Washington D.C., Jul 31, 2014 / 08:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Congressional representatives have introduced a resolution to protect persecuted Christians and other minorities in Iraq, as Islamist militants consolidate control over portions of the country's northwest.

“For 1,600 years, Mosul has been a center of Christian life,” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb), referring to Iraq’s second-largest city, said in a July 30 speech before Congress. “Today, not a single Christian remains in the city.”

The Sunni militant organization ISIS took control of Mosul, in northern Iraq, in June, and on July 18 the group issued an ultimatum to Christians in the city insisting they convert to Islam, pay jizya, or be killed.

Thousands of Christians and other religious minorities fled the city, seeking refuge in villages in the Nineveh Plains and Kurdistan.

“We are witnessing an ongoing crime against humanity,” the congressman stressed as he introduced the resolution.

Fortenberry, along with Anna Eshoo (D-Calif), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and Frank Wolf (R-Va.), introduced a resolution that would help protect Christians and other religious minorities facing religious as well as ethnic persecution in Iraq's Nineveh province, much of which is now controlled by ISIS.

The resolution calls for action to ensure safety and basic human resources such as water and shelter for civilians.

Some of the Christians displaced from Mosul have fled to the towns of Bakhdida, Bartella, and Bashiqa, all of which are within 30 miles of Mosul. They all suffer from a lack of drinking water, electricity, and medicine, ISIS having cut off their supplies.

The homes of Christians who have fled Mosul have been marked with the Arabic letter 'nun', standing for 'nusrani' – meaning Nazarene, or Christian. The homes have been confiscated for use by ISIS.

ISIS have not limited their attacks to Christians, however; all non-Sunni communities of Mosul are targets. Shia mosques have been demolished, and the Yazidi, an ethno-religious community, have also been targeted. The homes of Shiites have been marked with 'ra', standing for 'rejecter.'

Currently, the bi-partisan resolution has more than 50 co-sponsors.

The bill would require mechanisms that would prevent the diversion of humanitarian aid from its intended recipients, and make preparations for the resettlement and economic assistance of victims of persecution.

If passed, the resolution would call on Congress, the U.S. president and secretary of state, and the UN Security Council, to consider “an urgent international humanitarian intervention to speed assistance to communities facing ferocious ethnic and religious cleansing,” Fortenberry explained.

“The world cannot simply watch as the region’s refugee crisis worsens every day. We must act for the principles of basic human rights and religious freedom that our international endeavors seek to champion.”

More than 1 million Christians lived in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion, but their numbers have now plummeted and observers fear that they could soon be eliminated from the country altogether.

According to Patriarch Sako, Mosul itself had 60,000 Christians prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003, which had fallen to 35,000 by this year.

Washington D.C., Jul 31, 2014 / 05:10 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The announcement that Rabbi David Saperstein is being tapped as the next U.S. ambassador for global religious freedom has drawn concern based on his recent statements on the issue at home.

“I've been following David's activities for 30 years,” Rabbi Aryeh Spero of the Caucus for America told CNA. “I’m not confident he will address the greatest threat to religious freedom today, which is radical Islam’s oppression and persecution of Christians across many parts of the world as well as its threats against Jewish people.”

President Barack Obama on Monday announced plans to nominate Saperstein as Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The position had been vacant for nine months, since the resignation of the former ambassador.

Religious freedom groups thanked the president for taking a step toward filling the position. However, some groups questioned whether Saperstein will truly protect religious freedom abroad.

In addition to serving as the current director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Saperstein was the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 1999, and served on the White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In 2009, Newsweek named him the most influential rabbi in America.

However, Saperstein’s views on domestic religious liberty issues have prompted fears about his understanding of religious liberty. The rabbi took issue with the Supreme Court after it ruled this summer that the “closely-held” business Hobby Lobby was protected by federal law from being forced to comply with parts of the HHS contraception mandate against its owners’ religious beliefs.

The rabbi claimed that corporations like Hobby Lobby could not be protected as persons under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law he supported the passage of in 1993.

He also supported a Senate bill that would have overturned the Hobby Lobby decision and required religious employers with group health plans to cover birth control, regardless of their religious beliefs. The U.S. bishops and religious freedom advocates throughout the country staunchly opposed the bill, saying it would do away with conscience protections for business owners.

“In the weeks following the dismaying ruling in Hobby Lobby, we commend the Senate and House for taking swift action to ensure that women do not lose access to critical contraceptive care because of their employers’ religious objection,” Saperstein said of the bill.

The legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom said that it is “troubling that this nominee’s most recent statements regarding religious freedom were in opposition to religious freedom for family business owners.”

The Catholic Association, a group that works to defend Church teaching in the public square, agreed and went even further, saying the nomination showed a “callous disregard for religious liberty” on behalf of the president.

“This baffling appointment is akin to putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” said Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor for the group.

“How can a man that favors upending longstanding, bi-partisan religious liberty protections at home be trusted to protect those persecuted for their faith overseas?” asked the organization’s senior fellow Ashley McGuire, citing Saperstein’s views on the Hobby Lobby decision.

Rabbi Spero told CNA that both Saperstein and the Obama administration have indicated that they will not defend persecuted Christians and Jews like they may support other oppressed faith groups.

“In my opinion, he will not issue nearly enough statements, if any, spotlighting the attacks, the oppression on Christians coming from the hands of Islam and in the name of Islam. He will rarely do that,” said Rabbi Spero.

“I don’t think he will because thus far, after six years I haven’t heard President Obama speak to the atrocities, the human rights violations committed in the name of Islam against who they call infidels,” he said.
 

Washington D.C., Jul 31, 2014 / 11:42 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The child migrant crisis at the U.S-Mexico border shows the need for a Catholic response and for sound government policy to help children who are fleeing violence, several Catholic experts have said.

“As a Church, our first focus is that we are assisting members of our human family in need,” Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, said during a live internet chat July 29. “The Catholic response has to be compassionate, and must recognize the human faces within this issue.”
 
Bishop Flores, who serves on the U.S. bishops’ conference subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs, said his diocese is one of the common entry points into the U.S. for unaccompanied children and young mothers with children.

The number of unaccompanied child migrants to the U.S. has doubled in the past year, many from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Combined with adult migrants, their numbers have helped overwhelm housing facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Child migrants were the focus of a live webchat from the Catholics Confront Global Poverty initiative, a project of Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Jill Marie Gerschutz-Bell, a legislative affairs specialist in Catholic Relief Services’ D.C. Office, said the situation is a “refugee crisis” due to “violence, insecurity and displacement in Central America and Mexico.”

“The gangs which are terrorizing young people and their families here initially got their start on the streets of Los Angeles,” she said. U.S. deportation of young people to Central America in the 1990s helped the gangs “flourish” due to the lack of jobs and easy access to weapons in the receiving countries.

“Today Honduras and El Salvador are among the most violent countries in the world, and parents are willing to do whatever it takes to bring their kids to safety,” said Gerschutz-Bell.

The current crisis is a result of “desperation” in Latin America, according to Erica Dahl-Bredine. She has served as Catholic Relief Services’ country representative in El Salvador since 2010.

The U.S. bishops’ conference is backing a Senate bill that would include $300 million to address “push factors” that encourage migration from Central America, including violence, economic deprivation and family disintegration.

Catholic Relief Services is also working to address these factors and to prevent the overturning of U.S. laws that protect children.

Dahl-Bredine said the U.S. government needs to work with Central American governments to improve policing and joint law enforcement strategies. Effort is also needed to expand violence prevention programs that have been “proven to work.”

One CRS program, Youthbuilders, helps at-risk Central American youth who are at risk find employment or education. It has an 80 percent retention rate. Its relief programs in Honduras aim to keep children in school, to create rural development programs, and to help families support themselves and their children. Other programs in both Honduras and El Salvador aim to teach life and job skills, providing job placement and social support to create alternatives to crime and violence.

Dahl-Bredine said that drug-related violence is fueled in part by U.S. demand for drugs, while the U.S.-led effort to boost anti-drug enforcement has also led to “a lot of human rights violations.”

Bishop Flores noted the importance of reunifying children with their families.

“Once children are in Border Patrol custody, the Department of Health and Human Services seeks out family members either in the United States or in their home countries, and makes sure these claims are authentic,” he said. “Ninety percent of children are successfully reunited with their families.”

Kevin Appleby, director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Migration Policy, said that the children are being given health screenings and receiving immunizations. He noted that unaccompanied children who have arrived since October 2013 from Central America are largely still in the country, due to a human trafficking law designed to ensure they are not returned to “dangerous or even deadly situations.”

However, those who have arrived with their families or from Mexico are generally quickly deported under present law, despite the fact that an estimated 64 percent of child migrants from Mexico are also fleeing violence.

Bishop Flores encouraged Catholics to become informed about the issues and aid migrant assistance efforts in their hometowns. He noted that Catholic Charities USA has set up a refugee assistance fund.

Appleby encouraged Catholics to contact their federal legislators.

“There is a clear moral choice here – we can protect and care for these children and assist them in their need for protection,” he said. “Our country can take care of these children and live up to our international obligations.”