Vehicles belonging to Gadhafi forces explode after an airstrike by coalition forces. (CNS photo/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)VATICAN CITY- Pope Benedict XVI made an urgent appeal to political and military leaders to protect the safety and security of civilians and guarantee the free flow of humanitarian aid inside Libya.

He said the "worrying news from Libya" in the past few days caused him "deep trepidation and fear," and he kept the North African country's people in his prayers during his Lenten retreat March 13-19.

Speaking to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square March 20 for the recitation of the Angelus, the pope said, "I address a pressing appeal to those who have political and military responsibilities" to ensure the safety and security of defenseless citizens as well as guarantee those offering emergency assistance have access to those in need.

Throngs welcome Aristide to Haiti after seven-year absence

Supporters of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide cheer before his arrival outside the international airport in Port-au-Prince. (CNS photo)PORT-AU-PRINCE - Amid blaring horns and cheering crowds, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to his native Haiti March 18.

The exiled leader touched down about 9:20 a.m. at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, and his arrival sent the crowds that had gathered throughout the morning into joyous cheering and flag-waving.

Under heavy security, parading groups of people circled the airport grounds, shouting their support and displaying fliers with Aristide's image and the message "Bon Retour" ("Good return"). UN troops and the Haitian National Police were stationed at numerous locations.

Other supporters of the ousted former leader drove on roads near the airport, handing out fliers and flags and shouting.

Vatican welcomes European court decision on classroom crucifixes

A crucifix hangs in a school classroom in Rome. (CNS photo/Reuters)VATICAN CITY - Crucifixes displayed publicly in Italy, including in classrooms, are a sign of Christianity's key contribution to European culture and civilization, said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Christianity is a "founding element" of Western civilization and "even if someone does not want to recognize it, it is an objective fact that the Christian presence is absolutely relevant, decisive,"  the cardinal told reporters March 18.

Ravasi spoke just a few hours before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Italy in a case where a mother claimed crucifixes in Italian public-school classrooms violated her children's freedom of conscience. A lower chamber of the European court had ruled in 2009 that the classroom crucifixes violated the religious freedom clauses of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Japanese bishops to set up center to coordinate operations in Sendai


A woman and children walk past rubble in Minamisanriku, northeastern Japan March 16. More than 400,000 people were made homeless. (CNS photo/Kyodo/Reuters)ROME - Japanese church officials are setting up an emergency center to coordinate humanitarian aid operations in Sendai, the area most devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The center will be managed by Caritas Japan and will draw on the resources of numerous Catholic volunteers who have come forward in the wake of the disaster, the Vatican missionary news agency Fides reported.

Japan's bishops, meeting in Sendai March 16, decided to establish the center and initiate additional relief efforts under the supervision of Caritas.

"The biggest buildings in Sendai withstood the very strong earthquake. The greatest damage was caused by the tsunami. The panorama of destruction is striking. Now we'll have to roll up our shirt sleeves. People are expecting our help," said Father Daisuke Narui, executive director of Caritas Japan.

Religious violence unlikely in Egypt

A Christian cleric clasps hands with a Muslim sheik during a rally to demonstrate unity between Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, March 11. The rally took place after recent sectarian clashes left 13 people dead. (CNS photo/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany, Reuters)Despite a church-burning and Muslim-Christian rioting that killed 13 and wounded 140 in a Christian neighbourhood in Cairo March 8, Egyptian Christians don’t believe their country is headed for a spiral of Iraq-style religious violence.

“Egypt won’t become Iraq because the nature of the Egyptian person throughout history is that he loves to live in peace,” Catholic student Fady Bushra told The Catholic Register in an e-mail from Cairo.

“We are all angry. It has nothing to do with being Christian or being Muslim. We are all Egyptians,” said Egyptian-born Germaine Raie of Holy Family Coptic Catholic Church in Toronto.

But even as they express confidence that Egyptians don’t want communal violence, Raie and Bushra are worried there could be more incidents.

D&P, Sharelife among groups raising funds for Japan disaster relief


A woman weeps after being told of the death of relatives. Japanese officials are estimating that 10,000 people may have lost their lives. (CNS photo/Reuters/Kyodo)TOKYO - As the magnitude of the disaster in Japan unfolded, religious and humanitarian aid organizations stepped up efforts to provide assistance for survivors.

Among the organizations mobilizing assistance is the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. D&P is accepting donations to help with the situation in Japan and in support of Caritas Japan, said communications officer Kelly Di Domenico in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

"The money will go towards reconstruction projects as it is foreseen that those who are most vulnerable will need help in getting re-established," she said.

The March 11 earthquake was followed by tsunamis that wiped out entire cities and by fears of catastrophe at nuclear power stations damaged in the quake. Government officials estimated that tens of thousands of people lost their lives in the disasters.

Pope Benedict calls for prayer for victims of disaster in Japan


A woman weeps while sitting amid destruction in Natori, Japan. The area is one of the worst affected following Friday's quake. (CNS photo/Asahi Shimbun/Reuters) VATICAN CITY - Saying he, too, was horrified by the images of the death and destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Pope Benedict XVI asked people to join him in praying for the victims.

"May the bereaved and injured be comforted and may the rescue workers be strengthened in their efforts to assist the courageous Japanese people," the Pope said in English March 13 after reciting the Angelus prayer with visitors in St. Peter's Square.

Government officials estimated that perhaps 10,000 people lost their lives after the earthquake March 11 and the tsunami it triggered.

Speaking in Italian after the Angelus, the Pope said, "The images of the tragic earthquake and the consequent tsunami in Japan have left us deeply horrified.

Japanese Church officials still assessing damage from quake, tsunamis


Houses and cars are swept out to sea in Kesennuma, Japan. (CNS photo/Reuters/Yomiuri)TOKYO — Damage from a magnitude 8.9 earthquake and ensuing tsunamis were preventing Church officials in Japan from assessing needs as tsunami warnings were issued for 50 other countries and territories.

Yasufumi Matsukuma, a staffer at the Japanese bishops' conference, told the Asian Church news agency UCA News that most staffers would remain in the offices overnight because of suspended rail service and continuous aftershocks.

"In Tokyo, telephone lines are so busy that I cannot contact diocesan chancellor offices in Japan. Aftershocks have followed. The tsunamis are terrible and we cannot get any information concerning the Church yet," he said.

Pope's book presents Jesus as reconciler, not revolutionary

Copies of Pope Benedict XVI's new book are seen in a bookstore in Rome. (CNS photo)VATICAN CITY - In his new volume on "Jesus of Nazareth," Pope Benedict XVI presents the passion and resurrection of Christ as history-changing events that answer humanity's unceasing need to be reconciled with God.

The 384-page book, titled "Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week -- From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection," was officially released March 10. The pope had worked for several years on the text, the second in his series exploring the main events of Jesus' public ministry.

The Vatican said 1.2 million copies of the book had already been published in seven languages, and that an e-book version was also planned.

Lent fasting, almsgiving, prayer bring strength, Pope says


A young woman with ashes on her forehead attends Pope Benedict XVI's general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican March 9. Ash Wednesday marks the start of the penitential season of Lent. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)VATICAN CITY - Wishing all Christians a "happy Lenten journey," Pope Benedict XVI said fasting, almsgiving and prayer are traditionally suggested for Lent because they have proven to be effective tools for conversion.

Lent is a time "to accept Christ's invitation to renew our baptismal commitments" in order to arrive at Easter in a new and stronger state, the Pope said at his weekly general audience March 9, Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent for Latin-rite Catholics.

"This Lenten journey that we are invited to follow is characterized in the Church's tradition by certain practices: fasting, almsgiving and prayer," he told the estimated 7,000 people gathered in the Vatican audience hall.

Libyan youth seek a better future

LibyaVATICAN CITY - The top Church official in Libya said the country’s current unrest is based on legitimate requests by young people for a better future.

Oil-rich Libya, unlike other north Africa hot spots Tunisia and Egypt, has the resources to satisfy those requests, Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, the apostolic vicar of Tripoli, told Vatican Radio.

“The people are asking for some things that are just. And they are fundamental requests of young people: to be able to have a house, a better salary, a job,” Martinelli said.