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Explosion kills 68 Armenian refugees as thousands flee Nagorno-Karabakh

Refugees wait next to a line of vehicles near the border town of Kornidzor, Armenia, arriving from Nagorno-Karabakh, on Sept. 26, 2023. / Credit: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 26, 2023 / 18:30 pm (CNA).

As thousands of ethnic Armenians flee the Nagorno-Karabakh region following a violent takeover by Azerbaijan, a fuel depot exploded Monday night killing at least 68 refugees and injuring hundreds.

Officials representing the people of Nagorno-Karabakh confirmed the casualties in a Facebook statement, adding that the fate of 105 Nagorno-Karabakh refugees is still unknown.

The explosion occurred just off a highway leading away from Stepanakert, where tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians have taken to the road to flee to Armenia proper. 

Local news source the Nagorno Karabakh Observer reported the explosion blew up a 50-ton underground fuel tank. 

Following a short but intense military offensive by Azerbaijan on Sept. 19, ethnic Armenians, who until last week claimed self-sovereignty under the auspices of the Republic of Artsakh, are in a panic to escape Azeri rule. 

The Azeri assault, which they labeled “antiterror measures,” came after a nine-month blockade that cut off all outside food, medicine, and supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Though the Azeri president Ilham Aliyev has said he wishes to integrate the ethnic Armenians, human rights experts have warned he intends to ethnically cleanse the region. Some advocates, such as Eric Hacopian, who has been on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, accused the Azeris of pursuing “genocide” against the Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Since last week a mass exodus of ethnic Armenians fleeing their ancestral homeland in Nagorno-Karabakh has begun.

Hacopian said that he expects “95% to 99%” of the 120,000 ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to flee the region.

The Armenian government reported on Tuesday that already 28,120 “forcibly displaced persons” from Nagorno-Karabakh have crossed into Armenia.

Footage published by the Nagorno Karabakh Observer on Tuesday showed what appears to be a miles-long line of cars attempting to escape the region for Armenia.

“The normal travel time of two hours [is] now taking 20 or more,” the Nagorno Karabakh Observer reported Tuesday, adding that “kids [are] the hardest hit, with little food after months of blockade.”

According to the Nagorno Karabakh Observer, “cars are literally halted, as vehicles [are] checked one-by-one by Azeri officials.”

White House responds 

Adrienne Watson, a White House National Security Council spokesperson, responded to the explosion in a Tuesday statement. 

“We are saddened by the news that at least 68 people have been killed and hundreds injured in an explosion at a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh and express deep sympathy to the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and to all of those suffering,” Watson said. “We urge continued humanitarian access to Nagorno-Karabakh for all those in need.” 

Watson pointed out that Samantha Power, chief administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is currently on the ground in Armenia and announced the U.S. would be sending “additional humanitarian assistance,” including hygiene kits, blankets, and clothing, “to address the needs of those affected or displaced by violence in Nagorno-Karabakh.” 

“Since 2020, we have supported the provision of food, water, emergency medical care, and evacuations, and family reunifications for conflict-affected communities in Nagorno-Karabakh and the region,” Watson went on. “The United States will continue to support those affected by the ongoing crisis as 28,000 people have crossed into Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh.”

What is going on? 

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

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

After the Azeri assault last week, the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh agreed on Sept. 20 to a cease-fire that resulted in the dismantling of their military and self-governance.

Some experts believe that Armenia itself is in danger of invasion by Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey in the near future. 

Hacopian said he believes an invasion of Armenia is “quite likely.” 

Lone Michigan Democrat holds up ‘extreme’ pro-abortion bill

Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Michigan, speaks at a meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 2020. / Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

CNA Staff, Sep 26, 2023 / 17:45 pm (CNA).

A Democratic state representative in Michigan, Karen Whitsett, has said she will not support a slate of pro-abortion bills being pushed by governor and fellow Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, citing her constituents’ wishes and her own support for the state’s 24-hour abortion waiting period. 

Whitsett, who explained to CNA she was a survivor of rape who had an abortion, said she supports the idea of a waiting period for abortions to ensure that women are not being forced to abort their children. 

“I don’t see anything wrong with being asked if you are being coerced into a termination,” she said, explaining why she plans to vote against that provision. 

Since her announcement that she would not support the abortion bills, a coalition of pro-abortion groups have launched a campaign criticizing Whitsett, led by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, a group that characterized Whitsett’s stance a “betrayal.”

Currently in Michigan, abortion is available up until birth, with a waiting period. In November 2022, Michiganders voted to explicitly make abortion a “right” in their state constitution.

A package of 11 bills collectively dubbed the “Reproductive Health Act,” House Bills 4949-59, would put into state law the constitutional language enshrining abortion access and repeal several regulations lawmakers say are in conflict with that access, the Detroit News reported. 

Among the regulations being repealed is the state’s abortion waiting period, a prohibition on partial-birth abortions, a requirement that women seeking an abortion be screened to determine whether they have been coerced to do so, and state requirements to dispose of fetal remains safely and humanely.

Another provision in the bills would repeal Michigan building code regulations that require clinics providing more than 120 surgical abortions a year to be licensed as freestanding surgical outpatient facilities, with mandates related to hallway widths, ceiling heights, and HVAC standards, the Detroit News said. 

The bill package would also require Medicaid to cover abortions for Medicaid recipients. Michigan law currently prohibits the use of Medicaid funding for elective abortions — only covering those related to rape, incest, or the life of the mother — and mandate that private health plans require a rider with an added premium for abortion coverage. 

Whitsett told CNA that although she considers herself pro-choice, she has heard from many of her constituents in Detroit that they do not support the use of Medicaid funds to pay for abortions, and that she intends to continue “voting the way of the people who elected me.” 

Whitsett said the negotiations related to the abortion bills have “gone 100 miles an hour” and reiterated that although she is a supporter of abortion, “What we’re currently voting on, I have a problem with.” The divided nature of the Michigan House means all 56 Democrats are required to vote in lockstep to approve controversial legislation, unless any Republicans cross the aisle.

The Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC), which advocates for policy in the state, called Whitsett’s refusal to advance the bills a “[sign] of hope that movement on the RHA is slowing down.” 

“The bills that emerged from committee are likely the most extreme policies passed in the recent history of the Legislature due to their blatant prioritization of the abortion industry over women’s health and safety,” said Rebecca Mastee, policy advocate for the MCC, in a recent statement.

“The Reproductive Health Act would advance an unregulated abortion environment in Michigan, prioritizing the financial, political, and business interests of the abortion industry over the health and safety of women in this state.” 

Whitsett said that as of Monday afternoon, her Democratic colleagues in the House have not contacted her seeking her views on the bills.

“To be attacked because I’m not a rubber stamp for the Democratic Party makes zero sense to me,” she told CNA. 

At least 17 other states already allow the use of Medicaid funds to pay for elective abortions, despite a federal policy known as the Hyde Amendment prohibiting the use of federal tax dollars to pay for elective abortions. Hyde does not restrict states’ ability to use state tax dollars to pay for abortion, meaning states that want to pay for abortions through their Medicaid program can do so out of their own coffers and not be reimbursed by the federal government.

An analysis by the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency found that the proposed Medicaid provision would increase Michigan’s Medicaid costs by $2 million to $6 million, as “a greater percentage of abortions in this state would be paid for with state funds, rather than nonstate resources.”

Cardinal Dolan says Biden ‘doesn’t take my calls’ on migrant crisis in New York City

Cardinal Timothy Dolan. / Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

CNA Staff, Sep 26, 2023 / 16:08 pm (CNA).

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said in an interview that President Joe Biden is ignoring his calls about the “tragic, broken” migrant system in the U.S., which has landed tens of thousands of migrants and refugees in New York City, filling shelters to capacity. 

“He doesn’t take my calls or answer my letters,” the cardinal told the New York Post

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said last week that 60,000 migrants who crossed the southern border are in New York City, while 10,000 more are expected to come each month. Adams’ office said in a press release last week that since the beginning of the crisis, more than 116,000 migrants have been housed in the city. 

In an interview on Sunday, Adams said that if the city doesn’t continue to receive support from the federal government, the outcome for New York City could be “extremely devastating.”

The mayor has been voicing his concerns for the city throughout the overwhelming influx of migrants and said in July: “It’s not going to get any better. From this moment on it’s downhill. There is no more room.”

Commenting on the droves of migrants coming to the city, Dolan told the outlet that “New York just can’t handle them all, we know that.”

“It’s very unfair. This is a New York problem, but it’s not just a New York problem. It is an American problem,” he added.

The cardinal said that he has spoken with New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, “a number of times” and “haven’t gotten too much consolation.”

Dolan, however, praised Adams for his efforts during the crisis. 

“I give Mayor Adams a lot of credit. He tells us where he needs help,” the cardinal said.

“He’s been very good about rallying religious leaders, asking our help to advocate with the federal government, which has done hardly anything, [and] with the state government, which hasn’t done much,” he added.

In June, the mayor announced a partnership with faith-based organizations to house migrants temporarily.

The Archdiocese of New York has designated 10 facilities for housing migrants, the outlet reported.

In addition to working with asylum-seeking migrant families to address their imminent needs, Catholic Charities has provided resources to help with migrant intake and recordkeeping, Dolan said. 

The archdiocese is also providing legal assistance, schooling, and health to the migrants, he added.

“Every day hundreds come in,” Dolan said. “We look them in the eyes, get their names, and we love them and we say, ‘You’re part of us now. You’re not a number.'” 

He said, however, that the archdiocese is overwhelmed with cases.

“Like everybody else, we’re squashed,” he said. “But we can’t give up.”

Parishes such as St. Teresa Church and the Church of the Ascension are providing food, clothing, and school supplies, the Post reported. 

Dolan said that priests are at those churches ministering to the people, but the current immigration system is “terribly wrecked” and in need of reform.

“The Church has always been very supportive of the right of a nation to have borders and border security … we don’t just want borders where anybody can come in,” he said. 

Dolan said the Church has a “high obligation” to care for migrants coming in.

“For us, it’s not so much about politics and policy … we have to leave that to others,” he said. “Our sacred responsibility is to help them. We hate to see these people suffer.”

Dolan could not be reached for comment by Tuesday. 

Adams has estimated that taking care of migrants could cost the city $12 billion over three fiscal years.

Last week, the Biden administration approved temporary legal status for large groups of Venezuelan and Afghan migrants, which will allow them to begin working in the United States.

Adams thanked the Biden administration for the move but said the status of many migrants within the city remains to be addressed.

“You know, but we want to be clear: We cannot spike the ball, because this is not going to deal with all of the migrants and asylum seekers who are in this city. We have about 60,000 in our care, 10,000 a month, and many of those new arrivals won’t be able to apply for the TPS [temporary protected status] and for the other benefits of this initiative,” Adams said in his Sunday interview on WABC’s “Up Close With Bill Ritter.”

Family who fled Germany to home-school their kids faces deportation from the U.S.

The Romeike family fled from Germany in order to home-school their children and now faces deportation from the U.S. / Credit: The Romeike Family

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 26, 2023 / 15:20 pm (CNA).

A German family that has lived in the United States for more than a decade after leaving their home country in order to legally home-school their children faces possible deportation next month, their supporters said.

The Romeikes — father Uwe, mother Hannelore, and their then-five children — fled Germany in 2009 over the country’s severe compulsory education laws, which effectively outlaw home schooling and require all children to attend school outside the home.

The evangelical Christian family has had two more children since arriving in the U.S. and made their home in Tennessee. The couple initially sought asylum from the federal government, claiming religious persecution from German authorities. 

They were eventually granted indefinitely deferred action status by the Obama administration, allowing them to reside in the U.S. for more than a decade. 

The Home School Legal Defense Association — a pro-home schooling nonprofit that has advocated the Romeikes’ case over the years — said in a release last week that during a recent “routine check-in” with immigration officials they were “told … that they had four weeks to secure passports and return to Germany.” 

“The news came without warning, and with no apparent cause or explanation,” HSLDA said. 

Kevin Boden, an attorney with HSLDA and the director of HSLDA International, told CNA that it is unclear what may or may not occur at next month’s meeting. 

“They were basically given four weeks to come back,” Boden said. “They have a report date in October. They don’t know what is going to happen in that meeting. They don’t know if they’re going to be forced to leave. They don’t know if they’re going to be taken into custody.” 

“‘Come back in four weeks and bring your passports,’” Boden added. “That combination is a little bit scary.”

The attorney said HSLDA is continuing to work with the family. The nonprofit group had originally helped litigate the family’s unsuccessful asylum attempt all the way to the Supreme Court; the court ultimately turned down the family’s appeal without hearing it. HSLDA is now pursuing a variety of options to secure the family’s continued status in the U.S. 

“We’re working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through those legal channels,” Boden said. “We’re pursuing a petition to the White House, to the Biden administration.” 

The group is also asking supporters to reach out to their congressional representatives to urge support for a bill from Tennessee Rep. Diana Harshbarger that would allow the family to claim permanent resident status. 

“Those things would provide some impetus for the Romeikes to stay in the country, or at least give them a little bit of time,” he said. 

The Romeikes did not respond to a request for comment. Reached via email, a spokesman for the Biden Department of Justice responded: “We respectfully decline to comment.” ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

The two eldest Romeike children have since married U.S. citizens; their eldest daughter, Lydia, has one child with her American husband. The family’s two youngest daughters, meanwhile, are U.S. citizens by birth. 

Once a rare practice controlled heavily by state regulation, home schooling in the U.S. has expanded in recent decades due to the efforts of groups like the HSLDA. 

It is legal in every state, with HSLDA listing the majority of states as having only “low” or “moderate” home school regulation. 

Home schooling in Europe is much more tightly regulated. Many countries there outlaw it entirely, with others allowing it but only under strict guidelines.

New book explores J.R.R. Tolkien’s faith and how it imbued his work

The cover of “Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography” by Holly Ordway. / Credit: Word on Fire

CNA Staff, Sep 26, 2023 / 14:50 pm (CNA).

Most people are likely aware — at least vaguely — that J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” was Catholic. 

Fewer, perhaps, know how seriously he took his faith, in a time and place where being Catholic carried serious negative societal consequences. 

A new book from Word on Fire — “Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography” — explores the renowned fantasy author’s Catholic faith and how it influenced his stories, delving primarily into Tolkien’s own writings and interviews as well as the testimonies of those who knew him best. 

Holly Ordway, the book’s author, told CNA that she sought to create a book that is inviting and accessible to non-Catholics. The book itself seeks to explain the Catholic faith that Tolkien had, she said, but in an objective way, not in a way that the reader — who is perhaps a Tolkien fan, but has no understanding of Catholicism — is “hit over the head with a heavy-handed Christian message.”

“I was one of those readers, because I am myself a convert. I first read ‘Lord of the Rings’ as a non-Christian and loved it,” Ordway told CNA. 

“I’ve aimed to help readers understand Tolkien’s faith on his own terms, neither praising or criticizing it.”

Holly Ordway. Credit: Devin Dailey
Holly Ordway. Credit: Devin Dailey

Today, Ordway is the Cardinal Francis George professor of faith and culture at the Word on Fire Institute and visiting professor of apologetics at Houston Christian University. She said she was inspired, in part, to undertake the book to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Tolkien’s death on Sept. 2, 2023, but also because she had come to realize that a book solely dedicated to Tolkien’s faith had yet to be written. Humphrey Carpenter’s official biography mentions his faith, she said, but only as relates to the faith of his mother; other biographical media, such as a 2019 biopic, barely mention his faith at all. 

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, born in 1892, was baptized an Anglican in South Africa, where his family lived before he; his mother, Mabel; and his brother, Hillary, moved to Birmingham, England. 

Tolkien’s father died suddenly while still in South Africa, leaving Mabel to raise the two boys alone. During this time, Mabel converted to Catholicism. Tolkien made the choice to follow his mother into her new faith, receiving the sacraments of holy Communion and Confirmation at the age of 12. 

It’s hard to overstate how consequential Mabel and John’s conversions were. Mabel’s family cut off all financial and emotional support permanently, leaving the family destitute. Tolkien later described Mabel, who died in 1904 when she was only 34 and he was 12, as a “martyr.” 

Ordway found that it was far from a foregone conclusion that Tolkien would retain the faith he embraced as a child. The familial and societal challenges that presented themselves were bad enough, not to mention Tolkien’s horrific experiences in the trenches of World War I, which challenged his faith and shaped his worldview immensely.

J.R.R. Tolkien. Public domain
J.R.R. Tolkien. Public domain

Additionally, Ordway said her extensive research for the book included a look at the anti-Catholic climate of the time in order to accurately paint a picture of just how consequential Tolkien’s conversion was.

“Recognizing exactly how anti-Catholic English culture was when he was growing up makes it all the more remarkable that he was incredibly generous-spirited towards other traditions,” she commented. 

Father Francis Morgan, a priest of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London, would later take on a major role in Tolkien’s life as a substitute father figure. Tolkien wrote proudly of his Catholic faith, including his love for the Eucharist, and was strengthened in his Christian convictions by his friendship with C.S. Lewis, a highly renowned Christian author in his own right.

Tolkien is very clear in his writings that “The Lord of the Rings” is not a Christian allegory, contrasting the “Narnia” books by his friend Lewis. He nevertheless described “The Lord of the Rings” as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”

Ordway said it is clear that Tolkien’s Catholic worldview is infused in his stories. 

“There are Marian figures, there are Christ-like figures … what he’s imbuing into the story is the fundamentally religious element. I think he chose that word carefully … fundamentally at the fundamentals, at the roots. So things like his understanding of good and evil, and he has a very clearly Catholic understanding of that,” Ordway said. 

“He says, ‘I don’t believe in absolute evil, but I do believe in absolute good.’ So he’s explicitly rejecting a dualistic view of the world and he’s affirming the fundamental Catholic view. God does not have an ontologically equivalent opposite. God is the supreme, and evil is parasitic.”

Tolkien also prizes in his books the virtues of pity and mercy, which are “fundamentally Christian concepts,” Ordway said. “The Lord of the Rings” also strongly proffers the idea that suffering — while real and painful — can also be redemptive. 

“I think that is a message that is profoundly Christian, profoundly Catholic, and profoundly meaningful. It speaks to people even if they don’t know that it has any connection to the Christian faith,” Ordway said.

“Even if you don’t recognize the fact that these elements are Christian, I think people are still responding to the reality of it. They’re still experiencing the beauty of goodness and the sordidness of evil and wanting goodness to prevail. And that’s a big deal in today’s world, to recognize something as fundamental as the reality of goodness,” she continued. 

“By the time someone who’s not a Christian, by the time they get to the end of [my] book, first of all, they will know a lot more about Christianity and Catholicism than they did before … they’ll see that whatever Tolkien believed, it wasn’t simple or trivial or foolish. It was something substantial. It meant a lot to him. And that opens the door for them to say, ‘Maybe I should look into this some more.’”

New Catholic clinic in Detroit to provide women, families with care for the ‘whole person’

Dr. Thomas Meyer will be serving as the OB-GYN for the Heart of Christ Medical Clinic and Dr. Lisa Knysz will be the clinic's director. The clinic hopes to open in Detroit in October 2023. / Credit: Heart of Christ Medical Clinic

CNA Staff, Sep 26, 2023 / 09:00 am (CNA).

A new clinic focused on providing women with authentic, Catholic care will soon be opening its doors in Detroit. The Heart of Christ Medical Clinic will serve pregnant mothers, individuals, and families of all socioeconomic backgrounds, insured or uninsured, with high-quality care for the whole person — physical, emotional, and spiritual.

The clinic will be located on the grounds of the historic Basilica of Ste. Anne de Detroit. Family and women’s health care will be provided, including prenatal and postnatal care. The clinic will include a chapel where patients can pray and receive the sacraments. 

The Christ Medicus Foundation, the Knights of Columbus, the Order of Malta, and other nonprofit, faith-based organizations will be hosting the first annual Heart of Christ Fundraising Gala on Sept. 28 to support the Heart of Christ Medical Clinic. Organizers hope the clinic may begin to open its doors as early as October. 

Dr. Lisa Knysz, who will serve as the clinic’s director, and Monsignor Charles Kosanke, rector of the Basilica of St. Anne de Detroit, spoke with CNA about the new clinic and what they hope it will offer the community.

“When an individual comes in, we’re not just looking at their physical condition or their physical symptoms — yes, we, by all means, are going to address those needs, we’re going to treat those needs — but, we’re looking at them with a spiritual lens, an emotional lens, and a physical lens,” Knysz said.

She added: “That whole essence of the person can be cared for and not just them, but their families, their extended families, their partners, their spouses, their children so that the healing love of Christ can be wrapped around any individual that walks in.”

After conducting a needs assessment, Knysz found that in the geographic region in which the clinic will be located about 40% of the population has Medicaid. Additionally, she explained that Detroit does not have many grocery stores. Many are on food stamps, use food pantries, or WIC, a federally-funded supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children.

She said these “social determinants of health” will not matter as each patient who walks in the door will be treated with “dignity and respect.”

Kosanke emphasized the important role the clinic will play in caring for mothers who find themselves in crisis pregnancies and are unsure whether to keep the baby or not. He explained that the clinic has partnered with Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan to provide counseling as well as adoption services.

He added that their goal is to have a Heart of Christ Medical Clinic in each of the seven dioceses in Michigan.

“Michigan became a pro-abortion state, which was disappointing to us, but you can’t let the disappointment paralyze you,” he said. “Instead, you have to respond in a positive way to give women and families the assistance they need to make pro-life choices.”

For Kosanke, one of the most critical tools that help women choose life is the ultrasound machine, which the Knights of Columbus has generously donated to the clinic. 

“Studies have shown it has been very effective because once someone sees a fetus on the screen, it’s no longer an abstract concept or an organ. It’s a life, which is the truth,” he shared. “So, confronted with that truth, most of the time … once a woman realizes what she’s really doing, she does not go through with it.”

Knysz added that abortion pill reversal will also be available at the clinic for those women who may have started the abortion procedure but have changed their minds. 

She emphasized the clinic’s goal to support women physically, emotionally, and spiritually in all stages — whether they are looking to place their baby for adoption, reverse an abortion, or are simply in need of prenatal care — “so that they’re not left thinking we only care about their baby, we don’t care about them.”

Knysz shared that this will be her first time working for a faith-based clinic. While she has always been vocal about her faith, she has spent her career in secular organizations. During her time at her previous workplace, two experiences led her to make the decision to leave.

On the day Roe v. Wade was overturned, she was greeted at her clinic by all of the providers holding poster boards preparing to protest. 

On another occasion, as she walked past an exam room, she heard a patient ask the provider if they would pray with her. The provider responded, “I don’t do that,” and walked out. 

“I was seething,” Knysz said. “I’m thinking, ‘Okay, take a deep breath because this is not going to serve you to be angry at the provider.”

She heard the young woman crying in the exam room so she entered, introduced herself, and asked if there was anything she could do to help.

“I said, ‘I overheard you ask the nurse practitioner to pray with you and if it’s OK with you I would be honored to say a prayer with you if you would still like that,’” she recalled.

The two said a prayer together and after the young woman had checked out, Knysz found out that the patient had been raped and was at the clinic getting tested for HIV, STDs, as well as to get a pregnancy test. 

“Not that it should matter, but when a patient asks you to say a prayer with them — it just literally broke my heart that that was the provider’s response and so that very next day I went to the CEO and I gave my 45-day notice,” she said. 

Knysz considers herself blessed to be a part of the Heart of Christ Medical Clinic, where “we will have the opportunity to build relationships with the individuals that come in to be seen” and “where they’re not a number.” 

North Carolina passes universal school choice

null / Credit: Cherries/Shutterstock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s justice’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should Catholics think about school choice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this happening? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass exodus begins 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armenia in danger 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newsom vetoes bill that would make acceptance of gender identity a factor in custody court

California Gov. Gavin Newsom. / Credit: Matt Gush/Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2023 / 16:54 pm (CNA).

In a break with his party’s legislators, California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have penalized a parent’s custodial claims if he or she does not affirm a child’s self-professed transgender identity.

The Democratic governor vetoed the legislation on Sept. 22 despite the bill passing the state’s lower legislative chamber 61-16 and upper chamber 30-9. It had overwhelming support from Democratic lawmakers but was opposed by Republican legislators.

Per the proposed legislation, courts would have been required to consider “a parent’s affirmation of the child’s gender identity or gender expression” when determining the “health, safety, and welfare of the child.” The court would need to determine this affirmation through “a range of actions,” which would be “unique for each child” but must “promote the child’s overall health and well-being.” 

A parent’s rejection of a child’s self-asserted transgender identity would not disqualify a parent from maintaining custody on its own, under the proposal. However, it would be considered in conjunction with other criteria measuring the child’s “health, safety, and welfare.”

In his veto of the legislation, Newsom said courts are already required to consider a child’s health, safety, and welfare, which he claimed includes “the parent’s affirmation of the child’s gender identity.” The governor urged caution “when the executive and legislative branches of state government attempt to dictate — in prescriptive terms that single out one characteristic — legal standards for the judicial branch to apply.”

Newsom said “other-minded elected officials … could very well use this strategy to diminish the civil rights of vulnerable communities.” Despite his veto, the governor added that he appreciates “the passion and values that led the author to introduce this bill” and said he shared “a deep commitment to advancing the rights of transgender Californians, an effort that has guided my decisions through many decades in public office.”

Sophia Lorey, the outreach coordinator for the California Family Council, encouraged people to “celebrate this victory!” in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. However, she noted that a veto override is still on the table. 

“The legislators can override this veto,” Lorey said. “All they [need] is [two-thirds] of each house to do so.”

More than two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers voted for the legislation. Lawmakers reconvene on Jan. 3, 2024, and have 60 days to override the veto.

About 1,000 Californians rallied at the state capitol in August to protest the legislation and other bills that they feared would take away parental rights. 

One of those bills would allow a minor aged 12 or older to receive transgender medical services without parental consent if a mental health professional “determines that the [parental] involvement would be inappropriate” after consulting with the child. It would also allow a mental health professional to place a minor in a residential shelter if he or she determines the minor is “mature enough to participate intelligently in the outpatient services or residential shelter services.”

This legislation passed both chambers of the California Legislature and was sent to Newsom, but the governor has not yet taken action on the bill. 

State of California sues pro-life pregnancy centers over abortion pill reversal drug

Abortion Pill Reversal seeks to counter the effects of the first progesterone-blocking abortion pill, providing an opportunity to save the unborn child. / Credit: Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 25, 2023 / 13:48 pm (CNA).

California’s pro-abortion attorney general, Rob Bonta, sued five pro-life pregnancy centers Sept. 21 over their promotion of a drug that is meant to reverse chemical abortions.

In his lawsuit against Heartbeat International and affiliated pregnancy center chain RealOptions, Bonta accused the pregnancy centers of using fraudulent and misleading claims when advertising the abortion pill reversal drug.

The state’s lawsuit claims that there is no scientific evidence supporting the safety or efficacy of the abortion pill reversal drug despite the pregnancy centers describing them as an effective and safe way to reverse chemical abortions. It argues that pregnant women must have access to accurate information when deciding whether to use the drug.

“Those who are struggling with the complex decision to get an abortion deserve support and trustworthy guidance — not lies and misinformation,” Bonta said in a statement. 

“HBI and RealOptions took advantage of pregnant patients at a deeply vulnerable time in their lives, using false and misleading claims to lure them in and mislead them about a potentially risky procedure,” Bonta alleged. “We are launching today’s lawsuit to put a stop to their predatory and unlawful behavior.”

The lawsuit accuses the pregnancy centers of violating California’s False Advertising Law and Unfair Competition Law. It asks the court to order the pregnancy centers to stop advertising the drug as safe and effective. 

In response to the attorney general’s lawsuit, Heartbeat International issued a statement rejecting the claim that their advertisements of the drug are false or misleading.

“All major studies show that using progesterone to counteract a chemical abortion (Abortion Pill Reversal) can be effective since it’s the very same hormone a woman’s body produces to sustain her pregnancy,” the statement read. 

“One study even shows an effective rate of 80%,” the statement continued. “Progesterone has been safely used with pregnant women and their babies since the 1950s. To date, statistics show more than 4,500 women have had successful abortion pill reversals and that number grows higher each day.”

According to Heartbeat International, the organization receives calls through its hotline from women who want to reverse their chemical abortions. 

“Through our Abortion Pill Rescue Network hotline, we know that some women almost immediately regret their chemical abortion choice,” the statement read. “These women deserve the right to try and save their pregnancies. No woman should ever be forced to complete an abortion she no longer wants.”

This is not the first time California has tried to impose pro-abortion talking points on pro-life pregnancy centers. In 2018, the United States Supreme Court struck down a state law that forced the centers to display written notices with state-sanctioned language about abortion.

Other states have also gone after pro-life pregnancy centers this year. In Illinois and Vermont, legislation went into effect that is meant to regulate what pregnancy centers can advertise and say. In both cases, pregnancy centers filed lawsuits against the states because of the laws, which are still being litigated.