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In first-ever event, UN commemorates religious victims of violence

New York City, N.Y., Aug 22, 2019 / 11:01 am (CNA).- The United Nations General Assembly has designated Aug. 22 as the first-ever International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.

“On this Day, we reaffirm our unwavering support for the victims of violence based on religion and belief. And we demonstrate that support by doing all in our power to prevent such attacks and demanding that those responsible are held accountable,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement.

The General Assembly condemned acts of violence against religious minorities and reiterated its support for the right to freedom of religion, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Over the past few months, we have seen increasing numbers of attacks against individuals and groups targeted simply because of their religion or belief,” Guterres said. “Jews have been murdered in synagogues, their gravestones defaced with swastikas; Muslims gunned down in mosques, their religious sites vandalized; Christians killed at prayer, their churches torched.”

He particularly noted the worrying trend of attacks targeting places of worship, and minority religious communities being attacked because of their faith.

“We must resist and reject those who falsely and maliciously invoke religion to build misconceptions, fuel division and spread fear and hatred,” he said.

The United Nations is working on a new initiative to counter hate speech as well as a new action plan to safeguard religious sites, Guterres said.

In recent years, observers have voiced alarm at ongoing religious-based persecution in countries around the world.

In its annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom concluded that “despite two decades of tireless work to bring an end to religious-based discrimination, violence, and persecution, innumerable believers and nonbelievers across the globe continued in 2018 to experience manifold suffering due to their beliefs.”

A report earlier this year commissioned by the British Foreign Office found that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world and that persecution against them is on the rise.

Religious freedom advocates applauded the UN for recognizing the serious threat posed by contemporary religious persecution, while highlighting the need for further action.

“All people have the right to peacefully live out their faith, and we can never forget those who have faced persecution for doing so,” said Kelsey Zorzi, president of the United Nations’ NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and international director of advocacy for global religious freedom at ADF International.

She welcomed the UN’s decision to create a day commemorate victims of religious persecution, while adding that “remembrance alone is not enough.”

“Religious persecution is on the rise around the world. We therefore urge all countries to ensure that their laws and policies are in line with their commitments to protect religious freedom under international law,” she said.

Tony Perkins, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of the Family Research Council, also called for additional action to prevent religious persecution across the globe.

“Commemorating victims of violence based on religion or belief is critical, but that’s only the beginning of the world’s work to achieve justice for the survivors of past tragedies, like the genocide of Yazidis, Christians and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq by ISIS,” he said.

“We must also recognize and work together to halt the continuing ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims and Christians in Burma and violence against Christians in Nigeria by Boko Haram.”

White House criticized for push to allow indefinite detention of migrant kids

Washington D.C., Aug 21, 2019 / 05:49 pm (CNA).- The White House announced on Wednesday that it would look to terminate court-approved limits on detention of migrant children and families, allowing for indefinite detention. The announcement drew strong criticism from a leading Catholic immigration group.

“These changes would expand the number of children who will be detained and are in direct opposition to the child-friendly provisions in the Flores agreement,” said Anna Gallagher, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC).

Gallagher added that the action “would destroy long-term child protection standards created by our government and the courts.”

The White House’s new rule will seek to terminate the Flores Settlement Agreement, a court-approved national policy on the treatment of migrants by U.S. government agencies. The new rule must be approved by a federal judge before it can go into effect.

“To protect these children from abuse, and stop this illegal flow, we must close these loopholes. This is an urgent humanitarian necessity,” President Donald Trump stated.

Under previous court rulings, the administration said it had to allow most migrant children and families to leave detention centers after 20 days; a new proposed rule, the “Apprehension, Processing, Care, and Custody of Alien Minors and Unaccompanied Alien Children,” would remove time limits and allow for indefinite detention.

The rule would ensure the care and safety of children in detention and protect them from smugglers, the White House said in its announcement; smugglers have been taking advantage of the previous policy by promising migrants a quick release if they were to be apprehended by U.S. law enforcement, and by bringing children and adults together to pose as migrant families at the border, the White House said.

In a press conference, Kevin K. McAleenan, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, emphasized that the facilities holding families under the new rule are “campus-like settings with appropriate medical, educational, recreational, dining, and private housing facilities.”

However, CLINIC, established by the U.S. bishops in 1988, called the administration’s proposal last September an “abomination.”

Gallagher said on Wednesday that “clinical studies demonstrate that the mitigating presence of parents does not negate or lighten the serious and adverse effect of detention on the physical and mental health of children.” The organization has also said that the administration’s policy would allow it to set the conditions for migrants in detention centers with lesser independent oversight, threatening the due process of migrants.

In June of 2018, a group of human rights officials at the United Nations stated of the U.S. policy of detaining children and separating families at the border that “detention of children is punitive, severely hampers their development, and in some cases may amount to torture.”

The number of “family unit aliens” apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border has soared in Fiscal Year 2019, the White House says, increasing by more than 300 percent; more than 430,000 “family unit aliens” have been apprehended in FY 2019.

'Fertility fraud' scandals raise broader questions about IVF, ethicist says

Washington D.C., Aug 21, 2019 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- Lawmakers in three states have passed laws to criminalize “fertility fraud” following a series of scandals in which fertility doctors impregnated women with their own sperm without their knowledge or consent. But amid renewed discussion of the fertility industry, one ethicist told CNA that the laws do not go far enough.

On June 4, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed into law Senate Bill 1259, making the use of reproductive material from an unagreed upon donor a form of sexual assault, and could require an offending doctor to register as a sex offender. The bill was unanimously passed by both the Texas House and Senate, and went into effect on July 1. 

The Texas law is unique in classifing donor-deception as sexual assault. 

Legislation in Indiana, passed in May of this year, made it a felony for someone to misrepresent a medical procedure, device, or drug, including reproductive material. A plaintiff may also sue the medical professional for damages. Similar laws were passed in California in 2011.

The Indiana law passed after it was discovered that a fertility specialist, Dr. Donald Cline, had used his own sperm to father at least 61 children in the 1970s and 1980s. The estimated 36 mothers were unaware that he was the source of the donor sperm.

In 2017, eight years after he retired, Cline was sentenced to a one-year suspended sentence, and surrendered his medical license. He pled guilty to two counts of felony obstruction of justice, though his professional conduct was not yet a crime in Indiana. 

Cline’s case is not unique. Doctors in 12 states and several countries have been found to have fathered children with women who did not consent to being inseminated with their own doctor’s sperm. 

Dr. John Di Camillo, an ethicist with the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA that scandals only served to highlight the deeper problems with the fertility industry.

“Interventions that bypass or replace the conjugal act, on the other hand, such as in vitro fertilization, are always contrary to human dignity,” Di Camillo said.

While it is understandable that a woman or couple would feel violated by a doctor’s betrayal of their trust in the selection of the sperm donor, Di Camillo told CNA that “the very act of seeking a sperm donor is already a betrayal of any child that might be conceived.”

The child has the right to be born from and within a marriage, where the child’s biological parents are identifiable,” he said.

Such cases of abuse, he said, were rooted in society’s changing views on the nature of childbearing, as well as from the “morally corrupt” practice of in vitro fertilization. 

“When a child is no longer understood as a gift that a married couple receives as the direct fruit of their act of mutual self-giving love, and is instead perceived as a product that can be obtained human procreation becomes exposed to an endless chain of ethical abuses,” he said.

While the fertility industry continues to grow, the availability of commercial DNA testing has meant many previously unknown cases of abuse have come to light.

Sixteen years ago in Texas, Eve Wiley discovered, at the age of 16, that she had been conceived with donor sperm. She tracked down the man who she thought was the donor, and developed what she described as a “beautiful father-daughter relationship.” The man even officiated her wedding. 

After taking a consumer DNA test in 2017 and again in 2018, she learned the truth: the man was not her father. In fact, her father was Dr. Kim McMorries-the doctor who had inseminated her mother. 

McMorries had told Wiley’s mother that he was using donor sperm from California. Her mother had requested a donor from far away, as she was concerned that her potential child could eventually date a half-sibling if a local donor were used. 

Wiley has since been featured on national television programs, and spoke in committee hearings in favor of the Texas law. 

While Di Camillo is supportive of the Indiana and Texas laws, he told CNA that they do not do enough to address the source of the problem: the fertility industry. 

“I would certainly support any legislation outlawing this type of deception as a form of incremental legislation curbing abusive sequelae of the abusive practice of IVF,” he said. 

“The bigger issue is that in vitro fertilization and all forms of assisted reproduction involving donor gametes should be outlawed altogether. The root of the moral problem needs to be addressed.”

Florida bishops: Serial killer's execution is 'unnecessary'

Tallahassee, Fla., Aug 21, 2019 / 09:30 am (CNA).- The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops is pleading for Gov. Ron DeSantis to stop the execution of Gary Ray Bowles, who confessed to murdering six men during a six month period in 1994.

“As we approach the date of Gary Ray Bowles’ scheduled execution, we urge you to grant a stay,” said an Aug. 14 letter, signed by Michael B. Sheedy, the executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the state’s bishops.

Bowles’ execution is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Aug. 22. He was first sentenced to death in May 1996, after pleading guilty to the murder of Walter “Jay” Hinton, and then re-sentenced to death in 1999 after his initial death sentence was overturned. While in prison for Hinton’s murder, he was convicted of three other murders, and sentenced to two life sentences.

When Bowles was arrested for Hinton’s death, he admitted that he had killed a total of six people. As Bowles’ crime spree spread from Jacksonville, Florida to Montgomery County, Maryland, he was dubbed the “I-95 Killer.”

He killed men in three states, two of which presently use the death penalty. At the time of the crimes, the death penalty was legal in all three states.

Bowles met most of his victims in gay bars, and offered to have sex with them in exchange for money. He would then beat and strangle the men to death, and rob them. At the time he was arrested, he was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.

The letter said that while Bowles’ “violent actions” ended the lives of six people, and caused “great grief” to their loved ones, “each of us is more than the worst thing we have done.”

“Mr. Bowles is more than a man who committed multiple murders,” said the bishops’ conference.

“He is a human being who survived many years of childhood abuse and, after escaping his stepfather’s violence as a young teenager, endured years of homelessness and child prostitution.”

“Neuroscientific research has found that such traumatic experiences severely affect a child’s developing brain, and thus affect subsequent behavior,” the letter added.

The bishops’ conference wrote that Bowles does not pose a danger to society as long as he remains in prison without parole, and that the death penalty is not necessary. Instead, “premeditated, state-sanctioned homicide of Mr. Bowles would only perpetuate the cycle of violence that victimized him, and which he later perpetuated.”

“Killing him will only further erode the sense of the sacredness of human life and implicate us all – the citizens of the State of Florida – in his death.”

On Wednesday and Thursday, Florida Catholics, as well as others opposed to the death penalty, will be gathering at locations around the state, including the governor’s mansion and across the highway from the Florida State Prison’s Execution Building. They say they will be praying for  Bowles, his victims, the families of the victims, and for an end to the death penalty.

If Bowles is executed, he will be the 99th person sentenced to death in Florida since the state reinstituted its death penalty in 1976. His will be the second execution presided over by DeSantis, a practicing Roman Catholic.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is today “inadmissable,” because “there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes,” and “more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”

Minnesota archbishop reflects on the significance of a pastoral heart

Minneapolis, Minn., Aug 21, 2019 / 04:00 am (CNA).- Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St Paul and Minneapolis reflected in a recent interview on several major milestones: his 60th birthday, 30 years as a priest, and 10 years as a bishop.

In an interview with the Catholic Spirit, the archbishop emphasized the importance of a pastoral heart in the priestly vocation.

“Being a pastor of a diocese is a little bit like being a pastor of a parish. It’s the same desires that you have for being able to make Christ known, being able to serve people, being able to bring the presence of Christ not only through the sacraments but also through God’s word,” he said.

The archbishop celebrated Mass on July 1 at the Cathedral of St. Paul in honor of the 30th anniversary of his priestly ordination. Hebda will also commemorate his 60th birthday on September 3, and 10 years of being a bishop on December 1.

Born in Pittsburgh, Hebda entered Saint Paul Seminary after he graduated from Harvard and received his JD from Columbia Law School. He was ordained in 1989 and, seven years later, he began his role at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, where he served until he was appointed bishop in 2009.

He said it was initially tough to leave behind a college ministry, where he had been placed as Director of the Newman Center at Slippery Rock University two years prior to his assignment in Rome. However, he said a priest must have a pastoral heart no matter the assignment.

“A priest has to bring a pastoral heart to whatever task is before him. Even if it’s an administrative position, he has to bring to that a pastoral heart,” he said.

“I came to recognize, though, that it was in the work that I was doing (at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, responsible for interpreting Church law), even though it was very technical, legal work, that I was being given an opportunity to really participate in Christ’s priesthood.”

In any vocation, he said, the most important thing is to place God above all else. He said this fosters acts of service for others.

“I think [God] wants us to put him first in our lives. We love God and we love our neighbor. It’s a way in which we’re also going to have our hearts expanded so that we can serve others, too,” he said.

The archbishop has led Minnesota’s largest archdiocese through a turbulent period. The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January 2015 amid many abuse claims that had been made possible under Minnesota legislation that opened a temporary window for older claims to be heard in civil court.

Hebda announced in May of last year a $210 million settlement package for victims of sexual abuse.

He is also leading the archdiocese toward a 2021 synod to address pastoral concerns and discern the call of the Holy Spirit.

In preparation for the synod, the archdiocese will have 20 prayer events and spiritual talks. The first one will kick off on September 24. Hebda expressed hope that the process will lead the archdiocese to a richer connection to the Holy Spirit.

“My hope is that we might, together, be able to detect the presence of the Holy Spirit. That we would find reassurance in that. We would be reinvigorated by that realization, as well,” he said.

“I also am trusting that the process will help us to identify priorities for moving forward in a way that’s reflective not only of my own thinking but also the thinking of the faithful of the archdiocese, whether it be our priests, whether it be our lay faithful, whether it be men and women in consecrated life, it will all have a chance to shape the next steps we take as an archdiocese.”