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Bishops welcome EU pledge on religious rights

WARSAW, Poland -- A commission representing the European Union's Catholic bishops welcomed an EU commitment to support religious freedom worldwide and predicted "concrete measures" will be taken to implement the pledge.

"It isn't up to churches to suggest practical action," said Johanna Touzel, spokeswoman for the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community. "What we're calling for is a clear warning about the consequences of continued persecution.

"The Western world should be offering a framework for respecting fundamental rights, which local communities can implement democratically. Now that revolutionary changes are occurring in the Arab world, the West has a responsibility to set the rules of the game," she said.

Touzel's response followed the release Feb. 21 of a statement by the EU foreign ministers that reaffirmed a "strong commitment" to promote religious freedom and condemn violence against Christians and Muslims.

In a Feb. 24 interview with Catholic News Service, Touzel said the voices of church leaders and Christian politicians helped "change the orientation" of the foreign ministers.

Filipinos in Libya take refuge as firefights rage

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MANILA, Philippines -- Filipinos trapped in the violent upheaval in Libya took refuge inside the cathedral of the apostolic vicariate of Tripoli as they awaited word that safe passage out of the country was secured, a missionary priest said.

The Filipinos had camped out in St. Francis Church in Tripoli since Feb. 21 as firefights raged around the Libyan capital, said Franciscan Father Hermilo Vilason.

The priest, who serves as chaplain to Filipino migrants in Libya, told the Philippine bishops' Episcopal Commission for Pastoral Care for Migrants and Itinerant People that people have awakened daily to the sound of gunfire, reported the Asian church news agency UCA News.

"At times sporadic and at times continuous," Father Vilason said in correspondence to Father Edwin Corros, the commission's executive secretary.

The priest said helicopters can be heard overhead but not seen.

"Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli told us to stay inside the church rather than be put in danger outside," Father Vilason said.

All Christchurch parishes closed until engineers inspect them

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CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand -- No Catholic church or school in Christchurch will be used until engineers have declared it safe.

Christchurch Bishop Barry P. Jones announced the measure Feb. 25, three days after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked New Zealand's second-largest city, causing more than 100 deaths and widespread damage.

Indian cardinal criticizes report on church attacks

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BANGALORE, India -- The president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India added his voice to the rising tide of critics of a controversial report that cleared Hindu fundamentalists, police and local government leaders of a series of attacks on Christian targets in September 2008.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai flayed the report Feb. 23 for failing "to identify persons and organizations" involved in the attacks despite the testimony of dozens of witnesses who identified individual perpetrators who took part in the incidents in southern Karnataka state.

The report by a commission, chaired by retired Judge B.K. Somasekhara and appointed by the Karnataka government, had "hurt our religious sentiments by its uncalled-for remarks and exoneration of the fundamentalist forces," the cardinal said.

Churches, Christian groups and various church leaders, including Catholic bishops, have led public protests calling upon the Indian government to conduct its own inquiry into the attacks since the commission's report was given to the Indian government Jan. 28.

In Italian sex scandal, Vatican caught in a bind

VATICAN CITY -- No major Western European leader in recent years has been a more stalwart ally of the Roman Catholic Church than Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s stands against euthanasia, living wills, in-vitro fertilization and domestic partnerships have put his country in line with Catholic teaching, and out of sync with all other major countries in the region, including traditionally Catholic Spain. His government has also granted large financial subsidies to Catholic schools, and expanded tax breaks for church-owned businesses.

Yet in Berlusconi’s increasingly public personal life, the billionaire businessman-turned-politician is not exactly a model of Catholic values.

After months of ever more graphic reports of wild parties and sex with young women, including several alleged prostitutes, a judge on Tuesday (Feb. 15) ruled that Berlusconi must face trial on April 6 on charges of paying for sex with a minor and obstruction of justice.

Quebec mayor fights order to remove crucifix

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TORONTO -- The mayor of a Quebec town says he will appeal a decision by a human rights tribunal that bans prayer at city council and ordered him to remove a crucifix from the council’s chambers.

Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay said he will refuse to heed the judgment from the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal that also ordered him to remove a Sacred Heart statue.

The tribunal ordered the town to pay $30,000 in damages to the local resident who complained about the religious symbols, ruling they infringed on his freedom of conscience. The town is roughly 90 percent Catholic.

Tremblay has set up a toll-free telephone line and posted a link on the town’s website to solicit donations for his legal battle.

“Why is it us Christians that always have to bend?” Tremblay told the Globe and Mail newspaper. “Our values have no importance. I am the first mayor in the history of the world to be punished for reciting a prayer.”

The tribunal’s decision is widely viewed as the latest step toward Quebec’s aggressive march toward secularism. Earlier this month, provincial lawmakers voted to ban ceremonial Sikh daggers, known as kirpans, from the legislature.

Bishops lead sit-in over Indian court findings

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BANGALORE, India -- Nineteen Catholic and Protestant bishops staged a sit-in to protest the findings of a report that cleared Hindu fundamentalists of a series of attacks on Christian targets in southern Karnataka state in September 2008.

The clerics, including 13 Catholic bishops, were joined by nearly 500 church leaders in the southern city of Bangalore, where they again criticized the findings of a commission chaired by Judge B. K. Somashekhara for not identifying the attackers in 57 incidents involving Christian churches and other sites.

The demonstrators gathered in central Bangalore, with the bishops sitting on chairs in their clerical garb under a midday sun.

Organized by the Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights and the Karnataka Region Catholic Bishops' Council, the church leaders said the report was biased and that it "whitewashed" the incidents.

The crowd renewed a call for a new inquiry headed by the India's Central Bureau of Investigation. They also demanded the withdrawal of more than 150 cases lodged against Christians who were injured in the attacks.

Caritas head denied second term by Vatican

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VATICAN CITY -- Vatican officials have prevented the secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis from seeking a second four-year term.

Lesley-Anne Knight, a British citizen born in Zimbabwe, did not receive the necessary approval, or "nihil obstat" ("nothing stands in the way"), in January when she submitted her name as a candidate to continue in the position with the church's worldwide aid and development organization.

"The Holy See wants a change in the way it works with Caritas and says this requires a change in the person of the secretary-general," said a statement released late Feb. 18 by Caritas Internationalis in Rome.

"The Holy See has therefore not granted Mrs. Knight the nihil obstat to seek another mandate," the statement said.

The statement said the Vatican had acknowledged "the professional work done and achievements of Mrs. Knight."

Elections for the position of secretary-general and international president, which is held by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, are set for late May in Rome during Caritas Internationalis' quadrennial general assembly.

Irish bishops reject 'bonus culture' of capitalism run amok

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Facing an economic crisis that has produced record unemployment, staggering levels of household debt, and deep political unrest, the Catholic bishops of Ireland have issued a stinging critique of “the excesses of advanced capitalism” and its “bonus culture,” calling for an economy rooted in social solidarity as opposed to “radical individualism.”

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