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Update: Catholic bishops, groups oppose Trump's call for national emergency

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic bishops near the U.S.-Mexico border, joined by other U.S. prelates, voiced opposition immediately after President Donald Trump's Feb. 15 declaration of a national emergency so he can order construction of a barrier along parts of the border between the two countries.

"In our view, a border wall is first and foremost a symbol of division and animosity between two friendly countries," the bishops said.

"Furthermore, the wall would be an ineffective use of resources at a time of financial austerity," they said. "It would also would destroy parts of the environment, disrupt the livelihoods of ranchers and farmers, weaken cooperation and commerce between border communities, and, at least in one instance, undermine the right to the freedom of worship."

Speaking at news conference in the Rose Garden, Trump said he was going to sign a national emergency declaration to stave off a flow of drugs, human trafficking, gang members and illegal immigration coming across the southern border.

The president later signed a spending bill that provides $1.375 billion for fencing and other measures along the border -- a fraction of the $5.7 billion he had been asking from Congress for construction of the a barrier. Declaring the national emergency could grant him up to $8 billion for his project.

The promise of a wall on the southern border was key to his presidential campaign, but as a candidate he said neighboring Mexico, not the U.S., would pay for the structure. When Mexico refused to pay for the wall, he turned to U.S. lawmakers for funding, but they have largely refused to grant U.S. taxpayer money to build it, which led to a partial government shutdown earlier this year.

In a separate bishops' statement following Trump's announcement, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, said they were "deeply concerned about the president's action to fund the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which circumvents the clear intent of Congress to limit funding of a wall."

"We oppose the use of these funds to further the construction of the wall," Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Vasquez said. "We remain steadfast and resolute in the vision articulated by Pope Francis that at this time we need to be building bridges and not walls."

In their statement, the border bishops and the other prelates who joined them said that while they agree with the president that there is a "humanitarian challenge" at the border, "erecting a wall will not solve the problem," they said, and they asked Congress to step in with more humanitarian responses.  

This statement was signed by Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego; Texas Bishops Mark P. Seitz of El Paso and James A. Tamayo of Laredo and Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio; Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Tucson, Arizona; Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey; New Mexico Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, retired Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces and retired Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, who is apostolic administrator of Las Cruces; Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky; and Cardinals Sean P. O'Malley of Boston and Blase J. Cupich of Chicago.

In his speech, the president said he wanted to build the wall "not just because it was a campaign promise," but because "everyone knows a wall works" and national emergencies such as the one he is calling for had been used by presidents previously without problems. Such declarations are common and at least 31 declared emergencies remain in place, but the current one seems to be designed to get around Congress.

The dozen or so bishops in their statement said they worried that a wall would drive migrants to more remote regions of the border and risk great loss of life.

When a wall was constructed in the San Diego area in the mid-1990s, for example, migrants were driven, often by smugglers, to the desert of Arizona and other remote regions in order to cross the border, they said, citing U.S. Border Patrol statistics that showed that over 7,000 migrants died in those areas from 1998 to 2016.

"The truth is that the majority of persons coming to the U.S.-Mexico border are asylum-seekers, many of whom are women and children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who are fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries," the bishops' statement said. "Along their journey to safety, they encounter many dangers. A wall would not keep them safe from those dangers. Rather, a wall would, further subject them to harm by drug cartels, smugglers, and human traffickers."

They said that while the country had a right to control and secure its borders, "border enforcement must protect and preserve the human rights and life of all persons, regardless of their legal status." Instead of a wall, they said, Congress should focus on more humane policies, such as reforming the immigration system "in a manner that is just, protects human rights and reflects American values."

"It is powerful that the bishops on the border are speaking against a wall. They, more than anyone in the church, know firsthand the reality along the border, and the suffering endured by families and children at the hands of recent U.S. policies," said Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies in New York in an email to Catholic News Service.

The Center for Migration Studies and the Ignatian Solidarity Network in Ohio joined in a statement signed by more than 40 faith leaders questioning the morality of structure.

"History has shown that border walls constructed to restrict human rights, such as the Berlin Wall, cause harm to human beings, all of whom possess God-given rights and are equal to us in the eyes of God. Because of this injustice, they eventually come down," the statement said.

Other Catholic groups such as the Sisters of Mercy and the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach also voiced early opposition to Trump's declaration.

"We unequivocally oppose the president's decision to declare a state of national emergency in order to circumvent Congress and divert funding to pay for construction of a border wall. This decision is immoral and unnecessary. The real emergency is the dehumanization of migrants and the utter disregard for border communities and the environment. Construction of a wall and further militarization is not a solution," said a statement from the Columban center.

"A declaration of a national emergency aimed at funding an immoral wall will not correct years of failed immigration policy or ameliorate the U.S. role in root causes of migration," said Mercy Sister Patricia McDermott, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, in a statement. "The real one is of disinformation and misplaced values. President Trump fans a fear of asylum seekers by mischaracterizing them as criminals when the vast majority are people fleeing unspeakable atrocities for safety and a better life."

Trump said he expected lawsuits over the declaration but hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would ultimately rule in his favor. He defended his actions and said such declarations have been made in the past "for far less important things."

"I didn't need to do this, but I'd rather do it much faster," Trump said, while voicing frustration that seemed directed at former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, whom Trump seemed to blame for Congress' early failure to fund his proposed border wall.  

"I'm very disappointed in certain people, one in particular for not having pushed this faster," Trump said. A reporter then asked: "Are you referring to former Speaker Paul Ryan?"

"Let's not talk about it. What difference does it make?" the president responded.


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Welcome Christ present in migrants and refugees, pope urges

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Even if Christians struggle to recognize him with his "torn clothes (and) dirty feet," Jesus is present in the migrants and refugees who seek safety and a dignified life in a new land, Pope Francis said.

If Jesus' words, "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me," are true, the pope said, then "we must begin to thank those who give us the opportunity for this encounter, namely, the 'others' who knock on our doors, giving us the possibility to overcome our fears in order to encounter, welcome and assist Jesus in person."

Pope Francis spoke about overcoming fear and welcoming others during a Mass he celebrated Feb. 15 at a church-run retreat and conference center in Sacrofano, about 15 miles north of Rome.

The Mass was part of a conference titled, "Welcoming Communities: Free of Fear," which was sponsored by the Italian bishops' office for migration, Caritas Italy and Jesuit Refugee Service's Centro Astalli. The 500 participants included representatives of parishes, religious orders and Catholic-run agencies assisting migrants and refugees, as well as individual families who host newcomers.

At a time when Italy's government is trying to severely restrict immigration, Caritas Italy said the meeting was designed to encourage those working with migrants and refugees and to counteract fear of migration by highlighting how individuals and the entire country benefit from welcoming them.

The prayers of the faithful, most of which were read by migrants, included asking God to help pastors educate all Catholics to welcome migrants and refugees and to help government leaders promote tolerance and peace. Ending, as is traditional, with a prayer for the dead, the petitions made special mention of people who were killed for their faith.

In his homily, Pope Francis noted how the ancient Israelites had to overcome their fear of crossing the Red Sea and trust God in order to make it to the promised land. And, when the disciples were on the lake in a storm, Jesus told them to not be afraid and assured them he was there with them.

"The Lord speaks to us today and asks us to allow him to free us of our fear," the pope said.

"Fear is the origin of slavery," just as it was for the ancient Israelites, he said, "and it is also the origin of every dictatorship because, on the fear of the people, the violence of the dictator grows."

Of course, the pope said, people naturally are afraid of what they don't understand and of strangers who speak another language and have another culture. The Christian response is not to play on those fears, but to educate people and help them turn strangers into friends.

"We are called to overcome fear and open ourselves to encounter," he said. "The encounter with the 'other,' then, is also an encounter with Christ. He himself told us this. It is he who knocks on our door hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned, asking to be met and assisted."

Pope Francis asked Catholics who have had "the joy" of assisting migrants and refugees to "proclaim it from the rooftops, openly, to help others do the same, preparing themselves to encounter Christ and his salvation."


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Texas locality orders popular Catholic center for migrants to vacate

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chaz Muth

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A group of city commissioners in the border city of McAllen, Texas, voted in mid-February to remove from a building a popular Catholic-administered center run by Sister Norma Pimentel, who has been praised by Pope Francis for her work with migrants.

McAllen city commissioners voted Feb. 11 to vacate within 90 days the building that Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley uses to provide temporary shelter for immigrants who cross from Mexico into the United States but who have been released by federal authorities.

Sister Pimentel, who has won national and international praise for the type of work that takes place at the center, is the executive director for the charitable agency that runs the temporary shelter, which provides food, clothes, a shower and other necessities for migrant children and adults passing through the city in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas.  

Residents were complaining to city commissioners about activity in their neighborhood that they said was coming from what's known as the "respite center," which began occupying the space in December, said a Feb. 11 story by the local newspaper, The Monitor. But Sister Pimentel, according to the report, said during a meeting to discuss the issue that the families the shelter helps are receiving services inside the building.

"They don't go wandering around," she said, according to the newspaper story.

Brownsville Bishop Daniel E. Flores said Feb. 13 via Twitter that "the decision of the McAllen City Commission was disheartening for many, yet, I continue to have hope in our collaborative relation with the city."

He said the diocese, as well as Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, were committed to finding "a welcoming location to continue the work of the respite center."

"How we treat the poor is how we treat Christ. And to give him even a cup of water invites a blessing from God," he continued.

In a statement released by Catholic Charities Feb. 13, Sister Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, said she was disappointed but would continue to work with the city of McAllen "in efforts to treat immigrant families in a just and humane way and ensure that they are in compliance with existing immigration laws."

Last summer, a group from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which included the organization's president, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, and its vice president, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, visited a respite center, but in a different location, that Catholic Charities runs in McAllen.

The work of "welcoming the stranger" that takes place at the center has been the focus of fundraisers at the Vatican, featured on news shows, and has caught the attention of those such as Kerry Kennedy, Robert and Ethel Kennedy's daughter, and TV celebrity Gayle King.

When President Donald Trump visited McAllen Jan. 10, Sister Pimentel invited him to visit the respite center, but he did not make a stop there.

The original respite center in the area began in 2014, when Sister Pimentel saw an influx of immigrants arriving in Rio Grande Valley region and with local volunteers, she began a makeshift operation to help the migrants obtain clothes and food. Out of a property that belonged to the local Sacred Heart Church, they began clothing and feeding the newcomers.

Since then, respite centers at various temporary locations have helped thousands of migrants, many seeking asylum and passing through the border city, have access to a shower after a harrowing trip, a clean change of clothes, a quick medical exam, if they need it, a warm meal and sometimes a snack for the road. Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is raising funds to build a permanent facility.

"Our mission remains unchanged -- to restore and recognize the human dignity of all vulnerable people -- throughout our community including those seeking asylum," Sister Pimentel said in the statement issued following the decision.

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Contributing to this story was Rose Ybarra in San Juan, Texas.


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Update: Catholics, Muslims bond over weekly lunch at Indianapolis deli

IMAGE: CNS photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion

By Sean Gallagher

INDIANAPOLIS (CNS) -- The openness to people of other faiths that Pope Francis modeled during his Feb. 3-5 visit to the United Arab Emirates has been embraced for more than 20 years at a weekly lunch shared by Muslims, Catholics and other Christians at Shapiro's Delicatessen in Indianapolis.

John Welch, a longtime member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis, helped start the lunch meetings in 1997.

"It's the presence of Jesus in our midst," Welch told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Over the years, Welch and those sharing lunch and their lives together at Shapiro's have included members of the Italy-based Catholic lay movement Focolare, members of the Nur-Allah Islamic Center in Indianapolis, as well as Protestant clergy in the city.

Welch, 84, was honored at a recent lunch by those in attendance as he prepared to move with his wife, Mary, to Chicago to live closer to family.

He was inspired to reach out to Muslims in the Indianapolis community through his involvement in Focolare, which emphasizes building unity among people based on sharing the love of God with them.

Welch said that the members of Focolare, who are known as "Focolarini," are called to embody in their daily lives Jesus' teaching to love others as he loved them.

"Our vocation is that, when Jesus said, 'Whenever two or more are united in my name' -- which means his commandment to love one another -- 'there am I present in their midst,'" Welch said. "So whether we're a father (of a family), or a Protestant pastor, an imam, the vocation is to live such mutual love ... that Jesus dwells in our midst.

"If people are touched by their exposure to us, it's not us. It's the presence of God in our midst that attracts them," he added.

Michael Saahir, who is leader, or imam, of Nur-Allah, has been attracted to the principles of Focolare for decades, having met with Chiara Lubich, its founder, on various occasions before her death in 2008. He also has visited the Vatican eight times to participate in interreligious dialogue events.

After the recent gathering at the deli, Saahir spoke to The Criterion about the influence of Focolare and the lunches he has shared with Welch and others in his Muslim faith.

"I have to love the one nearest to me in the present moment, even if I don't like them, even if I don't want to be there," he said. "It exposed in me a shortcoming and, at the same time, forced me to develop a discipline to at least try to love the other person in that present moment."

Many in the United States didn't like Muslims after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Nur-Allah received bomb threats in the days following. But Welch and other Focolarini in Indianapolis wanted to show solidarity with the Muslims of Nur-Allah by attending their Friday prayer service, known in Arabic as Jumu'ah, a few days later.

"On Sept. 14, 2001, they put into practice what they'd been preaching," Saahir said. "It was real. It wasn't a conversation. It was a demonstration. You saw people put themselves where they didn't have to be. They came. It was awesome."

John Mundell, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis and Focolare, was there that day and afterward saw the effects of this witness by him and his fellow Focolarini.

"We had some answers that people were perhaps looking for and got a lot of requests after that to share our understanding of how you can have a dialogue with people that are so different," Mundell said. "So that's what we did. We had an obligation to share it."

The kind of interreligious events that Saahir has attended at the Vatican often involve experts and high-level religious leaders.

The weekly lunches at Shapiro's, though, are shared by ordinary believers sharing with each other the joys and trials of their everyday lives and how they understand them in light of their faith.

One of the attendees at the lunch when Welch was honored was Nur Allah member David Shaheed, a retired Marion County judge. He was one of the original people who shared lunch with Welch starting in 1997.

He was thankful for the deep bond that the lunches at Shapiro's created among people of differing faiths over the years.

"Once you can sense that, even though a person may have Mass and you have Jumu'ah, when they tell you some of their experiences, it lets you know that God is not just speaking to your faith," Shaheed said. "There's a clear demonstration through the lives of others that God is working in the lives of other people."

Although he won't be attending the lunches any longer, Welch said that this bond will continue as he moves away.

"Keep on keeping on," he said. "We'll be hearing about you all of the time."

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Gallagher is a reporter at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

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Update: Territory is life, life is territory: what indigenous want church to know

IMAGE: CNS photo/Barbara Fraser

By Barbara J. Fraser

LETICIA, Colombia (CNS) -- Rafael Noteno Capinoa, a Kichwa Indian, worries about what could happen to the forest around his village on Peru's Napo River if an oil company begins drilling in the area.

"The forest is where we are born, we grow up, we live, we die and are buried," he said. "During our lifetime, we use what we find there."

For the Kichwa and other Amazonian peoples, every plant and animal has a spirit, and humans live in harmony with them, he said. "But if people behave badly, nature may abandon them."

A year ago, during a visit to Peru, Pope Francis asked an audience of native people of the Amazon basin to help bishops and religious to understand their relationship with the natural world. Since then, church leaders have held more than 40 meetings in the nine Amazonian countries to listen to local people, in preparation for the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon to be held at the Vatican in October. The meetings have been coordinated by the Pan-Amazonian Church Network, or REPAM.

Noteno was among about 70 indigenous people who gathered at a Ticuna and Huitoto village outside this Amazonian town Feb. 2-4 to talk about what they would like the church to understand.

"The Catholic Church is increasingly aware of the many ways in which the Amazon is being destroyed," said Columban Father Peter Hughes, an adviser to the synod planning committee.

There are "constant threats (against) original peoples whose lands are being taken away, whose cultures are being disregarded, and whose land and rivers, the place where they live, are being destroyed," Father Hughes said. "The synod is a chance to give voice to the Amazon. The church has to listen."

The danger is real for Antonio Verisimo da Conceicao, an Apinaje Indian from Tocantins, a state in east-central Brazil. Although the Brazilian government has recognized the boundaries of his community of Pemxa, a dam threatens his people's water sources, he said, and industrial farms are encroaching on an area that his community has requested for expansion.

He and his son have both received death threats for standing up for their rights.

Parts of the Brazilian Amazon have long been dangerous for people who defend land rights. Sister Dorothy Stang, an American-born member of the Congregation of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was murdered Feb. 12, 2005, near the town of Anapu in the Amazonian state of Para, where she helped small landholders defend their farms and forests.

In 2017, Brazil was the deadliest county for environmentalists, indigenous leaders and other defenders of land rights, with 57 killed that year, according to the nonprofit organization Global Witness.

For da Conceicao and other Amazonian people, "territory is life and life is territory," Father Hughes said.

The Amazon basin contains the largest remaining expanse of tropical forest in the world. In his encyclical "Laudato Si', on Care for our Common Home," Pope Francis highlighted its importance for the global climate, as well as its significance as a home to the region's original peoples.

Deforestation has been increasing in recent decades, however, as roads, industrial farms and cattle ranches continue to expand. Indigenous territories have significantly lower deforestation rates than surrounding areas and are sometimes even better protected than government-established parks or reserves, studies have found.

Maintaining a traditional way of life in the forest is increasingly difficult, however, as young people often leave their villages in search of jobs or a college education. Facing discrimination in cities, they may conceal their indigenous roots.

When young people move away from their communities, they lose the chance to learn traditional songs, stories and myths from their parents and grandparents. Some never learn their native language, because their parents were forbidden to speak it in school -- sometimes even in Catholic mission schools, said Washington Salvador Tiwi Asamat, 45, a Shuar man from southern Ecuador.

Those are values that the church wants to help people recover, said Father Hughes.

Mariela Rivera Diaz, a Yagua woman from the community of San Jose de Piri, in Peru's northeastern Loreto region, has watched her oldest children move away to get an education in distant cities. Worried that her native tongue might disappear, she began to teach the Yagua language to younger children in her community.

Santiago Yahuarcani, a Huitoto artist from Pebas, a town on the bank of the Amazon River in Peru, began to rediscover his people's history when he found that tourists were more captivated by his paintings of village life or mythical beings than scenes of forests and rivers.

He encourages young people in Pebas not only to speak their native language, but also to learn traditional music and dances.

As church leaders prepare for the synod for the Amazon, they have much to learn from native peoples whose lives are so closely intertwined with the forests and rivers of the region, Father Hughes said.

"The word of God exists in the air, the water, the plants, the animals," he said. "It is the Bible of life, the Bible of creation."

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