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For families of 21 Copts killed by ISIS, martyrdom is ‘Fifth Gospel’

Rome, Italy, Mar 19, 2019 / 11:00 am (CNA).- The author of a newly translated book has spoken of the “extraordinary” willingness of the Coptic Martyrs to “bear witness to the Christian faith” as they were kidnapped and beheaded at the hands of ISIS in Libya in 2015.


Martin Moseback is the author of the "The 21. A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs," recently published for the first time in English. In an interview with CNA, Moseback spoke about his experience in Upper Egypt examining the lives of the 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians.


The interview is below; it has been edited for clarity and length.


Before writing this book, you traveled to Egypt and met with the families of the martyrs. What message did the families of the martyrs who had lost their loved ones to ISIS share with you?


These meetings were indeed extraordinary.


They are poor people, not living in utter misery, but people who live a very humble life, small farmers. And many of them have now lost their breadwinner since these men used to send money to their families, their children, their wives, and their elderly relatives back home. But still, these people talked with such peacefulness, such pride of the fact that their family produced a martyr, someone ready to make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the faith.


I have noticed that this readiness to bear witness to the Christian faith is particularly widespread in the villages of mainly rural Upper Egypt, where some regions are almost exclusively Christian. I spoke with young people. Young men and women in their twenties told me that they would gladly become martyrs  -- in the same way as an American or a German child might say: “I`d like to become an astronaut.”


This readiness was really there, and it was seen as something which gives you energy, fills you with pride and joy.


The video that ISIS released in 2015 with the beheading of the 21 men in orange jumpsuits was entitled “A message signed with blood to the nations of the Cross.” How did this message resonated across the Middle East and beyond to the rest of the world, did you see unintended consequences?


This video has been seen in the whole world with horror and disgust, of course. And I am sure that this was also the reaction it stirred in many in the Middle East. The Egyptian Christians, however, saw this video with different eyes: they saw it as a precious, rare document of martyrdom.


The Coptic Church considers itself a Church of martyrs. They are proud of their martyrs, and thus they considered it as a continuation of martyrdom, a continuation of the readiness to bear witness to Christ.


And here we are in Rome -- a city filled with the relics of Christian martyrs throughout the centuries. In your research, what similarities did you find between these modern martyrs, killed at the hands of ISIS and the Christian martyrs throughout the centuries whom we revere?


The whole attitude of these families and the attitude of the martyrs themselves reminds us so strongly of the martyrs of the first centuries, of how the early Christian community reacted in the face of persecution. And the communities from Upper Egypt reacted in exactly the same way to modern persecution at the hands of ISIS - or hostile Muslim neighbors. For them, it is the story of a victory.


They do not pity their martyrs, and neither do we: in Roman churches, they are depicted with a crown on their head and the palm branch of victory in their hand. And this has not changed. Even now, the martyrs are depicted as priests in a chasuble, as deacons -  and with a crown on their head.


This is the very same look of the first centuries: the authentic view early Christianity had on martyrdom.


The Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt has faced ongoing persecutions in the last few years, with devastating church bombings and other acts of terrorism committed. What attitude did you find among this Christian community in Egypt and how they faced this continuing persecution?


In recent years, in the wake of the so-called “Arabellion” - in which President Mubarak was overthrown by the Muslim Brotherhood and then President Morsi arrested -- there has been a  current hidden civil war in Egypt. Persecution, destruction and attacks against Christians have become worse. But for the Copts, this is nothing new.


The actual situation is very difficult, that is true, but the Copts have a history of 1,400 years of oppression, and the recent years are nothing more than a new chapter. The Copts lost their civil rights with the Islamic conquest. There have always been waves of persecution and destruction; they are used to it.


Now you wrote in your book that in your conversations with the families, not once did the concept of revenge or justice for the executioners came up. How is forgiveness a part of  the story of these Coptic martyrs?


In fact, that is another astounding aspect: There was no talk of revenge at all in these families. There was no talk of revenge, no talk of justice. There were no demands to support the Christian communities, to help and protect them. Let me put it this way: the persecutors simply did not exist; they had no face. And, indeed, they had worn face masks; their whole attitude was that of being simply messengers of Satan.


It is the eternal story: The Christians are in the world to fight the good fight, and in every century they have to face new challenges, new temptations. This is only one in a long chain. The individual persecutors were of no interest to them. I would say they lived in a world completely orientated towards the afterlife, and maybe they did not even perceive these persecutors as individuals, but rather expressions of an evil power.


I know several of these martyrs were in their early twenties. Was there something, in examining their lives and their formation in the Coptic Orthodox faith, that you saw that gave them the strength to sacrifice their lives for Christ at that moment?


In terms of religious education, the Coptic Church is very well organized - at least since the 20th century. Since that time, the Coptic Church has adopted the habit of Sunday school after the liturgical education of the young people. A young Copt knows what he or she believes in.


I have often noticed that Christian faith is a very complex thing. And not many Christians know their religion -  but the Copts do! And then they have this long and splendid liturgy, which they celebrate every Sunday. The martyrs, the young people, knew it by heart because they were also church singers, singers ordained by the bishop. So you can say, they have spent great part of their lives and almost all of their leisure time in Church.


They were young people who had based their whole life on the Church, on faith.


What is the greatest lesson that you think you will take away from spending time with this persecuted Christian community in Egypt?


My greatest lesson is that martyrdom has the function of working as a fifth Gospel. The Evangelists were all martyrs, and when the first Christian martyrs entered the scene, the Gospels had not yet been written. The martyrs are the true messengers of Christian faith, and as long as there are martyrs, we do not have to worry about the Church.


And this is very important, especially today, in a time where the image of the Catholic Church has been tarnished, and where there are great doubts, especially in the Western world, as far as its responsibilities and its leaders are concerned.


The most important thing are not the bishops, the cardinals and not even the pope: the most important thing are martyrs.

Kazakhstan bishops issue statement supporting Archbishop Chullikatt

Astana, Kazakhstan, Mar 19, 2019 / 10:55 am (CNA).- The bishops’ conference of Kazakhstan issued a statement of support Tuesday for Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, apostolic nuncio to that country, who has recently been accused of financial and personal misconduct during his time of service as the Vatican’s chief diplomat at the United Nations.

“Archbishop Chullikatt has been working very earnestly for the good of the people and the Church in Kazakhstan,” the conference said in a communique issued March 19.

“Immediately after his arrival, with zeal and joy he started visiting all the parishes of Kazakhstan. He has been working very hard for the good of all of us here and we are particularly grateful for all the assistance he gives to the Bishops’ Conference. Besides, he is involved in good projects at various levels (educational, social, charitable etc.) for the people of Kazakhstan.”

“For us, Archbishop Chullikatt is the kind of Nuncio, we Bishops in Kazakhstan would like to have with us at least for a few more years,” the statement continued.

Chullikatt led the Holy See’s permanent observer mission at the U.N. from 2010 until 2014. He became apostolic nuncio to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in 2016.

On March 15, Catholic News Agency reported allegations from former officials and employees of the Holy See’s U.N. mission office that Chullikatt had mismanaged some financial matters, especially those concerning the payment of employees and contractors, and that he had reportedly engaged in an inappropriate romantic relationship while he led that office.

That report detailed allegations made by three priests who had been in service to the U.N. mission during Chullikatt’s tenure. Since publication, an additional priest, also a former official of the U.N. mission, confirmed to CNA his knowledge of the misconduct which had been reported.

Crux first reported the allegations of financial misconduct March 11, in a report that also said information about the archbishop’s alleged financial misconduct was reported to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State in 2013, and that the archbishop remained in his post for another six months after those reports were filed.

The communique from the Kazakhstan bishops said that “all these almost past three years of his presence in Kazakhstan we heard only good things about Archbishop Chullikatt from the priests, religious sisters and from our lay people, as well from those who work at the Apostolic Nunciature in Astana.”  

“There was not noticed the slightest suspicion about Archbishop Chullikatt’s moral conduct or any improper behavior towards women. According to our information, his dealings and treatment towards his collaborators and employees in the Nunciature is marked by kindness, courtesy and tact. We never heard any complaint in this regard.”

On March 11, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the U.N. issued a statement saying that during the time Chullikatt led the mission, “the visa status of all members of the diplomatic, technical and service staff of the Mission, whether religious or lay, was fully in line with the applicable provisions of U.S. State Department regulations.”

“The remuneration received by the members of the service staff of the Mission at the time was higher than the minimum salary required at the time by the laws of New York and included a generous compensation package (contributions on a pension fund, health and dental insurance, a 13th month benefit, a fully furnished apartment, a full month’s paid vacation and daily meals),” the statement added.

The statement from the Kazakhstan bishops’ conference, signed by Bishop Jose Luis Sierra, president of the conference, and Bishop Athanasius Schneider, its secretary general, said that “we are pleased to recognize the Statement from the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations...which states that the employment conditions and the visa status of all members of the diplomatic, technical and service staff of the Mission during the tenure of Archbishop Chullikatt were fully in line with the laws of New York and the applicable provisions of U.S. State Department regulations.”

“Thereby the relevant accusations" reported in the Crux and CNA articles “against Archbishop Chullikatt have been proven to be unfounded with regard to this concrete issue.”

“We also wish to recognize with sincere gratitude the important role played by Archbishop Chullikatt during his mission at the United Nations as a staunch defender of the unborn, of the traditional marriage and the institution of the family, often in close collaboration with many friendly Muslim-majority countries, including Kazakhstan,” the bishops’ statement added.

“We express our hope that Archbishop Chullikatt can continue his exemplary apostolic work in Kazakhstan with many spiritual fruits and we wish him strength and abundant Divine blessings.”


Cardinal Barbarin remains archbishop, takes leave-of-absence

Vatican City, Mar 19, 2019 / 09:25 am (CNA).- French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin will remain the Archbishop of Lyon, the Vatican announced Tuesday. According to a statement released by the Holy See Press Office, Pope Francis has not accepted the cardinal's resignation, though Barbarin has stepped back from the day-to-day leadership of the diocese.

Barbarin was convicted by a French tribunal on March 7 on charges of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse committed by a priest of his diocese. He was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and plans to appeal the verdict.

Barbarin met with Pope Francis March 18 to submit his resignation as archbishop. Papal spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said March 19 that Francis chose to not accept the resignation of Barbarin as Archbishop of Lyon but, aware of the “difficulties” of the archdiocese at the present moment, “left Cardinal Barbarin free to make the best decision for the diocese.”

According to Gisotti, Barbarin has decided to “retire for a time,” leaving the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Lyon in charge during his absence.

In a statement on the Lyon archdiocesan website March 19, the cardinal said the pope did not want to accept his resignation, “invoking the presumption of innocence.”

“At his suggestion and because the Church of Lyon has been suffering for three years, I decided to retreat for a while and leave the leadership of the diocese to the vicar general moderator, Father Yves Baumgarten,” he said.

“The Holy See is keen to reiterate its closeness to the victims of abuse, to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Lyon and of the whole Church of France who are experiencing a particularly painful moment,” Gisotti’s statement concluded.

French tribunal president Brigitte Vernay declared Barbarin guilty March 7 “of non-denunciation of ill-treatment” of a minor, according to AFP.

The trial of Barbarin began in January on charges he did not report instances of abuse to judicial authorities between July 2014 and June 2015, in a case involving Fr. Bernard Preynat, who has been accused of abusing dozens of minors in the 1980s and early ‘90s.

In 2017, the cardinal told Le Monde that he did not conceal allegations against Preynat, but that his response to the allegations had been “inadequate.” He said he opened an investigation against Preynat after becoming aware of the allegations against him.

Allegations against Preynat became public in 2015. Prosecutors dropped the case the following year after an initial investigation, but a victims’ group with more than 80 members who say they were abused by Preynat led to a reopening of the case, the Guardian reports.

Preynat was banned from leading boy scout groups in the early 1990s, but remained in ministry until being removed by Cardinal Barbarin in 2015.

The priest will face his own trial later this year.

Barbarin’s trial and conviction comes as revelations of clerical sex abuse and cover up continue to send shock waves through the Catholic Church. The United States, Ireland, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Poland, and Germany are among the countries that have seen recent abuse scandals uncovered.

How the Big Easy celebrates St. Joseph

New Orleans, La., Mar 19, 2019 / 03:31 am (CNA).- Catholic culture is everywhere in New Orleans. Mardi Gras is the city’s defining celebration. The city’s cathedral is one of its most well-known landmarks. And in the days leading to March 19, the people of New Orleans take up a Catholic tradition that began in the Middle Ages - they build “St. Joseph altars.”

In recent years, nearly 60 New Orleans Catholic schools and parishes have constructed annual devotional altars, as an expression of gratitude to St. Joseph, and as a labor of love for parishioners, friends, and neighbors.

"The original [St. Joseph’s] altar was built by the people of Sicily in thanks for his prayers to bring an end to their famine," said Sarah McDonald, communications director of Archdiocese of New Orleans.

"Today, they are considered a labor of love. As you are supposed to be working on the altar you are praying to St. Joseph to bless your family and to hear your intentions and pass them on," she told CNA in a 2018 interview.

The tradition began in Sicily, where St. Joseph's intercession is said to have helped the island through a severe famine almost 1,000 years ago. According to legend, people thanked St. Joseph for his prayers by building prayer altars, on which they placed food, pastries, flowers, wine, and, especially, fava beans.

The beans, which are said to pair well with Chianti, were the first crop Sicilians are believed to have grown once their drought ended.

The altars became a custom in Sicily. They came to New Orleans during a wave a Sicilian migration in 19th century.

"In New Orleans we have a very large Sicilian immigrant population coming over in the late 18th century/early 19th century, and with the Sicilian immigrants came the tradition ... of St. Joseph's altars,” McDonald said.

McDonald said the altars were first built in people's homes, for celebration with neighbors and families. They have now moved to parishes and are even found in some businesses, including grocery stores and concert venues.

Constructed over several days, the altars typically are made in the shape of a cross, with three tiers to represent the Trinity. A picture of St. Joseph is placed on the top tier. Altars are typically blessed by a priest.

The altars are covered with baked goods, flowers, candles, fruits, vegetables, and meatless meals. Many of the pastries and cookies have a symbolic meaning: some cookies are shaped as carpenter's tools or the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The food is an expression of gratitude for the local harvest, McDonald said, noting that after the festival canned goods and money are donated to those in need.

To complete the day, many parishes stage a reenactment of the Holy Family's search for shelter in Bethlehem, after which a feast is served.

Called "Tupa Tupa" or "Knock Knock," the custom has children representing the Holy Family knocking on the parish door looking for shelter. Two times the procession is denied shelter, and on the third knock everyone is let in for the feast.


This article was originally published on CNA March 19, 2018.

Australian bishops’ conference calls for minimum wage hike

Canberra, Australia, Mar 18, 2019 / 05:01 pm (CNA).- The Catholic Church in Australia is calling for an increase to the minimum wage in the country, saying that it will help lift families out of poverty.

Megan Kavanagh, a member of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Employment Relations Reference Group, said in a March 17 statement that Australian tradition going back to what is known as the Harvester Case of 1907 dictates that full-time employees with dependents should be able to support themselves without falling into poverty.

“The current level of the minimum wage falls far short of the objective identified and set by Harvester in a much less prosperous Australia 112 years ago,” Kavanagh said.

The Church is calling on the Fair Work Commission to step up, arguing that it has not done enough to support hundreds of thousands of families who are suffering from low wages, as well as children who are living in poverty.

Current minimum wage in Australia is $18.93 per hour. The Austrlaian Catholic Bishops Conference is calling in its submission to the Fair Work Commission for the wage to be raised to $20 per hour.

Kavanagh said this would be an important first step in resolving economic problems facing working families.

She noted that the value of the minimum wage in Australia has declined relative to national wages in the last 20 years.

“The Fair Work Commission last year found that the minimum wage provided a reasonable income for a single adult without family responsibilities,” she said. “In other words, what was an inadequate wage for a family two decades ago has become a reasonable wage for a single adult without family responsibilities. That is simply unacceptable.”

The government should address the poor living standards of people in low-wage jobs, either by increasing minimum wage or offering more government assistance, stressed Joe Zabar, director of economic policy at Catholic Social Services Australia.

He warned that policy moves such as freezing or reducing Family Tax Benefits in recent years have only served to prevent families from achieving living wages.


Pope Francis: 'Christianity without tenderness does not work'

Vatican City, Mar 18, 2019 / 01:17 pm (CNA).- Meeting with representatives of a charismatic group dedicated to caring for the sick, Pope Francis on Monday emphasized the need for tenderness as the natural Christian response to human suffering.

The word “tenderness,” Pope Francis warned, is “a word that today risks being dropped from the dictionary.”

“We must take it up again and put it into practice anew. Christianity without tenderness does not work. Tenderness is a properly Christian attitude: it is also the very marrow of our encounter with people who suffer,” he said.

The pope met March 18 with men and women religious from the Camillian Charismatic Family.

Founded by St. Camillus de Lellis in the late 1500s, the Camillians around the world serve the sick, with an emphasis on the poor and dying.

Pope Francis praised those present for their work of “loving and generous donation to the sick, carrying out a precious mission, in the Church and in society, alongside the suffering.”

He encouraged members of the Camillian family to always remember that their charism of mercy toward the sick is a gift from the Holy Spirit, meant to be shared with others.

Charisms, he said, “always have a transitive character: they are orientated towards others. Over the years, you have made efforts to incarnate your charism faithfully, translating it into a multitude of apostolic works and in pastoral service to the benefit of suffering humanity throughout the world.”

St. Camillus de Lellis initially founded an order of men, at a time when active consecrated life for women “had not yet matured,” Pope Francis noted. Two congregations for women were created in the 19th century, and secular institutes were established in the 20th century.

These developments, the pope said, “have given completeness to the expression of the charism of mercy towards the sick, enriching it with the distinctly feminine qualities of love and of care.”

He offered prayers that Mary, Health of the Sick might especially guide and accompany the consecrated women, teaching them maternal dedication and tenderness.

Together, Pope Francis said, these different Camillian groups make up “a single constellation, that is, a ‘charismatic family’ composed of men and women religious, secular consecrated persons and lay faithful.”

“None of these realities is the sole custodian or single holder of the charism, but each receives it as a gift and interprets it and updates it according to his or her specific vocation, in different historical and geographical contexts,” he said. In this way, the different ecclesial bodies all work together “[t]o witness in every time and place Christ’s merciful love towards the sick.”

“At the centre there remains the original charism, as a perennial source of light and inspiration, which is understood and embodied dynamically in the various forms.”

Looking forward, Pope Francis urged the Camillians to be open to new apostolates, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

He instructed them “always to cultivate communion among you, in that synodal style that I have proposed to all the Church, listening to each other and everyone listening to the Holy Spirit, to value the contribution that every single situation offers to the single Family, so as to express more fully the multiple potentialities that the charisma includes.”

Through fidelity to their founder, and by listening to and accompanying those experiencing poverty and suffering today, the pope said, the Camillians “will know how to make light shine, always new, on the gift received; and many young people the world over will be able to feel attracted by and to join with you, to continue to bear witness to God’s tenderness.”