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South Sudan president: I was ‘almost trembling’ as Pope Francis begged me to make peace

Juba, South Sudan, May 20, 2019 / 04:32 pm (CNA).- In an unprecedented gesture last month, Pope Francis kissed the feet of several South Sudanese leaders, who were visiting the Vatican for a retreat, in a plea for peace in the country.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir told EWTN News that the exchange, which garnered attention around the world, left him “almost trembling.”

“I felt humbled at the humility of the Holy Father, to bend down on the ground and kiss my feet,” Kiir told EWTN News in an interview May 7.

“I was almost trembling because that thing has not happened before, except at the time when Jesus knelt down to wash the feet of his disciples. And it should have been the opposite; his disciples should have been the ones to wash his feet...this is what came into my mind when the Pope knelt down.”

Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar met with the pope April 10-11 during a retreat at the Vatican.  The pope hosted the retreat specifically for the leaders, who have been at war with each other for years.

Pope Francis encouraged the South Sudanese leaders to “seek what unites you, beginning with the fact that you belong to one and the same people, and to overcome all that divides you,” and told them he was praying for them to become peacemakers, who “build peace through dialogue, negotiation and forgiveness.”

“We have clearly heard the cry of the poor and the needy; it rises up to heaven, to the very heart of God our Father, who desires to grant them justice and peace,” he said.

In 2011, the predominantly Christian South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, which has a Muslim majority and been governed mostly by Islamic law since the 1980s.

A five-year civil war began shortly after the country gained its independence. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more.

The fighting has primarily taken place between those forces loyal to Kiir and rebel groups led by Machar. The war has left 2.1 million people internally displaced, with another 2.5 million refugees, according to the United Nations.

“The purpose of this retreat is for us to stand together before God and to discern his will...It is to reflect on our own lives and the common mission the Lord has entrusted to us, to recognize our enormous shared responsibility for the present and future of the people of South Sudan, and to commit ourselves, reinvigorated and reconciled, to the building up of your nation,” the pope told Kiir and Machar.

Kiir and Machar signed a tenuous peace agreement in September 2018, which the country’s Catholic bishops have called “fatally flawed” because it does not address the complex root causes of the conflict.

“Taking the decades and years of mistrust that had existed between these different forces, it’s not an easy thing” to have peace established overnight, Bishop Eduardo Kussala of Tombura-Yambio in South Sudan told EWTN News.

Still, Kussala said the bishops’ conference is grateful for and encouraged by the pope’s meeting with the leaders of opposing groups in South Sudan.

“We have tried to keep the momentum, to continue to work harder and make sure peace is actually in this country….It has again energized us” to serve the leaders and the people, he said.

Kiir said his meeting with Pope Francis was especially meaningful for him, as he grew up in an area of South Sudan that was evangelized primarily by Catholic missionaries, from whom he has learned much.

“Jesus came to the world to teach people to forgive and to live in peace with whoever is near you. And we as Catholics, especially in South Sudan, we have learned a lot from God’s teaching,” he reflected.  

“This is why [although] we have been under oppression all this time...we’re able to reconcile with those oppressors and then we see them as brothers and sisters.”

Kiir said the moment when the Pope displayed such humility was inspiring to him as the leader of the country.

“The feelings that I had at the moment, at that hour, was that I should try my best when I come back to South Sudan. I should try my best to bring peace to my people, so that people reconcile among themselves, and people do not think of fighting again,” Kiir said.

Bishop Kussala said his diocese has been working on peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts.

“We feel that finding local answers, local solutions to the problems emerging among us is the way forward,” he said.

The diocese recently united with other church groups to bring 10,000 young men back from the bush, where they had been fighters, and to prepare the community for reconciliation and forgiveness.

“Many of them are being integrated into the government and are already working in the different organized forces. Others are also being engaged in social and economic activities,” he said.

Kussala emphasized the spiritual aspect of the peace process. He said it is important to see one another with the eyes of faith.

“[We must] believe that we are all equal, we are children of God. We have to forgive each other, that is our strong weapon,” he said.

MS-13 gang member suspected in Salvadoran priest’s death

San Salvador, El Salvador, May 20, 2019 / 04:30 pm (CNA).- A priest has been shot and killed by a suspected gang member in El Salvador, Vatican News reported Sunday. His funeral was held today in Sonzacate, El Salvador.

Father Cecilio Perez Cruz, 38, was pastor of San Jose La Majada Parish in Juayu, El Salvador, in the Diocese of Sosonate near the Guatemalan border.

A group of parishioners found his body Saturday morning; he had been shot three times.

There was a handwritten note next to the priest’s body, signed by the Mara Salvatrucha gang saying “he did not pay the rent,” Vatican News reported. Gangs in El Salvador often use extortion as a means of control.

Mara Salvatrucha is more commonly known as MS-13, a gang formed by children of Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s.

Bishop Constantino Barrera of Sonsonate asked Catholics to pray for Father Perez, and praised the priest’s pastoral ministry, saying he was “close to his people.”

The Government of El Salvador condemned the murder and in a statement expressed condolences to the priest’s family and to the Catholic community.

"We stand in solidarity with all the victims of violence, of any type of violence, and we ask the authorities to administer justice in all cases," Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador said at a news conference yesterday.

"It's not that we seek revenge, but justice is necessary for the good of the victims and for the good of the whole society, because violence will only be overcome if impunity is not allowed. It is truly worrisome the degree of violence that our country suffers. We must work and pray intensely for peace," the archbishop said as quoted by Catholic News Service.

A local police officer told AFP an investigation was in its earliest stages and the killer was not yet known to the police.

El Salvador has one of the highest rates of murder in the world, with 51 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants last year, and gang violence is especially acute.

The Salvadoran government also announced Sunday new orders have been issued to security forces to make sure the priest’s killers are brought to justice, Vatican News said.

Gangs such as MS-13 compete with the government for power and in some cases control entire neighborhoods.

Rick Jones, a policy expert for Catholic Relief Services, told CNA last October that after the United States began deporting large numbers of Salvadorans from Los Angeles after the country’s civil war ended, many of the young people who returned were already involved in gang activity.

“You have a situation where in the mid-1990s most young boys were out of school and unemployed, and only made it to 6th grade. And so they started organizing and [the gangs] spread through the metropolitan area,” he said.

“Then, in 2003, the [US] government decided to put out the ‘Iron Fist’ policy. Meaning zero tolerance. Meaning any kid with baggy clothes, tattoos and a hat on backwards could get picked up and thrown into prison.”

These hardline policies backfired, however, as the homicide rate continued to increase despite the changes.

“The level of violence has risen ever since the country put in these hardline policies,” Jones said.

“What you have in the country, as I said, is you have the underlying conditions of people living in marginal, overcrowded neighborhoods, that were created spontaneously because of the war, so there's no social service, kids don't have access to school, and the communities are all living in fear during the war, and that just gets translated to the next generation. And this generation acts out on that by joining gangs.”

“I think it's the latest manifestation of both structural issues, lack of opportunity, and then trauma from the war getting worked out in a new way, and thirdly the levels of repression that they've had now under the Iron Fist policies for over a decade,” he said.

Clergy in El Salvador continue to be outspoken about human rights violations, in the country, with many working with young people, to try to turn them from gang violence, while also speaking out against El Salvador’s highly overcrowded prison system and the hardline policies that have led to it.  

“We're now working with governments, we're trying to work with the police, to try to help them understand that the repressive tactics are not being effective, and to get better community policing, and more targeted, focused policing, and working with the kids before they get to the point where they need to be locked up...We need to work with adolescents and their families before they get engaged in gangs,” Jones said.

“You have to work with the guys that are locked up. So that when they get out, they don't just go back into the gangs or into criminal behavior, that they actually become peace promoters among some of these neighborhoods.”

Catholic organizations and leaders in El Salvador have recently decried the "impunity" with which gangs often operate, including in the death of another Salvadoran priest killed last year during Holy Week.

Fr. Walter Osmir Vásquez Jiménez was shot and killed the afternoon of March 29, 2018, Holy Thursday, on a dirt road outside of the town of Lolotique, El Salvador, as he was on his way to celebrate Mass. The local press attributed the crime to gangs active in the area.

 

 

Trump insists abortion laws must allow exceptions for rape, incest

Washington D.C., May 20, 2019 / 03:13 pm (CNA).- President Donald Trump over the weekend admonished pro-life advocates seeking to make abortion illegal in all cases. He called for pro-life Americans to be united around legislation that includes exemptions for cases of rape, incest, and when doctors deem the mother’s life to be at risk.

“I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions - Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother - the same position taken by Ronald Reagan,” the president said on Twitter May 18.

“We must stick together and Win for Life in 2020. If we are foolish and do not stay UNITED as one, all of our hard fought gains for Life can, and will, rapidly disappear!”

Trump’s tweets come after Alabama recently passed a law to make abortion a felony. The law does not have exceptions for rape or incest. Similar legislation passed in Missouri last week, and the governor is expected to sign it into law soon.

Pro-life leaders responded to the president on Twitter. Former Planned Parenthood employee Abby Johnson, who now runs a ministry helping abortion workers leave the industry, argued that the president’s comments had “divided the [pro-life] movement.”

She posted a picture of her adopted son on Twitter, saying, “My son was conceived in rape. I would love for you to meet him, @realDonaldTrump, and tell me how his life isn’t as valuable as my children conceived in love. He deserved to live and I’m so thankful that he does.”

Lila Rose, president of the investigative group Live Action, also responded to Trump’s tweet, saying, “Thank you for the great work your administration has done on behalf of life. If we are pro-life, we must be 100% pro-life. A child of rape or incest is not a 2nd-class citizen. No woman or girl is served by abortion or immune to its trauma, including survivors of rape and incest.”

The tweets reveal a divide within the pro-life movement. While overturning Roe v. Wade – the 1973 Supreme Court decision that mandated legal abortion nationwide – is one of the key goals of the movement, there are differing views on how best to achieve that goal.

Some pro-life advocates have emphasized the need to ban abortion in all cases. Others insist that a complete abortion ban without exceptions is much more likely to be struck down by the courts, while a more moderate law is more likely to be upheld, and would eliminate the vast majority of abortions in the United States.

Dozens of pro-life bills have been introduced in states across the country this year. Pro-life advocates are hopeful that one of them may make its way up the Supreme Court, where the current justices are considered more favorable to the pro-life cause than in previous decades.

A few cases have reached federal appeals courts - including a Texas ban on dismemberment abortions and a Louisiana law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

A Marist poll released in February recorded a sharp drop in the proportion of Democrats identifying as pro-choice, from 75% to 61% since the beginning of the year. The same poll found a 19-point jump in pro-life identification among people under 45 years old. Forty-seven percent of people under the age of 45 now say they are pro-life, compared to 48% who say they are pro-choice.

An April poll by Rasmussen showed that when voters are told that a fetal heartbeat can be detected after six weeks of pregnancy, 56% support banning abortion at that point.

Pittsburgh diocese announces first wave of parish mergers

Pittsburgh, Pa., May 20, 2019 / 02:35 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Pittsburgh has announced the first results of a sweeping reorganization of its parishes, creating five new parishes and designating five former parish churches as shrines.

These changes are the first results of the “On Mission for The Church Alive” initiative, charged with reordering the parochial landscape of the diocese to accommodate fewer priests and shifting parish attendance. The plan, first announced in 2018, will eventually see the 188 parishes of the diocese consolidated into 58 new groupings.

The announced changes will go into effect on July 1, 2019.

In a letter to the clergy and parishioners of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Bishop David A. Zubik credited the soon-to-be-merged parishes for working “extremely hard” since October of last year to create strong relationships between the communities.

“These five parish groupings have worked extremely hard since last October to foster relationships and, after consultation in the groupings, were prepared to share with me their desire and readiness to form a new parish community,” the bishop wrote in the May 18 letter.

The parish grouping plan was approved unanimously by the diocesan college of consultors and does not include plans for the closure of any church buildings.

Zubik expressed his gratitude to everyone involved in the creation of these new parishes, as their work went “beyond the practical matters related to merging parishes, and highlights the work being done to encourage their respective parishioners to deepen their relationship with Jesus and with each other.”

This, said Zubik, “is the most important reason for On Mission.”

The five churches of Greene County will be combined into the single new parish of Saint Matthias Parish, and served by a pastoral team of two priests and two deacons. The new parish of Christ Our Savior will be made up of the four former parishes of Pittsburgh’s North Side, and will be led by four priests and a deacon.

Seven parish churches located in the New Castle area will collectively become the parish of the Holy Spirit Parish, and will have four priests and two deacons. The parishes of Saint Anne, in Castle Shannon and Saint Winifred, in Mount Lebanon, will merge under the new name of Saint Paul of the Cross. The clergy team for this parish is two priests and two deacons.

The newly created Saint Teresa of Kolkata Parish will consist of five parishes from Beechview and Brookline, and will be served by three priests and two deacons.

In addition to the groupings, five downtown parish buildings of historic and spiritual value will be designated as shrines, and served by a clergy team for the “Shrines of Pittsburgh Grouping.” The clergy team will consist of two full-time priests, one priest assisting on a part-time basis, and a deacon.

One parish building, the Corpus Christi Church building of Saint Charles Lwanga Parish in Pittsburgh’s East End, will close as part of this reorganization.

‘Mayor Pete’ backs no-limits abortion

Washington D.C., May 20, 2019 / 01:30 pm (CNA).- Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg called abortion a “national freedom” on Sunday, and defended the practice of late term abortion.

The mayor of South Bend, In., made the comments during a “town hall” broadcast for Fox on May 19. In defending unrestricted abortion, Buttigieg appeared to put himself at odds with the majority of voters both in his own party and nationwide.

Asked if he believed there should be any limit on access to abortion, at any time during pregnancy, Buttigieg responded “I trust women to draw the line.”

Mayor Pete, as his campaign prefers him to be styled, was asked specifically about recent legislation at the state level to either expand or restrict abortion access.

In a tweet sent in response to the passage of a law to outlaw abortion in Alabama, Buttigieg said legislators were “ignoring science” in efforts to protect unborn life. Responding to the example of the New York Reproductive Health Act passed earlier this year, which effectively removed all limitations on abortion, Buttigieg said there is no place for the government in discussing limits on abortion.

Characterizing the decision to terminate a pregnancy during the final weeks before term as “an impossible, unthinkable choice,” he repeated that he believed there was no place for the law to intervene.

“That decision is not going to be made any better, medically or morally, because the government is dictating how that decision should be made.”

While Buttgieg’s comments drew applause from the crowd, consistent poll results show a trend in public opinion away from supporting abortion and especially against late-term abortions.

The New York law was passed in January of this year, making abortion a legal right up to the point of birth. Subsequent polling has shown that the vast majority of New Yorkers were opposed to late-term abortion.

A Marist poll published in March found that that 75% of New York residents are opposed to abortion after the 20th week of a pregnancy. Only 20% of those surveyed said they approved of late-term abortion.

Those opposed to abortion after 20 weeks included nearly 70 percent of surveyed Democrats, 73% of political independents and 89% of Republicans.

An earlier poll, released in February, recorded a sharp drop in the proportion of Democrats identifying as pro-choice, from 75% to 61% since the beginning of the year. The same poll found a 19-point jump in pro-life identification among people under 45 years old. Forty-seven percent of people under the age of 45 now say they are pro-life, compared to 48% who say they are pro-choice.

As legislators in New York and Vermont have moved to entrench access to abortion, other states have enacted measures to protect children in the womb. Four states – Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio – have so far this year passed laws to ban abortions after the unborn baby’s heartbeat can be detected, often around 6 weeks of pregnancy. All four laws are already facing legal challenges.

An April poll by Rasmussen showed that while only 45% of voters supported banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, that number rose to 56% once they were told a fetal heartbeat can be detected at that point.

Other states have sought to outlaw particular abortion methods, or pass trigger laws which would ban abortion in the event the Supreme Court were to overturn its ruling in Roe v. Wade.