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Where is Pope Francis going in Iraq and why? A CNA Explainer

Rome Newsroom, Feb 25, 2021 / 12:00 pm (CNA).-  


In a week’s time, Pope Francis is expected to make history by becoming the first pope to travel to Iraq. His March 5-8 trip will take him from excavations of historical biblical sites dating back thousands of years to churches where Catholics suffered horrific terrorist attacks only a few years ago. 

With meetings planned with Iraqi political leaders and prominent Muslim clerics, the pope is scheduled to travel 900 miles within Iraq in a little over three days.

Here is a breakdown of the places where Pope Francis is scheduled to visit in Iraq.

Friday, March 5: Baghdad

Speech at Presidential Palace 

Upon arrival at Baghdad International Airport, the pope is scheduled to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi at the airport before visiting Iraqi President Barham Salih at the presidential palace, where the pope will give a speech to a gathering of civil authorities.

The pope’s meetings with Iraqi authorities come at a time when the country is facing severe political, socioeconomic, and security challenges, including a protest movement calling for an end to government corruption, high levels of unemployment, and the sectarian divisions within the political system established after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Cathedral Our Lady of Salvation

The Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, also known as Sayidat al-Nejat, was the site of a suicide attack by the Islamic State during Sunday Mass in 2010 in which more than 50 people were killed. 

The terrorists killed two priests and took more than 100 hostages before Iraqi security forces stormed the church with the support of U.S. forces. The beatification process of the 48 Catholics who died inside the church advanced from the diocesan phase to the Vatican in October 2019.

The cathedral was also one of six churches bombed in August 2004 when five car bombs in Baghdad and one in Mosul were detonated in cars parked outside churches, killing a total of 12 people and injuring more than 70.

Pope Francis will visit the cathedral and give a speech to local bishops, priests, religious, and other Iraqi Catholics. 

A mural of the pope with Vatican and Iraqi flags has been painted on a wall outside of the cathedral in anticipation of the pope’s visit, according to photos posted on social media.

Saturday, March 6: Najaf and the Plain of Ur

Meeting with Shiite Cleric in Najaf

On his second day in Iraq, Pope Francis will travel on Iraqi Airways to Najaf to meet with Ali al-Sistani, an influential leader of Shiite Muslims in Iraq.

Najaf is considered one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in Shiite Islam, after only Mecca and Medina. It is the burial place of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of Muhammad and the first Shiite imam. The question of Ali’s right to the caliphate resulted in the major schism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Not far from Najaf is the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel in Al Kifl, where the historic Jewish synagogue at the site is now contained within a newly built Shiite mosque.

Interreligious Meeting in the Plain of Ur

Pope Francis will then travel to the plain of Ur in southern Iraq, which the Bible records as the birthplace of Abraham. The archaeological site at Ur, excavated in the 20th century, includes a Mesopotamian ziggurat and ancient complex of houses. 

The pope plans to give a speech at an interreligious gathering in Ur because of the importance of Abraham for all three major monotheistic religions. In Judaism, Abraham is revered as the first patriarch of the Jewish people. Muslims believe that Muhammad is a descendent of Abraham’s son Ishmael.

Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baghdad

Pope Francis will end the day with Mass at the Chaldean Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph, upon his return to Baghdad. The cathedral, called Mar Yousef, was built in the 1950s. It was recently restored by Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako.

The Chaldeans are one of several Eastern Catholic communities found in Iraq. Tracing back their history to the early Christians through their connection with the Church of the East, Chaldeans made up two-thirds of Iraqi Christians before the population was diminished by Islamic State violence. Other Eastern Rite communities in Iraq include Syriac Catholics, Armenian Catholics, and Melkite Greek Catholics.

Sunday, March 7: Mosul and the Nineveh Plains

Memorial in Mosul

Pope Francis will spend his final full day in Iraq in the northern Nineveh Plains, where the Islamic State carried out a genocidal campaign against Christians, Yazidis, and other minority groups after taking Mosul in the summer of 2014.

The pope will be welcomed at the Erbil Airport by the religious and civil authorities of Iraqi Kurdistan before traveling by helicopter to Mosul, where he will pray for the victims of war at Hosh al-Bieaa square.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Bakhdida

Pope Francis will then travel by helicopter to visit the local Christian community in Bakhdida, also known as Qaraqosh, at the Syriac Catholic Immaculate Conception Cathedral, where he will pray the Angelus.

The cathedral, also known as Al-Tahira Cathedral, was desecrated and its interior was charred after the Islamic State set it aflame after taking control of the town in 2014. Restoration of the cathedral was recently completed by Aid to the Church in Need. A new Marian statue sculpted by a local Christian artist was placed atop the bell tower in January.

Stadium Mass in Erbil

On his last evening in Iraq, Pope Francis will offer Mass at the Franso Hariri International Stadium in Erbil on March 7. This Mass is expected to be the largest gathering of Iraqi Catholics with the pope during his trip.

Local authorities in Kurdistan have said that 4,500 people have registered for the Mass. A special identification card issued by Erbil’s Catholic University will be required to enter the stadium for the Mass.

Monday, March 8: Travel back from Baghdad to Rome

After a farewell ceremony on Monday morning at the Baghdad International Airport, Pope Francis will fly back to Rome on Alitalia, traveling 1,800 miles in just over five hours. The pope will answer journalists’ questions during a press conference on his return flight. 

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda told CNA that Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the region could be a turning point for the country’s diminished Christian population.

“It has the potential to change the trajectory of the Christian presence in Iraq from one of a disappearing people to one of a surviving and thriving people,” the Archbishop of Erbil said.

Former HHS official: Becerra could promote abortion internationally

Washington D.C., Feb 25, 2021 / 11:16 am (CNA).- A former official at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) warned Thursday that health secretary nominee Xavier Becerra could pose grave implications for the global pro-life cause.


If confirmed as HHS Secretary, Becerra’s priority in the job would be abortion, said Valerie Huber, former U.S. Special Representative for Global Women's Health at HHS, during an interview on EWTN Pro-Life Weekly that will air Thursday night. 


“Having someone who is such a radical pro-abortion advocate will move that agenda to its limits,” Huber said. 


Becerra is currently California’s attorney general. During his tenure, he has upheld state pro-abortion laws that forced crisis pregnancy centers to advertise for abortions, and required Catholic nuns to have abortion coverage in their health plans. He has also pushed for easier access to the abortion pill regimen and supported lawsuits against abortion restrictions in other states. 


At his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Becerra would not name a single abortion restriction that he supported. 


Huber noted the Biden administration has already allowed for U.S. global health assistance to fund international pro-abortion groups by repealing the Mexico City Policy. 


“By its being rescinded, that means that U.S. taxpayer dollars are going to be used to promote and to fund NGOs around the world who provide abortion,” Huber said. 


She said Becerra’s nomination could also have a wide-ranging impact on abortion not just within the United States, but overseas. 


“Most pro-life advocates here in the United States and citizens who don’t want their taxpayer dollars used for abortion often focus only on what’s happening here within the borders of the United States government,” Huber said. 


“What that does is gives a president and an HHS secretary who is so focused on abortion plenty of space for mischief-making that could result in abortion being deemed an international human right,” she said. 


Huber added that HHS is “ground zero for either the protection of life or the promotion of abortion.” She called Becerra “unfit” for the role of HHS secretary. 


During Becerra’s confirmation hearing this week, he was pressed by senators on his record on abortion and religious freedom. 


In one exchange during Becerra’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), asked Becerra why he voted against a ban on partial-birth abortion. 


Becerra replied, “When I come to these issues, I understand that we may not always agree on where to go, but I think we can find some common ground on these issues.”


Romney said, “I think we can reach common ground on many issues, but on partial-birth abortion it sounds like we’re not going to reach common ground there.”

Bishop: Mozambique’s persecuted Christians living an ‘experience of the cross’

Rome Newsroom, Feb 25, 2021 / 09:01 am (CNA).- Catholics living in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province have lived an “experience of the cross” amid the escalation of terrorist violence over the past three years, according to their former bishop.

An Islamic militant insurgency has launched hundreds of attacks in the northern province, killing more than 2,000 people since October 2017. Violence peaked in 2020 with beheadings, kidnappings, and attacks on churches. 

Brazilian Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa served as a missionary in Mozambique for nearly 20 years with six and a half years as the bishop of the Pemba diocese in Cabo Delgado. He was recently appointed to lead a diocese in Brazil after living through three years of war in his diocese.

“It was an extremely searing experience, an experience of the cross, an experience of suffering,” Lisboa said in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need published on Feb. 25.

“This war has helped me to learn many lessons. The most important of them is the greatness of these people, who are poor, but have a sense of profound solidarity,” he said.

“When I was there I witnessed many things, I heard many personal stories and saw many different situations and I realized just how much, even in poverty, we can help, we can share.”

Nearly 670,000 people have been internally displaced by the violence and 1.3 million in Mozambique are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, according to a United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report this month.

“During this time of war every family which wasn’t forced to flee took in one or two, or even three, refugee families into their home, on the back porch, and shared the little they had with those who had nothing at all and had been wandering, desperate and directionless,” the bishop said. 

“So now I believe that this experience of the people of Cabo Delgado will stay with me for ever.” 

Earlier this month, Pope Francis appointed Lisboa to serve as bishop of Cachoeiro de Itapemirim in the Southeast Region of his native Brazil.

The Holy See press office said on Feb. 11 that Pope Francis had given the 65-year-old bishop, who belongs to the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ (Passionists), the title of “Archbishop ad personam.”

When asked about his transfer, Pemba replied: “The mission is of God, it is not ours. We are simply the instruments of God. Within the Church, one of the characteristics of the missionary, and especially of the religious -- for I myself am also a religious -- is itinerancy.”

“We are never fixed in one place, but are transferred wherever the Church needs us, wherever God sends us, which is why we must always be ready to dismantle our tent and set it up again elsewhere.”

“And at this time Pope Francis has considered it better that I should go and work in another place. I accept and I thank him for all the support that he has given us, for all the commitment he has shown, and all the concern he has felt and continues to feel for Cabo Delgado, because in addition to praying for them, he wishes to go on helping this people.”

Pope Francis called Lisboa in August 2020 after militants linked to the Islamic State seized control of the port city of Mocimboa da Praia. Since then there have been reports that the militants beheaded more than 50 people while carrying out executions in a soccer field in November in the province. 

During Holy Week in 2020, insurgents perpetrated attacks on seven towns and villages in Cabo Delgado province, burning down a church on Good Friday, and killing 52 young people who refused to join the terrorist group. 

According to Pemba diocese, at least five or six local chapels, as well as some mosques, were burned by the Islamic extremists in 2020, including the historic Sacred Heart of Jesus mission in Nangolo.

The Vatican has yet to announce who will replace Lisboa as the next bishop of Pemba. Pope Francis has appointed Bishop António Juliasse Ferreira Sandramo, auxiliary bishop of Maputo, as apostolic administrator of the diocese.

“My time in the diocese of Pemba was a great apprenticeship for me. I had always wanted to work in Africa as a missionary, and God granted me this grace. And in the end, I spent almost 20 years there,” Lisboa noted.

“Africa will always be a part of me,” he said. “When we change our location, change our dwelling, we have to start learning again, to begin anew; we have to respect the people, the culture, the languages, the way of life -- and all these things enrich us. I am quite sure that I have received much more than I have given.”

Vatican abuse trial: Witnesses say allegations about youth seminary were ignored

Vatican City, Feb 25, 2021 / 08:00 am (CNA).- Witnesses at the fifth hearing in a trial for alleged abuse and cover-up at a Vatican youth seminary testified on Wednesday to an unhealthy culture of ridicule and abuse of power.

The witnesses also alleged that reports of sexual abuse were ignored or dismissed by authority figures, including the cardinal in charge of St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Three former students at the Pius X pre-seminary testified before the city state’s court on Feb. 24 that the environment was “unhealthy,” indicating that taunts of a sexual nature were common and that they had witnessed one of the accused grope the genitals of other students.

The three witnesses also alleged that reports of abuse were known by Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, who dismissed them as “false and calumny.” It was reported in the course of the hearing that Comastri may have blocked the removal of the pre-seminary’s then rector, one of the defendants.

Located inside Vatican City State, the Pius X pre-seminary is a residence for about a dozen boys aged 12 to 18 who serve at papal Masses and other liturgies in St. Peter’s Basilica and are considering the priesthood.

The pre-seminary is run by a religious group, the Opera Don Folci, which is overseen by the Diocese of Como in northern Italy. 

The defendants in the trial are 28-year-old Fr. Gabriele Martinelli, a former student at the pre-seminary, and 72-year-old Fr. Enrico Radice, the seminary’s former rector.

Martinelli has been charged with using violence and his position of authority to commit sexual abuse against a younger student. Radice has been charged with impeding investigations into the abuse allegations against Martinelli.

Martinelli has defended his innocence of the charges, calling the accusations against him “unfounded” and intended to “strike” at the pre-seminary.

Radice has maintained that he was never told about abuse by Martinelli by anyone, and has accused the alleged victim and another alleged witness of making up the story for “economic interests.”

Martinelli, who was not a cleric at the time of the alleged abuse, was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Como in 2017.

The alleged victim, identified as L.G., was born in 1993 and was 13 at the time the alleged abuse began, turning 18 about a year before it ended.

In testimony on Feb. 24, witnesses said that Martinelli was “protected” by the ex-rector and given roles of responsibility, bypassing even two other seminary faculty who were priests.

“The rector had allowed Martinelli to feel he was already a priest from the beginning,” according to one witness, who left the pre-seminary after a month, due to what he called “an exhausting experience” because of an environment of gossip and taunts about one’s physical appearance or “effeminate behaviors.”

The three witnesses said that they did not have direct knowledge of sexual abuse against L.G. as described in the charges, but testified that they had seen Martinelli engage in inappropriate behaviors such as sexual advances and momentary genital touching of boys other than the alleged victim L.G.

The Pius X pre-seminary was described by the former students as an environment with “psychological pressures,” where it was common to hear “homosexual jokes” and other lewd comments. Martinelli was described as having a “dominant role, very strong,” and a “homosexual demeanor.”

L.G. was described by one witness as “extremely credible,” but a bit delicate because of a difficult family situation.

One witness testified that Martinelli and L.G. seemed to hate each other and never speak, but that Martinelli also gave L.G. and another student special favors, positing that Martinelli was motivated by fear of what they could reveal about him. This other former student was also scheduled to testify on Feb. 24 but did not present himself at the hearing.

One witness recalled having seen Martinelli touch the genitals of another student, “like an implicit request for sexual intercourse.” This student refused the advance and afterward “fell out of favor” with Martinelli. He became “marginalized” and was psychologically pressured to leave the pre-seminary, which he eventually did.

This alleged victim was also scheduled to testify in the Feb. 24 hearing, but had been excused by the court for an unidentified reason.

All three witnesses spoke about knowledge on the part of superiors about inappropriate behaviors. One said that he was “very sure” that the seminary authorities were informed of the abuse accusations, that “Radice knew but did nothing,” and that attempts at making complaints to him fell on deaf ears.

One witness also claimed to have sent an anonymous letter to Pope Francis two years after leaving the pre-seminary about what he had seen there and stated that L.G. had once asked him to deliver a letter to the pope for him, which he did not do because he “didn’t feel like it and there was no opportunity.”

Fr. Pierre Paul, a priest and the director of the Capella Giulia, a choir of St. Peter’s Basilica, testified on Feb. 24, saying that L.G. had confided in him.

“He never explicitly told me what was wrong but it was understood that they were problems of the affective-sexual sphere,” Paul said.

Paul made a report to the Commission for the Protection of Minors, part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, in 2017. He said Wednesday that he had wanted to make a report earlier but had been stopped by L.G.

Thursday morning, the court of the Vatican City State’s again convened for the questioning of the Bishop Oscar Cantoni of Como, who was installed in the diocese in 2016 and ordained Martinelli a priest in 2017.

Bishop Diego Coletti, the bishop emeritus of Como who led the diocese from 2006 to 2016, presented a medical note to be excused from questioning and was not present.

Cantoni testified on Feb. 25 that before ordaining Martinelli to the priesthood, he had spoken with the rector of the Pius X pre-seminary and the rector of the Pontifical French Seminary in Rome, which Martinelli attended for his priestly studies.

Both, according to Cantoni, had told him that Martinelli “had made a positive path” and was ready for ordination.

“All the people I had asked for an opinion on Martinelli, who had had anything to do with him after the [transitional] diaconate,” said there had been nothing wrong in his behavior, Cantoni said.

Cantoni admitted to there having been, between September 2006 and June 2012, signals from priests speaking about “sexually inappropriate conduct” on Martinelli’s part. But he said these accusations dated back to before Martinelli was a cleric and therefore were outside the existing norms for sexual abuse of a minor by clergy.

“Since he has been in Como, first as a deacon and then as a priest, there has not been a report. It was a transitory homosexual tendency linked to adolescence,” the bishop said.

Bishop Cantoni also added that since becoming a priest, no one has ever issued a complaint to him about Martinelli.

It was revealed in the course of the hearing that there had been some question about whose jurisdiction the Pius X pre-seminary fell under, since it is located on Vatican property, but managed by the Opera Don Folci, which is located in the Diocese of Como.

Cantoni said he asked for clarification on this question from Cardinal Comastri, who said he was not responsible as archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica and vicar general for the Vatican City State.

The bishop said that since “we lived in ambiguity,” he asked Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, who said that “there was no pact between the Vatican and Como.”

“I was able to clarify that the ultimate responsibility lies with the Diocese of Como,” Cantoni said.

The Diocese of Como is currently investigating the Opera Don Folci, focusing primarily on economic and pedagogical matters. The investigation has been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.

L.G., the alleged victim, will take the witness stand at the next hearing, scheduled for March 17. On March 18, the court will inspect the pre-seminary. Another hearing date has been set for April 14.

EU Catholic bishops criticize European Parliament resolution on Poland’s abortion law

CNA Staff, Feb 25, 2021 / 06:15 am (CNA).- Catholic bishops across Europe have criticized a European Parliament resolution on Poland’s abortion law.

In a letter released on Feb. 25, the bishops said that the resolution, passed on Nov. 26, 2020, would have “a very negative impact” on the way that the European Union (EU) is seen by member states.

The European Parliament, the EU’s law-making body, passed the resolution by 455 votes to 145 after Poland’s top court ruled that a 1993 law permitting abortion for fetal abnormalities was unconstitutional.

The resolution lamented what it called a “de facto ban on the right to abortion in Poland.”

Before the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling on Oct. 22, Polish law permitted abortion only in cases of rape or incest, a risk to the mother’s life, or fetal abnormality. 

Following the publication of the ruling on Jan. 27, abortion will continue to remain legal in cases of rape or incest and risk to the mother’s life.

In their letter dated Feb. 22, the bishops said: “From a legal perspective we wish to underline that neither European Union legislation nor the European Convention on Human Rights provide for a right to abortion. This matter is left up to the legal systems of the member states.”

The letter was addressed to David Maria Sassoli, president of the European Parliament, and signed by members of the standing committee of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE).

The letter followed criticism of the resolution by Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of Poland’s bishops’ conference.

In a Dec. 2 statement, Gądecki said that there could be no compromise on the right to life. 

He said: “The right to life is a fundamental human right. It always takes precedence over the right to choose, because no person can authoritatively allow the possibility of killing another.”

The EU bishops underlined the Catholic Church’s support for women facing difficult pregnancies as well as for the protection of unborn life. 

They suggested that the resolution downplayed “a fundamental principle of European Union” known as the “principle of conferral,” which confines the EU to acting within limits agreed by member states.

“As the Parliament’s resolution rightly stresses, respect for the rule of law is essential for the functioning of the Union. That being said, the rule of law also requires respect for the competences of the member states and the choices made by them in the exercise of their exclusive competences,” the bishops wrote.

They said that the resolution also appeared to question the right to conscientious objection. 

“This is particularly worrying considering that in the healthcare sector conscientious objectors are in many cases subject to discrimination. In our view, such unjust stigmatization should not be promoted,” they said.

They added: “In regard to the right to conscientious objection, the European Union Charter entails the need to respect national constitutional traditions and the development of national legislation on the issue.”

The bishops also expressed concern that the principle of “non-discrimination,” highlighted in the resolution, could be used to “stretch or blur the limits” of the EU’s authority over member states.

COMECE, founded in 1980, consists of bishops delegated by the bishops’ conferences of the 27 member states of the European Union. The letter was signed by COMECE’s president Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg; Bishop Mariano Crociata of Latina, Italy; Bishop Franz Josef Overbeck of Essen, Germany; Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor, Northern Ireland; and Bishop Jan Vokal of Hradec Králové, Czech Republic.

In the letter, the bishops alluded to mass protests in Poland in the wake of the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling. Demonstrators disrupted Masses while holding signs supporting abortion, left graffiti on Church property, vandalized statues of St. John Paul II, and chanted slogans at clergy. 

The bishops said: “We also noted with sadness that no condemnation or solidarity was expressed in the text with regard to the unacceptable attacks on churches and places of worship in the context of protests related to this law in Poland.”