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Christian leaders in Syria call for an end to ‘unjust’ sanctions that they say hamper aid to the needy

Syrians build a temporary camp to house families made homeless by a deadly earthquake in the town of Harim in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province on the border with Turkey, on Feb. 8, 2023, two days after a deadly earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria. / Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

St. Louis, Mo., Feb 8, 2023 / 14:30 pm (CNA).

Three prominent Christian leaders in Syria issued a joint letter Tuesday calling for an end to sanctions against Syria, which they say are unjustly preventing vital aid from reaching the people most affected by the devastating earthquake that struck the region earlier this week. 

The Feb. 7 letter was signed by the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef I, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X. 

“This natural disaster adds to the ordeal of the Syrian people, who continue to suffer from the tragedies of war, crises, disasters, epidemics, and the harsh economic hardships resulting from inflation, the absence of indispensable materials, medications, and daily basic necessities needed in order for people to survive and live in dignity,” the leaders wrote. 

“We, the three patriarchs with the heads of churches in Syria, demand from the United Nations and the countries imposing sanctions on Syria to lift the embargo and unjust sanctions imposed on the Syrian people, and to take exceptional measures and immediate initiatives to secure the delivery of the much-needed relief and humanitarian aid.”

The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) also recently called for an end to sanctions against Syria. 

“We urge the immediate lifting of sanctions on Syria and allowing access to all materials, so sanctions may not turn into a crime against humanity,” the religious leaders wrote in a Feb. 6 statement

According to the latest available estimates as of midday Wednesday, the 7.8-magnitude quake ​​has left at least 11,600 people dead in Turkey and Syria, the New York Times reported. In Syria, which has been ravaged by more than a decade of civil war, countless buildings collapsed Feb. 6, including several Catholic churches, reported ACI MENA, CNA’s Arabic-language partner agency. 

In Syria’s Idlib province, which borders Turkey, some 4.1 million people required humanitarian assistance even before the February earthquake, according to the United Nations. According to the Washington Post, assistance to that region is hampered by restrictions imposed by the Syrian government, which disallows some international organizations from accessing the area. In addition, there is only one border crossing open to the region from Turkey, which causes a bottleneck for aid. 

Many cities and towns with a significant Christian population in Syria, such as Aleppo, Homs, Lattakia, and Hama, suffered major damage. In Aleppo, several UNESCO World Heritage sites were damaged, including the citadel of the old city. Many international Catholic aid agencies, such as Caritas, Catholic Relief Services, and Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) are soliciting donations, mobilizing resources, and coordinating relief efforts. 

The United States has imposed various sanctions on the Syrian government since the start of the country’s 2011 civil war, citing widely documented human rights abuses perpetrated by President Bashar Al-Assad against his own people. 

The latest slate of sanctions, which came into force in 2020, is known as the Caesar Act and seeks to “compel the government of Bashar al-Assad to halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful coexistence with its neighbors.” Various EU and other countries have imposed similar sanctions. 

Although the Caesar Act contains language exempting humanitarian aid from the sanctions, humanitarian advocates have said that aid is often hampered because of “over-compliance” on the part of banks and other actors because of the aid’s connection to Syria, according to November 2022 testimony by a U.N.-appointed expert. 

“Numerous international and local organizations have expressed serious concerns about the high costs of operations, including due to sanctions-induced rising prices in fuel and the challenges to financial transactions, procurement, and delivery of goods and services,” reported Alena Douhan, a Belarusian professor of international law, to the U.N. 

“They report that foreign banks are often reluctant to process payments destined for Syria, particularly following Lebanon’s banking crisis and the spillover effects on Syria. Restrictions and delays in processing payments with suppliers, which can take months, lead to a restricted and less competitive market, rising costs, putting at risk the implementation of lifesaving humanitarian interventions. I have received information that important international humanitarian actors have either significantly reduced their activities or fully withdrew from the country due to these challenges, leaving a serious protection and rehabilitation gap.”

Ninety percent of Syria’s population was living below the poverty line even before the earthquake, with limited access to food, water, electricity, shelter, cooking and heating fuel, transportation, and health care. Al-Assad’s government has often blamed the sanctions for his government’s inability to assist his people. 

State Department official: ‘After careful review’ Nigeria to remain off religious freedom watch list

Father Isaac Achi, a Nigerian Catholic priest, was murdered in Niger State on Jan. 15, 2023. / Diocese of Minna

Washington D.C., Feb 8, 2023 / 13:25 pm (CNA).

A U.S. State Department official sent EWTN a statement noting that “after careful review” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has decided not to put Nigeria back on a list of offenders of religious liberty.

The statement comes as human rights advocates and members of Congress are pressing the Biden administration to place Nigeria on the watch list in an effort to stop the violence and persecution of Christians in the country.

More than 5,000 Christians were killed in 2022 in Nigeria, according to religious freedom watchdog Open Doors International. The widespread violence and persecution of Christians in Nigeria have continued this year with the January murder of Father Isaac Achi, who was burned to death Jan. 17.

This led many religious rights advocates to call for the U.S. to take a strong stance in defense of Nigerian Christians by adding Nigeria to its annual list of countries that violate religious freedom, known as the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list. 

The unnamed U.S. Department of State official Feb. 7 sent a statement in response to an inquiry from EWTN correspondent Owen Jensen regarding Nigeria’s omission from the CPC list. 

“After careful review, the Secretary [of State] has assessed that Nigeria does not meet the legal threshold for designation under the International Religious Freedom Act,” the statement read.

The State Department official said that “the United States takes all incidents of violence seriously and raises them regularly in our conversations with Nigerian officials.” 

As regards the murder of Father Achi, the statement said: “We are saddened and appalled.” 

“We do not know the motives of those responsible, but we condemn their heedless violence. We urge the Nigerian authorities to quickly bring them to justice,” read the statement from the State Department official.

“We continue to have concerns about the religious freedom situation in Nigeria, which is well documented in the annual IRF (International Religious Freedom) Report,” the official said. “We will continue to press the government to address these.” 

The statement noted that the State Department has redesignated two terrorist organizations within Nigeria, Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, as “Entities of Particular Concern for religious freedom.”

Human rights observers in Nigeria and members of the Catholic Church have argued, however, that the Nigerian government itself should be on the CPC list, in part, because it has allowed these groups to continue to persecute Christians and religious minorities. 

Bishop Jude Arogundade of the Diocese of Ondo, Nigeria, told a group gathered in Washington earlier this month that members of the ruling party have ties to terrorists. Arogundade’s diocese suffered a terrorist attack on Pentecost Sunday 2022 in which 50 Catholics attending Mass were killed at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Nigeria’s Owo state. 

Those who “are supposed to make things better, they are the ones involved in attacks here,” he told the group.

Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer and fellow at the Hudson Institute, told the group that terrorists in Nigeria continue to act with “impunity” and are rarely held accountable for their crimes.

Rampant Christian persecution, including massacres, murders, and kidnappings, has been increasing in Nigeria in recent years, according to Aid to the Church in Need. Yet, 2022 was the second year in a row that the nation was left off the CPC list.

Nigeria’s continued exclusion from the CPC list prompted Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey; Rep. French Hill, R-Arkansas; and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, to introduce a resolution last week to push back on the nation’s abuses. The bipartisan resolution urges the State Department to redesignate Nigeria a CPC and to appoint a special envoy to monitor and combat human rights violations in the region.

“I look forward to asking the State Department directly about this issue when they come to testify in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” Hill told CNA in response to this week’s State Department email.

“The Biden administration continues to leave Nigeria off the CPC list for political gain. This resolution sends an important message to the Biden administration and the government of Nigeria that the U.S. Congress sees what is happening there and will continue to speak out against the ongoing violence and the government’s inadequate response,” Hill told CNA last week.

Ukrainian Catholics will now celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 in a shift toward the West

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, on Dec. 9, 2022 / Oleksandr Sawranskij / Major Archbishopric of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

Washington D.C., Feb 8, 2023 / 10:55 am (CNA).

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) announced Monday that it is switching its fixed-date religious celebrations to match the Gregorian calendar used by the Church in the West.

Ukrainian Catholics have been among the few remaining sects under the papacy to celebrate holidays according to the Julian calendar, which celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7 and Epiphany on Jan. 19. The Russian Orthodox Church and other Eastern Churches under the Patriarchate of Moscow follow the Julian calendar.

Now, Catholics in Ukraine will celebrate feasts on the same dates as Catholics in the U.S. and other Western nations, meaning Christmas will be observed on Dec. 25 and Epiphany on Jan. 6.

The change will take place at the beginning of the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s liturgical year, Sept. 1, 2023.

The head of the UGCC, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Galicia, said that the decision was made “taking into account the numerous requests of the faithful and having conducted prior consultations with the clergy and monastics of our Church about the urgent need to reform the liturgical calendar of the UGCC in Ukraine.”

Shevchuk clarified that only holidays that occur on a fixed date every year, such as Christmas, will now be celebrated on the same days as in the West.

Holidays that move from year to year, such as Easter, will continue for the time being to be celebrated in the old style.

According to the release, there is an ongoing dialogue between the Roman and Greek Catholic Churches to settle on a new arrangement for the two to celebrate Easter on the same day. The two Churches hope to be in agreement in time for the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea in 2025.

“In preparation for this anniversary, collaborative work is underway in a dialogue between Rome and Constantinople on a renewed Paschalia, according to which all Christians will celebrate Easter on the same day,” the statement said.

Vatican News reported that Shevchuk said that until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian Greek Catholics were divided on whether to make the change, but now more than 90% of Ukrainian Greek Catholics support moving from the Julian calendar and its associations with Russia.

“The desire and need for the calendar reform were much more potent than we could have hoped, and this is good news,” Shevchuk said.

Even though the switch received broad support, the Ukrainian Church will allow individual parishes to continue celebrating feasts according to the Julian calendar if they “feel they are not yet ready for such a step” and obtain special permission from their bishop. This exception will remain possible until 2025, by which point the UGCC wants all parishes to follow the Gregorian calendar.

New auxiliary bishop appointed in Diocese of El Paso immigrated to U.S. from Philippines

Pope Francis announced Feb. 8, 2023, that Father Anthony Celino of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, has been appointed to serve as an auxiliary bishop in the diocese.  / Credit: Diocese of El Paso

Boston, Mass., Feb 8, 2023 / 10:51 am (CNA).

Pope Francis announced Wednesday that a priest of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, has been appointed to serve as an auxiliary bishop in the diocese. 

Bishop-elect Anthony Celino, who currently serves as pastor of St. Raphael Parish in East El Paso and is the diocese’s judicial vicar, will be ordained as auxiliary bishop March 31 at St. Patrick Cathedral in El Paso.

Celino, the youngest of seven children, immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1993 after seminary studies there. The 50-year-old priest holds an undergraduate philosophy degree from Mary Help of Christians College Seminary in the Philippines. 

After coming to the United States, he studied at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois, earning a master of divinity degree and a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology in 1997. 

He was ordained a priest that same year.

Celino then continued his studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned a licentiate in canon law in 2003. 

According to the diocese, Celino is the third Filipino to be elected a U.S. bishop. He has served many roles within the diocese, including as parochial vicar at St. Patrick Cathedral in El Paso; parochial vicar at Our Lady of Peace in Alpine; and pastor at Santa Lucia Parish, now renamed St. John Paul II Parish.

Celino has also served as the diocese’s vicar general, moderator of the curia, and the diocese’s chancellor. He taught at the diocese’s Tepeyac Institute, an organization that helps to form lay ministers within the diocese.

“We thank the Holy Father for his attention and care for the Diocese of El Paso,” El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz said in a Feb. 8 diocesan statement.

“Bishop-elect Celino’s qualities are known in the diocese. He has previously served as my vicar general and made substantive contributions to the local Church’s life. He brings a unique experience as a Filipino immigrant serving our border community as a priest for the past 25 years, a steadfast dedication to pastoral ministry, and fidelity to the Gospel,” Seitz said.

The Diocese of El Paso, which takes up a large chunk of the western part of Texas, covers 26,686 square miles and serves 720,009 Catholics, according to the USCCB. There are more Catholics in the Diocese of El Paso than people who live in the state of Vermont and the state of Wyoming respectively.

The diocese said that Celino will continue serving as pastor of St. Raphael Catholic Church and Judicial Vicar until the late spring.

Denver Archdiocese says fired lesbian teacher violated contract

All Souls Catholic School and Church in Englewood, Colorado / Always dreamin|Wikipedia|CC BY-SA 4.0

Denver, Colo., Feb 8, 2023 / 08:55 am (CNA).

A teacher at a Catholic parish school in Denver was fired after the Denver Archdiocese learned of her same-sex relationship, which violated the conduct code she had signed. 

The teacher has since aligned herself with LGBT activists and has made statements claiming there is no contradiction between her behavior and Catholicism.

For six years Maggie Barton had taught technology to students ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade at All Souls Catholic School in Englewood, a southern Denver suburb.

The Archdiocese of Denver terminated her employment from the parish school in January after discovering she is in a same-sex relationship and discussing the matter with her.

“The school found it necessary to conclude the teacher’s employment because she did not honor the commitments she agreed to in her contract with the school,” the Archdiocese of Denver said in a Feb. 3 statement. The school “learned that she intends to persist in violating the standards she previously agreed to uphold.”

At the start of each school year, every Catholic school teacher in the archdiocese signs a contract that includes a pledge to exemplify personally “the characteristics of Catholic living,” including “refraining from taking any public position or conducting himself or herself in a manner that is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Barton, who moved to Colorado in 2017 when she accepted the parish school’s job offer, appeared to reject the contradiction.

“It is the faith I was raised in, and I wanted to teach in a Catholic school because I wanted to share those values that I learned and the experience that I had with future students,” she told CBS News 4.

She has said the school wrongly fired her for her sexual orientation. In her view, she has embodied Catholic values.

“I have a hard time understanding how being in a same-sex relationship or someone's sexual orientation hinders your ability to do that,” she said.

Catholicism rejects same-sex sexual acts. Pope Francis has often encouraged Catholics to welcome and accompany those who have same-sex attractions. He also reaffirmed that the acts in question are sinful, “as is any sexual act outside of marriage,” he said in a letter to Jesuit priest Father James Martin.

The Denver Archdiocese similarly distinguished between behavior and attractions.

“That a Catholic school employee experiences same-sex attraction in itself is not a cause for termination,” the archdiocese statement said. “However, all Catholic school employees in the Archdiocese of Denver are expected to abide by the terms of the agreement they signed and commitments they make.”

Many families send their children to Catholic schools “expecting their children to receive an education that conforms to Catholic beliefs.” Teacher expectations and commitments aim “to protect the Catholic identity of our schools.”

“It would be unjust for a school to present itself as a Catholic school and not offer a Catholic education,” the archdiocese said. Catholic schools must “carry out a faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

In November 2022, critical media coverage focused on a Denver Archdiocese policy in place since 2019 that addressed issues of gender and sexual morality. The policy document explicitly said teachers living in same-sex relationships are “unsuited for teaching” because they are “openly engaging in behavior opposed to the teachings of the Catholic Church on marriage and human sexuality.”

One Colorado, an LGBT advocacy group that previously criticized the archdiocesan policy, has sided with Barton.

Nadine Bridges, executive director of One Colorado, told Colorado Public Radio the archdiocese takes a “harmful stance” toward self-identified LGBT people.

“Faith communities, including schools, should be a place for love and support,” she said. “Denying admission to LGBTQ+ students, excluding LGBTQ+ parents from full participation, and in this case terminating LGBTQ+ teachers for no other cause than for who they love alienates and discriminates against LGBTQ+ Coloradans of Catholic faith.”

One Colorado on Feb. 3 shared a statement from Barton in which she said “the injustice of my termination lies with the Denver Archdiocese and their anti-LGBTQ+ policies. My sexual orientation is one facet of who I am, and has no bearing on my abilities as a teacher or my commitment to the values of my Catholic faith.”

“How do we change antiquated views and laws?” Barton asked in a Feb. 2 statement posted to Facebook. “Education and understanding,” she said. Barton added that she is working to educate herself and “find ways to amplify my voice for change,” inviting others to join her.

Barton told Colorado Public Radio that “choosing to work in a Catholic school as a lesbian, as someone within the queer community, might not make sense to everybody.” 

“The reason why I did that is because of my faith,” she said. To feel my own faith being weaponized against me in this way, to be terminated and to lose this position is, it’s heartbreaking.”

Barton said she would attend weekly Mass at the school and play guitar with the children’s choir.

Some parents of the parish have set up an internet fundraiser to help pay her expenses as she looks for another job. As of Feb. 7, after several days of media coverage, the contributions appear to have exceeded $22,000 from more than 175 donors in six days.

Denver is one of several U.S. dioceses in recent years to issue guidance related to gender theory following the Congregation for Catholic Education’s 2019 document “Male and Female He Created Them.” This document criticizes new ideological approaches to sex and gender. It says that the Church teaches an essential difference between men and women, ordered in the natural law and essential to the family and human flourishing.

Biden tells Congress to codify Roe, pass LGBTQ protections

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address during a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington, D.C. The speech marks Biden's first address to the new Republican-controlled House. / Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Washington D.C., Feb 8, 2023 / 06:08 am (CNA).

During his 2023 State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Joe Biden called on Congress to codify Roe v. Wade and pass legislation banning discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity. The proposals put him at odds with the U.S. Catholic bishops.

“Here in the people’s House, it’s our duty to protect all the people’s rights and freedoms,” Biden said. “Congress must restore the right that was taken away [when the Supreme Court overturned] Roe v. Wade.” 

Codifying Roe v. Wade would establish federal abortion laws that mirror the standards that were set under the now obsolete Roe v. Wade decision. Such a law would prohibit states from banning abortion and would prevent certain state-level abortion restrictions.

Since the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, 13 states have banned most abortions and another five have imposed more restrictions on abortion. In six other states, proposed bans and restrictions have been held up in the court system. 

“The vice president and I are doing everything to protect access to reproductive health care and safeguard patient [privacy],” the president said. “But already, more than a dozen states are enforcing extreme abortion bans. Make no mistake about it; if Congress passes a national abortion ban, I will veto it.”

Although Biden is the nation’s second Catholic president, he remains at odds with American Catholic bishops and Catholic Church teaching. In July, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Pro-Life Activities referred to an attempt to codify Roe v. Wade as “the most unjust and extreme abortion on demand bill our nation has ever seen.” 

Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, tweeted his thoughts on the issue before the president’s speech. 

“The ‘state of the union’ is fatally flawed if we are committed to supporting, promoting, and paying for abortion,” Tobin said. “A nation that destroys its own children has no future.”

The National Right to Life Committee criticized Biden after the State of the Union address. NRLC accused Biden of being “the most pro-abortion president in history.” 

“The Biden administration and the Democratic Party have yet to hear of an abortion they wouldn’t support,” NRLC President Carol Tobias said in a statement. “Tragically, women and their unborn babies will be the ones to suffer.”

In addition to the president’s support for abortion, he reiterated his support for laws that would establish federal civil rights protections for people identifying as LGBTQ. The legislation, known as the Equality Act, would ban discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity. 

“Let’s also pass the bipartisan Equality Act to ensure LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender young people, can live with safety and dignity,” Biden said. ‘Our strength is not just the example of our power but the power of our example. Let’s remember the world’s watching.”

This legislation has also received pushback from the USCCB. 

According to the Catholic bishops, it would threaten religious freedom by forcing religiously operated organizations and faith-based charities to “host functions that violate their beliefs” and “violate their religious beliefs.” 

The bishops raised their concerns that the legislation would require faith-based hospitals to provide abortions and gender transition surgery. The USCCB also said the act would force biological females to share locker rooms and compete in sports with biological males who identify as female. 

Guess who’s coming to the State of the Union? Pro-life hero and target of Biden Justice Department Mark Houck

Mark Houck talks to reporters outside the U.S. District courthouse in Philadelphia with his lawyers, Peter Breen (left), Brian McMonagle (right), and Andrew Bath (background) following his acquittal on two charges of violating the FACE Act, Jan. 30, 2023. / Joe Bukuras/CNA

Boston, Mass., Feb 7, 2023 / 13:50 pm (CNA).

While several Democrats are showing off their commitment to removing restrictions on abortion by inviting pro-abortion guests to attend President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, one Republican is making a statement in support of life with his invitation.

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Scott Perry invited pro-life advocate and recently exonerated Catholic father of seven Mark Houck to be his guest. 

“Mark Houck and his family are innocent victims of the radical left’s reprehensible abuse of power, which systematically seeks to destroy the lives of hardworking Americans whose only ‘crimes’ are using their God-given constitutional rights to protect their families, faith, and way of life,” Perry told The Daily Signal Feb. 7.

Houck recently fought charges in federal court of violating two counts of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, known as the FACE Act. His trial and subsequent acquittal followed his early morning arrest by the FBI in September 2022, which made national headlines. It also led many federal lawmakers to criticize the Department of Justice for excessive use of force in order to intimidate pro-lifers.

Perry said that Biden has “weaponized” the federal government “against anyone who thwarts his radical, leftist agenda.”

“He should see the faces of some of those Americans who have been relentlessly and unjustifiably persecuted by the same government sworn to protect their freedoms,” he concluded.

Houck told the outlet that he will be attending with his wife, Ryan-Marie Houck, and is honored to be asked by Perry.

“We hope our presence with members of Congress will continue to raise awareness about the injustice that was rendered against my family and others in recent months,” Houck said.

Tuesday is Biden’s first State of the Union Address following the June Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark case that legalized abortion nationwide.

Following the defeat of Roe, Houck’s acquittal in Philadelphia federal court marks another major political blow to the Biden administration’s pro-abortion agenda, which includes the prosecution of several pro-life advocates under the FACE Act.

“We pray for the opportunity to meet with those who need to hear our story and for the eventual opportunity to testify before the Judiciary Committee about our reckless experience with the Department of Justice,” Houck concluded.

Democrats invite pro-abortion guests to State of the Union

null / Wikipedia

Boston, Mass., Feb 7, 2023 / 13:30 pm (CNA).

Several Democratic congressmen have invited pro-abortion activists as their guests for President Joe Biden’s second State of the Union address Tuesday night to highlight their commitment to removing restrictions on abortion.

Jill Biden has also included an abortion activist as one of her guests to sit in the First Lady’s box.

Tuesday is Biden’s first State of the Union Address following the June Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark case that legalized abortion nationwide.

As abortion becomes increasingly more difficult to procure in many states — and much easier to access in others — pro-abortion politicians are digging their heels in on the issue while pro-life advocates are doubling down on the humanity of the unborn.

And not all the guests coming tonight are advocates of abortion. One high-profile advocate for the unborn, pro-life advocate Mark Houck, will be attending at the invitation of a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania.

Sen. Ed Markey

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, is bringing abortion rights advocate Kate Dineen, a Massachusetts woman who traveled out of state to legally procure an abortion in Maryland. 

Dineen was pregnant past the legal stage to get an abortion in Massachusetts when her son suffered a devastating stroke in her womb, according to the Patch.

Markey said that he is bringing Dineen to “highlight the importance of codifying abortion rights into law” and the “urgent need to go further” in removing legal, economic, or geographical restrictions to abortion. 

Rep. Katherine Clark

Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Massachusetts, has invited Boston abortion doctor Cheryl Hamlin as her guest Tuesday night.

Hamlin, who works at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, spent time working at an abortion center in Jackson, Mississippi, which was the focal point of the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe v. Wade: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Hamlin worked at the Jackson abortion clinic to perform abortions that local doctors refused to perform, taking her motivation from the 2016 election of former President Donald Trump, who was staunchly pro-life, WGBH reported.

Clark said that she invited Hamlin to highlight the Democratic Party’s “commitment to reproductive freedom” and standing against the “MAGA Majority’s assault on women’s health and rights.”

Rep. Madeleine Dean

Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pennsylvania, will be joined by Kelsey Leigh, an abortion activist from the state who herself has had an abortion. 

According to Dean, Leigh had an abortion at 22 weeks, after it was discovered that her child had “severe fetal anomalies.” 

Dean said she wanted to make it clear by inviting Leigh that “abortion care is health care.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Anabely Lopes, a Florida woman who traveled out of state to procure an abortion of her child after genetic testing identified “a deadly fetal anomaly,” will be joining Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, the congresswoman announced Monday.

Wasserman Schultz said that Lopes is “a victim of extreme MAGA Republican policies that focus on Florida culture war distractions and attacking women and minorities.” 

In a tweet Monday, Wasserman Schultz said that Florida Gov. Ron Desantis’ “abortion ban forced my #SOTU guest Anabely Lopes to leave FLA for the procedure when genetic tests revealed a deadly fetal anomaly,” adding that President Joe Biden and the House Democrats “defend women’s rights.”

First Lady Jill Biden

The First Lady, Jill Biden, invited a host of guests to the State of the Union to sit in the First Lady’s box, including Amanda and Josh Zurawski of Austin, Texas.

Amanda Zurawski was pregnant in 2022 and her water prematurely broke at 18 weeks. She subsequently developed sepsis and almost died because of a failure to treat her in a time-appropriate manner, the AP reported.

The couple’s daughter was delivered stillborn, according to TODAY.

Court rules pro-life group owes nearly $1 million in fines for Planned Parenthood protests

null / Credit: Chodyra Mike 1/Shutterstock.

Denver, Colo., Feb 7, 2023 / 12:23 pm (CNA).

A Planned Parenthood affiliate has won a legal judgment of almost $1 million against a pro-life group that gathered outside of a Spokane abortion clinic.

The group, which calls itself the Church at Planned Parenthood, must pay $110,000 in civil damages to Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho and another $850,000 in legal fees to the abortion provider, The Spokesman-Review newspaper reported Feb. 3.

A Spokane County judge ruled in December that the church repeatedly violated state law by “willfully or recklessly” disrupting the normal functioning of a health care facility, including by making noise that “unreasonably disturbs the peace within the facility.”

Judge Tim Fennessy of Spokane County Superior Court agreed with Planned Parenthood’s evidence that the church held 22 services in violation of state law and fined the church $5,000 for each day of a violation. He agreed that the violations put patients at increased risk of physical and mental health problems, the news site Crosscut reported.

Among the critics of the ruling was Esther Ripplinger, executive director of the pro-life group Human Life of Washington, who addressed the decision in Feb. 7 remarks in an interview with CNA.

“What we’re seeing is an attack on pro-life, period,” said Ripplinger, whose organization is the state affiliate of the National Right to Life Committee. “It’s an attack on life and it’s unfair. And it’s singled out. These are just trumped-up charges and I hope that they fight it to the fullest extent of the law.”

“These are people who engage and mobilize other people who believe that abortion is wrong, and so they have the right to do that, to assemble together on public property,” Ripplinger said. “Absolutely no laws were broken here. This is really just a witch hunt against the organizers and against what they believe, and it’s not fair.”

Pastor Ken Peters, a co-founder of the church, denied allegations of harassment and obstruction to reproductive care. He characterized the events as peaceful and nondisruptive.

“Literally, we were singing, praying, and preaching. That’s what we got sued for. We were doing it after hours when we got sued,” he told Spokane CBS affiliate KREM2 News. He said that insurance will pay for legal fees, and the church’s future events and rallies will go forward.

Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, said its arguments in the case were “content-neutral.” The clinic saw the protests’ impact on patients and abortion providers. “They did not feel safe,” he said.

Dillon said the group tried to “tiptoe around the law” despite previous court orders.

The Church at Planned Parenthood launched in 2019 as a “church plant” outside the abortion facility. Its website says the church meets only once a month and that the gathering is “not a protest” but “a worship service at the gates of hell.” It characterizes its actions as “non-confrontational spiritual warfare” in the “revival spirit” of Wesley and Whitefield, an apparent reference to John Wesley and George Whitefield, leaders of the Methodist and evangelical Christian movements of the 18th century.

The church says it preaches the Gospel outdoors and “unifies the True Church confronting the Evil of our Day.” Its actions show “repentance for America’s sin.”

The Church at Planned Parenthood has the support of at least nine Washington state churches. It also has controversial links.

It was founded by Covenant Church of Spokane, then pastored by former state Rep. Matt Shea, who now heads On Fire Ministries in Spokane, the newspaper The Spokesman-Review reported.

Shea was suspended from the Washington State House Republican Caucus after a December 2019 report that accused him of “engaging in an act of domestic terrorism” for planning, promoting, and engaging in political violence against the U.S. government from 2014–2016, according to CNN. The incidents included support for the Bundy Ranch standoff against FBI agents in a conflict over grazing rights.

Ripplinger, however, said church attendees are respectful of the law. She told CNA she had attended one Church at Planned Parenthood event several years ago.

“I saw firsthand that this group abides by the law,” she said. “They are on public property and very courteous to anyone. They meet in the evenings after hours, so there’s no disruption to the business whatsoever. I saw that firsthand. They’re extremely polite to pedestrians.”

According to Ripplinger, the gathering she saw had crowd control practices in place to ensure compliance with rules.

The Church at Planned Parenthood initially met on a sidewalk and strip of grass alongside the south wall of the abortion clinic. A court order in September 2020 said the church could only gather across the street, but Planned Parenthood said this order was routinely violated, according to KXLY News. In September 2021, a judge barred the church and its members from gathering anywhere within 35 feet of the clinic and from making noise between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Before the legal action and internal splits, the church drew as many as 500 attendees.

Father Darrin Connall, vicar general for the Diocese of Spokane, told CNA he thought the fines seemed “excessive and punitive,” though he was unfamiliar with what laws were broken.

He questioned whether the Church at Planned Parenthood had the best approach.

“The Christian world isn’t united on the best way to protest the taking of unborn human life, so I can’t say if Catholics would be united with their approach or not,” the priest said. “But we certainly would have obeyed the law and if the law needed to be changed, [we’d] work to change the law through the system, rather than rather than breaking it.”

“We in the diocese organize peaceful protests in support of human life regularly,” the vicar general said.

Connall, who is also rector of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, said a group of parishioners goes to an abortion clinic once a week and prays the rosary outside while obeying the law.

He said the Catholic Church would emphasize prayer, “begging God to bring about a deeper and greater respect for the sanctity of all human life.”

He also noted Catholic Bishop of Spokane Thomas Daly’s launch of the annual Walk for Life Northwest in downtown Spokane, now in its seventh year. According to Connall, this is a time “for people to come together for a public witness to what we believe about life in a very public way.”

Bishop Daly addressed the Walk for Life Northwest in Spokane on Jan. 22. About 2,000 people attended the event, the Spokane diocese newspaper Inland Catholic reported.

Tennessee governor to increase funding for crisis pregnancy centers to $100 million

null / Alex Krisan via

Washington D.C., Feb 7, 2023 / 10:47 am (CNA).

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced plans at his annual State of the State address Monday to expand support for crisis pregnancy centers in the state to $100 million.

Abortion has been illegal in Tennessee for all stages of pregnancy since a ban went into effect in the state in August 2022. On Monday night, Lee, a Republican, proposed strengthening support for women and families through a list of expanded social welfare programs.

“Pro-life is much more than defending the lives of the unborn. It’s not a matter of politics; this is about human dignity,” Lee said.

In addition to increased funding for crisis pregnancy centers, Lee also proposed widening Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women and parents, asking the federal government to cover the cost of diapers for Medicaid recipients, and granting additional paid parental leave time for state employees.

“There was a significant shift in this country last year when it comes to protecting the lives of the unborn,” Lee said, referring to the overturn of Roe v. Wade. “We now all have an opportunity, a moral obligation, to support strong Tennessee families.”

To take effect the governor’s proposed budget must be passed by the Tennessee General Assembly, which is majority Republican in both houses.

“If approved, Tennessee will be the first Medicaid program in the nation to implement this kind of support. That’s pro-life. That’s pro-family,” Lee said.

Crisis pregnancy centers typically offer pregnant women and families free resources and baby materials.

Pregnancy Resource Center, a Tennessee nonprofit medical clinic that operates two crisis pregnancy centers and a mobile clinic, offers “pregnancy testing, ultrasound exams, STD testing, and holistic wraparound care to women, men, and families in need,” according to CEO Valerie Millsapps.

Millsapps told CNA that she’s “grateful” the governor and state Assembly “are committed to serving moms and dads in need.”

“These are exciting times for Tennesseans,” Millsapps said. “It is clear that our governor and state leaders are prioritizing moms and families in the same way we have for decades.”

Millsapps also noted that the governor’s proposals are “just the beginning of what our state can do to foster environments where families flourish.”