VATICAN CITY - The Sistine Chapel's transformation from a world-famous tourist site to the prayer-filled space where cardinal electors will choose the next pope is under way.

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VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The College of Cardinals began their formal pre-conclave meetings March 4 with 142 members present, 103 of whom are under the age of 80 and eligible to enter the conclave to vote for a new pope.

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VATICAN CITY - When they are not in the Sistine Chapel, seated under Michelangelo's frescoes to vote for the next pope, the cardinal-electors will stay in a modern guesthouse that offers them both privacy and space to gather for relaxed conversation.

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Compromise has led to communists making 'slaves of the bishops'

TORONTO - At 81 years old, the bishop who once led hundreds of thousands through the streets of Hong Kong — defying Beijing, demanding democracy and an accountable government — is not holding his tongue.

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VATICAN CITY - From the moment he was elected pope at the age of 78 in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI has kept a schedule that appeared light compared to that of Blessed John Paul II, but busy for a man who already had a pacemaker and who wanted to retire to study, write and pray when he turned 75.

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DUBLIN - The head of the Redemptorist fathers in Rome said he deeply regrets the actions of an Irish member of the order who accused the Vatican of subjecting him to "frightening procedures reminiscent of the Inquisition."

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VATICAN CITY - The Catholic Church has never encouraged anyone to use ivory for religious devotional objects and, in fact, teaches that animals must be treated with respect, the Vatican spokesman said in a letter to "friends of the elephants."

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Updated 01/10/13

VATICAN CITY - The Catholic Church remains committed to deepening its relations with Jews and finds it "absolutely unacceptable" to consider the Jewish people as enemies, the Vatican spokesman said.

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VATICAN CITY -- Vatican City State vendors, including the Vatican Museums and supermarket, stopped accepting credit- and debit-card payments Jan. 1, citing technical difficulties amid unofficial reports of regulatory concerns by Italian financial authorities.

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VATICAN CITY - More than 2.3 million pilgrims and visitors joined Pope Benedict XVI for an audience, liturgy or prayer at the Vatican or Castel Gandolfo in 2012, the Vatican said.

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VATICAN CITY - A papal astronomer gave his reassurances that the world will not end Dec. 21, 2012.

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VATICAN CITY - Christmas in St. Peter's Square this year has a particularly southern Italian flavor with a towering tree from the Molise region and a Nativity scene donated by the Basilicata region.

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VATICAN CITY - New rules issued by Pope Benedict XVI for the governance of Catholic charities will not prevent such charities from accepting government funding,

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VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican praised a United Nations vote making Palestine a non-member observer state but called for full recognition of Palestinian sovereignty as necessary for peace in the region.

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VATICAN CITY - On the eve of his first trip to the Holy Land as grand master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien said he hoped to encourage the region’s Christian minority with a message of solidarity from Pope Benedict XVI and other Catholics in the West.

“The Church in the Holy Land has been under unfriendly domination throughout the centuries, and the fact that we still exist there is almost a miracle,” O’Brien told Catholic News Service Nov. 24. “We have to do everything we can as a Catholic people to encourage them and to let them know that we are one with them in their struggle.”

The cardinal left Rome Nov. 26 for a weeklong pilgrimage whose itinerary was to include Jerusalem, Bethlehem, West Bank, and Amman, Jordan. He was scheduled to meet with Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, who serves as the order’s grand prior, and other Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim leaders.

The cardinal also planned to visit a few of the more than 100 institutions that the knights support in the region, including parishes, schools and Bethlehem University.

O’Brien was not planning to visit the Gaza Strip and said he did not expect the recent fighting there to affect his visit, which was planned almost a year ago. But he noted that Twal has been on the “frontlines” in aiding victims of the violence there. Eight days of Israeli airstrikes, launched in retaliation for rocket attacks by Palestinian militants, killed more than 150 people and destroyed thousands of dwellings in Gaza before both sides agreed to a ceasefire Nov. 21.

“The Church does not take one side or the other” in the conflict, the cardinal said, “but simply says, do whatever we have to do to bring about peace and a secure way of living for all the people in that land that Christ walked.”

O’Brien noted that the Church’s charitable and educational activities in the Holy Land often serve a greater number of Muslims than Christians, which he said helped the cause of peace. He particularly noted the contribution of Christian Brothers-run Bethlehem University, in the West Bank, to interreligious harmony.

“More than half the students over the years have not been Christian,” the cardinal said. “And they graduate to leading positions in the Holy Land. Their gratitude to the Church and their influence in building bridges between Islam and Christianity, we just can’t measure the worth of that.

“We don’t do it so that we can get credit,” he said. “We do it so that the dignity of every human being will be developed to its highest potential. Bethlehem University, Madaba University, our high schools — all the good work that our people far away are doing to support these institutions is going to pay great dividends in the decades ahead.”

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