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Washington DC clears out homeless camp, breaking up community

Washington D.C., Jan 17, 2020 / 08:01 am (CNA).- A homeless encampment in Washington, DC, was permanently dismantled on Thursday, in a move the city said was designed to better improve the safety of the city’s sidewalks.

One former resident told CNA that he believes the dismantling was necessary, and he blames the city for letting the encampment escalate to the point of being out of control.

The encampment, located beneath the K Street NE train bridge, is one of three located on the city’s K, L, and M streets in the northeast quadrant of the city. It was cleared out at 10 a.m. on Thursday.

That afternoon, just one tent--belonging to a woman who was placed in a psychiatric hold earlier that morning out of fear she was going to harm herself--remained, along with scattered litter. 

Most of the former K Street residents have migrated to one of the other encampments nearby. One of those residents, Mike Harris, spoke to CNA about why he chose to move to L Street and why he thought it was “necessary” for the city to clean out his former street.

Harris said that he had lived for about eight months on K Street, and during that time, the conditions in the area had gotten continuously worse. Harris, who uses a wheelchair, said that he had been unable to navigate the sidewalks due to the size, placement, and number of tents, as well as the presence of lawn chairs in front of the tents.

He said he empathized with the people who complained about being unable to push strollers or even walk on the sidewalks due to the presence of tents. 

Harris said that while he was not sure it was necessary to permanently shut down the encampment, he did think it needed to be addressed, as the situation had deteriorated in recent months. 

Harris laid blame at the city for how K Street had changed. He told CNA that when he first moved to K Street, the city had been enforcing various regulations and laws regarding the placement and size of tents. That changed over time.

“I was there for two days and my tent got a warning,” said Harris. “I wasn’t even that far over.” He said that his neighbors, whose tents were blocking pedestrians from using the sidewalk, never received similar warnings, even though their tents were in violation. 

“[Now] 26 to 40 people who lived under the K Street bridge got displaced because approximately five or six people didn’t want to abide by the rules,” said Harris. “Everybody had to suffer the consequences of the actions of a few.” 

Harris told CNA that he thinks the city of Washington wanted the encampment to become a “red flag situation” that would “justify the removal” of the tents. Hence, they stopped enforcing rules. 

Fr. Bill Carloni, the pastor at the nearby Holy Name of Jesus Parish, told CNA that he has been ministering to the homeless populations for about three years. His parish runs a food pantry and also distributes lunches to the homeless on a weekly basis. Carloni told CNA he was concerned about what the future would hold for the former K Street residents. 

“Unfortunately, I still don’t know what happens now,” Carloni told CNA. He said that over the last eight months, he had noticed a “significant increase” in the number of people living under the bridge. 

“I think that more people are getting priced out of DC,” said Carloni. “I mean, we see another element of it where more people are coming looking for emergency rental assistance because they can no longer afford the rents and they are on the verge of becoming homeless.” 

Carloni said there is no “typical” resident of the homeless encampments, and that they ranged in age, health, and reasons for homelessness. Many suffer from mental illness. He said that while there was a reputation for danger and crime in the encampment, Carloni said he’d “never felt threatened” or been mistreated. 

As a pastor, Fr. Carloni said that he worries about the people he ministers to on the streets, and when the encampments are cleaned out, he has to work hard to track everyone down to ensure they are doing okay. While Carloni was concerned that there would be conflict due to the melding of the various encampments, Harris said that there was none of that thus far. 

“I’ve found [the homeless population on K Street] to be amicable and kind of community oriented, like I know a lot of them, that they care for each other,” Carloni said. 

“They like to eat together as a community and they like to share.” 

Harris confirmed this. As he spoke to CNA, other residents of L Street were helping him to move his belongings into his tent. He said there were plans to construct a community table on the street, where the residents would gather for meals and fellowship. 

There are imminent plans to install a generator on the street corner to provide electricity to charge phones--something that Harris said is crucial in the job search that might lead to getting off the street. This generator was purchased with money that was crowdfunded.

Harris said that he had been homeless for about a year, and had lived in the city’s homeless shelters before making the move to K Street. He told CNA that he much preferred life on the streets to life in the shelters.

Life in the shelters, said Harris, was over-regulated and no safer than living in a tent. 

“[The shelters] are nothing to write home about,” he said. “There’s violence, there’s germs, there’s disease, physical altercations, and a lot of stuff that you have to deal with living in such close proximity.”

On the street, he said, there are no set times to check in or leave, and there is more privacy and divided up space amongst residents. In the DC shelters, people sleep on cots or bunk beds. 

“There are benefits of being out here. There’s some shortfalls, too,” he said, noting that he recently had a tent stolen from him when it was packed up. “And I’ve had a backpack stolen too, but I’ve had stuff stolen at shelters too.”

“Yeah, it’s bearable. It’s much more bearable than an institutionalized shelter-type situation,” said Harris. 

Harris will not be spending much more time on the streets. He received a housing voucher, and had there not been a “signature snafu,” he would already have moved into an apartment by now. He told CNA that he has a “great support team,” and that he regularly attends Bible study, church services, and a men’s group. 

It was these influences which helped him to keep his faith during his time being homeless, and he hopes to one day to help others in his situation, as “some of the people out here who are chronically homeless, they lose hope, drive, motivation, courage and faith.” 

“I’ve got a network of positive-minded individuals that’s helping me weather the storm, and I’m going to try to encourage other people who are currently homeless to do the same thing,” he said.

He urges his associates on the streets to “develop a network, a support group, a support team. Someone that can call and check in on, come by, see if you’re doing alright.”

“Just to let you know that someone cares [about you] means a lot.”

Report: Around the world, 260 million Christians face persecution 

Washington D.C., Jan 17, 2020 / 02:45 am (CNA).- Christian persecution around the world is a growing problem, says a new report from an agency that documents abuses against Christians across the globe.

Worldwide, the report states, 260 million Christians are facing persecution. This marks a 6% increase from the previous year.

The annual report from Open Doors, released Jan. 15, ranked North Korea first on its list of 50 most dangerous countries in which to be Christian, the 18th straight year that the country has received that designation.

There are an estimated 300,000 Christians amidst the total population of 25.4 million in North Korea. Open Doors reports that if North Korean Christians are discovered, the government will deport them to labor camps as political criminals or even kill them on the spot. Meeting other Christians to worship is nearly impossible unless it is done in complete secrecy.

Following North Korea on the World Watch List Top 10 are Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, and India.

“Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world. While persecution of Christians takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Christ. Christians throughout the world continue to risk imprisonment, loss of home and assets, torture, rape, and even death as a result of their faith,” Open Doors said in a release accompanying the report.

China featured four spots higher on the list than last year, up from number 27 in 2019 to number 23 in 2020, due in large part to the Communist government’s efforts to preserve its rule.

Christians in China experienced, among other things, an increase in attacks on churches in the past year. Open Doors reports that 793 churches were attacked within the reporting period for the 2018 World Watch List, compared with 1,847 attacks reported on churches worldwide in 2019. In 2020, the number is conservatively estimated to be at least 5,576 in China alone, the report states.

According to Open Doors, there are at least 97 million Christians in China. Policies enacted by the Communist Party in 2018 to “sinicize” the church - or adapt it to their way of thinking - have been enforced in more and more territories, resulting in the dramatic increase of persecution against Christians, the group reports.

People of faith also suffer from continual surveillance by the government. Open Doors cites a CNBC report that says there are nearly half a billion surveillance cameras in China, a number only expected to grow.

Additionally, Children under the age of 18 are prohibited from attending church, places of worship are monitored, and pastors are increasingly being asked to register with the Communist government, risking church closure and arrest if they refuse, the report continues. More than 5,500 churches in China have been closed down, and churches in at least 23 provinces have been harassed or shuttered.

There were at least 447 verified incidents of violence and hate crimes against Christians in India in the 2020 World Watch List reporting period, the report states. Many attacks on Christians in India are perpetrated by radical Hindus and often take the form of mob violence.

Muslim extremist groups were responsible for significant violence against Christians worldwide in the past year. For example, in Sri Lanka, 250 people died and more than 500 were injured in attacks on Catholic and Protestant churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, the report notes. In Pakistan, radical Islamist groups often are given free rein by the government, the report says.

In Iraq and Syria, hundreds of thousands of Christians— as much as 87% of the Christian population in Iraq— have been forced to flee due to civil war and the presence of militant groups such as the Islamic State.

Outside of Asia, the report took note of the plight of Christians in the African nation of Burkina Faso, which has risen 33 spots in the past year. Dozens of Catholic priests have been killed in the past year, and Protestant pastors and their families have been killed or kidnapped by violent Islamist militants.

Notably, a spate of violence in churches in Burkina Faso last summer and continuing throughout the year led to Bishop Justin Kientega of Ouahigouya saying in December that the Western world has been ignoring the plight of Christians in West Africa and has even been selling militants the weapons that they are using to kill Christians.

In total, nearly half a million people were forced to flee their homes in Burkina Faso in the last five years, and more than 60 Christians were murdered by militants in the country in 2019.

The militant Islamist group Boko Haram also maintains a presence in such countries as northern Nigeria and Cameroon.

Churches critical in fighting human trafficking, members of Congress told

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 05:15 pm (CNA).- Faith-based groups play a critical role in the global fight against human trafficking—one which merits a closer partnership with the U.S., one Catholic leader told members of Congress Wednesday.

“Churches are safe havens for individuals and oftentimes the first place that victims seek protection and support,” said Limnyuy Konglim, head of the International Catholic Migration Commission’s U.S. Liaison Office in Washington, DC., to commissioners of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Jan. 15. The hearing before the bipartisan body in the House of Representatives marked the 20th anniversary of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

She added that “it is critical that faith-based actors receive greater consideration as implementing partners, in addition to suppliers of information for reporting.”

Almost 25 million people around the world are victims of human trafficking, an industry which is estimated to be worth $150 billion.

The TVPA, enacted in 2000 and authored by commission co-chair Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), set up punishments for traffickers, victim assistance, and prevention programs, making changes to the criminal code such as classifying that a minor exploited by a commercial sex act was a victim and not a perpetrator.

It also established a tier ratings system for countries at the State Department, based upon their efforts and success in curbing trafficking.

“Though it is hard to believe it now, when I first introduced the TVPA, the legislation was met with a wall of skepticism and opposition—dismissed by many as a solution in search of a problem,” Smith said Wednesday. “Reports of vulnerable persons—especially women and children—being reduced to commodities for sale were often met with surprise, incredulity or indifference.”

On Tuesday the Justice Department hosted a Summit on Combating Human Trafficking, during which Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen credited the law with spurring an increase in trafficking charges and convictions, but noted that “we have so much left to do.”

“The TVPA responded to the fact that the ability of one person to control, exploit, abuse and profit from another person’s labor and commercial sex acts has not yet been fully eradicated.  And it needs to be,” he said.

Also testifying on Wednesday were two Trump administration officials: the State Department’s trafficking ambassador John Cotton Richmond, and Katherine Chon, director of the Office of Trafficking in Persons at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Konglim’s group, the ICMC, helps build a global network of national bishops’ conferences and Catholic institutions to serve migrants, refugees, and trafficking victims.

“The work of ICMC is inspired by the Holy Bible, as well as by the ongoing Teaching and
Tradition of the Catholic Church; and we are deeply inspired and guided by Pope Francis, who
has prioritized the Church response to human trafficking,” Konglim said Wednesday.

“As he [Pope Francis] has so eloquently said, ‘We are facing a global phenomenon that exceeds the competence of any one community or country,’ and therefore, ‘we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.’”

She was formerly an advisor on humanitarian protection at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and advised the U.S. bishops’ conference on refugee policy and coordinated anti-trafficking efforts for the conference.

On Wednesday, she emphasized the need for the U.S. to work more closely with faith-based aid groups that are working with local actors on the ground around the world.

She noted that “considering the deep presence and trust of grassroot Catholic organizations within vulnerable communities, there has been a concerted effort to build their capacity,” and that “Organizations such as ICMC, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Caritas International to name a few—have provided both organizational and technical assistance to enhance the response of local actors.”

Smith noted the “long-standing” work of faith-based groups around the world “providing an enormous amount of support for people who have been horribly mistreated.”

He said he had witnessed faith play a critical role in the recovery process for trafficking survivors.

“I have actually been in trafficking shelters all over the world,” he said, “but I was struck … how women who had been so horribly mistreated and raped and assaulted, it was their faith and the nourishment that came from that, the sense of reconciliation, that was helping them to get their lives back together.”

Konglim vouched for the work of faith-based groups in fighting trafficking. “If they can serve, they will serve,” she said, noting the work done by Vatican conferences on trafficking prevention which gathered actors from all over the globe.

In February 2018, the Vatican hosted a conference on human trafficking with Church leaders and law enforcement officers from more than 30 countries.

Trafficking survivors need “holistic,” long-term assistance to get back on their feet, such as shelter and vocational training, she said, and faith-based groups “are looking at the holistic restoration of the person, and they do their best to serve them from beginning to end.”

These groups also have a global network to help better reunify trafficking survivors with their families on other continents.

Asked by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of the state of trafficking in the U.S., Konglim said that her group, through the USCCB, has observed, “there is definitely a challenge with labor trafficking, and how that’s being recognized.”

“Irregular migration does impact the occurrence of the trafficking, and that migrant populations are more vulnerable,” she said. “And so we are definitely concerned with there being increased border screening, to ensure that people that are coming in are not victims of trafficking, and if they are, they are receiving the appropriate services that they deserve.”

US Senate bill would abolish tax-deductibility of abortions

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 04:18 pm (CNA).- Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the Abortion is Not Healthcare Act Jan. 9, a bill that would reclassify abortions in the tax code and end their tax deductibility.

Currently, abortions are eligible for tax deductions with the Internal Revenue Service because they are considered out-of-pocket medical care.

According to the IRS, Section 213(a) of the tax code “allows a deduction for expenses paid during the taxable year, not compensated for by insurance or otherwise, for medical care of the taxpayer, spouse, or dependent, to the extent the expenses exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income.”

The Abortion is Not Healthcare Act would amend section 213 of the IRS tax code to disqualify abortions from being classified as medical care, and thus disqualify them from contributing to the total medical expenses for the year.

Lee said in a statement that to classify abortion as health care is misleading.

“The government should not offer tax benefits for a procedure that kills hundreds of thousands of unborn children each year, nor should taxpayers subsidize such a practice. This undermines the truth that all human beings have dignity and worth, and that the purpose of healthcare is to heal and care for them - not kill them,” Lee said.

“Our bill would end the preferential tax treatment of abortion and clarify that this gruesome practice is not healthcare,” he added.

The bill was co-sponsored by 16 other Republican Senators: Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Rick Scott (R-FL), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Steve Daines (R-MT), Ben Sasse (R-NE), David Purdue (R-GA), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tim Scott (R-SC), Pat Roberts (R-KS), and Jerry Moran (R-KS).

In May, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz, introduced a corresponding bill to the House, which was endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, among other pro-life organizations.

Bishop calls Americans to build 'culture of religious freedom'

Washington D.C., Jan 16, 2020 / 04:10 pm (CNA).- The head of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee called on Americans to build a “culture of religious freedom” that respects the ability of all people to live out their beliefs in peace.

Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, issued a statement for Religious Freedom Day, observed nationally on Jan. 16.

“The establishment of a culture of religious freedom is always an ongoing task,” he said. “A culture of religious freedom consists of respect for the dignity of others as they seek to live in accordance with the truth about God.”

Such a culture, he said, allows all people to thrive. Yet today, many religious communities continue to face obstacles in practicing their faith freely.

“Even today, many Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and other communities, all in different ways, face challenges to their religious freedom,” Murry said. “A culture of freedom means that all people of faith and all religious groups are able to freely worship and participate in the life of our society, without fear of intimidation or coercion.”

In his proclamation of Religious Freedom Day 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump said religious liberty is a building block of the United States, attracting the pilgrims and many other early settlers in the country.

“More than 230 years ago, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was authored and championed by Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “This statute served as the catalyst for the First Amendment, which enshrined in law our conviction to prevent government interference in religion.”

Trump said that during his time in office, he has been committed to defending religious freedom at home and promoting it abroad.

He noted the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. Last month, three civilians and a police detective were killed in a shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey. Two weeks later, a stabbing left five people injured during a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in New York.

“To fight the rise of anti-Semitism in our country, I signed an Executive Order last month to ensure that Federal agencies are using nondiscrimination authorities to combat this venomous bigotry,” he said. “I have also made clear that my Administration will not tolerate the violation of any American’s ability to worship freely and openly and to live as his or her faith commands.”

Bishop Murry applauded the actions taken by the Trump administration, which late last year proposed a rule change to ensure that religious social service providers would not be refused federal funding from the Department of Health and Human Services based on their belief in marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The proposal would particularly shield religious adoption and foster agencies that only place children in homes with a mother and a father.

“On this Religious Freedom Day, we are grateful that the right of religious liberty is cherished in this country,” the bishop said. “I appreciate concrete actions the Administration has undertaken, such as recent steps to protect faith-based social service providers.”

“May we Catholics in America resolve to build on our inheritance for the good of all,” he concluded.