Christian leaders shut Church of Holy Sepulcher to protest taxes
JERUSALEM (CNS) — Protesting several recent actions they described as a “systematic campaign ... against the churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land,” the heads of Christian churches announced Feb. 25 they were closing of the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for an undisclosed period of time.
Bewildered pilgrims milled around the square in front of the church as Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III — flanked by Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, and Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian — read a short statement to the press. At the same time, the only two people allowed to close the doors — the Muslim custodian of the key, Adeeb Jawad Joudeh Al Husseini, and Muslim door keeper Wajeeh Nuseibeh — closed and locked the doors.
“This systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land severely violates the most basic ... and sovereign rights, trampling on the delicate fabric of relations between the Christian community and the authorities for decades,” the heads of churches said in their statement.
The church leaders were protesting the Jerusalem municipality’s intention to impose property taxes on church property, such as hotels and convention centers, not used for worship purposes. The proposal to levy taxes on some properties would run contrary to the unofficial historical tax-exempt status the churches have enjoyed for centuries.
In addition, the church leaders said they oppose a bill in the Israeli parliament that would limit the ability to sell church-owned land to private owners. The bill, whose vote was postponed following the church protest, would be specifically detrimental to the Greek Orthodox Church, which owns large tracts of land in central Jerusalem upon which many private homes are built; many of those 99-year-old building rental contracts will soon expire. The church already has sold some of the land to private owners, and homeowners whose apartments are on the land worry about losing their homes.
Rachel Azaria, the member of Parliament who sponsored the bill, said it is not meant to affect what the church can do with its property, but what happens when the land rights are sold to a third party.
As media gathered to hear the church leaders, pilgrims wandered around the church square, some kneeling in front of the massive wooden doors — the closest they would come to entering the church.
“We had one shot,” said Flavia Falcone, 25, an Italian Catholic living in Poland, who had come to Israel for four days. “This was a bad decision. Faith and politics are two different things. I came here all this way to see the church and I find it closed. It is not very pleasant.”
It is only the second time the doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher have been closed in the middle of the day, other than for traditional religious ceremonies.

The pope’s intention
Here is Pope Francis’ prayer intention for this month:
Evangelization: Formation in Spiritual Discernment That the Church may appreciate the urgency of formation in spiritual discernment, both on the personal and communitarian levels.

Inmates at Louisiana prison built casket for the Rev. Billy Graham
NEW ORLEANS (CNS) — In 1995, as inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola lowered the makeshift, cardboard casket containing the body of fellow inmate Joseph Siegel into freshly dug ground at the prison’s cemetery, Siegel’s body fell through the bottom of the coffin.
Then, as the pallbearers positioned the casket with care over his body and began shoveling dirt, the top collapsed.
Burl Cain, in his first year as warden at the nation’s largest maximum-security prison, where all but a fraction of the 5,000 men will die without ever walking back through the gates, had seen enough.
Cain gathered inmates for what, by Angola standards, would be an unusual warden-prisoner talk. Many of the prisoners were skilled craftsmen, who had worked for years to set up the popular Angola Prison Rodeo.
“I told them, ‘Men, you’re going to die here, and we’ve got to do this with dignity,’” Cain recalled. “’Y’all are going to build a coffin, and it’s going to be a nice coffin. When you die, you’ve served your sentence, and there’s no reason for anybody to kick your body.’”
That event more than two decades ago led to inmates at the prison building the casket for the Rev. Billy Graham, the charismatic evangelical Christian leader who died Feb. 21 at age 99.
Cain served as warden at Angola for 21 years and is credited with changing the violent and deadly prison culture through an emphasis on what he calls “moral rehabilitation.”
“I coined that term because everybody liked ‘morality’ and everybody liked ‘rehabilitation,’ and the ACLU would leave me alone,” Cain said. “I couldn’t say ‘faith-based’ and I couldn’t say ‘Christian.’ That would get me sued.”
Cain established seminary education, sponsored by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and built several interdenominational chapels, including a hospice chapel funded by Catholic entities and an Alamo chapel, a replica of the original Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, used often by Catholic inmates.
Cain said he was being “selfish” when he decided to open Angola to the outside world, with an emphasis on theological training.
“I realized this: Moral people don’t rape, pilfer and steal,” Cain said. “So, if I could get these guys to become moral, I’d have a safer prison, I could survive.”
In 1997, Chuck Colson, an evangelical Christian who had served prison time for obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal and who had begun a national prison ministry, visited Angola with Tex Reardon, who was associated with the Rev. Graham and his worldwide evangelical crusades.
“In the 1950s, my mother would send a check for $5 every month to Billy Graham, even though she was a school teacher and my parents were poor,” Cain said. “So, I asked Tex Reardon if there was any way he could get Billy Graham to come here — because this prison needed him.”
Not long after that, Graham’s son Franklin visited Angola and was so impressed he set the wheels in motion for the construction of two more chapels — one for the inmates and another, Cain said, for “the employees of our little city.”
“They wanted their own people to come build it, because it was a ministry for them,” Cain said. “They wanted the pews to be just old-timey so that it would look like an old-timey church.”

Change your heart, change your abortion votes, Bishop Paprocki tells Sen. Durbin
SPRINGFIELD, (CNA) - Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois has reiterated that U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin should not receive Holy Communion due to the Catholic lawmaker’s support for abortion, including a recent procedural vote against a bill that would bar abortion after 20 weeks into pregnancy.
“Sen. Durbin was once pro-life. I sincerely pray that he will repent and return to being pro-life,” Bishop Paprocki said Thursday. “Because his voting record in support of abortion over many years constitutes ‘obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin,’ the determination continues that Sen. Durbin is not to be admitted to Holy Communion until he repents of this sin. This provision is intended not to punish, but to bring about a change of heart.”

Rare snowfall leads to fun, frenzy in Rome
VATICAN CITY (CNA/EWTN News) - Many were skeptical, but when Romans awoke Monday morning the forecast was right: the city was covered in a blanket of snow – a phenomenon so rare that schools were closed and public transport largely suspended throughout the day.
However, while much of the city is closed indoors sipping tea or hot cocoa, many of those near the Vatican zipped to St. Peter's Square for a bit of snow-filled fun: some instigated snowball fights, some built miniature snowmen, and at least one man even donned skis to make his way through the slush.
Nuns, priests and seminarians also joined in the excitement, and as locals slowly began to emerge from their houses, wrapped head to toe, they stopped to admire and snap photos of their major landmarks covered in a dusting of white, including the dome of St. Peter's Basilica.

Euthanasia in hospices ‘a serious error,’ says Archbishop Miller
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (CNS) — Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver said the British Columbia provincial government must stop attempts to force hospices and care homes to provide euthanasia.
Provincial health authorities are “making a serious error” in trying to coerce caregivers — “committed to making the final stages of life for the elderly, sick, and suffering meaningful and dignified” — into supporting assisted suicide, the archbishop said in a Feb. 22 statement.
“Assisted suicide stands in stark contrast” to the care that hospices offer, and none should be compelled to provide it, he said.
More than 2,000 Canadians have died of assisted suicide since the practice was made legal in June 2016. Archbishop Miller said that points to a dire need for better end-of-life care, not increased access to a lethal injection.
“If the elderly, sick, and suffering in our population feel that euthanasia is their best option, it means we as a society and as individuals are letting them down,” he wrote.
“In nearly every case, we can provide adequate pain management to comfort patients. But what about the lonely, the abandoned, and those who see themselves as a burden to others or society? How do we address their needs and assure them life has meaning?”

Catholics protest threats to life in the Philippines
Cardinal Tagle leads priests, nuns, and laypeople round the capital’s main park
MANILA, Philippines (CNS) — Catholics came out strongly against what they described as “threats to life” in rallies held in major cities across the Philippines Feb. 24.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila led priests, nuns, and laypeople in an early morning “Walk for Life” around the capital’s main park, reported ucanews.com.
The cardinal appealed to Catholics to value all lives, even those of their enemies and society’s so-called outcasts.
Ucanews.com reported that among the issues raised during the march were drug-related killings, a proposal in Congress to legalize divorce and changes to the constitution.
“Let us bring back the belief that the lives of other people, even of our enemies, are a gift from God,” Cardinal Tagle said.
Relatives of those who died in the government’s “war against drugs” joined the candlelit procession in which an estimated 2,000 people took part.
“Life is a gift from God. But when we start thinking of other people’s lives in terms of their usefulness to us, it becomes so easy for us to just do away and discard life,” Cardinal Tagle said.
He said it is “easy to walk for one’s loved ones, but quite difficult to do the same for one’s enemies.”
In the central Philippines, an estimated 5,000 Catholics joined a “Walk for Life With Mary” led by Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu.
The archbishop said Catholics support the government’s war against drugs but “question the manner it is done because of questionable motives and circumstances.”
“No man has the right to (end) another’s life. God is the beginning and end of life. Let us protect life from womb to tomb,” he said.
Rights groups say that close to 12,000 suspected drug users and peddlers have been killed in the government’s campaign against narcotics.
“I hope all threats to life and the series of killings will stop because we are all brothers and sisters in Jesus and Mary,” said Archbishop Palma.
In Cagayan de Oro City, in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, Archbishop Antonio Ledesma warned that the drug-related killings “will create more problems.”
“While we are trying to solve one problem, we are creating another,” he said, adding that it is the hope of the church “for the government to promote due process” in the campaign against illegal drugs.

Colosseum bathed in red in honor of modern martyrs
ROME (CNS) — Rome’s Colosseum, long a symbol of the persecution of early Christians, was bathed in red light late Feb. 24 as a reminder of and a prayer for the thousands of Christians being persecuted for their faith today.
The family of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s highly criticized anti-blasphemy laws, and Rebecca Bitrus, a Nigerian Christian who was held in captivity for two years by Boko Haram terrorists, told their stories before the red lights were shined on the Colosseum.
Bitrus and Bibi’s husband and daughter had met earlier in the day with Pope Francis at the Vatican. They were accompanied by leaders of Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic foundation that has a long history of assisting persecuted Christians.
Alessandro Monteduro, director of the Italian section of Aid to the Church, said the 40-minute meeting with Pope Francis was “extraordinary,” particularly because the entire encounter took place in an atmosphere of prayer by the pope and by his guests.
The pope “wanted everyone to pray together in their own languages,” he said. So Eisham, Asia Bibi’s youngest daughter, prayed in Urdu and Bitrus prayed in Hausa. “It was a moment of extraordinarily intense emotion,” Monteduro said.
Eisham had visited her mother in prison Feb. 17 and told her about the trip to Rome, he said. Asia Bibi told her, “If you meet the pope, give him a kiss from me.” And the young woman did.

Congo’s bishops: Two killed in protests against ‘dictatorship’
KINSHASA, Congo (CNS) — Congo’s bishops said a young Catholic was killed at point-blank range and another was shot dead while trying to return home from anti-government protests.
The protests, organized by the church’s Lay Coordination Committee, were designed to be peaceful marches “to say no to dictatorship,” said a statement on the bishops’ website Feb. 26, the day after the marches. They said police used tear gas and live bullets.
The bishops said Rossy Tshimanga was shot outside Kinshasa’s St. Benedict Church. After a second youth was shot, young people set fire to police buildings, the bishops said.
The confrontation was the third in two months to occur after Sunday Masses. Clashes Dec. 31 and Jan. 21 left 15 people dead, 70 injured and 115 arrested, including a dozen clergy, according to church and United Nations data.
“Human rights defenders are denouncing the brutality shown by police in scattering these peaceful demonstrators,” the bishops said. “But if we believe the city of Kinshasa’s police commissioner, no such slip-ups took place.”
A police spokesman said no one was killed as police broke up the protests.
The bishops said others were injured and detained around the country as more than 3 million protesters rallied nationwide, demanding President Joseph Kabila step down. A 2016 church-brokered accord required Kabila to resign after his second five-year term, with elections by late 2017. The country’s elections currently are scheduled for December.
“The Congolese national police suppressed peaceful marches in several Kinshasa parishes, notably at St. Francis de Sales, where riot police were deployed in the road facing the church and fired warning shots after Mass,” the bishops said.
“At Our Lady of Fatima Parish, the demonstrators were also restrained by police after scuffles, while those at Holy Trinity Parish marched along back roads before encountering the security forces.”
In a Feb. 26 statement, Leila Zerrougui, head of the U.N. stabilization mission in Congo, demanded an inquiry and said she regretted more deaths had occurred, “despite orders given to security forces to show greatest restraint in handling the demonstrations.”
On Feb. 25, Father Donatien Nshole, secretary-general of the Congolese bishops’ conference, praised the behavior of the police officers in some areas of Kinshasa and called on the population to remain vigilant.
Agence France-Presse reported that security forces had been “massively deployed before all Catholic churches” in Congo’s second-largest city, Lubumbashi, where “any attempt to gather” had been “systematically dispersed” with tear gas and live bullets. It reported that several Catholics were badly wounded when trying to sing Congo’s national anthem outside Kinsangani’s cathedral, while at least three priests had been driven away in a police jeep at the city’s St. Peter Parish.
AFP reported the government had accused church leaders of “partisan political activism” and “inciting the population to revolt” during a Feb. 24 government meeting.

Texas bishops support Charities in wake of gay adoption lawsuit
FORT WORTH, Texas, (CNA/EWTN News) - The Catholic bishops of Texas voiced strong support Tuesday for a Catholic organization being sued by a lesbian couple in Texas.
The couple, Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin, filed a complaint this week in district court in Washington against Catholic Charities of Fort Worth after being denied a request to adopt refugee children.
The couple believes they are being discriminated against on the grounds of their sexual orientation, and told the Washington Post that they hope their lawsuit results either in a policy change at Catholic Charities or in a loss of the organization’s taxpayer funding.
In a joint statement Tuesday, the Catholic bishops of Texas voiced their support for Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, which they said is in compliance both with Catholic teaching and “with all federal regulations associated with funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through its Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is carrying out the federal government's Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) and the Unaccompanied Alien Child (UC) programs.”