Mae Sot, Myanmar, Dec.19,2007 (CINS/AsiaNews) - We ask the Pope that with the arrival of Christmas, he "continue to pray" for the Burmese people, and that with his words he "help keep the world from forgetting the sufferings of our country". This is the moving appeal sent to AsiaNews by some Catholics in Myanmar, who remain anonymous for obvious reasons of safety. The same desire to keep attention focused on the fate of the country formerly known as Burma is expressed by some Buddhist exiles in Thailand. They speak of the cruelty of a military regime that for over 40 years has thrown the once-flourishing country into misery, ignorance, and fear; of the massive exploitation of a people purely for economic gain; of the paralysis of a generation of disillusioned and distrustful young people who flee to other countries in the vain hope of finding a better future. But they ask the world not to forget the tragedy that is raging within their country. Kyaw Lin Aung, aged 35, from Yangon, and Nay Zey Tun, aged 40, from Mandalay, took refuge in Mae Sot after the wave of anti-government protests in late September. They recount the violence of the soldiers against the peaceful movement of the Buddhist monks in the town squares, as also in the prisons. And they warn: "The repression has never stopped!"
Kyaw Lin Aung is unable to forget what he has seen and heard from friends and relatives: "The shots fired against the monks reciting prayers of love and piety in Pakokku, the burning of monasteries that aligned themselves against the government, but also the stories of the corpses of demonstrators that were burned in crematorium ovens or buried in haste in order to distort the true extent of the repression".
Even the apparent willingness of the Naypydaw regime to accept the requests of the international community on respect for human rights conceals only a ferocious cruelty. "Spies disguised as monks roam around the country, contributing to the arrest of young activists and Buddhist monks", Kyaw recounts. "In the prisons, they are tortured an denied medical assistance. This happened even after pressure from the UN and the United States to free the detainees - before freeing them, the prison guards had them infected with lethal viruses, so that they would die after returning home and leave [the government] free from criticism or responsibility".
By this and other means, Burma's military junta has chosen to silence those in the country who, beginning this summer, dared to rise up and protest against policies that have brought the country to its knees, handing over its riches to the great powers in the region.
When he speaks of his country, Nay Zey Tun depicts a nation on its knees, almost without any hope left. The crisis unfolds beginning with the basic services: health and education. "The state hospitals are completely lacking in any form of assistance", Nay recounts. "Sometimes it is difficult even to find a bandage, and the personnel do not work. A few months ago, I helped my father, who was hospitalised for a week, and I found myself acting as a nurse for the other patients: there was a woman who was supposed to give birth, and no one was helping her. Later it was discovered that her baby had already been dead for ten days, and no one had noticed. They operated on her, and then I had to talk to the lead physician, who didn't know anything. Not to mention the operating rooms . . . we say that it is better to die at home, rather than to go seek care in the hospital".
Education is also sinking into deep crisis. "With the nationalisation of the schools in 1962, and the expulsion of the missionaries from the country", Kyaw recalls, "education suffered a serious wound. The military government prohibited the teaching of English until 1985. Many of the university texts are in English, and now the young teachers can't even read them. A widespread ignorance reigns, and the people know longer know what freedom is, nor do they understand the value of life. Even the young people who want to rebel don't know exactly what to ask for: although they assemble in the squares, they are waiting for someone to lead them, to become the spokesman for their sufferings and the sufferings of their families". To this ignorance is added a deep depression: "In the villages, electricity id available only seven hours a day," Nay explains, "and even water is not distributed regularly; one now works solely to keep hunger at bay, without being able to save any money, and so the people no longer think about politics, and wait for the outside world to do something in order to change things".
The feeling among the Burmese is that the international community is seeking a compromise in order to avoid doing too much harm to the interests of the great regional powers in the former Burma. This means India and Russia, but above all, China. "For ten years", Nay denounces, "Beijing has practically been colonising our land: the Chinese companies are outsourcing their business to Myanmar, because manual labour costs even less than in China. Moreover, they are exploiting our country indiscriminately, appropriating our energy resources and basic materials. In the morning, around Yangdon one can see lines of trucks full of labourers being taken to the Chinese factories like animals to the slaughter".
Paralysis, the conviction of being unable to change things is increasingly driving the young people to leave the country. "The airport", Kyaw recounts, "is full of young people leaving the country to find work elsewhere. They are uprooted, not knowing where to go, and they think that by emigrating they will be able to earn more. Most of them end up in very menial jobs in Malaysia or Dubai". "But in order to pay for their travel", Nay emphasises, "they often sell the land and homes of their elderly parents, who remain in Myanmar without anything left to live on. I have read the lyrics of some songs written by medical students, which go more or less like this: 'My children sell my field and depart: remember your parents, who cannot even grow rice, and send them at least a little money to buy soup'".
Sydney, Australia, Dec.17,2007 (CINS/Cathnews) - Australia's Catholic Bishops have discussed a survey that reveals many Catholics have stopped attending Mass because they feel the Church is irrelevant to their lives.
News of discussion of the research project was included in the news briefing that followed the Bishops' plenary meeting in Sydney earlier this month. The briefing was released on Friday.
The research project on Catholics Who Have Stopped Attending Mass reached its conclusion with a final report to the Bishops, outlining four key recommendations for pastoral focus.
The qualitative research project, undertaken by the ACBC Pastoral Projects Office, under the direction of Mr Bob Dixon, was based on interviews with 41 people who had stopped attending Mass.
Reasons given for people ceasing to attend Mass included a perceived irrelevance of the Church to modern life, the quality of homilies, inter-personal problems with a parish priest, problems with Church teachings or personal faith, and disillusionment in the wake of sexual scandals. There were also cultural and societal factors which meant that Mass was no longer a priority.
However, half the respondents said they still attend Mass occasionally and almost one third of participants said they might return to weekly Mass attendance in the future.
Following the tabling of the findings of the research in November 2006, the Pastoral Projects Office undertook wide consultation within the Church community on possible pastoral strategies to help people to re-engage with their Parish.
The four primary recommendations put forward in the report and accepted by the Bishops are:
*Building community that resources for effective parish reviews be developed, distributed and engaged, such that local communities might better know and plan for their people.
* Personal identity that forums at every level be established for the purpose of greater listening to people, and for pastoral discernment.
* Leadership that on both diocesan and parish levels there be enhanced formation of lay and ordained people for collaborative leadership, for the sake of mission.
* Mission that there be renewed effort for the proclamation of the Good News, and for the development of faith formation, particularly using the resources of contemporary technology and the resources being developed by the National Office for Evangelisation.
Manchester,U.S.A, Dec 16, 2007 (CINS/CNA).- “A man of integrity and a lifelong pro-life advocate” is how the former governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, describes presidential contender John McCain. In a conference call that took place friday afternoon with Catholic leaders from around the country, McCain explained to CNA where he stands on issues of concern to Catholics.
Pro-life issues were front and center as Fr. Frank Pavone, the president of Priests for Life, began the discussion by thanking Sen. McCain for his “clear and convincing pro-life voting record.”
Fr. Pavone took issue with politicians who regard their beliefs on abortion as personal beliefs without public ramifications and asked Sen. McCain what approach he will take to speaking about abortion. Even more specifically, Fr. Pavone wanted to know if Sen. McCain would raise the issue of abortion as a matter of social justice rather than a matter of private beliefs.
McCain replied, “Father I always quote that we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with the inalienable rights, among them are life, and that applies to the born as well as the unborn… and I believe it is a human right, as you said. And that’s why I’ve struggled for human rights all over the world…”
When asked how often he would raise the issue of protecting the unborn from abortion as a human rights issue, the senator said, “…of course I would speak out for them because I think that one of the enduring legacies and obligations of the United States of America is to continue to be a beacon of hope and freedom and that means advocacy for human rights.”
John McCain also mentioned who he would look to for advice on pro-life issues. “I would surround myself with people, in particular with Sam Brownback and Frank Keating, people who will provide me with the moral and spiritual guidance on this issue and other issues….”
One pro-life issue that Sen. McCain is at odds with Catholic teaching about is his position on embryonic stem cell research. John Jakubczyk, a pro-life leader from Arizona, asked the presidential candidate if the latest breakthrough in stem cell research would mean that he might change his stance from being in favor of embryonic research to being against it.
McCain responded that he is excited by and very interested in the latest research breakthroughs, but that “I’m not there yet on changing that position for a couple reasons: one, I don’t think it’s totally been proven yet and second of all, there’s always the flip-flop aspect of this issue”.
Sen. McCain also sees his policy on immigration as an issue of human rights and security. Acknowledging that his efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform had failed, the presidential candidate said that he will focus on securing America’s border first, before pursuing more comprehensive reforms.
The Arizona senator does not want to stop at securing the borders. Pairing himself with Sen. Brownback, he said, “Sam and I and others, understand that we have to secure the borders”.
At the same time, McCain sees the treatment that some illegal immigrants have received from as inhumane. “I don’t think that it’s the proudest chapter in American history, what we’re going through right now.”
“We’ve got to raise the level of dialogue,” he continued. “We’ve got to understand that these are God’s children. And we need to address the issue with compassion and love,” said McCain.
When asked about the issue of reuniting families separated by deportation, the presidential aspirant said that he favors efforts to promote reunification.
McCain was also queried about how things are going on the campaign trail.
“In New Hampshire we’re a solid second and moving up while Romney moves down,” the senator related.
He also mentioned that in South Carolina he has a “very strong political base”.
“But I also have to give you some straight talk,” McCain said. “In Iowa we’re having significant challenges and part of that has to do with my opposition to subsidies for ethanol, my opposition to subsidies for cotton in Arizona and my belief that subsidies distort markets and I’m all in favor of ethanol. I think it’s fine. I just don’t think it needs to be subsidized.”
“The immigration [issue] has hurt me a bit, or more than a bit, some, in South Carolina,” he said.
Ending his summary, Sen. McCain noted that “some 70% of voters have not made up their minds yet,” and that the presidential campaign is “incredibly volatile”. McCain sees the road to the White House as an uphill battle but is counting on his work ethic. “I promise you I can out-campaign all of them,” he declared.
New Dehli,India, Dec 13, 2007 (CINS/CNA).- The news agency Fides is reporting that 150 Hindu extremists have leveled the Church of Divine Mercy to the ground before its construction could be finished.
On December 5 at about 7am a gang of about 150 extremists forced the workers to leave the premises and then began to destroy the building and the machinery for construction.
Eyewitnesses told Fides that the mob shouted anti-Christian slogans and said they would "not tolerate Christian proselytizing”. When they had finished their destruction they warned the builders that if work started again, there would be another attack.
The Catholic community has responded with shock and sadness to the unprovoked attack. The assault was not carried out because the church lacked the necessary permits. The complex was to include rooms for pastoral and charitable activities.
The Catholics of the Delhi community are also baffled as to why they were attacked because Catholics are held in high esteem there and Hindu extremism in the region is minimal. “This was certainly an isolated incident- local Church sources told Fides- but nevertheless it was totally unmotivated and a cause for concern”. The source continued, saying, “We hope the police will identify the culprits and bring them to justice. The Catholic Church in India respect[s] the law and extremists must not be allowed to violate constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms”.
A recent report presented to Indian authorities found no less than 464 cases of violence against Christians or Christian property have been reported in the past 20 months. This is due to growing religious extremism mainly in the states of Bihar, Karnataka and Gujarat. Violence near the capital is not found to be a problem in the report.
As part of a two-week speaking tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Zeenat Rahman and Aalaa Abuzaakouk spoke Dec. 10 to a group in Rome that included young Italian Muslims full of questions about how to promote acceptance in Italian society.
The meeting with Catholic and Muslim students and a separate meeting with the press were coordinated by the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican.
For many Muslims in the United States, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks brought the realization that most of their neighbors had no idea about what Islam taught or how the vast majority of Muslims lived, the young American women said.
After the terrorist attacks, "I felt the importance of engaging with civil society and letting people know that Islam is not a violent religion," said Abuzaakouk, who grew up in northern Virginia, attended a Muslim school for 13 years, then graduated from Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington.
"Before, we were complacent. We did not engage with others or let them know who we are," she said.
Rahman, who grew up in Chicago and attended public schools, said, "I think we have made some progress in winning hearts and minds" since 2001. "Ours was a very insular community, focused on maintaining our faith and cultures."
The very public questions about Islam and violence "forced us to engage publicly, to let people know who we are," said Rahman, a graduate of the University of Chicago's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
While Rahman said she grew up with Christian, Jewish and Hindu friends and Abuzaakouk said her childhood friends were all Muslims, they both described the years of high school and college as key times in forging an individual religious identity and sense of belonging.
Rahman said, "Adolescence is the crossroads of inheritance and discovery; who you meet at the crossroads makes an enormous difference."
Abuzaakouk said, "Identity development is a process. There were times when I emphasized one over another," being Muslim or being an American of Libyan descent.
She said attending Georgetown was an important part of the process because it emphasized "spiritual development, intellectual development and social service." The university's "religious heritage is emphasized, but it does not exclude others," she said.
She now works for the Muslim Public Service Network in Washington, promoting Muslim involvement in politics, civil service, law, the media and nongovernmental organizations.
Rahman is a program coordinator for the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, a program promoting interreligious dialogue and community service for teens and young adults.
She said her group focuses on helping young people tell their own stories, "speaking from their own experience rather than about dogmatic or theological differences, which makes it easier to identify shared values" and plan shared projects for the good of the whole community.
In addition, she said, "through storytelling you open up space for the voices of women in a way that theological dialogue often does not in many traditions."
While both said the United States' long experience with diversity makes it easier to be a Muslim in America than in Western Europe, they encouraged the Italian Muslim students to tell their peers about their faith and to find ways to work together to share their stories with the wider community.