Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Shrine stolen from Dublin church

A holy shrine which normally contains a relic of St Brigid has been stolen from a church as worshippers prepare for the patron saint's feast day.

Thieves made off with the rare Celtic-designed reliquary - an ornate container for relics - which was screwed into the altar at St Brigid's Church in Killester, north Dublin, on Monday.

Believed to be worth 10,000 euro, the distinctive press, fashioned in the style of St Patrick's Bell, housed a small piece of St Brigid's skull brought back to Ireland from Portugal in 1929.

But parish officials had only removed the relic, which is fixed to a cruciform, in recent weeks as the double-door reliquary underwent renovations as part of general maintenance at the church on Howth Road.

The theft is thought to have occurred some time between noon and 3pm on Monday - two days before St Brigid's Day.

It follows the robbery in Co Tipperary last October of another ancient relic, believed to be from the cross on which Jesus was crucified. That priceless artefact was returned to Holycross Abbey, near Thurles, earlier this month after gardai carried out a search in the midlands.

Killester parish priest Monsignor Alex Stenson said it was unclear if the latest theft was targeting the relics of St Brigid, one of Ireland's three patron saints.

"We could speculate until the cows come home but I really do not know," he said.

Fr Stenson said parish officials decided not to put the relic back into the container but instead kept it in a safe as it was needed for the annual St Brigid celebrations. 

The cleric said there would be no special prayers for the return of the reliquary but he hoped it would turn up.

"We'll be happy enough with celebrating the feast of St Brigid and blessing people who wish to be with the relic," he said. 

Fr Stenson added that they would be reviewing security measures in the parish.

The reliquary, which had been in the church for more than 50 years, is believed to have been stolen while the building was open to the public. 

The relic of St Brigid was gifted to Killester more than 80 years ago.

Russian Church vows to raise funds for crisis-hit Greece

All Orthodox churches in Russia will raise funds to help Greece mitigate the social impact of the euro zone crisis, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia announced on Thursday last.

"We are currently establishing relations between our church charitable organizations and the Church of Ellada so that the Russian Church can take part in this good work of helping the needy in Greece," the Patriarch said at a meeting with the leader of the New Democracy party of Greece, Antonis Samaras, in Moscow on Thursday.

Greece's current problems are "taken to heart" in Russia, the patriarch said. The Russians think highly of help being given by the Greek Church to those hit hardest by the crisis, he said.

He credited relations between the Russian and Greek Churches with being traditionally warm and "some of the strongest ties between our countries."

"Political situations come and go and change, but those ties, which span centuries, always survive. Orthodoxy is an important factor of national self-identification both for Russians and for Greeks," he said.

He mentioned that recently a relic of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki and the Cincture of Our Lady were brought to Russia for veneration by Orthodox believers.

"The Russian people are very responsive to relics being brought over, and millions of people, in spite of frost or cold, queue for hours to be able to touch those relics," he said.

"No political rally or sporting event brings as many people together as the relics that are brought here do. While this remains the case we will have hopes for the future," Kirill said.

Russian Church to help Kosovo monasteries

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia has expressed concerns about the situation of residents of Kosovo and Metohija.

"Serbs living in Kosovo and Metohija have found themselves pawns of a big geopolitical game. Many countries are indifferent to them and they have to live in closed enclaves in daily fear of their hostile environment, which realizes its impunity," the Patriarch said in an interview with the Serb newspaper Vecherniye Novosti, whose translation was published on the website of the Moscow patriarchate.

"Our brothers in faith have great courage not to leave their long-suffering land and their holy places. They live like prisoners of a concentration camp, who have been denied even their basic right to life," he said.

Patriarch Kirill accused politicians of "glaring injustice, double standards and lies, and declaration of their adherence of ideals of humanism and human rights while turning a blind eye to the hell created by extremists with support from their foreign sponsors."

"Brothers, the Russian Church, the Orthodox Russian people will never abandon you," the Patriarch said.

Patriarch Kirill said the Moscow Patriarchate has always supported the Serbian Church on the status of Kosovo.

The Patriarch also said the Russian Church plans to take specific measures to support Kosovo monasteries.

Patriarch Kirill says his meeting with Pope is not possible yet

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia again said there are no preconditions for his meeting with the Pope.

"I still believe conflicts need to be resolved more energetically, if not fully, in order for this meeting to be successful," the Patriarch said in an interview with the Serb newspaper Vecherniye Novosti (a translation of that interview has been posted on the Moscow Patriarchate website).

Patriarch Kirill said the media reiterated "only the sensational aspect of a possible meeting," saying he "would not like its effect to be reduced to sensation."

"In order for such a meeting to be really useful for further development of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, we need to work together to radically improve the atmosphere of these relations by resolving the problems that exist between us," the Patriarch said.

Speaking about the seizure of Orthodox churches in Ukraine by Greek Catholics, the Patriarch pointed out that the Russian Church has recently suggested reviving the four-party commission comprising the Vatican, the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

"However, the Catholic Church was not very enthusiastic about our offer," he said.

The issue of the situation with Orthodox churches in Western Ukraine has been regularly raised during meetings with representatives of the Catholic Church in the Moscow Patriarchate, the Patriarch said.

"The Pope and the heads of the Vatican congregations are expressing an understanding about our concerns, but the problem remains unresolved," Patriarch Kirill said.

At the same time, the Patriarch said the relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church "have improved considerably" over the past 10 years

"The issue of proselytism is no longer as acute as it was in the 1990s, when Catholic missionaries came to Russia to work actively here. The Mixed Group on Issues between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in Russia, which was created in 2004, played its positive role," he said.

The Patriarch has called for development of cooperation between Orthodox and Catholic Christians, "who keep Christian traditions and have close views on personal and social ethics, technological progress, bioethics, and other issues of our time," including the protection of the rights of Christians.

Catholic Churches Distribute Letter Opposing Obama Healthcare Rule

Catholic parishioners around the country were read letters this past Sunday morning written by church leadership railing against an Obama administration ruling that requires employers to provide health insurance plans that include contraceptive coverage.

Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from the guidelines but Catholic hospitals, colleges, and social services fall under the umbrella of institutions covered by the decision.

Originally introduced last summer, the decision was lauded by abortion rights supporters. 

But Catholicism considers some forms of contraception termination of life and religious leaders say adherence would fly in the face of the tenets of their faith.

Critics also charge it would be a violation of the Constitutional right to freedom of religion.

The letters were penned by individual clergy, so variations exist in what was read at each Sunday Mass, but the overall theme is unified.

One letter from the Archdiocese of Washington says, “Catholic moral teachings will be placed in the untenable position of having to choose between violating the law and violating their conscience.”

In another from the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona, a bishop calls on Catholics to stand united against the rule.

“We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law,” it reads. “People of faith cannot be made second class citizens.”

Nearly all letters found by ABC News called on parishioners to pray for a reversal.

On Jan. 19, Pope Benedict XVI told the American Roman Catholic Church they needed to understand “grave threats” posed by what he called radical secularism in politics and culture. 

The pontiff specifically mentioned the U.S. church struggling to be permitted conscientious objection to “intrinsically evil practices.”

Earlier this month religious institutions were given a year extension to comply with the decision.

During the 2008 presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama carried 54 percent of Catholic voters. 

Running mate Joseph Biden was Catholic himself. 

However, this campaign season has seen two strong Catholics come out of the Republican party as well: Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

The National Association of Evangelicals also stands against the decision.

Church of England bishops back shrink's 'cure for gays'

Senior figures in the Church of England have backed a Christian counsellor after she treated a gay man who said he wanted to be cured of his homosexuality. 

Former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, Bishop of Chester the Rt Rev Peter Forster, and Bishop of Lewes the Rt Rev Wallace Benn were among signatories to a letter giving support to 60-year-old psychotherapist Lesley Pilkington.

The counsellor is due to mount an appeal this week following a British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) ruling that she was guilty of professional misconduct over a therapy session with gay journalist Patrick Strudwick.

Writing in The Guardian last year, Mr Strudwick, who was working undercover, said he approached Ms Pilkington and asked her to "make me straight" after meeting her at a conference for therapists and psychiatrists who wanted to learn how to convert their patients to heterosexuality.

"I am an out, happily gay man. I was undercover, investigating therapists who practise this so-called conversion therapy - also known as reparative therapy - who try to 'pray away the gay'," he wrote.

"I asked her to make me straight. Her attempts to do so flout the advice of every major mental-health body in Britain." 

In their letter, the clerics said Ms Pilkington distinguishes "very carefully" between her "non-directive" counselling and the biblical and pastoral counselling she also offers as a Christian.

"We believe that people who seek, freely, to resolve unwanted same-sex attractions hold the moral right to receive professional assistance," they said.

"Whether motivated by Christian conscience or other values, clients, not practitioners, have the prerogative to choose the yardstick by which to define themselves.

"Not everyone stakes their identity on sexual feelings."

Mrs Pilkington has claimed the BACP hearing against her was unfair and discriminated against her Christian faith.

Yasmin Church celebrates Sunday Mass in front of presidential palace in Jakarta

Hundreds of members of the Yasmin Church (GKI) in Bogor staged a demonstration Sunday in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta, calling on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to stop the acts of discrimination and intimidation against them. 

GKI members also held their Sunday service in front of the palace.

“We came here so that the top leader of the country may help solve this problem, for love of the rule of law and the defence of diversity in Indonesia,” Yasmin Church spokesperson Bona Sigalingging said. Yasmin Church members continue to endure intimidation, he added.

In the past month, Islamic radicals and public officials tried twice to prevent Sunday service. “The mayor of Bogor informed us that we could not conduct celebrations on our Church’s land or near it. This is a form of intimidation,” he explained.

Bogor mayor Diani Budiarto has blocked construction work of the Yasmin Church despite the fact that the GKI has a permit to build. He has also refused to accept a ruling by the Supreme Court issued in 2010, which authorised construction.

Meanwhile, the Yasmin Church spokesperson said that Java launched an investigation against a church member, Jayadi Damanik, for resisting a public official. The charge is based on an incident in October when an officer, Bambang Budyanto, head of the Civil Service Police Unit (Satpol PP) in Bogor, was knocked out during a clash with Church members.

Church spokesperson Bona Sigalingging said that that the GKI filed charges against Bambang for using violence in trying to interrupt a religious ceremony and against the mayor of Bogor for trying to do the same.

For Sigalingging, the victim of aggression was treated as a criminal. “This is what happened to the Ahmadiyah,” he explained, referring to a Muslim minority sect opposed by radical Muslims and public officials,

Since 2008, the GKI has been forced to celebrate Sunday services on the sidewalk of its church building or in private homes because of protests and intimidations by radical Muslims.

By allowing “intolerant radical groups to intimidate the congregation repeatedly,” Sigalingging said, the mayor has shown to be their supporter.

French Protestants put spotlight on chaplaincy, amid tensions

In a bid to reduce tensions with other religious groups and to highlight challenges, the Protestant Federation of France has turned the spotlight on chaplaincy this year.

At the group's General Assembly on 21 and 22 January in Paris, members examined the issues chaplains face in hospitals, prisons and the military and urged member churches to take steps to support chaplains' work.

Pastor Claude Baty, president of the federation, told ENInews that a key concern was the tensions in some sectors between Protestant chaplains and those from the Catholic Church. 

He said that as the number of practising Catholics decline in France, the Catholic Church was "worried" about losing its traditionally dominant position, including in the area of chaplaincy.

"Catholics come from a position of total dominance, and they are afraid as they see this changing," he said in an interview. "There must now be place for everyone."

According to polls, some 64 percent of French people identify themselves as Catholics, down from 81 percent in the 1960s, but less that 10 percent say that they practice their religion. 

About three percent identify as Protestant. 

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants were persecuted in France, causing thousands to flee, and lingering feelings of resentment are still in evidence.

The Protestant Federation said there are about 100 of their chaplains working in hospitals in France: visiting patients, working with medical staff, counseling people with terminal illnesses and contributing to ethics policy. 

They work alongside representatives of the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim faiths and hope for greater cooperation, according to Pastor Isabelle Meykuchel, head of the chaplaincy service for health and socio-medical issues.

"Spirituality is a great part of health care, and it's very important to take into account the role of chaplaincy in hospitals," she told ENInews. "We want to put in place meetings between the national chaplaincy services."

She said that in Lyon, where she was previously based, the chaplains from different religions worked well together and had drawn up a charter to reinforce this cooperation. "We hope we can achieve the same level of cooperation in Paris and elsewhere," she said.

The federation is also seeking to draw attention to chaplains' work in the military, particularly with French soldiers who serve in Afghanistan. 

Some of these soldiers have returned home with life-altering injuries but the problems they face are not publicly discussed, the federation said.

"Why is there this media silence concerning the wounded soldiers that return?" asked Pastor Brice Deymié, head of the chaplaincy service for justice and prisons.

Deymié said the federation would like to promote more discussion about "restorative justice," which should involve victims and perpetrators and be an essential component of all "punitive justice." 

As the presidential elections draw near in France (April and May), restorative justice has become an issue among some politicians.

Meanwhile, in one sign of working together, Protestant and Catholic chaplains along with their Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox counterparts have expressed concern about a decree by the French Justice Ministry that wants religious groups to identify salaried chaplains and volunteers working in prisons, and to give more information about their affiliation, remuneration and the services they provide.

Bishop of Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg draws anger with Hitler comment

bishop.JPGThe bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg is being criticized for saying Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would love the country’s public school system because it teaches all children one set of beliefs. 

Bishop Joseph P. McFadden made the remark while advocating for school vouchers during an interview last week with Dennis Owens, an anchor with WHTM-TV (ABC27).

Bishop of the Harrisburg Diocese, Bishop Joseph P. McFadden, sparked outrage after making a remark referencing Hitler and Mussolini while advocating for school vouchers during an interview last week with Dennis Owens, an anchor with WHTM-TV (ABC72).

“In totalitarian governments, they would love our system,” McFadden said to during the interview. 

“This is what Hitler and Mussolini and all those tried to establish a monolith so all the children would be educated in one set of beliefs and one way of doing things.”

McFadden’s words sparked outrage from the area chapter of the Anti-Defamation League and a rebuke from the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. 

In an email sent to The Patriot-News on Wednesday, McFadden said he didn’t mean to cause offense and that he was not trying to trivialize the Holocaust.

The Catholic church recognizes the Holocaust as an atrocity against humanity, he said.

“The reference to dictators and totalitarian governments of the 20th century, which I made in an interview on the topic of school choice, was to make a dramatic illustration of how these unchecked monolithic governments of the past used schools to curtail the primary responsibility of the parent in the education of their children,” McFadden said. 

“Today many parents in our state experience the same lack of freedom in choosing an education that bests suits their child as those parents oppressed by dictators of the past. I intentionally did not make reference to the holocaust in my remarks,” he said.

“Our support of a school voucher program has the goal of giving parents something that dictators never would, a choice in which school their children attend by being able to control the portion of the tax dollars that is designated for the education of each child,” he said. 

The diocese had not been aware the ADL had criticized McFadden’s remarks until a reporter called on Wednesday, spokesman Joe Aponick said. 

ADL regional director Barry Morrison said McFadden’s remarks are offensive to people who suffered through the Holocaust or fought fascism.

“It is surprising coming from a bishop and the Catholic church, which has enjoyed good, strong ties with the Jewish community,” Morrison said.

The Catholic church and Jewish community work together on Holocaust education and interfaith dialogue.

Morrison said the ADL respects the bishop and his position in the church. 

“We appreciate his commitment to the education of children and the viability of Catholic schools,” Morrison said. “However, he should not be making his point at the expense of the memory of six million Jews and millions of others who perished in the Holocaust.”

Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said that while everyone makes mistakes, McFadden’s remarks were “completely inappropriate.”

Besides, public schools are diverse, not monolithic, Hoover said.

“Sure, there are standards that are set by the state, but everything is done in an open, public process and is checked by the political system,” he said.

“School boards are elected, the people from the Department of Education work for the governor. So, our public school system is actually very democratic and very open.”

Spanish conservatives too liberal for Church

When conservative Mariano Rajoy was sworn in as Spanish prime minister in late December, the country's Catholic Church was no doubt satisfied. 

The Spanish political party closest to the Vatican had put an end to eight years of Socialist rule, during which premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero horrified priests with his reforms, such as homosexual marriage, speedier divorce and easier access to abortion. 

During his rule, bishops and conservative politicians attended massive rallies against policies which the Catholic Church saw as destroying the very foundations of society. 

But though Rajoy's People's Party (PP) is now firmly at the helm with an absolute majority in parliament, its relations with Spain's Catholic hierarchy have been less smooth than its most conservative voters had expected.

The new government has only been in power for about a month, but tensions have already arisen over the 2005 marriage of Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, Rajoy's deputy and the country's most powerful woman.

The fact that she had married in a civil rather than religious ceremony made her unfit to open Easter celebrations in the cathedral of her native city of Valladolid, as had been suggested by the mayor, Valladolid archbishop Ricardo Blazquez told journalists this week.

He made the comments off the record, but they were nevertheless leaked out and sparked a storm in a country where more than 60 per cent of couples tie the knot in civil ceremonies.

Earlier on, church representatives had also criticized another powerful PP politician, the party's Secretary General Dolores de Cospedal, for having become a single mother through artificial insemination.

And church leaders have not refrained from giving citizens more general advice, saying homosexuality is not 'adequate behaviour' and that Catholics should shun 'fornication.'

The Santamaria case divided opinions. Former Socialist defence minister Carme Chacon, who is candidate to become the party's new leader, said she did not accept nor understand Blazquez' 'attack' on the deputy prime minister.

The archbishop's opinions 'are based on the Gospel' and needed to be respected, a commentator countered in the conservative daily ABC.

Blazquez' comments revealed a widening gulf between church teachings and citizens in the traditionally Catholic country, where papal visits draw millions of people, but where hardly anyone lives as the Vatican tells them to live, other observers said.

About 75 per cent of Spaniards regard themselves as Catholics, down from nearly 85 per cent a decade ago, according to the Centre of Sociological Investigations (CIS).

Spain's Catholic Church was a pillar of the 1939-75 'national-Catholic' dictatorship of Francisco Franco, when divorce was almost impossible to attain, homosexuals were persecuted and pornography was banned.

Blazquez' comments coincided with the trial of Baltasar Garzon, Spain's most famous judge, who is being sued by two Francoist-minded groups over his attempt to launch the country's first judicial investigation into the dictator's crimes.

The ongoing trial shocked human rights activists who see Spain as still being reluctant to shed Franco's legacy.

The church's alleged interference in people's private lives is now seen as yet another sign that Franco's ghost still hovers over the country.

It sparked echoes of a time when 'the altar and the dictator' laid down the rules on how people should behave, as the daily El Pais put it.

However, the PP does not want to alienate more staunchly Catholic voters, and the new government has already started working towards cancelling some aspects of Zapatero's social reforms.

The government will change at least one part of Zapatero's liberal abortion law, cancelling a rule that allows under-age girls to interrupt their pregnancies without their parents' knowledge in cases of serious family conflicts, Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon announced this week.

Earlier on, the PP also lodged a complaint at the Constitutional Court against a 2005 law introduced by Zapatero allowing homosexuals to marry with equal rights as heterosexuals.

More than 25,000 gay couples have wed since then, according to the homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals association FELGTB.

Many same-sex couples rushed to marry before the November 20 parliamentary elections, fearing that a future PP government would deprive them of that right.

Will Rajoy cancel the law which placed Spain - a former Catholic stronghold - among the world's most liberal countries? 

The prime minister has so far refused to clarify his position.

Father Bob Maguire fears church will close the door on him

FATHER Bob Maguire fears he won't be welcomed back at the church he served for almost 50 years after he holds his final Mass on Sunday. 

Despite a public battle to keep the popular clergyman at South Melbourne's St Peter and Paul's Church, the Catholic Church isn't reversing its decision to force Father Bob to retire because of his age.

At 77, Father Bob is unsure what he will do now but a priority is to keep his foundation that helps the needy running and possibly buy a campervan to go travelling around Australia.

"I suppose that's why they send people to nursing homes so they can have rules and structure," he said.

The maverick priest said incoming parish priest Father Julian Messina might want a fresh start without him lingering in the background.

"They might think I'm a distraction and restrict people from moving on," he said.

"He (Fr Messina) shouldn't expect hugs and kisses straight away you have to earn that respect. That's the only way I lasted so long, we fell in love (with his church-goers)."

Fr Bob said his last service would be like any other one and he was "worn out with sadness".

"I don't care if Lady Gaga is there. I'm going to do what I've done for 48 years. I'd rather be Bob, Parish Priest of St Peter and Pauls, rather than any other title given to me," he said, referring to him being called a celebrity.

"We are really hurting but we are not fatally injured. But I don't want to be bitter Bob."

Fr Bob will move into an old real estate office with his dog Franklin where he will live and run the Fr Bob Maguire Foundation until a home is found.

Despite the church's ruling, Fr Bob still wants to have his own parish.

Fr Bob, arguably Victoria's most outspoken priest who now has a cult following, was named Victorian of the Year in July last year.

Church rebels worry the Vatican

The highest representatives of the Austrian Catholic Church gathered with Vatican officials to speak about a group of priests who declared themselves "disobedient", it has emerged.

The Salzburger Nachrichten newspaper revealed last Wednesday that Viennese Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn and two other members of the Conference of Austrian Bishops, went to Rome on Monday to meet with clergymen in the Vatican. 

The paper claimed that the gathering was organised to discuss how to react to the increasing acclaim among Austrians for the demands of Helmut Schüller’s Preachers’ Initiative.

Schüller – who was president of Caritas Austria for some years before withdrawing to Probstdorf in Lower Austria to head the local parish – presented the guidelines of his movement half a year ago. 

He said the Preachers’ Initiative wanted the Vatican to allow Austrian priests to give Holy Communion to divorced people. The rebellious group also want female priests in the Catholic Church and an abolition of celibacy.

A spokesman for the Austrian Roman Catholic Church confirmed today (Thurs) that the meeting took place on Monday. 

He claimed that it was a regular gathering at which various topics were raised. Schönborn said already some weeks ago that he planned to raise the controversial issue when speaking with Vatican officials.

Schönborn said in several interviews that he was not denying the urgent need for reforms of the Church. 

However, the archbishop also spoke out against Schüller's suggestions which conservative representatives of the Church consider as radical propaganda. They also accuse Schüller of trying to split the Church. Schüller said the Church was on the brink of breaking up indeed – because of its leaders’ unwillingness to react to significant developments in today’s society.

Austrian Church officials did not confirm that the Preachers’ Initiative was spoken about in the Vatican on Monday. Newspapers report that the movement’s appeals were discussed indeed. 

Schüller said he was not afraid of consequences over his actions. The ex-Caritas Austria president announced: "I appreciate that the Worldwide Church starts thinking about our ideals. Maybe this was the start of something."

Schüller said last week he planned to cooperate with priests abroad who shared his opinions. "We receive a lot of approval from Catholic reform movements all over the world," he said. 

The Probstdorf parish priest also criticised the Vatican for its conservative attitude. 

Schüller claimed it bore resemblance to an "absolutist monarchy". 

He added: "The Catholic Church must finally start taking its members seriously."

Around 400 Austrian priests have joined Schüller’s initiative over the past months. Schüller pointed out that the decision to be "disobedient" towards the Vatican found all-round acclaim. Schönborn harshly criticised the group of priests for choosing this term. 

Newspapers report that Schüller and Schönborn have no plans to meet in the foreseeable future to speak about a possible agreement.

Polls show that a vast majority of Austrians generally support the points of view shared in the Preachers’ Initiative. 

The development of the feud between the group around Schüller and conservative circles of the Church could be crucial to how things go for reform movements elsewhere since Austria is still one of the Catholic Church’s strongholds in Europe. 

More than five million Austrians – 65 per cent of the country’s citizens – are part of the Church. 

The number of people quitting their membership dropped by 32 per cent from 2010 to 2011 when 58,603 cancellations were registered.

Vienna archdiocese apologizes for published list of people who left the Catholic church

The Vienna archdiocese has apologized for the publication of a list of people who have formally left the Roman Catholic church.

A statement says those affected have been asked “for forgiveness,” noting making the names public “is not allowed by state or church rules.”

The statement was issued Thursday after a priest in a village north of Vienna listed local church-leavers in the diocese newspaper.

The archdiocese says the priest has since “apologized in the form of a Mass and has written those affected a letter” of apology.

The rash of sex abuse scandals hitting the Catholic church has led to an increased number of people formally renouncing their affiliation.

That also frees them from paying a mandatory church tax.

Vicar jailed over sham marriages

A Church of England vicar has been jailed for two and a half years after carrying out dozens of sham marriages allowing illegal immigrants to live in the UK.

The Rev Canon Dr John Magumba was taking so many weddings involving foreign nationals his diocese put him in charge of a special working party on how to handle marriages for foreigners - and how to spot sham weddings.

In fact father-of-six Magumba, originally from Uganda, "asked no questions" when marrying a stream of Nigerian men and eastern European women who began flocking to his parish in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, from across the UK to celebrate their "happy day".

The 58-year-old even told local church-goers that African worshippers did not feel comfortable around so many white parishioners so he set up separate "African services".

Churches saw the number of weddings rocket after Magumba became the team vicar for St Mary's in Rochdale, St Peter's in Newbold and St Luke's in Deeplish.

Magumba showed no emotion as sentence was passed at Bolton Crown Court after he admitted carrying out 28 sham weddings.

Passing sentence Judge William Morris told the defendant: "What you did repeatedly amounted to very serious breaches of the immigration laws of this country properly designed to prevent those with no entitlement to reside in the UK from doing so."

"Such legal restrictions are essential for the proper functioning of the state to ensure that taxpayers' money is only allocated to the needs of fellow citizens. Whatever your motive for facilitating the fraudulent entry into this country of these individuals, neither you or anyone else in your place, can place your conscience above the laws of this country. Your offences have brought scandal to the church and let down your family and parishioners."

Police are not sure Magumba even conducted any actual services - but instead simply filled in the marriage certificates, described as the "Golden Ticket" to illegal immigrants. 

Magumba later admitted to police Nigerians "would do anything in their power to come to the UK" and were "crying out" for marriage certificates, the court heard.

Garda watchdog ready to launch Cloyne probe

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) has moved a step closer towards launching an investigation into the Garda handling of cases criticised in the Cloyne report.
Following six months of discussions with the Murphy Commission, the GSOC has recently received the full, unredacted, or unedited, version of their report into the Catholic diocese.

A spokesman for the GSOC said yesterday: "We have now received the full unredacted version of the report and the commission is now examining its contents." 

He declined to make any further comment until this process was completed.

The Cloyne report investigated how the hierarchy and statutory authorities, including the gardaí, handled complaints into alleged sexual abuse committed by clergy in the Cork diocese.

The Murphy Commission said it was "very concerned" at the role of gardaí in three cases, including one where no investigation was carried out and another where a statement from a victim was left forgotten in a drawer.

The commission also expressed its shock over "vanishing" interview notes of a complainant and a failure to keep proper records.

Overall, the commission said "most" gardaí carried out their tasks "well" and treated the complainants with "compassion and dignity".

The report was published last July, but sections, including the names of priests and gardaí criticised, were blacked out for legal reasons.

After the publication, Justice Minister Alan Shatter referred the report to the GSOC and asked it to take whatever action it deemed necessary.

The Garda watchdog quickly realised there were problematic "procedural issues" that had to be dealt with. 

This centred on whether or not it could get access to information provided to the commission in confidence.

Without the full report, the GSOC would not be able to identify the gardaí criticised and could not conduct an investigation.

Investigators within GSOC are examining the full report and will submit their report to the three-person commission which heads GSOC for a decision.

The indications last year were that once GSOC had got the full report that an investigation would be set up. 

But two of the three people leading the commission changed at the end of last year, so it is not clear if that position has changed.

It was thought that any investigation would be a "public interest" inquiry under Section 102.4 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005. 

This allows the commission to set up an inquiry without having received a complaint.

Under this section, GSOC can investigate "any matter that appears to it to indicate that a member of the Garda Síochána may have committed an offence or behaved in a manner that would justify disciplinary proceedings".

Any gardaí criticised in the report who have retired can not be disciplined.

Bosnian Catholics face increasing Islamic fundamentalism

In Bosnia-Herzegovina,nuns now only leave the convent in pairs out of fear of abuse.  

Nuns wearing habits are subjected to verbal abuse in public more and more frequently.  

Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Ivanka Mihaljevic (pictured), Bosnian Provincial Superior of the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King said that everyday life is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more Muslim extremists are immigrating from Saudi Arabia and opening businesses.  

The nuns often have no other choice but to buy from them, but in doing so are also subjected to discrimination and humiliations.  

For example, once when bread loaves were in plain sight in a shop, the proprietor told Catholic nuns that he was out of bread, rather than sell to them.

“Again and again, we are made to feel unwelcome, even though this is our home,” said Sister Ivanka emphasised, who explained that native Bosnian Muslims are peaceable, and are often ashamed of the behaviour of their more extreme colleagues who migrate to the country. 

The Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King in Sarajevo are particularly committed to promoting the peaceful coexistence of all religions. They have launched a three-year program entitled, I extend to you my hand for peaceful coexistence.

In this initiative, Catholics, Muslims and Serbian Orthodox Christians are jointly working to promote tolerance, non-violence and mutual respect.  

This year the joint effort against verbal abuse tops the agenda.  

The Bosnian Province of the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King comprises 260 nuns, of whom 15 live in Sarajevo. 

Cardinal Vinko Puljic, the Archbishop of Sarajevo, has also highlighted the growth of extremism in the country and said that the growing process of Islamisation in Bosnia-Herzegovina is being funded by radicals in the Middle East.  

During an ACN interview, he said that there are already 3,000 to 5,000 Wahhabis (members of a radical Islamic reform movement), in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the group is seeking to gain influence in society.

“Muslim centres and mosques have been built in many places with oil-dollars from Saudi Arabia,” he said. 

“Nobody in the government has the courage to do anything to prevent this development.  In recent years, at least 70 new mosques have been built in Sarajevo alone.”

While mosques are being built or repaired, Cardinal Puljic pointed out that building approval for churches can be delayed for years, adding that Church property confiscated under communism has still not been returned.  

The Archbishop of Sarajevo went on to say, “Catholics are systematically disadvantaged” and demanded equal treatment for Catholics in employment, education and other spheres of life.

Despite these problems, the cardinal said the Catholic Church is seeking greater cooperation between different ethnic and religious groups.  

“We are a minority, but we are a constructive force that wishes to make a contribution to the success of society.”

The country is close to 40 per cent Muslim and 31 per cent are Serbian Orthodox.  Catholics are 10 per cent. 

Of the 820,000 Catholics who lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina before the 1992- 1995 war, only 460,000 remain and emigration is ongoing.

French in bid to lower divorce rate

The French Government is to introduce longer civil ceremonies and a, “marriage preparation kit” that will remind soon-to-be husbands and wives what they are signing up for, in a bid to reduce the country's high divorce levels.

Currently, the French divorce rate is 50 per cent.

Announcing the new plans, minister of state for family affairs Claude Greff said  that, currently, civil ceremonies were too impersonal, too short (some take as little as five minutes) and failed to give couples a sense of their rights and responsibilities, The Irish Times reports.  

“Many citizens discover much later what the civil code involves, but by then it’s too late.  I want to make the risks clear,” she said.

France’s divorce rate in 2010 was 50 per cent, according to the national statistics office, and rose to 66 per cent in the Paris region.  

The “preparation kit” was suggested by an official working group charged with finding ways of reducing the marriage breakdown numbers.

The group was told many married couples knew little about their commitments to their in-laws or their financial obligations after divorce. 

“We have to make sure people know what they’re getting into,” said the national federation of Catholic family associations.

Not everyone has endorsed the initiative, however.  

François de Singly, a sociology professor at Paris Descartes University, dismissed as naive the idea that a better grasp of the law would strengthen marriages.

“It’s not the marriage that produces the divorce.  It’s ultimately the absence of love or the waning of love,” he said.  

“Why is the state getting involved in this? It would be a total intrusion into private life.  If the government imposes preparation or a sort of entrance exam for civil marriage, it will not reinforce marriage. I fear it could destabilise it further.”

French voters go to the polls in four months to elect a President and some see the timing of the move as a bid to attract family values voters to Mr Sarkozy's cause.  

Mr Sarkozy, who has been divorced twice, dismissed reports last week that he might include same-sex marriage in his election manifesto.

Children "uncertain" about gender to be given puberty-delaying injections

Six children in Britain are to be given hormone injections to delay the onset of puberty because they and their parents believe they suffer from gender-identity-disorder.

The monthly injections will postpone the physical changes of adolescence, giving the children more time to make decisions about their identity. It will also make any sex-change operation easier if they decide to permanently change to their preferred gender.

Meanwhile the parents of another child in Britain have decided to reveal the sex of their five-year-old boy. They had previously hidden it so that the child could decide his preferred gender and not have it ‘imposed’ upon him by society.

In the case of the six children, the injections will be carried out at a gender identity issues clinic in North London run by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust as part of an NHS trial. It will be the first time children aged between 12 and 15 have ever been given this treatment in the UK.

Amy, 11, who renamed herself Charlie, is one of the children who has been accepted on the ground-breaking trial.  According to her parents Kathy and Jamie from Torbay, Amy was a tomboy from birth. She insisted on wearing boy's clothes, would cry if placed in a dress, and would only play with toy cards and Spiderman figures.

Her mother was not overly worried but at the age of five, Amy asked her, "When is my willy going to grow?"  

Last September, on Charlie's insistence, Kathy allowed her daughter to start secondary school as a boy.

"I feel braver," Charlie told The Sunday Times Magazine.  "Boys can be a bit braver than girls."

Now with puberty looming, his mother agreed to pause the process using drugs.  

"He cannot relate to his female body at all," Kathy said.  "He's in denial."

Until now, the jabs have only been prescribed to those over 16.  

However, supporters point out that nearly a quarter of sufferers aged 11 to 15 harm themselves or attempt suicide.  

The injections contain drugs called hypothalamic blockers that suppress their sex hormones delaying the onset of puberty.

In the past 10 years they have been increasingly used in countries such as the US and the Netherlands to give children time to think about their identity.

Dr Polly Carmichael, director of Tavistock's Gender Identity Development Service, told The Sunday Times Magazine that social conditioning in childhood may play some part.

“If there weren't pejoratives attached, for example, to boys who prefer more stereotypical girl-type activities and clothes, then it would be so much easier for these children to explore different ways of being without feeling they have to be physically one thing or the other."

Meanwhile, the English couple who have finally revealed the sex of their five-year-old boy explained their reasons for hiding it until now. Beck Laxton, 46, and partner Kieran Cooper, 44, decided not to reveal baby Sasha's gender in the hope it would let his 'real' personality shine through.  

They referred to Sasha as, “the infant" and only allowed their child to play with 'gender-neutral toys' in their television-free home.  

During the first five years of his life, Sasha has alternated between girls' and boys' outfits, leaving friends, playmates and relatives guessing.

But Beck and Kieran have finally revealed his masculinity to the world after it became harder to conceal when Sasha started primary school.  

Beck, a web editor, told Cambridge News: "I wanted to avoid all that stereotyping.  Stereotypes seem fundamentally stupid.  Why would you want to slot people into boxes?”

Beck and Kieran, from Sawston, Cambidgeshire, were so desperate not to ‘prejudice’ Sasha's life with ‘gender stereotypes’ they didn't ask midwives his sex until 30 minutes after he was born. Only a handful of immediate family members were told of the baby's sex. 

"I don't think I'd do it if I thought it was going to make him unhappy, but at the moment he's not really bothered either way.  We haven't had any difficult scenarios yet. Nobody's ever mentioned it and I would hope that if they actually said something to Sasha, he'd be confident enough to make a good response."

In May 2011, parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, from Canada, vowed to raise their baby Storm as a gender-neutral child sparking worldwide discussion.  

Dr Daragh Mc Dermott, a psychology lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, said the psychological effect of raising a gender-neutral child is not yet known.  

He said, "It's hard to say whether being raised gender-neutral will have any immediate or long-term psychological consequences for a child, purely because to date there is little empirical research examining this topic.

"That being said, the family setting is only one source of gender-specific information and as children grow, their self-identity as male, female or gender-neutral will be influenced by school, socialisation with other children and adults, as well as mass media. As a child grows they develop their own independent sense of self that will include their own individual gender identification."