Pope visit to Central America highlights church ministry to migrants

When Pope Francis visits Panama this week, he arrives not only as the first Latin American pontiff to visit Central America but as perhaps the world's most prominent advocate for migrants at a time when migration has become a pressing political issue in the region and elsewhere. (AP)
Updated 21 January 2019
0

Pope visit to Central America highlights church ministry to migrants

  • The Argentine-born son of Italian immigrants has long held migration issue dear to his heart and has signaled that it will be a central theme during the trip
  • Since his pontificate began in 2013, Francis has demanded governments do more to welcome and integrate those fleeing conflict, natural disasters and poverty

GUATEMALA CITY: When Pope Francis visits Panama this week, he arrives not only as the first Latin American pontiff to visit Central America but as perhaps the world’s most prominent advocate for migrants at a time when migration has become a pressing political issue in the region and elsewhere.
The Argentine-born son of Italian immigrants has long held the issue dear to his heart and has signaled that it will be a central theme during the trip, which comes as the latest caravan of Central Americans is wending its way toward the US-Mexico frontier and President Donald Trump’s promised border wall has led to the longest government shutdown in the country’s history.
Francis’ emphasis on fundamental Christian teaching about welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry has been a breath of sustenance for those involved in efforts to aid migrants in Central America and Mexico, where Catholic priests, nuns and laypeople have taken the lead on attending to migrants amid what is often a vacuum of inaction and indifference by governments — or even outright hostility.
“It has been so hard, even within the church itself, to convince (people) that helping migrants is precisely part of the work of the church,” said Lidia Mara Souza, coordinator of the group Pastoral of Human Mobility in Honduras.
“But the pope has supported us tremendously, and I think now he comes to help us,” added Souza, a nun of the Scalabrinian order, which aids migrants as its vocation and is present along the length of the migratory route. “He must remind the politicians who declare themselves to be Christians to be that for real.”
The migratory trail north from Mexico and the violent Northern Triangle region of Central America is fraught with peril. Criminal gangs control much of the route and prey upon migrants, who are often stigmatized and face discrimination as they travel distances as long as 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) with little but dreams in their backpacks.
All along the way, they rely on a network of support in the form of Catholic-run shelters where they can find a place to sleep, be safe from the cartels and get a meal or advice.
Scalabrinians were among the first to start ministering to migrants in this part of the world, in the mid-1980s opening a shelter in Tijuana, across from San Diego. At the time, migration was largely an ignored phenomenon, said Bishop Raul Vera of Saltillo in northern Mexico, one of the first Mexicans to get involved in the cause.
Little by little, Vera said, the network of safe houses tied to the church sprang up over the following decades to reach the current number of over 80 in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“The migrants became the messengers,” the bishop said. “They told us, ‘Here they mistreat us, here they receive us well.’ And that way we began to see that in many places we were duplicating efforts and we began to coordinate among ourselves.”
In Honduras, Souza recalled, nuns attended to refugees from civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, but soon they realized that many people were also leaving that country and still more were being returned from the United States. Now their main focus is on deportees, who in some ways are the most vulnerable.
“When the systematic deportations from the United States began, those who came back were people linked to the gangs, and I think the stigma was created that deportees are criminals and we shouldn’t help them,” Souza said.
Today many deportees to Central America are people who fled gang threats in the first place, and are sometimes hunted down and murdered once back home.
Shelters have expanded the services they offer to include medical, legal and psychological aid. Workers have also had to learn how to attend to migrants victimized by gangs — robbery, kidnapping, extortion, sexual assault, murder or disappearance.
“It has been very hard,” said the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, who runs a shelter in Ixtepec in southern Mexico where human trafficking is big cartel business. “We are talking about organized crime and authorized crime,” he added, a reference to complicity by authorities.
Vera said Francis has given clear instructions on attending to migrants that can be summed in four verbs: welcome, protect, promote and integrate.
Putting those into practice is more important than ever in the face of caravans born out of poverty and violence in the region, according to Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Casa del Migrante shelter in Guatemala City.
“From now on it will be a modality of the migratory phenomenon because the countries of Central America have collapsed and are not working for the welfare of the people,” Verzeletti has said in the past.
The caravans over the last year have strained capacity, and workers fear that is unlikely to abate.
In the Guatemalan city of Tecun Uman, on Mexico’s southern border, Jairo Reyes, a participant in the caravan, was sleeping on cardboard in a park this weekend after there hadn’t been room at Casa del Migrante. Reyes is an evangelical Christian but was grateful to the Catholic shelter, which gave him a stroller for his 2-year-old baby, which he had previously been carrying in his arms.
“We are all children of God,” said the 31-year-old single father, also traveling with a 4-year-old.
Reyes was happy to think that Francis would come to Central America and advocate for migrants like them, saying, “May he touch people’s hearts.”
Since his pontificate began in 2013, Francis has demanded governments do more to welcome and integrate those fleeing conflict, natural disasters and poverty. He has matched his preaching with practice, famously bringing a dozen Syrian refugees with him when he traveled to a refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece, and celebrating a Mass for migrants on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, ground zero in Europe’s migration crisis, in his first trip outside Rome.
He has also responded to Trump’s demand for a wall on the US-Mexico border with calls for “bridges not walls.” When asked specifically about Trump’s plans, after a trip to the border to celebrate Mass, Francis said anyone who wants to build a wall “isn’t Christian.”
That resonates strongly among the Scalabrinians who devote their work to migrants.
“Walls are not for human beings,” Souza said by phone from Honduras. “They are for merchandise and for organized crime.”
Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that in Panama, Francis is likely to make “a prophetic call for governments, above all the United States and Mexico, to receive Central American migrants with respect and dignity” in addition to denouncing poverty, corruption, drug violence and killings of women.
The church as an institution has not always fully supported efforts to aid migrants, but Francis’ renewed emphasis on caring for the most vulnerable has inspired those working in the network.
“It changed a lot, and it could change more if many (Latin American) bishops paid attention to him,” Solalinde said.
“We are in very important times of change in which the Catholic Church has a great opportunity, but it is not easy because it has been too captive to rigid structures that do not let it advance,” Solalinde said. “The migrant offers us the possibility of once again being a poor, pilgrim, missionary and itinerant church.”


Case dropped against US actor accused of hate attack hoax

Actor Jussie Smollett speaks to reporters at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago after prosecutors dropped all charges against him, Tuesday, March 26, 2019. (AP)
Updated 15 min 28 sec ago
0

Case dropped against US actor accused of hate attack hoax

  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the deal “a whitewash of justice” and lashed out at Smollett for dragging the city’s reputation “through the mud” in a quest to advance his career
  • Authorities alleged that Smollett, who is black and gay, knew the men and arranged for them to pretend to attack him

CHICAGO: Infuriating Chicago’s mayor and police chief, prosecutors abruptly dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett on Tuesday after the “Empire” actor accused of faking a racist, anti-gay attack on himself agreed to do volunteer service and to let the city keep his $10,000 in bail.
Authorities gave no detailed explanation for why they abandoned the case only five weeks after filing the charges and threatening to pursue Smollett for the cost of a monthlong investigation. Prosecutors said they still believe Smollett concocted the assault. Smollett insisted he told the truth all along.
The dismissal drew an immediate backlash. Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the deal “a whitewash of justice” and lashed out at Smollett for dragging the city’s reputation “through the mud” in a quest to advance his career. At one point he asked, “Is there no decency in this man?“
Smollett’s attorneys said his record was “wiped clean” of the 16 felony counts related to making a false report that he was assaulted by two men. The actor insisted that he had “been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one.”
“I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I was being accused of,” he told reporters after a court hearing. He thanked the state of Illinois “for attempting to do what’s right.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Cook County prosecutors’ office said the dismissal came “after reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case.” Tandra Simonton called it “a just disposition and appropriate resolution” but said it was not an exoneration.
When dropping cases, prosecutors will sometimes insist that the defendant accept at least a measure of responsibility. Outside court, neither Smollett nor his legal team appeared to concede anything about his original report in January .
Defense attorney Patricia Brown Holmes said Smollett was “attacked by two people he was unable to identify” and “was a victim who was vilified and made to appear as a perpetrator.”
Authorities alleged that Smollett, who is black and gay, knew the men and arranged for them to pretend to attack him.
Emanuel, who is in his final weeks in office after two terms, said the hoax could endanger other gay people who report hate crimes by casting doubt on whether they are telling the truth.
Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stood by the department’s investigation and said Chicago is “is still owed an apology.”
“I’ve heard that they wanted their day in court with TV cameras so that America could know the truth. They chose to hide behind secrecy and broker a deal to circumvent the judicial system,” Johnson said at a graduation ceremony for new police cadets.
Chicago’s top prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, recused herself from the investigation, citing conversations she had with a Smollett family member.
Many legal experts were surprised by the dismissal, especially since it did not include any condition that Smollett apologize and admit he orchestrated the attack.
“This situation is totally bizarre. It’s highly, highly unusual,” said Phil Turner, a Chicago defense attorney and former federal prosecutor with no ties to the case.
He said it would be wrong to argue leniency on the grounds that no serious harm was done.
“The damage done was worse than a broken arm or money lost in a fraud,” Turner said. “The reputation of the city has taken a tremendous blow.”
Because Chicago was the primary victim, Turner argued, it would have been appropriate for prosecutors to consult the mayor and the police chief in advance.
“That prosecutors didn’t seem to do that is an insult to the city and police,” he said.
Smollett reported that he was attacked around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 in downtown Chicago. Investigators said he made the false report because he was unhappy with his pay on “Empire” and believed it would promote his career.
The actor plays the gay character Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox TV show, which follows a black family as they navigate the ups and downs of the recording industry.
He reported that he was assaulted on his way home from a sandwich shop. Smollett said two masked men shouted racial and anti-gay slurs, poured bleach on him, beat him and looped a rope around his neck. He claimed they shouted, “This is MAGA country” — a reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. He asserted that he could see one of the men was white because he could see the skin around his eyes.
Police said Smollett hired two men, both of whom are black, to attack him. Smollett allegedly paid the men $3,500.
The men were brothers Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, and one of them had worked on “Empire.” An attorney for them has said the brothers agreed to help Smollett because of their friendship with him and the sense that he was helping their careers.
Holmes refused to answer questions about whether Smollett’s team would seek legal action against the two.
Before the attack, police said, Smollett also sent a letter threatening himself to the Chicago studio where “Empire” is shot. The FBI, which is investigating that letter, has declined to comment.
Smollett said he wanted “nothing more than to get back to work and move on with my life.” But his future with the show was unclear. Shortly after the charges were filed, producers announced that his character would be removed from the final two episodes of the season.
.