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Pro-democracy Catholic Jimmy Lai marks 1,000th day in jail awaiting trial

Newspaper publisher and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai poses during an interview in Hong Kong in 2020. / Credit: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Vatican City, Sep 26, 2023 / 06:30 am (CNA).

Jimmy Lai, a Catholic pro-democracy activist and former publisher of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, spent his 1,000th day in jail on Tuesday awaiting his long-delayed trial. 

Lai’s son has expressed fear that Lai could die in prison and human rights groups have urged the U.K. government to take immediate action to free the jailed newspaper publisher, who is a British citizen. 

“I don’t want to see my father die in jail. He’s 75, he’s in prison, he does risk just dying. It is very worrying,” Sebastien Lai told the Associated Press.

Jimmy Lai has been jailed awaiting a trial since he was arrested in December 2020 under Hong Kong’s national security law. The Catholic covert could face life in prison if convicted. His trial is set for Dec. 18, nearly one year after it was originally scheduled.

Lai spends about 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in Hong Kong’s Stanley Prison, a maximum-security facility, according to AP, and is allowed outside to exercise for 50 minutes a day in a small enclosure surrounded by barbed wire.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, Amnesty International UK, and eight other human rights groups published an open letter on Sept. 24 calling on British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to take immediate action to secure Lai’s release.

The letter underlined that the prime minister’s decisive action would be “a fundamental step to safeguard press freedom in Hong Kong.”

“Lai’s crime consists of owning and directing a news organization that was reporting on the concerns and struggles of a pro-democracy movement that has been virtually silenced by the state,” it said.

The jailed media mogul was the owner of the Apple Daily, which was Hong Kong’s most popular Chinese-language newspaper until it was closed in June 2021 after its offices were raided by hundreds of Hong Kong police and its executives detained. The paper was seen as Hong Kong’s most vocal pro-democracy newspaper.

Lai is one of more than 250 pro-democracy activists who have been arrested under the national security law since it was imposed by Beijing in response to Hong Kong’s massive pro-democracy protests in which nearly 2 million people took to the streets in 2019.

The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention raised “grave concern” over Lai’s detention in a communication sent to the Chinese government earlier this year.

Lai is facing several charges, including collusion with foreign forces, sedition, and conspiring to call for international sanctions against Hong Kong or China. He was also sentenced to five years and nine months in prison in December over fraud charges related to lease violations. 

His trial has been repeatedly delayed since it was first scheduled for December 2022. Hong Kong’s High Court upheld a government decision to bar a British lawyer from defending Lai in his national security trial in May. 

The court also rejected Lai’s request to halt the trial due to concerns that his case would be heard by three government-approved judges rather than a jury as practiced under Hong Kong’s common law tradition.

Sebastien Lai, Jimmy Lai’s son, has not seen his father in three years and worries for his health as his father suffers from diabetes and was diagnosed with high blood pressure in 2021 while in prison.

Lai was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize along with Cardinal Joseph Zen and other Hong Kong democracy advocates by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China in February. 

He was also the recipient of the Christifidelis Laici award at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, the Freedom of Press Award by Reporters without Borders, and an honorary degree from Catholic University of America.

Lai was born in Guangzhou in mainland China in 1947 but came to Hong Kong at age 12 as a penniless stowaway. After working in a factory in Hong Kong, Lai saw a need for affordable, quality clothing for middle-class people and founded a chain of clothing stores called Giordano’s — a venture that would make him rich and allow him to launch pro-democracy magazines and newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

He was baptized and received into the Church by Cardinal Zen on July 7, 1997, at the age of 49. Before his conversion, the billionaire entrepreneur attended Mass with his wife, Teresa, whom Lai said had always been a devout Catholic. But in 1997, just before the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, Lai said that he realized that he needed the protection and help of a higher power. 

At a time when many pro-democracy activists fled Hong Kong out of fear of the National Security Law, Lai chose to stay. He urged Hong Kongers on social media: “Let us not be afraid and fight on!”

“The way I look at it, if I suffer for the right cause, it only defines the person I am becoming. It can only be good for me to become a better person. If you believe in the Lord, if you believe that all suffering has a reason, and the Lord is suffering with me ... I’m at peace with it,” Lai said in an interview with the Napa Institute after his arrest in 2020.

Pontifical foundation launches two projects for those in need in Colombia

A low-income home in Buenaventura, Colombia. / Credit: ACN

ACI Prensa Staff, Sep 25, 2023 / 18:30 pm (CNA).

The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been developing two vital projects for the most needy communities in Colombia’s Pacific coast region.

Both initiatives — the construction of a church in the port city of Buenaventura and solar panels for the Dominican sisters’ home in Docordó in the Chocó region — are aimed at helping people who suffer from economic deprivation, violence, abandonment, and social conflicts.

“Faithful to its pillars and its charisma, ACN continues to build a bridge of charity between those who need help and those who can help; certainly, we would not achieve this without the generosity of our benefactors,” said María Inés Espinosa Calle, executive director of ACN in Colombia, in a recent interview published by the charity.

According to Espinosa, support for projects like these in the Colombian Pacific region but also in many parts of the world “continues extending a hand so that the Church remains present where the love of God is most needed.”

“We are very happy to help bring relief and true hope to these populations,” she emphasized.

Construction of a parish church

Father Lawrence Ssimbwa, a Consolata missionary from Uganda and pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish in Buenaventura, and his entire community hope to have a new church thanks to help from ACN.

The territory in this port area includes five neighborhoods and 12 basic Christian communities, with approximately 30,000 Catholic faithful.

“Like many of the parishes in Latin America, that of St. Martín de Porres faces complex challenges: extreme poverty, violence, young people immersed in illegal groups, and pregnancies of girls and teens, among others. ACN’s support for the construction of the church will be the best thing that happens to the parish,” the priest noted.

Currently, the parish literally operates out of a house, using the living room and garage. Space is insufficient, especially on holy days or Sundays. Despite the active and fervent community, community activities are limited by the lack of adequate space.

ACN aims to raise 70,000 euros (about $74,000) to begin making the dream of Ssimbwa and his community come true.

Solar energy in the middle of the Chocó jungle

Dominican sisters Mercy Eneida Mendoza, Rubiela Ramírez Ramírez, and Consuelo Giraldo reside in Docordó in the Diocese of Istmina-Tadó, also in the Chocó region. Earlier this year, they presented an alternative energy project for their community, and in late August, they finally had continuous electricity thanks to the installation of solar panels generously funded by ACN benefactors. This project cost approximately 10,000 euros (about $10,600).

“We benefit a lot; it gives us peace of mind, because, imagine this jungle, this place without energy, that remains, as they say, like the wolf’s den... if anything, the only thing you see is the moon shining on the river. We are extremely grateful to ACN,” Sister Mercy said.

Today, with constant access to electricity, the sisters are able to provide assistance to their neighbors, who are often limited by only a few hours a day of electricity. Furthermore, it allows them to focus fully on their pastoral tasks, especially their educational work for children and young people.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Imprisoned Nicaraguan bishop nominated for European Parliament human rights award

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matalgalpa, Nicaragua. / Credit: Archdiocese of Managua

ACI Prensa Staff, Sep 25, 2023 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

The European Parliament announced the nominees for the 2023 Sakharov Prize, which honors persons and organizations who exceptionally defend human rights and freedoms. One of the nominees this year is Rolando Álvarez, the bishop imprisoned by the Ortega dictatorship in Nicaragua, falsely accused of being a “traitor to the homeland.”

The nominations were presented Sept. 20 during a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Development committees along with the Subcommittee on Human Rights. The nominations are made by the legislative body’s political coalitions or by at least 40 members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

A total of 43 MEPs supported the nomination of Álvarez and Nicaraguan activist Vilma Núñez de Escorcia.

“Núñez has been fighting for the human rights of Nicaraguans for decades. Despite the persecution, she remains in her country. Álvarez, bishop of Matagalpa, has been one of the most vehement critics of President Daniel Ortega’s regime. In February 2023, after refusing to leave the country, he was sentenced to 26 years in prison and his citizenship revoked,” stated a Sept. 20  publication on the parliament’s website.

Other nominees include entrepreneur Elon Musk; Afghan education activists Marzia Amiri, Parasto Hakim, and Matiullah Wesa; and Nino Lomjaria, former people’s ombudsman of the Republic of Georgia.

Since 1988, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Conscience has been awarded annually to individuals and groups fighting in defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms. This prestigious award includes a prize of 50,000 euros (about $53,000).

According to the EU Parliament website, Andrei Sakharov, a physicist, was seen in the Soviet Union “as a subversive dissident. In 1970, he founded a committee to defend human rights and victims of political trials,” becoming “one of the regime’s most courageous critics” in the “crusade for fundamental rights.” In 1980 he was arrested and forced to live in internal exile.

On Oct. 12, the Foreign Affairs and Development committees will hold a joint meeting to determine three finalists. On Oct. 19, the president of Parliament and the leaders of the political coalitions will determine the winner. The award ceremony will take place in Strasbourg, France, on Dec. 13.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

North Carolina passes universal school choice

null / Credit: Cherries/Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Sep 25, 2023 / 17:40 pm (CNA).

North Carolina last week became the 10th U.S. state to enact “universal” school choice by removing barriers to a state program that provides tuition assistance for students attending private schools.

North Carolina’s General Assembly gave final approval Sept. 22 to a new state budget that aims to triple funding for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program and end income restrictions for getting a private school voucher, the Charlotte News & Observer reported. Every North Carolina family will be able to apply for tuition assistance to attend a K-12 private school beginning in 2024-2025. 

Since 2013, the state has offered the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program, an initiative that previously provided funding of up to $5,928 per year for eligible children who choose to attend a participating nonpublic school, a figure that rose to $6,492 for the 2023-2024 school year. 

That program provided assistance to nearly 25,600 students during the 2022-2023 school year, according to the program’s self-reported data. Of the 544 nonpublic schools participating in the program, the top 71 grantees by dollars given were all religious, according to the data.

Under the previous program guidelines — among other requirements — families of four making less than $111,000 would have met the eligibility criteria for the voucher. The new budget eliminates the income requirement and also eliminates a requirement related to prior enrollment in a public school. The budget also gives the state education superintendent authority to recommend a nationally-recognized standardized test for voucher recipients. 

To pay for the program, the North Carolina budget calls for the Opportunity Scholarship program’s funding to nearly triple in the coming decade to more than half a billion dollars in the 2032-2033 fiscal year. 

The individual voucher amount will vary by the family’s income level, the News & Observer reported. The state’s wealthiest families would get 45% of the amount the state spends per public school student, while the lowest-income families would get the full $6,492. 

Jennifer Feldhaus, principal of Infant of Prague Catholic School in Jacksonville, North Carolina, told CNA late last year her school has benefited greatly from the Opportunity Scholarship program and estimated that approximately 42% of the school’s students were making use of the scholarship at that time. 

“It’s been a tremendous program for Catholic schools because what was considered before unreachable, whether on income or location, is now an option for families,” she told CNA at the time. 

‘It’s justice’

Early 2023 data from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) showed that nationwide, 10.5% of Catholic school students use a parental choice program and 27.6% of Catholic schools enrolled students using parental choice programs. In some states, such as Arizona and Indiana, nearly all of the state’s Catholic schools take part in school choice programs.

The NCEA works with the U.S. bishops and other groups to support school choice, the group’s president and CEO Lincoln Snyder told CNA last spring.

“The Church believes very strongly that parents should have the ability to select the best education for their child as their primary educators. Obviously, choice programs are starting to make a huge difference for Catholic schools in enrollment,” Snyder said. 

“[W]ithout these programs, it would be a far greater challenge for our communities to make Catholic education affordable. So we strongly advocate for seeing a growth in choice programs as a Church, no doubt, but it’s not our only strategy. We still also look to communities and philanthropists to help make schools affordable for families as well.”

Seven states “went universal” with their school choice programs during 2023 alone, according to the advocacy group EdChoice. Nearly 1 in 5 students now lives in a state with universal or near-universal school choice, the group says. 

Sister Dale McDonald, PBVM, NCEA’s vice president of public policy, told CNA on Monday that she hopes North Carolina schools will encourage parents to apply for the voucher. Public dollars are generated by everyone, including parents and teachers at private schools, and private school students are “entitled a share,” she said.

“It’s fair, it’s justice, to give our kids a share of the money that their parents’ taxes generate,” she said, noting that in North Carolina, the state has only about 18,000 Catholic school students, a relatively small portion of the overall student population. 

Universal school choice has, for the most part, only gained traction in Republican-led states. In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper allowed the budget to become law without his signature, despite decrying it as “a bad budget that seriously shortchanges our [public] schools.”

McDonald said making school choice a “bipartisan issue” is “the big challenge right now.”

“Supporting kids should not be political,” she commented, saying school choice programs are about “respecting the needs of kids, not systems.”

What should Catholics think about school choice?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that parents have “the first responsibility for the education of their children” (No. 2223). Mothers and fathers, the Catechism says, retain the right to both teach their children the morals imparted by the Church and “to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions” (No. 2229).

Polling by CNA’s parent organization, EWTN, released late last year found that U.S. Catholic parents broadly back initiatives to support school choice, with two-thirds saying they support a policy that allows students to make use of public education funds for the schools or services that best fit their needs. 

Thousands of Armenian Christians flee homes: ‘Mass exodus has begun,’ expert says

A girl sleeps in a street in the town of Stepanakert on Sept. 25, 2023. Ethnic Armenian refugees began to leave Nagorno-Karabakh on Sept. 24, 2023, for the first time since Azerbaijan launched an offensive designed to seize control of the breakaway territory and perhaps end a three-decade-old conflict. / Credit: HASMIK KHACHATRYAN/AFP via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2023 / 17:15 pm (CNA).

Thousands of Armenian Christians have fled their ancestral homeland in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh over the weekend and more are expected, the government of Armenia confirmed Monday.

“The mass exodus has begun,” Siobhan Nash-Marshall, a U.S.-based human rights advocate who has been speaking to witnesses on the ground, told CNA.

Nash-Marshall founded the Christians in Need Foundation (CINF) in 2011 to help Armenian Christians in the region, and in 2020 she started a school for children and adults in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Now, Nash-Marshall has received word from her school in Nagorno-Karabakh that “all is over” and that “people from all regions, all villages, are homeless” and without shelter, food, and water. 

Hundreds of ethnic Armenians are sleeping in the streets and cannot even drink water because they claim it has been “poisoned by Azeris,” according to Nash-Marshall’s contacts. 

Nash-Marshall was told that there are lines of “2,000 in front of the only bakery” near her school and that “all are hungry, frightened, and hopeless.” 

According to the government of Armenia, 6,650 “forcibly displaced persons” entered Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh since last week.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Sunday that he expects most of the 120,000 ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to flee the region due to “the danger of ethnic cleansing,” Middle Eastern news source Al Jazeera reported.

Why is this happening? 

Both former soviet territories, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. With the backing of Turkey, Azerbaijan asserted its military dominance over Armenia in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, which ended in November 2020.

Though Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, the region is almost entirely made up of ethnic Armenian Christians.

Until last week, Armenians in the region claimed self-sovereignty under the auspices of the “Republic of Artsakh.”

On Sept. 19, Azerbaijan launched a short but intense military offensive that included rocket and mortar fire. The offensive, labeled “antiterror measures” by the Azeri government, resulted in the deaths of more than 200 ethnic Armenians and over 10,000 displaced civilians, according to the Artsakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On Sept. 20, the ethnic Armenians agreed to a cease-fire that resulted in the dismantling of their military and self-governance.

Following the breakaway region’s defeat by Azerbaijan, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said that Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh would be integrated and that representatives from the enclave were “invited to dialogue” with the Azeri government.

Despite these promises, widespread fears of religious and cultural persecution have led large swathes of the population to flee to Armenia proper.

Mass exodus begins 

Eric Hacopian, a human rights advocate who has been on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, told CNA that Armenians in the region are facing “horrendous” conditions in which they have “little food” and “no medicine or security.” 

Hacopian called the Azeri actions in Nagorno-Karabakh “genocide” and said that by tomorrow he expects the number of refugees to rise to 15,000 to 20,000. 

Ultimately he believes “95% to 99%” of the Armenian population in the region will flee because of the “risk of being murdered and tortured.” 

Photos posted on social media showed the highways leading out of the region’s largest city, Stepanakert, filled with massive lines of cars filled with refugees.

Many of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have called the region home for centuries. Now, all of that appears to be rapidly changing.

“Armenians cannot survive under Turkish or Azeri rule,” Nash-Marshall told CNA Monday, adding that the Azeri government “thrives on Armenophobia.”

She said that deeply rooted anti-Armenian sentiment in Azeri culture is exhibited by the military’s executions of Armenian prisoners of war in 2022 as well as recently erected memorials in the Azeri capital city, Baku, that depict “grossly exaggerated life-sized figures of dead and dying Armenian soldiers and chained captives.”

“Anyone who knows the history of the Armenian Genocide will recognize the pattern of Azerbaijan’s actions with respect to Eastern Armenians and the Artsakhtsi,” Nash-Marshall said.

According to Gegham Stepanyan, an Artsakh human rights defender, “thousands” more displaced ethnic Armenians “are now waiting for their evacuation to Armenia.”

“Many of them,” Stepanyan said, “simply have nowhere to stay, so they have to wait for their turn in the streets.”

Armenia in danger 

Some experts believe that Armenia itself is in danger of invasion.

Both Azerbaijan President Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have proposed constructing a highway in the far southern portion of the Armenian province of Syunik, which is bordered by Azerbaijan both to the east and the west.

The road would connect the main portion of Azerbaijan to both its western enclave, known as Nakhchivan, as well as to Turkey.

If built, experts fear Azerbaijan could soon move to wrest control of all of Syunik.

“Let us be realistic,” Nash-Marshall said. “Azerbaijan already has grabbed a part of the region … They are also firing on border villages and have been for a year. What, then, is the threat to Armenia? Invasion.”

Aliyev and Erdogan met in Nakhchivan on Monday, further increasing fears that the pair could be eyeing a Syunik takeover.

In a Monday press conference, Aliyev lamented that “the land link between the main part of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan” was “cut off” when Soviet authorities assigned Syunik to Armenia instead of Azerbaijan, according to reporting by Reuters. 

Hacopian also said that he believes an invasion of Armenia is “quite likely” to create a highway in what is currently southern Armenia. 

U.S. response

Samantha Power, chief administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim landed in Armenia Monday.

In a Monday X post, Power said: “I’m here to reiterate the U.S.’s strong support & partnership with Armenia and to speak directly with those impacted by the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Many still feel that the U.S. is not doing enough to address the situation unfolding in Nagorno-Karabakh.

New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith introduced a resolution Friday to require the U.S. State Department to take concrete actions to guarantee the human rights of the Armenian Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Titled the “Preventing Ethnic Cleansing and Atrocities in Nagorno-Karabakh Act of 2023,” the resolution is co-sponsored by California Democrat Rep. Brad Sherman and Arkansas Republican Rep. French Hill.

If passed, the resolution would require the U.S. government to take several actions in support of the impacted Armenians including terminating military aid to Azerbaijan and establishing military financing for Armenia, authorizing humanitarian assistance to Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and dispatching diplomats to the region to monitor the situation and immediately report any further human rights abuses. 

“The people of Nagorno-Karabakh are in grave danger,” Smith said in a Monday press release. “Tragically, they have been forced to disarm and surrender their independence to a ruthless dictator whose government has repeatedly committed horrific abuses against them over many years, expressed its will to ethnically cleanse them, and even initiated a genocide by starvation with the blockade of the Lachin Corridor.”

Smith went on to say that “we must work with them to ensure that the transition is not marked by continued human atrocities.”

Newsom vetoes bill that would make acceptance of gender identity a factor in custody court

California Gov. Gavin Newsom. / Credit: Matt Gush/Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2023 / 16:54 pm (CNA).

In a break with his party’s legislators, California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have penalized a parent’s custodial claims if he or she does not affirm a child’s self-professed transgender identity.

The Democratic governor vetoed the legislation on Sept. 22 despite the bill passing the state’s lower legislative chamber 61-16 and upper chamber 30-9. It had overwhelming support from Democratic lawmakers but was opposed by Republican legislators.

Per the proposed legislation, courts would have been required to consider “a parent’s affirmation of the child’s gender identity or gender expression” when determining the “health, safety, and welfare of the child.” The court would need to determine this affirmation through “a range of actions,” which would be “unique for each child” but must “promote the child’s overall health and well-being.” 

A parent’s rejection of a child’s self-asserted transgender identity would not disqualify a parent from maintaining custody on its own, under the proposal. However, it would be considered in conjunction with other criteria measuring the child’s “health, safety, and welfare.”

In his veto of the legislation, Newsom said courts are already required to consider a child’s health, safety, and welfare, which he claimed includes “the parent’s affirmation of the child’s gender identity.” The governor urged caution “when the executive and legislative branches of state government attempt to dictate — in prescriptive terms that single out one characteristic — legal standards for the judicial branch to apply.”

Newsom said “other-minded elected officials … could very well use this strategy to diminish the civil rights of vulnerable communities.” Despite his veto, the governor added that he appreciates “the passion and values that led the author to introduce this bill” and said he shared “a deep commitment to advancing the rights of transgender Californians, an effort that has guided my decisions through many decades in public office.”

Sophia Lorey, the outreach coordinator for the California Family Council, encouraged people to “celebrate this victory!” in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. However, she noted that a veto override is still on the table. 

“The legislators can override this veto,” Lorey said. “All they [need] is [two-thirds] of each house to do so.”

More than two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers voted for the legislation. Lawmakers reconvene on Jan. 3, 2024, and have 60 days to override the veto.

About 1,000 Californians rallied at the state capitol in August to protest the legislation and other bills that they feared would take away parental rights. 

One of those bills would allow a minor aged 12 or older to receive transgender medical services without parental consent if a mental health professional “determines that the [parental] involvement would be inappropriate” after consulting with the child. It would also allow a mental health professional to place a minor in a residential shelter if he or she determines the minor is “mature enough to participate intelligently in the outpatient services or residential shelter services.”

This legislation passed both chambers of the California Legislature and was sent to Newsom, but the governor has not yet taken action on the bill. 

Abducted priest in Nigeria released, diocese ‘grateful’

Father Marcellinus Obioma Okide was reportedly abducted from Nigeria’s Enugu Diocese on Sept. 17, 2023. / Credit: Enugu Diocese

ACI Africa, Sep 25, 2023 / 15:00 pm (CNA).

The Diocese of Enugu in Nigeria has expressed its gratitude to God and the faithful following the release of Father Marcellinus Obioma Okide, who had been abducted on Sept. 17.

In a Sept. 22 statement obtained by ACI Africa, CNA’s news partner in Africa, Father Wilfred Chidi Agubuchie, the chancellor of the Enugu Diocese, said: “We are glad to inform you that our brother and priest, Father Marcellinus Obioma Okide, has been released from the den of the kidnappers.” 

Agubuchie said Okide, a parish priest at St. Mary Amofia-Agu Affa Parish in the Enugu Diocese, was set free on Thursday evening, Sept. 21.

“The Catholic Diocese of Enugu is grateful to the Almighty God for his protection over Father Okide, and thanks you for your prayers and Masses throughout this difficult period,” Agubuchie said. “May Our Lady, Help of Christians, intercede for us and our country Nigeria.”

Nigeria has been experiencing insecurity since 2009 when Boko Haram insurgency began with the aim of turning the country into an Islamic state.

Since then, the group, one of largest Islamist groups in Africa, has been orchestrating indiscriminate terrorist attacks on various targets, including religious and political groups as well as civilians.

The insecure situation in the country has further been complicated by the involvement of the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen, also referred to as the Fulani Militia.

The case of Okide is the latest in a series of kidnappings and murders in Africa’s most populous nation involving members of the clergy, seminarians, and other Christians. 

On Aug. 2, a priest and seminarian were abducted from the Diocese of Minna. Father Paul Sanogo from Mali and seminarian Melchior Mahinini from Tanzania were released on Aug. 23 after three weeks in captivity.

In an interview with ACI Africa on Sept. 1, the two members of the Missionaries of Africa said the trauma they experienced during their three-week captivity was a blessing, as it had strengthened their faith.

This story was first published by ACI Africa, CNA’s news partner in Africa, and has been adapted by CNA.

England’s historic Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham gets new rector

The historic Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. / Credit: Norman Servais/EWTN Great Britain

London, England, Sep 25, 2023 / 14:30 pm (CNA).

The Rev. Dr. Robert Billing became the next rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, the third one in the last eight years, succeeding Monsignor Philip Moger, who was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Southwark in February this year. 

Billing, of the Diocese of Lancaster in northwest England, arrived in Walsingham in the last days of August; however, the official induction took place today, Sept. 25, on the solemnity of Our Lady of Walsingham — a very special day for all those who love Walsingham. 

The new rector shared his feelings about his first weeks in the new role with EWTN Great Britain: “As I arrive here in Walsingham I am, of course, at a human level, somewhat apprehensive at the task ahead, but at the same time I must trust in the Lord and in his mother. They have, in a mysterious sense, brought me here, after all!” 

The new Rector Father Robert Billing with Cardinal Vincent Nichols (Archbishop of Westminster and the Primate of England and Wales) and Bishop Michael Campbell, OSA (Bishop Emeritus of Lancaster) in the Slipper Chapel on the occasion of Archdiocese of Westminster pilgrimage to Walsingham, the day before Father Billings' official induction as the new Rector. Sept 24, 2023. Credit: Marcin Mliczko
The new Rector Father Robert Billing with Cardinal Vincent Nichols (Archbishop of Westminster and the Primate of England and Wales) and Bishop Michael Campbell, OSA (Bishop Emeritus of Lancaster) in the Slipper Chapel on the occasion of Archdiocese of Westminster pilgrimage to Walsingham, the day before Father Billings' official induction as the new Rector. Sept 24, 2023. Credit: Marcin Mliczko

Walsingham is not a strange place to Billing. In the late 1990s he spent one summer working as a night porter at the Elmham House, the shrine’s pilgrim accommodation, and another summer as a seminarian, working in the shrine’s sacristy. 

Billing has been involved in various roles and projects, including his work as a diocesan spokesperson and personal secretary to three bishops of Lancaster. He also holds a licentiate in sacred theology and a doctorate in canon law. 

One of the main goals of the shrine in Walsingham is to enhance the pilgrim experience. Billing hopes that “pilgrims coming to Walsingham will have an excellent experience of the sacred liturgy,” which will be “solidly based on the sacramental life of the Church and a deeply English Marian devotion.” 

In his vision for the shrine, Billing sees Walsingham as “a place of peace, prayer, and reconciliation” and believes that the positive experience “will draw pilgrims to return again and indeed to stay with us for a few nights, especially as part of the next Holy Year celebrations.” 

Father Robert Billing officially becomes the new rector of the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in England, Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: Norman Servais/EWTN Great Britain
Father Robert Billing officially becomes the new rector of the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in England, Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: Norman Servais/EWTN Great Britain

To some extent, Billing arrives at a challenging time for the Walsingham shrine. Soon after the departure of the previous rector, the Order of Friars Minor Conventual of Great Britain and Ireland announced the withdrawal of three of their Greyfriars from Walsingham after six years of service to the shrine. The three Greyfriars were beloved by pilgrims coming to Walsingham, as well as those who watch the shrine’s daily livestreaming of the holy Mass and other services. Nevertheless, with the help of Father Andrew Chamiec from the Archdiocese of Westminster, Billing looks forward to providing pastoral and spiritual care for the pilgrims. 

Since his arrival, Billing said he has worked hard to get to know the shrine, the people who work there, and the pilgrims flocking to the historic site. “I am keen to listen and to learn,” he said. “I anticipate meeting so many pilgrims and their priests and local organizers, and hearing about how they anticipate the development of the shrine and our facilities going forward.”

The shrine in Walsingham is one of the oldest religious sites in England and considered a very significant place in converting England back to the Catholic faith. Its importance can be summarized by Pope Leo XIII’s famous prophecy: "When England goes back to Walsingham, Our Lady will come back to England,” which he said on the occasion of signing the rescript for the restoration of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in 1897. 

“All of us need conversion, and there are so many aspects of society in England which need this radical turn towards the Lord,” Billing told EWTN Great Britain. “So many need peace and reconciliation in their relationships and family life and the strength and perseverance to be faithful to the Lord, to one another, and to their faith. Undoubtedly, in silence and stillness, Walsingham has a central place in the ongoing conversion of our country, and of each one of us, to the reign of Christ our king.” 

Outside of Slipper Chapel at Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Credit: Norman Servais/EWTN Great Britain
Outside of Slipper Chapel at Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Credit: Norman Servais/EWTN Great Britain

In May, Bishop Peter Collins of East Anglia, speaking on behalf of the shrine, announced a renewed program of engagement that seeks to “communicate the joy of Walsingham” across the dioceses of England and Wales. 

As its newest rector, Billing looks forward to developing the shrine’s mission, “always in fidelity to the great tradition of Walsingham” to spread the message of this historic pilgrimage destination, which has been largely forgotten by English Catholics. 

Father Robert Billing at his induction Mass as the new rector of the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: Norman Servais/ETWN Great Britain
Father Robert Billing at his induction Mass as the new rector of the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: Norman Servais/ETWN Great Britain

“I am conscious of the fact that that despite Walsingham having such a strong and central place in the history of the Church in England, many Catholics, in some parts of the country, have not yet been to our Catholic National Shrine and Basilica of Our Lady at Walsingham,” Billing told EWTN Great Britain. “I wish to significantly improve upon that situation, and for us to reach out to those dioceses, parishes, and parts of England that have not yet come on pilgrimage here, so that they come and experience for themselves England’s Nazareth, at the heart of England, Our Lady’s dowry.” 

To learn more about the Walsingham shrine, the first part of a three-part documentary called “The Mystery of Walsingham,” produced by EWTN Great Britain, can be viewed here:

State of California sues pro-life pregnancy centers over abortion pill reversal drug

Abortion Pill Reversal seeks to counter the effects of the first progesterone-blocking abortion pill, providing an opportunity to save the unborn child. / Credit: Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2023 / 13:48 pm (CNA).

California’s pro-abortion attorney general, Rob Bonta, sued five pro-life pregnancy centers Sept. 21 over their promotion of a drug that is meant to reverse chemical abortions.

In his lawsuit against Heartbeat International and affiliated pregnancy center chain RealOptions, Bonta accused the pregnancy centers of using fraudulent and misleading claims when advertising the abortion pill reversal drug.

The state’s lawsuit claims that there is no scientific evidence supporting the safety or efficacy of the abortion pill reversal drug despite the pregnancy centers describing them as an effective and safe way to reverse chemical abortions. It argues that pregnant women must have access to accurate information when deciding whether to use the drug.

“Those who are struggling with the complex decision to get an abortion deserve support and trustworthy guidance — not lies and misinformation,” Bonta said in a statement. 

“HBI and RealOptions took advantage of pregnant patients at a deeply vulnerable time in their lives, using false and misleading claims to lure them in and mislead them about a potentially risky procedure,” Bonta alleged. “We are launching today’s lawsuit to put a stop to their predatory and unlawful behavior.”

The lawsuit accuses the pregnancy centers of violating California’s False Advertising Law and Unfair Competition Law. It asks the court to order the pregnancy centers to stop advertising the drug as safe and effective. 

In response to the attorney general’s lawsuit, Heartbeat International issued a statement rejecting the claim that their advertisements of the drug are false or misleading.

“All major studies show that using progesterone to counteract a chemical abortion (Abortion Pill Reversal) can be effective since it’s the very same hormone a woman’s body produces to sustain her pregnancy,” the statement read. 

“One study even shows an effective rate of 80%,” the statement continued. “Progesterone has been safely used with pregnant women and their babies since the 1950s. To date, statistics show more than 4,500 women have had successful abortion pill reversals and that number grows higher each day.”

According to Heartbeat International, the organization receives calls through its hotline from women who want to reverse their chemical abortions. 

“Through our Abortion Pill Rescue Network hotline, we know that some women almost immediately regret their chemical abortion choice,” the statement read. “These women deserve the right to try and save their pregnancies. No woman should ever be forced to complete an abortion she no longer wants.”

This is not the first time California has tried to impose pro-abortion talking points on pro-life pregnancy centers. In 2018, the United States Supreme Court struck down a state law that forced the centers to display written notices with state-sanctioned language about abortion.

Other states have also gone after pro-life pregnancy centers this year. In Illinois and Vermont, legislation went into effect that is meant to regulate what pregnancy centers can advertise and say. In both cases, pregnancy centers filed lawsuits against the states because of the laws, which are still being litigated.

Is the era of the traditional family over in America? Survey suggests yes

null / Credit: Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Sep 25, 2023 / 13:00 pm (CNA).

Most Americans don’t place a high priority on marriage and children compared with their careers and friends, a new Pew Research Center survey says, and a large minority of Americans are pessimistic about the future of marriage and family.

Patrick T. Brown, a family policy expert and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told CNA that the increasing number of people uninterested in having children or getting married “should help us recognize that we are entering a new era.”

“The Pew survey shows what I think a lot of [people] already feel: that the family, as an institution, is under threat, not least from a shifting cultural attitude that treats family and marriage as incidental to long-term well-being,” Brown said.

“The family used to be the core unit of society. Increasingly, it’s now a lifestyle choice. And troublingly, the Americans who could benefit most from the stability of marriage and family life — working-class individuals and those without a college degree — are the least likely to participate in its benefits,” he said.

The Pew Research Center survey of 5,073 U.S. adults took place from April 10–16. Respondents were part of the Pew Center’s American Trends Panel.

“There’s baseline support for a variety of family arrangements, but the public still favors some types of families over others,” the Pew Research Center said Sept. 14. “Families that include a married husband and wife raising children are seen as the most acceptable. At the same time, relatively few Americans say marriage and parenthood are central to living a fulfilling life.”

The Pew survey showed near-unanimous consensus on one point, with 90% saying that a husband and wife raising children together is “completely acceptable.” At the same time, 40% of Americans are pessimistic about the future of the institution of marriage and the family, compared with 26% who say they are optimistic and 29% who say they are neither.

White adults, older adults, and Republicans tend to be more pessimistic.

Only 26% of respondents said that having children is extremely or very important to “living a fulfilling life,” and only 23% said the same about being married. By comparison, 24% said having money was extremely or very important for fulfillment, 61% said this of having close friends, and 71% said this of having a job or career they enjoy.

Men were somewhat more likely than women to prioritize marriage and children, as were married people and parents.

Brown told CNA the survey responses show “the influence of a creeping materialism” and “the tendency to find meaning in career rather than family, community, or faith.”

“Obviously we should all be making the most of our talents, but any trend towards placing career over family life should be something that concerns people of faith,” Brown said.

Pew asked whether various family trends would have a positive or negative impact on the country’s future. Respondents generally preferred to say a trend would have neither a positive nor a negative impact.

About 49% of respondents said it is a negative trend to have fewer children raised by two married parents, while only 11% found this a positive trend. Another 36% said it’s a negative trend that fewer people are getting married, while 9% said this is positive. About 29% said it is a negative trend that more couples are living together without marrying, while 15% said this is positive.

As for the trend that people are having fewer children, 27% of Pew respondents thought this to be negative while 25% thought this to be positive. Respondents said this trend would have a good effect on the environment as well as women’s careers and job opportunities, but a negative effect on social security and the overall economy.

“Overall, there’s a lot here that should worry anyone who believes in the necessity and the vitality of the family,” Brown commented. The survey shows there is limited appeal to proposals to make it easier to have kids or to get married. For Brown, this “should underscore why the world needs the Church to spell out an attractive vision of family life, one that doesn’t rest on tired cliches from the 1950s or gets lost in the morass of today’s individualism.”

Respondents to the Pew Survey said their experience growing up with their own family was most formative for their views about what makes a good family arrangement: 69% said their experience had a fair amount or a great deal of influence over their views.

Only about 44% of respondents said their religious views had a fair amount or a great deal of influence over their family ideals. About 47% of Catholics said their religion has at least a fair amount of influence on their views, compared with 83% of white evangelicals, 62% of Black Protestants, and 48% of non-evangelical White Protestants.

“As Catholics, we will need to continue to explain the fundamental logic of the family as the key social institution geared towards the creation and formation of new human life,” Brown said. “That’s not a message many in our culture want to hear right now. But there’s also widespread discontent with what the sexual revolution has done to family life. You see it in discussions about online dating, porn, even things like commercial surrogacy.”

Regarding acceptable family types, the survey reported the greatest acceptance for a husband and wife raising kids together. Another 81% found it acceptable or completely acceptable for a husband and wife to choose not to have kids, and this situation was somewhat more acceptable than a single parent raising a child alone. A married same-sex couple not having children was accepted by 73% of Americans, about the same response to a cohabiting couple raising their children together, who in turn were more acceptable than a same-sex couple raising kids.

Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say many family types are acceptable, and women are more likely than men.

Brown said the survey responses suggest a desire to “live and let live,” and many may see the questions as judgmental. He countered: “It’s not being judgmental to say kids have better outcomes when they are raised by two parents.”

Pew’s survey indicated a small majority of Americans think unhappy couples stay married for too long, while under half say such couples get divorced too quickly. Though a majority of Pew respondents rejected open marriages, there was significant support for open marriages among those who self-identify as LGBT, cohabiting, and people under age 30.

“It’s always hard to tell how honest people are in these kind of emotionally-charged surveys,” Brown said. “But if it’s true that one-third of Americans find the idea of an open marriage morally acceptable, it just underscores how thin our understanding of marriage is in contemporary society.”

He suggested the subgroups most likely to view open marriages favorably may be the ones “least likely to have that traditional view of marriage in the first place.”