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Trial begins for priest accused of assaulting San Diego seminarian

San Diego, Calif., Dec 13, 2018 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- A trial began Tuesday for the San Diego priest accused of sexually assaulting a seminarian in February. The alleged victim testified Wednesday that the priest groped him in a restaurant bathroom.

The seminarian told the court that he and another seminarian had drinks with Fr. Juan Garcia Castillo at a bar and restaurant on Feb. 3, after an event at St. Patrick’s Parish in Carlsbad, where Castillo served as parochial vicar. He said they had several drinks, and that the priest encouraged him to drink to excess.

The seminarian testified that he went to the bathroom sick after midnight. While he was in the restroom, Castillo allegedly approached him from behind and groped his genitals, twice.

The seminarian said he told the priest to “get away.”

“I walked out of the stall, and I look at myself in the mirror and I said, ‘Oh my God, what has happened to me?’” the seminarian said, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

The alleged assault was reported to police and diocesan authorities almost immediately, sources say.

During his opening statement Dec. 12, Castillo’s attorney told a jury that there is no evidence for the seminarian’s claim.

"This is the uncorroborated word of a person who was throwing-up drunk."

"This is a 'he said/he said' where both he’s are drunk and there is no corroborating evidence," the attorney said.
 
Castillo, 35, is a member of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, a religious community of priests also known as the Eudists. He was charged in May with one count of misdemeanor sexual battery.

The seminarian told the court that he is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, an attorney and former Judge Advocate General. He entered the seminary after retiring from the Navy.

Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the Diocese of San Diego, told CNA in September that Castillo no longer has priestly faculties in the diocese.

Castillo was listed as a parish priest in the St. Patrick’s bulletin until late March, six weeks after the alleged assault, although Eckery told the San Diego Union Tribune that the priest was removed from his assignment on Feb. 4, the same day the diocese was made aware of the allegation.

Although Castillo was the subject of a criminal investigation at the time he was removed from the parish, the diocese did not disclose the circumstances of his departure to parishioners, or make any statement at the time Castillo was charged with sexual battery.

Eckery told CNA in September that the diocese did not disclose to Castillo’s parish the allegation of sexual assault because “it would be wrong for us to influence the case.”

“We need to see what happens to the criminal case because the issue of consent is so important and if it’s not clear, we wait for that to get made clear,” he added.

The diocese would not explain the priest’s removal from ministry to the parish where he served, Eckery told CNA, without trying first to determine if an act of sexual misconduct took place, and whether any sexual act was “non-consensual.”

Castillo was born in Honduras, and in 2011 was ordained a priest at St. Patrick’s Parish by Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa.

A spokesman for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office told CNA in September that if he is convicted, Castillo could face up to six months of incarceration, and be listed on California’s sex offender registry.

 

Ohio 'heartbeat abortion' ban advances toward governor's veto decision

Columbus, Ohio, Dec 13, 2018 / 04:40 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Ohio Senate has passed a modified bill to ban abortions when the unborn child has a detectable heartbeat, and backers could have enough votes to override a promised veto from Gov. John Kasich.

The 18-13 vote on House Bill 258 came Oct. 12, with four Republicans voting against the bill. Though 20 votes are required to override a veto, two absent Republicans’ votes could still help the bill become law.

An override vote would have to take place during the week of Christmas before the official end of the legislative session Dec. 31. Senate president Larry Obhof did not seem enthusiastic about the possibility of a Christmas week vote, the Columbus Dispatch reports.

Kasich, a Republican, has a strong pro-life record, signing into law at least 18 abortion regulations or restrictions, including a 20-week abortion ban. The heartbeat bill is the only one he has vetoed, doing so in 2016, when legislators did not have the votes to override him.

Kasich is about to leave office in January for Governor-elect Mark DeWine, a Republican who supports the legislation.

The Ohio Senate passed an amendment clarifying that the bill would not require the use of a transvaginal ultrasound to detect a heartbeat, which would extend the period of pregnancy before a heartbeat can be detected. It removed language that would have allowed the state to suspend a doctor’s medical license before a crime related to abortion is proved in court.

The law allows exceptions to prevent a woman’s death or bodily impairment, or in cases of medical emergency.

Republican votes in committee and on the Senate floor rejected several Democratic amendments, including one that would have added exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

The House of Representatives passed the bill last month by a vote of 60-38, exactly the number of votes needed to override. Once the House agrees to the Senate’s changes to the bill, the governor would have ten days from a bill’s passage to veto it, excluding Sundays.

During 2016 debates over the bill, some pro-life critics voiced concern it could result in a counterproductive Supreme Court decision that would strengthen legal abortion in the U.S. It is unclear how the Supreme Court will rule with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh replacing Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, even if a legal challenge is made and progresses to the high court.

While groups like Ohio Right to Life have remained neutral on the bill due to constitutional concerns, backers of the legislation have said it is specially designed to pass Supreme Court scrutiny.

The Ohio Catholic Conference on Nov. 15 said it supports “the life-affirming intent of this legislation,” but stopped short of endorsement. The conference said it will continue to assist efforts to resolve “differences related to specific language and strategies.”

“In the end, the Catholic Conference of Ohio desires passage of legislation that can withstand constitutional challenge and be implemented in order to save lives,” the Catholic conference said.

Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, who is a past leader of Ohio Right to Life, said Dec. 12 that women who had testified against the bill spoke about their abortions with “tears in their eyes, pain in their heart,” the Columbus Dispatch reports.

“I have never had a woman cry when she said she chose life. Not once. Not a single time,” she said. “Because in our hearts we know this is a human life.”

Bill opponents like Sen. Charleta Tavares, D-Columbus, charged that the bill sends the message that women “don’t have the capacity to make decisions themselves.” Women would still have abortions, in “a cruel and very dangerous way,” she said.

The bill’s text makes clear that a pregnant woman who undergoes an abortion is not considered in violation of the law. Rather, it allows her to take civil action against the abortion doctor involved if it is proven he or she broke the law, on grounds related to the “wrongful death of the unborn child.”

A doctor who performs an abortion in violation of the law would commit a fifth-degree felony, punishable by up to one year in prison and a $2,500 fine, the New York Times reports. The bill requires state inspections of abortion facilities to ensure their compliance with reporting requirements. It also establishes more ways to promote adoption.

The legislature is expected to pass a bill to ban the dilation and extraction abortion procedure, typically used between 13 and 24 weeks into pregnancy.

Ohio law currently bars abortion 20 weeks or more after conception, based on when an unborn child can feel pain. Pro-abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio is considering a legal challenge to that law.

Bill recognizing 'reproductive rights' as human rights introduced in US House

Washington D.C., Dec 13, 2018 / 02:21 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A bill was introduced Monday in the US House of Representatives to require that the State Department include “reproductive rights” in its annual human rights report.

The Reproductive Rights are Human Rights Act of 2018 was introduced Dec. 10 by Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA-5), and was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The Trump administration's State Department included statistics on “coercion in population control” rather than “reproductive rights” in its 2017 annual human rights report.

The State Department's decision was applauded by pro-life leaders.

“‘Reproductive rights’ has long been a euphemism for destroying human life in the womb,” said Lila Rose, founder and president of the pro-life group Live Action, said when the report was released in April.

“A phrase that sounds like empowerment is a really only code for the subjugation of preborn children,” Rose added.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told CNA at the time that abortion is an “inappropriate indicator of human rights.”

The Reproductive Rights are Human Rights Act is a direct response to the State Department's decision.

A statement from Clark's office said that “removing women’s right from the annual report in 2017 was a dramatic and dangerous shift in U.S. efforts to protect the international rights of women.”

The State Department began including “reproductive rights” in its human rights report in 2011.

Clark commented that “documenting and reporting human rights violations is a major part of eradicating their existence. This bill would ensure that our State Department maintains its vital role as an international watchdog and protector of women’s rights no matter the ideology of our White House.”

Rep. Nita Lowey, a co-sponsor of the bill, characterized the State Department's decision as the US “turn[ing] its back on the countless women around the world who are deprived of basic reproductive rights.”

Another cosponsor, Rep. Lois Frankel, asserted: “Women’s rights are human rights. There is no greater right for women than to be in charge of their own bodies.”

Among the 45 organizations which have endorsed the bill are the Center for Reproductive Rights, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the American Psychological Association, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, stated that “when women’s rights are limited and they are unable to access basic health care like contraception, safe abortion, and maternal health care, their ability to achieve economic, social, and political empowerment is fundamentally hindered.”

The State Department's report currently includes a section on “Coercion in Population Control”, under a larger section titled “Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons”. The new section appears under the subsection for “women” and features reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization procedures, and “other coercive population control methods.” There are also links to maternal mortality figures as well as the prevalence of contraceptives in a country.

Michigan lawmakers approve ban on telemedicine abortion pill prescriptions

Detroit, Mich., Dec 13, 2018 / 11:14 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Michigan has passed a bill that would continue to prohibit doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing drugs through a teleconference call, permanently extending a ban that first took effect in 2012.  

The Detroit Free Press reports that the bill passed the legislature in the early hours of the morning Dec. 13 by a vote of 62-47, with one Republican joining all the Democrats in voting against.

The pro-life group Right to Life Michigan praised the decision to continue to disallow so-called “webcam abortions,” which they say the abortion industry uses as a cost-saving measure despite at least 22 women having died from the use of abortion-inducing drugs.

“The law poses a burden on the abortion industry, particularly Planned Parenthood,” the group wrote in a Dec. 13 blog post.

“They already utilize the abortion pill as a cost-saving measure over a surgical abortion. There are not many abortionists, due to the unattractive nature of the profession's involvement in taking human life...How much more money could the abortion industry save if the abortionist can be 500 miles away, dispensing abortion pills with the push of a button after a quick video conference?”

Michigan lawmakers had passed legislation in 2012 that allowed doctors to teleconference with patients on a wide variety of medical issues— a service particularly useful for rural patients who have limited access to hospitals and specialized doctors.

At the time, lawmakers banned the prescription of the abortion inducing drugs mifepristone and misoprostol via teleconference, in accordance with guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration.

Michigan’s ban would have expired Dec. 31, but the new bill, if it becomes law, will make the ban permanent.

The FDA’s guidelines regarding mifepristone, which was first approved for use in 2000, state that the abortion drug “may only be dispensed in clinics, medical offices, and hospitals by or under the supervision of a certified healthcare provider.” The FDA warns consumers not to buy mifepristone over the internet due to safety concerns.

The action to permanently extend the ban is one of many “lame duck” actions that the outgoing Republican-controlled legislature is undertaking in Michigan before a new group of lawmakers begin their terms on Jan. 1.

The bill now awaits a signature from outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder.  

 

For homeless students in New York City, challenges abound

New York City, N.Y., Dec 13, 2018 / 03:21 am (CNA/EWTN News).- As rent prices increase in New York City, so does its homeless population, affecting not only adults throughout the city but children as well.  

Roughly 1 out of 10 public school students in New York City are homeless, and these children often face significant challenges in completing their education.

According to a report from the state Education Department’s Student Information Repository System, a record high of 114, 659 students in the city’s public schools are homeless. The number has increased by 66 percent since 2010.

Brett Hartford, outreach director for New York City Relief, pointed to two major factors contributing to an increase in homelessness. First, the cheap areas of rent have turned into trendy spots, and rent prices have become astronomical. Second, he said, a rent voucher system was dropped by city about 10 years ago.

Under the policy, vouchers were given to individuals who had some source of income but did not have enough to cover rent. Subsidizing homes would then give these people a place to stay in exchange for the voucher, which the city would reimburse.

When the city no longer honored the vouchers, the subsidizing organizations stopped getting paid and lost out on millions. Although the system has been reinstituted since, he said, those companies no longer trust the vouchers will be honored and very few accept them.

Hartford told CNA that the city has laws to help individuals who have been evicted from their homes, but these policies often create situations that can be disruptive for schooling.

If families do not have anywhere to stay, the government will temporarily place them somewhere in New York City, he said, explaining that families may be moved across the city, sometimes a two-hour train ride away from their previous life.

This puts immense wear-and-tear on families, who may have difficulty traveling to work and school, he said.

Furthermore, the housing in which families are placed is often not ideal, with shared bathrooms and no secure place to lock up personal items. Once a family is assigned somewhere, Hartford said, they cannot apply for another location until a year later.

Amy Lacey, director of emergency services for Albany Catholic Charities, described to CNA the challenges facing homeless students.

When someone does not have a stable place to live, she explained, survival becomes the only goal.

“When an individual is homeless, that is the primary concern. It’s not whether the child gets up and goes to school, it’s let me make sure I have a roof over my head,” she said.

“They need to know that each day they are going to have a place to come home to, have a place to lay their head, have a place to come back to where someone is going to care for them.”

Lacey also said access to bus routes or public transportation may not always be an option, especially for chronically homeless families.

“Sometimes we have people who come into shelter who are not even at their own school district anymore.”

According to the New York Times, homeless children on average miss about 30 days of school a year. Of those living in the NYC shelters during the 2015-16 school year, only 12 percent passed the math exam for the state and 15 percent passed English.

Catholic Charities helps with the physical needs of homeless people in the Albany area – offering shelter, food, hygiene products and baby supplies – but also works through case managers to discuss education with parents.

“Having that case management for every homeless case is very important,” Lacey said. “That is someone who can sit down with a parent, sit down with a child, and say ‘where are your struggles right now?’”

“We deal with families who often time have multiple children and sometimes it is the responsibility of the oldest child to care for the youngest children,” she said, noting school for those children may be placed on the back burner. “So it is helping to change that mindset.”

She said the greatest need of young homeless people is someone to guide them and show concern. This begins with personal relationships, she said, adding that it is time and interest that truly help children improve and develop.

“What is really needed is individuals need to be able to step into the young person’s life, whether that is a guidance counselor, a teacher, a mentor, to let that child know that they are valuable, that they are worthy, and that they are intelligent.”

US State Department: Pakistan's religious freedom record a 'particular concern'

Washington D.C., Dec 12, 2018 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- Religious freedom problems in Pakistan have led the US Department of State to designate the country as of “particular concern,” with nine others, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said Tuesday.

“I recognize that several designated countries are working to improve their respect for religious freedom; I welcome such initiatives and look forward to continuing the dialogue,” Pompeo said Dec. 11.

In addition to Pakistan, Pompeo listed Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. This means he believes they have engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, (and) egregious violations of religious freedom.” The designation took place Nov. 28, Pompeo said.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom makes recommendations to the State Department about the list. Its April 2018 report examined religious freedom threats in Pakistan and around the world.

In December 2017, Islamic State group-affiliated suicide bombers attacked a church in Quetta, killing nine people. The run-up to the national elections in July 2018 exacerbated religious tensions in the country. According to the USCIRF report, approximately 40 people sentenced under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were awaiting the death penalty or serving life sentences.

“In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests, or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs,” Pompeo said Tuesday. “The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression. Protecting and promoting international religious freedom is a top foreign policy priority of the Trump administration.”

“Safeguarding religious freedom is vital to ensuring peace, stability, and prosperity,” he continued. “These designations are aimed at improving the lives of individuals and the broader success of their societies.”

CNA contacted USCIRF for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

In April, USCIRF Chair Daniel Mark told CNA he was particularly concerned about Pakistan.

“Matters concerning Pakistan are very sensitive on account of the fact that they are a partner of ours in combating terrorism around the world in the war in Afghanistan and so on,” Mark said. “But, given the rise of extremism in Pakistan... we really do think that pressure should be kept up, notwithstanding the cooperation that our two countries need.”

“Pakistan is a world leader in imprisonment and convictions, prosecutions for blasphemy and apostasy, and those sorts of things,” said Mark.

Asia Bibi, a Christian mother and field laborer, was among those facing blasphemy prosecution, spending eight years in prison despite her protestations of innocence. The Pakistan Supreme Court acquitted her of blasphemy charges in late October. The acquittal prompted protests and death threats. Her life is still in danger, as the ruling is under government review as part of a deal to appease groups that were leading riots in the streets.

Bibi’s family has sought asylum for her in the U.S., the U.K., or other countries in Europe. Italy has offered to help her find asylum.

Mark said conditions in Pakistan are bad at the legal level, such as the second-class citizenship treatment of the Ahmadi religious minority. There is also a growing “culture of impunity” in society, with vigilante mobs attacking people on the basis of blasphemy accusations.

Pompeo placed Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan on the special watch list for having engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” In January the State Department had named Uzbekistan a country of particular concern.

The special watch list is a new designation, created by Congress’ 2016 amendments to the International Religious Freedom Act. Pakistan was first named to the watch list in December 2017.

Another list, entities of particular concern, includes al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, the Islamic State Group, the Islamic State Group in Khorasan, and the Taliban.

Pompeo noted his work as Secretary of State in hosting the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July, which brought together 85 governments and 400 NGOs that aimed to advance religious freedom.

“The United States remains committed to working with governments, civil society organizations, and religious leaders to advance religious freedom around the world,” Pompeo said.

Priest who survived major plane crash credits Our Lady of Guadalupe

Chicago, Ill., Dec 12, 2018 / 04:58 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- This year, for Father Esequiel Sanchez, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe brings up terrifying memories - and a huge reason to be thankful.

Sanchez was one of 103 passengers aboard Aeromexico Flight 2431, which crashed and burned in a field shortly after takeoff on July 31 of this year.

While there were some injuries, no one died.

“I personally attributed that to the intercession of Our Lady, and so did the other passengers, I think most of us...saw it as miraculous,” Sanchez told CNA.

Shortly after takeoff in Durango, the plane caught strong winds, causing the left wing to hit the ground and the plane to lose both of its engines.

As the craft was hurtling toward the ground, Sanchez said he thought he would either die, be paralyzed, or be burned by subsequent explosions. All he walked away with was a broken arm.

But his fear in the moment didn’t stop his priestly training from kicking in - he immediately started to pray out loud.

“They say police officers and firefighters and soldiers will tell you that when you get into a crisis situation, your training kicks in. I think that’s happened to me too,” he said.

“I prayed ‘God come to our assistance, Blessed Mother come to help us,’ and then I began to absolve everybody on the plane. I immediately said: ‘I absolve everyone on this plane, may the Lord have mercy,’” he recalled.

“I thought it was just going to be it, because it was happening so fast. You don’t (crash) a 100-ton airplane at 150 miles per hour and think you’re gonna be ok. But happily we were.”

When the plane crash-landed, emergency crews helped evacuate everyone before the plane exploded into flames.

Sanchez’ first thought was for the victims.

“I just couldn’t imagine finding someone’s mother who died and I survived. So for me to I wanted to tell them that I tried to get to them, so my primary concern was getting to the victims as best I could, and start ministering to them. When that’s what you’re concerned about, that’s what you’re going to go after.”

Some survivors had worse injuries - a little girl with burn injuries was taken to a hospital, others had neck and back injuries.

The plane “completely disintegrated,” Sanchez said, so the lack of deaths or worse injuries is miraculous.

Besides being a plane crash survivor, Sanchez is also the rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

The shrine is the site of a massive celebration for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe every year on Dec. 12. The event attracts more than 200,000 pilgrims annually, many whom walk for hours or even days on foot to get there.  

For Sanchez, and for some other Durango plane crash survivors who have made the trek to the shrine this year, the Feast Day has taken on new significance.

“So for me, on Our Lady of Guadalupe today, and all those memories...I’m a pilgrim just like them, I come to give her thanks,” he said.

“Some of the survivors came and did the same thing, they came to give thanks to Our Lady.”

Besides being grateful for his survival and lack of serious injury, Sanchez said one of the greatest blessings since the event has been the “outpouring of everyone from the city of Chicago and beyond.”

“Everyone found out about the story and they prayed for us, there’s no place I can go without  people saying we prayed for you,” he said.

“So when you get that kind of generosity, my only response other than to say thank you is: I am so looking forward to becoming a better priest and a better minister, and I do things with a lot more joy,” he said.

Sanchez said he loves his ministry as the rector at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that every year it brings him hope to see the numerous pilgrims on Dec. 12, many of whom come with their whole families.

“I find no more effective image or evangelizing tool than Our Lady of Guadalupe and her message,” he said.

And whether you’re a pilgrim hurtling through the air in a near-death experience plane crash, or an undocumented immigrant trekking to the Shrine to beg her help: “She’s a source of hope.”

 

Nashville's sole remaining abortion clinic suspends abortion provision

Nashville, Tenn., Dec 12, 2018 / 04:38 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As Tennessee has seen an increase in pro-life legislation in recent years, the only abortion clinic in Nashville temporarily ceased its abortion services last week.

According to the Associated Press, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, Tereva Parham, confirmed Dec. 10 that abortion provision had been suspended the week prior.

The time-frame of the suspension has not been provided.

Parham said the clinic is “undergoing a period of quality improvement” and added that part of the reason for the suspension is a lack of abortion providers.

The Planned Parenthood clinic is still offering other services, but has been referring patients who request abortion to clinics in Knoxville and Memphis, both of which are about 200 miles away.

Nashville previously had two abortion providers, but The Women's Center closed in August when its building was sold. The organization said it would be looking for a new location, but it has not yet reopened.

Tennessee has enacted a number of abortion regulations in recent years.

In 2014, voters approved an amendment which categorically excludes abortion rights from the state’s constitution.

“Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives or state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother,” the amendment reads.

Legislators passed a 48-hour waiting period and in-person informed consent counseling for women seeking to procure abortion in 2015, which are currently being challenged in federal court.

In 2017, the state banned abortion of viable unborn children after 20 weeks.

The state also requires hospital admitting privileges for abortion doctors, and parental consent for teen abortions.

And in May, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed a law calling for the erection of a privately funded monument to unborn children on the grounds of the state capitol.

Haslam also signed a law seeking federal approval to prohibit the state's Medicaid program from payments for non-abortion services to any provider of more than 50 abortions in a year.

About 9,700 abortions were procured in Tennessee in 2016.

In New York, public school officials to evaluate private schools

Albany, N.Y., Dec 12, 2018 / 01:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Leaders of New York state’s more than 500 Catholic schools are planning to boycott a new state review system, whereby public school officials would evaluate religious schools to determine whether they offer a “substantially equivalent” education to public schools.

“The parents who choose our schools can have great confidence in the academic rigor of our schools,” James Cultrara, executive secretary of the New York Council of Catholic School Superintendents, was quoted as saying in Times Union.

“We simply cannot accept a competing school having authority over whether our schools can operate.”

The rebuke to the state comes after New York’s education commissioner released guidelines Nov. 20 “to ensure that all students receive the education to which they are entitled under law,” i.e. exposure to the same basic courses such as English, civics, and mathematics that public school students take.

The state’s action follows a New York City investigation into some Orthodox Jewish schools that a group of graduates say have been deficient in terms of teaching students “secular” topics other than the Jewish religion.

Under the new guidelines, local public school superintendents or their designees would be required to visit all nonpublic schools by the end of the 2020-2021, and every five years after that, to evaluate the schools. The local school board would approve the findings with a vote.

The Catholic superintendents body said in a letter to the State Education Department that they do not oppose school inspections from state officials, but conflicts of interest could arise if public school officials, who are essentially “competing” for the same body of students, are given the power to evaluate private schools.

“A review by local public school officials and a vote at a public meeting of a locally elected public school board, as is called for in the guidance, practically guarantees inconsistency and subjectivity,” reads part of the letter, which was obtained by Times Union.

“The Council of Catholic School Superintendents is committed to maintaining high-quality Catholic schools and working with you on designing an objective review and determination process to support the education of children in our schools.”

The superintendents have rejected the state’s guidelines and directed all of the state’s Catholic schools not to participate in “any review carried out by local public school officials.”

As of Dec. 12 the State Education Department has not commented on the issue.

The new guidelines mainly impact Catholic elementary schools, as nonpublic high schools in the state generally fall under the purview of the Board of Regents.

Jewish schools, which have a significant presence in New York City, could feel strong effects from the new guidelines as well.

New York City is home to 1.1 million Jews, around 32% percent of whom identify as Orthodox, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Strongly Orthodox Jewish private schools, known as yeshivot, educate an estimated 57,000 students in New York City alone, The New York Times reports. A group of graduates say that it has been “commonplace for decades” that students who graduate from yeshivot receive little instruction beyond studying Jewish texts, and “can barely read and write in English and have not been taught that dinosaurs once roamed Earth or that the Civil War occurred.”

The administration of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio opened an investigation into the lack of secular education at yeshivot in 2015. Prominent rabbis and other Jewish leaders have resisted critics of yeshivot, citing religious freedom concerns.

Trump signs law to aid Christians in Iraq, Syria

Washington D.C., Dec 11, 2018 / 04:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- President Donald Trump signed into law Tuesday the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, which seeks to ensure US aid reaches Christian and Yazidi genocide victims.

The bill was passed unanimously in the House Nov. 27, and in the Senate Oct. 11.

This bill was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), and the lead Democratic sponsor was Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA). This was Smith’s second attempt at getting the bill signed into law, and altogether it took 17 months for this bill to be passed.  

Trump was joined at the Dec. 11 signing by Vice President Mike Pence, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus Carl Anderson, Smith, Eshoo, Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, and many others.

Trump said it was a “great honor” to sign H.R. 390 into law, and remarked that his administration has had great success in fighting Islamic State. The group has lost nearly all of its territory since its peak in 2015.

“This bill continues my administration's efforts to direct US assistance for persecuted communities including through faith-based programs,” he said.

The signing of the legislation is a symbol of the US speaking “with bold moral clarity and political unanimity,” Anderson said in a statement provided by the Knights of Columbus, which were heavily involved with the process of writing the bill and assisting the situation of Christians in the Middle East.

Since 2014, the Knights of Columbus have donated more than $20 million to help Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria with food, housing, and other needs. The Knights also spent $2 million to rebuild an Iraqi town that had been destroyed by Islamic State.

H.R. 390 provides funding to various entities, including faith-based and religious organizations, that are helping with recovery and stabilization efforts in Iraq and Syria in religious and ethnic minority communities, including Christians and Yazidis.

The bill also instructs the Trump administration to “assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers that might force these survivors to flee” the region and for the administration to identify signs of potential violent action against minority groups in the country.

Another part of the law encourages foreign governments to identify those who belong to Islamic State in security databases and security screenings to aid with their prosecution. The bill provides support for groups that are investigating members of Islamic State who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the region.

Since Islamic State took control of the region, the country’s Christian population has dwindled to only a few thousand families. Many of these people fled to nearby Turkey and Lebanon out of concern for their safety. Although the situation has drastically improved since nearly all of Islamic State's territory has been regained, Christians are reluctant to return to the region due to a lack of economic opportunities and continued concerns for safety.