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'This Sunday, when we kneel, let us draw near to all those dying in the name of our faith,' urged Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz.Lisa Bourne / LifeSiteNews

BALTIMORE, Maryland, November 19, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) – Religious liberty was a recurrent theme at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Fall General Assembly, taking place November 16-19 in the immediate aftermath of last Friday's terror attacks in France.

“You know, our persecuted brothers and sisters really need to know that we stand as one with them,” USCCB President Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz told the bishops in attendance, after his proposed statement on religious persecution was presented at the opening of the assembly.

In the statement, Archbishop Kurtz recalled the 21 Coptic Christians brutally martyred in February of this year.

“Places of worship that have stood for centuries in the very cradle of Christianity are being destroyed. Families are fleeing from beheadings, sexual slavery and even crucifixion,” the archbishop's message said. “In places such as Mosul, Christmas bells that have heralded the birth of our Savior uninterrupted for nearly two thousand years have fallen silent as our brothers and sisters in the faith have been scattered. It is nothing short of genocide.”

His statement also went on to point out that 20 million Catholics will take part in Mass this coming weekend and kneel to receive Communion, essentially minus having to fear persecution for their faith.

“This Sunday, when we kneel, let us draw near to all those dying in the name of our faith. Let us then rise, renewed in our solidarity with the suffering of people of all faiths.”

The statement on religious persecution was to be released by the bishops, with the collect (a common call to pray) from the Mass for Persecuted Christians. It calls on Catholics to pray, witness to the cause of religious persecution, and give financially to support persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

Archbishop Kurtz later referenced religious liberty again in his presidential address, listing “the deadly attacks on fellow Christians and religious minorities throughout the world” and “the narrowing of religious freedom, which threatens both individual conscience and the freedom of the Church to serve” as “heartbreaking crises and challenges in our world.”

In speaking of the bishops' call to be present in the world and conduct ministry, the USCCB president warned of the consequences of the secular world's continued encroachment on the Catholic Church carrying out its charitable mission work in the U.S.

“What a great tragedy it will be if our ministries are slowly secularized or driven out of the public square because of short-sighted laws or regulations that limit our ability to witness and serve consistent with our faith,” he said. “Let us pray we don't lose our presence in the public square to a misguided secularization that reduces faith to the least common denominator and erodes the very richness of belief that impels people of faith to serve unselfishly those most in need.”

In a later session of the assembly, Buffalo Bishop Richard Joseph Malone presented on a proposed pastoral plan on marriage and family for the bishops, in which the subject of religious freedom was raised again.

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“We will also continue to defend the religious freedom and conscience rights of those who are punished for their religious beliefs and moral convictions about marriage, including the human right to conscientious objection,” Bishop Malone told the assembly.

During discussion on development of the marriage and family pastoral plan, Birmingham Bishop Robert Baker made an apparent reference to embattled Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, posing a question about those suffering for certain things they may be required to do, such as judges or civil authorities who could lose their jobs for refusing to participate in ceremonies that violate their religious convictions.

Bishop Baker stressed that the bishops must be strong advocates for such individuals.

“I hope that we as Catholic bishops would not back off of that advocacy for some of our people who have taken stands, who perhaps other religious communities are stepping up to defend, and I know our Holy Father has done that too, but I hope we will not back away from that advocacy as well.”

Bishop Malone responded to Bishop Baker that he was in one hundred percent agreement.

“I think that will become even a more urgent challenge, because the problem in that regard will continue to grow.”

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, gave a presentation to the bishops, saying Pope Francis did not wait long during his recent U.S visit to give the bishops “a word of encouragement” in the area of religious freedom. Archbishop Lori said the pope announced his solidarity with the bishops in his White House speech.

“Later that day, his visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor was intended as a sign of support for their lawsuit against the HHS Mandate according to the Vatican spokesman,” he said.

He then gave highlights of the bishops' upcoming 2016 Fortnight for Freedom, which will recognize witness to religious freedom past and present, including prayers for martyrs of today.

The 50th anniversary of the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, which concerns the Catholic vision of religious freedom, will be on December 7.

In observance of this, the bishops' religious liberty ad hoc committee is releasing a video on the document that was produced in cooperation with the Knights of Columbus and explains how religious freedom is fundamental to the dignity of the human person.

Religious liberty was also part of the bishops' Strategic Plan Priorities for the years 2017-2020, put before a vote on Tuesday.

The priority, titled “Religious freedom: Promote and defend the freedom to serve, witness and worship, in the U.S. and abroad,” had the following emphasis areas:

Defend the Freedom to Live By Our Faith and Have the Courage to Boldly Proclaim Christ in the Public Square; Advocate and Assist the Global Christian Faithful, Who, Without the Guarantee of Religious Liberty, are Suffering Persecution and Martyrdom for Living Their Faith; Proclaim the Teaching of the Church on Religious Freedom; Build a religious Freedom Movement Within and Beyond the Catholic Community.

The bishops' strategic priorities for the 2017-2020, which in addition to religious liberty included evangelization, family and marriage, human life and dignity, and vocations and ongoing formation, were adopted in a 233-to-4 vote.


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