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Vatican picks Hong Kong bishop, delays announcement

Hong Kong, China, Jan 17, 2020 / 07:06 am (CNA).- The Holy See has delayed announcing its pick for the next bishop of Hong Kong, CNA has learned, amid concerns that local clergy and lay Catholics will see Rev. Peter Choy Wai-man as too sympathetic to the Chinese Communist government.

The Diocese of Hong Kong has been without permanent leadership since January 2019, when Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung died unexpectedly. Since Yeung died, the diocese has been led temporarily by Cardinal John Tong Hon, Yeung’s predecessor, who retired from the post in 2017.

Senior Church officials in Rome, Hong Kong, and mainland China have independently confirmed to CNA that a decision to appoint Fr. Choy as Hong Kong’s next bishop has received final approval in Rome. Choy is presently one of four vicars general in the Hong Kong diocese. CNA requested comment from Choy on his appointment, but no answer was received by time of posting.

Choy’s appointment has not been announced because his elevation could be perceived as a rebuke of the ongoing political protests on the island province, several Vatican and Hong Kong diocesan officials have told CNA.

Sources in Hong Kong and Rome have told CNA that Cardinal Tong himself has advised against announcing Choy’s appointment.

“The situation [in China and Hong Kong] is very delicate and no one wants to make things more difficult. It will be announced [when it can be] and that’s all there is,” a senior curial source in Rome told CNA about the appointment.

CNA requested comment from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See Secretary of State, on the decision to appoint Fr. Choy, and the decision to delay public announcement, but no response was received by time of posting.

For much of 2019, Hong Kong has seen wide-scale protests against the Chinese and local governments. The demonstrations began after Communist-backed authorities attempted to impose a new law on the province, allowing for extradition to the mainland. That proposed law has since been abandoned, but the protests continue.

Choy is known to be close to Cardinal Tong, and is said to have a good working relationship with Chinese government authorities, both on the island and on the mainland. He was reported to have attended a meeting with the cardinal and Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, during the height of the protests.

Fr. Choy was born in Hong Kong in 1959, and ordained a priest in 1986. Since Oct. 2017, he has served as one of four vicars general of the Diocese of Hong Kong, appointed with responsibility for the bishop’s office, the ongoing formation for both clergy and laity, and leading ecumenical and interreligious dialogue for the diocese. Choy also serves as the dean of Hong Kong’s seminary.

Choy was widely rumored to have been a leading candidate to head the diocese at the time of Bishop Yeung’s death. Several priests on the island told CNA that it seemed Yeung was preparing Choy for leadership before he died.  

“Fr. Peter was considered the inside candidate from the beginning,” a senior Hong Kong priest who was close to Bishop Yeung told CNA, who requested anonymity, citing concerns about ecclesiastical and government authorities. 

“He was a great friend of Bishop Michael [Yeung], and there’s no doubt he would have wanted him as his successor.”

“For some reason, his name was held up because of some vague accusations. They could never prove if they are true, or if this is just the way diocesan priests eat up other diocesan priests here.”

Concerns both on the island and in Rome about how Choy’s appointment could be received relate to his perceived closeness to the government, and his distance from the pro-democracy movement, which has sizeable lay Catholic involvement. 

Among Hong Kong Catholics, there have also been rumors about Choy’s private suitability for leadership.

“There’s a concern about a lack of gravitas,” a priest close to the Hong Kong chancery told CNA, saying that many would worry Choy would be unable to stand up for the Church locally.

Another senior local cleric offered a more unsparing assessment of Choy’s reputation in Hong Kong, describing him as a “pro-Beijing hawk,” and a “sworn enemy of [Cardinal] Zen.”

“His elevation is just further proof of how the Holy See is selling the faithful down the Yangtze, or in this case Pearl River,” the senior cleric told CNA.

Both predicted that the appointment would trigger an outspoken denunciation from Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Tong’s predecessor as Bishop of Hong Kong, and an outspoken critic of the 2018 Vatican-China deal.

“When the announcement is finally made, [Cardinal Zen] will go crazy,” one told CNA. “One of the things he’s been fighting against is an appointment that could be seen as an appeasement [of the government], and that’s how this will be translated.”

Sharp divisions among the local clergy and faithful are heavily influenced by the political situation, especially following the attempted crackdown by the mainland government, and after the 2018 Vatican-China deal, which reportedly gave Communist authorities the right to propose and approve new episcopal appointments.

The other front-running candidate for the vacant Diocese of Hong Kong had been the current auxiliary bishop of the diocese, Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, who is publicly associated with the protestors on the island, and has appeared at protests and demonstrations.

CNA was told by senior clerics in the diocese that before his death, Yeung had intended to ask that Choy be appointed as a second auxiliary bishop, to balance Ha’s more antagonistic posture to the mainland government.

“Bishop Yeung wanted to have two auxiliaries,” one Hong Kong chancery official explained to CNA. “They would have been like a yin-yang: one very tall and forceful [Ha], the other rather meek and withdrawn [Choy], but they were both very close friends of the bishop [Yeung].”

The same source explained that similar concerns, and factionalism among diocesan clergy, led Yeung to appoint four vicars general to serve at the same time – an unusual move.

“Yeung had these four vicars general instead of one, they each brought something different to the table and it was to appease all the different factions among the clergy. The clergy here are very divided on many different things: age, friendships from seminary, and on politics,” the priest said.

There are more than 300 priests in Hong Kong, most of them members of religious orders. They serve a diocese of more than 600,000 Catholics.

A senior source close to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in Rome told CNA that Bishop Ha was the Vatican’s first choice to succeed Yeung, and that Pope Francis had formally approved his appointment, only to have to reverse the decision before it was announced.

The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples is responsible for recommending episcopal appointments in China, together with the Secretariat of State. 

“Months ago, Bishop Ha was already nominated – his name had gone into audience [with Pope Francis] and come out with approval. It wasn’t yet published when he was in the front lines of a major demonstration and [Cardinal Fernando] Filoni [then prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples] had to reverse the decision,” the Vatican official told CNA.

“What happened was that this would have flown in the face of the whole political attempt to stabilize the place of the Church in China. There was no option but to reverse the decision.”

While, for now, the announcement of Choy's appointment is considered to be delayed, the Vatican could still reverse course if political circumstances don't change, as it has once already for the same position.

“Yeung was always a pragmatist, he was a halfway point between [his predecessors] Zen and Tong: Tong, we used to say, thought nothing was wrong with the mainland, Zen thought nothing was right with the mainland,” a senior priest on the island told CNA.

“[Fr.] Peter will, I should probably still say ‘would,’ be more in the Tong line and Ha with Zen, but in the current climate you are bound to get one or the other.”

Report: Around the world, 260 million Christians face persecution 

Washington D.C., Jan 17, 2020 / 02:45 am (CNA).- Christian persecution around the world is a growing problem, says a new report from an agency that documents abuses against Christians across the globe.

Worldwide, the report states, 260 million Christians are facing persecution. This marks a 6% increase from the previous year.

The annual report from Open Doors, released Jan. 15, ranked North Korea first on its list of 50 most dangerous countries in which to be Christian, the 18th straight year that the country has received that designation.

There are an estimated 300,000 Christians amidst the total population of 25.4 million in North Korea. Open Doors reports that if North Korean Christians are discovered, the government will deport them to labor camps as political criminals or even kill them on the spot. Meeting other Christians to worship is nearly impossible unless it is done in complete secrecy.

Following North Korea on the World Watch List Top 10 are Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, and India.

“Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world. While persecution of Christians takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Christ. Christians throughout the world continue to risk imprisonment, loss of home and assets, torture, rape, and even death as a result of their faith,” Open Doors said in a release accompanying the report.

China featured four spots higher on the list than last year, up from number 27 in 2019 to number 23 in 2020, due in large part to the Communist government’s efforts to preserve its rule.

Christians in China experienced, among other things, an increase in attacks on churches in the past year. Open Doors reports that 793 churches were attacked within the reporting period for the 2018 World Watch List, compared with 1,847 attacks reported on churches worldwide in 2019. In 2020, the number is conservatively estimated to be at least 5,576 in China alone, the report states.

According to Open Doors, there are at least 97 million Christians in China. Policies enacted by the Communist Party in 2018 to “sinicize” the church - or adapt it to their way of thinking - have been enforced in more and more territories, resulting in the dramatic increase of persecution against Christians, the group reports.

People of faith also suffer from continual surveillance by the government. Open Doors cites a CNBC report that says there are nearly half a billion surveillance cameras in China, a number only expected to grow.

Additionally, Children under the age of 18 are prohibited from attending church, places of worship are monitored, and pastors are increasingly being asked to register with the Communist government, risking church closure and arrest if they refuse, the report continues. More than 5,500 churches in China have been closed down, and churches in at least 23 provinces have been harassed or shuttered.

There were at least 447 verified incidents of violence and hate crimes against Christians in India in the 2020 World Watch List reporting period, the report states. Many attacks on Christians in India are perpetrated by radical Hindus and often take the form of mob violence.

Muslim extremist groups were responsible for significant violence against Christians worldwide in the past year. For example, in Sri Lanka, 250 people died and more than 500 were injured in attacks on Catholic and Protestant churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, the report notes. In Pakistan, radical Islamist groups often are given free rein by the government, the report says.

In Iraq and Syria, hundreds of thousands of Christians— as much as 87% of the Christian population in Iraq— have been forced to flee due to civil war and the presence of militant groups such as the Islamic State.

Outside of Asia, the report took note of the plight of Christians in the African nation of Burkina Faso, which has risen 33 spots in the past year. Dozens of Catholic priests have been killed in the past year, and Protestant pastors and their families have been killed or kidnapped by violent Islamist militants.

Notably, a spate of violence in churches in Burkina Faso last summer and continuing throughout the year led to Bishop Justin Kientega of Ouahigouya saying in December that the Western world has been ignoring the plight of Christians in West Africa and has even been selling militants the weapons that they are using to kill Christians.

In total, nearly half a million people were forced to flee their homes in Burkina Faso in the last five years, and more than 60 Christians were murdered by militants in the country in 2019.

The militant Islamist group Boko Haram also maintains a presence in such countries as northern Nigeria and Cameroon.

Report: Around the world, 260 million Christians face persecution 

Washington D.C., Jan 17, 2020 / 02:45 am (CNA).- Christian persecution around the world is a growing problem, says a new report from an agency that documents abuses against Christians across the globe.

Worldwide, the report states, 260 million Christians are facing persecution. This marks a 6% increase from the previous year.

The annual report from Open Doors, released Jan. 15, ranked North Korea first on its list of 50 most dangerous countries in which to be Christian, the 18th straight year that the country has received that designation.

There are an estimated 300,000 Christians amidst the total population of 25.4 million in North Korea. Open Doors reports that if North Korean Christians are discovered, the government will deport them to labor camps as political criminals or even kill them on the spot. Meeting other Christians to worship is nearly impossible unless it is done in complete secrecy.

Following North Korea on the World Watch List Top 10 are Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, and India.

“Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world. While persecution of Christians takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Christ. Christians throughout the world continue to risk imprisonment, loss of home and assets, torture, rape, and even death as a result of their faith,” Open Doors said in a release accompanying the report.

China featured four spots higher on the list than last year, up from number 27 in 2019 to number 23 in 2020, due in large part to the Communist government’s efforts to preserve its rule.

Christians in China experienced, among other things, an increase in attacks on churches in the past year. Open Doors reports that 793 churches were attacked within the reporting period for the 2018 World Watch List, compared with 1,847 attacks reported on churches worldwide in 2019. In 2020, the number is conservatively estimated to be at least 5,576 in China alone, the report states.

According to Open Doors, there are at least 97 million Christians in China. Policies enacted by the Communist Party in 2018 to “sinicize” the church - or adapt it to their way of thinking - have been enforced in more and more territories, resulting in the dramatic increase of persecution against Christians, the group reports.

People of faith also suffer from continual surveillance by the government. Open Doors cites a CNBC report that says there are nearly half a billion surveillance cameras in China, a number only expected to grow.

Additionally, Children under the age of 18 are prohibited from attending church, places of worship are monitored, and pastors are increasingly being asked to register with the Communist government, risking church closure and arrest if they refuse, the report continues. More than 5,500 churches in China have been closed down, and churches in at least 23 provinces have been harassed or shuttered.

There were at least 447 verified incidents of violence and hate crimes against Christians in India in the 2020 World Watch List reporting period, the report states. Many attacks on Christians in India are perpetrated by radical Hindus and often take the form of mob violence.

Muslim extremist groups were responsible for significant violence against Christians worldwide in the past year. For example, in Sri Lanka, 250 people died and more than 500 were injured in attacks on Catholic and Protestant churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, the report notes. In Pakistan, radical Islamist groups often are given free rein by the government, the report says.

In Iraq and Syria, hundreds of thousands of Christians— as much as 87% of the Christian population in Iraq— have been forced to flee due to civil war and the presence of militant groups such as the Islamic State.

Outside of Asia, the report took note of the plight of Christians in the African nation of Burkina Faso, which has risen 33 spots in the past year. Dozens of Catholic priests have been killed in the past year, and Protestant pastors and their families have been killed or kidnapped by violent Islamist militants.

Notably, a spate of violence in churches in Burkina Faso last summer and continuing throughout the year led to Bishop Justin Kientega of Ouahigouya saying in December that the Western world has been ignoring the plight of Christians in West Africa and has even been selling militants the weapons that they are using to kill Christians.

In total, nearly half a million people were forced to flee their homes in Burkina Faso in the last five years, and more than 60 Christians were murdered by militants in the country in 2019.

The militant Islamist group Boko Haram also maintains a presence in such countries as northern Nigeria and Cameroon.

Churches critical in fighting human trafficking, members of Congress told

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 05:15 pm (CNA).- Faith-based groups play a critical role in the global fight against human trafficking—one which merits a closer partnership with the U.S., one Catholic leader told members of Congress Wednesday.

“Churches are safe havens for individuals and oftentimes the first place that victims seek protection and support,” said Limnyuy Konglim, head of the International Catholic Migration Commission’s U.S. Liaison Office in Washington, DC., to commissioners of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Jan. 15. The hearing before the bipartisan body in the House of Representatives marked the 20th anniversary of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

She added that “it is critical that faith-based actors receive greater consideration as implementing partners, in addition to suppliers of information for reporting.”

Almost 25 million people around the world are victims of human trafficking, an industry which is estimated to be worth $150 billion.

The TVPA, enacted in 2000 and authored by commission co-chair Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), set up punishments for traffickers, victim assistance, and prevention programs, making changes to the criminal code such as classifying that a minor exploited by a commercial sex act was a victim and not a perpetrator.

It also established a tier ratings system for countries at the State Department, based upon their efforts and success in curbing trafficking.

“Though it is hard to believe it now, when I first introduced the TVPA, the legislation was met with a wall of skepticism and opposition—dismissed by many as a solution in search of a problem,” Smith said Wednesday. “Reports of vulnerable persons—especially women and children—being reduced to commodities for sale were often met with surprise, incredulity or indifference.”

On Tuesday the Justice Department hosted a Summit on Combating Human Trafficking, during which Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen credited the law with spurring an increase in trafficking charges and convictions, but noted that “we have so much left to do.”

“The TVPA responded to the fact that the ability of one person to control, exploit, abuse and profit from another person’s labor and commercial sex acts has not yet been fully eradicated.  And it needs to be,” he said.

Also testifying on Wednesday were two Trump administration officials: the State Department’s trafficking ambassador John Cotton Richmond, and Katherine Chon, director of the Office of Trafficking in Persons at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Konglim’s group, the ICMC, helps build a global network of national bishops’ conferences and Catholic institutions to serve migrants, refugees, and trafficking victims.

“The work of ICMC is inspired by the Holy Bible, as well as by the ongoing Teaching and
Tradition of the Catholic Church; and we are deeply inspired and guided by Pope Francis, who
has prioritized the Church response to human trafficking,” Konglim said Wednesday.

“As he [Pope Francis] has so eloquently said, ‘We are facing a global phenomenon that exceeds the competence of any one community or country,’ and therefore, ‘we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.’”

She was formerly an advisor on humanitarian protection at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and advised the U.S. bishops’ conference on refugee policy and coordinated anti-trafficking efforts for the conference.

On Wednesday, she emphasized the need for the U.S. to work more closely with faith-based aid groups that are working with local actors on the ground around the world.

She noted that “considering the deep presence and trust of grassroot Catholic organizations within vulnerable communities, there has been a concerted effort to build their capacity,” and that “Organizations such as ICMC, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Caritas International to name a few—have provided both organizational and technical assistance to enhance the response of local actors.”

Smith noted the “long-standing” work of faith-based groups around the world “providing an enormous amount of support for people who have been horribly mistreated.”

He said he had witnessed faith play a critical role in the recovery process for trafficking survivors.

“I have actually been in trafficking shelters all over the world,” he said, “but I was struck … how women who had been so horribly mistreated and raped and assaulted, it was their faith and the nourishment that came from that, the sense of reconciliation, that was helping them to get their lives back together.”

Konglim vouched for the work of faith-based groups in fighting trafficking. “If they can serve, they will serve,” she said, noting the work done by Vatican conferences on trafficking prevention which gathered actors from all over the globe.

In February 2018, the Vatican hosted a conference on human trafficking with Church leaders and law enforcement officers from more than 30 countries.

Trafficking survivors need “holistic,” long-term assistance to get back on their feet, such as shelter and vocational training, she said, and faith-based groups “are looking at the holistic restoration of the person, and they do their best to serve them from beginning to end.”

These groups also have a global network to help better reunify trafficking survivors with their families on other continents.

Asked by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of the state of trafficking in the U.S., Konglim said that her group, through the USCCB, has observed, “there is definitely a challenge with labor trafficking, and how that’s being recognized.”

“Irregular migration does impact the occurrence of the trafficking, and that migrant populations are more vulnerable,” she said. “And so we are definitely concerned with there being increased border screening, to ensure that people that are coming in are not victims of trafficking, and if they are, they are receiving the appropriate services that they deserve.”

US Senate bill would abolish tax-deductibility of abortions

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 04:18 pm (CNA).- Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the Abortion is Not Healthcare Act Jan. 9, a bill that would reclassify abortions in the tax code and end their tax deductibility.

Currently, abortions are eligible for tax deductions with the Internal Revenue Service because they are considered out-of-pocket medical care.

According to the IRS, Section 213(a) of the tax code “allows a deduction for expenses paid during the taxable year, not compensated for by insurance or otherwise, for medical care of the taxpayer, spouse, or dependent, to the extent the expenses exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income.”

The Abortion is Not Healthcare Act would amend section 213 of the IRS tax code to disqualify abortions from being classified as medical care, and thus disqualify them from contributing to the total medical expenses for the year.

Lee said in a statement that to classify abortion as health care is misleading.

“The government should not offer tax benefits for a procedure that kills hundreds of thousands of unborn children each year, nor should taxpayers subsidize such a practice. This undermines the truth that all human beings have dignity and worth, and that the purpose of healthcare is to heal and care for them - not kill them,” Lee said.

“Our bill would end the preferential tax treatment of abortion and clarify that this gruesome practice is not healthcare,” he added.

The bill was co-sponsored by 16 other Republican Senators: Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Rick Scott (R-FL), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Steve Daines (R-MT), Ben Sasse (R-NE), David Purdue (R-GA), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tim Scott (R-SC), Pat Roberts (R-KS), and Jerry Moran (R-KS).

In May, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz, introduced a corresponding bill to the House, which was endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, among other pro-life organizations.

Bishop calls Americans to build 'culture of religious freedom'

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 04:10 pm (CNA).- The head of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee called on Americans to build a “culture of religious freedom” that respects the ability of all people to live out their beliefs in peace.

Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, issued a statement for Religious Freedom Day, observed nationally on Jan. 16.

“The establishment of a culture of religious freedom is always an ongoing task,” he said. “A culture of religious freedom consists of respect for the dignity of others as they seek to live in accordance with the truth about God.”

Such a culture, he said, allows all people to thrive. Yet today, many religious communities continue to face obstacles in practicing their faith freely.

“Even today, many Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and other communities, all in different ways, face challenges to their religious freedom,” Murry said. “A culture of freedom means that all people of faith and all religious groups are able to freely worship and participate in the life of our society, without fear of intimidation or coercion.”

In his proclamation of Religious Freedom Day 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump said religious liberty is a building block of the United States, attracting the pilgrims and many other early settlers in the country.

“More than 230 years ago, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was authored and championed by Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “This statute served as the catalyst for the First Amendment, which enshrined in law our conviction to prevent government interference in religion.”

Trump said that during his time in office, he has been committed to defending religious freedom at home and promoting it abroad.

He noted the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. Last month, three civilians and a police detective were killed in a shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey. Two weeks later, a stabbing left five people injured during a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in New York.

“To fight the rise of anti-Semitism in our country, I signed an Executive Order last month to ensure that Federal agencies are using nondiscrimination authorities to combat this venomous bigotry,” he said. “I have also made clear that my Administration will not tolerate the violation of any American’s ability to worship freely and openly and to live as his or her faith commands.”

Bishop Murry applauded the actions taken by the Trump administration, which late last year proposed a rule change to ensure that religious social service providers would not be refused federal funding from the Department of Health and Human Services based on their belief in marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The proposal would particularly shield religious adoption and foster agencies that only place children in homes with a mother and a father.

“On this Religious Freedom Day, we are grateful that the right of religious liberty is cherished in this country,” the bishop said. “I appreciate concrete actions the Administration has undertaken, such as recent steps to protect faith-based social service providers.”

“May we Catholics in America resolve to build on our inheritance for the good of all,” he concluded.

 

Trump admin announces rules to allow equal access to grants for religious groups

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 03:55 pm (CNA).- The White House announced new rules from nine federal agencies Thursday to help ensure that religious groups have equal access to public benefit programs.

On Jan. 16, Religious Freedom Day, President Donald Trump announced the rules “to protect religious freedom” throughout his administration. Nine federal agencies issued proposed regulations to allow religious institutions equal access to government grants.

The agencies were the Departments of Justice, Agriculture, Labor, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans’ Affairs, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“From its opening pages, the story of America has been rooted in the truth that all men and women are endowed with the right to follow their conscience, worship freely, and live in accordance with their convictions,” President Trump stated in his Proclamation on Religious Freedom Day, 2020.
 
“On Religious Freedom Day, we honor the foundational link between freedom and faith in our country and reaffirm our commitment to safeguarding the religious liberty of all Americans.”

The regulations seek to ensure that federal government social service programs are administered in line with the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, so that religious groups are not barred simply on account of their religious status.

The rules were issued in light of the Supreme Court’s 2017 Trinity Lutheran decision, which decided that a church property couldn’t be barred from a state renovation program simply on account of its religious affiliation.

In addition, a memo from the Office of Management and Budget states that the federal agencies themselves would be required to ensure that state recipients are also respecting the First Amendment and not discriminating against religious organizations when administering federal grants.

Currently, 37 states have some form of “Blaine Amendments,” many of them passed during a time of anti-Catholic vitriol to forbid public funding of “sectarian” institutions. The law at the heart of the Trinity Lutheran case was an amendment to Missouri’s Constitution modeled after the Blaine Amendment. The amendments are currently supported as a means of strict separation of church and state.

The president of Alliance Defending Freedom, Michael Farris, stated Thursday that “We affirm the administration’s proposed rules designed to ensure that the government doesn’t treat religious individuals and organizations as second-class to secular institutions.”

One of the nine agencies to issue regulations on Thursday, the Education Department also said it would publish new guidance on prayer in public schools, to improve the reporting process of any violations of a student’s right to prayer at the state and local levels.

“Our actions today will protect the constitutional rights of students, teachers, and faith-based institutions," said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“The Department’s efforts will level the playing field between religious and non-religious organizations competing for federal grants, as well as protect First Amendment freedoms on campus and the religious liberty of faith-based institutions.”

Trump held an event in the Oval Office Thursday afternoon to mark the release of the updated prayer guidance.

Critics: Utah bill on confession would criminalize priests, not counter sex abuse

Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan 16, 2020 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- A Utah legislator’s proposal to remove protections for priests and other clergy who hear confessions of the sexual abuse of minors has drawn significant criticism from Catholics and other commentators.

“The motivation for the bill is understandable, to uncover and stop the abuse of children, but H.B. 90 will not have this intended effect,” said Jean Hill, director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Peace and Justice Commission.

Removing the clergy exemption would be “making it a crime for the priest to maintain the Seal of Confession,” Hill said in a column for the Jan. 17, 2020 edition of the Intermountain Catholic, the diocesan newspaper. The proposal “could permanently destroy the relationship between our priests and ourselves in the confessional, without furthering the stated goal of the legislation.”

The proposed legislation “places a Catholic priest in the untenable position of violating state law and facing criminal penalties, or violating canon law and facing excommunication,” Hill added.

“For a Catholic priest, revealing the contents of a person’s confession is a mortal sin and grounds for automatic excommunication,” she said. “In the past, priests have been tortured and given their lives rather than break their solemn vow to protect the Seal of Confession. This isn’t just a convenient means of maintaining confidentiality, it is a sacred duty and thus critical to the free exercise of our religion.”

Under Utah law, certain professionals must report allegations of child abuse to authorities. These professionals include clergy, teachers, medical professionals, and law enforcement. At present state law exempts clergy if a perpetrator confesses directly to a religious leader and cannot report “without the consent of the individual making the confession.”

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, was raised Catholic. She said she “understands our sacraments and it’s not my intent to go against them,” the Deseret News reports. She said her bill doesn’t target any religion specifically.

“This isn’t about the Catholic Church,” she said. “This is about religious institutions ensuring that people aren’t hiding under the guise of confession to get away with hurting children... Because the trauma they experience from sexual assault doesn’t just impact them, it impacts the entire community, it impacts our families. For me, that’s more important than protecting a perpetrator who will likely hurt other children.”

The legislation could affect the confidentiality of confessions to clergy in the predominant religious group in Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally known as Mormons. The Mormon church, whose global headquarters is in Salt Lake City, has not taken a position on the legislation, the Deseret News reports. It has faced criticisms and lawsuits for various leaders’ handling of sexual abuse of minors.

A woman in Oregon is suing the Mormon church for more than $10 million, after her husband was arrested for child sex abuse. He had confessed to his bishop, following the religion's doctrine, and believed the converation to be confidential. The clergyman reported the acts to law enforcement. The lawsuit claims the religion violated a privileged conversation between clergy and a member of the community.

Hill noted that Catholics are not alone “in viewing the private disclosure of wrongdoing as a path to God.” She cited the Orthodox Churches' use of the sacrament of confession, and wrote that the Church of England also “recognizes the inviolability of an act of confession.”

She added that the Mormon church “views confidential admissions of wrongdoing as an essential part of the repentance process,” and that the Presbyterian Church USA and Baptist and Lutheran ecclesial communities “all recognize the pastoral imperative of confidentiality when congregants seek counseling and care from their spiritual leaders.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, does not support the bill.

“I have serious concerns about this bill and the effects it could have on religious leaders as well as their ability to counsel members of their congregation,” he said in an email to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “I do not support this bill in its current form, and unless significant changes are made to ensure the protection of religious liberties, I will be voting against this bill.”

Wilson had received hundreds of emails critical of the bill. CNA sought comment from Wilson but legislative staff said he had nothing to add at present.

The House Speaker’s opposition to the bill could prevent it from a committee hearing. Romero said she looked forward to discussing the bill with the speaker.

“I’m hoping my colleagues will give this bill a fair hearing and they understand why this is an important piece of policy,” Romero said. “I hope we can follow the lead of other states who have placed the best interests of children over religious institutions.”

Several groups are calling for an end to the exemption, including the Truth and Transparency Foundation, which runs the controversial site MormonLeaks. The site publishes internal LDS documents relating to budgets, international relations and responses to sex abuse, among other topics.

The group said the exemption is “an affront to the safety and well-being of abuse survivors” that “provides an environment where predators are enabled,” it said in a November 2018 email to state legislators.

Sam Young, a former LDS bishop who founded the group Protect Every Child, is also in favor of eliminating the exemption.

Young, who lives in Texas, was excommunicated from the religion after he advocated for an end to the practice of leaders having one-on-one interviews with children that sometimes included sexually explicit questions, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.

Mandatory reporting exemptions for clergy have been removed by North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia, the Deseret News reports. A California proposal to remove these exemptions was pulled from consideration.

Eric Kniffin, a Colorado lawyer and First Amendment attorney who followed the bill in California, told the Salt Lake Tribune that such proposals to remove clergy exemptions would “damage religious liberties.” He cited the Catholic prohibition on clergy revealing anything said in confession on pain of excommunication.

In Kniffin’s view, protecting clergy exemptions may provide greater benefits in the effort to address sexual abuse.

“The confessional is not just a black hole,” he said. “If a priest hears something in confession, they may urge the person to get help, talk to police or say ‘talk to me outside of the confessional’.”

Like Kniffin, Hill suggested removing legal protections for clergy would be counter-productive.

“There is no evidence that forcing priests to disclose cases of abuse learned of in the confessional would have prevented a single case of child abuse,” she said in her Intermountain Catholic column. “On the other hand, there is every reason to believe the elimination of the privilege would mean that perpetrators would simply not bring it to confession.”

The knowledge that confession is “a sacred conversation with God” would encourage Catholics to seek to make amends to both society and their victims. A priest who hears a criminal’s confession can encourage the penitent to self-report to law enforcement or to seek counseling, or can offer to accompany him or her to report their crime.

“H.B. 90 is a bad law that does nothing to protect children and undermines the very real possibility that a sex offender might repent,” she said.

While legislative counsel that reviewed Romero’s bill said it did not violate any religious freedom, Hill invoked the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision Trammel v. United States, which cited the longstanding precedent of protecting confessions to clergy in its ruling on whether spouses enjoy privileges to refuse to testify against a spouse.

“The priest-penitent privilege recognizes the human need to disclose to a spiritual counselor, in total and absolute confidence, what are believed to be flawed acts or thoughts and to receive priestly consolation and guidance in return,” that decision said.

Hill told the Deseret News that the bill is “trying to regulate a sacrament of our religion in a way that we believe violates our free exercise rights.”

The Apostolic Penitentiary reaffirmed the inviolability of the seal of confession in a July 1, 2019 note signed by its head, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza.

“Should the trust in the seal fail, the faithful would be discouraged from accessing the sacrament of Reconciliation, and this, obviously, with serious harm to souls,” Piacenza wrote. Defending this seal, he added, “can never constitute some form of connivance with evil,” but represents “the only true antidote to evil that threatens man and the whole world.”

Some court rulings have indicated that legal protections apply not only to religious groups with a formal confession rite.

Earlier this month, the Montana Supreme Court overturned a $35 million sex abuse judgement against the Jehovah's Witnesses on the grounds that a lower court wrongly ruled that the elders involved in hearing abuse allegations did not enjoy religious confidentiality protections guaranteed by state law.

Mike Pence to meet Pope Francis in Vatican next week

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- Vice President Mike Pence will travel to the Vatican next week to meet with Pope Francis.

Pence’s office confirmed with CNA on Thursday that the Vice President is scheduled to be received by the Pope during his overseas trip next week. No details have yet been released about the topics that might be discussed at the meeting.

The Vice President’s visit comes immediately after the U.S. religious freedom ambassador traveled to Vatican City for the launch of the Abrahamic Faiths Initiative, held on Tuesday at the official residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich.

Sam Brownback, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, was present at Tuesday’s opening session of the initiative, which was described by Ambassador Gingrich as “a dialogue designed to promote peace, religious freedom, and interreligious harmony” between Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

It was inspired, she said, by the 2019 document on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” a joint statement of Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi that was signed in the United Arab Emirates.

That document, in part, stated that “[t]he pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.”

Cardinal Miguel Ayuso, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, was present at the gathering, according to Gingrich’s remarks.

“It’s fitting that your discussions should take place at the Pontifical Gregorian University,” Gingrich said, citing St. John Henry Newman that a Catholic university should “aid in the discernment of truth.”

Quoting Pope Francis, Gingrich stated the questions that could be considered by the initiative: “‘How do we look after each other?  ‘How do we nourish a fraternity which is not theoretical, but translates into authentic fraternity?’ And ‘how can religions be channels of fraternity, rather than barriers of separation?’”

In her remarks at the launch, Gingrich thanked Pastor Bob Roberts of NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, Imam Mohammad Magid of All Dulles Area Muslim Society, and Rabbi David Saperstein, the former U.S. religious freedom ambassador from 2014 to 2017, “for making this gathering possible.”

During Brownback’s trip, he and Ambassador Gingrich also met with Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See Secretary for Relations with States.

School threatens suspension for student's 'Virginity Rocks' sweatshirt

Kansas City, Mo., Jan 16, 2020 / 10:00 am (CNA).- School administrators in Wentzville, Missouri, threatened to suspend a seventh grade student if he returned to school wearing a sweatshirt printed with the slogan “Virginity Rocks.” 

The student, 13-year-old Londyn Piglowski, received the sweatshirt as a birthday gift from a classmate. 

Local news station KMOV4 reported Thursday that Piglowski  was pulled out of social studies class and taken to the principal’s office after wearing the shirt to school. The principal instructed him to either remove the shirt or turn it inside out.

“He said it was a little bit borderline for the school and he told me to take it off or flip it inside or else they would have to take action," said Piglowski to KMOV4.

“I didn’t think this was bad so whenever they told me to take it off I was like, ‘why am I taking this off because it’s a positive message?’”

Piglowski removed the shirt, and his parents say the Wentzville School District threatened to suspend him from class if he showed up to school wearing the shirt again. He says his friend, who owns the same shirt, did not get in trouble when he wore it to school. 

His parents have said their son’s treatment for wearing a shirt that advocated virginity was inconsistent with other school policies.

“They teach sex ed," said Todd Piglowski, Londyn’s father. “How can you teach it but then say hey let’s not have it on a sweatshirt?"

The Wentzville School District has a dress code which prohibits clothing which advocates “immoral, sexual, or violent behavior.” 

The school defended the decision to make Piglowski change clothing. In a statement, the school said that the shirt was “potentially disruptive to the educational environment.” 

“We routinely have conversations with students around attire that may be inappropriate and by and large, our students and families work with our staff to address any concerns,” said the statement. 

Piglowski is not the first student who has been reprimanded over wearing a pro-virginity shirt. 

“Virginity rocks” shirts have been sold for over a decade by various Christian organizations to promote responsible sexual activity.

In 2008, students at Albemarle High School in Virginia reported that they were told by officials to stop wearing the shirts. The students were wearing them in an attempt to promote abstinence. The school district denied that the students were ever told what to wear.

Six years later, a student at Ramay Junior High School in Fayetteville, Arkansas was asked to change out of her “virginity rocks” shirt. The student, Chloe Rubiano, an eighth grader, said it was one of her favorite shirts, and that she had bought it at a Christian festival. 

In Rubiano’s case, the school vice principal said that while she agreed with the message on the shirt, she did not think it was appropriate for school as “it opens up too many doors for conversations."

Piglowski’s shirt came via the website of YouTube personality Danny Duncan, who sells clothing items with the slogan on them. Duncan, who makes skateboard and prank videos, started selling the apparel in 2018, and has said he designed the shirts to be tongue-in-cheek, but also with a positive message.

Since Duncan, who has nearly 3.5 million subscribers, began selling merchandise with the phrase to a more secular audience, increasing numbers of students have reported punishments. 

In 2018, a 17-year-old at Roseburg High School in Oregon was forced to go home and change after he came to school wearing a Virginity Rocks shirt from Duncan’s apparel line. He went home and changed into another Duncan shirt--one that made a sexual innuendo. That shirt was allowed to be worn. 

The district superintendent defended the decision to prohibit the Virginity Rocks shirt, saying that the school “would have made the same decision if the student had been wearing a T-shirt that said sex rocks or smoke more pot.” 

In October 2019, a student at Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School in Chetek, Wisconsin, was suspended for a day after he came to school wearing one of Duncan’s virginity rocks sweatshirts. 

The student, sophomore Thorn Willsui, was suspended after he refused to take off the sweatshirt or turn it inside out.