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Pro-democracy Catholic Jimmy Lai marks 1,000th day in jail awaiting trial

Newspaper publisher and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai poses during an interview in Hong Kong in 2020. / Credit: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Vatican City, Sep 26, 2023 / 06:30 am (CNA).

Jimmy Lai, a Catholic pro-democracy activist and former publisher of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, spent his 1,000th day in jail on Tuesday awaiting his long-delayed trial. 

Lai’s son has expressed fear that Lai could die in prison and human rights groups have urged the U.K. government to take immediate action to free the jailed newspaper publisher, who is a British citizen. 

“I don’t want to see my father die in jail. He’s 75, he’s in prison, he does risk just dying. It is very worrying,” Sebastien Lai told the Associated Press.

Jimmy Lai has been jailed awaiting a trial since he was arrested in December 2020 under Hong Kong’s national security law. The Catholic covert could face life in prison if convicted. His trial is set for Dec. 18, nearly one year after it was originally scheduled.

Lai spends about 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in Hong Kong’s Stanley Prison, a maximum-security facility, according to AP, and is allowed outside to exercise for 50 minutes a day in a small enclosure surrounded by barbed wire.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, Amnesty International UK, and eight other human rights groups published an open letter on Sept. 24 calling on British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to take immediate action to secure Lai’s release.

The letter underlined that the prime minister’s decisive action would be “a fundamental step to safeguard press freedom in Hong Kong.”

“Lai’s crime consists of owning and directing a news organization that was reporting on the concerns and struggles of a pro-democracy movement that has been virtually silenced by the state,” it said.

The jailed media mogul was the owner of the Apple Daily, which was Hong Kong’s most popular Chinese-language newspaper until it was closed in June 2021 after its offices were raided by hundreds of Hong Kong police and its executives detained. The paper was seen as Hong Kong’s most vocal pro-democracy newspaper.

Lai is one of more than 250 pro-democracy activists who have been arrested under the national security law since it was imposed by Beijing in response to Hong Kong’s massive pro-democracy protests in which nearly 2 million people took to the streets in 2019.

The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention raised “grave concern” over Lai’s detention in a communication sent to the Chinese government earlier this year.

Lai is facing several charges, including collusion with foreign forces, sedition, and conspiring to call for international sanctions against Hong Kong or China. He was also sentenced to five years and nine months in prison in December over fraud charges related to lease violations. 

His trial has been repeatedly delayed since it was first scheduled for December 2022. Hong Kong’s High Court upheld a government decision to bar a British lawyer from defending Lai in his national security trial in May. 

The court also rejected Lai’s request to halt the trial due to concerns that his case would be heard by three government-approved judges rather than a jury as practiced under Hong Kong’s common law tradition.

Sebastien Lai, Jimmy Lai’s son, has not seen his father in three years and worries for his health as his father suffers from diabetes and was diagnosed with high blood pressure in 2021 while in prison.

Lai was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize along with Cardinal Joseph Zen and other Hong Kong democracy advocates by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China in February. 

He was also the recipient of the Christifidelis Laici award at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, the Freedom of Press Award by Reporters without Borders, and an honorary degree from Catholic University of America.

Lai was born in Guangzhou in mainland China in 1947 but came to Hong Kong at age 12 as a penniless stowaway. After working in a factory in Hong Kong, Lai saw a need for affordable, quality clothing for middle-class people and founded a chain of clothing stores called Giordano’s — a venture that would make him rich and allow him to launch pro-democracy magazines and newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

He was baptized and received into the Church by Cardinal Zen on July 7, 1997, at the age of 49. Before his conversion, the billionaire entrepreneur attended Mass with his wife, Teresa, whom Lai said had always been a devout Catholic. But in 1997, just before the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, Lai said that he realized that he needed the protection and help of a higher power. 

At a time when many pro-democracy activists fled Hong Kong out of fear of the National Security Law, Lai chose to stay. He urged Hong Kongers on social media: “Let us not be afraid and fight on!”

“The way I look at it, if I suffer for the right cause, it only defines the person I am becoming. It can only be good for me to become a better person. If you believe in the Lord, if you believe that all suffering has a reason, and the Lord is suffering with me ... I’m at peace with it,” Lai said in an interview with the Napa Institute after his arrest in 2020.

ASIA/PHILIPPINES - The synodal path in the Philippines enhances the Basic Ecclesial Communities

Manila - "In the life of the Philippine Church, participation in the synodal process - with a view to the Synodal Assembly that will soon begin in the Vatican - has been wide-ranging and fruitful consultations have taken place at the grassroots level in all dioceses. One of the fundamental challenges, among those that have emerged, is the continuation and strengthening of the experience of the Basic Ecclesiastical Communities ," said Archbishop Emeritus Antonio Ledesma , who headed the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro from 2006 to 2020, in an interview with Fides. In the BEC, widespread in the Philippine dioceses, the faithful, live the faith and Christian life in their different life situations: "Men, women, priests, religious, young people, families, are part of it, they give their witness of faith. It is an ecclesiastical Synodal style experience, characterized by an inclusive and participatory character of all the members of the People of God, who contribute to pastoral and mission in accordance with the charism they have received," explains Archbishop Ledesma. The first small communities were established in the Philippines in the late 1960s, immediately after the Second Vatican Council, by foreign missionaries who came to the vast area of Mindanao and surrounding islands. Among the themes addressed in the pre-synodal discussions, the Archbishop highlights "the active presence of the laity in communities, helping to organize pastoral life, but also to provide solidarity and support to the poorest families of a dignified life for all", while "new challenges arise from the use of new technologies and new forms of communication, which particularly affect young people".
Furthermore, said the Jesuit, "synodality is lived by our communities in a very broad sense and includes openness to the ecumenical path and interreligious dialogue, being aware that the direction of this common path is human fraternity, as indicated by Pope Francis".
During the consultations in the Philippines, three main topics were discussed: listening, proclamation and celebration. "Moments and tools for listening, appreciated by the faithful, are the pastoral visits of bishops and priests, pastoral meetings, prayer meetings, catechism and home visits, but also social media, radio and ecclesial media, all of which intend to accompany people to listen to the voice of God". With regard to proclamation, "the faithful valued and desired spaces in the life of the Church that allow them to speak openly, such as the weekly meetings of the basic ecclesial communities, moments of dialogue or discussion". The celebration of the sacraments is significant for the faithful in the Philippines, especially the Eucharist, "which spiritually enlightens and nourishes and gives strength to overcome the hardships of daily life." "The sacraments," said the Bishop, "awaken humility and charity and strengthen the feeling of belonging to the family of God and the desire to keep families together in Christian communities." "I see that in my diocese, but also in many others, religious practice and popular piety are strong, Sunday and weekday masses are well attended, a sign of a faith that is still deeply rooted," notes the Archbishop. All in all, said Archbishop Ledesma, the synodal journey in the Philippines took place "in a missionary spirit and with joy." "We have just celebrated 500 years since the arrival of the Gospel in our country and have become aware of the great gift that we have received. It is now up to us to pass on the gospel of love and joy to the new generations", he concludes.

ASIA/LEBANON - 500 young people from the Churches of the Middle East pray for the next General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

Jbeil - More than 500 young people from different churches in the Middle East prayed for peace, an end to wars, the integrity of Creation and the request that the Holy Spirit guides and enlightens the upcoming Synod of Bishops of the Catholic Church, gathered for common prayer in Jbeil in Lebanon.
As part of the "Together" initiative, the National Direction of the Pontifical Mission Societies in Lebanon and the Taizé Community invited people to the ecumenical prayer in Jbeil on the evening of September 16 to ask for the intercession of the Holy Spirit for the upcoming Synod of the Catholic Church. The Lectio Divina sessions, which was the focus of the daytime preparation for the ecumenical vigil and was intended to lay its spiritual foundations, took place in various places in the Lebanese city, including the "Sacred Hearts Sisters School", the Armenian orphanage "Trchnots Pouyn" and the Cathedral of St. John and St. Mark. Among those present at the vigil were Michel Aoun, Bishop of the Maronite Eparchy of Jbeil, Abbot Khalil Alwan, M.L.M., Secretary General of the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East, the National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in Lebanon, Father Rouphael Zgheib, Dr. Rima Nasrallah, representative of the National Evangelical Church of Beirut, and theologian Gabriel Alfred Hachem, priest of the Greek Melkite Church.
Before the vigil, the young people received a cross that arrived on a boat in the port of Jbeil, from where the solemn ecumenical procession set off to the Ecumenical Oasis in the Park of the Cathedral of St. John and Mark. Throughout the evening, the young people sang and prayed under the theme of the verse from the Gospel of John: "So that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me" . The vigil was animated by the choir, made up of people from various communities and regions of Lebanon, led by the famous singer Gabriel Sassi.

AFRICA/BURKINA FASO - Refugees: "Staying or emigrating is no longer a choice" says the Bishop of Koudougou

Ouagadougou - "Today we see that staying or emigrating is often no longer a choice, especially leaving has become a necessity," says Msgr. Joachim Hermenegilde Ouédraogo, Bishop of Koudougou, President of the Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees of Burkina Faso and Niger, on the occasion of the 109th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, celebrated for the fifth time in Burkina Faso last Sunday, September 24th. This year the central celebration took place in the parish of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney de Tampouy in Ouagadougou. "Emigration should be a free decision. People must be able to choose whether they want to leave or stay, because the country belongs to everyone. So I should be free to decide whether I go to another country or stay in my country ", said Msgr. Ouédraogo. "We see that staying or emigrating is often no longer a choice," continued the Bishop of Koudougou, "especially leaving has become a necessity." "Women and men are forced to flee their homeland because they live in situations that do not allow them to develop in their country," he stressed, referring to the many internally displaced people in Burkina Faso due to the violence of jihadist groups, who are active not only in Burkina Faso but also in other countries in the Sahel region. In his homily, Monsignor Ouédraogo called on the Catholic faithful to work for peaceful coexistence and to show solidarity with people in need. To this end, on the occasion of World Refugee Day, a communal meal and the distribution of rice bags worth two million CFA francs were organized for the benefit of 100 internally displaced families. According to the latest data from the UN Humanitarian Coordination Office, one in five citizens, or 4.7 million people rely on humanitarian aid. There are approximately 2 million internally displaced people, 52% of whom are children. One million students are affected by the closure of schools. Most internally displaced people come from the Sahel, the central region and the north of the country. They have moved to safer reception centers, but often live in precarious conditions. Despite this situation, Burkina Faso has welcomed more than 36,000 refugees, mostly from Mali.

AFRICA/NIGER - "It is God who sends you to us": grassroots communities help families in need

Dosso - "Despite the uncertainty in which the country lives after the coup of July 26, we continue to work. Harvests throughout the Sahel are poor and the closure of the borders, especially those of Benin, means that food is becoming increasingly scarce and prices are rising at an alarming rate", said Father Rafael Casamayor, who works as a missionary in the community of Dosso, diocese of Niamey, and shared with Fides the initiative of a campaign with which the mission wants to contribute to the fight against famine. "Niger is isolated in this delicate and difficult time because of the lack of rain, poor harvests, lack of international aid and the closure of borders in a landlocked country. In this context," reports Father Rafael, "we are in our mission in Dosso committed to helping the most disadvantaged families who are already in a difficult and almost impossible situation for them. We have decided to do this as discreetly as possible so as not to cause tension within the community. The four base communities of the mission will be responsible for the initiative as they know best the situation of the most disadvantaged families. We intend to organize different distributions depending on our possibilities and the events in this very uncertain time." Niger belongs to the Sahel zone, a vast area between the Sahara desert and the African savannah, which is home to the poorest countries in the world. Climate change is having a particularly severe impact on this vast area, where crops are becoming increasingly scarce and famines are becoming more frequent. This year seems to be a typical example: rainfall was insufficient and crops were destroyed in large areas. “After the coup of July 26, the borders with the OECD countries were closed, especially with Benin, where most of our food comes from, which led to a worsening of the situation,” writes the missionary. "Aid from many international organizations has also been cancelled, which has resulted in the prices of basic foodstuffs rising and making them difficult to find, threatening the famine that they are already feeling, especially for the poorest.” “With the parish council of our mission we have worked out a project on how we can intervene,” reports Father Casamayor. “We are all poor here, starting with all the members of the Christian community, but no one has held back. We will ask for donations for the most needy, whether Christian or Muslim, the poorest in the city and we have decided to entrust the project to the four grassroots communities that know the neighborhoods and the people. Those responsible will discreetly compile a list of families in need and distribute it in the most confidential manner. The first action took place last week in the evening, in the most remote, small and humble places with the simplest people who, to our surprise, greeted us with the words: "It is God who sends you to us". "We returned to the mission in the middle of the night, full of joy, with the intention of returning next month. So we continue, God willing".

ASIA/CINA - Father Flavio Belluomini, Archivist of the Dicastery for Evangelization, speaks at the Chinese Social Sciences Forum - 2023 Religious Studies

Beijing - Academics and scholars from different countries working in the field of religious studies took part in the 2023 International Conference of the Chinese Social Sciences Forum - 2023-Religious Studies, dedicated this year to the theme "The Changing World and Religious Studies". The Conference, organized by the Institute of World Religions of CASS - Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and by the Chinese Association of Religious Studies, was held in Beijing on Saturday, 23 September.
The event brought together sixty experts and scholars of high academic level from China, the United Kingdom, Italy, India, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and other countries to share their research findings in religious studies disciplines.
This year's conference focused on the role and possible developments of religious studies in the face of the epochal changes of the present time.
The forum's lectures and debates focused on the development of relations between religions, the development of different faith communities, the status and role of religions in pluralistic societies and the new paths that legislation has taken to promote harmonious coexistence of different religious communities among themselves and with political institutions, and to prevent or resolve possible conflicts.
Among the speakers at the conference was Father Flavio Belluomini, lecturer at the Institute of Religious Studies of Tuscany .
Father Belluomini has also been the Archivist of the Dicastery for Evangelization for the past two years.
It is the first time that an academic working in an academic institution linked to the Holy See has been invited to speak at the Forum on Religious Studies, held under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Chinese Association of Religious Studies.

In his lecture, Father Belluomini addressed the topic of "Global Harmony through Interreligious Dialogue", and highlighted how cooperation and fraternal coexistence between people and communities of different faiths can offer a unique and valuable contribution to the common good of the entire human family, in the globalized world of our days. The Archivist of the Dicastery for Evangelization emphazised the features that characterize the commitment of the Catholic Church in the new paths of interreligious dialogue. Father Belluomini's report sparked a lively debate among the conference participants. In particular, Professor Liu Zhiqing, in his contribution, referred to several points from the archivist's lecture, focusing on the implications of the recent agreement between the Vietnamese government and the Holy See on the Papal Representative resident in Vietnam and relations between the People's Republic of China and the Holy See.
In his speech, Professor Liu summarized the path that led to the signing of the Agreement between Vietnam and the Holy See on the status of the Permanent Papal Representative and the Permanent Representative Office in Vietnam, adding relevant considerations and analysis on the relations between China and the Holy See. Professor Liu also presented six practical proposals for a positive development of relations between the People's Republic of China and the Holy See.
Since 2011, the Chinese Social Science Forum on Religious Studies has become an important event for international academic exchange, dealing with wide-ranging issues such as the relationship between religions and civilizations, the contribution of religions to global governance, and the relationship between religions and conflicts.

Pontifical foundation launches two projects for those in need in Colombia

A low-income home in Buenaventura, Colombia. / Credit: ACN

ACI Prensa Staff, Sep 25, 2023 / 18:30 pm (CNA).

The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been developing two vital projects for the most needy communities in Colombia’s Pacific coast region.

Both initiatives — the construction of a church in the port city of Buenaventura and solar panels for the Dominican sisters’ home in Docordó in the Chocó region — are aimed at helping people who suffer from economic deprivation, violence, abandonment, and social conflicts.

“Faithful to its pillars and its charisma, ACN continues to build a bridge of charity between those who need help and those who can help; certainly, we would not achieve this without the generosity of our benefactors,” said María Inés Espinosa Calle, executive director of ACN in Colombia, in a recent interview published by the charity.

According to Espinosa, support for projects like these in the Colombian Pacific region but also in many parts of the world “continues extending a hand so that the Church remains present where the love of God is most needed.”

“We are very happy to help bring relief and true hope to these populations,” she emphasized.

Construction of a parish church

Father Lawrence Ssimbwa, a Consolata missionary from Uganda and pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish in Buenaventura, and his entire community hope to have a new church thanks to help from ACN.

The territory in this port area includes five neighborhoods and 12 basic Christian communities, with approximately 30,000 Catholic faithful.

“Like many of the parishes in Latin America, that of St. Martín de Porres faces complex challenges: extreme poverty, violence, young people immersed in illegal groups, and pregnancies of girls and teens, among others. ACN’s support for the construction of the church will be the best thing that happens to the parish,” the priest noted.

Currently, the parish literally operates out of a house, using the living room and garage. Space is insufficient, especially on holy days or Sundays. Despite the active and fervent community, community activities are limited by the lack of adequate space.

ACN aims to raise 70,000 euros (about $74,000) to begin making the dream of Ssimbwa and his community come true.

Solar energy in the middle of the Chocó jungle

Dominican sisters Mercy Eneida Mendoza, Rubiela Ramírez Ramírez, and Consuelo Giraldo reside in Docordó in the Diocese of Istmina-Tadó, also in the Chocó region. Earlier this year, they presented an alternative energy project for their community, and in late August, they finally had continuous electricity thanks to the installation of solar panels generously funded by ACN benefactors. This project cost approximately 10,000 euros (about $10,600).

“We benefit a lot; it gives us peace of mind, because, imagine this jungle, this place without energy, that remains, as they say, like the wolf’s den... if anything, the only thing you see is the moon shining on the river. We are extremely grateful to ACN,” Sister Mercy said.

Today, with constant access to electricity, the sisters are able to provide assistance to their neighbors, who are often limited by only a few hours a day of electricity. Furthermore, it allows them to focus fully on their pastoral tasks, especially their educational work for children and young people.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Imprisoned Nicaraguan bishop nominated for European Parliament human rights award

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matalgalpa, Nicaragua. / Credit: Archdiocese of Managua

ACI Prensa Staff, Sep 25, 2023 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

The European Parliament announced the nominees for the 2023 Sakharov Prize, which honors persons and organizations who exceptionally defend human rights and freedoms. One of the nominees this year is Rolando Álvarez, the bishop imprisoned by the Ortega dictatorship in Nicaragua, falsely accused of being a “traitor to the homeland.”

The nominations were presented Sept. 20 during a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Development committees along with the Subcommittee on Human Rights. The nominations are made by the legislative body’s political coalitions or by at least 40 members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

A total of 43 MEPs supported the nomination of Álvarez and Nicaraguan activist Vilma Núñez de Escorcia.

“Núñez has been fighting for the human rights of Nicaraguans for decades. Despite the persecution, she remains in her country. Álvarez, bishop of Matagalpa, has been one of the most vehement critics of President Daniel Ortega’s regime. In February 2023, after refusing to leave the country, he was sentenced to 26 years in prison and his citizenship revoked,” stated a Sept. 20  publication on the parliament’s website.

Other nominees include entrepreneur Elon Musk; Afghan education activists Marzia Amiri, Parasto Hakim, and Matiullah Wesa; and Nino Lomjaria, former people’s ombudsman of the Republic of Georgia.

Since 1988, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Conscience has been awarded annually to individuals and groups fighting in defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms. This prestigious award includes a prize of 50,000 euros (about $53,000).

According to the EU Parliament website, Andrei Sakharov, a physicist, was seen in the Soviet Union “as a subversive dissident. In 1970, he founded a committee to defend human rights and victims of political trials,” becoming “one of the regime’s most courageous critics” in the “crusade for fundamental rights.” In 1980 he was arrested and forced to live in internal exile.

On Oct. 12, the Foreign Affairs and Development committees will hold a joint meeting to determine three finalists. On Oct. 19, the president of Parliament and the leaders of the political coalitions will determine the winner. The award ceremony will take place in Strasbourg, France, on Dec. 13.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

North Carolina passes universal school choice

null / Credit: Cherries/Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Sep 25, 2023 / 17:40 pm (CNA).

North Carolina last week became the 10th U.S. state to enact “universal” school choice by removing barriers to a state program that provides tuition assistance for students attending private schools.

North Carolina’s General Assembly gave final approval Sept. 22 to a new state budget that aims to triple funding for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program and end income restrictions for getting a private school voucher, the Charlotte News & Observer reported. Every North Carolina family will be able to apply for tuition assistance to attend a K-12 private school beginning in 2024-2025. 

Since 2013, the state has offered the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program, an initiative that previously provided funding of up to $5,928 per year for eligible children who choose to attend a participating nonpublic school, a figure that rose to $6,492 for the 2023-2024 school year. 

That program provided assistance to nearly 25,600 students during the 2022-2023 school year, according to the program’s self-reported data. Of the 544 nonpublic schools participating in the program, the top 71 grantees by dollars given were all religious, according to the data.

Under the previous program guidelines — among other requirements — families of four making less than $111,000 would have met the eligibility criteria for the voucher. The new budget eliminates the income requirement and also eliminates a requirement related to prior enrollment in a public school. The budget also gives the state education superintendent authority to recommend a nationally-recognized standardized test for voucher recipients. 

To pay for the program, the North Carolina budget calls for the Opportunity Scholarship program’s funding to nearly triple in the coming decade to more than half a billion dollars in the 2032-2033 fiscal year. 

The individual voucher amount will vary by the family’s income level, the News & Observer reported. The state’s wealthiest families would get 45% of the amount the state spends per public school student, while the lowest-income families would get the full $6,492. 

Jennifer Feldhaus, principal of Infant of Prague Catholic School in Jacksonville, North Carolina, told CNA late last year her school has benefited greatly from the Opportunity Scholarship program and estimated that approximately 42% of the school’s students were making use of the scholarship at that time. 

“It’s been a tremendous program for Catholic schools because what was considered before unreachable, whether on income or location, is now an option for families,” she told CNA at the time. 

‘It’s justice’

Early 2023 data from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) showed that nationwide, 10.5% of Catholic school students use a parental choice program and 27.6% of Catholic schools enrolled students using parental choice programs. In some states, such as Arizona and Indiana, nearly all of the state’s Catholic schools take part in school choice programs.

The NCEA works with the U.S. bishops and other groups to support school choice, the group’s president and CEO Lincoln Snyder told CNA last spring.

“The Church believes very strongly that parents should have the ability to select the best education for their child as their primary educators. Obviously, choice programs are starting to make a huge difference for Catholic schools in enrollment,” Snyder said. 

“[W]ithout these programs, it would be a far greater challenge for our communities to make Catholic education affordable. So we strongly advocate for seeing a growth in choice programs as a Church, no doubt, but it’s not our only strategy. We still also look to communities and philanthropists to help make schools affordable for families as well.”

Seven states “went universal” with their school choice programs during 2023 alone, according to the advocacy group EdChoice. Nearly 1 in 5 students now lives in a state with universal or near-universal school choice, the group says. 

Sister Dale McDonald, PBVM, NCEA’s vice president of public policy, told CNA on Monday that she hopes North Carolina schools will encourage parents to apply for the voucher. Public dollars are generated by everyone, including parents and teachers at private schools, and private school students are “entitled a share,” she said.

“It’s fair, it’s justice, to give our kids a share of the money that their parents’ taxes generate,” she said, noting that in North Carolina, the state has only about 18,000 Catholic school students, a relatively small portion of the overall student population. 

Universal school choice has, for the most part, only gained traction in Republican-led states. In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper allowed the budget to become law without his signature, despite decrying it as “a bad budget that seriously shortchanges our [public] schools.”

McDonald said making school choice a “bipartisan issue” is “the big challenge right now.”

“Supporting kids should not be political,” she commented, saying school choice programs are about “respecting the needs of kids, not systems.”

What should Catholics think about school choice?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that parents have “the first responsibility for the education of their children” (No. 2223). Mothers and fathers, the Catechism says, retain the right to both teach their children the morals imparted by the Church and “to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions” (No. 2229).

Polling by CNA’s parent organization, EWTN, released late last year found that U.S. Catholic parents broadly back initiatives to support school choice, with two-thirds saying they support a policy that allows students to make use of public education funds for the schools or services that best fit their needs. 

Thousands of Armenian Christians flee homes: ‘Mass exodus has begun,’ expert says

A girl sleeps in a street in the town of Stepanakert on Sept. 25, 2023. Ethnic Armenian refugees began to leave Nagorno-Karabakh on Sept. 24, 2023, for the first time since Azerbaijan launched an offensive designed to seize control of the breakaway territory and perhaps end a three-decade-old conflict. / Credit: HASMIK KHACHATRYAN/AFP via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2023 / 17:15 pm (CNA).

Thousands of Armenian Christians have fled their ancestral homeland in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh over the weekend and more are expected, the government of Armenia confirmed Monday.

“The mass exodus has begun,” Siobhan Nash-Marshall, a U.S.-based human rights advocate who has been speaking to witnesses on the ground, told CNA.

Nash-Marshall founded the Christians in Need Foundation (CINF) in 2011 to help Armenian Christians in the region, and in 2020 she started a school for children and adults in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Now, Nash-Marshall has received word from her school in Nagorno-Karabakh that “all is over” and that “people from all regions, all villages, are homeless” and without shelter, food, and water. 

Hundreds of ethnic Armenians are sleeping in the streets and cannot even drink water because they claim it has been “poisoned by Azeris,” according to Nash-Marshall’s contacts. 

Nash-Marshall was told that there are lines of “2,000 in front of the only bakery” near her school and that “all are hungry, frightened, and hopeless.” 

According to the government of Armenia, 6,650 “forcibly displaced persons” entered Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh since last week.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Sunday that he expects most of the 120,000 ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to flee the region due to “the danger of ethnic cleansing,” Middle Eastern news source Al Jazeera reported.

Why is this happening? 

Both former soviet territories, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. With the backing of Turkey, Azerbaijan asserted its military dominance over Armenia in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, which ended in November 2020.

Though Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, the region is almost entirely made up of ethnic Armenian Christians.

Until last week, Armenians in the region claimed self-sovereignty under the auspices of the “Republic of Artsakh.”

On Sept. 19, Azerbaijan launched a short but intense military offensive that included rocket and mortar fire. The offensive, labeled “antiterror measures” by the Azeri government, resulted in the deaths of more than 200 ethnic Armenians and over 10,000 displaced civilians, according to the Artsakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On Sept. 20, the ethnic Armenians agreed to a cease-fire that resulted in the dismantling of their military and self-governance.

Following the breakaway region’s defeat by Azerbaijan, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said that Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh would be integrated and that representatives from the enclave were “invited to dialogue” with the Azeri government.

Despite these promises, widespread fears of religious and cultural persecution have led large swathes of the population to flee to Armenia proper.

Mass exodus begins 

Eric Hacopian, a human rights advocate who has been on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, told CNA that Armenians in the region are facing “horrendous” conditions in which they have “little food” and “no medicine or security.” 

Hacopian called the Azeri actions in Nagorno-Karabakh “genocide” and said that by tomorrow he expects the number of refugees to rise to 15,000 to 20,000. 

Ultimately he believes “95% to 99%” of the Armenian population in the region will flee because of the “risk of being murdered and tortured.” 

Photos posted on social media showed the highways leading out of the region’s largest city, Stepanakert, filled with massive lines of cars filled with refugees.

Many of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have called the region home for centuries. Now, all of that appears to be rapidly changing.

“Armenians cannot survive under Turkish or Azeri rule,” Nash-Marshall told CNA Monday, adding that the Azeri government “thrives on Armenophobia.”

She said that deeply rooted anti-Armenian sentiment in Azeri culture is exhibited by the military’s executions of Armenian prisoners of war in 2022 as well as recently erected memorials in the Azeri capital city, Baku, that depict “grossly exaggerated life-sized figures of dead and dying Armenian soldiers and chained captives.”

“Anyone who knows the history of the Armenian Genocide will recognize the pattern of Azerbaijan’s actions with respect to Eastern Armenians and the Artsakhtsi,” Nash-Marshall said.

According to Gegham Stepanyan, an Artsakh human rights defender, “thousands” more displaced ethnic Armenians “are now waiting for their evacuation to Armenia.”

“Many of them,” Stepanyan said, “simply have nowhere to stay, so they have to wait for their turn in the streets.”

Armenia in danger 

Some experts believe that Armenia itself is in danger of invasion.

Both Azerbaijan President Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have proposed constructing a highway in the far southern portion of the Armenian province of Syunik, which is bordered by Azerbaijan both to the east and the west.

The road would connect the main portion of Azerbaijan to both its western enclave, known as Nakhchivan, as well as to Turkey.

If built, experts fear Azerbaijan could soon move to wrest control of all of Syunik.

“Let us be realistic,” Nash-Marshall said. “Azerbaijan already has grabbed a part of the region … They are also firing on border villages and have been for a year. What, then, is the threat to Armenia? Invasion.”

Aliyev and Erdogan met in Nakhchivan on Monday, further increasing fears that the pair could be eyeing a Syunik takeover.

In a Monday press conference, Aliyev lamented that “the land link between the main part of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan” was “cut off” when Soviet authorities assigned Syunik to Armenia instead of Azerbaijan, according to reporting by Reuters. 

Hacopian also said that he believes an invasion of Armenia is “quite likely” to create a highway in what is currently southern Armenia. 

U.S. response

Samantha Power, chief administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim landed in Armenia Monday.

In a Monday X post, Power said: “I’m here to reiterate the U.S.’s strong support & partnership with Armenia and to speak directly with those impacted by the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Many still feel that the U.S. is not doing enough to address the situation unfolding in Nagorno-Karabakh.

New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith introduced a resolution Friday to require the U.S. State Department to take concrete actions to guarantee the human rights of the Armenian Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Titled the “Preventing Ethnic Cleansing and Atrocities in Nagorno-Karabakh Act of 2023,” the resolution is co-sponsored by California Democrat Rep. Brad Sherman and Arkansas Republican Rep. French Hill.

If passed, the resolution would require the U.S. government to take several actions in support of the impacted Armenians including terminating military aid to Azerbaijan and establishing military financing for Armenia, authorizing humanitarian assistance to Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and dispatching diplomats to the region to monitor the situation and immediately report any further human rights abuses. 

“The people of Nagorno-Karabakh are in grave danger,” Smith said in a Monday press release. “Tragically, they have been forced to disarm and surrender their independence to a ruthless dictator whose government has repeatedly committed horrific abuses against them over many years, expressed its will to ethnically cleanse them, and even initiated a genocide by starvation with the blockade of the Lachin Corridor.”

Smith went on to say that “we must work with them to ensure that the transition is not marked by continued human atrocities.”