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  Saffron cultivators protest bail given to fake saffron manufacturers
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 30 -- Two days after court granted bail to three persons accused of making fake saffron, people in saffron-rich Pampore again took to streets on Saturday demanding stern action against the violators.

"Granting bail to them will encourage the practice and bring a bad name to the Kashmiri saffron business, known globally," said a group of saffron growers at Pampore, about 14 kms from here.

The growers demanded that fake saffron making should be strictly curbed so that it did not affect their bread and butter.

"This year the price of saffron declined due to such malpractices. We have been associated with saffron for generations. The making of fake saffron will ruin us," said 65-year-old Abdul Khaliq.

His concerns were echoed by others demanding immediate and strict action against fake making of saffron which, according to them, would "cut their lifeline."

Traffic was also disrupted on the Srinagar-Jammu highway due to the protest demonstration on Saturday.

Bail was granted to the three people allegedly involved in the making of fake saffron on January 28. Earlier, they were arrested by sleuths from Pantha Chowk police station during a raid carried out in south Kashmir's Zafron colony in Pampore on January 11. Police also claimed to have recovered around 90 kilograms of fake saffron from their possession, besides other material used for making it.

Following their arrest, the Saffron Growers and Dealers Association, Pampore, took out protest demonstrations in the city demanding stern action against them. They also appealed to the court to take strict action against them.

The accused were booked under Section 153-A, 295-A RPC, 420 and Section 16 of the Food Adulteration Act and Section 12 of the Tourist Act. The trio was sent to the Central Jail, Srinagar, under Judicial remand. The Sessions Judge ordered their release on bail against a surety bond of Rs 50,000 each.

The cash crop is bereft of any official policy, proper irrigation facility and commodity risk protection. The whole saffron land is rain-fed.

"Our crops are at the mercy of rain. We approached the government for a loan to set up a sprinkle-irrigation facility. But they turned their back on us," said Farooq Ahmad, a saffron grower.

A group of growers added that, to save the saffron business, the government ought to make sprinkle irrigation facilities available to them and take necessary measures to stop constructions on the land meant for saffron.

"Sprinkle irrigation is must for growth and cultivation of saffron, as is done in Iran. But the same isn't followed here despite the nod given by the government," said G M Pampori, president Saffron Growers Association.

Pampori said that saffron production has declined over the last 15 years. "From 45,000 kilogram, it has come down to 7000-9000 kilogram." He said the drought-like conditions over the last few years, disease and pollution have resulted in the decline of saffron production.

Saffron is cultivated in Spain, Iran, Italy, France and Jammu and Kashmir. "Saffron is our identity. It enjoys the status next to fruit industry, here," said Pampori.

"Spain, one of the major saffron exporters, provides sprinkle irrigation to its farmers and has a yield of 8 to 10 kilograms per hectare. Iran, the major exporter of saffron, has a yield of 4.5 kilograms per hectare. Here, the yield is stagnant at 2.5 kilogram per hectare," observed an agricultural expert on conditions of anonymity.

He suggested that the farmers, on their part, need to take saffron cultivation seriously and adopt scientific procedures as recommended by experts.
  Deemed university welcomes court reprieve on status
  BANGALORE, JAN 29 (UCAN) -- Bangalore's Christ University is relieved after the Supreme Court suspended a government move to downgrade its status along with 43 other institutions.

"We are greatly relieved... but a lot of damage has been done in the last few days," said a Catholic priest and faculty member who did not wish to be named.

The universities challenged the decision and the Supreme Court this week directed the government to maintain status quo on "deemed universities."

The federal Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) wanted to de-list the institutions for not meeting required standards.

The court decision also brings reprieve to some 200,000 students in these universities whose futures were put in question.

The priest told UCA News Jan. 29 that his institution, managed by the indigenous Carmelite of Mary Immaculate congregation, received "unwarranted media attention" because of the government move.

"It is definitely going to [negatively] affect the admissions this year," he said.

Arvind Radhakrishnan, who teaches Political Science at Christ University, said it was "absolutely unfair" to place the Church-run university together with others on the list.

"Most of them were nowhere near Christ (University) in infrastructure, facilities or experienced faculties," he said.

"Some were born as deemed universities while Christ (University) already as a history of 40 years as an education institution," he said.

Deemed university status is given to high performing institutes or departments of existing universities. The status gives the institution autonomy over setting course work and syllabuses and allows it to set its own rules concerning admissions, fees and the teaching of students.

Some students in Christ University said they did not panic over the de-listing but the Supreme Court move was reassuring nevertheless.

"It is a welcome thing that the Supreme Court is investigating into the health of the deemed universities. Christ University is comfortably placed in all matters," said Jasmine George, a fourth-year law student.

A committee that recommended the downgrading of these universities found they lacked the required academic standard as they had not published any research papers.

"It is a fact that we are only starting research and our efforts to produce research publications within two years are a naive approach to research," said a faculty member, who does not want to be named.

But the decision to de-list had shocked the university. It would "make the university sit up and take notice," he added.
  Australia is named the most sinful nation on earth
  AUSTRALIA is the most sinful nation on earth, as befits a country founded as a penal colony.

A BBC magazine show's investigation has supposedly shown Aussies are still born to be bad -- coming out trumps in a global tally of the seven deadly sins.

While America is dominated by gluttony and greed, South Africa by wrath and Japan and South Korea by their lustful natures, Australians are the most envious people on the planet.

The tally was put together by comparing national statistics for plastic surgery (pride), theft (envy), violent crime (wrath), number of annual holidays (sloth), annual salary (greed), money spent on fast food (gluttony) and porn (lust).

Focus Magazine awards Australians the dubious prize of being named "the most sinful nation on earth" for scoring highly in every one of the seven categories.

Catholic priest Fr Bob Maguire said Australians had their vices, but they were also very virtuous.

"I think the people who did this survey are just jealous of we Aussies and rightly so," he said.

"Australians like to indulge and enjoy the good things in life -- we are open about that. But people forget that the mirror image of the sins are the seven virtues and Australians also have a lot of virtues on balance. We're just too laconic to talk about the things we do right."

Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier said Australia was far from the worst country on earth.

"It's always beneficial to reflect on our shortcomings because we're not perfect and it can help us find ways to improve ourselves," Dr Freier said.

"But I do not believe Australia to be the worst society in the world, nor the Australian people the worst people. Far from it.

"I have always found Australians to be generous and concerned for each other."

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's spokeswoman disputed whether Australia was overly sinful.

"The Prime Minister believes Australia to be a great country, and Australians are good, generous and hard-working people," she said.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott declined to comment. (Courtesy:
  Kashmir Valley gets rain, snow
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 29 -- Rain and snow finally greeted the Kashmir Valley early on Friday morning, breaking a dry spell and bringing the 40-day harsh 'chillai kalan' to an end.

People here were deeply concerned over the decline in rain and snow this winter.

"The rains are finally here. It is good for the people in general, especially the agriculture and horticulture sectors," said Parvez Ahmad, a local resident.

However, there are others who are not too excited. "Snowfall in this period is troublesome. Electricity, water supply, roads and other essentials get adversely affected," said Mohammad Zahid of Bemina.

According to the Meteorological Department, the upper reaches of the Kashmir Valley, including the world-famous hill resort of Gulmarg, received snowfall, while rains lashed the plains. The Valley witnessed dry weather for a major part of the winter. Snow coupled with rains last hit Kashmir on January 3.

Snowfall started early Thursday (January 28) morning at Gulmarg, while it rained in Uri in north Kashmir's Baramulla district. Other parts of the Valley received rainfall on Friday morning.

People living in areas above 3,000 metres like Karnah, Gurez, Tangdhar, Machil and Keran have been asked by the local disaster management cell to move about with caution, as there was the possibility of avalanches taking place.

Kashmir has been experiencing a decline in snow and a rise in temperatures during the last few years. Analysing the snow accumulation and ablation patterns in Pir Panjal and Shamshabari regions of the Valley during the winters of 2004-05 to 2006-07, scientists say that the seasonal snow cover has reduced and maximum temperature has increased steadily.

Quoting his findings in the Journal of Earth System Sciences, senior scientist H S Negi of DRDO's Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment has been quoted as saying that the decreasing trend in areal extent of snow cover, rise in maximum temperature and decreasing trend in total snowfall may be indicators of global warming or climate change.

Negi and his colleagues have observed that the total snowfall during the winter of 2004-05 was 1,082 centimetres across the Valley. It declined to 968 centimetres in 2005-06 and further to 961 centimetres in 2006-07.

They observed that February, the second month for maximum snowfall, showed rapid fluctuation with 585 centimetres in 2004-05 compared to 207 centimetres in 2005-06 and 221 centimetres in 2006-07.

The 40-day tenure of 'chillai kalan' ends on January 29. This will be followed by the 20-day 'chillai khurd' (not so severe cold). The last spell, 'chillai bacha', lasts for 10 days. The 70-day long winter cycle in Kashmir ends by February 28.
  Orissa trip back on after government backdown
  NEW DELHI, JAN 29 (UCAN) -- A European Union delegation's trip to Orissa will now go ahead after an apparent climb-down by the government.

The 12-member EU team scrapped early plans after the government barred it from visiting Kandhamal district, the epicenter of anti-Christian violence in 2008.

The group will visit the state next week, officials said.

There is a question mark, however, on what the diplomats will be allowed to ask.

They will not be able to act as a fact-finding mission and "they cannot publish their report, nor can they speak to media about their findings," Father Ajay Singh, a priest in the Cuttuck-Bhubaneswar archdiocese, told UCA News.

Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Church, confirmed the trip was back on.

"The delegation is set to visit the state from Feb. 2-5," he told UCA News.

"Naturally, the team has to inform the government of the details of its plan such as the villages they want to visit and the place of their night's rest," Father Joseph said.

But he said "that is a security need, not a limitation."

The EU delegation was originally due to travel to the state on Jan. 27.

It was cancelled just hours before it was due after the government confined the visit to Bhubaneswar, the state capital.

The delegation said it was not worth visiting only the capital.

Media reports say the state government changed its mind after pressure from the federal government.

"That is what the general inference is. Otherwise, how can a government decision be withdrawn the next day?" asked Father Singh.

He told UCA News that despite the government conditions, the diplomats can visit the village, witness trial proceedings of riot crimes and interact with villagers.

Father Singh said the government was reluctant about outsiders seeing Kandhamal because it projected a "rosy picture" telling the world that normalcy has returned, victims have gone home, and justice has been done for them.

"The truth will damage that picture," he said.

Father Joseph questions why, if the government has nothing to hide, "should it be shy about people visiting people."

He wanted the government to be transparent on issues of human rights.

Father Joseph said Christians are happy about the EU delegation's visit, which shows the European nations' concerns about violations of human rights and religious freedom in the country.

"It is not so much an issue concerning only Christians. The EU sees it as a global human issue," Father Joseph said.

He said the visit "will have a serious and positive impact on India's approach to human rights and religious freedom" because the country has strong relations with EU in trade and commerce, as well as cultural and friendly exchanges.
  Priest arrested in protest over truck danger
PANAJI, JAN 29 (UCAN) -- A Catholic priest in Goa was arrested after leading a protest of some 300 people against accidents and environmental pollution caused by mining trucks.

Father Felix Lobo was detained after blocking the road in Usgao village Jan. 28 but was later granted bail.

The priest of Saint Joseph Church led the protest to highlight a head-on collision between two trucks that injured a seven-year-old girl in the parish-run St. Xavier's school.

Trucks loaded with iron and manganese ore have become a safety hazard as they pass daily through the village's narrow street, speeding from mines to the sea port.

Villagers have been demanding route changes and restrictions.

They say on top of the danger, the ore dust causes pollution and respiratory diseases.

The little girl's injuries were the final straw, villagers say.

The protesters set up an impromptu road blockade which caused chaos for nearly two hours.

Another group, reportedly supported by the trucking companies, confronted the priest and others, leading to heated arguments. Some said the priest was also roughed up.

Police said Father Lobo and five others, including a woman, were arrested for blocking a public road and holding an unlawful assembly.

The crowd moved to the police station demanding the release of the priest. The police tried to disperse the crowd using canes.

Father Lobo and the others were eventually granted bail. At first the priest refused to accept it.

"If we come to the streets, authorities say it is against the law. But what about the overloaded trucks that travel at high speed? Is there no law for them?" said Father Lobo.

Senior police official Bosco George told UCA News they "managed to persuade" Father Lobo to take the bail offer. "We will look out for an amicable solution to the issue," George said.

The government later ordered a halt on trucks one hour each in the morning and afternoon, when children come to and leave school.

The government also agreed to limit tonnage carried by truckers and marking a "No Parking" zone for truckers, as demanded by the priest.
  Bangladesh: Women's rights in focus, 'living the Eucharist'
DHAKA, JAN 29 (UCAN) -- The dowry system, violence and trafficking are at the head of a list of problems facing women in South Asia, a Catholic leader said this week.

Patriarchal systems have contributed to these problems, said Virginia Saldanha, the Indian executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences' (FABC) Office of Laity and Family and Women's Desk.

"In addition to religious fundamentalism and a tendency to keep women down, violence against women is also a vast problem in the region," Saldanha said.

Despite these challenges, many women "lived the Eucharist" in the region, she said.

Saldanha spoke to UCA News on the sidelines of a conference at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh center in Dhaka. Her group organized the Jan. 20-24 event, which discussed "Women living the Eucharist in South Asia."

The final statement from the meeting said that "due to the sinful structures in society, women experience brokenness which they bring to the Eucharist for reconciliation, healing, peace and communion. In their turn they become bread broken and shared for others."

Concerns, hopes and fears
Twenty-five mostly laywomen as well as four bishops and two priests from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and India, together with their Bangladeshi hosts attended the event.

The gathering included presentations of country reports, sharing of stories of women actively living the Eucharist, exposure programs and group discussions.

Such events were vital for women to air their concerns, hopes and fears about life both inside and outside the Church, said Sister Philomina D'Silva from the Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod.

"This kind of program gives South Asian women a chance to share their lives and challenges, and stand up for rights they deserve," she said.

"It is necessary for us to empower women to realize their own dignity. Such program would help them stand for their rights," the Indian nun told UCA News this week.

Eucharist and women's responsibilities
There were close analogies between the Eucharist and women's responsibilities.

"When a woman takes care of her children, husband, and other relatives in her family, she is proclaiming Christ's love through her activities, word and deeds," the nun said.

The event was opened by Bishop Patrick D'Rozario of Chittagong diocese.

Some of the women spoke of what the Eucharist means to their lives and how it helps them overcome hardship.

"I work in an environment surrounded by Muslim men and women. There are other Christian staff members but we are few in number," staff nurse Sherry Sehjad (not her real name) said.

"Whenever I go to church I take all my worries, fears, hopes, achievements, desires and wishes to the Eucharist.

"I share everything with Jesus, I tell Him how sometimes people around me threaten me with their gestures and words," she said.

Radhika Nonis (a pseudonym), who lost her husband and all her belongings in the 2006 tsunami, finds strength through Holy Communion.

"All my tears, sweat, toil and sighs, mingle with the bread and wine [which] give me strength and hope to live for tomorrow," she said.
  APDP declares April 2 as International Day of Mass Graves
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 29 -- The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) has decided to remember April 2 as International Day of Mass Graves.

Spokesperson of the association Ghulam Nabi Mir, during a monthly sit-in organised here on January 28, said, "The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) after consultation with the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) and the Latin American Federation of Associations of Family Members of Disappeared Detainees (FEDEFAM) has decided to commemorate April 2 as International Day of Mass Graves."

"A mass grave is a phenomenon in all countries, where people have been subjected to enforced disappearances," he said.

The Association also welcomed the early-day motion on Kashmir mass graves by the British Parliament on December 15.

Referring to a report on nameless and mass graves -- 'Buried Evidence' -- Mir said two months had passed since the report has been released and yet the state government and the Defence Ministry were yet to respond.

"This only demonstrates the state's indifference towards the issue, thereby putting more responsibility on international institutions to intervene in the matter," the APDP spokesperson said.

He observed that lack of response, callousness of state institutions and exhaustion of all local mechanisms pushes APDP and human rights defenders working on Kashmir with the only choice to internationalise the issue.
The International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice (IPTK) released the report on December 2 last year. It discussed the presence of more than 2,700 nameless and mass graves in 55 villages of north Kashmir. "The report was produced in association with the APDP after two years of survey," said Mir.

He said that the report was formally sent to the state government and Chief Minister Omar Abdullah acknowledged receiving it. "The state minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs stated to the media that the government would respond after reading the report. The matter was also raised in Parliament by MP Mohammad Shafi Uri, to which the Defence Ministry responded that they would study the report and come up with a response."

The spokesperson added that on July 10, 2008, the European Parliament called upon the Government of India to probe the issue after the APDP released its first report on mass graves in Kashmir. The report was titled 'Facts Under Ground'. He added that the Indian Ambassador in Brussels had assured the European Parliament that they would study the report and act accordingly.
  Chop off church vandals' hands: Karnataka CM
  Karnataka Chief Minister B. S. Yeddyurappa told a public meeting that hands of those who vandalize churches should be "cut off."

"I am telling you, chop off the hands of these people if you catch them," Yeddyurappa said while addressing a meeting in Karwar in Uttara Kannada district.

Three churches were attacked in Karnataka last week, after a radical Hindu group threatened violence if the Indian government failed to act against attacks on Indians in Australia.

Two of them were reported on Monday from Karwar diocese. In one, vandals smashed the windows of a grotto at St. Antony's Church in Ternamakki village, near Bhatkal city.

In the other incident, attackers tried to pull down the cross that stood a few meters away from Our Lady of Lourdes Church at Mundalli, also near Bhatkal.

Church people suspect Hindu fanatics behind the attacks. In September 2008, months after Yeddyurappa's BJP government came to power, the state witnessed widespread attacks on Christian churches, institutions and ministers.

However, the chief minister distanced himself from the attacks asking to chop off the hands of vandals.

"You may wonder why a Chief Minister is saying such things. But what can be done when people try to hit at the very basis of our society, that of peace and brotherhood?" he said. And he repeated: "cut off those hands".

Yeddyurappa maintains the frequent attacks on churches were a conspiracy to bring bad name to his government.

"The fact that these took place on the eve of the Republic Day clearly showed it was a conspiracy to tarnish the image of my government," he asserted.

Governor H R Bhardwaj on Jan. 26, in his Republic Day address sought action from the government.

"It is the constitutional duty of every government to deal firmly with the forces which tend to disturb communal peace and harmony," Bhardwaj said.

Source: CM asks to chop off church vandals' hands (
  Catholic priest studies Gandhi's dress
  AN Indian Salesian in his latest book analyzes how Mahatma Gandhi's dressing style communicated messages of peace and freedom to masses across India.

Father Peter Gonsalves's book, "Clothing For Liberation: A Communication Analysis of Gandhi's Swadeshi Revolution," would be launched in New Delhi on January 30, marking the 62nd anniversary of Gandhi's martyrdom.

Father Gonsalves, who teaches in Rome's Salesian University, also plans to launch the book on February 28 in London and on March 30 in New York.

"This is the first analysis of Gandhi's dressing style in terms of communication theory and an exploration of the subliminal messages that were subtly communicated to a large audience," says Sage Publications, New Delhi, the publishers of the book.

Father Gonsalves chooses three famous theorists from the field of communication studies and scrutinizes Gandhi's use of cloth and clothing for India's freedom struggle.

The books gives "a fascinatingly new insight into one of the most famous men from South Asia and one of the rarest non-violent revolutions that has rid the world of colonialism forever," said a note in a Salesian website.

It explores the breadth of Gandhi's communication skills which include Gandhi's verbal output, his linguistic capacity, his journalistic and letter-writing style, his peace communication in conflict, his organizational ability, the international repercussions of his mass mediated messages and his non-verbal communication through silence, fasting, clothing, personal presence and charisma.

Father Gonsalves began his media work as a pastor in rural Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. (Courtesy: CathNews India)

Source: Salesian's Book On Gandhi's Manner Of Dressing To Be Launched Worldwide
  Convert sells lottery tickets to evangelize
  KANNUR, JAN 28 (UCAN) -- A woman who converted from Hinduism to Catholicism 10 years ago evangelizes by selling lottery tickets.

Devi Kokkatta, 62, speaks about Jesus to people she meets while selling the tickets. Her "mission station" is the Kannur bus station and nearby areas, says Sister Merlin Mary, who has closely observed Kokkatta's "evangelization."

Kannur is a major town in northern Kerala state.

Although Kokkatta converted to Catholicism only in 2000, "she bears witness to her faith in an amazing way," the nun said.

Over the years, the lay woman has taken more than 10,000 people to weeklong retreats conducted at the Divine Retreat Centre, a charismatic renewal center in Muringoor, some 250 kilometers away.

Every week, Devi inspires at least seven people she finds wandering in the town to go to the retreat center. At times, she accompanies them and pays their travel and food expenses. "I find the money to take them to the retreat centre by selling lottery tickets," Kokkatta said.

"Woe to me if I am not preaching Gospel" the illiterate woman said. "Many people threatened me several times but finally they supported me," she added.

She said she was "a staunch Hindu" but a "miracle" she experienced changed her life. After being diagnosed with a stomach tumor, a neighbor asked her to join a retreat. "I went to the Divine Retreat Centre with them for a week and there I was miraculously healed by Jesus," she said.

"I am not converting people," she said. "I tell them that there is a God who cares. Go for a retreat and look into yourselves. That is what I do."

Earlier she earned her livelihood by selling sweets and cigarettes in her small shop. When she realized the shop limits the number of people she could meet, she shut it down. She opted to sell lottery tickets on the streets instead.

Omana, her Hindu friend, pointed out that Kokkatta's "life always inspires" and that she has "experienced the love of God through her."

Hermukka, a tea shop owner and a Muslim supports Kokkatta's work. "She is doing wonderful things here. She is like a mother to all the unwanted and forsaken people who are wandering here in the city," Hermukka said.

Kokkatta also helps sick people she finds on the streets, taking them to hospital. She also distributes Christian spiritual reading material to those who come to the bus stop.

Father George Painadath of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in the town said Kokkatta "is a resolute witness of the Christian faith."

Joy Alappadan, who works at the bus station, said Kokkatta has "changed many lives, including (those of) some criminals.
  Snowfall in Kashmir expected in the next 24 hours
  From Afsana Rashid

SRINAGAR, JAN 28 -- As the 40-day 'Chillai Kalan', the harshest part of winter comes to a close, rain or snow is expected within the next 24 hours.

According to Aamir Ali, Officer on Special Duty with Divisional Commissioner Kashmir and in- charge, Disaster Management, Kashmir, rain or snow is expected in the state on January 29.

This period of winter has so far turned out to be a big disappointment for most Kashmiris, as there has been scant snowfall. "Gone are the days when we used to have snowfall during this period of winter. Snowfall is the beauty and identity of Kashmir," said Abdul Hamid, a shikarawalla on Boulevard Road.

He added that tourists loved to enjoy snowfall in winter and it added to the Valley's charm. He expressed concern that the absence of snowfall might result in a decline in tourist flow.

"We are responsible for this change. Excessive deforestation has led to climate change," rued Shakeel Ahmad, a cab driver.

Experts believe that if the dry spell prolongs, the horticulture sector would be adversely affected. Agriculture and allied sectors would also be disturbed. "Apple production will be affected the most," said Gurcharan Singh, noted environmentalist.

"Normal life will also be affected. There will be lack of water," said Singh.

His views were echoed by Fida Ali Alamgeer, Floriculture Development Extension Officer, Department of Agriculture. "The day temperature these days is 14 or 15 degree Celsius, usually witnessed only in March-April. Night temperatures fall below freezing point. Such fluctuations in temperature are detrimental for growth of crops."

The 70-day winter in Kashmir, which starts in December, is divided into three phases -- Chillai Kalan, Chilla Khurd and Chilla Bacha.

The 40-day period of Chillai Kalan starts on December 21, followed by the 20-day Chillai Khurd (not so severe cold) on January 30. Chillai Baccha lasts for 10 days. The whole cycle is complete by February 28.

According to the MET Department, Srinagar recorded a minimum temperature of 2 degrees Celsius while the maximum was 13.4 degrees. While Kupwara in north Kashmir witnessed a low of 1.5 degree Celsius, Kokernag and Pahalgam in south Kashmir recorded a minimum of minus one degree Celsius and minus 0.4 degree Celsius, respectively.
  Colombo archbishop calls for post-election rapprochement
BANGKOK, JAN 28 (UCAN) -- Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo has called on the victors in Sri Lanka's presidential elections to reach their hand to the other side.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was swept back to power in Sri Lanka's first post-war national election held on Tuesday but his rival, former army commander General Sarath Fonseka, alleged there had been vote-rigging.

Both men sought to capitalize on the end of the 26-year civil war in the country.

Fonseka quit the army in November and entered the race.

Official results showed Rajapaksa winning 57.9 per cent of 10.5 million votes cast against 40.2 per cent for Fonseka, Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake said.

Archbishop Ranjith congratulated Rajapaksa on his win and thanked the election commission for organizing the poll "in a way which was dignified."

He described the election as an "assertion of independence as a nation."

"We wish God's blessing on our president and all our citizens," Archbishop Ranjith said.

He welcomed the peaceful election day in the country but said now the new leadership must exercise restraint.

"We call upon the victors to celebrate their victory in a dignified and humble way," he said.

He urged them to "stretch out their hands to the other side."

While election day was largely peaceful, Dissanayake said there were three areas in which vote counters had been assaulted but declined to say which side was responsible.

International observers are due to report their findings today (Jan. 28).

Shortly before Rajapaksa was declared the winner, two people were killed and four wounded in a grenade attack on a Buddhist temple in the central town of Gampola, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told Reuters.

The campaign was also marred by more than 900 cases of violence including five deaths.

Religious leaders on Jan. 24 joined in prayer for a peaceful presidential election.

Rajapaksa holds on to power with the economy in relatively good shape as big Chinese and Indian infrastructure investments flow in following the war.

However, he faces challenges in the north of the country where more than 100,000 people displaced by the fighting still languish in temporary camps.

In New York, Human Rights Watch said that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the international community should take steps "to bring accountability for Sri Lanka's grave human rights violations" during the war.
  Salesian's feature film in tribal language wins national award
  AGARTALA, JAN 28 (UCAN) -- A feature film directed by Salesian Father Joseph Pulinthanath has won Tripura state's first national film award.

Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Ambika Soni announced the film awards on Jan. 23 in New Delhi.

Father Pulinthanath's "Yarwng" (roots) in Kokborok language was selected as the best feature film in the category of languages not officially recognized in India.

It is the first national film award for the northeastern state.

Indian President Pratibha Patil will present the awards in March.

Produced by Salesian Father Joseph Kizhakechennadu of Don Bosco Sampari Pictures and directed by Father Pulinthanath, the Tripura film speaks about the displacement of thousands of indigenous people in the state due to the Gumti Hydel hydro-electric project.
Glimpse into tribal India

The cast of "Yarwng," which the "New York Times" described as a "rare glimpse into tribal India," is mostly indigenous people who were displaced by the dam project. They had no previous acting experience.

The award has made Kokborok language and its speakers proud, an elated Father Pulinthanath told UCA News.

"Along with everyone else involved in the making of 'Yarwng,' I feel happy that we have been able to get for Tripura and its people its first national film award," he added.

The priest said he hopes to see "more such awards" for the film in future.

Father Pulinthanath says the award would boost not only the nascent film industry in Tripura, but also tribal communities and the Kokborok language.

The film was made with funds from Catholic aid agencies including Signis (Brussels), Missio (Germany) and the Salesian congregation.

Father Pulinthanath released the 95-minute film in September 2008 and since then it has been screened at more than 40 international film festival venues, including New York, Stuttgart, Moscow, Brisbane, Dhaka and Taiwan.

It was the opening film of the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India 2008, held in Goa.

"Yarwng" also picked up a Special Jury Mention Award at the seventh Third Eye Asian Film Festival held in Mumbai in 2008.
  Priest hails Hindu plan to open schools
  NEW DELHI, JAN 28 (UCAN) -- A Church official has welcomed a Hindu group's plan to open more schools and employ young people as teachers.

"Starting schools is a welcome step to remove illiteracy from the country," says Father Kuriala Chittattukalam, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops' commission for education and culture.

The Salesian priest was reacting to newspaper reports that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) plans to open 100,000 schools mostly in India's remote tribal areas.

The RSS, the umbrella organization of radical Hindu groups, also plans to recruit young people as teachers, "Mail Today" reported on Jan. 27.

Father Chittattukalam says more groups should join government efforts to introduce universal education in the country. The federal Education Ministry has made education compulsory for children up to 14 years.

The Church official said implementing the right education is a "challenging task" and NGOs, including the Church, should "move faster" to help the government.

He also said the Church is aware that RSS already manages thousands of schools across India. "So, the new plan is nothing new," he told UCA News on Jan. 27.

Father Chittattukalam, however, wants the government to monitor "what goes on in the name of education. The qualification of teachers should be verified."

According to "Mail Today," the main reason for the RSS move is to attract youths to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political arm of pro-Hindu groups and the main opposition in the Indian parliament.

Ram Madhav, a senior RSS official, has confirmed his group's focus on youths.

He said his organization already manages some 70,000 single-teacher schools in India's tribal areas. It now plans to open more schools for which it requires "energetic young teachers."

"Mail Today" also reported the RSS expects to recruit "politically vibrant youngsters" in states with significant tribal populations such as Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa.

The Church manages the largest number of education institutions in India after the government. It has invested heavily in areas where the RSS is now focusing.
  European Union cancels fact-finding trip to Orissa
NEW DELHI, JAN 28 (UCAN) -- A European Union delegation's visit to Orissa has been scrapped at the last minute after a dispute with the federal government over where the team could go.

The delegation wanted to visit Orissa's Kandhamal district, the epicenter of anti-Christian violence in 2008, but the government reportedly confined it to Bhubaneswar, the state capital.

The delegation canceled the four-day trip on Jan. 27 evening, saying it was not worth visiting only the capital.

John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council and secretary general of the All India Christian Council, expressed "deep surprise" at the government's action.

The federal and Orissa state governments have repeatedly asserted that there is "total peace" in Kandhamal and proper legal processes are being carried out, Dayal says.

"If this indeed be so, what then is there to hide from the view of the world?" he asked.

"The real culprits of the anti-Christian pogrom have got away," Dayal said.

The visit would have helped the team assess the progress of relief and rehabilitation for the victims as well as the effectiveness of the fast track courts set up to try cases against those accused of violence against Christians.

The 10-member diplomatic team was to have been led by Ramon Moreno, deputy chief of mission in the Spanish embassy in New Delhi.

The mission was only approved after more than a year of negotiations with the federal government. The team was scheduled to meet Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, who heads the Catholic Church in Orissa, on Jan. 28.

Dhirendra Panda, a human rights activist in Orissa, criticized the government's actions.

"The very fact the government refuses the international community to visit Kandhamal shows it has something to hide," Panda, a secularist Hindu, told UCA News.
  Lull at Lal Chowk on Republic Day; official functions pass off peacefully
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 27 -- As the whole country observed the 61st Republic Day on Tuesday, mobile services and Internet facility across the Valley were jammed.

The bustling commercial hub of Lal Chowk was in a state of uneasy calm, as people preferred staying indoors and no sign of Republic Day celebrations was reported, till this report was filed.

The state was on high alert following terror threats. All mobile networks stopped working on Tuesday morning and Internet facility was barred till 12 noon. Officials have been quoted as saying that the services had been jammed following inputs that militants might use mobile phones to trigger explosive devices or pass on directions on phone.

Police and security agencies in the state were put on high alert. Tight security arrangements had also been made around other vital installations and at district headquarters across the Valley.

The streets wore a deserted look. There was no traffic at all. People remained indoors due to a shutdown call by separatists and thick security cover. Incidents of stone pelting were reported from Batamaloo and Habba Kadal.

Security forces usually held their own Republic Day celebration in Lal Chowk. They would distribute sweets, sing the national anthem, and hoist the national flag atop the clock tower. This year, neither was the celebrations held nor the flag hoisted.

Reacting to such reports, an official spokesman clarified that hoisting of the flag at Lal Chowk was not a state function. "The local commandants of paramilitary forces posted around Lal Chowk have been hoisting the flag of their own will. This time, the Central Reserve Police Force decided not to do it. It was their internal decision."

The spokesperson added that the state official function was held at Bakshi Stadium in Srinagar. "Nearly 8,000 people participated in the function. State official functions were also held across the state at all district headquarters, sub-divisional and tehsil levels."

After a prolonged lull, at least six encounters between militants and security forces took place across the Valley this month, including one at Lal Chowk on January 6. A complete security ring was thrown around Bakshi Stadium, venue of the main Republic Day function in Srinagar. However, main functions of the state were held in the winter capital of Jammu.

Unfurling the tricolour at Maulana Azad Memorial Stadium in Jammu, Governor N N Vohra asked separatist leaders to 'settle problems through dialogue'. An erstwhile interlocutor on Kashmir, Vohra said all forces holding contrary beliefs should come forward for a meaningful dialogue.

He added that security forces would have to be on tight vigil in view of increasing infiltration. He, however, requested the forces to ensure that no law-abiding citizen was harassed.

He said the state government had received Rs 25,833 crore from the Centre under the 11th Five Year Plan, 78 per cent more than the 10th Plan allocation.

This current financial year saw the state receiving the highest-ever annual outlay of Rs 5,500 crore, another Rs 1,200 crore from the PM's Reconstruction Plan and Rs 220 crore as counter-part share to enable it to raise a matching loan from the Asian Development Bank, the Governor said.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, in his Republic Day message, said dialogue was the only means to address problems and solve issues. "We will act as a facilitator between all opinion groups in the state and the Centre, besides working for restoration of the Indo-Pak composite talks."

Finance Minister Abdul Rahim Rather hoisted the national flag at Bakshi Stadium in Srinagar, while Rural Development Minister Ali Mohammad Sagar hoisted the tricolour at Ganderbal.
  PHILIPPINES: Pakistan religious visit 'a useful exchange'
  MANILA, JAN 26 (UCAN) -- Philippine religious leaders say they had constructive meetings with the Pakistani government on a recent trip to Islamabad.

Both sides expressed a wish for "closer cooperation" on matters of mutual interest.

They discussed the Philippine government's bid to gain official observer status in the Organization of the Islamic Conference and Pakistan's effort to gain membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Jesuit Archbishop Fernando Capalla of Davao, co-convenor of the Bishops-Ulama Conference (BUC), said it was a "useful exchange."

"There were frank and open discussions with the foreign minister, the ministers of religion and minorities, the president of the Senate and the Counsel for Islamic Ideology," Archbishop Capalla said.

The Filipino group met Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, and Minister of Religious Affairs Syed Hamid Saeed Kazmi.

Ulama are Islamic scholars regarded as religious leaders.

Other BUC members on the trip included Catholic Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, Bishop Edwin Dela Pena of Marawi, and Protestant Bishops Hilario Gomez and Danilo Bustamante.

The Philippine Muslim leaders included professors Sharief Julabbi, Salipada Tamano, Hamid Barra, Aleem Elias Macarandas and Judge Abu Ali Cali, president of the Ulama League of the Philippines.

Although Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari invited the group through President Gloria Arroyo, he could not attend the meeting, Archbishop Capalla said.

They two sides agreed to make plans for educating people of both countries on the Christian-Muslim relationship.

The Pakistan foreign minister agreed to visit Manila in March. The BUC will meet Jan. 30 in Davao to draft a formal invitation to him and the ministers of religion and minorities to visit with other religious leaders, the archbishop said. (Courtesy: CathNews India)
  Malaysia: 'Allah' furore leaves Sarawak village puzzled
  SELANGGAU, JAN 26 (UCAN) -- Christians and Muslims in Sarawak are puzzled by the controversy over the use of 'Allah' for God. The word has been in use for centuries in the area and has never been an issue.

"We were using 'Allah' as far back as the 17th century," says James Jang, a parishioner of St. Charles Church in Selanggau, central Sarawak.

The main language in the area is Iban, which is related to Malay, and is used during Mass. The word 'Allah' features frequently.

"Even with all the fuss on the peninsula, we Muslims and Christians here still see no problem... at all," Ata Ngaden, 67, another parishioner, told UCA News.

Last week, government minister Nazri Aziz suggested that the word 'Allah' could be limited to the use of Christians only in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak.

The proposal was given short shrift by Christians across the country.

Segiong Radi, 56, from Selanggau, cannot see why it should not be used everywhere.

'No opposition from local Muslims'

He said the community in the interior of the state had been using 'Allah' to refer to God "for a long time." He said there was no opposition from local Muslims at all and he wondered why there is such a fuss over the issue in western (peninsular) Malaysia.

Kalsum Daud, 43, a local Muslim, said she has no problem with Christians using the word 'Allah.' She said there is no tension between Christians and Muslims in the town.

Even though there is a Christian majority, she was able to open a coffee shop for Muslims serving only halal food next to a Christian-owned cafe.

Robert Nanta Kasi, St. Charles parish council chairperson, said 'Allah' was used in catechism books and Bibles, which are all in Malay, and no local Muslim had ever complained.

The controversy was ignited by a court ruling allowing the national Catholic weekly 'Herald' to use the word. The government reasons that Muslims could be confused by the use of the word by Christians.

Nanta says the position is ironic, given the government is encouraging wider use of the national language.

Ulin Naga, a Methodist laborer, also questions the government’s reasons for the ban, asking how one strong enough in his or her own faith could be confused. Kalsum agrees.

"If a Muslim is confused, it is either he is not confident of his faith at all or he is an extremist. But over here in Selanggau, no Muslim is like that. To us Muslims, the issue of Christians using Allah is 'nadai namanama' ('no problem')," she says.
  INDONESIA: Journalists told to put faith into action
JAKARTA, JAN 26 (UCAN) -- Catholic journalists must stand up for the truth and use Gospel values to bring peace to society, says Coadjutor Archbishop Ignatius Suharyo of Jakarta.

Catholic journalists should not only share ideas with the public, but also tell people what is right, he told 200 Catholic journalists recently.

"Every word or sentence that you write can strongly influence people to change," said Archbishop Suharyo.

The prelate was speaking at a seminar titled "The Country Needs You," organized by the Catholic Journalists Association of Indonesia (PWKI), at Canisius College in Central Jakarta.

Minister for Women's Empowerment and Child Protection Linda Amalia Sari Agum Gumelar and several other religious leaders also attended the event.

Archbishop Suharyo likened the challenges Catholic journalists face in putting their faith into action to the Eucharist bread.

"You are like the Eucharistic bread which is broken and distributed... In other words, you must [be prepared for] sacrifice," he said.

The prelate stressed that the country needs the Good News to unite people and create peace in families.

Theodora Wahyu Dramastuti, a journalist with a Jakarta-based daily, welcomed the archbishop's remarks. A journalist must be independent and should side with those who are oppressed, she said.

"My job is to tell the facts instead of publicizing nice statements from the authorities."

Paulus S. Budiadi, from the Radio of the Republic of Indonesia (RRI), said, "As a journalist, I must tell the facts and not allow myself to be manipulated by any party."

PWKI head Albertus Magnus P. Dwimantoro said his organization was established in 2005 to unite Catholic journalists across the country. About 500 Catholic journalists are now members. The association has regular activities such as discussion sessions and Mass every month. (Courtesy: CathNews India)
  Church attacks in Karnataka linked to violence in Australia
NEW DELHI, JAN 26 (UCAN) -- Three churches were attacked in Karnataka days after a radical Hindu group threatened violence if the Indian government failed to act against attacks on Indians in Australia.

In the latest attack in Mysore, unidentified people destroyed a statue of the Blessed Mother in the grotto of Holy Family Church in Hinkel parish. Church people noticed the destruction on the morning of Jan. 25.

Bishop Thomas Antony Vazhappilly of Mysore told UCA News Jan. 26 he did not believe it was an attempted burglary, as police claim.

"It was a deliberate act" of Hindu radicals to create sectarian tension and offend the religious sentiments of the Christians in the parish of some 250 Christian families, the bishop said.

The church was also attacked in 2002 and radicals beat up people, including women and children.

"The culprits were arrested in that case, but they are on bail, and the case has dragged on for the past eight years," Bishop Vazhappilly said.

Hard-line Hindu group suspected

Noting that the state witnessed two more attacks in the past few days, he said media reports link the incidents with the radical Hindu group Sri Rama Sene (army of Lord Rama) acting in retaliation for reported racial attacks on Indians, mostly students, in Australia.

In one of two reported attacks in Karwar diocese, vandals smashed the windows of a grotto at St. Antony’s Church in Ternamakki village, near Bhatkal city, after Jan. 22 midnight, the bishop said.

A report in 'The Hindu' newspaper said Sri Rama Sene activists are suspected of being behind the attack.

In the other incident, attackers tried to pull down the cross that stood a few meters away from Our Lady of Lourdes Church at Mundalli, also near Bhatkal, on Jan. 22.

The Sri Rama Sene group had on Jan. 19 issued a statement saying, "Christians in India are part of a conspiracy to target Indian Hindus in Australia."

It also said if the Indian president failed to act to prevent the attacks on "Indian Hindus" in Australia in two days (Jan. 20-21), the group would "ensure that there is not a single church in Bhatkal."

Archbishop Bernard Moras of Bangalore, president of the Karnataka Regional Catholic Bishops' Council (KRCBC), condemned the attacks. He told media that he wants the state government of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to ensure Christians' security.

In September 2008, months after the BJP came to power, the state witnessed widespread attacks on Christian churches, institutions and ministers. (Courtesy: CathNews India)
  Bizarre it may appear, Mother Mary's wedding celebrated
A TOWN in Kerala is the only place in India that celebrates the Blessed Mother's marriage.

The celebrations take place during Jan. 18-22 in two churches in Alleppey district's Cherthala.

On Jan. 21, St. Mary's Forane Church in Muttom celebrated the Blessed Mother's wedding. The next day, St. Mary's Forane Church in Pallippuram, some 20 kilometers from Muttom, celebrated the Saint Joseph's wedding.

According to Muttom church's parish priest, Father Sebastian Manickathan, the first day marks the celebrations at Mary's house while the second day celebrates the couple's entry to Saint Joseph's house.

Flag hoisting, ceremonial litanies, evening prayers, Masses, benedictions and processions with the statues of Mary, Joseph and Jesus marked this year's celebrations.

The Muttom vicar said more than 15,000 people from different religions attended the feast.

Both the churches come under Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese. A Forane is a major parish in a diocese with a few parishes as members.

During the feast days, Cherthala wore a festive as it decorated all its streets for the procession that snaked through the town.

The feast concluded with a Mass for the dead.

Four priests, accompanied by cross, ceremonial umbrellas and candles, purified the church compound with incense and holy water before proceeding to the cemetery.

History says that a cemetery existed before the church was built.

The parish priest said the Muttom parish was erected in 1023, but it started celebrating the annual wedding feast 146 years ago. He, however, could not explain how the feast began.

The priest said many couples come to the church to get married. "Everyone who gets married hopes for a grace-filled wife like Mary and a loving and just husband like Joseph and spotless children like Jesus," he explained.

The married also come to pray for "a happy family life," he added.

Gopinath Thurvur, a Hindu, said he comes to the church with his family "every year without fail" as they believe Mother Mary keeps "us happy and blessed."

Devasia Parathiparampil, the president of this year's celebration, claims Cherthala is the only place in India where the marriage of Mary and Joseph is celebrated.

The president bears all expenses for the feast. Every year a few parishioners volunteer to become presidents. The presidents of 12 previous years select one from the volunteers.

Parathiparampil said this year's expense came around Rs 600,000 (US$13,300).

Source: UCAN
  Pope tells priests to use the Internet more
POPE Benedict XVI has urged Catholic priests to use the Internet to spread the word of God.

In his message for the World Communication Day on May 16, the pope encouraged priests to embrace the new digital media to create deeper forms of relationship with the faithful across greater distances.

The papal message released Jan. 23 also warned that Catholic clergy should be less notable for their media skills than for their vocation.

"Using new communication technologies, priests can introduce people to the life of the Church and help our contemporaries to discover the face of Christ," the message said stressing the need to learn to use the technology from the time of their formation.

"Yet priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ. This will not only enliven their pastoral outreach, but also will give a 'soul' to the fabric of communications that makes up the 'Web', the pope said.

The Vatican has long had a website in several languages. It has recently created a news channel on the Youtube video sharing site and a Facebook networking site Pope2You. (Courtesy: CathNews India)

Source: Papal message for world communication day (Zenit)
  Jesuit pushes for organ donations
A BELGIAN Jesuit missioner is encouraging his confreres and friends in Kolkata to become organ or body donors.

Father Albert Huart, 85, says the inspiration for his campaign came from Father Gerard Beckers, another Belgian Jesuit who died in 2006 at the age of 82.

Father Beckers had campaigned for organ donations and willed his body to a government hospital for medical research, Father Huart told UCA News.

The late Jesuit was especially keen on eye donations that could give sight to the blind. Father Huart said he was touched by the respect and reverence doctors showed when they removed Father Beckers' eyes and looked after his body at the hospital, after his death.

Father Huart has also pledged his eyes and body. He says 18 other Calcutta Jesuits have already pledged their eyes, and 15 have agreed to donate their bodies. He is in touch with Ganadarpan, (translated as "mass mirror") an NGO, which campaigns for body donations.

"There are so many eyes needed but very few are donated; similarly so many bodies are required for tissue culture and medical research, but very few are received," Father Huart explained.

The Jesuit gives a spiritual motive for his campaign. "After death, the soul is united with God. The body can still be useful for others," he said.

He recalled the Jesuit provincial of South Asia had appealed for organ donors and cadavers in a 2007 document. It said donating one's body is a way of "giving something back to society."

Father Huart says families are generally emotional after the death of a loved one and not predisposed to handing over the body to hospitals. "It is good to respect the sentiments of the families of the deceased persons," he added.

Jesuit Father Joseph Pymbellikunnel said the late Father Beckers had inspired him to pledge his body. "We are pledged to people till the end. The last thing I can give to people is my body," said the 48-year-old Indian priest, who manages the Jesuit media center, Chitrabani (translated as "sight-sound") in Kolkata.

He said he was not worried if his family objected to his wish. "Even when I joined the Jesuits, some objected to it," he said.

Organ donation rose sharply in West Bengal after its former chief minister, Jyoti Basu, donated his body for medical research.

Local media reported that some 7,000 members of Basu's Communist Party of India (Marxist) pledged their bodies for medical research after his death on Jan. 17.

Generally, a donor's eyes are removed within six hours after death, and the body is handed over to hospitals within 12 hours. (Courtesy: CathNews India)

Source: Jesuit pushes for more organ donations (UCAN)
  Indians welcome Aussie call for repentance
NEW DELHI, JAN 25 (UCAN) -- An Indian Church official has welcomed Australian Anglican Bishop Philip Huggins' call to his people to repent for the attack on Indians in his country.

"We welcome the gesture," said Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, saying the continuing attacks on Indians "is a major concern."

Bishop Huggins of Melbourne diocese's northern and western regions reportedly led prayers at Melbourne's St. Paul's Cathedral on Jan. 24, seeking forgiveness for "our prejudice and indifference" toward people from different countries.

"Forgive us for not honoring the culture of others, and thus taking away their self-respect... forgive us for not listening to the grief of all who are oppressed in this land, especially for Indians who are feeling vulnerable," he reportedly said during the prayer.

An estimated 97,000 Indians are studying in Australia and some 45,000 of them are in Melbourne.

"What was done to Indian students is totally unacceptable," Father Joseph said.

Rights groups in India say racial attacks on Indian students in Australia, starting from May 2009, wounded many and killed two. In the latest attack on Jan. 9, Jaspreet Singh, 29, was set ablaze by unidentified attackers. He survived the attack.

The body of the first victim, Ranjodh Singh, 25, was found south-west of Sydney. Singh was a farm laborer. Nitin Garg, a 21-year-old student, was stabbed on his way to work at a restaurant in a Melbourne suburb Jan. 2 night.

But Australian officials have consistently said these attacks are not racially motivated.

Father Joseph, however, said "the bishop has rightly expressed his concern over the unabated attacks on Indians living in Australia."

The Divine Word priest said mutual respect of cultures and religions "alone will take us forward in a civilized manner."

The attacks on Indian students threaten a lucrative business for Australia.

"The Age" newspaper reported that from July to October last year there was a 46 per cent drop in student visa applications from India compared with the same period in 2008.
  Pakistan: Ahmadi property seizure alarms minorities
RABWAH, JAN 25 (UCAN) -- An Ahmadi place of worship has been seized by authorities in what minority religious communities fear is a further erosion of pluralism in the country.

Concerns were raised after a large police contingent handed over a disputed worship venue in Rabwah to the majority Sunni Muslims on Jan. 14.

The place called Bait Noor had been sealed in 2003 to prevent clashes between the two Islamic groups over its ownership.

Many Muslims regard the Ahmadis as a heretical Islamic sect.

Catholic human rights activists have condemned the recent anti-Ahmadi move.

"It is a sad happening under the elected government of Punjab province. The sheer negligence of authorities is threatening the freedom of religion," said Alvin Murad, executive secretary of the major religious superiors' justice and peace commission.

Peter Jacob, executive secretary the Catholic bishop's National Commission for Justice and Peace, agreed.

"We disapprove of such treatment of minorities. Some political figures, belonging to the mainstream, are accused of backing this decision," he said, adding that the authorities have once again proven to be insensitive to religious diversity.

"It is indeed the whittling of pluralism in the country. Extremism has many manifestations and discrimination is being institutionalized," Jacob told UCA News.

Saleem-ud-din, the Ahmadi community spokesperson, demanded justice from authorities in a Jan. 21 press release.

"This is a blatant display of the weakness of administration, and lawlessness. We had presented legal documents of the late Ahmadi who built (the worship venue) on a piece of land he owned and various local politicians had submitted written statements supporting our stand," he said.

"The management of Bait Noor was under the Ahmadi community for 20 years after it was built in 1983," he told UCA News. This was the 15th forcible occupation of an Ahmadi place of worship since the promulgation of Ahmadi-specific laws by President General Zia ul-Haq in 1984.

Under these laws, Ahmadis are prohibited from engaging in "anti-Islamic activities," including propagating their faith, and using Muslim worship practices and greetings.

The Ahmadi movement was founded in the late 19th century by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.

While all Muslims hold Jesus Christ in high regard as a prophet, the Ahmadis have the unique belief that he survived the crucifixion and traveled to India to continue his ministry among the Lost Tribes of Israel. They claim that a tomb containing his body has been discovered in India.
  Republic Day brings life to a standstill in the Valley
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 25 -- With the Republic Day round the corner, frisking and checking of vehicles in the city has intensified. While elsewhere in the country, people are eager to celebrate this memorable day, the same spells 'misery' for people in the Valley.

Almost all the roads leading to Bakshi stadium, the main venue for the celebrations, have been sealed and put under strict vigil.

Life in the Valley around the Republic Day (January 26) and the Independence Day (August 15) is 'troublesome'. Frisking is frequent and security forces constantly check vehicles, thus putting a constraint on public movement.

Around 6 pm on Sunday (January 24), all vehicular movement from Padshahi Bagh towards Jawahar Nagar (in the vicinity of Bakshi Stadium) was abruptly stopped. It was resumed only after the local people protested.

"While we were returning home from work, a police vehicle suddenly arrived on the scene and laid a barbed wire across the bridge, bringing traffic to a standstill. How long can we suffer like this?" asked a group of residents.

Houses in the vicinity of the stadium are also reportedly under strict vigil and people who come for walks in Pratap Park are subject to frisking and questioning.

"We were frisked in the park while waiting for our friend. Isn't there any place where we can breathe freely?" rued Altaf Ahmad and his friend Mir Feroz.

Business is also low these days. Bus drivers, auto rickshaw drivers and sumo drivers fail to find the usual number of passengers, as people are scared to go out of their homes. The general feeling is that something untoward might happen to them if they ventured out. Trade, especially in commercial Lal Chowk, has been adversely affected.

"I don't visit Lal Chowk these days," said Ghulam Qadir Mir, a teacher. "I have asked my loved ones to return home earlier than usual, as anything can happen here around this time."

Kuldeep Khoda, Director-General of Police, has warned that militants could strike around Republic Day. He has been quoted as saying that security forces have been put on maximum alert across the state.
Lieutenant General J S Jaswal, the general officer commanding the army's Northern Command, has recently been quoted as saying that 2010 could witness more militant strikes, as infiltration from across the borders continued to be supported by Pakistan.
  'Domestic violence a societal issue'
  From Our Correspondent

SRINAGAR, JAN 23 -- Domestic violence can be curbed only when people change their attitude towards the girl child. This was stated by Minister for Social Welfare Sakina Yatoo at a two-day seminar on 'Domestic Violence Against Women' at the University of Kashmir. The programme was organised by the varsity's Department of Students Welfare, in association with the Jammu and Kashmir Police, here, on January 22.

"We need to address domestic violence. And everyone, including the people, the government and the police has a role to play," the minster said. "People are sad when a girl is born in the family. This mindset needs to be changed."

"Since 2006, there has been an annual increase of 12 per cent in incidents of domestic violence," said Dilbag Singh, Inspector General of Police (Armed).

Singh added that women empowerment could help curb the problem. "The police cannot do it alone. The civil society has to come forward and play its role."

Professor Riyaz Punjabi, Vice-Chancellor, University of Kashmir, asserted that women should be made aware of their rights. "Women must know their rights and fight for them," he said.

In a written message to the Department of Students' Welfare, Professor Pam Rajput, member of the University Grants Commission's Consultative Committee on Capacity Building of Women Managers in Higher Education, said globalisation had led to an increase in violence against women. "To combat the problem, the first and foremost thing to do is to treat the problem as a societal issue rather than a personal one."

Prof Neelofar Khan, Dean, Students Welfare, University of Kashmir, described domestic violence as a 'silent killer' that affected the overall management of a family.

H K Lohia, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Police, Central Kashmir Range, and officials from the IRP 1st battalion, Zewan-Srinagar, and JKAP 6th Battalion were also present on the occasion.
  Syrians demand more dioceses
THE Syro-Malabar Church (SMC), which recently created two dioceses and appointed six bishops, plans to renew its campaign for dioceses outside its base, southern Indian Kerala state.

Father Paul Thelakat, SMC spokesperson, told UCA News on Jan. 20 that his Church plans to renew a long standing request to the Vatican to establish Church structures to attend to the spiritual needs of its faithful living in the Persian Gulf nations and major Indian cities outside Kerala.

The SMC, one of the three Catholic rites in India, was made a self-governing Church with its synod having powers to create dioceses and appoint bishops with the consent of the Vatican.

But the jurisdiction of the Church's head and his synod is restricted to Kerala and nearby places, where most of the SMC's 28 dioceses are based. Two dioceses were created on Jan. 18.

Father Thelakat and other SMC leaders say thousands of SMC Catholics live in the Indian cities such as Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad and in the Persian Gulf cities. Latin-rite bishops continue to address their spiritual needs.

SMC leaders say the demand for new dioceses continue to be resisted by the majority Latin-rite bishops, who head 128 of India's 162 dioceses.

The Latin-rite prelates, however, say having more than one Catholic diocese in an Indian city would divide Catholics and produce a "counter witness" in a Hindu-majority nation.

Father Thelakat says the Vatican wants the two Churches to reach a consensus through dialogue. However, it was "unfair" not to give the SMC its "missionary right" to preach across India, he asserted.

Major Archbishop Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, who heads the SMC, says his Church is "patiently waiting to be heard and does not want to make a scandal. We do not want to be seen as a Church that fights for territories," he added.

Kurian Joseph, an SMC Catholic and a Kerala High Court judge, says the problem arises from misunderstanding among the Church rites.

"On the one hand, the Church allows multiple jurisdictions in a territory (such as Kerala) and on the other hand it allows only one jurisdiction in one territory," he told UCA News. Ordinary people, he added, find it difficult to understand this arrangement.

Joseph also finds the name Syro-Malabar "disadvantageous" as it gives the impression the Church should be confined to Malabar, another name for Kerala.

Charlie Paul, a Catholic youth lay leader and a lawyer, says creating new dioceses is the only solution to help the Church flourish.

According to him, SMC's inability to provide spiritual care to its people and the ongoing tussle among the rites about territories have forced hundreds of Catholics in Indian cities and the Persian Gulf nations to join Pentecostal sects.

He also points out that the Syro-Malankara Church, the other Oriental rite also based in Kerala, is not restricted in its jurisdiction. "Why is our Church treated differently?" he asked.

Source: Orientals to renew demand for dioceses
  16 lakh tulips to be produced in J&K this year
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 22 -- About 16 lakh tulip bulbs are expected to be produced across the Jammu and Kashmir valley this season, in addition to 20,000 chinar saplings. Twelve lakh tulips were produced last year.

Minister for Health, Horticulture and Floriculture Sham Lal Sharma made a visit to the tulip garden, here, on Wednesday. He was accompanied by G. S. Naqash, Director Floriculture, who informed that more tulips would be produced on an additional 40 kanals of land.

The tulip garden, which was an initiative of former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, has emerged as a major tourist destination. It is open to the general public in the last week of March.

The scenic view in and around the garden is mind-blowing with lofty mountains and tall trees around, particularly in the spring, when the tulips are in full bloom.

"The tulip bulbs are planted in November and they start blooming in March," a gardener said.

The minister also inspected 10 green houses in the garden. He was told that tulips and other flowers were being preserved there.

Sharma was further informed that 20,000 chinar saplings were expected to be planted in various parts of the valley in March. The minister was impressed with the plan, as planting of chinars would help maintain ecological balance to a large extent. Last year, the floriculture department carried out a census of chinars located across the Kashmir valley.

"Let's pledge to save this all-important aspect of Kashmir heritage," said Harpal Singh, Project Officer, Gardens, Parks and Floriculture Department.

The project officer said the department involved the valley's residents in planting fresh chinars and 4,000-5000 chinars had been planted in the past eight years.
  Bible quote in guns angers Muslims
MUSLIM groups reacted angrily after it emerged that the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan were using rifle sights inscribed with coded Biblical references.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) called on US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to immediately withdraw from combat use equipment found to have inscriptions of Biblical references.

It followed a report from ABC television which revealed that Michigan-based contractor Trijicon had sold up to 800,000 of the sights to the US military which were being used in combat.

ABC said one of the citations on the gun sights, 2COR4:6, is an apparent reference to Second Corinthians 4:6 of the New Testament. The passage reads: "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."

A statement posted on the Trijicon Web site said: "As part of our faith and our belief in service to our country, Trijicon has put scripture references on our products for more than two decades."

"As long as we have men and women in danger, we will continue to do everything we can to provide them with both state-of-the-art technology and the never-ending support and prayers of a grateful nation," it said.

Other citations are taken from the books of Revelation, Matthew and John dealing with Jesus as "the light of the world." John 8:12, referred to on the gun sights as JN8:12, reads: "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

Meanwhile, New Zealand said Jan. 21 that the Biblical citations would be removed, saying they were inappropriate and could stoke religious tensions.

New Zealand defense spokesman Major Kristian Dunne said that Trijicon would be instructed to remove the inscriptions from further orders of the gun sights for New Zealand and that the letters would be removed from gun sights already in use by troops.

"The inscriptions ... put us in a difficult situation. We were unaware of it and we're unhappy that the manufacturer didn't give us any indication that these were on there," Dunne said. "We deem them to be inappropriate."

Source: Muslims angry over US military 'Jesus' scopes (
  Punish Christian polygamists: Pakistani Church
CHURCH leaders in Pakistan are demanding action against prominent Christians who they say are flouting both state and church laws barring polygamy.

"The bonds of holy matrimony are unbreakable according to the Bible. It is against God's plan to marry twice or more if one's wife is alive," Pastor Hizkiel Sarosh from the Full Gospel Assembly told churchmen at a seminar titled "Polygamy and the Holy Bible."

"Those who marry twice do not know Christianity and do not deserve to be our leaders," he said.

More than 400 Church leaders from various denominations attended the Jan. 20 event organized by the Lahore Christian Organization (LCA), a Christian NGO, at Alhamra Arts Council building in Lahore.

The speakers, most of them pastors, demanded that Church and government action be taken against Christian leaders with more than one wife.

The LCA says that in many cases the polygamists marry their new spouses outside Pakistan and try to keep their marital situations out of the public eye.

The seminar marked the beginning of a movement that will demand polygamists be brought to book according to the LCA.

"There are more than 10 pastors running churches in Lahore with two wives. The same can be said of a few Christian politicians," said LCA chairman Khadim Perwaiz Masih.

"We are trying to put forward recommendations to excommunicate such Christians ... We shall continue holding such programs and appear on television talk shows until our demands are realized."

Catholic Vicar General Father Andrew Nisari told UCA News: "Both Catholic and Protestant Churches in Pakistan agree to excommunicate polygamists. Catholic priests can stop giving Holy Communion, sacraments and even funeral services to such people. The Church must take a united stand."

The Church leaders also urged the government to act and recommended that laws that prohibit polygamy in Christian marriage be clearly defined.

Pakistan's marriage and divorce laws regarding Christians still adhere to the ones set down by the British colonial administration in India in the mid to late 19th century and have become blurred over time, the Church leaders claim.

"We are following laws that are more than a century old. The government needs to amend it, said Bishop Timotheus Nasir, head of the United Presbyterian Church, at the seminar.

Source: Christian polygamists 'should be charged' (UCAN)
  Hindus want Pope meet Malta's non-Catholics
  HINDUS have urged the Church in Malta to organize a meeting of leaders of various religions with Pope Benedict XVI during his April visit to help them share issues of religious minority.

Pope Benedict XVI is set to visit Malta April 17-18 to commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul's shipwreck on the island on his way to stand trial in Rome, which is said to have brought Christianity to the island nation.

The state visit will be third of a Pope to the island. Pope is also expected to shed light during this trip on handling of illegal immigrants from Africa who pass through Malta on way to Europe.

Hindu leader Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) , said Jan 19 that the majority Catholics and their leaders had a moral responsibility to take care of people from other religious backgrounds.

Besides Catholic majority, Malta has minority communities of Protestants, Orthodox, other Christian denominations, Muslims, Hindus, Baha'is, Jews and people with without religion.

Zed, who is the president of Universal Society of Hinduism, also urged Malta to treat all religions and denominations equally in front of the law. Malta Criminal Code reportedly makes one liable to imprisonment up to six months for publicly vilifying "Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion."

Rajan Zed further said that under the subject of "religion", Malta should come up with a "comparative religion" class teaching basics of all major world religions, including the viewpoint of non-believers, in its public primary and secondary schools.

According to Constitution of Malta (Chapter I, Article 2, Item 3), "Religious teaching of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith shall be provided in all State schools as part of compulsory education." (Courtesy: CathNews India)

Source: On Pope's Malta visit, Hindus urge meeting with local non-Catholic clergy to discuss equality
  Unity Octave: Churches pray together
CATHOLICS, Protestants and Lutherans prayed together marking the opening of Unity Octave, the week-long observance across the world to pray for Christian unity and cooperation.

Some 50 people from Catholic Church, Protestant Church of North and Church of South India, Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church and Members from the Peace Fora of Nagpur participated and prayed for Christian Unity.

The opening prayer meeting was held Jan. 18 at Nagpur's All Saints Cathedral of Church of North India.

The week of Jan. 18-25 is observed as time to pray for Christian unity, jointly agreed by World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church. In India, the National Council of Churches and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India jointly observe the week of prayer.

An NCCI official said all their member Churches traditionally observe the program. Catholic parishes across India announced Jan. 17 the need for having special prayers during the week.

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the WCC and the NCCI have jointly prepared the resource material on the theme "You are the witness of these things" (Lk 24:48) for this year.

The Nagpur program was attended also by YMCA, YWCA, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Methodist Churches in India, Marthoma Syrian Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and St. Charles Catholic Seminary.

Source: Indian Christian Community Prays for Unity
  Pakistan: War and economics erode Church funding
  FAISALABAD, JAN 21 (UCAN) -- The poor and the Church face a funds crisis amid worsening economic problems in Pakistan, caught between the fighting in the country and the global economic downturn.

One priest who lives in the U.S. says the recession there is also reducing the amount Americans can donate.

"Our local Church is struggling in these difficult times. It is a long way to become self supporting," Father Ayub Francis told UCA News.

"The parishes in villages are hardest hit by the deprivation due to lack of facilities and poor economic situation of the people."

A recent central bank report said it feared Pakistan would miss economic targets due to the increasing bombings by Islamists and "huge expenditures on defense and the rehabilitation of internally displaced people."

Father Francis, a Punjabi, has been supporting his parish back home since he left the country in 1992.

He pays for the education of 85 poor Christian students of this parish as well as the medical expanses of needy parishioners. But funds are increasingly hard to come by.

"I have no fund-raising but my own salary," the priest told UCA News at the sidelines of celebrations of the 25th anniversary of his priestly ordination at Holy Rosary Church in Faisalabad.

He said most Pakistanis hold on to the notion of the generous missioner from overseas but the patterns were changing.

"They expect the present Church leaders to contribute the same [as it has in the past].

"The global financial crisis has made things much difficult. Americans are losing jobs and benefits. The donor organizations are very careful in giving funds and more strict in monitoring," he said.

Elsewhere there are stories of Pakistanis who have also had to cut back their own giving.

In Karachi, for example, a 75-year-old Christian woman told UCA News that she had to cut back her help to a Catholic home for the aged.

Bimbla Marshall has for 30 years after Mass each Sunday visited Maryville, an old people's home run by the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary in the country's southern archdiocese.

"I used to bring basic commodities and fruit for the needy. Now I spend the week searching for a few kilos of sugar," she said.

Anila J. Gill, national executive secretary of Caritas Pakistan, told UCA News that the global financial crisis has had "a significant impact" on the Catholic Church's social service agency.

"The Church is vulnerable and we are under tremendous pressure. Prices have doubled but the resources from abroad are the same. Our planning, project management and monitoring are all affected," she told UCA News.
  Christians, Muslims seek Dalit quota, meet Home Minister
  NEW DELHI, JAN 21 -- A delegation of Muslims and Christians met Home Minister P. Chidambaram on Jan. 20 seeking his help to gain statutory benefits for socially poor Christians and Muslims.

The delegation included officials of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, the Church of North India and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

The delegation submitted a memorandum stressing the need to implement the Ranganath Misra Commission report that recommended statutory benefits Christians and Muslims.

Officials of the Muslim organizations such as Jamaat-e Islami Hind, Jamiat Ulama-e Hind, All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, All India Muslim Personal Law Board, Jamiat Ahl-e Hadees were part of the delegation.

Father G. Cosmon Arokiaraj, secretary of the Catholic bishops' Commission for Dalit Christians, led the delegation. According to him, denying the benefits is injustice.

The leaders said depriving Christians and Muslims of Scheduled Caste Origin of the Scheduled Caste status is a discrimination based on religion.

Chidambaram said the government was aware of the issue. He also mentioned that although the Bible and the Koran preach equality the reality is different.

Church groups in India have campaigned for more than five decades for Christians of low-caste origins to enjoy statutory benefits such as special quotas in government jobs and education.

The Indian Constitution guarantees these benefits to underdeveloped groups, officially listed as "scheduled castes," for their socio-economic advancement.

People from the "scheduled castes" are formerly "untouchables," or dalit, who remain outside the four-tier Indian caste system. Though the system arose within Hinduism, it has crept into other religions in India.

In 2004, the federal Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment constituted a commission to suggest criteria to identify socially and economically backward people among religious and linguistic minorities.

The commission was also asked to recommend measures for their welfare. The commission, headed by Justice Ranganath Misra, recommended that 10 per cent of government jobs be reserved for Muslims and 5 per cent for other religious minorities.

The five-member committee also said these benefits should be extended to all people of dalit origin irrespective of religion.

The present government reportedly shelved the recommendations for political reasons. Media reports said the government was contemplating another study on the issue.
  Life in border village Mothal an uphill task
From Afsana Bhat

MOTHAL-URI, JAN 21 -- Life in Mothal, a hilly and non-motorable village in the border town of Uri, is very tough. The village falls close to the Rustam post, about 95 kilometres from the city centre.

Distance to the village, the last entry point before the post, is mostly covered on foot. There is no connecting road at all.

On the slope stands Zulekha Begum's 'doka' (mud house), adjacent to which is a brick house under construction.

"Our doka didn't collapse during the earthquake. If it did, we would not have survived. However, it is unattractive and our relatives don't visit us. So we are switching over to a brick house," says 30-year-old Zulekha.

She was referring to the deadly 2005 earthquake in Uri that killed hundreds and rendered millions homeless.

Zulekha's doka developed minor cracks that she and her husband repaired. The house has a small room and a cattle-shed. This all-purpose room has a small opening for a window.

There are no bathrooms and the women are compelled to bathe in the nearby nullah (rivulet) in the evening when it gets dark.

Zulekha, who is a mother of four, was married at a very young age. Her husband, who works as an Army porter, is employed for three months a year.

Zulekha recollected the devastating earthquake and how frightened they were. "I first thought it was a heavy explosion. But when the doka shook and utensils started falling, we ran out of the house."

That night, the family didn't eat anything. "The next day we pitched a tent and stayed there. Aftershocks frightened us," said Zulekha.

Next to Zulekha's doka is a one-room health centre, which reportedly remains closed most of the time. It is traditional birth attendants (dayees) that mostly cater to expecting mothers.

The village residents, particularly women, face a tough time while moving around, especially when they need medical attention. Shifting pregnant mothers to hospital, about 10 kilometres away, is an uphill task.

"A couple of people have to carry an expecting mother along the hilly terrace, from where they drive her to hospital," said Arbi Bano, a local resident.

Compensation paid by the government to earthquake victims is a "blessing in disguise" for many. They utilized it to switch over from dokas to brick houses.

Some villagers, however, complain that not a drop of relief from non-government organizations, who thronged Uri for months together, trickled down to them. "Health and education are ignored here," the residents complained, adding that no one bothered about their development.

Bano said their newly constructed structure completely collapsed in the earthquake. Her mother, Reshma Begum, said the new construction cost them dearly. "Wood is costlier; stones have to be extracted from the land and a truckload of sand costs Rs 6,000," she rued.

"Traditional doka is more earthquake-resistant than brick construction, provided wood and timber are used and bonded well," said Prof G. M. Dar, in charge of the Disaster Management Centre, Jammu and Kashmir.

He added that brick constructions mixed with timber were earthquake resistant. "Dokas are of two types -- stone masonry without bonding and dokas with wood and adequate bonding. The former failed to survive the earthquake. Dokas made of wood are not only earthquake-resistant, but also withstand avalanches and landslides."
  Bangladesh: Everyone equal in final resting place
NATORE, JAN 20 (UCAN) -- When it comes to death, class and status do not matter.

So says Shibu Gomes, 48, a Catholic day-laborer and volunteer grave digger from Bonpara in Rajshahi diocese.

"No matter how rich or poor, we are all equal when we die and come to the same resting place," he says.

Gomes, 48 has served Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bonpara for 25 years by digging graves for free. He has dug hundreds since he started in 1985.

He says the sense of equality between rich and poor after death spurred him into providing this service. "I've chosen this as my way of serving the Church" he said.

Digging graves with only a spade and the occasional helping hand is very hard work, Gomes admitted, but he neither refuses any request from people nor takes any fee for his service.

'Digging graves has become my passion'

"I am a poor day-laborer and need to work hard to maintain my family but I can't help but dig graves for the dead when I'm asked to," Gomes admitted, "It has become my passion and I hope to continue digging graves as long as my health allows."

"Many times I've had to ask for days-off from my employer to help dig graves" he recalled, "I couldn't continue my studies after primary level due to poverty and can’t do better things for the Church."

Gomes' service over the past two decades has brought him no pay, but he is held in very high regard from Church people and Catholics.

Father Anthony Hasdak, assistant pastor for Bonpara parish told UCA News, "Shibu Gomes follows a strange but beautiful idealism in life. He is respected as an honest and good man to all the people in the area".

"God will reward him in heaven for this great service" the tribal Santal priest added.

Alexander Corraya, 49, a farmer from Bahimali, Gomes' home village said, "He (Gomes) is my age and I know him as a brave and simple guy. He has brought a good name to our village through his volunteer work. We love and respect him."

Village housewife Momota Costa, 35, added, "We often judge people in terms of wealth and education, but Shibu serves everyone irrespective of social status. He is really a great guy, doing a great service".

Shibu Gomes and his wife have one son and two daughters.
  Vatican: Mid-East workers in bishops' sights
  By Gerard O'Connell, Special Correspondent in Rome

VATICAN CITY, JAN 20 (UCAN) -- The Vatican will hold a Synod of Bishops for the Middle East this year that will highlight the plight of thousands of Asian migrant workers in the region.

Many Asian workers in the Middle East are Christians, and face intolerable conditions and abuse. In some places such as Saudi Arabia, where churches are banned, they do not even have spiritual support.

These immigrants "are a pastoral responsibility" for local Churches, the Vatican says in a new discussion paper that also highlights their plight.

Most of the hundreds of thousands of Asian workers are women employed as domestic servants, says the Vatican.

They often face sexual abuse, exploitation and social injustice.

This abuse comes "either by the state which receives them, the agencies which provide passage for them or their employers," says the Vatican document.

The problem was highlighted recently by Philippine workers' rights group Migrante International that is seeking a Philippine government ban on Saudi company AnNasban from recruiting Filipino workers.

The Vatican hopes its document will stimulate discussion ahead of the Oct. 10-24 synod.

An issue that needs attention is the lack of freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to change religion.

The document speaks about the difficult situation of Christians due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and urges Christians to work for peace and reconciliation there.

It also urges dialogue and cooperation with Muslims and Jews in a region where Christians are a tiny minority and Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise.

Christian numbers in the region have plummeted in recent decades.

There are only 17 million Christians in the Middle East, 5 million of whom are Catholic, mostly from the Oriental rite, said Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the synod's secretary general.

The Vatican blames a Christian exodus from the region on political and economic factors, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war.

The Vatican text also highlights the need for greater unity within and among the region's Christian Churches.
  Hundreds attend Belgian Jesuit's funeral
  HUNDREDS of people from various religions attended the funeral of a Belgian Jesuit missioner, who worked among poor tribal youths in Jharkhand.

Father Victor Van Bortel, founder of Kishore Nagar (boys' town), was suffering from a viral disease for the past six months. A week ago, he was admitted to Mandar's Holy Family Hospital. He died on Jan. 18 at the age of 84. He was buried a day later.

Father Isaac Tete, Father Bortel's former assistant who now works in the Ranchi provincial house, said Jesuits wanted to bury the missioner at the Agricultural Training Centre, Namkum, after funeral services at Ranchi's St. Mary's Cathedral.

However, the residents of the boys' town at Bargawan near Namkum said they wanted "their father" to be with them and threatened to revolt if his body was not brought there. "Their love won, and we changed our plan. Their father will be always with them," he said.

Jesuit Father Jose De Cuyper, another Belgian missioner, in his homily described his deceased confrere as a "stubborn holy man" who "became poor to make his poor boys rich."

Father Bortel joined the Society of Jesus in 1946 and came to Ranchi. He was ordained a priest in 1959.

After 10 years, he started working among orphans and street children and started a center at Samlong, outskirts of Ranchi.

He started with 80 boys in a single-room center. Later, he bought a 10-acre plot at Bargawan, 25 kilometer east of Ranchi, to set up the boy's town.

The town now has a primary, middle and high school. "We have only eight regular teachers, but many formers students voluntarily teach," Jesuit Father Chonhas Lakra, assistant director of town, told UCA News.

He said Father Bortel never discriminated people on the basis of religion. Majority of students are from Jharkhand, but there are some from other states.

Bandhu Tirkey, a member of legislative assembly from Mandar and a former student, said the Jesuit's death has left the students orphans.

Lucas Prakash Minj, who was in the first batch, said he could become teacher because of Father Bortel's dedicated service to the poor orphans. "Father Bortel did a great work but always avoided publicity," he added.

Sawna Lakra, the local MLA, described Father Bortel as a "messiah of the poor" and the boys' town "a gift of God." Father Bortel, he said, produced several engineers, teachers and some Catholic priests during his 41 years of work in the town.

Source: UCAN report by Ajit Paul
  Jesuits seek support for Afghan mission
NEW DELHI, JAN 20 (UCAN) –- Indian Jesuits working to rebuild the educational system in war-ravaged Afghanistan are asking for the support of the global Church for their mission.

"We are making a tremendous difference in the lives of Afghan people. We would like the entire Church to be part of this mission," said Jesuit Father Stan Fernandes.

The Society of Jesus is the only Catholic male Religious congregation working in the nation and faces the constant threat of violence.

Members teach in three universities based in Kabul, Bamiyan and Herat at the invitation of the Afghan government, and also have a teacher training program.

"We are primarily teaching English in the universities," Father Fernandes said during a visit to the South Asia Jesuit headquarters in New Delhi on Jan. 20.

The Jesuits have also been teaching biology, computer technology and management in the past four years, he said.

More staff and money needed
The mission needs more personnel and money.

"We are there. But our support has to come from outside," the priest said. "Life is every expensive in the cities," Father Fernandes said with rents "sky high."

"Travel is also expensive as most of it is by air," he said. Road travel is "very dangerous."

The Sisters of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the Christian Brothers are collaborating with the Jesuits by sending personnel for short periods.

Jesuit Father Maria Joseph has been appointed adviser on technical education to the Afghan government's Ministry of Education. The Jesuits' efforts have helped the government launch the National Institute of Management in Kabul last March.

Apart from teaching students, the missioners have also been running training programs for teachers for four years to strengthen the national educational system.

"Our work is much appreciated. The people are open and friendly to us. We do not broach religion-related matters," he said.

Women's education
The Jesuit said that, contrary to perceptions, Afghan society encourages women's education in areas not dominated by the Taliban.

"We could have got more girls if we could provide dormitory facilities for them," the priest said. Boys stay in rooms available in market areas, but that is not possible for girls.

Impressed with the Jesuits
"success and commitment," the US State Department plans to fund a project to teach English to youths aged 14-15.

The Jesuits' Afghanistan mission began in May 2002 but was abandoned when the situation became too volatile. The efforts resumed in 2005, when Jesuit Father A. Santiago and Brother Noel Oliver started teaching at Herat University, near the Iranian border.

While the Jesuits are the only male order in the country, some women Religious are working there. Two European nuns, who have been there for decades, are now Afghan citizens "giving the witness of life," Father Fernandes said.
  Downgrade shocks Church university
BANGALORE, JAN 20 (UCAN) – An official of Bangalore's Christ University is shocked that his college has lost its status as a "deemed" university.

It is among 44 universities to be de-listed by the federal Ministry of the Human Resources Development (MHRD) for violating guidelines and introducing unrelated courses.

Deemed university status is given to high performing institutes or departments of existing universities. The status gives the institution autonomy over setting course work and syllabuses and allows it to set its own rules concerning admissions, fees and the teaching of students.

There was something close to panic in academic circles in India as the list was released.

The ministry told the Supreme Court this week that its expert committee had found none of the institutions could produce evidence of quality research.

The universities in 13 states have a total of some 200,000 students.

Five, including Christ University managed by the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate congregation, are in Karnataka, southern India.

Neither the MDRD nor the University Grants Commission (UGC) that controls higher educational institutions had given any warning, Christ University registrar J. Subramaniam said.

"We are shocked and surprised" because the committee sent by MHRD and UGC suggested on Nov. 13, 2009 that the university's deemed status would continue, he told UCA News.

The registrar said the 11-member committee visited the university Sept. 22-24, 2009, and it had received "no adverse comments" from either the ministry or the commission.

He also said "natural justice" required that the UGC should have sought some kind of explanation from the university before revoking its status.

University vice chancellor Father Thomas Mathew addressed the faculty and students on Jan. 19 to allay their fears. He asked them not to panic and continue their studies.

Father Mathew pointed out that the institution had received the "deemed" status on July 22, 2008. UGC reviews that status after five years.

The priest also noted that their college was the first in southern India to get the top A plus (A+) status from the National Assessment and Accreditation Council.
  Orissa victims boycott inquiry
  BHUBANESWAR, JAN 20 (UCAN) – Survivors of last year's anti-Christian violence in Orissa have decided to boycott a government inquiry into the riots.

"What is there to inquire when the commission has already made up its mind?" said Bipra Nayak of the Sampradayik Hinsa Prapidita Sangathana (SHPS), an association of survivors of the violence.

The victims made their intentions clear in a letter sent to commission chief Sarat Chandra Mohapatra informing him of their decision to boycott proceedings.

Orissa's Kandhamal district was at the center of the violence that started on Aug. 24, 2009, a day after Maoists gunned down a Hindu religious leader and his associates. Hindu extremists blamed Christians for the murders and attacked their homes, churches, convents and other institutions.

Seven weeks of rioting left around 90 people dead and more than 50,000 others homeless.

In October that year, the Orissa government appointed retired state High Court judge Mohapatra to a one-man commission to investigate the violence.

Nayak, the association's convener in Balliguda, Kandhamal, told UCA News the victims say Mohapatra is biased. "We have no alternative except to boycott this prejudiced inquiry," he added.

Praful Pradhan, a tribal leader, said the victims were shocked when Mohapatra determined that the violence was not a sectarian conflict even before receiving affidavits from the public on the violence.

The SHPS was launched on Dec. 7, 2009 after a series of meetings between human rights and Church groups working with the victims.
  Muslim-Christian riot kills 27 in Nigeria
  ANGRY Muslim youths set fire to a church filled with worshipers, starting a riot that killed at least 27 people and wounded more than 300 in Jos, in northern Nigeria, officials said Jan. 18.

Sani Mudi, a spokesman for the local imam, said 22 people died in fighting between Christians and Muslims after rioters set fire to a Catholic church on Jan. 17, Sunday.

Five others died Jan. 18 from their wounds.

The Christian Post website said 40 people were killed.

A report in the Post said youths congregated to renovate a house next to St. Michael's Catholic Church, owned by a man who allegedly killed three Christians in the November 2008 sectarian violence in Jos.

But instead of renovating, the youths reportedly assaulted a female passerby before attacking St. Michael's Church. They also set fire to several churches, including a Christ Apostolic Church and two Evangelical Church of West Africa churches, as well as local houses and businesses.

In retaliation, Christian youths launched a counter-attack, including setting a mosques on fire, and soon violence spread to other areas of Jos.

This incident is the "latest in a series of attacks on the Christian community of Jos that began in 2001," said CSW chief executive Mervyn Thomas. "Unfortunately, since perpetrators of religious violence are rarely brought to justice, many in northern and central states no longer trust the authorities to guarantee their safety."

In November 2008, major sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians broke out in Jos resulting in the deaths of more than 300 people. The 2008 conflict was the worst sectarian violence in Nigeria since 2004, when some 700 people were killed and over 100 churches, destroyed.

"If the people arrested in connection with the November 2008 violence and reportedly transferred to Abuja for trial had indeed been prosecuted, this would been a deterrent, and perhaps the current violence may not have occurred," commented the Rev. Yunusa Nmadu, CEO of CSW Nigeria.

Earlier, in September 2001, a Muslim-Christian clash resulted in more than 1,000 deaths in Jos.

Source: Nigeria: Religious Violence Kills 27 (AP/New York Times)

Nigeria Muslim-Christian Clash Kills Over 40 People (Christian Post)
  Religious urged to take up frontier ministries
  RELIGIOUS priests in India should move from traditional ministries to more "frontier ministries" to help create a new world order, says their leader.

Father Jose Panthaplamthottiyil, president of the priests section of the Conference of Religious India (CRI), wants the Religious to have a new "focus on the poor and the marginalized."

Missioners in India traditionally served the educational and health needs of India, and built up educational institutions and hospitals.

As business houses have entered these fields, "it is time we moved to specific ministries" that directly help the poor, the homeless and the aged, the CRI official said.

He wants more congregations to start homes and ministries for orphans, destitute, homeless, street children and people with HIV/AIDS.

The priest said he would present this and other proposals at the forum's executive meeting scheduled for Feb. 24.

Father Panthaplamthottiyil, superior general of the indigenous Carmelite of Mary Immaculate Congregation, said all sections of the Indian Religious should have a new focus on the poor in the country.

He wants Catholic educational institutions in India to set aside 25 present seats for the poor in collaboration with the government.

The Church has the largest private network of educational institutions in the country as it manages some 13,250 schools, 450 colleges and two universities for a total of 6.8 million students. The Religious manage most institutions.

Addressing the CRI's national assembly last November in New Delhi, federal education minister Kapil Sibal invited India´s more than 125,000 Catholic Religious to help the government reach education to all.

Sibal said the government had passed a law to make education a fundamental right for all Indians. It plans to set up sufficient schools to serve all children in the 6-14 age group.

At present, 88 per cent of children who start school do not complete the 12th grade, the minimum qualification required to join university.

The Religious should become more "welcoming" and approachable to people, which Father Panthaplamthottiyil said would help foster inter-religious relation and help their ministry among the poor.

The priest also said he would also ask the CRI apex body to search ways to involve more people in defending the human rights of tribal and dalit people who are exploited across India because of their poverty and social vulnerability.

The priest also wants the Religious to train their younger members stressing the Word of God to help them respond to the "aggressive evangelization" programs of neo-Christian and Pentecostal sects. (Courtesy: CathNews India)

Source: UCAN/CRI
  Thousands back Ruchika's nun principal
  SOME 3,000 people from various religions have joined Catholics to express solidarity with Chandigarh's Sacred Heart School and its principal Sister S. Sebastina.

Chandigarh Catholic Association recently held a prayer meeting at the Christ the King Cathedral and launched a signature campaign to support Sister Sebastina and the school.

The Catholic school was involved in a controversy after an investigation by the Chandigarh administration found it had arbitrarily expelled a student 19 years ago. The girl, Ruchika Girhotra, who was molested by a senior police officer before her alleged expulsion, committed suicide three years later.

The girl's family claim the police officer, S. Rathore, then director general of police in Haryana state, put pressure on the school to throw her out.

An official probe found on Jan. 7 that there had been pressure to expel Girhotra, but the school, Simla Chandigarh diocese and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) all reject the report's findings.

Vicar General Father Thomas Anchanikal told UCA News that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had assured the school and its administration of their support.

The priest said the Catholic association received some 3,000 signatures on the first day of the campaign. "It is a good response," he stated.

A prominent political party, Shiromani Akali Dal, has promised to back the school, Father Anchanikal said.

Students from Sacred Heart School also joined the prayer meeting. Prayers were offered for Girhotra also.

The issue has been a hot topic on the alumni's Facebook page. (Courtesy: CathIndia News)

Source: Thousand rally to back Chandigarh school (UCAN)
  Church university among others faces de-recognition
  THE Church-run Christ College in Bangalore has been listed among 44 deemed universities that government seeks to de-recognize for violating norms and lacking in quality.

The college, run by the indigenous Carmelite of Mary Immaculate congregation, is among five universities to be derecognized in Karnataka, media reports said Jan. 19.

The federal Human Resource Development ministry said it wants to de-recognize 44 institutions across India as they have violated the guidelines prescribing excellence in teaching and research or innovations, and introduced unrelated degree programs beyond the mandate.

The ministry in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court said the Tandon Committee found that none if these institutions could produce evidence of quality research, going by publications in leading journals.

Many institutions, which attained the deemed university status from being colleges, increased their intake disproportionately and, in some cases, exponentially in relation to the qualified faculty strength and academic infrastructure.

George K Jose, coordinator of the college's School of Law said the college has not received any information on the de-recognition move. "The committee has visited the school in September and has appreciated our work."

Jose said the college has one of the best infrastructures and has meticulously followed the regulations. He said the move comes out of "vested interests" and is aimed at "tarnishing the institute."

The Tandon Committee concluded that 38 institutions justified their continuance as deemed universities; 44 were found deficient and the shortcomings needed to be rectified over a three-year period, and 44 others did not have the attributes to continue as deemed universities.

These 44 deemed universities have 119,363 students at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. In addition, there are 2,124 students pursuing research at M. Phil and PhD levels and another estimated 74,808 students pursuing distance education programs. As many as 41 of the 44 deemed universities have several constituent institutions under them, which would further swell the number of affected students. (Courtesy: CathNews India)

Source: Bangalore: Yenepoya Among Six Deemed Universities from State to be Derecognized (

44 deemed universities to be de-recognised by govt (The Times of India)

‘Norms flouted, no quality research in deemed varsities’ (The Hindu)
  Catholic leaders salute late Marxist leader Jyoti Basu
  CHURCH leaders organized a multi-religious prayer meeting and offered Mass for Marxist leader Jyoti Basu, who died on Jan. 17 at the age of 95.

Some 5,000 people attended the meeting at the Jesuit St. Xavier's College and School in Kolkata. Representatives from Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism paid tributes to the late leader.

The college also held a Mass for the former communist leader on Jan. 19.

On the same day, a 30-member Catholic delegation led by Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi and Archbishop Lucas Sirkar of Calcutta paid tribute to the late leader at West Bengal Assembly House.

Several Church leaders hailed Basu's contribution to communal harmony and to Blessed Teresa of Kolkata's Missionaries of Charity congregation.

Basu studied in St. Xavier's School for eight years.

Calcutta Jesuit provincial superior Father George Pattery said Basu's "great humanism" helped him befriend even his adversaries. The Christian community is grateful to Basu for his support for Blessed Teresa and her works, Father Pattery said.

Basu's help in the congregation's initial years had helped it to grow, Catholic lay leader Sunil Lucas said. Basu allotted land belonging to his Communist Party of India (Marxist) to the nun, he said.

West Bengal had not suffered sectarian strife for decades because Basu and his party did not mix politics with religion as some political parties in other Indian states did, according to Lucas.

Father Pattery commended the late leader for donating his body for medical research, and hoped many would emulate his example.

Basu's body was given to Kolkata's government-run Seth Sukhlal Karnani Memorial Hospital on Jan. 19.

Father Reginald Fernandes, who directs Seva Kendra, the social service center of Calcutta archdiocese, noted that the Church grew in West Bengal during Basu's 23-year tenure as the state chief minister. This was because Basu's party did not interfere with people's religions.

Church leaders from other states also hailed Basu as a towering statesman.

Father Paul Thelakat, who edits a Church weekly in Kerala, another state with a significant presence of Marxists, says Basu could go beyond party limitations, unlike many modern Marxists.

"We have lost a great statesman who had done yeoman service to Indian politics for more than seven decades," he added. (Courtesy: CathNews India)

Source: Church leaders salute late Marxist leader (UCAN)
  Immediate measures needed to tackle climate change in J&K
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 19 – A continuous dry spell and less snowfall could have an adverse impact on kharif crops this season. This was stated by Minister for Agriculture Ghulam Hassan Mir, here, on Saturday. The minister was chairing a meeting of senior officers of the Public Health Engineering (PHE) and Irrigation Departments.

"We must strive to save water and ensure its judicious use," said Mir. He instructed the concerned officials to construct dams on Khewe Khul, Ferozpur Nallah, Gulab Daji and Tulwilde Botachek so that better irrigation facilities were available for a vast chunk of agricultural land in the Tangmarg constituency.

His concern was shared by educationists, grassroots workers and environmentalists, here.

Abdul Rahim Lone, Zonal Education Officer (ZEO), Hariganwan, informed The Herald of India that streams like Satruna, Kow Charwan and Thune, originating in Gangbal (glacier), used to flow steadily throughout the year.

"Areas downstream used to be well irrigated. Paddy was cultivated in the area. Now, the streams have dried up and paddy cultivation is no longer possible. The cultivation of other crops has also taken a beating," Lone said.

Miles away, Sarpanch of Noorkah-Uri Syed Rafiq Hussain added to the story. "River Jhelum's run has reduced to one-third, as compared to its flow in 1965. Crop yield has also declined drastically. The soil is no longer fertile and crop diseases have increased."

Similar views are put forth by social activist Ali Mohammad Mir, a resident of Sheganpora-Sumbal. "Crop production over the past few years has decreased due to shortage of water."

"The state has been experiencing erratic weather for the past 50 years. Maximum temperatures were recorded in Srinagar and Jammu in the late 1990's. Rain and snowfall patterns have also changed substantially," said Gurcharan Singh, former Deputy Conservator Forests.

Singh added that the Valley used to normally record maximum snowfall in the second fortnight of December or early January. Of late, snowfall has taken place only in late February or second week of March.

Suggesting measures to combat the ill-effects of climate change, Singh emphasized on the adoption of correct and optimal land-use strategies, proper disposal of sewage, garbage after treatment, proper urban planning, large-scale planting in degraded forest areas, proper management of water bodies and wetlands, improvement of water irrigation systems, production increase in the agriculture sector, measures to combat forest fires, pollution-control measures in cement industries, stone crushers and brick kilns, adoption of non-conventional methods of energy and replacement of firewood fuel with gas, kerosene and electric heaters.

"Efficient resource management calls for sustainable development. Sustainable development is that in which consumption and utility are non-declining with time and production operations are maintained for the future," said Singh.

The state has vast areas of land, ranging from 1,000 feet above sea level to over 27,000 feet. The state also has varied temperature, ranging from 40 degree centigrade in the plains of Jammu to minus 40 degree centigrade in the Drass valley.

The state also witnesses variance in the rainfall pattern. The plains of Jammu and mountainous ranges of Shivaliks and windward of Pirpanchal get monsoon rains, whereas higher reaches of Pirpanchal on the windward side get snowfall during winters. Pirpanchal's slopes on the leeward side don't experience monsoon rains, except for a few clouds that escape the mountains.

It has been reported that average rainfall in Kashmir does not exceed more than 30 inches a year. The valleys of Zanaskar, Nobra, Soru and Drass and the plateau of Leh fall in the dry arid zone with typical harsh cold climate.
  New Syro-Malabar dioceses created
  THE Syro-Malabar Oriental Church has created two new dioceses, extending its infrastructure in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka states.

The synod of the Church, headed by Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the Major Archbishop, created the dioceses. They were announced Jan. 18 after obtaining the assent of the Holy See.

The new diocese in Tamil Nadu would be called Eparch of Ramanathapuram. Carved out of existing Palghat diocese, it covers civil districts of Coimbatore, Erode, Karur and Thiruppur in Tamil Nadu.

Monsignor Paul Alappatt, rector of St. Mary's Minor Seminary and judicial vicar of the Archeparchy of Trichur, was appointed the bishop of Ramanathapuram.

The Eparchy of Mandya, the new diocese in Karnataka, is carted by carving out of the civil districts of Mandya, Hassan, Mysore and Chamaranagar, from the Eparchy of Mananthavady.

Father George Njaralakkatt, proto-syncellus of the Eparchy of Bhadravathi, was appointed Bishop of Mandya.

With the addition, the Kerala-based Church has 29 dioceses, including one in Chicago, the United States.

Pope Benedict XVI has also endorsed four other appointments.

Father Pauly Kannookadan, secretary of the Archiepiscopal Commission for Liturgy, Clergy, Institutes for Consecrated Life, has been appointed as the new bishop of the Eparchy of Irinjalakuda with the retirement of Bishop James Pazhayattil.

Father Remigiose Inchananiyil, chancellor and judicial vicar of the Eparchy of Thamarassery, is appointed as the new Bishop of Thamarassery, replacing Bishop Paul Chittilappilly.

Father Raphael Thattil, proto-syncellus of the Trichur archdiocese, was appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of his archdiocese.

Father Bosco Puthur, rector of Mangalapuzha Seminary, has been appointed the Curia Bishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

With these appointments, India has 162 dioceses spread over Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches. (Courtesy: CathNews India)

Source: New Eparchies of Ramanathapuram and Mandya created (
  Guwahati gets ready for Catholic bishops' meet
  WHEN India's Catholic bishops meet together in Guwahati next month, the local archdiocese would showcase northeastern India as a land of beauty and peace, organizers say.

"Many bishops wanted to see Assam as they have never come here. This is a wonderful opportunity for all of them," Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati said.

The biennial meeting of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India is scheduled for Feb. 24-March 3 at the Don Bosco Institute, Kharguli. All the bishops of India's 162 dioceses are expected at the meting.

Archbishop Menamparampil told Kolkata's Telegraph that Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has also expressed happiness over Guwahati archdiocese hosting the meeting for the first time.

The bishops' national conference first time met in the region when Shillong archdiocese in Meghalaya hosted it some two decades ago.

The meeting this year will focus on the issues of youth. Besides a main theme, the biennial meeting generally discusses issues important to the entire Church.

Father V.M. Thomas, who directs Don Bosco Institute, said they plan to treat the bishops to the region's "beauty and cultural diversity through programs."

"We want to show them that the northeast is a paradise on earth and not just a land of violence. It is a beautiful place with lots of cultural diversity," he added.

Father Thomas also said a seven-minute video film on the region is being shot at different locations and will depict its land, people and culture.

On Feb. 28, a special cultural extravaganza will be held where 75 troupes from across the region will showcase the diversity of the region through music and dance. (Courtesy: CathNews India)

Source: Assam to host bishops' meet – Conference provides chance to savour region's beauty (
  Kerala Police told to restart retreat center probe
  THE High Court of Kerala has told police to restart a probe into a leading charismatic center in the southern Indian state.

The investigation into the Divine Retreat Centre managed by the Vincentian congregation was launched in 2007 but halted by India's Supreme Court in March 2008.

Now Justice Sashidharan Nambiar of the state's High Court has told the police to continue to investigate all cases not specifically closed by the Supreme Court.

The inquiry was originally sparked by an anonymous letter accusing the center of being implicated in a series of crimes and irregularities.

The Supreme Court criticized the lower court for ordering the probe based on an anonymous letter.

The new inquiry follows an application by Venugopal Kalarcode, a Hindu, who claimed that the Church center illegally treats mental patients without proper facilities.

Saji Raphael, the retreat center's legal consultant, says the claims are the result of a conspiracy. "We are not scared about police investigation. There is conspiracy behind all these legal battles," Raphael told UCA News Jan. 17.

But he described the High Court's latest order as surprising and said the Church center would challenge it.

The retreat center, he said, draws around 10,000 people from all religions for its weeklong retreats. The new development is "part of an ongoing media campaign against the reputed retreat center," he charged.

Father Paul Thelakat, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church under whose jurisdiction the retreat center functions, says there is nothing wrong in continuing the probe.

"We welcome investigations against any of our institutions. But they should be conducted in a fair manner," he told UCA News. (Courtesy: CathNews India)

Source: Police told to restart retreat center probe (UCAN)
  PM seeks Church help to meet education targets
  INDIAN Prime Minster Manmohan Singh has asked for the Catholic Church's help in his ambitious plan for 100 per cent literacy in India.

Speaking to 8,000 staff, students, associates and former students of St. Xavier's Collegiate School and College, Kolkata, on Jan. 16, Singh said he wanted "every child in our country to become literate over the next decade."

Singh, the guest of honor at the school's 150th anniversary celebrations, praised the Jesuits who built St. Xavier's for their vision and for choosing "the path of education" to serve people.

The premier urged "all those associated with school education in our country to pay special attention to the modernization of our syllabi" and work for pupils' overall development.

He also said he wanted to see "a sharp increase in the enrollment of the girl child in schools."

"Every girl child should have the opportunity to fulfill her potential and become equal citizens" of India, he said.

Although the overall literacy rate in the country is 66 per cent, for women it is just 54.5 per cent. The low female literacy rate has had a negative impact on developmental and poverty alleviation goals in India, studies have shown.

"We must pay attention to children's health, physical education and community and national service. School education must focus on the all-round development of a child's personality," the premier said.

The government has passed a law to make education a fundamental right for all Indians. At present, 88 per cent of children who start school do not complete the 12th grade, the minimum qualification to enter a university.

The Church has the largest private network of educational institutions in the country managing some 13,250 schools, 450 colleges and two universities for nearly 7 million students.

St Xavier's was founded by four Belgian and three English Jesuits on Jan. 16, 1860.

Jesuits pioneered English education in Bengal and looked to "provide progressive, all round education to rich and poor, privileged and under-privileged and to children from all faiths and religions," Singh said. (Courtesy: CathNews India)

Source: PM seeks Church help on education targets (UCAN)
  University of Kashmir to introduce new Remote Sensing course this year
From Our Correspondent

SRINAGAR, JAN 16 -- The University of Kashmir is all set to introduce a post-graduate course in Remote Sensing and Geo-informatics (GIS) this academic session.

Prof Riyaz Punjabi, Vice-Chancellor of the university, said the objective of the course was to enhance the understanding and use of Remote Sensing and GIS for socio-economic and environment-friendly development of the state.

The University has constituted a high-level Advisory Committee, comprising Vice-Chancellor Punjabi and course coordinator Dr Shakil A Romshoo, to ensure smooth functioning of the course.

The University of Kashmir was the first in northern India to offer a post-graduate diploma in Remote Sensing and GIS in 2004. "The department has developed high-class infrastructure, both in human resource and machinery, to offer the best possible education, research and application experience to its students," said Showkat Shafi, Public Relations Officer (PRO), University of Kashmir, adding that the university had won national and international fame in the Remote Sensing field during the past five years.

He informed that the course was highly job-oriented and all its students had been well placed in government, academic and private sectors. "The course has helped in furthering the knowledge and experience of Space Technology, IT and GIS applications in different sectors of the state," he added.
  Top Rabbi to boycott Pope's synagogue visit
  ROME'S chief Rabbi said on Jan. 14 that he would not attend the historical Jan. 17 papal visit to Italy's synagogue because it "will bring nothing good and will only benefit the more reactionary sectors of the Church".

Giuseppe Laras, head of the Italian Rabbinical Assembly, said Pope Benedict had offended Holocaust survivors by putting Pius XII, the controversial wartime pontiff, on the path to sainthood last month, despite allegations that he failed to raise his voice against the Holocaust, The Times' news site reported.

In an interview with The Times Riccardo Di Segni, the Chief Rabbi, said: "We discussed extensively whether to cancel the visit and decided that it must go ahead despite what happened". He said he and Rabbi Laras had "different views, and time will tell which of us has made the right choice".

Piero Terracina, an 82-year-old Italian Jewish Holocaust survivor, also plans to boycott the visit because Pius XII had "not said one word" when over a thousand Jews were rounded up in the Rome ghetto in October 1943 and sent to death camps.

However Shlomo Venezia, 86, who like Mr Terracina was deported to Auschwitz, said he would go because "the Pope is the Pope, a great spiritual head. We have to find a way to go foward together, as brothers." Benedict's visit will be his third to a synagogue but his first to the one in Rome.

In his interview with The Times, Rabbi Di Segni said some Italians had not faced up to the country's role in persecuting the Jews under Fascism, or acknowledged the "considerable number" of Italian Jews sent to concentration camps. Asked if there had been complicity between the Nazis and the Catholic Church, he said: "Let's say, acquiescence." (CathNews-UCAN)

Source: Rabbi to boycott Pope's visit to Rome synagogue (
  Church deplores moral policing in Bhopal
  A CHURCH official in Madhya Pradesh has deplored a right wing Hindu group's moral policing against publicizing condoms and lingerie in the state.

The activities of Sanskriti Bachao Manch (forum for protecting culture) went on a rampage in the state capital of Bhopal on Jan. 14 pulling down billboards that advertised condoms.

The activists shouted slogans saying condoms ads are public display of obscenity.

They also warned textile shop owners in the city to remove within five days all lingerie displayed on mannequins in their shops.

The activists reportedly included members of two hardliner Hindu groups named Bajrang Dal (party of strong and stout) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (world Hindu council).

These activities exhibit a "situation like anarchy", said Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, who heads the Catholic Church in the state.

"Today they found obscenity in advertisements and tomorrow they might find it in some religious symbol. Groups taking law into their hands should be firmly dealt with to maintain the tenets of democratic values," the prelate told UCA News Jan. 14.

Archbishop Cornelio says the Hindu activists should have taken the legal course rather than violence to remove ads that offended them.

Moral policing gained strength after state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan on Jan. 11 ordered the removal of a hoarding of a spa massage for women displayed in front of a girls' college in Bhopal, on the ground that it was obscene.

Chauhan, who heads the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian peoples' party) government, also reportedly asked his administration to frame a law to check public display of obscenity.

Manch chief Chandra Shekhar Tiwari justified his people's action saying the ads sent out "a wrong message" to the youths. "We acted after the government officials failed to act even after the instruction from the chief minister," he told UCA News Jan. 14.

Asked why they resorted to destruction rather than seek legal action he said they did not attack anyone. The shopkeepers were only warned, he added.

The shopkeepers refused comment on record on the incident. They alleged the group has the government's tacit support. They, however, agreed mob rule was dangerous and should be checked.

Source: UCAN report by Saji Thomas
  Missionaries of Charity in Haiti 'safe'
KOLKATA, JAN 17 (UCAN) — The Missionaries of Charity (MC), the religious order founded by Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, have expressed relief that their nuns working in Haiti are safe.

Sister Christie told UCA News that they have learned from various sources that all their nuns in the quake-hit Caribbean nation are accounted for.

The nun, who handles her congregation's media relations, said although they are relieved, they are deeply saddened by the devastation and loss of life.

Tens of thousands of people are feared dead following the 7.0 magnitude quake on Jan. 12 that devastated the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot of Port-au-Prince was among the victims.

Sister Christie said the MC congregation in India had no direct contact with their nuns working in the Caribbean nation. She could not provide a figure for the number of MC nuns working there, but said they manage nine houses and work with the destitute, handicapped and orphaned children. They also work with adult patients, the elderly and the dying.

According to "Cincinnati Enquirer" reporter Mark Curnutte, who does relief work in Haiti, an MC-run orphanage has collapsed. However, the children, nuns and volunteers are all accounted for, he said in an article.

The nuns are from Albania and India, he said.

Meanwhile, Caritas India, the social action arm of the Indian Catholic bishops, has joined nationwide efforts to rush relief aid to Haiti, its executive director Father Varghese Mattamana told UCA News.

The Indian government has already promised US$1 million in cash for immediate emergency relief.
  Kashmir's herbal reserve not properly tapped
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 15 -- Despite being rich in medicinal herbs, the Kashmir valley is yet to benefit from it. "The climatic conditions here are suitable for the cultivation of medicinal herbs. However, other agricultural practices are preferred," said Bali Singh, Floriculture Development Officer (FDO), Department of Agriculture.

Although a few private companies own plantations in the valley, the government is yet to formulate a well-designed plan of action.

The Floriculture Development Officer added that his department had placed a proposal to tap the valley's herbal reserve. "Once approved, nurseries would be made in every district and saplings would be distributed to farmers on subsidized rates," he said.

Medicinal herbs in Kashmir are in thousands, stated Fida Ali Alamgeer, Floriculture Extension Development Officer, Department of Agriculture. "Four hundred species have been identified so far. Sadly, ethno-botanists and researchers have done nothing in this regard."

Herbs like aconitum, artimisia, atropa, datura, benumpersicum, delphinium, diascoria, rhaum, arneba, polygonium and adiainum grow abundantly in the state. Kashmir falls in the Western Himalayas and most herbs are found in Ladakh, Bandipora, Tulael, Uri and Khilanmarg- Gulmarg.

Alamgeer added that as most of the valley's population was rural-based; their dependence on medicinal herbs was huge. However, the officer is worried that these medicinal plants, if not utilized well, could face extinction.

"Pharmaceutical companies encourage forest dwellers to collect herbs, but pay them meagerly for it. As a result, no parent material is left behind to unsure that the plants continue to grow." The officer rued that although pharmaceutical firms earn an estimated Rs 20 crore from medicinal plants in the valley, the state earned no benefits from it.

He added that deforestation had also led to habitat loss and changes in the ecosystem. "To add to this, local and foreign tourists trample on these plants while touring the forests, particularly in Khilanmarg -- Gulmarg."

For successful promotion of herbal medicines in the valley, experts suggest identification of plant species having medicinal properties, conservation of medicinal herbs in its natural habitat and protected areas and establishment of formal linkage between cultivators and pharmaceutical companies at the national and international levels.
  Kerala Church hosts Hindu pilgrims
  A CATHOLIC church in Kerala stands out as a model of religious harmony with a tradition of hosting Hindu pilgrims returning from famous Sabarimala temple.

It has been custom for the 16 century-built St Andrew's Church at Arthunkal in Alappuzha to receive the pilgrims at the sea side church.

Many pilgrims take out their string of beads -- worn as part of the ritual during the period of vow preceding the trip to the Hindu shrine -- by paying respect before the statue of Saint Sebastian.

During November-January season of Sabarimala pilgrimage, church also serves meal or snacks to the pilgrims and arrange for lodging for those wishing to stay for a day or two.

Church's vicar Father Pius Arattukulam said a legend holds early priests of the church a friend of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity of the Hindu temple some 130 kilometers east.

The pilgrims' visit commemorates the bond between Lord Ayyappa and the priest, Father Arattukulam said.

Portuguese missioner Jesuit Father Manuel Texeira visited Arthunkal in 1579 AD and appointed Fr Gasper Pius as the vicar of the community in 1581. Christians, well-integrated in the social fabric, gained permission from Muthedath Raja to build a church with thatched roof and wood.

The Raja visited the church on completion and asked the priest to retain it always as a House of God. Since then, people professing all faiths used to visit the church to pay homage to St. Andrew, the patron of the parish.

The second vicar of the church Father Jacomo Fenicio, also a Jesuit, came in church in 1584. The legend linking Sabarimala and Arthunkal is attributed to him.

People and they believed that he had some holy powers to heal diseases. He was called Arthunkal Veluthachan (fair-skinned father) and he installed a statue of St. Sebastian in the Church".

"Records show that Father Fenicio had deep interest in Hindu culture, rituals and martial arts," Father Arattukulam said.

"The church authorities have not faced any objection even from the most conservative sections of the parish for giving space to the Hindu devotees," the priest said.

The coastal hamlet is still a shining example of religious harmony in all its meaning. There is even a practice of organising joint cultural fests by the church and nearby temples in the locality," Father Arattukulam said.
Source: Church portals open for Ayyappa devotees. (CathNews)
  Naseem Bagh to become Chinar Heritage Park

From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 14 -- Naseem Bagh, north of the University of Kashmir campus is proposed to be developed as 'Chinar Heritage Park'.

The garden, which is stretched over an area of 500 'kanals', has a rich repository of nearly 700 Platanus Orientalis, commonly known as chinars.

The word 'chinar' has been derived from a Persian word meaning 'what a fire', owing to its flame-coloured leaves that fall during autumn.

Describing Naseem Bagh as 'an age old Mughal Garden', Showkat Shafi, Public Relations Officer (PRO), University of Kashmir, said this historical garden was neglected for a long time till it came to be used, for several years, as erstwhile Regional Engineering College (REC) campus. The college was later shifted to another venue.

"This grove seems to be losing its grandeur and needs immediate rejuvenation and conservation. It is thus proposed to be converted into Chinar Heritage Park," said Shafi.

Explaining further, the PRO said the Chinar Conservatory would be established as a heritage symbol and developed into a beautiful park to preserve the trees.

Broad features of the proposed park, according to a press release issued by the varsity, include removal of unwanted barracks, no further construction of buildings and conservation of all existing chinar trees by pruning, training and lopping of dried and diseased branches.

"Infected chinars trees will be treated to control the spread of diseases. Need-based irrigation system for supply of water to plants and flower beds would be looked into, a drainage system would be properly laid out and a road network and streamlined car parking would be made," the press release stated.

Lighting along roads and footpaths in the gardens, landscape design as per recommendations of experts and the introduction of suitable ornamental plants would also be included to beautify the park.
  Assyrian Church's synod opens in Kerala
THE Assyrian Church of the East is holding its apex synod first time in India. The Church's head, Catholicos Patriarch Moran Mar Dinkha-IV, arrived in Kerala, his Church's base in India.

The seven-day synod opened Jan. 13 in a specially arranged hall attached to the Metropolitan Palace in Trichur, where the Church's Indian followers are concentrated.

Catholicos Patriarch and seven other prelates are attending the synod. Metropolitan of India Mar Aprem and his priests welcomed the prelates from overseas at the Metropolitan Palace.

All bishops of the Church are expected to attend the Synod. The main purpose of the Synod is to consecrate two bishops to assist Mar Aprem Metropolitan in the administration of the Archdiocese of India.

The consecration ceremony would begin at 7 a.m. on Jan. 17 at a special venue set up at the Chaldean Syrian Higher Secondary School. Moran Mar Dinkha-IV will lead the ceremony.

The Church is among those tracing their faith to Saint Thomas the Apostle, who according to tradition reached Kerala coast in 52 AD.

Church's present head, Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV resides in Chicago, U.S.A. He was born in Northern Iraq in 1935 and became bishop in Teheran, Iran, in 1962. He was consecrated Catholicos Patriarch in 1976.

The Church's four archbishops are based in Lebanon, India, Iraq and Australia. It also has seven bishops under the Catholicos Patriarch.

The Patriarch and late Pope John Paul II have signed a Common Christological Declaration on Nov. 11, 1994 in Vatican, after the Synod of the Assyrian Church voted to have to have better relations with the Catholic Church.

The "Common Christological Declaration Between the Catholic Church and the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East" declares that it is "[a] basic step on the way toward the full communion to be restored between their Churches."

The document emphasized common doctrinal positions between the two bodies, such as the Nicene Creed; and clarifies that the centuries the two have spent out of communion were due to geographic and cultural issues rather than doctrinal differences.

The Patriarch has promoted closer relations with the Catholic Church, both with the Vatican and the Chaldean Catholic Church. He first met John Paul II immediately after the Pope's election in 1978 and made his first visit to the Vatican in 1984. (CathNews)

Source: Holy Synod of Church of East from today (Express Buzz)
  Help promised for Rameswaram shrine
  AN international charity has promised to fund the re-building of St. Anthony's Shrine in Rameswaram that was severely damaged by religious fanatics.

The chapel was attacked several times between June and August 2008, almost at the same time when anti-Christian violence hit in Orissa state.

The charity, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), has promised about US$29,000 (some 1.4 million rupees) to build a new shrine.

Parish priest Father Michael Raj told ACN that the chapel was "heavily damaged twice" by unidentified "anti-social and religious elements" and "fanatic religious groups."

"This is repeatedly happening and there are intruders who break the holy cross... They plan to remove Christian symbols from this site," he added.

The new chapel will have a protective wall around the compound. The local church also intends to erect a house for visiting pilgrims and extend a hall at the shrine.

Despite the attacks, Father Raj said, "our faith is stronger and we are sure that God in whom we believe, amidst all these struggles, will save our faith and our place of worship -- which is the shrine of St. Anthony."

The shrine has been on the island of Rameswaram since missionaries first arrived there in the 19th century.

A cyclone destroyed the original chapel in 1964 and the 2004 tsunami severely damaged the replacement.

"Although our people are at the bottom of society in all spheres they are known for faith and commitment toward, and for, the Holy Mother Church," Father Raj told ACN.

"I thank God for all that he is doing for me in serving him and practicing our faith in this land where we are having a time of persecution and a test in saving our faith and places of worship."

Source: Indian Christians plan to save shrine in Tamil Nadu
  Right violations worry Church
  SYSTEMATIC moves by some states to violate the constitutional rights of religious minorities such as Christians remain a grave concern, the Catholic Council of India (CCI) says.

The top representative body of Catholics in India said this in a statement after its Jan. 9-12 national assembly in Nagpur.

Some 250 people representing bishops, priests, Religious and laity from India's 160 dioceses attended the meeting that discussed the issues of youth.

However, its statement among other issues expressed grave concern over violation of Constitutional rights by some state governments.

It said some states try to snatch away the freedom of religion of the individuals through reconversion especially in Orissa, Karnataka and Chattisgarh states.

"These acts are against the vision of the founding fathers of the Constitution and CCI regret to note that constitutional history is deliberately ignored and trespassed upon," a council press release said on Jan. 13.

Another resolution urged the federal government to immediately rehabilitate the victims of the 2008 anti-Christian riots in Orissa's Kandhamal district.

CCI also urged the government to stop attempts to introduce other systems to management Church property. Such moves, it said, would go against the wishes of those who donated assets to the Church for a specific purpose and to be used under the provisions of canon law, the resolution said.

The reference is to Madhya Pradesh government's reported attempt to establish a trust-like system to help the state intervene in the administration of Church properties.

A number of leaders from youth movements and organizations such as the Indian Catholic Youth Movement, Jesus Youth, All India Catholic University Federation, and Young Christian Students attended the meeting.

Source: Right violations worry CCI
  Canada gets first Asian bishop
THE new auxiliary bishop of archdiocese of Toronto, consecrated Jan. 13, reached Canada as a boy fleeing religious oppression in Vietnam. He has the distinction of becoming Canada's first Asian Catholic bishop.

Bishop Vincent Nguyen, 43, joined seminary, inspired by his great-great-grandfather who became the first of his family to convert to Roman Catholicism in the 1840s, said French news agency AFP.

His ancestor died when Vietnam's imperial rulers tied him to a post in a harbor near Saigon and left him to wait for the tide to come in. He would be counted among some 100,000 Vietnamese martyrs later recognized by the Church.

After the Communist North's victory and the closure of Catholic schools in Vietnam, Nguyen decided he would leave to pursue his faith.

He set out to sea in 1983 with his uncle's family in a wooden fishing boat, aiming for the coast of Indonesia.

They were picked up by a Japanese freighter seven days into their journey and taken to a refugee camp in Japan, where he spent one year before coming to Toronto to reunite with two older brothers.

Neil McCarthy, a spokesman for the Toronto archdiocese, said the appointment was not specifically linked to his heritage. "He is to be appointed not because he is of Asian origin, but because he is a good priest and has the necessary qualifications, and we need a good bishop," he told AFP.

Toronto archdiocese is ethnically diverse in North America, celebrating mass each week in 30 languages. (CathNews)

Source: Vietnamese refugee to be Canada's first Asian bishop (google/AFP)
  Catholic youth accused of attacking Dalit
CHENNAI, JAN 14 -- A group of Catholic youths in a Tamil Nadu village allegedly beat up a 24-year dalit man and forced him to eat human excreta. But police suspect the allegation is "far-fetched."

P. Sadaiyandi of Meikovilpatti village, Dindugal, said in his police complaint that he was attacked on Jan. 7 for defying the ban on Dalits wearing footwear in their locality.

Sadaiyandi's complaint named seven Catholic youths of Thevar caste saying they stopped him near the village salon and abused him.

Two of them then forced his mouth open and thrust excrement down his throat. They later smeared his face with it. After the group dispersed, Sadaiyandi hid in fear near a pond, said the complaint according to a report in Mail Today.

The news paper quoted police officer Rajeswari saying preliminary inquiries suggested Sadaiyandi apparently teased the dominant caste youths, starting the trouble.

"The allegation that human excreta was forced down Sadaiyandi's throat is far-fetched," she said.

It could well be a case of a Dalit misusing the SC/ ST Atrocities Act," she said to penalize the higher caste youths, she added.

Muniaraj, an activist of right group People's Watch, said the police have threatened the victim against mentioning the incident to anyone.

"It is perplexing why Sadaiyandi is not coming forward to name the (two) Thevar youth who forced him to swallow faeces. Maybe it is out of fear," he said.

Sadaiyandi said he could not identify the person who had thrust excreta into his mouth as the incident took place at night.

"This is unusual. It is the first case in which dominant caste Christians have abused Dalits," the rights activist added.

Source: Catholic youth accused of attacking dalit
  State Commission for Women gets cases of NRIs mistreating wives
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 13 --- The Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Women is normally expected to receive and dispose of cases relating to women in the state, but the commission has so far received six cases wherein non-resident Indians (NRIs) have been accused of mistreating their wives.

The cases have been referred to the National Commission for Women and Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, New Delhi. However, to date, no action, whatsoever, has been taken against the accused.

The cases include torture, harassment, re-marriage, divorce, maintenance, transfer of property to children, child support money enhancement, desertion and cheating.

The Commission, a statutory body set up in March 2000 under the State Commission for Women Act 1999 received a complaint in January last year wherein the complainant, Dr Saphya Mukhtar, alleged that she had been cheated by Ishtiaq Hussain, an electrical engineer in Riyadh -- Saudi Arabia.

Hussain was still married to a certain Dr Ratooba two years ago when he entered into wedlock with Dr Mukhtar. As per an application by Dr Ratooba on September 25, 2007, she married Hussain on September 11, 2005. However, her in-laws ill-treated and threw her out of the house.

In another case (Sakeena Bano versus Mushtaq Ahmad Suda), no maintenance has been paid to Sakeena. As per her complaint lodged on January 1, 2009, she married Suda (settled in Germany) in July 2007. The complaint added that on approaching the German Embassy for a visa to visit her husband, she was told that Mushtaq was already married to a German lady.

Another complainant, Mutaharra Abida Waheed Deva, married Mohammad Amin Beigh in September 1994. However, he divorced her on January 16, 2007. The couple has two children. The Commission has asked Beigh to pay deferred child maintenance. Deva now demands an increase in child support.

After her marriage in July 2003, Dr Sameena Gul was tortured and physically assaulted by her husband Dr Mohammad Afzal-u-din and her in-laws. She filed a complaint on November 16, 2006. Afzal-u-din left for Riyadh without informing his wife. He later verbally divorced her. Dr Sameena, however, says that she has not received any divorce papers and doesn't know if she is still married or divorced.

In a similar case from Jammu, Moninder Kour versus Gurnam Singh, the accused never showed up, despite being repeatedly summoned by the commission.

Allegations of torture, harassment and re-marriage have been mentioned by Moninder Kour in her application dated June 5, 2007. She has learnt that her husband is married in Australia.

The annual report of the Commission says that since it doesn't have jurisdiction outside the country, the case was forwarded to the National Commission for Women.
  Sri Lanka: Pilgrims now free to visit Madhu shrine
COLOMBO, JAN 13 (UCAN) -- The Madhu Marian shrine, the most celebrated in Sri Lanka, has been declared open to all once more, after completion of demining in the surrounding area.

The Defense Ministry on Jan. 12 allowed unrestricted access to the shrine in the north of the country, which means pilgrims will once again be allowed to stay overnight at the site.

"There is no danger to those devotees visiting the Madhu shrine," said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakara. However, security measures in the area would remain.

Father Barnabas Fred Desmond Culas, the administrator of the shrine, said Church leaders' pleas had been answered.

The 400-year-old shrine is in Mannar diocese and venerated by millions of people from different religions.

During the country's 26-year civil war it was shelled many times, in some instances killing pilgrims. Statues were removed from the site for safekeeping, services suspended and pilgrimages forbidden.

The government opened the Madhu Shrine last August for the feast of the Assumption but with limited access to areas where demining was in progress.

Despite the good news, Father Culas faces new challenges. He said he is struggling to open facilities at the shrine due to a lack of manpower to run shops, restaurants and additional church services.

Until now, only three nuns and five workers have been allowed to remain on site. The priest says he has been in touch with the bishop of Mannar to request more priests and helpers to prepare for pilgrims.

The Church has to provide logistical support for pilgrims including electricity, water, health and sanitary facilities.
  Malaysia: Public 'Allah' forum seen as victory for civil dialogue
BANGKOK, JAN 13 (UCAN) -- A public forum in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims has been hailed as a victory for civil dialogue.

The event attracted 1,000 people.

"It was refreshing to see the diversity of views on the panel which consisted of six Muslims and one Hindu," Reverend Sivin Kit, pastor of Bangsar Lutheran Church, told UCA News.

"The public forum dispelled the myth that the Malaysian public and especially Malay Muslims cannot engage in a civil dialogue on so-called sensitive issues."

The government had stated that there should be no public discussion on "sensitive issues" and that it is planning private dialogue sessions on the present controversy.

Reverend Kit noted that the recent forum was "a ground-up civil society initiative without involvement and interference of the government."

"This shows that the common people, (especially) the younger generation, have taken ownership and responsibility to demonstrate that it can be done," he said.

The event, entitled "Allah: Whose is it?", was jointly organized by the Muslim Students' Association of Universiti Malaya, Free Public Forum and young people from the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall on Jan. 11.

Some participants argued that "Allah" was a specific name for God that has been Islamized. Others said "Allah" was not exclusive to Muslims, and that it was the meaning of the word, not the word itself, that was important.

The controversy over the use of the word "Allah" for God by non-Muslims in the Malay language has been raging since the High Court on Dec. 31 ruled against a government ban on the practice.

The government has since filed an appeal and the court has agreed to a stay of the Dec. 31 decision.

There has been an outcry by various Muslim groups and debate on the issue has raged in websites and blogs. While most protests have been peaceful, eight churches and one church institutions across the country have been attacked.

Meanwhile, the High Court has fixed March 15 for the first hearing of an application by an indigenous Christian woman challenging the government's confiscation of Christian CDs in the Indonesian language that contain the word "Allah."
  South Asian youths to spread green message

KOLKATA, JAN 13 (UCAN) -- Christian youths from South Asia have resolved to do their bit for nature and spread environmental awareness in their countries.

"God has given nature to us as a friend, and today the friendship is lost due to human selfishness," said Gerald Ripon Das, one of 700 youths who attended the recent National Ecumenical Youth Assembly in Kolkata.

Das, who led an 18-member delegation from Bangladesh, said his group would encourage people to plant more trees, recycle materials, reduce the use of plastics and work alongside NGOs involved in similar schemes.

Some 700 youths representing Protestant and Orthodox Churches from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan attended the Jan. 6-10 meeting which focused on people's relationships with God, nature and humanity.

The youth commission of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) organized the event on the theme, "Come, let's be friends."

NCCI represents India's 13 million Orthodox and Protestant Christians.

Suman Biswas, chairperson of the NCCI youth commission, told UCA News the assembly did not produce a common statement or action plan. However, each delegation prepared its own action plan to address environmental issues in its own country.

Das, who facilitates youth activities of the National Council of Churches in Bangladesh (NCCB), said that issues such as climate change have asserted the need for human intervention to stop environmental destruction.

He said the NCCB is already networking with the Ecumenical Asia Pacific Students and Youth Network (Easy Net), an umbrella organization of Churches involved in ecological issues.

Church of North India Bishop Ashok Biswas of Calcutta, who led a rally for the youth assembly participants on Jan. 8, said Christians should come forward to protect the planet.

"If youths are conscious of their responsibility to befriend nature, we can be sure of a better world tomorrow," he added.

S. Promoth, who was part of the 30-member delegation from Kerala, said they would invite people to stop using plastic bags in favor of biodegradable bags, and recommend separating different kinds of garbage for recycling purposes.
  Pakistan: Church attendance returning to normal after terror fears
AMRITNAGAR, JAN 13 (UCAN) -- Christians in the tiny Punjab village of Amritnagar are slowly returning to their churches after weeks of living in fear over supposed terrorist threats.

A cell phone text message circulating among Christians just before Christmas had urged them to pray as there might be a terror attack: "The Taliban have said they will give a gift on Christmas to Christians," the message said.

"The attendance in our Church on the night before Christmas was less than half," Father Emmanuel Sharif, parish priest of Holy Eucharist Church in Amritnagar told UCA News.

"Most of the people were afraid and stayed at home. The situation is however normal now," he said.

Christians across the country have felt beleaguered by the security situation in Pakistan.

"Morale here has been very low," Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, head of the Pakistan bishops' conference, told UCA News. Christmas Mass attendance was down 40 per cent in some parts of Pakistan because of fears over terror attacks, he said.

But the archbishop praised those who attended Mass as being "very strong in faith."

"There was a wonderful atmosphere in the churches. People were determined to celebrate and they participated with great enthusiasm," he recalled.

Christians in Sindh province also had low key New Year Masses due to a call by Muslim religious leaders for a countrywide strike on Jan. 1, in the wake of a suicide bombing of the Muslim Ashura festival in Karachi on Dec. 28.

Forty-four people died in that attack, which apparently targeted the minority Shiites. The incident brought the total number of suicide attacks in the country in 2009 to 87, according to media reports.

"Security was tightened ... due to the strike, roads were closed and many faithful could not make it to churches owing to the unavailability of public transport, especially in Karachi," Franciscan Father Samson Shukardin from St. Elizabeth parish told UCA News.

Archbishop Saldanha praised police for their response to threats of violence against Christians.

"The police protection was really very good. The whole operation was well-resourced," he told the international Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need.

He said "a sophisticated security apparatus" was put in place at a number of churches, including St. Joseph's Cathedral in Rawalpindi. Members of the congregation were checked by police using metal detectors and other security devices as they entered.
  Skewed China birth rate to leave 24 million men single
http://news. s/afp/20100111/ lf_afp/chinapopu lationmenmarriage

BEIJING, JAN 13 (AFP) -- More than 24 million Chinese men of marrying age could find themselves without spouses in 2020, state media reported on Monday, citing a study that blamed sex-specific abortions as a major factor.

The study, by the government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, named the gender imbalance among newborns as the most serious demographic problem for the country's population of 1.3 billion, the Global Times said.

"Sex-specific abortions remained extremely commonplace, especially in rural areas," where the cultural preference for boys over girls is strongest, the study said, while noting the reasons for the gender imbalance were "complex."

Researcher Wang Guangzhou said the skewed birth ratio could lead to difficulties for men with lower incomes in finding spouses, as well as a widening age gap between partners, according to the Global Times.

Another researcher quoted by the newspaper, Wang Yuesheng, said men in poorer parts of China would be forced to accept marriages late in life or remain single for life, which could "cause a break in family lines."

"The chance of getting married will be rare if a man is more than 40 years old in the countryside. They will be more dependent on social security as they age and have fewer household resources to rely on," Wang said.

The study said the key contributing factors to the phenomenon included the nation's family-planning policy, which restricts the number of children citizens may have, as well as an insufficient social security system.

The situation influenced people to seek male offspring, who are preferred for their greater earning potential as adults and thus their ability to care for their elderly parents.

The Global Times said abductions and trafficking of women were "rampant" in areas with excess numbers of men, citing the National Population and Family Planning Commission.

Illegal marriages and forced prostitution were also problems in those areas, it said.

Authorities put the normal male-female ratio at between 103-107 males for every 100 females. But in 2005, the last year for which data were made available, there were 119 boys for every 100 girls, the newspaper said.

However, the study said that in some areas the male-female ratio was as high as 130 males for every 100 females, a report by the Mirror Evening newspaper said.

The report said the study urged the government to relax the so-called "one-child" policy and study the possibility of encouraging "cross-country marriages."

China first implemented its population control policy in 1979, generally limiting families to one child, with some exceptions for rural farmers, ethnic minorities and other groups.

It has said the policy has averted 400 million births.

Researchers said the gender imbalance problem cropped up in the late 1980s when the use of ultrasound technology became more prevalent.

This allowed women to easily determine the sex of their foetuses, leading to an increased number of sex-selective abortions.
  Religion a hot topic of discussion for Kerala Communists
NEW DELHI, JAN 12 -- The resignation of a Catholic from the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has kicked off a discussion on the party's stand on members' religious beliefs.

Former parliamentarian Manoj Sebastian Kurisinkal resigned from party Jan. 8 saying he considered his religious belief above his party ideology.

The former president of Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM) became a Member of Parliament in 2004 as a CPI-M candidate from Alappuzha in Kerala.

He was defeated in 2009 by K. C. Venugopal of the Congress party, but the resignation came after his party initiated "rectification" of some practices among its members.

Manoj said he was pained to see the "rectification document" issued recently that asked party leaders to stay away from religious functions.

The party's Thumboli local committee in Alappuzha, in which Manoj was a member, expelled him at a special meeting on Jan. 9, a day after Manoj submitted his resignation. Media reports said they expelled him for criticizing the party document in public.

But his decision to quit the party became a subject for media discussion on individual's freedom to practice religion and politics.

In electronic media discussions, Communist officials and sympathizers said their party does not oppose people practicing religion but would not tolerate those violating party discipline.

Party's Kerala state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan Jan. 11 countered Manoj saying the party does not oppose religion and that it would even field Christian priests in polls if they are "presentable."

He said the number of believers in the party has increased. Manoj has been a believer when he became a party candidate and won, Vijayan noted.

The party official said after Manoj lost the recent polls, he was always in Delhi where he practices as an anaesthetist.

Vijayan wanted to know when Manoj received God's call to cut ties with the party. He said his party has had issues with the Church, "but that wasn't public."

Vijayan said his party is "not against any religion or against religious beliefs, instead we will lay down our lives to protect those who find any problem in going ahead with their beliefs from any quarter." (Courtesy:

Source: CPI-M Not against believers, asserts Vijayan (

CPM local panel decides to expel K S Manoj (Express Buzz)
  Ruchika case: School principal returns state award
  CHANDIGARH, JAN 12 -- Sister Sebastina, the principal of Chandigarh's Sacred Heart School, where Ruchika Girhotra studied, has returned her state award.

Sister Sebastina returned the honor after the Chandigarh administration directed that she be stripped of her award for her role in the expulsion of Ruchika from school following her molestation by former Haryana DGP S.P.S. Rathore, 19 years ago.

She was the school principal in 1990, when Ruchika was expelled.

Chanchal Singh, district education officer, Chandigarh, told reporters that a school representative returned the prize money, commendation certificate and medal to "the concerned authority" on Jan. 11 morning.

The leading girls' school of Chandigarh, which is governed by Simla-Chandigarh diocese, was accused of arbitrarily expelling Ruchika in September 1990, one month after she was allegedly molested by Rathore.

Sub-divisional magistrate Prerna Puri had submitted the inquiry report to the concerned officials Jan. 7. The probe had found the school's decision to expel Ruchika was taken in an arbitrary, selective and biased manner.

The probe also said there were indications that the school expelled Ruchika at the behest of her molester, a charge the school authorities have vehemently denied.

Father Thomas Anchanikal, vicar-general and spokesperson for the diocese, told reporters Jan. 11 that the magisterial probe ordered by the administration was "very biased", ignored proofs the school submitted.

"Their conclusion is totally baseless and they did not possess even a single proof against the school authorities," said the priest, who added, "However, we do not work for awards and recognitions and Sister Sebastina would continue to impart her services to the institution as usual."

The award was conferred in 1985 for Sister Sebastina's meritorious contribution to education in Chandigarh. (Courtesy:
  Sri Lanka: Land grants give poor a chance at self-help
SEEMAWELIYA, JAN 12 (UCAN) -- A priest is providing food security for some of the country's poorest thanks to two hectares of land donated by a Catholic landlord.

"Dimuthu" (Center For Poverty Alleviation), run by Father Jude Nicholas Fernando provides plots of land to grow fruit and vegetables, as well as assistance in children's schooling.

The land in Seemaweliya village, in Sri Lanka's Western Province, is now home to 15 Catholic families mostly Sinhalese. It is named "Joseph Vaz Village" after the 17th-century Indian missioner to Sri Lanka.

The center is looking to provide cows, goats and carts to families so they can be self-sufficient, as well as a library and medical facilities for their other needs.

Father Fernando, 50, director of the Family Apostolate of Chilaw diocese said his aim was "eradicating every form of poverty."

"The people suffer from not only material poverty but also spiritual poverty. So we are focusing on life education," Father Fernando said.

Dimuthu was established in 2000. It has built community centers, run health services and ministered to people's spiritual needs.

The land of Joseph Vaz Village, which was thick jungle before it was cleared, was given to the center in 2004.

The biggest problem the villagers face is lack of water. The only communal well in the village was built by Dimuthu at a cost of 350,000 rupees (US$3,000) but it dries up when there is no rain. To wash, the villagers must walk more than a kilometer.

Children also face a long journey to get to school on roads that are impassable during the wet season.

The Dimuthu program has given 15 bicycles to children to help them get to class and provides clothes, bags, books, stationery and financial help when necessary.

Illiteracy is a major problem. "Over 90 per cent of people can't read or write," Father Fernando said.

Pushpa Rani, 34, a Tamil Catholic who lives in Joseph Vaz Village, says she is slowly getting her life back on track thanks to the center's work.

Her husband went missing three years ago and she survived by doing odd jobs such as shelling coconuts for around US$5 until she was offered the small plot of land.

She told UCA News the opportunity has given her the courage to face life without resorting to begging.

The Dimuthu program is made possible by donations from Father Fernando's friends and contacts in Sri Lanka and Italy, where he studied.
  Indonesia: Small communities revitalize Catholics
JAKARTA, JAN 12 (UCAN) -- Indonesian Catholics have praised Church neighborhood initiatives that they say have brought a new vibrancy to their lives.

"I have been active in my community for several years, and I thank God that my involvement has changed my life both spiritually and socially," Stefanus Julianto from Queen of the Rosary Church told UCA News.

He was one of 200 lay Catholics from six parishes in South Jakarta deanery who attended a meeting on "Improving the Role of Neighborhood Communities and Basic Ecclesial Communities in Being Church Today."

Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) are groups of neighbors who gather regularly for Bible sharing and address community problems with Gospel-based solutions. These groups started in the deanery, part of Jakarta archdiocese, about 10 years ago.

"I have been attending prayers and faith-sharing meetings organized by my community. These activities are really beneficial for me," Julianto said.

Jesuit Father Alexius Andang Listya Binawan, a Jakarta archdiocesan official and a speaker at the meeting, said BECs are one way for Catholics "to be the salt of the earth... open to serving others."

Julianto praised his community for the help he had personally received. He said BEC members visited and prayed for him and other family members when they were sick, and helped his family financially when they were in need.

Before being active in the community, he used to rely on his relatives but that was difficult as they lived far away, he said.

Andreas Mulyadi said he also found his involvement in his BEC beneficial.

He told UCA News that he has been attending weekly rosary prayers and monthly faith-sharing meetings as well as Lenten and Advent prayer services. "These really helped me and other members in building relations among ourselves."

However, he noted that there are still many Catholic families who do not attend BEC activities. Mulyadi said he had tried to call or visit these families, but many said they were too busy with work.

Robertus Husni Setiawan from Holy Family Church told UCA News that his community has rosary prayer meetings every weekday at parishioners' homes. These attract about 45 of the 65 families in his area.

Furthermore, "we have very good relations with followers of other religions, particularly Muslims," he said. "That is why we feel secure when we have these meetings."
  Religious head urges greater empowerment for nuns
NEW DELHI, JAN 12 (UCAN) -- Lack of empowerment among Catholic nuns remains a major concern for the Church in India, the head of Religious in the country says.

A lack of empowerment among nuns
remains a concern for the Indian Church, according to Brother K.M. Joseph.

Although there has been much work generating awareness in the Church about women's rights, "we have a long way to go in realizing" systemic changes, Montfort Brother K.M. Joseph, president of the Conference of Religious India (CRI), said.

Old beliefs and a perception that convent life is meant only for spiritual pursuits were partially to blame.

Many nuns do not receive the necessary skills or academic training to cope with the demands of missionary work, he said on Jan. 12. As a consequence, many languish as domestic workers in their congregations and male Religious institutions.

"Dynamics of change in this sector are slow and difficult," he added.

The brother was airing his concerns in an address to the general assembly of the Catholic Council of India, the Church's top representative body in the country.

Some 250 people representing bishops, priests, Religious and laity from India's 160 dioceses attended the Jan. 9-12 meeting in Nagpur, Maharashtra state.

Brother Joseph said CRI has been working for a "gender empowered Church" and has organized a series of training programs.

"We were happy that this became a national agenda" and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India took up the issue of empowerment of women in its last plenary meeting, he noted.

He urged Church leaders to act to break the current mindset.

Areas that need focus include respecting the dignity of women, appreciating their consecration as Religious, acknowledging their missionary service, and giving them decent remuneration.

There are around 100,000 nuns in India, "more than 80 per cent" of the Religious in the country, said Brother Joseph.
  Philippines: 'Don't be intimidated by blast,' bishop tells Catholics

MANILA, JAN 12 (UCAN) -- The local Church and its members must continue living their faith without fear, the bishop of Jolo said after a grenade blast outside his cathedral.

A grenade exploded outside Our Lady of Mount Carmel cathedral in Jolo, Sulo province, at 5.40 a.m., about 20 minutes before the first Mass on Jan. 10, the bishop said.

Police reported no casualties. It was the first day of the gun ban being implemented around the country ahead of the May 10 general elections.

"Whether in your office, in the market place, inside the city hall, wherever, you are you must live your Christian faith as we cannot act as if we are afraid," Oblates of Mary Immaculate Bishop Angelito Lampon told Sulu's Christian minority during a Jan. 11 interview over Church radio.

Sulu is predominantly Muslim.

The bishop believes the Church was the target. "How can it be random if it was thrown inside the church compound near pastoral offices," the prelate asked. However, he said he had no idea who was behind the attack and why it happened.

Oblate Father Jose Ante told UCA News he saw a man throw a grenade into the church grounds. "The grenade exploded near the tombs of (two) bishops," he said. There were no people around at that time but a couple of windows were destroyed.

"God is still protecting us," the priest said.

Jeffery Sapang, reporter with Jolo apostolic vicariate's radio station DXMM, told UCA News police have not identified any suspects.

Some reports blamed "terrorists" for the incident but Sapang said there is no proof of this.

Jolo is among 10 "election hotspots" listed by the Philippine National Police because of its proliferation of guns and private armies. The recent incident is the fourth explosion in Jolo in less than a year.

People just continue with their lives, Sapang said.

Government forces on Sept. 20 shelled a mountain area in Sulu's Indanan town where Abu Sayyaf militants were believed to hold camp.

Muslim leaders and peace advocates criticized the timing of operations during the festival ending the Muslim holy month of Ramadan disrupting prayers in mosques.

"Since the military operations ... there has been talk of people preparing for repercussions, but we don't know if this is retaliation or what," lay pastoral worker Carmen Gobaton told UCA News.
  Philippines: Priest defends Black Nazarene devotional practice

MANILA, JAN 11 (UCAN) -- Kissing and wiping the Black Nazarene and other religious statues is not necessarily superstition or flawed theology, anthropologist priest Father Leonardo Mercado says.

This way of expressing faith by Filipinos has a biblical basis, the Society of the Divine Word priest told UCA News.

A woman in the Bible was healed when she touched Jesus' clothes, Father Mercado noted before the Black Nazarene feast.

At least 2 million people flocked to Luneta Park in downtown Manila on Jan. 9 for the grand procession of the Black Nazarene, police estimated.

People came from around the country to accompany the life-sized image of a dark-skinned Jesus, to which miracles are attributed, as it was returned to Quiapo Church after an overnight prayer vigil.

Some devotees of the Black Nazarene take their devotion way too far, Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales of Manila was quoted as saying in the bishops' conference news service.

He said the way atonement is manifested by many of those who attended Saturday's procession was "excessive."

"Some of what we saw today was excess expression of faith. There are many impurities that need cleansing," he said.

Father Mercado, author of several books on Filipino faith and culture, however, links the behavior to a cultural belief that holiness is power contained in objects.

He said warnings against wiping and kissing the statue from priests of the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo are based on a model of the holy as "transcendent" or beyond what is physical.

Both models are "theologically possible," Father Mercado said. However, he cautioned critics of popular Filipino religiosity against judging it as "split level Christianity."

"It is a pre-Vatican II biased outsider's perspective of a person's or people's viewpoint," Father Mercado said.

He stressed that Second Vatican Council thinking promotes evangelization that "fosters a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people."
  Church helps women utilize government schemes
  RAHLI, JAN 11 (UCAN) -- The Church is helping illiterate women in central India access government assistance schemes that they were unaware of.

"We are grateful to the Church for making us aware of various government schemes meant for our welfare," said Nanni Bai, who attended a special program run by Catholic nuns in Rahli in Sagar diocese, Madhya Pradesh state.

The mother of five told UCA News the program helped the women benefit from government schemes such as pensions for widows, assistance for elderly women and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that guarantees 100 days of work a year for the poor.

Local government officials do not inform people about these schemes, she said, adding that the nuns have not only told them about the schemes but also how to access them.

Sister Mereena Antony, from the Sisters of Jesus congregation, one of the organizers of the awareness program, said they have noticed how poor and illiterate women and children are "the most vulnerable sections in society and we want them to come up in life."

Kamal Narayan Dubey, a Hindu social worker, said the Church initiative has emboldened the women to fight for "what is due to them."

He said government officials often ignore illiterate people's demand for information about welfare schemes.

Dubey said the federal government provides 150-300 rupee (US$3.30-6.50) monthly pensions to widows and elderly women, depending on their age.
  Vatican: Violence offends God's dignity, Pope says
By Gerard O'Connell, Special Correspondent in Rome

VATICAN CITY, JAN 11 (UCAN) -- Pope Benedict XVI has denounced the recent violence against Christians in several countries when he spoke to pilgrims at St. Peter's Square on Sunday, Jan. 10.

"The violence against Christians in some countries has aroused the indignation of many, especially because it was manifested in the most sacred days of the Christian (Christmas) tradition," the Pope said.

His comments came just days after several churches in Malaysia were firebombed as controversy rages over whether non-Muslims can use the word "Allah" for God.

The Pope called on institutions in countries to combat violence: "It's necessary that the political and religious institutions do not fail in their responsibilities in this field."

He concluded his remarks by repeating what he has often said on similar occasions: "There cannot be violence in the name of God, nor can one think that he is honoring Him by offending the dignity and freedom of those similar to himself."

Although he did not mention any specific country, his comments were seen as referring to attacks not only in Malaysia but also in Egypt and Algeria. In Egypt, a drive-by shooting on the Orthodox Christmas Day left six Coptic Christians and a Muslim guard dead near Luxor. In Algeria, Muslims blocked Christians from holding a Christmas service.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone spoke about the violence against Christians in Egypt and "in other parts of the world" in his lecture at the opening of the Judicial Year of the Tribunal of the Vatican City State on Jan. 8.

He said he hoped that despite the violence against Christians in these countries, it would be possible "to resume a positive relationship of coexistence, collaboration, dialogue and respect of the beliefs of each one, especially when one is dealing with communities that had been rooted a long time in the (given) territory".

The Holy See wished "to reaffirm the fundamental right to religious freedom and, especially, the valuing of the contribution that Christian communities give to the development of the societies in which they live," he added.
  Carey's call to stop immigration, a bold attempt
  By Damian Thompson
The Telegraph
January 9, 2010

We have had to wait decades for this moment, but it has finally happened. A leading British clergyman has said something sensible about immigration.

Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, this week signed a declaration by the Cross Party Group on Balanced Migration calling for an urgent tightening of borders to stop the British population reaching 70 million by 2029. He also gave an interview yesterday in which he called for a tougher Church. "We Christians are very often so soft that we allow other people to walk over us, and we are not as tough in what we want, in expressing our beliefs, because we do not want to upset other people," he said.

Tougher church ... people walking all over us ... controls on immigration: it really is not all that difficult to join the dots. Later in the interview, Lord Carey almost joined them for us, suggesting that there might be a "points system" based on respect for Britain's Christian heritage.

Some of Lord Carey's critics will accuse him of blowing a dog whistle to racists. That is nonsense. Lord Carey is a veteran anti-racist: he enjoys the sort of following among African evangelicals that Bill Clinton did among black Americans. But if Lord Carey were accused of whistling to Christians worried by the prospect of millions of dogmatic Muslims in Britain, then he would find it difficult to rebut the charge. Politicised Islam is at the forefront of his mind: he knows that Britain's evangelical Christians are fed up with being told to develop ever closer ties with their Muslim neighbours.

These evangelicals see Muslim communities that are increasingly hard to distinguish from ghettos; whose young men are sympathetic towards Islamist insurgents; and whose elders enforce a Sharia law that bullies young British Muslim women at home and persecutes Christians abroad. (Nothing, not even the issue of homosexuality, has done more to damage the authority of Dr Rowan Williams in the conservative provinces of the Anglican Communion than his idiotic equivocation on British Sharia.)

Britain's black and Asian Christian leaders will support Lord Carey in this controversy; many of them have seen Islamism at work in their home countries. Only one Church of England bishop has resigned his see in protest at Church leaders' feebleness in the face of Islamism, and he is an immigrant: Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester. In contrast, the rest of the hierarchy, together with all the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales, still adhere to the old orthodoxy that immigration is by definition a glorious blessing because it "enriches" our culture.

In Europe, however, many Catholic bishops never really subscribed to that orthodoxy in the first place, and now they are talking openly about the coming "Islamification" of Europe. Yesterday, just as Lord Carey was issuing his own warning, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Archbishop of Prague, marked his retirement with a melodramatic prophecy. "Unless the Christians wake up, life may be Islamised and Christianity will not have the strength to imprint its character on the life of people, not to say society," he said.

The Cardinal is right, but only up to a point. The Islamification of parts of Europe is indeed under way. As Christopher Caldwell says in his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Muslims "vie for dominance" in Rotterdam, Strasbourg, Marseilles, suburbs of Paris and Berlin, Bradford, Leicester, the periphery of Manchester and east London.

Where Cardinal Vlk displays naivety is in his proposed remedy: he is optimistic that the Church can persuade the West to reject the empty secularism that has created a Europe-wide vacuum filled by people of another faith.

The message that "secularism" is the real enemy of Christianity is parroted by liberal bishops everywhere. Although they may be horrified by Cardinal Vlk's talk of Islamification, they share his belief that the essential division in the world is between "people of faith" and rootless materialists. Pope John Paul II also subscribed to that world-view. But Pope Benedict XVI, significantly, does not. Benedict wants to convince secular-minded people that, in an odd way, they are already part of the Christian flock, because many of their ideals are rooted in the ethics of Christianity.

In other words, the Church's respect for the dignity of the human person is broadly shared by those secular intellectuals committed to a free society. The Pope recognises this, which is why he has spent so much time talking to them; so does Bishop Nazir-Ali, whose friends include atheist thinkers whose respect for the West's Christian heritage is far greater than that of Muslim community leaders or their multiculturalist allies.

In the long term, the future of Western civilisation can be secured only by an alliance between Christians and secularists against the totalitarian ideology of Islamism. That is a strange prospect; and even more uncomfortable is the realisation that Christianity's survival as a mass movement may depend on something as prosaic as immigration control. But that is surely what Lord Carey is hinting at, and it is brave of him to do so.
  Malayasia: PM, Islamic party condemn church arson attacks
  BANGKOK, JAN 8 (UCAN) -- The Prime Minister and the opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) have been quick to condemn arson attacks on three churches in the Kuala Lumpur area in the early hours of Jan. 8.

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak told reporters he had ordered police to step up security at all churches.

Some Malaysian Catholics told UCA News they feared the attacks could have been politically motivated and connected to the controversy over non-Muslims using the word "Allah."

Islam forbids the attacking of anyone's place of worship, PAS Vice-President Salahuddin Ayub was reported as saying.

The attacks on one Catholic and two Protestant churches caused no injuries.

A home-made kerosene bomb was thrown into the compound of Assumption Church, a Catholic church in Petaling Jaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, around 4.30 a.m. but failed to set anything alight, according to parish priest Father Phillips Muthu.

A similar home-made device was later thrown into the compound of Life Chapel, belonging to the Brethren Church, also in Petaling Jaya, he told UCA News.

The ground floor office of Metro Tabernacle Church, a member of the Assemblies of God (AOG), a group of evangelical Protestant Churches, was burned at around midnight.

The three-story church is housed in a row of shop houses.

An AOG staff member told UCA News that investigations are continuing, and added that it was too early for the Church's leaders to make any conclusions on the motives for the attack.

Police are reportedly investigating an alleged attack on a fourth church in the Kuala Lumpur area.

Father Muthu said he was asking all parishioners to pray for the security and welfare of the nation.

He also said he is calling on members of all the parish's 30 basic ecclesial communities (BECs) to continue building friendships with their Muslim neighbors and to assure them that the Catholic Church has no agenda to convert them.

Meanwhile, Muslim NGOs planned demonstrations after Friday prayers at mosques around the country over the recent High Court decision to allow non-Muslims to use the term "Allah" for God. The decision has been suspended until an appeal is heard.

Local media reported that groups of Muslims numbering in the hundreds protested peacefully in three mosques around the Kuala Lumpur area.

At Penang's historic Kapitan Keling Mosque, UCA News saw Muslims leaving the building peacefully after listening to an emotional sermon. A voice saying, "They have no right to interfere with our religion," was heard coming from the mosque.

Various political, social and religious groups from across the country have issued statements condemning the attacks on the churches. These include the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, the Centre for Public Policy Studies, the human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) and Yayasan 1 Malaysia (1 Malaysia foundation).
  Vietnam: Archdiocese slams security officials' removal of cross
BANGKOK, JAN 8 (UCAN) -- Hanoi archdiocese has condemned local security officials' removal of a cement cross which stood on top of a hill used as a Catholic cemetery.

Father John Le Trong Cung, secretary at the archbishop's house, said 600-1,000 security officials using hand tools destroyed the cement cross at 2 a.m. on Jan. 6. The cross stood on top Nui Tho (Worship Mountain) near Dong Chiem church in Hanoi's My Duc district.

In a message dated Jan. 7 to local Catholics, Father Cung said security officials had blocked roads leading to the hill which the parish has owned since its establishment over 100 years ago. Local Catholics once used the hill as a cemetery for family members and for the victims of a severe famine in 1945-1946, he added.

His message is posted on the archdiocesan website and other local Church websites.

The priest said many local Catholics were beaten and tear gassed when they protested the destruction of the cross. Two women were seriously injured and are in hospital, he added.

Father Cung described the incident as a "sacrilege."

"We are deeply concerned. Destroying a cross is offending Christ" as the cross is "the most sacred symbol of the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church," he said.

The archdiocesan official also described the security officials' treatment of protesters as "an inhuman action."

Father Cung asked local Catholics to pray for justice, spiritual values and human rights to be respected and protected in the country.

According to local Church sources, after the officials left the hill, local Catholics erected two small wooden crosses, hung funeral flags and placed candles around the foot of the old cross.

Later, 40 archdiocesan priests visited the site and concelebrated a special Mass at the church.

Local Catholics also peacefully gathered outside the homes of several officials to urge them to repent of what they had done.

According to local Church sources, parishioners erected the cement cross on the hill on March 4, 2009, replacing an old wooden cross.

Government authorities accused local Catholics of erecting the new cross illegally and ordered them to remove it. However, local people refused.
  Korea: Archdiocese calls 'Padre Pio Bread' superstition
SEOUL, JAN 8 (UCAN) -- Daegu archdiocese has declared the distribution of the so-called "Padre Pio Bread" a superstitious practice and warned followers to avoid it.

The practice involves sharing bread dough in honor of Capuchin friar Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, better known as Padre Pio. The priest was known to have had the stigmata, or wounds of Christ, on his body.

Sharing the dough and making bread from it is said to bring good fortune.

In his official letter to archdiocesan priests, Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Cho Hwan-kil of Daegu asked them to warn their parishioners not to take part in this practice.

"It is a superstition which does harm to the faithful," Bishop Cho said.

The letter notes that the movement has grown secretly in the archdiocese.

Archdiocesan chancellor Father John Ha Sung-ho told UCA News a few parishioners had received the dough for the bread.

"They receive the dough and cook it according to a recipe given to them," he said. "It's nothing but normal bread but they believe it can bring them good fortune. This is a wrong belief."

Archdiocesan officials were alerted to the spread of the practice by a nun working in Wonpyung Church. She received dough from a parishioner with instructions on how to cook it as well as a prayer.

"I consulted my parish priest who seemed not to know much about it," said the nun, who requested anonymity. "I found out on the Internet that (the Church) in some countries had banned the practice, and that it has nothing to do with Church teaching."

Another parishioner, Maria (not her real name), received the dough last November from a fellow parishioner, who promised to pray for Maria who suffers from cancer.

The instructions accompanying the dough say that no one can refuse the dough once it is given and that it must be distributed to three persons in 10 days' time.

Capuchin Brother Berardino Moran said he had heard of the practice and stressed that it had no connection with Saint Pio. His congregation stated its position clearly on the Padre Pio Bread movement on its website last October.
  Church denies school expelled girl under pressure
NEW DELHI, JAN 8 (UCAN) -- Church authorities have rejected a government report that found Chandigarh's Sacred Heart School's expulsion of a student was arbitrary and appeared to be a result of external influence.

Ruchika Girhotra was expelled when she was a 10th grader in 1990 shortly after she had been molested by S. Rathore, then director general of police in Haryana state.

The girl committed suicide three years later.

An inquiry launched by the Chandigarh administration found there had been pressure to expel Girhotra for non-payment of fees.

The report's author, Magistrate Prerna Puri, said principal Sister S. Sebastina and teachers denied knowledge of the molestation. Girhotra is the only student the school has expelled because of non-payment of fees, the report found.

The school, Simla Chandigarh diocese and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) all reject the report's findings.

Diocesan vicar general Father Thomas Anchanickal said the school did not act under pressure. But he also told UCA News that no student would be expelled just because of non-payment of fees and denied any responsibility for the girl's death.

"She committed suicide after three years and the school is no way responsible for it," said the priest, who is in charge of diocesan schools.

CBCI spokesperson Father Babu Joseph says his enquiries indicated that the school had not acted under pressure. The government "enquiry findings are not true. Why should a Catholic institution act under pressure?" he asked.

It was "unfortunate" that Girhotra killed herself, Father Joseph said. "Maybe the school should have taken special care of her. In that case, there was an oversight on the part of the school."

Father Joseph said the controversy has alerted the CBCI commission for education on the need to regularly monitor the performance of Church schools.

"We will also issue some guidelines to schools and other institutions to deal with similar situations," he said.
  Lal Chowk firing ends; gunmen killed
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 7 -- The 22-hour stand off between security forces and militants holed up in a local hotel, here, ended on Thursday (January 7) afternoon with the killing of two gunmen.

An exchange of firing at dawn broke the brief lull in Lal Chowk as security forces prepared to launch an assault on the five-storey hotel. The operation had been temporarily suspended the night before.

The attack began on the afternoon of January 6, after two fidayeen (suicide bombers) hurled grenades and started firing at a CRPF camp and a passing police vehicle in the city centre. They then made their way into Punjab Hotel and engaged in a gunfight with security forces.

Intermittent firing continued throughout the night as more reinforcements were brought in to tighten the siege around the hotel.

"The operation is over with the killing of the two militants," said Director General of Police Kuldeep Khoda, adding that the second one was shot while trying to escape from the hotel after setting fire to it. Fire tenders were rushed to the scene.

Although the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attack, the police claim it was the handiwork of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

The two 'fidayeen' have been identified as Qari and Mustafa. Qari has been identified as a local Kashmiri militant from Sopore and Mustafa a Pakistani, believed to belong to the LeT.

A civilian injured in the incident succumbed to his wounds at SHMS hospital on January 7. A police constable was also killed when militants hurled grenades at security forces before entering the hotel.

Photojournalist Aman Farooq of English daily 'Greater Kashmir' was reportedly fired at by the police after a heated argument. However, the police claim that he was hit by a grenade on the hotel premises. Farooq has been hospitalized and his condition is stated to be stable.
  Jharkhand chief minister allays Christian fears over BJP alliance
RANCHI, JAN 7 (UCAN) -- Jharkhand state's new chief minister, Shibu Soren, who took power in alliance with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has told Catholic bishops the Church has his full support.

"I appreciate the work the Church is doing in Jharkhand under their leadership. I need their prayers and support," he told UCA News.

Soren, leader of the regional Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Jharkhand liberation front), told a delegation of bishops his government would help the Church acquire land for a medical school and a 500-bed hospital in the state.

He also assured them the education and health ministries would be in "good hands" after the bishops voiced concern that the BJP planned to take over these ministries.

Cardinal Telesphore Placidus Toppo of Ranchi, who led a six-member delegation in calling on Soren on Jan. 5, told UCA News he has known the tribal politician for many decades and the two became friends when he was bishop of Dumka, Soren's native region.

"He has a special love for the Church," the cardinal said. "We explained to him how the Church had faced problems under the earlier BJP government. He praised the Church's work in Jharkhand and assured us his government would give full support to it."

A BJP-led alliance ruled the state for six years from 2000.

"The Church didn't have a pleasant experience during this period. The government completely neglected the Church," Cardinal Toppo said. But he added that the meeting with Soren, who he described as "our man," had been reassuring.

Soren became chief minister on Dec. 30 after a four-phased election ended in a divided verdict. His party won only 18 seats in the 80-member legislative assembly but Soren made a post-election alliance with BJP and the All Jharkhand Students Union, another regional party.

The Church was concerned about a possible BJP takeover of the education and health ministries, areas where the Church has invested heavily.

"Soren has assured us that he would give these ministries to good hands," Cardinal Toppo said.

The cardinal also told Soren about the difficulties the Church was having in acquiring the 40 hectares of land needed for a new medical school and hospital.

Cardinal Toppo said the plan appeared to excite Soren who asked the delegation to identify the land and said his government would help acquire it.

Others in the delegation were Bishops Charles Soreng of Hazaribag, Gabriel Kujur of Daltonganj, Felix Toppo of Jamshedpur, Paul Lakra of Gumla and Julius Marandi of Dumka.
  Kerala diocese plans pain management centers to promote saint's spirituality

By George Kommattathil

THAMARASSERY, JAN 7 (UCAN) -- The only diocese which has India's first woman saint, Saint Alphonsa, as its patron, plans to set up palliative centers in all parishes to promote her spirituality.

"Reaching out to the critically ill is an effective way to promote Saint Alphonsa's spirituality," said Father Remigius Inchananiyil, chancellor of Thamarassery diocese in the southern state of Kerala.

The nun's life was "full of suffering."

"There is no better way to teach the saint's spirituality than caring for suffering people," said Father Inchananiyil.

Saint Alphonsa, a Franciscan Clarist nun, was canonized on Oct. 12, 2008. She died in 1946 at the age of 36 after spending most of her life bedridden through constant illness. She was said to have never complained and always offered her physical pains as penance for the sins of others.

The diocese has just concluded a year dedicated to her.

Bishop Paul Chittilappilly said his is the only diocese that has Saint Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception as its patron. "The diocese chose her as patron in 1986 even before she was made a saint," he told UCA News.

The diocese conducted various spiritual and social programs to mark the year. It set up a palliative care unit in one of the parishes and organized seminars, camps and contests in parishes to promote the saint's spirituality.

On Dec. 26, the diocese gave 100 houses to the poor, including five families from other religions. Father Inchananiyil told UCA News another 50 houses are nearing completion.

"People responded well to the bishop's call for help with each parish building at least one house," he said.

One beneficiary, Lonai Nerinjapally, 70, said he is grateful to the diocese for helping him own a home. He added that his income is insufficient even to buy medicines.
  Singapore: Parish posts Masses online for housebound Catholics
SINGAPORE, JAN 7 (UCAN) -- The Church of St. Vincent de Paul is posting complete videos of its Saturday sunset Masses on its website for parishioners who cannot make it to church.

Parish priest Father Michael Sitaram said the videos are mainly to reach out to the housebound.

While they receive Holy Communion weekly from a Eucharistic minister, they are now able to view the Mass celebration despite being physically unable to attend. "Many of them were once active in the parish and are happy to see how the church is growing," said Father Sitaram.

Furthermore, some parishioners who are able to attend Mass may want to hear the homily again, he added.

The parish is believed to be the first in the Singapore archdiocese to offer such a service.

The priest says he got the idea from the American Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), where videos of Masses are broadcast. He also saw a similar service in the Philippines, he said.

After initial hiccups, the first Mass video of St. Vincent de Paul church was uploaded in August.

The church also offers a similar service featuring monthly Masses in Tagalog for Filipino workers.

Father Sitaram says he hopes to see other videos uploaded as well, such as those of the Divine Mercy devotion and of speakers on various topics on the faith.

This way, the parish can reach out not only to the housebound but also to young adults who lead busy lives and may not have time to attend such talks, the priest said.

While Father Sitaram said the present online service has been generally well-received, some see a down-side.

Parishioner Gregory Koh, 17, acknowledges the videos are useful for those who are unable to physically come for Mass, but said "people may use it as an opportunity not to come to church and just stay at home, as they feel that watching the videos is sufficient."

However, Father Sitaram stressed that watching the videos do not fulfill the Sunday Mass obligation for those who are able to attend Mass.
  Malaysia PM says he 'cannot stop' planned 'Allah' protest
BANGKOK, JAN 7 (UCAN) -- Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak says his government is powerless to stop a planned nationwide protest in mosques on Jan. 8 against a court decision to allow non-Muslims to use the word "Allah" for God.

He has called for calm. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, however, has discouraged supporters of his People's Justice Party from joining protests.

The High Court in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 6 granted the Home Ministry a stay on the recent ruling pending the hearing of an appeal.

Archbishop Murphy Pakiam of Kuala Lumpur, publisher of "Herald," the national Catholic weekly that won the court case over the use of the word "Allah" in its Malay section, agreed to hold off using the word until the final decision was made, local media reported.

High Court Judge Lau Bee Lan said her Dec. 31 ruling would not take effect until the Appeals Court decided on the Home Ministry's appeal. No date has been set for this hearing.

The controversy continues to rage on news websites and blogs with many Muslim groups opposed to non-Muslims using "Allah."

"Herald" editor Jesuit Father Lawrence Andrew said it would be difficult to get a fair and impartial hearing amid the controversy.

A Facebook group called "Opposing the use of the word 'Allah' by non-Muslims" has registered more than 119,000 members, while another Facebook group called "We support the use of the name Allah by all Malaysians" now has more than 11,000 members.

Bernard Dompok, a Catholic member of the cabinet, said Christians in his easternmost Sabah state call God "Allah" because the younger generation are more comfortable using Malay, the national language.
  Sri Lanka: Campaign to educate voters ahead of presidential poll
COLOMBO, JAN 7 (UCAN) -- More than 40 priests, nuns and laypeople have banded together in a campaign of voter education ahead of the Jan. 26 presidential election.

"Elections are an opportunity to educate voters, communities and churches on their civic responsibility," Oblate Father Rohan de Silva told a recent meeting of the group in Colombo.

The group, headed by Father de Silva, is urging bishops to issue a pastoral letter to Catholics explaining their civic duties and how to cast a valid vote.

Clergy representing various congregations say they will help advise voters on how to make their votes count.

S.G. Punchihewa, a Buddhist senior attorney at law and civic activist, gave the keynote address and explained how to fill out a ballot paper correctly. "The clergy can help people become more aware of the rights of voters," he said. He noted that on top of genuine mistakes on ballot papers, some people refuse to vote and others spoil their votes deliberately.

"If you do not vote, you support the winning candidate in a negative way by lessening the total number of votes," Punchihewa said.

Father Sunil Rupesinghe, provincial of the Blessed Sacrament congregation, suggested drawing up a manifesto outlining the kind of president the country wants.

"The Church can demand that whoever is elected as president respect the Human Rights Charter which advocates freedom of religion and quality for everybody irrespective of ethnic differences.

"But we are powerless and can only ask for a free and fair poll, and we can pray," he said.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former army commander, General Sarath Fonseka, the main contenders in the poll, are meeting bishops and other religious leaders to seek their endorsements.

Among the issues they discussed was interreligious dialogue to resolve social issues, according to media reports.

Rajapaksa met Bishop Valence Mendis of Chilaw on Jan. 4 during his visit to the city for an election rally.

The government has directed all employers to grant leave to their employees to cast their votes.
  Science and religion are 'inseparable companions'

LONAVALA, JAN 6 (UCAN) -- Man's mastery of nanoscience and nanotechnology will not diminish the attraction of religion, a Jesuit scholar says.

Father Job Kozhamthadam says people will still continue to be drawn to the mystery of religion even if scientists manage to answer all of nature's mysteries.

Religion's principal role is to help man find meaning and direction in life, the Jesuit priest told about 140 university professors, researchers and activists at a seminar.

The Jan. 1-5 event was titled: "Science-Religion Dialogue in the World of Nanoscience: The Encounter between the Mastery of Science and the Mystery of Religion." It was held at the Indian Institute of Science and Religion (IISR), established by Father Kozhamthadam 11 years ago, in Lonavala, near Mumbai.

Father Kozhamthadam, who has a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science, delivered the keynote address.

Science and religion are inseparable companions, he asserted. While science helps man make sense of the world, religion assists him find meaning in life, he explained.

Understanding nature's mysteries through research and study, particularly in nanoscience and nanotechnology enables man to have a better understanding of life and nature, he said.

Nanoscience is the study of the control of matter on an atomic and molecular level, while nanotechnology is the science of building machines at a subatomic level.

"Mastery and mystery should go hand in hand in our endeavor to build a better world and a better humanity," he said.

He pointed out that although science has made "incredible strides" in understanding the universe, man still cannot say the age of mystery is over.

For instance, despite many neurological breakthroughs, several fundamental aspects of the human mind and brain remain unknown. Human understanding of the mind is "still laughably primitive," he quoted US psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer as saying.

The priest said scientists still face "a formidable challenge" in cracking the neural code, the set of rules that transforms electrical pulses emitted by brain cells into perceptions, memories and decisions.

Thus, there is no sign that mysteries will disappear, "not even natural mysteries, much less religious mysteries," he said.

Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth (light of knowledge university), the pontifical seminary in Pune, together with three other colleges and a university helped organize the seminar.
  Policeman killed in terrorist attack in Srinagar; encounter continues

From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 6 -- A day after Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah completed one year in office, militants struck in the heart of Srinagar city by lobbing a grenade against Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel. In the fierce gun battle that followed, a policeman was killed and several civilians were injured.

It is after a gap of more than two years that militants carried out a suicide attack in Srinagar. The last suicide attack was at a hotel here on the bank of Dal Lake in October 2007.

Eyewitnesses said they heard fire-shots, followed by a bang of an exploding grenade. "After a couple of shots were fired, we saw CRPF personnel in a state of confusion. In the chaos, we heard a grenade exploding. Then we too ran for cover."

The firing caused panic in the area with local people running for cover. Shopkeepers pulled down their shutters while vehicular traffic came to a halt for a short while.

Militants engaged the security forces by taking shelter in a local hotel (Punjab Hotel) and the firing was going on when this report was filed. Intermittent gunshots could be heard from a distance and in no time the otherwise busy areas of Court road, Maisuma, Palladium road, Residency road and Budshah chowk wore a deserted look.

Security forces immediately cordoned off the area and sealed the roads leading towards the site of the encounter. The militants are holed up inside the hotel.

The Jammu and Kashmir police after cordoning the entire area evacuated the trapped civilians.

Police suspect two militants are hiding inside two different locations, but nothing was confirmed.

A CRPF spokesman said that the encounter was still on. "Two militants are still holed up inside Punjab Hotel in Lal Chowk."

A local militant outfit Jamiet-e-Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for the fidayeen attack (suicide mission).

According to the latest reports, the policeman killed has been identified as Mohammed Yusuf, who was posted as a driver of the Station House Officer of Maisuma Police station.

Reports further said that two CRPF personnel and seven civilians are among the injured. Rouf Ahmad, a cameraman of a private news channel (News 24) is among the injured. He was hit by a splinter from the grenade blast.

Security forces and police personnel chased people who were watching the encounter from a distance near the Biscoe School. While the encounter started, stone-pelting was going on in Maisuma and the adjoining areas.

More reinforcement was also sent and senior police officers and CRPF personnel rushed to the spot. Since Tuesday evening, police had beefed up security in Srinagar following intelligence reports of a high-profile attack.
  Traffic awareness week organized in Srinagar
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 6 -- Traffic police personnel organized a march past as part of the traffic week being observed here. They were supported by the police band. Motorcyclists followed, displaying placards that read out various traffic rules.

The march past started from Traffic Police Range Headquarters, here. 'Life is safe, if driving is safe' is the theme this year.

Traffic Police Kashmir also organized a cycle rally from Ram-Munshi Bagh to Nishat on January 4, wherein 50 Red Cross volunteers displayed the 'do's and don'ts' of safe driving.

"The idea is to educate people about traffic rules," stated a press release issued by the Media Centre, Zonal Police Headquarters, Srinagar. It added that volunteers apprised the general public of the use of medical aid, in case of an emergency.

Meanwhile, Police Public School students also held a road march on January 5. Traffic signal demonstrations and road accident emergency techniques were demonstrated on the occasion.

"If all necessary components of the modern-day traffic system are put in place here, many lives can be saved and the number of road accidents will decline," opined social activist Shaheen Bano.

Traffic here is controlled manually. Cops show hand signals to regulate traffic at intersections, junctions and places where there is heavy traffic. Dearth of traffic police, coupled with the absence of traffic signals, poor road maintenance and lack of road signs make matters worse.

"The traffic volume in various parts of Srinagar amply justifies the need for traffic signals," said a cop, while regulating traffic on one of the busiest routes in the city. He added that manual regulation of traffic was a tough job and the installation of signals could save a lot of manpower.
  Korea: Magazine 'nurtures children's hopes' for 50 years
SEOUL, JAN 6 (UCAN) -- The country's only Catholic monthly magazine for children celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, but is struggling for survival in the face of stiff competition from other media.

The magazine, "Sonyeon," (translated as "children") is produced by Seoul archdiocese's Catholic Publishing House.

Father Francis Xavier Kim Seung-chul, publisher of the magazine, told UCA News he has "a heavy heart ... rather than happiness" as the publication turns 50.

"I feel a sense of duty to keep publishing the magazine but the subscriptions keep decreasing," he said.

About 3,500 copies are produced a month and the magazine has some 2,000 subscribers. The rest of the copies are sent to schools, hospitals and other children-related institutions for free.

Editor Francisca Kim Hye-won told UCA News that stories and poems for children by adult writers make up about 40 per cent of the magazine's content. About 30 per cent is devoted to religious material, while the rest comprise articles contributed by readers and cartoons.

Despite its declining fortunes, the magazine still has a loyal following.

Leo Yeon Seung-cheol, 10, a subscriber, told UCA News how much he looks forward to getting each issue. "I enjoy the magazine. It has lots of interesting stories worth reading. I always await its arrival.

"I'm especially happy when it publishes my writings," he said.

Many older Catholics have fond memories of the magazine from their own youth.

"When I was an altar boy, there were always several issues of the magazine in the sacristy and they attracted curious altar boys like me," said Father Paul Kim Chol-ho, 55, education director of Seoul archdiocese.

Retired Auxiliary Bishop Paul Kim Ok-kyun of Seoul, who published the magazine's first issue, spoke of its early days in an interview published in the January issue.

"At that time, there was nothing worth reading for children, so the Church decided to publish the magazine for children to nurture their hopes and dreams," he said.
  Myanmar: Bible program gives hope to the desperate
YANGON, JAN 6 (UCAN) -- A weekly Bible-sharing program open to people of all faiths in Yangon has saved at least one woman from suicide.

Matthias Rani, 58, a mother of two, had tried to take her own life after being driven to despair by poverty. "Unable to bear the burden, I planned three times to kill myself," she told UCA News.

A Hindu until she converted to Catholicism, Rani says the Bible-sharing group at St. John's Catholic Church gave her hope to carry on. She said during the weekly sessions she heard how God had given her life, which is precious, and that she must live for him.

"From that time on, I decided to live for God and work for him by sharing my experiences from the Bible program with my neighbors."

The program aims to help Christians gain more knowledge of the Bible and live out their faith, according to U Joseph, 56, who initiated the program last May.

However, people of other religions started joining the program after hearing how the lives of participants had been changed as a result. Now about five Hindus and three Buddhists take part regularly out of about 120 people.

The program teaches participants how to live their lives according to the Bible, how to relate to others and how to acquire the virtues of patience and love.

At each Bible-sharing session, held on Saturdays, the group starts with some prayers followed by several praise songs. A leader then talks about the Bible passages for the day.

Gloria Hnin Powar Htun, 29, who was Muslim until she married a Catholic and converted, attends regularly. She said that her married life had been difficult with much friction with her in-laws. The Bible program helped her overcome that.

"I realized the power of patience and understood that the right way to treat others was to follow Christ's actions. My relationship with my husband and parents-in-law has completely changed," Powar Htun told UCA News.

Another participant, Rita Joseph, 51, said she used to explain some Gospel passages to her husband who is Buddhist.

"He refused to listen to me at first, but he finally agreed. Now instead of opposing me, he even accompanies me to the Bible-sharing sessions when he is free," she said.

A similar Tamil-language program is held each Saturday at St. Anthony's Church for about 120 people. It is attended by up to six Buddhists and 40 Hindus.
  China: Thousands brave weather, government ban to attend bishop's funeral
  XIWANZI, JAN 6 (UCAN) -- Some 2,500 Catholics braved freezing conditions on Jan. 6 to pay their last respects to "underground" Bishop Leo Yao Liang of Xiwanzi, who had spent almost 30 years of his life behind bars.

Vatican-approved Coadjutor Bishop Yao, who the government recognized only as a priest, died on Dec. 30 at the age of 86.

He had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1958 as he refused to join the independent Church movement, and released only in 1984. In 2002, he was clandestinely ordained as a bishop and had been detained several times since then.

The funeral service was held in Xiwanzi town, Chongli county, in Hebei province. Bishop Yao was referred to as "shepherd" during the service, after authorities banned the use of the term "bishop."

The government also banned Catholics outside the county from attending the funeral, while snow-covered roads prevented others from coming, according to sources.

Of the 15 diocesan priests, only three who have registered with the government were allowed to conduct the funeral Mass and the burial liturgy.

Bishop Yao's death leaves the local Church in a dilemma.

Bishop Andrew Hao Jinli of Xiwanzi, 93, is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and other illnesses, and is confined to a wheelchair.

Sources say that due to the difficult relations with the government-approved Church community, the Holy See is unlikely to appoint a younger coadjutor bishop to succeed Bishop Hao.

The issue of bishop succession had worried Bishop Yao before his death, sources say.

The prelate fell seriously ill in mid-December and died of multiple organ failure two weeks later. Authorities had prohibited him from leaving Xiwanzi parish after he was released from a 30-month detention in February 2008.

Bishop Yao was born in 1923 and was ordained a priest in 1948. Three years later, under the Communist regime, he was banned from doing pastoral work and forced to grow vegetables and cut firewood for a living.

The late bishop is remembered for laying the foundation stone of a new Gothic church building in Xiwanzi town after the older building was demolished. The new building is still being constructed.

Catholicism was introduced to Xiwanzi more than 300 years ago. In the 19th century, the village became the headquarters of the Mongolia apostolic vicariate and the base of the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation's missionary work in the extensive region beyond the Great Wall.

The government-approved Church had merged Xiwanzi diocese and neighboring Xuanhua diocese to form Zhangjiakou diocese in 1980. However, the two underground Church communities continue to operate despite government pressure and surveillance.
  Nuns urged to counter trend toward smaller families
NEW DELHI, JAN 6 (UCAN) -- India's new women-Religious leader says nuns should try to convince couples to have children, and arrest what she calls a "culture of death" in the country in which women resort to abortions.

Sister Prasanna Thattil says shrinking families adversely affect societies, cultures, religions and Religious life. She noted that many people now prefer not to have children.

Sister Thattil, superior general of the Kerala-based Congregation of the Holy Family, was recently elected president of the women's section of the Conference of Religious India (CRI).

"Growing modernism, individualism and profit-oriented lifestyles have affected families," she said. However, such trends could be arrested if nuns visited families more frequently and spoke to women about the issues they face, she added.

"Women understand families and women better," said Sister Thattil, who now heads India's more than 100,000 Catholic nuns.

Studies have shown that the traditional Indian extended family is giving way to Western-style nuclear families with a maximum of two children. The number of people choosing not to marry is also increasing.

Meanwhile, the Consortium on National Consensus for Medical Abortion in India estimates there are about 11 million abortions in the country each year. Around 20,000 women die annually due to complications from illegal abortions.

Sister Thattil says one reason couples avoid having children is the increased cost of living. She said that Catholic nuns can offer practical help and "must share more of their time and resources with families."

"One way to help them may be to offer free education for third and fourth children in our institutions," she said.

Religious congregations could "financially help families by cutting down on our celebrations, decorations and even forgoing a meal or two at times as a community."

She said these and other challenges can be handled only if Religious across India work together. "It is a call to come out of our cocoons and collaborate with each other."
  Parishioners pray for their 'adopted' priests
  KALNA, JAN 5 (UCAN) -- Catholics in Asansol diocese in West Bengal are "adopting" priests as their answer to Pope Benedict XVI's call to observe the Year for Priests.

Families who do so pray for that priest every day.

The Pope declared a year dedicated to priests starting from June 19, 2009.

Roshomoy Hansda, from the Virgin of the Poor parish in Ambika Kalna, said his family's "adopting" of Father Francis Bodugu from Katwa Parish had brought them closer to the priest.

"We pray for him especially during the rosary and evening prayers which we do as a family each day," said the 46-year-old layman.

The family also recites together a special prayer Asansol diocese has distributed among its parishes.

Some 250 families of the parish have each adopted a priest from their diocese and are praying for him during the special year.

Hansda, head teacher of a government-managed primary school and a Catholic lay leader said Father Bodugu had attended his son's birthday celebration.

The priest says the spiritual adoption program has helped him bond with the Hansda family not just spiritually, but in "an actual way." The "adoption" had made him feel that he has some people to pray for him and support him spiritually.

"I feel I am loved by them," the priest told UCA News.

Joy Hansda (no relation to Roshomoy) and his family pray for Father Raj Shekhar, another diocesan priest who studies in Pune, western India.

"We always pray for priests during our family prayers but this year we are happy to name a priest and pray for him in a special way," the 42-year-old bank employee told UCA News.

Virgin of the Poor parish priest Jesuit Father Sebastian Xalxo, said the diocese had provided a list of 81 priests and asked Catholics to pray for them.

Father Xalxo said that in his parish, he insisted that only those families that pray together daily could adopt priests. More than 250 families volunteered to do so, he said.

"The bond initiated through spiritual adoption has gone beyond the spiritual. There is a personal bond created between the priests and the families which is mutually supportive," Father Xalxo said.
  Malayasia: Islamic party approves Christian use of 'Allah'
  BANGKOK, JAN 5 (UCAN) -- Malaysia's main opposition Islamic party has given its blessing to Christians using the word "Allah" for God, despite strong opposition in other Muslim circles.

The High Court in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 31 overturned a government ban on non-Muslim publications using the word.

"The use of the word Allah by the people of the Abrahamic faiths such as Christianity and Judaism is acceptable," PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) declared Jan. 5 on its website.

But the word "must not be misused or abused or it will affect racial and religious harmony in the country," the statement cautioned.

"PAS strongly objects to any aggressive and provocative approach that can lead to tension in society."

Other Islamic groups have not been so accommodating.

A Facebook group opposed to the practice has attracted more than 60,000 hits, and many personal blogs written by Malaysians are abuzz over the issue.

Even former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has entered the fray, saying "such a sensitive matter cannot be resolved by only referring to the law."

"Allah" is not an accurate translation for "God" in the Christian sense, he argued in his Malay-language blog.

However, his daughter Marina Mahathir, a social activist, wrote in her blog that "a confident Muslim never gets confused over which is his/her religion and which is other people's."

Prominent Islamic scholar Mohammad Asri Zainul Abidin called for guidelines on the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims.

The lecturer of Islamic studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia (Malaysian University of Science) in Penang and former mufti (interpreter or expounder of Islamic law) of Perlis state outlined his suggestions in his Malay-language blog.

"Allah" should be used only to refer to the one true God and no other deity, he insisted. No one should use the word "Allah" to insult Islam or to manipulate Islamic teachings, he added.

In interactions between Muslims and people of other religions, the word "Allah" should be used in a respectful way that glorifies God, the scholar continued.

He also referred to a statement he had made in his blog in the past: "Contesting the name of God is not the need of the day, but rather a movement to build up the faith and improve the welfare of the people."

The High Court in Kuala Lumpur made its decision in a case brought by the national Catholic weekly "Herald." The weekly had sought to overturn a government ban on its use of "Allah" to refer to God in its Malay-language section.

The Home Ministry on Jan. 4 lodged an appeal against the ruling.

The government and some Muslim groups have maintained that allowing religions other than Islam to use the word "Allah" would confuse Muslims.
  Philippines: Massacre trial opens amid support for judge
QUEZON CITY, JAN 5 (UCAN) -- Catholics have praised the courage of the judge trying the Maguindanao massacre case, in which the main suspect pleaded not guilty to multiple murder charges on Jan. 5.

Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes agreed to take on the case after another judge refused, citing concerns for his own and his family's safety.

Benedictine Sister Mary John Mananzan described Solis-Reyes' decision as "laudable." The nun, co-chairperson for women in the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, said in an interview she had "full confidence" that Solis-Reyes would conduct a fair and honest trial.

The main suspect in the case, Andal Ampatuan Jr., has pleaded not guilty to 41 counts of murder in connection with the killing of members of a rival political clan, journalists and NGO workers.

More than 100 militiamen allegedly carried out the massacre, hiding the bodies in shallow graves. One of the 57 victims is yet to be identified.

The trial was moved to the Philippine National Police headquarters in Camp Crame, Quezon City, for security reasons. Access to the makeshift courtroom is limited.

Earlier in the day, the pontifical University of Santo Tomas community praised the "courage and calm determination" of Solis-Reyes, an alumna.

National broadcast networks carried the statement, which assured the judge of the university community's "continuing prayers for divine protection and guidance." It also called on Filipinos to pray and support "every initiative to dismantle the culture of violence and lawlessness afflicting our country."

Solis-Reyes, 49, served as a public attorney from 1992 to 1995, and as a prosecutor from 1995 to 2000, the Supreme Court's public information office reported.

She served as a Metropolitan Trial Court judge from May 2001 until her assignment to a Quezon City Regional Trial Court on Dec. 28, 2004.

Ampatuan family members are among more than 200 respondents named in cases relating to the Maguindanao massacre.
  Malaysia: Muslims protest, government appeals court's 'Allah' decision
  BANGKOK, JAN 4 (UCAN) -- Muslims are divided over a High Court decision overturning a government ban on the use of the word "Allah" in the Malay section of the Catholic weekly, "Herald."

The Home Ministry on Jan. 4 lodged an appeal against the Dec. 31 ruling while local media reported that about 200 Muslims gathered in Penang the previous day to protest the Kuala Lumpur court's decision. The peaceful protest, organized by the Anti-Interfaith Council Network (Badai), called on the government to intervene.

In Kuala Lumpur, 13 mostly Islamic-based NGOs on Jan. 3 filed a police report opposing the "Herald's" use of the word "Allah," while some 10,000 people have reportedly joined a Facebook group page to oppose the court decision. Sources told UCA News that more protests are planned.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has called for calm, saying the matter needed to be resolved through the courts.

Nik Aziz Nik Mat, spiritual leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS, part of the opposition alliance, however, said it is permissible for followers of Abrahamic faiths to use the term "Allah." He cautioned, however, that the term could be misused, and that Christian and Muslim leaders should engage in dialogue.

Shah Kirit Kakulal Govingji, chief mission officer of the Islamic Information and Services Foundation, an NGO that runs theological programs for Muslims, said he respects the court decision.

However, he disagreed that the word "Allah" simply means "God" in the Malay language, explaining that "Allah" refers specifically to the God of Islam. He added that he has no problem with non-Muslims using "Allah" if they are referring to God in this respect.

He said regardless of further court decisions on the matter, interreligious dialogue should continue. "Problems that occur can be opportunities to foster better understanding," he added.

In an earlier interview, Chandra Muzaffar, president of the Malaysia-based human rights organization Just International said that the word "Allah" was already in use before the time of Prophet Muhammad.

He added that Muslims have to recognize that some Christians use the term and that it also appears in the Sikhs' holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.

However, "Allah" for Muslims has a certain meaning and notion -- that of pure monotheism, he explained. "When Muslims use the term they know what it means. (But) if others want to use the term and give it their own meaning, that's their business. We should be tolerant of this."

The Home Ministry in 2007 issued a blanket ban on the use of "Allah" in all non-Muslim publications, arguing it would confuse Muslims and draw them to other religions.

Archbishop Murphy Pakiam of Kuala Lumpur, publisher of "Herald," challenged the ban.
  Catholics riot over defamation of parish priest
PANAJI, JAN 4 (UCAN) -- Catholics from a Goa parish have staged a violent protest, blocking roads and ransacking the home of a villager leader who they say had circulated a CD defaming their priest.

The parishioners of the Church of Our Lady of Merces in Colva ended their protest on Dec. 29, after Goa's state officials, including the chief minister, pledged to arrest the village leader.

Parishioners staged their protest after an audio CD was circulated, allegedly by Calvert Gonsalves, a member of the village council. The CD accused Father Diogo Fernandes of embezzling funds for a school building and living with a woman.

The recording also accused the Church hierarchy of selling off Church land and pocketing the funds.

Gonsalves, who went into hiding when the protest began, has not been arrested.

Jason Andrade, from the parish council, said in a police complaint filed on Dec. 26 that the CD had shocked villagers.

Hundreds took to the streets, attacking Gonsalves' home and torching a fast-food kiosk. They also set up barricades along major thoroughfares and burned tires.

Tension had actually started in May after someone circulated defamatory letters about the priest. Parishioners were angered then because the police took no action despite three complaints being filed.

Rene A.A. Mesquita, another parishioner, alleged the "vilification campaign" was carried out by some Catholics upset at the priest's close scrutiny of parish accounts.

These Catholics were handling the parish accounts and money, when the priest started examining the accounts, he said.

He also alleged this same group had defamed a number of priests who had worked in the parish over the past 16 years. "If a priest failed to agree with them, he would be accused of a number of things," he told UCA News.

Colva police inspector Edwin Colaco said a case had been filed against those believed to be behind the CD and an investigation has begun.

Official Church spokesperson Father Francis Caldeira refused to comment on the issue.
  Bangladesh: Caritas slashes programs due to global economic crisis
  DHAKA, JAN 4 (UCAN) -- Caritas slashed program funding in 2009 due to the fall-out of the global financial crisis, with the country's poorest being hit the hardest, the Church's social action arm says.

School grants, maternity programs and livelihood schemes were all cut back due to a squeeze on funds.

"This crisis ultimately affected children, women and day laborers," Benedict Alo D'Rozario, executive director of Caritas Bangladesh, told UCA News. "There were even cases where we had to cut salaries of our community school teachers because of budget shortages."

D'Rozario said school grants to the country's poorest children had been cut by 20 per cent and training for midwives in the Safe Motherhood Project curtailed.

Caritas Bangladesh's Natural Resources Management Project, which helps poor people start small fishery projects, services to HIV/AIDS patients and elderly people, as well as disaster risk reduction projects were all affected.

Eight out of 60 Caritas projects of the organization had budget cuts of 10-20 per cent. Two new projects were also shelved for lack of funds.

For Caritas's July 2007 to June 2008 budget year, the agency spent US$19.8 million. That was reduced to US$17.4 million for July 2008 to June 2009.

Despite the cutbacks, the agency still managed to start seven new projects, helping to save the jobs of its 5,000 full time staff.

Overseas supporting partners who visited Caritas Bangladesh recently said that they are "optimistic" about improvements to the situation in coming years, D'Rozario said.

"We are hopeful of getting support from different public sources through our partners, but there is less hope of funding from private sources," he said.

Caritas has 164 member organizations throughout the world.
  Vatican: Pope calls for armed groups to abandon violence
  By Gerard O'Connell, Special Correspondent in Rome

VATICAN CITY, JAN 4 (UCAN) -- Pope Benedict XVI's New Year message included an impassioned plea to armed groups around the world to abandon violence.

"To each and everyone I say: stop, reflect and abandon the path of violence," the Pope said.

"At present this step may seem impossible but if you have the courage to take it, God will help you and you will feel in your hearts the joy of peace which perhaps you have long forgotten."

Asia is home to several hotspots, such as the conflicts with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ongoing violence and kidnappings in the southern Philippines, and almost daily separatist bombings in the south of Thailand.

The Pope made his call for peace at midday on Jan. 1 after celebrating a Mass for peace in St. Peter's Basilica.

The Catholic Church has celebrated New Year's Day as a "World Day of Peace" since Paul VI started the tradition in 1967. Catholics around the world are asked to reflect on how they can contribute to world peace on this special day.

In his homily, the Pope urged people worldwide to look beyond the "color" of the other person's skin, "his nationality, his language and his religion" and to see there a person "who is not a rival or an enemy" but "a brother in humanity."

Meanwhile, the Pope has pardoned the woman who assaulted him on Christmas Eve and sent his personal secretary to convey the message to her personally on Dec. 31. The Swiss-Italian woman, Susanna Maiolo, 25, is being cared for at an undisclosed medical center at Subiaco, south of Rome, where she was taken after being arrested in St. Peter's Basilica. Maiolo, who is said to have a history of psychological problems, jumped security barriers and knocked the Pope to the ground.
  Philippines: National Peace Plan reviewed
From Ben Cal

MANILA, JAN 3 -- The Philippine Government through the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) has concluded the last of a series of Learning Experience Study (LES) to review the implementation of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's National Peace Plan.

The LES is a policy dialogue series aimed at assessing the accomplishments of the peace process between the government and rebel groups, particularly the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People's Army/National Democratic Front (NDF).

It, likewise, seeks to measure the national impact of OPAPP on the ground, as well as identify gaps and the challenges of its implementation.

The policy dialogues were attended by various national and regional agencies, local government units, OPAPP implementing units and civil society organizations.

The series of meetings held all over the country provided participants an opportunity to assess the existing programs and the impact on the ground. It also allowed participants to discuss issues that may have hindered or facilitated the implementation of the current peace plan.

Lt-Col. Clifford CY Riveral of the Philippine Army said the OPAPP peace building and conflict prevention effort has been felt in local communities.

"This discourse has supplemented us with gaps, breakthroughs, and an enhanced framework of action to best convey our services," he said.

The meeting also provided the participants an opportunity to identify areas for new partnerships.

Flordeliza Trinidad, provincial director of the Department of Interior and Local Government in Zambales, said: "The dialogue, as an assessment platform, will certainly tighten links between OPAPP and its partners in local government, key government agencies and civil society. The policy dialogues were conducted all over the country. A national consultation and validation workshop is slated for December 16 in Manila.

OPAPP Secretary Annabelle T. Abaya said the National Peace Plan is an integral part of the Philippine Midterm Development Plan that lays down its goals, strategies and action plan towards national harmony through a comprehensive peace process.

Under this program, the government aims for the completion of comprehensive peace agreements with rebel groups this year; the completion of implementation of all final peace agreements signed since 1986; the mainstreaming of rebel groups through an enhanced amnesty, reintegration and reconciliation program; rehabilitation, development and healing of conflict- affected areas; and the strengthening the peace constituency and citizen’s participation in the peace process.
  Swine flu cases on the rise in Jammu and Kashmir; four die so far
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, JAN 3 -- H1N1 influenza has so far claimed four deaths in the state of Jammu and Kashmir with the number of influenza victims showing an upsurge. Already, 106 cases have been reported in the state so far.

Two deaths each have been reported from Kashmir and Jammu divisions over the past few days. Besides, five doctors at Sheri Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS)-Soura have reportedly tested positive for the influenza.

Dr Shafqat Khan, the state nodal officer for the disease while confirming the report said that the doctors might have been infected while treating patients afflicted with flu.

A few doctors had already been confirmed to have contracted the disease during the past few weeks, but this is the first time that so many doctors of only tertiary care health centre have tested positive.

"This raises questions about the measures taken by the administration to protect its doctors from contracting virus while treating patients," said Abdul Rehman, a senior resident, here.

21-year-old Muskan was the first casualty. She is the first civilian to have died due to the disease last month. Earlier, a death was reported from the Army's Udhampur base on November 20.

Muskan from Tullamulla-Ganderbal here was admitted to SKIMS on December 1 with acute respiratory problems. Doctors at the institute admitted her to the intensive care unit and her blood samples were sent to Delhi for examination. She died on December 6. The report confirming that she suffered from swine flu came on December 12.

Dr Shafaqat said, "Two deaths reported from SKIMS include a woman and a 58-year old businessman of Mattan-Anantnag, who had returned from Delhi on December 18. In Jammu too two deaths have been reported."

He said the patients who died at SKIMS were declared positive for the virus after their death. In both these cases the report came after they had died.

Blaming 'mismanagement' of swine flu cases by healthcare workers for the death, Dr Khan said, "We won't call it negligence, but it is simply mismanagement at hospitals."

Among the four victims only two had a recent travel history and the mode of infection of the other two is still unknown. Dr Khan said they might have caught the virus by coming into contact with infected persons. "It so happens that the virus remains dormant for some time after transmitting from a patient to a healthy person. While the patient recovers, the virus takes control of the healthy person."

Dr Khan said the Sanat Nagar swine flu surveillance centre here has been receiving three or four suspected cases a day for the past one month. "Before November we would receive around two cases a day but in November the count went down to zero for a fortnight or so. The daily turnover of suspected cases is showing a 35 per cent increase."

The surge in flu cases led the authorities to start surveillance centres at several places in the state.

Dr Khan said that the flu had seen a surge and rate of increase of disease has gone up by 40 per cent. He, however, added that the upward trend was not a big cause of worry as it was on expected lines and was happening everywhere. "It is a season when chance of contracting flu increases."
  Women fight shy of contesting panchayat elections in Kashmir
From Afsana Bhat

NOORKAH-URI, JAN 1 -- While women across the country contest elections enthusiastically, they are not given any support here. People in remote parts of Jammu and Kashmir are reluctant to support women who wish to contest Panchayat elections.

The village of Noorkah in border town Uri is one such example. "I would love to contest the elections but I know no one will support me," says Shabnam Bano, a resident of Noorkah, adding that there were several other women who also wished to do so, but lacked family and societal backing.

Her husband, Syed Arif Hussain chips in, "People here don't trust women and do not encourage their participation."

He, however, adds that he was ready to support his wife if she desired to contest elections for the office of a panch. "As a sarpanch she will have to attend meetings outside the Valley. How is that possible?" he asks.

"The panchayat should be separated from politics. It should be concerned only with the development of the village," says sarpanch of the village Syed Rafiq Hussain.

"We will support any woman who wishes to contest elections. However, education is a must. The candidate should have completed her matriculation and have some experience in social work," Hussain states.

"A sarpanch should also have sound financial background. Otherwise, there are chances of him/her becoming corrupt," he adds.

Hussain, who also works as a contractor, says he would not be contesting the next elections, as he feels it is time consuming. "A lot of time is spent solving disputes. People vote for us, but we aren't allowed to work. Funds are inadequate and we end up spending money from our pockets," he rues.

A panchayat officer, on condition of anonymity, offers an interesting piece of information. "The Panchayati Raj system is not in place in the Valley as its term has expired. It is the Gram Sabha that overlooks the functioning of development works in most villages," he says.

"There is negligible women participation in the Gram Sabha. The 33 per cent reservation for women has brought relief in other states, but not in Kashmir. As there is no system in place here, nothing is visible on the ground," he added.
  Christians in India faced three attacks per week in 2009
By Vishal Arora

NEW DELHI, DEC 31 (Compass Direct News) -- After unprecedented large-scale attacks on Christians in the previous two years, 2009 brought hardly any respite as the minority faith faced an average of more than three violent attacks a week.

There were at least 152 attacks on Christians in 2009, according to the "Partial List of Major Incidents of Anti-Christian Violence in India" released by the Evangelical Fellowship of India.

"The trend of attacks on the Christian community by rightwing Hindu groups goes unabated," said Dr. Dominic Emmanuel, the spokesperson of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese. "Overall, the Christian community still feels insecure."

Emmanuel also noted that none of the states that have "anti-conversion" laws have repealed them. The north-central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Orissa in the east, Gujarat in the west and Himachal Pradesh in the north have anti-conversion laws, which Hindu hardliners routinely use to arrest Christians on spurious accusations of "forcible conversion."

"If 2007 and 2008 went down in history as the most blood-soaked ones in the history of modern Christianity in India, 2009 surely rates as the year of frustrating confrontations with the law and tardy governance and on justice for the victims of communal violence," said Dr. John Dayal, a Christian and human rights activist and member of the government's National Integration Council.

Dayal referred to violence that erupted in Orissa's Kandhamal district during the Christmas week in 2007, killing at least four Christians and burning 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, as rightwing Hindu groups falsely blamed Christians for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

A disturbing new trend emerged this year as southern India, which had long been considered a haven for Christians, recorded the highest incidence of anti-Christian violence. Of the total 152 incidents, 86 were reported from southern states, mainly Karnataka with 48, Andhra Pradesh with 29, Tamil Nadu with five and Kerala with four.

Northern and central states, seen as the stronghold of rightwing Hindu extremists, recorded 42 incidents of violence, half the number in the south.

There were 15 attacks in Madhya Pradesh state, 14 in neighboring Chhattisgarh, three each in Uttar Pradesh and the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, and one each in the national capital Delhi and neighboring Haryana state.

In the west, seven attacks were reported: six in Maharashtra and one in Gujarat.

In the northeast, four attacks were reported: three in Assam and one in Manipur.

Karnataka recorded the highest number of violent incidents as the first-ever victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state elections in 2007 emboldened rightwing Hindu extremist groups. Karnataka became the first southern state with a stand-alone BJP government in the history of India.

Anti-Christian violence in Andhra Pradesh rose to new heights after a Christian, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, became the chief minister of the state in May 2004. To target him politically, rightwing Hindu groups attacked Christians while accusing them of converting Hindus to Christianity. This year Reddy died on Sept. 2 in a chopper crash.

The incidence of Christian persecution in the north and the central states declined apparently due to the BJP's defeat in the April-May general elections and a growing realization among a section of the BJP leadership that violent incidents no longer please voters. But the hard-line section of the BJP and groups linked to the party, such as the VHP and its youth wing Bajrang Dal, carried on with their hardcore anti-Christian stand.

Orissa state in the east, which witnessed two massive spates of attacks on Christians in 2007 and 2008, saw only two recorded violent incidents this year.

The morale of Christians in Orissa, however, remained low as few assailants in the 2008 rampage were brought to justice.

"The courts in Kandhamal make a mockery of the judicial process, and the murderers lord it over the witnesses and victims while judges and law look on," Dayal said. "The church remains helpless, its puny effort at giving strength to the witnesses falling far too short."

Of 787 cases registered by Orissa police, 100 are being handled by two-fast track courts in Kandhamal. Around 35 cases have been heard, resulting in around 50 convictions and more than 190 acquittals. Manoj Pradhan, a legislator for the BJP, has been exonerated "for lack of evidence" in six cases, most of them involving murder charges.

Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said the growing number of acquittals was producing a culture of impunity, "where those who commit crimes against Christian minority do not fear punishment by law."

"As the elected representative of the Orissa state assembly [Pradhan] has been let off in murder cases," George said. "People want to know what has happened to the long arms of justice."

Dayal, who was in Kandhamal recently, said that of the more than 4,640 houses burned in 2008 violence, only 200 have a roof over the rebuilt walls as 2009 ends.

"And perhaps at the end of the next year, another 2,500, God willing, will have been rebuilt," he said. "But around 2,000 houses will even then remain unfinished."

Dayal added that more than 20,000 men, women and children of Kandhamal continue to live as refugees or homeless people in various cities, working at odd jobs and sometimes begging.

"Some girls have already been pushed into the evil of human trafficking," he said.

Most people in Kandhamal remain without jobs, and the rehabilitation process, in which the church is participating, still is a long distance from covering all victims, Dayal said, adding, "The state government seems to have called it a day with the barest minimum done in this sector."

Emmanuel of the Delhi Archdiocese said that since the BJP is not in power at the federal level, some of their front organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal will harass Christians in order to remain in the news.

"Christianity teaches us to hope in God," Emmanuel said. "We can only hope that 2010 will be a better year for Christians, but in practical terms it really does not appear that things would be any better as the ranks of rightwing Hindu fundamentalists keep their pressure."

There are around 24 million Christians in India, or roughly 2.3 per cent of the over 1.1 billion people.
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