Pope Francis opens big Vatican meeting as battle lines are drawn on his reform project

Pope Francis opens big Vatican meeting as battle lines are drawn on his reform project
The gathering has drawn an acute battle line in the church’s perennial left-right divide and marks a defining moment for Pope Francis and his reform agenda. (AFP)
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Updated 04 October 2023
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Pope Francis opens big Vatican meeting as battle lines are drawn on his reform project

Pope Francis opens big Vatican meeting as battle lines are drawn on his reform project
  • Gathering is historic because Francis decided to let women and laypeople vote alongside bishops in any final document produced
  • Reform is a radical shift away from a hierarchy-focused Synod of Bishops

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis opened a big meeting on the future of the Catholic Church on Wednesday, with progressives hoping it will lead to more women in leadership roles and conservatives warning that church doctrine on everything from homosexuality to the hierarchy’s authority is at risk.
Francis presided over a solemn Mass in St. Peter’s Square to formally open the meeting, with hundreds of clergy from around the world celebrating on the altar before the rank-and-file Catholic laypeople whose presence and influence at this meeting marks a decisive shift for the Catholic Church.
Rarely in recent times has a Vatican gathering generated as much hope, hype and fear as this three-week, closed-door meeting, known as a synod. It won’t make any binding decisions and is only the first session of a two-year process. But it nevertheless has drawn an acute battle line in the church’s perennial left-right divide and marks a defining moment for Francis and his reform agenda.
Even before it started, the gathering was historic because Francis decided to let women and laypeople vote alongside bishops in any final document produced. While fewer than a quarter of the 365 voting members are non-bishops, the reform is a radical shift away from a hierarchy-focused Synod of Bishops and evidence of Francis’ belief that the church is more about its flock than its shepherds.
“It’s a watershed moment,” said JoAnn Lopez, an Indian-born lay minister who helped organize two years of consultations prior to the meeting at parishes where she has worked in Seattle and Toronto.
“This is the first time that women have a very qualitatively different voice at the table, and the opportunity to vote in decision-making is huge,” she said.
On the agenda are calls to take concrete steps to elevate more women to decision-making roles in the church, including as deacons, and for ordinary Catholic faithful to have more of a say in church governance.
Also under consideration are ways to better welcome of LGBTQ+ Catholics and others who have been marginalized by the church, and for new accountability measures to check how bishops exercise their authority to prevent abuses.
Women have long complained they are treated as second-class citizens in the church, barred from the priesthood and highest ranks of power yet responsible for the lion’s share of church work — teaching in Catholic schools, running Catholic hospitals and passing the faith down to next generations.
They have long demanded a greater say in church governance, at the very least with voting rights at the periodic synods at the Vatican but also the right to preach at Mass and be ordained as priests or deacons.
While they have secured some high-profile positions in the Vatican and local churches around the globe, the male hierarchy still runs the show.
Before the opening Mass got under way, advocates for women priests unfurled a giant purple banner reading “Ordain Women.”
Lopez, 34, and other women are particularly excited about the potential that the synod might in some way endorse allowing women to be ordained as deacons, a ministry that is currently limited to men.
For years supporters of female deacons have argued that women in the early church served as deacons and that restoring the ministry would both serve the church and recognize the gifts that women bring to it.
Francis has convened two study commissions to research the issue and was asked to consider it at a previous synod on the Amazon, but he has so far refused to make any change. He has similarly taken off the table debate on women priests.
Miriam Duignan, from the group Women’s Ordination Worldwide, said advocates want the synod to recognize that women were ministers in the early church “and they need to be restored to ministry.”
“The Catholic people around the world in every country have spoken and they have all mentioned women priests,” she said at a prayer vigil on the eve of the meeting. “They can see in their parishes, in their communities, that women are doing the work of priests. They are just not allowed to be recognized as priests.”
The potential that this synod process could lead to real change on previously taboo topics has given hope to many women and progressive Catholics and sparked alarm from conservatives who have warned it could lead to schism.
They have written books, held conferences and taken to social media claiming that Francis’ reforms are sowing confusion, undermining the true nature of the church and all it has taught over two millennia. Among the most vocal are conservatives in the US
On the eve of the meeting, one of the synod’s most outspoken critics, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, delivered a stinging rebuke of Francis’ vision of “synodality” as well as his overall reform project for the church.
“It’s unfortunately very clear that the invocation of the Holy Spirit by some has the aim of bringing forward an agenda that is more political and human than ecclesial and divine,” Burke told a conference entitled “The Synodal Babel.”
He blasted even the term “synodal” as having no clearly defined meaning and said its underlying attempt to shift authority away from the hierarchy “risks the very identity of the church.”
In the audience was Cardinal Robert Sarah, who along with Burke and three other cardinals had formally challenged Francis to affirm church teaching on homosexuality and women’s ordination before the synod.
In an exchange of letters made public Monday, Francis didn’t bite and instead said the cardinals shouldn’t be afraid of questions that are posed by a changing world. Asked specifically about church blessings for same-sex unions, Francis suggested they could be allowed as long as such benedictions aren’t confused with sacramental marriage.


Libyans want an end to country’s divisions and feuding politicians to hold elections, UN envoy says

Libyans want an end to country’s divisions and feuding politicians to hold elections, UN envoy says
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Libyans want an end to country’s divisions and feuding politicians to hold elections, UN envoy says

Libyans want an end to country’s divisions and feuding politicians to hold elections, UN envoy says
  • Koury said there is consensus that the current “status quo is not sustainable” – and the political process needs to advance toward elections

UNITED NATIONS: Libyans from rival regions and all walks of life are fed up with the country’s divisions and want political players to end their years-long impasse and agree to hold national elections, a key step to peace in the oil-rich north African country, the UN deputy representative said Wednesday.
Stephanie Koury told the UN Security Council that she has been meeting political leaders, civil society representatives, academics, women’s groups, military leaders and others in the country’s rival east and west to listen to their views. She said there is consensus that the current “status quo is not sustainable” – and the political process needs to advance toward elections.
Libya plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. In the chaos that followed, the country split, with rival administrations in the east and west backed by rogue militias and foreign governments.
The country’s current political crisis stems from the failure to hold elections on Dec. 24, 2021, and the refusal of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah — who led a transitional government in the capital of Tripoli — to step down. In response, Libya’s east-based parliament appointed a rival prime minister who was suspended. The east is now governed by Prime Minister Ossama Hammad while the powerful military commander Khalifa Haftar continues to hold sway.
Koury, the top UN official in Libya since the resignation of special representative Abdoulaye Bathily in April, said many Libyans she spoke to signaled the importance of a “pact” or agreement that would affirm, among other things, the rival parties’ respect for the outcome of elections. They also expressed deep concern at the country’s divisions and parallel governments, and provided ideas on a roadmap to elections, she said.
“While institutional and political divisions keep deepening, ordinary Libyans long for peace, stability, prosperity and reconciliation,” Koury said. “Resolute and united action to advance a political process is needed by Libyans with the support of the international community.”
In February, Bathily warned the country’s feuding political actors that if they didn’t urgently form a unified government and move toward elections Libya will slide into “disintegration.”
The three African nations on the council – Sierra Leone, Algeria and Mozambique joined by Guyana – said in a joint statement Wednesday that “the Security Council must remain committed to an inclusive Libyan-led and Libyan-owned political process facilitated by the United Nations … for the holding of national elections.”
The four countries called on the rival political players “to move from the entrenched institutional and political positions, resolve their differences, build consensus and facilitate the holding of national election.”
US deputy Ambassador Robert Wood said the United States also continues to firmly support the UN political mission’s efforts “to bring Libya closer to unlocking a viable process toward long-overdue elections.”
“Progress toward greater military integration remains key to reaffirming Libyan sovereignty and preventing Libya from becoming enmeshed in regional turmoil,” he said.
Turning to Russia’s actions in Libya, Wood told the council the United States recently sanctioned “Russian state-owned enterprise Goznak for producing counterfeit currency globally and printing more than $1 billion worth of counterfeit Libyan currency, which exacerbated Libya’s economic challenges.”
Libya is under a UN arms embargo, and Wood said the United States also notes “with particular concern the recent reports of Russian Federation naval vessels unloading military hardware in Libya.”
Libya’s UN Ambassador Taher El-Sonni, who represents the internationally recognized government in the west, stressed that national reconciliation is the only way to rebuild social cohesion and trust between the rivals, unite the country and pave the way for elections.
“We are tired and fed up from the stalemate and the vicious cycle that we have been going through for decades now,” he said. “We are tired and fed up from being lectured on what to do and what not to do,” and from the Security Council’s inaction.
“We are tired and fed up to use Libya as a proxy for certain countries and regional powers for selfish greedy battles, some of which have colonial ambitions,” El-Sonni said.
He called on the Security Council “to leave Libya alone” and let the people decide their own future and “take their destiny in their own hands.”


NATO chief says Russia, North Korea pact shows mutual support by authoritarian powers

NATO chief says Russia, North Korea pact shows mutual support by authoritarian powers
Updated 20 June 2024
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NATO chief says Russia, North Korea pact shows mutual support by authoritarian powers

NATO chief says Russia, North Korea pact shows mutual support by authoritarian powers
  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said North Korea had provided “an enormous amount of ammunition” to Russia while both China and Iran were supporting Moscow militarily in its war against Ukraine

OTTAWA: Russia’s new defensive pact with North Korea shows increasing alignment among authoritarian powers and underscores the importance of democracies presenting a united front, the head of NATO said on Wednesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a deal with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that included a mutual defense pledge, a move that overhauls Moscow’s policy toward Pyongyang.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said North Korea had provided “an enormous amount of ammunition” to Russia while both China and Iran were supporting Moscow militarily in its war against Ukraine.
“We need to be aware that authoritarian powers are aligning more and more. They are supporting each other in a way we haven’t seen before,” he told a panel discussion during an official visit to Ottawa.
“When they are more and more aligned — authoritarian regimes like North Korea and China, Iran, Russia — then it’s even more important that we are aligned as countries believing in freedom and democracy,” he said.
The growing closeness between Russia and other Asian nations means it is all the more important that NATO works with allies in the Asia-Pacific, he said, adding this was why leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea had been invited to a NATO summit in Washington next month.
Stoltenberg also said he expected Canada to meet the NATO target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.
Canada’s Liberal government, which has poured billions into social programs, only spends 1.37 percent of GDP on its military. In April it issued a plan to reach 1.76 percent by 2030.
Other NATO members “are concerned about the fiscal balance, they want to spend money on health (and) education” he said, adding that “if we’re not able to preserve peace, then what we do on health and climate change and education ... will fail.”

 


In Tijuana, shelter for Muslim migrants on US doorstep

A migrant prays at an abandoned warehouse turned migrant camp in Calais, northern France, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (AP)
A migrant prays at an abandoned warehouse turned migrant camp in Calais, northern France, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (AP)
Updated 20 June 2024
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In Tijuana, shelter for Muslim migrants on US doorstep

A migrant prays at an abandoned warehouse turned migrant camp in Calais, northern France, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (AP)
  • Increasingly, migrants from the Middle East and North Africa also undertake the perilous route via South and Central America

TIJUANA, Mexico: From Algeria, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, citizens of distant, Muslim countries wait for US asylum at a shelter in the Mexican border city of Tijuana -- more used to seeing migrants from Latin America than the Middle East.
At the Assabil Inn, Mexico's first shelter catering for US-bound Muslim migrants, the backstories of the guests are as varied as the assortment of languages they speak.
"Almost everybody follows the same faith. So it feels like you're among your brothers and sisters," Maitham Alojaili, a 26-year-old who fled civil war-wrecked Sudan, told AFP before joining Friday prayers at the facility's mosque.
"People get kidnapped. Anything could happen. Sometimes, when you leave home, there's a very high chance that you don't come back," Alojaili said of the circumstances that compelled him to leave everything behind in search of a better life far away.
Data released this week by Mexico's National Migration Institute said some 1.39 million people from 177 countries have traveled through the country so far this year, trying to reach the United States without entry papers.
The figure represents almost the whole world -- the United Nations has 193 member states.
The majority came from Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador and Haiti.

Increasingly, migrants from the Middle East and North Africa also undertake the perilous route via South and Central America.
For many, it includes a journey on foot through the dangerous Darien Gap, a dense jungle on the Colombia-Panama border replete with dangerous animals, criminals and human traffickers.
Yusseph Rahnali, a 31-year-old Algerian, told AFP he opted for the United States "because they accept everybody."
Europe is not an option, he said, because of visa requirements. Instead, he flew visa-free to Ecuador before crossing seven other countries to Mexico where he awaits news on the US asylum process.
Migration is at the heart of the campaign for the US presidential election in November.
Seeking re-election, incumbent Joe Biden signed a decree this month shutting down the border to asylum seekers after certain daily limits are reached.
On Tuesday, in an attempt to balance the crackdown criticized by the left and human rights groups, he announced a new potential citizenship path for immigrants married to US nationals -- which was in turn slammed by conservatives.

In Tijuana, 29-year-old Afghan journalist Fanah Ahmadi told AFP he traveled to Brazil on a humanitarian visa, then through "nine or ten other countries" to get to Mexico.
"There are many difficulties on the way but I am still grateful that... today, I am here," said Ahmadi of the Assabil Inn, where migrants receive food and shelter, "and we are near the border as well."
The Inn, opened in 2022, can house up to 200 people and allows Muslims to pray and eat halal. A stay can last from one week to seven months.
"Muslims have their home here in Tijuana," said founder Sonia Garcia, a Mexican who converted to Islam through marriage.
In 2023, a record 2.4 million people crossed the US-Mexico border without travel documents, according to US figures.
The flow hit a high of 10,000 people per day in December, which has since been reduced as both countries have cracked down.
For purposes of statistics, migrants from Muslim countries are grouped by US officials into a category labeled "other," due to their small number compared to those from Latin America, India or Russia.
Trump, as US president, banned migrants from Muslim countries in a measure that has since been overturned.
On the campaign trail he has ramped up his anti-immigration rhetoric, saying migrants were "poisoning the blood" of the United States.
 

 


UK PM Sunak’s Conservatives set for heavy election defeat, polls forecast

UK PM Sunak’s Conservatives set for heavy election defeat, polls forecast
Updated 19 June 2024
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UK PM Sunak’s Conservatives set for heavy election defeat, polls forecast

UK PM Sunak’s Conservatives set for heavy election defeat, polls forecast
  • Polling by YouGov showed Keir Starmer’s Labour was on track to win 425 parliamentary seats in Britain’s 650-strong House of Commons
  • Savanta poll, published by the Telegraph newspaper, said Sunak could even lose his own parliamentary seat in northern England

LONDON: Three opinion polls on Wednesday predicted a record defeat for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives at a July 4 election, forecasting the Labour Party would comfortably win a large majority after 14 years in opposition.
Polling by YouGov showed Keir Starmer’s Labour was on track to win 425 parliamentary seats in Britain’s 650-strong House of Commons, the most in its history. Savanta predicted 516 seats for Labour and More in Common gave it 406.
YouGov had the Conservatives on 108 and the Liberal Democrats on 67, while Savanta predicted the Conservatives would take 53 parliamentary seats and the Liberal Democrats 50. More in Common forecast 155 and 49 seats respectively.
Chris Hopkins, Political Research Director at Savanta, said its projection put Labour on course “for a historic majority.”
The three polls were so-called multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP) surveys, an approach that uses voters’ age, gender, education and other variables to predict results in every British voting district. Pollsters used the method to successfully predict the 2017 British election result.
They are largely in line with previous surveys predicting a Labour victory, but show the scale of the Conservatives’ defeat could be even worse than previously thought.
YouGov’s forecast of 108 seats for the Conservatives was around 32 lower than its previous poll two weeks earlier.
Both Savanta and YouGov predicted that the party of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher could be left with the lowest number of seats in its near 200-year history contesting elections.
Sunak, who in a final throw of the dice last week pledged to cut 17 billion pounds of taxes for working people if re-elected,
has failed to turn the polls around so far in a campaign littered with missteps.
His task has been made harder by the surprise mid-campaign return to frontline politics by prominent Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, a right-wing populist, whose Reform UK party threatens to split the right-of-center vote.
Britain has a first-past-the-post electoral system, meaning Reform could pick up millions of votes across the country without winning any individual seats.
YouGov predicted Reform would win five seats and Savanta none. More in Common did not give a figure for Reform.
The Savanta poll, published by the Telegraph newspaper, said Sunak could even lose his own parliamentary seat in northern England, once considered a safe Conservative constituency, with the contest currently too close to call.
Sunak has acknowledged that people are frustrated with him and his party after more than a decade in power, dominated at times by political turmoil and scandal.
All three surveys projected several senior government ministers, including finance minister Jeremy Hunt, were on course to lose their seats.
Most opinion polls currently place Keir Starmer’s Labour about 20 percentage points ahead of the governing Conservatives in the national vote share.
Other polls in recent days have also presented a grim picture for Sunak, with one pollster predicting “electoral extinction” for the Conservatives.


Community leader accuses Reform UK’s Nigel Farage of ‘undermining Muslim communities’

Community leader accuses Reform UK’s Nigel Farage of ‘undermining Muslim communities’
Updated 19 June 2024
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Community leader accuses Reform UK’s Nigel Farage of ‘undermining Muslim communities’

Community leader accuses Reform UK’s Nigel Farage of ‘undermining Muslim communities’
  • Iman Atta, of the Tell Mama organization which monitors Islamophobia in the UK, called on other political leaders to ‘step up’ to address divisions
  • Britain needs ‘leadership that will bring communities together, not divide them further,’ she says

LONDON: A Muslim community leader has accused Reform UK’s Nigel Farage of “attacking and undermining Muslim communities” in a bid to win votes during the July 4 general election, according to the Independent on Wednesday.
Iman Atta, of the Tell Mama organization which monitors Islamophobia in the UK, said Farage’s comments last month were “worrying,” and called on other political leaders to “step up” to address divisions.
When questioned about Conservative plans to bring in national service for 18-year-olds, the Reform UK leader said there are “a growing number of young people in this country who do not subscribe to British values, in fact loathe much of what we stand for.”
Farage confirmed during his interview on Sky News that he was referring to Muslims.
Describing his comments as “disgraceful,” Atta said the claims are “nothing new,” a reference to remarks Farage has made in the past.
After the Westminster terror attack in 2017, Farage told a US TV network: “I’m sorry to say that we have now a fifth column living inside these European countries.”
Referring to his “fifth column” remark, Atta said: “He obviously keeps on attacking and undermining Muslim communities in any way that he can find in order to be able to attract more votes and spread more polarization among communities.
“It’s actually quite worrying for us to see that, especially at a time when our country needs leadership that will bring communities together, not divide them further.”
Atta added that now is the time for “leadership that is calling out hatred and division, that is promoting integrity, that is addressing really what brings our communities together in a challenging time across the world.
“I think it’s a time that we need to see better leadership step up.”
Tell Mama has published its Manifesto Against Hate, with key proposals for the next government, including the appointment of a “hate crime czar” to prioritize and oversee initiatives; more ministerial engagement with local communities “to foster inclusivity and reduce social divisions”; and boards to be established at local, regional, and national levels to promote dialogue and collaboration between Muslim and Jewish communities.
Atta said that following the Oct. 7 attacks and subsequent Israel-Gaza conflict, the relationship between the two communities suffered “quite a fracture,” which will take years to repair.
“Communities on all sides have just forgotten about the basic elements of understanding, empathy and listening. There has been a lot of abuse online toward both Muslim and Jewish communities, but also offline,” she added.
Atta said there has been considerable “anger within Muslim communities on the approach the UK has had on the Israel-Gaza war.”
Regarding next month’s elections, she said some Muslims feel that engagement with a new government, “whoever that government is, is key in order to be able to lobby and change the dynamics of how we speak about the war, but equally how we address the issues that are arising (in communities in the UK) off the back of the war in Israel and Gaza.”