JERUSALEM - The Pope had a simple plan as he set out for the Holy Land with a rabbi and a Muslim sheik in tow. But simple plans can be difficult to execute.

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JERUSALEM - Pope Francis spent the last morning of his three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land meeting with Muslims and Jews and calling for closer relations among the three major monotheistic religions as the basis for peace in the region.

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AMMAN, Jordan - Celebrating Mass on his first day in the Holy Land, Pope Francis said hope for peace in a region torn by sectarian conflicts comes from faith in God.

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Pope Francis was barely off the plane in Amman, Jordan when he began to take on the hardest and most delicate issues in the Middle East – including refugees.

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While Pope Francis says Mass in Manger Square, Bethlehem there will be peace talks in the Middle East.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - With the last round of peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority stalled if not moribund, some are hoping that a scheduled visit by Pope Francis to the Holy Land in May will breathe new life into the peace process.

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VATICAN CITY - Deploring war, civil conflict and poverty around the world, Pope Benedict XVI told foreign ambassadors assembled at the Vatican that peace-building requires charity, religious liberty, a proper understanding of human rights and openness to divine love.

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VATICAN CITY - Welcoming in the new year, Pope Benedict XVI said that despite the injustice and violence in the world, every human being yearns for and is made for peace.

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VATICAN CITY - At the end of a three-day meeting in Lebanon, the Catholic patriarchs and bishops of the Middle East said peace in the region will be impossible without a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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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.”

Published in International
November 28, 2012

Keys to peace

As this editorial is being written, the guns are silent in Israel and Gaza. But for how long? Hours, days, weeks? Maybe months, at best?

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CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (CNS) -- Amid increasing violence in eastern Congo, Pope Benedict XVI called for peaceful dialogue and greater protection of civilians there.

After praying the Angelus with pilgrims gathered in the courtyard of the papal summer residence Sept. 30, the pope said he was following, "with love and concern," the events unfolding in Congo.

Government soldiers have been stationed in Goma in the eastern part of the country for several months to fight the rebel group called "M23," which defected from the Congolese military.

Clashes, which intensified in the spring, have led more than 300,000 people to flee their homes, according to Vatican Radio.

The United Nations has said Rwandan defense officials are backing the rebel group, which has been accused of rape and the murder of civilians in its effort to control Congo's mineral-rich North Kivu province. Rwandan officials have denied allegations of assisting the rebels.

The pope said his prayers were with the "refugees, women and children, who because of prolonged armed clashes are subjected to suffering, violence and deep distress."

The pope called for the "peaceful means of dialogue and the protection of many innocent people" so that peace -- founded on justice -- may quickly return to the nation and the whole region.

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TORONTO - With a death toll estimated at 5.4 million and climbing and a campaign of rape reshaping the nation, Congolese religious leaders arrived in Canada with a petition signed by more than one million Congolese and a request that Canadians support practical measures for peace at the United Nations.

“You have a voice and your voice is strong to stop this war. You have the means to stop this war. And you have a way,” Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda of the United Methodist Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo told The Catholic Register.

The bishop was part of a delegation that visited the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto in mid-September. The delegation was at the university to speak to students about the effects of the war after meeting earlier in Ottawa with Canadian government officials.

The war in the Congo has officially been over since the Sun City Agreement installed a government of national unity under President Joseph Kabila in 2003, but in the eastern provinces militias and government troops continue to battle for control over lucrative mines. The most notorious of the militias, the M23 Movement, has had the quiet backing of the Rwandan government and finds refuge across the border.

In June United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called M23 leaders “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in the Congo, or in the world.” Human Rights Watch reports that since June M23 fighters have deliberately killed at least 15 civilians. They have also raped at least 46 women and girls — the youngest just eight years old. They killed a 25-year-old pregnant woman because she resisted and two other women died from wounds inflicted by their rapists, the organization says.

While the UN has one of its largest peacekeeping missions stationed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the troops lack basic equipment and the mandate is so weak it would be better to describe them as an observer mission, said Prof. Raymond Mutombo.

“We do not specifically ask Canada to reinforce the UN mission with troops as such,” said Mutombo. “But the request we’ve placed is to support our petition to the United Nations.”

The petition asks for a more robust peacekeeping mandate for troops.

“Canada certainly could do it,” said John Seibert, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a Kitchener, Ont.-based ecumenical think tank dedicated to peace and defence issues supported by the Canadian Council of Churches.

Canada wouldn’t have to dedicate large numbers of troops to the Congo to make a difference, Seibert said. Canada’s French-speaking officer corps, tactics, heavy transport equipment and communications equipment would give the UN mission a huge advantage over rebel groups that employ drugged-up child soldiers with AK-47 automatic rifles.

“Look at the equipment and experience gained in the Afghanistan mission — highly mobile, tough as nails, people who know how to interact with cultural difference,” said Seibert.

Getting the international community to condemn Rwanda has been a tough sell, said Mutombo.

“From 1994 when the genocide took place in Rwanda, the international community has been taken hostage,” he said.

Guilt over the international community’s inaction during the Rwandan genocide prevents criticism of its government.

“(Rwandan President) Paul Kagame is still held in some esteem because of his stopping the genocide and bringing stability to Rwanda,” said Seibert. “That does not give him a get-out-of-jail-free card on activities in the DRC.”

Much of the fighting is over control of coltan, or more formally columbite-tantalite, an essential ingredient in the capacitors at the heart of cellphones, tablet computers, hearing aids, pacemakers and other products. As of 2009, 44.3 per cent of the world’s coltan originated in the Congo, compared to just 3.7 per cent in Canada.

Research In Motion, the Canadian company whose Blackberry phones constitute about 10 per cent of the world’s smartphones, has a “responsible minerals policy” and a “supplier code of conduct” to ensure it does not use conflict minerals in its phones. But corrupt businesses in Rwanda working with M23 rebels are able to disguise the origins of coltan they sell on the international market, according to the Congolese Church leaders.

“Coltan is just a mineral. Human life is more than a mineral,” said Ntanda. “Human life is being destroyed for no reason. People are being killed for no reason.”

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace said it hears the same demands for international intervention to stop the violence from its partners in the Congo, said program officer Serge Blais. Development and Peace works extensively with the Congo’s Catholic bishops on projects that encourage people to engage in the democratic process.

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BKERKE, Lebanon - Pope Benedict XVI urged young Christians in the Middle East not to flee violence and economic insecurity through emigration, but to draw strength from their faith and make peace in their troubled region.

The pope spoke to some 20,000 young people from several Middle Eastern countries gathered outside the residence of the Maronite patriarch in Bkerke in a celebration that included fireworks, spotlights, singing and prayer.

The crowd began to form hours before Pope Benedict arrived in the popemobile a little after 6 p.m. After passing through the metal detector and the gates of Bkerke, visitors were greeted by Scouts who gave them an olive branch to wave to welcome the pope and a knapsack containing water, snacks, an Arabic Bible and the new edition of the youth catechism -- "YouCat," a gift from Pope Benedict.

A giant rosary fashioned from yellow and blue balloons hovered over the crowd, its colors blending in with the cloudless sky and Mediterranean Sea below the hillside.

Pope Benedict asked young Christians, whose population is diminishing across the Middle East, not to abandon their homelands.

"Not even unemployment and uncertainty should lead you to taste the bitter sweetness of emigration, which involves an uprooting and a separation for the sake of an uncertain future," he said. "You are meant to be protagonists of your country's future and to take your place in society and in the church."
Warning against escapism, the pope urged his listeners not to "take refuge in parallel worlds like those, for example, of the various narcotics or the bleak world of pornography."

He acknowledged that online social networks are interesting, but said they "can quite easily lead to addiction and confusion between the real and the virtual." He called money a "tyrannical idol which blinds to the point of stifling the person at the heart."

Offering encouragement, the pope invoked the inspiration of the first Christians, inhabitants of the Middle East who "lived in troubled times and their faith was the source of their courage and their witness."

"Courageously resist everything opposed to life: abortion, violence, rejection of and contempt for others, injustice and war," Pope Benedict said. "In this way you will spread peace all around you."

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, in his welcoming speech, told the pope, "These youths suffer from social, political and economic crises that negatively affect their faith and cause some of them to lose the real meaning of their Christian identity."

Two youths spoke to the pope, basing their remarks on input from young Christians from all over Lebanon.

The Middle East's young Christians, they said, "yearn for peace and dream of a future without wars, a future where we will play an active role, where we work with our brothers, the young people of different religions to build a civilization of love ... homelands where human rights and freedom are respected, where each one's dignity is protected."

"We are looking for a culture of peace," they said, calling for the condemnation of violence. "We want to be living bridges, mediators of dialogue and cooperation."

The crowd cheered when the pope said he did not forget the Syrian people, stressing that he is always praying for them and that he is glad there were some Syrian people at the gathering.

Syria's civil war has left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees since March 2011.

"The pope is saddened by your sufferings and your grief," he said, his first public reference to the Syrian conflict since he arrived in Lebanon. "It is time for Muslims and Christians to come together so as to put an end to violence and war."

Pope Benedict also offered a word of thanks to the Muslims in attendance, urging them to work with Christians to build up the region.

"Muslims and Christians, Islam and Christianity, can live side by side without hatred, with respect for the beliefs of each person, so as to build together a free and humane society," the pope said.

After young people presented the prayer intentions, fireworks erupted from all corners of Bkerke, taking the pope by surprise. Sparklers cascaded from the roof of the outdoor chapel facing the stage, lighting up the sky.

At the conclusion of the gathering, spotlights atop the chapel illuminated the courtyard. The huge inflatable globe that had been placed earlier under the cross was sent airborne, with young people bouncing it like a volleyball.

A light show flashed "take-home" reminders on the walls: "love," "missionaries of peace," "pray."

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BEIRUT - Peace will not come to the Middle East until its nations enjoy religious freedom, since only the free practice of faith can inspire the region's diverse peoples to unite around basic human values, Pope Benedict XVI said Sept. 15.

The pope addressed a multifaith gathering of Lebanon's political, religious and cultural leaders at the presidential palace in Baabda on the second day of a three-day visit to the country.

Pope Benedict's travels coincided with a wave of often-violent protests -- prompted by an American-made film denigrating Islam -- in at least a dozen Muslim countries. On Sept. 14, protesters denounced the papal visit during a demonstration in the Lebanese city of Tripoli; one person died and 25 were wounded in a clash that followed.

In his speech to the nation's leaders, the pope did not refer specifically to any of the region's many past or present conflicts, including the current civil war in neighboring Syria, but noted that the "centuries-old mix" of cultures and religions in the Middle East has not always been peaceful.

Peace requires a pluralistic society based on "mutual respect, a desire to know the other, and continuous dialogue," the pope said, and such dialogue in turn depends on consciousness of sharing fundamental human values, cherished and sustained in common by different religions. Thus, he argued, "religious freedom is the basic right on which many rights depend."

The pope spoke after meeting privately with Lebanon's president and prime minister, the president of parliament, and leaders of the country's four major Muslim communities: Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Alawite. Lebanon's population is estimated to be about 60 percent Muslim and almost 40 percent Christian, with both groups divided into many smaller communities.

In an apparent reference to the many Middle Eastern countries that restrict the practice or expression of religions other than Islam, the pope said that freedom must go beyond "what nowadays passes for tolerance," which he said "does not eliminate cases of discrimination" but sometimes "even reinforces them."

"The freedom to profess and practice one's religion without danger to life and liberty must be possible to everyone," he said.

Those remarks echoed portions of a document that Pope Benedict signed the previous night in Harissa and was to present formally Sept. 16 at an outdoor Mass in Beirut. The document is a collection of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops dedicated to Christians in the Middle East.

In his talk in Baabda, the pope did not explicitly address the topic of religiously inspired violence, but included a single reference to terrorism and the assertion that "authentic faith does not lead to death."

He also said that peace requires a shared respect for human life and dignity. Those values are undermined not only by war, he said, but by a range of social ills, including unemployment, corruption, "different forms of trafficking," and an "economic and financial mindset which would subordinate 'being' to 'having.'"

The pope also warned against ideologies that he said "undermine the foundations of our society" by "questioning, directly or indirectly, or even before the law, the inalienable value of each person and the natural foundation of the family" -- an apparent reference to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

In response to such threats, Pope Benedict said, political and religious leaders should promote a "culture of peace" through education, which he said would encourage a "conversion of heart" characterized above all by a willingness to forgive.

"Only forgiveness, given and received," the pope said, "can lay lasting foundations for reconciliation and universal peace."

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