Filipino bishops urge bell-ringing, prayers to protest bloody drugs war

A sign is posted outside a Catholic church which translates to "Let us pray for the victims of extrajudicial killings, bells will toll at 8:00pm" in Quezon City, metro Manila, Philippines September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao

By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) – Stepping up a campaign against President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, Catholic bishops in the Philippines have called for church bells to be rung for the next 40 nights, and congregations to light candles and pray for the killing to end.

A pastoral letter by Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) sent to priests urged Catholics to pray for victims from Saturday until All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, when Filipinos traditionally pay respects to the dead.

More than 3,800 people have been killed in anti-drugs operations in the past 15 months and at least 2,100 murders are suspected of being drug-related, according to police data, though human rights groups believe the numbers are understated.

“The relentless and bloody campaign against drugs that shows no sign of abating impels us, your bishops, to declare: In the name of God, stop the killings!” Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the head of the CBCP, said in the letter.

Such messages are typically read aloud in church or distributed to their congregations.

Many Catholic churches in the capital have already started lighting candles and ringing bells for five minutes each day at 8 p.m..

Thousands of Filipinos rallied against Duterte on Thursday to protest against what they fear is an emerging dictatorship, and several churches held mass against the killings and urged people to renounce violence.

The bishops are among the most influential dissenting voices to come out against the Duterte’s uncompromising strategy.

Having been largely silent on the issue when it first erupted last year, priests have increasingly taken a stand against the anti-drugs campaign.

As bodies started to appear nightly in Manila’s slums, the church stepped up its opposition, denouncing the killings and in some cases, providing sanctuary to witnesses of killings and drug users who feared they could be targeted.

Villegas said the country’s bishops were firmly against drugs, but killing was not the solution and prayer was “the most powerful weapon in our arsenal”.

Rights groups dispute official police accounts that say drug suspects were killed because they violently resisted arrest. Critics accuse police of executing users and small-time dealers and planting evidence, which police reject.

Pablo Virgilio David, bishop in Manila’s Caloocan City, where large numbers of drug-related killings have taken place, urged the authorities to end the killings and let healing begin.

“We disagree that we should treat them like monsters to be eliminated like stray cats and dogs,” he said of drug users and criminals. “We disagree that a criminal has no more hope of changing his life.”

(Editing by Martin Petty & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Texas churches sue FEMA for disaster relief after Harvey

FILE PHOTO: A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) employee waits for the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump during a visit at FEMA headquarters in Washington, U.S., August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been sued by three Texas churches severely damaged in Hurricane Harvey, over what they called its policy of refusing to provide disaster relief to houses of worship because of their religious status.

In a complaint filed on Monday in federal court in Houston, the churches said they would like to apply for aid but it would be “futile” because FEMA’s public assistance program “categorically” excludes their claims, violating their constitutional right to freely exercise their religion.

They said FEMA’s ban on providing relief where at least half a building’s space is used for religious purposes, a policy also enforced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, contradicts a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision making it easier for religious groups to get public aid.

That June 26 decision, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc v. Comer, said U.S. states must sometimes provide such aid even if their constitutions explicitly ban such funding.

Becket, a nonprofit that advocates for religious freedoms and represents the churches, said the same principle should apply to federal FEMA relief for Harvey victims.

“States and the federal government are different, but the First Amendment applies the same to both,” Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer for Becket, said in a phone interview. “The principle is that governments can’t discriminate on the basis of religious status, and that is unapologetically what FEMA is doing here.”

The three churches, he added, “need emergency repair, now.”

A FEMA spokeswoman said in an email it would be inappropriate to discuss pending litigation.

The Texas churches that sued are the Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, which lost its roof and steeple and suffered other structural damage, and the Harvest Family Church in Cypress and Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, which were flooded.

“This may be the first case this court will hear regarding Hurricane Harvey disaster relief, but it is surely not the last,” the complaint said.

The case is Harvest Family Church et al v Federal Emergency Management Agency et al, U.S, District Court, Southern District of Texas, No. 17-02662.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Nigeria church shooting kills 11

Nigeria church shooting kills 11

ABUJA (Reuters) – Gunmen killed 11 people and wounded 18 others in a church in southeastern Nigeria on Sunday in an attack arising from a feud between members of the local community, officials said.

However, police believe that a man the gunmen were hunting for was not present in the church and so escaped the attack.

The attackers struck the church in Ozubulu early in the morning, said Garba Umar, head of police in Anambra state.

They were believed to have been trying to kill a local man, who was not identified by the authorities.

“The gunmen came thinking that their target was in the church but incidentally he was not,” Umar said, adding that the violence may be linked to drug-trafficking.

No arrests have been made, he said.

Nigeria’s southeast is predominantly Christian and the attack is a rare act of violence at a church.

Anambra State Governor Willie Obiano said the attack stemmed from a feud between members of the local community who were living outside Nigeria.

“We are not going to relent until we bring those that perpetrated this heinous crime to book,” he said.

Nigeria is wracked by insecurity, with Islamist insurgency Boko Haram having killed more than 20,000 people since 2009, sparking one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.

Ethnically-charged violence is common throughout the central states and militancy is a constant threat in the oil-rich southeast.

(Reporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu; Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Adrian Croft)

Egypt’s Coptic Christians to halt activities after security threat, sources say

Egyptian priests react during the funeral of victims of the Palm Sunday bombings, at St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Monastery "Deir Mar Mina" in Alexandria, Egypt April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians have been told by church leaders to cancel all events and activities outside churches in July because of a security threat, church and security sources said on Thursday.

The warning followed an attack in May by Islamic State on Copts traveling to a monastery in central Egypt that killed 29 people. A month earlier, 44 people were killed in bomb attacks at a cathedral and another church on Palm Sunday.

Sources said the warning was given to individual church leaders by a representative of the Coptic Orthodox Pope. Copts on trips or youth camps had been told to cut short their activities and return home early.

The Egyptian Catholic church said it got the same instructions. The church “complied with the interior minister’s decision to cancel church trips and camps until further notice,” Father Rafik Greish, a spokesman for the Coptic Catholic Church, told Reuters late on Thursday.

A Coptic church official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, told Reuters that his church received “oral instructions this week, nothing written, to prevent panic,” he said.

The source said the church was provided with more security forces to secure the gates of the church this week.

Egypt faces an Islamist insurgency led by the Islamic State group in the Sinai Peninsula, where hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed since 2013.

At least 23 soldiers were killed last week when suicide car bombs tore through two military checkpoints in the region in an attack claimed by Islamic State. It was one of the bloodiest assaults on security forces in years.

But Islamic State has also intensified attacks in the mainland in recent months, often targeting Coptic Christians. About 100 Copts have been killed since December.

(Reporting by Malak Ghobrial; additional reporting by Mahmoud Morad, Amina Ismail and Ahmed MOhamed Hassan; writing by Patrick Markey, editing by Larry King)

Christians caught up in Philippines’ urban battle with Islamists

A view of a fire caused by continued fighting between the government soldiers and the Maute group, in Marawi City in southern Philippines May 28, 2017.

By Tom Allard

ILIGAN CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Bishop Edwin Dela Pena was sipping coffee after dinner in a southern Philippines coastal town last Tuesday when he received a phone call: it was from one of his diocese priests, who sounded panicky and distressed.

Father Teresito “Chito” Sugarno, the vicar general of Marawi City, had been taken hostage by Islamist militants along with about a dozen of his parishioners.

“He was only given a few lines to deliver, and it was simply echoing the demands of the kidnappers – for the troops to withdraw,” said Dela Pena. If the demand was not met, he was told, “something bad would happen”.

There has been no further word from the group of Christians since they were caught up in a ferocious battle that has raged between Islamist insurgents and Philippines soldiers in Marawi for the past week.

As many as 180,000 people, about 90 percent of the population, have fled the usually bustling lakeside town nestled in lush tropical hills that, almost overnight last week, became a theater of urban warfare.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across Mindanao – the country’s southernmost island and an area the size of South Korea – as troops outside Marawi closed in on  Isnilon Hapilon, who was proclaimed “emir” of Southeast Asia last year after he pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

Mindanao has long been a hotbed of local insurgencies and separatist movements: but now, Islamist fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries have converged in Mindanao, stoking fears that it could become a regional stronghold of Islamic State.

More than 90 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million people are Christian, but here Muslims are in the majority. In 1980 Marawi proclaimed itself an “Islamic City” and it is the only city in the country with that designation.

For the small Christian community of Marawi, however, life in the city had until recently been peaceful and prosperous.

“We don’t consider ourselves Muslims or Christians, we are just friends,” said Dela Pena, who has lived for 17 years in Marawi but was out of town when the violence broke out.

That peace was shattered some months ago, he said, after the army bombed an encampment of Islamist groups some 50 km (30 miles) away.

“They said they pulverized the whole camp, but these people simply transferred their base of operation from the jungle to the urban center, to the city, Marawi,” he told Reuters in an interview from Iligan City, 37 km (23 miles) from Marawi.

“They came in trickles, a few people at a time. They have relatives there. They lived, they recruited,” he said, adding that authorities appear to have missed the looming threat.

Members of Philippine Marines walk next to an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) as they advance their position in Marawi City, Philippines May 28

Members of Philippine Marines walk next to an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) as they advance their position in Marawi City, Philippines May 28, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

CATHEDRAL ATTACKED AND TORCHED

Chaos was unleashed upon Marawi when troops searching for Hapilon were ambushed by heavily armed militants.

More than 200 local and foreign fighters from the Maute group and others allied to Islamic State fanned out across the city, seizing the main hospital and prison before attacking the Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora.

Inside, nearby residents told Dela Pena, Father Teresito and a group of worshippers were decorating the church for a holy day to celebrate the life of Mary, a sacred figure in both Christianity and Islam.

Dela Pena said they ran to the nearby bishop’s house, hoping they would be safe there, but the militants burst in after them. That evening, after bundling their captives into vehicles, they torched the church, according to the residents.

Photos showing the priest, a young man and a woman slumped against a wall have circulated on the internet. Dela Pena believes they are being used as human shields by the militants.

“I cannot imagine. I have no words to describe it,” he said.

Still, he remains hopeful that the city can unite again. The vast majority of Marawi’s citizens, whatever their faith, are appalled by the violence and disruption, he said.

“I think we can begin something more effective in terms of working together, in terms of dialogue, in terms of peaceful coexistence,” he said. “After all, we have shared the same predicament.”

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema in MANILA; Editing by John Chalmers and Lincoln Feast)

U.S. justices lean toward church in key religious rights case

The Supreme Court is seen ahead of the Senate voting to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch as an Associate Justice in Washington, DC, U.S. April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared poised to expand religious rights and potentially narrow the separation of church and state after liberal and conservative justices alike signaled support for a church denied Missouri taxpayer funds for a playground project.

A ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri in the case, one of the most important of the court’s current term, could pave the way for more public money to go to religious entities.

Justices across the nine-member court’s ideological spectrum indicated that Trinity Lutheran should be allowed to apply for the Missouri grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. The church runs a preschool and daycare center.

“It does seem as though this is a clear burden on a constitutional right,” liberal Justice Elena Kagan said during a one-hour argument, referring to Missouri’s prohibition.

A ruling is due by the end of June. It is unclear how far the justices will go in setting a precedent that would give states more leeway to fund religious entities directly.

The dispute pits two provisions of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment against each other: the guarantee of the free exercise of religion and the Establishment Clause, which requires the separation of church and state.

A broad ruling favoring the church could bolster religious conservatives who favor weakening the wall between church and state, including using taxpayer money to pay for children to attend private religious schools rather than public schools. President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a prominent supporter of such “school choice” plans.

Trinity Lutheran, whose legal effort was spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian activist group, could be headed for a lopsided win, with liberals Kagan and Stephen Breyer joining conservative justices in signaling support.

Missouri’s constitution bars “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state money, language that goes further than the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

Breyer questioned whether denying churches access to the playground grant money would be akin to refusing to provide police or fire services.

“What’s the difference?” Breyer said.

FEDERAL GRANTS

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito said several federal grant programs are open to religious entities, including one that provides money to enhance security at buildings where there is a risk of terrorist attack.

Synagogues, mosques and religious schools have received funding under that program, according to a brief filed by a Jewish group supporting the church’s position.

Alito asked Missouri’s lawyer, James Layton, if religious entities would be barred from applying if Missouri had a similar program. Layton said they would be prohibited.

Trinity Lutheran argued that Missouri’s policy violates its right to exercise religion as well as the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law. Missouri has said there is nothing unconstitutional about its grant program, noting that Trinity Lutheran remains free to practice any aspect of its faith however it wishes despite being denied state funds.

The court’s newest justice, Trump’s conservative appointee Neil Gorsuch, is known for an expansive view of religious rights. Gorsuch asked Layton why it is acceptable for Missouri to ban religious entities in some instances, such as with the playground program, but not in others, including safety and health services.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the most outspoken in backing Missouri’s ban, noting the difficulty states could face determining whether funds going to a religious entity are being used for a secular purposes.

“How do you separate out its secular function from its religious function?” Sotomayor asked.

Three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri’s barring funding for religious entities.

Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, last Thursday reversed the state policy that had banned religious entities from applying for the grant money, saying it was wrong for “government bureaucrats” to deny grants to “people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids.”

Missouri and the church both urged the justices to decide the case anyway because of the important issues at play and because the governor’s action was not irreversible. The issue was discussed only briefly during Wednesday’s argument, suggesting the justices are eager to decide the case on the merits.

A Trinity Lutheran victory could help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such as health and safety. It also could buttress the case for using publicly funded vouchers to send children to religious schools.

A challenge to a 2015 court decision invalidating a Colorado voucher program is pending before the justices, awaiting the Trinity Lutheran case’s outcome.

Trinity Lutheran sued Missouri in federal court in 2012. The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a trial court’s dismissal of the suit, and the church appealed to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. top court to hear key religious rights case involving Missouri church

The Supreme Court is seen ahead of the Senate voting to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch as an Associate Justice in Washington, DC, U.S. April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear a closely watched dispute over supplying taxpayer money to religious entities in which a church accuses Missouri of violating its religious rights by denying it state funds for a playground project.

The case, which examines the limits of religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution, is one of the most important before the court in its current term. It also marks the biggest test to date for the court’s newest justice, President Donald Trump’s appointee Neil Gorsuch.

The court’s conservative majority may be sympathetic to the church’s views. But there are questions over whether the nine justices will end up deciding the merits of the case after Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, last Thursday reversed the state policy that banned religious entities from applying for the funds.

Even though Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri could now actually apply for money from the grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires, its lawyers and state officials asked the justices to decide the case anyway.

Trinity Lutheran runs a preschool and daycare center.

Missouri’s constitution bars “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state money, language that goes further than the Constitution’s First Amendment separation of church and state requirement.

Trinity Lutheran’s legal effort is being spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian legal activist group, which contends that Missouri’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.

In court papers, the state said the ban did not impose a burden on the church’s exercise of religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which backed the state’s ban, asked the justices to drop the case, saying it is now moot following Greitens’ policy reversal.

A victory at the Supreme Court for Trinity Lutheran could help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such as health and safety. It also could buttress the case for using taxpayer money for vouchers to help pay for children to attend religious schools rather than public schools in “school choice” programs advocated by conservatives.

Three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri’s barring funding for religious entities.

Trinity Lutheran sued in federal court in 2012. The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a trial court’s dismissal of the suit, and the church appealed to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; additional reporting by Andrew Chung; editing by Will Dunham)