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  Malaysia: Court overturns ban on non-Muslims using the word 'Allah'
PENANG, DEC 31 (UCAN) -- The High Court in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 31 ruled that the national Catholic weekly, "Herald," can use the word "Allah" to refer to God and that the Home Ministry's order banning its use is illegal.

The court also declared that the word "Allah" is not exclusive to Islam.

"We welcome the court's decision very much as in the long term it will be not only good for 'Herald' but for others as well," said S. Selvarajah, one of a team of four lawyers involved in the Church's challenge of the ban.

The Home Ministry in 2007 issued a blanket ban on the use of the word "Allah" in all non-Muslim publications.

Archbishop Murphy Pakiam of Kuala Lumpur, publisher of "Herald," challenged it in a case that began in February.

Selvarajah told UCA News the judge made six declarations, one citing Article 11 of the constitution on the right to religious freedom.

"Article 11 states that we have the right to manage our own religious affairs, thus using 'Allah' as part of our worship is our right," the lawyer said.

Bishop Antony Selvanyagam of Penang spoke to UCA News immediately after the decision. "I would like to congratulate the Herald's lawyers and (Herald editor) Father Lawrence Andrew for their efforts to defend the rights of the Church in this matter," he said.

Pastor Jerry Dusing, president of the Sabah Evangelical Church of Malaysia and Sabah Council of Churches, said the decision was good for everyone. "We are living in a multi-racial country, thus there must be racial unity and respect among each other," he said.

The government had argued that the use of the word "Allah" in Christian publications was likely to confuse Muslims and draw them to Christianity. The Church claimed the ban violates its constitutional rights to practice its religion freely.

Father Andrew said that the word "Allah" has been used by Christians in the region to refer to their God for 400 years.
  Sri Lanka: Oblate leader urges greater reconciliation efforts
JAFFNA, DEC 31 (UCAN) -- The Oblate superior general has encouraged his congregation's members to redouble their efforts in helping Sinhalese and Tamils in the country reconcile after a bitter war.

Father Wilhelm Steckling, superior general of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, urged Tamil and Sinhalese Oblate priests to create fresh programs to help resettle people displaced by the civil war and rebuild their lives.

He said Oblates could be role models in the efforts to heal wounds and rebuild the nation.

"My visit is to see the Oblates in their mission fields and to show solidarity with them," Father Steckling told his congregation members during his recent four-week visit to the country.

There are presently about 300 Oblate priests and brothers in Sri Lanka, working in various social ministries such as caring for refugees, widows and orphans.

Father Steckling came to Sri Lanka to attend a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of an Oblate major seminary in Kandy diocese. He also opened a new wing of an Oblate service center in Colombo.

During his trip, which included visits to various dioceses, he met Catholic bishops as well as Hindus, Buddhists and Christians living in the former war zone.

Oblate Father Rohan de Silva, director of the Center for Society and Religion in Colombo said the superior general's visit boosted morale among congregation members.

One of them, Father Jayanthan Pachchek, said, "Father Steckling re-energized us." He said the visit strengthened ties between laity and priests and was a boost to the congregation’s work.
  Philippines: Jesuit historian defends national hero from heresy
QUEZON CITY, DEC 31 (UCAN) -- Filipino national hero Jose Rizal died 113 years ago but the controversy over his alleged heresies still rages.

This year, blogs and newspaper editorials continued the debate on the issue.

In one discussion forum, one post said that, if true, it is "sad that the cradle of Catholicism in Asia is honoring as national hero, a Catholic heretic.”

Jesuit Father Jose Arcilla, a history professor and archivist who lectures to schools on Rizal, has no doubt Rizal believed in God and was not a heretic.

The priest acknowledges that Rizal was critical of the Church and religion in some of his writings, but claims he never denied God.

"Returning from Cuba, he wrote in his diary, 'I think God is directing my life. He is allowing me to die in my country'," Father Arcilla said. "Are those the words of a non-believer?"

Rizal, a polymath and intellectual, advocated political reforms during the Spanish colonial era and was executed by firing squad on Dec. 30, 1896, in Manila. The day is now a national holiday.

Spanish friars declared Rizal's first novel "Noli Me Tangere" (Touch me not), published in 1887, as heretical, scandalous to the Catholic Church and injurious to the government.

The book's characters include a young intellectual who returns home from Europe, a woman he falls in love with who turns out to be a Spanish friar's daughter, and the protagonist's father, who is killed after being falsely accused of heresy.

The controversy over Rizal's religious beliefs was further fueled by his membership of the Freemasons, a fraternity of men following a philosophy the Church regards as opposed to Christian doctrine.

A 1956 law requires all educational establishments in the Philippines to include Rizal's life, works and writings in their curricula.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines opposed the law, saying Rizal's ideas were often opposed to Catholic dogma and morals. They accused him of "attacks" on the possibility of miracles, the concept of purgatory, sacraments, indulgences, Church prayers, and of questioning God's omnipotence.

The bishops said he also disparaged the veneration of images and relics, devotion to the Blessed Mother and the saints, and that he questioned papal authority and other key Catholic teachings.

Father Arcilla says that despite his high profile in the Filipino psyche, Rizal remains under-appreciated as most schools focus on his novels.

To do so "is narrow," the priest says, because Rizal wrote these as propaganda. "To know the mind and heart of Rizal, study his letters and diaries," the history professor said.

He believes the bishops' opposition failed because it lacked basis. He stressed that it is important to understand that Rizal did not reject religion but protested the colonial government's "use of religion and the Church as a cloak for their abuses."

He said many of Rizal's ideas resonate in social movements in the Church and in the world today.
  Church backs probe into Catholic school over Ruchika's suicide
NEW DELHI, DEC 31 (UCAN) -- Church officials say they will back a government investigation into Sacred Heart School in Chandigarh, which expelled a girl a month after she had been molested by a senior police officer.

The girl, Ruchika Girhotra, 14 at the time, subsequently committed suicide.

Girhotra's parents and friends say the school acted under pressure from the officer, S. Rathore, who was then director general of police in Haryana state.

Rathore's daughter was Girhotra's classmate.

The Chandigarh administration this week seized school records as part of a magistrate's inquiry into the role played by the school.

Sister S. Sebastina, the principal of the school now and in 1990 when Girhotra was expelled, is expected to face questioning as to why she threw the girl out.

The school has avoided the media since the scandal broke but many people have expressed their shock and disbelief on the alumni's Facebook page.

Sacred Heart School is managed by the Clarist Franciscan Missionaries of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Reports suggest the school gave "unpaid fees" as the reason for expelling the girl.

Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI), says the Church will support any investigation aimed at unearthing the facts.

The Divine Word priest, however, told UCA News that since the case is being investigated, it would be premature to judge the school. He said he wants the probe to find out "the circumstances" that led to the girl's expulsion and her tragic death.

Montfort Brother Mani Mekkunnel, national secretary of the Conference of Religious India, also welcomed the probe.

"We should stand for the truth and not bow before corrupt officials who have different motives," he said. "We should help the victim get justice even though it is late."

Brother Mekkunnel hoped the controversy would help "our schools and institutions" prepare better for any similar cases in future.

Meanwhile federal law minister Veerappa Moily on Dec. 30 said the government plans to charge Rathore with abetting the girl's suicide, a crime that carries a minimum 10-year jail sentence.

The public outrage erupted after Dec. 21, when a special court of the federal Central Bureau of Investigation in Chandigarh held Rathore guilty but awarded a mere six-month prison term and 1,000-rupee (US$21) fine.

Another court denied Rathore anticipatory bail on Dec. 30, a day after the Haryana police registered two fresh cases against him.

In one, Rathore was accused of lodging false cases against Girhotra's brother and trying to kill him, and the other for fabricating her autopsy report.

Girhotra's family say the police officer persistently harassed them to withdraw the compliant against him, which helped drive their daughter to suicide.
  Indian Montfort brothers draft global education charter
NEW DELHI, DEC 31 (UCAN) -- Montfort brothers in India have taken the lead in drafting an education charter for their congregation's educational institutions around the world.

Brother K.M. Joseph, national president of the Montfort brothers in India, told UCA News that his Indian confreres took the lead because "we are the most vibrant group" in the global congregation.

The European membership is "dying out" and Africans are "just catching up," he said.

Indians account for some 600 of the 1,200 Montfort brothers in the world. "We are roughly half, and the other half is spread across several nations and is aging," Brother Joseph said.

The charter, when adopted, will be applied to Montfort educational institutions in the 34 countries where the brothers work.

The leaders of seven Montfort provinces in India met with 200 teachers from the order's educational institutions at a conference Dec. 27-29 in Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh state.

They drafted the "Montfortian Education Charter for the 21st Century" that is to be finalized at a meeting of worldwide Montfort brothers in Rome in February.

The charter calls for a shift in the content and methodology of education, Brother M.A. George, national coordinator of the conference, said.

The congregation wants to link educational technology, managerial competence and leadership initiatives for a fast changing world, Brother George said. It also wants to stress Bible values so as to help build a just society.

The charter also demands equal opportunities for all, including those with physical and social disabilities, Brother George said.

The charter, rooted in Montfortian legacy, is forward looking and can "empower its adherents to respond dynamically to global opportunities," he added.

The Montfort Brothers of St. Gabriel congregation, which manages institutions for "total education," was founded by Saint Louis Marie De Montfort in France in 1705.
  Christmas program brings Catholics, Hindus together
BHOPAL, DEC 30 (UCAN) -- Bhopal archdiocese took a step toward interreligious harmony when it celebrated Christmas at a home for the elderly managed by a group that is linked to a hard-line Hindu organization.

A group of Catholics from the archdiocese gave out Christmas cake and dined with residents of Anand Dham (House of Bliss) to spread the message of Christian love as well as forge communal harmony, said Father Anand Muttungal.

The priest, spokesperson for the Church in Madhya Pradesh, was part of the group that visited the home on Dec. 27.

Anand Dham is managed by Seva Bharati, an NGO that works among indigenous communities in India. It runs thousands of projects in fields such as health care, education, rural development and the rehabilitation of children with special needs.

The NGO is also a sister organization of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has been accused of being the umbrella organization of hard-line Hindu groups blamed for attacks on Christians.

Rajendra Mishra, who is in charge of the home, hailed the Church group's visit as "a great gesture" of acceptance of elderly people. The home has 13 male and nine female residents, all over 60.

He said the Christmas celebration brought happiness and hope for the residents, who feel lonely after having been abandoned by their children.

Asked how he viewed the visit from a group the RSS has always considered as proselytizers, the Hindu leader said, "We feel happy about their visit because we share the common ground of love and affection for each other." People should work together to avoid misunderstanding and distrust, he added.

Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal said "such programs would help clear misunderstandings between Catholics and Hindus."

He said that a lack of interaction has led to misunderstandings between Christians and RSS people, and that better communication would help alleviate suspicion among communities.
  Korea: Church leaders slam Christian activist's northern incursion
SEOUL, DEC 30 (UCAN) -- South Korean Church leaders have condemned US Christian activist Robert Park's incursion into North Korea, saying it will not help religious freedom in the country and may do more harm than good.

Park, a Protestant Korean-American, crossed the border on Christmas Eve with a Bible in his hand, shouting: "I brought God's love! God loves you!" according to local media.

He was immediately arrested.

"The Gospel shouldn't be presented aggressively ... It doesn't help increase religious freedom," Reverend Kim Tae-hyon, director of the Church and Ecumenical Relationship Department of the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), told UCA News.

The North Korean government may see Park's actions as politically motivated and provocative, he added.

Father Raphael Seo Jong-yeob, executive secretary of the Korean Bishops' Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People, agreed the action was counter-productive.

"You shouldn't talk about, or recklessly throw questions on human rights in someone else's country because it will hurt the feelings of the people," he said.

Park's act will just "aggravate the North's hostility toward the South and the rest of the world," and be an impediment toward the reunification of the two Koreas, he added.

Catholic Human Rights Committee chairperson Regina Pyon Yeon-shik also condemned Park's actions.

"Trying to highlight human rights issues by committing such a fanatic act won't help improve the situation there," she said.

Reverend Lee Soo-bong, secretary general of the Christian Mission for North Korea, however, defended Park.

"Nobody knows what results his unexpected act may produce. His act could be another chance to evangelize North Korea if we see it positively," the Presbyterian pastor said.

He noted that some mission groups in South Korean Protestant churches are already handing bibles to North Koreans at the border between North Korea and China, at great risk to their lives.

"I respect their efforts. On the other hand, there are many other groups focusing more on humanitarian aid for future mission work in North Korea."

Father Seo said that as far as he knows there are no Catholic missioners working in the North.

Church sources say there are some 3,000 Catholics in North Korea. Changchung Church in Pyongyang is the only Catholic church there, but it has no resident priest or Religious working in it.
  Philippines: March helps youths learn about problem of abortion
KALOOKAN CITY, DEC 30 (UCAN) -- About 75 teenage students and Catholic youth club members marched in a cemetery here on the feast of the Holy Innocents, praying for aborted babies in the country.

They were accompanied by a group of women who have had abortions, some of whom shared their experiences during the Dec. 28 event.

Participants walked from the entrance of La Loma Cemetery in Kalookan City, north of Manila, to the cemetery's Altar of Aborted Children, praying a special rosary for unborn children.

Good Shepherd Sister Pilar Verzosa, national director of Pro-Life Philippines, told UCA News her Catholic organization started sponsoring the procession in 1990 primarily for women who have had abortions.

It aims to help the women achieve a sense of peace after years of keeping their abortions secret.

"Now we involve the youth to educate them on the problem of abortion," the nun said. The youths are also taught that contraception is not foolproof.

Lola (grandmother) Emy told participants during the event that she had her third child aborted because she did not have enough money to raise it.

"For years, I kept it a secret and always felt alone until one day I joined Rachel," a support group of Pro-Life Philippines for women who have had abortions.

Emy told UCA News that aborting her child left her with a sense of guilt. She now volunteers at the Home for the Angels, which takes care of children up to two years of age, who are survivors of abortion attempts.

Angel Francisco, 16, from the Saint Dominic Savio Youth Ministry in Tondo, downtown Manila, told UCA News she prayed for unborn children and their mothers during the march.

"I learned today that some women are forced to make difficult decisions and I prayed for them and their babies," Francisco said.

The feast of the Holy Innocents commemorates the massacre of baby boys by King Herod in his bid to kill the Christ child. It has been adopted as a symbolic day by many Catholic anti-abortion activists.

Abortion is illegal in Catholic-majority Philippines, so there are no reliable figures on the number of elective abortions that take place in the country. Women go to clandestine clinics, community midwives or take drugs to end unwanted pregnancies.

The Church approves only natural birth control, which some women find ineffective.
  Hospital's pro-life stance applauded
MUMBAI, DEC 30 (UCAN) -- Church leaders have applauded a hospital's decision not to allow a patient, who has been comatose for the past 36 years, to die by withholding nutrition from her.

Pro-euthanasia groups and others have demanded Aruna Shanbag, now 56, be allowed to die in view of her prolonged "vegetative state".

Shanbag, a nurse at Mumbai's King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEM), was raped by a janitor in 1973. The dog chain he used to throttle her cut off the blood and oxygen supply to her brain.

One of the patient's friends, Pinki Verma, had approached the Supreme Court for permission to withdraw nutrition from Shanbag as her condition does not allow her to enjoy "quality of life."

The court on Dec. 16 dismissed the plea saying the country's laws do not allow for such a measure.

Applauding the ruling, Auxiliary Bishop Agnelo Gracias of Bombay said Shanbag "should definitely be allowed to live." Depriving her of nutrition would amount to murder by starvation, the prelate told UCA News.

He commended KEM for its willingness to care for Shanbag.

"Just because she has been in her present state for a long time and hence, she might not enjoy life is certainly not a reason to kill her," he stated.

Father Caesar D'Mello, who teaches moral theology at the archdiocese's St. Pius X Seminary, said allowing her to starve would amount to depriving her of what the Vatican has described as "proportionate means" of preserving life.

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has released several documents and statements on euthanasia.

In a 2007 statement, it said that "the administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life" for patients in a vegetative state.

Father D'Mello said "disproportionate means" would involve great expense, and some risk and much pain to the patient.

Jeanette Pinto, who directs the Bombay Archdiocesan Human Life Committee, said the hospital has "shone like a beacon of light" in a society where "the culture of death prevails."

Pinto said nobody should play God. "True compassion demands we love and support one another regardless of our functional capacity."

Virginia Saldanha, executive secretary of the FABC Office of Laity and Family, commended the "love and dedication" KEM has shown to Shanbag.

She, however, said the debate should consider issues such as the continued care of a comatose patient and the resources available to spend on such a patient.
  Timor Leste: Why money alone won't solve Timor Leste's problems
  UCAN Commentary

DILI, DEC 30 (UCAN) -- James Whitehead, international programs director of Progressio, an international charity with Catholic roots, looks at the crowded international aid scene in a country that is struggling to find its feet.

Ten years since the people of this troubled island nation voted for independence from Indonesia, Timor Leste remains one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia.

Life expectancy is low –- just 67 years –- and at least half of the nation's million or so people -- 98 per cent Catholic -- are unemployed. It's little wonder that 40 per cent are forced to survive on less than a dollar a day.

The statistics tell a dismal story:

Estimated youth unemployment: 80 per cent

International aid spent on Timor Leste since 1999: US$10 billion

Number of refugees and internally displaced people: 100,000

Infant mortality rate: 42 per 1,000 live births

So it seems logical that international aid is big business in Timor Leste and explains the highly visible foreign presence here.

The government reiterates its thanks to the international community in tedious formal events, opening ceremonies and the like that are broadcast to the masses on television.

But isn't any highly visible foreign presence likely to feel like an occupation? And when does the helping hand of the UN and others become the stifling hand of paternalism? When do good intentions to "help" end up undermining people's sense of control and sovereignty?

As I mull this over, a number of things strike me. It worries me that so little money trickles down to rural areas. I am stunned by how many projects re-create a dependency that they seek to reduce, by the fact that many of the brightest minds are snapped up by well-paying international organizations, leaving the government, local NGOs and community-based organizations with what's left.

Of course, one can't say that donor funds -– especially in such vast quantities –- don't make any difference. Just this July, Mario Carrascalao, Timor Leste's deputy prime minister, insisted that progress is being made, saying the international community has helped create peace.

I saw some of this progress myself. In one rural village I visited, people are now able to draw water from a nearby hand pump instead of having to collect it from a distant contaminated stream.

But is that enough?

In all this mayhem, many of us who work in international development console ourselves by saying that we are working in partnership with "local organizations," hoping that this gives us a sense of legitimacy and helps to assuage our concerns that we are acting with unilateral paternalism.

But, I ask, are these local partners fully independent -– is it they who are driving the development agenda of their country and providing services that they think are important for the people they work with? Or are they marionettes jerking in time to an international tune?

The answer, sadly, is that they are frequently the latter. If an international NGO has the money and a "great idea," then they can usually find a local organization that will join in as a sub-contractor.

There are many aspects to aid effectiveness -- and a whole host of reasons why some aids work and others don't. There can be no doubt that Timor Leste is a special case, with a whole raft of issues which will need to be addressed if the country is to move forward.

The desire of many Timorese to secure justice for the thousands of men, women and children who lost their lives during decades of tyranny is a vital step toward helping set Timor on the path to recovery.

We don't have all the answers -- nor can we hope to tackle such vital issues as widespread lack of infrastructure or access to employment. These are huge challenges which will require long-term investment.

But local ownership of development is a concept which must be taken seriously. How else will people have the power to solve their own problems? Through a skill-share approach -– and in close consultation with local people –- I hope that we can play a small part, albeit a backstage one, in the long-term development of this infant nation.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in "Justice" magazine, a Catholic publication covering issues such as the environment, migration, the economy, poverty and conflict.
  China: Nativity story gets traditional Chinese treatment
WUHAN, DEC 29 (UCAN) -- A seminarian in a Wuhan parish has produced a traditional Chinese dance drama telling the story of Christ's birth.

Huang Beifang, who also played the part of the innkeeper in the drama, said he believed "this initiative was unprecedented."

"Dancing shows the beauty of body language. It can be a means of evangelization and a way of praying to God and enhancing spiritual life," said Huang.

Other performers at the Christmas Eve production included three young men, who acted as shepherd boys, dancing in front of the manger and blowing on Chinese flutes.

The dozen or so actors also prepared other programs for the celebration, held before midnight Mass in the compound of the Holy Family Church in Wuhan city, Hubei province.

The Youth Fellowship of St. Paul who performed the dance drama won warm applause from an audience of 500 comprising Catholics and non-Catholics, Chinese and foreigners, who braved the freezing cold.

Huang said his aim was to promote inculturation within the Church so as to tell people "the Word was made flesh for every race." He said producing the dance drama was a challenge as the performers were not professional dancers but Catholic university students.

Luke Ni Luanru, who acted as Joseph, told UCA News that the Chinese costume and background music helped him get into his role more easily. The young layman had never learnt dancing but he felt satisfied with his solo dance which he had practiced for a month.

He believed a Chinese-style Nativity dance drama "can help non-Catholics understand the true meaning of Christmas."

"We should not use Western ways to spread the Gospel to our countrymen," he added.

The two-hour show also included hymn singing, prayers, comedy sketches, a performance by a seminarians' music band, and a Santa Claus giving out gifts to children.

An American, Abrraham Rockferry, who is studying in Wuhan, played his guitar and sang "Silent Night." He said English-speaking parishioners wanted to contribute their talents to the Christmas show, which he described as warm and cheerful.
  Vietnam: Government loosens grip on Catholics over Christmas
YEN BAI, DEC 29 (UCAN) -- Catholics in three northwestern provinces have been able to celebrate Christmas freely for the first time, amid signs of a growing thaw in Church-government relations.

In the past, authorities from the three provinces -- Dien Bien, Son La and Lai Chau -- tightly controlled religious activities and prevented visiting priests from celebrating Mass.

There are no resident priests nor church buildings in these provinces.

Bishop Antoine Vu Huy Chuong of Hung Hoa said Dien Bien provincial authorities had formally welcomed him at their headquarters and given permission for local Catholics to attend Christmas celebrations freely.

The bishop had petitioned the authorities in early December, asking to be allowed to celebrate Christmas Mass for local Catholics.

In the past the government did not reply to such requests or refused to meet the bishop.

The bishop said that for the first time, he was able to celebrate Christmas Masses for 500 Catholics at the homes of two lay Catholics.

Bishop Chuong said Father Joseph Nguyen Trung Thoai, who is based at the bishop's house, visited and celebrated Christmas Mass for 1,500 Catholics at three places in Son La province.

Father Pierre Pham Thanh Binh, pastor of Sa Pa parish in Lao Cai province, celebrated Christmas Mass for 700 Catholics in the province.

"I am very happy that local Catholics have the freedom to celebrate Christmas this year," the bishop said.

The prelate said he hopes that in the future the local Church will be allowed to build churches and send priests to serve local Catholics.

He said the provinces of Dien Bien and Son La have around 2,000 Catholics each, while Lai Chau province has about 1,000. Many of them still dare not practice their faith fully since they fear the government, he said.

Local Catholics moved to the area in the 1960s from the eastern provinces of Nam Dinh and Thai Binh.
  Catholic aid agency denied access to deported Hmong
BANGKOK, DEC 29 (UCAN) -- The Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR), the only aid group assisting more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers in the north of Thailand, was refused access to them as the Thai army arrived to deport them to Laos.

The Hmong were seeking asylum, claiming that they faced persecution from the Laotian regime for fighting alongside US forces during the Vietnam War.

"As of this morning (Sunday) their access to the camp was denied but their staff are still waiting,” Tomoo Hozumi, Thailand representative for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) which supports COERR, was quoted as saying.

Thailand ignored opposition to the deportation from the UN, the US and human rights groups, who fear that the deportees could face persecution upon their return to Laos.

"We deeply regret this serious violation of the international humanitarian principles that Thailand has long been known for championing," the US State Department said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch branded the deportation "appalling" and a low point for the Thai government.

Some 5,000 troops and officials were involved in the operation in Thailand's northern Phetchabun province. Troops entered the camp on Dec. 27 to prepare to bus the Hmong over the border. Media reports on Dec. 29 say the deportees have arrived in Laos.

Many Laotian Hmong who had fought for the US during the Vietnam War fled in 1975 when the communist Pathet Lao took over the country. Thousands were resettled in the United States.

Thai authorities have repeatedly denied the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to Hmong camps to verify claims for refugee status.

The Thai government has said it received assurances from the Laos government that the deportees would not be mistreated.

COERR was established by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Thailand in 1978 as a relief agency for refugees and displaced persons.

It replaced Medecins Sans Frontieres at the Hmong refugee camp in Phetchabun's Khao Kho district in June this year after the French organization withdrew. Medecins Sans Frontieres said military restrictions had hindered its humanitarian operations.
  Pakistan: Country’s 1st Catholic satellite TV service launched
KARACHI, DEC 29 (UCAN) -- Karachi archdiocese has launched the first Catholic satellite television channel in the country.

Archbishop Evarist Pinto launched the Good News TV channel with a click of the mouse to applause from the crowd of 350 at the event held just before Christmas.

"Good News TV will place a special emphasis on values and will show programs which cannot be seen on other TV channels," said Vicar General Father Arthur Charles, chief executive of the enterprise.

Program hosts and guests will include members of the clergy, prominent laypeople, members of secular society and media personalities. The channel will broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In addition to presenting programs on the Mass, scripture readings, the lives of the saints and rosary recitations, the channel will also cover current events, politics, music, entertainment, arts and sports.

As a satellite channel, Good News TV is expected to reach more people than existing Catholic television services in the country.

The archdiocese of Lahore broadcasts a TV channel on a cable network but it can only be viewed within a 10-kilometer radius of St. Francis parish in the city.

"It was no easy task to get our own satellite TV channel," said Father Charles, adding that the project could not have been realized without the support of Archbishop Pinto and the archdiocesan priests.

The archbishop hailed the launch of the satellite service as "a massive step forward" for Church broadcasting in the country.

In his speech at the inauguration of the office-cum-production house of Good News TV, he urged media workers in society to promote family values, human dignity and the common good.
  Vatican: Pope highlights Asian Church's work for peace
By Gerard O'Connell, Special Correspondent

VATICAN CITY, DEC 28 (UCAN) -- Pope Benedict XVI, in his Christmas Day message, highlighted the role of the Church in Asia as "a leaven of reconciliation and peace," especially in Sri Lanka, the Korean peninsula and the Philippines.

The Pope said the Church across the globe "offers" Jesus "to all those who seek him with a sincere heart, to the earth's lowly and afflicted, to the victims of violence, and to all who yearn for peace."

The Pope, who will be 83 on April 17, appeared in good health and unaffected by the attack on him by a Swiss-Italian woman, who jumped the security barriers and knocked him to the ground as he walked into St. Peter's Basilica for Christmas Eve Mass.

In his message, the Pope said the Church shows solidarity and offers hope in Christ to humanity as it suffers from not only "a grave financial crisis" but "even more by a moral crisis," as well as "the painful wounds of wars and conflicts."

The Church throughout the world "shows solidarity with the victims of natural disasters and poverty, even within opulent societies."

Moreover, when faced with "all those who migrate from their homelands and are driven away by hunger, intolerance or environmental degradation," he said the Church is one of those who call for "an attitude of acceptance and welcome."

Everywhere, he said, the Church proclaims the Gospel of Christ even when faced with "persecutions, discriminations, attacks and at times hostile indifference."

He said the Church in the Holy Land is encouraging people "to abandon every logic of violence and vengeance" and to engage again "in the process which leads to peaceful co-existence."

He also spoke about the work of the Church in Iraq, the plight of the diminishing number of Christians throughout the Middle East, and the dramatic situation in parts of Africa, including the Congo, Guinea and Niger.

Pope Benedict concluded by extending his Christmas greetings in a record 65 languages, including Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Malayalam, Mongolian, Sinhalese, Tamil, Thai, Urdu and Vietnamese.

There were many Asians in St. Peter's Square and the different national groups cheered when he spoke in their language.

When he finished his greetings, Pope Benedict imparted his blessing to his global audience.
  Riot-hit Orissa experiences peaceful Christmas
KANDHAMAL, dec 28 (UCAN) -- Despite threats and rumors of attacks, parishes across Orissa's violence-torn Kandhamal district celebrated Christmas this year peacefully.

"There were Christmas celebrations in all parishes, except one, this year," said Father Mrutyunjay Digal, an official of Cuttack Bhubaneswar archdiocese that has 14 parishes in the district.

The priest said most parishes here could not celebrate Christmas in 2007 because of anti-Christian violence. The district also saw similar violence, led by Hindu extremists, for seven weeks starting Aug. 24, 2008. Most Catholics spent that Christmas in relief camps, he added.

This year, some suspected Hindu groups had threatened to disrupt Christmas celebrations on Dec. 24 and 25, according to media reports. These threats, however, did not materialize.

Krishna Kumar, the district collector, told UCA News his administration not only organized armed security for Christians this Christmas, "we have organized Christmas gatherings, where people of all faiths came together to celebrate."

"We also organized peace meetings to ensure a peaceful celebration," said the highest government official in the district.

Some Catholics also took the initiative to build bonds between Christians and Hindus. Teresian Carmelite Sister Christa for example, asked her Hindu neighbors to contribute toward a Christmas celebration.

"For every Hindu celebration, we contribute. Why can't we take their contributions too?" asked the nun, whose convent, dispensary and computer center were attacked in 2007 and 2008.

She said her Hindu friends were happy to oblige.

However, there are still lingering fears among Christians.

Father Leo Parichha of Sukananda parish, which witnessed severe attacks in 2007 and 2008, said his people did not celebrate Christmas Eve midnight Mass because they were too frightened to come to church at night. "The fear of being attacked on the road is still very much there," he added.
  Myanmar: Buddhists, Christians unite for Christmas celebration
YANGON, DEC 28 (UCAN) -- More than 300 Catholics and 700 Buddhists joined a Christmas celebration in the village of Ohn-pin-su, which is home to just one Catholic family.

People came from villages in Pantanaw parish, south of Yangon, for the event where the message was one of unity between followers of the two religions.

"Although we are from different religions, we all are united as one and ready to help each other when somebody is in need," said Sein Mary from the village's only Catholic family.

U Thein Shwe, 46, a Buddhist, said the celebration was "a great chance for me and other Buddhist villagers to experience Christmas."

Parish priest Father Hubert Aung Thein Naing, 44, said it was the third year that Christmas has been celebrated in the village. "Even Buddhist monks came to help us and arranged lighting and decorations," he said. "The relationship between Catholics and Buddhists is very good."

The celebration on Christmas Eve saw the distribution of gifts of clothing to 118 children. There were also Karen ethnic dancing by Buddhist groups, and music and dance performances by the host villagers and Catholic parishioners.

There are about 20 villages in the parish. Only 12 villages have 25 Catholic families or more, while the rest have fewer than 10 families, according to U Raymond, a catechist who organized the Christmas celebration.

Sein Ngwe Than, 46, a Buddhist man from the host village said: "Although we differ in religion, we are one in spirit. We try to help each other."

He added that Buddhist villagers helped in "whatever ways they could to ensure the success of the Christmas celebration."
  International community must not withdraw from Afghanistan, says Nazir-Ali
By Jenna Lyle

LONDON, DEC 27 -- The former Bishop of Rochester has warned the international community not to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Writing in the latest edition of Standpoint magazine, Michael Nazir-Ali said any withdrawal from a political, military or even intellectual engagement with Afghanistan would be seen by radical Islamists as capitulation.

He acknowledged many Muslims who reject a radical interpretation of their faith but warned the international community not to "underestimate Islamism's capacity for disruption and destruction and its desire to remake the world in its own image".

"In the face of such an ideology, the international community must not lose its nerve," he said.

"Any withdrawal from a political, military and even intellectual engagement will be seen by the Islamists as capitulation.

"Instead of leading to containment, it will only encourage even greater attempts at the expansion of power and influence of movements connected with this ideology.

"This has already caused and will continue to cause immense suffering to those who do not fit in with an Islamist worldview, including minorities of various kinds, emancipated women and Muslims with views different from those of the extremists."

Mr Nazir-Ali said radical Islam threatened the independence of nations and communities, as well as the rights of women and non-Muslims.

Jihad in the minds of radicals, he claimed, did not have the meaning of self-defence but rather the recovery of perceived Muslim lands. Radicals, he added, were prepared to act on their beliefs.

"The West's (particularly Britain's and America's) involvement in Afghanistan (and to some extent also in Iraq) must be seen in the light of what has been said above," he said.

"There should be no facile optimism that al-Qaeda has been disabled and no longer poses a credible threat to Western or other countries.

Mr Nazir-Ali said it was possible al-Qaeda could regain its force, while abandoning Afghanistan at this stage would create "exactly the kind of chaos in which these movements flourish".

"It will bring about the conditions where the Taliban and its even worse allies will, once again, not only return the country to the darkest night, but also remove any incentive for Pakistan to engage with its own extremist groups, at least in the border areas," he said.

"Al-Qaeda and its allies will recover their safe haven where they can regroup and plan whatever further atrocities they have in mind."

Withdrawing from Afghanistan could, he said, lead to fresh attacks on Western targets and give "fresh oxygen" to groups training young people in Afghanistan and Pakistan and radicalising young Western Muslims.

"From time to time, however, the protection of Western interests acquires a 'defence' or 'military' dimension," he said. "When it is required, however, there should be no flinching from the focused effort, expenditure and, indeed, sacrifice which may be needed".
  Police use force to disperse Moharram procession, several injured
Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 26 -- Police used batons, firing in the air and teargsd shells to disperse the Shia mourning procession here on Saturday.

Several people were injured and many taken into custody when Shia mourners gathered at Pratap Park here, adjacent to city-centre Lal Chowk to take out a procession commemorating the martyrdom of Prophet Mohammad's grandchildren in Karbala (Iraq), 14 centuries back.

Tension gripped Lal Chowk and surrounding areas as traffic halted in the area because of the clash between the mourners and the police. The traffic was later diverted to other routes.

The problem began when the mourners led by members of Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen, a religious organization, assembled at Pratap Park, offered prayers and tried to take out a procession.

In the meantime, police cordoned the park, lobbed tear gas shells and took the mourners into custody.

Masroor Abbas Ansari, a senior functionary of Itihaad-ul-Muslimeen said, "The government claims about normalcy and freedom of religion. Then what is the problem in taking out the ashoora procession? Why is our religious freedom curtailed like this?" Later, he was taken into police custody.

Stone-throwing Shi'ites clashed with the police in several areas of Srinagar after the procession was stopped. The mourners while beating their chests with their fists, chanted "La ilaha illalah" (there is no god but Allah).

Eye-witnesses said that the stone-throwing by the mourners was followed by lobbing of teargas shells by the police. Reports say that more than 40 civilians were injured.

Moulana Abbas Ansari, a leading Shi'ite priest and chief of Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen has strongly condemned the police action.

Police officers, however, claimed that the protesters tried to violate the law and the police had to intervene to restore order. They added that scores of people were detained and the injured included photojournalists.

Since the eruption of armed uprising here in 1989, the authorities have not allowed the mourning procession that was traditionally carried out here, on the eighth day of Moharram, the first month of Islamic Hijra calendar.
  Philippines: Daughter of ex-NPA rebel is now math professor
  From Ben Cal

TUGUEGARAO CITY, DEC 26 -- When the father of Remalyn Adviento was still with the New People's Army (NPA) rebels, she was forced to quit studies and her dream of pursuing a college education was next to impossible.

But her father, fed up of the empty promises of the NPA for a better future after years as a rebel fighting the soldiers, decided to surrender in 2003 after learning that the government was offering free education for the children of former rebels aside from getting other incentives, including a livelihood program.

Remalyn wasted no time to apply for a scholarship offered by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED).

A consistent scholar in her elementary and high school years, Remalyin passed the entrance examination and became a scholar at the Cagayan State University (CSU) in northern Philippines where she took Bachelor of Science major in mathematics.

During her four-year study, OPAPP provided Remalyn her monthly stipend and weekly allowances for books and other supplies.

In 2007, Remalyn graduated from CSU, accomplishing her dream of obtaining a college degree.

She thanked the government for the scholarship grant she got.

That same year, Remalyn took the licensure examination for teachers (LET) and passed.

The eldest of three siblings, she comes from the town of Gattaran, Cagayan, a known rebel-infested area.

She admits that without the financial help from the government, her parents would not have been able to send her to school. With her education, she believes she has a bigger chance of realizing her dream for a better life for her family.

For the past three years, Remalyn has been teaching mathematics at CSU. At the same time she is pursuing her graduate studies on mathematics at the same school.

Remalyn is also grateful to OPAPP that the agency has extended the same educational benefit to her younger sister, Reden, a third year Bachelor of Science in Information Technology student at CSU.

OPAPP and CHED have been jointly sponsoring and administering the study grant program to deserving former rebels and their immediate next-of-kin since 2001 and monitoring the implementation of the program in cities across the country.
  Muslims join Christians in celebrating Christmas in Kashmir Valley
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 25 -- Hundreds of Muslims joined scores of Christians, including foreigners, in a mass at a church in the world-famous ski resort of Gulmarg, about 50 kms north of city-centre, as tourism authorities here kicked off the snow festival on the eve of Christmas.

"It is a great pleasure to be here," said a foreign tourist while enjoying skiing at Gulmarg.

Domestic and foreign tourists enjoyed skiing in higher reaches of the ski-resort and many enjoyed local music and dance.

Local sculptors were seen carving out reindeer, tortoises and pandas in the snow as onlookers cheered them on. Boys enjoyed cycling while girls exhibited their skills at snow rugby and baseball.

Rigzin Jora, minister of tourism, joined scores of Christians in a mass at a church in Gulmarg. "Everyone prayed for the return of peace to the Valley," said the minister.

Several Christians joined the mass at the Holy Family Catholic church. Most of them said that they prayed for peace to return to Kashmir. Many Muslims came to the church to greet them.

Christmas was celebrated with religious gaiety and fervour across the Kashmir Valley, with people taking part in special prayers organized in churches. Since morning, devotees thronged churches. Muslims joined them in the festivities.

According to the 2001 census, the Christian community in Kashmir is 0.2 per cent of the population.

The Holy Family Catholic Church located in the heart of the city at Maulana Azad Road presented a festive look with colourful buntings, illuminations in the form of mini-bulbs and other energy devices. Christmas tree was beautifully decorated and colourful candles were lit by the faithful.

"Christmas is a special day and it asks the people to follow the principles of love, compassion and brotherhood while resolving animosities once and for all. There is a message of peace for people on this auspicious occasion," said David, a devotee.

Spelling out various integrated plans to promote tourism in the state, the minister while inaugurating the snow festival at Gulmarg said various tourism potential areas have been identified and work on developing them was going on.

Jora hoped that the skiers from various parts of the country would participate in the international games at Gulmarg. Referring to his recent visit to London in connection with the World Trade Mart, the minister said that he discussed the skiing potential in Gulmarg and its natural slopes with world renowned ski experts, who evinced keen interest in the same.

He announced that the tourism department would launch a special motivational drive in Chennai, New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and other cities to attract people for spending their leisure time in the Valley.

Mary Sauri, heading a Greek non-government organization described Kashmir "a paradise on the earth".
  Pakistan: Artist launches book of biblical calligraphy
LAHORE, DEC 24 (UCAN) -- A Christian artist who uses traditional calligraphy to transcribe Bible verses has launched what has been billed as the world's first book of paintings of such verses in the Urdu language.

Shafique Shad Khan, 50, has no formal art training but says he had a divine call to the work. The former construction contractor said his life changed in March 1993.

"I was doing calculations when I accidentally wrote the word 'Jesus' (in Urdu) in the form of a cross," he told UCA News at the book launch. He then started rendering several biblical verses in calligraphic form "which my friends appreciated."

Realizing that this could be a special calling for him, "I switched to art as a profession" that same year, he said.

Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad, who has been supporting Khan's work for a decade, was guest of honor at the Dec. 23 event.

"This way of communicating is unheard of in Christian circles," he told UCA News.

"The first painting he showed me was of the verse, 'God is love.' I realized he was an artist with a mission and thought it was a good way to reach out to people in an Islamic environment."

Muslims were in the majority at the book launch held in the prestigious Alhamra Arts Council building in Lahore. Speakers included two Catholic priests, a Protestant pastor and a Muslim writer, Alia Bukhari.

Khan said the book, "Artistic Calligraphy of the Holy Bible," took 12 years to produce, and supporting the project was a struggle.

"I raised funds by selling paintings for a few thousand rupees. I owed money to my publishers in the final stages and Bishop Coutts came to the rescue," Khan told UCA News.

The book features 185 watercolor paintings of selected verses from Genesis to Revelation. Khan has published 1,000 copies and will hold an exhibition of his latest works on Jan. 18 next year.

The Pakistan government presented him with the "National Cultural
Award" in 2002 and the Catholic Bible Commission of Pakistan gave him "The Golden Jubilee Award."

His first work published in 2007 was a book entitled "Jesus Christ's Message of Peace." That collection presented the name of Jesus in various calligraphic styles in black and white.
  Bhopal Church vows never to forget gas victims
BHOPAL, DEC 24 (UCAN) -- Bhopal archdiocese has held a Christmas party for the Union Carbide plant gas-leak survivors, still seeking justice decades after the disaster that killed thousands and left a legacy of illness for many.

"Sharing the meal with the survivors during Christmas assures them that the Church is with them always," Father Anand Muttungal, the Catholic Church spokesperson in the state, told UCA News.

More than 3,000 people died in the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, when 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the plant operated by Union Carbide, now owned by The Dow Chemical Company.

The Dec. 23 party for some 200 survivors of the disaster had all the trimmings, including a Christmas cake and carols.

Father Muttungal said the victims continue to suffer the after-effects a quarter century after the tragedy.

"We organized the dinner for the survivors two days ahead of Christmas to tell them of our unflinching love," he said.

Hazina Bi, a survivor who fights on behalf of other victims, said the Church's gesture "really moved" her.

"We always have people coming to share their sympathy on every anniversary of the disaster, but no one has shared with us what the Church shared today," the 38-year-old Muslim woman told UCA News.

The archdiocese also presented a memento to Balram Chaurasia, a Hindu survivor, for his "relentless service" for the victims.

The 63-year-old man said the Church program was "a great honor" for the survivors and "a real inspiration for me to continue with my fight for justice."

He added that he hopes the Church continues supporting the "oppressed victims" of the tragedy."

The Dow Chemical Company has denied any responsibility for the incident and says it has no responsibility to the victims.
  Religious communities mark Church center's anniversary
JAKARTA, DEC 24 (UCAN) -- Catholic and Buddhist organizations recently joined hands to organize free medical services to poor people as part of a Church center's 50th anniversary celebrations.

Wisma Samadi, a pastoral center run by Jakarta archdiocese, has for the past 50 years allowed other religious communities and Christian denominations to use its premises for meetings and conferences.

"Samadi is open to anyone who conducts religious activities," center director Jesuit Father Albertus Sadhiyoko Rahardjo told UCA News.

With its history of reaching out to other religions in mind, the Young Catholic Workers Group (KKMK), the Association of Catholic Health Services (Perdhaki), St. Carolus Hospital, and the Indonesian Buddhist Council organized the Dec. 20 medical event. The program helped over 600 local poor people, mostly Muslims.

The services offered included general medical check-ups, dental treatment and acupuncture.

Andreas Pangestu, KKMK coordinator, said the program was initiated to make the center better known, especially "to our Muslim neighbors."

Untung Suropati, 63, a diabetes patient, praised the outreach. "I really appreciate what they did. The good thing here is that the service was for all, regardless of religion," he said.

"This community has shown an example, I hope other communities will also do the same."

Eighteen doctors, 18 dentists, eight pharmacists and four nurses took part in the event.

Harjastuti Chandito, a Buddhist doctor, who joined the outreach, said "I enjoy working with Catholic doctors because we are in the same boat, giving voluntary service for the needy. We are taught the same thing -- love."

Father Rahardjo said the center has hosted several international Church events such as the South East Asian Major Superiors, (SEAMS) Conference several years ago.

In its service to local Catholics, the center has focused on programs such as retreats, recollections and pastoral training, he added.
  Christmas party raises record sum for orphans
SHIJIAZHUANG, DEC 26 (UCAN) -- The Church's Jinde Charities has collected a record 300,000 yuan (US$43,900) at its annual Christmas fundraising party, 40 per cent more than last year.

The money will be used to support one year of living and medical expenses for 100 orphans, with physical and intellectual disabilities, who are in Church care nationwide, says organizer Hu Limin.

The party in Shijiazhuang, provincial capital of Hebei where the nationwide Catholic non-profit organization is based, has been held each year since 2005. This year 400 people turned up, 100 more than last year.

Jinde supports a diverse range of causes.

This year's work included disaster relief, cataract surgery for the poor, agricultural projects and ongoing reconstruction after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Hu told UCA News Dec. 21 that the 100 new faces at this year's party were mostly friends of participants of previous years' events. She said the benefactors were overwhelmingly working people and small business owners, some Catholic and some not, who paid 200 yuan a ticket.

Bishop Peter Feng Xinmao of Hengshui, Jinde director, opened the event with thanks to the donors and a blessing.

The party featured singing, dancing, scenes from traditional Chinese opera and musical performances by different groups and individuals.

Wang Yaxiong, a lay leader from Guizhou, brought along five members of a reed-pipe wind instrument band to perform at the party. The musical instrument is used by the Miao ethnic group in Guizhou province.

Jinde has offered scholarships to 80 children in Guizhou.

"The Church there was very grateful and so when they learned about the charity party, they volunteered to perform and Wang even paid for their own air tickets," said Hu.
  Let charity shine for a green Christmas, says archbishop
PATNA, DEC 24 (UCAN) -- An Indian Church leader has urged Catholics to cut down on extravagant decorative lighting this Christmas, and donate the money saved to the poor.

"Cutting down on extravagance or wastage of electricity can substantially reduce the production of carbon dioxide and save Mother Earth," wrote Jesuit Archbishop William D'Souza of Patna in his Christmas message.

The money saved could be given to the underprivileged, he added.

The archbishop urged Catholics to "wake up to the stark reality of global warming," but stressed that "this does not curtail anyone from celebrating Christmas."

We are "co-creators with God in our stewardship of the Earth," Archbishop D'Souza says. He asks Catholics to follow the example of Pope Benedict XVI who "created history in 2008" by installing 2,700 large solar panels on the roof of the Vatican.

The archbishop also says he would use clean energy at his residence and the cathedral immediately if he had the resources.

He told UCA News that he wrote the message, published in the archdiocesan newsletter, out of "a universal concern for Mother Earth."

Vicar General Father Devasia Mattathilani, told UCA News that the archdiocese will illuminate only the cathedral, an outdoor crib and the grotto in the compound, reducing decoration costs by 60 per cent compared to last year.
  China: Survey shows Church lagging behind population growth
SHIJIAZHUANG, DEC 23 (UCAN) -- The largest survey ever conducted of the Catholic Church in mainland China has indicated that the Catholic population has not kept pace with overall population growth.

The results of the study, conducted by the Faith Institute for Cultural Studies (FICS), a Church-run organization based in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, were published on Dec. 18. According to the survey, there are now about 5.71 million Catholics in mainland China, served by 3,397 bishops, priests and deacons.

A total of 3,268 priests are still in active service in more than 100 dioceses.

The report says there are now 628 seminarians studying in 10 major seminaries plus another 630 in 30 minor seminaries. There are a total of 5,451 nuns from 106 congregations, and only 350 Religious men.

The statistics do not distinguish between the government-approved and "underground" Church communities. The report states that figures for the latter may not be entirely accurate due to the difficulties involved in getting information.

The FICS spent three months gathering information through emails, phone calls, faxes and personal interviews.

A Church observer, using the pen name "Dade," says the survey shows how small the number of Catholics is compared to China's 1.3 billion population. He says the Church needs to evangelize more for its overall development.

Dade, whose views were posted on the website of Hebei Faith Press, noted that there were more than 3 million Catholics out of a 500-million-strong population in 1949, when the Communists took power.

Over a span of 60 years, the number of Catholics has not even doubled, he said.

Dade added that Church communities had not made evangelization a priority over the decades, but had instead engaged in disputes, thus missing golden opportunities for growth.

The FICS survey also lists more than 400 Church-run organizations, including schools, research institutes, publishing houses, medical facilities and homes for the aged and orphans.

However, statistics compiled by Hong Kong diocese's Holy Spirit Study Centre (HSSC) in 2008 show a marked difference from FICS' figures. HSSC puts the number of mainland Catholics at about 12 million last year, more than double the figure given by FICS.

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, HSSC's senior researcher, said his institute began collecting data from mainland dioceses in 1988, and there has always been a marked difference between its figures and the mainland Church's official figures.

Lam says that according to HSSC's research, there are 80 Vatican-approved bishops, with about half of them not recognized by the Chinese government. There are fewer than 10 bishops in the government-approved Church community who do not have a papal mandate, he added.
  Layman's classes bring Bible to deaf people
By George Kommattathil

ALAKODE, DEC 23 (UCAN) -- A Catholic layman, who is unable to hear or speak, is bringing the message of the Bible to people with similar disabilities.

Antony Muthukunnel, 56, said he had no interest in religion previously, and being poor and disabled, had felt pessimistic about life. That changed in 1993 when he attended a retreat at the suggestion of his wife.

"That retreat was the beginning of my conversion," he recalled.

Soon after, he found he wanted to share his spiritual experience with others like him. He began to gather with deaf people he met in daily life to discuss and share insights on the Bible using sign language.

In 2006, Muthukunnel and three friends decided to make their Bible classes a more regular affair, and started holding them under a tree in the compound of St. Mary's Church in Alakode, a parish in Tellicherry archdiocese.

Now, the group conducts its classes in a nearby convent school on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Father George Kudilil, public relations officer of Tellicherry archdiocese, says Muthukunnel's "remarkable" initiative has been "an eye-opener" for the Church.

The archdiocese does not organize any Bible classes for deaf people although it runs a few schools for them, the priest told UCA News.

Thanckachan Varghese, who teaches the Bible during these special classes, said more than 100 people attended them in 2008. However, only 30 people have attended this year. Some travel up to 100 kilometers for the classes, he said.

Many participants told UCA News, using sign language, that the classes give them strength and inspiration.

The Bible class has "totally changed my life as it brought me closer to God," said Mini Pulichamakkal.

Another student, Mary Joseph, said she no longer believes that her deafness is a curse from God. "The Bible class helped me accept my disability with joy. The knowledge that 'God is love' is something unbelievable," she beamed.

Augustine Pallath said he stopped drinking and smoking after the classes "gave me peace of mind and taught me that those bad habits hurt Jesus."

Scaria Parunthuveettil, a parishioner, said he finds the Bible students' zeal "really inspiring." He regrets the Church has no office or program to serve people with hearing disabilities.
  Church forgives politician who attacked priest in Punjab
JALANDHAR, DEC 23 (UCAN) -- A politician, who along with his bodyguards severely beat up a priest, has surrendered to police.

Church authorities, on their part, say they have forgiven Tarlok Singh Chackwalia, a Congress party member.

"We wanted the police to arrest him as a signal to people that one cannot get away with criminal activities," diocesan spokesperson Father Peter Kavumpuram told UCA News on Dec. 23.

The victim, Father Lawrence Chittuparambil, who is still in a hospital after the attack, said he has also forgiven his assailants.

The priest, director of Sacred Heart Convent School at Takarpura in the Punjabi border town of Patti, said the incident happened on Dec. 19 when Chackwalia came to the school with two armed guards to drop off his granddaughter, a student.

Father Chittuparambil said after he asked the men to disarm in line with school rules the bodyguards slapped him, telling him not to talk to their boss like that. "I ran to close the gate but the three caught me and pushed me against a wall and hit me with their gun butts," he told UCA News.

The assailants stopped only after principal Sister Jaya and another nun came to the priest's assistance.

Chackwalia and the other assailants left the grounds, and the bodyguards were arrested later that day.

Chackwalia, who had unsuccessfully contested the Punjab legislative assembly a few years ago as a Congress party candidate, turned himself in on Dec. 22 after the diocese closed all its 150 schools in Punjab and Haryana states in protest.

The diocese had also threatened to launch a general strike across Punjab if the administration failed to arrest the politician.

Some 1,500 people from various religions joined a rally the diocese organized later in the day at Patti, blocking all entries to the town.
  Sri Lanka: Christmas gathering heals divisions among kids
ANANADA KUMARASWAMY CAMP, DEC 23 (UCAN) -- Youngsters from the south recently celebrated Christmas with displaced children in the north of the country, which is struggling to recover from decades of civil war.

Prior to their visit, the southern Sinhalese children, both Christian and Buddhist, collected toys and school materials for their counterparts living in a refugee camp in Vavuniya.

"You are my friends," Sithara Anjali, 10, told a group of youngsters in the camp with her few words of Tamil.

In an emotional exchange, Anjali gave a gift to Shantha Rubi, 10, who responded with "nanri," Tamil for "thank you."

The two new friends Anjali and Rubi then talked together with the help of translators, and were inseparable during the program.

The Oblate-run Center for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo organized the event with the support of Lakrivi, a Church-founded inter-communal children's movement, on Dec. 17.

"We organized this program to encourage the northern and southern children to be angels of reconciliation, to heal the wounds of Tamils and Sinhalese," said Sister Helen Perera, coordinator for the internally displaced persons program at CSR.

Thousands of people died in the 26-year-long ethnic conflict, which saw the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighting for a homeland for Tamil people in Sinhalese-majority Sri Lanka.

The conflict, however, was furthest from the minds of the 60 or so children at the recent Christmas celebration, as they performed Sinhalese and Tamil songs, cultural dances and dramas on a small stage watched by parents and Tamil teachers.

The authorities, who are easing restrictions on access to such camps, welcomed the visit.

"The brigadier in charge of the camp said he appreciated the program and invited us to hold a similar event in the south," Sister Perera told UCA News, whose reporters had a rare chance to enter the camp.

"The post-war challenge is to find a way to unite both groups; it is not an easy task," she added. "All the children (at the program) cried when they had to leave their friends. They do not need gifts, they need love ... so as to prevent such an ethnic war again."

For Anjali and Rubi, the benefits of the event were plain for all to see.

"I will miss you. Come again with your brothers and sisters," Rubi, with tears in her eyes, told Anjali.
  BBC Trust trains future journalists in social affairs reporting
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 22 -- Reports produced by students who participated in two-year training workshops on social affairs reporting in Kashmir were put on display at the University of Kashmir here yesterday.

A radio studio was also established at the Educational Multimedia Research Centre (EMMRC), University of Kashmir, by the BBC World Service Trust (BBCWST).

The workshops, aimed at promoting social affairs reporting in Kashmir, were organized by BBCWST in collaboration with EMMRC and the Media Education Research Centre (MERC). The outputs were produced by students under the supervision of trainers.

"The project was aimed at improving the coverage of social affairs and producing more effective reports, especially related to disaster management, by building up the capacity of the faculty and the students at the university," said Prof Riyaz Punjabi, Vice-Chancellor, University of Kashmir.

The Vice-Chancellor added that the outputs from the trainees give an impression that the two-year project has been "successful" in meeting its objectives. "I am confident that students, if given an opportunity, can compete at the global level."

He said that social affairs reporting in this part of the globe has been ignored for long, but with such workshops it has been brought to the fore. "Social affair reporting is more relevant in the context of Kashmir. The BBC Trust should consider conducting such workshops again next year, considering the success of this one and its importance in sensitising future journalists about social affairs reporting."

Altaf Hussain, senior journalist, BBC, said, "Social affairs reporting is not a new phenomenon here, but it is, perhaps, due to conflict-related issues taking up most of the space that social reporting does not get adequate space." He said the BBC Trust has put emphasis on social affairs reporting with capacity building.

Mirza Waheed from BBC said commitment is important for good journalism. "We should follow up on the stories that we've done earlier besides, moving to new ones."

He said the two-year collaborative project was aimed at appropriate training in general social affairs reporting and, more specifically, disaster-related issues. It will help meet the needs of future employers as well as ensure the maintenance of high academic standards and increase the coverage of social affairs and disaster-related issues in the local media."

Dr. Shahid Rasool, Director, MERC and EMMRC, said that the aim of the project was to improve and encourage social affairs reporting in Kashmir. He added that the idea was also to build capacity in social affairs reporting training "so that such trainings can be carried on even after the project is over."

He said, during the workshops, students were taken to disaster-affected areas of Uri and Karnah to file socially relevant stories for print and electronic media. "We've been able to build capacity to carry on training in social affairs reporting in the years to come involving local trainers."

Harpeet Kaur, project manager, said during the training, students were divided into groups, each headed by a trainer. "The stories focused on the impact of earthquake on health, education, livelihood, construction, gender and the role played by NGOs during the earthquake in Uri and Tangdhar. Fieldwork was also organized for the first-year students in and around Srinagar. The students covered stories on issues related to environment and ecology, agriculture and transport facilities."
  Andhra CM promises support to Christians
  HYDERABAD, DEC 22 (CathNews) -- Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister K. Rosaiah has promised to support Christians through special schemes.

Rosaiah and a group of Christian leaders interacted at a tea party the government hosted for the community leaders ahead of Christmas Dec. 21 in Hyderabad.

Carols and Christmas messages punctuated the program attended by Christian politicians and leaders.

The Christian leaders used the occasion to present issues concerning their community.

The welfare measures undertaken by the government under the State Christian Finance Corporation (APSCFC) will continue, Rosaiah told the gathering. The corporation, the only one of its kind in the country, gives financial assistance to poor Christians.

The schemes ran into trouble when some groups opposed it. A petition against another scheme to subsidize visit to the Holy Lands is with the state High Court. That scheme will be continued once cleared by the court, the chief minister said.

Archbishop Marampudi Joji of Hyderabad, who heads the Catholic Church in the state, pointed out that the termination of grant-in-aid to the Church-run schools has hampered the Church-state collaboration in education, health and social welfare.

"This has resulted in such a serious financial burden on the Churches that in some places they had to close down the schools," the archbishop said. In a few places, the Churches were even forced to mortgage their lands to pay the salaries of the teachers and maintain the educational institutions," he added.

The archbishop also urged the chief minister to continue the efforts to get justice to the dalit Christians, who are excluded from the statutory reservation in government jobs and educational institutions.

He also requested the state help to recover and protect Church properties others have now occupied or encroached. However, this must not lead to enacting legislation for creation of a government board for Church properties, he clarified.

Archbishop Joji requested the chief minister to implement the schemes under APSCFC, which late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, former chief minister, had initiated.

The prelate said Christians were happy when the APSCFC began to implement some schemes for poor Christians. Unfortunately within a year some schemes, including the subsidy to the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, were stopped.

He said Churches are continuing Christ's mission of liberating the oppressed and the marginalized. As a welfare state, the primary duty of the government is also the same. That is why the Churches partner with the governments in the task of promoting social justice, human rights, peace and development, he said.

Source: UCAN
Reported by Father Dr Anthoniraj Thumma of A.P. Federation of Churches
  Bihar 'priest' named man of the year by The Week
  NEW DELHI, DEC 22 (CathNews) -- A national weekly has named a Catholic priest as its "man of the year," in recognition of his efforts to restore the life of some 50,000 leprosy patients in Bihar.

The Kerala-based 'The Week' selected Father Christudas of Bettiah diocese for its 2009 recognition and ran the cover of its December last week edition with his photograph.

The announcement "is a great way to celebrate the year for the priests," Bishop Victor Henry Thakur of Bettiah told UCA News on Dec. 21, reacting to the news.

The 71-year-old priest's Little Flower Centre is in Sunderpur village in Raxaul town on the India-Nepal border, an area known for large number of colonies for this socially segregated people. The priest began the center in 1981 with about 100 people suffering from leprosy.

"He is a one-man army who gave 50,000 lepers and their families a fresh start in life. He gave them treatment, dignity and more importantly the will to live and smile again," The Week's cover story said.

The center spread over 8 hectares of land grows wheat and runs a poultry farm that meets 40 per cent of its needs. The complex includes a school, hostel, hospital, work center and a village of 200 families -- all cured patients.

The Week article explains how the son of a liquor vender from Kerala's Edamaruku village traveled to different places in India in his quest to become a missionary priest before settling in Raxaul.

He first joined St. Paul's Society to become a priest but returned after failing exams. He spent some time in Yercard, Tamil Nadu, with a Brother's congregation and later joined the Bothers of Missionaries of Charity, before becoming a priest and incardinated in the diocese.

The integration of the leprosy patients and their families in mainstream society is "the sole purpose of my work," says the priest, who once noticed a leprous patch on his angle but got it cured.

The priest expressed people reading reports about his work would change their mindset about "our people."

Bishop Thakur said the recognition has gladdened him because the whole India would come to know about the priest's "commitment, dedication to the healing ministry to the most disadvantaged."

The prelate also said that Father Christudas is locally known as "Baba" or a revered elder, but "the honor has made him known nationally and internationaly."

"The Week" said Bihar's northern region now has 22 leper colonies, 10 less than when Father Christudas began his center 28 year ago. "And only patients are the older generation," it said.

The priest wants his rehabilitation center to flourish, but is also looking forward to a time when the hospital will have no patients. "Then I will know that my life has been a worthy one," he told the weekly.

Source: UCAN Report by Malini Manjaly
  Pakistan: Christians demand more from Christmas food subsidy
FAISALABAD, DEC 22 (UCAN) -- The Punjab government is providing subsidized food and clothing for Christians this Christmas in an unprecedented "goodwill gesture," but some Christian leaders say the quantity and price discounts are inadequate.

"Christian leaders have been demanding a package similar to that provided to Muslims during Ramadan," said Khalil Tahir Sindhu, parliamentary secretary for human rights and minority affairs in the Punjab provincial assembly.

"This is being done for the first time," said the Catholic government official. He added that the project is being planned as an annual event, with the goods distributed through a chain of Christmas bazaars.

The government has set aside more than 4 million rupees (US$47,000) for the project, but a Christian leader Ashfaq Fateh says 9 billion rupees were provided for similar Ramadan markets.

Fateh, the principal of St. Peters' High School, told UCA News that the Ramadan package offered flour at 200 rupees a bag, less than half the price offered to Christians.

Other Christian activists, at a Dec. 19 meeting, demanded that the daily quota of discounted wheat flour be increased from 500 bags a day for each bazaar to 2,000 bags per day, and sugar from five bags to 30 bags a day.

Some of the subsidized goods are now being provided through markets in three Catholic Church compounds in Faisalabad with banners proclaiming, "Cheap Christmas Markets for Christian brothers."

Those markets began on Sunday Dec. 20, offering basic commodities including pulses, rice, spices, fruits, vegetables and winter clothing.

There are also 23 other Christmas bazaars organized in 16 districts from Dec. 22-24.

Wheat flour at the bazaars costs 435 rupees a bag compared to the market rate of 553 rupees. A kilogram of sugar costs 44 rupees, a 10-rupee discount.

The turnout during the first two days of the markets in Faisalabad was low. Father Bashir Francis from Holy Rosary Church said this was due to poverty among Christians and the lack of flour.

"Vegetables and fruits are being provided at a controlled rate but there was no wheat flour to make roti (the staple bread)," said the priest. "Most members of the Christian community have low purchasing power and thus they prefer roti above other edibles."

Father Francis said flour would be available from Dec. 22.
  Korea: Local Church backs married archbishop's dismissal
  SEOUL, DEC 22 (UCAN) -- The Korean Catholic Church has backed the Vatican's decision to dismiss excommunicated Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo from the priesthood.

In its Dec. 17 communique, the Vatican said the former archbishop from Zambia had committed "new crimes against the unity of Holy Church," specifically that he had ordained bishops without a papal mandate.

"Archbishop Milingo has ... made some faithful confused and misled them in understanding Church doctrine. His dismissal was necessary and proper," said Father John Bosco Byeon Seung-sik, undersecretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea (CBCK).

Milingo initially fell foul of Church authorities in 2001 when he wedded Korean acupuncturist Maria Sung in a ceremony arranged by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.

The Vatican excommunicated him in 2006. In its Dec. 17 dismissal notice, the Vatican said he had not shown any repentance and had continued to ordain bishops.

In 2006, Milingo founded his US-based Married Priests Now! movement, which advocates that the Catholic Church allow married priests in active ministry.

The former archbishop is promoting his movement in South Korea, where he lives with his wife, according to Kim Jin-choon, president of the Cheongshim Graduate School of Theology run by the Unification Church.

Kim would not comment on the Vatican's action but defended Milingo. "Despite many difficulties, he has committed himself to the ideals of true love, family and a peaceful nation through married life, as proclaimed by Reverend Moon," he said.

"That is a truth all religions admit to, and contributes to building peace among religions," he said.

Milingo's wife is a member of the Unification Church, which is also known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

Reverend Moon founded his Church in South Korea in 1954. His followers see him as a messiah who is completing the salvation they say Jesus Christ failed to accomplish.
  Youth group to ensure Christmas joy for Orissa Christians
By Lissy Maruthanakuzhy

GUWAHATI, DEC 22 (UCAN) -- A Hindu-Catholic youth group from Orissa is intent on ensuring a happy and safe Christmas for Christians in the troubled Kandhamal area this year.

Members of the handpicked group say they have new insights into the problems of their home state after a week-long conflict resolution course run by Salesians in Assam.

Some 50,000 people had spent Christmas last year in relief camps set up by government and voluntary groups in various parts of Orissa. This was after Hindu extremists blamed Christians for the murder of a Hindu religious leader and led rampaging mobs that destroyed houses, churches and convents.

This year things will be different, Hindu youth leader Himang Shu says.

"During Christmas we will go to Christian houses and celebrate the feast together," he told UCA News.

He and 23 other young Hindus and Christians from Kandhamal were picked by the Orissa government for the course at Don Bosco Youth Institute, Guwahati, in Assam. They belong to "Antaranga" (conscience), a youth forum formed after the violence erupted in their home region.

Sister Lolia Annie, who works at the Salesian center in Assam, said Kishan Kumar, a senior government official in Kandhamal, had sent the youth group. She said the Kandhamal administration wanted the Church center's help to train youths in resolving conflict.

The young people were selected from various ethnic groups in the district for the course that ended Dec. 18.

Ashwni Das, coordinator of Antaranga in Kandhamal district who accompanied the team, said the youths had witnessed the riots themselves. Some had even tried to help the victims.

Salesian Father V. M. Thomas, who directs the center, told the youths they are Orissa's "greatest treasure" since they were not prejudiced about staying at a Christian institution.

"We must respect differences and rise above them. Diversity must be taken as a resource here," said the priest who also conducted a two-day youth leadership program for youths in Kandhamal district in October.

Shu, who is in charge of Antaranga's documentation and research department, said the forum has some 4,000 members spread over 120 youth clubs in Kandhamal.

"We will train and send them to villages in mixed groups (Christians and Hindus) during Christmas," he said.

The Orissa team arrived in Assam, northeastern India, in the first week of December and met political and social leaders in the state before the training.

Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati addressed the group on Dec. 16 and urged them to resolve ethnic problems in their state by rooting out the "deeper causes" that sparked the Kandhamal violence.
  Church programme helps students attend climate meet
  From Our Correspondent

BHOPAL, DEC 21 -- The church-sponsored Matr Chaav Abiyan (Shading the Mother Earth Movement) has helped two children to get selected to the Copenhagen Climate Summit which attracted the attention of the world.

Ramsa Sajid and Aadya Dube got selected to the World Climate Summit from India through a national-level essay competition. The Matr Chaav Abiyan and Harmony Foundation jointly felicitated the children at a function organized at St. Mary's School here yesterday.

Both the students expressed gratitude to the organizers of Matr Chaav Abiyan and the Foundation which helped them to get selected. The children have promised to be with the movement to attract more children to this activity.

The organisers also felicitated St. Mary's Higher Secondary School for the best implementation of the programme and Sr. Regi, CMC, of the Carmel Girls Higher Secondary School, BHEL, Bhopal, for supporting the children to become promoters of environmental programmes.

The youngest delegate of the Climate Summit Ramsha Sajid, a tenth class student, said, "As a student, I suggest the use of lesser and lesser paper. We should also use refills rather than buy new pens. Such steps can help save the earth movement."

The other participant Aadya Dube said, "even small steps by individuals can help save the earth. Let us not wait for others to do the job but take up this task as a mission. To serve the earth is to serve the mother."

Children say that Matr Chaav Abiyan is a practical programme that motivates children to support the growing trees. "Since we get marks for it, it motivates us to do better." Matr Chaav Abiyan has become popular with children getting marks for joining it.

Fr. Anand Muttungal, Director of the Abiyan, said, "the selection of children belonging to this movement has given us hope that more children will join the scheme. It can definitely help children to become part of the efforts to save this earth and make it a better place to live."

The process of selecting children was a tough process, said Mrs. Sujatha Srivastav, a teacher who was involved in the process.
After an evaluation Mart Chaav Abiyan honoured St. Mary's Higher Secondary School for implementing the scheme well. Principal Sr. Mary Sebastian said, "We have motivated the children to take up this as one of the best gifts to mother earth."

Chairman of the Harmony Foundation Lajja Shankar Herdenia has congratulated the children and said, "we need to forego even our comfort to save this earth from eternal diestruction."
  Vatican: Pope moves John Paul II's canonization case forward
By Gerard O'Connell, Special Correspondent in Rome

VATICAN CITY, DEC 21 (UCAN) -- Pope Benedict has issued decrees that move two of his well-known predecessors, Pius XII and John Paul II, a step closer to being declared saints.

He issued a similar decree for Mary Ward, the English-born founder of a women's religious congregation in the 17th century that today has communities in several Asian countries.

The Pope issued a total of 21 decrees on Dec. 19, relating to the sainthood causes of 12 men and nine women. It came as no surprise that John Paul II, who was elected Pope in 1978, was among them.

The late Pope, the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years, was loved around the world, including in Asia where he visited at least 12 countries. In 1998, he organized the landmark Synod for Asia, a meeting which brought together cardinals, bishops, priests, Religious and laity from across the continent, as well as representatives of the Roman Curia.

The event was a demonstration of the growing importance of the Asian region in the Catholic Church.

Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005. During his funeral in St Peter's Square, many shouted for him to be declared a saint immediately.

Pope Benedict dispensed with the Vatican rule which prohibits the opening of the process for canonization until five years after the person's death, and allowed the cause to be opened in June 2005.

He has now formally recognized that Pope John Paul II lived the Christian life and virtues to a heroic degree and declared him "Venerable."

There are different stages in the process of declaring a person a saint. After being declared "Venerable," the next stage is beatification, for which there needs to be a miracle certified as due to the candidate's intercession. The candidate is then called "Blessed." Canonization or declaration of sainthood then requires another miracle on the same condition.

Already the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints (CCS), the Vatican body that oversees the canonization process, has begun examining one of several alleged miracles attributed to Pope John Paul II's intercession.

If all proceeds as expected, the late Pope could be beatified on Oct. 16, 2010, the 32nd anniversary of his election as Pope.

More controversial was Pope Benedict's decree for Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), who led the Catholic Church during the Second World War.

As Pope, he began the modern reform of the liturgy, promoted biblical study, and started the internationalization of the College of Cardinals. He created the first Chinese cardinal, Cardinal Thomas Tien Keng-hsin, in 1946, and the first Indian cardinal, Cardinal Valerian Gracias of Bombay, in 1953.

However, many Jews claim the Pope turned a blind eye to the Holocaust, even though immediately after the war and on his death in 1958, several prominent Jewish leaders, including Golda Meir, praised him for having saved hundreds of thousands of Jews during the conflict.

Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, the relator for the late Pope's sainthood cause, said there are already a number of alleged miracles attributed to his intercession, including "one quite extraordinary one."

Others named in Pope Benedict's decrees included Mary Ward (1585-1645), an English woman and pioneer of women's apostolic non-cloistered religious life, modeled along the lines of the Jesuit order.

She founded an institute in 1609 which is today divided into the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her nuns work in 44 countries including Bangladesh, China, India, South Korea, Mongolia, Nepal and Vietnam.

Pope Benedict also approved a miracle attributed to the intercession of Blessed Mary MacKillop, which opens the door to her canonization as Australia's first saint.
  Christmas fair attacked in Gwalior, Biblical artworks destroyed
BHOPAL, DEC 21 (UCAN) -- An attack on a Christmas fair in Madhya Pradesh has spread panic among Christians in the state, says an organizer of the event.

Thugs chanting Hindu slogans torched representations of biblical scenes at the fair in the town of Gwalior on Dec. 20. The police have arrested one of four men they named in connection with the incident.

The group evoked the names of Hindu deities and started damaging the biblical artworks depicting scenes from the life of Christ, said fair coordinator Raju Francis.

The Catholic layman told UCA News that local Christians had held the two-day fair before Christmas for eight years on public land near a market.

"Everything went well on the first day," he said. On the second day, the troublemakers not only spoiled the fair but sent panic through the Christian community in the state, he said.

Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal said the attack "is a matter of serious concern for Christians especially when we are preparing to celebrate Christmas."

The prelate has sent a three-member fact finding team to Gwalior, headed by Father Anand Muttungal, spokesperson of the Catholic Church in the state. The archbishop has asked the team to submit its report in two days.

Archbishop Cornelio said he would, in turn, submit the report to the state government and seek protection for Christians and their institutions, especially during Christmas-eve midnight Masses.

Christians, who form less than 1 per cent of the state's population, have experienced sporadic violence since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)) came to power in December 2003.

Archbishop Cornelio told UCA News it is the government's duty to protect its citizens from attacks.

He says the morale of anti-Christian groups is "very high" as the state government seldom takes action against them.
  Thailand: Christmas concert collects toys for refugee kids
BANGKOK (UCAN) -- A little Christmas cheer is coming to some of the thousands of refugee children along the Thai-Myanmar border by way of gifts gathered at a Church-run stage production in Bangkok.

Around 100 young Catholic performers staged a musical at Assumption Cathedral recently titled "The Gift," focusing on the spirit of giving.

Instead of paying for tickets, the 500 or so members of the audience donated toys, games or other children's playthings to gain entrance. Some 600 dolls, toy animals, jigsaw puzzles and other games were collected and will be distributed to refugee children by the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR).

The intention of the event was to "raise awareness about the situation of refugees and their difficulties," said Father Vorayuth Kitbamrung, chaplain of the performing group. "This event promoted the true spirit of Christmas which is giving, which each person did according to his ability," he added.

Life for thousands of refugee children living in camps near the Thai-Myanmar border is bleak, as they lack many of the material things that other children enjoy.

According to Chalermchai Tungjaroenkitkarn, chairperson of the charity event, a Church team went to some of the camps to learn more about the situation there. They reported that children in the camps lack many things needed in life such as a proper education.

"They don't even have toys," he said. He added that he hopes the gifts collected will help the children develop the physical and mental skills needed for their psychological development.

Father Rattanasak Kitsakul, who heads COERR in Ratchaburi province, said the refugees live mainly on handouts because they are forbidden from working or seeking employment, and cannot travel freely outside their camps. "They just remain there every day without hope or any aim in life."

The priest said while the UN's refugee body the UNHCR provides rice, chili paste and salt for refugees, COERR helps them grow vegetables to boost nutrition.

"We also teach them to make candles since there's no electricity in the camps. We give basic education to the children such as lessons in English and Myanmar so that when they are able to go home they can eventually find work," he said. So far 20,000 refugees have been resettled in other countries such as Australia, USA and Finland, he added.

The UNHCR in October said there were 108,144 Myanmar refugees in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border in Ratchaburi, Kanchanaburi, Maehongson and Tak provinces. According to COERR staff member Krittika Kittipittayakorn, COERR has been providing help in all the camps since they were established 20 years ago.

The recently collected toys and games will be distributed to children in one camp in Ratchaburi and two in Kanchanaburi. The three camps have a total of 11,200 refugees.
  Indonesia: Tribal cultural riches enhance Sumatran Church
BALIGE, DEC 21 (UCAN) -- The cultural riches of the tribal Batak people have helped shape the liturgy of the Catholic Church in North Sumatra and given "full color" to spiritual life there, the local archbishop says.

"Since the beginning, the Church has stressed inculturation here. This is what we need to continue," Capuchin Archbishop Anicetus Bongsu Antonius Sinaga of Medan said in his homily at a Mass marking 75 years since Catholicism was brought to the region.

"We celebrate our liturgy in these unique traditions and church buildings designed in accord with Batak architecture," he later told UCA News.

Father Sybrandus van Rossum, the first Dutch missionary priest who arrived in 1934, drank tuak (palm wine) with local fisher folk and frequently mingled with the people, the prelate said. They began to consider him part of their community, "not Dutch anymore."

As the principles of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) were later implemented, the cultural heritage of Batak people, including their gondang music and tortor dance, were incorporated into the Mass.

Batak people believe gondang is a gift from God and before it is played, a leader will ask God's permission. Tortor dance is performed only when gondang is played, signifying "worship and asking for blessings from God," said Archbishop Sinaga.

Archbishop Sinaga, 68, has also written a doctoral dissertation "The High God of the Toba Batak: Transcendent and Imminent."

The Toba Batak are one of the groups with distinct languages and customs among the Batak people.

Medan archdiocese supports their most significant celebration of mangalahat horbo, during which participants sacrifice a male buffalo as a form of thanksgiving.

Archbishop Sinaga said the inculturation process must continue to create a community that is "100 per cent Catholic, 100 percent Indonesian."

Despite the impressive history of inculturation, it has not been all plain sailing in the region for the Catholic Church.

Politics had tended to work against the growth of Catholicism and the Batak had been dominated by Protestants. Catholics were "not wanted," the archbishop said.

As an example, the archbishop cited the 2007 provincial government budget that allocated funding of 60 billion rupiah (US$6.4 million) for Islam and 40 billion rupiah for Protestantism but nothing for the Catholic Church.

This should spur Batak Catholics to greater efforts to be recognized by "incorporating traditions" into church celebrations and to "make real contributions to the country."

The 75th anniversary Mass was presided over by Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli. He asked local Catholics "to continue to kindle the missionary spirit."

About 7,000 Catholics and priests from 12 parishes participated in the celebration held on Dec. 13 in Balige, south of Medan. The Mass included Batak songs, music and the tortor dance.

North Sumatra governor Syamsul Arifin praised the Catholic Church for its role in developing education, culture-based tourism and the local economy through microfinance. He asked Catholics "to continue to build harmony and peace in the region."
  Church urges immediate adoption of dalit-rights report
NEW DELHI, DEC 21 (UCAN) -- Christian and Muslim dalit people are to be given the same rights as their Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh counterparts under an official recommendation that comes after a 60-year struggle by the Church to win the concessions.

"We want the government to pass the Bill without delay," Father Cosmon Arokiaraj, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops' commission for dalit and tribal groups, told UCA News.

The Indian Constitution allows for special benefits for Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh dalit, members of lower castes once branded "untouchables."

Christians and Muslims from dalit groups, however, are excluded on the grounds that their religions reject the caste system.

The government has now tabled a report saying that religion should be de-linked from the benefits provisions. These include quotas for dalit people in educational institutions and government jobs.

Father Arokiaraj hailed the government move as a milestone in the Church's six-decade-long struggle for equal rights.

The report is prepared by the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities headed by former chief justice Ranganath Mishra. It recommends reserving 10 per cent of educational positions and government jobs for dalit Muslims and 5 per cent for other dalit groups, including Christians.

Father Anthoniraj Thumma, head of an ecumenical forum in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, says the government move will also provide dalit Christians constitutional protection against being attacked in the name of their caste.

In addition to quotas in government jobs and seats in educational institutions, the new move would also give them the right to contest elections for seats reserved for dalit groups, Father Thumma said.

But the priest says the report must be followed up by action. His forum is concerned that the government did not also table a report on how the measures would be implemented.

"It would have revealed the mind of the government toward this issue," he said.

Nevertheless, the Church can now present the report in the Supreme Court where several cases demanding rights for dalit Christians are pending, he added.

Jesuit Father A.X.J. Bosco, secretary of the Andhra Pradesh bishops' regional council and coordinator of the United Front for Dalit Christian Rights, says Muslim members of parliament helped in getting the Mishra report tabled in parliament.

"It gives us some hope," he said.

The Sanskrit term dalit means "trampled upon" or "broken open." An estimated 80 per cent of the 25 million Indian Christians come from these groups.
  Myanmar: Catholic women bring health care to villagers
YANGON, DEC 21 (UCAN) -- With no clinics and little knowledge of healthcare in villages, even minor ailments can prove fatal. To address this situation, Yangon archdiocese's social welfare arm is supporting young Catholic women to become nurses' aides in poor and rural areas.

Karuna Yangon Social Services (KYSS) supports the women during their two-month training course in Yangon. In exchange, participants commit to providing villagers around the archdiocese with health care for at least three years.

KYSS provides medical equipment and medicines free of charge. Each participant is given instruments such as a blood pressure monitor and stethoscope, and more than 50 different medicines.

The agency helped 20 young women become nurses' aides last year and another 34 in 2009.

One participant from this year's group, Flora Lin Lin Hteik, 26, who comes from a village, says the job is a challenging one.

"All the villagers are poor and they do not have any health education," she told UCA News.

"As we do not have dispensaries around our village, if somebody gets sick and need medical check-up we have to go to Yangon. The nearest town is two hours drive away and sometimes unexpected problems happen."

She says she is committed to improving the situation: "I want to take care of my villagers' health, that's why I joined the training."

William Ye Lwin Bo, 24, the head of the Integrated Community Development program of Karuna Yangon, said Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the Irrawaddy delta in 2008, showed how vulnerable poor, rural people are.

He said a deadly mixture of poverty, negligence and lack of healthcare knowledge had led to even greater loss of life. The disaster had shown how important it was for villagers to have some preparedness for emergencies.

The young nurses' aides' duties include health education on malaria, diarrhea and personal hygiene. They dispense medicine and provide first aid where necessary. When cases are beyond their capabilities, they accompany patients to hospitals and clinics.

"We welcome all the villagers to come to us any time when they are in need of our help, to get medicines," says Lin Lin Hteik.

She says she and the other women have to carry out their usual work as well, but patients can "call us when we are working in the farms or in the kitchen."

Isabella Aye Aye Soe, 22, from Thaung Su village, says most common call on her services is for medicines for headaches, stomachaches, colds and coughs. Many farmers also come with injuries, especially when they plough the fields during the raining season.

Another nurse's aide, Esther Nweni Win Shwe, 25, takes care of the 78 boarding students of Nyaungdon parish. She sees the children twice a day, half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening, and dispenses medicine and dresses minor injuries during these times.
  Concern over climatic changes in Jammu and Kashmir
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 20 -- With world leaders addressing concerns and challenges emerging out of climate change across the globe at Copenhagen, Denmark, the situation in the Kashmir Valley is equally worrying.

Unexpected flashfloods, erratic weather conditions, absence of regeneration of major forest species, depletion and degradation of high-level pastures, rapid recession of glaciers and snowline are the challenges the Valley is faced with owing to climatic changes.

"The state has experienced erratic weather conditions during the last 50 years, which is evident from the fact that the maximum temperatures ever recorded in Srinagar and Jammu had been in late 1990's. The rainfall and snowfall patterns have changed substantially," said Gurcharan Singh, former Deputy Conservator of Forests.

Singh added that the Valley used to record the maximum snowfall in the second fortnight of December or during January but of late snowfall has been witnessed during late February or the first fortnight of March.

"Both soil and air temperatures are on the plus side during these periods, resulting in melting of snow and unexpected flashfloods even during March and April," he said adding "water which is required for irrigation is not available at the right time resulting in drought, failure of paddy and horticulture crops. The snow tsunami in 2003 had resulted in a huge loss of human life."

Singh says "all this may be part of global warming, but we, too, have contributed to this, though marginally, by rapid deforestation, urbanization, change of land use, rapid rise in the number of vehicles, setting up of brick kilns, stone crushers and cement factories."

This phenomenon, he adds, has an impact on the cropping patterns, acceleration in the process of desertification and degradation, increase in the eutrophication process resulting in death of lakes and wetlands, increase in degradation of forests, thinning of forestlands and substantially reducing the growing stock of forest, absence of regeneration of major forest species, depletion and degradation of high-level pastures, rapid recession of glaciers and snowline.

"The impact can also be seen in the drying up of springs, shrinkage of water bodies and loss of biodiversity. A glaring example of the impact of the climatic change can be seen in the reduction of saffron production. The irrigated agriculture land use has also been receding because of shortage of water and even dry land agriculture dependent on rain are yielding lesser quantity of crops," said Singh.

Suggesting certain measures to combat the effects of climatic change and weather pattern, Singh emphasised the need to adopt correct and optimal land use strategy, ensure proper disposal of sewage, sewerage and garbage after treatment, proper urban planning and adoption of non- conventional methods of energy like wind mills, micro hydel projects, solar heaters and solar lights and replacing of burning of firewood with gas, kerosene and electric heaters.

"The efficient resource management calls for sustainable development. Sustainable development is the one in which consumption and utility are non-declining throughout time and production operations are maintained for future," said Singh adding, "it is implied that every generation should leave water, air and soil resources as pure and unpolluted as when it came to the earth. Each generation should leave enough space for animals and plants. Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs."
  England: Armed forces bishop says sorry for praising Taliban
Bishop Venner had been accused of giving "comfort and succour" to the enemy


The new bishop to the armed forces has apologised over comments he made about how the Taliban could be admired for their "conviction to their faith".

The Right Reverend Dr Stephen Venner said his words had been taken out of context by the Daily Telegraph.

"I'm not trying to support the Taliban," he told the BBC. "At the moment what they are doing is evil."

He said he would be "deeply grieved" if anyone had taken offence and hoped he had not jeopardised his job.

Following his comments in Monday's Daily Telegraph, one MP accused the bishop of giving "comfort and succour to the enemy".

In his interview the Anglican bishop said the attitude taken towards the Taliban had been "too simplistic".

Bishop Venner told the paper the insurgents could "perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other".

"There's a large number of things that the Taliban say and stand for which none of us in the West could approve, but simply to say therefore that everything they do is bad is not helping the situation," he told the paper.

'Very apologetic'

But in a BBC interview, he admitted it may have been naive to make such comments.

"I am not trying to support the Taliban," he said. "Very far from it. I am very supportive of our forces. "And if what I've said and the way it's been reported, has caused offence, then of course I'm deeply grieved, and very apologetic, and if that comes under the heading of naivety then I plead guilty."

Bishop Venner said the way the interview had been written up had made his comments look "incredibly insensitive".

He also insisted he had been talking about engaging with the Taliban once the military operation was over.

"It was one small phrase in quite a long interview, and a phrase that simply said you cannot describe everybody under one heading as Taliban as being equally black, equally evil," he said.

"These are human beings and there are some amongst them who could --we don't know -- who could perhaps be people with whom at the end of the day we could do business."

Some insurgents had been coerced into fighting or were ill-informed, he added.

Bishop Venner later released a statement, reiterating his "full support" to the British and allied troops.

"The way the Taliban are waging war in Afghanistan is evil, both in their use of indiscriminate killing and their terrorising of the civilian population. No religion could condone their actions," he said.

"I give my full support to the British and allied troops who are engaged in the country, seeking to work with the Afghan government to bring stability, democracy and an enduring peace."

"Comfort and succour"

Following the publication of Bishop Venner's Daily Telegraph interview, the Liberal Democrat MP for the garrison town of Colchester, Bob Russell, said the bishop had given "comfort and succour to the enemy".

"What you never do is give comfort to the enemy. It is one thing for people to have respect for their enemy, but there is a world of difference here," he said.

Mr Russell added the bishop should concentrate on "boosting the morale of our armed forces rather than boosting the morale of our enemy".

Bishop Venner had previously been the Bishop of Dover and only recently took up his post as Bishop to the Armed Forces.

He will continue his role as Bishop for the Falkland Islands.


News Analysis

By Robert Pigott, Religious Affairs Correspondent

The problem with Bishop Venner's interview is partly that he misread the national mood.

After the deaths of so many servicemen and women, there's little public appetite for distinguishing between more or less bad Taliban fighters.

There has also been surprise that a bishop should be unaware of the danger of seeming to praise any aspect of such a group, let alone their conviction in their faith.

British Muslim groups insist that the Islam practised by the Taliban is distorted and bears little comparison with their own faith.

They also point out that deep convictions can just make an extreme position even worse.

Bishop Venner accepts all these arguments, and says the interview was reported out of context.

He also points out that it was conducted three months ago, and circumstances have changed.
  Just half of Britons now call themselves Christian after a 'sharp decline' in faith over past 25 years
Only half of Britons now consider themselves Christian after a "sharp decline" in religious belief over the past quarter of a century, according to a new academic study.

By Martin Beckford
The Telegraph

LONDON: Researchers describe a large proportion of the country as the "fuzzy faithful" who have a vague belief in God but do not necessarily belong to a particular denomination or attend services. However, most people still say religion helps bring happiness and comfort, and regret its declining influence on modern society.

Professor David Voas, who has analysed the latest data, said: "More and more people are ceasing to identify with a religion at all. "Indeed, the key distinction in Britain now is between religious involvement and indifference.

We are thus concerned about differences in religiosity -- the degree of religious commitment -- at least as much as diversity of religious identity."

His analysis, to be published in January by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), looks at the results of 4,486 interviews conducted in the respected 2008 British Social Attitudes survey.

It shows that just 50 per cent of respondents now call themselves Christian, down from 66 per cent in 1983. NatCen said it confirmed "the sharp decline in religious faith in Britain."

At the same time, the proportion of Britons who say they have "no religion" has increased from 31 per cent to 43 per cent. Non-Christians, including Muslims and Jews, now represent 7 per cent of the population, up from 2 per cent, 25 years ago. The steepest fall was among those who say they worship in the established religion, the Church of England, down from 40 per cent of those who call themselves Christians to 23 per cent.

Official Church attendance figures show that average Sunday attendance was 978,000 in 2007, compared with 1.2m in 1983. Prof Voas said: "The declining Christian share is largely attributable to a drift away from the Church of England."

The proportion of Roman Catholics declined only slightly from 10 per cent to 9 per cent. Further questions showed that 37 per cent of Britons either do not believe in God or are unable to say if a supreme being exists, while 35 per cent have a definite belief in God or belief with occasional doubts.

Only 7 per cent described themselves as very religious, and 62 per cent said they never attended services in a place of worship. Even 49 per cent of those who said they were Anglicans claimed never go to church, while just 8 per cent go every Sunday. The study suggests that the decline in faith is largely attributable to children no longer being brought up in a particular religion.

"The results suggest that institutional religion in Britain now has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay. "Two non-religious parents successfully transmit their lack of religion.

Two religious parents have roughly a 50/50 chance of passing on the faith. One religious parent does only half as well as two together." Separate research suggests that immigration has led to a rise in adherence to Pentecostal Christianity and other world religions in Britain, leading to a "polarisation of belief" with the secular indigenous population.

Prof Voas believes that the population can be categorised as religious, non-religious or "fuzzy faithful" -- the 36 per cent who "identify with a religion, believe in God or attend services, but not all three". Despite the survey showing falling belief in God, 65 per cent of those questioned still thought that religion helps people to find inner piece while 79 per cent thought it provided solace.

In addition, 44 per cent said it was a shame that the influence of religion on British life was declining, while 18 per cent claimed both that faith is becoming more influential and that this is a bad thing. The findings are in sharp contrast to those recorded in the USA, where 76 per cent say they are Christian and 26 per cent describe themselves as very religious.

It comes just days after the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior cleric in the Church of England, claimed that the Government treats worshippers as "oddities" and religion as a "problem". Dr Rowan Williams said: "The effect is to de-normalise faith, to intensify the perception that faith is not part of our bloodstream. And, you know, in great swathes of the country that's how it is."

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: "Last week at a gathering of faith leaders at Downing Street, the Prime Minister said that Christian values were 'at the heart of national life'. This research shows that this is simply not true. "This report shows more clearly than ever that Britain is a post-religious society and policy should reflect that."

But the Rev Lynda Barley, the Church of England's head of Research and Statistics, said: "Statistical comparisons over a long period have the drawback of ignoring recent trends.

"The Church of England has been carefully monitoring Christian affiliation and churchgoing following the 2001 government census result that 7 in 10 people regard themselves as Christian.

Independent surveys continue to show that 7 in 10 people are Christian and approaching half are Anglican in contrast to the British Social Attitudes Survey findings which focus on religious membership.

"Local church counts of worshippers throughout October for the last nine years record 1.7 million individual Church of England worshippers each month in each year. At the same time, it has been ordaining some 500 new clergy each year."
  Britain on course for first woman bishop
By Ruth Gledhill
Times Online

Oxford graduate Dr Alison Peden has been chosen as one of three candidates for the vacant episcopal see of Glasgow and Galloway in Scotland. If she is elected on January 16, she will become the UK's first woman bishop.

It would in many ways be fitting for Scotland to be the first UK province to have a woman bishop. The US had the first one in the world, Barbara Harris, who incidentally was nominated back in the 1970s by Mary Glasspool, now lesbian bishop-elect in Los Angeles.

Scotland and the US church go back generations.

After the American Revolution, the Bishop of London, who had previously ruled over the American church as if it was a far-away London parish of little importance, refused to give newly-independent US Episcopalians a bishop of their own.

So they went to Scotland, which duly obliged. The surprising thing about Scotland is that it has taken this long to put a woman on a shortlist after their General Synod voted in favour back in 2003.
  New Zealand: Unholy row over Virgin Mary image

AN unholy row has broken out in New Zealand over a church billboard aimed at "challenging stereotypes" about the birth of Jesus Christ.

A dejected-looking Joseph lies in bed next to Mary under the caption, "Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow".

St Matthew-in-the-City Church in Auckland, which erected the billboard, said it had intended to provoke debate.

But the Catholic Church, among others, has condemned it as "inappropriate" and "disrespectful".

Within hours of its unveiling, the billboard had been defaced with brown paint.

The church's vicar, Archdeacon Glynn Cardy, said the aim of the billboard had been to lampoon the literal interpretation of the Christmas conception story.

"What we're trying to do is to get people to think more about what Christmas is all about," he told the New Zealand Press Association (NZPA).

"Is it about a spiritual male God sending down sperm so a child would be born, or is it about the power of love in our midst as seen in Jesus?"

He told NZPA that the church had received e-mails and phone calls about the controversial image.

"About 50% said they loved it, and about 50% said it was terribly offensive," he said. "But that's out of about 20 responses -- this is New Zealand."

But Lyndsay Freer, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Auckland, said the poster was offensive to Christians.

"Our Christian tradition of 2,000 years is that Mary remains a virgin and that Jesus is the son of God, not Joseph," she told the New Zealand Herald. "Such a poster is inappropriate and disrespectful."

"To confront children and families with the concept as a street billboard is completely irresponsible and unnecessary," Family First director Bob McCroskrie told the news website

The Bishop of Auckland, the Right Reverend John Paterson says there are a multitude of issues for a city and the wider church that he would rather focus on in the season of Christmas than a billboard.

The Bishop is disappointed that St Matthew-in-the-City has decided to continue with the display of a billboard on its church grounds with a replacement billboard.

"Discussion of theological perspectives and diversity is encouraged in a respectful way, but this approach is insensitive to communities across the Anglican Church as well as other denominations," says Bishop Paterson.

"The season and story of Christmas is one that celebrates the life that is brought by Christ and that is the spirit of Christmas that I seek for the Diocese and the city of Auckland," says Bishop Paterson.
  Improve skills to get better jobs, experts tell students
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 19 -- Think beyond traditional jobs, experts from various fields told students here on Saturday while stressing the need for skill development and enhancing professionalism.

"There is mismatch of skills between what we have and what we do," said Dr. Haseeb Drabu, Chairman, Jammu and Kashmir Bank, during a day-long seminar-cum-workshop on "Career options after 10+2" organised by the Kashmir Study Circle.

He said students need to understand the critical difference between career and employment. "To get a job is an individual decision whereas career is to be made a socially relevant choice," said Dr. Drabu.

The chairman added, "we lack professionalism in every sector. We teach in an ad hoc manner, do business in an ad hoc manner. We don't bother about the ethical dimension of professionalism."

Drabu added "the young men and women of the state are getting disengaged and are becoming unadventurous. Youth has certain energy and exuberance. Nations have grown on professionals and intellectuals. The world is moving from employer-employee relationship to entrepreneur-employer model."

He suggested acquiring of skills first. "Then get into civil services. Skill acquirement is important because the world has changed. Let us not get into the mindset of permanence."

Dr. Seemin Rubab, who teaches in the Department of Physics at the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Srinagar, emphasized the need to choose career as per aptitude and not due to peer group or parental pressure. "Choice of career is vital."

Shaing her experience, she said that students she came across are most of the time "trapped" in the sense that they wanted to pursue their career in some other field but are compelled to opt for engineering. She requested parents and students to opt for a career of choice.

"Everyone wants to have quick returns, so people opt for engineering. If you really want to do something for society then opt for it," said Dr. Rubab.

Speaking about career in basic sciences, she spoke about IISER, IIST, NISER, CMI, Indian Statistics Institute, Actuarial Sciences (related with risk and financial management). "There are 135 institutions that impart architectural education in India leading to recognized qualifications."

She stated that many organizations have made "education a mafia. I am not against private engineering colleges, but students ought to see that those are recognized."

She added that the higher secondary teachers here mostly lack information about various examinations that can prove beneficial for the student community.

"We don't get good books here in the Valley, again thanks to the mafia. No standard book is available here. There is no authorized outlet of the NCERT here," said Dr. Seemin.

"Broaden your vision beyond traditional jobs. Career is one of the most crucial decisions," said Tariq Ahmad Chalko, Head of the Department of Physics, Government Degree College, Baramulla.

He asked the students to be "realistic, don't deceive yourself and test yourself." Suggesting students to look beyond prescribed syllabus, Chalko said, "With information being democratized through the Internet you should definitely have a global perspective."

He added, "we sometimes rely too much on teachers. Books are the best teachers. Avoid being extremely parasitic. Increase the time of study as examinations are near. Eat well, sleep well and take light exercise and practice yoga during examination. Avoid mental exhaustion. Take short breaks while studying and avoid distractions," he prescribed.

A skit was performed on the occasion. A couple of books were also released.
  Home work in primary classes perpetuates inequality
A Special Correspondent

KOLKATA, DEC 19 -- Pointing out that an 'overloaded' curriculum in the primary education system is responsible for developing a perception of dependence on private tuition among parents that again gives rise to class-division and subsequently inequality, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen on Saturday recommended a rethink on the curriculum load so that basic education could be completed in school itself.

He was speaking at the release here of “The Pratichi Education Report II, Primary Education in West Bengal: Changes and Challenges.”

While attendance, the success of the mid-day meal system, parents' satisfaction with teaching quality and their wards' performance in schools and the ability of students to read and write had "noticeably increased" in West Bengal over the last eight years, the dependence on private tuition had also increased with a "higher proportion of parents thinking that it is essential," Professor Sen said.

The report has been released by the Pratichi (India) Trust, founded by Prof. Sen with part of his Nobel Prize money. It focusses on advancing primary education and elementary healthcare in eastern India.

A survey was done by the Trust in 2001-02 in randomly selected primary schools from six districts of West Bengal. A resurvey has been done in the same schools to check how things have changed since then.

Coming down heavily on the system of homework in primary schools, Prof. Sen said: "A somewhat counter-productive overloaded curriculum, incomplete education during school hours and necessity of homework are the reasons that there is a perceived necessity of private tuition since the parents try to supplement at home the education which could not be completed in school."

He recommended "re-examination of the curriculum and banishing the necessity of homework at the elementary level" to overcome the situation.

Prof. Sen also emphasised the deep social impact the system has among the economically disadvantaged sections.

"It [the problem of class division] applies particularly to the first-generation school-goers, whose parents remain illiterate -- the parents can neither help their children with their homework nor can they afford a private tutor. So then, instead of removing inequality through education, we perpetuate inequality between the haves and the have-nots."

Drawing attention to the conventional caste-based categorisation of society that excludes a large proportion of Muslims in West Bengal, Prof. Sen said there was need to go beyond such categorisation by incorporating the Muslim population also in the list -- since for historical reasons, they were also 'disadvantaged'.

Earlier, Director of Pratichi (India) Trust A.J. Philip introduced the report and those who contributed to it. The book release was preceded by a discussion on the political dimensions of the changes required in primary education.
  Archbishop opens church in Kandhamal
Amid reports of increasing tension in some part of Orissa ahead of Christmas week, Catholics opened a new church in the troubled Kandhamal district.

News reports said alleged Maoists torched some Hindu shops in some areas of the district, casting suspicion on Christians.

In some places anti-Hindu posters also appeared, which police described as deliberate attempts to provoke sectarian violence in the area, reports said.

As unease continues a silver lining appeared in the life of the Church when Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar opened a church in the district Dec.10.

Some 3,000 Catholics attended the blessing and opening of the Ma Maria (Mother Mary) church in Simonbadi, which began construction three years ago.

"This beautiful church is built of bricks, cement, metal and sand. The same way, the people of different faiths should live together in harmony as one community," exhorted Cheenah in his homily during the first Mass in the new church.

More than 50 priests joined the liturgy. Tribal dancers with headgears of animal horns led the solemn procession to the new church regaling hundreds of faithful who had lined up on both sides of the procession.

Father Thomas Sebastian, Capuchin provincial of Andhra-Orissa province, cut the ribbon marking the opening of the church after Archbishop Cheenath blessed the doors.

Capuchin Father Mathias Basani Reddy, the parish priest of Simonbadi, told SAR News that the new church construction was started three years ago and was built with donations and local faithful contributed free labour in the construction work.

Source: Archbishop Cheenath Calls For Building Harmony (SAR News)
  Church center trains Orissa youth
  GUWAHATI, DEC 18 (CathNews) -- Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati has urged a group of young people from Orissa to resolve ethnic problems in the state by rooting out its causes.

Twenty four youths, including four Christians, from Orissa's Kandhamal visited Assam. They belong to "Antaranga" (inner beauty), a youth group, formed after last year's anti-Christian violence in Orissa.

They left Guwahati on Dec. 18 after a week of training in leadership and development at Don Bosco Institute.

The archbishop spoke to the group on Dec. 16. The prelate is the founder of Northeast Peace Team that toured Orissa several times after violence in its Kandhamal district on Aug. 24, 2008.

The seven-week violence unleashed by Hindu extremists left about 90 people dead and 50,000 displaced. The Hindu radicals blamed Christians for the murder of a Hindu religious leader and led rampaging mobs that destroyed houses, churches and convents. The victims included people who refused to convert to Hinduism.

"It is important now to find out the root cause of the conflict and the reason that aroused the violence toward Christians," the Salesian prelate told the Orissa youth group.

The archbishop suggested that they go beyond the immediate problems and to the root cause which may help bring about real peace in the area. He, however, added that they should wait to do this "if it causes you pain again."

Salesian Father V. M. Thomas, who directs the Don Bosco Institute, told the youths that they are Orissa’s "greatest treasure" since they were not prejudiced to come and live in a Christian Institution in a far away place.

The group comprised also Hindus and Muslims.

"We must respect the differences and rise above difference. Diversity must be taken as a resource here," the priest added.

Several youths told UCA News Kandhamal people had experienced the problem of loss of land and ethnic interest, besides prejudice against Christians.

The "Antaranga" is dedicated to bring about peaceful coexistence in the district, according to Aswini Das, a group member.

"We have already started some livelihood programs in villages," he said.

Asked what the groups would do on its return to Orissa, he said, "We will send the message of peace to the villages." The group plans to train 4,000 youth in 12 blocks of Kandhamal, he added.

Himangshu, another youth, said they were sent to Guwahati by the Kandhamal district collector. "We are sure of his continued support," he added.

Salesian Sister Lolia, who works in the Don Bosco Institute, said the Kandhamal administration in October asked Father Thomas and his team to conduct a training program for youths selected from various ethnic groups and parts of Kandhamal district.

They arrived in Assam in the first week of December and went around the state to meet various people before the training.

Source: UCAN report by Lissy Maruthanakuzhy
  Jesuit education influences filmmaker Ranjan Kamath
  KOLKATA, DEC 18 (CathNews) --Jesuit values have helped a Catholic documentary filmmaker to look at social issues differently, and do his part to spread Christian values in practice.

Ranjan Kamath says his 17 years of education at St. Xavier's Collegiate School and College in Kolkata, eastern India, has helped him become sensitive to social issues and problems.

Kamath, 47, was at Max Mueller Bhavan, the German training center, in Kolkata, Dec. 16 to present his 75-minute documentary film, "Tanvir ka safarnama" (Tanvir's travelogue).

The film, culled out from 125 hours of recording, deals with the "making of an essentially Indian drama" by late Habib Tanvir, a Muslim playwright, in Chhattisgarh, a central Indian state.

Kamath told UCA News he uses documentary films to discuss social problems in the country, and that the Jesuits have helped him look at reality differently. He says he has made four films on social issues, ranging from casteism to rural theater.

He says the humanism his Jesuit teachers had taught him is projected in his films and it also helps him connect to people of other religions.

Kamath, and his friends, mostly past students of St. Xavier's College, Kolkata, launched last January C+ve, a social networking group, which is committed to social change through non-violence.

C+ve refers to "see positively," and implies that true citizenship is to engage in a process of change in the nation, Kamath explained.

The group started in July "Billion Beejams" (seedlings), a nationwide project to green the nation, through afforestation program.

The members request various groups to donate Rs 5 (some US$0.09) to green one square foot of the nation.

They use the money to provide jobs to village women to plant trees, Kamath said and added all these activities help him practice his Christian values.

Jesuit Father Albert Huart, who taught Kamath political science, says many past students have joined social works influenced by their Jesuit teachers. However, the 85-year-old Belgian Jesuit was "pleasantly surprised" to know a student made films on social issues.

Jesuit Brother Thomas Carlo, who manages Chitrabani (sight-sound), says the Jesuit-managed media center had had helped Kamath shape his skills in media, during college days.

He said that Kamath's uncle, late Jesuit Father Joe Naidu, who was involved with communication media, had influence his nephew.
Source: UCAN report by Julian Das
  MCRD Navajyothi School website launched
From A Correspondent

PATHANAMTHITTA, DEC 18 -- The official website of the Mar Thoma Church-managed MCRD Navajyothi School ( was launched today at a function held at Navajyothi School, Thelliyoor, Pathanamthitta District.

Bishop Joseph Mar Barnabas of the Mar Thoma Church and President of the MCRD Governing Body launched the website by sending a Navajyothi e-greeting card to the Mar Thoma Metropolitan.

The website has several features such as newsletters; e-greetings which would feature the paintings and drawings of the students and an online donation and payment gateway.

Navajyothi School is a special school for the mentally challenged kids. It was founded on October 15, 1981, in honor of the episcopal silver jubilee of the late Most Rev. Dr. Alexander Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan, Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas Mar Athanasius Suffragon Metropolitan, and the Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Marthoma Valiya Metropolitan.

The MCRD functions on a 36-acre campus. Apart from the focus given on the rehabilitation and taking care of children in need of special care, it also has programmes and projects for the development and revival of the agro-rural sector.

To know more about the MCRD campus and the Navajythi School, visit the following page:
  Myanmar: Church faces fallout from drug-use epidemic
MYITKYINA, DEC 18 (UCAN) -- The Catholic Church in Myitkyina, northern Myanmar, is battling a sharp rise in HIV/AIDS infection due to an epidemic of intravenous drug-use among the young.

There are around 300,000 drug users in the country, according to the United Nations, but some NGOs believe there could be as many as 500,000.

At least 35 per cent are HIV positive and in some areas the rate is as high as 80 per cent, the government says.

The Church is coping with the fall-out by both giving practical assistance to patients and fighting prejudice against them.

The Karuna Social Services of Myanmar (KMSS) runs programs around the country as well as training to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and the discrimination affected people face.

The Church runs the home-based "Hope" center on the outskirts of Myitkyina, capital of Kachin State.

It provides medical treatment, three meals a day, warm clothes in winter as well as jobs training. The center runs a livelihood program teaching how to rear pigs, cows and buffaloes.

One of the patients being helped in Myitkyina, Naw (not his real name) said injecting heroin had left him homeless.

Baptist pastors tried to help him but he ran away from them three times. He finally stopped drugs but then discovered he was HIV-positive.

"After I was infected with HIV, I found I couldn't eat much for two months," he said. "I was severely ill. Naw was taken to the Catholic Hope centre by NGOs working in the area. Now he is one its staunchest advocates.

"I witness to others at World AIDS Day events and other gatherings about my life," he told UCA News. "I'm ready to help other HIV patients at the Hope center when my health condition improves.

He said he recommends reading the Bible as being the most effective means of kicking the drug habit.

Seng Nu, in charge of HIV/AIDS prevention program of Myitkyina Karuna, said it is important to allow patients share their experiences so that other youths will be aware of the pitfalls of drug use and other risky behavior such as unprotected sex.
  Asia: Thoughts on preaching guidelines
By Maryknoll Father William Grimm

TOKYO, DEC 18 (UCAN) -- The fathers of the Church preached for hours. Martin Luther told a discouraged preacher to not feel bad that he could not yet preach for an hour. Those days are past. People today expect about seven minutes and will on occasion endure ten.

Recently, UCA News reported that Bombay archdiocese told its priests to keep their homilies short and to the point, finishing them within 10 minutes. I assume lay reaction was generally and perhaps even ecstatically favorable.

Surveys among Catholics in various places show a consistent and considerable dissatisfaction with the quality of preaching they endure each week. Judging from what I have endured myself, it appears the problem has a single source, unprofessionalism. Too many priests do not do their job.

What would anyone think of a doctor whose failure to use antibiotics was due to the fact that he was unaware of their existence? Yet, there are preachers who remain ignorant of developments in Scripture study and theology, feeling that what they were taught (or think they were taught) in the seminary years ago should still suffice. Anyone who dares to speak to a community about faith must be willing to continually study and question in order to broaden and deepen the message.

The problem of King Charles' head is not limited to poor Mr. Dick in Dickens's "David Copperfield." Mr. Dick was always trying to write a "Memorial" but could not do so without bringing in his obsession with the beheading of King Charles I of England. Abortion, Mary, birth control, the environment, the Pope, Vatican II, feminism, various saints, particular devotional practices, justice, peace, money -- each of them and others have become King Charles' head for some preachers. Some of those concerns are valid, but none deserves to be the theme of every homily or sermon.

How does a preacher come to know the needs of a congregation? This is one of the most mystifying things about preachers. The number who seem to have no idea of the people before whom they stand is staggering. A congregation is not an abstraction, but real people with experiences, concerns and hopes. Poor preachers talk about their own needs, their own hang-ups, their own idea of what the congregation's concerns should be or abstract gobbledygook.

Meeting people is essential. No preacher should avoid the opportunity to shop in local stores, take part in local activities and visit members of the congregation. A preacher who does some of the voluntary community service he so cheerfully recommends to others can learn a lot. The people among whom one preaches are not an audience; they are partners in a dialogue. A good preacher makes and takes every opportunity to advance that dialogue.

There is a quip that the preacher's role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but a preacher must never afflict without feeling discomfort at the message himself -- smug complacency is more common in the pulpit than in the pew, especially among those who set out to attack smug complacency.

Humility is essential to good preaching. A preacher stands before the Sons and Daughters of God. He should be at least as humble as he would be before a child of earthly royalty or celebrity. He has (or should have) an expertise they need, but he is not omniscient. In many realms, the congregation knows more than the preacher. At the very least, each member of it knows the mystery of his or her own life and relationship with God.

Being humble does not mean lacking confidence. The Spirit really does work through our willingness to stand up and be fools for Christ's sake. Presumably, someone standing before a congregation has the training and commission to be a preacher. God will work through him if he is willing to be a tool -- a good tool.

A preacher should not be afraid to show doubts and fears -- the congregation has them, too, and needs to know that one can have them yet continue to be a Christian. But a preacher must not make the homily his therapy session. The emphasis must be on the reasons of mind and heart for continuing faith in the face of doubt.

When all is said and done, the most important thing in preaching is love. A preacher must love God above all and the People of God, especially the People of God who are in front of him. He must love them enough to want to share with them the wonderful, joy-giving gift of faith. If he can do that, he will not need guidelines regarding time and technique.
Maryknoll Father William Grimm is the former editor-in-chief of "Katorikku Shimbun," Japan's Catholic weekly.
  Fashion technology institute to be set up in Srinagar
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 17 -- A National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) is likely to be set up in Industrial Estate, Ompora, here.

"NIFT is proposed to be set up here at a cost of Rs.70 crore under the Prime Minister's package. An amount of Rs.15 crore has been kept aside in the current year's state plan for the purpose," said S. S. Salathia, Minister for Industries and Commerce, on December 15 during his vist to Rangreth SIDCO Industrial Complex, spread over 1150 kanals.

The minister said, SIDCO has been asked to provide temporary accommodation for conducting classes as well as providing hostel facilities to students and faculty at the complex so that NIFT is in a position to enroll the first batch of students for the 2010 session.

Salathia went round various industrial units to take stock of manufacturing activities here. He also inspected IT units that include Info Solutions Private Limited, BOE Software Micro Mind, Srinagar Technology Private Limited and DOEACC.

While visiting Software Technology Park of India, M. Muazzam, Managing Director, SIDCO, informed the minister that about 1500 persons are being provided employment in various functional units in the complex.

Regarding DOEACC functioning, the minister was told that the Centre is currently imparting training to 500 candidates through long-term courses and around 5000 through short-term training programmes.

Salathia was informed that eight IT units promoted by local entrepreneurs with a turnover of over Rs. 13 crore are functioning and providing employment to more than 200 IT professionals.

The minister accompanied by Kackoo Isfandyar Khan, Director, Industries was told that about Rs. 1150 crore has been invested for the development activities in the complex while an additional investment of Rs. 100 crore has also been planned.

Two days later, Salathia visited Silk Handicraft Park, Zakura to review its pace of work. The park is being constructed by the Small Scale Industries Development Corporation (SICOP) at a cost of Rs. 9.38 crore, of which Rs. 5 crore has been utilized so far.

While interacting with the media, the minister said that despite silk and handicrafts being the age-old traditional industry of Kashmir, no exclusive area was earmarked for it in the industrial complex.

"Given the tremendous market potential of this heritage trade of Kashmir, the government has established an exclusive park for this industry with the assistance of Government of India," said Salathia.
  Reservation delay worries Christians
  NEW DELHI, DEC 17 (CathNews) -- Christian leaders sent a three-point memo to the Prime Minister on Dec. 17 urging him to act on a government commission that recommended reservation for Christian and Muslim Dalit people.

The leaders said they are concerned over press reports that the government proposes to bury the Justice Ranganath Mishra report.

The Times of India reported on Dec. 17 that the report has become "a hot potato" for the ruling United Progressive Alliance.

The newspaper said the government indicated this when Minority Affairs Minister Salman Khursheed ruling out an Action Taken Report on the Mishra Commission recommendation.

The issue assumed significance after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) that the government would table the commission report in parliament.

The Christian leaders urged the premier to table the report in the current session of parliament. They also want the government inform the Supreme Court about its decision on the Mishra Commission report.

The apex court is hearing several petitions challenging a 1950 Presidential Order that restricted reservation to Hindus. The order was amended twice to include Sikhs and Buddhists.

The Christian leaders' memo urged the government to scrap the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 through legislative action or by a Presidential Ordinance.

They sent copies of their memo to the prime minister's cabinet colleagues and the National Commission for Minorities.

It said Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin have agitated now for 59 years urging the government not to discriminate against them on grounds of their religion.

They have sought political, economic and development privileges accorded the Constitution guarantees to all dalit people when it was signed into law on Jan. 26, 1950.

These rights, the Christian leaders point out, were "taken away brutally" by the 1950 presidential order that "strengthened the right wing fundamentalist religious lobby and which continues to constitute a slur on the secular foundations of the Indian nation."

Source: UCAN
  Catholics, Orthodox Churches make historic moves
  KOCHI, DEC 17 (CathNews) -- Catholic and Orthodox Churches have agreed to share priestly services and infrastructure, in a major development in their 356-year-old troubled history.

The Inter-religious Dialogue Commission of the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council met with the Syrian Jacobite and Syrian orthodox Churches mid December to seek ways to foster better unity and cooperation among them.

The three Churches are based in Kerala, southern India, and trace their faith to Saint Thomas the Apostle.

The Church split in 1653 after Portuguese missioners tried to impose their ways on the native Christians.

One faction that stayed with the Catholic fold later came to be known as the Syro-Malabar Church. The other group continued under the Orthodox Church of the East that served the Indian Christians before the Western missioners.

The Orthodox group split further in early 1900s. The Catholic-Jacobite meeting took place on Dec. 15 at the Jacobite headquarters in Kochi. The Catholic delegation met the other Orthodox faction Dec. 16-17 at its headquarters in Kottayam.

Each Church deputed an eight-member delegation to the meetings.

Bishop Brian Farrel, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, led the Catholic delegation. The Syrian Jacobite Church was led by its head Bishop Joseph Mar Gregorios and Baselios Mar Thomas I led the Syrian Orthodox Church team.

The meetings decided to prepare guidelines for mutual cooperation and resolve confrontation in future.

As a first step, the Churches have agreed to share churches for Sunday Mass outside Kerala where a Church has no parish or station. The meetings also explored the possibility of sharing cemeteries and services of priests for funeral.

The Church leaders have asked their theologians to prepare guidelines to implement this agreement.

The development "is a milestone in the history" of St. Thomas Christians of Kerala who have common roots, Father Adai Jacob, a Jacobite leader, told UCA News Dec. 17. Catholics and Orthodox groups in Kerala, he noted, were "miles apart" after 1653 and confrontations had often marked inter-Church relations.

Father Philip Nelpuraparambil, a Catholic theologian attended the meetings, described the outcome as "very positive. Now we have to put it in practice."

Varghese Thomas, a Jacobite layman, welcomed the move saying division and confrontation among Churches have projected a bad image for them. "The world has become more like a global village. So we should promote harmony and love among all people," he told UCA News.

Father Paul Thelakat, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church, says unity among Churches is the need of the hour and local Churches should have more autonomy for cooperation. "There has to be more decentralization in the Church. What divides us is the question of power," he added.

According to him, the Kerala Catholics' link with the Orthodox Churches is stronger than its relation with Protestants. He said he earnestly prayed for these Churches' union. "We alone can make that unity," he asserted.

Source: UCAN report by Francis Mini
  Jingle bells echo in Rashtrapati Bhavan as President hosts Christmas programme
  By A Correspondent

NEW DELHI, DEC 17 -- The majestic and glittering Ashoka Hall in
Rashtrapati Bhavan reverberated with Christmas carols sung by
choirs from various states.

Decked up with stars and other Christmas decorations, the hall echoed with the melodius carols sung by choirs from Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Mumbai and the national capital.

Students from Jesus and Mary College here too attended
and enthralled the guests present, which included Vice-President Ahmed Ansari, wife of Prime Minister Manhoman Singh
Gursharan Kaur, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, cabinet
Ministers besides President Pratibha Patil. Invited guests included government officials, journalists and military personnel.

The hall also had a beutiful manger depicting the birth of Lord Jesus Christ.

Archbishop of Delhi Vincent Michael Concessao gave a
message of peace and harmony.

The gracious host that the President was, she also offered the singers and other guests sumptuous delicacies.
  Church, newspaper join hands to provide winter clothes to poor
BHOPAL, DEC 17 (UCAN) -- Bhopal archdiocese and a newspaper have launched a novel scheme to create awareness about climate change among villagers.

"People in villages have a great role to play in saving the environment, but abstract talks on climate change will not help," says Father Anand Muttungal, who organized the program.

On Dec. 14, Church volunteers began distributing old clothing, mostly winter wear, among some 500 people in Avli Kheda, a poor, remote village, as a cold wave swept across the country's central and northern regions.

"We first addressed their major concern of having warm clothes and then explained to them that the erratic climate changes in their village were due to the mindless destruction" of forests, said Father Muttungal, spokesperson of the Catholic Church in Madhya Pradesh state.

Father Muttungal said since most villagers are illiterate it is difficult for them to understand talks or seminars.

Ram Prasad, 35, a laborer, who was wearing only a loincloth, thanked the volunteers for the woolen blanket they gave to him. He said he and other villagers spend their nights sleeping near bonfires.

"We do so to keep alive as we do not have sufficient warm clothes," the Hindu villager said. He added that the Church's assistance would help him avoid burning logs to keep warm.

Most villagers said that although they are happy to preserve trees and the environment, they still need to cut down trees for their survival.

Richard D'Silva, a volunteer, said most villagers still could not understand the subject, but agreed to reduce the use of firewood and destruction of trees.

Another volunteer, Sheela Santiago, said she found the villagers "very co-operative" and eager to keep their environment pollution free. "It is shocking to see how women and children survive in winter with inadequate clothes" and other basic materials.

The archdiocese has opened 30 centers in Bhopal to collect used, warm clothing for the project. Volunteers segregate and pack them for various groups.

The "Dainik Bhaskar," a Hindi newspaper is collaborating with the archdiocese in this project. It carried advertisements urging people to join the campaign, which according to Father Muttungal has received tremendous response.

The priest said the archdiocese would take the campaign to other villages.
  Pakistan: Official calls for help to deal with climate change
KARACHI, DEC 17 (UCAN) -- A Pakistani participant in the Copenhagen climate change summit has urged the international community to help his country through the proposed climate change fund.

The director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, highlighted the impact of rising temperatures on Pakistan's northern glaciers and the country's agriculture, speaking at the summit.

Pakistan is among the 12 countries most vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change.

Already large areas face desertification. Rainfall is said to have been reduced by 10 to 15 percent in the southwestern coastal belt over the past 40 years.

At home, Pakistani Christians have added their voices to calls for world leaders to agree in Copenhagen to a plan to deal with climate change, saying their future depends on it.

"Pakistan is a rain-deficient country and is bearing the brunt of global warming. The Church is doing what it can at the grassroots but there is need for greater cooperation before it's too late," Dominic Gill, executive secretary of Caritas Pakistan Karachi (CPK), told a crowd of concerned Catholics.

His message was echoed by Sister Alishba Waris, a St. John of God nun and member of the Columbans' Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC).

"Pakistan hardly contributed to global warming but already the winters are late this year. We pray for success of the annual climate change amid serious ecological crises," she told UCA News.

CPK's livelihood program organized a "candle light vigil for survival," one of dozens held around the world on Dec. 12 to pray for leaders at the UN climate change summit in Denmark to reach an agreement.

However, leaders of CPK, the Church's social action arm, acknowledged any agreement will be hard to reach.

"Scaling back carbon emissions has become a fierce political issue," said Mansha Noor, coordinator of CPK's livelihood program.

"It is pitching rich countries against poor and opening up divisions ... Rich nations are major contributors of pollution; they need to step back."

CPK's livelihood program is presently running schools for farmers, kitchen gardening, tree-planting campaigns and a livestock vaccination program.

Based in Lahore, the JPIC holds ecological workshops in Catholic schools. Besides organizing liturgies, and printing posters and holding performances on environmental issues, it has also published booklets on ecology.
  Conference demands a disaster response force unit in the Valley
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 16 -- A demand for setting up a unit of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) in the Valley was raised during the concluding session of a two-day orientation conference here on Wednesday.

"Officers demanded a unit of the NDRF in the Valley so that they can respond immediately during disasters," said Aamir Ali, In-charge, Disaster Management Kashmir during a programme organized by the Divisional administration Kashmir in collaboration with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

Brig V K Khanna, senior specialist, NDMA, said, "We are coming up with a unit of the NDRF at Pathankot. The demand for setting up the unit in the Valley will be taken up with the higher authorities."

He asked the authorities concerned to send a mitigation proposal and "we'll analyze it. As far as the Centre is concerned, money is not a criterion." He added that only eight such battalions existed across the country. "There are less battalions and the requirement is more. We've no such battalion in the hilly areas."

Mehraj Ahmad Kakroo, Deputy Commissioner, Srinagar said, "We deserve more consideration due to the fact that the Valley falls in seismic zone V."

The Deputy Commissioner said that theoretically disaster management sounds good "but in essence we've to do lot of preparations. We should have micro-disaster management schemes as well."

Brig Khanna said, "We'll try to do whatever we can. There seems to be a gap between districts and the Centre. Each state receives Contingency Relief Fund (CRF) and 10 per cent of it can be spent on cutters, boats and other equipment."

R K Verma, Deputy Commandant, NDRF, spoke about the facilities available with the NDRF.

Aamir said that three most vulnerable places are to be identified in every district for the mock exercise. "It is a learning process about how we can respond in disaster. We would also like to take up school safety measures. Certain schools have been identified and those can be role models for others."

A participant suggested that 5 per cent of MLAs' and MPs' constituency development fund should go for disaster management. "Our concerns should be looked into while framing plans for future."

"Our purpose is to make people aware and we want to improve on our shortcomings," said Aamir adding that mock drills will try to find out "our strengths and weaknesses, so that we are prepared well in advance in case there is an earthquake."

Representatives from various departments including police, traffic, education, Fire and Emergency Services, Srinagar Municipal Corporation, Regional Transport Office, office of Divisional Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner participated.
  Hindu, Christian ascetics come together in pursuit of common goals
NEW DELHI, DEC 16 -- A Catholic ascetic, a Hindu reformist leader and the Catholic Religious have come together to launch what they call "a second freedom struggle" to liberate India from its social and moral ills.

Swami Sachidananda Bharti, an atheist-turned-Catholic ascetic, says his dream is to "work for peace, harmony and progress" of India along with like-minded people and organizations.

He was addressing a select group of religious leaders on Dec. 14 on the release of his latest book,"An Indian face of the Christian Faith." The Conference of Religious India (CRI) hosted the program at its headquarters in New Delhi.

The book explains Indian Christian spirituality, presenting Jesus Christ as the prince of peace. The book also explains Christians' duty to work toward clear politics, environmental protection and national integration while fighting poverty and other social ills.

Swami Agnivesh, a Hindu reformist leader, launched the book stressing the role of religions in fighting the socio-economical poverty of India, which he said keeps the country in the clutches violence.

"We gained political independence" from the British in 1947 after decades of struggles. "But the biggest challenge we face is today; we still do not have social, moral and economic freedom," Swami Agnivesh said.

He said it is time religions came together to launch a "second independent struggle" to liberate India from its age-old social ills. "We all practice the same old tradition of fight between caste, creed and religion," he regretted.

The Hindu ascetic says real change can happen only if people begin to think differently. Social change is needed to liberate people from hate and selfish motive. There can be no peace in the world unless social evils are fought, he asserted.

Swami Agnivesh, chairperson of Bandhua Mukti Morcha (bonded labor liberation front), a voluntary group, said he would be happy to work with Swami Sachidananda Bharti and CRI for a social change.

Swami Sachidananda Bharti, said he wants to join with Swami Agnivesh "who is already in the field" and the CRI members who run thousands of schools and medical facilities across India, especially in villages.

Swami Bharti, a former Indian Air Force officer, was born Christian but remained an atheist for years. He changed after a close encounter with death in an air accident in 1982. He says he was saved by "some supreme power." His search for that power led him to Jesus.

Brother Mani Mekkunnel, CRI national secretary, welcomed the two ascetics coming together, calling it history. "It is history being made here, where two swamis coming together for the noble cause," he told the gathering.

The Montfort Brother noted the two ascetics work for peace and harmony in the country. "We will be happy to be partners with them. The Religious also advocate harmony among all religions," he added.

Source: UCAN report by Bijay Kumar Minj
  Vatican: Pope warns of looming ecological crisis
By Gerard O'Connell, Special Correspondent in Rome

VATICAN CITY, DEC 16 (UCAN) -- Pope Benedict XVI has called on all states and the international community to take common urgent action to protect the natural environment.

His call came in his message for the next World Day of Peace which the Catholic Church will celebrate worldwide on Jan. 1, 2010. The Vatican sent the message to all world leaders.

The Vatican released the message on Dec. 15 as leaders from 192 countries attending the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen struggled to reach an agreement on how to combat global warming.

In the message, entitled "If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation," Pope Benedict reminds world leaders that "it would be irresponsible not to take seriously" the "signs of a growing crisis."

That crisis, he said, includes "climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, and the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions."

It also gives rise to "the growing phenomenon of 'environmental refugees,'" he added.

The Pope indicated some ways to address the crisis, such as the use of solar energy and by giving attention to the problem of water.

Above all, he insisted on the urgent need for humanity to engage in "a profound cultural renewal" so as to "rediscover" values -- such as solidarity -- that can serve as a "basis for building a brighter future for all."

He emphasized the role civil society, NGOs and the Church can play in promoting this cultural renewal.

"We can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new lifestyles," he stated.

He called for the development of "a broad global vision" that gives rise to "a responsible common effort to move beyond approaches based on selfish nationalistic interests towards a vision constantly open to the needs of all peoples."

The message was presented at a Vatican press conference by Cardinal Renato Martino, former president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who described it as "a realistic, but never catastrophic reading of the current ecological crisis."

He said Pope Benedict "underlines the negative effects of human conduct, but without ever losing hope in the intelligence and dignity of man" to resolve the crisis. Indeed, the Pope sees this crisis as "a providential opportunity" for humanity to change direction, said the cardinal.
  Police, Catholic church warn against hasty marriages
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, DEC 16 (UCAN) -- Kerala's police and Catholic bishops are urging people to take greater care when marrying fellow Indians who are working overseas.

Both the Church and police say many hasty marriages with people working overseas end in divorce and they often lead to cases of fraud when the backgrounds of partners are not properly checked. There have also been cases where partners are already married.

Most marriages are arranged through the family or marriage bureaus.

People realize the situation only after the marriage, said state police chief Jacob Punnoose. His department has issued guidelines for marriage with non-resident Indians (NRI) including how to make proper inquiries about marriage partners.

Punnoose, a Catholic, said his department wants to provide "a helping hand" to the public and check crimes related to hasty NRI marriages.

The police guidelines issued on Dec. 14 came two days after the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council (KCBC) announced a policy on conducting marriages of Catholics working overseas.

KCBC spokesperson Father Stephen Alathara says the Church had noticed in recent years a large number of marriages of Indians working abroad ending in divorce. The KCBC drafted a set of guidelines for NRI marriages applicable to Catholics of all three Church rites -- the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites -- in the state.

The guidelines urge parents to check the visa status and salaries of their children's prospective partners and familiarize themselves with immigration rules of the various countries. They should also get contact numbers of embassies and keep police informed about the couple's travel plans after marriage.

Father Alathara said the Church would make it mandatory to announce an upcoming marriage on three Sundays in parish churches of both partners.

The new guidelines stipulate that the marriage partners should produce certificates from the priest in charge of their overseas parish about their marital status.

If such a certificate is difficult to obtain, as in the case of some Persian Gulf countries, partners should produce a status report from their employer, the guidelines state.

Father Alathara said these rules already exist but many dioceses have not followed them.

Normally, parishes conduct the betrothal ceremony on a Saturday and read out the marriage announcement for the next three consecutive Sundays. The parish priest solemnizes the marriages only after that.

However, the Church relaxed the rule to accommodate youths working overseas who come home on a short vacation.

"But hasty marriages are bound to be doomed," says Varghese Chacko, a retired school teacher. Her son, who visited the United States, met an Indian nurse who was working there and they subsequently got married in India. But it turned out that she already had an American boyfriend, who later threatened him.

Chacko said the couple divorced soon after.

Mathew Pappan, another parent, says he wants the Church to set up a help desk to verify the background of marriage partners. "Mere guidelines will not help," he said.
  Vietnam: Hue Christians welcome Christmas-exam reprieve
HUE, DEC 16 (UCAN) -- Thua Thien-Hue provincial authorities have made a concession to Christians by postponing school examinations until after Christmas for the first time.

Provincial authorities asked heads of schools and educational centers run by the government in the province "not to hold exams of the first semester of this academic year on Dec. 24-25."

It is the first province in the country to do so.

Authorities said they wanted Christian students to be able to attend religious ceremonies.

The concession comes after pleas from Church officials, and is being seen as another sign of thawing relations between Church and state in Vietnam.

This shows "that the government is gradually easing its policy toward local Christians," said Pastor Dinh Van Tu, head of a local church with 200 members.

He expressed his hope that more religious freedom will follow after Vietnam president Nguyen Minh Triet's recent meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.

Students and teachers alike have welcomed the examination reprieve.

"I am very happy not to have to sit exams on Christmas," said Nguyen Thanh Liem, a 12th-grader who will now take the exams on Dec. 29-31. The 19-year-old student said in the past he had no time to attend Christmas activities because exams were held Dec. 24-28.

Teacher John Le Hung is also pleased with the decision. He said last Christmas, he had to ask a non-Catholic teacher to fill in for him during the exam period so that he could attend Mass.

Marie Truong Thi Huong Lien, a Catholic 11th-grader, said this year's Christmas will be "a happy occasion" for her as she will be able to sing in the choir and attend recreational activities at her parish church.

Lien plans to invite her classmates to attend Christmas Eve Mass, visit the manger at local churches and share meals at her home. She says she will tell Christmas stories to her friends of other faiths.

A local priest said he welcomes the province's decision. In recent years clergy and Catholics in Hue archdiocese have asked government authorities not to hold exams on Christmas when authorities visit local parishes, he added.

The priest noted that Christmas is an international holiday so local Christians have the right not to go work.

Many local Catholics also hope Christmas will be made a national holiday in the communist country.

Despite Thua Thien-Hue's concession, schools in Vietnam's 63 other provinces and cities will hold exams this Christmas as usual.
  Sri Lanka: Priests hold Masses for former Tamil rebels
VAVUNIYA, DEC 16 (UCAN) -- Catholic priests have celebrated the first few Masses for former Tamil rebels held in camps in the country's north.

Military officials gave priests their approval for the services last week.

"We are allowed in only for religious purposes," said Father Emilianuspillai Santhiappillai, head of Vavuniya deanery in Mannar diocese, where most of the 17 rehabilitation camps for Tamil rebels are located.

The army has given permission for 10 priests to visit for three hours on Saturdays from 6:30-9:30 a.m.

Father Santhiappillai sent priests to 15 rehabilitation camps to celebrate Mass on Saturday, Dec. 12.

More than seven months after Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war ended, about 12,000 former rebels, many little more than children, are being held. Around 3,000 of the detainees are Catholics while the rest are Hindus.

The authorities say some are being rehabilitated, others face war crimes trials and some will be given amnesty. The authorities are currently interrogating the detainees to expose senior officers and associates, rebel hideouts and ammunition dumps.

Priests hold Masses in small prayer centers or in the shade of trees.

They are screened on arrival in the camps, and cameras and mobile phones are strictly prohibited. The priests are also not allowed to carry letters or messages between the detainees and their families.

"If we do not stick to the rules, there is a risk of cancellation of access to camps," Father Santhiappillai told UCA News.

Father James Pathinathar, the parish priest of St Peter's Church in the coastal city of Mullaitivu, said some Catholic detainees had not attended Mass for a decade.

He conducted services in five camps.

Thousands of his parishioners were killed, injured or disabled in the final battle on the Mullaitivu coast. Some 300,000 had fled the war zone. The priest was himself injured in the fighting.

Father Pathinathar said being able to celebrate Masses gives him a "great opportunity to build up the faith among my boys and girls." Most come from deeply religious families, he noted.

Sri Lankan authorities still will not allow access to the camps by the International Committee of the Red Cross. No civilians are allowed in but parents and relatives can meet for a limited time at the entrance to the camp.
  Indonesia: Live-in program builds understanding between Catholics, Muslims
TANGERANG, DEC 15 (UCAN) -- Young Catholics say they have learnt more about Islam after a two-day stay at a pesantren, or Islamic boarding school, in western Java.

"The young Muslims warmly welcomed us and we were involved in dialogues on our religions. The experience taught me that religions create no boundaries to relations with one other," Lucia Wenehen told UCA News.

The Dec. 12-13 live-in program for the Jakarta Catholics was organized by the archdiocese's Commission for Youth. The Muslim and Catholic participants ranged in age from 16 to 25.

Wenehen, a parishioner of Christ the Redeemer Church of Slipi in West Jakarta, said the program had opened her heart and mind to Islam and Muslims.
"I realize that there are still many people who want to accept us just the way we are. Our religions may be different but we are one in love," she said.

In all, 43 young Catholics representing 11 parishes took part, even attending Sunday Mass in the hall of Pesantren Ashiddikiyah.

It was also an eye-opener to the young Muslims.

Istiqomah, a student of the pesantren, told UCA News that the program had brought her closer to young Catholics.

"All I knew before was that Catholics worship Jesus and they have holy scriptures and are led by priests. I have never got involved in a dialogue like this before," she said.

Istiqomah said the interaction had given a better understanding of her faith to the Christians. "Thanks to the program, young Catholics now understand that Islam is not related to terrorism," the 17-year-old said.

She now hopes young Muslims will pay a return visit to young Catholics so as to maintain contact.

Another young Muslim, Mohammad Yusuf, admitted that the program helped remove "prejudice ... that had separated us."

Wenehen said she would share what she has learned from the program with her fellow parishioners.

"I will tell them of the good values of Islam and that we must have an initiative to dialogue with Muslims," she said.

The founder of the pesantren, Kiai Hajj Nur Iskandar, told the young people that they should no longer talk about the differences between them because it would only create prejudice and fanaticism.

"Prejudice and fanaticism divide people from different religious backgrounds. But in fact, we all are God's creation," he said.

The head of the archdiocese's Commission for Youth, Father Antonius Suyadi, said the program was designed to create bonds between the two groups.

"We want to invite young Catholics to experience the life of young Muslims living in this pesantren and to dialogue with them as well. We want to develop fraternity between young Catholics and young Muslims," he said.
  Gulmarg gears up for snow festival
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 15 -- World famous ski resort Gulmarg is all geared up for its annual snow festival, scheduled for the end of December.

Several competitions, including the National Junior Alpine Ski Championship and the State Ski Championship will be held during the festival.

"The snow festival will be held from December 24 to 26, during which several events, including night skiing, cultural programmes, FAM tours and the National Ice Championship will be held," said Nawang Rigzin Jora, Minister for Tourism and Culture, adding that the event will kick-start the winter season that will culminate with the National Cross Country Ski Championship to be held from March 11 to13.

"With the commissioning of the Gulmarg Gandola Cable Car facility, accessibility to the Affarvat range has increased, as did the number of foreign tourists. Private hoteliers hope to receive a record number of foreigners, this year, too," Jora said, after inaugurating a Trekking Hire Equipment shop on the Department of Tourism premises, here, on December 9.

Explaining the measures taken to ensure the safety of skiers, the minister said, "The Tourism Department has engaged accredited foreign experts who will head ski patrol teams and work in partnership with local officials."

Jora said the team would work from December 15 till the end of the skiing season. "Heli-skiing will also be revived. Negotiations with concerned companies are in progress."

The minister said that the Department of Tourism was exploring the ski potential of other areas and snow carnivals will be held at Doodpathri and Aru (Pahalgam). "An ice skating championship is being held at Leh, as part of this year's winter games."

"Thirty ski coaching camps will be organized from the first week of January to the end of February," said Jora.

The University of Kashmir is also organising ski courses for its students at Gulmarg in collaboration with the Tourism Department. Sixty students are expected to participate in basic and advanced courses scheduled for next month.

"Students with some elementary knowledge of ski are preferred. The idea is to sharpen the skills of students so that they can compete at the national and international levels," said University officials, adding that it was unfortunate that Kashmir ski players were not highly rated.
  One-foot long butterfly found on church school campus
  From Perumal Koshy

PATHANAMTHITTA, DEC 15 -- The students and staff of the Marthoma Centre for Rehabilitation and Development (MCRD) had a pleasant surprise when they found a large butterfly on the campus. (See photograph alongside.)

The school has a 36-acre campus located at Thelliyoor in Pathanamthitta District and is managed by the Marthoma Church.

The butterfly was found in a secluded area which is being maintained as a mini forest. It is one foot long and has all the colours of the rainbow. The tail portion of the wings resembles a snake's head.

The scientific name of the butterfly is 'Attacus Atlas'. It is supposed to be the largest butterfly in the world.

The campus also houses Navajyothi School, a special school for the mentally challenged kids, since 1981.
  Sri Lanka: Oblate seminary marks 50 years of service
KANDY, DEC 15 (UCAN) -- As many Religious orders struggle to find new members, the major seminary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), celebrating 50 years in Sri Lanka, has seen strong growth in the number of students.

From just 15 in 1981, the number of priests in training has risen to 28 this year.

The congregation arrived in Sri Lanka in 1847 and now has nearly 300 Oblate brothers and priests working in the country, including the troubled Jaffna province.

The congregation is seeking new missions to promote ethnic harmony and is sending Religious to other Asian countries including Bangladesh, Japan, South Korea and Pakistan.

Father Reginald Lucian, who heads the Oblate seminary in Kandy, says his congregation members have also been at the forefront of work to pick up the pieces of broken lives in the wake of the country's decades-long civil war.

"Some of our brothers recently worked in the camps of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), looking after them, feeding them, bathing them and helping them as part of their work," said Father Lucian.

Father Clement Waidyasekara, who heads the Oblates' Colombo province, said: "It's our challenge to respond to people's needs, aspirations, hopes and grief during the post-war period in the country, taking into consideration especially the future of the injured, traumatized, families without breadwinners, displaced people of the north and war victims."

Father Joseph Srinath, who was ordained in 2009 as an Oblate priest, agrees. "Practical experiences have made us aware of what is happening around us and the real challenges faced by the ordinary flock in their day-to-day work," he says.

"This has given us a clear understanding about our vocation and it is an important part of our formation."

Oblate superior general Father Wilhelm Steckling visited Sri Lanka and participated in the seminary's golden jubilee celebrations on Dec. 8.

"We are called for an integral formation. For us as Oblates, today's challenge is to be holy Religious, holy priests and holy brothers," said the German priest.

Father Fernand Moyses, the oldest foreign Oblate priest in the country who came from Belgium in 1946, said he is still very happy in his priesthood.

"When I came here, I knew only French but I got used to the Sri Lankan food, climate and culture and I love the Sri Lankan people," said the 90-year-old.
  China: Book highlights human rights lawyers' struggle
HONG KONG, DEC 15 (UCAN) -- A new book published in Hong Kong catalogues the struggle lawyers face when defending human rights, including religious freedom, in mainland China.

"A Sword and a Shield: China's Human Rights Lawyers" looks at the role of lawyers in the emerging weiquan (rights defense) movement and addresses the increasing harassment they and legal activists face.

Many are detained, watched by authorities, sent for "reeducation-through-labor" or are refused renewal of their professional licenses.

The book profiles 45 lawyers, mostly Protestants, who represent political dissidents, members of unofficial religious groups, and victims of natural disasters or malfeasance by state agencies or enterprises.

"They are driven by their faith and conscience to take up human rights-related cases," says Patrick Poon Kar-wai, executive secretary of the book's publisher China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG), a Hong Kong-based civil organization.

Some of the lawyers named in the book have defended so-called "house churches" -- Protestant churches located in people's homes that are not part of government-sanctioned Church structures.

One such man, Li Baiguang, a senior consultant in a Beijing law firm and a Protestant, has represented many Christians, mainly "house church" members detained for their faith, said Poon.

According to the book, he was arrested twice when he organized discussions on problems of China's political reform with law school students in 1998, and provided legal aid to peasants in Fujian province who had been deprived of their land.

Poon said some lawyers also began to represent Falun Gong practitioners upon learning of the Chinese government's oppressive treatment of the "evil cult" that was outlawed in 1999.

Poon, a member of the Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, said Catholic dioceses across China also face disputes over Church properties with local governments and property developers. In addition, some "underground" clergy face arrest or detention because of their faith.

Few Catholics have access to legal assistance, however, because they have little contact with the Protestants, who form the bulk of human rights lawyers on the mainland, said Poon.

Eva Pils, a law lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said at the book launch that the government's suppression of such lawyers have forced the human rights movement in mainland China to re-emerge in other channels. These include the Internet, street protests and artworks, said Pils, who contributed an article in the book.

The book was launched on Dec. 10 to mark Human Rights Day.

CHRLCG published 1,000 copies of the English book, while another 1,000 copies of the Chinese edition will be published in January 2010 to mark the group's third anniversary.
  Bangladesh: 'Country's climate-fund demands too low'
  DHAKA, DEC 14 (UCAN) -- Prominent Church people say the claim by Bangladesh for 15 per cent of any climate change adaptation fund, that may be pledged at the Copenhagen talks, may not be enough.

"Our people are not only suffering from sea-level rise and cyclones but also more people each day become refugees because of river erosion which is an effect of climate change too," Benedict Alo D'Rozario, executive director of Caritas Bangladesh, told UCA News.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is expected this week at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen to demand 15 per cent of the fund which is to help at-risk nations adapt to climate change.

D'Rozario said that his country's claim was based on forecasts that Bangladeshis would represent 15 per cent of the estimated 100 million climate refugees in the world in years to come.

That figure, however, does not give the full picture apparently. "Already, we have five per cent of the world's climate refugees mostly caused by river erosion and recent cyclones," he said. "If we estimate there will be another 15 per cent in coming years, then we could demand at least 20 per cent from the fund."

D'Rozario says that seawater also increasingly encroaches on the land damaging livelihoods.

"For the last seven months, since Cyclone Aila hit, people of Gabura and Paddapukur in the country's southwestern district Satkhira have not been able to return home," he said. Now they are either living in temporary shelters on higher ground or have left the area entirely.

Thomas Costa, a Catholic freelance consultant on development programs, agrees that Bangladesh's demand on the fund will need to be increased.

"Certainly Bangladesh deserves more than 15 per cent of the climate adaptation fund but it would not be appropriate if it is calculated according to percentage only," said Costa, who is also a teacher of anthropology at Dhaka University, said.

"Actual needs have to be justified based on (climate change) effects on the coastal belt areas, river erosion and effects on marshy land."
  Churches agree to end 'sheep stealing' at Bhopal meet
BHOPAL, DEC 14 (UCAN) -- Churches in Madhya Pradesh have agreed not to poach one another's members, saying this threatens Christian unity in a state where Christians already face sporadic violence.

The practice of "sheep stealing" also confuses Christians and helps groups hostile toward them carry out their designs easily, concluded some 100 leaders of various Churches who met Dec. 12 in the state capital, Bhopal.

Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, head of the Catholic Church in the central Indian state, chaired the meeting organized by the archdiocese's commission for ecumenism and dialogue.

The prelate urged participants to refrain from trying to attract members of other Churches to their own. This creates divisions among Churches, he noted.

The prelate also appealed for all denominations to refrain from badmouthing one another or other religious communities, especially during preaching, since this violates Christ's teaching of love, harmony and peace.

Asked about the gravity of the "sheep stealing" problem in Madhya Pradesh, Archbishop Cornelio told UCA News that no official survey has been conducted so far, but "it is very visible and threatening to Church unity."

He said there is also a worrying trend of small Church groups suddenly appearing in the state. These preach against other groups and then disappear quickly, leaving "enough fodder for trouble."

He said the main victims of these groups are the mainstream Churches.

Reverend C.D. Singh of the Disciples Church, who attended the meeting, told UCA News conversion attempts from other denominations were the "biggest challenge" he has faced so far. People keep moving from one Church to another, he noted.

"I went to the Churches where some of my parishioners had joined and I found the prayer services there were very effective. So I changed the prayer service in my Church to deter believers from leaving," he said.

Reverend Singh blamed priests and pastors for people changing their Church affiliations. Priests and pastors, he said, should lead exemplary lives and understand their people's spiritual needs. Otherwise, they will look for an alternative, he warned.

Church of North India pastor Reverend Timothy Bankhede noted "a dangerous trend" of people setting up small sects and encouraging people to join them.

The Protestant pastor says Churches should work together to fight extremist groups that want to destroy Christianity in the state, instead of creating confusion among their people through the pilfering of followers.

Preaching the Gospel should target people who have not heard Christ's message and not those who are already Christians, he asserted.

Meeting participants agreed to set up a four-member committee to formulate measures to end interdenominational conversions and strengthen ecumenical harmony.

Madhya Pradesh has witnessed many examples of anti-Christian violence since the pro-Hindu ruling Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the state in December 2003.
  Vatican: Friendship blossoms between Holy See and Vietnam
  Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Dec. 11 in what the Vatican called a "significant stage" toward normalizing bilateral ties. Gerard O'Connell, UCA News' Special Correspondent in Rome, says the optimism is justified.

VATICAN CITY, DEC 14 (UCAN) -- At first glance, the meeting between Vietnam's President Nguyen Minh Triet's and Pope Benedict XVI failed to meet expectations. The two key achievements hoped for by Vietnamese Church leaders -- a papal visit to Vietnam and the establishment of Vietnam-Holy See diplomatic ties -- did not materialize.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons for the upbeat Vatican assessment of the meeting as "a significant stage in the progress of bilateral relations."

Firstly, it was the first time that a president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has met a Pope since the Communists took power in 1975.

Secondly, the presidential visit showed that, while there was no announcement that the Pope would visit Vietnam to mark the end of the Church's Jubilee Year on Jan. 6, 2011, the Vietnamese have not backtracked on their intention to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

That goal was first announced by then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung when he met Pope Benedict on Jan. 25, 2007, a historic visit that gave birth to a bilateral commission to plot the course to diplomatic links.

That commission first met in February this year and Triet confirmed this goal in comments to Vietnamese media.

"Vietnam is ready to boost relations with the Vatican on the basis of respecting fundamental principles of international law, thus making an active contribution to peace, cooperation and development the world over," the Vietnamese leader said he had told the Pope.

While both sides are keen to move forward, some problems still need to be resolved. These were alluded to but not detailed in the Vatican media release that expressed "the hope that outstanding questions may be resolved as soon as possible."

Diplomatic sources suggest these problems fall into three categories -- the disputed question about the role of the Church and missioners under French colonial rule; tensions between Vietnamese authorities and Catholic communities over the restitution of Church properties confiscated by the Communists; and China's relations with Vietnam, which may act as a brake on diplomatic relations.

The Vatican's positive reading of the visit is also justified because the meeting between the Pope and president appears to have gone well.

One source told UCA News that after the two leaders had talked together for 20 minutes through interpreters, the Vietnamese Foreign Minister, Pham Gia Khiem, joined them.

The mood in the Pope's library at the end of the unusually long -- 40 minutes -- private session between the two men appeared upbeat and festive.

The president presented his 12-person delegation to the pontiff amid smiles and friendly handshakes.

While the content of the conversation between the two leaders remains confidential, it is possible to gain some insights from the Vatican media statement and comments by Triet to Vietnamese media.

The Vatican said the Pope and Vietnamese president touched upon themes "concerning co-operation between Church and State," particularly in the light of Pope Benedict's recent message to the Vietnamese Church for the opening of the Jubilee Year. That message called for reconciliation within the Church in Vietnam and between Catholics and other Vietnamese.

According to Vietnamese media, Triet told the Pope that Vietnam has always respected and ensured citizens' rights to freedom of belief and considered religious followers integral to national unity.

The Vietnamese media quoted him as expressing his support to Pope Benedict for his message to Vietnam's bishops during their ad limina, or five-yearly, visit last June, in which he counseled Catholics to be good followers of Christ and good citizens.

He is said to have praised the Pope for the message he sent to Vietnam's Catholic Church for the opening of the Jubilee Year "in which the Vatican admitted mistakes committed in the past and pleaded for forgiveness."

Pope Benedict, in turn, reportedly thanked Vietnam for its support of the Vietnamese Catholic Church in the successful organization of the opening ceremony of the Jubilee Year.

Pope Benedict is believed to have asked the Vietnamese state to continue providing more opportunities for the country's Catholic Church to get involved in humanitarian, healthcare and educational activities.

Triet said the Pope hopes to enhance ties between Vietnam and the Vatican and for his part Triet affirmed this was possible with goodwill and determination from both sides.

So while the results of the meeting may not be all that the Vietnamese Church may have hoped for, it marks a new and hope-filled chapter in relations between the two states.

It remains to be seen how soon it will be before all this results in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the Holy See.
  By Matthew Hay Brown

WE sat down on Tuesday with the Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool, who on Saturday became the first openly lesbian Episcopal priest elected a bishop in the Anglican Communion.

Pending confirmation, the Annapolis woman, who since 1992 has served as a rector and canon (advisor) to the bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, will become bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Los Angeles. She would be only the second openly gay Anglican bishop in the world, after the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire threw the Protestant denomination into its current state of turmoil.

The election drew a stern rebuke from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan D. Williams, who said her confirmation would jeopardize relations in the 70 million-member church. We've got a story in Wednesday's paper.

Following is a transcript of our conversation, which started with a question about Williams' warning.

With respect to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he has a personal relationship with the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, and I leave that in their realm. Certainly, I'm not ignorant of issues in the culture and the church, so yes, I can say I anticipated some kind of reaction. You never know what kind of reaction.

I want to be quick to say that personally, I have received hundreds, maybe a thousand at this point, and one negative e-mail among all of them. I've received e-mails from all over the world -- from an 18-year-old gay man in Auckland, New Zealand, who said how proud and thrilled he was for the church. Episcopalians in the Diocese of Dallas, which is one of our more conservative dioceses, and a married couple, lay people, who wrote and sent their congratulations. A Lesbian couple who are Roman Catholic in England who said they were having such difficulty in their own church and they were so proud that the Episcopal Church was taking leadership in this way, demonstrating not only the reality of who we already are, but the inclusiveness of Jesus' love for all people.

On the role in which she now finds herself:

Well, it's very humbling, because first of all, I mean, here's one of the bylines that was said to me by one of my mentors in this diocese: 'Always remember you're a celebrant and not a celebrity.' And what that means is I'm a servant of God in Christ. And as a servant, I'm here to serve God's people. As a bishop, to be a chief shepherd of the people. And I never want to lose that centeredness in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So getting these e-mails from all over the world, that's the level of the story that's bigger than me. At which I become a symbol. And so I'm conscious of the symbolic nature of my election and hoped-for consecration, and it's very humbling. It's also very exciting, for me, you know, right now, I'm not ignorant of some people who are fearful that this will mean a real change in our relationship in the Anglican Communion. I'm more hopeful than fearful. I think it's important right now that we say to the world that we tell our story as Christians, again, centered in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that we're inclusive. That God loves everyone. That the church has his arms wide open as Jesus did on the cross and is ready to be a safe place for people, all people, regardless of who they are, to be a part of a loving community.

Are you comfortable being a symbol?

It's both a privilege and a responsibility. I feel like it's an incredible privilege to be hearing from people I don't know and who don't know me all over the world. I have a friend in Ghana who is an Anglican priest in Ghana. And hopefully, he, again, God willing, wants to attend the consecration. He's a straight man. He's married with two sons. And I and my partner, Becki, have hosted them in this country. So that's all a privilege and very exciting.

You know, it's a responsibility because people have entrusted me in this election. The people of the Diocese of Los Angeles have entrusted me to be a leader. And I feel my primary responsibility, certainly after the consent process, and after the consecration, is to the people of the Diocese of Los Angeles. But I guess that symbolic level of things going on, I hope simply to facilitate a kind of liberation for people who have felt imprisoned in various ways, either by their sexual identity, or by the color of their skin, or the fact that they're in poverty or whatever, that this is all part of God's freeing up of the world and healing and reconciling of the world.

On conservatives disappointed by her election:

I've made it a point throughout my ministry of seeking out very intentionally people who think and feel and believe differently than I do. So right now, I meet once a month with a brother in Christ, a fellow colleague in Christ, who may in fact be in pain. I've not been talking with him since the election. But we meet once a month faithfully to engage with one another. And my message to my more conservative sisters and brothers is I need you and the church needs you and you are part of this wonderful family that we hold dear. That in the Episcopal tradition we call the Episcopal Church. So I don't know what kind of pain is out there yet, and I'd like to talk and say, keep talking, know that what is most important is that we continue to come together around the table on Sunday in celebration of the Eucharist.

I'm reading a book by the late Richard Norris that talks about leadership in the church and talks about Sunday worship and gathering for the Eucharist as a rehearsal of the reign of God. A rehearsal every week of the reign of God, or sometimes more frequently. So as long as I and my brothers and sisters who may be more conservative than I -- and my brothers and sisters who may be more liberal than I, because I'm not the most liberal person on the planet, believe it or not, there are some ways in which I'm pretty conservative. But as long as we can come together at Christ's table to celebrate and receive the Eucharist, we're okay. You know, beyond that, we need to work it out, we need to engage one another, we need to continue in dialogue. The minute we can't come to the table anymore, then we're in trouble.

Are you looking forward to the job?

I am looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to there are some wonderful people I've have the honor and privilege of meeting in the diocese of Los Angeles. It's people who are far smarter than I am and have lived maybe on both coasts already know how culturally different it is. The diocese of Los Angeles is an extremely diverse, multicultural, pluralistic diocese that is really seeking to think outside the box is perhaps putting it mildly. But there are interfaith dialogues going on and creative ways of worshipping. I'm in the process of learning Spanish, because if you live in Los Angeles, half the people are bilingual if not three quarters, so I'm learning Spanish and hope to really have something of an immersion experience in living there.

Bishop Job Bruno and my other sister who was elected prior to the election, Diane Jardine Bruce, is a wonderful, wonderful person, and I look forward to meeting all the people and being challenged by the newness and the creativity. And then beneath all that it seems to me there's a yearning for community, a yearning for bonding together around the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So I'm looking forward to all of that. It's a situation in which I feel excited for the future of the whole church and I also feel excited because I know I'm going to grow. I've learned about myself that I grow most and best when I have allowed myself, usually, in response to God's call, to be put outside my comfort zone, and be challenged by the newness and difference of that.

Do you expect to be confirmed?

I'm very hopeful, having been the head deputy to General Convention for the Diocese of Maryland in four different general conventions now, in 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009, my feeling is that the Episcopal Church is moving ahead. This is a progression. It's not an earthquake or anything. We've had a lot of turmoil, a lot of conflict, a lot of dialogue, and we're moving ahead to tell our stories, our stories of faith, to claim our identity as the Episcopal Church, to be who we are as the people of God and to deal with the hurting world. To deal with extreme poverty, to support in the ways in which we've pledged the United Nations program of the Millennium Development Goals, but also to be the church. To be the church for the world. To build community. To build up the body of Christ so we can better serve the world in Christ's name.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I'm deeply grateful. I am profoundly moved by just about everything that's going on. The convention itself was and is just a wonderful experience of feeling the Holy Spirit move in a body larger than oneself. So that no one single person who came to that convention in the Diocese of Los Angeles, no one single person had his or her own will done. That's what it meant to have the power of the Holy Spirit palpably present in a group gathered around the Eucharist, gathered around Christ. And then open to the power and movement and guidance of God's Holy Spirit. That experience in and of itself is profoundly moving.

So I'm excited. I'm excited about the future. I think this is a real hopeful sign to the world. You know, especially to young people, who sometimes look at the church and especially the institutional church and say, 'What are they talking about? What is all this stuff?' I think the Episcopal Church is particularly poised to offer hope, to engage with the future, both in terms of new technology, and art and music and science with the story of the people of God.
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  Los Angeles: Episcopal diocese elects lesbian as Bishop Suffragan
  By David W. Virtue

LOS ANGELES, DEC 13 -- In a cliff hanging election that took seven ballots, the Diocese of Los Angeles elected an avowed lesbian to be the next Suffragan Bishop of the ultra-liberal diocese, setting off an ecclesiastical fire storm around the Anglican Communion that we have not seen since Gene Robinson, a non-celibate homosexual, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire.

The Rev. Canon Mary Douglas Glasspool, 55, who now serves as a canon to the Diocese of Maryland bishops, will be the second elected homosexual bishop in The Episcopal Church, an act that is being seen as further isolating and clarifying the theological differences between The Episcopal Church and the vast majority of Anglicans worldwide who are orthodox in faith and morals.

Almost immediately, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement saying that the election of Mary Glasspool raises very serious questions, not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole.

He urged that the election not be confirmed saying it should be rejected by diocesan bishops and diocesan standing committees, and citing "very important implications" if it did.

"The bishops of the Communion have collectively acknowledged that a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary if our bonds of mutual affection are to hold."

Katharine Jefferts Schori, The Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop, told VOL that she never comments on episcopal elections and that it is keeping with her is in keeping with her established practice. There is speculation that the phone lines are running hot between Lambeth Palace and New York.

When he was confronted with a replica situation in 2003, then Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold told The Anglican Church's Archbishops that he would not lay hands on a homosexual bishop. He proceeded to do so three weeks later arguing that how a diocese voted was not in his control and he could not step back from his responsibilities as Presiding Bishop. It is expected that Jefferts Schori will argue much the same thing. In Lebanon, PA, recently she denied, when questioned, that there had been any moratorium on non-celibate bishops elected to high offices in the church.

The bishop who is pushing hardest for bishops and Standing Committees to give their full consents to Canon Glasspool is the Bishop of Los Angeles, J. Jon Bruno. He announced what amounted to a declaration of ecclesiastical independence, if not war. He was so outraged at the thought that the Church might deny her consents that he angrily wrote, "If by chance people are going to withhold consents because of Mary's sexuality, it would be a violation of the canons of this church.

"At our last General Convention, we said we are nondiscriminatory. They just as well might have withheld their consents from me because I was a divorced man and in my case, it would have been more justified than someone withholding them from someone who has been approved through all levels of ministry and is a good and creative minister of the Gospel.

"I would remind The Episcopal Church and the House of Bishops they need to be conscientious about respecting the canons of the church and the baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being."

Then he took a swipe at the Archbishop of Canterbury. "To not consent in this country out of fear of the reaction elsewhere in the Anglican Communion is to capitulate to titular heads."

According to a canon lawyer, Bruno can bring presentment charges but in the history of TEC it has always been understood that the giving of consents was a right of the Standing Committee and Bishops and could not be re-examined.

But the group most affected by his verbal onslaught is the Communion Partner bishops, those orthodox bishops still remaining in The Episcopal Church. Should they endorse Dr. Rowan William's stance not to go ahead and give consents, they could face presentment charges should Bruno and a quorum of bishops decide to do so. Mrs. Jefferts Schori would have no recourse under the canons not to charge the bishops with failure to live up to the canons of The Episcopal Church.

It would be an unholy mess made more so because these bishops are Windsor compliant. They have said they would support a Covenant, if and when all the Archbishops and bishops of the Anglican Communion ever sign one. That is not going to happen any time soon. Other groups supporting the election of Glasspool include the unofficial gay Episcopal organization Integrity which promptly saluted her election and urged her confirmation by bishops and Standing Committees. (Courtesy:

  Demand for international inquiry into Shopian incident
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 13 -- Accusing the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) of budging under political pressure in the Shopian incident, Majlis-e-Mushawarat Shopian spokesman Mohammad Shafi Khan said on Sunday that the Majlis is determined to take the case to its logical conclusion.

Majlis is a committee formed by the local residents in Shopian in the wake of the alleged rape and murder of 17 year-old Asiya Jan and her 23 year-old sister-in-law Neelofar Jan, seven months back. The bodies of these women were found in a canal outside Shopian, the morning after they went missing on May 29 when they had left home for the family orchard.

"If the CBI is sincere in its investigations, they should identify the culprits and take action against them," said Khan during a discussion programme "Shopian: A case of institutional denial" organised by Majlis and the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), here.

The spokesman added, "when the Shopian case was handed over to the CBI, we (Majlis-e-Mushawarat) welcomed it. Later, we realized that it was not in the fitness of things. We've bitter experiences about the CBI.”

Khan alleged that the Government of India (GOI) by design handed over the case to the CBI in order to shield the culprits. He demanded the Shopian incident to be probed by the United Nations so that culprits are identified.

"We have been trapped and are yet to decide whether we have to fight against the state government," said Parvez Imroz, patron, JKCCS.

Lauding the role of the Majlis, he said that the outcome of the Shopian incident was that the people belonging to various sections and different age groups came together and lodged their protest. He, however, added that the "Indian civil society has mostly observed silence over such issues in Kashmir."

Mian Abdul Qayoom, president, High Court Bar Association (HCBA), said that the Shopian incident should be probed by a team of honest lawyers and judges. He added that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) can also play its role and get the case solved.

Qayoom advocated for a public trial saying that the witnesses should give their statements before a group of reputed people. He alleged that Dr. Nighat Shaheen is being harassed by the CBI and she has, in fact, been asked to be ready for a narco-analysis test.

Dr. Nighat and Dr. Bilal were part of the first and the second team who conducted the post-mortem of the victims. Dr. Nighat was the first to confirm that Asiya and Neelofar were gang-raped before murder.
  'Once in jail, everyone disowns you' says author of 'Prisoner No. 100'
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 12 -- A day after Union Home Secretary G. K. Pillai said that dialogue would be held with the separatists in Kashmir, chairman Democratic Freedom Party (DFP) and former Hurriyat Conference (M) executive member Shabir Ahmad Shah said that the Government of India (GOI) was creating confusion among the ranks of the separatists.

Shah said Pillai's statement was mere speculation as nothing was known about the dimensions of such a dialogue.

"GOI is spreading rumors that talks are going on with some quarters in Kashmir. This is nothing but a myth. New Delhi wants to create chaos and confusion while harping on the issue of dialogue in Kashmir," said the separatist leader, during a book release function, here.

The book "Qaidi Number 100" has been authored by Zamrooda Habib, patron Muslim Khawateen Markaz (MKM). Mothers of two prisoners, Javaid Ahmad Khan and Syed Maqbool, released the book.

Shah added, dialogue was possible only when it was meaningful and result-oriented. "Separatist leaders should bury their differences, leave their ego and work under a unified platform."

He said, "If we are wrong then others should come forward and show us the right path. The recent statements of the United Jehad Council (UJC) about unification are quite encouraging. These should guide us and we should get united for the larger goal."

Shakeel Bakshi, chairman, Islamic Students League (ISL), said that the Hurriyat Conference was formed out of bonhomie between Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, former prime ministers of India and Pakistan, respectively.

"The Hurriyat constitution has been tampered with over the years," said Bakshi claiming that the conglomerate has two constitutions, instead of one.

Zamrooda Habib, author of the book, expressed disappointment that nobody owned her at the time of arrest. She said that separatist leaders asked her mother to contact United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi and seek her release.

She said that separatist leader Moulana Abbas Ansari had showed disrespect to her mother, when she approached him for Zamrooda's help. "He behaved as if I was involved in a sex scandal." She added that she has been associated with the Hurriyat since 1993.

She claimed that her arrest was fixed saying that former spokesman and the then chairman of Hurriyat Conference (M) Prof. Abdul Gani Bhat had told her mother that Zamrooda was brave enough and she could not be put behind bars for more than five years.

Zamrooda was arrested after allegations were leveled against her that she was carrying Hawala money for separatists in Kashmir. She was later lodged in Tihar jail for five years.

She said "detainees live under the impression that back home people are waiting for them and their family members are respected."

The book is available in Urdu language. "Its translation in Hindi and English would be made available in April-May. More volumes on the subject would be published," said Zamrooda.

JKLF chairman Mohammad Yasin Malik said that women formed the backbone of the "resistance movement" but expressed dismay that support from the womenfolk has come down over the years. "No movement can move ahead without women's support. We should look for reasons behind less participation of women in the movement."

He added "Zamrooda was virtually disowned by the separatists. I owned her and also the money recovered from her and the Hurriyat Conference."

Fayaz Ahmad Saudagar, president, Bar Association, Anantnag, alleged that Zamrooda was framed in a frivolous case. "False witnesses were produced and she was put behind bars for five years. I salute her determination."

Saudagar said the "Hurriyat has shown flexibility by saying that UN resolutions are not sacred and the Kashmir issue can be solved by tripartite talks."

Zahir-ud-din, human rights activist and journalist, opposed the flexibility saying "Our case is strong and there has to be no flexibility in a revolutionary movement."

Ayaz Akbar, spokesman Hurriyat Conference (G) said "strikes should be restricted to election days only. Separatist leaders should visit rural areas and make masses aware about why they exercised their adult franchise."
  Mar Thoma Church's 'Gloria in Excelsis' a hit with music lovers
  From Our Correspondent

NEW DELHI, DEC 12 -- India's first woman IPS officer and Magsaysay award winner Kiran Bedi said here today that Indians were intensely prayerful. What was needed was to live their prayers.

She was giving a Christmas message at 'Gloria in Excelsis', a Christian musical concert for world peace, organized by the Mar Thoma Syrian Church at the St. Columba's School grounds here this evening.

Mrs Bedi said living our prayers meant living for others. She recalled a recent incident when a visiting priest from the US asked her what she wanted him to pray for. She told him that all she wanted was "God's grace" so that she could serve others.

When she began living her prayers while she was in charge of Tihar Jail, people began to call Tihar an Ashram, rather than a jail. During her period, she involved all the prisoners in common prayers and other fellowship programmes so much so that there was never a riotous incident in the jail.

Mrs Bedi said she had studied in Sacred Heart School, Amritsar, and was familiar with Christian traditions, including Christmas carols. She disclosed that her NGO was taking care of the needs of children of prisoners. Many of such children were now studying in Christian schools.

Earlier, Rt. Rev. Dr. Abraham Mar Paulos, Bishop of the Delhi diocese of the Mar Thoma Church, exhorted the people to identify themselves with the marginalized and neglected sections of society. For Blessed Teresa, celebration of Christmas was not a one-day affair. She shared the love of God with the poor and the destitutes of Kolkata. That was Christmas for her.

A highlight of the programme was the cutting of a Christmas cake by Bishop Abraham Mar Paulos, a Muslim priest and Swami Agnivesh. They also released doves, symbols of peace, on the occasion.

A choir, consisting of members of various parishes of the Mar Thoma Church presented several carols on the occasion. They were conducted by Bipin Thomas, Aby Koshy, Sunny C. Varghese and Dinoo Anna Mathew. Choreography was done by the children of the Jerusalem Mar Thoma Church, Ebenezer Mar Thoma Church, St. Peter's Mar Thoma Church and St. Thomas Mar Thoma Church.

Children of All Saints Mar Thoma Church, Faridabad, presented a mime on the occasion. Archbishop of Delhi, Rt. Rev Vincent Consessao, along with others, lighted a lamp to inaugurate the programme.

Fr Dr Justine Panakal and team presented a musical concert. It was after two decades that Fr Panakal, who had composed some of the all-time hit Malayalam Christmas songs, had returned to the stage. Miss Sonal B. John presented a Bharatanatyam dance. The programme ended with the visit of Santa Claus and the singing of Silent Night. A large gathering of Christians and non-Christians attended the programme.
  Inter-eligious group opposes legalising homosexuality
  NEW DELHI, DEC 11 (CathNews) -- An inter-religious group led by Archbishop Vincent M. Concessao of Delhi has told the Indian prime minister that legalizing homosexual activities poses a grave threat to society.

Archbishop Concessao briefed the press on Dec. 11 about the outcome of the meeting the nine-member group had with the prime minister two days ago.

The archbishop noted that various religious leaders and groups have vehemently opposed the Delhi High Court's July 3 ruling that decriminalized homosexual activities.

Some religious leaders such as Baba Ramdev have appealed the Supreme Court against the High Court ruling that repealed the Indian Penal Code's 377 section dealing with the issue.

The section says, "Whosoever has carnal intercourse voluntarily against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall be liable to fine."

The prelate said the inter-faith group impressed upon the premier that homosexuality goes against the Indian culture and its decriminalization poses "a grave danger to the social fabric of society."

The archbishop clarified that Christians do not treat people with gay tendencies as criminals. "But the Church fears that decriminalizing will increase cases of HIV/AIDS," he added.

He also pointed out that Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs view homosexuality as unnatural and legalizing it would mean granting its practitioners the right to marry and raise a family. "And here lies the basic problem," he added.

Archbishop Concessao asserted all religions accept family based on marriage between a man and a woman as the fundamental entity of society.

Such a family nurtures a child in a natural environment to further God's beautiful creation. "The Creator has ordained it so that a child is the fruit of union between a man and a woman. This is the natural law," he explained.

The group included Hindu, Muslim and Sikh members, besides Christians.

Archbishop Concessao later told UCA News that the prime minister heard them patiently and said the government has no fixed opinion on the matter. Since the matter is in the court, the government would wait for the verdict, the prelate quoted the prime minister as saying.

The archbishop said the Catholic Church has many counseling centers around the country and the Church is ready to help anyone who wants to fight his gay tendencies.

Source: UCAN reported Bijay Kumar Minj
  Woman waylaid and raped allegedly by CRPF personnel
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 11 -- A woman was allegedly raped by Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in a remote village of Handwara, some 90 kms from the city centre on Friday afternoon. Both the woman and the CRPF personnel have reportedly been arrested by the Kupwara police, when reports last came in.

"The woman was on her way to Radbugh village to see her relatives. As she left Natnusa village, she was followed by two CRPF personnel and subjected to the heinous crime," said (on phone) Sonaullah, a local resident.

Natnusa is about seven kms from Handwara. The incident took place around 1 p.m.

He said, though he was not an eyewitness, he reached there when a hue and cry was raised. "We assembled there and learnt about the incident."

Sonaullah was joined by Sartaj Ahmad, a native, who said, "We heard her (woman in question) saying that she had come from Shehlal village. As she crossed Natnusa, she took a shortcut and was on her way to Radbugh when the incident happened. Hearing her cries, some women and labourers rushed to the spot."

Both residents said that the people got furious and tried to punish the CRPF personnel. "They almost tore off their shirts and would have even killed them. But timely action by the police saved them. The police intervened saying the law should take its course against them. They took them (both CRPF personnel and the woman) along. We don't know what happened after that."

A social activist who did not want to disclose his identity said, "I came to know that she has no relative in Radbugh. I tried to find out her relatives as it was said that she was on the way to meet them. I simply wanted to inform them. She is a married woman. Other than this there are no details available about her, so far."

A group of residents said, "Such an incident had happened in the past as well, but it was not highlighted. We don't want same thing to be repeated again and again. Truth has to come to the fore."

A senior police official at Handwara said on conditions of anonymity, "some incident has hapened at Natnusa. The Kupwara police can give better details as it falls within their jurisdiction."

However, when the Kupwara police station was contacted, there was no response. Repeated efforts to contact the PRO of CRPF also failed.
  Bombay archdiocese insists on short sermons
  MUMBAI, DEC 11 (UCAN) -- Bombay archdiocese has told its priests to keep their homilies short and to the point.

"Some priests are still preaching for 20 minutes or more, which is strongly discouraged," says Auxiliary Bishop Bosco Penha, president of the Commission for Word and Worship in Bombay archdiocese.

In an official circular titled "Liturgical Renewal: Faithfulness of Christ -- Faithfulness of Priest," the prelate says the homily is an important part of the liturgy and must be given by an ordained minister.

The circular, published on Dec. 5 in the archdiocese's 160-year-old weekly, "The Examiner," directs that a sermon should develop some points of the readings or another text from the Mass of the day. "It should be well prepared and to the point."

Bishop Penha also discouraged priests from resorting to modern techniques to deliver their homilies. "The PowerPoint presentation and question-answer sessions should be used sparingly, as they take away the reverence due to the Eucharist," he explained.

The prelate also ruled out staging skits during Mass.

His circular evoked mixed reactions among Catholics in India's largest diocese.

"Firstly, the homily is extremely important for people in the pews as it is the only ongoing catechesis for laity," said Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, assistant coordinator of Ecclesia of Women in Asia, a forum of Asian Catholic women theologians.

She says there should not be "a hard and fast" rule on a sermon's duration. If a sermon is boring, "even three minutes is too long," remarked the mother of three and parishioner of Holy Name Cathedral.

Gajiwala supports the use of modern tools during sermons. In her view, PowerPoint presentation and skits make the preaching interesting and do not necessarily diminish reverence for the Eucharist.

Arun D'Souza, a parishioner of St. Victoria Church, agrees with the bishop that homilies should be short and relevant, noting that many tend to meander.

But the 38-year-old said skits are a good thing because they not only help people's participation but also deepen their faith. "Skits make the Masses rich spiritually and help the laity remember a message long after the Mass is over," he said.

Charlotte Rodrigues, a Catholic media professional, wants homilies to relate to real issues as well as be short and relevant.

A big clock is kept inside the entrance of her St. Dominic Savio Church to help the celebrant priest keep time, she noted. A priest with good oratorical skills should not be deprived of modern tools to convey his message, she added.

Father Anthony Charanghat, archdiocesan spokesperson and editor of "The Examiner," pointed out that the homily "is meant to be a one-on-one between the priest... and his parishioners."

He believes media tools can help to convey the homily's message and do not necessarily distract from it.

"The Pope has strongly encouraged us to use technology to reach out to the masses, but it cannot be the end of all our interaction with the faithful," he noted.
  Sri Lankan President drops by revered Marian shrine
  COLOMBO, DEC 11 (UCAN) -- President Mahinda Rajapaksa and parliamentarians have made a brief visit to the popular Madhu Marian shrine and participated in a special afternoon prayer service.

On Dec. 9, Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar and priests welcomed the Buddhist president, state officials, armed forces commanders, parliamentarians and around 500 Tamils who were brought from nearby refugee camps and villages.

According to church sources, the visit was arranged on short notice at the request of the presidential secretariat in Colombo.

The northern shrine can attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims for major Marian feasts. It is popular even among Buddhists and Hindus owing to healing powers attributed to the statue of Our Lady of Madhu enshrined in the 17th-century church.

Shrine administrator Father Barnabas Fred Desmond Culas told UCA News, "The president and his party all participated in a 20-minute benediction, conducted in Tamil and Sinhalese."

Soon after the service, the military returned the Tamils, who had been displaced as a result of the decades-long civil war in the country. Clashes had occurred in the area around the shrine, which served as a makeshift refugee camp for years. The government proclaimed victory after overrunning the last Tamil rebel base in May.

According to Bishop Rayappu, the resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees was not discussed during the visit since the government has pledged to complete the resettlement of 130,000 refugees before the end of January.

According to state reports, about 170,000 of 300,000 Tamil refugees placed in government-run camps in the predominantly Tamil north have been released.

Instead, Rajapaksa discussed with the bishop and priests issues such as the development of the shrine and the government allowing more pilgrims to visit on weekdays.

"The president agreed in principle to improve facilities for pilgrims, and provide a proper water supply to shrine," the bishop said.

The president also pledged to do everything possible to settle misunderstandings between Tamil and Sinhalese communities and to re-establish democracy, peace and unity, according to state officials.

Before the president left the shrine, Bishop Rayappu presented him with a picture of Our Lady of Madhu.

The president later proceeded to a former battleground on the eastern coast to unveil a memorial to soldiers who died in battle.

Because of the civil war, the government in 2005 barred pilgrims from visiting the shrine in large numbers due to security concerns. Rebels had controlled the area until last year.

After proclaiming victory, the government lifted the ban for pilgrims visiting on weekends. About 300,000 devotees gathered for the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother on Aug. 15, after the government declared "no limit" to the number of visitors during this occasion.

In Colombo on Dec. 4, Caritas Sri Lanka officials urged presidential adviser Basil Rajapaksa, the president's brother, to open the Medawachchiya-Madhu road during the coming Christmas season to facilitate pilgrims' travel to the shrine.
  Pakistan: Christians provide Christmas cheer for poor
  KARACHI, DEC 11 (UCAN) -- Catholics and Protestants have mounted a joint Christmas campaign, at a church they share, to help needy widows.

Since the beginning of Advent, Catholic and Protestant youths have been manning a collection point they set up outside Calvary Church in Pahar Ganj, a Christian neighborhood in North Nazimabad Town, Karachi.

Various Christian denominations share Calvary Church in this southern metropolis. The collected donations of food and clothing are being stored in an adjacent hall they also use for conventions.

Blessed Christian Foundation (BCF), a coalition of 25 Churches, launched the ecumenical donation drive on Dec. 4. Advent, the four-week preparatory period for Christmas in the Church's liturgical calendar, began this year on Nov. 29.

"We have collected 9000 rupees (US$ 108) and several items of clothing so far. Pamphlets for donations have also been distributed among hundreds of Christian families," Daniel Murad told UCA News. The Catholic youth said the donations will be given to 70 widows on Dec. 20.

BCF has been helping Christian widows and their children since it was founded in 1993.

However, it is not the only Christian organization working to help widows. The pastoral team of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore, northeastern Pakistan, is also continuing an annual tradition of distributing gift hampers of basic commodities to widows around Christmas.

Every Sunday in Advent, Sister Teresa Yaqoob stands with lottery tickets at the entrance of Holy Cross Catholic Church in a Christian community in Lahore. "It's not about winning prizes, you are supporting those in need," she tells parishioners. Each ticket costs 10 rupees.

The Franciscan Tertiary Sister of Lahore has so far sold 2,000 rupees' worth of tickets. "Several nuns, catechists and laypeople are also selling lottery tickets. Food hampers will be bought from what has been raised and given to widows on Dec. 20 after a small Christmas fun fair at the cathedral," she told UCA News.

Meanwhile, younger members of St. Joseph's Church in Hyderabad are collecting food hampers and bottles of mineral water for tribal people in the Thar Desert, along Pakistan's southeastern border with India.

Franciscan Father Samson Shukardin said he has had young people raising funds door-to-door since his last visit to Nagarparkar, Sindh province, in late October.

"During winter nights, the temperature drops to less than 9 degrees Celsius in the Thar Desert. Water and warm clothing are the best possible gifts for them," he told UCA News.
  Pakistan: Christians provide Christmas cheer for poor
  KARACHI, DEC 11 (UCAN) -- Catholics and Protestants have mounted a joint Christmas campaign, at a church they share, to help needy widows.

Since the beginning of Advent, Catholic and Protestant youths have been manning a collection point they set up outside Calvary Church in Pahar Ganj, a Christian neighborhood in North Nazimabad Town, Karachi.

Various Christian denominations share Calvary Church in this southern metropolis. The collected donations of food and clothing are being stored in an adjacent hall they also use for conventions.

Blessed Christian Foundation (BCF), a coalition of 25 Churches, launched the ecumenical donation drive on Dec. 4. Advent, the four-week preparatory period for Christmas in the Church's liturgical calendar, began this year on Nov. 29.

"We have collected 9000 rupees (US$ 108) and several items of clothing so far. Pamphlets for donations have also been distributed among hundreds of Christian families," Daniel Murad told UCA News. The Catholic youth said the donations will be given to 70 widows on Dec. 20.

BCF has been helping Christian widows and their children since it was founded in 1993.

However, it is not the only Christian organization working to help widows. The pastoral team of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore, northeastern Pakistan, is also continuing an annual tradition of distributing gift hampers of basic commodities to widows around Christmas.

Every Sunday in Advent, Sister Teresa Yaqoob stands with lottery tickets at the entrance of Holy Cross Catholic Church in a Christian community in Lahore. "It's not about winning prizes, you are supporting those in need," she tells parishioners. Each ticket costs 10 rupees.

The Franciscan Tertiary Sister of Lahore has so far sold 2,000 rupees' worth of tickets. "Several nuns, catechists and laypeople are also selling lottery tickets. Food hampers will be bought from what has been raised and given to widows on Dec. 20 after a small Christmas fun fair at the cathedral," she told UCA News.

Meanwhile, younger members of St. Joseph's Church in Hyderabad are collecting food hampers and bottles of mineral water for tribal people in the Thar Desert, along Pakistan's southeastern border with India.

Franciscan Father Samson Shukardin said he has had young people raising funds door-to-door since his last visit to Nagarparkar, Sindh province, in late October.

"During winter nights, the temperature drops to less than 9 degrees Celsius in the Thar Desert. Water and warm clothing are the best possible gifts for them," he told UCA News.
  Past students uphold late Jesuit educator's ideals
  KOLKATA, DEC 11 (UCAN) -- Three years after a Jesuit priest's death, his former students and associates are keeping alive his ideals through various social activities.

About 80 people met on Dec. 9 at Jesuit-run St. Xavier's College in Kolkata to mark the anniversary of Father Gerard Beckers' death.

Principal Father Felix Raj told UCA News the meeting was the first gathering of past and present students to remember a Jesuit teacher in the college. Some fellow Jesuits were among the participants.

The late Belgian-born priest was "a force" in the college without occupying any top posts, Father Raj said.

Father Beckers encouraged his students to get involved in social activities by opening units of the All India Catholic University Federation and the National Service Scheme, a youth movement for social action, the principal recalled. He also started Ananda Bhavan (bliss home), a hostel for tribal boys; and the Students' Health Home, a voluntary health organization.

Snehasis Sur, secretary of St. Xavier's College Alumni Association who organized the Dec. 9 program, said people touched by Father Beckers' spirit of service want to emulate his example.

Some former students have already begun projects in the priest's memory, such as building houses and roads for survivors of Cyclone Aila in Bolakhali, also in West Bengal state. They have also launched emergency disaster management in affected areas, he added.

Cyclone Aila struck West Bengal and neighboring Bangladesh in May, causing extensive damage.

Sur, a television journalist, said the gathering offered the late Jesuit's students, associates and friends a chance to examine their commitment to socially neglected and marginalized people. He added that the alumni association has set up a separate scholarship for tribal students of the college.

According to Father Raj, the college viewed the meeting as an occasion to dedicate itself to the late priest's social concerns. Father Beckers' "revolutionary spirit and love for transformation" are alive among his students and associates who fondly called him "Babu," a respectful but friendly term, he explained.

Father Beckers taught chemistry in the college for 25 years. He came to India in 1954 and became a citizen in 1978. He died at the age of 82.
  Hindu surgeon hails Church's contribution to medicine
  PANAJI, DEC 11 (UCAN) -- A Hindu neurosurgeon has hailed the Church's contribution to health care, and observed how faith and medical science can unite to serve mankind.

Medicine and faith were closely intertwined right at the dawn of civilization, but they parted ways as man began to progress, said N. Jindal, dean of Goa Medical College and Hospital, Asia's first medical school.

The guest speaker at the annual celebration of the All Indian Mission Seminary in Pilar noted that unexplained miracles continue to happen despite great medical advances. He cited the results of a survey in his hospital that showed patients who were prayed over responded better to treatment compared to other patients.

These miracles defy all scientific logic, Jindal said, adding that the medical world is rediscovering the role of faith in the healing process. He identified faith as "a very important component" in the healing of patients and asserted that religion and medical science can complement one another.

The Hindu surgeon also hailed the Church's historical role in developing medicine and hospitals. Its "greatest contribution" in India has been to take up healing of the sick as its mission, he added.

On the other hand, he lamented that modern medical gadgets have made physicians rather mechanical in their treatment, sometimes alienating them from patients.

Jindal called for a revival of the personal, human element in medical treatment. This healing touch comes from religion, he added.
  Vietnam: Church leaders hopeful about president's meeting with Pope
HO CHI MINH CITY, DEC 10 (UCAN) -- A papal visit to Vietnam and establishment of Vietnam-Holy See ties are what local Church leaders hope will be discussed during a meeting between their president and Vatican officials.

President Nguyen Minh Triet is scheduled to meet Pope Benedict XVI and other Church officials on Dec. 11 at the Vatican. Triet is presently on a Dec. 9-12 visit to Italy.

Many people would like to see "Vietnam and the Vatican establish diplomatic ties soon," said Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Ho Chi Minh City. He noted that recent goodwill gestures between both sides have created favorable conditions for the establishment of closer relations.

The cardinal also hopes the upcoming meeting will be an opportunity for the two sides to further mutual understanding and overcome any disagreements through dialogue and mutual respect.

After communist forces reunified Vietnam in April 1975, the government expelled foreign missioners and severed diplomatic ties with the Holy See.

A senior priest in Ho Chi Minh City said Triet's planned visit to the Vatican shows that Vietnam wishes to restore ties soon.

He hopes both sides will discuss concrete steps toward this "for mutual benefit" and expects the restoration would help Vietnam fully integrate into the international community and enhance its international status.

The priest pointed out that the government has gradually relaxed its religious policies since January 2007, after Nguyen Tan Dung, prime minister at the time, made a historic visit to the Vatican and met Pope Benedict.

He also noted that on Nov. 24, state-run Vietnam Television reported for the first time on a major Church event. It gave 15 minutes of coverage to the opening of the local Church's Jubilee Year 2010 celebrations.

The celebrations mark the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the first two apostolic vicariates in Vietnam and the 50th anniversary of the setting up of the Vietnamese Catholic hierarchy.

The priest has observed that local Church and government officials are starting to have constructive dialogue on religious and social issues.

He added his hope that Triet will invite the Pope to visit in 2011, when the Jubilee Year celebrations close at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang, the national Marian shrine, in Hue archdiocese.

Cardinal Man said he believes a papal visit is likely. He recalled that in June, officials from the Bureau for Religious Affairs "reminded" Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi, secretary general of the Vietnam Bishops' Conference, to invite the Pope to visit Vietnam.

The Vietnamese bishops were in Rome from June 22 to July 4 to visit the Pope and report on their dioceses to Vatican departments. All bishops are expected to make these ad limina visits every five years.

During that trip, Bishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon of Da Lat, head of the bishops' conference, invited Pope Benedict to visit Vietnam.

A papal visit would also require a formal invitation from the government.
  Bangladesh: Missionaries of Charity Brothers empower abandoned boys

KHULNA, DEC 10 (UCAN) -- Ranjit Biswas and Ashim Gomes have more in common than having physical disabilities and being abandoned by their families when young.

Both men received an education and are able to support themselves thanks to the Missionaries of Charity (MC) Brothers.

Every person living in Shanti Bhaban (home of peace) "has a grieving past," notes Brother Joseph Murmu, who is in charge of the center for boys with physical and intellectual disabilities in Khulna diocese.

Some of their families "refused to take care of them," he said when interviewed recently. Other families could not afford the cost of treatment and other expenses for the children and brought them to the home.

"We nurture them with love and care because we believe that they are children of God and have the right to live a full life. We live with them like a family," Brother Murmu said.

Children born with disabilities are often seen as a curse in local society, especially among poor and less-educated families, and are sometimes thrown out onto the streets to face an uncertain future

The MC home in southern Khulna diocese has been a beacon of hope since 1976 for these helpless and destitute boys. The center, located near the Catholic cathedral in Khulna, southwestern Bangladesh, remains to this day the only free-of-cost Catholic Church center for boys with disabilities.

Biswas and Gomes told UCA News their stories.

Biswas, now a Catholic, was born in 1985 with normal use of only one leg. His Hindu mother left him at the children's home the MC nuns run in Dhaka.

"The nuns looked after me until 1990, when I was handed over to the brothers," he recalled. "They helped me complete primary education, and when I lost interest in studies, they offered me vocational training."

He learned tailoring and can now support himself.

Gomes was born partially blind into a Muslim family. He would have ended up living on the street except for Shanti Bhaban.

"The brothers offered me everything necessary for my life including education. I passed my Secondary School Certificate examinations and later became the cook in the center," said the young man.

Now 26 and married, with two children, Gomes lives in a separate house the brothers provided.

Both stories are an inspiration to 12-year-old Russell, an autistic boy whose parents were waiting to send him off alone on a bus when the brothers intervened. He has been receiving help and support since they brought him to the center a few years ago.

In all, Shanti Bhaban cares for 35 male residents. Several, like Biswas, have been baptized at their request after living there.
  Sena leader regrets attack on nun
  PUNE, DEC 9 (CathNews) -- A Shiv Sena leader has expressed regret over his party's student wing trying to remove a nun's veil in Pune as they protested a Catholic school's admission process.

Sena MP Gajanan Babar said he regretted the behavior of the members of Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena (BVS) with Sister Mary, principal of Alphonsa School in Kalewadi on Dec. 5.

However, Babar said he was not sorry for the protest.

Some 20 BVS members barged into the school and manhandled manager Father Benny and principal Sister Mary making allegations over student admission to the school.

"The sainiks were protesting against denial of admissions to local students and interviews being held against state government norms.

"But it seems some members tried to remove the headgear of the nun. This is regrettable. It should not have happened. The headgear has religious significance," the Indian Express daily quoted him.

Babar said the school authorities have filed police complaints and BVS members are ready to face the consequences.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Association of Poona dismissed the protest as baseless as the school's nearly 2,000 students are locals, who come from nearby areas.

Association president Diago Almeida said the protest is for personal gains of some leaders and not for any common goal.

Syro-Malabar Bishop Thomas Elavanal of Kalyan, under whom the school functions, visited the school on Dec. 6. He condemned the violence and demanded action.

The police have reportedly arrested four BVS, including a woman, in the case. They were charged of rioting and not seeking police permission to register their protest inside the school.

Source: Sena leader regrets attack on nun (
  Myanmar: Fondacio program bears fruit among youth leaders
  YANGON, DEC 9 (UCAN) -- The international Catholic association Fondacio is giving young people's lives new meaning through training programs that help them serve various sectors of society.

Martin Ye Lin Htun, 23, a university student, said that attending a 10-month Fondacio program in the Philippines in 2008 and 2009 gave him the skills he needed to educate village children.

In his spare time, he also leads youth activities and praise-and-worship sessions, teaches catechism and even helps out in the rice fields in Tegyi, Mandalay archdiocese.

Established in 1974 in France, Fondacio counts just over 3,000 members, many of them young people, in 20 countries.

It works with people from different sectors of society -- youths, students, professionals, the poor, elderly, married couples and families -- and is involved in works of evangelization, formation and development.

In Asia there are Fondacio communities present in Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines.

Carolina Daria from the Philippines, who is in charge of the Fondacio youth program in Myanmar, says the group tries to reach out to youths by helping them to connect their faith with their life.

Ye Lin, who joined the local Fondacio community before attending the training program in Quezon City in the Philippines, said he is delighted to be able to better serve villagers, although he acknowledges it is a challenge.

Most village students are unable to buy stationery and textbooks, he noted. "Although some children are interested in learning, they are asked to work to support their hand-to-mouth existence, especially orphans living with their grandparents."

Ye Lin's involvement in Church work replaced his earlier reliance on alcohol. He said he used to drink every evening after working in his uncle's shop.

"One day, I got the opportunity to attend the Fondacio formation program and my life was completely changed. I'm really eager to work for the development of the villagers."

Youth activities also attracted him, "and from that time onward I've decided to work for the good of the Church."

Another youth who completed the formation course in the Philippines is Charles Kyaw Zin Hteik, 25, a youth leader of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Yangon.

Organizing the youth in the parish is a challenge, he admits: "Youths are always busy. They have no time for God and only have time for fun." So he uses sports and music to attract them to parish activities.

Fondacio launched its youth formation program in Yangon in 2005. The organization also collaborates with the National Catholic Youth Commission in organizing training programs and retreats.
  Hong Kong: Civil society groups demand release of Chinese dissident
HONG KONG, DEC 9 (UCAN) -- Christian organizations in Hong Kong have joined with other groups in demanding the release of a Chinese dissident whom mainland authorities have charged with inciting subversion and detained for a year.

On Dec. 8 morning, Hong Kong Catholic Diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission (JPC), the Protestant Hong Kong Christian Institute, and other local and foreign groups petitioned the Chinese government’s Liaison Office here to immediately release Liu Xiaobo.

Liu and other human rights activists in mainland China published "Charter 08" on Dec. 10 last year, the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The charter called for an end to one-party rule in China, greater democracy and respect for human rights.

Police detained Liu two days before its release on the Internet, but formally arrested him only in June.

During the Dec. 8 protest in Hong Kong, participants read aloud a statement, asking Beijing to comply with its constitution and implement freedom of speech guaranteed by international conventions on human rights. They demanded the release of Liu and other dissidents.

The JPC, the Protestant institute and 13 groups based in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and the United States signed the statement.

It asserted that the content and demands of "Charter 08" fully comply with the "National Human Rights Action Plan 2009-2010" that Beijing published in April. China's first such plan identifies various aspects of human rights that need to be improved.

Later on Dec. 8, Liu's lawyer, Shang Baojun, received a notice from authorities that his client's case had been transferred to the Beijing Municipal Procuratorate. This means the "investigation period" of the case is over and prosecution can begin, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Hong Kong-based concern group.

Liu, a writer, could face up to 15 years' imprisonment if he is found guilty, Shang told media in Beijing.

Or Yan-yan, a JPC official, told UCA News on Dec. 9 that she was angry that the Chinese government ignored the concern showed by many countries for Liu by going ahead with legal proceedings.

She said Liu's treatment is a human rights violation in that he has been in detention for so long and his wife has not been allowed to visit him.

The JPC will monitor the development of the case and continue to express concern, she added.

"Charter 08" made 19 demands. These included calling for a revision of China's constitution; an independent judiciary; democracy in the legislature; protection of human rights; freedom of assembly, speech and religion; abolition of political education in schools; and the creation of a federal republic.

More than 10,000 people from within and outside China have signed the charter.

Liu is the only person to have been arrested for organizing the charter, although at least 70 of the mainland signatories have been questioned or temporarily detained by the government.
  Former Church-school student charged with raping nun
  By Dibakar Parichha

BHUBANESWAR, DEC 9 (UCAN) -- The arrest of a past Church-school student charged with raping a nun has left his former principal wondering what went wrong.

Father Mathew Puthyadam recalls Gurumar Patra as a good student who showed the priest "great respect" whenever they met. "I really wonder how he changed."

Patra, now a regional general secretary of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), studied at Vijay High School in Raikia, a town in Orissa state's Kandhamal district.

The man stands accused of leading a mob that attacked a Church center in the village of Balliguda during seven weeks of anti-Christian rioting that began on Aug. 24, 2008, and left around 90 people dead. Prosecutors say he raped the nun, who has been identified only as Sister Meena, in front of onlookers.

The police produced Patra in court on Dec. 7, a day after he was arrested.

Raj Kishore, a prosecution lawyer for the riot victims, described Patra as "one of the ring leaders" of the violence.

Father Puthyadam, now parish priest in Phulbani, Kandhamal's administrative seat, is shocked and at a loss to explain how his former student became so hostile toward Christians.

The priest said Patra's mother brought him to the school saying he lost his father in early childhood and they had no money to continue his studies.

"I arranged sponsorship through a Christian aid agency for his fees as well as for him to stay in adjacent Bishop Tobar Hostel," he recounted.

Patra graduated from the 10th grade.

Students rarely maintain contact with the Church after they leave its schools, according to Father Puthyadam. As they roam around villages, Hindu radical groups recruit them and indoctrinate them against Christians.

The priest said he knows of a few other former students of Catholic schools who also led mobs that attacked Christians and Christian institutions.

Despite such dismay, Father Ajay Singh of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese, which covers Kandhamal, said the recent arrest has brought some relief to Church people and riot victims. Patra led the mob that destroyed several Church institutions in Kandhamal and later went around terrorizing witnesses in the riot cases, he said.

"The arrest is good for the people and it would enhance Orissa's image, which was dented after the riots," Father Singh told UCA News.

The police have so far arrested 19 people in connection with the nun's rape case. At least 11 people have fled.

Anti-Christian violence started after the murder of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. Police blamed Maoists for the killing but Hindu extremists blamed Christians for the murder, and started a wave of violence.

In addition to the 90 people killed, the rioting displaced 50,000, also mostly Christians. The mobs also destroyed churches and convents, and set Christian homes on fire.
  Christians reject aggressive proselytizing
BANGALORE, DEC 8 (UCAN) -- Christian groups have agreed to avoid aggressive evangelization methods in Karnataka, where anti-Christian violence continues to occur.

About 250 leaders from 11 Churches and denominations endorsed the agreement at a Dec. 1 meeting organized by the Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights in Bangalore, the state capital.

Participants resolved not to condemn or denigrate deities of other religions, or the traditions that other religious believers hold as sacred. "The beauty of our faith is tarnished and not enhanced when we denigrate others," says their memorandum of understanding.

"We have decided to work positively to build a harmonious relationship with people of all religions and cultures."

Jesuit Father Ronnie Prabhu, convener of the forum, told UCA News the document participants drew up would help them "follow a common minimum ethic and collaborate in a common plan of action."

Some Christian groups tend to evangelize aggressively, causing unhappiness among members of other religions and fueling Hindu extremist groups' charges that Christians engage in forced conversions, he explained.

The forum includes Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists and Pentecostal groups. According to Father Prabhu, it aims to project "a united vision and mission" for Christians in Karnataka amid increasing attacks on the community.

The priest, secretary of the regional Catholic bishops' commission for interreligious dialogue and ecumenism, pointed out that the Catholic Church initiated the forum a year ago.

Participants at the meeting also noted that the various Churches and denominations share the same faith, and they agreed to respect each other's identity and right to share their faith with others. However, they also stressed the need to display a common front and vision in sharing the faith, especially during crises.

The forum also protested a recent move by the Karnataka government to introduce a bill regulating religious conversions. The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party has ruled the state since May 2008.

Forum president Archbishop Bernard Moras of Bangalore, who chaired the meeting, accused the government of proposing the bill so it could continue to harass religious minorities. The Christian forum would "strongly oppose" such legislation, he said.

Archbishop Moras dismissed allegations of Christians forcing people to convert as politically motivated. "If there are cases of forced conversion, they should be established clearly in a court of law," he asserted.

Karnataka recorded unprecedented attacks on Christians in September 2008. Until now, sporadic attacks on Christian groups are regularly reported from various parts of the state.

Through the attacks, Archbishop Moras sees God sending a signal for Christians to unite. He said the forum will seek a common approach on faith, ethics and dialogue.
  Counter worldly image with proper witnessing, priests told
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, DEC 8 (UCAN) -- A cardinal has expressed grave concern over the declining respect for priests in society.

"In recent years, there has been a decline in the exalted position and recognition that priests used to receive traditionally in the Church and society," wrote Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India and head of the Syro-Malabar Church.

He blamed "unprincipled and non-transparent activities" of some priests for lowering the status of priests in general. In a pastoral letter read in all Syro-Malabar parishes during Sunday Masses on Dec. 6, the cardinal appealed to his people to pray for priests and respect them.

In a separate letter to his priests, the cardinal urged them to witness Christ in their priestly life. "All of you, both as individuals and as a community of priests, must consider this issue seriously," he stressed.

The Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches are Oriental Catholic Churches based in the southern state of Kerala, where Christians form 19 per cent of 32 million people. The Indian Catholic Church also includes the Latin rite.

According to Syro-Malabar spokesperson Father Paul Thelakat, the cardinal's anguish is justified. The priest spoke of an increasingly consumerist mentality and lack of asceticism among priests. They should rather show a spirit of renunciation amid a "competitive market culture" that compels people to possess and exploit, he said.

"This temptation of the world will affect priests unless they lead a spiritual and ascetic way of life," he added, pointing out that the Church is facing such a trend all over the world.

Father Thelakat said the cardinal was supposed to address a group of priests on Nov. 7, but could not as he was hospitalized after a heart attack. He thus decided to put his speech in writing and send it to his priests.

In his letter, Cardinal Vithayathil also regretted a lack of information among priests, who he said do not make reading a priority. He urged priests to broaden their knowledge to better help people in their care.

He wants priests to deepen their knowledge of the Bible, theology, philosophy, Church history, psychology and other subjects. "We should also make every effort to learn the documents the Church publishes from time to time, and to teach them to the people," he wrote.
  Eminent theologian's death mourned
PUNE, DEC 8 (UCAN) -- "No theologian has surpassed Father Neuner in India," Archbishop Albert D'Souza of Agra told about 1,500 mourners who attended the funeral Mass for the late Jesuit Father Josef Neuner.

Speaking to UCA News later, Archbishop D'Souza said the late Jesuit scholar brought "fresh air" into the Indian Catholic Church, with his deep and clear insights on the faith.

Father Neuner, a prominent figure at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and a spiritual director of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, died on Dec. 3 at the age of 101. He was buried the following day at the cemetery of Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth (JDV), the pontifical seminary in Pune, western India, where he had taught for several decades.

Father Job Kozhamthadam, JDV president, remarked in his eulogy at the funeral Mass in the seminary chapel that a "great tradition" of theology in India ended with his fellow Jesuit's death.

Austrian-born Father Neuner always sought new ways to serve the Church and society in India, the country he adopted in 1938. "His goal was to build up an Indian Church with a genuinely Indian Christian theology," Father Kozhamthadam explained.

The missioner spent seven years in prison camps in India during the Second World War, since he had come from a German-speaking country. However, he used the time to study Sanskrit, Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, and Indian philosophical systems, Father Kozhamthadam pointed out.

Father Neuner also inspired generations of priests and nuns with his teachings, retreats and guidance. These included Blessed Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity congregation as well as members of the Society of the Helpers of Mary congregation and various secular institutes.

According to Father Kozhamthadam, the Indian Church credits Father Neuner for helping its smooth transformation from the old "colonial Church to the genuinely Indian Church."

This he did mainly through JDV, formerly the Pontifical Athenaeum, set up in Kandy, Sri Lanka, in 1893. It shifted to Pune in 1955, eight years after India became independent.

Father Neuner helped the seminary become forward-looking and adopt a creative openness to India's social, political and cultural diversity, the JDV president said.

Jesuit Father Kuruvilla Pandikattu, a JDV lecturer, added that Father Neuner motivated hundreds of theology students to situate the Christian message within the Indian reality.

Montfort Brother Mani Mekkunnel, national secretary of the Conference of Religious India, said Father Neuner was "an authority on Church renewal" and influenced the Indian Church immensely following the Second Vatican Council.
  Pakistan: Christians prepare for 'silent Christmas'

LAHORE, DEC 8 (UCAN) -- Catholics in northern Pakistan are preparing for quiet, scaled-back Christmas celebrations as militant attacks continue to terrorize the country.

"Most of the scheduled programs are canceled due to this situation," said Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore. The celebrations will be more of a "family" affair with little "pomp and display outside," he added.

"This will be a silent Christmas. We shall discover the meaning of Christmas in a quiet way and hope for the return of harmony and peace."

The archbishop spoke to UCA News on Dec. 7, before two bomb blasts that evening ripped through a busy market in the center of Lahore, the Punjab province capital, killing at least 36 people.

A wave of deadly bombings has rocked the country since the army launched an operation in mid-October against Taliban militants in neighboring North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan.

A blast outside a district courthouse in that province's capital, Peshawar, also on Dec. 7, killed 11 people and injured 44 others.

"I was in a stationery shop several kilometers from the site when I heard a big explosion. Later, I saw a few fire engines speeding through the traffic," a catechist told UCA News.

The catechist, who did not wish to be named, said two Catholic churches in Peshawar, the city worst hit by militant attacks in Pakistan, have canceled Christmas celebrations. "Masses will be conducted but not the traditional fairs. We are praying everyday for the improvement of the situation and peace in the country," he said.

The annual outdoor Christmas fair at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Faisalabad, Punjab, also has been called off.

"The annual diocesan choir event formerly attended by thousands in the open cathedral compound will now be limited only to the cathedral building," said Father Khalid Rashid Asi, vicar general of Faisalabad diocese. "We are very cautious and all programs are being organized ... on a low-scale."

The Peshawar and Lahore blasts came less than a week after an explosion at a mosque in Rawalpindi, adjacent to Islamabad, on Dec. 4. Forty people including high-ranking army officers died, while 83 others were injured in that incident. Rawalpindi is the headquarters of the Pakistani army.

Meanwhile, prominent Muslim clerics have issued a fatwa (religious edict) declaring suicide attacks and bomb blasts "un-Islamic."
  Gloria Deo to rock Pune on December 11
  From Our Correspondent

PUNE, DEC 7 -- Pune is all set to welcome Gloria Deo, the biggest international Christmas concert in the country. Gloria Deo '09, which is being organized by Live Jam, will be held at Ishanya Amphitheatre, here, on December 11.

This annual concert brings with it the message of hope, love and compassion. Gloria Deo will showcase top artistes, including Man-hu, an Amsterdam-based rock group, Native Tongue from Hyderabad and solo artiste Bonny Andrews, also the Founder-President of Live Jam.

Live Jam is a non-profit organization aimed at imparting rays of hope to young people. Other than Gloria Deo, it also conducts campus tours, U180, and various blogs and radio shows to impact the Indian youth. This year, Live Jam will be touring three cities -- Pune, Delhi and Kochi on December 11, 12 and 13, respectively.

"We aim to bring the youth together in these times of low tolerance, divisive politics, religious conflicts and terrorist attacks. Through this initiative, we want to spread the message of charity, hope, love and unity," said Bonny Andrews, who has vast experience in the entertainment sector with exposure in performance and direction of events in New Zealand, the US, Middle East, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Man-hu is a rock band from Amsterdam strongly influenced by jazz, soul, blues and folk music. Their songs have been played on Latvian radio stations such as LKR ( and radio SWH ( The band toured Latvia in November, is in India from December 3 to 16 and will travel to South Korea in April 2010.

Hyderabad-based Native Tongue will also perform at the concert. This power trio of Benhur, Joel and Baba took Hyderabad by storm when they performed at Dosti Terminus in January, to an audience of over 10,000 young people. They have several hits to their credit, especially their 2007 album Electric Piano. With several tours in South India, Native Tongue has garnered a huge fan following among youth in the region.

Gloria Deo Pune will also see the participation of choirs from schools and colleges from across the city. The Leading Note, another Pune-based band, will also be performing on the occasion.

Those interested in attending the concert should contact Preethi Alexander (9822023723).
  Hundreds join Jesuit theologian Josef Neuner's funeral
From Priscilla Gonsalves

PUNE, DEC 7 (CathNews) -- Some 1,500 priests, nuns, seminarians and lay people attended the funeral of Jesuit theologian Father Josef Neuner here.

Father Neuner, an expert at the Second Vatican Council and a spiritual director of Blessed Mother Teresa, was buried on Dec. 4 in a cemetery in Pune's Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth (JDV), a pontifical seminary where he had taught for several years.

He died the previous day at Sanjeevan Ashram (monastery of saintly life), the headquarters of the Pune Jesuit province where had lived for 15 years. He was 101.

Archbishop Albert D'Souza of Agra led the 90-minute funeral Mass at the seminary chapel with some 60 priests assisting him.

"No theologian has surpassed Father Neuner in India," Archbishop D'Souza told the mourners. The world renowned theologian, he added, had upheld Christology (study of Christ) without "diluting the Christian faith" and being faithful to the Church teachings.

The prelate later told UCA News the Jesuit scholar brought "fresh air" in the Indian Catholic Church's thinking with his deep and clear insights in tune with the times.

JDV president Jesuit Father Job Kozhamthadam opened the Mass describing Father Neuner as "an institution" and "an extraordinary person who lived an ordinary life." With his death, "a whole great tradition" has ended, he added.

Father Kozhamthadam also said his late confrere had inspired generations of priests and nuns with his teachings, retreats and guidance. According to him, Father Neuner always thought of new ideas and means to serve the Church and nation.

Father Edward Mudavassery, Jesuit provincial of South Asia in a condolence note on Dec. 4, hailed Father Neuner as "the doyen of theologians in India" and his death ended a "theological era" in the Church.

Jesuit Father Kuruvilla Pandikattu, professor of Systematic Philosophy in JDV, said Father Neuner had motivated thousands of theology students to situate the Christian message in the Indian reality.

Jesuit Father Kurien Kunnumpuram, a former JDV president, noted that in 1999 the Vatican appointed Father Neuner to censure Blessed Mother Teresa's published works as preparatory steps for her canonization.
Source: UCAN report
  Kandhamal: BJP leader accused of raping nun arrested
  BHUBANESWAR, DEC 7 (CathNews) -- Church people in Orissa have expressed relief after police arrested the main accused in the rape of a Catholic nun during last year's anti-Christian violence in Orissa.

However, the Church workers were dismayed that the arrested, Guru Ram Patra, had studied in a Catholic boarding school aided by Catholic donor agencies. He was a resident of Bishop Tobar Hostel in Raikia.

The police produced Patra in a court in Balliguda on Dec. 7, a day after a Crime Branch team led by official D.J. Mohanty nabbed him from Nuagon market in Orissa's Kandhamal district.

Patra is reportedly the general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party in K. Nuagaon block. He allegedly led the mob that attacked the nun at K. Nuagaon village in the district on Aug. 24, 2008. He then raped her in front of others.

"He was one of the ring leaders," said Raj Kishore, a lawyer fighting the cases of victims of last year's sectarian violence.

Father Ajay Singh of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese said the arrest has brought relief to Church people and the victims. He led the mob that destroyed several Church institutions, including Jan Vikas Kendra, the archdiocesan social service center. The priest also alleged Patra had gone around terrorizing witnesses in the riot cases.

The arrest is good for the people and it would enhance Orissa's image which was dented after the riots, he added.

The arrest occurred a day after a Church delegation met Praveen Kumar, superintendent of police in Kandhamal district, to complain about increasing intimidation of witnesses.

The police official had assured the delegation that the administration would not spare any culprit.

These developments boosted the morale of some 120 representatives of various Christian denominations who met at Berhampur to seek ways to bring justice to the riot victims.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar chaired the inter-denominational pastors meet for symphony of peace and justice.

Patra, who hails from a poor family, had studied at the archdiocese's Vijaya High School in Raikia with funds from Christian donor agencies, a Church official revealed.

Sister Mary Pulickal, superior of the victim nun, said they are not told about the arrest.

She said the victim has not named her violator nor has she identified the arrested. Then how the police could make the claim of arresting the main culprit, she wondered.

"But then, one thing is true. Everybody in the locality knew who did it. Crowds saw the violations. Police also must be aware of the identity of the people involved," the nun said.

With the latest arrest, the number of people arrested in the case has gone up to 19, the officer said adding at least 11 people accused in the case are absconding.

Orissa's Kandhamal district was the focus of state-wide anti-Christian violence that followed the murder of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. Police blamed Maoists for the killings but Hindu fanatics orchestrated the violence blaming Christians.

According to Church people, the seven-week long violence killed some 90 people and displaced 50,000, mostly Christians. The rampaging mobs also destroyed churches and convents, besides setting Christian homes on fire.
Source: UCAN
  Sri Lanka: Church attacked after Sunday Mass
COLOMBO, DEC 7 (UCAN) -- Catholics have taken to the streets to demand more security after a church in Colombo archdiocese was attacked for the third time in as many years.

An estimated 200 people armed with an assortment of weapons stormed into Our Lady Rosa Mystica Church in Croos Watta, in the Ja-ela area, on Dec. 6, soon after the 7 a.m. Mass finished.

The mob, suspected to be Buddhist extremists, set about smashing construction materials and the interior of the church. Witnesses said they also tried to attack the priest, who managed to flee with parishioners. The mob then set fire to the priest's car. No one was injured in the incident.

As news of the attack spread, around 500 local Catholics protested by blocking the nearby main road. They demanded that police arrest those responsible for the assault.

Father Jude Lakshman, the parish priest, attributed the attack to "fear among the majority Buddhists of the increasing number of Catholics in the area."

Media reports said a nearby Buddhist temple had been attacked, but Father Lakshman denied the report.

Parishioner Andrew Anthony, 48, noted that a Supreme Court ruling last year overturned a police decision to ban construction work to enlarge the church and services at it. Construction and services had only recently resumed when the attack took place, Anthony pointed out.

The church was attacked twice earlier, also by suspected Buddhist extremists. In 2006, an armed mob vandalized a statue of the Blessed Mother. In 2007, all statues in the church were destroyed.

"It is our vow to complete reconstruction whatever the difficulties," asserted Samantha Perera, a farmer.

Riot police and navy and air force personnel were called in to prevent any further clashes in Croos Watta, about 25 kilometers north of Colombo. More than 300 Catholic families and 350 Buddhist families live there.

"Tensions remain high," Father Lakshman reported on Dec. 7.

At the time, police had made one arrest in connection with the attack.

A police spokesman, Senior Superintendent I.M. Karunaratne, tried to reassure the protesters by promising the attackers "will be brought to book."
  Myanmar: Church helps ethnic Karen regain their roots
  YANGON, DEC 7 (UCAN) -- Karen Catholic youths in the bustling city of Yangon are torn between the struggle to fit in and the desire to maintain their ethnic identity.

Jerome Chit Oo, 21, faces a typical dilemma. He cannot speak Karen (or Kayin), the language of his parents, having spent most of his life in the capital.

He tries to fit in with his Burman peers yet craves to communicate with his fellow Karen when he visits his parents' village.

The Catholic Church has opened a door for him and his friends.

Yangon archdiocese has approved monthly Karen-language Masses, weekend language classes and other activities such as celebrating the culturally important Karen New Year. These and a traditional dance group that also keeps these youths in touch with their heritage are based at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish.

The young Karen are grateful for the opportunity.

"By attending Mass and language class regularly, I believe we can improve our conversational, reading and writing skills," Chit Oo told UCA News recently.

Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), the shortwave radio station of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, also runs a Karen service program.

Karen elder Joseph U Kyaing, 61, believes it is important for young members of the community to speak their own language and be able to fully celebrate the Eucharist as well as their New Year, which falls on Dec. 16, in Karen.

"We have no chance to teach our children and are now encouraging them to attend the language classes, because it's shameful for us if we cannot speak our language," said U Cyril, 70, another elder.

Jennifer Walla Oo, 17, who passed her matriculation exam recently, acknowledged most Catholic Karen youths in Yangon do no know their own language. "I understand a little bit," she said, "but am unable to speak it."

The Karen, believed to have migrated from the Tibetan plateau centuries ago, are now mainly farmers concentrated in the hills of eastern Myanmar's Kayin state, bordering Thailand, and the Irrawaddy delta region in the southwest. Some live and work in Yangon and other cities.

Some Karen are Buddhists and others animists, but a growing number are Christians, mostly Baptists.

Karen groups have fought for independence from Burma since 1949, and the sometimes bitter conflict has claimed many lives.
  Vatican: Pope calls for concrete action on climate
By Gerard O'Connell, Special Correspondent in Rome

VATICAN CITY, Dec 7 (UCAN) -- Pope Benedict XVI has called on the UN Climate Change Conference to come up with concrete action to combat global warming.

On the eve of the conference in Copenhagen, the Pope appealed to all people of goodwill to "respect the laws that God has placed in nature."

The integrity of creation "demands the adoption of sober and responsible lifestyles," above all out of concern and respect "for the poor and for future generations," he said.

Addressing thousands of pilgrims in St Peter's Square on Sunday, Dec. 6, the Pope expressed hope that the conference's deliberations "would help identify actions that are respectful of creation and that will promote a jointly responsible development, based on the dignity of the human person and directed to the common good."

The UN conference runs Dec. 7-18. It brings together more than 100 heads of state and other top-level representatives of most of the 192 member-states of the UN, including the Asian superpowers China and India.

The Holy See, which has official observer status at the UN and full diplomatic relations with 176 countries, is participating at the conference with a five-person delegation, including experts in the field.

The delegation is led by Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See's permanent observer to the United Nations, in New York, who will address the conference.

Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella organization for more than 150 official Catholic charity and development organizations worldwide, is also participating in the climate summit as an NGO. It is bringing delegates, bishops among them, from 25 countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and Indonesia. They will lobby governments to reach a "fair and effective binding agreement" on what needs to be done.

Together with Catholic International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity (CICDSE), Caritas is encouraging governments to seize a "once-in-a-generation chance to save the human family from a future of climate chaos."

Pope Benedict's words added moral weight to appeals that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and scientists have made to the world's political leaders, urging them to agree on the action needed to fight global warming.

A main goal of the UN conference is to agree on ways to keep the average rise in global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius above their pre-industrial levels.

Some scientists warn that a temperature rise greater than this would likely have a devastating impact on the planet, especially on the world's poorer nations.

They are urging world governments to stick to the proposal of a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 amid fears that the United States and China -- the world's biggest polluters -- will broker for a reduction of only 20 per cent.
  Church of England set to lose a tenth of its clergy in five years
By Ruth Gledhill and Tim Glanfield

LONDON, DEC 6 -- The Church of England is facing the loss of as many as one in ten paid clergy in the next five years and internal documents seen by The Times admit that the traditional model of a vicar in every parish is over.

The credit crunch and a pension funding crisis have left dioceses facing massive restructuring programmes. Church statistics show that between 2000 and 2013 stipendiary or paid clergy numbers will have fallen by nearly a quarter.

According to figures on the Church of England website, there will be an 8.3 per cent decrease in paid clergy in the next four years, from 8,400 this year to 7,700 in to 2013. This represents a 22.5 per cent decrease since 2000. If this trend continues in just over 50 years there will be no full-time paid clergy left in Britain's 13,000 parishes serving 16,000 churches.

Jobs will instead be filled by unpaid part-timers, giving rise to fears about the quality of parish ministry. Combined with a big reduction in churchgoing, the figures will add weight to the campaign for disestablishment.

Nine meetings with bishops, diocesan and cathedral staff were held in London this summer to discuss the crisis. A Church report on the meetings released yesterday to The Times describes the traditional model of a stipendiary vicar in every parish as "broken in much of the country".

This week the Archbishops' Council approved a plan to make Anglican clergy work until the age of 68 to help to save the Church from its multimillion-pound pensions shortfall.

Increased life expectancy, combined with greater regulation and the credit crunch, has left the Church's pension scheme with liabilities of £813 million, almost double the £461 million market value of its assets.

The scheme, created in 1998 and partly funded by churchgoers who are being asked to put more in the collection pot than ever before, has been especially hard hit because all of its investments were placed in the stock market at the end of the 1990s.

One diocese that is particularly struggling is Winchester, where a meeting of the diocesan synod this morning will discuss proposals to cut clergy posts to save £1 million.

In Littlebourne, in the Arcbhishop of Canterbury's diocese in Canterbury, a benefice that contributes more than £50,000 is protesting at being told that it can have only an unpaid, part-time priest.In a new pattern of ministry mirrored throughout the country the benefice is to be placed in a "cluster" with a neighbouring benefice and will share the neighbour's stipendiary priest.

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Oxford told The Times: "We have been reducing the number of clergy for a number of years. We are a big diocese and don't want to take more than our fair share - that's happening right across the church."

Even in the wealthy diocese of Salisbury, where there is a projected budget increase of 1.8 per cent, the 214 full-time stipendiary clergy in 2008 are to be cut to 203 by 2016.

The Rev David Houlding, the chairman of clergy in the London diocese, said: "The bottom line is that the money which pays for the Church comes from people in the pew. The income of the Church of England is seriously threatened at the moment because people do not have the money because of the credit crunch."

About one in sixty people worships with the Church of England on an average Sunday. This is projected to drop to less than one in 600 by 2050. The average age of a British Anglican worshipper was 37 in 1980, but is expected to rise to 67 by 2050.

Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society, said: "Such numbers remove the last vestige of justification for the Church's establishment. It is no longer representative of the nation and will become progressively less able to fulfil its claimed nationwide service.

"Establishment gives bishops significant power and this is simply illegitimate and undemocratic. It is quite clear that the Church of England is, to all extents and purposes, finished."

A Church of England spokesman said: "It's nice to have 'our' vicar and 'our church'. However, most people recognise that this is not the situation." The cut in clergy was not related to money but to vocations. "The bigger pressure is the really quite encouraging number of ordinations is not as big as the number of those retiring."

  Possibility of a lesbian bishop now on the horizon
  By Julia Duin
The Washington Times

WASHINGTON, DEC 6 -- The Rev. Mary Glasspool, an Episcopal priest who commutes daily from Annapolis to her office at the Baltimore-based Episcopal Diocese of Maryland may be on the verge of a much longer journey.

If she's elected this weekend in an election for two suffragan bishops in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, she would be the second openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The first is New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson. His 2003 election has been the wedge that split the Communion into conservative and liberal camps and caused roughly 100,000 Episcopalians to flee the church.

I'm not expecting quite that amount of fireworks should Ms. Glasspool, 55, be elected, but ever since the denomination voted last summer to allow more gay bishops, there's been this informal race among dioceses to see who can be first.

Clergy in the Los Angeles diocese tell me that she's got a decent chance because her executive experience in Baltimore assisting the bishop and mentoring clergy ranks her above the other five candidates for the two jobs.

She is the daughter of an Episcopal priest who opposed women's ordination (must have been an interesting father-daughter tension there), and she was rector at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Annapolis during the 1990s where it was a "don't ask, don't tell" situation about her homosexuality. Ms. Glasspool's partner Becki "was invisible as far as the parish was concerned," she wrote sadly in her bio.

Her being a lesbian is "a non-issue" in Los Angeles, one clergyman told me. Ms. Glasspool is up against two Hispanic men, a gay white man and two straight women, one black and the other white.

The suffragan positions in Los Angeles have been diversity seats and the men who are retiring from both spots are black and Hispanic.

"I think a gay candidate has a strong possibility of being elected," the Rev. Altagracia Perez, rector of Holy Faith Church in Inglewood, told me. "Most people I've asked say she's their first or second choice. She has a great resume."

"I think Mary has a great chance," said the Rev. Brad Karelius, rector of Messiah parish in downtown Santa Ana and a senior priest in the diocese. "There is aggressive lobbying by the gay-lesbian constituency here to get a gay bishop.

"Her biggest challenge - I'm saying this as a lifelong Californian - is the culture. This is the most religiously diverse area in the world ... and I don't know how East Coast formalities would work here."

Susan Russell, the former president of the Episcopal gay caucus Integrity and a priest at All Saints Church in Pasadena, told me that Ms. Glasspool had been "well-received."

"We are past due for a female bishop," she said, alluding to Los Angeles having elected only men up to this point. As to a gay one, "The Episcopal Church is ready to put that kind of profiling we've seen in the past behind us."

I don't know about that. Los Angeles always likes to be out front on these things. Its bishop, J. Jon Bruno, was the first sitting Episcopal bishop to openly conduct a same-sex wedding ceremony (that of 80-year-old author Malcolm Boyd) involving an Episcopal clergyman in May 2004.

I'm guessing they'll try to make history again.
  Seminar on tourism lays stress on tapping Kashmir's rich potential
  Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 6 -- Tourism being a key sector of the state's economy, the Jammu and Kashmir government has been endeavouring to put in place adequate infrastructure to give a boost to the industry.

During an interactive session on "To look within -- our role and responsibility", organized by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Alliance (JKTA) here on December 4, Nawang Rigzin Jora, Minister for Tourism and Culture said, "Traditional hospitality of the people of the state is known the world over and this has to be maintained to attract more tourists."

The minister exhorted all those associated with the industry to come forward and supplement the efforts of the government in providing varied facilities to the tourists so as to make their stay a memorable and comfortable event.

Responding to various points raised by various associations associated with the industry, the minister said that Department of Tourism will organize workshops and orientations courses for agencies associated with the industry to educate them on the latest trends in the tourism sector. He added that the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) at Srinagar will be reconstructed soon.

Upholding the need for introspection, Jora said, "we ought to apply our mind collectively. In the coming season, our services should be improved so that tourists return satisfied."

He said, "our objective should be that tourists should spend more time here." Jora assured that the problems related to immigration at the airport would be taken up with the government.

He added that the development of Bangus valley would be taken up as a public-private partnership project. "We are looking for a couple of investors and will do it in a planned manner. Environmentalists want it to be developed as biosphere."

Nasir Aslam Wani, Minister of State for Tourism, Housing and Revenue, said that several steps were being taken to restore the pristine glory of the world-famous Dal Lake. He referred to the package announced by the Centre for Dal dwellers and said that various steps are already underway in this regard.

Wani said that within the next five years, the Lake would be in a better condition. "Earlier, only conservation and preservation of Dal was taken into consideration. The National Conference-Congress coalition government took up rehabilitation of Dal dwellers as well."

G M Dug, chairman, JKTA, said if the potential of tourism in the state is explored, "we would be strong enough to support the economy of the state." He added that "we are trying to increase tourism activity from 70 days to 120 days at the initial stage and finally to 365 days in a year. Environment protection is also our concern."

Naseem Lankar, Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, said that in order to reduce the traffic rush on the Dalgate-Nehru Park stretch of Boulevard road it is imperative either to widen the road on the right side or extend the platform on the Dal side.
  A year later, Muslims refuse to bury terrorists' bodies
  By Vishal Arora

NEW DELHI, DEC 5 -- A year after nine Islamist terrorists were shot dead (one was captured alive) after a three-day rampage in Mumbai that killed 166 people at two luxury hotels and a Jewish center, the bodies of the men lie unclaimed in a hospital morgue.

The bodies of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militants from Pakistan are kept in the now-stinking morgue of the state-run Sir J.J. Hospital in south Mumbai, where they initially were taken for autopsies.

Mumbai police are in a difficult position after Indian Muslim groups refused to provide burial plots for the nine suspected terrorists. Pakistani officials have not responded to requests from India's Ministry of External Affairs to bring the bodies home to Pakistan.

The dispute has pitted Muslim against Muslim as India finds itself the arbiter of an unsavory dispute with neighboring Pakistan, and with its own Muslim minority, over what to do with bodies that no one wants to claim.

The dispute cuts to the heart of Muslim practice: traditionally, bodies are wrapped in a simple shroud and buried quickly, usually within 24 hours. In Mumbai, unclaimed bodies normally are kept at a hospital for seven days, after which the police are allowed to cremate them according to the religious customs of the deceased.

Two days after the gunmen were killed, the Jama Masjid Trust, which manages Muslim cemeteries in Mumbai, said the terrorists were not true followers of Islam and therefore could not be buried on their land. The Muslim Council of India and the influential Darul Uloom Islamic seminary in India's northern Uttar Pradesh state supported that decision.

The trust's position reflects Indian Muslims' sentiment against terrorism, said Zafarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, a forum of influential Islamic organizations and individuals.

"The bodies should be thrown into the Arabian Sea," Khan said, anger evident in his voice. Khan added that the government could simply bury them on land that is not consecrated as a Muslim cemetery.

Khan conceded the dispute is a "very peculiar case," but said "the bodies belong to the foreigners who brought such destruction and mayhem in the country."

Some Muslim groups, however, are unhappy with the denial of burial rites to the slain terrorists.

"It is all right to express anger against the act of the terrorists, which was highly condemnable," says Imam Umair Ahmed Ilyasi, secretary-general of the All India Organization of Imams of Mosques, which represents some 500,000 imams, or Muslim spiritual leaders, across India.

But while the protest is legitimate and understandable, he said, all Muslims should be allowed burial in keeping with Islamic law and basic human dignity.

"After all, their souls have left -- we only have their bodies," he said. "Whatever they did will be judged and punished by God."

Mujtaba Farooque, president of the Coordination Committee of Indian Muslims, an umbrella group of leading Muslim organizations, said the Muslim groups are denying burial rights "merely to prove their patriotism."

"It is extremism and inhuman to deny burial to anyone, he said. "Even bodies of animals should be buried respectfully. Unfortunately, Muslims in India are seen with suspicion and in reaction to the misconception, some go to extremes to prove their patriotism by acts like this."
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  India to play major role in NPT Review meet in 2010
From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 4 -- "India is going to play a major role at the April 2010 summit in Washington," said Dr Vijay K Sazawal, director, United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC). He was speaking at a lecture on 'Progress in Global Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament', organized by the Department of Physics, University of Kashmir, here.

The Global Nuclear Security Summit and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is scheduled to be held in 2010 at Washington and New York, respectively.

"Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during a recent visit to the US, said India would support the conference. This is encouraging," Dr Sazawal said.

He added that the summit would set the stage for the NPT Review Conference scheduled for May 2010. He, however, described the conference as a 'test of United States President Barack Obama's leadership'.

Providing a brief overview of issues that would be discussed during the conference, Dr Sazawal said strengthening of the NPT, signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), irreversibility (no going back from disarmament treaties once a nation commits to them) and fuel banks would be the focal points.

He said campaigning towards 'nuke zero' was not an easy task. "Nuclear weapons are a product of World War II. Only South Africa has shut down its proven nuclear weapons programme in a transparent and verifiable manner." He added that a total of 187 countries had signed the treaty. "North Korea withdrew from the Treaty in 2002."

He spoke at length about the three pillars of the NPT -- disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear technology. He deliberated upon key bilateral treaties towards nuclear disarmament, including the Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963), the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (1972), the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972), the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (1979), the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987) and the Moscow Treaty (2002).

"Nuclear disarmament is an act of reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons. It will lessen and hopefully prevent the possibility of a nuclear conflict, especially accidental discharge of nuclear weapons," the director said, adding, "India was the first to explore nuclear device without ENR technologies. The Indian nuclear programme is the only one in the world that was initiated for peaceful purposes. It is truly homemade."

Dr Sazawal also spoke about the prevention of nuclear proliferation through export controls. "Eleven countries possess potential 'weapons-capable' nuclear material, but 90 per cent of the stock is either in Russia or the United States."

Also speaking on the issue, Professor Riyaz Punjabi, University of Kashmir Vice-Chancellor, said, "Proliferation of nuclear weapons occupies centre stage in all discussions. There is optimism that states are slowly moving towards the NPT." He added that the approach towards international issues should not be governed by sentiments.
  Vatican: Pope: Jubilee Year a time for reconciliation in Vietnam
  By Gerard O'Connell, Special Correspondent in Rome

VATICAN CITY, DEC 3 (UCAN) -- The Vietnamese Church's Jubilee Year celebrations are an opportune time for reconciliation between Catholics and their fellow Vietnamese, says Pope Benedict XVI.

In a message to Vietnamese bishops, the Pope says the special year, lasting from Nov. 24, 2009, to Jan. 2, 2011, is an opportune time "to recognize the errors of the past and of the present committed against one's brothers in the faith and one's brother compatriots, and to ask pardon of them."

The "Jubilee Year 2010" of the Catholic Church in Vietnam marks the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the first two apostolic vicariates and the 50th anniversary of the setting up of the Catholic hierarchy here.

The celebrations were launched on the feast of the Vietnamese Martyrs.

The papal message, written in French and addressed to the president of the Vietnamese Bishops' Conference, Bishop Nguyen Van Nhon, was released on Nov. 27.

The Pope, in calling for "reconciliation with God and with neighbor" in his message, appears to be asking for a healing of the deep wounds among Vietnamese, and even within the Catholic community. These divisions emerged during the turbulent years leading to the Communists unifying the country in 1975, and in the decades since.

Under the Communist regime, many Catholics were killed, imprisoned, treated unfairly on grounds of religion and forced to live in poverty. Churches, chapels, hospitals, schools and other properties were also confiscated by the regime.

The Pope encouraged bishops, and through them Vietnam's 6 million Catholics, "to deepen and to enrich ecclesial communion" during the Jubilee Year. He urged them "to build a society that is just, jointly responsible and fair through authentic dialogue, mutual respect and healthy collaboration."

Pope Benedict called the Jubilee Year "a special time" for renewing "the proclamation of the Gospel" to fellow citizens and for the Church to become even more "a Church of communion and mission."

He said that as the jubilee was launched on the feast of "the glorious 117 Vietnamese martyrs," he prayed their memory will help all the "people of God" in Vietnam "to practice charity, grow in hope and consolidate the faith."

He held up martyr-priest, Saint Andrew Dung Lac, as “a shining model” for all Vietnam’s priests and seminarians in this Year for Priests.

The saint was beheaded in 1839.

The Pope said Vietnamese priests and seminarians could draw "renewed spiritual energy" from Saint Andrew and his companions, and be helped to live their priestly life "in greater fidelity to their vocation."

Turning to Vietnam's women and men religious, Pope Benedict hoped they "would continue to grow in God through a deepening of their spiritual life."

He also expressed his "fatherly affection" for all lay Catholics in Vietnam, and prayed they would "commit themselves more profoundly and actively in the life and mission of the Church."

Pope Benedict concluded by entrusting all Vietnamese Catholics to the care of Our Lady of La Vang. The Blessed Mother is said to have appeared in La Vang, central Vietnam, more than 200 years ago to console Catholics trying to escape religious persecution.
  Korea: Religious leaders show solidarity with former 'comfort women'
SEOUL, DEC 4 (UCAN) -- Asian religious leaders have voiced support for former "comfort women" by joining a weekly rally calling on Japan to make an official apology for its war-time atrocities.

"As a Japanese, I feel shame and guilt seeing these 'grandmothers' still protesting on the street. I strongly urge the Japanese government to make an official apology and compensate them," Father Paul Okura Kazuoshi told the protesters.

The secretary-general of the Committee for Justice and Peace in Tokyo archdiocese said that on his return to Japan, he will step up efforts to persuade his government to meet their demands.

Father Kazuoshi was among some 40 religious leaders from around Asia who joined 70 protesters in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Dec. 2.

The rally, the 894th since the weekly protests started on Jan. 8, 1992, was organized by the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

The rallies started just before a visit by then Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in 1992. Since then, they have been held every Wednesday.

The Asian religious leaders, who participated in the rally, were attending the "Second Asia Inter-religious Conference on Article 9 of the Japanese Peace Constitution in Seoul" from Dec. 1-4. They came from countries and territories including the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

The conference sought the preservation of Article 9 in Japan's constitution that prevents the nation from ever going to war again. Concern is mounting over moves by conservatives in Japan to try and repeal the article.

Religions represented at the conference included Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Won-Buddhism, a Korean indigenous religion.

Gil Won-ok, 82, one of four former "comfort women" at the rally, told participants that about 90 of the original 234 Korean women who had identified themselves as "comfort women" are still alive, and that Japan should address their grievances before they all died.

In tears she said, "Many Koreans hailed our nation's liberation from Japan in 1945, but we hid ourselves because we had the scars of being sex slaves on us."

Bishop Deogracias Iniguez of Kalookan, the Philippines, expressed his solidarity with the victims, noting that many women in his country also suffered the same fate during the war.

"These Koreans have protested almost 900 weeks, which surprises me. This should have been finished a long time ago," he said. "If the new Japanese government makes an official apology, then the women's wounds can begin to heal and real forgiveness can be made."

According to historical records, about 200,000 young Korean women were forced to serve Japanese troops as "comfort women" or sex slaves during World War II. China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also had women who were forced into becoming "comfort women."

Despite an apology made to Korea's national assembly by Miyazawa in 1992, Japan has denied official responsibility over the use of women as sex slaves during wartime.
  Vatican Council 'expert' Josef Neuner dies at 101
PUNE, DEC 4 (UCAN) -- Jesuit Father Josef Neuner, a prominent theologian at the Second Vatican Council has died at age 101.

The priest died at 11.15 pm on Dec. 3 at Sanjeevan Ashram (monastery of saintly life), the headquarters of the Pune Jesuit province, where he had lived for the past 15 years.

On Dec. 4, his body, draped in vestments, with a rosary and a wooden cross in his hands, lay in the ashram chapel as nuns, priests and laypeople, carrying flowers, came to pay their last respects.

His funeral was scheduled for later that day and he was to be buried in a cemetery in Pune's Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, where he had taught for several years.

"He died peacefully in his sleep," Father Bertram Rosario, Jesuit provincial of Pune, told UCA News.

Jesuit Father Anil Soares, assistant to the provincial, said Father Neuner had been admitted to a private hospital with suspected pneumonia on Nov. 29. "He was put on a ventilator but responded to treatment and was brought home" on the evening of Dec. 3, he added.

"No one expected him to die. He didn't appear to be suffering from a major ailment. He seemed cheerful and alert to the core," Father Soares added.

Church people have hailed Father Neuner as a stalwart of Church renewal after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

He was one of four periti (experts) from India at the council and contributed to its many documents, especially "Nostra Aetate" (Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions) and "Ad Gentes" (Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church).

He had worked with Jesuit theologian Father Karl Rahner and helped codify the Church's decrees on priestly formation.

It was Father Neuner who drafted Pope Paul VI's speech to Hindus when the pontiff visited Mumbai (then Bombay) for the Eucharistic Congress in 1964.

Father Neuner had also acted as a bridge-builder between Religious and diocesan priests, between theology and spirituality, Christian theology and Indian religions, India and Europe, and the Church and the world.

Father Neuner was born on Aug. 9 1908, in Feldkirch, a small Austrian town near the Swiss border. He joined the South-German Jesuit province in 1926 and was ordained in 1936.

In 1938, he went to India where he taught theology for 60 years, mostly in the Pune seminary. As a theologian, the Jesuit collaborated in preparing the internationally known "The Christian Faith," a handbook of Christian teachings.

He was also known for his association with Blessed Teresa of Kolkata and was the first to write about her in German. He was retreat director for her Missionaries of Charity and helped her integrate some of the darkest spiritual moments of her life with her work for the poor.

In an interview, Father Neuner once said that Blessed Teresa was among those who had embodied the Vatican Council II spirit.

According to him, the council had reiterated that Jesus established not a religion but the Kingdom of God, in which everyone lives with dignity and in solidarity with one other.
  Need for awareness about special programmes for the disabled stressed
  From Afsana Bhat

SRINAGAR, DEC 4 -- Several programmes were organized across Kashmir on December 3 in observance of World Disability Day. From the border district of Kupwara to summer capital Srinagar, people took part in events that were held on the occasion.

Members of NGO Humanity Welfare Organization Helpline organized a rally here. People lit candles to show solidarity with differently abled persons.

Chairman of the organisation Javed Ahmad Tak said it was only in Jammu and Kashmir that the differently abled were being treated as a liability. In other parts of the country, this day was being observed to review existing policies. He demanded concrete programmes for the rehabilitation of these persons and the setting up of a Braille education school for the visually impaired.

"Physically challenged persons are a part of our society and it is our moral duty to help them," said Kupwara Assistant Commissioner Revenue Ajaz Ahmad Saraf, while addressing a function in Kupwara.

He added that the society played a vital role in the upliftment of these people. He assured the organization that their demands would be taken up with the district administration.

J&K Physically Handicapped and Challenged Organization, a non-government organisation based in Kupwara, offered 10 kanals of land at Batargam-Kupwara for the construction of the proposed 'Happy Home for Physically Challenged Persons'.

Meanwhile, members of the All-Jammu and Kashmir Handicapped Association held protests against the apathetic attitude of the government towards their demands, despite several assurances. The association has decided to continue the agitation till their demands were fulfilled.

A spokesperson of the association said successive governments had failed to fulfill the needs of the large number of differently abled persons that resided in the state.

The association recently submitted a 22-point list of demands to the Social Welfare Ministry. However, no steps have yet been taken to tackle the issues, the spokesperson said. Their demands include three per cent reservation in jobs, an increase in monthly pension from Rs 400 to Rs 1,500, free education up to university level and 50 per cent subsidy on loans on minimum interest rates.

While addressing a gathering in the Composite Regional Centre (CRC) complex, here, Minister for Social Welfare Sakina Itoo emphasised on the need for a survey on physically challenged persons in every district.

She spoke about the problems faced by these persons, particularly in remote areas, and their possible solutions. Stressing on the role of non-government organisations, she requested them to come forward and work for the betterment of such persons.

The Director Social Welfare emphasized that deserving persons should avail of schemes and disability pensions offered by the government. He said the department provided financial assistance of Rs 400 each to 6,200 disabled persons in the state.

Impressing upon the people to register their visually impaired children with the CRC special school for education and training, CRC Director stressed on the need for awareness so that the physically disabled could learn to read, write and get vocational training.

A free rehabilitation distribution camp was also held on the occasion. About 150 aids and appliances, including wheelchairs, tricycles and hearing aids were distributed.

A cultural and educational programme was also presented by physically challenged children of CRC's special school. A stall of the Jammu and Kashmir Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe and Other Backward Classes Development Corporation Limited was also set up to make people aware of National Handicapped Finance and Development Corporation (NHFDC) loans.

In yet another function, Legislative Assembly Speaker Mohammad Akbar Lone asked officers of the Social Welfare Department, University of Kashmir and other non-governmental organizations to work collectively for the welfare and overall development of the physically challenged persons. He said the state and central governments had launched several schemes, but awareness was the need of the hour.

The speaker was addressing a two-day national seminar on 'Physically Challenged Community, Problems and Solution', organized by the Department of Student Welfare and Faculty of Education, University of Kashmir.

He suggested that the financial assistance to physically challenged persons be increased to Rs 1,000. He also stressed on the formation of a separate cell for such people in the Social Welfare Department.
  Japan: Catholic bishops reject militarization
By Gerard O'Connell, Special Correspondent in Rome

ROME, DEC 3 (UCAN) -- Most of Japan's Catholic bishops do not want their country to build up its military, and support retention of their constitution's "peace clause," says Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki.

The Church leader, speaking to UCA News recently while visiting Rome, said he hopes the new government, led by Yukio Hatoyama, will not change Article 9 in the constitution.

That clause is "very important" in curbing militarization, he said.

Japan has significant military might, but for defensive purposes only. Following the country's World War II defeat, the victorious United States forced the inclusion of Article 9 into the 1946 Japanese Constitution. It aimed to prevent Japan ever going to war again, Archbishop Takami recalled.

The Japanese people, the clause says, "forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes." It states that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained" and asserts that "the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized."

Right-wing nationalists have long advocated revising this article to allow the development of a military capacity. Their campaign has gained ground in the last decade as the United States encouraged Japan to take a more active role in security concerns.

Born in Nagasaki on March 21, 1946, Archbishop Takami was in his mother's womb when the United States dropped an atomic bomb there. Almost 74,000 people died instantly, and at least 25,000 more in the years that followed. Among them were the archbishop's grandmother, two aunts and a cousin.

His recent visit to Rome coincided with the Nov. 24 anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI's beatification last year of 188 Japanese martyrs from the 17th century. Archbishop Peter Takeo Okada of Tokyo led the pilgrimage group of seven bishops and 163 lay Catholics.

Pope Benedict met them briefly on Nov. 25. Archbishop Okada handed him a letter of gratitude signed by the Japanese bishops and a reliquary containing a bone of one of the martyrs.

Archbishop Takami told UCA News that besides militarization, another major challenge facing Japan's Catholic Church is evangelization.

The Catholic Church in Japan has about 1 million members, but less than half are native Japanese. The majority are Brazilian, Filipino, Korean and Chinese migrants who have brought new life and resources to the Church, the archbishop said.

He acknowledged that Pope John Paul II's historic 1981 trip to Japan, where he visited Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo, inspired the whole Catholic community. The bishops convened national evangelization conventions in 1987 and 1993, each followed by a national missionary effort, but Archbishop Takami admitted these efforts have borne few visible fruits.

The bishops feel they have to do "something new" to evangelize, he added, and are planning to issue a letter on this, perhaps in 2010.

The archbishop also responded to a question about a reported comment by Ichiro Ozawa, secretary general of Japan's ruling Democratic Party, that "Christianity is an exclusive, self-righteous religion," he said.

Ozawa "has some reason" for his statement, in the attitudes Churches have taken in history, Archbishop Takami remarked.

"We exclude when we consider another religion as nothing, and when we consider ourselves to be right and the others to be wrong." Likewise, Japan was also being exclusive "when it expelled missionaries and denounced Christianity as a bad religion," he said.

Nonetheless, "the Christian Gospel is absolutely good and a supreme value and I believe in it," the Japanese prelate asserted. "We don't always live exactly according to the Gospel, and that is a problem, and we recognize it."
  Christians mark Bhopal gas tragedy on its 25th anniversary
  BHOPAL, DEC 3 (UCAN) -- Christians in Bhopal have staged their own prayer meeting and torchlight vigil to mark the 25th anniversary of the world's worst industrial tragedy.

About 3,000 people died on Dec. 3, 1984 when 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas escaped from a chemical plant owned by the Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh state.

According to state government figures, some 15,000 people subsequently died as a result of the tragedy, whereas NGOs put the death toll at over 20,000. The government has also admitted the gas leak affected around 573,600 survivors.

About 100 people from various Christian denominations attended the prayer meeting on Dec. 2, the eve of the tragedy. The commission for ecumenism and dialogue of the state's Catholic bishops' council organized the event at Seva Sadan, Bhopal archdiocese's social service center.

The participants, including members of the Madhya Pradesh Isai Mahasangh (grand assembly of Christians in Madhya Pradesh), lit candles and observed two minutes of silence as a mark of respect for the victims. They also prayed for peace and comfort for the survivors.

"The magnitude of the tragedy was so powerful, even now people are suffering from its aftermath," said Father Anand Muttungal, the commission secretary and spokesperson of the Catholic Church in the state.

Survivors and those born since then still suffer from breathing difficulties, gastro-intestinal problems, menstrual irregularities, miscarriages and neurological problems, Father Muttungal said.

Other common ailments include susceptibility to infections, chromosomal abnormalities and chronic conjunctivitis, he added.

Later generations are paying "a huge price," Father Muttungal said. "We need to become more conscious of the dangers when industries like this build plants around the world."

Father Muttungal said that the contaminated soil and drinking water have added to survivors' miseries.

On Dec. 3, Father Muttungal also attended an inter-faith prayer service the state government organized to pay tribute to the victims.

State Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan told the gathering the accident was a man-made one.

Mufti Abdul Razak, a Muslim urged people to do more for survivors' welfare. "As a society we have failed to wipe away the victims' tears," he said.

Asked what the Church has done for the victims, Father Muttungal said it had done its part during and after the disaster by assisting the government and NGOs.

Gerry Paul, who was nine when the disaster struck, says the Church needs to do more. Many survivors still live in "very deplorable conditions," the Catholic man told UCA News. "Widows and their children need Church help as they are still unable to get on with their lives."

Richard D'Silva, another Catholic survivor, said the tragedy occurred when he was in his first year at college. D'Silva, who remembers seeing bodies piled up along the roadside, says he too wants the Church to do more to help survivors instead of saying that the government and NGOs are already assisting them.
  Magician priest from Mangalore hails a real miracle
  By Bosco de Souza Eremita

PILAR, DEC 3 (UCAN) -- Father Ivan Madtha, a priest and magician from Mangalore, captivates his audience with the full range of familiar magic tricks.

During his regular shows, he conjures light, water and flowers from an empty box in a representation of the Creation. He cuts people in three, floats in mid air and reappears among the audience after being chained and locked in a box.

But Father Madtha says what he does is commonplace compared to the miracle of his own survival.

Four years ago, he was given up for dead after being accidentally jostled by a crowd at a Mumbai railway station, and falling under the wheels of an oncoming train as a result.

He broke several bones, and lost his left arm and two fingers on his right hand. Doctors did not believe he would live, and even if he did, they said he would not be able to bend his left leg for more than 60 degrees.

"Now I can bend 115 degrees," the priest said, showing his healed leg.

The priest said he recovered rapidly after relatives and friends prayed along with Catholics of Mangalore diocese. Instead of the six weeks doctors said he would be on a ventilator, he was breathing on his own after only four days.

Father Madtha said that on regaining consciousness, he saw his left arm missing and right hand bandaged, but never thought his magician days were over. "I ought to have been devastated but nothing of the sort happened. I simply accepted it in my stride without any qualms," he said.

The priest recalled a Hindu surgeon telling him his recovery was miraculous. "There's power of God in your life, without which you could not have survived," the doctor told the priest.

Father Madtha said that after the accident he had to learn to walk and use his battery-operated artificial hand. "Not once did I lose my faith in God," he asserted.

Before the accident, he used to give about 100 shows a year with at least 1,000 people at each performance.

"My inspiration came from my family, but fellow priests and the bishop recognized and promoted my talents," said the priest, who became a member of the Indian Magic Convention in 1997.

"My magic is a special vocation from God," he said.

After the accident, he had to remodel some tools to adjust to his handicap. He now has an assistant to do what his left hand used to do on stage.

The battery for his artificial arm costs Rs 60,000 (US$1,250), which he says is "quite prohibitive." The priest said he does not want to go begging for donations.

For the past two years he has performed magic without the battery and has "learnt to live with it."

Despite the handicap, Father Madtha continues to be much sought for his inspiring talks at retreats and seminars, and of course for his magic acts.

"Hearing my story, people's faith in God has soared sky high. They get courage to endure their sufferings, become stronger in their faith, and inspired to do more seeing that I do so much with just three fingers," added the priest.
  Diocese fights alcoholism among migrants
BELTHANGADY, DEC 3 (UCAN) -- An Oriental-rite diocese in southern India is battling the scourge of alcoholism among migrants to the region.

"Our people are hardworking but their efforts are wasted due to addiction to alcohol," Bishop Lawrence Mukkuzhy of Belthangady in Karnataka state, told UCA News.

A recent mission congress of the Syro-Malabar diocese said alcohol was the main cause of continuing poverty and family violence and proposed a program of detoxification and rehabilitation.

Many of the Catholics in the diocese had come from neighboring Kerala state, said Bishop Mukkuzhy, who comes from a migrant family himself.

The prelate said poverty had forced many Christians to look for a better life, with many settling first in Malabar, in Kerala's north. "Some people who could not get settled in Malabar migrated to the hilly regions of Karnataka," said the bishop.

Latin-rite dioceses in Karnataka initially catered to the migrants' spiritual needs. However, a separate Syro-Malabar diocese was created for them in 1999.

The Oriental Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches together with the Latin-rite Church form the Indian Catholic Church.

These people speak a different language from other people in Karnataka and have different food, customs and dress.

Alcohol took its toll on these migrants as they struggled to adjust to "a totally different culture" in their adopted land, Bishop Mukkuzhy told UCA News after the congress. "Initially, there were no spiritual leaders to guide them."

The congress decided to conduct a parish-based survey and identify alcoholics before referring them for counseling and treatment. It proposed referring patients to existing addiction treatment centers and, in time, set up its own diocesan center.

Some 200 Catholics from Belthangady diocese have undergone treatment at an addiction-treatment center in the diocese set up by a layman.

One patient, K. M. Varghese, said his friends who had already been successfully treated had motivated him to come for treatment.
  Centre, state urged to untravel truth buried in mass graves in Kashmir
  From Afsana Bhat
Herald of India News Service
SRINAGAR, DEC 2 -- About 2700 unmarked graves exist across 55 villages in three districts of Bandipora, Kupwara and Baramulla with more than 2900 bodies buried in these graves. Most of these graves have more than one body buried in them.

These findings were contained in a report on mass graves entitled "Buried Evidence" that was released at a press conference organized by the International Peoples' Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir [IPTK] here on Wednesday.

Dr. Angana P. Chatterji, Convener, IPTK and Professor, Anthropology, California Institute of Integral Studies, said "out of these graves, 87.9 per cent [2373 graves] were found unnamed. Of these graves, 154 contained two bodies each and 23 contained more than two cadavers. Within 23 graves, the number of bodies ranged from 3 to 17."

She added that the report focuses on unknown, unmarked and mass graves in Kashmir. "It is based on applied research conducted here from November 06 to November 09."

According to the report, graveyards have been largely placed on community land and next to fields, schools and homes.

"The effect of unmarked graves on community is daunting," said the Convener, IPTK, adding "there exists a correlation between the disappeared youth and unmarked graves."

The report, while examining 50 alleged encounter killings by security forces in various districts, says "47 were found to be those of civilians."

Dr. Angana Chatterji said, "We don't know who lies buried in these graves but it is imperative to investigate." She said that the IPTK asks that evidence put forward in this report be examined, verified and reframed as relevant by credible, independent and international bodies.

She added that graveyards investigated by the IPTK entomb bodies of those murdered in encounter and fake encounter killings between 1990 and 2009.

"If the Government of India is serious about its commitment to address Kashmir issue, here is our call to action," she said.

Pervez Imroz, Convener, IPTK, and Patron, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) said, "Facts Underground", the report released on April 20 last year, was the tip of the iceberg. Now, the IPTK is taking up the task." He said that the first report was based on three tehsils and 18 villages. "A beginning has, however, been made."

Gautam Navlakha, Convener, IPTK, and Editorial Consultant, The Economic and Political Weekly, said, "We take it as a prima facie case. We want to bring it to the notice of the state and society. Such reports bring international pressure," adding "International community, the Indian government and society have ignored the issue. We want both the state and central governments to seriously consider the issue."

Advocate Mihir Desai, legal counsel, IPTK, said that mass graves are not new to India. "More than hundreds of such graves were discovered in Punjab. Later the matter was referred to the apex court but it didn't help."
  Christians unite to oppose anti-conversion bill
BANGALORE, DEC 2 (CathNews) -- A Christian forum in Karnataka has protested the southern Indian state's move to pass an anti conversion bill.

"The issue of forced conversion was highlighted just to create animosity and insecurity between Christians and people of other religious groups," Archbishop Bernard Moras of Bangalore, president of the Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights, told meeting of more than 500 priests and pastors from various denominations.

The archbishop also told the Dec. 1 meeting at St. Marks Cathedral in Bangalore that Karnataka's pro-Hindu government has suggested the anti conversion bill to continue to harass the minorities. He said the Christian forum would "strongly oppose any such move."

Bishops from Catholic, Protestant and other churches attended the half day program that Archbishop Moras chaired.

The Karnataka Regional Catholic Bishops' Council took the initiative to form after the attacks on Christians in Karnataka in September last year.

"I feel the attacks on our churches were a sign from God that we need to come together," Archbishop Moras explained the reason for starting the forum. The Catholic prelate said the ecumenical forum has a three-fold common minimum program that focuses on faith, ethics and dialogue.

A meeting resolution dismissed the allegation of induced conversion. "If there is a case of forced conversion, it should be established clearly in a court of law," the archbishop asserted and added, "Blank allegations against the Christian community at large is only a willful attempt to create disharmony in society and to achieve political mileage."

The prelate, however, clarified the forum was created not just to address attacks against Christians, but also to assert "our constitutional right to profess and peacefully propagate our faith."

He said Christians have never posed a threat to anyone, but have only helped others. "However, we have been demonized so much by false propaganda these days," he lamented.

Bishop Samuel of the Believers Church said "the wave of suspicion" against Christians has been created deliberately "with political overtones." He categorically denied the charge that Christians indulge in forced conversions. "It is only when we stand together that we will strengthen each other," he added.

Bishop Vasanth Kumar of the Church of South India says a crisis has brought Christians in the state together. "We must thank God for the political climate that actually brought us together," he said and added the unity will gradually help the community to discover its common faith and over minor difference in dogma and teaching.

Jesuit Father Ronnie Prabhu, secretary of the Karnataka Commission for Inter-religious Dialogue and Ecumenism, co-ordinated the interactions. Journalist Anto Akara who authored "Khandamal-- a blot on Indian Secularism" presented his book and shared his experience of the travails of Christians in Orissa.

Source: UCAN report by Thomas Thazha
  Australian missioner arrested; Christians protest
  HYDERABAD, DEC 2 -- Christian advocacy groups have condemned the arrest of an Australian missioner in Andhra Pradesh on charges of engaging in conversion activities.

Paul Jemison was arrested on Nov. 24 in Adilabad "on false charges of forceful conversion," reported the Global Council of Indian Christians and the All India Christian Council, two ecumenical forums.

The missioner was dragged to the Utnur police station and accused him of indulging in conversion. The police apparently confiscated Jemison's travel documents and detained him in the station until late night and later released him.

AICC said Jemison was arrested while he was "interacting with local people in the open place between JP Complex and Government College Employees Quarters."

District Tribal Welfare Officer Dasarath Nayak, who happened to be there, alerted Adilabad Division BJP Leader Sriram Nayak. The BJP leader complained to the police, alleging the missioner was indulging in forcible conversion activities in the area. The police "immediately came and took the missionary into custody," AICC said.

Interestingly, no case has been filed against the missioner, the AICC sources said. "A decision to that effect will be taken only after the arrival of the District Superintendent of Police," a police source was quoted as saying.

In a related incident, the director and employees of Operation Mobilization (OM) were arrested in Karnataka on Nov. 24.

Source: Australian missionary held in AP (
  Catholic "temple" uses art for Christ to appeal to non-Christians too
  KOLKATA, DEC 2 (Cathnews) -- An eastern Indian diocese has built a Catholic "temple" to spread Christ's message among people of other religions through art works.

"We believe it is Christ who alone can lead humanity to God and give to the world the peace it needs," said Bishop Joseph Surin Gomes of Krishnagar after opening "Christo Mandir" (Christ-temple) on Nov. 29. The purpose of the "temple" is to tell the story of Christ to both Christians and people of other faiths, the Salesian prelate told UCA News at Krishnagar, some 125 kilometers northeast of Kolkata.

Italian-born Salesian Father Luciano Colussi devised the "temple" that uses murals, paintings, and statues to explain Christ's life.

Father Colussi said the diocese invited local artistes to work on how to tell the story of Jesus after a group of Italian doctors volunteered to help build a catechetical center. "We have called it a temple, a term associated with Hindu place of worship, because we want to reach out to Hindus too," Father Colussi, 85, told UCA News.

The priest said all but two artists were Hindus and Muslims, who agreed that there is no greater hero in world history than Christ whose story they wanted to tell through artistic works.

The donors wanted to the diocese to build something that would benefit all people. "We did not want to set up a church or a school, but a place where people of all faiths can pray," added Father Colussi, who has spent 51 years of his priestly life doing catechetical works in Calcutta archdiocese and Krishnagar diocese.

Vascilli Lorenzato, one of the Italian donors, said they wanted to enhance local Christians' faith through a place for catechesis and prayers.

The group also helps in establishing catechetical centers in Delhi and Mumbai, he told UCA News. "We have an association of Father Luciano Colussi in Italy, with some 500 school children, who regularly contribute toward Father Colussi's works in Krishnagar," he added.

Bishop Cyprian Monis of Asansol, who attended the opening function, said it is easy for the temple to catechize people of other faiths since it has pictures and statues that speak for themselves. He hailed the temple as a new way of catechizing because people its images and statues teach people a lot.

Around the 'temple' are 25 larger than life-size statues of the 12 Apostles, evangelists, and major saints of the Church, including Blessed Teresa of Kolkata. Each statue has description at the bottom about its personality.
Inside, 27 fiber glass transparencies narrate the history of salvation. At the summit of the pinnacle is the Risen Jesus, the temple's hero.

On the cantilever are presented five scenes, victory of the Roman emperor Constantine, discovery of America, creation of various ancient Asian peoples, assembly of African leaders, and aborigines of Polynesia.

Krishnagar diocese, erected in 1886, comprises the civil districts of Nadia and Murshidabad, with a Catholic population of 58,000.
  Thailand: HIV sufferers have right to a future, says priest
RAYONG, DEC 2 (UCAN) -- Many people living with HIV have to deal not only with the prospect of developing full-blown AIDS, they also suffer from their community's prejudices and misunderstandings of the condition.

While in the past, communities would reject people with HIV completely, there is now some degree of acceptance. However, negative attitudes still persist, especially in hospitals, where HIV/AIDS patients are separated from other patients, the priest said.

Father Contarin was commenting on the plight of HIV/AIDS patients in Thailand as people around the world marked World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

His center has a hospice providing palliative care to people with full-blown AIDS and provides anti-retroviral medicine for those with HIV. It also manages a childcare center for orphans infected with the virus.

Some of the residents of the center shared their stories with UCA News.

Rin (not her real name), 22, has been at the center since she was nine. "The center has given me a new life. I can now dare to tell people I am living with HIV. My friends and teachers understand and encourage me," she said.

Rin takes anti-retroviral medicine twice a day and is studying computer graphics at a vocational school.

Yin (not his real name), 13, was sent to the center by his relatives after his parents died of AIDS when he was eight. "The center is giving me the chance to go to school. I hope I will get a good job in the future," he said.

On Dec. 1, the center held a seminar to discuss ways of improving the lives of HIV/AIDS sufferers. Center vice-director Father Phakavee Sengcharoen told the 1,000 people gathered, including school and college students, government officials and health workers, that people with HIV/AIDS need to be integrated into society and not ostracized.

The Camillian Social Center was opened in Rayong in 1996.

In addition to providing medical care, it runs a self-sufficient farming community of around 40 people with HIV, as well as a home cum vocational training center for about 20 teenagers with the virus.

It has a prevention program targeting vulnerable groups such as women factory workers and youths. It also provides scholarships to more than 100 children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

All the programs aim at giving people with HIV/AIDS access to health care, education and a normal working life, and at the same time spread awareness that they have the same rights as everyone else, said Father Contarin.

Thailand estimates it has over 610,000 people living with HIV/AIDS. So far over 600,000 people have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

In addition to the Camillians, other Church bodies run more than 30 centers and programs for people with HIV/AIDS in the country.
  Catholic youths aim to impact Kerala elections
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, DEC 2 (UCAN) -- The Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM) is getting ready to maximize its impact on local body elections due in the southern Indian state next September.

The Church has "great influence" on Kerala's electoral politics, says Joseph Thomas, the movement's president. The leading players in the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) often seek its support during elections, he noted.

Thomas told UCA News that Christians have supported one or the other group in the past, but neither has ever bothered about the Christian community after an election.

"We have decided to get involved in politics, because only through active participation can we change the present corrupt politics and influence the programs of political parties," he added.

KCYM plans to educate its 900,000 members, spread throughout 4,250 parishes, about their role in politics through leadership programs and seminars on developmental issues.

These preparations come after the LDF government's announcement it will hold elections to the state's 992 village councils, 52 municipal councils and five corporations in September 2010.

Christians form 19 per cent of Kerala's 32 million people, but Thomas says only 37 per cent of Kerala Christian voters have fixed political affiliations. "The rest are neutral and our strength lies in them," he added.

"We are going to reorient youth for a clean politics and better delivery (on promises) to people. Now elections are contested on promises that are not kept."

The Catholic youth leader clarified that his movement has no plan to field candidates. "We will support our members who can contest the elections as independents, or on the party lines who accept our ideology," he explained.

KCYM has also published a document, stating its political vision for the period 2010-2020. "Our major thrust is to empower youth politically," Thomas said.

The LDF came to power in 2006 with support from Catholic strongholds but later ran a campaign against Church leaders for opposing policies that included controls on Church educational institutions.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 29, Archbishop Maria Calist Soosa Pakiam of Trivandrum issued a pastoral letter stressing the need for Latin-rite Catholics to run in elections to local bodies, which get 30 percent of government development funds.

"Now, most people are passive in village council meetings. This has led to the neglect of areas dominated by Latin Catholics," the archbishop told UCA News.

The pastoral letter, read in all parishes of the 11 Latin-rite dioceses in Kerala during Sunday Masses, appealed to youths to develop leadership skills and serve society.

Two Oriental Catholic Churches -- the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches -- are also based in Kerala. They and the Latin-rite Church form the Indian Catholic Church.
  Workshop on AIDS stresses private-public participation to fight disease
MANGALORE, DEC 1 -- Population Services International, a non- profit organization, organized a workshop on public-private partnership (PPP) in HIV/AIDS on the occasion on World AIDS Day here today.

The participants of the workshop held discussions on conducting workplace programmes on HIV/AIDS and TB in 103 Mangalore-based companies. The purpose of the workshop was also to encourage the organization of training programmes on HIV for employees and also to urge companies to adopt HIV/AIDS policies that ensure a working environment free of discrimination against HIV+ people.

Dr. Kishore Kumar, the district programme officer of District AIDS Prevention and Control Unit, DK, said that HIV wrecks the immune system of human beings, making them susceptible to all sorts of infectious diseases such as Tuberculosis. He said that medical science is yet to find a drug to destroy the HIV virus.

Dr. Kumar also said that 3 ART centres will be established in Mangalore to provide treatment for AIDS patients. Puttur and Bantwal already have such centres.
Niresh Kumar, Senior Manager with Population Services International, a leading non-profit organization and organizers of the workshop, mentioned that the private sector is increasingly embracing the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility. The new outlook focuses not just on the welfare of the employees but widens the private sector's obligation to the supply chain and the community.

Seema Mathias, Secretary, Hongirana Network mentioned that more than 125 HIV positive people have enrolled for the hospitalization insurance from DK district alone. Money is a significant barrier in scaling up enrollment.

Ramachandra Bhat, the proprietor of Classic Fusion, said that, in order to provide a particular type of treatment available in Sadhana Mobile Clinic, which will soon be available at the doorsteps of certain organizations, the disease should be detected in its early stages. Awareness should, therefore, be created among the people.

India's first hospitalization insurance policy meant exclusively for HIV patients, facts about the functioning of the DK District AIDS Prevention and Control Unit, and its public-private partnership with PSI's Sadhana Mobile Clinic as well as Project Sankalp of ESIC in order to give HIV counselling and testing for ESIC members were discussed and explained at the workshop.

During the function, organizations which have made a significant contribution to HIV/AIDS prevention and control were recognized by issuing a Certificate of Appreciation. Kanara Chamber of Commerce and Industry was given a Certificate of Appreciation for its role in initiating workplace programs among its members and encouraging adoption of HIV/AIDS policies to create a discrimination free environment in workplaces for HIV positive individuals.

Ravinandan, officer, Corporate outreach and Training, PSI, Mangalore, welcomed the gathering. Abhilash Philip, Area Programme Manager, PSI, compered the programme. (Courtesy:
  Need to integrate prevention and care to fight AIDS
  From Afsana Rashid

SRINAGAR, DEC 1 -- With improvement in surveillance, more and more people are willing to come forward to get tested for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome [AIDS]. Usually, social stigma attached to it prevents patients from doing so.
Prof. Mushtaq Ahmad Sidiqee, Head of the Department of Immunology at Sheri Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) says, "The number of HIV positive cases has shown a rise but not because of incidence, probably because we have increased the surveillance. As the number of voluntary services has been created, there can be increase in the number of such cases."
Comparing HIV positive cases in Kashmir with the rest of the country, he said, "We can never term it as increasing."
Accepting that the number of HIV positive cases can be more, Prof. Mushtaq said, "Our annual survey shows that 0.01 per cent of population is affected by AIDS and even if we calculate that the situation is worse, then the figures may go up to 0.06 per cent."  
"During the last one year, 85 cases of HIV have been reported in the state. Out of 2000 such cases in the state, 250 have been detected in Kashmir," said Dr. Shahida Mir, Principal Government Medical College [GMC], Srinagar, during a seminar organized here on Tuesday, in connection with the World AIDS Day.
World AIDS Day observed on December 1 each year, is a day when people around the world raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. The Day was initiated following a summit of Health Ministers in London (1988). It was realized that a united global effort was required to check spread of HIV and AIDS.
Dr. Shahida said, "People shouldn't get worried but this doesn't mean that they should become complacent. We need to re-double our efforts so that no such cases are reported, here in future," she said, while addressing a seminar organized by the National Service Scheme [NSS] at GMC, Srinagar.
Prof. Mushtaq attributed low HIV positive cases to militancy, massive campaigning by newspapers and awareness campaign launched by health officials. He said during 1988-2000, when the whole world witnessed AIDS as epidemic "militancy in Kashmir kept it away as we didn't receive many risk factors. Besides, we, at SKIMS and State Aids Prevention Control Society organized massive awareness programmes in educational institutions across the Valley."
Prof. Imtiyaz Ali, Dean Medical Faculty and Head of THE Department Community Medicines, SKIMS, said, "Though the awareness about HIV is increasing, still it is low. Prevention is the key but integration of prevention and care is more important."

Prof. Ali said truck drivers, trekking guides, hoteliers, college hosteliers and sex workers are potential high risk groups.
"AIDS shouldn't be treated as just a medical disease but a socio-medical disease. A lot of discrimination and stigmatization continues. It is thought to be a disease of the West but primarily it is a disease of developing countries," said Prof. Ali.
A skid was enacted by NSS volunteers at GMC here, focusing on different methods of treatment.
  Muslims visit Mar Thoma Church as part of ongoing dialogue
BANGKOK, DEC 1 (UCAN) -- Visits to churches by an Islamic NGO are helping to "break barriers" of suspicion and distrust between Christians and Muslims, their leaders say.

The Islamic Information and Services Foundation (IIS), an NGO that runs theological programs for Muslims, has conducted annual visits to churches for the past five years.

The latest visit on Nov. 22 was to a Mar Thoma Syrian church in Kuala Lumpur to observe a liturgical and communion service. All previous visits were to Catholic churches across Malaysia.

The Mar Thoma Syrian Church is a Church that traces its origin to Saint Thomas the Apostle. In Malaysia, the Church has about 2,500 members in 16 parishes.

The visit has helped erase suspicions between Christians and Muslims amid interethnic and interreligious strains in the country, Reverend Thomas Philips, vice-president of the Mar Thoma Church in Malaysia, told UCA News.

He said he was impressed that 50 Muslim men and women, mostly university students and young professionals, came to the Kuala Lumpur church to witness the liturgy and communion service. They had tea and halal (permissible according to Islamic law) snacks with church members after which they held a dialogue session.

Reverend Philips is president of both the Christian Council of Malaysia as well as the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism.

Shah Kirit Kakulal Govingji, IIS chief dakwah (mission) officer, led the Muslim visitors. He told UCA News that the visit has resulted in bonding among individual Christians and Muslims. He noted that they ate together, a situation which not all Muslims accept even though the food may be halal.

Kirit said the visit helped change the notion among the visitors that Christians were "non-believers," after observing that Christians also worship one God, though their concept of God may be different.

Explaining why he brings Muslims to churches, he said: "We live in a multi-racial, multi-religious country. Religious issues are sensitive and people do not talk about them. So there arise prejudice and presumptions. The purpose is to break barriers and create good relations among religions."

After visiting the church, the Muslim group went to visit a Buddhist temple.

Kirit said besides visits to places of worship, IIS invites religious leaders to dialogue sessions. Last year, IIS held a dialogue session with Hindus. Two such sessions with Buddhists have been scheduled for Dec. 20 and Jan. 10. Christians have also been invited to dialogue sessions but no date has yet been fixed.

Kirit said he is working on getting a mosque to host a visit by Christians early next year. His hope is that people of all religions will cultivate more mature relations in which frank discussions can be carried out.

Reverend Philips agreed that both Christians and Muslims need to be educated on each other's faiths. He observed that present interreligious strains stem from politics and suggested that interreligious dialogue can be more effective if it involved government Islamic religious departments.

He said one of the biggest sources of tension in the country is the way that conversions to Islam are carried out.
  Bangladesh: Audio CD keeps inculturated hymns in tune
RAJSHAHI (BANGLADESH), DEC 1 (UCAN) -- A diocese has come up with a CD of hymns in the Santal language in an attempt to standardize liturgical music and help Catholics merge their tribal culture with their faith.

Rajshahi diocese acted amid concern that a haphazard approach to Church music was harming the overall effort to inculturate the Catholic faith among the Santal.

People were singing the "same" hymns, but these differed from parish to parish, confirmed Father William Murmu, parish priest in Andharkota. The audio production "was really important for proper inculturation of liturgy, as well as for our culture," he told UCA News.

The northern diocese's Liturgy Commission launched its first audio CD in the Santal language on Nov. 26. The CD and an audio cassette version each contain 12 hymns.

According to the 2007 Catholic Directory of Bangladesh, Santal Catholics account for 30,000 of the 55,000 Catholics in Rajshahi diocese. Others belong to the country's Bengali majority and to the Paharia, Munda, Oraon and Mahali tribal groups.

Father Murmu is a member of the liturgy commission and was a driving force behind the CD project.

Another Santal priest, Father Ignatius Bindu Hembrom, said the Church considers music an essential part of liturgy and encourages Catholics to sing hymns and play liturgical music correctly.

"Inculturation makes liturgy lively and meaningful for the people of God. It helps to communicate with God effectively," he added.

A subcommittee of seven priests, all of them musicians and members of the Liturgy Commission, worked for more than a year to produce and publish the CD and cassette titled "Orhe Sarhao" (praise and glory).

Santal parishioners took part in the recording sessions, held Nov. 10-12 this year at Banideepti Recording studio of the Catholic bishops' Christian Communications Center (CCC) in Dhaka.

"We've started sending these audio CDs and cassettes to different parishes, with instructions to the parish priests to conduct regular hymn classes for parishioners," Father Murmu reported. They are also available at CCC outlets and diocesan centers across the country.

Bimol Kisku, 30, a Santal catechist, expressed his appreciation: "I think this initiative will help people sing to God correctly."

Lewis Murmu, a 27-year-old graduate student, called it a "matter of great joy" for Santal Catholics that "will also help younger generations to sing correctly in the days to come."
  150 years of Bengal Mission: Jesuits urged to widen scope of work
KOLKATA, DEC 1 (UCAN) -- Jesuits in Kolkata have been urged not to rest on their laurels but work harder to serve Indian society, during programs marking 150 years of their Bengal mission.

The early missioners contributed a lot to the development of tribal communities in eastern India, noted Naresh Gupta, secretary of the national Jesuit Alumni Association of India, at a Nov. 28 function to mark the occasion.

However, he said he now wants the Jesuits to widen their scope and provide healthcare facilities in the country, which remain neglected.

Similarly, Jesuit Provincial of South Asia Father Edward Mudavassery, while paying tribute to the Jesuits' contributions in Bengal, invited them not to bask in their past glory but get ready to face current challenges boldly.

More than 2,000 people, including 10 bishops, attended the jubilee celebrations at St. Xavier's College in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state.

The program included a symposium on Jesuit contribution to the education and social life of people in eastern India, an exhibition on the Bengal mission's growth and a multimedia presentation on the mission.

Cardinal Telesphore P. Toppo of Ranchi, in his homily during the jubilee Mass, compared the early Belgian Jesuit missioners to Abraham of the Old Testament, who left his homeland for a place that God had chosen for him. The cardinal expressed hope that the jubilee celebrations would renew the "missionary zeal in our time even though it may encounter many obstacles."

Four Belgian and three English Jesuits landed in Kolkata port on Nov. 28, 1859. The mission they started now comprises two archdioceses, 21 dioceses, and seven Jesuit provinces, spread over Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal states.

Other guests at the event praised the pioneering spirit of the early missioners.

The Jesuits in Bengal have dedicated their life to enrich the lives of people with their quality education and cultural contributions, said Salomi Mamata, who works with Calcutta archdiocese's social service center. "What I am today is thanks to the Kolkata Jesuits," she said.

Snehashish Sur, a TV journalist, hailed the Jesuits' values-based education and identification with local people. He said he was surprised when the late Belgian Father Gerard Beckers started living in a tribal Santal area after retiring from his work at St. Xavier's College. "He moved around in a bicycle, and that was truly exemplary," he added.
  Catholic feud shoots down Bible quiz in Bangalore
MANGALORE, DEC 1 (UCAN) -- Tension between Catholic communities over the language used in liturgies has forced Bangalore archdiocese to cancel its annual Bible quiz.

The event was to be held last month at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in the southern city of Bangalore. But Kannada Sangha (Kannada forum), a group of Catholics who speak Kannada, Karnataka's state language, threatened to disrupt the proceedings. The group complained that Tamil children won most prizes last year.

Tension has grown for more than 30 years between Tamil speakers, migrants from neighboring Tamil Nadu state who form the majority of Catholics in the archdiocese, and native Kannada speakers, or Kannadiga. Vocal members of each group want their language to be the primary language used in liturgies.

Confrontations have included Mass boycotts and even physical disruption of Masses, including a bishop's ordination, for which some priests have been arrested.

The Bible quiz had been held at St. Peter's Pontifical Seminary for more than a decade, drawing more than 3,000 students each year from parish catechism classes. The program includes drama, song, dance and other cultural activities, besides a quiz. It ends with a visit to the Bible Museum in the seminary.

In recent years it was shifted to parishes to make it more participatory, according to the seminary's rector, Father K.J. Thomas.

The Bible Museum took the initiative to organize the program to unite people, but lately the event has been generating "tension and controversies (more) than nurturing biblical values," the priest explained.

"Finally, we had to cancel the event this year since we found the dispute defeated our original motto," he said.

Father Amrith Raj, the cathedral parish priest, confirmed that some Kannada Sangha members had threatened to disrupt the event if it was held in the cathedral. Several skirmishes between the two feuding groups have already taken place there.

The bible quiz "was a most awaited event of the archdiocese," Father Raj lamented. He said Kannada Catholics protested this year because of some controversy last year. "They alleged the Tamils bag most prizes while Kannadiga Catholics get a 'stepmotherly' treatment."

A parish priest, who requested anonymity, told UCA News the recent crisis began after seminary officials rejected Kannadiga seminary students' demand for a Kannada Mass on Nov. 1, the day which marks the establishment of the state of Karnataka.

The seminary celebrated the main liturgy in English.
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