The UK Government is moving to impose abortion in Northern Ireland, bypassing the local Assembly and Executive. In the meanwhile, a Bill to ban abortion in cases of non-fatal disability is progressing in Stormont.
The UK Conservative Government has recently introduced regulations to Parliament to give Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, power to force the local Northern Ireland authorities to set up an extremely permissive abortion regime.
In 2016, a clear majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly upheld the law on abortion. In July 2019, the House of Commons voted to introduce abortion in Northern Ireland. The justification for this imposition was the absence of a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland and these new regulations theoretically came into force in March 2020, although not in practice because of local opposition.
Under the new regime now about to be imposed, abortions are available up to the point of birth for all disabilities, and practically on demand up to 24 weeks, if the pregnancy would involve greater risk than abortion for the physical and mental health of the mother. Abortion will also be completely decriminalised, unlike in the rest of the UK, or in the South.
Alban Maginness, a former senior SDLP member of the Local Assembly, commented: ”By doing so, Lewis is prioritising the provision of abortion above other health services, such as outstanding cancer treatments, postponed because of the need to deal with the pandemic. Worse still he is making a mockery of the devolution settlement. … the provision of abortion is a cross-cutting, controversial issue that requires the agreement of our devolved Executive. As on other issues, the Executive has not reached agreement on this contentious matter.”
All the major Christian churches have also voiced their opposition to the Government’s decision.
In a statement on Friday last week, The Presbyterian Church in Ireland expressed ‘grave concern’, said the move would represent a serious undermining of devolved rule and called for the powers to be withdrawn.
“The regulations laid before Parliament today drive a coach and horses through Northern Ireland’s hard won and finely balanced devolved constitutional settlement. These powers not only devalue Northern Ireland’s purposely unique system of negotiated government, they also give the Secretary of State the freedom to interfere directly, and at will, with every single department of devolved government”, said the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr David Bruce.
The Methodist Church in Ireland voiced its concern, saying the move would ‘usurp’ the role of the Northern Ireland Executive.
The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, The Most Revd John McDowell, said the proposal would heighten the sense of a democratic deficit.
The Northern Catholic Bishops said the move is an effort to bypass internationally agreed devolved structures, to foist a law on an unwilling populace, that blatantly undermines the right to life of unborn children.
This progress has been welcomed by pro-life groups.
Tracey Harkin of our sister organisation in the North said the current controversy has been a wake-up call about the radical nature of the abortion measures.
Commenting on the move to ban abortion in cases of disability, she said: “It’s good that it received majority support because it’s not the type of culture the people want in Northern Ireland.”
Ms Harkin is hopeful that the move will be the first step on the road to removing the abortion law in its entirety.
“We would like obviously to extend protection to as many people as possible,” she said. “We think it’s important to support any row-back on abortion legislation, but you have to bring people along with you and make our politicians realise how important this issue is.”
Among political parties, the strongest support for the Severe Fetal Impairment Bill came from the DUP.
DUP MLA Paul Givan said he wants to change the abortion regulations to show people with disabilities are “equally valued”.
Sinead Bradley of the SDLP supported the proposal and said the issue is one of discrimination against those with disabilities.
Sinn Fein opposed the Severe Fetal Impairment Bill, but abstained from voting on it.
The Uyghur Muslim population of China is being savagely persecuted by the Chinese State, but an overall crackdown on religious believers, including Christians, is taking place, and has been intensifying.
In its report, ‘Persecuted and Forgotten’, Aid to the Church in Need describes how President Xi Jinping has called Christianity “a foreign infiltration”. It refers to “increased hostility to Church communities, accused of resisting government control, has resulted in the widespread removal of crosses from churches and the destruction of church buildings. Some regional authorities have banned Christmas trees and greetings cards.”
The report goes on to say: “There has been a renewed crackdown on Church leaders considered dissidents by the regime, notably Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong and Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin”, who has been repeated harassed.
A report issued last year by the Pew Forum, listed China as placing the worst restrictions on religious freedom of any country it could measure. (It did not measure North Korea, which is undoubtedly worse, because it is a closed society).
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom found a similar picture in its latest report.
On the situation of Christians in China specifically, it points out: “Chinese authorities raided or closed down hundreds of Protestant house churches in 2019, including Rock Church in Henan Province and Shouwang Church in Beijing.”
It describes how, in December 2018, the government “a court charged Pastor Wang Yi with ‘subversion of state power’ and sentenced him to nine years imprisonment.”
It goes on: “Local authorities continued to harass and detain bishops, including Guo Xijin and Cui Tai, who refused to join the state-affiliated Catholic association.”
It says: “Several local governments, including Guangzho city, offered cash bounties for individuals who informed on underground churches. In addition, authorities across the country have removed crosses from churches, banned youth under the age of 18 from participating in religious services, and replaced images of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary with pictures of President Xi Jinping”.
These are the worst crackdowns since the time of Chairman Mao.
It seems hard to imagine for those of us who live in a free world that in China the Bible and other religious texts have been removed from online booksellers, including Amazon. To circumvent internet censorship, Christian organisations have to drop the name of ‘Jesus’ from book titles and replace it with initials or with other expressions.
As a result of censorship, many religious bookstores have closed their activities or operate clandestinely.
‘Bitter Winter’ is a magazine covering religious freedom and human rights in Asia, particularly in China.
They report that churches are constantly asked to remove religious symbols and paintings inside, and the cross outside, and to replace them with party symbols such as the five-pointed star or the communist party flag.
Those who refuse to join the state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association are subjected to all sorts of discrimination. Non-approved churches and meeting avenues are systematically shut down.
Even for State-approved churches it is very hard to practice the faith. Local officials impose various sanctions or restrictions to limit religious activities.
According to the Christian Post, “To discourage churches from meeting for the holidays, government officials required a state-sanctioned Catholic church in Jiangsu province’s Wuxi city to obtain approval from at least eight offices before it was permitted to hold Christmas mass.”
Those of us who live in the West have little idea of the suffering of millions of people in the biggest country of the world. It is not an exaggeration to claim that never in history so many Christian believers have been oppressed by a despotic and atheistic regime.
Western countries tend to ignore or downsize the atrocities happening in China, for economic interests or for fear of a powerful state that has a strong influence internationally. But how can we deal with a regime that negates religious freedom and at the same claim we believe in human rights? The freedom to practice your faith is one of the most fundamental human rights. It is time for Ireland and other countries to denounce the brutalities experienced by religious believers in China, including Christians, and to act accordingly, even if it hurts trade.
Gardaí have been stopping priests distributing Holy Communion. All public worship is currently banned. The Government is fighting businessman, Declan Ganley challenge to the constitutionality of the restrictions on religious gatherings tooth and nail. But one legal expert believes the lockdown law is being incorrectly interpreted, namely Oran Doyle of Trinity College Dublin.
In a new blog he rejects the widespread notion that organising or attending religious celebrations is a criminal offence.
First, he argues, religious events are not prohibited by the Regulation of the lockdown, which explicitly bans other kind of events. Secondly, some have claimed that even if organising a religious ceremony is legal, traveling to one is not permitted. But Prof. Doyle says that the Regulations take great care to not include religious ceremonies among the class of prohibited events. “This implies that it must be permissible to leave one’s home to organise and/or attend those events”, he says. Otherwise, why would religious events be permitted if travelling to attend them is not? It seems to be a contradiction.
Prof. Doyle also comments on a statement from the Archdiocese of Dublin advising priests not to give communion after celebrating an online Mass, on the basis that “no gatherings of people outdoors or indoor are permitted”.
“If this is intended to be a statement of the legal position—and it is difficult to read it any other way—it is categorically incorrect”, Prof. Doyle wrote.
He acknowledges that the Archdiocese’s advice appears to have followed pressure from the Gardaí but he believes that Gardaí around the country have formed the mistaken belief that it is even against the law to go into a church to receive Communion, when this is not true.
Gardaí have threatened priests with prosecution for leaving the church doors open during mass but this is also not against the law.
Prof. Doyle claims that a statement issued last November from the Department of Health on this regard is a “masterpiece of misdirection”. The statement confirms that no penalty attaches to religious celebrations, but its language appears to be calculated to create the impression that what is in reality public health advice only is mandatory and, so, it is a legal requirement.
He says: “ … at the core of the Government’s response lie not restrictions on activities but rather confusion over the extent to which activities are restricted. Rather than clearly distinguish between what citizens are required to do and what they are requested or advised to do, Government statements frequently encourage people to believe that their legal obligations are more restrictive than is in fact the case.”
He believes that this is a strategy. The Government and the media imply a higher level of restriction than it is the case, with the use of misleading pronouncements, and then “allow legally ungrounded threats of prosecution to bring people in line with that higher level of restriction.”
If this is so, then at a minimum, Bishops should allow Catholics to enter a church in order to receive Communion.
Pope Francis has just returned from an historic visit to Iraq where Christians have been savagely persecuted and driven from their homes. His trip was a very necessary act of solidarity. He will have also seen the work done by organisations like Aid to the Church in Need in helping Christians to rebuild their lives there.
Before the US invasion of 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein, there were about 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, corresponding to 6pc of the overall population. This is now estimated to be just 250,000. Among all Christians, Chaldean Catholics are the biggest denomination (67%). They have been there since almost the earliest days of Christianity. They are the descendants of the pre-Arab peoples of the area.
Under Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator otherwise, Christians were tolerated so long as they didn’t get in his way. One of them, Tariq Aziz, was his deputy and Foreign Minister.
It is almost impossible to list all the attacks that Iraqi Christians have suffered in recent times.
In August 2004, six churches in Baghdad and Mosul were bombed simultaneously by Sunni militants. Thirty more churches were attacked later. Sayidat al-Nejat Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad, one of the churches bombed, was visited by Pope Francis on the day of his arrival in Iraq.
In 2007, Ragheed Aziz Ganni, a Chaldean Catholic priest who had studied at the Irish seminary in Rome, and three deacons, were killed in Mosul after the celebration of Mass.
In June 2014, Mosul, the second biggest city in Iraq, was taken by ISIS, which also announced a new Caliphate. Christians were forced to convert to Islam or to leave the city.
Mosul had previously been the city in Iraq with the largest number of Christians but currently only 70 Christian families are still there, down from 2,000 pre-ISIS, with the majority too scared to return. When Pope Francis visited the destroyed city, he was welcomed by the last remaining priest in Mosul, Fr Raid Adel Kallo of the Syriac Catholic Church.
In August 2014, ISIS invaded the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq and about 120,000 Christians fled to areas controlled by the Kurds. With the end of ISIS in 2017, some have returned to their original cities but, still nowadays, most of the remaining Iraqi Christians are in Kurdish-controlled areas, which are considered safer. An estimated 330,000 went to Syria.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is an organisation that has helped the local populations to go back to their homes. ACN had been working in Iraq since 1972 and between 2011-2020, ACN provided 49.5 million euro in aid to the Church there.
ACN donated €48.23 million to reestablish the Christian presence in Iraq, helping particularly the three main Christian denominations (Chaldean, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox) to create the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee with the purpose of assisting them to return to their original communities.
The symbol of this reconstruction is the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in the city of Qaraqosh, near Mosul, that Pope Francis visited on Sunday. The church had been severely damaged by members of ISIS. When they left in 2016, they burnt all the furniture, plus the ancient prayer books and manuscripts. They blasted the watch tower and damaged the ceiling of the cathedral.
ACN helped with the reconstruction not only of the church but also of the houses of the local Christians, to support them in recreating the local community.
Erbil is the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, where much of the remaining Iraqi Christian population now live.
ACN’s new programme is hoped to offer 150 scholarships to the Catholic University of Erbil over the next four years. The Catholic University of Erbil serves the whole community, not only Catholics. 72pc of the students are Christians, of different denominations, but 18pc are Yazidis, a religious minority from the North of Iraq that was particularly targeted by ISIS.
Head of Projects for ACN is Irish-born Regina Lynch who traveled with the Pope. She reported the scenes of celebration: “The joy of the people was catching. Thousands lined the streets to see the pope as he drove past. I saw religious sisters dancing. These were people who had come back after being forced to leave their homes because of ISIS.What the pope saw here were truly the living stones of the Church in Iraq.”
The visit of the Pope in these troubled areas has brought hope to those who are working to re-establish the Christian presence in Iraq after so much suffering.
Irlanda e Slovenia sono gli unici due Paesi dell’Unione Europea dove i rispettivi governi hanno vietato ogni celebrazione religiosa pubblica. Negli altri Stati membri le restrizioni variano significativamente.
Uno dei regimi più stretti vige in Belgio, dove decine di cattolici si sono già radunati a Bruxelles per protestare nei confronti delle regole attuali che prevedono al massimo quindici persone per celebrazione. La protesta ha avuto luogo di fronte alla basilica di Koekelberg, la quinta chiesa più grande al mondo che potrebbe contenere 8mila fedeli, proprio per mostrare l’assurdità delle restrizioni correnti.
I partecipanti alla protesta, insieme a membri di altre fedi, chiedono al governo belga che il numero di fedeli ammesso alla celebrazione sia proporzionato alla grandezza dell’edificio religioso, come in altri Paesi. Nei vicini Paesi Bassi, del resto, non c’è limite. In Francia è invece di trenta, mentre in Italia è del 50% della capacità.
L’anno scorso il Belgio ha sofferto una delle restrizioni più severe di tutta Europa: le cerimonie religiose sono infatti state bandite fino a quando la comunità ebraica non ha fatto appello al Consiglio di Stato, il quale ha riconosciuto l’eccessiva rigidità delle regole. In dicembre il governo è stato poi obbligato ad allentare decisamente le restrizioni, permettendo 15 fedeli a celebrazione, esclusi il celebrante e i bambini al di sotto dei dodici anni. Nonostante questo, la decisione ha lasciato insoddisfatte le comunità religiose più numerose, che sperano in allentamenti ulteriori.
Quanto all’Irlanda, lo Stato ha vietato il culto pubblico del tutto. In altri Paesi europei vigono restrizioni del numero dei fedeli ammessi al culto, oppure divieti locali o temporanei, ma nessun altro Stato ha vietato celebrazioni religiose pubbliche per periodi così lunghi: diversi mesi nel 2020 e ancora da gennaio di quest’anno.
Una restrizione del medesimo tenore irlandese è al momento in vigore solo in Scozia, che non fa parte però dell’Unione Europea. In Irlanda del Nord le cerimonie religiose sono autorizzate sia dal governo britannico centrale sia da quello locale, ma le principali denominazione cristiane hanno deciso autonomamente di tenere le chiese chiuse almeno fino al 5 marzo.
In Scozia il divieto del culto pubblico è finito nel mirino di don Tom White, decano dell’East St Alphonsus Church di Glasgow, che ha inviato una lettera di diffida al governo locale: «Parlo a nome di tanti nella chiesa quando dico che è molto importante mantenere le persone al sicuro durante la pandemia», ha affermato il sacerdote. «Ma questo può e deve essere fatto mentre si consente alle persone di soddisfare il desiderio di avvicinarsi a Dio e di celebrare in chiesa dentro una comunità. Con le misure di sicurezza appropriate si possono ottenere entrambi gli obiettivi, come avviene in Inghilterra, in Irlanda del Nord e nel Galles».
Pro-euthanasia advocates in Ireland, as elsewhere, insist that properly drawn legislation permitting assisted suicide and euthanasia will ensure that such a law will never be abused. Numerous safeguards, they assure us, can be put in place. A new academic study from Belgium very much indicates the opposite is the case.
The three authors, who are based at the University of Ghent, are not against euthanasia in principle but they admit that “several legal requirements that are intended to operate as safeguards and procedural guarantees in reality often fail to operate as such. We believe this is ethically and legally problematic and should be of concern to everyone, regardless of their stance on the ethical justifiability of euthanasia in general.” (p. 82)
Euthanasia was introduced in Belgium in 2002. Initially it was offered only to adult patients with a medical condition without prospect of improvement. Later, the law was amended to allow euthanasia for minors but, with time, its interpretation and application has become more and more liberal. And while the number of cases continuously rise, it now includes psychiatric conditions or simply being “tired of life”.
When the law was first introduced in 2002, 24 cases of euthanasia were performed. By 2019 this had risen to 2,655.
What has happened in Belgium is typical.
The authors of the Belgian study found shortcomings in the legislation, in its application and in the monitoring of the practice. With regard to the legislation, they claim that the scope of the law “has been stretched from being used for serious and incurable illnesses to being used to cover tiredness of life.”
For instance, it is required that the patient experiences “constant and unbearable physical or psychological suffering that cannot be alleviated”. But the interpretation of this requirement is problematic as it is not clear “whether the incurability criterion refers to the mere existence of possibly effective treatments or to the existence of possible effective treatments acceptable to the patient.” (p. 87). What happens if the suffering cannot alleviated precisely because the patient refuses a treatment that is otherwise available?
The standards are completely subjective as only the patient can determine what suffering is unbearable or not. This changes and alters the role of doctors, who are “reduced to merely meeting patients’ demands”. (p. 87)
The study refers to empirical evidence and reports that in Belgium “euthanasia is performed increasingly frequently in cases of psychological suffering” (p. 87) Also, the Monitoring Commission admitted that cases of “tiredness of life” have been reported.
The opinion of a second physician, beside the one who kills the patient, is required by the law but it is nonbinding. If legal criteria are not met, the physician has no legal means to report this or to prevent the euthanasia from occurring. This makes the second opinion totally irrelevant.
“The obligatory consultation of one or two independent physicians may fail to provide a real safeguard. Their tasks are quite limited, and, more importantly, their advice is not binding anyway. The final authority to perform euthanasia lies with the attending physician who can perform it even against the (negative) advice of the consulted physicians”, the study says (p. 102).
The Belgian law also established a Monitoring Commission with the task of checking reports on euthanasia cases and, if the legal criteria are not met, it must refer the case to the Public Prosecutor. This has happened only once since the law entered into force in 2002.
The study found that “the Commission is unable to check the fulfillment of various legal criteria, and it has substantial authority to (re)interpret the Euthanasia Law as it sees fit.” (p. 102)
Its functioning is undermined by the underreporting of the euthanasia cases. Recent research suggests that one third of cases are not reported. Moreover, the advice of the second consultant does not have to be included, making the report “overly concise”, according to the article.
“Several commentators have observed that the Commission does not seem to act as a filter between physicians who perform euthanasia and the Public Prosecutor, but instead as a shield that prevents potentially problematic cases from being referred”, the study claims.
For instance, a member of the Commission resigned in September 2017 after a case involving a patient suffering from advanced dementia and Parkinson disease was not reported to the Public Prosecution. Not a single criteria was met and euthanasia had not even been requested by the patient.
Other cases where the legal criteria were not met emerged through the years. (Here is an example)
The authors of the study note: “Our concern is that the Commission’s current level of discretion in assessing the legitimacy of euthanasia cases in practice leaves it with considerable powers that would normally be the prerogative of the legislature or the judiciary.” (p. 101)
This academic article confirms what the anti-euthanasia campaigners have always claimed: initial safeguards are removed with time, through a change in the legislation but also through more liberal interpretations of the law by courts, medical committees or monitoring commissions.
“Several of these shortcomings are structural and thus require more than simply increased oversight”, conclude the authors of the study.
The Belgian examples shows that once euthanasia is introduced, it becomes almost impossible to limit its scope or to avoid abuses.