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Conn. bishops call for 'complete overhaul' of immigration policies

Hartford, Conn., Jul 13, 2019 / 06:01 am (CNA).- The bishops of Connecticut have joined a number of bishops’ voices in calling for “a complete overhaul of existing immigration policies” in the face of escalating tensions at the southern border of the United States.

In a July 10 letter released through the Connecticut Cathoic Conference, the bishops expressed their concern over the border crisis, citing the June 23 deaths of Óscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria, who drowned as they tried to cross the Rio Grande from Matamoros.

Martinez and his daughter, as well as his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, intended to apply for asylum in the US, but the international bridge from Matamoros was closed until June 24, so they chose to swim across the Rio Grande.

The bishops said Martinez and his daughter “were fleeing the dangers of El Salvador for the safety of the United States.”

According to the New York Times, the family had left their home in El Salvador for economic reasons, and not to escape gang violence.

“Other immigrants,” the bishops commented, “have crossed the border with their lives, but have been captured and are now detained in overcrowded conditions as a result of political gridlock in our nation’s capital.”

“Those responsible in government need to undertake an examination of conscience as to what they have done and failed to do when it comes to respect for human persons and the enactment of fair and balanced legislation.”

The bishops noted that an average of 357 migrants have died annually on the southern border in the last 20 years, according to the U.S. border patrol.

“The governments of other nations also need to be encouraged and aided where necessary to remedy the conditions that force people to flee their homeland,” they said.

“We urge everyone to work and pray for a better way forward in addressing this humanitarian crisis,” the bishops concluded.

The letter was signed by Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, and his auxiliary, Bishop Juan Miguel Betancourt; Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport; Bishop Michael Cote of Norwich; and Bishop Paul Chomnycky of the Ukrainian Eparchy of Stamford.

Pope Francis expressed his "immense sadness" June 26 upon seeing the image of the drowned migrants. He has spoken frequently about the need to respect the human dignity of migrants.

“They are persons; these are not mere social or migrant issues!” he said July 8. “‘This is not just about migrants,’ in the twofold sense that migrants are first of all human persons, and that they are the symbol of all those rejected by today’s globalized society.”

Leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops echoed the pope’s grief and said the image of the drowned father and daughter demand action.

“This image cries to heaven for justice. This image silences politics. Who can look on this picture and not see the results of the failures of all of us to find a humane and just solution to the immigration crisis?” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin.

The number of migrants journeying to the U.S.-Mexico border climbed sharply in recent months. A July 2 report by the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security found that the number of apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley Sector alone rose by 124 % in the 2019 fiscal year against the same eight-month period the previous year.

The IG report warned of “dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults in the Rio Grande Valley” and urged DHS to “take immediate steps” to address the problem.

Witnesses testified before Congress this week, speaking of crowded conditions for children and adults in several Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in Texas.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso stated June 27 before he crossed the border into the U.S. from Mexico over the Lerdo International Bridge: “A government and society which view fleeing children and families as threats; a government which treats children in U.S. custody worse than animals; a government and society who turn their backs on pregnant mothers, babies and families and make them wait in Ciudad Juarez without a thought to the crushing consequences on this challenged city.”

Apprehensions of migrants by authorities on the southern border, especially of migrant families, rose sharply in the past year. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, apprehensions of “unaccompanied alien children” has risen by nearly 75% from May 2018 to May 2019. The rise in apprehensions is led by El Paso, which has seen a 323% rise in that period period.

Despite this, Fernando Ceniceros, communications specialist for the Diocese of El Paso, told CNA last week that changes in border patrol policy have likely led to a recent decrease in migrants entering the United States at El Paso, but the humanitarian crisis is no less severe— the difference is that many would-be migrants in need of aid are required to remain in Mexico, rather than crossing the border.

DHS announced new Migrant Protection Protocols in January, providing that migrants arriving illegally or without proper documentation “may be returned to Mexico and wait outside of the U.S. for the duration of their immigration proceedings, where Mexico will provide them with all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay.”

In a recent development, planned raids to detain and deport thousands of undocumented immigrants will go ahead after a postponement of several weeks, the Trump administration announced this week.

UN approves investigation into drug war in the Philippines

Manila, Philippines, Jul 12, 2019 / 06:22 pm (CNA).- The UN Human Rights Council has approved a resolution to launch an investigation into the violent war on drugs taking place in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte.

Approved Thursday by a narrow margin, the resolution does not go as far as to create a full commission to examine the matter, but instead authorizes an investigation to examine alleged crimes against humanity, including reports of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and arbitrary arrests.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, will present the findings in a report next year.

A spokesperson for Bachelet said the investigation will help find “clarity around the contested facts, figures and circumstances” in the Philippines, the Guardian reported.

The Philippines criticized the investigation, saying there “will be consequences,” according to the BBC.

A statement from the country’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Teddy Locsin Jr., called the resolution a “travesty” of human rights. “We will not accept a politically partisan and one-sided resolution,” he said.

For the past three years, Duterte has been heading a brutal war on drugs in the Philippines. The president was elected on a platform promising to address the country’s drug problem, and he continues to enjoy high levels of approval among citizens.

However, the campaign against drugs has drawn significant international criticism for its reported extrajudicial killings and death squads. Nearly 500 deaths have been reported this year alone.

Duterte’s war on drugs has also been a major point of contention with Catholic leaders.

Thousands of people have been killed in the crackdown, with human rights activists suggesting the number may have exceeded 10,000. The alleged suspects are often shot by police under the allegation that they attacked first. In addition, extrajudicial killings have sprung up, with vigilantes killing those suspected of drug sales or use.

The bishops of the Philippines have repeatedly denounced the violence. They have stressed the need for justice and have encouraged peaceful efforts at drug reform, such as the parish-based rehabilitation program in Manila called Sanlakbay. They have also held novenas and days of prayer for an end to violence in the country.

Venezuelan bishops ask Maduro to step down, allow election of new president

Caracas, Venezuela, Jul 12, 2019 / 06:01 pm (CNA).- The Venezuelan bishops asked Thursday that president Nicolas Maduro resign from the office which he “illegitimately” exercises and that a new president be elected in the shortest time possible.

“In face of the reality of an illegitimate and failed government, Venezuela is crying out for a change of direction, a return to the Constitution. That change demands the departure of the one exercising power illegitimately and the election in the shortest possible time of a new president of the republic,” the bishops said in their July 11 apostolic exhortation, released at the end of their general assembly.

Under Maduro's socialist administration, Venezuela has been marred by violence and social upheaval, with severe shortages of food and medicine, high unemployment, and hyperinflation. More than 4 million Venezuelans have emigrated since 2015.

The bishops cited a July 4 report from the UN human rights commissioner which said the government has committed a variety of human rights abuses, including a high number of extrajudicial killings.

The bishops maintained that “examples of these violations of the rule of law are the recent actions by state agencies which led to the death of Light Cruiser Captain Rafael Acosta Arévalo and young Rufo Chacón's loss of his sight, incidents that have already been strongly condemned by the Justice and Peace Commission.”

They also pointed to “the exodus of more than 12% of the Venezuelan population” due to “the political situation, the impoverishment of the middle class, and contempt for the poor.”

Faced with this crisis, with the moral deterioration of society, violence, lies, corruption, irresponsibility and despair, the bishops reiterated that a profound change is necessary that requires the departure of the current regime and that a new president be elected.

They added that for the elections to be free, indispensable conditions are “a new, impartial National Electoral Council,” international oversight; and the end of the Constituent Assembly, among other measures.

They also called for the entry and distribution of food and medicine to attend to the population, hard-hit for several years by shortages. They said that the Church, through its institutions, “ renews its commitment to participate, along with other organizations, in the reception and distribution of this humanitarian aid.”

The bishops reminded the armed forces, police, and public ministry of their duty “to work in conformity with justice and truth and not at the service of a political bias.”

They said that in order to contribute to national renewal “we reiterate our commitment as a Church to continue to strengthen faith in Jesus Christ who heals and liberates, and bringing hope to our people, through the development of training and organizational programs that will enable the defense of human rights , the recovery of democratic institutions, and the peaceful reconstruction of the country.”

The bishops thanked the priests, religious, and laity who are working hard “to maintain a living hope and to take the evangelization of the Venezuelan to a deeper level,” as well as to serve the most vulnerable.

Finally, they reiterated their call to continue to pray for Venezuela and to “work with confidence for the welfare of our country. God is our help! We ask the intercession of Our Lady of Coromoto for this noble cause.”

Maduro was sworn in for a second term as president Jan. 10, after winning a contested election in which oppositon candidates were barred from running or imprisoned. Venezuela's bishops have called his new term illegitimate, and Juan Guaidó, head of the opposition-controlled legislature the National Assembly, declared himself interim president Jan. 23.

Guaidó has been recognized by a number of Western governments, but has been largely unable to secure the support of Venezuela's military. He has pledged a transitional government and free elections.

Pro-Life leaders tell White House summit of online censorship

Washington D.C., Jul 12, 2019 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- Pro-life leaders were invited to a White House social media summit Thursday, amid claims of online censorship by search engines and social media sites.  

“We are the tip of the spear as far as social media persecution goes,” Cary Solomon, co-writer, director and producer of the pro-life film “Unplanned” told CNA on Friday. “We are an example of a business that was directly, monetarily hurt” by online censorship.

President Trump has previously met with the heads of tech and social media corporations, but “Unplanned” co-director Chuck Konzelman said, yet “what struck a chord” at the July 11 summit “was that idea that I think he’s finally recognized this is all in bad faith.”

Several pro-life leaders were among the 200 digital and social media experts invited to the White House summit. Among those also invited were several members of Congress including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas).

Lila Rose, founder and president of the pro-life group Live Action, addressed President Trump and the summit briefly on Thursday, sharing how Live Action has had to deal with obstacles to online advertising.

Live Action has been prevented from advertising on Twitter for four years, Rose said, having been told by the social media giant that the group would need to stop calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood and sharing its pro-life content.

Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider still advertises on the site, she noted. Meanwhile, the site YouTube “buried our pro-life videos and boosted abortion videos,” Rose said.

Live Action says it was also permanently suspended from Pinterest in June, over allegations of promoting “conspiracy theories,” despite abortion clinics and pro-abortion groups posting freely.

Mallory Quigley, vice president of communications for the Susan B. Anthony List, was also present at Thursday’s summit. She said that Pinterest has left up posts on its site explaining how to do at-home abortions. “That threatens the health and safety of women,” she said.

Informing voters of pro-life issues ahead of the 2018 elections was “critical” to the mission of Susan B. Anthony List, Quigley said. But their videos—including TV ads featuring children born prematurely at 20 weeks to illustrate that babies are viable by that age—faced censorship online.

Facebook took down one such campaign ad in Tennessee, but reinstated it with an apology. But a similar ad in Montana disappeared just hours later, Quigley said, a process of “starting and stopping” online ads for seemingly “arbitrary reasons.”

“And that really impedes our ability to reach voters,” she said.

Search engines like Google and social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube “have set themselves up as a platform where all voices are supposed to be welcomed,” Quigley said, yet “there’s been just demonstrable bias against pro-life organizations,” she said, “and we haven’t heard of the same thing happening on the other side of this debate.”

On its opening weekend—critical to any film, but especially to a smaller-budget film — “Unplanned” had its Twitter page taken down and lost the vast majority of its followers, Konzelman said. Pro-Life activist Abby Johnson, who’s conversion from a Planned Parenthood clinic manager is the premise of the film, could not access her own Twitter account during the same period.

In addition, in its Google searches for movie times, the film was labeled “Drama/Propaganda,” he said, “and ‘propaganda’ is not something an algorithm would assign. That’s the work of a human being.”

In addition, Konzelman said YouTube pulled their behind-the-scenes documentary off the website, posted to promote interest in the film, citing several pieces of copyrighted music in the video, even though “Unplanned” had rights to the music. At the same time, the site allowed a serious copyright infringement to take place as the entire copy of the movie stayed on the site and was not taken down after it was released in theaters.

All four attendees were grateful that the White House was giving the subject attention.

“This double-standard and bias is a growing problem in big tech, even though they say that they are politically neutral and that they don’t discriminate,” Rose said on Thursday at the summit. “So thank you so much to the administration and to you, Mr. President, for holding this very important summit.”

Quigley said Trump’s invitation had “put the spotlight on such an important pro-life leader, and an issue that they have faced in a very particular way, and that the entire movement is facing.” 

“It is very moving and encouraging.”

Car bomb near church in Syria wounds several

Qamishli, Syria, Jul 12, 2019 / 04:18 pm (CNA).- A car bomb exploded near a Syriac Orthodox church in Qamishli Thursday, injuring about 11 people. It is unclear who is responsible for the attack.

According to AFP, the July 11 bombing “slightly dented” the metal gate of the Church of the Virgin Mary located in the al-Wasta neighborhood of Qamishli, in Syria's Al-Hasakah Governorate on the border with Turkey.

Sana, the Syrian state news agency, reported that the blast caused “material damage to parts of the church, shops and cars.”

Ignatius Aphrem II, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, “condemned with the strongest terms this coward terrorist act, considering that the perpetrators of the explosion aim to create an atmosphere of worry and chaos among citizens and destabilize the situation in the region,” Sana reported.

Al-Wasta is held by the Syrian government; much of the rest of Qamishli is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed, Kurdish-dominated alliance.

Most media report that the attack has gone unclaimed, though The Defense Post reported that Islamic State took credit for the bombing.

Joan Garcia, a researcher with the Rojava Information Center (an organization in northeastern Syria assisting reporters and researchers), told The Defense Post that “this attack is the eleventh in eleven days in Hasakah province and the fourth in a month in Qamishlo – the de facto capital of North East Syria.”

North East Syria is a Kurdish name for Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, a de facto autonomous region of Syria under Kurdish control.

Garcia added that Qamishli “has for some years been secure from ISIS attacks.”

“As such, these attacks form part of a steady increase in ISIS-linked attacks in previously-secure, Kurdish-majority cities close to the border. This particular attack targeted worshippers leaving a church, part of the Christian minority which in Qamishlo exists peacefully alongside Arab and Kurdish communities,” Garcia said.

The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 with demonstrations against the nation's president, Bashar al-Assad. The war has claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people, and forced 5.6 million to become refugees. Another 6.6 million Syrians are believed to have been internally displaced by the violence.

The civil war is being fought among the Syrian regime and a number of rebel groups. The rebels include moderates, such as the Free Syrian Army; Islamists such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State; and Kurdish separatists.