WASHINGTON (CNS) – Prominent leaders of the religious freedom movement introduced an organization they say will work to defend religious liberty and support political candidates at all levels of government who back the free practice of religion. Charging that religious practice is increasingly threatened by legal maneuvering and public actions that seek to limit the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious rights, speakers during an online launch of the organization Jan. 18 called on Americans to join the effort. Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, said the new organization will be known as the National Committee for Religious Freedom. It is being established as a separate nonprofit organization under the institute. “If religious freedom is diminished and damaged in America, our beloved country will be grievously harmed, but so too will the rest of the world,” Farr said during the launch event. “Our nation has built a system of religious freedom that, while never perfect, is unparalleled in the history of mankind. It stands as a guiding light for a world sorely in need of religious freedom.” The committee’s early efforts will focus on forming chapters in all 50 states. Supporters are asked to sign a pledge committing to protect religious freedom. The pledge is on the committee website at

Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful from the balcony of his summer residence on the day of his resignation in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, in this Feb. 28, 2013, file photo. A German law firm’s report on how abuse cases were handled in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising incriminated retired Pope Benedict, with lawyers accusing him of misconduct in four cases during his tenure as Munich archbishop. The pope denied wrongdoing in all cases, according to the firm. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – In the wake of a massive underwater volcanic eruption in Tonga, subsequent tsunamis and now contamination from volcanic ash and saltwater, Pope Francis has appealed for prayers for the people of the region. “My thoughts go to the people of the islands of Tonga, struck in recent days by the eruption of the underwater volcano, which caused enormous material damage. I am spiritually close to all the people suffering, imploring God for the relief of their suffering,” the pope said at the end of his general audience talk in the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall Jan. 19. “I invite everyone to join me in praying for these brothers and sisters,” he said. The massive eruption Jan. 15 triggered a series of tsunamis that inundated coastal communities, destroying homes, contaminating water supplies and cutting off power and communications. Mounds of ash, which continued to fall from the volcano days after the blast, were also contaminating water sources and hampering efforts to bring in outside aid and rescue teams. However, there are concerns that bringing in aid from outside the region and distributing relief might spread the virus that causes COVID-19: Tonga recorded its first case in October. At least three people have been reported dead in the Tonga region and two in Peru from tsunamis triggered by the eruption.

MUNICH, Germany (CNS) – A law firm’s report on how abuse cases were handled in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising incriminated retired Pope Benedict XVI, with lawyers accusing him of misconduct in four cases during his tenure as Munich archbishop. Lawyer Martin Pusch of the law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl said the retired pope had denied wrongdoing in all cases, reported the German Catholic news agency KNA. Pusch expressed doubt about Pope Benedict’s claim of ignorance in some cases, saying this was, at times, “hardly reconcilable” with the files. At the Vatican, Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, said, “The Holy See believes it has an obligation to give serious attention to the document” on cases of abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, but it has not yet had a chance to study it. “In the coming days, following its publication, the Holy See will review it and will be able to properly examine its details. Reiterating its sense of shame and remorse for the abuse of minors committed by clerics, the Holy See assures its closeness to all victims and confirms the path taken to protect the youngest, ensuring safe environments for them,” Bruni said. Retired Pope Benedict headed the Munich Archdiocese from 1977 to 1982, before being called to the Vatican to head the doctrinal congregation.

DUBLIN (CNS) – The Irish government has added a new public holiday to the national calendar to honor the country’s female patron, St. Brigid of Kildare. The fifth-century abbess – who is one of the country’s three patron saints along with St. Patrick and St. Columba – founded several monasteries of nuns. Her Feb. 1 feast day will become the new holiday; many Irish people mark that date as the traditional first day of spring. Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare and Leighlin, where St. Brigid founded her largest monastic settlement, had backed calls for the female saint to be honored on the civil calendar. The new holiday, on which all public offices will close, will be in addition to St. Patrick’s Day, which falls on March 17 and is also a public holiday. This year, St. Patrick’s Day will have an extra holiday March 18 as a special “thank you” to front-line health care workers for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.