Now is the time for peace!

Pic 1 posterA poster with the message, “Now is the time for Peace,” greeted bishops from Europe, South Africa, Canada and the United States when they arrived in Jordan for a solidarity visit. The “peace now” theme permeated meetings with Iraqi and Syrian refugees.

Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces represented the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the meetings in Jordan. Then the Bishop and I went on to Lebanon to meet with the local Church and more refugees.  The situation in both Jordan and Lebanon is a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions.

In Jordan, we learned that they are hosting about 1 million Syrian refugees and 60,000 Iraqi refugees. This is a heavy burden for relatively small country of modest means with about 7 million people.

In Lebanon, the statistics are even more startling. With a native population of only 4.5 million, Lebanon is hosting about 2 million refugees, mostly Syrians, but also some Iraqis.  That would be the equivalent of the United States taking in some 140 million refugees over five years!  We are scheduled to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, not exactly our fair share.

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Maronite Patriarch Béchara Boutros Cardinal Raï distributes Communion at Mass for Migrants and Refugees at the Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Beirut.

But statistics only tell part of the story of the suffering that war, violence and persecution have brought to the region. Caritas Jordan and Caritas Lebanon are doing amazing work assisting both refugees and local people.  With the support of Catholic Relief Services and others, they serve Muslims and Christians.  It makes you proud to be Catholic.  They enabled us to meet with refugees, to hear their stories.

An Iraqi Christian family told us they had good relations with their Muslim neighbors before they fled the Nineveh plains in the wake of so-called Islamic State. They found refuge in Dohuk in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and now Jordan.  They hope to be resettled in a country of refuge.  They cannot contemplate going back to Iraq.

We also met a woman who had fled Mosul. Her family left in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs.  She, a teacher and her husband is a hospital worker, escaped with their three daughters, ages 28 to 24.  It took them ten tense hours at night in constant fear to reach nearby Erbil. Protecting their daughters from being raped or kidnapped was a challenge.  They witnessed killings and saw young women who were taken hostage as they fled.

Another woman reported that her father was kidnapped in Syria because Christians are being persecuted. When her brother reported the kidnapping he was put in jail for two days.

Refugees struggle in Lebanon where everything is expensive. One man said he works long hours but barely makes enough for them to live in Lebanon.  Life was better in Syria.  They want to go to Australia where they have been accepted, but their UN file is not moving.  A mother reported that her children only get milk once a day.  She is willing to go back to Syria if the situation improves because her son needs medical assistance.  Originally, they thought they’d be in Lebanon for two months.  It has been years.

These encounters and many others give a face to the statistics. There are lives and families behind the numbers.  At these and many other encounters, Bishop Cantú assured the refugees that they are not forgotten.  And he affirmed what we heard time and time again, “Now is the time for peace.”  For only peace can alleviate the refugee crisis.  I hope all sides realize that at the peace talks in Geneva.

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Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Go deeper:

Read Archbishop Kurtz’s statement regarding refugees fleeing Syria.

Learn about the work of Migration and Refugee Services/USCCB in resettling an supporting refugees in the United States.

Join Catholics Confront Global Poverty, an initiative of USCCB and Catholic Relief Services, in advocating to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people worldwide.

 

Remember Israel, Remember Gaza

Image of Rachel Weeping statue and base at the Holocaust Memorial in Richmond, VA

Image of Rachel Weeping statue and base at the Holocaust Memorial in Richmond, VA

Years ago when I served in Richmond, I had a view of a Holocaust Memorial on the grounds of the Cathedral outside my office window. It depicted Rachael weeping for her children amidst flames.  On the base there was a single word carved in Hebrew and English, “Remember.”  It is indeed important for humanity to “remember” this singularly heinous event in human history.  It is important for us to “remember” people wherever and whenever they suffer.

I recently returned from a visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Israel and the Palestinian Territories are tense places these days.  Israelis fear random knife attacks; Palestinians fear the harsh realities of occupation and the lack of freedom of movement. Continue reading

Great is Our Faithfulness: Why Celebrate Black History Month

Deacon Al Turner, MTS

Deacon Al Turner, MTS

Why do we celebrate Black History month? What does it mean to us as black Catholics?

Black people have experienced the faith in the context of enslavement, civil war, Jim Crow, separate and un-equal, the civil rights movement, and the post civil rights movement era. All the while, we for the most part have stayed true to our Catholic faith and to the stated beliefs of the United States of America. Our leaders, well known or not, have held on to the belief in the notion of the American experiment in equality of persons.

St. Pope John Paul II while addressing 1,800 African American Catholics in New Orleans on Sept. 12, 1987, encouraged African American Catholics to contribute the gift of who they are to the wider Church. That is good citizenship in the tradition of Catholic social teaching.

From the first, we hoped that there was a place for us here as members of the Church and society. We had to invent and re-invent ourselves many times over the years and we did. We believed what we read or had read to us from sacred Scripture, that Jesus came to save ALL God’s children. We kept that notion always as an anchor of our lives. Even in the dark days of enslavement, we had the kind of sustaining faith that allowed us to survive even the racism inside the Church and within the hearts of our white brothers and sisters in Christ, some of whom owned us as property. Even in these worst of conditions, black people “knew” that community is the foundation of the soul of all people especially for us. We have always worked to make things better for ourselves and our children. There are no areas of endeavor that have not benefited from our participation.

There are examples of brave black people who distinguished themselves in the secular society, like Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the first African American to reach the rank of General Officer in the United States Military; Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress; and Sidney Poitier, the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best actor. These are some who help us to celebrate our achievements as good and productive citizens of this country.

We, black Catholics, can also be proud of others who lived up to not only the social creed of this nation but also to the spiritual creed as well. This includes people such as Daniel Rudd, a black Catholic layman, activist, journalist, and publisher of the American Catholic Tribune “the only Catholic journal owned and published by colored men.” He also founded the Lay Catholic Congress movement. We recall Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first identified African American man to be ordained a priest for service in the United States. He had to go to Rome for his formation because no U.S. seminary would admit him. He persevered and braved discrimination inside as well as outside the church. He believed in and lived a life that considered all people as creations of God and are, therefore, good. He is an inspiration for all.  We also recall Mother Mary Lange, OSP who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious community for women of African descent.  She also founded a school that educated immigrant and enslaved children in Baltimore, Maryland when it was still illegal to educate black children. That school became St. Frances Academy, which is still in operation today as a co-ed High School.

These are just a few of the reasons we black Catholics should celebrate this month.

We are part of the heritage of this country. Our faithfulness in the belief that all men are created equal is a testament to our faithful citizenship. And, that is something to celebrate.

Deacon Al Turner, MTS, is the former Director of the Office of Black Catholics for the Archdiocese of Washington and is currently assigned to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Largo, MD.  

National Migration Week 2016: “A Stranger and You Welcomed Me”

M7-460_NMW PosterIn the Gospel of Matthew (25:35) Jesus tells his disciples, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The call to welcome the stranger plays an important role in the lives of faithful Christians and holds central place for those of us who work in the migration field. The migrant, who moves from one country to another, is truly a stranger in our midst. Often unfamiliar with the local tongue of the new country, not to mention its customs, the migrant needs the support of local communities so that she can better adjust to her new surroundings. National Migration Week 2016 picks up on the theme of welcome and, in doing so, calls on each of us to welcome the stranger among us.

Sadly, every year seems to bring a new migration crisis to the forefront.

In 2014, the United States witnessed a significant influx of unaccompanied migrant children and families fleeing violence in their homelands. Most of these migrants came from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. The Catholic Church has taken seriously the humanitarian and policy oriented aspects of this situation and advocates in support of increased protections for migrant children and their families who are arriving in the United States.

In 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis took center stage. Since its outbreak, at least four million Syrians have fled their country as a consequence of the civil war and the rise of ISIS. Most have fled to surrounding countries, especially Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Many others have moved on to Europe with the hope of finding a place of peace and safety. Pope Francis and the Catholic bishops have called on the U.S. government and the international community to provide support to both Syrian refugees fleeing violence and to countries that have been at the forefront of this humanitarian effort. In a related statement, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urged:

 … all Catholics in the United States and others of good will to express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive. Regardless of their religious affiliation or national origin, these refugees are all human persons—made in the image of God, bearing inherent dignity, and deserving our respect and care and protection by law from persecution.

In both the unaccompanied migrant child and Syrian refugee crises, the Catholic Church’s call to provide protections and support for these vulnerable people has often gone unheeded and has been instead met by demands to implement further restrictions on migration to the United States.

In the case of Syrians, suggestions have been made to ban Muslim migrants from entering the United States altogether. In the case of unaccompanied children, legislative efforts were undertaken to limit their international protections.

The Catholic bishops neither support a policy of open borders nor a process of unregulated migration from one country to another. Rather, they continue to defend the duties of the international community to implement internationally agreed upon protections that are due to vulnerable migrants, and to call upon world leaders to provide a place of welcome, wherever possible, to those who are fleeing an impossible situation.

This position is rooted in the Gospel, and concretely in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB. 


See additional 2016 National Migration Week resources, including a bilingual prayer card.

How to address the Syrian refugee crisis in a humane way

Found lying face down and lifeless on a Turkish beach, the three year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, was another victim of the violence in Syria that had caused his family to flee their home in pursuit of a better life elsewhere. Photos of his drowned, crumpled body quickly went viral, and the scales from people’s eyes seemed ready to fall away as the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis it helped produce suddenly became personal. As tragic and unnecessary as his death was, his case was not an isolated event. More than four million refugees have fled the region since 2010, with most taking shelter in surrounding countries. Many thousands have died in the process; countless others struggle with the daily ritual of just trying to survive.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia's public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia’s public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

As many as one in three people living in Lebanon today is a refugee from the Syrian crisis. Turkey hosts nearly two million, and Jordan 600,000 more. Syrians have begun to face increasing challenges to find safety and protection in neighboring countries, which, faced with overwhelming refugee numbers, insufficient international support, and security concerns, have taken measures this year to stem the flow of refugees – including restricting access or closer management of borders and introducing complex requirements for refugees to extend their stay.

As a consequence, tens of thousands of refugees have begun the difficult trek west, with the hope of finding a new home in countries throughout Europe. Despite initial efforts to provide a humanitarian response to these refugee populations, signs of strain are clearly beginning to set in as leaders of countries throughout the region have begun to tighten their borders and restrict further access.

Reflecting on this expanding and deepening problem, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, KY and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged “all Catholics in the United States and others of good will to express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive. Regardless of their religious affiliation or national origin, these refugees are all human persons—made in the image of God, bearing inherent dignity, and deserving our respect and care and protection by law from persecution.”

Elsewhere Pope Francis has highlighted the moral obligations of the international community toward migrants, emphasized the need to establish institutional structures that can more effectively respond to crises of this sort, and called on “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe” to take in one refugee family.

Recognizing that inaction will only have dire consequences for the many vulnerable refugees who are seeking a place of safety, the Catholic bishops of the United States have made a number of recommendations related to this problem. These include

  • Ending the conflict in the region and establishing a workable peace is of paramount importance.
  • Building an inclusive and lasting peace to allow Syrian refugees—also including those who are ethnic and religious minorities– to return home, rebuild their communities, and share in the governance of their country.
  • Providing humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring refugee countries.
  • Providing development aid to refugee host countries near Syria so they are able to properly welcome and care for the refugees.
  • Authorizing the admission and resettlement of 200,000 refugees into the U.S. from refugee countries across the world, including 100,000 resettlement slots designated for the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the Syria conflict.

Please, take a moment to learn what steps you can take to help Syrian and other refugees in their moment of need.

Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB.


Take action now! Support for Syrian Refugees is Needed Now More Than Ever – Action alert from Catholics Confront Global Poverty, an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services.

Mass at the border – celebrating our migrant brothers and sisters departed

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November 2nd is the day we Catholics celebrate our faithful departed. On a personal level, we remember those loved ones who walked with us on this life and have gone to the eternal home to continue their life journey. On the church level, we remember them as our brothers and sisters who share a common faith with us and have gone to continue their faith journey in heaven with all the angels and saints.

Here on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, within the dioceses of Las Cruces, El Paso, and Ciudad Juarez, in the month of November, we have a tradition to celebrate Mass right on the border line.

Smack against the border fence, we observe the feast of the faithful departed – Día de los Muertos, as it is known in Mexico and in other countries of Latin America – to pray in supplication and thanksgiving. We remember all our migrant brothers and sisters who have found death on their treacherous journey north, in search of a more dignified life for themselves and their families, often seeking to reunite with their fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and other relatives.

This tradition started a few decades ago, in the wake of the many border enforcement initiatives enacted to deter migrants from entering this country without inspection. Enforcement operations such as “Hold the Line,” “Gatekeeper,” and “Safeguard” have pushed thousands of people to try to enter through harsh regions and consequently increased the number of deaths along the border.

To honor their lives and call attention to these deaths taking place along with the increasing militarization of the border, these three border dioceses started this beautiful and moving celebration that is now nationally known as the Border Mass.

Several hundred people gather every year on both sides of the border, around a common altar, to celebrate the Eucharist, symbol of communion, in a place that seeks to divide peoples and families. We announce the Gospel of inclusion, remembering that we are all one family of God, called to walk with each other in love. We share the Body of Christ and exchange the sign of peace across the border through the fence, despite opposition from the border patrol officials and ground agents.

The bishops of the three dioceses take turns presiding and the clergy of all three dioceses come to accompany the faithful, as we remember those migrants who have passed on to the eternal life. We pray for them in thanksgiving, for the gifts with which they have enriched the lives of their loved ones and ours. We also pray for change in our hearts, from hardened to welcoming, change in our immigration laws, for immigration reform, and for more Catholic engagement in advocacy so we can enact these changes.

As part of this Mass, we bring symbols of faith and pilgrimage, of migration, suffering, accompaniment, unity and hope. We present an image of the Virgen of Guadalupe as mother and consoler, a backpack, water, sandals, our national flags, and a crucifix representing our common faith in our Lord and Savior, who strengthens and accompanies us all pilgrims, those who are coming, those who arrived, and those who have departed ahead of us.

This is a wonderful moment of prayer and solidarity on the border.

Virgen de Guadalupe, ruega por nosotros! Amen.

headshot of Marco Raposo

Marco Raposo is Diocesan Director of the Peace and Justice Ministry in the Diocese of El Paso.


Visit the  U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice for Immigrants Campaign website to learn more about the Church’s work to promote positive immigration reform.

The 2008 film “One Body, One Border” tells the story of the Border Mass. Learn more about the film.

Torture: A Persistent Moral Issue

Farris, VirginiaElectric shocks. Beatings and whippings. Water-boarding. Rape. Hanging from chains. All these are examples of torture. Unfortunately, these methods and others like them are still practiced today by many countries, most often in places of detention, hidden from public view.

Just what is torture? The United Nations Convention Against Torture defines it to mean any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information or a confession, to punish, intimidate or coerce, and that action is done with the instigation or consent of a public official.

That last part – that torture is condoned by someone acting in an official capacity – is a critical factor for international accountability. This means that torture is being carried out by government, law enforcement, military or political personnel. This is why the actions in Abu Ghraib were considered particularly egregious by the world community.

While many Catholics abhor what went on in Abu Ghraib, many still believe that torture can be justified based on what some have called the “ticking time bomb” scenario. A poll taken last December found that among white Catholics, 68% thought torture was sometimes or often justified; only 12% said it was never justified. In contrast, among non-whites, 51% thought torture was sometimes or often justified, while 26% said it was never justified. Among those professing no religion, 41% thought torture was sometimes or often justified and 32% said it was never justified. Obviously, more work needs to be done in helping Catholics understand why torture is inconsistent with our commitment to protect the life and dignity of every human person.

Church teaching is very clear; torture is always wrong. The Catechism of the Church says that “torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity” (no. 2297) and thus is a grave sin that violates the Fifth Commandment.

Saint John Paul II called physical and mental torture “intrinsically evil.” The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says that “the prohibition against torture [is] a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances” (no. 404).

Perhaps some Catholics don’t realize that torture not only degrades the human dignity of the victim; it also compromises the dignity of the perpetrator, estranging the torturer from God. Torture also undermines a society’s collective integrity and moral fabric. It harms us all. Certainly, after the revelations about Abu Ghraib, the credibility of the United States as a defender of human rights was compromised.

Beyond the moral arguments, many professional interrogators say intelligence gained through torture is generally useless or misleading. Think about it. If someone is causing you excruciating pain, at a certain point, you may say just about anything to make them stop. Experts tell us that torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (as torture is sometimes euphemistically known), is counter-productive, fuels anti-American sentiment, and encourages more people to embrace the very extremism and terrorism that the U.S. wants to stop.

June is Torture Awareness Month because on June 26, 1987 the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) went into force, outlawing torture. The U.S. is a signatory to the CAT.

Have your parish or community group commemorate Torture Awareness Month by taking advantage of available resources on the Church’s teaching on torture. Visit this page for links to study guides, videos and letters related to USCCB efforts against torture.

As Catholics, we join in efforts to ensure that the United States says “Never Again” to torture.

Virginia Farris serves as International Policy Advisor in the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.