U.S. Church News

Cruise ship to deliver aid to Bahamas, bring evacuees to Florida

By Tom Tracy Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Tom Tracy

The Grand Bahama cruise ship stands ready Sept. 12, 2019, at the port in Palm Beach, Fla., awaiting its second Bahamas humanitarian cruise. It was set to sail Sept. 14 to deliver supplies and first responders to the Bahamas, before returning to Florida with more Hurricane Dorian evacuees. (CNS photo/Tom Tracy) See DORIAN-HUMANITARIAN-CRUISE Sept. 13, 2019.

MIAMI (CNS) -- A second Florida-to-Bahamas round-trip humanitarian cruise was set to sail the weekend of Sept. 14, weather-permitting, carrying supplies, transport specialty personnel, power generators and volunteers.

The previous week, the Grand Bahama cruise ship arrived at its home port in West Palm Beach with some 1,100 Bahamian storm evacuees. That ship was met by workers from Catholic Charities USA, along with members of the United Way, American Red Cross and Discover the Palm Beaches, which acts as a convention and visitors bureau.

The ship's parent company, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, said it is canceling four upcoming tourism trips to accommodate one or more additional humanitarian cruises this month, according to a spokeswoman.

If the humanitarian mission isn't postponed because of a pending tropical depression, it is expected to take up to 350 skilled volunteers, large scale generators for several areas in the Bahamas, supplies and 30 to 50 licensed electricians.

Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line has raised $542,280 of its $1 million goal to offset the humanitarian transport costs and loss of regular tourism business.

"As we all know, tourism is the most important industry in the Bahamas and we understand the lifeline it brings to residents across the islands," said Oneil Khosa, CEO of Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, in a statement.

The cruise line's website points out that all evacuees going to Florida must have a valid unexpired government issued passport and visa. Exactly who could leave the Bahamas and enter the United States has been a matter of confusion and frustration since the hurricane.

On Sept. 9, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued guidance saying Bahamians arriving to the United States by sea needed a visa. Later it was reported that the U.S. would not grant Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to people from the Bahamas displaced by Hurricane Dorian.

That TPS status would allow Bahamians to work and live in the U.S. until it is deemed safe to return home -- as was the case with many victims of Haiti's 2010 earthquake. Some 300,000 people from around 10 countries are reportedly living in the United States now under this program.

Meanwhile in the Bahamas, the government announced the missing persons figure count, as of Sept. 12, was at 1,300, down from a preliminary figure of 2,500, and the official death toll from Dorian at least 50.

After hovering over the Bahamas Sept. 1-3, Dorian rendered a high percentage of homes in the northern Bahamas region uninhabitable and left an estimated 10,000 people need of immediate assistance. Storm evacuees to the nation's capital of Nassau have reportedly begun to strain resources there as the government struggles to house and care for thousands of new arrivals. One of the largest shelters is reportedly holding 1,500 evacuees and has reached capacity.

Meanwhile, the Bahamas is issuing statements that most of the rest of the nation remains open for tourism, which accounts for more than half of the country's economy.

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Editor's Note: Donations for recovery efforts in the Bahamas can be sent to Catholic Relief Services here: https://support.crs.org/donate/hurricane-dorian and to Catholic Charities USA here: https://app.mobilecause.com/form/RTKRvQ?vid=1snqm.

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Tracy writes for the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.

Brownback: Christianity's future in Middle East has reached defining moment

By Josephine von Dohlen Catholic News Service

CNS photo/courtesy IDC

Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, gives a keynote address in Washington Sept. 10, 2019, at the sixth annual Solidarity Dinner hosted by In Defense of Christians. He urged more prayer and action to continue supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East. (CNS photo/courtesy IDC) See IDC-BROWNBACK-MIDDLE-EAST Sept. 13, 2019. Editors: best quality available.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In a room full of religious leaders, politicians and other supporters of protecting Christians threatened in the Middle East, Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, urged more prayer and action to continue supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

"There are millions of people, right now, praying in quiet corners, in little houses or huts, that are persecuted throughout the world," Brownback said in his keynote address at the sixth annual Solidarity Dinner hosted by In Defense of Christians Sept. 10. "They're praying to God saying, 'Help us, we need some help here.' ... And that is why you are here, it is those prayers."

Honored as the recipient of the Charles Malik Human Rights Award for his leadership in the Middle East, Brownback continued to encourage attendees to fight for the safety of Christians, and religious freedom, worldwide in this crucial time.

"There is more persecution of Christians now, arguably than any time in the history of the world, and the Christian faith is the most persecuted faith in the world, by far," Brownback said. "And there are people being killed today because of their faith and they are simple, good people who want to just honestly and peacefully practice their faith. And they're being killed for it."

In Defense of Christians is a Washington-based nonprofit that seeks to bring together Christians working to change the policies that threaten Christians in the Middle East, as well as educate Americans on the reality of the situations in the Middle East.

Each year the organization holds it Solidarity Dinner as the first part of a two-day National Leadership Conference that includes a Capitol Hill advocacy day.

Brownback said the future of Christianity in the Middle East has reached a defining moment.

"If we're not successful, there will not be a multireligious Middle East; it will no longer exist," Brownback said. "Most of the Christians have been driven out of the Middle East already, and we're trying to work to fight to keep them there, but you've got to push now, and now is the season we can get it done."

While Brownback acknowledged the critical situation for Christians in the Middle East, he also spoke to the hope that he has for the coming months.

"The season is important; the time is short," Brownback said. "I believe we have the opportunity in the next nine months to do more for religious freedom than has happened in the last 20 years."

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, was recognized by In Defense of Christians as one of 12 IDC Congressional Champions of 2019 for her work in Congress to advance the mission of protections for Christians in the Middle East.

Speier is a co-sponsor of a resolution -- H.R. 259 -- which would "signal Congress's support for a goal to make sure that government works with local leaders to create the conditions for religious minorities to return," she said at the Solidarity Dinner.

"We need to recognize that our work here is never done," Speier said. "The challenge in the Middle East and around the world is urgent, and you need to continue to remind us in Congress how urgent it is."

Mona Rizk Rowan, an Arabic professor at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts, a survivor of the Damour massacre in Lebanon in 1976, shared her testimony at the dinner, revealing firsthand the dangers of living in the Middle East for many Christian families.

When Rowan was a young girl, her Maronite Christian town of Damour was invaded by militants with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hiding for their lives, Rowan and nearly 30 of her family members were shot. Her sister and brother, as well as other family members, were killed instantly. Rowan was shot twice, once in her arm, which was shielding her eyes, and once on her jaw, which immediately fell to the ground, she said.

"When they came ... to take my brother and my mother, and I was ... left for dead," Rowan said. "By the time they found me, about 24 hours had passed."

She was found by members of the Lebanese army and reunited with her father, who had escaped. To this day, Rowan seeks a lasting solution to repair her jaw as the cadaver bone currently implanted is thinning and she will soon need another procedure.

"Hopefully you are ... learning something from this," Rowan said. "By the grace of God, somehow I was able to live on. ... I had no choice ... I'm here for a cause. God kept me to spread a message, to be a voice for the dead who never had the chance to talk about what happened to them."

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Von Dohlen is a reporter at the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Religious shareholders press their case on gun manufacturers, retailers

By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service


This is a screen grab from the website www.ruger.com. At the shareholders' meeting of Sturm, Ruger & Co. last year, close to 69 percent voted in favor of a nonbinding resolution to have the company adopt a human rights policy as a response to gun violence in the U.S., said Dominican Sister Judy Byron, director of the Seattle-based Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment. (CNS) See GUNS-MANUFACTURERS Sept. 13, 2019.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The desire for action on preventing more gun violence may face hurdles in Congress, but those pressing for change are having an effect in the corporate boardroom.

While now may be the moment to effect changes in federal firearms policy, that moment did not come without a lot of groundwork, according to Dominican Sister Judy Byron, director of the Seattle-based Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment.

"ICCR members did some initial work on guns in the early 2000s, and it's been over the past couple of years that we picked up the issue again," said Sister Byron, referring to the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, to which the Northwest Coalition belongs.

The current tactic is to urge firearms makers and sellers to adopt human rights policies.

"Do models exist? Yes, yes, yes. Hundreds of companies have adopted human rights policies," Sister Byron told Catholic News Service in a Sept. 12 telephone interview from Seattle. She cited the Hershey Co., North America's largest candy company. "They use a lot of sugar. How are those workers treated?" she asked rhetorically, adding that acknowledgment of the treatment of sugar harvesters is part of its policy.

Sister Byron also recalled the work that the late Capuchin Franciscan Father Michael Crosby did with tobacco companies, Altria among them. "This is a tobacco company. Right in their human rights policy they say they recognize that smoking causes serious disease and is addictive," she said. "You could almost substitute words ... for what a firearm manufacturer might say."

Her work has focused as of late on two gunmakers: American Outdoor Brands, maker of Smith & Wesson guns, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. At the latter's shareholders meeting last year, Sister Byron said, close to 69 percent of shares were voted in favor of a nonbinding resolution to have the company adopt a human rights policy. Sturm, Ruger "did do what the resolution asked of them," she added.

At American Outdoor Brands, an ICCR-sponsored shareholder resolution for a human rights policy won with 52 percent of all votes cast, but the company has yet to produce one, saying company protocol is to not talk to shareholders.

"There's some rule that they're misinterpreting that what you say to one shareholder you have to say to all shareholders," Sister Byron told CNS. "ICCR is celebrating 50 years and we've been talking to corporations and we still talk to corporations -- hundreds a year."

She quickly corrected herself. "We had some back-and-forth emails (with American Outdoor Brands). I guess they feel they had communicated with us. But they haven't engaged us. And we would much prefer to engage with a company than have to resort to the proxy."

Consider Walmart. "ICCR members have worked with Walmart since the Nineties on multiple issues," Sister Byron said. "We know that after Parkland (the 2018 high school shooting that left 17 dead), Walmart raised the (purchase) age to 21, and they don't sell assault weapons. But after the latest incident at El Paso at one of their stores, there was a lot of pressure on them about selling guns and ammunition."

She added, "We had a face-to-face dialogue with executives at Walmart" -- and not with some corporate functionary but with company president and CEO Doug McMillon.

"Walmart said, 'Let's have a conversation,'" Sister Byron said. "They talked to many stakeholders, not just ICCR. They really have to consider the risks to their customers as well as to society for whatever they did. We know what they did." The company announced it would stop selling all handgun ammunition and certain short-barreled rifle ammunition.

Walmart also asked customers to not openly carry weapons into stores anymore. The open-carry request also has been made by the Walgreens and CVS drugstore chains and the Albertsons and Kroger supermarket chains.

But neither Sister Byron nor ICCR had anything to do with the letter signed Sept. 12 by 145 corporate leaders asking Congress to expand background checks for gun purchases and adopt "red flag" laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of people deemed to be dangerous.

Sister Byron remembers working with Dick's Sporting Goods on the issue. "In December 2017 we filed a resolution asking what they were doing with the Sandy Hook Principles," a response to the December 2012 shooting spree that left 26 dead -- most of them young grade-school children -- before the killer took his own life. "Unlike the gun manufacturers, they called us right away," she said.

"The CEO was on the conversation and told us about the things the company was struggling with, because they were selling the firearms and ammunition. It was after Parkland that they made their decision to raise the age (for gun sales)," Sister Byron said. "They've really been a leader. They've even hired a lobbyist in D.C. to work on sensible gun reform."

She added that for CEOs, "when you're looking around for 'who has my back,' knowing that ICCR has my back makes a difference. Because we have a long history of working with companies. We really are promoting the common good, as well as society.”

Central American, Mexican bishops urge more help for migrants

By David Agren Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Carlos Jasso, Reuters

A Central American migrant carries her child July 18, 2019, in Tijuana, Mexico, just after she was sent back from the U.S. under the Migrant Protection Protocols. Bishops from Central America and southern Mexico called on Catholics to better accompany migrants heading north. (CNS photo/Carlos Jasso, Reuters) See AMERICAS-MIGRANTS-COMPASSION Sept. 13, 2019.

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- Bishops from Central America and southern Mexico called on Catholics to better accompany migrants heading north, at a time when immigration enforcement has increased in Mexico.

"As pastors of our people, we bishops are close to our brothers who suffer, and we know the suffering of migrants, the risks and dangers confronted by those leaving the security of home and the coming apart of families, especially when children are separated from their families," the bishops said. They issued the statement after a Sept. 9-11 meeting of church leaders from Central America and southern Mexico in the Mexican city of Tapachula.

The bishops also called for people to "overcome the fear that migration can generate, because it is about treating our brothers well," and urged people to "work in a coordinated and organized way to create just migration policies."

Their statement came as the Mexican government -- bowing to U.S. pressure -- steps up immigration enforcement along its southern and northern borders to stem the flow of migrants traveling through the country.

In the United States, meanwhile, a Sept. 11 Supreme Court decision allowed the U.S. government to fully implement a policy of denying asylum to anyone who traveled through another country while on their way to the United States without first seeking asylum in that country. The ruling takes effect while the government policy is being appealed in the court system.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said earlier this month that Mexico had slowed the flow of migrants by some 56 percent since early June, when Mexico agreed to a deal with the United States to increase immigration enforcement to avoid President Donald Trump applying tariffs on Mexican exports. Mexico also has been accepting the return of asylum-seekers, who must wait in Mexico while their cases are heard in U.S. courts, a plan known as Migrant Protection Protocols.

"The (downward) trend is irreversible. It's something that we think is going to be permanent," Ebrard said Sept. 10 in Washington after meeting U.S. officials.

A Sept. 10 readout from the office of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the two countries "agreed to implement the Migrant Protection Protocols to the fullest extent possible."

The readout added, "The leaders agreed that while progress has been made, more work remains in order to further reduce the flow of illegal migrants to the United States."

The U.S. government has been pressuring countries to the south of the U.S.-Mexico border to impede the path of migrants -- many of whom come from Central American countries, but also from Caribbean countries such as Cuba and Haiti and as far away as Africa and Asia.

One of the ways of slowing migrants is by negotiating so-called safe third country agreements -- something Mexico rejects, even as it has agreed to the Migrant Protection Protocols, which force asylum-seekers to survive in cities rife with violence on Mexico's northern border.

If a country signs a safe third country agreement with the United States -- as occurred in Guatemala -- migrants passing through there would be ineligible to seek asylum in the United States.

In the case of Guatemala, migrants stepping foot in the country would have to apply for asylum there, even though the impoverished nation is in no position to receive a surge in migration.

"The other countries do not have asylum systems set up to the same degree that the United States does to be able to do this," said Rick Jones, immigration adviser at Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador.

"Right now, they have troubles protecting their own people in terms of the levels of insecurity, let alone Guatemala receiving Salvadorans and Hondurans. They're going to be overwhelmed."

Mexico's agency for asylum claims says it has received more than 48,000 requests in the first eight months of 2019, an increase of more than 200 percent over the same period of 2018.


Admitting fewer refugees 'runs counter' to U.S. values, say USCCB leaders

By Catholic News Service

CNS photo/David Ryder, Reuters

People gather Nov. 20, 2015, outside the Washington State capitol in Olympia to urge the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees. Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, who is chairman of the bishops' Committee on Migration, are urging the Trump administration against further reduction in refugee resettlement as contrary to American values. (CNS photo/David Ryder, Reuters) See USCCB-REFUGEES-NUMBER-TRUMP Sept. 13, 2019.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A proposal to reduce the number of refugee admissions to the United States to fewer than 30,000 "would be wholly counter to our values as a nation of immigrants," said the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the chair of the bishops' Committee on Migration.

"America welcomes refugees; that is who we are, that is what we do. Such reductions would undermine America's leadership role as a global champion and protector of religious freedom and human rights," they said in a joint statement Sept. 13.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president, and Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, the committee chairman, were responding to reports that administration officials will recommend to President Donald Trump the number of refugees accepted be below 30,000, "already an historic low."

Since Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980, the U.S. had admitted on average 95,000 refugees annually. In recent years, the U.S. has accepted between 50,000 to 75,000 refugees per year. The number was capped at 45,000 after Trump became president in 2017 and was scaled back to 30,000 refugees for fiscal year 2019.

Setting caps on the number of refugees to be accepted from five global regions is done at the beginning of each fiscal year by the president, in consultation with Congress. The deadline for the upcoming consultation is Sept. 30.

Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Vasquez noted the Catholic Church is preparing to celebrate the World Day of Migrants and Refugees Sept. 29, so "we are reminded of Pope Francis urging us all to work for a 'globalization of solidarity' with refugees, not a globalization of 'indifference.'"

The prelates noted that beginning with European refugees in the aftermath of World War I, the U.S. Catholic Church "has more than a century of experience resettling vulnerable populations to a safer life and one in which they have contributed to the greatness of America."

"The 3.4 million refugees that America has welcomed since 1975 have paid billions of dollars in taxes, founded companies, earned citizenship and bought homes at notably high rates," they said.

"In light of refugees' extraordinary contributions to our country, and of the world's struggle with the greatest forced displacement crisis on record and historic highs in religious persecution, we categorically oppose any further reductions in the refugee resettlement program," Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Vasquez said.

Earlier this year, reports the Trump administration was considering "zeroing out" refugee admissions all together were roundly condemned by the USCCB, other faith-based organizations and religious orders.

In a Catholic News Service interview in July, Bill Canny, executive director of the USCCB's Migration and Refugee Services, noted the historically low number of refugees admitted to the U.S. over the past couple of years, saying: "Of the millions of refugees around the world, only about 1% will be resettled, that number will decrease and leave more people vulnerable if these actions come to fruition."

He said the administration should reconsider making these devastating cuts.

"Our military relies on the work of interpreters while in the field and those interpreters are putting their lives and their families' lives on the line. To not open our arms to them when they have done so for us, would go against who we are as a nation," Canny said.

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