There was a lovely reception last night at the home of Amb. Callista Gingrich for members of the U.S. delegation to the International Catholic Legislators Network (ICLN) meeting underway in Rome. I was blessed to have had some wonderful conversations with Nebraska congressman Jeff Fortenberry and former Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, now U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. Both spoke briefly – Fortenberry on human dignity and Brownback on religious freedom – after remarks by Callista Gingrich. (see below for a Vatican media interview with Fortenberry)

I was thrilled to meet Mother Olga Yaqob, foundress of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth. This diminutive Iraqi nun is a powerhouse and just a few seconds with her makes you think of another diminutive nun, now a saint, Teresa of Calcutta.

I told her I had been to Iraq twice and she asked where. I said Erbil and Kirkuk and all the dioceses of Kurdistan. Her eyes shone with happiness when I mentioned Kirkuk as she was born there. We had some friends and experiences in common and had a delightful conversation. Conversations are always brief at such events but Mother Olga is definitely on my list of people with whom I intend to spend some quality time.

Want to read her great story? https://aleteia.org/2016/07/07/iraqi-nun-who-lived-through-four-wars-tries-to-bring-healing-to-boston/a

I was so engrossed in the guests that I never thought (unusual for me) of taking any photos!

However, at one point I saw a familiar face – Sean Spicer (former White House press secretary) and his family as they posed for photos with the Gingriches. I told Callista afterwards I’d love to have a photo with him and she called over, “Sean, Joan Lewis of EWTN would love to have a photo with you.” And he replied, very enthusiastically I might add, “I LOVE EWTN – watch it all the time! Let’s do a photo!”


Pope Francis met with the International Catholic Legislators Network (ICLN) during their 9th annual conference, telling them that their position as Christian’s with authoritative roles is to spread laws based on the teachings of the Church in order to aid Christians and other religious minorities who are being persecuted worldwide.
By Francesca Merlo (Vatican media)

During the 9th annual International Catholic Legislators Network (ICLN) meeting, the Holy Father stated that the theme of religious freedom and conscience, which has been placed at the centre of reflections during this year’s ICLN meeting, is “fundamental and current”.

Fighting fundamentalist regimes
Pope Francis reminded the members of the ICLN of one of the Second Vatican Council’s most important documents, published on the 7th of December 1965: The Declaration Dignitatis humanae, which is still relevant today. The Pope said that at the time the Conciliar Fathers discussed the worry that arose surrounding the regimes that made an effort to force citizens from practicing their religion and make life difficult and dangerous for religious communitie despite freedom of religion being recognised in their constitutions.

The Holy Father then spoke about how Dignitatis humanae can be applied to religious persecution nowadays – stating that, sadly, this phenomenon still persists in some countries. The situation has in fact worsened for Christians and other religious minorities who are based in regions affected by fundamentalism, he said.

Fundamentalism cannot beat fundamentalism
Pope Francis stressed the danger in fighting fundamentalism and intolerance with as much fundamentalism and intolerance. He stated that religious freedom today must “consciously deal with two, equally menacing, opposing ideologies: secular relativism and religious radicalism – in reality pseudo-religious radicalism”.

Not a hero but a testimony
Pope Francis told the members of ICLN that, though they all play different roles within their respective countries, what they have in common is the good will to serve the Kingdom of God through an honest political commitment: Far from feeling or appearing as a hero or a victim, the Christian politician is called upon, first and foremost, like every baptised person, to try to be a witness – through humility and courage – and to propose consistent laws based on the Christian view of humanity and society, always seeking collaboration with all those who share these views”

Hope for religious freedom
The International Catholic Legislators Network (ICLN) is an association of legislators, government representatives, experts and civil and political authorities. Their annual meeting includes an audience with the Holy Father in order to nurture their formation and education. They meet with the aim of reaching and spreading a unified vision of proposed themes, based on the Church’s teachings, in accordance with their roles as individuals in governments and and other institutions within their countries.

This year marks the 9th annual meeting of the ICLN, under the title “The ICLN Religious Freedom Summit”. This theme is dedicated to reflecting upon the attention that the Church has placed over the last few years on persecuted Christians worldwide and to developing future initiatives in a situation in which, “there is hope”, according to the President of ICLN, Prof. Dr. Christiaan Alting von Geusau.


Jeff Fortenberry, US Congressman from Nebraska and member of the International Catholic Legislators Network, spoke with Vatican News about the relevance of Pope Francis’ message regarding religious freedom.
By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp

Pope Francis on Wednesday met the International Catholic Legislators Network (ICLN) who are gathered in Rome for their ninth annual meeting. Jeff Fortenberry, a member of ICLN and a member of the US House of Representatives from the state of Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District, was present at the papal audience. He spoke with Vatican News afterward regarding the Pope’s message, the US involvement in reconstructing Christian communities in Iraq, and the importance of religious freedom in the world.

Meeting with Pope Francis
Mr Fortenberry said the audience with Pope Francis was more intimate than usual because they met in a small room and the Pope was sitting near them. “He was funny, and human”, he said, and even joked with them a bit, apologizing for meeting with them at “breakfast time”. Mr Fortenberry feels that Pope Francis wanted to convey to them, “this idea of this relativistic movement, this tsunami of secularism confronting the world, and the opposite pole being a religious radicalism…both of which are twisted and inconsistent with the good of all human persons”.

Mr Fortenberry was impressed being in the Vatican and with Pope Francis, but even more so being with “legislators from all over the world, many from Africa”. He said that they are in Rome to discuss issues that “ought to bind all of humanity, namely, human dignity, conscience, religious freedom, the assault…of secular relativism, and the assault of twisted religious ideology which manifested itself in the most horrific terms…in ISIS”.

Iraq: ancient religious tapestry
Having recently traveled to northern Iraq at the request of US Vice President Mike Pence, Mr Fortenberry witnessed first-hand how US aid in that area is helping to reconstruct what he calls “the ancient area of religious tapestry” and “a mosaic of religious pluralism” that once existed there where persons of various religions lived together. He also met some Christians who have returned to Iraq, including a priest, who had studied in Rome, and 20 young people. Yet, there are still 400,000 Yazidis living in “internally displaced” camps, and 3,500 Yazidi women who “are still held in slavery by Isis”.

Ray of Hope
The ray of hope that Mr Fortenberry sees is that people are beginning to return to their homes. Christian communities are beginning to be rebuilt, some with the help of the Knights of Columbus and aid from the US. In order to prevent another ISIS genocide from occurring again, he said that “a new type of security footprint” is needed, “that would integrate local, indigenous people – Christians and Yazidis” – into protective structures. If this can happen, the Congressman foresees that “the ancient tapestry of religious pluralism” will be restored.

Unifying idea is human dignity
Religious freedom, Mr Fortenberry said, taken for granted in the West, is “under such grave assault, particularly there, by people who will kill in the name of a dark theology, and people who will also die in the name of their Savior”.

He also sees a “deep hunger” on the part of countries throughout the world to acknowledge religious freedom: If we believe that all of humanity is united because we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that we all share similar desires – our own well-being, the protection of our children, the ability to advance a bit, to have a safe space for the exercise of good choice, our conscience whose ultimate manifestation is religious freedom – this not only appeals to the Catholic world but it appeals to all of humanity.”

In a world screaming for meaning, “this is the answer”, he emphasized. The unifying idea is human dignity “and its ability to express itself in conscience, and religious freedom, oriented toward what is noble and higher and good”.

Role of a Catholic legislator
Congressman Fortenberry understands his role as a Catholic legislator to be that of “light and salt”, “to invite people to the proposition of what is good, noble, and higher in the midst of real difficulty.” He takes Pope Francis’ final words, “be encouraged”, back home where that task awaits him.