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Vatican announces pope will attend reconciliation events in Colombia

IMAGE: CNS photo/Leonardo Munoz, EPA

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Days after rebels in Colombia announced turning in the last of their cache of weapons over to international observers, the Vatican announced June 23 details of Pope Francis' September trip to the war-torn South American country.

The pope is scheduled to visit four cities, starting his trip in the Colombian capital of Bogota Sept. 6, followed by day trips to Villavicencio and Medellin Sept. 8 and 9, respectively, and heading back to Rome from Cartagena after Mass Sept. 10.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos had said the pontiff had promised him he would visit Colombia if the government and the rebel group known as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias) signed a peace agreement. Though Colombian voters last year rejected a referendum on the peace agreement between the government and FARC, Santos later negotiated a modified deal with Colombian opposition leader and former President Alvaro Uribe. The process came with help from the Vatican, including the pope, who met with the two men in late 2016.

The rebels began turning in their weapons to United Nations observers in early June and all were expected to be turned in by June 20, bringing 52 years of war to an end.

The pope is expected to take part Sept. 8 in several acts of reconciliation, including a Mass and prayer, in Villavicencio, according to a schedule released by the Vatican.

Colombian Vice President Oscar Naranjo said in an interview published June 23 in El Tiempo newspaper that that pope's trip comes at a time in the country "when the discussion stops being about how to win the war, but how to achieve peace." The pope's trip cannot be "just another episode" in the national discourse about peace, said Naranjo.

According to some estimates, more than 220,000 have died in the decades-long conflict, tens of thousands have been injured, and more than 7 million were displaced. Concerns about the end of the conflict were reawakened when a bomb exploded inside a mall bathroom in Bogota June 17, killing three and injuring nine people. Some blamed another rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional). The group, however, denied involvement and said it doesn't target civilians.

While in Colombia, the pope also is set to meet in Bogota Sept. 7 with the directive committee of the Latin American bishops' council, known as CELAM for its Spanish acronym.

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Bishop: 'Fundamental defects' persist in Senate's version of health bill

IMAGE: CNS photo/Shawn Thew, EPA

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Senate's Better Care Reconciliation Act contains "many of the fundamental defects" that appeared in the House-passed American Health Care Act "and even further compounds them," said the bishop who heads the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

The Senate released its health care reform bill in "discussion draft" form June 22.

"As is, the discussion draft stands to cause disturbing damage to the human beings served by the social safety net," Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, said in a statement released late June 22. "It is precisely the detrimental impact on the poor and vulnerable that makes the Senate draft unacceptable as written."

Bishop Dewane criticized the "per-capita cap" on Medicaid funding, which would no longer be an entitlement but have its own budget line item under the Better Care Reconciliation Act. The effect, he said, "would provide even less to those in need than the House bill. These changes will wreak havoc on low-income families and struggling communities, and must not be supported."

"An acceptable health care system provides access to all, regardless of their means, and at all stages of life," Bishop Dewane said. "Such a health care system must protect conscience rights, as well as extend to immigrant families."

He indicated the Better Care Reconciliation Act at least partially succeeds on conscience rights by "fully applying the long-standing and widely supported Hyde Amendment protections. Full Hyde protections are essential and must be included in the final bill."

However, the bishops "also stressed the need to improve real access for immigrants in health care policy, and this bill does not move the nation toward this goal," Bishop Dewane said. "It fails, as well, to put in place conscience protections for all those involved in the health care system, protections which are needed more than ever in our country's health policy."

Other first-day reaction to the bill was negative.

The Senate's 142-page draft "is not the faithful way forward," said a June 22 statement from Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service who heads the Network Catholic social justice lobby.

"My faith challenges me to heal the sick and care for the widow and the orphan. This Republican bill does the opposite," she said, adding, "We urge a no vote on the Better Care Reconciliation Act."

"Learning about the proposed deep cuts in Medicaid passed by the House of Representatives, the American people looked to the Senate. Sadly, the Senate plan proposes even deeper cuts in Medicaid," said a statement from Larry Couch, director of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd's National Advocacy Center.

"This wanton disregard for human life must be stopped. Millions of children living in poverty, people with disabilities, and older people in nursing homes will be denied life-saving medicine and care," Couch added. "Stop this vicious attack on the most vulnerable people in our communities."

Sister Campbell criticized the Republican-only drafting of the bill, and the announced intent of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to have a vote on the bill before the Fourth of July recess, which could severely limit debate on the bill or any amendments.

"This bill is a crass political calculation carried out by 13 white, male senators who are out of touch with the realities of millions of ordinary families in every state," she said. "Democracy works best when there are hearings, debate, and discussion to craft a bill that works for everyone, not just a few senators."

"Ending the Medicaid expansion at a slower rate still means that millions of Americans will have their health care coverage taken away. Senators who support this bill will be voting to take away health insurance from the elderly, the disabled, and children," said a June 22 statement from the Rev. David Beckmann, a Lutheran minister who is president of Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger lobby.

"Medical bills often drive families, especially those who struggle to make ends meet, into hunger and poverty," Rev. Beckmann added. "Instead of making our health care system worse, Congress should strive to improve the system so that all Americans have the health care coverage they need."

Network, Bread for the World and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd are part of the Interfaith Healthcare Coalition, which also includes as members the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness; the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism; the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative; the United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries; and the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

The American Psychological Association also came out in opposition to the bill, citing the Medicaid cuts and permission to states to waive certain health benefits.

"This so-called Better Care Reconciliation Act is actually worse than the bill passed by the House, because it would undermine Medicaid even more severely, if a little more slowly," said a June 2 statement by Antonio E. Puente, APA president. "Medicaid is a critical backstop of coverage for mental health treatment, and for millions of older Americans, children and individuals with disabilities. If the goal is to cover more people, why slash Medicaid when it is already much more cost-effective than private sector plans?"

One part of the bill cuts the federal government's share of funding for Medicaid to 57 percent of its cost over the next seven years. States have picked up the balance of the funding to date.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the government had guaranteed that its funding for adults newly eligible for Medicaid would fall to no lower than 90 percent of their costs. Many states expanded Medicaid coverage for all adults ages 18-65 with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

The bill would reduce tax credits to help people buy insurance and would defund Planned Parenthood for one year under the bill. It is expected the Senate will take up the measure on the floor during the week of June 26.

According to an Associated Press analysis, the Republicans' health bill "cuts taxes by nearly $1 trillion over the next decade, mostly for corporations and the richest families in America."

The Better Care Reconciliation Act which would repeal taxes in the Affordable Care Act -- popularly known as Obamacare -- and structure subsidies for insurance policy-holders based on their incomes. It also would continue for at least two years to offer reimbursements to health insurance companies for subsidies that reduce out-of-pocket costs for low-income customers of Obamacare plans.

The bill would allow children to stay on their parents' health plans to age 26. It also would fund $62 billion over eight years to a state innovation fund, which can be used for coverage of high-risk patients, reinsurance and other expenses.

The Congressional Budget Office is expected to issue its "score" of the Senate bill before the end of June.

The CBO's score of the first House GOP-led Obamacare "repeal and replace" bill, which never came to a vote, estimated that 24 million Americans would lose health insurance over the next decade. Its score on the second bill, which squeaked to a 217-213 victory, estimated that 23 million Americans would lose their health care.

"America deserves better than its failing status quo," McConnell said June 22 on the Senate floor when introducing the Better Care Reconciliation Act.

But calling it "mean and heartless legislation," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said the bill is "going to gut Medicaid. It's going to take away care for our seniors" and "from millions of people across the country," to "give another massive tax cut for the wealthy and well-connected."

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Venezuela risks becoming Caribbean 'North Korea,' former leaders say

IMAGE: CNS photo/Miguel Gutierrez, EPA

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Two former Latin American presidents said the world is running out of time to find a solution to the crisis in Venezuela as President Nicolas Maduro aims to consolidate power over the country.

Despite widespread protests, Maduro's push to "put a group of his friends in what is called a 'constituent assembly,' would be the end of democracy and the annihilation of the Republic of Venezuela," said Jorge Quiroga, former president of Bolivia.

That election "will install a Soviet state in Venezuela, liquidate democracy, end the Congress, cancel elections and turn Venezuela into a sort of Caribbean 'North Korea,'" he said.

Joined by former Colombian President Andres Pastrana, Quiroga spoke to journalists at the Vatican June 23 on the deteriorating situation in Venezuela and attempts to diffuse the crisis following their meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

Protests began after March 29, when the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the country's parliament, in which the opposition had a two-thirds majority following the 2015 elections. The unprecedented ruling transferred legislative powers to the Supreme Court, which is comprised of judges nominated by Maduro.

Quiroga said he was grateful for Cardinal Parolin's call for humanitarian aid, free elections and the release of political prisoners. He also hoped the international community would "insist and persist" on the Vatican's recommendations.

"The Vatican has enormous moral and political weight and its position -- in the name of Cardinal Parolin and the Holy Father -- would be a determining factor to reel Venezuela back in toward the path of democracy," he said.

However, Quiroga added, Maduro's push for a constituent assembly June 30, comprised mainly of his supporters and aimed at changing the country's constitution, would "finish off Venezuela and destroy the country."

Both men also denounced former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero and Ernesto Samper, former Colombian president and current secretary general of the Union of South American Nations, for their indirect support for Maduro despite their roles as impartial negotiators between the government and the opposition.

At a June 21 meeting on immigration in Cochabamba, Bolivian President Evo Morales -- flanked by Zapatero, Samper and former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa -- expressed his support for the Venezuelan government's actions against protestors.

"Dale duro, Maduro" ("Hit them harder, Maduro"), Morales said as he, Samper and others raised their fists in solidarity. Correa and Zapatero, however, did not raise their fists.

"What meaning does this have when former presidents ask a dictatorship like the one in Venezuela to 'hit them harder?' Do they mean 'keep killing, continue slaughtering youth who are raising their voices in Venezuela?'" Pastrana asked.

The former Colombian president condemned the indirect support of two negotiators following the release of images showing government forces shooting and killing a 22-year-old protester, saying that their support decreases the likelihood of a peaceful solution.

"I think dialogue has ended in Venezuela, that word has been stricken from the Venezuelan dictionary. There is no dialogue, there is no possibility for dialogue and less, when Zapatero, Samper and Correa are holding hands with Evo Morales and shouting, 'Hit them harder, Maduro,'" he said.

Quiroga added that he was "profoundly saddened" by Morales' support for Maduro who continues "repressing and killing young people in the streets of Venezuela; continues detaining and judging civilians in military courts; continues to disband the Congress and muzzle the press."

He also accused Zapatero as acting as "a foreign operative of the Maduro government," claiming the former Spanish prime minister tried to act on Maduro's behalf to "scare" opposition members before the parliamentary election that saw them win a two-thirds majority.

"We know his position and that he's pretending to be a negotiator," Quiroga said of Zapatero.

Describing the current situation in Venezuela as a "surrealist dystopia," Quiroga said that calls made by the Vatican supporting democracy must prevail. However, he said, time is running out.

"The risk is that on June 30, Maduro has decided to deliver the final blow of his coup, calling it a vote for a constituent assembly, but in reality, is a final blow for Venezuelan democracy," he said.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Under the radar: South Sudan needs media attention, immediate action

IMAGE: CNS photo/Carol Glatz

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis is first of all a shepherd who makes seeking out the lost and forgotten his top priority. But he also knows that wherever he goes, the cameras and news coverage will follow.

He leveraged his pull on the media spotlight early in his papacy when he went to Lampedusa for his very first trip as pope, tossing a funeral wreath onto the vast, unmarked cemetery known as the Mediterranean Sea -- where thousands of migrants die each year escaping from economic distress, political crises or persecution.

His visits to the Central African Republic, refugee centers, prisons, homes for the elderly and ill have all been key stops in his mission to reach out to the neglected peripheries, encourage those who are suffering and the hidden heroes helping them, and wake up the world to their presence and plight.

South Sudan was meant to be next on that list, to red-flag the disastrous effects of civil war -- millions of people facing violence, displacement, chronic hunger and mass starvation -- and to nudge conflicting parties toward peace.

However, mounting doubts over security and how ready those parties may be for negotiation have put a boots-on-the-ground papal visit on hold. And now some Catholic aid and development agencies are wondering, with no pope, how does this tragedy get on the world radar now?

"With Donald Trump, Brexit and terrorist attacks happening in the news," outlets that are usually very receptive to covering humanitarian crises and efforts "don't have the space to cover them," Patrick Nicholson, director of communications at Caritas Internationalis, told Catholic News Service.

Despite the immensity of the tragedy, "it's really off the radar in terms of the world caring," he said, which is why "the pope raising awareness is absolutely crucial." Everybody's efforts to get the word out is still key, and Nicholson and his Caritas colleagues created southsudan.caritas.org after a recent visit to South Sudan to better show the human stories and lives at stake.

Sister Yudith Pereira-Rico, associate executive director of Solidarity with South Sudan, told CNS in Rome that her organization is promoting the hashtag #SouthSudanWeCare on social media to show the South Sudanese people that they will not be overlooked.

"The people there feel they are forgotten. There is no media attention and they always tell us, 'Please, don't forget to speak about us.'"

A member of the Congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary, Sister Pereira-Rico said she has spent the past two decades working in the poorest parts of West Africa "and yet I've never see the poverty like there is in South Sudan."

"My first time in South Sudan, in Malakal, I wasn't able to sing 'Hallelujah' in church" having seen the situation of the people. "Now, more and more, I can see that God is here."

Sometimes she and her colleagues can feel so powerless when faced with so many people in need, "but just being there" can offer comfort, she said. "A challenge we have as Christians is believing in the resurrection in these situations, knowing that there is a good end for human history."

Solidarity with South Sudan is an international network of religious congregations that was formed to train primary school teachers, health care workers, pastoral agents and sustainable farmers from all ethnic groups, learning tolerance and reconciliation along the way.

The NGOs do the emergency relief, "and we do development, teach values," Sister Pereira-Rico said.

The 28 nuns, priests and brothers from 20 different congregations and 20 nations living and working together in four different communities across South Sudan are a living witness of what harmony in diversity and collaboration look like, she said.

"We're like the United Nations," she smiled, and "we show people a new model of living."

The local church also provides the credibility, networks and infrastructure that relief agencies need to reach the most vulnerable, said Jerry Farrell, country representative in South Sudan for Catholic Relief Services.

"The church has an incredible reputation. It is battered and weary," like its people, but it never shuts down, it always sticks by its people, which is partly why it's so respected, he told CNS by Skype from Juba.

By working directly with parishes and religious orders, like the Comboni sisters, CRS can get food to 5,000 to 6,000 families in places where no one else has access, he said.

No matter how bad things get, the Catholic Church still is operating its schools, hospitals, clinics and programs all over South Sudan; the facilities may not look as nice as those in the West, "but they work."

"Peacebuilding is quiet, but relentless," he said, and it often does not make for an exciting or visual story.

Media often like to cover things such as the highly complex emergency airdrops to those who are stranded, but Farrell said reporters should be looking at the Catholic schools, like the ones run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

"It's not visually catchy, but that's the real story. That's where the future of South Sudan lies" as these schools provide basic care, nutrition and even vegetable gardens for the mothers to grow healthy food.

The other real story that should get coverage, he said, are the survivors. "The people here are incredibly resilient and one of the main reasons for that is they go to church" and are deeply spiritual people.

With aid from partner agencies, the church becomes a place people go to find basic supplies, safety, sanctuary and "spiritual nourishment because without that, aid is just a pat on the back," Farrell said.

"Things will be better. It will just take time because peacebuilding is meant to help South Sudan heal itself," he said.

As the Catholic, Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches work for peace from the bottom up and the role of political leaders is to help from the top down, he added, someday they will all meet in the middle.

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Follow Glatz on Twitter: @CarolGlatz.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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