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  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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  NEWS  
     
 
   
  No need for blasphemy law: Catholic Bishops
  INDIAN bishops meeting in Guwahati have disagreed with Meghalaya state government's reported move to enact an anti-blasphemy law in the state.

The Church disagrees with the move as the Indian Penal Code has provisions to punish those who "hurt the religious sentiments of people," said the bishops, according to Church news agency Fides.

Meghalaya contemplated introducing a law to check blasphemous activities in the wake of Christian outrage last week against a school book picturing Jesus with lighted cigarette and beer bottle.

Ampareen Lyngdoh, Meghalaya's education minister said the proposed law "will help the government take action against" people who publish such books.

But the bishops maintained such a law could be distorted and manipulated by fundamentalist groups, as occurs in some Islamic nations, the Vatican-based agency said.

The bishops said they are "deeply offended by the blasphemous image of Christ used on school books" and later on posters in Punjab. They also supported the legal actions both the state governments have taken.

With these comments sent to Fides, "the Indian Bishops have spoken officially on the case of the dissemination of a blasphemous image of Christ," the agency said.

Some 160 bishops of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, gathered for their Feb 24 - March 3 biennial meet, have not issued any public statement on the issue.

But Fides in its Feb. 25 report said it has learnt "from the conference" that the bishops have welcomed the withdrawal of the textbooks and legal proceedings initiated.

The bishops have welcomed the apology issued by the publisher, saying an "oversight and human error" of the book designer, who downloaded the picture from the Internet caused the mistake.

Source: Bishops of India say they are offended, but do not desire a law against blasphemy (Fides)
 
   
   
  Court helps Christians divorce faster
  THE Kerala High Court on Thursday struck down a "discriminatory" clause in the Indian Divorce Act, helping Christian couples to apply for divorce less than two years of their marriage.

The court struck down a section that said Christians can apply for divorce only two years after marriage. The court suggested reducing the waiting period to one year to make it uniform with similar laws governing people of other religions.

The court said the clause of the Indian Divorce Act, applicable only to Christians, is "discriminatory" because people of other religions do not have such a waiting period for seeking divorce.

The clause is "also anti-constitutional" as it violated the Indian constitution that guarantees equality before law irrespective of religion, the court said while ruling in favor of accepting the divorce petition of Praveen Thomas and Soumya Thomas who are seeking divorce.

The couple married 2008 April 6 filed for "divorce by mutual consent" in a lower court eight months later in December. But the court dismissed the application saying their marriage was not two years old.

The couple approached the High court against the lower court's decision. It said Hindus and Parsis can file for divorce by mutual consent within one year of marriage.

Separate personal laws govern each religious community in India and allow those with no religion to marry under the Special Marriage Act of 1954.

"Christian couples alone have to wait for two years to approach court," the court said. It noted the Special Marriage Act, also allows the court to accept divorce application a year after marriage. (Courtesy: CathNewsIndia)

Source: HC strikes down time limit in section 10-A of Indian Divorce Act (The Hindu)
 
   
   
  Search begins for 'Pakistani Christian Idol'
  LAHORE, FEB 26 (UCAN) -- Popular US TV show American Idol 2010 which is just starting its first round of eliminations has inspired a priest to launch the first televised talent contest in Pakistan for Christian youth.

Capuchin Father Morris Jalal is staging Rising Stars, for young Christians at St. Francis Church in Lahore.

The contest is open to young people aged 15 to 20 and after auditioning they will be divided in groups of 10 with the winner of each group competing in the grand final in the hope of winning the 10,000 rupee (US$118) grand prize. The entry fee for each contestant is 200 rupees.

Nine Christian teenagers, three of them girls, have so far turned entered the contest. They turned up for auditions on Feb. 25 in the church's upper lobby which is being used as a studio. The judges will include Father Jalal and two leaders of the church choir.

According to Father Jalal, the themes of the year-long competition will change according to the liturgical season.

"The first round is based exclusively on Lent. All participants are to sing sad psalms and hymns," he said shortly before the auditions began.

The two-hour auditions were recorded for Catholic TV, a local cable channel service Father Jalal launched last year. Each participant was asked to sing two religious songs and was given tips to improve their performances.

"We didn't reject anyone. We plan to train them to a professional level. It has been quite an effort to promote Christian talent through the media," the priest told UCA News adding that the teens will get further training by professionals.

Speaking to UCA News, Benz John, 19, one of the Catholic participants, praised the church for staging the contest.

"I used to sing for fun but this is my first professional appearance. I've learnt a bit about controlling my breathing, improvisation and stage performance. Hopefully the training will help me perform better," the factory worker, told UCA News.

Rising Stars will add to Catholic TV's special program schedule for Lent. It includes talk shows on issues regarding the Christian fast, documentaries on the Stations of the Cross, Sorrowful Mysteries, discussions with youth regarding Lent, and a TV premier of The Passion of the Christ film. Catholic TV is currently viewed in 11 Christian majority areas.
 
   
   
  Prayers for murdered nun's canonization
  BHOPAL, FEB 26 (UCAN) -- Catholics gathered for the 15th death anniversary of a nun murdered in Madhya Pradesh and prayed for her speedy canonization.

Some 700 people including Religious and laity gathered Thursday [Feb. 25] at the tomb of the Franciscan Clarist Sister Rani Maria Vattalil. The tomb is located at Indore diocese's Udainagar village, where the nun worked.

The nun, now widely known as Sister Rani, was killed aboard a bus on Feb. 25, 1995 by a contract killer, who stabbed her at least 50 times. The work of the 41-year-old nun among poor landless people had upset some landlords.

Former Archbishop Pascal Topno of Bhopal, based in the state capital, led the anniversary liturgy with priests, nuns and laypeople from different parts of the state.

"She shed her blood to save the people in this village. She dedicated her life for the faith and became a role model. She died for us, and is now interceding for us in heaven," he said.

In 2007 the nun was officially called a "Servant of God" as the Church completed its diocesan tribunal inquiry, the initial step into the cause of her canonization.

The archbishop led others in saying special prayers for the speedy canonization of the murdered nun.

Sister Sinclare, superior general of the congregation described the late nun as "a great missionary and martyr." She said, "the blood of martyr" will help Christianity grow in the area.

She also appealed to her nuns to face the challenges in the "mission boldly" and noted that anti-Christian violence has increased in the region "more than ever."

Christian leaders say attacks against their people have increased ever since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people's party) came to power in the state in December 2003.

Sister Sinclare said the Sister Rani was "enthusiastic about the evangelization" and was strong in her convictions and faith in Christ.

Divine Word Father Jomon Alackal, who works in the region, told UCA News the "sacrifice" of the nun helped the local Church "highlight the difficult situation in which missioners" live in India.
 
   
   
  Youths place faith in God, not clergy, says survey
  GUWAHATI, FEB 26 (UCAN) -- Most Catholic youths in India have immense faith in God but not so much in Church leaders and elders, a survey suggests.

The youth commission of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) conducted the nationwide survey to formulate the Church's national youth policy for the next ten years.

The survey results were presented at the CBCI'S ongoing biennial plenary in Guwahati, Assam, where 163 bishops from India's 164 dioceses are in attendance.

Some 40 youth delegates attended the first two days of the Feb. 24-March 3 assembly which has adopted "Youth for peace and harmony" as its main theme.

The survey was conducted among some 6,000 young people with an average age of 23 over a two-month period last year.

Saiby Mathew, a youth leader who coordinated the project, said the survey showed young Catholics value the Church and appreciate their faith and its values.

Catholic youths in India "love to participate" in Church activities if given encouragement and support, he told the bishops.

An overwhelming 90 per cent of respondents said attending Sunday Mass is important for their spiritual growth, while an equal number considers the Eucharist as the center of their lives.

More than one third (36 per cent) said they go to confession every month.

However, a whopping 70 per cent of respondents said Church leaders and elders do not respect young people's views. More than half the respondents (54 per cent) said they are not encouraged to join various commissions and organizations at parish and diocesan level.

Disturbingly, nearly 40 per cent said young people experience discrimination on the basis of gender, class and caste.

Many respondents said girls and youths from dalit and tribal groups are not treated equally even in parishes. Parishes give special preference to young people from rich families, said 68 per cent of those surveyed.

As a result of the survey the youth commission said Church officials should be transparent in their dealings with young people since discrimination and favoritism stifles youth initiative.

The commission suggested setting up youth friendly platforms at grassroots level to empower young people to serve the Church and society. It also wants the Church to give more opportunity to young people among tribal, dalit and rural families.

The commission urged Church institutions to nurture youths better and guide and support those living away from home in their search for jobs.
 
   
   
  Delhi Catholics pray for beheaded Sikhs
  NEW DELHI, FEB 26 (UCAN) -- Delhi archdiocese held an interreligious prayer service Thursday [Feb. 25] for two Sikh men, kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan reportedly because of their faith.

The Taliban in Pakistan kidnapped the two men in the Khyber Agency (district) two weeks ago, killing them on Sunday. Pakistan officials said they were kidnapped for ransom. But a press release from the archdiocesan communication office, said the Taliban beheaded the members of the minority community for refusing to convert to Islam.

The northwest Khyber Agency, is one of seven semiautonomous tribal districts along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

The prayer program was jointly organized by the Federation of Catholic Associations of Delhi Catholic archdiocese and the Delhi Minority Commission.

Representatives from the Jain, Sikh and Christian communities prayed for the Sikhs killed for their faith. They also prayed for the Taliban to repent so that violent incidents like these are not repeated.

Father Victor D'Souza, Delhi archdiocesan vicar general, who led the prayers, said those who kill in the name of religion "know nothing about their religion."

He quoted from the Bible while praying before a gathering of some 50 people, at least half of them turbaned Sikhs.

Sikhs and Jains in the meeting also prayed from their scriptures. Some Catholic nuns in the gathering sang bhajans (spiritual songs) which prayed to the "creator and protector" God in Sanskrit language.

Pakistan media said the men were killed when family members failed to pay their ransom. Two others Sikhs remain captive.

In the case of one of the murdered men, Jaspal Singh, the kidnappers had demanded 20 million rupees (US$235,720).

The government in Punjab, the only Sikh majority state in India, has sought the federal government's intervention to ensure the safety of Sikhs in Pakistan's tribal area, reports said.

Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal said the government should take swift action to protect the life of Sikhs.

Congress Party spokesperson Manish Tewari, speaking on behalf of the government, said the beheadings were "a serious issue" and that "there is a need to talk to Pakistan" about it.
 
   
   
  German sponsor warns funds are drying up
  INDORE, FEB 25 (UCAN) -- A German priest, who funds some 50 social welfare projects in India, has told project managers that time is catching up with him and to look for alternate sources of income to continue their work.

Father Rolf Linse, 77, who funds projects in 10 Indian states, was in Indore, central India yesterday (Feb. 24) as part of a tour of the projects.

"I cannot support the projects like I have been doing. Now, even the weather restricts what I do as I grow older," the priest told UCA News. Several people who also used to regularly offer him support are now "unable to continue," he said.

The priest from Essen diocese who began supporting projects in India four decades ago said only about 30 per cent of the funds were donations -- the rest was "earned with hard work."

Father Linse, who first visited India in 1972, said the poverty moved him so much he "decided to serve the needy till I breathe my last." That same year he founded the charity organization Indienhilfe Bottroper Realschuler or Help for India which utilizes the help of high school students in Germany's Bottrop parish, he said.

He and his helpers sell used goods in the town's open-air market every Saturday, and also every Saturday and Sunday evening in two churches in the town, he said.

They also sell refreshments at the annual parent's day at two high schools. Every year they also arrange a three-week-long used book sale at the town hall.

The priest said "year round" he goes collecting and selling waste paper and other items. The group also does "Charity Walks" occasionally to raise funds.

The projects he supports include training centers, schools, hostels, orphanages and medical clinics, which help the poor, homeless and physically and mentally disabled.

In the past 38 years he has raised some 150 million Indian rupees (US$3.5 million) for 58 projects. He said around 30 of them have become self-sufficient and 22 more need to become self-supportive.

He said he now tells Church groups "not to start any new projects" without his consent if they expect funding from him. "I can only support the maintenance now," he added.

The "various forms of help" he used to get from institutions and groups are "also tapering off." The Church sources are also "drying up due to various social restrictions" in Germany, he said.
 
   
   
  Church marks Italian nuns' 150-year-old mission
  KRISHNAGAR, FEB 25 (UCAN) -- An Italy-based women's congregation has marked 150 years of work in India, paying tribute to 168 nuns, mostly Italians, who worked and died in an eastern Indian diocese.

The special prayer in Krishnagar yesterday [Feb. 23] was attended by Sister Pier Carla Mouri, who heads the Sisters of Charity of Saints Bartolomea Capitanio and Vincenza Gerosa (SCCG), popularly known as Maria Bambina Sisters.

Sister Mouri, who heads the Milan-based congregation, invited the nuns to become "channels of charity" in the missions of India.

The gathering included 160 SCCG sisters, priests and nuns of other congregations working with the congregation.

The first four Bambina nuns to India came in 1860 to Krishnagar, 120 kilometers north of Kolkata.

The congregation was among the pioneering congregations in evangelization work, said Sister Thresita John Madamana, who heads the nuns' Calcutta province.

The observation of 150 years of "Bengal mission" also included a thanksgiving Mass at Krishnagar cathedral.

Diocesan vicar general Father Luciano Colussi presided at the Mass with some 50 priests from Calcutta and Krishnagar dioceses.

Salesian Father Colussi, 89, said celebrations are necessary to remember "our historical roots and God's plan for this land" through Italian and Indian missioners.

Sister Madamana said that since 1860, 178 Italian missioners worked in the Bengal area, which once included present-day Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and southern India. The last batch of Italian missioners arrived in the province in 1960.

Sister Mouri planted a sapling in memory of the pioneers. She and other leading nuns at the gathering released 150 balloons to mark the occasion.

The head of the congregation also inaugurated a museum showcasing the story of the mission in Bengal through photographs, paintings and sculptures.

Some 1,800 Indian Maria Bambina nuns work in eight provinces managing schools, dispensaries and giving pastoral assistance. The Calcutta province has 268 nuns.

The congregation, founded in 1832 in Milan, is now present in 21 countries. In Asia, its nuns work in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan, Israel and Nepal, besides India.
 
   
   
  Violence a wake-up call for Church, says prelate
  GUWAHATI, FEB 25 (UCAN) -- Anti-Christian violence during the past two years has been a wake-up call for the Church in India, says a top official from the country's Catholic bishops' conference.

What shocked Church leaders and others was that areas they thought were safe from the "antagonism of fundamentalist groups" also experienced violence, said Jesuit Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes of Gandhinagar, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI).

Attacks against Christians in several states, especially Orissa in eastern India, have prompted Indian bishops to establish a special committee to review "our evangelization methods," the prelate noted in his biennial report to the CBCI's 29th plenary.

Archbishop Fernandes presented the report at the opening session of the Feb. 24-March 3 assembly in Guwahati, Assam.

As many as 163 bishops from India's 164 dioceses are attending the plenary that has chosen Youth for Peace and Harmony as its main theme. Some 40 Catholic youths are also attending the event along with secretaries of CBCI commissions and centers.

Archbishop Fernandes' report asserted the "wanton" and "sacrilegious" attacks on Christians and their institutions were premeditated.

"Even more villainous was the malicious damage" to human relations "with a systematic campaign" that tried to divide communities, the archbishop said.

Added to this were the "apathy" to and "certain complicity" of local governments in anti-Christian violence, especially in Orissa, that encouraged the attackers, the prelate noted.

Support from people of other faiths
Archbishop Fernandes, however, also highlighted some positive outcomes from the violence. He said Christians in India rallied behind their persecuted brethren offering material and psychological help.

The archbishop saluted the victims who opted to die rather than give up their faith. He also commended people of other religions who defended Christians' right to practice their faith in peace and freedom.

Soon after the attacks, Church agencies rallied behind Orissa's Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese to rescue and rehabilitate victims, the prelate said.

The special committee set up in the wake of the attacks would study various challenges facing the Church in the country and advise CBCI secretary general on appropriate actions.

The Church in India found some relief from this gloom when the Vatican recognized Sister Alphonsa, "a nun unknown during life, but acclaimed after death" as India's first female saint in 2008, the report said.

Another recent milestone was the Indian Mission Congress in October 2009 where some 1,300 delegates from India's various dioceses attended.

In recent times, CBCI also undertook an exercise to reorganize its structure to accommodate India's three ritual Churches that have separate episcopal conferences.

Archbishop Fernandes explained this was done to avoid duplication of work and frittering away "the precious and limited resources of the Church."
 
   
   
  CBCI meet: Bishops told to involve youth more in Church
  GUWAHATI, FEB 25 (UCAN) -- The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) opened its 29th plenary here with Church leaders stressing greater involvement of young people in the Church and society.

"Young people are our biggest asset and greatest hope," CBCI First Vice President, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, told 163 bishops attending the Feb. 24-March 3 biennial plenary.

The assembly's major theme is Youth for Peace and Harmony.

Cardinal Gracias, who is chairing the plenary as CBCI president Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil is unwell, said the conference had in the past focused on pastorally important initiatives but had ignored the youth so far.

"The Church has now realized the necessity to involve youth in its activities" as surveys show some 40 per cent of the Indian population is now below 20 and their number is increasing.

The cardinal described India's youth as "highly talented, generous, committed, patient and idealistic" people on whom society depends to correct some of its deviations.

The Church official regretted that corruption pervades all sections of society and said only the youth can now bring probity in public life.

The cardinal said the Church wants to help the youth to translate their ideals into action. It also wants young people to fill churches and energize liturgies and services.

In a message to the assembly, Cardinal Vithayathil noted a "paradigm shift" in modern youth's world view. He regretted that young people are now getting less involved in social causes and seldom protest social injustices.

"They are becoming a silent and self-centered generation hooked on success in career and life," the CBCI president's message noted.

The cardinal also cautioned that if the trend continues, the youth would become "easy prey" to consumer values and "a hedonistic outlook on life." He urged the bishops to identify ways to help "our youth" remain rooted in their Christian identity and culture.

The embracing of certain current lifestyles by youths will result in the corrosion of "their Christian perspectives on faith and morals," he added.

Monsignor Chibuike Onyeaghala, charge d'affaires in the apostolic nunciature, called for a new evangelization to help young people discover God and engage in interreligious activities.

He said the Church has to help people, especially youths, understand realities. "The Church in India should encourage the youth to get involved in a dialogue of life," he added.
 
   
   
  14,000 dead in J&K in last seven years: Report
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, FEB 25 -- More than 14,000 persons, including security forces, militants, civilians and political activists lost their lives here during the last seven years, says a report.

The report, 'Peace and Processes of Violence: An observation on situation in Jammu and Kashmir from 2002 to 2009', released by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), says that the conflict during this period has resulted in the loss of lives of 3,404 civilians, 7,504 militants, 2,451 security personnel and 674 others.

"A huge number of those killed are Kashmiris. This state of affairs continues. Notwithstanding many public relation exercises, there seems to be no genuine effort in place to stop further bloodshed and other forms of suffering," the 27-page report states.

It observes that the present insecurity, coupled with past anxieties, continues to darken the future of the majority of people, here. "The reason for this insecurity and subsequent loss of lives merits immediate redress to arrive at a peaceful resolution of conflict."

Based on media reports, it says that 225 custodial killings have taken place and 360 persons have been subjected to enforced disappearances during this period. It states that 157 security personnel committed suicide during 2004 to 2009 and 55 were killed in fratricidal incidents.

"The data suggests high level of stress on soldiers. The magnitude of stress on the civilian population as a result of the existing besieged and insecure conditions can only be guessed," it observed.

The report says that according to available data from 2002 to 2009, the government ordered 140 probes on different human rights abuses, out of which only 16 have been concluded. "In just one case, an Army man accused of rape was punished for misbehavior and given rigorous imprisonment for a year."

The report observed that mysterious killings by unidentified gunmen have resulted in the killing of 47 persons in 2008 and 26 in the following year. It stated that conflicts have resulted in the death of 258 children below the age of 18, from January 2002 to December 2009.

"Despite repeated pledges of zero tolerance to rights violations by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and present chief minister Omar Abdullah, 152 civilian killings were reported in 2008 followed by 84 in the following year and 13 custodial killings in these two years," the report finds.

It added that 1,876 persons, including women and children, have been injured in the violence. "Six hundred and forty persons were operated upon and six had amputations."

The report shows that two activists of the National Conference (NC) and one each from the Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) were killed in 2007, followed by two activists of the PDP and the Congress the following year. Five activists of the NC were killed in 2009.

The report recommends an immediate end to hostilities against the people of Kashmir, in order to create a proper ambience for resolution. "Any process initiated by stakeholders for the final resolution of Jammu and Kashmir needs to acknowledge inalienable civil and political rights, including right to life."
 
   
   
  Doctor-priest from Faridabad trains Filipinos to heal poor
 
PASIG CITY, FEB 24 (UCAN) -- The head of an Indian Christian ashram is in the Philippines to teach Church and government workers how to use herbal medicine to cure the poor.

Carmelite of Mary Immaculate Father Aji Sebastian is giving a Feb. 22-27 seminar on Heat Reduction Therapy, which uses five basic herbs in different combinations to cure sicknesses.

The 33-year-old priest, who is also a medical doctor and holds a doctorate in Alternative Medicine, runs Darsanalaya (place of vision) in Delhi archdiocese.

Seminar organizer Maria Victoria Geronilla told participants, including Bishop Francisco San Diego of Pasig, a Philippines Darsanalaya had been set up in Pasig City with the help of Pasig diocese.

Father Aji told UCA News he was not in the Philippines to promote his ashram or alternative medicine. He came to find people who want to help cure the poor.

"Eighty per cent of Asians and Africans are poor and get no benefit from medical institutions," the priest noted. "I have come here to find people who will reach out to the poor with simple medicines."

He says Africans and Asians are willing to accept death because they have no money for medication. "That should never be allowed."

Serving health needs of poor residents

In India he has trained healers in 18 states. These people give some of their time to the poor and that, he says, is what he wants to see happen in the Philippines.

Pasig diocese allowed the use of the cathedral hall and other facilities for the seminar. It sent Church workers to join sessions with city government workers and other participants.

The diocese hopes the event can help the Church serve the medical needs of poor Pasig residents, diocesan chancellor Father Roy Rosales told UCA News.

Each seminar participant spends 15 minutes a day in yoga and silent meditation which are elements of healing the sick, says Father Aji, who is also diagnosing participants' illnesses.

Religious of the Good Shepherd Sister Mary Rose Tapia told UCA News she came to the seminar from Tagaytay, south of Manila, because "I want to learn how I can serve better" the poor people who live near her.

Her religious community runs Maryridge retreat house to help people with ailments. "We deal with people who are not terribly sick, but who are in need of mental, physical or social wellbeing," Sister Tapia said.

The nun has been practicing holistic medicine for over 10 years. She hopes the seminar will show her how to start a herbal garden and identify what herbs to plant.

Geronilla told UCA News she is paying for the entire cost of the seminar because she believes in alternative medicine and what the priest is doing.

The widow met Father Aji last October when he visited the Jesuit-run East Asian Pastoral Institute (EAPI) in Quezon City.
 
   
   
  Christians march for peace in bomb-hit Pune
 
PUNE, FEB 24 (UCAN) -- Some 3,000 Christians, along with Catholic and Protestant bishops, held a peace rally in Pune on Monday [Feb. 22] to condemn a bomb attack that killed 15 people and wounded 56.

Students and teachers joined the crowd which gathered at a church center in the city to pray for peace and for those who died. Later they marched to a bakery where the bomb blast occurred on Feb. 13.

Catholic Bishop Thomas Dabre of Poona and Protestant Bishop Vijay Sathe, who head dioceses in this western Indian city, joined the prayers and the one kilometer march.

The procession saw Catholic priests and nuns carrying placards condemning terrorism and highlighting the promotion of peace, harmony and the protection of lives.

Suspected Islamic terrorists planted the bomb allegedly to force India and Pakistan to resolve issues over the disputed Indian Kashmir region, India's only Muslim majority territory.

Bishop Dabre told the marchers religion was getting a bad name as such attacks have been carried out in the name of faith. True religion speaks of love and therefore should inspire all to protect lives, he stressed.

The prelate said terrorism "doesn't distinguish between the guilty and the innocent" because it has "no morality or ethical values." People of good will should come together and oppose terrorism, he said.

The peace marchers also lit candles and prayed in front of the destroyed German Bakery, a shop often frequented by foreign tourists.

Joseph D'Souza, a teacher, said some 500 students from various faiths joined the rally.

Lalrin Sailo, a student, said she and friends also prayed for "a change of heart by terrorists." Just condemning terrorism was not enough, the 24-year-old college student said.

Joshua Ratnam, secretary of the Protestant diocese, said "it was a moving experience" that both Catholic and Protestant bishops joined in the prayers.
 
   
   
  Church fights state control of property
  BHOPAL, FEB 24 (UCAN) -- Catholics in Madhya Pradesh state have launched a campaign to garner public support against a proposed legislation that aims to bring Church properties under government control.

The Church campaign began as the central Indian state, governed by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), began its assembly session on Feb. 22. Christian leaders fear the government may introduce the proposal –- the Christian Property Regulation Bill -- in the month-long assembly session.

"Earlier, they (the BJP) were after us, accusing us of converting the poor. Today they are after us for our land. And tomorrow they will come to take our schools and institutions. This should be checked," said Bishop Anthony Chirayath of Sagar, while addressing the Church's first public awareness meeting Feb. 22 in Sagar town.

Bishop Chirayath told the gathering of some 50 people, mostly lay leaders and Religious, that the proposed law unjustly tries to control Christians' common properties all over the state. "We have to fight this injustice," he said.

Proposed legislation 'violates' rights

He told UCA News on Feb. 23 that the new legislation "is unacceptable" to the Church as it violates "our rights as citizens to administer our own properties without outside intervention."

The Church, he said plans to hold meetings to discuss the violations that the law may cause. It will also hold public meetings and seminars in an attempt to gather public opinion against the proposal, he said.

However, Anand Bernad, the Christian member of Madhya Pradesh's minority commission, told UCA News he initiated the law to protect the interest of Christians in the state.

He said several Protestant groups sell off common properties without consulting their people, thus impoverishing communities.

According to him, the legislation will also protect the properties from land encroachers and help people use their income for their community's welfare better.

Sagar diocesan spokesperson Father Thomas Lal Pathil said the law proposes the creation of a government controlled body to administer Church properties, such as land linked with churches and cemeteries.

"This draconian law might give undue advantage to the government to dictate when we should celebrate Mass," Father Pathil said.

Father Anand Muttungal, spokesperson of the Church in Madhya Pradesh, told UCA News that awareness programs would be launched across all dioceses in the state to mobilize public opinion against the proposal.

He said the Church has also initiated dialogue with top BJP leaders to convey its fears.
 
   
   
  Three Army men killed in gunbattle
  From Our Correspondent

SRINAGAR, FEB 24 -- Three Army personnel and a militant were killed in a gunbattle between militants and security forces in the town of Sopore on Tuesday (February 23) morning.

The encounter that started late on Monday night resulted in the death of one militant and three Army personnel, including a captain. A few 'top militants' were hiding in two houses here, official sources said.

Meanwhile, human rights activist Muhammad Ahsan Untoo led a silent protest at Rainawari in Srinagar against the killing of a student by security forces. A procession was also taken out in the same area. Complete shutdown was observed in Baramulla and Sopore towns.

Several persons were injured as the police resorted to lathicharge and used teargas shells to quell protesters, who hurled stones at them. They were demanding the release of youngsters who had been arrested a few days ago for stone-throwing.

A day earlier, 11-day-old Irfan Ahmad died and his four-year-old brother Ubaid Ahmad was injured when protesters stopped a minibus and reportedly roughed up passengers at Janbazapora, on the outskirts of Baramulla. They dragged passengers out of the vehicle and beat them up.

According to the police, the protesters were demanding the release of youths arrested on charges of stone-throwing.

"Kulsama, wife of Nisar Ahmed Megray, was traveling in the minibus with her sons Ubaid and Irfan. As the minibus reached Janbazapora, protesters forced the passengers to get off the vehicle. As a result of heavy stone pelting, four-year-old son Ubaid was seriously injured, and Irfan slipped from his mother's lap and died instantly," stated a press release issued by the Media Centre, Zonal Police Headquarter.

Meanwhile, the police on Monday claimed to have arrested the 'kingpin of a syndicate running a stone-throwing business' in the Valley. Irshad Ahmed has been reportedly arrested from downtown Srinagar. He is considered to be the head of a gang involved in organising stone-throwing protests by gathering supporters of separatists and a local party.

"Irshad Ahmed was getting money from Pakistan to run this stone-throwing syndicate and had taken the help of a few kerosene and carpet dealers. He was getting money not only from separatists, but also from a mainstream party," the police source said.

Several SIM cards, a few cheque books and fake media identity cards have reportedly been seized from his possession. The police said after the arrest of Irshad, his accomplices took to the streets and started pelting stones at security forces and people who refused to follow their diktat.
 
   
   
  Jesuits to link Chinese and American scholars
  HONG KONG, FEB 23 (UCAN) -- A Jesuit province in the United States is striving to firm up friendship between Chinese and American scholars as a way to mark the 400th anniversary of Father Matteo Ricci's death in Beijing in 1610.

Father Ricci's first publication in classical Chinese was a treatise On Friendship in 1595. His methodology was to inculturate Christianity through respect for local culture and the formation of personal relationships.

The Jesuit California province is reviewing the Malatesta Program this week with a hope to continue such person-to-person exchange.

The program's objective is to promote academic collaboration in the area of theology and allied disciplines through exchanges between faculty and graduate students at three California Jesuit universities and those at selected Chinese universities.

It seeks in particular to support the development of religious studies programs in China and to enhance the state of theological investigation there and at the California Jesuit universities.

The idea began in the 2006-07 academic year after two faculty members from the Jesuit School of Theology were invited to lecture in China, where they met faculty from some prestigious mainland universities who expressed enthusiasm for academic exchanges.

The program was named after Jesuit Father Edward Malatesta, a biblical scholar who died in Hong Kong in 1998. He was one of the first priests from outside China to teach at Sheshan Seminary in Shanghai in 1989 and had contributed 20,000 books to the seminary's library.

The California province's involvement in China began in 1928 when Pope Pius XI requested the Jesuit society to provide men for the China mission.

The Malatesta Program is administered by a committee that includes two faculty members each from the Loyola Marymount University, Santa Clara University and the University of San Francisco (USF).

Its office is located at the USF's Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History, co-founded by Father Malatesta and the California province in 1984.
 
   
   
  'Lame Jesus' draws thousands, including Hindus, Muslims
  BANDEL, FEB 23 (UCAN) -- More than 5,000 Christians, Hindus and Muslims participated in a special Way of the Cross at a popular Marian shrine near Kolkata.

Popularly known as the lengra thakurer porbo (feast of the lame Jesus), the annual devotion is held on the first Sunday of Lent at the 411-year-old Our Lady of Happy Voyage shrine the Portuguese established. This year the program was held on Feb. 21.

The program begins at 1.30 p.m. to coincide with the time of Jesus' sufferings.

Customarily, a group of pilgrims start the Way of the Cross at the playground about 100 meters from the shrine's entrance. They carry a life-size statue of Jesus bearing the cross. Another group waits at the entrance with a life-size statue of the Blessed Mother.

At the fourth station of the cross, both statues are made to face each other while people rush to touch them, believing they would receive blessings.

Salesian Father Thomas Subhash Gomes, the shrine's prior, said this practice began 40 years ago at the initiative of a group of people from Kolkata.

Devotion attracts people of other faiths

Gradually it began to attract people of other religions. Laypeople organize the entire program, the priest told UCA News. He said the program's highlight is Jesus' meeting with his mother.

The Salesian priest said people make this "special pilgrimage" as a mark of reparation and penance for their sins.

Joseph Chang from Auxilium Parish in Kolkata has attended the program for the past 12 years with his family. "Every time when our prayers are answered, we come back to Our Lady to thank her," he said.

Chang said his father had received healing from an illness through the intercession of the Blessed Mother.

Radhika Mallick, a Hindu, has visited the shrine for the past eight years. According to her, the meeting of mother and son is "so very human and touching."

Ratan Gomes, parishioner of the Lord Jesus Church, said the program commemorates Jesus' limp after his first fall on the way to Calvary. "He is considered to be lame," explained Gomes who has not missed the feast for several years.

"This is an emotionally charged Way of the Cross, especially when I see the meeting of Mother Mary with Jesus carrying his cross," he added.

Joseph Mondol, who has been visiting the shrine for the past 14 years, said he believes Christ and the Blessed Mother answer his prayers through the devotion, such as giving peace to his family and healing him of illnesses.

"There is something in the Way of the Cross here which draws me every year," explained the 62-year-old, who came with his wife and children, with tears in his eyes.
 
   
   
  Indian nun reports to UN on women's rights
  NEW DELHI, FEB 23 (UCAN) -- An Indian Catholic nun will be among representatives and officials at a UN meeting in New York to review progress in providing greater equality for women.

Nazareth Sister Ann Moyalan, who leaves New Delhi tomorrow [Feb. 24] for the March 1-12 meeting, said her presence at the meeting would be "proof" of what Catholic Religious have done for women's liberation in India.

The UN-sponsored meeting aims to review progress that countries have made in implementing the Beijing Declaration.

In September 1995, representatives of 189 governments and more than 2,100 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) met in Beijing and charted a new agenda for women's empowerment and equality.

The official conference and a parallel NGO forum were the largest in UN history, attracting over 50,000 participants and observers.

The upcoming meeting will study how the governments have tried to implement the Beijing declaration, Sister Moyalan said.

She is attending in her role as a member of the UN-recognized NGO, the Charity Federation, which links up Religious congregations who share the spirituality of St. Vincent De Paul.

Religious 'toiled in India's slums'

At the New York meeting, Sister Moyalan plans to present the work that women, particularly Religious women, are doing for women's socio-economic liberation and equality.

The nun said that for decades, Catholic Religious "toiled day and night in the villages and slums of India trying to help women and children" before corporate social services began.

Her own congregation, the Kentucky-based Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, has worked for women's liberation since its arrival in India more than 50 years ago.

She said she hopes to widen her network with other people and organizations during the meeting days.

"When I return, I can also share my experience with other Religious and co-workers," she told UCA News.

Sister Moyalan worked in Bihar villages in her youth, fighting witch-hunting, a practice that saw women, often widows, labeled as witches and killed.

She now works in a slum in New Delhi, educating predominantly Muslim women and girls. Often, this was opposed by their menfolk and Sister Moyalan said getting the men's support for women's education is the biggest challenge.

The nun urged women Religious to come "out in the open." She wants them to take leadership roles so that their works get better support.

"The world should see the good work we are doing. It will help us get support. It will inspire others to stand for a just cause, which in turn will make the world a better place," the sari-clad nun said.
 
   
   
  Govt hospital overcrowded; private ones out to mint money
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, FEB 23 -- Nazir Ahmad was sitting next to his wife in the recovery room at Lalla Ded Hospital, here, when an attendant tells him to shift his wife to the general ward and vacate the bed immediately. Lalla Ded is the biggest maternity hospital run by the government.

"Where will we go? I have not booked a bed in the ward," he says gloomily. His wife had given birth to twins a few hours ago, but both were born dead. Minutes after his wife was brought out from surgery, she asked about her children. Putting up a brave face, Nazir said the doctor had kept them under observation.

Unable to bear it anymore, Nazir comes out of the room and cries bitterly. "I have lost my children and I don't have the courage to tell my wife the truth," he cries.

Soon, another patient enters the room. Her condition is serious and she needs a bed right away. It's time for Nazir to shift his wife to the ward. Thankfully, Mushtaq Ahmad, the second patient's husband, tells them to use a bed in ward X that he had booked for his wife. The attendants scold him for his benevolence. "What will you do once you're told to leave the recovery room after 24 hours?" they ask. Mushtaq just smiles.

A couple of hours later, another patient is asked to leave the recovery room. Failing to find a place for her in the 500-bed maternity hospital, the attendants put a blanket on the floor of one of the wards and make her lie down there.

The next day, Mushtaq's wife is asked to leave the recovery room. He somehow manages to find a bed with one patient lying on it and brings his wife there. Sharing of beds is a common sight in this hospital.

"There is no alternative, but to adjust. Although we have to be careful to see that the babies don't get hurt, this is our only option," says Rehti Jan, an attendant.

She adds that people prefer to leave the hospital as quickly as possible. "Hospital authorities are helpless, as the number of patients is on the rise."

It is the government's responsibility to ensure that beds are increased in the hospital or similar facilities are made available at the district level.
Besides, recruitment of doctors and paramedical staff has not taken place for several years now. There are several posts lying vacant.

Despite the presence of several nursing homes in the area, people prefer Lalla Ded. Mushtaq wanted to admit his wife at a private nursing home, but was infuriated with the attitude of the doctors there. "As the date of her delivery was near, we went to a private nursing home. The lady doctor and her husband, also a doctor, after checking my wife, started talking to each other in English, assuming that I wouldn't understand what they were saying. She then asked my wife to come and get admitted on a certain date.

However, her husband insisted that the delivery be delayed by two days, to which she replied that it would be better to cut it short. This infuriated me and I told the doctor that she could charge as much money as she wanted, but I would not let my wife be treated as an animal to be slaughtered."

Later, the doctors told Mushtaq that as his wife's case was complicated, she should be taken to Lalla Ded Hospital. The next day he brought his wife to the government hospital, where she underwent surgery.

"This is a tragedy. Private nursing homes want to mint money and government hospitals are overcrowded. Only influential people receive proper treatment. Sadly, the government is silent about the issue," he rued.

His views were supported by Mohammad Shaban, whose daughter-in-law was admitted to a private nursing home. "The doctors there never gave her the chance to have a normal delivery. They immediately opted for a Caesarean Section."

"These nursing homes are like slaughtering houses. But we are helpless, as the situation in government hospitals is grim and we can't risk admitting our loved ones there."

This is a hapless situation for patients in the Valley. Something needs to be done about the situation faced by women in this part of Jammu and Kashmir, before it gets worse.
 
   
   
  Divine Word society tackles internal friction
  INDORE, FEB 23 (UCAN) -- A Divine Word province in India has launched a live-in seminar to tackle disunity among its members and prepare them to address modern challenges.

"Togetherness and family spirit among our members have weakened and I felt a need for reviving and strengthening them," Father Nicholas Martis, who heads the congregation's Central India province, told UCA News.

The 11-day seminar began Feb. 15 at the provincial headquarters in Indore, the commercial capital of Madhya Pradesh state. The province's 146 members are undergoing the program in three batches.

Father Martis said the program aims to strengthen the "one family" spirit among members so that they can carry on their mission work effectively.

He said, over the years, different assignments and responsibilities have generated individualistic attitudes among members rather than team spirit.

The congregation has some 800 members in four provinces of India, but only the Central Province has undertaken the exercise.

"Gossip, regionalism and ethnic groupism have crept in our life knowingly or unknowingly," admitted Father Martis, who took over the province in May 2009. He said these trends have "adversely" affected the congregation's mission work.

"We have to live together as one family in Christ. Then only could we continue his mission successfully," he asserted. He said his confreres are not willing to talk to each other as family members. "We say so many things behind [others' backs.] This is bad for our mission," he added.

"Good to be reminded of our weaknesses"

He said the seminar is addressing these problems and everyone, "including me," would benefit from it. He said response to the program has been "very good."

Father Emmanuel Bilung, one of the participants, has welcomed the province's "bold step" in accepting its weaknesses and its willingness to correct them. "Such a move will strengthen our mission and help us live as one family," the tribal priest told UCA News.

Another participant, Father Mathew Chemprampally, found it useful to be reminded of "our weaknesses." The priest from Kerala, southern India, said he is happy that the seminar is "really strengthening our one family spirit and our work."

However, one priest, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the seminar would bring only external changes. "The seminar is good, but will not have lasting effect on members. Internally, we will live divided and in groups," he told UCA News.

Asked why he is so pessimistic, he said, "Old habits die hard."

The congregation began its work in India at Indore in 1932, with 13 members. It now has 200 centers in 45 dioceses. Some 170 Indian members are currently on overseas assignments.
 
   
   
  Salesians helps rescue 76 stranded children
  GUWHATI, feb 22 (UCAN) -- Two Church centers have played a crucial role in recovering 76 children from India's northeast, found abandoned in the south.

The children from poor families had been taken with their parents' consent some years ago by a Protestant pastor who apparently said he would educate them.

A Catholic center discovered the children in Tamil Nadu's Kanniyakumari district, and a Salesian center in Assam helped to return them to their homes last week [Feb. 17].

The children, all Christians, came from Assam and Manipur states.

Salesian Father Lucas Marak, assistant director of Snehalaya (abode of love), a Guwahati-based center for street children, met the children at a station outside Guwahati to avoid media attention.

The priest said the Tamil Nadu government had informed the Assam government about the children's plight and it, in turn, sought the help of Snehalaya director Salesian Father Lukose Cheruvalel.

Father Marak received the children from officials of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC).

Details of the Protestant pastor's intentions are hazy, despite lurid stories in local media suggesting he may have taken the children for 'conversion' or 'for the sex and labor markets.'

It is also unclear how the children arrived in Kanniyakumari.

The Salesian priest said the children were apparently taken to Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital, for education but "it is not clear how they landed up in Kanniyakumari," some 685 kilometers to the southwest.

Church centers help children return home

"It seems the pastor could not afford to maintain the children, including 12 girls, and took them to an NGO," Father Marak said based on the details he gathered from the CWC officials.

The CWC officials refused to divulge the pastor's name, the priest added.

In Tamil Nadu, the Kanniyakumari District Social Welfare office informed Father Joseph Johnson of Palayamkottai diocese about the children since he manages Sharanalyam (abode of refuge), a center for street children.

Father Johnson discovered the children struggling without food and basic amenities in Kanniyakumari and brought them to his center. He then contacted the CWC officials.

The Salesian center provided the children breakfast and its workers spent some time with them at the station before arranging their return home.

The children cannot be named under provisions of India's Juvenile Justice Act.

Earlier media reports had suggested that people traffickers were posing as missioners to lure children from their families with the promise of education.

But the facts of the current case are blurry and do not appear to support those reports.

Father Marak rejected allegations that the 76 children were taken for conversion.

"How can that be? These children are all Christians," he said and added that poverty had forced the children to go with the pastor.

The National Council of Churches in India is understood to be planning to hold a symposium to raise awareness of child trafficking among Church and NGO workers.
 
   
   
  Jesus caricature outrages Christians in Punjab
 
GURDASPUR, FEB 22 (UCAN) -- A curfew imposed in a northern Indian industrial town following violence over Jesus caricatures two days ago was lifted at 1 p.m. today [Feb. 22].

Suspected Hindu radicals reportedly attacked three churches after a general strike called by some Christians turned violent at Batala in Punjab state's Gurdaspur district on Feb. 20.

Christians were protesting pictures showing the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a beer can in one hand and a cigarette in the other appearing in Jalandhar, another city in Punjab, earlier in the day.

Father Michael Anikuzhikattil, parish priest of Gurdaspur, told UCA News that a general strike was in force in Gurdaspur district on Feb. 21. According to him, "the objectionable posters" hurt Christians, who form 25 per cent of the district's population.

The priest said more than 1,000 Christians attended a meeting with the district officials earlier in the day.

Father Peter Kavumpuram, the local diocesan spokesperson, said that as soon as the posters appeared, a Catholic delegation led by Bishop Anil Couto of Jalandhar met authorities to seek action against those responsible.

The government took two days to arrest the culprits. Police yesterday [Feb. 21] arrested Pritpal Singh, an Ayurveda doctor responsible for putting up the poster. His accomplices were arrested today.

Father Kavumpuram said Catholic and other established Churches, did not organize protests following the administration's assurances. They urged people to keep calm and accept the incident as part of their Lenten penance, Father Kavumpuram added.

However, other smaller Christian sects ignored the plea and organized protest marches in various parts of Gurdaspur.

They met at a Methodist church in Batala and went to the local administration office to submit a memorandum. On their way, someone in the group shouted slogans against a Hindu radical group and that triggered violence. The Christian protesters looted shops and destroyed some motorcycles.

Police and local people beat up this group.

Then, a Hindu mob attacked two churches and burned another, all belonging to Protestant Churches. The police arrested many Christian youths.

Father Kavumpuram said as soon as the Hindu radicals retaliated, leaders of the Christians protesting fled the scene.

About 300 Christian youths from the affected areas attended a meeting the Catholic Church convened at Fatehgarh on Feb. 20 to take stock of the situation. Church leaders urged the youth to refrain from indulging in violence.
 
   
   
  Victims of human rights abuses narrate ordeals
 
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, FEB 22 -- Victims of human right abuses and relatives of those who have suffered in Jammu and Kashmir testified before an eight-member panel at a public hearing organised here from February 20-21.

The tribunal comprising retired judges, human rights activists, journalists and academics compiled a report based on the narrations.

The hearing -- 'An Independent Peoples' Tribunal on Human Rights Violations in Kashmir' -- was organised jointly by Act Now for Harmony and Development (ANHAD) and Human Rights Law Network (HRLN).

Burqa-clad Haseena Bano, mother of Tanveer Ahmad, alleged that the police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) shot her son as he stepped out of his shop in Safa Kadal Chowk, a few years ago.
"The Sakidafar police station initially refused to register a First Information Report (FIR). It was later filed. Although ex-gratia relief of Rs 1 lakh was sanctioned, the order was never implemented," she said.

Haseena Bano said Ahmad was talking on his mobile phone when he was shot. "I was initially told that he had been shot in the leg, but when he was brought home dead, I learnt that he had been shot in the chest."

Haseena, while pleading for justice, said the family didn't approach the court due to lack of financial resources.

Another middle-aged woman, Mehbooba Bano, said her family has neither received any ex-gratia relief nor a job after losing their son Feroz Ahmad Khan.

Meanwhile, Humanity Welfare Organization president Javaid Ahmad Tak spoke about those who have been rendered disabled due to armed conflicts. Appreciating the step of holding a public tribunal, he said, "The tribunal is a forum where sufferers can narrate their tales."

Tak, who is physically challenged himself, said the time had come for problems to be solved. He said physically challenged persons died several times. "The State Disability Act is not being implemented. Those who are rendered physically challenged due to conflict need to be rehabilitated at the earliest."

Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) president Parveena Ahangar questioned that if there was a rule for all, why not one for the Army, Special Task Force, surrendered militants and others. She rued that the courts had failed them.

Javaid Ahmad Ahangar, Parveena's son, went missing in 1990, just after passing the matriculation examinations. "After initial refusal, the Shergarhi police station registered an FIR."
Parveena knocked at the doors of justice in 1992 and fought her case till 1997. "The case is still pending, but I don't follow it anymore, as it has badly disappointed me."

Masooda Parveen's story is another tragic one. Her husband, Ghulam Mohi-ud-din Regoo, an advocate by profession, ran a saffron business in his hometown of Pampore. "He had problems with security forces and counter insurgents and that was the reason for his death. Security forces picked him up and brutally beat him to death. Extensive physical torture caused his death, but the Apex Court didn't accept that."

Masooda regrets that the Apex Court accepted the Army's version of the story, which claimed that Regoo was a militant and was killed in an explosion while leading security forces to a militant hideout. She alleged that she and her children have been denied passports.

Justice Hosbet Suresh, former judge of the Bombay High Court and a jury member, suggested that the APDP approach the Supreme Court with respect to the issue of disappearances. "Approaching international bodies will help build public opinion, but enforcement is important." He added that the panel was putting on record all testimonies and would compile a report that would be circulated across the globe.

ANHAD director Shabnam Hashmi said the open tribunal was a big step in the process. "The jury can't give any judgment, but they can produce a report of great importance that we will send to international forums, including the United Nations."

"We have been working to organise a public hearing in Kashmir for three years now," she said, adding that they have requested three senior (retired) judges to be on the jury. "We are in contact with them."

G N Shaheen, General Secretary Kashmir Bar Association, pointed out that simply filing FIRs didn't solve the problem. "It's important to see under which section the case has been filed." His views were supported by human rights activist Mohammad Ahsan Untoo, who said that court directions weren't honoured in the state.
 
   
   
  Focolare head winds up first trip to Asia
  LAHORE, FEB 22 (UCAN) -- Archbishop Lawrence J. Saldanha of Lahore has urged the Focolare Movement, little-known in Pakistan, to reach out to local Catholics.

Most educated Catholics are not Churchgoers, he said. "I request you to evangelize in parishes and dioceses," he asked Focolare members.

The archbishop was speaking during a homily on Feb. 21 shortly after the arrival of Focolare president Maria Voce at the Renewal Center in Youhanabad, the largest Christian enclave in Pakistan on the southern outskirts of Lahore.

The prelate praised the international lay movement, which aims to foster unity and dialogue among all people, for "alleviating the spiritual hunger" in the Church.

"Focolare has always been faithful to the Church," noted the prelate.

Voce is visiting Pakistan on the last leg of her first Asian tour and met 325 Pakistani and overseas Focolare members at the Renewal Center.

The movement was founded in 1943 in Trento, Italy, by Chiara Lubich and has spread rapidly across the world. However its presence in Pakistan has remained small.

According to local sources, it has 18 professed female members, called Focolarinas, and 11 male members, called Focolarinos. The movement also has more than 400 volunteers across the country.

During a question and answer session, a Focolare member said that local Christian families still have little knowledge of the movement.

Movement little known in Pakistan
Voce replied the movement "is still new... when compared to the 2,000-year-old history of the Church."

Describing her experience of Asia, she said Asian cultures still hold on to many good values that have been lost in the West.

"I saw strong family ties, respect for elders, and tolerance amid suffering in my journey in Asia," Voce said. "My hands are full of treasure as I go back home and I am so grateful for that."

Voce's Asian tour included South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand.

Her Pakistan visit coincided with the 45th anniversary of the movement's arrival in the majority-Muslim nation.

Referring to the "political tensions and difficult circumstances" in Pakistan, she said "it will strengthen you to know that whenever we read stories from Pakistan in newspapers or on TV, your faces are before us."

Voce was planning to hold a meeting with Focolare council members in Lahore today [Feb. 22], and is to return to Italy on Feb 24.

Speaking to UCA News, Maria John, a Focolarina, said security for Voce's visit has been a major concern.

"We've tried to keep her whole program as low profile as we can," she said. Furthermore, "nobody was allowed to enter the auditorium without special tags."
 
   
   
  Vatican: Asia and Africa drive Church's growth
  VATICAN, FEB 22 (UCAN) -- Statistics released on the weekend show that growth in the number of priests and women Religious in Asia and Africa offset a rapid decline in Europe to deliver overall growth for most of the past decade of 1 per cent.

The Vatican Yearbook for 2010, presented to Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday [Feb. 20], reveals that there are now more than 1.17 billion Catholics in the world -- 17.5 per cent of the total population of 6.7 billion at the end of 2008.

The figures are based on input from the Catholic Church's 2,945 dioceses or ecclesiastical territories at the end of 2008.

There were 409,166 priests worldwide, with Asia now home to about 13 per cent of all Catholic priests.

Europe has 47.1 per cent of the total, down from 51.5 per cent in 2000, while the U.S. has 30 per cent, virtually the same as in 2000.

There was a similar story with the worldwide total of 117,024 candidates for the priesthood over the period, with a 4.4 per cent increase in Asia and growth of 3.6 per cent in Africa. Oceania saw the largest percentage growth of 6.5 per cent.

The number of priesthood candidates in Europe however, declined by 4.3 per cent while America remained stable.

The statistics showed 739,067 Religious women worldwide with growth only in Asia and Africa.

Overall numbers fell 7.8 per cent between 2000 and 2008 with major losses in Europe (-17.6 per cent), America (-12.9 per cent) and Oceania (-14.9 per cent).

This was offset by increases in the number of Religious women in Asia (+16.4 per cent) and Africa (+21.2 per cent) in that same period.

Today, Europe accounts for 40.9 per cent of all women Religious and the Americas for 27.5 per cent, although the pendulum is clearly swinging in favor of Africa and Asia.
 
   
   
  Sri Lanka: Displaced Tamils face 'bleak' situation
 
JAFFNA, FEB 22 (UCAN) -- The Church in the Jaffna peninsula is continuing to help displaced Tamil families with accommodation and food months after the civil war ended. But priests say the situation remains bleak.

Tamils are trying to return to a normal life but they are finding it "difficult to find houses they can rent," said Father R.G. Vijintus, secretary to Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam of Jaffna.

"Things are improving slightly, but not as much as we had hoped," said another priest, Father Roman Nesarajah of St. James Church in Jaffna city.

The government has resettled some 200,000 displaced people who were living in camps in the north since fighting between the Tamil Tigers and government troops ended last May.

More than 70,000 of these people have reportedly been resettled in the Jaffna peninsula. However, many of them still rely on charity to survive.

Many people brought here for resettlement are presently staying at church centers, in rented houses, or with relatives and friends, as the de-mining process in villages has not been completed.

Churches here are helping them find accommodation, in addition to providing them with food, medicines, and education for children.

Caritas' Human Development Center (HUDEC) in Jaffna is also helping to provide shelter, loans, sewing machines and fishing accessories to help the former refugees get back on their feet.

St. Francis Xavier's Parish in Sakkoddai, a fishing village 35 kilometers northeast of Jaffna city, has helped some 110 displaced families find ways of making a living.

Many Tamils are also flocking to Masses.

"The church is quite full during Mass," observed parish priest Father M. Pathinathan.

Some people warn that the government needs to do more to win the hearts of Tamils after its victory over the Tamil Tigers, who were fighting for a separate homeland for their community.

"The hard-won stability could be reversed if nothing is done," said James Rajaratnam, an elderly journalist. "No solution has been provided for Tamils' grievances."

President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced recently that soon after the conclusion of the parliamentary election, scheduled for April 8, he intends to enter into a dialogue with the Tamil community and address their grievances.
 
   
   
  Leather industry needs to be revived in J&K: traders
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, FEB 20 -- Despite efforts to revive ailing tannery units in the Valley, traders here do not see light at the end of the tunnel.

"Revival of ailing tannery units ought to be looked into. In addition, the abundant raw material in Kashmir needs to be properly channelised for benefit of the local entrepreneurs," said Nasir Hamid Khan, Secretary General, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCC&I), during a meeting here on February 19 to discuss plans to develop Leather Parks in Kashmir.

Senior vice-president KCC&I Abdul Hamid Punjabi chaired the meeting that was attended by representatives from SIDCO and other entrepreneurs.

Development of a Leather Park at Lassipora by SIDCO was also deliberated upon. Representatives of SIDCO informed that the Park was equipped with state-of-the-art pollution control devices. Schemes designed to assist the leather industry by addressing infrastructure needs were also discussed. It was also stressed that people should be made aware of opportunities available in this sector.

Many fur traders had to switch to alternate livelihoods after fur business was banned under the Wild Life Protection Act 1978, here, many years ago. Ghulam Hassan, who was in the fur business earlier, had to switch over to leather. "The leather business is not showing any progress in Jammu and Kashmir."

According to statistics, the Kashmir Leather Industry has potential to generate annual revenue of $1 billion.

"It is unfortunate that this industry is losing its lure," said Abdul Rehman who deals with leather goods, adding, "In the absence of leather factories, we have to import leather from other states at a high cost. Production of leather is at its minimum."

Hundreds of Kashmiri artisans work with leather industries outside the state. A few have even shifted their businesses to other states.

"Due to the government's laidback approach, the industry loses billions every year," said Rehman. He added that sheep leather was of the highest quality and Kashmir provided suitable climatic conditions for this.

A rough estimate shows that about 3.5 million sheep and goat are slaughtered here for consumption, annually.

"The skin can be utilised for leather production, provided tanneries are established," said Abdul Qadir, a social activist. "The absence of tanneries in Kashmir compels people to sell these skins at lesser prices to traders outside the state."

Environmentalists have opposed the setting up of tanneries in Kashmir, as according to them it produces highly toxic effluents. The government is also not showing interest in setting up an Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP); a measure that could solve
 
   
   
  Vandals hit Hong Kong's Catholic cemetery
  ABOUT 60 graves in Hong Kong's oldest Catholic cemetery were found vandalized today morning.

Caretakers of St. Michael's Catholic Cemetery in Happy Valley reported to police that security guards discovered several damaged tombstones and stone vases on the graves.

Father Dominic Chan Chi-ming, chairman of the Diocesan Board of Catholic Cemeteries, told UCA News that the caretakers had reported seeing a woman rush from the cemetery when they came to work around 7.00 a.m.

Though the surveillance cameras did not make out her face, fingerprints had been found at the scene, he said.

"Unless the vandal is insane, it is a painful act to the deceased and their families," said Father Chan, vicar general of the diocese.

Media reports say that the grave of a former government Secretary for Home Affairs was among those damaged.

The police are now investigating as to motive.

There are five Catholic cemeteries in Hong Kong.

The land where the St. Michael's cemetery stands was leased to the Church in 1848. It is the last resting place for the remains of more than 20,000 Catholics, including Cardinal John Baptist Wu Cheng-chung of Hong Kong.

Daris Yu Cheuk-man, superintendent of Catholic cemeteries, told UCA News it was the most serious damage ever on Church cemeteries.
"I really want to know the motive to damage such a peaceful place," he said.

He stressed that if anyone is dissatisfied with the Church or the cemetery, he or she could speak out. What has been done not only affected the cemetery but also the families of the deceased, he added.

Yu says the diocese has employed security guards in each cemetery.

The guards patrol each evening to make sure nobody stays behind, he said.

However, Yu is certain the cemetery board would meet to discuss whether or not to beef up security.

Source: Vandals hit historical Catholic cemetery (UCAN)
 
   
   
  VHP renews threat against dalit quota
  A LEADING Hindu group has made fresh threats to launch a nation-wide struggle against government's perceived plans to provide quota to poor Christians and Muslims.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, world Hindu council) leader Praveen Togadia in Jaipur said yesterday that the government move to provide quota based on religion is "anti-constitutional."

VHP and other Hindu groups have intensified opposition to quota to dalit Christians and Muslims after federal government tabled a report last year end. It recommended quota support to help the social uplift of these poor classes.

The Indian Constitution allows for special quota benefits for dalit, members of lower castes once branded "untouchables." But Christians and Muslims from dalit groups are excluded on the grounds that their religions reject the caste system.

The government two years ago appointed the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities headed by former chief justice Ranganath Mishra to study the issue.

It recommended reserving 10 percent of educational positions and government jobs for dalit Muslims and 5 percent for other dalit groups, including Christians.

Hindu groups say nearly 50 percent of all available government jobs and educational seats are already reserved for scheduled castes, Scheduled tribes and Other Backward classes.

Adding more people would eat up the chances of poor Hindus because more quota seats cannot be added as Supreme Court has already laid a condition that the total quota should not exceed 50 percent.

"It is ridiculous and anti-constitutional" that Union Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, C P Joshi, has announced to provide Below Poverty Line status to Muslims, Togadia told a press conference here.

Despite the Supreme Court direction on the upper limit, the Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh Governments provided quota based on religion to Muslims, Togadia said, He, however, noted that the judiciary put a stay on that.

West Bengal Government's decision to provide 10 per cent quota for Muslims also is anti-constitutional, he said. (Courtesy: CathNewsIndia)

Source: VHP accuses Centre of religion-based quota
 
   
   
  Christian schools close in protest in Jabalpur
  SOME Christian schools in a central Indian town closed today [Feb. 19] to protest the ransacking of a Protestant school.

About 10 unidentified people barged into the campus of Christ Church Higher Secondary School in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, yesterday and damaged its offices. The school closed today along with four other Christian schools in the neighborhood.

Pradeep Kumar Pujari, the school administrator, told UCA News the intruders forced their way to the principal's office and destroyed the computer and furniture. The school belongs to the Church of North India (CNI).

They tried to manhandle male teachers, but ran away when other school staff rushed to the office, Pujari said. The intruders carried stones and baseball bats.

Principal L. Mathew said the cause for the attack was the school's refusal to readmit three 12th grade students who were dismissed for "gross indiscipline" on Oct. 27. The students had burst fire crackers in their classroom.

One dismissed student tried to commit suicide on Feb. 17 night by consuming poison after his efforts to rejoin the school failed. He is now undergoing treatment in a private hospital where his condition is reportedly out of danger.

Parents had tried to pressure the school to readmit their children, but "we refused as we never tolerate indiscipline," the principal told UCA News today.

The Madhya Pradesh High Court refused a petition from a student challenging the school action.

School authorities yesterday lodged a First Information Report with the local police station demanding action against the vandals and also sought protection for their institution.

CNI Bishop P.C. Singh of Jabalpur condemned the attack as a heinous one and appealed to the government to arrest the culprits and establish the rule of law.

Father Thankachan Joseph, principal of a Catholic school, told UCA News that they also closed to show solidarity with the Protestant school. He said he did not ask other Catholic schools to close as annual exams are on now.

D.L. Tiwari, a local police official, said they have registered a case and investigation is progressing. He however, said they have not arrested anyone in this connection. (Courtesy: CathNewsIndia)

Source: UCAN
 
   
   
  Books with offensive Christ pictures seized
  POLICE in Shillong yesterday [Feb. 18] seized copies of a school book that has pictures of Jesus Christ holding a cigarette in one hand and a beer bottle in the other.

The police registered a case against the book's New Delhi-based publisher and supplier following complaints from St. Joseph Girl's Higher Secondary School in the Meghalaya state capital, a predominately Christian town.

The Congregation of Our Lady of Missions manages the school.

The offensive pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus appear in the cursive writing practice book meant for grade one. The picture is printed in the cover as well as in an inside page, said Shillong archdiocesan chancellor Father John Madur.

The inside page introduces the alphabet 'I' with the word 'idol.' The picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is given as an example of idol. He said parents and teachers were shocked and the school withdrew the book 'at once.'

Archbishop Dominic Jala of Shillong said Catholics in the state "are deeply shocked and hurt at the objectionable portrayal of Jesus." He told UCA News today that the Church "strongly condemns the total lack of respect for religious symbols from the publishers."

School headmistress Sister M. Thaddeus Syiemiong told a news agency yesterday the school authorities noticed the picture "only a few days back. We have asked the students to return the books." (Courtesy: CathNewsIndia)

Source: School books with offensive Christ pictures seized (UCAN)
 
   
   
  BJP shifts stance in bid to woo minorities
  INDORE, FEB 19 (UCAN) -- Church officials have cautiously welcomed a pro-Hindu political party's apparently new approach to religious minority groups in India.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) yesterday [Feb. 18] sought help from Muslims to build a Hindu temple at the site of a mosque that Hindu extremists demolished 17 years ago.

Nitin Gadkari, the new BJP president, also offered to help build a mosque in return.

Hindu groups claim a temple in Ayodhya, northern Indian, stood on the birthplace of Lord Ram and that a Muslim ruler built the mosque on the site after having destroyed a temple.

The mosque's demolition led to Hindu-Muslim riots across the country that claimed hundreds of lives.

The BJP is considered the political arm of extreme Hindu groups which are accused of trying to create a Hindu nation in India.

Gadkari sought Muslim help for the temple's construction during the BJP national council meeting now under way in Indore, a major town in Madhya Pradesh.

He promised to help build a mosque in Ayodhya if Muslims cooperated in building a Hindu temple there too. He said his party has to diversify its policies to attract more support.

Earlier in December, Gadkari addressed the Catholic Council of India, the top representative body of the Catholic Church, looking to reach out to Christians who accuse Hindu extremist groups of attacking them in various parts of the country.

"The shift in the stance of the new BJP leader is welcome, provided it comes from his heart," says Father Cherian Pulickal, spokesperson of Indore diocese.

The Catholic priest says the change is good for the nation as well as the party. "It should not only be aimed to grab more votes," he told UCA News.

Father Pulickal also said he finds the new BJP leader more open to other communities than his predecessors.

Father Nicholas Maris, who heads the Divine Word congregation's Indore-based Central India Province, welcomed Gadkari's announcement, but was skeptical of his sincerity.

"The nation cannot progress without the support of all communities," Father Maris told UCA News today [Feb. 19]. He described Gadkari's gesture as "certainly a welcome move" if the BJP really wants to build a mosque at Ayodhya to compensate for the demolition of the earlier mosque.
 
   
   
  Set up agricultural units, minister urges J&K youth
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, FEB 19 -- Jammu and Kashmir Finance Minister Abdul Rahim Rather, on February 18, urged the state's youth to set up units in the agriculture and allied sectors, as these segments offered ample employment. He added that the youth should avail of schemes launched by the government.

"These sectors need to achieve self-sufficiency in food grains, oilseed and vegetable production," the minister said during pre-budget discussions with various associations of the agriculture, floriculture, horticulture, sericulture, poultry and related sectors, here.

Rather said the government had constituted the Kissan Board and skilled development centres were being set up in every district. He said the process of providing Kissan credit cards to farmers was being expedited.

Trade and business groups have submitted their suggestions, prior to the budget session scheduled for February 22.

In its recommendations, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCC&I) has demanded the setting up of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for industrial and urban development.

The Chamber said the SEZ would provide the required stimulus to the state's economy, apart from creating jobs and raising the standard of living. It added that the SEZ model for industrial and urban development has been used to great effect across the world.

"KCC&I has, in line with the Rangarajan report recommendations, been urging for the reversion of all power projects back to the state," they stated, adding that the government needed to effectively take up the issue with the Centre.

It added that despite being potentially rich in water resources, the state suffered huge losses on account of restrictions imposed by the Indus Water Treaty.

Introduction of the Model Electricity Act 2003 in the state and removal of toll tax on fuel, consumables and packaging material was recommended by a delegation of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII, Jammu and Kashmir chapter.

KCC&I recommended that the Lakhanpur checkpost be kept exclusively for Jammu-bound goods and the Lower Munda checkpost for Kashmir. "Dual checking of import goods is a harassment of the trading community in Kashmir." It demanded allocation of Rs 10 crore for development of the Lower Munda Toll Plaza.

Installation of cold storage facilities, which will prevent rotting of large quantities of fruits, were also recommended. Lapse of funds due to non-utilisation in the financial year has also been taken up by the Chamber, saying that the same has been taxing not only the business community but the general public as well.

It advocated extending of the financial year by three months, that is, up to June end, so that funds were properly utilised. "Keeping in view climatic conditions prevalent in the valley during the winters, it would be prudent to extend the financial year."

Sanjay Puri, Chairman CII Jammu and Kashmir State Council, who called upon the minister in Jammu, last month, demanded an increase in the period for input tax credit from 90 days to one year. He recommended the limit of audited account to be enhanced to Rs 1 crore from Rs 40 lakh and round-the-clock functioning of the Lakhanpur Toll post.

Puri recommended that the rate of diesel be in consonance with neighbouring states. Diesel is an important agriculture input and used as fuel for pumps, tractors and other implements, including transport of agricultural produces in the state.

Privatisation of various commercial undertakings and education sector has been recommended by the Chamber.

Intervention of the state government has been sought to develop Kashmir Brand by way of funds and land to create facilities for testing, branding and certification of its products. An allocation of Rs 3 crore has been demanded to be earmarked for it this fiscal year.

Special funds were demanded by the Chamber to be allocated for the development of roads, particularly in industrial areas. "These areas suffer from bad road connectivity," it said, while suggesting that all important tourist destinations have better road connectivity.

"Four-lane roads have been demanded for tourist spots like Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonmarg, apart from developing basic infrastructure in new tourist destinations like Yusmarg and Dodhpathri."

Puri suggested that the cluster approach be adopted to increase competitiveness of the MSME sector and recommended measures to reform the public distribution system. He recommended that 90 per cent subsidy be given on interest charges of bank loans for solar projects. He recommended adequate allotment in the budget for health, agriculture, power, education and skill development.
 
   
   
  Trafficking involved in Pak girl's murder
  THE 12-year-old Christian girl, who was tortured and killed in Pakistan, could be a victim of child trafficking, suggest new reports.

Shazia Masih, a Catholic from a poor family, died Jan. 21 in a Lahore hospital. She was working as a servant for a Muslim lawyer, Chaudry Muhammad Naeem, who allegedly raped and tortured her.

Fides reported Tuesday that further investigation into Shazia's case has led back to a ring of organized crime based on child trafficking. Children are taken from their poor families, often Christian, who are deceived into believing that there is dignified work for them among wealthier families.

The children are thus sold as slaves, "at the mercy of their employer," and "living practically under arrest," the press release stated.

It reported that Shazia's parents, Nasreen Bibi and Bashir Masih, were approached by a man named Amanat Masih, who was later discovered to be a broker in child trafficking.

He promised a better life for the young girl, offering his contacts with the wealthy families of Lahore. The parents agreed to let Shazia go, and Amanat sold her to the lawyer.

Naeem, was arrested but was released Saturday on bail. His argued that victim's autopsy report did not prove she was murdered, but said she died from an infection of old injuries.

However, Christians are protesting both the judge's decision and the autopsy report, which they say was falsified.

The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement and the Human Liberation Commission of Pakistan are backing the Christian protest, claiming that the doctors, police, and justice system are collaborating to falsely acquit Naeem, who is a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, a powerful group of lawyers in that area.

Source: Child trafficking involved in Pakistan murder case (Zenit)
 
   
   
  Three Sri Rama Sene activists arrested
  DEMANDS for action on Hindu radicals intensified as Karnataka police arrested three people yesterday for indulging in stone-throwing during a bandh organized by Sri Rama Sene on Saturday.

The police in a press release named the three arrested at Beedinagudde near Uduppi. It said the accused threw stones at the house of the Union Minister Oscar Fernandes and at a private bus during the bandh.

The police said the accused had confessed to stone-throwing. The three arrested have been remanded in judicial custody until Feb. 26.

Meanwhile Udupi district unit of the Janata Dal (Secular) has criticized the state government for its failure to prevent attacks on Christians and churches.

Party's Udupi official Louis Lobo in a press release today said the attack on the Infant Jesus Church at Katkere near Kundapur in Udupi two days ago the latest in a series of such attacks.

In the past two years Christians have registered over 50 attacks on churches in the state, he said.

Despite Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa's promises state administration remains apathetic. "This has emboldened the miscreants to indulge in more attacks," Lobo said.

He noted that local elected representative Srinivas Shetty did not visit the attacked Infant Jesus Church.

Source: Udupi: Church attacks- JD(S) slams Government
 
   
   
  Dalit Christians on long march in Tamil Nadu
  CATHOLIC and Protestant groups are jointly spearheading a 25-day "long march" in Tamil Nadu demanding quota rights for socially and economically poor Christians.

The walk started from Kanniyakumari, the state's southernmost tip, on Feb. 10. It would end in the state capital of Chennai on March 5.

Meanwhile on Feb. 13, Church representatives presented a memorandum to state Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.

The "long march for equal rights to dalit Christians" is led by Tamil Nadu Bishops' Council the National Council of Dalit Christians.

Hundreds of Christians now march through various districts carrying banners and placards that condemned religious discrimination and called for equal status.

The organizers say they want to draw society's attention to the "injustice" dalit Christians suffer.

The Indian Constitution allows quota in education and jobs to dalit or oppressed castes to help their socio-economic advancement.

However, dalit among Christians and Muslims are excluded for the past 60 years on the ground their religions do not follow the caste system.

They demand the inclusion of dalit Christians for welfare quotas.

The marchers have demanded the federal government to implement the Ranganath Mishra Commission report that recommends extending the quota to all dalit regardless of religion.

They also demand the repeal of the Constitutional Order 1950, which limited the quota only to Hindus. The order was amended twice later to include Sikhs and Buddhists, but continued to exclude Muslims and Christians.

"We are fighting against this injustice from the past 60 years. Despite the Mishra report strongly recommending equal status to all religion, the government has been delaying our concern," said Father Devasagayaraj, secretary of Tamil bishops' commission that looks after the interests of dalit and tribal people.

According to the plan, the marchers would walk through Palayamkottai, Sankarankovil, Sundaranachapuram, Madurai, Dindigul, Manaparai, Trichy, Perambalur, Vilupuram, Vikravandi and Chingleput before reaching Chennai.

Source: March from Kanyakumari to Chennai demands equal rights to Dalit Christians
 
   
   
  Valentine-Krishna temple in Tamil Nadu
  IN an unusual mix of religions, a temple named after Saint Valentine and Krishna is being planned at Sholingur, a village in Tamil Nadu state's Vellore district.

R. Jaganaath, who is building the "Valentine Sri Krishna Temple," wants to dedicate the temple to the Hindu god of romance with the Christian champion of love, reports Kolkata's Telegraph newspaper.

His plan was to open the temple this Valentine's Day, but delayed it because of the last-minute change to the idol. It was also delayed because the most auspicious time for consecration falls in April, he said.

He has ordered a marble statue depicting Krishna and Radha with a cow and a calf beside them. "We have now asked the sculptor to show the cow licking Krishna's feet to reciprocate his love for animals," said Jaganaath, who plans to spend 200,000 rupees on the project.

The temple measuring just 36 sq ft (3.34 square meter) will have a 12 ft-high tower, decked with a flute and image of Vishnu's feet.

"Legend has it that Krishna had 16,000 wives, so every day was Valentine's Day for him," he said. (Courtesy: CathnewsIndia.com)
Source: A Valentine-Krishna mix to fox moral cops (The Telegraph)
 
   
   
  Understand Valentine spirit: Yoga guru Ramdev
  YOGA guru Ramdev says people should understand the meaning and spirit of St. Valentine's Day without making it an occasion for fun and to flaunt love on the street.

Festivals signify the victory of good over evil, and Valentine's Day is no different, he told media after a yoga camp marking the 175th anniversary of Assam Rifles in Shillong on Sunday, DNA news site reported.

The popular guru of a large following said the medieval Christian saint had fought the royal monopoly over marriage to establish marriage as an institution for people.

"Present generation has forgotten the struggles of St. Valentine to gain sanctity to marriage. He used to quietly organize wedding ceremonies in churches for common people," the guru said.

"This day is not all about fun. St Valentine spread the message of marriage not that of socio-cultural decadence," Ramdev said.

"Nor is it an occasion to flout love on streets. If people have any respect for St Valentine, they should go and get married," he said.

Similarly, he said Hindu festival of Holi is getting drowned in alcohol and Deepawali has become a synonym for pollution. He wanted young people to understand the meaning of festivals like Valentine's Day. (Courtesy: CathNewsIndia.com)

Source: Understand significance of Valentine's Day: Ramdev
 
   
   
  Priest, 90, wants 15 more years to work
  AN Indian Salesian priest who has already celebrated his 90th birthday is praying for another 15 years to fulfill his mission.

Father Sylvanus Sngi Lyngdoh is into the 20th year of writing a Bible commentary in Khasi, a tribal language of Meghalaya state in northeastern India.

"God has to give me another 15 years to complete the work I have begun," the Khasi dressed in traditional tribal turban and shawl, told UCA News recently.

Father Sngi began the work with the book of Hosea 20 years ago and has completed 28 books so far. He is currently working on St. Paul's letter to Galatians.

"It is a very important book as it is a pastoral letter," he says.

Shillong University in Meghalaya uses his commentaries on the books of Ruth and Job as textbooks, Pauline Sister Caroline Duia, a regular visitor to the priest, says.

Father Sngi first print-run of 3,000 copies of those volumes sold out within three months, the Khasi nun told UCA News.

Protestants particularly appreciate Father Sngi's writings, she said.

The Catholic priest has also written two dictionaries Hebrew-Khasi and Aramaic-Khasi for local Bible students.

Father Sngi, a former professor of theology at Sacred Heart College in the Meghalaya capital of Shillong, uses a laptop to write the commentary.

"See, my hands are not yet trembling," he said with a boyish smile.

These days, the priest lives at the Salesian provincial House in Guwahati, Assam, to escape Shillong's severe winter. He gets up at 3 a.m and works right through the day until he goes to bed at 9 p.m.

"Now that I cannot visit villages I have dedicated my time to writing. I have become a close collaborator of media missioners," he said.

The priest insists that missioners who come from outside the area learn the local language so that they could be more effective.

Learning local language "is very important. Only then you can touch the hearts of the people. You must fill Assam Valley with Assamese Christian literature," added Father Sngi who was ordained a priest 52 years ago in Italy by Salesian Bishop Michele Alberto Arduino.

Source: Priest, 90, prays for 15 years to finish his work (UCAN)
 
   
   
  Ward children against pagans: Bishops
  BISHOPS in Kerala have urged parents to bring up children in a religious manner against certain groups' attempts to create a pagan and atheistic generation.

The message is part of a circular issued by Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) as part of observance of Holy Childhood Day last Sunday.

Bishop Geevarghese Mar Divannasios, chairman of the council's Vocation Commission said his message that parents should watchfully form the character of their children.

"Modern communication technologies and their fancies influence the children very easily. Besides, political parties also have started to play their tricks to 'catch them young".

He said observances such as Holy Childhood day can play a major role in the character formation of children.

"There have been deliberate attempts to disgrace priests, religious people as well as the entire church," the circular said indicating the communists' campaigns against Church leaders.

"Such attempts cannot be considered as just absurdity and ruled out," it said without naming any political party or organization.

The circular also urges the parents to induct children below 12 years to the Association and arrange get-togethers for them once a week to discuss religious matters.

Source: Bring up children in religious manner: KCBC (expressbuzz.com)
 
   
   
  Remove illegal worship places: Supreme Court
  THE Supreme Court has asked the states to formulate a policy within eight weeks to remove, relocate or demolish unauthorized places of worship, including churches, at public places in the country.

The apex court passed the direction Feb. 16 after expressing dissatisfaction over the reports and affidavits filed by all states and Union Territories.

All states, except Uttarkhand, filed affidavits assuring that steps are being taken to remove or relocate the unauthorized constructions following the court's earlier direction.

"We do not find comprehensive and satisfactory the reports submitted," the bench said while granting further time to states on the issue.

Barring Sikkim, all states admitted to facing the problem of unauthorized places of worship like temples, mosques, churches and gurudwaras, prompting the apex court to comment "perhaps it (Sikkim) is the most civilized state!"

A bench of Justices Dalveer Bhandari also granted six weeks to states and Union Territories to identify such places of worship illegally constructed and file fresh affidavits.

The apex court also pulled up the Uttarkhand counsel for failing to file any status report on the issue till date even though it had passed the direction in December 2009.

While directing the state to file its report within two weeks, the bench said the Chief Secretary shall appear in person if the state failed to comply with the directive. (Courtesy: CathnewsIndia)

Source: SC gives more time to states on illegal places of worship
 
   
   
  Nun leader calls for political involvement
 
NEW DELHI, FEB 17 (UCAN) -- India's Catholic Religious should involve themselves in politics for marginalized people and help build a just society, says a leading Catholic nun.

The Church's tendency to shun politics "is not good" in the modern world, says Mother Smitha, who heads the Kerala-based Sisters of the Destitute congregation.

However, the nun, on a visit to her houses in Delhi, told UCA News on Feb. 16, her call is "not for direct involvement in party politics."

Religious should "speak out for the poor and stand with them on issues that concern them," said the 54-year old nun, who has worked in Delhi's slums.

She cited the example of communists in Kerala, who formed the world's first democratically elected communist government in 1957. They succeeded because they stood with the poor and marginalized, the Superior General asserted.

Religious should "read the minds of the poor" and "work with them" on social issues, said the nun who has a master's degree in social work. She said such involvement could help the people take political action that would bring about policy changes to benefit the poor.

Mother Smitha said her aim is not political revolution. The call is to "plant values of the Gospel" in society aiming at a "just and peaceful society."

Church institutions, most of them managed by the Religious, should be made "more available" to the poor. "We should set apart some 30-40 per cent of our facilities for the poor. But that is not happening," the nun said.

The Church in India has been institution-oriented over the past five decades and the "outlook has begun to change only recently. Yet we are not stretching our arms fully for the poor," she said.

Her congregation, which manages some 15 hospitals and dispensaries in the country, plans to set part some 30 per cent of its services for the poor. "We will gradually increase it," Sister Smitha said.

The nun said some 1,566 nuns of her congregation are mostly involved in managing 50 houses meant for the mentally sick and destitute women and children.

Mother Smitha also said the "biggest challenge" for the Religious is the "falling quality" of vocations and changing values among people. Being poor is no longer seen as a value, she said adding that "more people look for power and positions and lack the willingness to totally surrender to God's will."

The nun wants Church attitudes to also change. "There is a lot of criticism and discouragement" toward nuns who venture out into frontier missions for the poor.

The quality of service women Religious get largely depends on how the Church "treats them", she said, adding that, women Religious experience a lack of respect and equality in the Church.

"If priests are treating sisters like servants, what support and respect will we get from lay people?" she asked.
 
   
   
  Church rejects Hindu group's allegations
 
BHUBANESWAR, FEB 17 (UCAN) -- Church people and others in Orissa have rejected as trite and baseless a Hindu radical group's allegations that the Church perpetrated violence in Orissa.

Ashok Singhal, president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, world Hindu council) says his group had no hand in the sectarian violence in Orissa. "The VHP was in no way involved in the riots," the New Delhi-based Hindu leader told reporters in Bhubaneswar, the Orissa state capital, on Feb. 15.

Singhal was reacting to Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's disclosure in the state assembly earlier in the day that investigations showed the VHP and other Hindu radical groups were involved in the violence.

He also criticized Patnaik for allowing a European Union delegation to visit Orissa early February. He said Patnaik compromised with the country's security by allowing the delegation to hold a closed-door meeting with Church leaders.

He alleged "foreign forces" indulged in religious conversion in Orissa by luring illiterate tribal people. Violence there started Aug. 24, 2008, a day after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a nonagenarian Hindu religious leader. Although Maoists have claimed responsibility, Hindu radicals continue to say Christians were behind the crime. Singhal maintains that Swami Saraswati tried to check conversions and the missioners eliminated him with the help of the Maoists. "The Bible and rifle now go together," he said.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, who heads the Catholic Church in Orissa, dismissed Singhal's outburst as Hindu radicals' "customary" attempts to rake up a controversy over conversion and the Church's foreign funds and foreign links.

"This only shows their poverty of issues," he told UCA News on Feb. 16. He said the VHP leader "reacted out of proportion" because he mistook the European Union as a Christian organization.

"The European Union is a non-religious organization that has regular contacts with the Indian government for more than two decades but with no religious group in India," the archbishop asserted.

He accused Hindu radicals of indulging in a divide-and-rule game by "disseminating baseless and misleading information."

Dhirendra Panda, a social activist, dismissed Singhal's allegations against Christians as "irrational and illogical." According to him, it is the VHP that pits one community against another and works against the nation's interests.

Damodar Rout, state Minister of Agriculture and Cooperation, told media people to ignore the VHP since its only interest is to create disturbances in Orissa.

Baishnav Parida, spokesperson of the ruling regional party, accused the VHP of maligning Orissa. "They believe in violence and social unrest," he told the press.
 
   
   
  Attacked Mangalore parish holds free health camp
  A PARISH in Mangalore, which was among those targeted in 2008 anti-Christian attacks, organized a free health camp for people as part of its centenary celebrations.

The camp was organized on Feb. 14 in collaboration with K. S. Hegde Medical College. Hundreds of poor people, including Hindus, were medically helped in the camp free of cost.

M. Shantarama Shetty of the medical college who opened the camp at the parish's Silver Jubilee Hall stressed that neglecting health could prove dangerous.

He said diseases can be easily cured if detected early. He said that health cannot be purchased and therefore people should take care to nurture and preserve it.

A team of doctors from various departments of the hospital examined those at the camp, including children, and prescribed medicines.

Parish priest Father Walter D'Mello and centenary committee members were part of the organizing team.

The church was among those attacked across Karnataka in a wave of fanatic Hindu violence against Christians. The southern state witnessed at least 24 attacks on Church institutions and Christians in 2008.

The Justice B. K. Somasekhara Commission, which probed the attacks, submitted its 500-page interim report early February and called for a ban on organizations that preach or act against any religion.

Source: Mega Health Camp held as part of Milagres Church Centenary Celebrations
 
   
   
  Hindi Bible website with SMS features launched
  ARCHBISHOP Leo Cornelio of Bhopal launched on Feb. 14 the first Hindi Catholic Bible website.

The archbishop, who heads the Catholic Church in Madhya Pradesh state, described the website as the Church's Valentine gift to Hindi speaking people, the country's largest linguistic group.

"The Bible is full of love and we need to spread it to everyone irrespective of caste, creed and religion. Christ's preaching of love is for everyone and there is no boundary attached to it," he said.

The website www.biblemitr.com is designed to help a person complete reading the entire Bible in 47 weeks. It also allows one to send Bible versus as short messages (SMS) to Hindi mobile phone users.

"A good SMS in the morning could immensely help a person," Archbishop Cornelio told UCA News after the launch.

The prelate said modern life has become "too stressful" for all, especially those in the cities and "the right use of SMS with Bible quotes would help them address life's burning issues."

Some 487 million of India's 1.02 million people speak Hindi.

The Bible Mitr (friends of Bible), a group of lay people and Religious, worked on the project for nearly a year, said its coordinator Father Francis Scaria. "We felt the need for effectively quenching the thirst of tech savvy Hindi speaking people for the Bible in their language," he told UCA News.

The priest also said his group has begun work on developing a Hindi Catholic Bible software to cater to mobile phone users.

The country is reported to have 500 million mobile phone users, he said.
 
   
   
  Sri Lanka: Religious leaders meet again over Fonseka
 
COLOMBO, FEB 16 (UCAN)-- Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders have expressed deep concern over the arrest of former army chief and defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka.

The Congress of Religions met the chief prelates of Sri Lanka's two main Buddhist chapters among four in Kandy to discuss the situation today [Feb. 16].

The country faces a fresh wave of post-election violence as anger grows over the arrest.

Thousands of protesters had clashed with a pro-government group last week.

Fonseka was credited with the defeat of the rebel Tamil Tigers after a decades-long civil war but was arrested last week on charges of plotting to overthrow the government.

The Congress of Religions have made a statement with 20 religious leaders yesterday [Feb. 15] after their meeting at Abayarama Temple in the capital last Friday.

"We are not happy with the manner of the arrest of General Fonseka who gave leadership in defeating the rebels and it disturbs all Sri Lankans," said the religious leaders.

Many police and army officers who were close to General Fonseka face trouble, the leaders say.

Twenty religious leaders including Venerable Ittapana Dammalankara Thera, Venerable Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thero, Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo and retired Archbishop Oswald Gomis signed the statement.

"They [the religious leaders] are very concerned about the uncertain situation in the country with regard to democracy and good governance," one of the representatives told UCA News as the group left the temple.

The chief prelates of Sri Lanka's four main Buddhist chapters have called a meeting on Thursday [Feb. 18] for a special convention to discuss the political situation in the country.

In a letter sent to all monks in the country, Anglican Bishop Duleep de Chickera has also expressed deep concern over Fonseka’s arrest.

"The world has also expressed concern over these happenings and their implications on the rights of individual citizens and the democratic integrity of our beloved Sri Lanka," the bishop said.

"Whatever opinion people may have of General Fonseka, militarily or politically, all fair-minded Sri Lankans are disappointed with the way a highly-rated former Army Commander and his associates have been treated. It is a blot on the democratic, cultural and religious traditions and image of our country."
 
   
   
  Church has 'matured' over Carnival protests
 
PANAJI, FEB 16 (UCAN) -- The Catholic community in Goa has "matured" since the 1980s when the carnival there brought Christians and others into conflict, a Church spokesman says.

"The Church does not nag (about the carnival). We have taken for granted that the Catholic community has matured," Father Francis Caldeira, spokesperson of Goa and Daman archdiocese said as the western Indian state launched a three-and-a-half days of merrymaking on Feb. 13.

Church members are now more able to deal with such "non-Catholic" festivities, the priest says. The festivities are also better organized and not as open to the same abuses of before, he said.

Some 60 floats participated in a parade at Panaji, the state capital on the weekend. Other major towns in the state also organized similar floats.

The carnival in Goa ran into trouble in the 1980s after the Church and others alleged it promoted a permissive culture and that the celebrations were "lewd and vulgar."

Organizers of the floats were also alleged to have drugged participants to overcome their inhibitions to wear "indecent costumes" and dance to win prizes during the float parade.

Church investigations revealed that the number of abortions went up after the carnival.

In 1983, the Church protested that the "liberties in dress and behavior" during the carnival jeopardized values and gave the impression that Goans were of "loose character."

Father Caldeira said the Church's earlier opposition was on certain principles. "Now we have decided to keep quiet since our goal was met."

Father Eufemiano Miranda, a parish priest, said the festivities led to "lot of exploitation" in previous years.

"Our role was to make parents and youth aware that that this is not a Catholic festival. We have attained the objective. The government has now taken over the celebrations. We cannot go on protesting," he added.

Rui Ferreira, who joined the parade in the 1980s, said while young people in towns now avoid the carnival parade, those from villages join it enthusiastically.

"This may be because the message from the Church has not reached villages," he said and added that the Church should revive its call for parishioners to stay away.

He said many semi-nude participants seen with this year's floats were all foreigners but it gave the wrong impression that Goan women are available.
 
   
   
  Fingerprint trouble at Catholic school in Madhya Pradesh
 
BHOPAL, FEB 16 (UCAN) -- A Catholic school has run into trouble for collecting students' fingerprints, an illegal act in India.

Officials of St. Anne's Senior Secondary School in Madhya Pradesh state's Sehore district have apologized and explained they undertook the exercise to prevent mischief makers from damaging school property.

The school was forced to declare a holiday yesterday [Feb. 15] after a student organization affiliated to the state's ruling pro-Hindu party protested the school's action.

The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishad (ABVP, all India students' council) also asked the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to derecognize the school. The federal board controls secondary education in the country.

District collector Sandeep Yadav, the top government authority in the district, told UCA News today [Feb. 16] that the administration would not act against the school, but would inform the CBSE to initiate appropriate action.

Rajesh Chand, a lawyer, told UCA News that the school's action was illegal as the law does not allow private groups to collect finger prints without prior approval from legal authorities.

Sister Ceilia John, the school principal, told UCA News that she regretted the developments.

The school collected the fingerprints of some students on Feb. 13 with the help of a parent who worked in the state forensic department, she said. "The objective was nothing more than to deter students from damaging fans, lights and other school properties," she explained.

The principal said school officials "were totally unaware" of the law. "We never knew it would become such a controversy," she added.

Meanwhile parents have rallied behind the school.

The controversy was whipped up to tarnish the school's image, says Mohammed Anish Khan, a physician and parent of a student whose fingerprints were taken. "We have no grievance about the school for the fingerprint issue as it was done for a pious objective," the Muslim parent told UCA News.

Khan also criticized the protestors for disrupting classes. "Even if someone has an objection he should take appropriate legal action rather than disrupt students' studies," he added.

The parents have also submitted a memorandum to higher officials in the district to seek protection for the school and action against those trying to disturb its functioning.
 
   
   
  Calm returns to Salesian school after dorm fire
  GUWAHATI, FEB 15 (UCAN) -- Peace has returned to a northeastern Indian village where angry locals tried to storm a Salesian Don Bosco school after 14 students died in a fire last week.

Sister Concettina, superior of the Missionaries of Charity (MC) congregation in northeastern India, today [Feb. 15] visited Palin, where the school is located. She told UCA News that calm had retuned.

At the height of the tension Salesian priests and staff were evacuated by air and the army were forced to guard the school in Kurung Kumey district, Arunachal Pradesh after the Feb. 9 incident.

As tensions escalated, Franciscan Clarist Congregation nuns working in the village also fled on the weekend [Feb. 13].

The tragedy occurred in a private hostel where the students stayed but local residents blamed the school for the incident.

State Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu visited the remote village soon after the tragedy and asked the administration to airlift the priests and staff for their own safety.

Six nuns of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity (MC) congregation who work in the village decided to stay despite the uproar.

People "pleaded with us to stay and promised to support us," Sister Rose Beena, local superior, told UCA News. The nuns have managed a dispensary in the remote village since 1992.

Many people, including the owner of the hostel, suffered serious injuries and were also taken to hospitals in the state capital Itanagar.

A Catholic woman managed the hostel housing 65 children of first and second grades. The building had a roof thatched with pine needles. The fire occurred after children started using candles and kerosene lamps during a power cut.

On the night of the incident, the hostel warden lit a candle in the dormitory and left on an errand, locking the only door from outside.

She returned 15 minutes later to find that fire had engulfed the house.

A priest from the school told UCA News the people blamed the school because the hostel is in on its premises.

Angry villagers buried the dead children under the school's basketball court.

Meanwhile on Feb. 13, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced 200,000 rupees (US$4,350) as compensation to the families of those killed and half that amount to the wounded.

The Salesian missioners, pioneers of education in northeastern India, manage about 200 schools in the region where they have two provinces. The school comes under Itanagar diocese.
 
   
   
  Church to help 'miserable' nomads
  BHOPAL, FEB 15 (UCAN) -- The Church will use all channels at its disposal to help nomads, whose lives have become "miserable," Catholic officials said at the end of a two-day seminar in Bhopal Feb. 14.

Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, president of Pastor Care of Nomads in India, said increased industrialization and urbanization have become an increasing threat to nomads, who move with their families in search of pasture for their animals.

Nomadic life has become more miserable as natural habitat is shrinking and more protective implemented on forest use, said the prelate, who heads the Church's official body that works among nomads in India.

"The Church holds every single life valuable and dear to God and hence it will have the responsibility to help the nomads progress in life," Archbishop Cornelio told UCA News Feb. 14 at the end of the seminar in Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh state.

Some 120 Church volunteers, including 16 nomads, at the seminar said the Church should educate wandering tribes in the country, whose population is not officially estimated.

Independent estimates say nomads constitute 0.7 percent of India's some 1 billion people, mostly in northern Indian states.

Archbishop Cornelio said the Church sees education as the way to help nomads move forward. "Education would be our top priority to liberate them from the clutches of an undignified life," the prelate said.

The prelate said the Church will use "all available channels" to tap state funds to help nomads get houses, farmland and sustainable income-generating occupations.

Bishop Anthony Chirayath of Sagar, who has worked with nomads for many years, told UCA News orthodox Indian society considers nomads as "untouchable" and treat them "badly".

India's centuries-old caste system abhors the nomads and in some cases the Church has also become "victim of this hatred as it works for their advancement", the bishop said.

However, the seminar was able to highlight several success stories where some nomads obtained government jobs and joined mainstream life.

One was Laitha from Karnataka, who has settled down and started a normal life. She now encourages others in her community to establish a base.

She thanked Church groups for their assistance. The woman joined a Self Help Group that funded some income-generating projects that improved her life and helped educate her children.
 
   
   
  Singapore: Chastened pastor rues slur on Buddhism
  SINGAPORE, FEB 15 (UCAN) -- An evangelical pastor has spoken for the first time since attracting a storm of protest over derogatory comments he made about Buddhism.

Pastor Rony Tan, the leader of the mega-church Lighthouse Evangelism with 12,000 members, apologized for the remarks after being rebuked by Singaporean senior minister Goh Chok Tong and the government's Internal Security Department.

In a church service last week Tan interviewed converts from Buddhism to his faith and sneered openly at beliefs such as reincarnation and practices such as meditation.

The video of the service was posted on Lighthouse Evangelism's website and on YouTube.

"A wrong is a wrong and must be rectified, not justified," Tan reportedly told the congregation at the service in the suburb of Woodland.

Local media reported that he appealed to members to be more sensitive while preaching the gospel to non-Christians.

"Let there be no criticism of any religion," he said.

Tan last week apologized for his remarks in a private meeting with Buddhist and Taoist leaders.

Goh Chok Tong had earlier castigated Tan for his remarks, while speaking at the opening of the Singapore Jain Religious Society's building.

Goh was quoted as saying that Singaporean society was built on mutual respect for others and their different religions.

That was a key principle underpinning the city state's social cohesion, he said.

"Our success in forging a multi-racial and multi-religious society has sometimes resulted in Singaporeans, especially younger Singaporeans, taking the harmony we enjoy for granted," Goh said.

The president of Singapore Buddhist Federation, Venerable Kwang Sheng, told Singapore media that the meeting with Tan was amiable.

"He realized that it was a mistake and the magnitude of the response was quite large. So he realized it was a serious issue, and he wishes to apologize to the Buddhists and Taoists for his wrongdoing."
 
   
   
  Deacons escape Pune blast, help victims
  PUNE, FEB 15 (UCAN) -- Two newly ordained deacons, who narrowly escaped the Saturday's bomb explosion in Pune, said they were happy to rescue several victims.

Deacons Joemon Kurusingal and Roy Mathews, students of Pune's Papal seminary, were ordained on Feb. 13 morning. They were going to visit patients in government-managed hospital in the city later in the evening when the bomb exploded near a restaurant they had just passed.

The blast killed nine people, including two foreigners, and wounded 45 others.

"I saw the place strewn with flesh and blood," said Deacon Mathews and added he saw "a chaotic scene, with people weeping loudly and thousands of people crowding the area."

The shaken seminarians then helped carry dead bodies and the injured before the police cordoned off the area.

The duo was among 16 seminarians from various dioceses who were ordained deacons that day. Deacon Kurusingal belongs to Jammu-Srinagar diocese in Jammu and Kashmir state while Deacon Mathews is being trained for Kalyan diocese in Maharashtra state.

Seminary rector Jesuit Father Pradeep Sequeira said his students' involvement "was a real witness to Christ and sharing the grief of the victims and the city."

Capuchin Bishop Peter Celestine Elampassery of Jammu-Srinagar also lauded his deacon's "prompt response." The prelate told UCA News over the phone that his "seminarian is a talented man with a good heart."

On Feb. 14, all churches in Poona diocese prayed for the blast victims, Father Malcolm Sequeira, diocesan spokesperson, told UCA News.

The priest said he had rushed to the blast site after hearing the news that night and spoke to the police who did not want any helpers. "By 1.30 am, all bodies were cleared and police had cordoned off the area," he added.

Police said the restaurant, German Bakery, packed by foreign nationals was a "soft target" of terrorists. However, their real targets were Osho Ashram, which has hundreds of foreigners, and Chabhad House, a Jewish prayer centre, but failed to enter them.

Police said commandoes are posted at the two places frequented by mostly foreigners.

Ma Amrit Sadhana, spokesperson of Osho International Meditation Resort, said her center has "beefed up security" as they fear terrorists targeting them to spread panic "as visitors to Osho commune come here from all over the world."

Acharya (teacher) Rajneesh set up the ashram in 1974.
 
   
   
  Pakistan: Protests turn violent over girl's murder
  LAHORE, FEB 15 (UCAN) -- Protests turned violent here over the release of the alleged murderer of a 12-year-old Catholic girl.

Demonstrators burnt effigies of the medical board and hurled abuse about the authorities.

More than 100 protestors blocked the road outside the Lahore Press Club for an hour in reaction to Lahore Session Court's decision to grant bail to Naeem Chaudhry, charged with last month's murder of his maid Shazia Shaheen, 12.

Her body showed signs of torture and sexual abuse.

The judges also confirmed bail for Chaudhry's wife and son and bail for a middleman allegedly involved in providing child labour.

"During the proceedings, Christian lawyers were forced to withdraw their power of attorney by a large number of lawyers gathered inside the courtroom," Joseph Francis, director of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, CLAAS and one of the protestors told UCA News.

"The judge had to permit only the lawyers pleading the case and the court refused to allow us time for the preparation of the case."

Shazia's elderly parent's were in the frontlines of the protest where demonstrators carried banners which said: "Innocent Shazia's blood is calling for punishment of a ruthless murderer and corrupt doctors" and "The bail of murderer poses questions for rulers."

They chanted slogans and hurled abuse about investigators.

CLAAS and Human liberation commission of Pakistan, HLCP, jointly organized Feb. 14 protest.

The protestors laterblocked traffic for about an hour.

Shazia's family sat on the middle of the road wailing with grief and anger. The protest ended after they torched the effigy of doctors who had prepared disputed medical reports.

Shazia's autopsy report said she did not die due to torture but from an "infection caused by previous injuries".

HLCP, a minority's group, condemned the court decision in a Feb. 14 press release.

"The state machinery has murdered justice to save the accused; the medical board has betrayed their profession by utterly changing the autopsy report, police conducted no interrogation during physical remand," said Adnan Anwar, Catholic president HLCP.

"A chief justice is not only for a one rank but for all helpless and downtrodden of the country. What happened in this case is the worst form of desecration of human rights", Anwar concluded.

Christians from all denominations have expressed outrage at Lahore Session Court's decision to grant bail to the alleged murderer of a 12-year-old Catholic maid.

"We have lost all hope of justice. The decision sends a signal that the Christian community can expect more acts of violence. It seems the decision to release the murderer was planned," Bishop Timotheus Nasir, head of the United Presbyterian Church, told UCA News.

Naeem Chaudhry, the former president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, is charged with last month's murder of his maid Shazia Shaheen, 12, whose body showed signs of torture and sexual abuse.

Lawyers invaded the court where he appeared and intimidated the victim's family on the first day of the hearing.

"Throughout the two-week proceedings of this high-profile case, there was total cooperation, collaboration and harmony between lawyers, police, the judiciary and government. Church leaders should have stood up against the lawyers when they put pressure on the family and those taking up the case," Bishop Nasir added.

Joseph Francis, director of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, CLAAS, now plans to appeal the bail decision in the High Court. "The world has seen that courts in this Muslim nation cannot give justice to the poor and minorities," he told UCA News.

Lahore archdiocese's vicar general Father Andrew Nisari agreed. "Justice in Pakistan has been hijacked. It is a pity the protectors of law have backed one of their colleagues."

Church of Pakistan workers also expressed disappointment. "It seems an insurmountable task to redress our judicial system. It is another unfortunate blow to our already marginalized community," Ayra Inderyas, secretary of the Women's Desk of the Church of Pakistan's Lahore diocese said. "We are trying to encourage women to fight for their rights, and such an incident dents our spirits".

The National Council for Interfaith Dialogue run by a Capuchin priest, and the Major Religious Superiors' Justice and Peace Commission held a condolence seminar for the murdered Catholic minor on Feb. 13.

"It was apparent to us that justice won't be served. I had invited a judge as a speaker for the seminar but he refused saying, Naeem Chaudhry was his classmate and he [as a judge] cannot publicly condemn the accused.
 
   
   
  Maramon Convention branches out with 100,000 saplings
  THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, FEB 15 (UCAN) -- A Christian convention, billed as Asia's largest Christian gathering, distributed some 100,000 saplings today [Feb. 15] in its effort to protect nature.

The Mar Thoma Syrian Church, which has organized the Maramon convention since 1895, distributed the saplings to people attending the gathering to take home and plant in memory of the convention.

Some 300,000 people, mostly Christians, are attending the eight-day annual prayer retreat that began on Feb.14 in Kerala.

The retreat is being held on the banks of the Pampa River, which is being seriously affected by de-forestation and sand mining.

Binoy Viswom, State's Minister for Forest and Environment , distributed the saplings and, commended the Mar Thoma Church for a "great" initiative. "It's a meaningful act during this time of global warming," said Viswom, an atheist.

The Mar Thoma Church is among seven Churches, based in Kerala, that trace their faith to Saint Thomas the Apostle. The Church has roots in both the Anglican and Orthodox traditions.

Viswom told UCA News that the state government expects every religion to help protect the environment to create a better Kerala.

Mar Thoma Church's head, Metropolitan Joseph Mar Thoma, who opened the 115th gathering, stressed "the grave need" to protect the environment".

"We decided to take a small step. We teamed up with the state forestry department to promote our green mission," the metropolitan told UCA News.

In the past the Church asked its 1 million members to adopt some simple measures to reduce carbon emissions. These included cutting the use of air-conditioners, using energy-saving light bulbs, avoid the use of plastic bags, and reducing dependency on motor vehicles.

"Simple living is part of practicing your faith in the true sense. We should be ready to sacrifice luxuries for the love of God," the metropolitan said.

People are taking the tree campaign seriously. Joseph Mathen, a Mar Thoma Christian, said he would plant a tree, even though he could not attend the convention. "We may be small in number as a Church. But we help promote a great philosophy for nature. More than that it's Lent, we should take our metropolitan's appeal seriously," he added.
 
   
   
  Dalit fabricated case against Christians in Tamil Nadu
  THE complaint of a dalit man that some Christians forced him to eat human excreta was "fabricated," say Tami Nadu officials who investigated the case.

The Dindigul collector and superintendent of police made a submission before Madras High Court Bench Feb. 9, saying the case had no substance, The Hindu newspaper reported.

Their submission concerns the complaint of P. Sadaiyandi, 24, of Meikovilpatti village. According to him he was attacked on Jan. 7 for defying the ban on Dalits wearing footwear in their locality. Sadaiyandi's complaint named some Catholic youths of Thevar caste.

The officials' submission, which came in reply to a public interest litigation petition taken up by the court, said the dailt filed the petition to counter a charge against him.

C. Arockiasamy of the same locality had filed a criminal complaint against the dalit saying an inebriated Sadaiyandi took away his money, abused him and threatened further attack, because of a previous enmity between them.

Sadaiyandi's petition was filed on the next day. It said Arockiasamy and 11 other Christians made derogatory remarks against his caste, beat him up and also smeared human excreta on his face.

A confidential enquiry conducted in the area by government officials revealed the allegations were fabricated, the collector said.

Sadayandi had got himself admitted to a government hospital after lodging the complaint, the Collector said. But the dalit refused to give a statement to the government officer who visited him in the hospital.

Subsequently, he absconded and the police could not enquire him because his whereabouts were still not known. "People belonging to both communities are living harmoniously in this village and there had been no untoward incidents so far," the Collector added.

After perusing the report, the judges directed the police officers concerned to obtain a statement from the doctor who examined the youth in the hospital and then adjourned the matter to Feb. 16.

Source: Collector denies report on atrocities against Dalit youth (The Hindu)
 
   
   
  Give soul to web: Vatican official
  THE head of Vatican's media council today urged the Indian Church to take on the web world to "give it a soul" and offer pastoral care to the growing internet communities.

Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the president of Pontifical Council for Social Communication, said the "biggest challenge" before the Church is to "learn how to enter the web world."

The prelate was addressing a three day seminar of diocesan communication officials in India that discussed challenges of their job in the modern world.

Pastoral ministry in the digital world and the increasing internet communities are "great challenges" before priests across the world, Archbishop Celli said.

The internet has made communication easier, knowledge sharing faster and cultures closer. It has also brought people together creating transnational digital communities.

While such progress is welcome, the Church has a duty to check its ill effects such as social distractions, materialism and mindless pleasure hunting, the prelate said.

Church has a duty to give "web a soul," but the Church people are lagging behind. Most dioceses are "web zero" as their websites continue in the initial stages without making use of the advancement of technology.

The church websites should ideally enter "web2" or "web3" stages with interactive audio-visual technology incorporated in them, said the Vatican official.

Church people, including priests and bishops, should start blogs to spread information, he said.

Retired bishops can blog effectively on Church issues than spending time in "creating trouble for their successors," the official said.

He also wanted the global Church start a website specially aimed at youth across the world to help answer their issues and help their growth.

The seminar included launching of course book, "Communication for Pastoral Leadership," prepared by Indian bishops' commission for social communication.

Father George Plathottam, secretary of the commission, said the book would help seminaries across India systematically conduct a course on pastoral communication.

The archbishop lauded Indian Church's communication efforts and said the course material would be a model for other national churches to follow.
 
   
   
  Pakistan: Church suspicious of girl's autopsy report
 
LAHORE, FEB 12 (UCAN) -- Church leaders have rejected the post mortem report of a 12-year-old Catholic girl who apparently died because of sexual torture.

According to local news channels, the report said that the infection in wounds and lack of nutrition caused her death. Shazia Shaheen had been working as a maid at the house of a Muslim lawyer for the past eight months.

"It seems that hospital authorities have submitted this report to the lawyers who have closed ranks to help one of their colleagues charged with torturing and murdering," Bishop Timotheus Nasir, head of the United Presbyterian Church, told UCA News.

Bishop Nasir also said "no infection can cause fracture of jaw, arm, cuts, or hot iron burns" and that "Shazia had all these marks when she was found dead."

Bishop Nasir said he plans to appear as lawyer to follow the case of Shazia Shaheen. "None of the Christian lawyers have taken up the case so far," he said. "The lawyers' associations and trade unions have defended the accused and threatened both victims' family and any lawyer who would side in the defense," added Bishop Nasir, a retired major in the Pakistan army who served in the military for 16 years. "Somebody among Church leaders must take a stand. I have studied criminal law and would fight even if we loose the case," he said.

Peter Jacob, executive secretary the Catholic bishop's National Commission for Justice and Peace, also said he was suspicious of the autopsy report. "It is media news; personally we haven't seen the written report. Doctors had earlier confirmed that Shazia reached the hospital with signs of sexual torture" he told UCA News.

The National Council for Interfaith Dialogue run by a Capuchin priest, and the Major Religious Superiors' Justice and Peace Commission will hold a condolence seminar for the murdered Catholic minor on Feb. 13.

Parents of Shazia, several Christian lawyers, priests and human rights activists have been invited as speakers for the event titled "Violence on women and children."

"Our purpose is to create awareness regarding domestic violation. We are trying to convince poor Christian parents against sending their children as domestic workers," Romail Yousaf from the justice and peace commission, told UCA News.

More than 75,000 women have lost their lives in various acts of violence over the past 10 years, according to a report released last month by Maddadgar helpline, an NGO for women and children. The report added that around 53,000 children were subjected to violence during this period.
 
   
   
  Fashion model joins priest to save farming
 
PILAR, FEB 12 (UCAN) -- In an unusual pairing, top Indian model Tinu Verghese has offered up her farmland in Goa to a Catholic priest to help him promote farming.

Father Patrick D'Souza, who accepted the land, has been promoting cultivation in villages around Goa, where he says people are losing interest in farming.

The supermodel, also known as Christiana Verghese, told UCA News Feb. 9 she gave the land because "there's no point in keeping the land fallow. Farm land is meant to be cultivated."

The fashion model, who has modeled for international brands like Gucci, Christian Dior and Prada, said Father D'Souza suggested the idea of "contract farming."

She volunteered her land "without seeking anything in return."

Contract farming typically generates farm products for an agreed buyer.

Father D'Souza, a member of the indigenous Society of the Missionaries of St. Francis Xavier, said he came up with the idea after seeing Goa's once lush paddy fields now lying barren.

The society is popularly known as the Society of Pilar after the name of the village in which it is based.

The priest is in charge of the Pilar Nature Farm.

"Some farmers have come forward offering us free use of their land for cultivation after they saw me farming" on the model's land, Father D'Souza said.

He said these people have not sought any formal agreement, "but just wanted the land to be cultivated." He cultivates paddy and sweet potatoes on the land made available to him.

Inacio Fernandes, who offered 100,000 square meters of land, said "labor is not only expensive but also unavailable."

Jose Afonso, who also offered land, said there was no one to care for his land after his children moved away. Farming has also become "too expensive" with increased labor costs, he said.

Alfonso said people like him also fear the government may seek fallow land for state purposes such as hospitals and sports complexes. "So it's better if it remains green," he said.
 
   
   
  Vatican: Guwahati Archbishop likely to be made Cardinal
 
VATICAN CITY, FEB 12 (UCAN) -- Pope Benedict XVI is tipped to make as many as four new Asian cardinals at the next consistory expected in October, writes Gerard O'Connell, special correspondent in Rome.

Sources in Rome say that among the most likely to be given red hats are Japan's Archbishop Peter Takeo Okada, Sri Lanka's Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, India's Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil, and Myanmar's Archbishop Charles Maung Bo.

Archbishop Okada was appointed archbishop of Tokyo in February 2000 by Pope John Paul II, and is president of the Japanese bishops' conference. He is well known to the Pope and last met him in November 2009 during a visit to commemorate the first anniversary of the beatification of the Japanese martyrs. He would be the sixth Japanese cardinal.

Archbishop Ranjith, a biblical scholar and polyglot who has worked twice in senior positions in the Vatican -- under Pope John Paul II and the current Pope -- also served as nuncio to Indonesia. He is very close to Pope Benedict XVI and shares his views on liturgical and theological questions. Pope Benedict appointed him archbishop of Colombo after the civil war ended.

A red hat for Pakistan?

Archbishop Menamparampil, a Salesian and archbishop of Guwahati, is well known for his peace and reconciliation work in northeastern India. The Pope asked him to write the reflections for the Way of the Cross at the Coliseum on Good Friday, 2009, and also appointed him to the post-synodal council.

Archbishop Bo of Yangon, also a Salesian, played a central role in organizing Catholic relief in Myanmar in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and is also greatly appreciated by the pope. He would be Myanmar's first cardinal. His appointment would give a major boost to the Catholic community in the country that has been under military rule since 1962.

Besides these four, sources say the Pope might decide to appoint a cardinal from Pakistan to give encouragement to the Christian community there. He might also assign a red hat to the Philippines, as one of its two cardinals -- Cardinal Ricardo Vidal -– will turn 80 in February 2011.

In choosing new cardinals, Pope Benedict has a major problem: there are far more candidates than available positions. If he abides by Pope Paul VI's rule that the number of cardinal electors should not exceed 120, then he will have at most 20 positions to assign.

Asia currently has a total of 18 cardinals but only 10 of them are under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave to elect the next Pope.
 
   
   
  Centre offers amnesty to Kashmiri militants in PoK
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, FEB 12 -- The Centre has given its nod to grant amnesty to Kashmiri militants in Pakistan who want to surrender and return home. The move was proposed by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah last week during a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi.

The decision that is viewed as a major confidence-building measure for Jammu and Kashmir is expected to bring cheers to hundreds of families, whose sons left for Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) many years ago and are now keen to return.

"The news has brought us relief. Today, I am not hopeless. I can live with the hope that my son, who must have grown older now, will return soon," said Shamshada Begum, a resident of north Kashmir. Her son has been untraceable for years.

According to an estimate, 3,000 Kashmiri men are reportedly on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC).

"The idea of granting amnesty to Kashmiri youth in Pakistan occupied Kashmir has been accepted. It must now be translated into action," Union Home Minister P Chidambaram has been quoted as saying.

"The government is looking at many points involved in the process, such as identification, debriefing, rehabilitation and reintegration into the system. The process of wider consultation would be carried out and we will consult with the leader of the opposition and the two main political parties in Kashmir," he said.

Welcoming the decision, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said it was 'a big gift' for the affected families. Last week, Abdullah proposed in Delhi that a surrender and rehabilitation policy be formulated for youth who had gone to PoK for militant training and were craving to return home and join the mainstream without their weapons.

Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the opposition party, welcomed the decision. However, the decision didn't go well with Jammu-centric parties. Ashok Khajuria, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator in Jammu has been quoted as terming the decision as "surrender to militants that would open the floodgates for terrorists".

"Chidambaram is looking after the interests of terrorists," said Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) state president Rama Kant Dubey.

Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, during a visit to Jammu on February 9, said the surrender of militants could pose a serious danger to the state's security. "Who will guarantee that these youths will not engage in terrorist activities here? Should we trust Pakistan?" Azad has been quoted as asking.

The general public expresses a different sort of apprehension. "It is indeed a good decision, but I feel that this is all political gimmick and nothing concrete is going to come out of it. The concept will soon be sabotaged," said Bashir Ahmad, a resident of Hazratbal.

Abdul Hamid, a human rights activist, however, sees some light in the decision. "Let's stop being pessimists. The stage is set for something favourable. It has brought relief to families who believe that their sons are on the other side of the Line of Control. Such decisions ought to be appreciated."

He added that the decision, if implemented strictly, would be of great help in tackling the glaring issue of disappearances that has engulfed the society.

The idea to rehabilitate such militants was first floated in May 2006 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held a round-table conference on Kashmir in Srinagar. He had listed this issue as one of the subjects to be looked into while addressing internal dimensions of the issue.

A working group headed by M Hamid Ansari, now the vice-president, had recommended that the government initiate talks with Pakistan to rehabilitate these youth.
 
   
   
  Kerala's 'kidney priest' starts donor mission
 
A CATHOLIC priest, who donated a kidney to an ailing Hindu last year, launched a new mission promoting organ donation yesterday [Feb. 10].

Father Davis Chiramel, head of the Kidney Foundation of India, began a march to make people in Kerala state aware of the acute need for organs.

The Trichur archdiocesan priest plans to visit all 14 of the southern Indian state's districts in 20 days.

"During my journey, I will meet kidney patients and their relatives to convince them about organ donation. I will also go to schools and colleges to welcome students to my movement," Father Chiramel told UCA News.

Fifteen people from various religions, all members of his foundation, are accompanying the 49-year-old priest.

Abdul Samad Samadani, former Member of Parliament and leader of the Indian Union Muslim League, set the march in motion from Kasergod, Kerala's northernmost district.

"Father Chiramel is a living saint who taught us true human love when he donated his kidney to a Hindu brother," the Muslim political leader told UCA News. "Real religious faith is based on true love for our fellow beings," he said.

200,000 patients awaiting kidneys

Some 200,000 patients in Kerala await kidney transplants, while only a few people are willing to donate kidneys, Father Chiramel said.

The Catholic priest, who donated one of his kidneys last September, said people have concerns about organ donation.

"I've undertaken this journey to convince people that a donor will have no problems and can lead a normal life after donating a kidney," he explained.

Father Chiramel said his aim was to encourage people to donate their kidney to people of other religions.

"In such an environment, there will be no hatred based on religion or faith. Human love can heal all our problems," he said.

Beena Vijayan, a doctor in Ernakulam district, said Father Chiramel has shown that selfless love has no boundaries.

"He has undertaken the tour not for fame... but for the poor. His mission should be a success," she added.

Father Chiramel has become "a real role model," A. Vijayraghavan of the Communist Party said.

Source: 'Kidney priest' starts new donor mission (UCAN)
 
   
   
  Fire kills 13 Don Bosco students in Arunachal
 
A FIRE in a private hostel has killed at least 13 students of a Salesian-run school in the hilly state of Arunachal Pradesh.

"It is a great tragedy," said Salesian Father A.D. Jose based in the state capital Itanagar. He said the accident happened Feb. 10 night but added they "do not have details."

The priest said the fire-hit Holy Angels hostel in Palin village does not belong to the Church. "It is managed privately, but houses some students" of Salesian's Don Bosco school in the village.

For the past several days the area was without electrical power and students must have used candles or kerosene lamps in the hostel built with bamboo and hay. "It must have been a major fire," the priest told UCA News today.

He said the Church people in Itanagar are trying to get details from the village, which is a six-hour drive from the capital. The village comes under Kurung Kummpy district.

Media quoted district magistrate Remu Kemkei as saying the administration was in the process of evacuating the injured by choppers to hospitals in Itanagar.

The hostel had 62 students. "We are investigating the cause of the fire but preliminary reports indicate that it was accidental fire," Kemkei said.

Source: Hostel fire kills 13 Don Bosco students (UCAN)
 
   
   
  German youths adopt tribal hostel in West Bengal
 
KOLKATA, FEB 11 (UCAN) -- A group of young German Catholics, who "adopted" a tribal hostel in a village near Kolkata, were back at the center today [Feb. 11] to help celebrate the wedding of one of the staff.

The youths from Osnabruck diocese have been coming to the Jesuit-run Santi Sadan (abode of peace) at Mirga village since 2005.

Vincent Von der Haar, 23, who lived in the hostel from August 2008 to May last year, said he had developed a "bond with the children, which goes beyond mere voluntary work."

Von der Haar skipped his birthday celebrations this year and collected money to fund infrastructure improvement in the hostel.

"They are my little brothers and sisters and they need better facilities to study and grow," he told UCA News.

Father Martin Puthuserry, who manages the hostel, said Osnabruch archdiocese selects two youths to come to India each year.

One comes to Mirga and the other to Jisu Ashram in Matigara, also in West Bengal state. They make the trip in place of obligatory military service in Germany, he said.

Each volunteer collects donations in Germany to improve the hostel's facilities.

German presence 'a blessing' to hostel kids

The priest said the German presence itself "is a blessing" to the children. The visitors contribute to the growth of the children by teaching songs, keeping track of studies and visiting schools to check on the children's progress.

Mirga hostel has 85 children, including 21 girls. The students, aged 8-13, attend grades three and four in three nearby government schools.

Father Puthuserry said the volunteers' love for the children "is visible especially when the children fall sick. They are generous to the children, sharing what they have with them," he said.

Dancing with the tribal people of the village is a "delight" for Christoph Truthe, who is now at Mirga, he said, adding that the activity helps connect him to the people.

Guntram Helmich, 27, who was the first to stay from September 2005-May 2006, said he remembers an eight-year-old girl asking him on his last day in the hostel: "Brother, won't you come back?"

"It was the most touching moment" of his stay, he said.

Helmich, now a theology student in Germany, said he was happy to revisit the hostel, which has changed considerably over the years.

Ulf-Simon Pols, 23, who was in Mirga from September 2006 to May 2007, said his return visit was "like a big family coming together." He said he himself had changed in his time in the village.

"I entered the hostel as a boy, and returned to Germany a man," he said.
 
   
   
  Sri Lanka: Fonseka's arrest puts religious leaders on alert
 
COLOMBO, FEB 11 (UCAN) -- Buddhists and Christians have expressed concern about the arrest of the defeated Sri Lankan presidential candidate and the ensuing protests that have erupted in the capital.

Protesters near the Supreme Court Complex clamoring for justice for former army commander General Sarath Fonseka were attacked with stones by rival groups believed to be government supporters, forcing the police to resort to tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds.

Six people were injured, another six were arrested and about a dozen vehicles were damaged. "Stop bluffing! Release the general!" the people shouted.

Human rights activists, people from different faiths including Buddhist monks and Christian priests were among those demonstrating in support of a petition filed on Feb. 10 challenging Fonseka's "arbitrary" arrest and detention.

"This action is going to aggravate the divisiveness and conflicts further," a Catholic priest told UCA News, as he watched the clashes. Sri Lankan politics will be at "a deadend if we carry on this way," he said.

Where is the freedom in this country?

Father Marimuthupillai Sathivel, an Anglican priest, told UCA News that "arresting General Fonseka is political business, not democratic action," and asked, "Where is the freedom in this country?"

Venerable Tibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera, the chief Buddhist monk of Malawatte, said it was a grave crime to imprison a war hero who had done an immense service to eradicate terrorism.

"Even if such a person does something wrong he should be pardoned," he said. Moreover, "I have an entire file of letters sent by innocent people who have been victimized for voting for the other side," he added.

Fonseka, who lost the election to incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa during the Jan. 26 presidential election was arrested on Feb. 8 for fraud connected to his tenure in the armed services. He alleged that Rajapaksa rigged the election.

The government claims Fonseka was arrested on charges of engaging in politics against his president while still in the army. Fonseka and Rajapaksa had worked together to end a 26-year war against Tamil Tiger rebels last year but soon fell out with one another.

Father Sarath Iddamalgoda, a Catholic human rights activist, said the arrest "is unfair and undemocratic."

A group of Catholic and Anglican bishops have also questioned the way the presidential election was conducted. "Reconciliation and harmony should be the end result of an election," but unfortunately "we see violence," they said in their Feb. 8 statement to media.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has also expressed concern over Fonseka's arrest. He has urged the government to follow the due process of law and guarantee Fonseka's safety.
 
   
   
  KNLF militants lay down arms in Assam
 
GUWAHATI, FEB 11 (UCAN) -- Some 410 members of a banned militant group surrendered today [Feb. 11], raising hopes of peace in northeastern India.

The militants of the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation front (KNLF), including 22 women, laid their weapons in front of Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi at Diphu, a major town in the state.

"It is an historical event in the history of northeastern Indian states," Father Thomas Mangattuthazhe of the United Christian Forum (UCF), who witnessed the surrender, told UCA News.

The Diphu diocesan priest and member of the Northeast Peace Team said people are "very happy that the militants reestablished with society after engaging in armed wars for years.

"It is a sign of hope that people still believe in democratic values," the priest said and noted that earlier different groups have surrendered but not in such large numbers.

He said the presence of the large number of people at the surrender shows that any problem can be resolved through proper dialogue.

On Feb. 9, UCF's executive meeting praised the KNLF for its "bold decision" to abandon its weapons. This is the beginning of an unparalleled era of peace and prosperity in Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, a UCF press release said.

Reverend Asish Haque, a pastor of the Church of North India in Guwahati, also welcomed the developments.

"We appreciate them very much for laying down their arms and joining mainstream society so that we can live in peace and tranquility."

For Gold Smith, another member of the North East Peace Team, violence must stop and peace must prevail in the region, home to scores underground secessionist groups.

"We will continue to negotiate for peace against violence," he told UCA News.

Smith wants the government and militants to follow the terms they have agreed strictly in order to help the peace process.

The surrender signals the end of armed movements by groups representing the majority communities in the long-disturbed twin hill districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills of Assam.

The KNLF had declared a unilateral ceasefire in January 2009 and then extended it periodically.

"Like the rest of the people of Karbi Anglong we too want peace and development in the greater interest of all," Rejek Dera outfit, the group's publicity secretary, told reporters.

Armed struggle in the Hill District started with the formation of the Karbi National Volunteers in 1993, another group, the Karbi People's Front was formed later.

In 1997, the two organizations merged and the combined group named the United Peoples Democratic Solidarity. It split four years later after one faction refused to enter into a ceasefire agreement with the government.

On Oct. 2, 2009, another faction, the Dima Halam Daogah, laid down its arms.
 
   
   
  Cardinal vows to end clergy sex abuse at priests' meet
 
VAILANKANNI, FEB 11 (UCAN) -- The head of the Vatican's congregation for priests says the Church condemns sex abuse by clergy and will drive out offenders.

It also wants to work more closely with victims as they deal with the consequences of the crime, he says.

"The Church cannot tolerate [clerical sex abuse] and deals with it as a serious crime," Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect for the Congregation for the Clergy, told UCA News today [Feb. 11].

The 75-year-old Capuchin cardinal from Brazil was in India to attend the first national congress of the country's Catholic priests.

Some 800 priests and several bishops from India's three ritual Churches attended the three-day program that concluded in Vailankanni, Tamil Nadu, today.

Asked how to remedy the clergy scandal, Cardinal Hummes said the Church has decided that it cannot tolerate sex abuses by priests. "The Church cannot accept such priests," he said.

The Church will also insist on "a rigorous selection process" for priesthood candidates. It will also push for spiritual renewal of the clergy, he added.

The cardinal said the Church was "very concerned" for the victims. 'The Church wants to be closer to them, offering them sympathy, solidarity and consolation," the cardinal said.

The outspoken cardinal, who headed Sao Paulo archdiocese for eight years before taking up the Vatican post in 2008, said he was visiting India for the first time. He was "highly impressed" with the country's "young, jovial and enthusiastic" priests.

Cardinal Hummes said he was "positively surprised" at the "well-organized" congress that conducted its sessions in "a very fraternal" and "cordial atmosphere."

The Vatican official hailed the congress as "the most important program" for the Catholic priests in India. "Priests here are very good and the programs were very good, especially their spiritual side," he added.

The Vatican dignitary commended India's three ritual Churches -- the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites. "These various liturgical and spiritual traditions make the Church in India really beautiful," he said.

The cardinal also noted that Indian priests have a "good spirit of prayer" and support each other.

"They have lots of interest in everything, especially in promoting interreligious and inter-cultural dialogue," he said, but cautioned that "dialogue cannot substitute for evangelization and proclamation of the Word of God."

In an earlier address, the cardinal noted the world had some 408,000 priests in 2008, the latest statistics available. This was an increase of 1,000 over the previous year.

He said the current observation of the Year for Priests presents the Church with an opportunity to love and respect its priests and recognize what they do for Church and society.
 
   
   
  Christians plan joint forum for schools
  CATHOLICS and Protestants plan to launch a joint organization to help protect the interest of their educational institutions across the country, leaders said.

Officials of National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) and Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) said they have been discussing the need of a representative body of Christians to present their interests before government, Times of India reported.

These Christian groups together manage over 5,000 educational institutions. The organization would help give a national perspective and united responses to issues faced by institutions across India.

NCCI president Bishop T Sagar said they had discussed the issue with the Catholic Church authorities. "The time has now come for the body to get a definite shape," he said.

The CBCI spokesperson Father Babu Joseph said they would shortly announce the organization, which would take up policy issues with the Central government. He said the organization will also point out the problems Christian institutions face in different states.

Christian leaders they do not have a single forum to act decisively and quickly when their their schools come under undue pressure from vested interests or attacked by political parties. This new organization will cater to this need, they feel.

The organization, a representative body, will also help the large number of Christian schools in villages and small towns to participate in the policy making process, they said. (Courtesy: www.cathnewsindia.com)

Source: Christians to form forum for protection of schools
 
   
   
  Manipur CM says Gospel brought light to state
  MANIPUR Chief Minister Ibobi Singh has lauded the pioneering missioners in the hilly tribal area, saying Gospel has led people darkness to light.

His message was read before 20,000 Christians, who have gathered for Gospel Centenary Celebration of Independent Church of India. 'The Gospel led us to light and has brought us education," it said.

As Singh was unable to attend the event at Churachandpur because of other urgent engagement, he sent his message through Ex-Minister Pu Chaltonlien Amo, who read it out.

Singh recalled the sacrifice of Watkin Roberts and his family for "bringing the Gospel" and said it brought peace and unity among people, reported Christian Today.

The Independent Church of India itself is founded by Watkin Roberts, who along with three missionaries from the state of Mizoram ushered the age of Gospel among tribal groups in South Manipur in 1910.

To mark this event, the ICI held a four-day celebration from Feb. 4-7 in which Power Minister Phungzathang Tonsing was the chief guest.

ICI is one of the leading churches in Southern Manipur and still exists as an indigenous Church.

It is deeply rooted to the principles of self-support, self-administration and self-propagation.(Courtesy: CathnewsIndia)

Source: Gospel brought us from darkness to light: Manipur CM
 
   
   
  Life returns to normal in Srinagar
 
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, FEB 10 -- The city finally saw hustle and bustle after a week of protests, here. Business and commercial establishments resumed normal activities and traffic plied on the roads.

Life had come to a standstill in the wake of protests arising out of the death of two teenagers allegedly killed by the police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) last week.

A huge rush of people could be seen at Automated Teller Machines (ATMs), as people had run short of money. Banks, insurance companies, outlets of telecom services and departmental stores were also thronged by customers.

"We joined office after a week," said Ali Mohammad, a government employee.

"Kashmir has always been unpredictable. You never know what happens when, so it is always good to keep an extra stock of eatables," said Shaista Gani, a customer at a departmental store in Lal Chowk.

Meanwhile, a policeman was killed when militants reportedly attacked a police station in north Kashmir's Sopore town, 50 kilometres from here on Tuesday (February 10) morning.

A senior police officer has been quoted as saying that militants fired indiscriminately at the police station building with automatic weapons, critically injuring Head Constable Mohammad Yousuf of the Counter Intelligence Kashmir (CIK) unit.

Yusuf was shifted to a hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries. The area around the building was surrounded by the police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel.

Scores of people carried out a rally here demanding punishment for the CRPF allegedly involved in the killing of 16-year-old Zahid Farooq. The state government has already ordered an enquiry into the killing and the Divisional Commissioner Kashmir has been directed to submit a report within a week.

Pertinently, a new surrender policy for militants is expected to be formulated by the Centre in consultation with the state government. It might include a general amnesty.

"The formulation of a new surrender policy for nearly 800 youths who are willing to return from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) and join the mainstream came after several feelers were received by the state government about their pathetic condition in PoK," as quoted by media reports.

The Home Ministry is reportedly expected to hold a discussion with state officials and discuss the broad contours of the policy, whereby youths, who had gone for arms training in PoK and were now wishing to return to normal life, could be allowed to return, the reports added.

It added that the Centre began contemplating the move after Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah raised the issue at a conference on internal security. The conference was chaired by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on February 7.
 
   
   
  Bishop applauds delay over hybrid eggplants
 
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, FEB 10 (UCAN) -- A Catholic bishop, who has been promoting organic faming for decades, today [Feb. 10] welcomed a government delay in introducing a genetically modified hybrid brinjal (eggplant).

Federal Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced the moratorium on BT Brinjal at a press conference in New Delhi yesterday [Feb. 9]. He ordered independent scientific studies on the plant's long-term effects on human health and the environment.

The federal government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee cleared BT Brinjal for commercial release in October 2009, claiming that it would result in lower usage of pesticides and higher yields.

Bishop Mathew Arackal of Kanjirappally welcomed the decision. He said the Church has demanded "a total ban" on genetically engineered seeds in India for a long time.

"However, a mere moratorium will not help India to achieve food security," the prelate, who heads the Syro-Malabar Church's laity commission, told UCA News.

"We have to develop eco-friendly and cost-effective farming. For this, we need to study traditional farmers' experience and develop sustainable farming practices in the country," said the 65-year-old prelate, who has motivated thousands of Catholics to undertake organic farming.

Bishop Arackal, who started in 1980 the Peermade Development Society, a cooperative society for marginal farmers in Kerala's Idukki district, says encouraging genetically modified crops would wipe out "our small and marginal farmers. We have to protect our traditional farmers for the country's food security."

The Church would "support any initiative that protects the interests of poor farmers," the bishop said. In Kerala, the Church has aggressively promoted sustainable agriculture for the past two years, benefiting some 10,000 farmers from all religions, he said.

"We have organized farming communities and encouraged them to make agriculture sustainable," he added.

Chacko Sebastian, a leading farmer in Kanjirappally diocese, says the moratorium signals that the country may be ready to encourage greener approaches in agriculture.

He told UCA News that the Church's campaign for sustainable farming has educated Catholics about the potential dangers of introducing BT Brinjal to the Indian market.
 
   
   
  Vedanta share sale cheers Orissa Church
  BHUBANESWAR, FEB 10 (UCAN) -- Rights group Amnesty International today [Feb. 9] called for the Indian government to block mining giant Vedanta's Orissa expansion, just days after the Church of England sold its shares in the company.

London-listed Vedanta is awaiting approval from New Delhi to construct a bauxite mine at Niyamgiri, in Orissa, that will be processed at a nearby refinery.

"The refinery expansion and mining project have serious implications for the human rights of local communities, including their rights to water, food, health, work and an adequate standard of living," Amnesty said in a report.

Earlier, Catholics joined social activists in welcoming the Church of England's decision to divest itself of shares in the mining company.

"I welcome the step taken by the Church of England," Catholic Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur told UCA News yesterday [Feb. 8].

The Church of England sold its shares, worth £3.75 million (US$6.15 million), in Vedanta Resources.

Residents object to mining operations

The Church said it sold the shares as it was concerned about allegations made over Vedanta's mines in India, particularly in Orissa's tribal-dominated regions covered by Berhampur diocese.

Vedanta built its alumina refinery at the foot of the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa's Kalahandi district with the capacity to produce 1 million tonnes annually. If it is given the go-ahead for the bauxite mine, that could expand significantly.

Local residents and social activists have opposed the move saying it would displace tribal people and destroy hills that they revere as sacred.

Bishop Nayak says mining has uprooted tribal people living around the Niyamgiri hills.

"For the tribal people, these are not just hills, but their very existence and life. Uprooting them is equal to uprooting their life and culture. The Church supports their struggle as it has understood their plight," the prelate added.

Father Nicholas Barla, human rights and environmental activist in Sundargarh, another tribal area, says that tribal people cannot oppose transnational firms easily.

"These people have no voice and face displacement," he said.

'A lesson for all Church groups'

The priest said the Church of England's decision is a lesson for all Church groups. "We should study a firm before buying its shares," he added.

Lingaraj Azad, chief coordinator of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (forum to protect Niyamgiri hills), said he was overjoyed that the Church of England has realized that Vedanta's "destruction of tribal community and nature" went against the Church's ethos.

"The Church has taken the right steps to safeguard human rights and uphold its own moral principles," the Hindu social activist told UCA News today [Feb. 9]. The move would have "a positive impact" on the tribal struggle to save the environment and encourage other shareholders to follow the Church's example.

Dhirendra Panda, another Hindu human rights activist, says the Church decision is "a victory for the tribal people. It would help the movement and make the state government saner."

Remish Ekka, a Catholic tribal activist in Sambalpur, wants Church groups to take the lead to expose transnational firms that oppress the poor.
 
   
   
  Sri Lanka: Protesters demand journalists' freedom
 
COLOMBO, FEB 10 (UCAN) -- Christians have joined media groups and relatives of journalists in protesting the abduction, harassment and imprisonment of media persons allegedly by the Sri Lankan government.

About 300 protesters, holding placards in English, Tamil and Sinhalese that read "Condemn the suppression of media" and "Release our journalists," demonstrated in Colombo Feb. 8. They shouted that they wanted the government to allow journalists to report freely.

They also demanded that the government free Chandana Sirimalwatte, editor of the Marxist party's "Lanka" newspaper and that authorities track down Prageeth Eknaligoda, the "Lanka E News" website columnist, political analyst and cartoonist who disappeared on Jan. 24.

Sirimalwatte has been detained by the Criminal Investigation Department for over 10 days without being charged.

Their arrest and disappearance "are a fatal blow to media freedom and democracy," said Anglican Father Marimuthupillai Sathivel, the parish priest of St. Michael Church in Colombo, as he held a placard.

Five Sri Lankan media organizations also issued a joint statement condemning the "post election media suppression" and harassment of journalists following last month's re-election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. They accused the president of going back on his promise to encourage press freedom.

Since the election, authorities have detained and questioned several journalists and blocked news websites that the government accuses of conspiring to oust Rajapaksa.

Retired general Sarath Fonseka, who lost the election to Rajapaksa was also arrested for fraud connected to his tenure in the armed services. He alleged that Rajapaksa rigged the elections to win.

"This standoff between the ruling party and media will lead to a worsening situation," said Jagath Ratnayake, an activist of the free media movement.

Media rights groups say press offices are closely watched by the government and that Sri Lanka is becoming a dangerous place for dissenting journalists.

Local media have reported that 14 journalists have been murdered within the past two decades, 12 of them in the past five years. Some journalists have been imprisoned and many have left the country.

Most of those arrested had written about the political situation, lawlessness, corruption, the chaotic situation of the country and nepotism.
 
   
   
  Nuns to focus on ecology, frontier missions
 
KOLKATA, FEB 10 (UCAN) -- A Belgium-based female religious congregation is looking to focus on ecology and frontier missions in the 12 countries they now work.

"Reading the signs of the times, we feel the need to translate our charisma into concrete action in the field of ecological concerns, and attending to frontier missions not attended by others," said Sister Arlinda Azaredo, an Indian nun who heads the Daughters of the Cross.

The superior general is in India, having attended the congregation's Jan. 4-17 Enlarged General Council in Kolkata. She is also scheduled to visit her congregation's Calcutta province.

She told UCA News on Feb. 7 her congregation is concerned about the effects of globalization and wants to respond to it meaningfully, focusing on ecology, religions and the poor. The previous meeting in 2006 asked them to become "stewards of God's creation," she recalled.

The congregation has already taken the initiative to protect and promote ecology through planting more trees, starting vermiculture, water harvesting and garbage separation. Its school in Mumbai has also stopped the sale of soft drinks produced by transnational firms.

Regarding frontier missions, Sister Azaredo cited the congregation's opening of a mission in Cameroon, one of the world's poorest nations, in Africa, in 2000.

Presently, some 800 nuns work in 104 communities.

Sister Azaredo said her congregation has decided to work where others are reluctant to go. Her nuns have opened a school for the caste conscious Hindu community of Radhanpur in Gujarat.

Radhanpur residents have insisted the nuns become strict vegetarians, and on several occasions the villagers even checked the nuns' waste bins. Such are the challenging and difficult situations the nuns live under in frontier missions, she added.

The Calcutta province has 152 nuns, working in Assam, Kerala, Nepal and Sikkim, besides West Bengal. The congregation was founded in Liege, Belgium, in 1833.
 
   
   
  Exorcism chapel opened in Mexico, reports BBC
 
By Cecilia Barria

BBC News, Mexico City

A Mexican church in the central city of Queretaro has opened a chapel in which exorcisms can take place.

There are no accurate figures for the number of exorcisms in Mexico.

But the Roman Catholic Church says that in Mexico City alone there are about 10 cases a month -- and the phenomenon is on the rise.

Critics say that priests often mistake mental illness or epilepsy for signs of possession. The new church will only treat people already seen by doctors.

Old traditions

Belief in possession and exorcism is common in a country where more than 90 per cent of the population is Catholic.

Nevertheless, Mexico now has a church where exorcisms can be performed: La Capilla de las Benditas Animas del Purgatorio.

Exorcism predates the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th Century.

Aztec healers burned herbs and prayed to eliminate the influence of bad spirits.

Nowadays the Roman Catholic Church follows the guidelines contained in a book published by the Vatican.

Signs of possession could be, for example, speaking in a foreign language that the person does not know, or being familiar with events that happened in far away places or in other times.

In a common exorcism, a priest performs a ceremony that includes sprinkling holy water over the possessed person and reciting prayers ordering the devil to depart.

Critics argue that priests commonly mistake mental illness such as schizophrenia or epilepsy and think instead they are confronting a demonic possession.

But one priest, Rogelio Cano, told the BBC that the new church will only accept cases that have been already been treated by doctors and psychiatrists.
 
   
   
  Cardinal Hummes opens priests congress
 
VAILANKANNI, FEB 9 (UCAN) -- Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect for the Congregation for Clergy, today [Feb. 9] opened the first national congress of Catholic priests in India.

About 800 priests and many bishops from the country's three ritual Churches are attending the three-day congress at Vailankanni, a costal village in Tamil Nadu state that holds India's most famed Marian shrine.

The celebrants filled the church to such a degree that only about 300 other people could participate in the Mass. Several local residents said they had never seen so many priests and Church dignitaries together.

Monsignor Chibuike Onayeaghala, Charge d'Affaires at the Apostolic Nunciature in New Delhi, also joined the program. India's last nuncio Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana was transferred to Canada in January.

Archbishop Albert D'Souza, chairperson of the Commission for Clergy of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (Latin Rite) had requested India's 164 dioceses to send six priests, including one from a Religious congregation, to the congress.

Although the program is convened by the Latin rite, priests from the other two Oriental rites, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches, are attending the program.

The Latin rite follows the Roman liturgy introduced by European missioners in the 15th century, while the two Oriental rites follow Syrian Church traditions and trace their origins to Saint Thomas the Apostle. Rivalry and misunderstanding often mark their relations.

Cardinal Hummes opened the congress lighting kuthu vilakku, the traditional Indian lamp used for inaugural functions. The Vatican official commended the Indian Church for organizing such a program in the Year of Priests.

The cardinal also said that when he mentioned to the pope about his journey to India, the pontiff asked him to convey his apostolic blessings to the participants.

Archbishop A. M. Chinnappa, president of the Tamil Nadu Bishops' Council, Bishops M Devadass Ambrose of Thanjavur and several political and social leaders attended the opening program.
 
   
   
  'Penitential pilgrimage' draws hundreds in Vizag
 
VISAKHAPATNAM, FEB 9 (UCAN) -- Some 1,800 Marian devotees walked 33 kilometers to celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows in a southeastern Indian city.

The "penitential pilgrimage" started at 8.30 a.m. on Feb. 6 from St. Peter's Cathedral in Visakhapatnam, a port town in Andhra Pradesh state. They reached a Marian shrine on Kondababa hill eight hours later.

Christians and Hindus along the route supplied water and refreshments.

Youths from various parishes arranged lunch and evening snacks while some Hindus distributed cookies, water and butter milk. One Hindu woman served the pilgrims water at a Hindu temple while a Hindu man arranged for water at a railway station en route to the destination.

Archbishop Kagithapu Mariadas of Visakhapatnam introduced the "penitential walk" in 2000 as part of the Church's Jubilee Year programs.

"The motive behind organizing this walking pilgrimage is to atone for sins of individuals and the community," the Fransalian prelate explained.

The shrine had arranged for several priests to hear confessions. The day's program ended with a Mass.

Pilgrims had prayers answered

Bishop Adagatla Innayya of Srikakulam, who led the Mass on Feb. 7, explained that several Marian shrines around the world conduct walking pilgrimages to receive special graces from God.

The Kondadaba Mission was started in 1876 and the shrine was built there 14 years later. Since then, it has been celebrating the annual Marian feast.

Several Hindus were among the walkers. One of them was Boosara Apparao, 56, a hospital worker. He said he had suffered from a knee joint pain for nine years and had consulted many doctors but could not find relief. "Some friends advised me to undertake the walking pilgrimage but I refused since I am a Hindu," he told UCA News.

However, as the pain continued, Apparao reluctantly joined the walk in 2009. "I was healed by Mother Mary's blessings. My entire family joined me in this year's walking pilgrimage," he added.

Bypa Manohar, a 26-year-old Catholic, said he has undertaken the walk for the past four years. He told UCA News he used to be arrogant and upset. "This pilgrimage gives me mental peace that helps me in my studies," he added.

Father Mariadas Polamarasetty, who coordinates the pilgrimage, said pilgrims' devotion and faith make him humble. "It is a great experience to see their determination to complete the distance," the 42-year-old priest added.

Father Joseph Anithottam, the shrine's director, says the "walking pilgrimage" is "a good opportunity" to experience spiritual and physical healings. "Year after the year I see more ... pilgrims, who come to praise the Lord for favors received," he added.
 
   
   
  Orissa archbishop criticizes government for shoddy probe
 
BHUBANESWAR, FEB 9 (UCAN) -- The head of the Catholic Church in riot-hit Orissa has criticized the state government's failure to fulfill promises of compensation it made to victims of violence.

Despite the administration's claim, "the human dignity, rights and life of the Christian victims of the 2008 violence remained far from normal," Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar told a press conference Feb. 6.

He said the government failed in its promise of reconstructing houses and rehabilitating victims.

The anti-Christian violence was centered in Kandhamal district. Thousands of Christians were made homeless in the wake of the riots that followed the Aug. 23, 2008, killing of a Hindu leader.

"They live in makeshift shanties along the road, and in forests, with no seeming hope of rehabilitation," the archbishop said. He expressed "deep concern at the slow pace of reconstruction and rehabilitation."

The prelate met media people after a delegation from the European Union visited Kandhamal Feb. 3-5 to learn about the situation of riot victims.

He said "political will" is needed for the implementation of the government's special schemes. "We are willing to help to the best of our ability and resources," he said, adding that he would approach the courts "if the misery of the people was not ameliorated."

The prelate also criticized the criminal justice system.

The administration set up two fast-track courts in the district to try riot cases. But the process is "being subverted by the terrorizing of witnesses and shoddy investigations," he said.

A Church press release said violent mobs looted and destroyed 5,347 Christian houses and more than 75 people were murdered in the name of religion and ethnicity.

"It is strange that officers in whose presence the violence took place and thousands of houses were burnt are still in office and are declaring that there is peace in the district,' the press release said.
 
   
   
  Christians query verdict on Muslim quota
 
HYDERABAD, FEB 9 (UCAN) -- Church people in Andhra Pradesh are dismayed over the state's top court scrapping a quota system for Muslims in education and government jobs.

"Canceling the quota is unjustified," Archbishop Marampudi Joji of Hyderabad, who heads the Catholic Church in the southern Indian state, told UCA News today [Feb. 9].

The Andhra Pradesh High Court on Feb. 8 quashed the Andhra Pradesh law setting apart 4 per cent of educational institutions and government jobs for 15 deprived classes of Muslims.

State Chief Minister K. Rosaiah says the government will appeal against the verdict to the country's Supreme Court.

Archbishop Joji says the government introduced the legislation to bring about equality in society.

"It was done after long deliberation," the prelate said, adding that the Muslim quota would not have cost the government "a lot of money."

Father Anthoniraj Thumma of the Andhra Pradesh Federation of Churches says recent court verdicts gave the impression that it is against the advancement of religious minorities.

On July 22, 2009, the High Court struck down a government subsidy for poor Christians to visit Jerusalem.

"Going by the series of verdicts against minorities, we are forced to think the courts are against the development of minorities," the priest told UCA News.

Father Thumma says religion was not the only criterion for the government to introduce the legislation. He noted that the government acted on the results of a survey conducted by a state commission that looks after socially backward communities.

The priest says the survey was carried out in a scientific way and the government took into consideration the deprivation of Muslims in introducing this legislation.

However, the High Court's seven-member bench found the commission's report insufficient and far from the reality.

It passed judgment on a batch of petitions filed by several people, including a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council). The bench, headed by Chief Justice A. R. Dave, said the quota order was unsustainable and unconstitutional.

Soon after the court verdict, several Muslim activists stormed the state secretariat to protest against the order. They demanded that the government take appropriate steps to restore the quota.
 
   
   
  Church deplores torching of tribal girl
  A CATHOLIC tribal girl was today [Feb. 8] fighting for her life in a private hospital in a central Indian town after being set on fire by the man who had allegedly raped her.

Father K. J. Mathew, spokesperson for Khandwa diocese in Madhya Pradesh state, said the incident occurred on Saturday [Feb. 6] night in Badwani town. He deplored the attack as "a heinous crime" and demanded immediate action against the perpetrator.

"No one involved in it should be spared," he told UCA News on Feb. 8.

Dileep Khanasia, brother-in-law of the 18-year-old victim, described the incident to the media.

He accused a Hindu man of abducting the girl from a bus stand on Feb. 5 and keeping her confined to his room for two days. He raped her repeatedly and doused her with kerosene and set her on fire, Khanasia alleged.

Father Anand Muttungal, spokesperson of the Catholic Church in the state, condemned the incident.

"This is one of the incidents that reveal the mindset of general society. Upper caste people often treat tribal and low caste people worse than animals," he told UCA News.

Father Xavier Valayathil, who visited the girl in the hospital, said the girl is still not out of danger.

She had told her mother she wanted to receive Communion, the priest told UCA News today [Feb. 8].

Vijay Sisodia, in charge of the local police station, confirmed the incident. He told UCA News on Feb. 8, the police have registered a case and are investigating the incident under special laws designed to prevent atrocities against tribal and dalit (formerly known as low caste) people.

Madhya Pradesh has witnessed several incidents of anti-Christian violence after the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian people's party) came to power in December 2003.

More than 150 such cases have been reported in the past five years.

Source: Church people deplore torching of tribal girl (UCAN)
 
   
   
  Catholic school escapes harassment charges as nuns apologise
  POLICE dropped charges of child harassment against a Catholic school in central India after nuns apologized for making three students wear footwear around their necks as punishment.

Police withdrew the case against the St. Augustine English Medium primary School in Madhya Pradesh's state Badwani district. The parents of the children also told police that they have no complaints.

Augustinian Sister Mary John, who manages the school in Khandwa diocese, told UCA News on Feb. 7 the incident occurred in the school hostel on Feb. 3. A student each from grade five, two and one had their dinner wearing a string tied with footwear around their neck.

"No one in the school staff" had asked them to do so, the nun said. The school management was not even aware of the incident and does not know who was behind it. "We explained this to the parents. They have decided not to go for any legal action," Sister John said.

Tying footwear around the neck is considered an extreme method to humiliate someone who has broken a social norm in India.

Police official B. K. Chhari told UCA News on Feb. 7 that the police would not "pursue the case" since parents have "given in writing that they have no complaints."

Sister John said the school is investigating the incident to fix responsibility. Some 300 children, mostly tribal, study in the school. About 200 of them stay in hostels. (Courtesy: CathNewsIndia)

Source: Catholic school escapes charges of child harassment (UCAN)
 
   
   
  Maoist strike hits Ranchi synod
  RANCHI, FEB 8 (CATHNEWSINDIA) -- Ranchi archdiocese's first synod was disrupted today [Feb. 8] by a 72-hour strike by Maoists.

Cardinal Telesphore P. Toppo of the 83-year-old diocese told UCA News that the strike had crippled traffic in Jharkhand state.

"Many participants from distant places and bishops from other dioceses could not come as buses or other vehicles are not running," the cardinal added.

The Maoist Communist Center, an outlawed group in Jharkhand, began the strike from midnight on Feb. 6 to protest the federal government's crack down on Maoists groups in the country.

Some 290 people, including nine bishops, were to attend the Feb. 8-13 synod at the Social Development Centre in Ranchi, capital of Jharkhand state.

Cardinal Toppo said the synod aims to review all Church activities in the archdiocese.

"I have spent 25 years at Ranchi heading the Church. It is high time we reviewed all our activities from religious to social," he added.

He said the synod would also pinpoint drawback and suggest remedial actions.

"At the same time, a blueprint for the future action plan would be drawn up in consultations with all participants," he added.

In his opening address, the cardinal said the synod was significant for the entire Church in Chotanagpur that now spreads over several eastern Indian states. The first group of Catholics was baptized in 1873.

When missioners first arrived in the region, its tribal people were "mercilessly trampled under foot" by others. "But once they accepted Jesus, they rose with him in baptism. Now they are God's people, a people with voice, with self respect and confidence," noted the prelate, first tribal cardinal from Asia.

Source: Maoist strike disrupts diocesan synod (UCAN)
 
   
   
  15 soldiers killed as avalanche hits snow-clad Gulmarg in Kashmir Valley
 
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, FEB 8 -- A day after an avalanche warning was sounded by the Snow Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE), a massive avalanche struck a military training camp on February 8, killing 15 Army personnel and injuring several others.

The camp is at Khilanmarg-Gulmarg, about 70 kilometres from the city centre.

Till this report was filed, 15 Army personnel, including an officer, had been confirmed dead. Several have been rescued. Two Army personnel are missing.

About 400 Army personnel were stationed at the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) in Khilanmarg-Gulmarg, a tourist spot that is reported to be engulfed in snow.

The dead include an officer, Lt Prateek, and 14 other ranked personnel. Some of those seriously injured are in critical condition.

Army spokesperson Colonel J S Brar said 15 men were buried under the snow. Seventeen others were rescued and moved to the base hospital in Srinagar. "While two soldiers are still missing, 26 others were rescued by nightfall, after which operations were called off."

Aamir Ali, Officer on Special Duty (OSD) in Divisional Administration Kashmir, said the SASE had, a day earlier, warned of avalanches hitting the area. The statement issued by the OSD had asked people living in avalanche-prone areas to avoid going out of their houses.

According to the statement, Sonamarg, Gagangir, Bhimbat, Drass, Batalic, Dhudi and S M Hill are high-risk avalanche areas. "While Khilanmarg, Uri, Baaz, Razdan Top, Z-Gali, Keran, Furkian Top, Machil, Sadna Top, Gurez, Niru, Baruab and Chokibal are medium danger avalanche zones, both sides of Jawahar Tunnel and its adjoining areas are low danger avalanche areas."

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, while expressing grief over the incident, deputed Minister of State for Tourism Nasir Aslam Wani to Gulmarg to personally oversee the rescue and relief operations. He also directed the Divisional Administration, Kashmir, to speed up operations to free the trapped soldiers. While conveying his condolences to the bereaved families, Abdullah assured that all efforts were being made to rescue the trapped soldiers.
 
   
   
  Croatian Jesuits seek their saint in India
 
KOLKATA, FEB 8 (UCAN) -- A Jesuit team from Croatia concluded a week-long India visit Feb. 8 to prepare for the canonization process for a Croatian missioner.

Father Ivan Koprak, Jesuit provincial of Croatia, and two other Jesuits visited villages in eastern India's Baruipur diocese, where the late Jesuit Father Ante Gabric had worked.

Father Gabric died in 1988 at the age of 73 in Mariapally parish in West Bengal state.

Father Koprak said the late Jesuit had taught modern Croatian Jesuits to be open to the Church's universal mission.

Father Koprak, who is the team leader, told UCA News they would submit their report to Croatian Cardinal Josip Bozanic of Zagreb, suggesting he apply for the sainthood process for the missioner to be initiated.

Father Ante Torstonjic, Croatian province's procurator who was in the team, said Father Gabric was "a man of action, which makes us rethink our own faith." He said older Croatians have great respect for the missioner, who spent 50 years in India, mostly in Baruipur diocese.

In his "moving letters" to friends and benefactors in Croatia, Father Gabric referred to "your and my Bengal," making them part of his missionary work, Father Torstonjic said.

Baruipur diocesan Father Sylvester Xavier, who was with Father Gabric when he died, said local Christians, Hindus and Muslims revered the missioner as a sadhu baba or saintly man. Father Xavier said several miracles have been attributed to the missioner, but have not been medically verified.

Father Xavier, who assisted Father Gabric for 10 months, now manages the parish the Jesuit started near the Sundarbans forest. He says proclaiming the missioner a saint would strengthen people's faith, and "bring many more" to Christianity.

Former Archbishop Henry D'Souza of Calcutta described Father Gabric as "one of the greatest missioners" who brought "great enthusiasm" to the Christian community in 24 Parganas District.

The prelate spent one year at Basanti, where the late Jesuit had established a technical school and an agricultural school in 1955.
 
   
   
  Pakistan: Catholics among victims of Karachi bomb blasts
  KARACHI, FEB 8 (UCAN) -- A Catholic priest has lost six relatives in twin blasts in Pakistan's commercial capital that left at least 33 people dead and wounded scores of others, many critically.

More than a thousand Christians attended the funeral of the six Catholics who died in the Feb. 5 bomb explosions in Karachi, capital of Sindh province.

A total of eight Christians and one Hindu were among the dead, most of whom were members of the minority Shi'ite Muslim community. Police believe Saudi militant Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda group is involved.

The first blast targeted a minibus transporting people to a religious procession. Within two hours, another explosion occurred in the parking area of Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, where the dead and injured from the first blast were being transported to.

Pakistan's Interior Ministry has described the Karachi attacks as incidents of "sectarian violence." The Shia Ulema Council has announced three days of mourning.

Father Tariq Rehmat, assistant parish priest of St. Jude's parish, lost six close relatives including his sister. "One of my nieces delivered a beautiful baby at that hospital the same day. My sister went to greet and celebrate the joyful moment along with her husband and kids. But things got ugly due to terrorism in city," Father Rehmat recalled with tears in his eyes.

News channels aired the funeral of the six Catholics at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Condolences offered to priest
Archbishop Evarist Pinto of Karachi celebrated the Mass with 37 priests including Father Rehmat. The coffins of the blast victims were brought inside the cathedral building just before the distribution of Holy Communion. Several mourners wearing black armbands expressed their condolences to Father Rehmat after the funeral.

Father Pascal Robert, chairman of Idara Amn-o-Insaf (committee for justice and peace), expressed shock at the bombings. "The incident shows that no one is safe in such circumstances. We demand the president and prime minister provide protection to the people of this country," the Franciscan priest told media outside the cathedral.

Presently, 55 people, including one Christian and two Hindus, are being treated in hospital. The president and prime minister have condemned the blasts while the Sindh provincial chief minister has announced compensation of 500,000 rupees (US$5,910) for the relatives of those killed, and 100,000 rupees for each injured person.

Speaking to UCA News, Father Arthur Charles, Karachi archdiocese's vicar general said, "This is the first time terrorists have targeted a hospital and bomb survivors. It seems that they have sunk to the depths of inhumanity and lost respect for life. One cannot imagine the things they are taught," he said.
 
   
   
  Hindu leader soothes Kerala Church leaders
  THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, FEB 8 (UCAN) -- The leader of a rightwing Hindu group held out an olive branch to the heads of three Churches in Kerala on the weekend in a bid to improve its relations with Christians and Muslims.

"Our discussions were fruitful and on a friendly note," Ram Madhav, spokesperson of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, national volunteers corps), told UCA News today [Feb. 8].

RSS is the umbrella organization of Hindu radical groups blamed for spearheading violence against Christians and Muslims in Gujarat, Orissa and other Indian states.

Madhav noted that there was apprehension among religious minority groups toward his organization.

He blamed some political parties for painting the RSS as anti-minority.

"But there is no truth in it. We want to clear those apprehensions and fears and pave way for a healthy dialogue," he said.

Muslim leaders in his organization would hold discussions with Islamic leaders, he said.

In Kerala, Madhav met Bishop Joshua Mar Ignathios, president of Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council, and heads of two factions of the Orthodox Church and the Marthoma Church.

"Church does not encourage forced conversions"

Madhav said he was invited by the Church leaders to their meeting on Feb. 24 in Kerala's Kollam (formerly Quilon) town where RSS head Mohan Bhagwat is expected to attend.

Bishop Ignathios confirmed the meeting. Madhav "came to the bishop's house and we had a brief meeting," he told UCA News and added he told the RSS leader about Christian concern over violence against minorities in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people's party).

BJP, India's main opposition party, is considered the political arm of Hindu radical groups.

The Catholic bishop said he also told the RSS leader that the Church does not encourage "forced conversions" as the Hindu radicals allege.

The RSS initiative comes as Kerala prepares for state legislative assembly elections scheduled for April 2011. Christians and Muslims constitute 41 per cent of the state's electorate.

According to Father Paul Thelakat, editor of Church weekly "Satyadeepam" (light of truth), RSS and BJP have realized their anti-minority politics would not help them gain power in Kerala.

"We welcome dialogue with anybody as we have nothing to conceal or practice a hidden agenda. But we also don't forget the reality," the priest told UCA News. He says India would experience peace and harmony if the BJP and RSS changed their policies against minorities.

Sebastian Paul, political commentator and a former Member of Parliament, says the RSS move is a new strategy to win over religious minorities.

"The RSS leaders have realized that the road map to power lies with protecting the interests of minorities and not terrorizing them," he told UCA News.
 
   
   
  J&K movie screened at Mumbai film festival
 
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, FEB 7 -- A movie produced by the Experimental Moving Images and Theatre Association (XMITA), a Kashmiri cultural non-government organisation, was screened on February 5 at the 11th Mumbai International Film Festival. The festival began on February 1.

The 29-minute 'Know Me - Words in Black and White', directed by Ali Emran Qureshi and produced by S Y Firdous, is the only film from Jammu and Kashmir to be selected for the festival this year.

"The film encapsulates the basic philosophy of 'rishism' and pays a tribute to Kashmir's rishis," the young filmmaker said.

Qureshi (on phone from Mumbai) said the film probed the mysteries of spiritual ecstasy. He added that the film was about the concept of enlightenment. "It is an experimental film."

The filmmaker told The Herald of India that the movie was a part of three films that revolve around the same topic. According to him, the first film 'The Ninth Act' is about spiritual journey, the second one 'And the Dust Smiles' is about salvation (it hasn't been completed yet) and "Know Me -- Words in Black and White" is about enlightenment.

Qureshi said the film had already generated interest among film lovers and critics. "This kind of film-making has not happened in Kashmir before. It is a nice experience. Let's see how the audience responds."

The film, according to the director, has no voice over. "It is based on quotes in English. We use silence to convey meaning." The movie would soon be screened in Srinagar.

In November last year, more than a dozen films were screened at Tagore Hall during a three-day international film festival (November 13-15) organized by the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages (J&KAACL), in collaboration with XMITA.

"Our aim is to bring intelligent cinema, documentaries and fiction to the Valley," he said.
 
   
   
  Priest-pilgrims visit Blessed Teresa's tomb
  KOLKATA, FEB 5 (UCAN) -- A group of diocesan priests from 17 countries is visiting Missionaries of Charity houses in Kolkata to mark the Year for Priests and Blessed Teresa's birth centenary.

Thirty-six members of the Corpus Christi Movement (CCM) began the "pilgrimage to places where Mother lived and worked" on Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

The program will end on Feb. 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, CCM coordinator Father Pascual Cervera told UCA News. The 60-year-old diocesan priest from Spain says CCM members live Blessed Teresa's spirituality, and the pilgrimage helps them understand her charism.

The "pilgrim" priests, aged between 28 and 80, pray, celebrate Mass, and visit places associated with Blessed Teresa. It is a "spiritual program," he added.

The pilgrims are divided into seven groups and each group in turn visits seven Missionaries of Charity (MC) houses in the eastern Indian city each day. They spend the mornings helping the MC nuns and Brothers, and the evenings listening to close associates of Blessed Teresa.

Father Cervera said Blessed Teresa founded CCM in 1980 when he was a seminarian. The Nobel-laureate nun took him and another seminarian Joseph Langford to New York where she set up the first CCM community.

The Spanish priest said the "love in action" he witnessed in MC houses overwhelmed him. "Mother [Blessed Teresa] is alive in all these places," he added.

Austrian Father Leo Maasburg, 61, said the pilgrimage has given him time to reflect on his priesthood and Blessed Teresa's spirituality. The Kolkata visit is "an examination of conscience" for him, to evaluate how he has used the graces he has received, he said.

Father Maasburg told UCA News he has visited Kolkata thrice and "the spirit of love and service is the same in all the MC houses, even after so many years." He said the CCM consoles diocesan priests who feel lonely in their parishes.

Father Sunil Rozario from Calcutta archdiocese said the pilgrimage helps participants express "solidarity" with Kolkata's "suffering humanity." The Indian priest said it is "a rare occasion" for many diocesan priests to come together for a spiritual cause. He regretted the absence of an international body to unite diocesan priests.

MC spokesperson Sister Lynn said the pilgrimage helped the nuns experience "the richness, greatness and sanctity of priesthood." The nuns pray for more diocesan priests to join the CCM and experience transformation through their priestly ministry, she added.
 
   
   
  EU team blocked for Orissa court visit
  PHULBANI, FEB 5 (UCAN) -- A European Union delegation was today [Feb. 5] blocked from attending trial courts in riot-hit Kandhamal hearing cases against people charged with taking party in the orgy of anti-Christian violence in 2008.

Authorities stopped the diplomats from the planned visit to the courts for "security reasons," but lawyers say it was to shield a faulty justice system from scrutiny.

EU delegation leader Christophe Manet said the diplomats were "disappointed" by the cancellation.

He said the 11-member team was told by the collector, the highest government official in the district, this morning that the court visit had been scrapped.

The team met with a group of eight lawyers in Phulbani, the district headquarters, before leaving for Bhubaneswar, the state capital.

The diplomats are scheduled to leave for New Delhi this evening. They began their visit on Feb. 3.

A lawyer at the meeting told the team that the justice system was "beset with faulty police investigation" and "intimidation of witnesses."

The administration "could have arranged security if they wanted. Maybe they have other reasons to stop the team from visiting the court," said the lawyer, who does not want to be named.

The administration had set up two fast-track courts in the district to speed up cases relating to the seven-week-long riot that began Aug. 24, 2008.

Christian leaders and victims say Hindu fanatics "intimidate" witnesses against testifying in court.

Mobs also gather at the courts supporting the criminals and intimidating the victims, a priest-lawyer said.

The lawyers told the delegation that several people accused of rioting were not arrested, creating fear among Christians of more violence.

The courts also summon witnesses sometimes too late resulting in their inability to arrive in time for the hearing.

The EU delegation came to Kandhamal to gain first-hand information about the situation of those affected by the violence, including their socio-political situation, as well as the criminal justice system.

The violence began after a Hindu leader was shot dead on Aug. 23, 2008.

Hindu fanatic groups blamed Christians for the killing, despite police accusing Maoists of the crime. The violence left at least 90 people dead and displaced about 50,000 others.

Hindu groups had earlier opposed the EU team visiting Kandhamal saying "outsiders" have no right to interfere in India's internal matters.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, who heads the Catholic Church in the state, says those opposing the visit fear it would expose the "real situation" of people in the district.

The delegation consists of members from Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
 
   
   
  Probe team seeks ban on sectarian groups
 
BANGALORE, FEB 5 (UCAN) -- Anti-religious communal organizations should be banned and their assets seized, a commission investigating Christian violence in Karnataka has recommended.

The southern Indian state has witnessed at least 24 attacks on Church institutions and Christians in 2008.

The Justice B. K. Somasekhara Commission submitted its 500-page interim report to the state government this week and called for a ban on organizations that preach or act against any religion.

The report also recommended a ban on materials using abusive or insulting expressions against religions.

It also suggested filming and televising programs that offend religious sentiments should not be allowed.

The report said there was "a strong impression" among many people that Hindu radical groups carried out the attacks against the Christians and churches.

"As a whole, the allegations of attacks on several churches ... are true and sometimes believably probable," it said.

The report, however, was not without criticism of Christians, saying there were suspicions that statements maligning the Hindu religion might have prompted the attacks.

Its probe also said "massive conversions to Christianity" by inducements could have been a factor.

Panavelil Ninan Benjamin, a member of the Minority Commission in Karnataka, dismissed the report as a collection of "wishy-washy impressions" the judge gathered from people and documents it examined.

"The findings are not conclusive. The commission doesn't seem to have pinpointed the culprits behind the violence," he told UCA News on Feb. 4.

Karnataka's Home Minister V. S. Achary also criticized the commission for publishing the report before placing it in the state legislative assembly.

The probe commission wants the government to compensate Christians for damage to their property and injury "within one month from the date of communication of the recommendation by the appropriate authority."

The commission term ends in March.
 
   
   
  Sri Lanka: Estate workers mourn their Jesuit 'Gandhi'
 
RATNAPURA, FEB 5 (UCAN) -- Poor tea and rubber estate workers are mourning the death of an Italian Jesuit missioner who worked for 58 years in Sri Lanka and who was "more important than Gandhi" to them.

Father Angelo Stefanizzi passed away at Lewella in Kandy on Feb. 3 due to illness. His funeral was held today [Feb. 5] at 3 p.m.

"He is considered a saint among [tea and rubber] estate workers," said S.P. Anthonimutthu, a Tamil coordinating officer of Caritas Sri Lanka who knew Father Angelo for more than 30 years.

For poor Tamils, he took the place of "Gandhi," Anthonimutthu said. "He went through painful struggles to free them from poverty."

Father Maria Anthony, the Jesuit provincial in the country, said, "We have lost a veteran missioner, a man for the poor. He was ready to work under any inconvenient circumstances [and] never liked to lead a comfortable life," Father Anthony said.

Fluent in Tamil, Sinhalese, Latin and many European languages, the priest often preached in Tamil and Sinhalese.

He frequently trekked into tea and rubber estates to spend time with the poor workers of Indian origin, who are mostly Hindus.

Tamil plantation workers were cruelly exploited by the British and, after independence, by the local masters. They were constantly mired in debt.

"His flesh and bones are to be buried in our soil," said Edward Kumaragamage, a Kolping worker and Christian activist in the plantation sector.

Kumaragamage said the priest had "dared to come to their aid" during the anti-Tamil riots of 1958 and 1983.

Father Stefanizzi joined the Kolping Movement and was deeply impressed by its potential to help in faith and community development.

He started the Kolping Centers and developed the group's work in the plantation sector.

During his final days, he was in the Jesuit Infirmary at Lewella, confined to his wheelchair due to arthritis.

There are five Jesuit missioners presently serving in Sri Lanka.

Father Stefanizzi was born in Matino Lecce, Italy, in 1919. He entered the Jesuit novitiate in Naples in 1936 and did his philosophical studies in Gallarate.

After his practical work experience in Bari, he came to Kurseong in India to study theology and was ordained a priest there on Nov. 21, 1949. After studying Tamil, he came to Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known, in 1952.
 
   
   
  Don't blame all church attacks on fanatics, says Karnataka priest
 
NEW DELHI, FEB 5 (UCAN) -- A priest in Karnataka, whose church was robbed this week, has warned against labeling every attack "sectarian." Some are simply the work of vandals and thieves, he says.

Father M. Anthappa says his St. Mathias Church in Mandya district's Malavali was robbed on Feb. 3 of chalices, a monstrance and the pyx from the tabernacle containing the consecrated host. The losses amounted to about Rs 126,000 (US$2,520).

"What has happened here? Things are missing -- things they thought are made of gold. How can we call it a Hindu fanatic attack on the church?" he asked.

Police are investigating.

The priest said attacks on churches committed by fanatics usually involved vandalism.

"They [fanatics] usually destroy statues, burn articles, and desecrate the church," he said. "Nothing like that happened here."

In the robbery of his church, the tabernacle was opened "probably to take the valuables inside it."

The tabernacle sat on a stand, which was broken "probably in their attempt to open the tabernacle," the priest said.

"It gives the impression that they demolished the stand," the priest said.

"To me, 80 per cent of it is a robbery. It is wrong to name groups for this."

He said the Hindu groups blamed for several church attacks in Karnataka "have no branches in this area. And we have been living peacefully here."

The state reportedly witnessed five other attacks on churches, allegedly carried out by Hindu fanatic groups.

Christians in the state say they have faced similar attacks since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian people’s party) came to power in 2008.
 
   
   
  European Union diplomats pledge to flag concerns over Orissa
 
BHUBANESWAR, FEB 4 (UCAN) -- A delegation of the European Union (EU) visiting Orissa's riot-hit Kandhamal district today (Feb. 4) has promised its archbishop to convey his people's concerns to their nations.

The 12-member delegation of diplomats met with Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar on the eve of their visit to the tribal-dominated district.

The archbishop, who is based in the Orissa state capital of Bhubaneswar, told the delegation that "normalcy has not yet returned" to Kandhamal, the epicenter of a seven-week-long anti-Christian violence that began September 2008.

"Some 10,000 people continue to live outside the district" because they are afraid to return or they have no houses to return to, he said.

Government promises of re-construction of houses are yet to materialize, he said adding that "construction of houses is a major concern."

He said Catholics and other Christian groups have together collected enough donations to build some 2,000 houses "but we need to have resources to build another 3,000 more houses."

Rampaging mobs of Hindu fanatics had demolished and burnt down Christian houses, churches and convents besides attacking and killing some 60 people, Church people say.

The government has set up two fast-track courts to help with a speedy trial of riot cases within the district "but the justice system is intimidated" the prelate said.

People who are ready to "testify against the criminals are intimidated" resulting in more acquittals than convictions.

A Church official told UCA News that in the latest case of intimidation on Feb. 3, two Christians were attacked when they returned to their Badimunda village in the district.

The archbishop told the delegation that the administration has failed to give adequate security to the people. They cannot resume farming activities, forcing them to live in hunger and poverty, he said.

Responding to the archbishop, the delegation members said they will report the concern of the people and the Church to their countries.

Media reports quoting the delegation said the violence has made an impact on European nations, as it violated basic human rights of life and freedom of religion.

The archbishop told media that neither he nor the Church had invited the delegation to visit. "They came invited by the government," he said when asked if he is satisfied with his meeting with them.

"If they want to know the real situation, they should go to Kandhamal," he told media, adding that Hindu groups were opposing the delegation's visit because "they wanted to cover up the real situation."

The delegation starts its visit of Kandhamal on Feb. 4 to study firsthand the situation of those affected by the violence, including their socio-political situation, as well as the criminal justice system.
 
   
   
  Indian Navy blockades Goa island's pilgrim church
 
PANAJI, FEB 5 (UCAN) -- For the seventh year running, the Indian navy has denied pilgrims access to an old church on an island near Goa.

On Feb. 2, some 300 Catholics and Hindus from Goa and neighboring Karnataka state tried to visit the island of Anjediva which houses Goa's first church.

The Portuguese built the church 10 years before they conquered Goa in 1510. Since then, people have celebrated the annual feast of Our Lady of Springs on Feb. 2 here, some 120 kilometers south of the Goan capital, Panaji.

But things started to change in 1991 when the Goan government gave the 370,032-hectare island to the navy to build a 13 billion-rupee (then some US$268 million) naval base.

The navy had agreed to allow civilians to visit the church twice a year, for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which is also on Feb. 2, and the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4.

But in 2004, a Hindu group claimed it had the right to celebrate a Hindu feast on the island. The group threatened violent protests if Goan Catholics were allowed access.

Authorities later barred all access.

Anthony Martins, a Catholic from Goa, said this year some 300 pilgrims turned up seeking permission to pray at the church. They included some Hindu fishermen from Karnataka's Karwar region, who traditionally also pray at the church.

Godfrey Gonsalves, a layman spearheading Catholic efforts to gain access to the church, said there were rumors the navy had agreed to allow entry this year.

On Feb. 3, several people attended a meeting which called for the ban, imposed by the deputy commissioner of Karwar, to be lifted.

Gonsalves says the ban is illegal since Karwar's commissioner has no jurisdiction over the island, which is still part of Goa.

Karwar is in Karnataka state.

Devidas Harikantra, a Hindu fisherman from Karwar, criticized the navy's "hegemonic" attitude. "This island is of great importance to people of all religions," he asserted.
 
   
   
  Pakistan: Catholics slam lawyers over 'moral decay'
 
KARACHI, FEB 4 (UCAN) -- Lawyers, who have closed ranks round one of their colleagues charged with torturing and murdering a Catholic girl, are acting in a shameful and immoral way, Church leaders say.

Naeem Chaudhry, the former president of the Lahore high court bar association, has been charged with the murder of his maid Shazia Shaheen, 12, whose body showed signs of torture and sexual abuse.

Lawyers invaded the court where he appeared and are said to have intimidated the victim's family.

"We are disappointed at the shameful acts of the lawyers who are supposed to lead the people toward the rule of law," Auxiliary Bishop Sebastian Shah of Lahore said.

"The lawyers' attitude indicates moral decay in society. They are expected to fight for justice... Such violent actions are against the constitution," he told UCA News.

The dead girl's father Bashir Masih, a Catholic, is under police protection after some Muslim lawyers threatened his family, demanding that they withdraw their complaints.

More than 300 lawyers invaded the Lahore Session Courts when Chaudhry appeared, forcing the victim's family off the court premises.

"The whole Church is sad and in mourning at witnessing the declining moral values in our society," Karachi Vicar General Father Arthur Charles told the media yesterday [Feb. 3].

"Innocents and minors are no longer safe and there is no one to question" people like Naeem, he said. "Shazia was poor and non-Muslim. This was her crime."

Father Charles was joined by six priests and Caritas officials as he read out a statement at the press club of Karachi.

Shazia had been working as a maid at Chaudhry's home for the past eight months. Her body was found in a government hospital of Lahore recently. Her funeral was held on Jan. 25 at the city's Sacred Heart Cathedral.

"We appeal to the president, prime minister and chief justice of Pakistan to take strict action against the accused, cancel the [legal practicing] license of Naeem, order an impartial judicial investigation and make laws to prevent such incidents in future," Father Charles said.

Meanwhile banners demanding justice for "Shazia, the daughter of Pakistan," have been hung in front of the Punjab assembly building in Lahore.

Provincial legislators have condemned the legal community "for taking the law into their hands" while the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has urged lawyers to adopt "a fair attitude."

Renowned film stars have also pledged moral and financial support for the bereaved family.

In Lahore archdiocese, Auxiliary Bishop Shah and Vicar General Father Andrew Nisari joined more than 1,000 protesters demanding punishment for Chaudhry and others named in the case.
 
   
   
  Sri Lanka: 'Tamil youths must be tried or released'
 
COLOMBO, FEB 4 (UCAN) -- Northern Sri Lankan bishops, whose dioceses were hard hit by the civil war, are appealing for detained Tamil youths to be either tried in a court of law or released.

About 11,000 youths have been in detention for the past seven months in different rehabilitation camps in the north of the country. Another 10,000 are in prisons in Colombo and other parts, charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The government maintains that these youths took to arms or did political work for the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the civil war.

"They are children of ordinary families longing for a reunion with their loved ones," Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam of Jaffna told UCA News. The Church as well as parents of the detained Tamil youths are "seeking justice for them," Bishop Savundaranayagam added.

He pointed out that he is still "not aware if they are being rehabilitated or not," but "surely they should either be prosecuted or released."

"Most of them surrendered with their parents," but many parents are now "unable to get information about them," the bishop said.

The youths are restless and in search of answers about their incarceration, he said. This very sort of injustice was one of the causes of the long civil war in the first place, he said.

Bishop Savundaranayagam had pointed out his concerns to President Mahinda Rajapaksa when they met in Jaffna on Jan. 10. The prelate requested the president to release all Tamil rebel suspects. Rajapaksa had assured the bishop that all rebel suspects detained for minor offences would be released following a judicial review.

Even before the civil war ended last year, many Tamil youths were already detained just because of their ethnicity, Church people say.

Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar told UCA News on Feb. 3, "It is painful to see them in jail for 10 or 15 years without inquiry." He said many were held only because of suspected links with the now defeated Tamil Tiger rebels. He appealed "for expeditious legal action" or their "release from prison."

Bishop Rayappu also raised the issue last month with Justice and Law Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda. The minister, he said, "promised to speed up the investigation and release those who are charged with minor offenses."

Human Rights Watch in its Feb. 1 report, "Legal Limbo: The Uncertain Fate of Detained LTTE Suspects in Sri Lanka," pointed out that the Sri Lankan government has routinely violated the fundamental rights of detained Tamil people.

The 30-page report is based on interviews with detainees, their relatives, humanitarian workers, and human rights advocates.
 
   
   
  Opposition grows to GM eggplant in India
 
NEW DELHI, FEB 3 (UCAN) -- Genetically modified crops could spell disaster for Indian farmers, bishops' spokesperson Father Babu Joseph says.

The government is deciding whether to give the green light to a modified brinjal or eggplant, developed by Mahyco, the Indian partner of global seed giant Monsanto.

Church agriculture experts, scientists and other religious leaders are urging caution.

"India should have more studies before jumping on the bandwagon," Father Joseph said. He believes genetically modified crops would "spell disaster" for Indian farmers.

The eggplant variety, dubbed Bt Brinjal, has been produced by Maharashtra-based Mahyco by inserting into it a synthetic version of a gene from the naturally occurring soil bacterium.

The company says the GM plants are pest resistant and high yielding.
But many scientists oppose it, saying brinjal engineered with bacteria could result in an environmental catastrophe through genetic contamination and ecological imbalances.

Food safety is also a concern.
Father Joseph noted that scientific community was divided.
"It simply shows that we are not sure about negative impacts of what we are doing," he said. "The government should encourage research before making a decision.

Leading scientists such as Pushp Bhargava told media its launch could spell the "single largest disaster in the country."

Popular yoga expert Swami Ramdev at a public function opposed it saying the attempt to introduce the GM crop was a "conspiracy by foreign multinationals" to make common Indian farmers dependent on foreign technology.

"It is totally unacceptable as it is unsafe for health as it contains mutated chemicals to bring about the change in our genetic make-up," said the leader of large following.

He is threatening to launch a campaign against the crop.
Father Joseph said some 70 per cent of Indians directly or indirectly depend on farming and majority of them are farmers on the margins.

Opponents fear genetic modification will result in people losing indigenous seeds, varieties and methods of farming, and make them dependent on the costly GM versions.

"The majority farmers are poor and uneducated. Government has a responsibility to protect them," Father Jospeh said.

Even the government is divided with two ministries at loggerheads over the issue.

An expert body of the Food and Agriculture ministry has approved the GM brinjal but environment minister Jairam Ramesh said that the decision is not final.

A decision is expected by Feb. 20, in consultation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
 
   
   
  Buddhists acknowledge priest's peace efforts
 
BHOPAL, FEB 3 (UCAN) -- An international Buddhist conclave has for the first time awarded a Catholic priest its top peace prize.

Father Anand Muttungal, spokesperson of the Church in Madhya Pradesh, was handed the Buddhist community's award for "World Peace and Harmony" Jan. 31.

The priest, the first non-Buddhist to get the prestigious award, received his prize from Senior Buddhist monk Venerable Bhadant Arya Nagarjun Surai Sasai. The award included an engraved commemorative plaque and shawl.

The award ceremony attended by 15,000 people was part of a one-day international Buddhist conclave at Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh state.

Conclave coordinator, Bhante Sakyaputra Sagar, lauded the priest's efforts for inter-religious harmony in the state, which witnessed a series of attacks on religious minorities such as Christian and Muslims.

"I have personally seen his work and am convinced about his commitment to religious harmony," Bhante Sagar told UCA News.

Father Muttungal in his acceptance speech said "he believed in the prosperity of humanity' and works toward "it without bothering who belonged to which religion."

The priest later told UCA News he sees the award as recognition 'of the service of the Christian community" in the state.

Christians, who form less than one per cent of the state’s some 60 million people, have witnessed some 150 major attacks on their communities and institutions in the past five years.

However, Christians have not reacted violently but only resorted to democratic methods to register their protests, said the 38-year-old priest.

The priest visits victims of sectarian violence, including non-Christians, and offers them legal assistance.

Attacks on Christians in the state increased after the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP-Indian People’s Party) came to power in December 2003.

According to Father Muttungal a "lack of understanding" between the communities is the "root cause of sectarian attacks" and could be checked only through "dialogue and a continuous exchange of ideas."

The Buddhist award is not the first time Father Muttungal's peace efforts have been recognized.

In 2008 a literary organization -- Adishakti Sahitya Kala Parishad -- also honored Father Muttungal with an award for his peace efforts. In 2007, the Sikh governing body in the state -- the Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee -- honored him for his contribution toward promoting peace and harmony in the state.
 
   
   
  Living witness needed, says Bambina nun
 


NEW DELHI, FEB 3 (UCAN) -- Religious must stress the value of "living witness," especially in the socio-religious situations found in India, says the visiting head of an Italy-based women's congregation.

Social and religious plurality "is a challenge everywhere. But in India, it may be more. It should inspire us more to build up the body of Christ through living witness," said Sister Pier Carla Mauri, superior of the Sisters of Charity of Saints Bartholomea Capitanio and Vincenza Gerosa.

The head of the congregation, more popularly known as the "Maria Bambina Sisters," is in India this week visiting some 1,800 Indian nuns in eight provinces.

In India, the congregation has a "growing presence" with "great possibilities of expansion" said the nun.

The Maria Bambina Sisters manage homes for orphans, the aged and destitute as well as schools and healthcare institutions.

She said her nuns are involved in "community-based evangelization" especially in India and other Asian nations.

The congregation also has communities in Bangladesh, Japan, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand.

Sister Mauri said Religious and cultural plurality is becoming a global phenomena. Religious, particularly nuns living closely with people should take care "not to offend" religious sentiments of people of other religions.

"Our life should promote the values of the Kingdom of God. Direct preaching may not be possible always, may be dangerous too. "Evangelization is witnessing the values of the Kingdom," she said.

She said the aim of every Religious should be to build up a community of people with values based on truth, justice and love for each other.

"We need to live in unity even if we belong to different religions, caste and ethnic groups," she said, adding that such a community would press towards the values of the Kingdom.

India has extreme poverty, with millions of people living in sub-human standards while some enjoy affluence, she said. "India's poverty is a constant challenge" for religious life, Sister Mauri added.

"It helps our sisters to continue their life of simplicity and sobriety," she said.

In an increasingly secularized world that seeks profit and comforts "people become unable to express the primacy of God." Religious life becomes relevant "here because Religious keep the presence of God alive before them," the nun said.
 
   
   
  Sri Lanka: Latin hymns bring nostalgia, new fans
 
COLOMBO, FEB 3 (UCAN) -- A choral society is keeping alive the tradition of hymns in Latin in the country with the help of visiting musician and liturgist Father Robert Tyrala from Krakow in Poland.

Father Tyrala, president of the Swiss-based Foederatio International Pueri Cantores, visited Sri Lanka recently to promote the singing of traditional hymns in both Latin and local languages -- Tamil and Sinhala -- as well as English.

On the final day of his visit some 400 singers attached to the society's local chapter, the Sri Lanka Pueri Cantores Federation (SLPCF), gathered at the chapel in St. Joseph College, a prestigious lake side Catholic school in Colombo to share their music.

"It was to promote church music at a different level and in different languages, especially Latin," Father Indika Joseph, the SLPCF secretary based at St. Joseph College, told UCA News.

For many it was a nostalgic experience.

The Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965 replaced the traditional Latin Mass (also called the Tridentine Mass) in favor of a Mass in the local languages. While that has generally been appreciated, there has been a move by some to hark back to the old ways after Pope.

Benedict XVI in 2007 removed restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass.

Father Tyrala and Father Joseph presided over a Tridentine Mass at the event.

Older members of the audience particularly appreciated the music and the Mass.

"When I see violence and uncertainty in this modern world there is something soothing about participating in ancient rituals practiced by so many boys and girls," Queenie Anandappa, 69 a retired teacher, told UCA News.

"Hearing Latin again filled me with nostalgia. I have the feeling of re-uniting with our global Catholic family in the same weekly Mass," music teacher Priyani Rajakaruna said. Her choir from De Mazenod College of Kandana was one of the participants.

Father Joseph pointed out that the aim of the local federation is to propagate and promote Church music, especially in the Latin tradition.

"For young progressive Catholics ancient music is still exciting and attractive," the priest said.

Francis D' Almeida, the National SLPCF coordinator, told UCA News that he hoped to increase membership of the federation by enrolling members from schools and parishes.

Pueri Cantores International Federation is a global organization of the Catholic church for choirs of young people and its local branch was established last April with the blessing of the now retired Archbishop Oswald Gomis of Colombo.
 
   
   
  Pakistan: Catholic puts first audio Urdu Bible online
 
RAWALPINDI, FEB 3 (UCAN) -- A Catholic school teacher is working on the world's first audio Bible in the Urdu language on the Internet.

Riaz Masih Gill, 31, a software developer says he was inspired when installing a digital version of the Qur'an on his computer three years ago.

"My Muslim friend used to listen to the Qur'an in Arabic. I copied this concept since there is no such software for Bible in local languages available," he told UCA News.

Gill launched last Dec and since then has been publicizing the information of his project by cell phone text messages among Christians.

There is now an almost complete audio version, although Gill still has a few New Testament books to go.

Father Nasir Javed, his parish priest at Immaculate Conception church in Rawalpindi has praised Gill's efforts.

"Most of our community is poor and illiterate. This website gives them a chance to listen to the word of God even if they can't read it", he told UCA News.

He said the Internet has opened new doorways for evangelism in Islamic milieu of Pakistan.

The Pakistan Bible Society (PBS) confirmed that it is the first online Bible in Urdu with an audio option.

Anthony Lamuel General secretary PBS told UCA News that the society is working on a virtual Bible in unicode -- a standard text coding system -- that is 70 per cent complete.

Gill said he opted for a virtual "Protestant" Bible due to availability of pastors for support and guidelines.

"I wrote a letter to Catholic Bible Commission a few years ago but got no reply," he said.

Gill now plans to upload the Bible in four other local languages with text and audio option.

However, the project is not without challenges.

To date he has invested Rs 50,000 (US$581) of his own money, although he earns Rs 12,000 a month at St. Mary's Cambridge School in Rawalpindi.

"I paid a few pastors for the voice-over. However, several tuitions poured in as a blessings and many customers bought other software I had developed," he said.

According to Gill, he has had praise from Muslims too.
"You have done a good work. I did not have this holy book before in my house," he quoted one of them as saying.
 
   
   
  Hokersar wetland's existence faces threat
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, FEB 3 -- As dawn arrives, the Hokersar wetland reserve is blissful with the loud chirping of migratory birds. The morning sky is full of these beautiful creatures, soaring higher and higher. Afternoons are usually quieter with the birds busy preying on fish and insects.

Hokersar, one of the best migratory waterfowl resorts in Kashmir, now faces grave threat to its existence, owing to siltation and encroachments.

The Hokersar wetland, about 16 kilometres from Srinagar, is an internationally protected wetland under the Ramsar Convention. Being a favoured place for hundreds of migratory birds, the wetland has been attracting avian guests from distant lands as far as Siberia, Europe, South and South East Asia.

However, the reserve is not without problems. It has been reduced to seven sq km from 14 sq km. A few hours spent here show the apathy of the government and locals towards this reserve. Encroachments have been going on unchecked.

Hokersar is surrounded by the Lawaypora, Gund habitation and Srinagar-Baramulla highway in the north; Soibugh, Daharmuna and Margillar in the south; Zainakote, Haji Bagh habitations in the east and Gund Khaliq and Raki Arath in the west.

"We have started demarcating the wetland," said Naseer Ahmad Kichloo, Regional Wildlife Warden, adding that the shrinking of wetlands will affect people. "People living in and around the wetland will be affected. Their livelihoods are at stake."

Kichloo said siltation in the wetland had been going on for a long time. "However, the water requirement for migratory birds is sufficient."

Above five lakh migratory birds visited the wetland this year. "Because of favourable weather conditions, the number of migratory birds this time exceeded the previous year. But so far, we don't have reports of any bird coming here for the first time," the Regional Wildlife Warden said.

The largest congregation of Malard in north India is reportedly noted here. Other birds include Egret, Gadwall, Pintail, Common Teal, Brahmny Duck (an endangered species), Grey-leg Goose, Vision, Red-Crusted Poncha, Showeller and Star Limbs.

The birds usually arrive by October 20. There is no fixed date for them to leave, but early departures are noticed by February 15.

The reserve is a rare and enticing habitat, both for birds and humans who come here to spend time in the midst of pristine nature.

"As the temperature starts dropping in December-January, the wetlands get frozen and the birds have great difficulty in feeding. Their area of feeding decreases and we have to provide artificial food for them," said a guard at the wetland.

Preparing the reserve for birds involves creating boat ways and de-weeding and plugging breaches so that optimum levels of water are maintained. Artificial feed is needed for the birds when water freezes. It is also necessary to check poaching. Poaching used to be rampant at one time, but is now believed to be under control.

"We make all efforts to avoid poaching. Water in paddy fields attracts birds and once they move out of the protected area, there are chances that they can fall prey to poachers," a wildlife expert said, on conditions of anonymity.

Migratory birds mostly feed on weeds and water chestnuts. "Roots of 'woppy-nar' (bush-type herb) are their favourites," says Ghulam Hassan, a guard working here for the past 20 years.

Hassan said 5,000 to 8,000 birds breed in 'Thater Mour', naturally built nests in blady bushes. "It is extremely difficult to peep inside these nests, as the bushes are sharp and you have to be well equipped to move around," says Ghulam Mohi-ud-din, who has been working as a daily wager here for the past 13 years.

"It is also difficult to move through the waters of the wetland in the wee hours of the morning and late evenings," adds Hassan.
Four watchtowers, two doonga-boats and 20 employees are available for overall supervision of the wetland. Two guards, one daily wager and an orderly are present in each doonga.
 
   
   
  Over 1,000 priests to gather in Vailankanni
  MORE than 1,000 Catholic priests from dioceses across India are expected to attend a national congress of priests in Vailankanni next week.

The February 9-11 congress in the Marian pilgrim town in Tamil Nadu is organized by the Commission for Priests of the conference of Latin rite bishops.

However, priests of all three rites and also Religious priests are invited to the congress, according to Commission's secretary Father Kulandhai.

He said the congress was planned last May to mark the "Year for Priests" declared by Pope Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Clergy is scheduled to attend the three-day congress. Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay is also expected for the congress.

In seminars and discussions, the congress plans to discuss themes such as the faithfulness and fidelity of priests and the challenges priests in daily life, the official said.

Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister M.K. Stalin will preside over the opening meet. Dignitaries include Sri Ravishankar of the Art of living International Centre, the Indian Muslim League national secretary Janab Kader Mohideen and Christian member of Parliament Agatha Sangma.

The town is famous for its 300-year old Our Lady of Vailankanni shrine, a popular pilgrim centre in Thanjavur diocese.

Source: Over 1000 priest to congregate at Vailankanni (SAR News)
 
   
   
  UK's equality law is unequal, says Pope Benedict
  POPE Benedict XVI announced his official visit to Britain Feb. 1 criticizing its government's equality legislation as one that violates religious freedom and "natural law."

While speaking at the Vatican to visiting Catholic bishops of England and Wales, the Pope described changes to the law as unjust and lauded the bishops effort resist them.

The Pope was criticizing a recent legislation that prevents Catholic adoption agencies from discriminating against gay couples. The proposed equality bill also expected to make it harder for churches to exclude job applications from homosexuals or people who have changed their gender.

His comments came at the end of a five-yearly visit of the bishops, during which they made presentations on their concerns about the place of religion in an increasingly secular society, The Guardian reported.

"The effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal [of equality] has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed," he said.

The Pope urged the bishops to make their voices heard and defend the faith, saying that Christian teaching did not undermine or restrict the freedom of others.

The Pope has also confirmed he will this year make the first papal visit to the UK since John Paul II’s of 1982, BBC reported. He is expected to visit Birmingham -- as part of the planned beatification of Cardinal John Newman -- and Scotland. Dates for the trip have not been set, the British agency said.

Before group the meeting the bishops Feb. 1, the Pope met the 35 bishops, who each reported on diocesan matters. The archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster said they were encouraged by the Pope's words.

"It has been clear that he knows the situation and applied it to a move in legislation to look for equality. Adoption agencies either closed or moved away from the Catholic church because of the legislation. That was an example of what I believe was an unreasonable curtailment of the Catholic contribution. Of the 480 agencies, only 11 were Catholic. It was disproportionate," he said.

"We do not support the notion of discrimination. But you have to distinguish between people," the archbishop said. (CathIndianews.com)

Source: Your equality laws are unjust, pope tells UK before visit (guardian.co.uk)
Pope Benedict confirms first papal UK visit since 1982 (BBC)
 
   
   
  Church helped preserve culture: Lok Sabha Speaker
  SPEAKER of Indian parliament Meira Kumar has visited a museum of tribal culture that Salesians manage in Shillong, lauding missioners' attempts to preserve local cultures.

Kumar, who visited the Don Bosco Center for Indigenous Cultures, last weekend spoke about the need for preserving the cultures of India, particularly of indigenous people.

She lauded Salesian priests concern and love for the cultures, which they have expressed by building this magnificent museum.

Museum director Father Joseph Puthenpukal and other senior priests welcomed the Speaker. Father Puthenpukal also briefly explained the various components of the centre as well as the artifacts displayed in the Museum.

"I am amazed at Don Bosco Museum. It is breathtaking because all the galleries are so well conceptualized and a great deal of research has gone into putting them up," she wrote in visitors' book.

She also congratulated the priests and their team for the "dedication in showcasing the cultures of the north-east," she wrote.

The Speaker was "impressed by the different traditional musical instruments played by the local artistes in the traditional music gallery," said a note in a Salesian website.

The leader also expressed her desire to have these musicians perform in New Delhi in the Parliament auditorium, the site said.

With seven stories, 56,000 square feet of floor space and 15,154 square feet of display wall space, the center ranks among the top 36 or so cultural centres of its kind in the Salesian world. Museums and cultural Centers are a significant aspect of the Salesian mission, said a note about the center.

Built in hexagonal shape, its seven floors represent the seven states of Northeast India. "The building rises to form a flame, expressing the reality that if cultures are understood well, they can form a communion of cultures for a better society."

Source: Lok Sabha speaker in Don Bosco Museum

Link: Don Bosco Center for Indigenous Cultures
 
   
   
  Church violence in Karnataka: probe names no one
  THE government commission probing the 2008 attacks on Christians in Karnataka has submitted its interim report without holding any group or individual responsible for the crimes.

The commission headed by Justice B.K. Somasekhara said that "a strong impression is created" that Sangh Parivar are mainly responsible for the attacks, said a report in The Hindu newspaper.

The commission said impression also is created that the "top police officials and the district administration colluded with Sangh Parivar groups "directly or indirectly."

The commission has also favored withdrawal of all cases "registered, investigated or charge-sheeted against all persons or institutions for the incidents of attacks" in the "public interest," citing power of pardon and clemency as embedded in the Constitution.

It has also called for a ban on any literature that uses "abusive or insulting expressions, either direct or with innuendo, touching religious interests."

Justice Somasekhara handed over the 500-page interim report to Abhijith Das Gupta, Karnataka Additional Chief Secretary and State Home Secretary, on Feb. 1.

The 15-page synopsis contains a set of 20 suggestions and recommendations to the government, which he read out.

The commission pointed out that "in some incidents there were indications of self-infliction or collusion or make-believe methods to create evidence of attack on churches or places of worship to support such things in other districts or places."

It said "in some incidents, there were indications of massive conversions to Christianity by circumstances and inducements but not by compulsion".

Source: Church attacks: interim report submitted.
 
   
   
  Agitation in Srinagar over youth's death
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, FEB 2 -- There was protest in several parts of the city on Monday (February 1) in protest against the alleged killing of a teenager by the police.

Fifteen-year-old Wanik Farooq, a resident of Rainawari, was allegedly hit by a teargas shell at Rajouri Kadal during a clash between the police and a mob on January 31. He later succumbed to his injuries at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS)-Soura. The assistant sub-inspector who reportedly fired the teargas shell has been suspended.

Several parts of the city observed a shutdown in protest against the killing. The protests intensified after Farooq's burial. Several people were hurt when the police fired teargas and used batons to disperse protesters, who hurled stones, burnt tyres and forced shops to shut down. There have been reports that a SKIMS ambulance was also attacked by a mob in the city.

Tension gripped areas like Maisuma, Jamia Masjid, Rajouri Kadal, Lal Chowk, Safa Kadal, Nowhatta, Gojwara and other interior parts of the city.

Traffic was disrupted and business establishments shut. However, government and other private offices carried on as usual. Normal traffic was plying on other routes.

It has been reported that the police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) cordoned off the area where the killing took place, after protests ceased on Sunday. "When the boy came out of the lane near Islamia College, a policeman fired a teargas shell at him. He was hit on the head," a source said.

Doctors who attended on Farooq have been quoted as saying said that he was brought in as an 'unknown patient.' His name and address was not known. His brain had been badly damaged and he succumbed to the injuries in half an hour.

"There was a lot of confusion in the city-centre. We closed down our shops for a while and resumed work only later in the afternoon," said Mushtaq Ahmad, who owns a cosmetic shop in Lal Chowk.

A group of students said they had to leave their coaching classes earlier than usual, due to the disturbance. "We left our class midway as our teachers wanted us to reach home safely. There was a lot of confusion on the roads and we found it hard to get a bus," one of the students said.
 
   
   
  Former students pay tribute to Jesuit press
 
KOLKATA, FEB 2 (UCAN) -- Former students of St. Xavier's College, a premier Jesuit-run institution in Kolkata, have paid tribute to India's first printing press that the Jesuits set up.

They helped erect the replica of the gate of the College of St. Paul in Goa at the popular Kolkata Book Fair. The Jesuits in Goa had set up India's first printing press in 1556.

Since the book fair deals with printing, it is appropriate to pay tribute to the Jesuits who set up the first press, said Snehasis Sur, secretary of St. Xavier's College's alumni association.

The 10-day book fair scheduled to end Feb. 2 is regarded as the largest attended book fair in India. Media reports say more than two million people visit it annually.

Sur said the effort was undertaken to mark the completion of 150 years of St. Xavier's College and 25 years of the alumni.

He said most people are unaware that Jesuit missioners began printing in India. The replica of the gate of St. Paul's College will educate people of the Jesuit contribution, he added.

In 1542, Saint Francis Xavier, who was based in Goa at the time, requested the king of Portugal to send a printing press for India, Ethiopia and Japan. The ships sailing to Ethiopia had to pass through Goa since the Suez Canal was not in service then.

When the Jesuits in Goa received news that the king of Ethiopia was not keen on receiving the missioners with the printing press, it was set up at the college in Goa.

Sur, a journalist with a national television channel, said the College of St. Paul, began in 1542, was abandoned when a plague ravaged Goa in 1570, but the gate still stands as a historic witness to the first college the Jesuits built in India.

The replica of the gate at the book fair also is to acknowledge the Jesuits' educational service to the nation, Sur told UCA News.

The alumni association has also set up a stall at the book fair with literature, books, photos of and on Calcutta Jesuits and their institutions. The gate of the College of St. Paul stands at one of the main entrances to the fair.

At the stall, visitors can read literature on the College of St. Paul, and appreciate the works of the Jesuits, said Sunil Ghorai, who manages the stall. Ghorai said this was the first time that the Jesuits had found a place at the annual fair.

"This is the only stall where Christian literature" including the Holy Bible in Bengali, lectionaries, lives of saints, is available at the fair, and "there is a lot of enthusiasm among visitors," he said. He added that more than 300 people visited the stall on the first day.
 
   
   
  Hindu groups try to block EU's Orissa visit
 
NEW DELHI, FEB 1 (UCAN) -- Hindus are trying to block a visiting European Union (EU) delegation from visiting the riot-hit Kandhamal district.

Catholics in Orissa are getting ready to meet the delegation during its Feb. 2-5 visit to the eastern Indian district, the center of a seven-week long anti-Christian violence in 2008, a Church official said.

But some Hindu groups have demanded the state government withdraw permission for "outsiders" to visit the riot-torn area, where Christian groups say normalcy is not yet restored.

Gouri Kumar Rath, the Orissa state secretary of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP-world Hindu council), asked the state to revoke the permission.

"Outside elements have no business studying the situation in any part of the country. It is the responsibility of our government to deal with the problem," Rath told media Jan. 31.

Church people reacted to it saying the protest was expected.

"These groups were part of the violence. How could we expect them to support moves for justice," asked Father Dibya Parichha, spokesperson of the Cuttuck-Bhubaneshwar archdiocese, which covers Kandhamal.

He said Hindu groups are afraid that the visit will expose the "real situation" in Kandhamal. Hundreds of people are still homeless, living in fear of fanatic violence, he said. Many are afraid to speak out.

"The state was incapable of protecting its people"

The Hindu groups are "trying to cover up their violent face. The riot showed that the state was incapable of protecting its people. What happened in Orissa was not an internal matter. It was a global issue of human right violation," he said.

The priest said groups of Catholics are preparing to meet with the EU team but they do not have any official information on the itinerary or schedules of the delegation. The team is also expected to meet with Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttuck-Bhubaneshwar but no date is confirmed, he said on Feb. 1.

Father Parichha said the Church hopes the visit would put some "pressure on the state to expedite its action toward getting justice to the victims" such as providing them compensation, helping them rebuild homes and ensuring their safety and religious freedom.

The diplomats will also meet some state officials such as the home secretary, reports say.

The team had earlier canceled the trip when the state government refused to permit it to visit Kandhamal Jan. 27. It later backed down.

The team has reportedly been asked not to act as a fact-finding mission, which may mean not publish an official report of the meeting or speak to the media.
 
   
   
  Humans forgotten by finance system: Caritas
  BANGKOK, FEB 1 (UCAN) -- Caritas Internationalis Secretary General Lesley-Anne Knight says human beings have been left out of post-financial crash calculations "with dire consequences for us all, especially the poor."

"Finance has been focused on financial mechanisms, profits and bonuses," she said.

"For humanitarian organizations, such as Caritas, the human person must be at the heart of everything we do. But this should equally be applied to economic systems, which are also ultimately at the service of humanity," she said.

Knight, representing 164 Catholic national charities that work in more than 200 countries around the world, made the comments at the Davos World Economic Forum (WEF) that ended yesterday [Jan. 31].

Knight said five steps need to be taken immediately.

Financial institutions must consider the human impact of their activities.

Poorer nations must have an effective voice at international institutions such as the UN and World Trade Organization
Development aid must be delivered free of conditions.

Recipients should play a greater role in their own development
There must be stronger recognition of civil society and faith groups.

The annual WEF brings together business leaders, politicians and heads of state, with artists, academics, religious leaders, and other civil society representatives.

"It is of course easy enough to identify the values and principles that should form the basis of systems and institutions," Knight said.

"What is more difficult is to ensure that these values are applied. This relies on us as individuals -- our consciences, and our capacity for solidarity, for compassion, for true charity," she said.

"The richer nations of the world must provide assistance for developing countries who are bearing the brunt of climate-related disasters," Knight said.

"Economic growth and development must have regard for inter-generational justice. Rich countries have profited the most from the industrialization that has led to climate change, and now they must pay the costs of adapting and mitigating the damage."
 
   
   
  Sri Lanka: 'Tamils must not be left behind after election'
  COLOMBO, FEB 1 (UCAN) -- The northeast Tamil heartland must not be left out of post-election development, one of Sri Lanka's top Buddhist monks says.

"Special interest should be taken for the reconstruction of tanks and the reservoirs in the war-torn areas of the north and east. The people in all parts of the country should be equally treated," the Venerable Buddharakkitha Thera, told the media.

Sri Lankan Bishops' Conference president Bishop Vianney Fernando also appealed to re-elected President Mahinda Rajapaksa to make peace, especially "resolving the issues relating to the Tamil minority."

Their comments echoed those of international observers who say there must be justice for Tamils.

"He [Rajapaksa] can continue the Sinhalese nationalist policies that defined his first term, or he can address the serious grievances of the minority Tamil population that lay behind the country's 26-year-long civil war," Human Rights Watch legal and policy director James Ross wrote on the Huffington Post news website.

Turnout in the predominantly Tamil north-east was only 30 per cent, compared to 70 per cent of eligible voters generally.

Rajapaksa has come under immediate pressure from Western powers to investigate alleged war crimes. The United Nations says that at least 7,000 civilians, virtually all ethnic Tamils, died in a "bloodbath" in the final months of the conflict.

President Rajapaksa is today beginning his first full week in power after being swept back to office although has not yet taken his oath of office. His opponent in the poll, General Sarath Fonseka, former head of the victorious government forces, cried foul and is challenging the result.

Both men tried to capitalize on the end of the civil war in their campaigns.

"Now is the time to find lasting peace where all communities can live with dignity and in harmony," the country's chief Buddhist prelate the Venerable Thibbatuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera said.

He also demanded a full-scale inquiry into the deaths in an Election Day blast. Two persons including a Buddhist monk were killed in the Gampola area. Police say they are investigating.

While there is little appetite in the capital for raking over election campaign rights and wrongs, there are concerns about election irregularities in the north, the heartland of the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels.

"On the election day some IDPs [internally displaced persons] in the north were not allowed to vote with their temporary identity cards," one parish priest told UCA News.

"Many were not provided transport to travel to their respective polling stations.

"As a result, many IDPs were deliberately denied an opportunity to vote at the election," said the priest who wanted to remain anonymous.

There had also been grenade attacks at some polling stations in the north, he said, although had no details of injuries.
 
   
   
  Philippines: It's a record! Reading the Bible in an hour
  BANGKOK, FEB 1 (UCAN) -- A Philippine college has set a world record for reading the Bible, getting through all 73 books in just one hour.

The academic community of Divine Word College (DWC) in Urdaneta, Pangasinan province, completed the feat yesterday (Jan. 31) in celebration of National Bible Week.

The task was made easier by sharing the work, with sections divided among the DCWU's 964 students, faculty members and non-academic personnel, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) website said.

The Episcopal Commission on Biblical Apostolate (ECBA) had asked diocesan biblical commissions round the country to organize events in their neighborhoods.

National Bible Week 2010 kicked off with i-Proclaim!, a historic, ecumenical and public oral reading of the Bible.

The public reading aimed to bring Filipinos to a greater awareness and relevance of the Scriptures in their everyday lives, CBCP News said.

National Bible Week was officially Jan. 25-29 but Auxiliary Bishop Pablo David of San Fernando, chairman of the ECBA, said the CBCP Bible Commission will hold its main activity, the National Biblical Workshop from Feb. 9-13 due to the Congress of Priests held last week.
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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