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Staff Photo / The Most Rev. Richard Stika, bishop of Knoxville, speaks at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

A religious event scheduled at the Chattanooga Convention Center for the end of May — billed as the "Congresso Catolico Centinela" — was canceled following pushback from the public and a declaration from the Diocese of Knoxville temporarily barring the three speakers from teaching or otherwise representing the Catholic faith in the diocese.

The controversy played out during the opening days of April around the time the "Catholic Congress" event was announced featuring speakers Rafael Diaz, Fernando Casanova and Luis Roman. The three men collectively have hundreds of thousands of followers on their various social media platforms, from YouTube to Facebook to Telegram, where they comment on current events and offer biblical teaching.

People in the diocese expressed concern about the speakers, specifically with comments they made disparaging Pope Francis, as well as against COVID-19 restrictions and the coronavirus vaccine, said the Rev. J. David Carter, pastor and rector of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Chattanooga.

The three men did not respond to requests for comment from the Chattanooga Times Free Press by email or on social media.

Carter said the diocese tried to work with the speakers to remove the name Catholic from the event to allow it to go on — given the scale and the way it was being advertised — but things deteriorated from there.

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A declaration by the Diocese of Knoxville

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On April 7, Diaz did a livestream on his YouTube channel and said he did not have to explain himself but wanted to clear some things up regarding the event.

According to Diaz, the May 28 event was initially scheduled and confirmed without his knowledge, but he wanted to do the right thing and help the event coordinator raise funds for a new building in the community.

"I'm being persecuted for offering to help," Diaz said in the video, speaking in Spanish.

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There is a place for dialogue and disagreement in the Catholic Church, Carter said, but all three speakers had inappropriately used their platforms on social media.

"When you turn in your attitude and in the tone of your voice to castigating the pope or telling the pope how wrong he is or suggesting that the pope has defected from the Catholic faith in a public way, you've crossed the line of the respect that's due to the office and this causes scandal amongst the faithful," Carter said.

Two of the scheduled speakers have given talks in the Diocese of Knoxville before, Carter said. Typically, when a person outside the diocese visits, they provide a letter of suitability from their local pastor or bishop. The letters show the person is in good standing in the faith.

As people raised concerns about the speakers, the diocese did a preliminary investigation and asked people to provide substantial proof of their claims for concern, Carter said. Members of congregations, pastors and other church officials were voicing unease, he said.

On April 8, the diocese issued its declaration, signed by Bishop Richard Stika, stating the three men were "not permitted to speak, preach, teach or represent the Catholic Faith in the Diocese of Knoxville or any of its parishes or institutions until such time as they renounce the errors they have previously pronounced, make a public profession of Catholic Faith and are able to swear the Oath of Fidelity in the presence of the Bishop of Knoxville."

Carter said the member of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul who rented the space at the convention center for the event canceled the event.

Mike Shuford, executive director of the convention center, confirmed to the Times Free Press by phone the event was canceled.

In a 10-minute video posted on his YouTube channel on April 13, Casanova announced he was taking a break from social media as well as from interviews on radio and television.

"I have been guilty of fomenting discord between us by being disrespectful, ironic and mocking at times," Casanova said. "My job should have been to remain serene and to set a good example."

Casanova also said he is limiting his social media presence to his YouTube channel alone, which he described as a beautiful community.

"I believe that if the Lord has given me this charisma of teaching," Casanova said, "I must do it but only ... through this means, because for me it is the least toxic for me."

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Carter said the diocese's response with the declaration may seem extreme from the outside but the faith has tools to safeguard the church and its followers. The church must be willing to use them, he said.

"When you fail to safeguard justice and safeguard right action, you are failing people in a worse way," Carter said. "When you allow scandal to continue without curtailing it or calling people back to repentance, you have tacitly approved it, you have countenanced it, you have given it a place to grow. And it damages the communion of the church further."

In the April 7 livestream, Diaz made a promise to his followers that there will be an event.

"We got news that the community over there is very upset," Diaz said. "Evento Centinela will happen, and it won't only be in [Chattanooga], but several cities."

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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