WASHINGTON - In prayerful celebration, more than 2,000 Catholics from all regions of the Archdiocese of Washington gathered June 24 as part of the local church's "fortnight for freedom" campaign in support of the United States' "first and most cherished freedom" -- religious liberty.

The U.S. bishops dedicated June 21 to July 4 as days to encourage Catholics nationwide to focus on prayer, education and action in defense of religious freedom.

For the rally, held at George Washington University's Smith Center, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington was joined by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry C. Knestout, and dozens of priests, religious sisters and laity.

The event, which included prayers, patriotic and religious hymns, as well as videos highlighting the nation's strong Catholic heritage, concluded with solemn Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Speaking about the election of Blessed John Paul II as pope, Cardinal Wuerl recalled when he celebrated his first public Mass, the new pontiff called upon the faithful to open wide their hearts to Christ, to put aside fear and "be not afraid."

"The challenge, 'Be not afraid,' should move us to engage our culture, our neighbors, our family and our friends," said Cardinal Wuerl. "The call is not just for priests to preach, but for the laity to respond. The response is threefold: prayer, education and action. The most important is prayer."

Throughout the service, the more than 50-member St. Augustine Parish Choir led the congregation in rousing renditions of some of the country's most beloved anthems, "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," as well religious hymns such as "I've Come This Far By Faith." Other hymns were led by the Schola of the Blessed John Paul II Seminary and the Sister Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara.

Videos highlighted the Catholic Church's deep roots of religious freedom, its history and impact in the United States from the nation's earliest days to the present.

A range of stirring images were seen, from American Catholic saints and heroes -- such as Archbishop John Carroll and St. Katharine Drexel -- to the waves of immigrants who built the nation to the 18th- and 19th-century anti-Catholic sentiment, to Catholics defending freedom in wars, to the church's staunch support of the civil rights movement, and concluding with the Catholic Church's present-day vital service in hospitals, schools and charities.

Father William Byrne, pastor of St. Peter Parish on Capitol Hill and archdiocesan secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns, was master of ceremonies.

"We have much to celebrate. We celebrate that we live in a great country, a great land," he said. "We celebrate the vital contributions we've made and a call to faithful citizenship. We are proud to be Americans and faithful Catholics."

Father Byrne also praised the work of women religious, who, throughout American history, have been the "hands and heart of Christ, serving the poorest of the poor," founding thousands of hospitals and schools all over the nation.

"We serve others not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic," said the priest.

At the conclusion of his address and prior to Benediction, Cardinal Wuerl said, "In the presence of our Lord, we will kneel. There is a time to be on one's knees. There is also a time when we need to stand -- to stand up. Today there are things that should mean enough to all of us, including our religious liberty, that we simply need to stand -- to stand up for what is right, to stand up for what is ours, to stand up for freedom of religion."

During the 90-minute rally, Catholics -- from elderly to young children -- listened intently, applauded and gave standing ovations in support of the church, the clergy, women religious and audience members who served in the armed forces.

Attendees interviewed by the Catholic Standard, Washington archdiocesan newspaper, said they appreciated the cardinal's message and his leadership. They also said they believe religious liberty in America is at stake at this moment in time and Catholics must speak out in its defense.

"Young people really do care about this issue. It's what our country was founded on," said Harlan Friddle, a University of Maryland student who came to the rally with about 15 of his classmates. "It's important because we shape the future and we have to teach our children what (religious freedom) means."

Charles Luckett, a third-year seminarian at The Catholic University of America's Theological College, said, "Our religious freedom is very important and is something that has been eroding for years. If we don't take a stand now, it will continue to collapse."

"This is a wonderful opportunity to be witnesses for our faith," said Patricia Kisicki, a parishioner at St. Patrick Parish in Rockville, Md. "It is very worrisome to think we could lose our freedom of religion."

Mary Beller, a parishioner of St. Bernadette Parish in Silver Spring, Md., said, "Our religious freedom means everything to us. This is what our mothers and fathers came to this country for and we need to preserve it for our children. We have to be united in this cause."

The closing Mass for the "fortnight for freedom" will be celebrated July 4 at 12:10 p.m. at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The main celebrant will be Cardinal Wuerl and the homilist will be Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia.

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Rarely is St. Thomas Aquinas a hot topic. The 13th century Angelic Doctor has been out of the news for some time.

But when Canada’s bishops recently issued a pastoral letter to remind “men and women of good will” about the centrality of conscience to the very idea of freedom, they were channelling St. Thomas via two of the Second Vatican Council’s most important declarations — Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae.

Issued on May 14, the bishops Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion defends the right of religious freedom and expression in the public square while affirming the right of conscience and conscientious objection. It urges believers to never compromise their faith “even if they must suffer for it.”

Published in Features

WASHINGTON - As Egyptians began voting to replace ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Christian minorities were anxious to see if the next government would end restrictions on religious freedom and attacks on religious minorities that had been on the rise the past couple of years.

Egypt was one of 16 countries that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom singled out for particular concern in its 2012 annual report, released in March. Egypt made the list for the second year in a row.

"Over the past year, the Egyptian transitional government continued to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief," the report said.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM TROUBLE SPOTS The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report lists governments that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom, according to the latest report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

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WASHINGTON - Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of young adults, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl encouraged them to pray and stand up for religious freedom.

Such freedom is being threatened, he said, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' mandate that would force Catholic institutions to provide employee health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures, all of which are morally opposed by the Catholic Church.

Published in International

OTTAWA - Canada's Catholic bishops have published a defense of freedom of conscience and religious freedom as these universal rights come under increasing threat around the world.

The Catholic community and other religious groups are "experiencing a worrisome erosion" of these freedoms, said Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Archbishop Richard Smith in an open letter introducing the "Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religious freedom" published May 14 at www.cccb.ca.

(Right-click and save-as to download the letter as a PDF)

Published in Canada

OXFORD, England - Sarajevo Catholic officials say the city's Muslim-dominated government is not protecting minority rights, but the mayor said his city is committed to providing a home for all religious faiths.

Sarajevo Mayor Alija Behmen said city authorities "treat all citizens equally and pay equal attention to all -- the structure of the city council and city administration is multinational and multireligious."

"Sarajevo has cultivated multiculturalism for centuries, which is a rarity in Europe, and will continue doing so. This is an axiom for our city's authorities," Behmen told Catholic News Service.

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OTTAWA - Canadians must stand together to oppose Christian persecution that is increasing around the world, said religious and political leaders at an event hosted by a prominent Jewish leader.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said it has become almost politically incorrect to discuss the persecution of Christians. He noted a disturbing trend that blames the actions of Christians in the past for the present persecution.

Published in Canada

VATICAN CITY - For Vatican historians, the roots of a Christian idea of religious liberty go way back: in fact, back 1,700 years to the Emperor Constantine's victory on Rome's Milvian Bridge and to his conversion.

At a Vatican conference in late April marking the anniversary, the head of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences said Constantine's victory in 312 under the sign of the cross was "the foundation of a new world" marked by religious freedom for Christians and separation between church and state.

Published in Features

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has appealed a federal judge's ruling that the Constitution forbids religious accommodation in the delivery of services under a federal contract.

The appeal challenges the decision of District Court Judge Richard Stearns, who said in a March 23 ruling that the Department of Health and Human Services violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution in delegating to the bishops' conference the decision on which services to offer or not offer to foreign-born victims of human trafficking under a federal contract.

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VATICAN CITY -- The current U.S. debate over religious freedom should inspire Catholics in Europe to seek greater legal protection of their right to conscientious objection, according to a retired Vatican cardinal.

Believers and institutions must have a legal right to invoke conscientious objection when faced with "legislative norms that, because of their moral implications, are in conflict with moral norms officially affirmed by one's religious authorities," said Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, former president of the commission governing Vatican City State.

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The right of religious freedom means much more than merely being allowed to hold faith beliefs and go to church. Those are essential, of course, but a society that truly endorses religious freedom goes further. It also allows citizens to outwardly live their faith through the public activities they take up and, equally important, through those their conscience informs them to avoid.

In defence of that traditional understanding of religious freedom, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a bold statement four days after Easter. Titled “Our first, most cherished liberty,” the 12-page document is a manifesto for religious freedom that is blunt, provocative, timely, commendable — and worthy of export beyond American borders. Canadians should take note.

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