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Four Catholic churches in Wisconsin vandalized with pro-abortion graffiti 

A perpetrator caught on camera vandalized St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church and School in Bloomer, Wisconsin, the night of July 2-3. / Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jul 6, 2022 / 19:00 pm (CNA).

Four Catholic churches in Wisconsin's Chippewa county were vandalized in the past week.

The churches are Holy Ghost Catholic Church, Notre Dame Catholic Church, and St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Chippewa Falls, and St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Bloomer, both about 100 miles north of La Crosse.

According to a Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office police report, St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church had an “X” written in graffiti across the church doors and school doors sometime at night between July 2-3. On the sidewalk of the church were the words “Women” and “fetuses” with what appears to be a greater than symbol in between. In front of St. Peter Catholic School were the words “EX 21:22,” the report says. 

Exodus 21:22 reads, “If men quarrel, and one strike a woman with child, and she miscarry indeed, but live herself: he shall be answerable for so much damage as the woman's husband shall require, and as arbiters shall award.”

The perpetrator can be seen wearing a hood, a mask, and dark clothing, caught on camera during the act of the vandalism. 

Those same words were written in graffiti on the other three churches — which are all in the city about 20 minutes south of Bloomer  — according to Patrol Sergeant Drew Zehm of the Chippewa Falls Police Department.

However, he said, the statement about “Women and fetuses were not on all of the three city churches.” Zehm said that a person of interest has been identified in the vandalism of the Chippewa Falls churches. 

One of churches in Chippewa was vandalized last Wednesday night, and the other two were vandalized between Thursday night and Friday morning, he said. 

The Diocese of La Crosse did not respond to CNA’s request for comment by publication.

Archbishop of Bogotá: 'It's our duty to be bishops during difficult times' in Colombia

Archbishop Luis José Rueda Aparicio / Credit: Archdiocese of Bogotá

Denver Newsroom, Jul 6, 2022 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

The president of the Colombian bishops’ conference and archbishop of Bogotá, Luis José Rueda Aparicio, said during his opening address to the bishops’ plenary assembly July 4 that “it’s our duty to be bishops and pastors of the Church in Colombia in difficult times” that test the ability to continue sowing hope among the people.

The bishop’s 113th plenary assembly began July 4 and will conclude July 8. The Colombian bishops will examine the national summary of the Synod on Synodality, convened by Pope Francis.

In his address, Rueda asked the bishops: “How can we be witnesses to the hope of the Kingdom when laws go against the value of human life, especially in the stages of greater fragility such as the phase in the womb or the end-of-life phase?”

The archbishop said that “they can classify us as naïve promoters of hope. But hope is a theological virtue.”

“If we cultivate hope, people and communities find the meaning of life and the strength to advance along the paths of the Kingdom of God,” he said.

“The ecclesial, social, and environmental moment in which the country finds itself,” the prelate noted, “requires from the bishops three human and Christian attitudes that shape our apostolic ministry today: discernment, service, and hope.”

Discernment, he explained, “is proper to those who have decided to follow Jesus.” He pointed out that Christ doesn’t give a precise direction but rather challenges his disciples to set out on the way, because “he prefers that we advance and learn, that we have the experience of following him.”

“Following leads us out of vanity,” which leads to self-sufficiency, when Christ requires humility, he said.

Discernment “facilitates the service we have as a Church to be a seed and expand the Kingdom of God present in earthly realities,” he said.

Rueda recalled that “the Church that goes out on mission is above all a Church of servants out of love, servants of the Kingdom of God.”

Christ “spoke of service and revealed himself with the sincere actions of a servant,” he said. “He taught his disciples that, although the great ones of the world lord it over others, the relationships of his disciples won’t be like that. These must be different; they will be distinguished by always looking for the last place, the place of servants.”

Rueda noted that “evangelization is, above all, a work of service to a wounded humanity; it is to bring the vitality of the good news to the whole world, like leaven in the dough.”

“The figure that Pope Francis teaches us about the Church as a field hospital is beautiful and challenging; the Samaritan and merciful Church has a vital, close, supportive presence,” he said.

Rueda invited his fellow bishops to “return to the joy of service” because “it liberates from the trappings of self-sufficiency” and that “when the Church sees itself in an attitude of service it becomes more attractive, more convincing, less institutional, and more missionary.”

“Brother bishops, let’s ask ourselves these days if we are being seen as servants of the kingdom, after the manner of Jesus of Nazareth or Mary who set out to offer her time, her greeting, and her faith with joy and generosity,” he said.

Rueda encouraged the bishops to listen to each particular Church during the plenary assembly because it is in them “and in the communion of the ecclesiastical province where it is discerned with greater clarity what the Lord wants from us."

“Let us allow ourselves to be renewed by the Holy Spirit! We are called to journey in missionary synodality. The People of God asks us bishops to lead the communal discernment, service driven by love, realistic and hopeful serenity,” he said.

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

Women worldwide face sex-based religious persecution

A panel discussion at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., June 2022. / Katie Yoder/CNA

Washington D.C., Jul 6, 2022 / 17:00 pm (CNA).

Religious women around the world suffer unique forms of violence and persecution because of their sex — and their ability to give birth to future generations. 

“When we talk about persecution of religious minority women and girls, we always talk about double vulnerability,” Dr. Ewelina U. Ochab, a human rights lawyer and the co-founder of Coalition for Genocide Response, told CNA. “Vulnerability because of their religion or belief and, in addition, vulnerability because of their sex.”

Ochab, along with other human rights advocates, spoke with CNA about the persecution of women belonging to religious minorities at the International Religious Freedom Summit held in Washington, D.C., June 28-30.

These women, simply because they are women, face horrors from rape and forced marriage to forced birth control and sterilization. This type of persecution is not a product of the past; rather, it is ongoing.

At the IRF Summit, advocates focused on modern-day examples: Christian women in Nigeria; the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in Burma (also known as Myanmar); Shia Hazaras, an ethnic-religious minority in Afghanistan; Uyghurs, a predominantly-Muslim ethnic minority in China; and the Yazidis, an ethnic-religious minority in Iraq.

Some also pointed to the suffering of women and girls in countries such as Pakistan and Ukraine.

David Alton — a British parliamentarian, human-rights advocate, and lifelong Catholic — compared these women to those “at the foot of the cross” who refused to flee.

Many of these advocates called for assistance for these tortured women, while, at the same time, urging that perpetrators should be held accountable to prevent future atrocities. 

Persecution ‘overlooked’

Women, particularly those belonging to religious minorities, suffer from unique forms of persecution, advocates agreed.

“In general, when we talk about kind of gender and genocide, we tend to minimize or overlook the experiences of women and girls,” Naomi Kikoler, the director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide said, adding that women and girls experience persecution “in a very particular and acute way.”

As an example, she pointed to Yazidi women suffering from sexual violence committed by the Islamic State. 

These perpetrators “are intentionally targeting women for these acts of violence because they're trying to change the future makeup of those communities,” she said. “They're trying to ensure that future Yazidi children are no longer Yazidi, but that they will be of a different faith.”

Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Katie Yoder/CNA
Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Katie Yoder/CNA

Kikoler also pointed to the Uyghur women in China facing forced birth control, forced implantations of IUDs, and forced sterilization in order to “restrict the reproductive capacity of a community.”

For a third example, she pointed to the targeting of certain hospitals and maternity hospitals in Afghanistan used by the Hazara Shi’a Muslim minority to give birth. 

Personal stories

Azra Jafari, the first and only female mayor in Afghanistan, belongs to the Hazara ethnic group, which has endured oppression from the Taliban. From 2008-2014, she served as the mayor of Nili, a town in Daykundi province. 

Azra Jafari was mayor of Nili, Afghanistan, from 2008 to 2014.
Azra Jafari was mayor of Nili, Afghanistan, from 2008 to 2014.

Jafari spoke to CNA about the religious persecution that women face. 

“Unfortunately, most of the time women in religious countries always are bounded by the name of the religious,” she said. “Every bounding, rule, law, or regulation that they put on women in religious countries, they excuse it as the religion. So, they don't want women be in charge.” 

She pointed to her life as an example of introducing change, despite being discriminated against as both a woman and a Hazara. 

Another woman belonging to a minority group, Pari Ibrahim, spoke about the persecution of her people. A Yazidi, Ibrahim pointed to when the Islamic State arrived to “eradicate” the Yazidis of nothern Iraq in August 2014.

“The men were killed immediately and then the women had to suffer more and are still till this day suffering,” the founder and executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation said. 

Pari Ibrahim, executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation. Katie Yoder/CNA
Pari Ibrahim, executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation. Katie Yoder/CNA

She said that the women were enslaved, raped, sold as sex slaves, forced to marry ISIS fighters.

“Unimaginable things happened to them and, yes, I see a difference in the sense that women are being used to harm the community as a whole more,” she said.

Ibrahim told the story of one Yazidi woman whom she helped. When she first met this woman, she saw that while her body was present, her soul was gone — dead. Ibrahim invited her to meet other Yazidi women, but this woman responded that she had nothing left to live for, with her family killed. Ibrahim eventually convinced her to come, and the experience changed her life. She decided to learn English. She decided to get involved in the community. 

While she once wore only black clothing, she now embraced color.

‘Foot of the cross’

David Alton, Baron Alton of Liverpool, was a Member of the House of Commons for 18 years and, today, is an independent crossbench life peer in the House of Lords. Known for his human-rights advocacy, he teaches as a visiting professor and has written several books, including his most recent one on genocide that he wrote with Ochab.

Ewelina Ochab and David Alton, coauthors of 'State Responses to Crimes of Genocide: What Went Wrong and How to Change It'. Katie Yoder/CNA
Ewelina Ochab and David Alton, coauthors of 'State Responses to Crimes of Genocide: What Went Wrong and How to Change It'. Katie Yoder/CNA

Alton said that he recently attended the opening of an exhibition called “Tears of Gold” at the Palace of Westminster, which featured paintings of persecuted women by Hannah Thomas. It included Rohingya and Ukrainian women, he said. 

He recalled an image that deeply affected him, of a Christian woman from Nigeria who was attacked by the Fulani, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group.

The woman was raped, he said, twice — while eight months pregnant. Her husband was forced to watch. 

Still, this woman clung to her faith. And after the unspeakable pain, came hope.

“She miraculously gave birth to a child, a little girl who is a sign of hope in the midst of all that horror,” he said. “And they gave her the name Gloria because they wanted to give glory to God for her survival.”

Vox party files complaint against journalist for inciting destruction of abbey in Spain

The Valley of the Fallen. / Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.

Denver Newsroom, Jul 6, 2022 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

The Vox political party in Spain has filed a complaint against a journalist who encouraged blowing up the basilica and abbey located on the grounds of the Valley of the Fallen memorial complex northwest of Madrid. The complex is the site of the largest cross in the world.

Spanish journalist Héctor de Miguel from Cadena SER, a PRISA Group radio station, was cited in a legal complaint for a hate crime and for offending religious sentiments, covered in Articles 524–526 of the country’s penal code, because during a radio program he encouraged blowing up the abbey in the Valley of the Fallen with dynamite.

“The Valley of the Fallen is an (obscenity),” the journalist said during his rant before he proposed: “Why don’t we go in there with dynamite and blow it all up? If it could be on a Sunday, so much the better.”

The deputy secretary of legal action for Vox, Marta Castro, said that regardless of his political intentions, the journalist’s statements “attack and harm the religious sentiments of many citizens.”

The complaint was also filed against the director of the Hora 25 program, Aimar Bretos, and the director general of Cadena SER, Ignacio Soto Pérez. Castro pointed out that as stated in Article 28 of the penal code, those in charge of the media outlet must answer for their actions, as they are considered cooperators in the offense.

The Vox party also noted the “violent” intention that underlies the particular words the journalist used — “to blow up” with dynamite.

Vox highlighted the fact that the journalist said that the right time to blow up the abbey would be on a Sunday — the day when many faithful attend Mass at the basilica — “without caring about the lives of the citizens going to the church” to practice their religious faith.

The Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers announced it has also taken legal action against Héctor de Miguel — not only for a hate crime and for offending religious sentiments but also for harassment.

The association stated in its complaint that the radio host accused it “of violent blackmail for running a petition drive calling for shutting down the program.”

The association also charged that the radio host compared it “to a terrorist or paramilitary gang” when he demanded on air “the dissolution and immediate surrender of weapons, as well as asking the victims for forgiveness.”

The journalist’s tirade led to more than 800 phone calls in three days to the association’s offices, which “has affected the daily functioning of the organization,” the attorneys charged.

The Valley of the Fallen is a monumental complex near Madrid that includes an abbey and basilica, the construction of which Francisco Franco ordered to honor the fallen of both sides during the Spanish civil war. The bodies of more than 30,000 victims of the war are buried in the complex.

The Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939 was fought between the Nationalist forces, led by Franco, and the Republican faction. During the war, Republicans martyred thousands of clerics, religious, and laity; of these, 11 have been canonized and more than 2,000 beatified.

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

Missouri attorney general may sue Kansas City over aid for out-of-state abortions

Eric S. Schmitt, attorney general of Missouri. / Missouri Attorney General's office.

St. Louis, Mo., Jul 6, 2022 / 15:02 pm (CNA).

Local lawmakers in Missouri’s two largest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City, are taking steps to support women who want to travel to other states for abortions, after the practice became illegal in Missouri in late June.

A resolution passed by the Kansas City Council June 30 directs the city manager to develop a plan for reimbursement for “healthcare-related travel expenses and any other barriers for healthcare not available within the City’s limits.” While the resolution does not mention abortion by name, it hints that “recent impediments have been imposed to accessing complete, comprehensive reproductive healthcare in the State of Missouri.” The resolution also directs the city manager to negotiate a mid-year enrollment period for city employees to choose a healthcare plan that covers abortions. 

On the other side of the state, a bill under consideration in St. Louis would create a municipal “Reproductive Equity Fund,” directing $1 million of the city’s American Rescue Plan funds — federal dollars given to the state for COVID relief — toward paying travel expenses for women seeking abortions outside Missouri. The mayor of St. Louis has said she will sign the bill should it reach her desk. 

Missouri is one of more than a dozen states with a “trigger law” banning virtually all abortions, which came into effect soon after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade and returned the question of abortion policy to the states. 

On July 1, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said he plans to sue Kansas City, saying the city’s plan amounts to a use of taxpayer funds for abortions, which is prohibited under state law. The Kansas City resolution states that the reimbursement is not to be funded by taxpayers, but does not specify from where the funds are to come. 

“Using hard-earned taxpayer dollars, whether it be [American Rescue Plan] funds or other forms of revenue, to fund abortions is plainly illegal under Missouri law,” Schmitt said in a statement

“St. Louis City and County, and Kansas City, and any others who attempt to authorize taxpayer-funded abortions will be met with a lawsuit from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.”

St. Louis and Kansas City both lie on the borders with states with more permissive abortion laws than Missouri’s. Across the river from St. Louis in Illinois, the state has lifted almost all restrictions on abortion in recent years. A new Planned Parenthood “megaclinic” in Illinois near St. Louis has positioned itself as a regional hub for women seeking abortions. In Kansas, where abortion is legal, voters in the state are set to vote in August on a constitutional amendment which, if passed, would exclude a right to abortion from the state’s constitution.

This religious community helps impoverished children in Haiti

Sister Paësie, foundress of the Kizito Family. / EWTN News Nightly

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jul 6, 2022 / 14:39 pm (CNA).

After nearly 20 years as a Missionary of Charity, Sister Paësie founded the Kizito Family, a religious community that serves children in a slum in the Haitian capital.

“What inspired me to found a new community — the Kizito Family — are the words Jesus spoke to Mother Theresa,” Sister Paësie told EWTN News Nightly.

“Before she began the Missionaries of Charity, she had seen a crowd of of four children in the dark . . . [Jesus] told Mother Teresa, ‘You see those kids, they do not love me because they do not know me. Bring my life to them.’”

Sister Paësie described the harsh living conditions that the Kitizo Family sees in the communities it serves, saying,  “[When we] get up in the morning there is no food in the house, no water to take a bath, no clean clothes because there [is] no money to buy a bucket of water … I mean it's really extreme, extreme poverty.”

The ministry began by serving children on the street who were looking for a home, and it now has four to five homes where the community serves other locals as well, she said.

The ministry places a great importance on evangelization as well, providing education and access to the sacraments.

“[The third type of centers] we have are the catechism centers … We  have children [being formed in the Faith] and preparing for the sacraments,” she said. “During the years in Haiti, I realized that the poorest children do not have access to receiving the sacraments.”

Haiti has seen a surge of violence in recent years, and the number of kidnappings for ransom has increased in that time.

Haiti has also been affected by other crises, including natural disasters and a lack of health care infrastructure to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 2010 earthquake killed 200,000 people and left 1 million people homeless; a decade later, tens of thousands were still living in tent camps.

At least 22 killed in jihadist attack on village in Burkina Faso

Burkinabé soldiers patrol in Ouagadougou after the January 2022 coup. / VOA News (public domain)

Denver Newsroom, Jul 6, 2022 / 13:29 pm (CNA).

No fewer than 22 people were killed in an attack by suspected jihadi terrorists on a village in Burkina Faso on Sunday.

Local Church and government officials have cited 22 confirmed deaths in the July 3 attack on Bourasso, about 14 miles southeast of Nouna. 

A priest from Nouna’s cathedral parish, who said he knew nearly all the victims, told pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need that the attackers “killed 14 people in front of the church.” 

ACN wrote, “Then they went further into the centre of the village and killed 20 others, among them many Christians and followers of traditional African religion.”

One survivor of the attack told ACN that “The terrorists entered the village of Bourasso on motorbikes around 5pm on Sunday 3 July, and went off again without doing anything… But they came back during the night, threatening the villagers in the square in front of the church.”

The villagers asked to be spared, and it is then that the “doubtless several dozen” attackers began to shoot them.

The priest from Nouna said that “These people have nothing to do with politics or terrorist groups. They have nothing to defend themselves with when they are attacked. It’s absolute turmoil.”

“In spite of everything, we keep up our hope. We keep up our courage to live the days that God has given us,” he added. “Here, when you get up, you know that you are alive, but you don’t know if you will still be alive in the evening”.

AFP reported that another attack by suspected jihadists killed 12 people in Namissiguima, in Yatenga province, on July 2.

Burkina Faso, located in West Africa, has seen an increase in Islamist violence in recent years. 

A coup took place in the country in January, and the new president has emphasized the importance of restoring security.

The new head of the Burkinabé armed forces, David Kabre, said Feb. 9, “My taking over command coincides with a badly degraded security situation marked by the resurgence of terrorist attacks in several parts of the country,” AFP reported.

An American nun, Sister Suellen Tennyson, 83, was abducted from her community in Yalgo Parish of the Diocese of Kaya in April.

A minor seminary near Fada N’gourma was attacked and damaged in February.

Several churches were attacked in 2019, and last year the body of a missing priest was found in a forest.

In December 2019 Bishop Justin Kientega of Ouahigouya said one such church attack was part of an attempt by radical Islamists to "provoke a conflict between the religions in a country where Christians and Muslims have always lived peaceably side by side."

About 60 percent of the Burkinabé population is Muslim, 23 percent is Christian (most of whom are Catholic), and 15 percent follow traditional indigenous beliefs.

Human rights advocates respond after Pope Francis says Vatican-China deal ‘moving well’

null / FreshStock/Shutterstock

Rome Newsroom, Jul 6, 2022 / 10:10 am (CNA).

Human rights advocates have raised concerns about heightened restrictions on Christians in China after Pope Francis expressed hope that the Holy See’s agreement with Beijing will be renewed in the fall.

Nearly four years after the Holy See entered into an agreement with Chinese authorities in September 2018, Pope Francis told Reuters in an interview published this week that he believes “the agreement is moving well.” 

Human rights advocates disagree.

Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told CNA on July 6 that since the agreement was signed in 2018 “the CCP has all but destroyed the Catholic underground church and tightened conformity with its teachings over the patriotic church.” 

“The six new episcopal appointments used to justify the Beijing agreement are offset by the detention, arrest or disappearance of six Vatican-recognized Catholic bishops,” Shea said.

“Children are now banned from churches and exposure to religion, Bibles are tightly restricted and censored on the Internet and in app stores, churches are blanketed with high tech state surveillance, priests and Christian leaders are forced into life-long indoctrination on Christianity according to communist thought, and required to actively support CCP practices, leadership, and core values, even in their sermons,” she added.

Bishop Paul Lei Shiyin of Leshan, one of the illegitimately ordained Chinese bishops whose excommunication was lifted after the Vatican and China signed the agreement, recently celebrated the birth of the Chinese Communist Party in his local cathedral on June 29, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Catholics who attended the ceremony in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Leshan were invited to “listen to the word of the Party, feel the grace of the Party, and follow the Party,” according to Asia News.

“Since the deal was reached, things have gone from bad to worse for Catholics in China,” Reggie Littlejohn told CNA.

Littlejohn is the president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, an aid and advocacy organization that works with women on the ground in China. The organization was founded in response to forced abortion and sterilization under China’s one-child policy

She said that the “secrecy of the China-Vatican deal has been used to bludgeon faithful Chinese Catholics.”

Littlejohn called on the Vatican to release the text of the Holy See’s provisional agreement with the Chinese Communist Party government, which has been kept secret since the agreement was first signed in 2018.

“Faithful Catholics cannot defend themselves or their Church because they do not have access to this secret deal,” she said.

When discussing the Holy See’s diplomacy with China, Pope Francis said that “diplomacy is the art of the possible and of doing things to make the possible become a reality.”

Shea responded: “It’s difficult to see how the Pope can possibly succeed in the art of diplomacy when dealing with a force as evil as the CCP.”

“I think the Vatican should be energetically bolstering the underground church and speaking up for human rights, not making accommodations with the CCP and self-censoring on important moral issues,” she said.

Recent restrictions on religious groups in China

New Chinese government measures, which came into effect on June 1, also place the financial management of places of worship and religious donations under the control of the United Front Work Department.

The United Front has the task of ensuring that groups outside of the CCP, such as Xinjiang Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Hong Kong democracy activists, and the Catholic Patriotic Association, are following the party line. Xi Jinping has called the United Front Work Department one of his "magic weapons," used to co-opt and control.

Asia News reported that under the new measures religious groups’ finances and operations will be monitored by the government. 

Catholic priests who minister in China legally are required to sign a paper in which they promise to support the Communist Party in China. They are only allowed to minister in recognized places of worship in which minors under the age of 18 are not allowed to enter.

Since March 2022 religious groups in China have been barred from conducting any religious activities online without first applying and receiving approval from the provincial Department of Religious Affairs, according to Asia News. Homilies and livestream Masses can only be posted online after obtaining a special license.

European Parliament resolution

Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen, a vocal critic of the Vatican-China deal, will face trial in September along with four other prominent democracy advocates. 

The European Parliament is set to discuss Zen’s arrest in regard to human rights and rule of law on July 7. The resolution calls for the Hong Kong government to drop all charges against  the retired bishop of Hong Kong. 

The resolution also “calls on the Vatican to strengthen its diplomatic efforts and its leverage on Chinese authorities to demand Cardinal Zen’s unconditional release and the end of persecution and human rights violations in China.”

Nigerian bishop, a former New Yorker, calls church massacre ‘my own Sept. 11th’

Bishop Jude Arogundade in Washington, D.C., on June 30, 2022 outside the Belmont House, where he attended a breakfast social with U.S. congressmen and religious freedom advocates. / Shannon Mullen/CNA

Washington D.C., Jul 6, 2022 / 09:36 am (CNA).

Jude Arogundade was serving as a parish priest in upstate New York on Sept. 11, 2001 when a pair of hijacked airliners brought down the Twin Towers.

Along the Hudson River, a short drive from his parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Elmsford, a mile-square village in Westchester County, he could see the dark plume of ash and smoke rising from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.

Friends and family back in his native Nigeria flooded him with calls. Was he safe? What was happening? In the days and weeks that followed, priests in the Archdiocese of New York were inundated with grieving families and huge crowds at Masses. Shaken and afraid, people filled the pews and jammed the side aisles. They came seeking consolation, healing, answers, and sometimes a miracle.

In some ways, that experience nearly 21 years ago helped prepare Arogundade, now the bishop of the Diocese of Ondo in southwestern Nigeria, for what he calls his personal 9/11.

It happened this past June 5. On that Pentecost Sunday morning, a group of armed men attacked a parish in his diocese, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, in Owo, a city of more than 200,000 people.

The assailants, some of whom sat through the Mass pretending to be worshippers, sprang into action toward the end of the service, detonating explosives and spraying bullets into the congregation. 

Some who ran from the church were cut down by gunmen waiting outside. Others trapped inside survived by lying still amid lifeless bodies, pretending to be dead.

Bishop Jude Arogundade (in white, third from right) looks on as Ondo State governor Rotimi Akeredolu (third from left) is shown the bloodstained floor after an attack by gunmen at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, southwest Nigeria, on June 5, 2022. AFP via Getty Images
Bishop Jude Arogundade (in white, third from right) looks on as Ondo State governor Rotimi Akeredolu (third from left) is shown the bloodstained floor after an attack by gunmen at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, southwest Nigeria, on June 5, 2022. AFP via Getty Images

At least 40 people were killed, and dozens wounded. A full month later, there is still no precise tally of the dead, partly because relatives came and retrieved their loved ones before the authorities could conduct a thorough accounting.

Arogundade, whose bishop’s residence is a half-hour’s drive from Owo in Akure, walked through the bloodstained church soon after the attack, which he believes was the work of radicalized Muslim Fulani bandits who have committed terror attacks elsewhere in Nigeria.

“The smell of the blood and everything went into my head,” he recalled. “In fact, at this moment, I can perceive the blood.”

What he witnessed inside the church that day, and later at the hospital and morgue, has set his life on a new course, thrusting the former New Yorker and Fordham graduate school alumnus into the international spotlight as an outspoken critic of President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired army officer whose father was a Fulani chieftain.

Buhari’s government, in power since 2015, has been accused by Amnesty International and other human rights groups of ineptitude, indifference, and even complicity in the surge of raids, killings, kidnappings, and rapes targeting Catholics and other Christians in the African nation of more than 200 million people.

Even amid this wave of bloodshed, the Pentecost Sunday massacre stands out as an ominous outlier because it took place in the relatively peaceful southwestern part of the country that, until now, has been spared the violence destabilizing the north. Arogundade believes the attack to be part of a broader movement to establish an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria, which is roughly one-half Muslim.

As with the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the church killings called for quick action, deep reserves of compassion, and tireless pastoral leadership in the face of an overwhelming human tragedy.

“Immediately, I saw a mission entrusted to me,” Arogundade, 60, told CNA. "My first thought was, 'I can really do something about this. I can really bring a further awareness to this. I can reach out to many places.’ And at that point I was ready to talk to anybody what cared to listen to me."

He recognized that as a naturalized U.S. citizen with years of experience and numerous contacts in the United States, he was well positioned to raise awareness about the genocide he believes is underway in Nigeria, in hopes of enlisting the help of the U.S. government to stop it before it’s too late. Among the first to offer Arogundade his support was the leader of his former archdiocese, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York.

Climate claim ‘far-fetched’

Last week, that mission brought Arogundade to Washington, D.C., where he was a guest of the nonprofit Catholic organization Aid to the Church in Need and a featured speaker at the International Religious Freedom Summit. The three-day event shone a light on cases of religious persecution going on throughout the world.

The soft-spoken bishop delivered a blunt and sobering message. “What’s going on now is genocide,” he told CNA. “It's pure ethno-religious cleansing. That's what it is. And it’s getting worse.”

Arogundade said the Buhari government must do more to protect innocent civilians. He said he hoped his discussions with lawmakers in Washington would raise pressure on the Nigerian leaders “to be proactive and to even seek help if they cannot manage the situation.”

Nigerian authorities have said the church attack bore the markings of a Nigerian ISIS affiliate, not Fulani herdsmen. Security experts are skeptical, however, noting that the group hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attack. No arrests have been made.

Whoever the culprits are, the attack underscores the fact that Nigeria is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a Christian. More than 4,650 Christians were killed there last year, roughly 13 per day, or about one killing every two hours, according to a report by the watchdog group Open Doors. That number represented 80% of such deaths the group recorded worldwide over a 12-month reporting period.

Yet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, without explanation, last year removed Nigeria from a list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) so designated because of severe violations of religious freedom. The current list names Burma, People’s Republic of China, Eritrea, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The 2022 list is currently under review.

Arogundade also has spoken out against attempts to explain these attacks as being rooted in a clash over shrinking resources due to the effects of climate change, or to a combination of complex factors.The president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, appeared to suggest as much when he said after the Pentecost Sunday massacre “that such an attack was made in a place of worship is a source of particular condemnation, as is any attempt to scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change.”

Alerted to Higgins’ statement, Arogundade fired off one of his own.

“While thanking the Honorable Mr. Higgins for joining others to condemn the attack and offering his sympathy to the victims, his reasons for this gruesome massacre are incorrect and far-fetched,” Arogundade said in a message dated June 10.

“To suggest or make a connection between victims of terror and consequences of climate change is not only misleading but also exactly rubbing salt to the injuries of all who have suffered terrorism in Nigeria,” he said.

“The victims of terrorism are of another category to which nothing can be compared! It is very clear to anyone who has been closely following the events in Nigeria over the past years that the underpinning issues of terror attacks, banditry, and unabated onslaught in Nigeria and in the Sahel Region and climate change have nothing in common.”

‘Doing the right thing’

Born in Oka-Akoko, Nigeria, Arogundade was ordained a priest in 1990. He came to the United States in 1997 to attend graduate school at New York’s Fordham University. He earned a master’s degree in religious education and later a doctoral degree in education administration.

During his studies, he served as the parish administrator at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. "My years there were my finest years," he recalls fondly. "I still have many friends there."

“We just fell in love with him,” said Elmsford Mayor Bob Williams, a parishioner and close friend. “He’s just an amazing man.”

Parishioners were at once sad and intensely proud when Pope Benedict XVI named Arogundade the next bishop of Ondo in 2010. Before he returned to Nigeria, he vowed to come back regularly, and he’s kept his promise, returning every May to preside over the parish’s confirmations. 

Prior to being named a bishop, Jude Arogundade (right) was the parish administrator of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Elmsford, New York. “He’s just an amazing man,” says Mayor Bob Williams (left). Courtesy of Bob Williams
Prior to being named a bishop, Jude Arogundade (right) was the parish administrator of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Elmsford, New York. “He’s just an amazing man,” says Mayor Bob Williams (left). Courtesy of Bob Williams

Inspired by Arogundade, numerous parishioners have gone on mission trips to Nigeria, so they feel a personal connection to what is going on there now. When news spread about the Pentecost Sunday attack, the bishop’s phone was flooded with text messages from friends in the U.S. concerned for his safety, similar to what happened to him on 9/11.

Arogundade’s outspokenness and strong leadership since then come as little surprise to his former flock.

“He's all about doing the right thing. And he's all about, ‘No, if this is wrong, I'm going to speak out about it,’” Williams said. “And he would never, ever think about his safety.”

Arogundade’s words may be having an effect. Before he left Washington, five Republican U.S. senators signed a letter to Blinken calling on the secretary of state to re-designate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern.

“Despite public statements from you and other State Department officials condemning the recent bloodshed in Nigeria, the fact remains that the Department still does not officially regard Nigeria as a severe violator of religious freedom,” the letter said. It was signed by Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Mike Braun of Indiana, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.

Arogundade said he knows that continuing to speak out places him at greater personal risk back in Nigeria. “I’m not afraid,” he said. This is his mission now.

“What happened was my own September 11th. I have to bring awareness to that,” the bishop said.

“People of goodwill, people of character, must rise up and fight September 11th,” he said, “wherever it occurs.”

Bishop Arogundade's friends in New York have started a Go Fund Me drive to raise money for the needs of St. Francis Xavier Church and the victims of the Pentecost Sunday attack. To make a donation, click here, or send a contribution to P.O. Box 8, Elmsford, NY 10523, Attention: Owo Fund.

Pope Francis announces appointment of women to committee selecting new bishops

Sr. Alessandra Smerilli (second from left) and Sr. Nathalie Becquart (third from left) pose with Pope Francis and others during the youth synod in 2018. / Daniel Ibáñez / CNA

Vatican City, Jul 6, 2022 / 05:59 am (CNA).

Pope Francis has said he would announce the appointment of two women to the Vatican committee that elects bishops. 

In comments to Reuters published Wednesday, the pope said “two women will be appointed for the first time in the committee to elect bishops in the Congregation for Bishops."

In the July 2 interview in the Vatican, Francis did not identify the women or say when their appointment would be announced officially, instead saying he was “open to giving [women] an opportunity" and wanted to open things “up a bit.”

The Congregation of Bishops, a department of the Roman Curia, recently changed its name to the Dicastery for Bishops, in line with the new constitution that underpins the reform of the Vatican by Pope Francis. 

The new constitution, titled Praedicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), provides that any member of the faithful can also lead a Vatican dicastery or other bodies, “given their particular competence, power of governance and function.”

Asked which Vatican department could perhaps be headed by a lay man or woman, Francis suggested that they could include the department for Catholic Education and Culture and the Apostolic Library, according to Reuters. 

The ultimate decision in appointing bishops rests with the pope, and he is free to select anyone he chooses. Usually, the pope’s representative in a country, the apostolic nuncio, passes on recommendations and documentation to the Vatican. The Dicastery of Bishops then discusses the appointment in a further process and takes a vote. On being presented with the recommendations, the pope finally makes the decision.

Francis has already named several women to Vatican departments. Barbara Jatta, a wife and mother of three children, was appointed director of the Vatican Museum in 2016 and took the reins in 2017. 

More recently, the pope appointed Sr. Nathalie Becquart in February 2021 as under-secretary to the Synod on Bishops. Working with and under Cardinal Mario Grech, the French religious sister has been helping prepare the Vatican's synod on synodality, scheduled for October 2022.  

According to Cardinal Grech, Becquart will vote in future synods alongside other voting members, who are bishops, priests, and some religious men.

In August 2021, Pope Francis named the Italian economist and religious sister Alessandra Smerilli as secretary of the Vatican’s social development office.

The Salesian sister is an economist and professor. She was one of the principal organizers of the 2020 Economy of Francesco event.

Since 2019, Smerilli has also served as a councilor of the Vatican City State and a consultant to the secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.