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Why Russia's new ban on Jehovah's Witnesses is so troubling

Moscow, Russia, Apr 21, 2017 / 08:01 pm (Aid to the Church in Need).- The Jehovah's Witnesses have been banned as an extremist group in a Thursday Supreme Court decision that observers feared signaled a further step back for religious liberty.

“For Jehovah's Witnesses, this is going to be a frightening time,” Lorcan Price, ADF International legal counsel in Strasbourg, told CNA April 21.

“It effectively means that holding their beliefs and manifesting them is tantamount to a criminal act in Russia. They risk new levels of persecution by the Russian authorities.”

Price saw the move as continuing the reversal of positive trends in post-Soviet Russia.

“What we're seeing really is the slide back into the type of attitude that characterized the worst of oppression in the 20th century by the Soviet regime in Russia,” he added. “It’s obviously very sad and disheartening to see that happening again.”

Russia's Justice Ministry in March ordered that the Jehovah's Witnesses denomination be liquidated and disbanded. Judges ordered the closure of the denomination’s Russian headquarters and almost 400 local chapters. The denomination’s property would also be seized.

The denomination's lawyer, Viktor Zhenkov, said the group would appeal the court ruling upholding the order.

“We consider this decision an act of political repression that is impermissible in contemporary Russia,” Zhenkov told the New York Times.

Russia has duties under the European Court of Human Rights to protect freedom of worship and belief.

The Russian Orthodox Church is predominant in Russia, and some of its members have pushed to outlaw or curb the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Russia’s federal security service, the FSB, also holds the denomination under deep suspicion.

Svetlana Borisova, who represented the Justice Ministry in the Supreme Court, charged that the denomination’s members had shown “signs of extremist activity that represent a threat to the rights of citizens, social order and the security of society.”

Price said the ruling was “very disappointing and shocking,” but not surprising given negative trends.

“Last year in particular the government adopted some very draconian and far-reaching legislation that has severely disrupted the right of worship and freedom of belief in Russia,” he said.
 
Anti-terrorism measures have given Russian police powers to disrupt private worship services, to arrest and detain individuals handing out unapproved religious materials, and to outlay any publish preaching without prior approval from Russian authorities.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses suffered intense persecution under the Soviet era until the fall of communism in 1991. A 2002 anti-extremism law and a broader definition of extremism in 2006 once again put legal pressure on the denomination

Price said an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights could produce a positive response, but Russia has “a long history of ignoring decisions” from that court, which relies on diplomatic pressure to enforce its decisions.

“For Christians and minority faiths in Russia this is a frightening time,” he said. “Obviously we hope that people will pray for them.”

“What we hope is ultimately the Russian government will take notice of international condemnation and reverse these policies.”

Catholic leaders urge extreme caution for new Netflix series

Denver, Colo., Apr 21, 2017 / 05:23 pm (CNA).- It’s only been out for a few weeks, but that’s enough time for “13 Reasons Why” to have become the latest teenage Netflix binge craze.

Based on the 2007 young adult novel by the same name, “13 Reasons Why” follows the story of Hannah Baker, a troubled 17 year old who took her own life.

But instead of leaving the typical note, Hannah leaves 13 cassette tapes, explaining the 13 reasons why she took her life - and each of these “reasons” is a person, who either did something to Hannah, or didn’t do enough, according to her.

The creators of the Netflix original series insisted in a follow-up video that 13 Reasons was meant to be helpful - to bring up important conversations about serious topics like suicide, bullying and assault, and to get viewers talking about solutions to suicidal thoughts.

However, suicide prevention groups and youth leaders have raised concerns because the show is particularly popular among a teenage audience, and teenagers are a vulnerable population.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the CDC. Studies show that publicized suicides may also trigger a ripple effect of additional suicides within communities.

The show has also faced backlash from mental health experts, who say it fails to follow several of the “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide,” a list of guidelines for media outlets developed by suicide prevention experts and journalists. Experts advise against sensational headlines or describing a suicide in graphic detail, which studies have shown can lead to suicide contagion, or “copycat” suicides.

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a U.S. non-profit suicide prevention group, has also said that the show may do “more harm than good.”

Life Teen, an international youth ministry program, released a video and a written message to young people, warning them of possible triggers in the show and of the inadequate ways it addresses suicide and mental health.



In her message to young people before they watch the show, Life Teen’s Leah Murphy warned against the way the show portrays Hannah’s suicide as simply the fault of those around her.

“Nowhere in the series is mental illness explicitly discussed or dealt with and the audience is left having been told that the people around Hannah Baker are responsible for her death because of their actions or lack thereof,” she wrote.

“While bullying, not saying anything when you see depressive or suicidal signs, and sexual assault are serious issues and can drive people to suicide, the reality is that suicide is rarely something avoided by good sentiments alone. It’s been reported that 90% of all suicides are committed by people who experience diagnosable mental illnesses. The vast majority of suicides can be traced to actual health issues, not just bullying or traumatic events. These health issues, actual, mental illnesses require a lot more than the presence of a good friend or the absence of any serious issues or struggles - they require serious, professional help.”

The fact that these aren’t addressed in any straightforward manner in the series is a problem, Murphy said, because Hannah ends up being portrayed as a kind of “heroic martyr” who leaves a lesson and a legacy behind.

Murphy urged anyone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts to reach out and seek help.

Someone who commits suicide “doesn’t become a hero, gain control, and acquire any power by identifying the people around them as reasons for their suicide,” Murphy wrote.

“Suicide will always be incredibly hurtful to countless individuals, but most tragically hurtful to the person who takes his or her own life - a life that was mean to continue, that was full of meaning, purpose, and infinite worth.”

Chelsea Voboril, the director of religious education at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Smithville, Missouri, told CNA that she watched the show and addressed it with her youth group. She was troubled that most of her teens thought the 13 reasons Hannah gave were legitimate reasons to end her life.

Voboril said they were able to discuss how Hannah never approached her parents or a doctor or psychologist about the loneliness and hurt she was experiencing. Voboril was also able to discuss mental health and culpability for sins with her youth group, who asked if everyone who commits suicide goes to hell.

When watching these kinds of shows, Voboril said she tries to take the approach of finding the “wheat in the weeds” or finding the good among the bad - something she’s borrowed from Catholic speaker Christopher West.

The show attempted to have a moral compass, Voboril said, and its “wheat” includes good messages: “Rape is wrong, suicide causes pain, everybody is bearing a cross,” she noted.

“But the weeds are dangerous. And subtle. Sex outside of marriage, turning to substance abuse, free will being limited by others actions or circumstances, let alone the huge issue around how to talk about suicide in a safe yet poignant manner.”

At the end of the discussion, Voboril said she begged her students to watch it with a parent or other adult, if they were going to continue watching.

But “(for) persons whose consciences may not be well formed or who can be triggered by any of the big issues, I would hope that they avoid it.”

Owen Stockden, a spokesman for Living Works, which specializes in suicide intervention trainings, told CNA that one of his biggest concerns with “13 Reasons” was the portrayal of inadequate and unhelpful responses from the adults in the show, particularly the school counselor and teachers.

“In the show, Hannah’s guidance counsellor has a very ineffective response to her thoughts of suicide,” Stockden told CNA.

“As an organization, we train many guidance counsellors and teachers around the world to respond compassionately and effectively to thoughts of suicide. There is always more to be done, and a recent study...suggests that schools would benefit from increased suicide intervention training for staff, but in the vast majority of cases, teachers and counsellors are alert and sensitive to the needs of their students,” he said.

“It would be tragic if 13 Reasons Why led young people to believe that their concerns would be ignored if they approached a responsible adult.”

Having a popular show discussing the issue of suicide provides the potential for helpful conversations and the addressing of important issues, “but only if it is discussed in a thoughtful and responsible way,” Stockden added.

For Catholic screenwriter and associate professor Barbara Nicolosi, another issue with the show is that none of the characters have a sense of or ever mention a transcendent or loving God, something that she says her own students lack.

“The show wants to attribute all the problems of youth to social media and bullying, but refuses to consider that those things are just symptoms themselves.  The loss of faith, the (loss of the) conviction of a loving personal God, the loss of a sense of eternity, all of these things make suicide a logical response to suffering. Our kids are not dumb,” she told CNA.

Nicolosi said she saw the value in the anti-bullying messages of the show, but she also worries it could lend power to suicide.

“...I am worried that the character of Hannah does seem to have some power in wreaking revenge on her persecutors through her suicide. In the end, I think the show is close to a wash in terms of whether it will do good or harm,” she said.    

Dr. Jim Langley, a Catholic psychologist with St. Raphael Counseling in Denver, has read the book and seen several episodes of “13 Reasons Why.”

Because of the mature content on several levels - language, sexuality, topics of suicide and rape - he said he would be hesitant to recommend either the show or the book to anyone other than mentally healthy adults.

He also said that there were several things that the story gets right - namely, that people you may not expect in your life could be at risk for suicide, and the devastating impact suicide can have on the people in your life.

However, where the story goes wrong is that it tends to romanticize the idea of suicide and fails to adequately address the impact mental health played in Hannah’s decision to end her life.

Dr. Langley said he also worried that the show went too far in suggesting that the people in Hannah’s life were at fault for her suicide. Bullying, rape and assault are terrible things to have happen to someone, and there is some benefit to showing that your actions “can harm and influence other people.”

“To some degree we all have responsibility to other people, but in some ways the show goes too far, and makes it sound like we have responsibility for the other person. We’re responsible to the people in our lives, to treat them well. But the people who hurt (Hannah) were not responsible for her choosing to commit suicide.”

“Most people who commit suicide - almost everyone has a severe mental health problem. And the show does not portray this girl as having severe mental health problems in the way that somebody who is contemplating suicide almost always has,” he said.

Warning signs for suicide include severe, ongoing depression and social isolation. A suicidal person may mention something about wanting to end their life, or start giving away their belongings as sentimental gifts. Another warning sign includes a deeply depressed person who is all of a sudden very happy, brought about by a sudden sense of freedom if they have decided on suicide.

The show’s ultimate message is that the solution to teen suicide is that everyone needs to treat the people in their lives better, which is a positive message but does not go far enough in addressing mental health issues, Dr. Langley said.

One of the most important things adults can do, Dr. Langley said, it to talk to the children in their lives about this show and about suicide and other issues.

“I think that especially with teenagers, they are exposed to so much in today’s culture, that it’s our job as parents and educators about those things and to provide real, accurate information and to provide them with the truth,” he said.

Often adults can worry that they will over-expose their children to heavy issues by having these conversations, but for the most part, the internet and social media and the culture at large have already done that, Dr. Langley noted.

“So as parents and educators, we’re not overexposing them by talking about the issues, we’re going to help them process it and discern the truth in it. And I think it is really valuable to talk with teenagers about mental health issues.”

One thing that was “starkly missing” from the book and the T.V. show, Dr. Langley said, was Hannah’s parents, who seemed loving but at the same time were largely unaware of Hannah’s experiences at school and her interior experiences.  

“So it’s so important for parents to play a really active role in their kids’ lives, even though a teenager’s number one priority is to individuate from mom and dad, which is healthy, you still have to be involved and talk with them and let them know that you care and that you’re invested in them. Don’t be those absent parents that Hannah’s parents appeared to be in the show.”

If you think you or a friend is struggling with suicidal thoughts, ask for help from someone you can trust and/or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (available 24 hours everyday). For Catholic counseling, contact your local priest, diocese or your local branch of Catholic Charities.

India bishops slam 'brutal' disruption of Good Friday service

Rome, Italy, Apr 21, 2017 / 10:22 am (CNA/EWTN News).- India's Catholic bishops have strongly condemned a violent police disruption of a Good Friday service at a small parish in the south of the country.

The Dhalit Catholic community in the village of Sogandi was holding a liturgy for the Passion of the Lord April 14 when they were disrupted by the Tehsildar – local tax and revenue officers – as well as police during the Veneration of the Cross and distribution of Holy Communion.

“The Catholic Church in India is very distressed and saddened by the happenings in Sogandi, Tamil Nadu, on Good Friday, a day very sacred to Christians everywhere,” the April 19 press release stated.

“The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India expresses its full solidarity with the people of Sogandi and condemns in very strong terms the brutal action of the Tehsildar.”

The statement, signed by the secretary general of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, SFX, said that they are proud of their country and the major part of the Hindu community has always treated them with respect and goodwill.

However, recently, fundamentalist forces have disturbed “the traditional peace and harmony” of the country, they said.

The bishops expressed concern at rising intolerance in India toward people of all religions from “fundamentalist fringe” groups, calling on the government to ensure that everyone in the country continue to feel safe and “enjoy the basic right to worship freely and without fear.”

Concern about religious intolerance has grown across India particularly since the May 2014 election of Narendra Modi as prime minister, which saw a spike in the number of attacks against Christians and Muslims.

After Modi took office the country saw a sharp rise in attacks against people and property, most of them perpetrated by the radical Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, also referred to as the RSS, or the “the Sangh.”

The group, which has been described as “fundamentalist” and “violent,” sits on the right-wing and has no official, legal registration in India. However they maintain strong ties with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Modi has been criticized for his silence regarding the mostly small-scale attacks, which have continued to take place.

The event in Sogandi on Good Friday was only the latest in a string of escalating anti-Christian incidents in the village, Bishop A. Neethinathan of Chingleput wrote in a report April 19.

The Catholic parish there, under the patronage of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, was erected in 2007. It has 125 families, who also make up the population of the village.

In order to help foster strong Marian devotion, when the parish was built 10 years ago, the priest also developed a portion of a nearby hill into a little grotto with a covering and a statue of Our Lady.

The grotto and other public religious symbols have been at the center of the clashes between the Christian village and a nearby Hindu village, also of a different caste identity. The Hindu village is known to have temples and houses erected on the other side of the same hill, Bishop Neethinathan stated.

On April 14, the parish gathered at the grotto at 3 PM to celebrate the Lord’s Passion service. Many police were stationed around the area throughout the service, the bishop’s report states.

As the service continued, the local Tehsildar disrupted the Veneration of the Cross and the distribution of Holy Communion, not allowing them to finish.

The disturbance and subsequent disorder resulted in reactions from some of those present. Most of the local men, as well as some priests, have been booked for serious offences by the police, Bishop Neethinathan wrote.

The following day, April 15, the revenue department bulldozed large ditches around the area, preventing access.

It is believed that the recent incidents are the result of planned and systematic operations by anti-Christian Hindutva and anti-Dhalit caste fundamentalists, including pressure on the police and revenue departments.

Other recent actions include the demolition and removal from the hill Dec. 31, 2016 of many of the statues and crosses of the parish by more than 500 police officers “under the pretext of illegal occupation,” according to Bishop Neethinathan. The statues were not returned until April 19.

In February, every stone and boulder on the hill was found marked with the Hindu symbol and the Palm Sunday procession, though able to conclude, was also interrupted by objections and disturbances.

In Missouri, a court decision means lower health standards for abortion clinics

Jefferson City, Mo., Apr 21, 2017 / 08:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Stronger medical standards for abortion clinics were thrown out in Missouri by a federal judge who cited a Supreme Court decision on a similar law in Texas.

The Missouri law required abortion clinics to have the same standards as similar outpatient surgical centers. The clinics’ doctors were also required to have hospital privileges.

U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs of the Western District of Missouri in Kansas City said April 19 that “relief should be prompt, given the needs of women seeking abortions and the need for available clinics to serve their needs.” He cited the 5-3 ruling of the 2016 Supreme Court decision Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said he would appeal the decision, the St. Louis Dispatch reports.

“Today a federal court struck down large portions of Missouri law that protect the health and safety of women who seek to obtain an abortion,” he said. “Missouri has an obligation to do everything possible to ensure the health and safety of women undergoing medical procedures in state-licensed medical facilities.”

The surgical center standards, implemented for abortion clinics in 2007, include wide halls and doorways that can accommodate emergency personnel and equipment; separate male and female changing rooms for personnel; and a recovery room with space for at least four beds with sufficient clearance around each bed.

The law was credited for closing some abortion clinics in the state that could not meet the surgical standards.

There had been only one abortion provider in the state before the judge’s decision.

Now, Planned Parenthood has said it would start to restore abortion services in Columbia and Kansas City. It plans to begin performing the procedures in Joplin and Springfield.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling said that the Texas law under consideration placed an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to an abortion and posed a “substantial obstacle” to that right without showing the benefit of regulation.

At the time of the decision, Deirdre McQuade, assistant director for pro-life communications at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said the court “rejected a common-sense law protecting women from abortion facilities that put profits above patient safety.”

Cardinal Cupich praises governor's pledge to veto abortion funding

Chicago, Ill., Apr 21, 2017 / 06:13 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A promise from the governor of Illinois to veto an abortion funding bill drew the gratitude of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who called it a “principled stand.”

“Abortion is a controversial issue in this country, but using public money to provide abortions should not be,” the cardinal said April 19. “The federal government prohibits the practice, and polls show a substantial segment of the American public reject it.”

Governor Bruce Rauner had pledged to veto Illinois House Bill 40. The legislation would fund elective abortions throughout pregnancy for any reason through the Medicaid and employee health insurance programs. It would also make a symbolic commitment to maintain legal abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the decisions mandating legal abortion nationwide.

A spokesperson said last week the governor is committed to protecting current abortion law but recognizes the “sharp divisions of opinion” on taxpayer funding of abortion, the Associated Press reports.

“I thank him for this principled stand,” Cardinal Cupich said of the governor. “I pray that this divisive issue will be put behind us and our government officials will now concentrate on the many difficult challenges facing Illinois.”

He stressed the importance of unity in seeking a budget “that serves all our people” and pledged help for this effort.

Gov. Rauner, a Republican, actively campaigned as a supporter of legal abortion. He and his wife are listed as $50,000 sponsors of a Planned Parenthood of Illinois fundraiser next week marking the abortion organization’s 100th anniversary, the Chicago Tribune reports.