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Catholic doctor honored for service during COVID-19 pandemic

Major Daniel E. O'Connell, MD, MPH, receives the 2021 Catholic Doctor of the Year Award on Oct. 26, during the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ annual Mass for Catholic Healthcare Professionals. / Mission Doctors Association.

Los Angeles, Calif., Oct 26, 2021 / 18:39 pm (CNA).

A neurologist who responded to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City in 2020 has been awarded this year’s Catholic Doctor of the Year Award. 

Major Daniel E. O'Connell, MD, MPH, received the award Oct. 26 during the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Mass for Catholic Healthcare Professionals. 

“Dan had shared his journey at the height of COVID in New York, and his service really stood out,” said Elise Frederick, Executive Director of the Mission Doctors Association, which bestows the award. 

“Being able to let one’s faith lead in an environment where you are surrounded by others who share your faith is one thing, but doing so, quietly witnessing your values in such critical and challenging times takes a true leader.”

O’Connell was raised in the Catholic Church, and he said his Catholic faith is integral to his medical career. 

“I certainly cannot see myself doing medicine without my Catholic Christian foundation,” he said. “I think that is a major driver— if not the ultimate driver— for me doing it, because I can’t imagine being a physician without that foundation.”

He attended public schools until medical school.

“I specifically sought out a Catholic medical school, which I think is somewhat unique in the modern era,” O’Connell said. “I never had that Catholic school experience, and...I wanted my grounding as a physician to be of Catholic origin.”

He attended medical school at the University of Loyola in Chicago. O’Connell said he found that Loyola emphasized ethical treatment of patients, with a grounding in Catholic spirituality. 

He recalled the first day of an anatomy class. Medical students learn anatomy from individuals who have donated their bodies postmortem to the school. O’Connell remembers a Catholic priest blessed the cadavers, and prayed for the souls of the individuals who had donated their bodies. 

“And there was a pledge to treat these cadavers … with the utmost respect,” O’Connell said. “I thought that was a great initial grounding, moving forward in our training as physicians with that Catholic mindset of respecting the human person, the dignity of the human person.”

Today, O’Connell is a practicing neurologist, with a specialization in neuro-oncology and pain management. He is also a medical officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.

He first got involved in the military in college, through Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. After college, O’Connell enrolled in the Individual Ready Reserve. 

His first assignment with the IRR was in 2019 to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, in response to a shortage of medical personnel in the state. 

On April 4, 2020, O’Connell was asked to deploy within 24 hours to New York City, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He met with other reservists at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. 

“And from there, within a day's time or so, we took buses up to a deserted Times Square,” he said. 

O’Connell was familiar with New York City, because he did his internship in internal medicine at New York Medical College. 

“It [did] not even feel like New York,” he said. “It totally changed my perception of the city. It was a ghost town when we arrived, and entirely deserted.”

O’Connell assumed he would serve at the Javits Convention Center, which had been converted into a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients. But active duty military were helping to run that. 

“The greatest need turned out to be in the surrounding community hospitals, and the various boroughs of New York City, which are extremely dense in population, and — especially in areas where we were assigned— are disproportionately impacted by the COVID crisis for a number of reasons,” he said.

O’Connell was assigned to serve at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, which he said was the second-most hit hospital in the city at the time. His work was limited to the ninth floor, which was a medical surgical unit that had been converted into a medical ICU. 

He said the floor had about 30 rooms that held about 60 patients. He remembers the hospital drilled holes into the walls for wires to pass through from patients in the rooms to machines in the hallway. 

“That's how sort of desperate the situation was,” O’Connell said. “Temporary ventilators had to be put into the rooms, and they had to put IV lines— because there was no space in the rooms themselves, they're not built to be a medical ICU — in the hallway outside.”

O’Connell is a neurologist, but his training included a year of internal medicine and three years of inpatient neurology. Still, he wasn’t certain how his skill set would translate to the needs of the patients before him. 

“I did not know what to expect initially, but I was assigned to a floor team along with residents,” he said. “And, believe me, the last thing I wanted was to be a resident again. For anyone who knows anything about medicine, they can understand why. It was certainly a humbling experience.”

“The nurses and the respiratory therapists, in my opinion, did the bulk of the work, because the care [was] largely supportive.”

He said the majority of his time was spent doing essentially grunt medical work, though he did perform the occasional neurology exam. Between four and six days a week, O’Connell would check on patients, and help treat any conditions they suffered in addition to COVID-19. Many of his initial patients were older, and had medical conditions that were frequently exacerbated by the coronavirus. 

O’Connell spent two months at Lincoln Hospital in New York City, and he estimates several dozen of his patients died from COVID-19 related respiratory compromise, or from worsening comorbidities in the setting of COVID-19 infection, during that time. By the end of his deployment, the number of COVID-19 patients on his floor had dropped substantially, allowing for a smooth transition of military reservists out of the hospital.

It has been more than a year since O’Connell’s deployment for the COVID-19 pandemic, and he is still processing the experience. 

“My analogy is the 100 year flood,” he said. “It's something that you don't expect at all, but that you try to have some level of preparation for.”

“But one of the reasons why I joined the military reserves is to have an opportunity to assist, should something like this happen, as a military medical doctor.”

O’Connell said he struggled to accept the Catholic Doctor of the Year Award, because he believes respiratory therapists and nurses were the true heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he dedicated the award to them. 

“They're really the ones assisting us with the COVID crisis, because...there is no cure for COVID, so to speak,” he said. “There's no treatment that you can give, in real time, for an acute COVID infection that will kill the virus immediately. Because of that, the needs are one of making the patients as otherwise healthy as possible, to diminish the likelihood of multisystem organ failure and other comorbidities.” 

Still, O’Connell hopes his witness will encourage other doctors to let their faith guide their careers. 

“Serving in a mission doctor capacity doesn't always mean traveling to the opposite side of the world, to a remote location and helping individuals,” he said. “You can also do that locally.”

Mission Doctors Association will begin accepting nominations for its 2022 Catholic Doctor of the Year Award in January. 

Past recipients of the Catholic Doctor of the Year Award include general surgeon and active missionary sister, Sr. Deirdre Byrne, who was a first responder on 9/11; and Dr. Tom Catena, a Catholic international missionary doctor. The award was given to ‘All Catholic Healthcare Workers’ in 2020.

In India, Cardinal Alencherry again rejects allegations of illegal land deals

Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly / Emmanuel Parekkattu via Wikimedia (CC BY SA 4.0)

Kochi, India, Oct 26, 2021 / 17:21 pm (CNA).

Cardinal George Alencherry and his spokesman continue to reject claims of illegality in controversial land deals in the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. They say Indian federal officials’ new money laundering investigation is revisiting claims that previous investigations have found baseless.   

Father Abraham Kavilpurayidam, the spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church, said the probe of the cardinal “is no doubt an attempt to target him and tarnish the image of the church.” A local court has exonerated the cardinal and a special Kerala police team found the accusations were baseless.

“Cardinal Alencherry is being persecuted through no fault of his own. The cardinal surely will come out of it clean,” he said, according to UCA News.

The spokesman cited an October 2020 report in which “a special team of Kerala police’s Crime Branch probed all the allegations thoroughly and gave him a clean chit.” The police investigation into allegations of misappropriated funds resulted in a court report recommending the dismissal of the case. It was based on “a mistake of the facts.”

However, the Indian government’s financial crimes investigator, the enforcement directorate, is now looking into these deals, and India’s high court has thrown out the cardinal’s petition to dismiss other charges.

In late 2019 Alencherry, along with the former financial officer of the archdiocese and a real estate agent, had faced charges in Ernakulam District Court that the cardinal sold archdiocesan land at undervalued prices, for a loss of $10 million.

In August, this district court dismissed the charges, saying there were no prima facie grounds to proceed.

Kavlilpurayidam characterized the new probe as “part of a conspiracy to tarnish the image of the cardinal and the church he heads.” According to the spokesman, the probe is based on the allegation that Alencherry received money that was not accounted for.

Though the district court dismissed one case, the cardinal faces a trial on seven similar charges alleging conspiracy, breach of trust, fraud, and other charges related to the land deals. Alencherry had petitioned the Kerala High Court to throw out the cases, but the court dismissed his petition.

Kavlilpurayidam said the charges aim “to discredit the cardinal before the public and also the vibrant church he heads.”

Alencherry is the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which has a synod of bishops as its governing body. The Church, based in the southern India state of Kerala, is an Eastern Catholic Church. There are some 2.3 million Syro-Malabar Catholics in India.

The cardinal’s archdiocese had sought to settle a major loan from South Indian Bank by selling three acres it owned in Kochi. However, it has only received a third of the sale value of the property.

Tax authorities levied a fine of over $1 million against the archdiocese because the documented sale price was far lower than the market rate, The Hindu, an Indian daily, reports. This adds to a previous fine for alleged financial discrepancies.

In July 2019, another Church spokesman said that Alencherry acted in good faith in the land deals and had the support of the Vatican.

Father Abraham Kavilpurayidathil, then-press officer for the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala, told CNA that in his view, the land deal was more complicated than is usually reported, and that Alencherry's actions were an effort to make the best decisions in an unexpected situation.

When the broker did not receive the money the diocese expected in the deal, the cardinal asked the broker to register in the archdiocese’s name two of the broker’s own plots of land, as security for the money owed the archdiocese.

“By doing so, in fact, Cardinal Alencherry tried his best to save the archeparchy from the loss in the land sale deed,” the spokesman told CNA in 2019. He characterized any failings as “technicalities” that could be internally remedied.

The archdiocese’s financial council gave permission for the sale, though not the synod of bishops which would usually need to approve a sale of this size.

In November 2017 the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly’s canonical presbyteral council had publicly accused Alencherry of involvement of dubious land deals. The council’s representatives charged that the cardinal, two senior priests, and a real estate agent sold land at undervalued prices, for a loss of $10 million. They accused the cardinal of bypassing the canonical body's authority.

The Vatican withdrew Alencherry's administrative authority in June 2018, appointing a temporary administrator to lead the diocese in his place, while the cardinal formally remained the archbishop. The apostolic administrator sent reports back to the Vatican about diocesan finances.

In June 2019, the Vatican restored the cardinal to his administrative duties, ordering him to submit monthly budget reports and other relevant documents to the Syro-Malabar permanent synod and to comply with all civil laws.

The reinstatement drew some protests, but the scope of these protests was disputed. The Associated Press reported that several hundred priests protested the Vatican's decision. 

Kavilpurayidathil, however, told CNA that only one priest took on a hunger strike in protest of the cardinal. This priest was supported by some priests, but not hundreds.

The Church spokesman had claimed that the allegations against Alencherry are part of a coordinated attack against the cardinal. He said these were attempts at defamation of the cardinal by “a small group who constantly demands that he should resign.”

“For this purpose, somebody forged a few documents that show cardinal transacted money to business firms, that he has membership in famous clubs, that he convened business meetings along with some other bishops of the Latin Church of Kerala in a commercial institution,” Kavilpurayidathil told CNA.

Orthodox leader discusses religious freedom, climate change with Biden

null / Orhan Cam/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Oct 26, 2021 / 13:40 pm (CNA).

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I discussed religious freedom and climate change with U.S. leaders on Monday in Washington, D.C., and announced an interfaith initiative to encourage vaccination against COVID-19.

After the Orthodox patriarch met with President Joe Biden on Monday, Oct. 25, the White House stated that the two leaders “discussed efforts to confront climate change, steps to end the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the importance of religious freedom as a human right.” 

Bartholomew also met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday. A State Department spokesperson said afterward that the two “discussed the U.S. commitment to supporting religious freedom around the world.” Their discussion also included the situation of Christians and other religious minorities in Turkey.

“Secretary Blinken reaffirmed that the reopening of the Halki Seminary remains a continued priority for the Biden Administration,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. 

Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople since Oct. 22, 1991, is viewed as “first among equals” of the various Eastern Orthodox churches. On Monday, President Biden congratulated him on his 30th anniversary as patriarch, and Pope Francis in an Oct. 22 letter expressed gratitude for his “profound personal bond” with Bartholomew. 

The 81-year-old Orthodox leader was hospitalized on Sunday as a precaution, after suffering from exhaustion upon arriving in the United States, but he was released on Monday. Bartholomew is scheduled to be in the United States until Nov. 3, and on Oct. 28 he will be receiving an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame.

The Orthodox patriarch also announced a new interfaith initiative to encourage COVID-19 vaccination on Monday.

After meeting with Biden, Bartholomew told the press that Biden is “a man of faith and vision" who “will offer to this wonderful country and to the world the best leadership and direction within his considerable power.” 

Bartholomew said that he would be working alongside Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Muslim and Jewish leaders to encourage vaccination against COVID-19. 

“We shall make an appeal to the whole world to facilitate the vaccination of everybody,” he said, emphasizing the need to vaccinate the world’s poorest, “so that everybody may be safe.” 

"The president accepted our common initiative with great satisfaction,” he said. 

Speaking with Secretary Blinken, the patriarch said that he was “grateful to the American administration, the administration of the United States, for the continuous support for the Ecumenical Throne and its ideas and values which we try to protect, struggling at the same time to survive in our historic seat in Istanbul.”

Bartholomew met with Biden ahead of Friday, Oct. 29, when Biden and his wife Jill will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Why the next bishop of Hong Kong has a giraffe in his coat of arms

Hong Kong Bishop-elect Stephen Chow Sau-yan. / Screenshot.

Hong Kong, China, Oct 26, 2021 / 12:00 pm (CNA).

Hong Kong is famous for having long been one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world. It is one of the last places on earth one would expect to find a giraffe.

Yet for the incoming bishop of Hong Kong, the animal from the African savannah has significant symbolic value, so much so that he decided to feature the tallest living animal in his episcopal coat of arms.

The coat of arms of Bishop Stephen Chow Sau-yan of Hong Kong. Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong.
The coat of arms of Bishop Stephen Chow Sau-yan of Hong Kong. Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong.

Bishop-elect Stephen Chow Sau-yan, the former head of the Jesuits’ Chinese province, is scheduled to be consecrated as a bishop in the city’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 4.

Ahead of his episcopal ordination, the Diocese of Hong Kong shared an image of the incoming bishop’s coat of arms with CNA, along with an explanation of the crest that Chow provided to the local diocesan newspaper of some of its less traditional imagery.

One of the coat of arms’ most notable features is not only the inclusion of a giraffe in itself, but that the animal’s long neck extends out beyond the bounds of the shield.

For Chow, this long neck symbolizes being able to see the big picture.

“Short-sightedness can cause fear in oneself. Looking with vision can help one calm down,” the bishop-elect told the Sunday Examiner.

Chow also noted that giraffes are known for having big hearts to pump enough blood to their heads, and can therefore be considered a symbol of generosity. A giraffe’s heart can weigh up to 25 pounds and has a thick left ventricle.

The Jesuit priest, who formerly served as a teacher at Wan Yan College, said that this idea of a giraffe being a symbol of having a generous heart and a broad perspective was something that he shared with his students.

“I received some pictures of giraffes from students which were posted in my office in Wan Yan College,” he said.

The tradition of Catholic bishops and popes having a coat of arms dates back to the heraldic tradition of the Middle Ages.

Traditionally each non-papal shield is topped with a galero hat above a cross and surrounded by tassels — green for bishops and red for cardinals — with a scroll containing the bishop’s motto beneath.

Along with the giraffe, Chow’s shield also includes some traditional Christian imagery, including a dove, a biblical symbol of the Holy Spirit, and a sun containing the IHS monogram for the name of Christ, which is the symbol of the Jesuit order. Pope Francis also has this symbol on his episcopal crest.

Chow’s episcopal motto, “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” (“For the greater glory of God”), is another nod to his Jesuit identity.

In the shield’s center is a multicolored Celtic knot, which the diocese said was a symbol of “unity in plurality.”

Beneath the rainbow-colored knot is a red suspension bridge, more specifically Hong Kong’s Tsing-Ma Bridge.

Chow described the inclusion of the bridge as a symbol of the mission of the Church to form a bridge for different parties to meet each other.

“The bridge itself is for people to step on. Without people walking, the bridge is not useful anymore,” he said.

Commentary from the Asia News outlet noted the selection of the Tsing-Ma Bridge over the city’s famous Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the world’s longest cross-sea bridge, which was built from 2009 to 2018 to connect Hong Kong and Macau with mainland China.

The Tsing-Ma Bridge, in contrast, connects two islands within Hong Kong territory itself. Asia News suggested that this could signify “bridge-building” within Hong Kong’s internal divisions.

Like the rest of Hong Kong’s population, the city’s Catholic community has faced challenges and division in the wake of the government crackdown on pro-democracy protests of a controversial extradition law in 2019 and against the local government’s decision to push a national security law in 2020.

Chow said at a press conference the day after his appointment last May that he thought that “listening and empathy” were very important to heal divisions, adding that “unity is not the same as uniformity.”

“I really have no big plan, grand plan of how to unify, but I do believe there is a God, and God wants us to be united,” Chow said.

Canadian diocese requires COVID-19 vaccination to attend Mass

null / Ball Lunla/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Oct 26, 2021 / 11:10 am (CNA).

A Catholic diocese in Canada will be requiring proof of vaccination and identity verification for anyone age 12 or older to attend Mass or other events held at parishes. 

“Effective October 22, 2021, it will be mandatory for all persons 12 and older wishing to attend Masses or Services in our churches to demonstrate proof of vaccination by using the Vaccine Passport: NLVaxPass or by showing proof of vaccination by presenting their QR code before entering our churches,” said an Oct. 15 letter from Bishop Robert Anthony Daniels of Grand Falls to the priests and pastoral leaders of the diocese. 

The Diocese of Grand Falls is located in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Its territory is approximately half of the island of Newfoundland. 

The province enacted its vaccine passport system on Oct. 22, requiring residents to download an app and present proof of vaccination to enter “non-essential businesses.” 

Houses of worship, along with yoga studios, hair salons, bowling alleys, wedding receptions, indoor restaurants, bingo halls, bars, and hockey arenas are all locations where proof of vaccination is required.

Those who have recently turned 12 will have a three-month “grace period” to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before being subject to the vaccine passport system at churches, the diocese said.

Per Bishop Daniels’ letter, those wishing to attend Mass in the diocese have to download the NLVaxPass app, or print out a physical copy of their vaccine QR code to show the ushers before they can enter the church. A different app, NLVaxVerify, will be used by the ushers, greeters, or other volunteers to verify vaccination status upon entry. 

Once vaccination status is verified, a person will then have to show an identification card to go to Mass. For anyone 19 or older, this must be a photo identification. 

“The name on the identification must match the name on the COVID-19 Vaccination Record QR code or other form of proof of vaccination,” said Daniels. If the names and birthdays do not match, ushers are instructed to request an additional ID card. 

Daniels said he had asked the province's Ministry of Health and Community Services “to verify that this step will be necessary.” 

He noted that in certain cases where “it will be a burden for those attending to provide proof,” churches may allow entry with restrictions “for pastoral reasons.” Examples of these situations include funerals and weddings, he noted. 

Despite the implementation of the vaccine passport, capacity at Masses in the Diocese of Grand Falls is still limited to 50%, congregational singing is prohibited, clergy and parishioners must wear non-medical masks at all times, physical distancing is required, and all who enter the church must write down their information for potential contact tracing. 

These restrictions, said Daniels, will be lifted “for those parishes/churches complying with the Vaccine Passport Mandate.” He added that the health ministry “has assured us that we will be notified in a timely manner to effect those changes in our parishes.” 

To speed up the process of verifying vaccination statuses before Mass, parish offices may keep a record of the vaccinated. This can only be done with the consent of each person, however. 

“This is all new to us; there will be a learning curve and there will be glitches,” said Daniels. “Our patience and the patience of our parishioners will be tested. But we cannot let the pandemic win.” 

“Our people need access to the Sacramental life of the Church especially now. Together we can make this work,” he said. 

The other two dioceses in the province have taken different approaches to implementing the vaccine passport system.  

The Archdiocese of St. John’s in Newfoundland, the oldest Catholic jurisdiction in English-speaking North America, has not released public statements concerning the vaccine passport. 

The Diocese of Corner Brook and Labrador is requiring vaccine verification “for all non-faith-based gatherings on Church Property beginning on October 22nd,” according to an Oct. 19 letter from Bishop Bart van Roijen.

“This includes any events where parish facilities are rented out or used by third party groups,” he said. “It is the parish’s responsibility to ensure that all groups using their facilities are compliant with proof of Public Health’s Proof of Vaccination mandate, this includes the verification of the person’s personal identification.” 

Masks and physical distancing will still be required, said van Roijen. 

“I would like to extend my gratitude to the priests, ministers, and employees for your cooperation in keeping our parishes safe from the spread of the virus,” he said. “Your attention to these protocols is gratefully appreciated.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Newfoundland and Labrador has reported 1,964 cases of COVID-19, with 15 deaths. There is presently one person reported in the hospital with the disease.

In September, the Archdiocese of Moncton in New Brunswick announced a vaccine mandate for anyone age 12 or older at gatherings in churches, rectories, or community centers of the archdiocese. Several days later, the archdiocese said it would not require proof of vaccination at Masses, baptisms, and prayer groups.

Head of Christian advocacy group resigns over ties to illegal campaign donations

Toufic Baaklini at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, 2016 / In Defense of Christians

Washington D.C., Oct 26, 2021 / 09:15 am (CNA).

The president of an advocacy group for Middle Eastern Christians has resigned from the organization over his connection to illegal contributions to the campaign of a now-indicted congressman.

On Sunday, Oct. 24, the Washington, D.C.-based group In Defense of Christians announced that it had accepted the resignation of president and board chairman Toufic Baaklini. The organization noted “allegations of wrongdoing recently reported in the media in connection with campaign contributions.”

Earlier this year, Baaklini admitted to serving as a willing conduit for illegal donations by the billionaire Gilbert Chagoury to the re-election campaign of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). Both Fortenberry and Chagoury have ties to In Defense of Christians, and Fortenberry last week was indicted on charges of lying to federal prosecutors about the illegal contributions.  

In Defense of Christians stated on Sunday that “Any contributions made by, or through Mr. Baaklini to Members of Congress or candidates were in his personal capacity.”

The group did not respond to CNA’s request for comment on Monday. On Oct. 26, the group announced that vice president Tonia Khouri would assume the role of president, effective immediately. 

In Defense of Christians was founded in 2014 and has advocated for policies to protect Middle Eastern Christian minorities, such as congressional resolutions recognizing ISIS genocide of Christians in Iraq and Syria, and emergency relief for Christian genocide victims. The group has also advocated for policies to support stability in Lebanon and resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide.

Nearly seven months prior to the announcement of Baaklini’s resignation from the group, he signed a March 31 deferred prosecution agreement with federal officials stating that he had knowingly helped Chagoury, a Nigerian-born billionaire of Lebanese descent, illegally contribute money to a federal campaign that was later reported to be Fortenberry’s re-election campaign.

Currently serving his ninth term in Congress, Fortenberry, a Catholic, was twice questioned by federal investigators about the illegal contributions in March and July of 2019. Last week, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on two charges of making false statements to the investigators and one charge of concealing information.

In a federal court in Los Angeles on Oct. 20, Fortenberry pleaded not guilty to all the charges. A pretrial conference has been set for Dec. 7, with a jury trial scheduled for Dec. 14. Fortenberry was ordered to post a $50,000 bond, according to news reports.

Chagoury and Fortenberry both have ties to In Defense of Christians. Fortenberry has been recognized by the group for his work in 2015 and 2016 to help pass a congressional resolution recognizing the genocide of Iraqi Christians at the hands of ISIS. He also served as a co-chair of the group’s 2020 virtual summit.

Around the time the illegal contributions were made to his campaign, Fortenberry appeared at a California chapter event of In Defense of Christians on Feb. 20, 2016, according to the group’s March 2016 newsletter. On Feb. 21, he was inducted into the Vatican Order of St. Gregory - an order which Chagoury is also a member of - according to the newsletter 

Chagoury was previously a major donor to the Clinton Foundation, and his philanthropic causes include education and health care in Lebanon. In 2014, he helped organize and finance the inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians in Washington, D.C., according to his website.

Chagoury has served as Ambassador to the Vatican for the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, and according to his website, he has received a number of honors from the Vatican. He was made Commander of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II in 1990, and was given the order’s Grand Cross by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Pope Francis made him Knight Commander with Star in the Order of Pope Pius IX, in December 2016.

He has drawn controversy in the past for his connection to former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, and was reportedly denied a visa by the State Department in 2015 because of his alleged support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party designated by the United States as a terror organization. According to the website OpenSecrets, he denied support for the group, but had reportedly funded a Lebanese politician who then funneled the money to Hezbollah.

Baaklini, according to court records, knew that Chagoury, a foreign national, was ineligible to contribute directly or indirectly to U.S. federal candidates. He nonetheless received $50,000 from Chagoury in January 2016, understanding that part of it would be used for federal campaign donations.

According to his signed statement, Baaklini provided $30,000 in cash to “Individual H” in Los Angeles, who then hosted a February 2016 fundraiser for a federal campaign, and recruited other donors to contribute to the campaign. The group did so knowing they would be reimbursed with Chagoury’s money. 

The campaign in question was later reported to be Fortenberry’s, and Fortenberry’s indictment matches the details of the illegal transactions with those listed in court records for Chagoury and Baaklini.

In a conversation with Baaklini in late February 2016 after the fundraiser, Fortenberry appeared to notice the suspicious nature of the transactions, according to Baaklini’s signed statement. He allegedly asked Baaklini if he thought anything was wrong with the fundraiser. When Baaklini replied that nothing was wrong, but asked Fortenberry the reason for his question, Fortenberry allegedly said “something to the effect of, ‘because it all came from the same family,’” according to court records.

According to his indictment, Fortenberry lied to investigators in 2019 by claiming he was not aware of illegal contributions to his campaign by a foreign national, and that he was not aware of Baaklini’s involvement in the illegal contributions. 

According to federal prosecutors, he was informed by “Individual H,” the host of the 2016 fundraiser, of Baaklini’s involvement in the contributions in 2018. Furthermore, the fundraiser host allegedly told Fortenberry of having received $30,000 from Baaklini and distributing it to other individuals to donate to Fortenberry’s campaign, and that the money “probably” came from Chagoury.

By that time, “Individual H” had already acted as an FBI and IRS informant on the illegal contributions, having done so by September 2016, according to court documents.

According to the indictment, the individual said that Chagoury “probably” provided the money for the contributions “because he was so grateful for your support [for] the cause.”

However, Fortenberry allegedly did not file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission after having been informed of the illegal contributions, according to his indictment. He did not try to return the illegal contributions until July 2019 when his campaign disgorged them - after his interviews with FBI investigators - his indictment notes.

Furthermore, Fortenberry allegedly continued to ask the individual to host another fundraiser, the indictment stated.

In a video posted to YouTube on Oct. 18 before the indictment was announced, Fortenberry said he let the FBI investigators into his house at the 2019 meetings and spoke with them to cooperate with them.

“We thought we were trying to help,” he said.

Chagoury illegally contributed a total of $180,000 to four federal campaigns, including Fortenberry’s, during the 2012, 2014, and 2016 election cycles. He reached a settlement with federal prosecutors for his actions in March 2021, agreeing to pay $1.8 million.

According to an analysis of court records by the website OpenSecrets, the illegal contributions listed in Chagoury’s deferred prosecution agreement match those listed in Federal Election Commission records for the joint fundraising committee for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, as well as to the re-election campaigns of House candidates Lee Terry and Darrell Issa in 2014, and Jeff Fortenberry in 2016. 

Chagoury’s signed statement lists eight contributions to Fortenberry’s campaign dated March 12, 2016, which were reimbursed with his money.

Court records reveal that Chagoury in 2014 expressed an interest in contributing to politicians with whom he shared a “common cause.”

According to his signed statement, he was told by “Individual H” – who served as a conduit for his 2012 contributions to Romney’s re-election – that, by donating to candidates from “less populous states,” his contributions “would be more noticeable” and would thereby result in “increased donor access to the politician.” Chagoury then set about sending the individual money and directing him to donate to two 2014 congressional campaigns. 

According to his signed statement, Chagoury directed “Individual H” to donate $20,000 to a federal campaign in 2014, and the individual then found several other people to donate to the campaign. 

Chagoury and “Individual H” met again “at a conference in Washington, D.C. in September 2014,” where Chagoury suggested that the individual that host a fundraiser for “Candidate C” and contribute $30,000 to the candidate’s fund, which Chagoury would then reimburse for. It is unclear if the conference named in the documents was the In Defense of Christians summit, held from Sept. 9-11 in Washington, D.C. that year.

Chagoury’s statement notes that “Individual H” contributed $30,000 to the “Candidate C Fund” on Sept. 28, 2014.

‘They’re not going to succeed’: Pro-life societies stand firm in face of opposition on England’s campuses

Anna Fleischer, president of Oxford Students for Life, at Oxford University’s Student Union’s Freshers’ Fair, Oct. 6, 2021. / Courtesy of @OSFLife Twitter account.

Oxford, England, Oct 26, 2021 / 08:10 am (CNA).

There is no better time for Oxford University’s 400 clubs and societies to recruit new members than at the Student Union’s Freshers’ Fair, held annually in October.

Students embarking on their freshman year — known as “freshers” in England — walk around stalls run by groups devoted to everything from anime to mixed martial arts.

But one society was almost deemed too controversial for the event, held in marquees in the University Parks on Oct. 6-7.

The Student Union attempted to block Oxford Students for Life (OSFL), a secular pro-life group, from exhibiting at the Freshers’ Fair.

The authorities at the English-speaking world’s oldest university reportedly responded by saying that if the representative body for Oxford students went ahead, then the Freshers’ Fair could not be held on university grounds.

OSFL president Anna Fleischer told CNA that the group had expected some opposition during the two-day event, but wasn’t prepared for what came next.

“We anticipated some people not liking the fact that we were there,” she said in a phone interview on Oct. 25. “That was always going to happen and has happened in previous years.”

“People will give you funny looks or come and argue with you. But I don’t think we quite anticipated just how much backlash there would be.”

An aerial view of Oxford, England, taken on Oct. 14, 2016. Chensiyuan via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).
An aerial view of Oxford, England, taken on Oct. 14, 2016. Chensiyuan via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

On the second day, a small group sought to stop others from approaching the stall. The protesters left but then returned with a black trash can, which they attempted to fill with OSFL’s promotional materials.

“The two committee members who were on the stall tried to take things and put them behind the stall so that they wouldn’t go in the bin,” Fleischer told the Christian Institute, a non-denominational Christian charity.

“But then [the activists] came behind the stall and started tearing down all the posters off the backboards and then shoved them in the bin and then tried to leave.”

The incident at Oxford, regarded as one of the world’s top universities, was part of a pattern of aggressive opposition to pro-life groups on English campuses.

Members of a pro-life society at Exeter University, southwest England, recently reported receiving death threats as a petition seeking to “strike down” the group gained more than 9,000 signatures.

Fleischer said that activists appeared to be motivated by two beliefs.

The first is the conviction that abortion is a human right, despite its absence from the world’s major human rights declarations.

The second is that those with opposing views are guilty of a form of “violence” and therefore must forfeit their place in the public square.

“I think there’s quite a disruptive idea that’s become quite normalized,” she said. “You’re taking something that is fundamentally a good thing — that we should be sensitive in how we talk to each other, and words can be harmful — but conflating that with [the belief that] the way to address ideas you think are harmful is to just shut them down, rather than address them.”

She went on: “There’s a lack of recognition that both sides of the argument have goodwill. Saying horrible things just to spite someone: Yes, that is a horrible thing to do and none of us should be doing that. But there’s a big difference between that and holding a good-faith position that you want to articulate in a kind way.”

The Oxford Students for Life stall at the Freshers’ Fair, Oct. 7, 2021. Courtesy of @OSFLife Twitter account.
The Oxford Students for Life stall at the Freshers’ Fair, Oct. 7, 2021. Courtesy of @OSFLife Twitter account.

Fleischer pointed to an Oct. 12 statement condemning the university authorities’ decision to support OSFL’s presence at the Freshers’ Fair.

“They quoted from some university code about not being supportive of ‘violence, intimidation or criminality,’ and then went on to accuse us of intimidation, ignoring the fact that the protest against us ticked all three boxes of being — well, not violent against a person — but physically aggressive, intimidation and criminal destruction of property,” she said. “It was somewhat ironic.”

A spokesperson told The Oxford Blue newspaper that the university supported students’ right “to express views of all persuasions within the law.”

“We therefore condemn last week’s protest against the Oxford Students for Life stall at the Freshers’ Fair, which was an attempt to deny the right of expression to others,” the spokesperson said.

“We have a robust freedom of speech policy which states ‘Within the bounds set by law, all voices or views which any member of our community considers relevant should be given the chance of a hearing.’ We require all events held on university premises to abide by this policy.”

Despite the protest, the OSFL stall also prompted positive responses during the Freshers’ Fair, Fleischer said.

“There were a lot of people who were really glad to see us,” she noted. “There were a lot of people who were just curious, who had never really thought about these issues properly, and were willing to talk about them. So I don’t think it’s the majority of students who think like this. It’s a very, very vocal minority.”

Referring to online abuse that forced OSFL to close comments on its Instagram account, she added: “There are a lot of people sending us really lovely messages of support and we’re so profoundly grateful for them. In the midst of all the abuse that you’re getting, it can really get to you, and then when you get an email being like, ‘Well done, you guys, I’m so proud of you,’ that is really lovely.”

OSFL is determined to take part in next year’s Freshers’ Fair. By the time it takes place, the U.K. Parliament may have passed a bill intended to defend freedom of speech on campuses.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is currently at the report stage in the House of Commons, Parliament’s lower house.

Fleischer said that if the bill becomes law, “it’ll be even harder for them to get rid of us next year.”

“They could try, but they’re not going to succeed,” she said.

“And if they do succeed, they can’t stop us advertising ourselves. And banning us, if anything, might just give us even more publicity — and the point of a freshers’ fair is to get publicity for your society.”

“So it would be rather counterproductive for them to try and ban us, because we could always just advertise in other ways. And I’m sure we’d get a lot more publicity as being ‘the banned society.’”

UK lawmakers formally propose ‘Amess amendment’ on last rites to bill

Official portrait of Sir David Amess. / Richard Townshend via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).

London, England, Oct 26, 2021 / 04:30 am (CNA).

U.K. lawmakers have formally proposed an “Amess amendment” to a bill going through Parliament seeking to guarantee that Catholic priests can administer the last rites at crime scenes.

The amendment, known as 292E, to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, was proposed by four members of the House of Lords, the upper house of the U.K. Parliament.

The amendment to the bill, which is currently at the committee stage in the Lords, says: “In securing a crime scene where a person within that crime scene is severely injured, such that there is a strong likelihood that they might die, there is a presumption that the constable in charge will allow entry to the crime scene to a minister of religion in order to perform religious rituals or prayer associated with dying.”

The text, entitled “Crime scenes: religious rituals or prayer,” was proposed by Tina Stowell (Baroness Stowell of Beeston), Susan Cunliffe-Lister (Baroness Masham of Ilton), Chris Patten (Baron Patten of Barnes), and Nuala O’Loan (Baroness O’Loan).

Patten, the chancellor of the University of Oxford and the last governor of Hong Kong, helped to organize Benedict XVI’s trip to Britain in 2010 and was asked to advise Pope Francis on modernizing Vatican communications in 2014.

The idea of an “Amess amendment” emerged days after Sir David Amess, a longtime Conservative Member of Parliament, was stabbed multiple times during a meeting with constituents at a church in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, on Oct. 15.

According to reports, police turned away a priest who hoped to give the last rites to the Catholic lawmaker.

Offering a tribute to his slain colleague in the House of Commons, the lower house of the U.K. Parliament, on Oct. 18, the Labour MP Mike Kane referred to the reports.

He suggested that lawmakers pass an amendment guaranteeing priests access to those requiring last rites.

He said: “[Amess] participated fully in the liturgy of the Church. He participated fully in the sacraments of the Church.”

“While I have the attention of those on the Front Benches [government ministers], Catholics believe that extreme unction helps guide the soul to God after death, so maybe we could come up with an Amess amendment so that no matter where it is, in a care home or at a crime scene, Members, or anybody, can receive that sacrament.”

The man accused of killing Sir David -- Ali Harbi Ali, 25, of Kentish Town, north London -- is expected to face trial from March 7, 2022.

The British citizen of Somali descent is charged with murder and the preparation of terrorist acts.

Nick Price, head of the Crown Prosecution Service’s Special Crime and Counter Terrorism Division, said on Oct. 21: “We will submit to the court that this murder has a terrorist connection, namely that it had both religious and ideological motivations.”

Fr. Jeff Woolnough, the pastor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Eastwood, in Leigh-on-Sea, said that he rushed to Belfairs Methodist Church on Oct. 15 after he heard that Amess had been attacked.

A police officer outside the church reportedly relayed his request to enter the building, but the priest was not permitted to enter. He prayed the rosary outside the police cordon instead.

Paramedics attended to Amess, who was stabbed multiple times, for more than two-and-a-half hours before an air ambulance arrived to take him to hospital.

The BBC reported on Oct. 25 that Woolnough was forced to delete his Twitter account after receiving criticism.

“Most people have been so kind with messages of support, others have accused me of capitulating at the scene,” he said.

“The police have a job to do. When I say I have to respect it, it doesn’t mean I agree with it.”

“But I have to respect as a law-abiding citizen that the police would not allow me in and I had to find plan B, and plan B for me was prayer, and I had to pray on the spot, pray on the rosary.”

Woolnough said that he had spoken with “some really top priests in the hierarchy” who assured him that he “did the right thing.”

In the wake of Sir David’s death, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, western England, called for greater recognition of the last rites as an “emergency service.”

“Every believing Catholic desires to hear Christ’s words of pardon and absolution for the last time; to be strengthened by the grace of anointing; accompanied by the assurance of the Church’s prayer and whenever possible to receive Holy Communion,” he said on Oct. 19.

“This is something well understood in hospitals and care homes, yet the events following the murderous assault on Sir David Amess suggest this is not always comprehended in emergency situations.”

“I hope a better understanding of the eternal significance of the hour of death for Christians and the Church’s ministry as an ‘emergency service’ may result from this terrible tragedy. May Sir David rest in peace.”

Pro-life advocates mustn't lose hope and joy amid struggles, English bishop says

Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury preaches at St. Columba's Church in Chester, Feb. 15, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Shrewsbury. / null

Norwich, England, Oct 25, 2021 / 18:19 pm (CNA).

There will be many pro-life battles this century, but foes of abortion, assisted suicide, and other crimes against human life cannot give up joy and hope, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury has told a pro-life pilgrimage.

“In this century we can expect a protracted struggle and we must be ready for repeated assaults on both the laws and the social environments of care, which have long protected and cherished the lives of our society’s weakest members,” Bishop Davies said Saturday. “Yet, this struggle is the opportunity to give witness to the value of every human life and to announce once more the Gospel of Life with joy.”

The bishop spoke Oct. 23 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk during the noontime Mass of the National Pro-Life Pilgrimage, now in its 38th year.

He looked back at the legalization of abortion in the Abortion Act 1967, when pro-life advocates thought they could find easy success.

“If we were confident at the time, that a ‘culture of death’ would be quickly overcome; that public opinion would never long tolerate the killing of the unborn on an industrial scale; if we thought that rational argument must surely prevail; and that to move consciences it would be sufficient to expose the cruel reality of abortion, we soon came to see how a culture of death advances remorselessly, precisely by dulling human consciences,”

This process has made it possible “to propose that pre-born children with disabilities be killed up to the point of birth,” Davies lamented.

He praised the “brave voice” of Heidi Crowter, a woman with Down syndrome who had helped lead an unsuccessful challenge to abortion law in England, Scotland, and Wales for discrimination against the disabled. Abortion law allows broad permission for abortion after 24 weeks if there is a substantial risk that the unborn child would be born with “physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.”

“‘The law does not respect my life,” she had told reporters in July.

“Remarkably, this cry barely elicited a moment of public concern,” said Davies.

Legal assisted suicide is again being debated, a fact the bishop said was among the “many contradictions” on a path to pro-life victory.

“How are we to understand that in Britain today, a society that mobilized itself in a pandemic, making many sacrifices to protect the lives of the vulnerable, is now considering assisting the suicide of some the most vulnerable members of society?” he asked.

“Dismayed by such contradictions, we must never lose the joy and hope that is the hallmark of the cause of life,” Davies continued.

He criticized “the euthanasia lobby” for repeatedly advocating for bills “to break the legal protections surrounding the care of the sick and the dying.”  He noted this movement’s history dates back to the 1930s and the crimes of the eugenics movement.

“It advocates opening the way for assisted suicide theoretically, in carefully regulated cases. Yet, experience in other jurisdictions shows that in practice this culture of assisted suicide extends rapidly to include those with mental illnesses and even young children,” the bishop warned.

Christ’s words, “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me,” means that “In today’s proliferating attacks on the lives of those most vulnerable, we are witnessing nothing less than a rejection of God-made-man.”

Davies drew on St. John Paul II’s teaching that every rejection of human life is “really a rejection of Christ” himself. As a counterexample to this rejection, he praised the motherhood of the Virgin Mary as “the incomparable model of how life should be welcomed and cared for.”

In the Book of Revelation, “Death shall be no more,” is “the promise that every fearful manifestation of evil which threatens to overwhelm humanity and thwart God’s purpose will finally be dispelled by the total victory of life.”

He closed his homily with an invocation of the Virgin Mary as the “Mother of the Living,” entrusting to her “the cause of life.”

The National Pro-Life Pilgrimage to Walsingham also offered chances for confession and Eucharistic Adoration, as well as organized recitations of the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and other prayers, the pilgrimage website said.

Walsingham was a major pilgrimage site in English Christianity, dating back to the 11th century. The original shrine and a nearby Augustinian priory were destroyed in the 16th century during the English Reformation. Covert Catholic pilgrimages to the site continued until they were legalized once again in the 19th century.

The pro-life pilgrimage concluded with an afternoon walk to the ruins of the priory.

Beatification of 127 Spanish Civil War martyrs in Córdoba shows 'profound spiritual wealth'

The beatification Mass of Fr. Juan Elías Medina and 126 companions in the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba in Córdoba, Spain, Oct. 16, 2021. / Diocese of Córdoba.

Cordoba, Spain, Oct 25, 2021 / 17:06 pm (CNA).

Fr. Juan Elías Medina and 126 companions, who were martyred during the Spanish Civil War, were beatified this month in Córdoba.

“While he announces the hatred of the world to us, Jesus reminds us of his favorite love, the merciful love with which he has chosen us,” Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said during his homily at the Oct. 16 beatification Mass said in the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba.

“Death and life have fought in an amazing duel, the Lord of life conquers death. This consciousness animated our martyrs, many of whom when they were assassinated shouted, ‘Viva Cristo Rey!’” the cardinal preached.

Fr. Juan Elías Medina and his companions “is a group that puts before us a variety of human profiles,” he said.

"A richness and depth of spirituality, sometimes also with deep roots in theological sciences expressed in the multiplicity of daily experiences.”

"We are in front of a vision of history whose memory could become a place of evangelization within secularized contexts,” the cardinal noted. 

The Spanish Civil War was fought from 1936 to 1939 between the Nationalist forces, led by Francisco 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.

Of the group beatified in Cordoba, 79 were priests, 39 were laity, five were seminarians, and four were religious. Nearly all of them were imprisoned before being martyred.

Fr. Juan Elías Medina was arrested July 22, 1936, and in the months of his imprisonment he comforted and spiritually assisted those held with him. Together with 14 others, he was killed Sept. 25.

The youngest of those beatified Oct. 16 was Francisco García León, who was 15 at the time of his martyrdom.

The Diocese of Córdoba noted on its website that from a young age Francisco "showed signs of a life of special piety" and "stood out for his availability to collaborate with the Church and for exercising simple charity with the elderly and those most in need."

In July 1936 Francisco was “one of the few young people in town who attended Mass daily and received Communion. He always showed joy, politeness and decorum, even in these supremely difficult moments,” the diocese related.

On July 20, 1936, Republican forces arrived at Francisco's house to arrest his father. An hour later, they returned to arrest his uncle. It was then that they noticed that a scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was protruding from Francisco’s pocket.

Francisco was told to throw away his scapular, or be taken to jail. Francisco was arrested, and died July 22 when Republican militias massacred the prisoners in the barracks where he was being held.