupation in Zambia.

“The State Police brought along dogs of the German shepherd breed that defecated in the vehicle meant to carry Hakainde Hichilema.”

Hichilema was allegedly subject to torture and kept in inhumane conditions before even receiving a guilty verdict, the leaders said. They also offered their thoughts and prayers for a number of other political prisoners being held by the government.

They also noted that outrage over the arrest had been expressed in many countries, including the US, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and in the EU. They also committed their communities within Zambia to fighting “on the side of good.”

“We are fully aware,” they stated, “that more often than not, the fight for Justice is not a path filled with many pilgrims, but is a lonely journey by courageous leaders and a small number of followers.”

The letter at multiple points quotes John 8:32, “The Truth will set you free.” Freedom of the press, according to the letter, is under assault in the country. They noted the closing or “fixing” of various major news outlets in the country, and “maintain that the presence of 80 radio stations, online newspapers and independent television stations in Zambia does not mean press and media freedom.”

They also defended their charge that the arrest shows dictatorial qualities in the government.

“It is not the numbers of the afflicted victims that count. It is the principle,” they said.

“The dictum that God knows how to count only up to one when it comes to his children is the truth that makes us realize just how each one of us is important in God’s eyes.”

At the close of the letter, the Christian leaders' tone became outright mournful.

“Indeed, what has happened to us as a nation?” the bishops lamented. “Where are our values as human beings and as Christians? Is this what it means to be a ‘Christian Nation’?”

In concluding, the Christian leaders made a number of demands of the government, including that “we expect H.E. Mr. Edgar C. Lungu, to act as Republican President whose aim is not only to protect the good of the members of his party (the PF), but also and more importantly, be the guardian of ALL ZAMBIANS, regardless of their political affiliation.”

“We firmly believe that this nation can overcome all our current political differences through genuine dialogue aimed at true reconciliation and nation building.”

The bishops have spoken up on two very different issues – and now the Supreme Court will, too

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2017 / 12:38 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As the Supreme Court wrapped up its latest term on Monday, it agreed to consider a major religious freedom case, as well as the case of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, this fall.

Both topics have drawn concern from the U.S. bishops, who have urged respect for freedom of conscience and religion in the face of legalized gay marriage, while criticizing the travel ban for abandoning vulnerable refugees in need.  

The court agreed to hear two cases next term which could prove to have major impacts – the constitutionality of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, and the case of Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which involves the rights of a baker to refuse out of conscience to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.

The latter case was relisted 14 times by the Supreme Court, which finally took it up on Monday, SCOTUSBlog.com reported.

“The issue in this case is a free speech case; whether or not the state of Colorado can coerce a person to write a message through culinary arts that violates his conscience,” said Michael Farris, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the baker Jack Phillips in the case.

Phillips, who owns Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo. and has run the shop for over 23 years, explained on Monday how he operates his business in accordance with his religious beliefs.

The shop is “not just a bakery, but a place where I can use my artistic vision and talents to create cakes that communicate just the right message for my clients,” he said. “I gladly welcome and serve everyone that comes into my shop.”

His store is closed on Sundays and he refuses to craft cakes with messages that run contrary to his values, such as anti-American, atheist, or racist messages. He added that “my sincerely-held religious belief that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman.”

“In 2012, I was stunned when I became the target of a lawsuit relying on sexual orientation gender identity law that offers no exemptions for people of faith,” he said.

After he had declined to make a wedding cake for the same-sex wedding of Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission said he had violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. The couple was able to obtain a rainbow-themed cake at another shop in the vicinity of Masterpiece.

Phillips said he was barred by the commission from serving any weddings and ended up losing 40 percent of his business, “a crushing loss.” He was also ordered by the commission to enter anti-discrimination re-education, and submit quarterly reports on updating the policies of the business.

Furthermore, Phillips said he began receiving “vile and hateful calls at the shop, including one death threat that was so bad, that I hid my daughter and granddaughter in the back until the police arrived.”

On Monday, after the Supreme Court agreed to take Phillips’ case, lawyers for ADF hoped that the Court would ultimately uphold his free speech rights.

“We’re hopeful that the Court will affirm the basic principle that the government cannot punish artists like Jack for refusing to create art that violates his religious convictions,” said senior counsel Kristin Waggoner.

In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court also ruled on Monday that a travel ban on visitors from six majority-Muslim countries may go into partial effect, as the ban awaits a hearing and full consideration by the high court in October.

The court blocked full implementation of the executive order originally released by President Donald Trump in January, saying that the ban “may not be enforced against foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”  

Thus, family members, students and employees from the six designated countries who wish to visit, live or work in the United States will be able to do so. Those who lack such ties to the U.S. will be banned under the executive order.

The order in question bars persons from six majority-Muslim countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – from entering the United States for 90 days, and also requires that refugees wait 120 days before entering the country. The executive order also lowers the number of refugees accepted by the United States in FY 2017 to 50,000 – down from the 110,000 person limit and the 85,000 refugees accepted in actuality during FY 2016.

Initially released January 27, the executive order was then revised on March 6 after judicial challenge. The modified version removed Iraq from the list of countries subject to the ban, and also walked back provisions that would have prioritized refugee admissions for persecuted religious minorities.

The bans were challenged by courts in Maryland and Hawaii, who blocked them from taking effect. Those rulings were later upheld by federal appeals courts in Virginia and California, respectively, on grounds that they violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The federal government appealed those rulings to the Supreme Court, asking that the stay be lifted and the ban go into effect until arguments are heard before the Supreme Court later this year.

The Supreme Court’s decision only removes part of the stay on the administration’s executive order, allowing the travel and refugee bans to continue against those with no existing ties to the United States. Many of the plaintiffs in the original cases brought in Hawaii and Maryland had family members, schools or employers based in the U.S.

The executive order has come under harsh criticism by the U.S. Bishops and Catholic refugee experts. Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the U.S. bishops' committee on migration, stated that the bishops were “deeply troubled by the human consequences of the revised executive order on refugee admissions and the travel ban,” after the ban’s March revision. “The revised Order still leaves many innocent lives at risk,” he said.

“The U.S. Catholic Bishops have long recognized the importance of ensuring public safety and would welcome reasonable and necessary steps to accomplish that goal,” the bishop said.

“However, based on the knowledge that refugees are already subjected to the most vigorous vetting process of anyone who enters the United States, there is no merit to pausing the refugee resettlement program while considering further improvement to that vetting process.”

Bill O’Keefe, vice president for advocacy and government relations at Catholic Relief Services, echoed many of Bishop Vasquez’s sentiments, urging in a March 6 statement that “now is not the time for the world’s leader in refugee resettlement to back down.”

The U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference runs one of the nation’s largest refugee resettlement agencies, helping to resettle more than a quarter of all of the refugees admitted to the United States annually.

 

Supreme Court rules in favor of church in crucial First Amendment case

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2017 / 11:32 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In one of the biggest religious cases of the term, the US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a church-owned playground can be eligible for a public benefit program.

Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the opinion of the Court, wrote June 26 that “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran,” the church at the center of the case, “from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”

The decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer was about “religious people being treated just like everybody else,” stated Mike Farris, president of Alliance Defending Freedom.

At issue was a playground owned by Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., and operated by the church’s preschool. To resurface the playground for safety reasons, the church had applied for a state reimbursement program that provides rubber surfacing material made from used tires. Trinity Lutheran had ranked the fifth most qualified out of 44 applicants for the program.

The state’s natural resources department ultimately ruled the church ineligible for the program because of its religious status. The Missouri state constitution forbids taxpayer funding of churches. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state.

The Supreme Court reversed that ruling and sent it back to the lower courts.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan joined Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion of the Court that the denial of the church’s eligibility for the program violated the free exercise clause. Justice Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in Chief Justice Roberts' judgement.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined the Court’s opinion except for a footnote stating that the decision was about “discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” and does not “address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”

“I worry that some might mistakenly read” the footnote to apply only to “‘playground resurfacing’ cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy,” Gorsuch wrote.

He added that “the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the Court’s opinion.

The Church had argued that the new surface would be a safety upgrade for the playground operated by its preschool and used by members of the community during non-school hours.

It was used by both church members and non-members, they insisted, and should not be ruled ineligible for a state benefit program available to other entities just because it is owned by a religious institution.

Opposing the church was the ACLU, which had argued that to make the church eligible for state benefits would be an unconstitutional violation of the establishment clause.

Missouri’s denial of the church, however, “goes too far” under precedents of Supreme Court decisions, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, and “violates the Free Exercise Clause.”

The Missouri law was passed during a time when many other states were passing laws barring public funding of sectarian schools, widely viewed at the time to mean Catholic schools and other religious schools that were not part of the public school system. The laws were modeled after the federal Blaine Amendment, proposed in the 1870s and named after Maine Congressman James Blaine. His amendment was proposed, but never passed by Congress.

In oral arguments in the case, justices also discussed the broader constitutionality of religious groups having access to other public benefits, including a Jewish synagogue requesting a security detail.

Catholic leaders applauded Monday’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court is signaling in this decision that the government must stop its growing hostility towards religion and religious institutions, and that antiquated and anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments should not be used as a weapon to discriminate against people of faith,” Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor with The Catholic Association, stated.

“For over a century, Blaine Amendments have enshrined into law discrimination against faith-based charities and schools that form an essential part of American society,” Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association, stated. “In this case, a state Blaine Amendment was used to justify blacklisting a Christian elementary school from a playground safety program solely on religious grounds.”

“Blaine Amendments are anti-Catholic in their origin, and getting rid of them is more than a century overdue,” she added. “Today’s decision demands a more fair and inclusive approach to government programs meant to serve all people."

The decision “will have an effect” in the future, David Cortman, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, who argued the case for the church before the Court in April, said. “Whenever religious people, organizations, see themselves being discriminated against, this case will be the controlling precedent,” he added.

Members of Congress also weighed in on the decision. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) called it “an important ruling for religious liberty with profound significance for America’s civil society.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), co-chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus and who filed an amicus brief with colleagues on behalf of Trinity Lutheran in the case, stated that “today’s decision affirms the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion—to have more than just a belief but to live out your faith without discrimination from the government.”

The case was ultimately between the church and the state’s natural resources department. Missouri’s attorney general recused himself in the case.

Missouri’s governor Eric Greitens (R) had already announced that in the future, religious institutions could be eligible for benefit programs of the natural resources department. However, the Court stated on Monday that “that announcement does not moot this case.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, stated that “this case is about nothing less” than the relationship “between church and state.”

“The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church,” she added. “Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that “it is true the Department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the Church that it cannot subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel.”

“But, as the Department itself acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against ‘indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.’” And a church being denied participation in public benefits because of its religious character can be such an “indirect coercion” on the free exercise of religion, he continued.

“In this case, there is no dispute that Trinity Lutheran is put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit. The rule is simple: No churches need apply.”

Chinese bishop forcibly removed from diocese still missing

Vatican City, Jun 26, 2017 / 07:03 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Monday the Vatican issued a statement on the situation of the Chinese Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, who has not been returned since being forcibly removed from his diocese by the Chinese state May 18.

“The Holy See is observing with grave concern the personal situation of Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, forcibly removed from his episcopal see some time ago,” read the June 26 statement by the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Greg Burke.

The Catholic community of the diocese and his family and friends remain with no news of the bishop’s whereabouts or of the reason for his removal, the statement continued.

The Vatican-approved Bishop Shao, who is not recognized by the Chinese government, was summoned by their religious bureau on May 18 and has since not been heard from or returned, La Croix International reports.

Following canon law, the Vatican confirmed Bishop Shao as the successor of the Wenzhou diocese on Sept. 21, 2016, following the death of his predecessor, Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang. Since then he has been removed from the diocese or detained on four different occasions.

He is not a part of the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) and is therefore part of the underground church not recognized by the communist government.

The Vatican’s statement was issued in response to questions from journalists. There were reports last week claiming that the bishop had been spotted in the local airport with government officials, though the claim has not been substantiated and his present whereabouts are still unknown.

“In this respect, the Holy See, profoundly saddened for this and other similar episodes that unfortunately do not facilitate ways of understanding, expresses the hope that Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin may return as soon as possible to the diocese and that he can be assured the possibility of serenely exercising his episcopal ministry,” the Vatican statement continued.

“We are all invited to pray for Bishop Shao Zhumin and for the path of the Catholic Church in China.”

Bishop Shao was first detained, along with three other priests, following the death of his predecessor, Bishop Zhu, preventing him from presiding over the funeral Mass.

He was also detained just one month prior to this current detainment, from April 12-17, which ostensibly was to prevent him from celebrating the Triduum and Easter liturgies, which would have been his first time as head of the diocese.

He is not the only Chinese bishop or Christian to be detained. Persecution of Christians in China varies by province, but certain provinces have seen an uptick in recent years.

In Zhejiang province, where the Diocese of Wenzhou is located, more than 1,500 churches have been desecrated or demolished. Churches in Zhejiang have been ordered to stop displaying crosses and Christians there have been detained.

Overall, the situation of religious freedom in China has deteriorated even more in recent years, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom noted in its 2017 annual report, as the country’s leader Xi Jingping has “further consolidated power” and worked to promote the “sinicization” of religion.