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Time for Creation 2011: A call to pray, reflect and act

(From the World Council of Churches)

At a time when the impact of climate change is on the front page of nearly every newspaper, magazine and web page, churches around the world are calling for a renewed commitment towards the environment and ecosystems.

During September, churches and organizations from Germany to Australia, India to South Africa, the Pacific to North America, are observing the “Time for Creation”, a month-long celebration of creation and demonstration of concern for climate justice.

From 1 September to 4 October the World Council of Churches (WCC) is calling upon Christians and organizations to observe this time to renew their commitment towards the environment and eco-systems.

A “Time for Creation” is part of climate justice initiatives by the WCC, through which the churches and faith networks are stressing the ethical and spiritual aspect in debate on environmental issues. To transform this perspective into action, the WCC has been an advocate at all Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The next meeting is in December in Durban, South Africa.

Both starting and end dates of “Time for Creation” are based on the concerns of creation in the Western and Eastern traditions of Christianity. To signify responsibility for nature, the late Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios declared 1 September a day of prayer for the environment in 1989.

Also the Orthodox church year starts on 1 September, commemorating how God created the world, while 4 October is commemorated by Roman Catholics and other churches as the feast of Francis of Assisi, known as the patron saint of the environment.

Oeku, an ecumenical organization working for environmental issues in Switzerland, recently launched “Time of Creation” as part of its 25th anniversary celebrations. Oeku has been celebrating this initiative since 1993, focusing this time on the International Year of Forests. Protestant, Orthodox, Old Catholic and Roman Catholic parishes in Switzerland joined different programmes held by Oeku.

Responsibility for Creation

The National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) also started a campaign “Remembering the Creator and Creation”. NCCI member churches are now organizing special prayers, homilies, vigils and activities addressing environmental concerns.

Since the United Nations has announced 2011 as the International Year of Forests, in its campaign NCCI emphasises the “central role of people in the conservation, sustainable management and development of our world’s forests”.

A nationwide celebration of “Time for Creation” was also initiated by several churches in Germany. This included liturgical celebrations, sermons and lectures by public figures and events like “Listening to the silence”, comprised of visits to the nature parks.

“God has given humankind responsibility for Creation until the time when God will fulfil his creation of a new heaven and a new earth”, WCC Central Committee member Fernando Enns said in his sermon during recent “Time for Creation” celebrations in Berlin. Offerings at the ecumenical prayer service in Berlin went towards the training programme “Youth for Eco-Justice”.

Leading up to the UN climate negotiations (COP 17) in Durban, South Africa, in collaboration with the Lutheran World Federation, the WCC is bringing young Christians together for this training programme in the latter part of 2011. Other advocacy initiatives with churches, ecumenical and faith organizations hope to make a strong presence at COP 17.

By celebrating “Time for Creation” the WCC programme executive on climate change, Dr Guillermo Kerber, hopes for a better contribution towards eco-justice. “WCC’s policy on climate change reflects the ecumenical understanding by stating ecological, economic, cultural, and political dimensions of the climate change crisis, calling for a holistic approach and stressing ethical and biblical perspectives, that climate change is a matter of justice,” he says.

Pope links British riots to 'moral relativism'

(From Religion News Service)


VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI linked last month's riots in England to the corrosive effects of "moral relativism," and warned that preserving social order requires government policies based on "enduring values."

Benedict made his remarks on Friday (Sept. 9) to Britain's new Vatican ambassador, Nigel M. Baker, at a meeting in the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome.

The moral basis of government policies is "especially important in the light of events in England this summer," Benedict said, in an apparent reference to riots in London and other English cities last month, which left five people dead and caused at least 200 million pounds ($320 million) in property damage.

"When policies do not presume or promote objective values, the resulting moral relativism ... tends instead to produce frustration, despair, selfishness and a disregard for the life and liberty of others," the pope said.

Benedict called on government leaders to foster the "essential values of a healthy society, through the defense of life and of the family, the sound moral education of the young, and a fraternal regard for the poor and the weak."

The pope's words echoed remarks by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said last month that the riots were a consequence of his nation's "slow-motion moral collapse."

In recession-hit Hungary, churches take over state schools

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Jonathan Luxmoore

Warsaw, Poland -- Local government officials in Hungary are handing state-owned schools over to churches, unable to afford their upkeep during the economic recession, according to church sources.

"Churches are entitled to run schools in Hungary as public service providers, receiving the same taxpayers' money as public sponsors," said Balazs Odor, ecumenical officer of Hungary's Reformed Church, in an interview with ENInews.

"The school system has its own problems here, which affect church-run schools as well. However, it's generally true that the wellbeing of church schools is better looked after since each has a community behind it," he added.

Hungary's Heti Valasz weekly newspaper reported this summer that local councils had been forced to abandon schools in the face of shrinking state subsidies, heavy municipal debts and a decreasing number of children, adding that more than 60 had been given to religious associations in recent months.

Odor told ENInews that the church's governing Synod Council had issued guidelines in February, requiring local congregations to "study each case carefully" and obtain approval for school acquisitions from church leaders. "There've been discussions with the state, where our church committed itself to be cautious and reserved in its approach," he told ENInews.

"Congregations have not only to consider the financial resources which have to be secured for a takeover. They must also guarantee the spiritual capacity and potential of the community needed for such an enterprise and study the attitude of concerned parties, such as parents, in advance."

The Reformed, Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches ran most schools in Hungary before the imposition of communist rule after World War II, when 3,750 church schools were taken over by the state and 4,500 teachers forced to resign, leaving only a handful of colleges in church hands.

In April, the premier Viktor Orban's center-right government steered through a new national constitution that states Hungarian citizens "recognise the key role of Christianity in upholding the nation." A new religion law in July strengthened the position of mainstream churches when it deprived all but 14 of Hungary's 358 registered churches and religious associations of legal recognition, and required others to re-apply for court registration after parliamentary approval.

Odor said the Reformed church "co-operated loosely" with the 12 other denominations running their own schools, and had been helped by the federal government's sympathetic attitude to Christianity. "The current government places greater emphasis on the Christian heritage ... and this is important in a post-communist country. Even while facing a difficult economic and social situation, it makes efforts to maintain good co-operation with church communities," he said.

In its report, Heti Valasz said many teachers and parents were "unhappy with the changes," adding that the Roman Catholic bishop of Szeged-Csanad, Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, whose diocese was negotiating the handover of schools with 38 local councils, had pledged that no "mandatory religious education" would be imposed on already functioning classes.

In a secular Europe, churches see need to work together

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Jonathan Luxmoore

Warsaw, Poland -- Europe's churches can withstand secularization and make progress in mission work if they pool resources and co-operate more closely, according to a top ecumenist.

"We haven't tried to plan long-term objectives, just to be realistic and see what needs to be done," said Viorel Ionita, interim general secretary of the Conference of European Churches (CEC). "But there's a strong feeling real chances exist for effective mission, and for winning back some of the ground lost by churches in Europe."

The Romanian theologian was speaking after a consultation of CEC's Churches in Dialogue Commission in Budapest on 29-31 August, which set out practical recommendations for shared mission work between the continent's Christian denominations.

In an ENInews interview on 5 September, he said mission had always been a "key concern" of CEC, which groups 120 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic churches in Europe, with 40 associated organizations, but had been determined and directed by member-churches rather than the conference itself.

He added that a working group set up by CEC's July 2009 Lyon general assembly was expected to recommend a "very complex process of reflection" on mission priorities in an upcoming report.

"While some European countries are post-modern and post-Christian, some societies are not so secularized, while others can be defined as post-secular," the 65-year-old Orthodox priest said. "Given these varying contexts, we've tried to identify what CEC's role should be in the field of mission, and to channel this into debates on the Conference's future, so the tasks of mission will be central."

The social and cultural role of churches and religious associations varies widely within the 27 member-countries of the European Union, which includes four traditionally Orthodox and six Protestant countries, and 17 with predominant Roman Catholic churches. The Council of Europe comprises a further 20 countries, including predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey.

A 1 September news release said the Budapest consultation, hosted by Istvan Szabo, a Hungarian Reformed church bishop, had reached a consensus on "the need for mission activity to be located more closely to the organizational centre of CEC," and had called on CEC to help develop "a shared terminology and understanding of common mission."

It added that Cardinal Peter Erdo, Hungarian president of the Roman Catholic Council of European Bishops Conferences, had talked in an address of "the potential for the discovery of a deeper unity between and among the Christian traditions" in mission work, and said "concrete steps" should now be taken towards "establishing closer relationships with the existing European missiological networks."

"We recommend that CEC, in considering the new ecumenical realities and vibrant ecclesial changes that are shaping an expanding ecumenical space, should develop an appropriate platform for the widest possible Christian and ecumenical engagement," the release added.

Ionita told ENInews that the Churches in Dialogue Commission had recommended a stronger emphasis on mission in theological education, and had recognised the "special opportunity" provided by migrant churches, whose members often came from countries with deeply Christian roots.

"It would be inappropriate to think Europe's historical churches are in such poor shape that they need help and salvation from outside, but migrant churches often bring fresh approaches and experiences which can enrich those already here," he said.

The Budapest consultation called on the Churches in Dialogue Commission to organize an "annual mission consultation," while encouraging a "deeper commitment" to existing ecumenical mission statements such as the 2001 Charta Oecumenica and 2010 Edinburgh Common Call, and promoting the "formal ecumenical education" of pastors and priests, and the collation of models of best practice at parish and congregation level.

Poll: Americans are tolerant of other faiths -- except Islam

(From Religion News Service)


WASHINGTON -- Americans consider religious freedom a cornerstone of society, but fall short in their tolerance of Muslims, according to a poll released Tuesday (Sept. 6) that probes Americans' attitudes toward immigrants and the nation's safety 10 years after 9/11.

The "What It Means to Be American" poll found that a small majority (53 percent) say the country is safer now than before the 9/11 attacks. Attitudes toward Muslims, however, are far less straightforward.

More than 8 in 10 Americans say that self-proclaimed Christians who commit violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christians. By contrast, less than half (48 percent) say that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam are not really Muslims.

"Interestingly, we find that Americans basically have a double standard when it comes to evaluating religious violence," said Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, which produced the survey with the Brookings Institution.

On the same question, disparities arose among political and religious groups.

Republicans (55 percent) were more likely to call the perpetrator of a violent crime in the name of Islam a Muslim than were Democrats (40 percent). At 57 percent, white evangelicals were far more likely to consider the perpetrator a Muslim than were Catholics (39 percent) or black Protestants (36 percent).

In general, the survey of 2,450 adults paints Americans' attitudes toward Muslims as a complex picture of acceptance and wariness.

Nearly nine in 10 Americans agree that "America was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular." And by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans reject the idea that Muslims want to establish Islamic law, or Shariah, in the United States.

But they are divided as to whether Islam is at odds with American values, with 47 percent agreeing and 48 percent disagreeing.

The poll's authors likened this ambivalence about American Muslims to the evolution of attitudes toward Catholics, who were once widely suspected for their loyalty to the pope, and Mormons, once widely reviled for their religious practices.

Brookings scholar William A. Galston said Muslims are now testing the nation's tolerance, particularly as they try to build mosques.

"The siting of Muslim houses of worship has become the object of great controversy, which really goes right at the heart of religious free exercise," he said.

The survey also notes differing attitudes toward Muslims between generations, with more than 6 in 10 young Americans (ages 18 to 29) reporting comfort with several expressions of Muslim religious practice, compared to fewer than 4 in 10 senior citizens.

The report uncovered more ambivalence on immigration, and concluded that prospects for immigration reform face steep obstacles.

A slim majority (53 percent) takes a positive view of the influence of immigrants on American society; 42 percent said the growing number of newcomers threatens American values.

And while 51 percent of Americans said the nation should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants, when asked a more nuanced question, a majority seemed to oppose such a policy.

Asked whether they favor an immigration plan that combines enforcement with deportation, or a plan that combines enforcement with a path to citizenship, 62 percent preferred to combine enforcement with a path to citizenship.

On race, nearly half of Americans (including 51 percent of whites) believe that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups. About 3 in 10 blacks and Hispanics agree.

The biggest differences in perceptions about discrimination emerged between those who most trust Fox News and those who most trust public television, with nearly seven in 10 Fox News fans saying that so-called reverse discrimination is as big a problem as traditional discrimination, compared to less than one in four public television viewers.

Among the poll's other findings:

-- Ninety-five percent of Americans believe all religious books should be treated with respect, no matter the religion.

-- Acceptance of Mormons continues to lag behind other minorities, with 67 percent expressing favorable views of Mormons, compared to 84 percent for Jews and 83 percent for Catholics.

-- 16 percent of Americans believe that people in Muslim countries have a favorable view of the United States.

The survey of 2,450 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Catholics pitch in to repair National Cathedral

(From Religion News Service)


WASHINGTON -- The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington is donating $25,000 to help repair the Washington National Cathedral, which sustained millions of dollars in damage in the earthquake that rocked the East Coast on Aug. 23.

"The National Cathedral holds a special place in the hearts of all of us in Washington," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington.

"So many recognize it as a national house of prayer, and indeed its magnificent Gothic spires are a reminder of our constant need to raise our hearts in prayer to God in the midst of all our daily preoccupations."

The Episcopal cathedral's central spires lost their ornate crowning pieces and decorative angels during the 5.8 magnitude earthquake, which also cracked the cathedral's flying buttresses.

Much of the repair work will fall to stone carvers, and is expected to take years. Insurance will not pay for repairs, so the church is seeking private donations.

Cathedral Dean Samuel Lloyd called the Catholics' gift "a testimony to the fellowship that exists between people of different faiths."

The cathedral has been closed since the earthquake as crews install safety nets and braces so that the building may reopen on Sept. 9. Two days later, President Obama will speak at the cathedral to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Czech government agrees to turn over seized churches

(From Religion News Service)


WARSAW, Poland -- A prominent Czech church leader has welcomed an agreement that would allow churches to reclaim land and buildings seized under communist rule, but forfeit state subsidies in return.

A draft settlement was finalized in Prague on Aug. 25 that allows religious groups to retrieve assets that were confiscated after the 1948 communist takeover, while obtaining financial compensation for others.

"The ball is now in the government's court to prepare the necessary legislation," said Joel Ruml, chairman of the Czech Ecumenical Council, and a member of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren.

Ruml said the restitutions -- expected to begin in January 2013 -- would particularly affect the Czech Republic's predominant Roman Catholic Church, which lost the most under communist rule.

However, he said all denominations would have to prepare for the gradual end of state support in a country where clergy salaries have been paid by the state since the 18th century.

"Although we've dreamed for years of becoming free from the state, this will pose a great challenge," said Ruml, whose council represents 11 Christian denominations, including Catholics as associate members. "Many church members are used to state support, and will need to be shown how this new situation offers opportunities for stabilizing our position and opening society to our work."

Separately, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Sunday (Aug. 28) that his government will return properties that were seized from recognized minority religious groups in 1936. Some Catholics and most Protestants are not on the government's official list of minority religions.

Survey: Muslim Americans have moderate views

(From Religion News Service)


Almost half the nation's estimated 2.8 million Muslims fault their leaders for not speaking out against Islamic extremists, but a vast majority are far more satisfied than Americans overall with the way things are going in this country, according to a major survey of U.S. Muslims released Tuesday (Aug. 30).

The Pew Research Center report, the most comprehensive survey since 2007, shows no evidence of rising support for Islamic extremism among Muslim Americans, although 52 percent say government anti-terrorism policies single out Muslims for increased surveillance.

Nearly half of U.S. Muslims say their leaders here have not done enough to challenge extremists.

"I think we should all do more," says Hassan Jaber, executive director of Dearborn, Mich.-based ACCESS, the largest nonprofit Arab-American human services organization.

The survey shows that American Muslims have more moderate views than their brethren around the globe, yet 7 percent say suicide bombings are sometimes justified (unchanged since 2007) and 21 percent say there is a great deal or fair amount of support for extremism in their communities.

By contrast, four in 10 Americans believe there is a fair amount of support for extremism among U.S. Muslims, and nearly one in five (24 percent) think Muslim support for extremism is increasing.

"They (U.S. Muslims) are mainstream and moderate in attitude," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "Most Muslims want to adopt American customs, many of their close friends are not Muslims and they rate their economic situation pretty positively. They think like Americans."

Despite 55 percent saying that being a Muslim in the U.S. is more difficult since 9/11, Muslims are far more positive about the state of the nation (56 percent) than Americans as a whole (23 percent).

Four years ago, there was more agreement on the state of the U.S.: 38 percent for Muslims and 32 percent for the general population.

Muslims are split on the government's sincerity in fighting terrorism, but far less than when they were last surveyed in 2007. "We do see a public more approving of this president (Obama) than President Bush by a yawning gap," Kohut says.

"I don't think anyone questioned the motives (of the Bush administration) but many people questioned the tactics," says Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, a New York-based nonprofit. "Going to war (in Iraq) increased the divide even more."

The poll found that most Muslim Americans continue to identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party and overwhelmingly support President Obama.

(Haya El Nasser writes for USA Today.)

Poll: N.Y. may be more spiritual, but not because of 9/11

(From Religion News Service)


New York-area residents are more spiritually active since 9/11, a new survey shows, but the uptick in faith may be a matter of coincidence rather than a religious response to the terrorist attacks.

The Barna Group found that 46 percent of people living in or near New York City reported attending worship services in the previous week in 2010, up from 31 percent in 2000. However, the upward trend didn't kick in until after 2004, said David Kinnaman, Barna's president.

"The research suggests that faith and religion took on new urgency for many New Yorkers after 9/11, but the impact was neither immediate nor long-lived," said Kinnaman. "While ... religion's importance did grow in the years after 9/11, church attendance and active faith measures did not really start increasing until after 2004."

Researchers found that more New Yorkers are spending time reading the Bible on their own, up from 29 percent in 1997-98 to 35 percent in 2009-10. Nationwide, personal Bible reading has remained essentially unchanged in the last decade.

The latest figures also show that 61 percent of New York-area residents agree strongly that religious faith is very important in their lives, compared to 72 percent of U.S. adults.

Kinnaman said there could be numerous reasons for the changes in religious activity, including the 9/11 attacks, the weakening economy and an influx of immigrants who are more religiously observant.

"Whatever the combination of causes, the residents of the New York City region are more spiritually active, more likely to be `churched,' and more committed to Christ than they were a decade ago," he said.

The findings are based on 3,406 interviews conducted in the New York City media market between 1997 and 2010.

Work makes Ramadan hard, but not impossible, for Muslims

(From Religion News Service)


Fasting during Ramadan may be harder for Muslims in countries where they are a minority, but a new survey said Muslims in America and other countries tried to give it their best effort.

The study, by the New Jersey-based DinarStandard website that tracks business trends among Muslims, and British-based Productive Muslim Ltd., found similar levels of commitment around the world, even as conditions vary widely.

Across the globe, three in four Muslim workers say they try to maintain the same level of productivity during Ramadan, a holy month of prayer and fasting that concludes on Monday (Aug. 29).

In Muslim-majority countries, 74 percent of Muslims said their employers made accommodations for Muslim workers during Ramadan, compared to 48 percent of respondents in countries where they are in the minority.

While Islamic scholars don't mandate that employers change their hours for Ramadan, more than three-quarters of respondents in Islamic countries said their bosses adjusted working hours or allowed more flexible schedules, compared to 25 percent of respondents in Muslim-minority countries.

The report also found that a third of employers in Muslim-majority countries held iftars, or dinners during Ramadan to break the daily fast, for employees, compared to 12 percent of employers elsewhere.

Despite these differences, 98 percent of respondents in both Muslim-minority and Muslim-majority countries said they planned to fast during the whole month of Ramadan, even if work schedules made it more complicated.

Almost half of Muslims said work made it difficult to attend traditional nightly prayers, while 53 percent reporting trouble staying focused during worship. Some two-thirds of Muslim workers said they failed to read the Quran daily, the report found.

"Fasting is obligatory. To say you're not going to fast is really hard for a lot of people," said Zeba Iqbal, executive director of the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals. "We have to do both (fast and work), and do both to the best of our abilities."

The survey polled 1,524 workers in five Muslim-majority countries (Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) and five non-Muslim majority countries (the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and India).

Why are American churches losing the less educated?

(From Religion News Service)


A new study reporting that white Americans without college degrees are dropping out of church faster than their higher-educated counterparts has several possible explanations, researchers said.

The study, by University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, found that since the 1970s, white Americans with no more than a high school diploma left the pews twice as fast as other Americans.

Other research has connected higher education levels with lower religious belief, and less attraction to literal interpretations of the Bible. People with more education, the theory goes, are more skeptical of religious claims.

But when it comes to religious behavior, college-educated whites seem to have more time, money and motivation to attend religious services, Wilcox said. In other words, lower-educated people may have to work weekend shifts, or can't afford to spend money on gas or the collection plate.

"College-educated Americans are more likely to have the financial resources and the stable marriages that make a church-going lifestyle seem to fit," he said. "Financial limitations and a broader malaise among working-class and poor Americans -- the sense that the American Dream is slipping away from their reach -- may be implicated in this retreat from religion."

His study, "No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class," was presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.

Wilcox said he focused on white church-goers because African-Americans and Latinos don't have the same kinds of education disparities. Researchers haven't examined possible regional differences yet, or which denominations have been hit hardest by the trend.

Using data from the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth, Wilcox found an across-the-board drop since the 1970s in those who attend religious services at least once a month:

-- Among college-educated whites between ages 25 and 44, attendance slipped from 51 percent to 46 percent.

-- Among moderately educated whites, attendance dropped from 50 percent to 37 percent.

-- Among the least educated, attendance fell the most, from 38 percent to 23 percent.

His findings are consistent with the conclusions recently reached by University of Nebraska sociologist Philip Schwadel, who also examined GSS data. Schwadel's study, published in the Review of Religious Research, found that with each additional year of education, the likelihood of attending religious services increased 15 percent, and the likelihood of occasional Bible reading increased by 9 percent.

"It certainly could be the case that college grads are attending church to keep with the Joneses, and meet the Joneses. An insurance agent, for instance, may attend church to make business contacts," Wilcox said.

"But, here, I think the biggest non-religious motivation for many college grads has to do with kids. These helicopter parents plug their kids into good schools, sports, violin, and church -- all in the hopes of maximizing their kids' opportunities to do well in life."

Yet it's the less-educated, lower-income families who could really use the social services, networking opportunities, spiritual guidance and safety nets that religious communities offer, he said.

"This research suggests that religious communities need to do more to reach out and engage working-class Americans," Wilcox concluded.

John Green, an expert on religion and public life at the University of Akron, said many religious institutions are finding it hard to reach lower socio-economic classes.

"Churches in poor neighborhoods are often less effective because they don't have resources, while the suburban churches have resources, but are far away from the less well off," he said. "Less well-educated people may not have the time to be active in a church, and they may not feel comfortable because they are less well off."

National Cathedral suffers 'significant damage' in quake

(From Religion News Service)


The earthquake that rumbled up the East Coast from Virginia on Tuesday (Aug. 23) "significantly damaged" the central tower of Washington National Cathedral, shaking carved stone finials from atop the iconic church.

The quake also left cracks in the flying buttresses that support the cathedral, an Episcopal church that serves as a religious focal point for the country and a "house of prayer for all people."

Cathedral spokesman Richard Weinberg said there were about 200 people, staff and tourists in the cathedral and adjoining offices when the 5.9 magnitude quake struck at 1:51 pm, but no one was injured.

"There's been significant damage to the central tower," Weinberg said. "In addition, the finial stones have fallen off three of the four (corner spires) entirely."

The ornate finials are the crowning pieces atop the central tower, which was completed in the 1960s and restored in the 1990s after repeated lightning strikes.

Weinberg said there was minor damage to other decorative elements, and said some may be in danger of falling. Engineers found cracks in the flying buttresses that support the oldest part of the building, but the supports on the central tower "seem to be sound."

No damage was reported to the cathedral's stained glass windows.

The cathedral will remain closed while engineers assess the damage, Weinberg said, and he encouraged supporters to donate through the church's website. "We will be working to fix the damage and raise the funds necessary."

Weinberg said the cathedral had only suffered minor damage from lightning in the past, and nothing on the scale of Tuesday's quake.

Formally known as the Church of Saint Peter and Paul, the National Cathedral was erected under a charter passed by Congress in 1893, but it receives no support from the federal government.

Completed in 1990, it is the sixth largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the United States.

Interfaith understanding remains elusive 10 years after 9/11

(From Religion News Service)


In a post-9/11 bid to better relations with local Muslims, pastor Bob Roberts invited Muslims to his NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, for Q-and-A sessions, a cooking club and to help on a few home remodeling projects.

The result: Roberts lost "a bunch of church members," he said.

In Denver, pastor Max Frost asked volunteers from his Roots Vineyard church to help paint a local mosque. Friends and family told him it was a bad idea.

And at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., the Rev. Nancy McCurley started an interfaith Scripture study with local Muslims, only to be told by a critic that "in a year's time, this church will be a mosque."

In the 10 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks exposed the deep divide between America's Judeo-Christian majority and American Muslims, a host of projects have tried to foster interfaith understanding.

To be sure, there have been signs of hope for the future of interfaith relations. But along with progress has come polarization: threats of Quran burnings, protests of proposed mosques, and fears of Islamic law in the U.S. legal system.

A month after the 9/11 attacks, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 47 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Islam. By 2010, that figure had only gotten worse, dropping to 37 percent.

Which begs the question: has the flurry of activities aimed at interfaith understanding actually accomplished anything?

Eboo Patel, founder of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, said the furor over the proposed Park51 Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero highlighted the need to gauge the quality, not just quantity, of interfaith efforts.

"Tens of thousands of people in the country who were participating in interfaith projects basically were watching this on TV, ... saying what difference does our work make on a national level?" said Patel, who is Muslim.

As activists like Patel push to foster meaningful relationships between Islam and other faiths, there has been pushback from groups who have no interest in such relations, or who question aspects of Islam.

Gustav Niebuhr, author of "Beyond Tolerance," said the divide reflects three types of Americans -- the pro-interfaith crowd, the anti-Muslim segment and "the-don't-know-too-much middle" that can be swayed by either side.

Recently, the two poles have debated the possible influence of Shariah, or Islamic law, even though there has been no concerted effort by American Muslims to introduce it into American courtrooms.

"The problem is when people think of Shariah, the only image that comes to mind is the Taliban stoning some poor woman to death in Afghanistan," said Niebuhr, a professor at Syracuse University. "That's the outer limit."

In a growing circle of evangelical churches, there has been a sort of reverse pushback by leaders who are turned off by fellow Christians trying to block mosque construction and blaming Islam for 9/11.

The Rev. Joseph Cumming, an evangelical who directs the Yale Center for Faith and Culture Reconciliation Program, said more evangelicals are asking what Jesus would do when it comes to relating to Muslims.

"There's a hunger in churches to ask that question," he said. "That wasn't being asked before 9/11."

Mahan Mirza, vice president of academic affairs at Zaytuna College, a new Muslim school in Berkeley, Calif., said Christian-Muslim relations are generally better on the local level, where he has seen an increase among evangelicals who think the Bible requires such outreach.

"Sometimes that's couched in the language of love your enemy so ... it's not done in spite of Christian teachings; it's done because of Christian teachings," said Mirza, a former professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Last year, Rick Love started Peace Catalyst International in Chandler, Ariz., which sponsored dinners with members of a local mosque and his Vineyard church to foster what he calls "Jesus-centered peacemaking communities."

He cautions fellow evangelicals to be humble before criticizing the harsh punishments demanded by others' scriptures: "I praise God that we don't live under the Old Testament," he said.

Yet some evangelical leaders, including Southern Baptist executive Richard Land, have been condemned for supporting Muslims.

"Southern Baptists were comfortable with me advocating that Muslims have the right to have mosques," said Land, who supported a proposed mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn. "What they were not comfortable with was me being part of a coalition that was filing a suit in order for them to have these mosques."

Suhail Khan, a Muslim member of the advisory council of the interfaith Buxton Initiative, said he is alarmed Americans' declining favorable views of Muslims.

He blames a "cottage industry of hate" for the shift and finds himself answering more questions about Shariah than the basics of what Muslims believe when he visits evangelical churches.

"I'm having to undo all kinds of misinformation and very hateful misinformation," said Khan.

Undeterred, Patel puts much of his hope in the 200 colleges and seminaries -- including nine evangelical schools -- that participated in a recent White House event kicking off yearlong interfaith service projects. He expects many of the students will eventually launch similar projects at companies and in cities where they move after graduation.

"I think that college campuses are going to be models of interfaith cooperation and I think they're going to graduate a generation of interfaith leaders," he predicted.

Congregations go for 'creation care,' one barrel at a time

(From Religion News Service)


WASHINGTON -- It was the time in pre-marriage counseling when the groom has to leave so the priest and the bride can talk alone. So Jamal Kadri stepped outside Holy Name Catholic Church that rainy day in Washington, D.C., and watched water pour from the church gutters and seep into the sanctuary.

The idea hit him like a tidal wave: "My church needs a rain barrel."

Kadri, a water expert at the Environmental Protection Agency who had recently converted to Catholicism, asked the priest if his contribution to Holy Name's building fund could be a rain barrel to catch the water, and channel it to a church garden.

He installed the 275-gallon barrel -- salvaged from his father-in-law's farm -- last summer.

"Water has such a key role in the church -- in the sacraments, baptism, the flood, Noah. And my professional background is in water," said Kadri. "It just made sense."

Parishioners and clergy across the nation are coming to similar conclusions lately, as the creation care movement spreads from congregation to congregation. Rain barrels, once ubiquitous on the family farm, gave way to garden hoses decades ago. But the barrels -- now more likely to be made of recycled plastic than wood -- are making a comeback.

Irrigating from a rain barrel saves water that would otherwise come from a municipal water system. It also reduces runoff and erosion, keeping bacteria, pesticides and other pollutants out of streams and rivers. Stormwater runoff is the main cause of water quality problems in the United States, according to the EPA.

No one keeps track of the numbers, but it has become increasingly easy to find a church with a new rain barrel.

"Our kids came up with the idea for ours," said Rev. Heather Shortlidge, associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Annapolis, Md.

The children of the church two years ago made the rain barrel a religious school project, decorated it with their colorful handprints and asked the adults to install it. Now the barrel sits in the church courtyard, supplying water to trees, bushes and flowers.

A second barrel waters the vegetable garden at the minister's residence.

"It's really a simple way to have an environmental impact, and it was our first small step to opening up a larger conversation about what more we can do for the environment," said Shortlidge, whose church has also switched to recycled paper and is considering solar panels for the roof.

Rain barrels also save churches on their water bills, though most houses of worship don't seem to tally up the savings. The initial investment is minimal, with prices ranging from free -- when environmentalists like Kadri donate the barrels and labor -- to about $60 a barrel.

Other religious groups use rain barrels as fundraisers for environmental projects or sell them at a discount to encourage water conservation in the larger community:

-- In St. Louis, the teen group of the Jewish Environmental Initiative raffled off three rain barrels this spring.

--In Mobile, Ala., the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer charges members $50, and nonmembers $60, for rain barrels the environmental committee makes by power washing donated 55-gallon drums that once held glue.

-- In Glen Ellyn, Ill., just west of Chicago, the First Presbyterian Church's environmental group has for the past few years sold 50-gallon barrels for about $60.

"While many people around the world don't have access to clean drinking water, we use it to wash our cars," said First Presbyterian parishioner Cathy Colton, who bought a rain barrel for her Glen Ellyn home last summer.

"It's recognition that God has made us stewards of creation and its limited supplies," Colton said.

Next month (September), Dottie Yunger plans to install and bless a rain barrel at the Washington City Church of the Brethren on Capitol Hill, which she describes as "an old church building with huge water bills."

Yunger, a Methodist minister-in-training, is also a riverkeeper for the Anacostia -- a kind of "neighborhood watch" for the watershed around the river, which carries high levels of pollutants as it flows through the nation's capital.

The rain barrel will help control runoff at Brethren and lower its water bills, she said. But it will also serve as a model for other churches.

"Churches in particular are called upon to be stewards of the environment," said Yunger. "We want to show people how they can be part of the solution."

Pope, in Spain, laments hedonism, greedy economy

(From Religion News Service)


VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI lamented the "superficiality, consumerism and hedonism" of contemporary society on Thursday (Aug. 18), while offering a message of Christian hope to young Catholic pilgrims gathered in Madrid.

Benedict made his remarks upon landing at the Madrid airport for the start of a four-day visit, during which he will take part in Catholic World Youth Day (WYD) celebrations that are expected to draw some 500,000 young people.

The pope said WYD participants have seen the need for divine help in facing challenges such as a "widespread banalization of sexuality," corruption, drug use, environmental pollution and the persecution of Christians.

Arriving in a country with an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent, the pope also acknowledged economic concerns, noting that "many young people look worriedly to the future, as they search for work, or because they have lost their job or because the one they have is precarious or uncertain."

Earlier the same morning, speaking to reporters on his plane from Rome, Benedict said ethics must play a greater role in economic policy, which must be measured not only "by the maximization of profit but according to the common good."

On Wednesday night, thousands in Madrid protested the pope's visit, citing what they said was its excessive cost to the Spanish public. Police arrested eight and reported 11 injured in related clashes.

King's nephew named to head civil rights group

(From Religion News Service)


Two and a half weeks after the sudden death of its president, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has named a nephew of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as its new leader.

Isaac Newton Farris Jr., 48, was elected on Monday (Aug. 15) to lead the Atlanta-based organization that has mobilized churches to fight discrimination.

Farris, a lifelong member of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where his uncle preached, had served as interim president. He succeeds the Rev. Howard Creecy Jr., who was tapped earlier this year but died unexpectedly on July 28.

King helped found the SCLC in 1957 and served as its first president.

In an interview Tuesday, Farris said the organization's primary focus will be on access to higher education.

"The mission will not change but we have to operate in the current environment," he said. "It's getting harder for everyone to get an education, so that's the civil rights issue for 2011."

The SCLC had plans to be led by another King family member. In January, the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of the founder, decided not to assume the presidency, citing a leadership clash.

Farris said he is ready to succeed veteran civil rights leaders, many of whom led the SCLC as ordained ministers.

"I never had that calling that way but I've always felt a call of public service," he said.

Ohio pastor elected to lead breakaway Lutheran church

(From Religion News Service)


Members of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) have elected an Ohio pastor as their new head bishop, making him the first non-provisional leader of the year-old denomination.

The Rev. John Bradosky was elected Aug. 11 by 800 NALC members who met in Columbus, Ohio, to elect new leaders and conduct official church business during the church's annual meeting.

The NALC was founded in 2010 as part of a split from the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America after the ELCA voted to allow openly gay clergy. The breakaway body now counts more than 100,000 members nationwide, many of whom were previously affiliated with the ELCA.

"Today I stand before you even more deeply honored and humbled," Bradosky said in a speech following his election. "You have the promise of my prayer for each of you and your ministries that together, through the work of the Holy Spirit, we will boldly confess Christ."

Bradosky, who previously served as a pastor for 32 years, emphasized church growth as part of his vision for the denomination.

"The local congregation is the front line for mission and ministry," Bradosky said. "Our work is to support, facilitate and encourage the ministry and mission work of local congregations. Our structure must keep pastors and congregations connected for learning, growing, offering support and care."

Several former ELCA bishops took part in Bradosky's installation ceremony, including the Rev. Paull Spring, who was elected as provisional bishop in 2010 to guide the group through its first year.

Jedis and Pastafarians: Real religion or just a joke?

(From Religion News Service)


When congregants of West Side Church and the Christian Life Center in Bend, Ore., awoke in June to news that their churches had been vandalized, they expected to be frustrated.

What they didn't expect was to be confused.

In addition to the anti-Christian slogans scrawled on the walls of the two buildings, the words "Praise the FSM" were painted everywhere. Churchgoers were left scratching their heads.

"We were pretty much in the dark," said Jason Myhre, a staffer at West Side Church.

But after a Google search, they learned "FSM" stood for "Flying Spaghetti Monster," the noodly appendaged deity of a fictitious religion called "Pastafarianism" that's popular among some atheists and agnostics. Suddenly, it looked like atheists were on the attack.

"It was obviously sad," Myhre said. "It was more sadness that people would destroy the property to communicate their belief."

But mere hours after news of the vandalism broke, the story changed.

Bobby Henderson, the head of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, publicly condemned the vandals; Hemant Mehta, author of the Friendly Atheist blog, posted an online plea for donations to help fund repairs. In less than 24 hours, he had raised more than $3,000.

"We think (atheists) can win in a civil dialogue, so there is no reason to resort to violence or vandalism," Mehta said. "We said, OK, look, we've raised money for other causes before. Why don't we raise money to help clean up the graffiti? This is not what (our religion) is about."

But while the vandalism seemed to be an isolated incident, it and other developments have spurred a discussion among atheists about the usefulness of so-called "joke" or "invented" religions in the nonreligious movement.

Some are wondering: has the joke gone too far?

Pastafarianism was founded in 2005 when Henderson, then a physics student, sent a letter to a Kansas school board satirically critiquing the theory of intelligent design by citing "evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe."

The joke grew into something of a cultural phenomenon for atheists, especially online and on college campuses. Adherents brandish Pastafarian bumper stickers ("He Boiled For Your Sins"), clutch Flying Spaghetti Monster holy books (the "Loose Canon"), and even celebrate holidays such as "Ramendan" (a parody of Muslim Ramadan), all in the spirit of poking fun at religion.

For many atheists like Mehta, the satire is a positive part of the atheist experience and provides a safe haven for nonbelievers.

"If I go to a Christian church, some people have a habit of speaking 'Christianese.' Atheists don't have that," Mehta said. "But you can say 'I'm a Pastafarian,' and people will say, 'Oh, you're one of us.' It gives us a way to bond over our nonreligion."

But Carole Cusack, professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney and author of the book "Invented Religions," notes that members of the eclectic and diverse atheist communities view the sarcasm in different ways.

"The first is as fellow warriors in the ongoing campaign to make religion look ridiculous," she said. "The second is as a nuisance, muddying the waters by proposing parody religions instead of calling for the end of religion."

Others, however, think the whole silly discussion is, well, kind of silly.

Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University -- a group of mostly atheists and agnostics who insist ethical behavior doesn't require religion -- expressed concern over how much airtime the banter gets.

"The Flying Spaghetti Monster ... may be hysterically funny, but just cracking ramen jokes ... does not constitute a meaningful alternative to traditional religion," he said.

"If we can take the energy that goes into cracking jokes and put it into positive acts, we could really change the world for the better."

Epstein is not alone: Atheists in Australia are also divided over another parody religion called "Jediism," based on George Lucas' "Star Wars" film franchise.

Jediism gained attention after some 500,000 people listed "Jedi Knight" as a tongue-in-cheek religious affiliation on 2001 census forms in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

As Australia readied for its 2011 census, however, some atheists called for an end to the wisecracking. Arguing that many who listed their religion as "Jedi" were just atheists making a joke, the Atheist Foundation of Australia launched a campaign urging nonbelievers to "Mark 'No Religion' and take religion out of politics."

Their reasoning, they said, was practical since "Jedi" gets counted as "not defined" instead of "no religion," which only serves to undercount the nonreligious population.

"It was funny to write Jedi once, now it is a serious mistake to do so," the organization wrote on its website.

But despite the group's efforts and similar campaigns in the U.K., not everyone agreed. Henderson posted a message on the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster website urging Australians to embrace their Pastafarianism, calling it "a reasonable and legitimate choice."

Ultimately, even Epstein admits the allure of humor is a powerful one.

"When (religious) people try to dominate public discourse and dominate the political landscape," he said, "sometimes the humor you find in things like the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a very subtle and powerful way of pushing back."

NEWS ANALYSIS: A 'Christian' Europe without Christianity

(From Religion News Service)


Does European Christendom need Christianity to survive?

It may seen an odd question for a religious culture that once stretched from Britain to the Bosphorus, born of a deep and diffuse faith that inspired great cathedrals and monasteries and filled them with believers for centuries.

But when right-wing extremist Anders Breivik killed 77 people in a horrific rampage in Norway last month, he highlighted a novel development in the history of the West: a burgeoning alliance between believers and nonbelievers to promote Europe's Christian identity.

"European Christendom and the cross will be the symbol in which every cultural conservative can unite under in our common defense," Breivik wrote in his rambling 1,500-page manifesto. "It should serve as the uniting symbol for all Europeans whether they are agnostic or atheists."

Whether Breivik himself can be considered a bona fide Christian given his lack of a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God," as he put it, was a topic of much debate. There was no doubt, however, that he was a devout believer "in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform."

In fact, that's been the case for any number of unbelievers for more than a decade.

One prominent example was the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who spent her last years before her death in 2006 inveighing against a Muslim influx that was turning the continent into what she called "Eurabia."

Fallaci liked to describe herself as a "Christian atheist" -- an interesting turn of phrase -- because she thought Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam.

There's also Scottish-born historian and political conservative Niall Ferguson, who calls himself "an incurable atheist" but is also a vocal champion for restoring Christendom because, as he puts it, there isn't sufficient "religious resistance" in the West to radical Islam.

(Ferguson dedicated his latest book, "Civilization: The West and the Rest," to his new partner, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch atheist who has promoted the values of Christianity over those of her native Islam.)

The modern-day crusade for Christendom by nonbelievers tends to be rooted in fears about Muslim immigration, but it's also fueled by worries about the deterioration of European culture -- and nostalgia for the continent's once central place in world affairs.

For some atheists, retaining European identity is reason enough to set aside long-standing enmity between churches and nonbelievers that dates back to the secularism of the Enlightenment and the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution.

And unlike the persistent sniping between atheists and believers in the U.S., Europe's nonreligious conservatives have found ready allies in the continent's religious leaders -- most notably Pope Benedict XVI.

Even before he was elected pope in April 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was spearheading the Vatican effort, however unsuccessful, to have the European Union's new constitution recognize the continent's Christian heritage. He also rejected the idea of allowing Muslim Turkey into the EU. "Europe is a cultural continent," he told a French magazine, "not a geographical one."

As pope, Benedict eventually softened his opposition to Turkey's entry into the EU but continued to insist that Europe's Christian culture must be protected, even as religious belief among Europeans declined.

In August 2005, just a few months after his election as pope, Benedict met secretly with Fallaci, news that upset Muslims when it leaked out. Muslims were even angrier at the pontiff's controversial speech a year later in Regensburg, Germany, when he depicted Islam as prone to violence and alien to Christian Europe.

"Attempts at the 'Islamification' of the West cannot be denied," Benedict's closest aide, Monsignor Georg Ganswein, said in a 2007 interview. "And the associated danger for the identity of Europe cannot be ignored out of a wrongly understood sense of respect."

"The Catholic side sees this clearly," he added, "and says as much."

But some atheists see this as well, and are equally happy to say so.

One of Christendom's most prominent atheist advocates is the Italian philosopher and politician Marcello Pera. In 2004, he delivered a series of lectures with then-Cardinal Ratzinger that set out their shared view of the need to restore Christian identity in Europe in order to battle both Islam and moral degeneration.

Later, Benedict wrote a forward to Pera's book, "Why We Must Call Ourselves Christians," which promotes Benedict's argument that Western civilization can be saved if people live "as if God exists," whether they believe that or not.

It's not a new argument -- 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal held that even if God's existence cannot be proved, people ought to act as though God exists because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

But the updated version seems to be winning some converts. In a landmark ruling last March, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy could continue to display crucifixes in public school classrooms because the cross with Jesus on it is a "historical and cultural" symbol rather than a religious one.

While the Vatican welcomed that decision, others wonder whether the cost was too high -- essentially emptying a container of its meaning in order to preserve the cultural form.

And an empty container, no matter how attractive on the outside, can be filled with all manner of beliefs on the inside.

Peace service held amid London riots

(From Religion News Service)


LONDON -- The annual peace service at Westminster Cathedral acquired fresh significance on Tuesday evening (Aug. 9) as Londoners gathered to pray for their city and other British communities torn by rioting.

A fourth night of unrest brought total arrests in London to more than 700, according to police, and looting and arson continued to spread to other cities in Britain.

One man has been reported killed and dozens of citizens and police officers have been injured, authorities said.

The rioting began on Saturday after a peaceful demonstration in north London over the police killing of a 29-year-old man.

One attendee among the 200 people at the peace service said she needed a feeling of hope. "Faith gives hope that current fears and insecurities will pass and we will feel safe on the streets again and trust our young people," said Ellen Teague.

For the first time, the Roman Catholic cathedral's liturgy mentioned those working for peace in inner cities. People prayed for the police and community workers in areas hit by the riots.

Dedicated to Franz Jagerstatter, who was executed for his conscientious objection to serving in Hitler's army, the event was organized by Pax Christi, the international Catholic organization that advocates for peace. It was attended by Christians of many denominations and Buddhists.

Pat Gaffney, general secretary of Pax Christi, led the service, saying, "let us pray that we may all become more aware of our responsibilities for what happens in the world around us and be prepared to take what action we can to promote good and prevent evil."

There was an ecumenical flavor to the cathedral service as prayers of remembrance were offered for those who have given their lives in the cause of peace.

Gaffney read a litany of names of conscientious objectors, including Mennonites, Anabaptists, Quakers and all those who have campaigned against the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Religious restrictions increased for 2 billion, study says

(From Religion News Service)


A third of the world -- about 2.2 billion people -- live in nations where restrictions on religion have substantially increased, according to a new report.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study, released Tuesday (Aug. 9), also shows intolerant countries growing more hostile to religious freedom, and tolerant ones growing more accommodating.

"There seems to be somewhat of a polarization," particularly in countries with constitutional prohibitions against blasphemy, said Brian Grim, the primary researcher of the report. "When you have one set of restrictions in place then it's easier to add on."

Among those nations with the greatest increases in government religious restrictions, ranked from most to least populous, were: Egypt, France, Algeria, Uganda and Malaysia.

Among those nations where government restrictions declined, ranked from most to least populous, were: Greece, Togo, Nicaragua, Republic of Macedonia and Guinea-Bissau.

The report, culling data from 198 countries and territories from 2006 through 2009, also measured social hostility toward religious groups. North Korea, one of the most repressive regimes, could not be included for lack of reliable data.

Researchers collected statistics before the Arab Spring, but said the report may shed light on this year's uprisings across the Middle East.

"It's indisputable that increasing levels of restriction were part of the overall context within which the uprisings took place," Grim said. "Whether they were the trigger or they were just part of this trend in societies is difficult to tease apart at this point."

As other reports on religious freedom have found, it is scarcest in the Middle East and North Africa. But Europe, the study noted, has the largest proportion of countries where social hostilities related to religion rose. In France, for example, women are barred by law from wearing face-covering veils.

More than other groups, Muslims and Christians suffered harassment based on their religion. But Pew researchers noted that together, these groups comprise more than half the world's population. Smaller religious groups that suffered disproportionately, the study found, included Jews. Representing less than one percent of the world's people, Jews were harassed in 75 countries.

Overall, about 70 percent of the world lives in nations with significant religious repression -- a figure that matched that of a similar study Pew undertook two years ago. But the nations in which religious repression is increasing tend to be populous, the study's authors noted.

Study sees link between education and views of heaven

(From Religion News Service)


The old wisdom: The more educated you are, the less likely you will be religious. But a new study says education doesn't drive people away from God -- it gives them a more liberal attitude about who's going to heaven.

Each year of education ups the odds by 15 percent that people will say there's "truth in more than one religion," says University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Philip Schwadel in an article for the Review of Religious Research. Schwadel, an associate professor of sociology, looked at 1,800 U.S. adults' reported religious beliefs and practices and their education.

People change their perspective because, as people move through high school and college, they acquire an ever-wider range of friendships, including people with different beliefs than their own, Schwadel says. "People don't want to say their friends are going to hell," he says.

For each additional year of education beyond seventh grade, Americans are:

-- 15 percent more likely to have attended religious services in the past week.

-- 14 percent more likely to say they believe in a "higher power" than in a personal God. "More than 90 percent believe in some sort of divinity," Schwadel says.

-- 13 percent more likely to switch to a mainline Protestant denomination that is "less strict, less likely to impose rules of behavior on your daily life" than their childhood religion.

-- 13 percent less likely to say the Bible is the "actual word of God." The educated, like most folks in general, tend to say the Bible is the "inspired word" of God, Schwadel says.

Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist blogger at Patheos.com, is skeptical, saying this "raises an eyebrow at everything I've always heard that the more educated you are, the less religious you are. But it must depend on how you define religion."

Schwadel's findings dovetail with findings by Barry Kosmin of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., a co-author of the American Religious Identification Survey statistics on religious beliefs and the behavior of people with master's degrees, doctorates and professional degrees.

It turns out that on Sunday mornings, "the educated elite look a lot like the rest of America," Kosmin says -- just as likely to believe in a personal God or higher power.

(Cathy Lynn Grossman writes for USA Today.)

Christian activists in India seeking stronger rules to curb alcoholism

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Anto Akkara

Bangalore, India -- Officials in Kerala, a state in southern India, have announced steps to curb the growing problem of alcoholism, but church groups and prohibition activists seek more stringent measures. The state has the highest alcohol consumption figures in the country, as well as the largest number of Christians.

"We welcome these measures. But we want more concrete and stronger steps to address alcoholism, which is causing havoc here," said Rev. M.T. Tharian of the Christian Temperance Movement (CTM) of Kerala, an ecumenical movement against alcoholism organized by the Kerala Council of Churches.

A new state government that took power in May has raised the age limit for buying alcohol from 18 to 21 years. Though the distance between bars has been increased, and the quantity of liquor people can keep at home has been curtailed, Christians feel it isn't enough. Alcohol taxes generate more revenue for the state than any other product.

"The government has violated the election promise to hand over the power to grant licenses for new bars to the village councils. This is a serious issue," said Tharian, a pastor in the Church of South India. Such a move could help curb alcoholism, he said. Half of village council members are women.

The CTM plans to convene a meeting of bishops and church leaders to forge a strategy.

"We are upset by this policy. The government has violated the solemn promise made to us," said Radhakrishnan Perumpalath, a Hindu district leader of the Kerala Prohibition Council.

Catholic archbishop Andrews Thazhath, president of the Kerala Catholic bishops Council, feels the new policy will actually worsen the problem, which has led to a rise in suicides and road accidents.

"The new policy is a contradiction in itself," said Thazhath. "On the one hand, the government is fighting alcoholism, and other hand, it is increasing revenue from it," he said.

Cardboard structure may replace earthquake-damaged cathedral in New Zealand

(From Ecumenical News International)

by David Crampton

Christchurch, New Zealand -- New Zealand's second biggest city could have a temporary Anglican cathedral as soon as February--but the 700-seat structure will be made of recyclable cardboard. It would replace ChristChurch Cathedral, which was destroyed in the 22 February earthquake that killed 181 people.

The $4 million portable A-frame building is to be created primarily out of cardboard tubes, with shipping containers as the foundation. Architecture students will assist in its three-month construction. A $50,000 feasibility study is currently being undertaken, which could include an extension of planned capacity to 1000 at additional cost.

A site has yet to be found, but the dean of ChristChurch Cathedral, Peter Beck, said it would be in the inner city, "offering a sign of hope and confidence and a thing of beauty in the midst of all the desolation."

"We want to have a presence in the central city where there is foot traffic," he said. Some Christchurch residents were critical of the four million dollar price tag, asking whether an interim cardboard Church was really needed.

"It's a ludicrous waste of money, far better spent on the more Christian gesture of caring for the needy," Julian Tyerman wrote on a local television news station's Facebook page.

"They are building a four million dollar cardboard box to give glory to God?" asked Claire Mooiman.

But Beck praises the project. "It's almost tent-like, and I like the idea of pitching our tent," he told 3 News. "It's a very Christian concept actually; pitching our tent in the middle of the city." He said that a New Zealand artist is expected to design a stained-glass window, replicating the famed rose window destroyed in February.

The building could be completed in time for the first anniversary of the earthquake, and used until a permanent structure is built in the central city, "which could be five years, 10 years, we just don't know," said Beck.

The cathedral was designed pro bono by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who designed the Takatori Catholic Church, nicknamed the "Paper Dome," in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. It was moved to Taiwan in 2006 to replace a church destroyed there in a 1999 earthquake.

ChristChurch Cathedral's 12 earthquake-damaged bells may require specialist repairs in England, where they were manufactured. Beck said he hoped to recover them next week after further assessment by consultants, "but they will be too heavy for the cardboard structure."

Professor tweets Quran for Ramadan

(From Religion News Service)


Ramadan, which begins with a sunup-to-sundown fast Monday (Aug. 1), calls on the Muslim faithful to immerse themselves in scripture -- ideally by reading the entire Quran.

In 2009, Hussein Rashid, a professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Theological Seminary, noticed rabbis using Twitter to highlight snippets of Torah text to celebrate Shavuot, when Jews say Moses received God's word at Mount Sinai.

"I saw they were creating a virtual way to pray and study together, and I thought it would be fun to invite a few friends to tweet the Quran for Ramadan. By the next year we had hundreds posting at #Quran and it will be even bigger this year," he says.

The Quran is the 22-year record of what Muslims believe is Allah's revelations to the Prophet Mohammed. The goal of using Twitter is to engage Muslims and non-Muslims alike in exploring and discussing the text, Rashid says.

"What verses speak to you when you read the Quran this day? That's what we're looking for. The way we engage with scripture is always changing as our lives change. We can ask each other questions. We can explore parallels with other religions," he adds.

As next month's 10-year-anniversary of 9/11 nears, Wajahat Ali, a playwright and attorney based in San Francisco, expects many Muslims will share "our reflections and our resilient faith."

Ali says, "I expect lot of people will tweet from Chapter 49:13:`Oh Ye who believe, we created you of different nations and tribes so that you may know one another.' It's very tweetable and it expresses a way of moving forward with different communities of faith. We share common values but retain our own unique values."

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, Mass., who blogs as the Velveteen Rabbi, was one Rashid noticed tweeting for Shavuot.

"I wish we lived in a world where people wanted to have random conversations about Torah at the coffee shop or standing in line at the ATM, but on the Internet you can. And it's fabulous fun to see what people choose. The Torah is condensed wisdom you can unpack and unstuff over time," she says.

The Jewish Publication Society, which promoted #Torah as a top Twitter trend, also created a template for nabbing 140-character chunks of the five books of Moses.

Summing up scripture with Twitter wit will take author Jana Riess four years. In October 2009, she embarked on Twible (rhymes with Bible) -- once-a-day tweeting the entire Bible, chapter by 1,189 chapters plus a summary tweet for each of the 66 books.

"There are other Twitter summaries of the Bible that are much more ambitious. I'm just entertaining. Laughter is hugely important in the Bible, even when you take it seriously, which I do," says Riess, who has a doctorate in religion.

She was surprised to find that long-suffering Job, the man tested in every way by pain, loss and false friends, was among the most "spiritually nourishing" books to tweet.

She started with, "#Twible overview of Job: I'd tell you about Job, but man, my boils are itchy. Also, my kids all snuffed it & G's AWOL. Waaaaah. Why me? Why?"

And six weeks later came to: "#Twible Job 38: G makes unexpected cameo appearance; goes mano-a-mano w/ Job abt creation: "Where were you, punk, when I created the earth?"

(Cathy Lynn Grossman writes for USA Today.)

Norway's churches try to foster healing after attacks

(From Religion News Service)


TRONDHEIM -- A Norwegian bishop addressing the recent bombing and shooting attacks in Norway said his country has "countered this insane terrorism by demonstrating love and solidarity."

"We have brought out a social capital we maybe even did not know was there. We must rebuild our trust in human beings as fellow human beings," said Church of Norway Bishop Tor Singsaas of Nidaros at the opening of the annual St. Olav Festival in Trondheim on Thursday (July 28).

On July 22, Anders Behring Breivik bombed a government building in Oslo, then massacred youths at a nearby summer camp, killing 76 people in all, according to law enforcement officials.

Since the attacks, Norwegian priests and church workers have joined in caring for the survivors and the victims' families, with churches opened for people seeking comfort and community. Oslo's Lutheran Cathedral, situated a few blocks from the damaged government buildings, has become a center for mourners to light candles. Outside the cathedral, flowers cover large areas and also the street.

As Norwegian police finish the complex task of identifying victims, burials will begin to take place all over the country, most of them in Church of Norway churches and chapels.

Last Sunday, Oslo Cathedral changed its regular service into a televised "Mass of grief and hope." "We will not let fear paralyze us," said Church of Norway Presiding Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien in her homily.

Preaching to a packed cathedral, and with Norway's royal family and political leaders present, Byfuglien said, "In the midst of the gruesome, something beautiful is emerging: the God-given ability of every human being to show goodness and charity. This makes us see glimpses of God."

Stott, called 'evangelical pope,' dies at age 90

(From Religion News Service)


The Rev. John Stott, a renowned and prolific author credited with shaping 20th-century evangelical Christianity, died Wednesday (July 27) in England at age 90.

While not a household name like evangelist Billy Graham, Stott was considered nearly as influential. He wrote more than 50 books, crafted the Lausanne Covenant -- a definitive statement that unified evangelicals worldwide -- and supported numerous Christian scholars through his organization.

If evangelicals elected popes, they would have chosen Stott, the scholar Michael Cromartie once quipped.

"John Stott never had quite that sort of public face," said David Neff, editor in chief of Christianity Today, comparing Stott to Graham. "It's all been networking, institution building, influencing other leaders."

Graham, who worked with Stott on the 1974 global Lausanne conference that led to the covenant, said: "The evangelical world has lost one of its greatest spokesmen, and I have lost one of my close personal friends and advisors."

Stott was a mentor to many evangelicals, from up-and-coming pastors to organization leaders.

California megachurch pastor Rick Warren tweeted on Wednesday about Stott's mentoring role in his life.

"I flew to the UK recently just to pray for him & sit by his bed," Warren wrote. "What a giant!"

Stott, a disciplined man known to annually read the Bible through for more than 50 years, declined the opportunity to become an Anglican bishop. Instead, he became known as "Uncle John" to many in the evangelical circles he traveled.

"Uncle John, was a great influence in my own theological development," said the Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, general secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance. "His commitment to biblical orthodoxy, global mission and unity in the body of Christ were foundational in my own spiritual journey."

Stott's books include Basic Christianity, which Neff said rivals C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, as well as The Cross of Christ and Christian Mission in the Modern World. Stott, in writing and speeches, emphasized the joint need for Christian evangelism and social action.

Though known most for his written word, Stott also was hailed as a longtime Anglican preacher, serving as rector of All Souls Church in London for 25 years and as rector emeritus from 1975 until the time of his death.

When the Rev. S. Douglas Birdsall, executive chair of the Lausanne Movement, informed Lausanne leaders that Stott had died, he spoke of his colleague's multiple passions.

"John Stott's focus was the cross," he wrote. "The church was his great love. World evangelization was his passion. Scripture was his authority. Heaven was his hope. Now it is his home."

Christians divided on Belgium's burqa ban

(From Religion News Service)


Belgian Christians expressed mixed reactions to the country's new "burqa ban," as Belgium joined France in criminalizing the Islamic veil.

"We're against this ruling, since it violates basic human rights," said Kristine Jansone, general secretary of the Brussels-based Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe.

"Although I can't speak on behalf of all our member-groups, I think it's the general consensus we should oppose a measure which will clearly impede the free practice of religion."

The new law, which began implementation on Saturday (July 23), imposes fines of 137.50 Euros ($197.50) and jail terms of up to a week for women caught wearing the burqa in public.

Orthodox Bishop Athenagoras Peckstadt backed the restriction and said Christian doctrine held that "human beings are created with faces" and should be able to look at each other "to be a full person."

"As Orthodox Christians, we're experienced in having to respect the rules of the country we live in," said Peckstadt, a representative of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Belgium. "Most of those who wear the burqa do so because they are obliged to. Isn't this itself a violation of human rights?"

The ban was condemned as discriminatory by the International Imam Organization, which called it "not only distressing but disgraceful for the Islamic community residing in the country as well as outside." A spokesman for Belgium's Roman Catholic Bishops Conference said it has no official opinion about the measure.

Philippe Chevalier, director of Belgium's Brussels Inter-Church Committee, said veiling faces is "unacceptable and unrealistic," but said the ban would concern only a tiny proportion of Belgium's 600,000 Muslims.

Belgium is the second European country to ban the public wearing of the burqa after France, which enforced a prohibition in April.

At least 30 French Muslims have since been fined or prosecuted, according to a July report from the Open Society Foundation.

Similar bans are under consideration in Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Poll: God has better approval rating than Congress

(From Religion News Service)


WASHINGTON -- More than half of U.S. voters approve of God's job performance, according to a new poll, making God more popular than all members of Congress.

The poll -- which was conducted by the Democratic research firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) -- surveyed 928 people and found that 52 percent of Americans approved of God's overall dealings, while only 9 percent disapproved.

Questions about God were asked as part of a larger survey assessing American opinions of congressional leaders in the midst of the ongoing debt ceiling debate in Washington.

God's approval rating exceeded that of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as well as both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, with each party receiving only a 33 percent approval rating.

God also polled significantly higher than the scandal-ridden media baron Rupert Murdoch: only 12 percent of those polled viewed him favorably, compared to 49 percent who viewed him unfavorably.

"Though not the most popular figure PPP has polled, if God exists, voters are prepared to give it (sic) good marks," PPP said in a July 21 press release.

The poll also gauged God's handling of specific "issues." When asked to rate God on the creation of the universe, 71 percent of voters approved and only 5 percent disapproved. Respondents were also generally appreciative of God's governance of the "animal kingdom," with 56 percent approving and 11 percent disapproving.

Younger respondents were more critical of God's handling of natural disasters, with those ages 18-29 expressing a 26 percent disapproval rating, compared to 12 percent disapproval among those 65 and older.

The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Churches press Obama to protect poor in budget talks

(From Religion News Service)

President Obama agrees with religious officials' concerns about protecting the poor as Washington debates the nation's debt ceiling crisis, according to leaders who met with him this week.

A delegation representing Catholic and Protestant organizations met with Obama and high-level White House staffers for 40 minutes on Wednesday (July 20).

"The president basically endorsed our concern for protecting the poor as we work on balancing the budget," Galen Carey, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said after the meeting.

The Rev. David Beckmann, president of the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World, supported the administration's efforts to negotiate a budget that calls for spending cuts and revenue increases.

"We applaud the president for acknowledging that any budget deal must protect programs vital for hungry and poor people," he said in a statement.

Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., representing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said religious leaders are not focusing on the partisan politics of the debt fight but rather on those who will be affected by its outcome: Americans who are out of work, in need of health care or struggling to feed their children.

Other organizations represented at the meeting included the National Council of Churches, the Salvation Army, Sojourners, the National African American Clergy Network, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

These leaders of the "Circle of Protection" movement, which hopes to prevent cuts to poverty-fighting programs, also have met with Democratic and Republican members of Congress.

Ecumenical "accompaniers" aid Palestinians

(From ENInews)

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, which maintains a physical presence to help Palestinians in the West Bank, in July welcomed new team members and opened a new base in the South Hebron hills.

"The south Hebron hills area sees more violence by [Israeli] settlers than any other part of the West Bank, and the local communities there have often requested our presence," said Pauline Nunu, EAPPI's local director. Stone-throwing and scuffles often break out when militant Israeli settlers, claiming a biblical right to the land, harass both Palestinian residents and Israeli defense forces patrolling the area.

The U.N. is expected to vote in September on the question of an independent State of Palestine, which Israel opposes, and Nunu said the group is apprehensive. "We fear that there may be a rise in both settler attacks and house demolitions following September's U.N. vote, heightening the need for an international presence," she said.

Founded in 2003 and coordinated by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, EAPPI receives volunteers from 15 countries and a wide range of denominations. The new EAPPI team, based in the city of Yatta, will cover some of the areas of the West Bank most affected by settler violence. Accompaniers also monitor checkpoints and accompany children to school in areas where they may come into contact with hostile settlers.

One of the new team members was injured in a scuffle at the beginning of the month when they came to the tent village of Susiya. The Palestinians called on the accompaniers to be with them because they were being harassed by settlers who had brought their sheep to graze near the vegetable garden the Palestinians had planted between Susiya and the Israeli settlement of the same name.

Among those injured in the stone throwing and shoving was an elderly woman, Hajja Sara Nawaja, her daughter and four-year-old grandson. Hajja Sara held up her weathered hand and showed where she was injured by a stone. Israeli soldiers were on the scene, but at first did little, she said.

"I felt a deep sadness at how quickly the violence broke out," accompanier Jane Backhust, 43, a Catholic humanitarian aid worker from London, said on 19 July to a group of journalists touring the area. Backhust was among those injured.

A resident activist and representative of the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, Nasr Nawajah, said that although they were unable to prevent the violence, EAPPI's presence carried weight. "We have seen that the behavior of the soldiers when the internationals are among us is a bit less harsh then if we are just Palestinians in the middle of nowhere," Nawajah noted.

Eventually soldiers moved the settlers away, the injured were taken to hospital for treatment and police reports were filed. Arrests have yet to be made though the EAPPI team has photographs and videos of the perpetrators.

Scattered in tiny enclaves with settlements built upon and abutting their land, Palestinian shepherds in villages in the South Hebron Hills are under both Israeli civil and military control and rely on Israel for everything from police protection to building permits.

Although Israeli settlements dot the landscape with red tiled roofs and neat gardens, Palestinians have not been able to build legally in the area since Israel took over the West Bank in 1967, according to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Watkins re-elected president of Disciples

(from Religion News Service)

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) voted to re-elect the Rev. Sharon Watkins as head of the denomination, capping off a weeklong assembly that mixed mundane church business with hot-button issues such as homosexuality, immigration and anti-Muslim hate speech.

Watkins, who already completed one six-year term as general minister and president, spoke before the vote and reflected on her previous leadership and laid out a vision for the future of the church as it struggles with internal debates.

"We need to talk honestly about the gospel message as it relates to race and sexual orientation in our church," she said. "We've been at a stalemate for too long."

During the five-day (July 9-13) assembly in Nashville, Tenn., church delegates also voted to pass several resolutions, including an overture denouncing anti-Muslim hate speech.

"(The church) condemns anti-Muslim speech and activity and calls upon the church to promote respect, civility and love toward our Muslim neighbors," the resolution reads.

During the assembly, Watkins led an evening prayer vigil in the streets of Nashville for immigration reform. "Emergent" author and activist Brian McLaren urged Disciples to be forward-thinking and not "consumed by the unclean spirit of nostalgia."

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was founded in the early 1800s and has about 700,000 members nationwide.

Churches divided on Hungary's new religion law

(from Religion News Service)

Christian leaders in Hungary are divided over a restrictive new law on religion, with larger denominations welcoming its curbs on church activities and smaller groups voicing fears for their future.

"We wanted a new law to make it more difficult to establish churches here -- and we're happy the present government has now done something," said Zoltan Tarr, general secretary of the Hungarian Reformed Church, which claims around a fifth of the country's 9.9 million inhabitants as members.

The new "Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Communities" was enacted July 12 with backing from Hungary's governing center-right Fidesz party.

Under the law, only 14 of 358 registered churches and religious associations will be granted legal recognition, while others will have to reapply for legal registration after two-thirds approval in parliament.

However, the final law was "very different" than a draft shown to faith groups in May, said Laszlo Debreceni , a leader of Hungary's Church of God, which traces its roots to 1907 but was stripped of recognition under the new law.

"I don't think anyone will come and tell us we can't worship God," Debreceni said. "But it will raise serious issues that some churches are now on the approved list and others not."

Under the law, religious groups will need at least 1,000 members and a 20-year presence in Hungary to be recognized. The Hungarian Methodist church and Islamic community were among those stripped of their previous legal status.

The law recognizes Hungary's predominant Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox churches, as well as the Jewish community.

Catholic Church and four Reform churches recognize validity of one another's baptism

(From the National Council of Churches)

New York -- The general secretary of the National Council of Churches today celebrated an historic agreement among the Roman Catholic Church and four historic Protestant reform churches to recognize the validity of one another's baptism.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, staff head of the nation's leading ecumenical body, said, "these five churches have taken a significant step on this road to unity."

The United Church of Christ was the most recent church to adopt the "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism" during its synod earlier this month in Tampa, Fla.

The agreement was approved by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in 2008, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops in November of last year, and the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church at their denominational meetings last month.

"The National Council of Churches is an expression of the ecumenical desire of the churches to be one," Kinnamon said. "It exists to manifest the visible unity of the Church, to the degree that we are already united in our common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to foster greater unity until such time that the churches are fully united around a common Eucharistic table."

Kinnamon said, "Knowing that your churches have proven faithful in responding to the Lord’s own prayer that his followers be one (John 17:21), all of the churc hes in the NCC join you in celebrating this important milestone."

The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, the UCC's Minister of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, said the next step with these partners will be conversations around the Eucharist.

"We are looking forward to our continued ecumenical engagement with our Formula of Agreement partners as well as the Roman Catholic Church," she said.

Church of England may divest from News Corp.

(From Religion News Service)


CANTERBURY, England -- The Church of England said it may sell its $6 million share in News Corp., unless the global media organization conducts a full and open inquiry into a phone hacking scandal.

The church's Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) said it told News Corp. officials that the phone hacking charges swirling around its weekly tabloid, News of the World, are "utterly reprehensible and unethical."

News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch closed the newspaper on Sunday (July 10).

"No reply has been received yet," church spokesman Lou Henderson told ENInews. The issue had been raised privately during discussions about finance and business on Tuesday during the church's General Synod in York, he said.

"While EIAG welcomes the decision to close the News of the World, this action is not a sufficient response to the revelations of malpractice at the paper," EIAG said in a statement that was sent to Rupert Murdoch's office.

The Church of England's investment in the $32 billion News Corp is tiny. But the gesture is seen in business and church circles as significant. The church's total investment portfolio is about $8 billion.

"Church and lay people that know about it (the investment) are of a mind that we should disinvest," said the Rev. Jonathan Alderton-Ford, an Anglican vicar in southern England, "or we should be pressing through our ownership for change in the leadership of News Corporation."

Toronto school defends Muslim prayers in cafeteria

(From Religion News Service)


TORONTO -- A majority-Muslim public school in Toronto is defending its policy of allowing an imam to lead Friday prayers in the cafeteria, saying students who leave school for prayers at a mosque typically don't return to school.

For the past three years, some 300 Muslim students at Valley Park Middle School have been allowed to use the school cafeteria for Friday prayers. Before the policy change, school officials say students would leave classes early and not return.

"I think it's important to note the prayer isn't conducted under the auspices of the board," Jim Spyropoulos, a superintendent for inclusive schools with the Toronto District School Board, told the Globe and Mail newspaper. "This was the best solution that avoided compromising instructional time."

The issue is "about religious accommodation," Shari Schwartz-Maltz, a school district spokeswoman, told The Canadian Press.

Those explanations have not placated angry parents, who are lighting up radio call-in shows and blogging furiously about alleged favoritism toward Islam. Christian and other prayers are disallowed in the public school system.

In an unlikely alliance, Canadian Hindu Advocacy, the Jewish Defense League and the Muslim Canadian Congress have voiced strong opposition to the arrangement.

Islamic groups are "imposing their view" to "spread their ideology," Ron Banerjee, director of Canadian Hindu Advocacy, told the Globe and Mail.

The Muslim Canadian Congress has asked for the services to be halted or closely monitored to avert the spread of radicalism.

The board noted that there have been no complaints about the arrangement until it was highlighted recently by a right-wing blogger.

South Sudan churches hope for new nation's peace and growth

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Fredrick Nzwili

Nairobi, Kenya -- Church leaders in South Sudan expressed their readiness to help secure peace, stability, growth and development in their new nation, which was proclaimed an independent state on 9 July.

The leaders led citizens in thanksgiving prayers on 10 July, a day after thousands in Juba city witnessed General Salva Kiir Mayardit sworn in as the first president "We stand willing to play our part in sharing the burden of responsibility which rests on the shoulders of the government of South Sudan," Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church of Sudan said in a pastoral letter on Independence Day.

Kiir will lead Africa's 54th state. Its nearly 9.7 million people are beset by serious social and economic issues. Most people live on less than one dollar per day. More than 10 percent of children die before the age of 5 and more than 75 percent of adults cannot read or write.

Amid celebrations by the churches, which played a critical role in the 50-year struggle for independence, Deng said his church understood the new government faces numerous challenges in delivering the fruits of autonomy.

He highlighted as the most pressing challenges the oil-rich Abyei area, which is being contested by both north and south, the demarcation of the north-south border and mounting insecurity caused by militia groups.

Soon after being sworn-in, Kiir struck a reconciliatory tone toward renegade militia groups, which continue to fight the South Sudan army. The United Nations has reported that there are seven militia groups operating around the new state, estimating that more than 800 people have died there this year.

"I want to offer public amnesty to all those who took arms against the people of South Sudan. Let them lay down these arms and help us in building this new nation," Kiir said in a speech broadcast live in East Africa.

He also urged his people to forgive the north, a bitter enemy in two civil wars since 1955. "A happy day like this should not dwell in bad memories, but it is important to recognize that for many generations, this land has faced untold suffering and death. We have been bombed, maimed, enslaved and treated worse than refugees in our own country, but we have to forgive, although we will not forget," said Kiir.

As the celebrations continue in the south, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir was quoted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) saying that Abyei was a potential cause of conflict with the new state. Fighting there and in another border region, South Kordofan, has forced some 170,000 people to flee their homes in the run-up to independence.

"We will be your support to bypass the bitterness of the past and our hope is that with your resources that you can move ahead and we are confident that you are aware of the challenges and able to overcome them," Bashir said.

The new state's constitution promises to treat all religions equally, but in the north, there is a movement to have the country governed under Sharia (Islamic law). Before independence, concerns about the future of the church in the north had been expressed.

"I think the Church will suffer for some time," Roman Catholic Bishop Rudolf Deng of Wau Diocese told ENInews in an interview, days before independence. However, he said, such a situation won't last long as most Sunni Muslims in the north "are pragmatists" and realize they need to co-exist with other faiths.

The churches said they will remain united across the two countries during this transitional period to offer solidarity to Christians in the old Sudan and support in separation.

Week of Prayer 2012 asks what victory means for unity

(From the World Council of Churches)

As Poland prepares to host the European Football Championship in 2012, Christians in the country have put the meaning of "victory" and "defeat" at the centre of their reflections for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity that will be celebrated earlier in the year. Preparatory resources based on these reflections are already available in five languages on the website of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

The theme "We will all be changed by the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ" is based on the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:51-58). It promises a transformation of human life, with all its apparent “triumph” and “defeat”, through the victory of Christ's resurrection.

Traditionally celebrated between 18 and 25 January (in the northern hemisphere) or at Pentecost (in the southern hemisphere), the week of prayer mobilizes countless congregations and parishes around the world. During that week, Christians from different confessional families get together and - at least on that occasion - pray together in special ecumenical celebrations.

"Rivalry is a permanent feature not only in sport but also in political, business, cultural and, even, church life" says the introductory text for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2012. Both football and Polish history, marked by military invasions and freedom struggles, have inspired the preparatory group to "spare a thought for the losers", coming to the conclusion that "There is room for everyone in God’s plan of salvation."

The production of the liturgical and biblical material for the week of prayer has been coordinated jointly since 1968 by the World Council of Churches (Faith and Order Commission) and the Roman Catholic Church (Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity).

Resources for the week are available in English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and include: an introduction to the theme; a suggested ecumenical celebration which local churches are encouraged to adapt for their own particular liturgical, social and cultural contexts; biblical reflections and prayers for the "eight days"; and additional prayers from, and an overview of, the ecumenical situation in Poland.

WCC hails independence of South Sudan

(From the World Council of Churches)

South Sudan achieves its independence on Saturday 9 July 2011, and the new president has received congratulations and an assurance of continued solidarity from the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC). In a letter dated 7 July on behalf of the WCC, Tveit extended to the president of the Republic of South Sudan, General Salva Kiir Mayardit, “our prayers and very best wishes for the bright and peaceful future of your country and people.”

Four decades of recurring warfare and confrontation in Sudan have caused an estimated death toll of more than 2 million as well as destroying much of the region’s infrastructure and eroding resources necessary for a healthy economy.

Tveit’s letter recalls that “the WCC, our ecumenical partner the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) and both councils’ member churches have been accompanying the people of Sudan for much of your long struggle. Forty years ago, the WCC together with the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) mediated between the two parties [in Sudan] and reached the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement.”

Later, as conflict reignited, the WCC together with partner churches and organizations remained deeply involved in efforts toward peace in Sudan. In 1994-95, the WCC, AACC and SCC were instrumental in the creation of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum through which Christians provide support to Sudanese churches in their advocacy for peace and reconciliation. These undertakings helped bring about the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ensured the creation of the Republic of South Sudan.

Tveit’s letter will be read at the inaugural ceremony on Saturday in Juba, the capital of the newly instituted Republic of South Sudan, by his predecessor as WCC general secretary, the Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, who serves as special ecumenical envoy of the AACC to the Sudanese peace process.

In an interview on the future of the region, Dr Mathews George Chunakara, director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, remarked that “in the new era of independence the challenges for Sudanese churches will be greater as they roll out creative initiatives for peace and reconciliation and support people in the process of dialogue addressing internal conflicts in the new republic.”

Dalai Lama turns 76 as he kicks off D.C. peace festival

(From Religion News Service)


WASHINGTON -- The Dalai Lama celebrated his 76th birthday in Washington on Wednesday (July 6) by speaking before throngs of well-wishers and kicking off an 11-day peace event in the U.S. capital.

Sporting traditional Tibetan Buddhist robes and a red visor, the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism addressed the large crowd assembled at a downtown arena. His speech, which was delivered partially in English and partially in the Tibetan language, covered a range of topics and referenced other peace-seeking leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

The Dalai Lama touched on a number of topics, including the role of morality in the home. He praised the virtues of providing for family but cautioned against "destructive" and "very bad" habits like gambling.

The Dalai Lama also discussed his recent decision to step down as the political leader of Tibet's government-in-exile, noting discomfort with his dual role as both spiritual leader and head of state.

"Religious and political institutions should be separate. I believe that," he said. "I myself combine these two. This is hypocrisy!"

The Dalai Lama's speech was the first of several planned appearances in Washington over the next week. The spiritual leader is overseeing the July 6-16 "Kalachakra for World Peace," a series of talks and lectures that will also include several Buddhist ceremonies.

Water conflicts pose threat to global peace

(From the World Council of Churches)

Conflicts over water threaten peace in the world, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, told a gathering in Germany on the banks of the River Danube to mark the end of the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV).

“It may well be that in the coming years water will be at the centre of conflicts,” Tveit told the Danube Peace Wave event in Ulm on 2 July.

The Peace Wave project was launched in Ulm in September 2010 and was followed by events along the River Danube in Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. It was intended as a contribution to and celebration of the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence.

The anti-violence decade started in Berlin in 2001 and culminated at an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) in Jamaica in May 2011. Water was one of the issues that emerged at the convocation as a source of potential conflict in the world.

“The WCC is supporting the Ecumenical Water Network as one of many steps that demonstrate a link between peace with nature, and peace between peoples who find themselves in conflict over vital resources,” said Tveit.

In a sermon at the cathedral of Ulm, Tveit highlighted the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as an issue underlying almost all the conflicts in the Middle East and into Asia. In the Middle East as well, he said, “the unjust occupation and use of water is one of the issues in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians”.

Tveit said Christians everywhere have a role to play in the search for a just peace in Israel and Palestine. “What we believe, what we say, can be a contribution to peace and justice – or to something else entirely,” he said.

The WCC he said has launched an Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel through which volunteer accompaniers observe and understand the consequences of injustice and violence.

The International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica, brought together a thousand individuals working for peace and justice from over a hundred countries. As well as celebrating the achievements of the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence, the IEPC also encouraged churches and individuals to renew their commitment to nonviolence, peace and justice.

“The issue of peace is an issue for all of us. It starts with us, and our daily interaction with other human beings. It is about the effects of our lifestyle on others,” said Tveit.

“And to return to the issue of water: our high water usage has an impact on the water economy that in many places is getting out of balance. And we can observe the same thing about food, energy, and the monetary economy.”

Christian presence in the Middle East: theological and political challenges

(From the World Council of Churches)

The need for increased dialogue among churches in the Middle East and with churches in the East and West were only two of the many concerns addressed by 30 theologians, social scientists, politicians and church representatives at a recent conference in Volos, Greece.

The five-day conference, which was sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Volos Theological Academy, was held 19-23 June as a follow up to a WCC Central Committee statement adopted in February on the presence and witness of Christians in the Middle East. This meeting comes in advance of a second meeting with religious leaders to take place in the Middle East in November 2012.

At the conference the group wrestled with the theological and political challenges facing Christians in the Middle East and particularly in Palestine today. These include not only the need for bridging gaps and increasing dialogue, but the future of the Christian presence in the region.

While there are no reliable numbers for the entire region, conflict situations such as Palestine and Iraq have seen significant drops in the Christian populations because of Israeli occupation and the war in Iraq respectively.

In 2003 Christians in Iraq made up almost six percent of the population, today their number has dropped to just one percent.

Christian populations in other countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt have been decreasing over longer periods of time, often due to demographic, economic and immigration realities.

Churches in the Middle East are viewed as the cradle of Christianity, and their decreasing numbers have become a pressing concern for the global Christian community.

During the conference the participants explored a number of topics including the impact of the Kairos Document issued by Palestinian Christian leaders in December 2009 concerning the long running Israeli occupation.

The gathering also explored the impact of recent political uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East on Christians in the region.

Participants listened to testimonies on Christian living experiences coming from different parts of the region. They also explored the historical connection between the Bible and the region, looked into issues of occupation and "Promised Land", the adoption of a minority mentality, as well as theological perspectives including Christian Zionism.

Finally, the gathering sought to propose ways for Christians to help shape the region and deepen the Christian self-understanding in the wider Mediterranean region.

The conference was hosted by Metropolitan Ignatius of Demetrias and heard Bishop Athenagoras of Sinope speaking on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, as well as a message addressed to the participants by the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Hieronymus II. It was followed worldwide through an internet live stream.

Liechtenstein churches may lose government support

(From Religion News Service)


Churches in Liechtenstein, one of the world's smallest countries, could face financial disaster under government plans to withdraw state subsidies under new legislation, according to a Protestant leader.

"This will be a drastic change -- we depend on financial support, and there'll be no chance of obtaining it if the new law goes ahead," said Markus Meidert, president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Liechtenstein.

"This is a predominantly Catholic country, and the Catholic Church is unhappy with the plans as well. But the new law will be especially hard and treacherous for smaller churches like ours, who have none of the Catholic church's resources."

A bill before Liechtenstein's 25-member parliament proposes to end the Roman Catholic church's status as official state church and also withdraw state subsidies from recognized religious communities.

Meidert told ENInews that state grants account for half the current budget of the Evangelical Lutheran church, which has no means of generating income like Christian churches in neighboring Germany and Austria.

The Roman Catholic Church accounts for 78 percent of the 36,000 inhabitants of Liechtenstein, situated between Austria and Switzerland, and receives 300,000 Swiss francs yearly from the state budget, as well as additional funds from the country's 11 municipalities.

Under the government-sponsored reform package, the Roman Catholic Church would lose its status as "state church" with "full protection from the state" as laid out in Liechtenstein's 2003 constitution.

The church's guaranteed role in education and religious teaching in schools would also end, and the state would fund only those programs and services that benefit the collective good.

Christian bodies agree on code of conduct for evangelizing

(From Ecumenical News International)

By John Zarocostas

Geneva -- Three organizations, representing about 90 percent of world Christianity, launched on 28 June a global code of conduct for proselytizing in a bid to reduce tensions between different religious convictions.

"Today represents an historic moment in our shared Christian witness. This is the first time that a document has been issued by the World Council of Churches (WCC) together with the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and the Pontifical Council for the Interreligious Dialogue of the Holy See," said Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.

The three groups represent nearly two billion Christians, according to a WCC spokesman. The text, "Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct," is the result of five years of extensive consultations and negotiations.

Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO and secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, said the document addresses four areas of primary concern: Christian unity, human rights, a positive outlook on mission and evangelism and religious freedom.

It also, he said, calls on all Christians "to re-examine their own practices in light of their life and teachings of Jesus and it shows us that part of our fidelity to the Gospel entails speaking out and working for justice and freedom of all people, in every place."

Tunnicliffe also said the document is a major achievement in the political sphere as it shows to governments, "that Christians are not only able to work together, but that together we are an even stronger voice on behalf of those who suffer oppression and persecution."

The Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC general secretary, when asked what was the key message of the text with regards to proselytizing, said, "our task is to be a witness of our Christian faith, but not to impose it or not provoke anybody in the way we present it." He added, "we need to present the Christian message by the Christian attitude of mutual respect for every human being."

The list of principles also calls on Christians, particularly within interreligious contexts, to reject all forms of violence and strongly advocates freedom of religion and belief, including the right to publicly profess, practice and change one's religion.

Tveit reminded delegates that Christian missionaries have not always engaged in missionary activities that were in conformity with Christian principles.

Similarly, Tauran noted,"our shared history has taught us [that] a lack of prudence and respect for others, leading to inappropriate means of proclamation of Good News, unavoidably brings interreligious tensions, even violence and the loss of human life."

He also said that, "in spite of our divisions, we Christians have the duty to proclaim our faith without any compromise," but also observed the message has to be proclaimed but never imposed.

Another key principle says Christians are to acknowledge that changing one's religion, "is a decisive step that must be accompanied by sufficient time for adequate reflection and preparation, through a process of personal freedom."

Greek Orthodox rally to rebuild Ground Zero church

(From Religion News Service)


NEW YORK -- With cries of "Rebuild now! Rebuild Now!" parishioners and supporters of a Greek Orthodox church that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks rallied at Ground Zero on Sunday (June 26) in hopes of resuming negotiations to rebuild the church.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have been at odds for several years over the cost and exact location of the rebuilt church.

"Shame on the Port Authority to take this long to rebuild our church," Nicholas A. Karacostas, supreme president of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, a national Greek-American group, at a rally that drew about 100 people to the site of the former World Trade Center.

"It's a crime, it's a crime for us to beg them to rebuild the church in its rightful place."

Less than three months before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the church's pastor, the Rev. John Romas, said he and his flock are frustrated that negotiations have been stalled for almost a year.

"Let us hope our prayers will be answered," Romas said.

The Port Authority is in charge of the overall rebuilding efforts at Ground Zero. St. Nicholas, a small parish whose history dates back to 1916, stood in the shadows of the trade center's twin towers and was the only house of worship destroyed in the attacks.

The uncertain future of St. Nicholas has sometimes been described as a reflection of larger problems at the World Trade Center site, where rebuilding has been marred by delays, political infighting, financing problems and bureaucratic snafus.

While rebuilding St. Nicholas is considered a small part of the overall rebuilding efforts, the negotiations over the church have been particularly sour. Earlier this year, frustrated church officials filed a lawsuit against the Port Authority over the delays.

The Port Authority and the church had a preliminary agreement for a land swap in which the church would give up rights to its former site on Cedar Street and rebuild at a larger property on Liberty Street.

The Port Authority did not respond immediately for comment about the rally or the criticisms made by the church. But officials had previously said talks with St. Nicholas got bogged down over what they called the church's escalating demands.

At the Sunday rally, a number of speakers noted that prominent political leaders -- including New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg -- had championed the cause of a controversial Muslim cultural center near Ground Zero, but supporters of St. Nicholas said they had experienced nothing but frustration.

"We're just very frustrated it's taken so long," Karacostas said in an interview. "And there's still nothing to show for it."

Report says Islamophobia on the rise

(From Religion News Service)


A new report asserts that anti-Muslim prejudice has worsened in recent years, but argues the trend could be reversed with greater community outreach.

The report, "Same Hate, New Target: Islamophobia and its Impact in the United States," was released Thursday (June 23) by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the University of California Berkeley's Center for Race and Gender.

While the report said there are no comprehensive figures to quantify the problem, anti-Muslim discrimination is broken into several categories, including hate crimes, workplace issues, schools, public accommodation, mosque vandalism and religious "profiling."

"When we say there are campaigns against Islam and Muslims, a lot of people dismiss it as conspiracy theories," said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky and a CAIR board member.

"But this proves that there are concerted campaigns against Islam and Muslims."

Kamran Memon, a civil rights attorney in Chicago who represents Muslims in discrimination cases, said Islamophobia is not "a PR problem that can be solved with good marketing."

"We need to acknowledge that people have legitimate fears that can only be turned around with serious engagement," Memon said.

The report lists figures it believes to be countering Islamophobia, including comedian Jon Stewart and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as perceived anti-Muslim offenders, including GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

The report defined Islamophobia as "close-minded prejudice against or hatred of Islam and Muslims," and said it is "not appropriate to label all, or even the majority of those, who question Islam and Muslims as Islamophobes."

Beatification of Nazi martyrs divides Lutherans, Catholics

(From Religion News Service)


LUEBECK, Germany -- Residents of this north German city have long taken pride in four native sons -- three Catholic priests and a Lutheran pastor -- who were beheaded in quick succession on Nov. 10, 1943 by the Nazi regime.

The commingled blood of Catholic priests Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange, Eduard Mueller and Lutheran pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink spawned an ecumenical cooperation between the city's majority Lutherans and minority Catholics that still lasts.

But the Vatican's decision to beatify the three priests on Saturday (June 25) -- but not Stellbrink -- is testing that ecumenical spirit, and has some religious leaders worried that the event could drive a wedge between the two communities.

"People worry that the priests who are beatified will be seen as higher than Stellbrink, and that the focus will be on the three, not the four," said the Rev. Constanze Maase, pastor of Luther Church in Luebeck.

"We recognize that beatification is an important part of the identity of the Catholic Church. But there is a sadness, because it makes the ecumenical work more complicated," he said.

Prassek was a 30-year-old chaplain at Luebeck's Sacred Heart Catholic Church when he met Stellbrink, a 47-year-old pastor at the nearby Luther Church, at a funeral in 1941. They had a shared disapproval of the Nazi regime, and Prassek soon introduced Stellbrink to his two Catholic colleagues, Lange and Mueller.

The four clergymen were active but discreet in their anti-Nazi activities, speaking out against the Nazis and distributing pamphlets to close friends and congregants.

That changed when the British Royal Air Force bombed Luebeck on March 28, 1942. After Stellbrink spent the night tending to the wounded, he went to his church to celebrate Palm Sunday, and attributed the bombing to divine punishment.

Stellbrink was arrested a few days later, followed soon after by the priests. All four were sentenced to death. Rather than fear their executions, the four were said to have died as happy martyrs, confident that they were going to be with God.

"Who can oppress one who dies," Prassek wrote in a farewell letter to his family.

Just as Christian tradition sees the blood of the martyrs as the seeds of the church, many observers credit the four clergymen with spawning a German ecumenism that had been almost unheard of until then.

"They didn't create a big movement, but they were very influential within their churches, and they planted the seeds of ecumenical cooperation in Germany," said the Rev. Franz Mecklenfeld, a priest at Sacred Heart. The church held its first memorial Mass for the martyrs on Nov. 10, 1945, and included the Lutheran Stellbrink in its remembrances.

In post-war Luebeck, Lutherans and Catholics jointly celebrated the men with memorial Masses, and have formed ecumenical discussion groups. The Luther Church erected an exhibit to all four men in 1993, while the Sacred Heart Church also commemorates all four men its crypt, and is planning a larger exhibit later this year.

But many Lutherans, including Stellbrink's last surviving daughter, worry that putting the three priests on the path to sainthood may risk relegating the Lutheran pastor to obscurity.

"Many Christians, including me, are disappointed that the current pope seems to be doing little for the ecumenical solidarity of churches, especially regarding Lutherans," wrote retired Lutheran pastor Heinz Russmann in an editorial published by a Luebeck news website.

"All four should be beatified," said Russmann, a veteran of the city's ecumenical dialogue. "When that doesn't go, then none!"

Among the best known Catholic critics of the beatification is Hans-Lothar Fauth, a former Dominican monk who later opened a nightclub and became city politician. After he couldn't get the city and church groups to pay for a memorial to all four martyrs at Luebeck's 12th-century city hall, he bankrolled one in 2004.

"To Luebeckers, these four men belong together. They are already holy. The church didn't need to involve itself," Fauth said.

Mecklenfeld said concerns over the beatification are not "unfounded," but said it need not derail ecumenical relations, which could be maintained through continuing cooperation that celebrates all four martyrs.

Mecklenfeld noted that several Roman Catholic cardinals are scheduled to attend a special Lutheran service planned to honor Stellbrink the day before the June 25 beatification.

Mecklenfeld said German-born Pope Benedict XVI contributed to the ecumenical spirit by speaking of all four men together rather than just three, when he received Germany's new ambassador to the Holy See last September.

"The attested friendship of the four (priests) is an impressive testimony of the ecumenism of prayer and suffering, flowering in several places during the dark period of the Nazi terror," Benedict told German Ambassador Walter Jurgen Schmid.

Lutheran leaders agreed that ecumenical relations could be maintained, but said it would require extra effort. "We're celebrating this together," said Maase.

And, apparently, still working together. When more than 200 neo-Nazis marched through town on March 27 to commemorate the 1942 bombing, they were met by more than 2,000 counter-demonstrators, including hundreds from the Luther Church and Sacred Heart and other churches.

"It's our work now to make sure this ecumenism is not destroyed," said Maase. "The beatification doesn't have to separate us."

Churches call for U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan

(From Religion News Service)


WASHINGTON -- As President Obama prepared plans to bring a limited number of U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, a group of 40 religious leaders called for the president to "bring the war in Afghanistan to an end."

Signers of an open letter, including high-profile religious leaders like Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, expressed frustration over the "deteriorating" state of affairs in Afghanistan and the rising military and civilian death toll, saying "the military situation is at best a stalemate."

The Tuesday (June 21) letter acknowledged that "legitimate ethical and moral issues are at stake" in Afghanistan, including U.S. national security and women's rights, but said "there is a better way than war to address these important issues."

Developmental aid provided by nongovernmental organizations was championed as an alternative to war, with the signers saying "it is time to transition toward a plan that builds up civil society and provides economic alternatives for Afghans."

The letter admitted that some signers initially supported military action in Afghanistan as a "justified response" to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but said the representatives are now "united in the belief" that the war should end.

The letter boasted a number of signers affiliated with the National Council of Churches, including NCC General Secretary Michael Kinnamon. Several leading NCC member churches -- including the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- were notably absent.

Report: Mercedes to unveil new eco-friendly popemobile

(From Religion News Service)


BERLIN -- Pope Benedict XVI has a lot of ground to cover when he heads back home to Germany this September, but thanks to a new popemobile from Mercedes, at least 30 of those kilometers (18.5 miles) will be on the greener side.

The Vatican has contracted with Mercedes for the first-ever hybrid popemobile, according to a report by business magazine Wirtschaftswoche. Citing company sources associated with the top-secret project, the magazine reported that the vehicle, based on Mercedes' M Class, would come with both a battery and a gasoline engine.

It was never considered, according to the report, to resort to an entirely battery-powered car since security threats require the pope to always have the option of a quick getaway.

The new hybrid engine would allow the popemobile to go 30 kilometers (about 18.5 miles) purely on battery power, which would require a one-hour plug-in charge. The car reportedly runs on a lithium-ion battery and a 60-horsepower hybrid engine.

Mercedes has been providing vehicles for the Vatican for eight decades. The iconic popemobile was first used in the 1980s, when Pope John Paul II yearned for a vehicle that would let him have closer contact to people during his overseas visits.

Neither the website of Mercedes, nor its parent company, Daimler, made any mention of a possible new hybrid popemobile.

September's four-day visit is Benedict's first official state visit to his native Germany since ascending to the papacy in 2005, though he has visited privately several times.

Van Impe leaves TBN over 'Chrislam' remarks

(From Religion News Service)


Jack Van Impe, a popular End Times broadcaster, has ended his decades-long run on Trinity Broadcasting Network after a dispute over naming ministers that he accuses of mixing Christian and Muslim beliefs.

Earlier this month, Van Impe named California megachurch founders Rick Warren and Robert H. Schuller as proponents of "Chrislam," which he defined as "a uniting of Christianity with Islam." TBN pulled the episode before a repeat broadcast could air.

Michigan-based Jack Van Impe Ministries said its board of directors decided unanimously Thursday (June 17) to no longer work with TBN.

"We would not be able to minister effectively if we had to look over our shoulder wondering if a program was going to be censored because of mentioning a name," said Ken Vancil, executive director of the ministry, in a statement.

TBN president and founder Paul Crouch expressed disappointment with the ministry's decision.

"Although I understand, and actually agree with, your position that you 'will not allow anyone to tell me what I can and cannot preach,' I trust you understand that TBN takes the same position with its broadcast air time as well," Crouch wrote in a letter to Van Impe.

Van Impe's program cited Warren's speech to an Islamic conference in Washington in 2009 and Schuller's keynote address at an interfaith conference called "A Common Word" in 2008.

Van Impe and his co-host wife, Rexella, also claimed Warren said churches can attract new believers by taking crosses down from inside and outside their buildings.

In a June 8 tweet, Warren said just the opposite: "If you remove the cross from the church, it's no longer the church. Just a social club."

Rowan Williams sparks a political row in England

(From Religion News Service)


CANTERBURY, England -- Nearly a millennium ago, four unruly knights crossed the English Channel from France and confronted the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, over his feud with King Henry II.

Before the knights smashed the future saint's skull in front of monks at an altar inside Canterbury Cathedral, Henry is said to have wondered aloud, "Who shall rid me of this turbulent priest?"

These days, Prime Minister David Cameron might be wondering the same about the current archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Williams sparked a political row by criticizing the government's austerity measures and budget cuts as the cause of "bafflement and indignation," saying they are nothing more than "radical, long-term policies for which no one voted."

To be sure, Williams' two most recent predecessors angered the governments of their day when Robert Runcie confronted Margaret Thatcher over budget cuts in the 1980s and George Carey blasted Britain's support for the war in Iraq.

But never have the words of a sitting archbishop of Canterbury caused quite so much anger as Williams' during his stint as guest editor of the left-leaning New Statesman magazine earlier this month.

The very public flap threw a spotlight on Williams' twin roles as head of the Church of England and also the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, and the difficulty of doing both.

If he wades into national politics, critics say he should instead return to ensuring his global flock doesn't break up over human sexuality. Yet if he ignores the politics of the day, he's criticized for not using his bully pulpit.

Less than two months after the media hailed him as a "national treasure" when he officiated at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, Williams has become, in the words of the Sunday Times' Minette Marrin, a "wordy, holy, hairy man" who is "hustling his tiny flock towards the cliffs of disestablishment with the foolish, self-destructive recklessness of Don Quixote."

Former Times editor William Rees-Mogg was a tad more succinct in blasting Williams' critique of government spending cuts. Williams, he said, had shown a distinct lack of "Christian charity."

Writing in the New Statesman's June 9 issue, Williams questioned the value of the coalition government's reforms, and charged that Cameron's "Big Society" platform had been conceived for "opportunistic and money-saving reasons" and that its ideas were "painfully stale."

Taken aback by Williams' public critique, Cameron rejected Williams' views but nonetheless said he had every right to express them. For good measure, Britain's top Roman Catholic prelate, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, sided with Cameron.

Williams has received support from some quarters of the church, including a handful of bishops and one retired priest, the Rev. John Papworth, who said, "Not only does the Archbishop of Canterbury have a right to engage in public debate, but it is also his duty."

Others in the Church of England have noted this is not the first time Williams stepped into the political arena.

He has condemned racism and advised voters not to support the far right-wing British National Party (BNP). In 1985, Williams was arrested during a protest organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at a U.S. air base in Suffolk.

Williams comes from a tradition of activism in a poor part of Wales, and was born into a family of Presbyterians-turned-Anglicans who were steeped in a strain of Anglo-Catholicism.

By criticizing the current coalition government, Williams opened himself up to questions about his own leadership skills, both in the Church of England and the larger communion, where he has the power of persuasion, but little else.

Within the Anglican Communion, conservative Third World archbishops have blasted him -- and subsequently gone on to mostly ignore him -- for not disciplining the independent-minded U.S. Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans for their embrace of homosexuality.

Western liberals, meanwhile, likewise ignored his pleas not to ordain openly gay bishops or bless same-sex unions, and rebuffed his plans for an Anglican "covenant" that would bind the communion's 44 member churches.

Williams, 61, has said that he would love to spend less time talking about homosexuality in order to concentrate on what he calls "the real issues" -- hunger, poverty and disease, especially in the developing world.

Yet when he does, as in the New Statesman article, conservative critics say he should spend more time healing the bruised Church of England and leave politics to the politicians.

Marrin, from the Sunday Times, said the incident reflected the church's unique role in governance of the state, and vice versa -- and not in a good way.

"It has long been clearly absurd that a priest without any mandate from anyone, other than a few quarrelsome men in frocks, should have any ex officio position of power," she wrote. "Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury sits in the House of Lords and so do 25 other Anglican lords spiritual by right of unelected office."

An editorial in The Daily Mail suggested that if Williams wants to make political speeches, "he should resign and join the Labor Party which over the last 13 years did such harm to the fabric of British society."

Current violence in Sudan threatens independent South Sudan

(From the World Council of Churches)

Escalating violence against civilians in Sudan’s disputed South Kordofan State is leading to major humanitarian catastrophe with an estimated 300,000 people besieged, cut off from relief aid, and unable to escape fighting, according to a number of aid agencies and witnesses in the region.

Up to 40,000 people have fled recent fighting between Sudanese government troops and members of the former southern rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), in Kadugli, the capital of Sudan’s oil-producing state of South Kordofan, the United Nations has said.

“The violence and displacement of people now taking place is a potential threat to the peaceful transition and independence of South Sudan,” WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit said Friday. “We call on those involved to end the violence immediately and for those countries involved in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which led to the January referendum to place pressure on both sides to resolve this situation.”

In the 9 January referendum nearly 99 percent of voters in southern Sudan – which is predominantly Christian and animist – chose to secede from the rest of Sudan. In doing so they created the world's newest nation which on 9 July will formally declare and celebrate their independence. The remainder of Sudan has a Muslim majority and leadership.

“The people of Sudan as well as the churches in Sudan have committed too much of their lives in the past decades to work for peace to see the region slip into violence again,” Tveit said. “The ecumenical community worldwide calls upon the participants to now move forward into a future of peace for all. The will and desire of the people of Sudan is for peace and justice and we must all help to make this dream a reality.”

The United States, China, African Union, European Union and Arab League all played a crucial role in brokering the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and their involvement, along with civil society efforts that include the Sudan Council of Churches and the Sudan Ecumenical Forum (SEF), led to the peaceful referendum process.

Longstanding ecumenical engagement

Since 1994, the Sudan Ecumenical Forum, which has been supported by the WCC and the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), has played a major role in raising awareness in the international arena about conflicts in Sudan, with the voice of the Sudanese churches at the centre.

The Rev. Eberhard Hitzler, co-chair of the SEF, said on Friday that urgent action is needed. “A humanitarian crisis on an enormous scale is unfolding in South Kordofan State. We appeal to world leaders and governments to pay attention to this situation and urgently protect people.”

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki met on Thursday with Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir in Khartoum. Mbeki was scheduled to fly to Juba today, Friday, to confer with southern leaders.

Already, SEF has received reports by independent witnesses claiming violence and atrocities against civilians. Witnesses report seeing people perceived to be SPLA sympathizers dragged out of the United Nations Missions in Sudan (UNMIS) compound in Kadugli and executed in front of UNMIS personnel who did not intervene.

These claims from witnesses have been backed up by evidence of churches in the region which have contacted SEF pleading for urgent assistance and to bring the killings to the world’s attention. According to a report from the Reuters news agency on Friday, the south is bracing for aerial bombardment.

In addition to killings, looting, burning of property and tens of thousands of people on the run, the violence is a serious threat to stability between northern and southern Sudan and could affect the whole region, Hitzler says.

The Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) is also calling on the humanitarian community and the UN mission to rescue survivors and on the international community to prevent a return to war in Sudan. For the last five days, survivors have locked themselves into their homes, without food or water, for fear of being killed.

Others have fled to the mountains where they are being pursued by helicopter gunships, the SCC says.

Message of the WCC presidents at Pentecost 2011

(From the World Council of Churches)

Renewal and witness at the heart of Pentecost

Power from the Holy Spirit, drawing on “the uncreated energy of God” and revealing the Word of God in Jesus Christ, is the divine blessing for which Christians give thanks on the Sunday of Pentecost.

The eight presidents of the World Council of Churches, in their annual Pentecost message, write that this holy day “offers a new opportunity to each church community and to each of us” to celebrate “the advent and gift of the Holy Spirit, to renew our trust in the Spirit’s power.” They invite us to pray for grace to become witnesses to Christ’s cross and resurrection as well as “to justice, peace and hope” in the world.

In 2011, Pentecost falls on Sunday 12 June. The day occurs fifty days after Easter and marks the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower the church. The biblical description of the event appears in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.

Message of the WCC presidents at Pentecost 2011

You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. (Acts 1:8)

The promise of the resurrected Christ before his ascension was actualized on the day of Pentecost in two types of power: the sound “as of a rushing mighty wind” and “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:2-3). The advent of the Holy Spirit surpasses all possible description. For this reason Luke the evangelist uses the word “as”.

The powerful wind completely renews the entire atmosphere; it creates a new climate, providing a life-giving environment of breath and energy. “This energy filled the whole house where they were sitting.” The disciples were flooded, immersed, “baptized” in this divine energy, as the Lord had previously announced: “before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5).

The other type of power is symbolized by “tongues as of fire”. It is a manifestation of the uncreated energy of God. The fire burns, heats, enlightens. The Holy Spirit acts within the world “as” fire, burning whatever is dangerous or not useful – warming, comforting, strengthening. The Holy Spirit will forever remain a source of enlightenment, revealing the truth concerning the mystery of the Holy Trinity and of human existence.

The Holy Spirit comes in an hour when “they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1), in a celebration of thanksgiving – “the Pentecost”. It comes at a gathering of the faithful – “among the brethren” of “about a hundred and twenty” (cf. Acts 1:15), in order to transform the gathering into the Church of the Triune God. The “rushing wind” does not originate from some earthly direction but “from heaven”, from the “Father in heaven”. The fiery presence is split into tongues “and one sat upon each of them”. In this way the direct relationship between the Spirit and the Word of God (the Logos) is revealed, along with the personal nature of the divine gifts. The Spirit will reveal Christ as Lord and Saviour (cf. I Cor. 12:3) to human beings and will bring him, along with his grace, into the human heart. The Holy Spirit continues the saving work of Christ, within time and space, radiating the divine energy; in ways, often incomprehensible to the human mind. “The wind (pneuma) blows where it wills” (John 3:8).

The power, which the disciples received on Pentecost with the advent of the Holy Spirit, does not concern their spiritual progress and personal growth only. It is not an individualistic enlightenment, a fortunate state of ecstasy for them to enjoy on their own. It is offered for the transmission of the gospel of salvation to all of the inhabited world, the oikoumene, to continue the work of the transformation of the world, the work which Christ began: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The disciples, who until then had been afraid, are turned into courageous apostles, the ones who are sent to continue the ministry of Christ in the world. And the Church becomes for all time “apostolic”.

The steadfast desire of each of the faithful is to become a temple of the Holy Spirit, for the personality of each one to be perfected with the maturity of the fruits of the Spirit within them (Gal. 5:22), so that each may become a bearer of the Spirit of love, truth, holiness and reconciliation within their surroundings, to those both near and far, and to contribute to a constant renewal of humanity.

Every celebration of Pentecost offers a new opportunity to each church community and to each of us, to live eucharistically and doxologically the advent and gift of the Holy Spirit, to renew our trust in the Spirit’s power and to implore with all of the intensity of our soul:

All-Holy Spirit, “come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain”:
Strengthen our courage and determination.
Renew and impart new breath and power to the Church.
And give us the power to become, in today’s suffering world,
“martyrs” of the cross and the Resurrection, witnesses to justice,
peace and hope.

Archbishop Dr Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania, Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania
Mr John Taroanui Doom, Maohi Protestant Church (French Polynesia)
Rev. Dr Simon Dossou, Methodist Church in Benin
Rev. Dr Soritua Nababan, Protestant Christian Batak Church (Indonesia)
Rev. Dr Ofelia Ortega, Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba
Patriarch Abune Paulos, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
Rev. Dr Bernice Powell Jackson, United Church of Christ (USA)
Dame Dr Mary Tanner, Church of England

Gallup says 9 in 10 Americans believe in God

(From Religion News Service)


A new Gallup poll finds 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God, a figure that has dropped by only a few points since Gallup first asked the question in the 1940s.

Gallup pollster Frank Newport offered some background on those numbers:

Americans' self-reported belief in God has been relatively constant over the last 6 1/2 decades; the percentage of Americans who respond that they believe in God now stands within six points of the all-time high in the 1950s and 1960s.

Previous Gallup surveys have shown that when respondents are given the ability to express doubts about their belief, the percentage of Americans who report a certain belief in God drops to 70 to 80 percent.

Additionally, about 12 percent of Americans say they believe in a universal spirit or higher power instead of "God" when given that option.

Still, the May 2011 poll reveals that when given only the choice between believing and not believing in God, more than 9 in 10 Americans say they do believe.

The age group least likely to claim belief in God is 18-29-year-olds, at 84 percent, compared to 94 percent of older Americans. In addition, 98 percent of Republicans claim belief, compared to 90 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of independents.

The most recent (2005) Eurostat study of religious beliefs among Europeans found that 52 percent of Europeans believed in God, 27 percent believed in "some sort of spirit or life force," and 18 percent claimed no belief whatsoever.

(Troy Reimink writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich.)

Egyptians want advice, not rule, of clerics

(From Religion News Service)


WASHINGTON -- Four months after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a new Gallup survey says a majority of Egyptians want religious leaders to advise the nation's officials but they do not want a theocracy.

About seven in 10 Egyptians said clerics should advise national leaders on legislation. In comparison, 14 percent said religious leaders should have full authority in creating laws and 9 percent said they should have no authority.

The findings, announced Tuesday (June 7), come from the United Arab Emirates-based Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, which monitors attitudes of Muslims worldwide.

Even as they seek a limited advisory role for clergy, most Egyptians (67 percent) want religious freedom as a provision in a new constitution. A much higher percentage (92 percent) say freedom of speech should be included, and slightly more than half want a new constitution to include freedom of assembly.

The report, titled "Egypt From Tahrir to Transition," notes that despite sectarian violence in the country following Mubarak's resignation, Egyptians are among the most religiously tolerant in Gallup's ranking of populations in the Middle East and North Africa.

"Two-thirds of Egyptians say they would have no objections if someone of another faith moved in next door to them, second only to Lebanon in the region," the report states.

The findings are based on in-person interviews with about 1,000 people ages 15 and older in late March and early April, and have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 to 3.5 percentage points.

Book says MacArthur flooded Japan with post-war religion

(From Religion News Service)


A new book on post-war Japan says Gen. Douglas MacArthur sought to fill the country's "spiritual vacuum" with religious and quasi-religious beliefs, from Christianity to Freemasonry, as an antidote to communism.

In "1945 Under the Shadow of the Occupation: The Ashlar and The Cross," Japanese investigative journalist Eiichiro Tokumoto documents MacArthur's efforts to persuade missionaries to intensify their efforts, even encouraging mass conversions to Catholicism.

"There was a complete collapse of faith in Japan in 1945 -- in our invincible military, in the emperor, in the religion that had become known as 'state Shinto,'" Tokumoto writes.

A number of documents Tokumoto used for research were declassified only recently, including accounts of a 1946 meeting between MacArthur and two U.S. Catholic bishops.

"General MacArthur asked us to urge the sending of thousands of Catholic missionaries -- at once," Bishops John F. O'Hara and Michael J. Ready later reported to the Vatican. MacArthur told them that they had a year to help fill the "spiritual vacuum" created by the defeat.

Based on his experience in the Philippines, MacArthur believed the Catholic Church could find particular appeal because the tradition of seeking absolution for one's mistakes or misdeeds "appeals to the Oriental," they reported.

In the wake of the missionaries' efforts, the Bible became a best-seller in Japan, while the number of Catholics climbed about 19 percent between 1948 and 1950, Tokumoto said.

The missionaries' success, however, was short-lived. Relatively few of the 2,000 or so who flooded into Japan could speak Japanese, and the 1960s saw a student backlash against perceived "elite" Christians who ran several major universities.

RCA Partners Concerned about Refugees' Fate

(From RCA Communications)

A boat carrying 840 West African refugees has capsized on its way to Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea.

Two people have died and 270 are still missing.

"The Italian Protestant churches are deeply affected by every loss of life on the sea between north Africa and Italy," says Paolo Naso, RCA mission partner personnel working with the Waldensian Church in Italy. "According to our estimates, 15 to 20 percent of our congregations are composed of immigrants, especially from sub-Saharan Africa. It's a rapidly growing phenomenon, enriching and changing the historical Italian Protestantism."

Violence in north African countries such as Libya and Tunisia has driven many people to become refugees. Thousands have landed on Lampedusa, which is closer to Tunisia than it is to Italy. (Read an early April update from Naso about the refugee situation in Lampedusa.)

"Please pray for those who are still waiting to be rescued, as well as for their rescuers," says Duncan Hanson, supervisor of RCA mission in Europe, the Middle East, and India. "Pray also for those who care for the refugees who manage to reach Italy."

The Waldensian Church in Italy has taken in 20 of the survivors. "This is especially important to the Waldensian Church in Italy as its ministry Being Church Together works with immigrant populations such as these and is working toward a peace and acceptance of cultures within the church and communities of Italy," Hanson says.

"Being Church Together is a program of the Waldensian Church--a historical ecumenical partner of the RCA--to promote multiracial congregations and to raise the consciousness of our congregations about migrants from Africa and the need to integrate them into our congregations and Italy as a whole," Naso says.

"On Sunday, June 19, many Italian Waldensian and Methodist congregations will hold special worship services to express their Christian witness in solidarity with the refugees. Other congregations will hold special events to honor and acknowledge the presence of African immigrants on this day."

European institutions "more open than ever" to church co-operation

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Jonathan Luxmoore

Warsaw, Poland -- A senior ecumenist has welcomed growing co-operation between leaders of European institutions and churches, and predicted a growing advisory role for religious communities.

"I think we're seeing a greater openness today than ever before," said Rudiger Noll, director of the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches (CEC). "Our latest meeting was triggered by the Arab uprisings and European response, and by Europe's financial and economic crisis, and in both areas the institution presidents were very clear. What's needed is a new value-based, community approach in Europe, rather than just an economic system. They're turning to the churches for this."

The United Church of Westphalia pastor was speaking after a Brussels meeting on 30 May between 20 religious leaders and the Portuguese president of the European Union's governing commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, as well as the European Council's Belgian president, Herman van Rompuy, and the Polish president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek.

In an ENInews interview on 30 May, he said religious leaders now had regular "institutionalized meetings" with senior European officials, including the EU's rotating presidency, and "dialogue seminars" on issues of common concern, in line with Article 17 of the EU's 2008 Lisbon Treaty, which guarantees churches an "open, transparent and regular dialogue" with EU institutions. However, he added that church leaders also hoped to strengthen the structural contacts with a "deeper culture of dialogue."

"EU leaders have said they didn't need the Lisbon Treaty to have a relationship with us," said Noll, whose organization, founded in 1959, groups 125 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic churches, and 40 associated organizations.

"Although it would be naive to believe all our member-churches speak the same language, we should at least singing, at the end of the day, from the same hymn sheet - playing different instruments, but making up a single orchestra."

In his address to the annual meeting, the religious leaders' seventh with European institution presidents, CEC's Orthodox president, Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, said the world of faith could "prove a powerful ally in efforts to address issues of democratic rights and liberties."

A 30 May CEC press release said the mostly Orthodox and Protestant representatives had reiterated their commitment to promote "the rights of minorities and migrants, economic justice, participation, solidarity, freedom of speech and expression as well as religious freedom."

The meeting followed a 25-28 May annual plenary of CEC's Church and Society Commission in Brussels, which was attended by religious affairs specialists from the EU's European External Action Service, Bureau of European Policy Advisors and European Parliament presidency.

A 27 May CEC statement said the commission had agreed to finalize a human rights training manual for European churches and join the Sunday Alliance network, adding that member-churches were committed to operating as "responsible and competent partners for the European institutions," while seeking to "speak with a common voice and make sure this voice is heard."

The inclusion of the Church and Society Commission on a new EU Transparency Register, requiring companies and organizations lobbying the EU to have their activities publicly recorded, would "allow for regular and non-bureaucratic exchanges to complement the formal dialogue process," the statement said.

In his ENI interview, Rudiger Noll said the current openness to churches and faiths was a "common sentiment among EU officials," but added that CEC also counted on the appointment of a "permanent facilitator" in the 736-seat European Parliament, to ensure dialogue was maintained during an upcoming change of leadership from the center-right European People's Party to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.

"When it comes to relations with the institutions, the churches are always surprised to see how much they have in common--the context in which we live is much more important than any theological or confessional divergences," the CEC Commission director told ENInews.

Reformed church group approves strategic plan

(From Ecumenical News International)

Geneva -- The largest global grouping of Reformed churches has approved a strategic plan for 2011-2017 that focuses on youth leadership development, increased collaboration with regional church groups, and a call to make visible the connection between Reformed theology and justice concerns.

The decision came during meetings of the Executive Committee of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in Geneva earlier this month, according to a news release from the WCRC.

"The spirit of change is moving through the global family of Reformed churches," WCRC President Jerry Pillay said. "This is the time for us to focus our efforts in responding to the needs of a hurting and broken world. We can't do it all. Now is the time to choose what to do and to prepare ourselves to do it well."

The plan was developed following the launch of the WCRC in June 2010, which was the result of the merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Reformed Ecumenical Council. Omega Bula of the United Church of Canada coordinated the Strategic Planning Team whose members were appointed from Malaysia, Uruguay, Northern Ireland, and the United States, South Africa and Canada.

The plan points to the importance of communicating what it means to be a member of the Reformed church tradition and to working with regional church groups to address gender, economic and environmental concerns. Mission and the study of Reformed theology in today's world, along with renewed worship models, will be key to the work of the organization in coming years.

In welcoming the adoption of the plan, WCRC General Secretary Setri Nyomi said, "This helps the staff team discern how best to meet the priority needs named by member churches and key partners."

This process of prioritizing is particularly important, Nyomi says, given the small staff team in Geneva. One of the programme positions will be vacant until later in the year when a new Executive Secretary for Justice and Partnership will be named to replace Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth who leaves the post at the end of May.

In his report on finances, General Treasurer Gottfried Locher told the Executive Committee that funding for programmes such as theological education, gender justice and mission is strong. Locher noted, however, that financing for the core budget of the organization remains a concern as the rising value of the Swiss franc means WCRC realizes less income from donations made in other currencies such as the U.S. dollar.

WCRC Finance Officer Yueh Cho reported that 60 member churches have not paid their annual contribution in over three years. The Executive Committee voted to enforce a constitutional provision that calls for church membership to be suspended when a church fails to respond to correspondence about arrears in contributions. The churches in arrears will first be given time to make up the amount due.

The Executive Committee approved a balanced budget for 2011 while endorsing the call for all member churches to pay their membership dues. Work continues on fundraising initiatives in support of the WCRC Endowment Fund in North America. Fundraising opportunities in other regions of the world are under discussion.

The Executive Committee concluded its meetings by paying tribute to the Executive Secretary for Justice and Partnership, Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth, who is leaving her position to return to her native Guyana. Representatives from the World Council of Churches, Lutheran World Federation, and the Council for European Churches praised Sheerattan-Bisnauth for her collaboration in ecumenical programmes focused on gender rights, environmental concerns, and economic justice.

In other actions, the Executive Committee called on the government of Colombia to take specific measures to ensure the prosecution of those state and non-state actors responsible for human rights violations in a protracted internal conflict. It also asked the government of the United States to dismantle military bases in Colombia and redirect its foreign assistance to the country from military to humanitarian purposes.

WCRC's 230 member churches representing 80 million Christians are active worldwide in initiatives supporting economic, climate and gender justice, mission, and cooperation among Christians of different traditions.

Zimbabwe church groups pray for peace ahead of elections

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Fanuel Jongwe

Harare, Zimbabwe -- Hundreds of Zimbabweans from various Christian denominations held prayers on May 25 for peace ahead of possible elections later this year. "We hear threats and rumors of elections, and have seen tell-tale signs of political violence raising its ugly head again," said Dr. Goodwill Shana, chairman of the Heads of Christian Denominations, at the Zimbabwe National Day of Prayer.

"This is a cause for concern for the church, which has come together today to call upon God to bring an end to the pain and suffering. Our help is not going to come from politicians or economists. We should be united in peace and tolerance in the home, in marriages, in schools, on the streets, and among political parties," said Shana.

The countrywide prayer meetings, with the theme "One Zimbabwe United in Faith, Hope, Love and Peace," were called by Zimbabwe's main Christian bodies: the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference, the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, the Heads of Christian Denominations, as well as a group called Intercessors for Zimbabwe.

The gathering in Harare was attended by hundreds of people, including government ministers and representatives of the main political parties.

Zimbabwe's 2008 elections were marred by violence that claimed at least 300 lives and displaced thousands, according to rights groups, and forced political rivals Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai to form a power-sharing government in 2009 to ease tensions. There have been isolated reports of violence in recent months after Mugabe announced new elections. Tsvangirai says elections should only be held when conditions are conducive to avoid more violence.

The church groups led the congregations in prayers for reconciliation and national healing, peaceful elections family reconciliation and for political leaders.

"The current political situation in our nation is of great concern to us," Intercessors for Zimbabwe said in a statement.

"Let us continue to pray for the government of national unity. As you know the destiny of this nation is in the hands of Christians, we have a responsibility to bring the state of the nation before God," said Rev. Levee Kadenge, leader of Zimbabwe Christian Alliance, the country's largest functioning alliance of Christians.

"There is need to pray for our political leaders to not only think of themselves and their survival in power at the expense of the people," Rev. Kadenge said.

"The nation is anxious. The call for elections just makes people think of the past. It does not matter whether elections take place this year or in years to come, the past experience haunts many Zimbabweans."

"Reconciliation and healing are urgent and critical," Rev. Max Chigwida of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches told the gathering in Harare.

The prayers came as Mugabe's party seeks to forge closer ties with apostolic sects. Senior members of his party have appeared on state television addressing sects whose leaders have made no secret of their allegiance Mugabe's party.

Peace message closes convocation, but work has only begun

(From the World Council of Churches)

Participants at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) released a message on Tuesday expressing their unified experience of a week-long exploration of a just peace and to navigate a path forward as they return to their homes and churches across the world.

Attempting to take into account each other's contexts and histories, IEPC participants were unified in their aspiration that war should become illegal and that peace is central in all religious traditions.

The message states: “With partners of other faiths, we have recognized that peace is a core value in all religions, and the promise of peace extends to all people regardless of their traditions and commitments. Through intensified inter-religious dialogue we seek common ground with all world religions.”

The participants acknowledged that each church and each religion brings with it a different standpoint from which to begin walking toward a just peace. Some begin from a standpoint of personal conversion and morality. Others stress the need to focus on mutual support and correction within the body of Christ, while still others encourage churches' commitment to broad social movements and the public witness of the church.

“Each approach has merit,” the message, which was crafted by a seven-member message committee chaired by Bishop Ivan Abrahams of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, states, “they are not mutually exclusive. In fact they belong inseparably together. Even in our diversity we can speak with one voice.”

Abrahams said he trusts that IEPC participants will find their voices in the message. “In many ways, this convocation is a milestone in the march toward just peace,” he said. “The words 'reaping' and 'harvesting' have been intrinsic to the life of this convocation. This message is to ourselves, to our churches and related organizations, and to the world that is bruised and broken and that God so loves.”

The message also acknowledged that the church has often obstructed the path toward just peace. “We realize that Christians have often been complicit in systems of violence, injustice, militarism, racism, casteism, intolerance and discrimination. We ask God to forgive our sins, and to transform us as agents of righteousness and advocates of Just Peace.”

The message continued to address the four themes of the convocation: peace in the community, peace with the earth, peace in the marketplace, and peace among the peoples, allowing for specific emphasis on each theme and how they complement to the ethical and theological approach to the pursuit of Just Peace.

“Much more than a text”

The IEPC message captures only part of a truly historic event, said the Rev. Dr Walter Altmann, moderator of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee, as he received the IEPC message on behalf of the WCC.

“You take with you much more than a text; you take with you a profound ecumenical experience,” he said. “The complexity of the issues we have addressed will certainly require further work, reflection and action.”

The ending of WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence is also a new beginning, he added. “As we return, each of us becomes a living message for the IECP,” he said.

More than 60 of some 1,000 IEPC participants commented on a draft message, and their input was taken into account as the final message was crafted.

Moderating the comments was Metropolitan Prof. Dr Gennadios of Sassima of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, vice-moderator of the WCC Central Committee. “This final text belongs to you, and to us, and to all of us,” he said, “and this will be spread out around the world by the closing of this convocation.”

The IEPC participants responded to a reading of their final message with a standing ovation. The general secretary of the WCC, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, expressed his pride to the IEPC participants who challenged themselves and each other to reach new levels of understanding and determination.

“We are called to be one in our witness,” he said. “We also see that the way to just peace has united us. This is a gift for all of us and we shall use it well. This week has brought many signs of your commitment. Sometimes we need to struggle. Sometimes we need to feel it isn't that easy.”

The participation of some 95 youth in the IEPC was also acknowledged during the closing of the event. Sanna Eriksson, representing the Church of Sweden, spoke on behalf of the young IEPC participants who planned activities and had highly visible participation throughout the convocation.

“We rejoice that young people participated in this meeting in a wide variety of roles,” she said. “We thank those churches and organizations who sent young people as their representatives.”

The IEPC message also expressed profound gratefulness to its hosts in Jamaica and the entire Caribbean region.

The Rev. Gary Harriott, general secretary of the Jamaica Council of Churches, said that the entire Caribbean region was both proud and excited to host the IEPC in Jamaica. “It was far more than planning an event, as some very important relationships were established, which we hope will remain intact even after IEPC,” he said.

The final message may be complete but the work of the IEPC is only beginning, said Prof. Dr Fernando Enns, who was moderator of the preparatory committee for the IEPC. “We are only beginning to grasp the possibilities we have when we really respect one another. The church shall not speak to the marginalized; the church is where the marginalized are.”

IEPC participants should celebrate their experience, he said, but should not rest satisfied. “Our journey must continue,” he said. “You and I, we shall hold each other accountable. The church is either accepting the call to just peace or it is not the church at all.”

While adults talk peace, kids try walking in another’s shoes

(From the World Council of Churches)

The story starts with Peter. Not biblical Peter, just a kid named Peter who's a little bit overweight, who has bumps on his face, and, oh, yeah – sometimes, he doesn't smell very good.

“Everybody knows a 'Peter,' right?” asks Dr Yanike Hanson, and 19 children nod an emphatic “yes.”

Hanson, an instructor within the Global Network of Religions for Children, is guiding Jamaican elementary schoolchildren through an exercise in peacemaking at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) being held in Kingston, 17-25 May.

Participants at IEPC are gathered to discuss ways to help people worldwide work toward a just peace. The conference's themes include Peace in the Community, Peace with the Earth, Peace in the Marketplace and Peace among the Peoples.

“Peter is that boy that everybody avoids,” Hanson continues. “Almost always, he's in the cafeteria eating alone because nobody wants to sit beside him. Sometimes there are some little children who want to sit down beside of Peter but they are afraid of what the other children might say.”

Then she asks the children if someone will pretend to be Peter. A boy volunteers, sitting down in a folding chair, and the other 18 children promptly move away from him, some of them giggling.

“Now,” Hanson asks, “how would you feel if you were Peter?”

The children grow serious. Residents of Jamaica's poorest, most violence-ridden communities, they know all too well how “Peter” – even this imaginary one – feels.

Eleven-year-old Sophia thoughtfully raises her hand. “Kids make fun of me sometimes. If I were Peter, I'd feel very sad. Very unaccepted.”

The other children chime in, eager to answer: “Embarrassed.”



“I would wonder, why did God make me this way?”

Even as the children talk about their imaginary friend Peter, their adult counterparts at the IEPC were spending the day wrestling with the issues surrounding peace in the marketplace – the kind of global economic-related violence that leaves hundreds of people wondering: why did God make us this way?

Finally, the pretend Peter answers, his chin resting in his hands: “I'd feel awful. It just feels awful,” he said. “I'm kind of like Peter. I mean, I'm a little chubby.”

With a little guidance from Hanson, the children decide they'd like to try walking in Peter's shoes. They take paper footprints and tape them to the bottom of their own shoes. The footprints say, simply: “I am Peter.”

They walk around for a few minutes, not speaking, but just existing as Peter for a few minutes. Then Hanson asks them how they feel.


“Like I was a nobody.”

“Like I wasn't in the world.”

For children, talking about the universal and timeless outcasts like Peter is a way to get them to talk about peace in a world with entire countries that are outcasts.

The workshop Hanson is conducting has been used in Cuba and other countries to get children involved in active peacemaking. Working in tandem with the United Nations, the Global Network of Religions for Children uses a curriculum that focuses on four ethical values: respect, empathy, reconciliation and responsibility.

In the workshops, the children approach the unknowable question of why some people are always left out. With some leading questions from Hanson, they discover something they like about Jesus: he didn't leave anybody out.

Look at the lepers, Sabrina says. “Nobody wanted to go near those lepers but Jesus tried to help them.”

She and the other children wonder aloud why we blame someone for being different.

Vivette McCarthy, a mother attending the workshop with her daughter, raises both hands into the air: “You know, yeah! I mean, if you were born, say, with one arm shorter than the other, it's not any fault of yours.”

Which leads Hanson straight to her next activity: Moving into three groups, the children put large pieces of paper on the wall. They trace around one child's head, another's arm, another's legs, until entire bodies appear.

Then they write their wishes in the heads, their feelings in the heart, their needs in the stomach, and their “wants” in the feet.

Their wishes range from the wide-focused – “a better world,” “peace” and “love” – to the plaintive daily yearning “I wish I had friends.”

While two groups said the feelings in their stomachs were happy, one inexplicably elected to write “sad” in their figure's stomach.

Their needs: “salvation, “loved ones,” and, from one young girl, “to be more attractive.”

Hanson gazes around at the oddly-proportioned drawings, asking: “Are these bodies perfect?”

“No!” the children chorus, and then they gather happily back together for a closing hymn.

But the pretend Peter lingers for a moment at his body, on which he has drawn huge biceps. “Did you see what I wrote in the feet? I want to live long,” he said. “And I want to have fun.”

Finding the strength to pursue a just peace

(From the World Council of Churches)

In war-torn or violent communities – and perhaps in so-called peaceful ones – reaching a state of just peace takes strength and courage.

Participants at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) discussed on Friday how to help local people find the strength within themselves, and within their communities to resolve conflict and end violence through peaceful means.

The IEPC is being held in Kingston, Jamaica from 17-25 May and is sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Caribbean Conference of Churches (CCC) and the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC).

During the workshop called “Empowerment for Just Peace”, presenters shared practices of peace from historical and theological perspectives then culled ideas from workshop attendees for ways to strengthen this effort.

Margareta Ingelstam, the coordinator of the Just Peace working group of the Swedish churches, shared her learning from organizing the Ecumenical Monitoring Programme on South Africa decades ago.

“South African churches wanted assistance with international eyes when the situation was very brutal,” she recalled. “The churches asked other churches in the world to come as monitors and in Sweden we started planning and thinking about how to do this. That was a very truthful and rich time in my professional life.”

After organizing monitoring systems, Ingelstam said the next natural step churches should take is to educate and train people – or empower them – to resolve conflict themselves. “Ideally, a service goes into the conflict areas and sees to it that the local people themselves who own the conflict would also be the key actors in ending the conflict.”

Ingelstam also believes that peace monitoring teams should arrive in local areas before conflict erupts into violence. “Most conflicts have to be taken care of early before they become violent. What is needed is not only a few mediators but thousands of people who are empowerers of the people in global conflicts,” she said.

Education should be the most important part of bringing peace to a community, she added. “People are ready to try non-violent strategies.”

Theology matters

To be involved in conflict resolution from a faith perspective, churches should carefully consider whether or not a community has already been manipulated by a damaging theology, pointed out the Rev. Dr Sofia Camnerin, another member of the Just Peace working group and a member of the WCC Central Committee.

“Theology matters,” she said. “As human beings, we learn through language and images. Language has the power to influence our lives.”

Theologians, though they may seem ensconced harmlessly in academia, are ultimately powerful, and churches trying to aid violence-ridden regions must be both conscious and careful of that power.

“Today we know that there are theological interpretations that are dangerous to victims of violence,” Camnerin said. “For example, when we accentuate the need for forgiveness and obedience, that is especially dangerous for children living in oppressive families.”

Within a theology, when the experience of violence is needed for love and salvation – when suffering is necessary for salvation – that theology poses a great danger to a vulnerable community trying to find a faith expression.

With the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 more than a decade ago, the work group for Just Peace hopes that women will become even stronger players in a worldwide quest for non-violent resolutions.

“You must involve women in the decision-making process, not just the peace work,” said the Rev. Dr K. G. Hammar, another member of the working group who led the Church of Sweden as Archbishop of Uppsala from 1997 to 2006.

Historically and generally speaking, women have always been physically weaker than men, he said, and so have had to continually rely on non-violent means for resolving conflict within societies.

“Peace is created from within,” Hammar said. “This is more in accordance with women's experience. It's very obvious when you look into women's history that it's a history of vulnerability, abuse and exploitation. They are not tempted to achieve their goals using violence.”

As Christians, Hammar agreed with Camnerin that that care must be taken when tying theology and peacemaking together: “The cross is the ultimate symbol of our vulnerability,” he said.

Threats to creation addressed at peace convocation

(From the World Council of Churches)

Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Australia, is home to more than 11,000 people, whose very existence, which at one time was tied to the ocean and its bounty, is now threatened by rising ocean water levels.

The world's fourth-smallest country – at 26 square kilometers – is shrinking, and the people of Tuvalu are facing a future as environmental refugees. The injustice in this situation – and others like it worldwide – were at the heart of discussions at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) on Friday, when the daily theme was “Peace With the Earth.”

The Rev. Tafue M. Lasama, general secretary of the Congregational Christian Church of Tuvalu, said his country is now facing longer droughts, and that saltwater has intruded into the underground water table. “Now we depend on rainwater only, and we are facing unpredictable weather patterns.”

A once-sustainable existence is now endangered by forces beyond Tuvalu's control, Lasama said. “The people are not able to use their traditional skills in order to survive.”

The cause of the rising waters around Tuvalu rests far from this south Pacific paradise, finding its roots in the industrial heartlands of the northern hemisphere. It is here from which the greatest contribution to climate change is being made and the greatest challenge rests for reversing its negative impact.

Arian Shaw, a project officer for the Church and Society Team of the Church of Scotland, said churches worldwide must begin to lead the fight against climate change.

“Climate change poses a serious and immediate threat,” he said. “Our violence against the earth is also violence against people.”

For Lasama, the rising seawaters threatening Tuvalu mean the loss of home, culture, lifestyle and dignity. It no longer takes a war to cause this level of violence.

Shaw described an “eco-congregation” movement that originated in Scotland and is now beginning to spread worldwide. These congregations pledge to become informed regarding their carbon footprint and take steps to reduce it.

There are more than 270 eco-congregations in Scotland, Shaw said.

Not simply human issues

Prof. Dr Kondothra M. George also spoke of the relationship between justice for humankind and justice for the earth. “Peace and justice are not simply human issues to be debated and worked out in isolation,” he said, but these issues should be discussed with the knowledge that there are millions of created life forms on earth in addition to humans.

“We have to change our present paradigm of progress and development,” said George. “Is this the greatest human achievement?”

The idea of human achievement is closely related to the malady of human greed, pointed out Elias Crisostomo Abramides, a Greek Orthodox layman (Ecumenical Patriarchate) from Argentina and also a WCC representative to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat.

“Another world is possible,” he said. “This world of greed and pride is not a world of the future. We need a change in paradigm, which will bring peace, dignity and love to the lives of all human beings. To be at peace with the earth, there must be peace in the earth.”

Other speakers described their vision of peace with the earth in a more lyrical way. Sr Ernestina López Bac, a Kaqchiquel indigenous theologian from Guatemala, spoke of a theology of ancestral ties.

“Talking about the cosmic vision and wisdom of the indigenous people means to fundamentally talk about values,” she said. “We understand value as the heart and energy of thinking and wisdom.”

As more and more of the fragile ecosystem surrounding Tuvalu falls victim to warming waters and rising sea levels, the reality remains stark for those of the industrial North. Reducing and renewing God’s creation is no longer a luxury but an urgent task if places such as Tuvalu are to survive.

During the next several days the IEPC will also explore peace in the marketplace and peace among peoples. On the second day of the convocation, the participants explored peace in the community. The convocation, which is sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Caribbean Conference of Churches and the Jamaica Council of Churches, concludes on 24 May.

In highly violent communities, peace advocates hold out hope

(From the World Council of Churches)

As peace advocates from around the world relayed heartrending stories of violence and oppression, they also expressed their ongoing hope that a movement of peace will prevail during the proceedings of the second day of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) being held in Kingston, Jamaica.

The advocates included religious leaders from the Middle East, India, Brazil and the USA addressed the issue of violence from the perspective and need for peace within communities and strengthening the dignity and rights of all.

“As a woman, I believe we cannot have justice in the community without having it first in the safe haven of our church," said Dr Muna Mushahwar, a medical doctor who is a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem.

She is intimately acquainted with being at the receiving end of displacement, denial and oppression which hits women particularly hard. "The church has a huge role and must take responsibility.”

Dr Deborah Weissman, who also lives in Jerusalem and serves as president of the International Council of Christians and Jews broadened the issue beyond the church saying that some faith communities seize on “absolute truths” and leave no room for questioning authority.

“Throughout the world today, in the name of religion, atrocities have been committed. In many places, there is an unholy alliance between faith and extreme violence,” she said.

Violence does not take place in a vacuum, pointed out Prof. Ram Puniyani, a writer-activist known for his relentless struggle to uphold the secular ethos of India.

“Violence takes places because a large section of society is indoctrinated with a hatred for others. They basically aim to abolish the human rights of the weaker section of societies.”

Asha Kowtal, a Dalit activist and the leader of a female empowerment movement in India, also spoke about the role of peace in improving women's lives in her home country. “Today hundreds of young girls are sexually abused by the dominant caste men,” she said.

The caste system is considered by many to be the largest systemic human rights violation anywhere in the world today. “It results in discrimination and exclusion,” said Kowtal.

As people at the bottom are continually denied access to opportunities and resources, “they remain the poorest of poor, most unemployed, most hated and most vulnerable,” she said.

Discrimination causes violence

People in Brazil also face discrimination that causes violent conflict, said Dr Tania Mara Vieira Sampaio, a professor at the Catholic University of Brasilia.

“In Brazil, as in the rest of Latin America, to have access to a university is a privilege that only few people can afford,” she said. “Our struggle to overcome the sacrifice-driven logics of the market today and enable a more condign life for everybody also has implications on the formation of the younger generations.”

Martin Luther King III, of Atlanta, Georgia and eldest son of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., said churches need to do a better job of promoting peace in the community.

“Despite great progress, the 11 a.m. Sunday morning worship hour is still the most segregated hour of the day,” said King. “Today, as we all strive to affirm the dignity and rights of humankind, many tenacious forms of discrimination continue to undermine the basic respect for human rights.”

From a Christian perspective, the teachings of Jesus are deeply rooted in nonviolence, he said, but peace advocacy should be the responsibility of people from all spiritual traditions.

“The teachings of Jesus are deeply rooted in nonviolence but I believe that all faiths can have a mandate for nonviolence in all of the holy scriptures.”

During the next several days the IEPC will also explore peace with the earth, peace in the marketplace and peace among peoples. The convocation, which is organized by the World Council of Churches, the Caribbean Conference of Churches and the Jamaica Council of Churches concludes on Tuesday, 24 May.

Ecumenical gathering in Jamaica focuses on promoting peace

(From Ecumenical News International)

Kingston, Jamaica -- Some 1,000 worldwide faith leaders and peace practitioners are exploring the concept of "just peace" and recent advances in peacemaking practices at a weeklong International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) in Kingston.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) is sponsoring the convocation, whose theme is "Glory to God and Peace on Earth." It marks the culmination of the Decade to Overcome Violence that the council initiated in 2001. Participants represent WCC member constituencies, and ecumenical and civil society networks working on peace and justice issues.

"The IEPC comes at a time when the world is experiencing significant political paradigm shifts, and much of this is coming with violence and conflict," said the WCC general secretary, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit. "This event brings the peace movements and church leaders together and offers space and time to explore the role of the church and religion as peacemaker. We will ask one another what it means to follow Christ today and tomorrow."

"But peace is not just about ending conflicts," Tveit said. "It is also about seeking justice and building sustainable conditions for peace. We find the need for just peace in the economy, peace among peoples and cultures, and peace within communities and with the earth."

The convocation's main goal is to contribute to efforts to create a culture of just peace and to facilitate new networks focusing on peace in communities and the world, according to the WCC. Bible studies, plenary sessions, workshops and seminars will address peace in the community, peace with the earth, peace in the marketplace and peace among the peoples. The convocation will include a 20 May peace concert featuring Jamaican acts including one of the country's top bands, Fab Five. Band member Grub Cooper penned a newly recorded song about peace, "Glory to God and Peace on Earth," specifically for the IEPC.

On 22 May, churches worldwide are invited to celebrate a World Sunday for Peace.

Convocation speakers will include Martin Luther King III, German Lutheran pastor Dr. Margot Kassmann, Tveit, the Rev. Dr. Paul Gardner of Jamaica, Ernestina Lopez Bac of Guatemala, Metropolitan Dr. Hilarion of Volokolamsk of the Russian Orthodox Church and Canon Paul Oestreicher of New Zealand.

Also during the convocation, Pax Christi International will lead workshops on reconciliation and restorative justice; peace spirituality and theology; religion and violent extremism; and, together with the International Peace Bureau, military spending versus development aid.

The IEPC concludes 25 May.

On 16 May, Jamaican national leaders welcomed a delegation of leaders from the WCC and from the Jamaican and Caribbean councils of churches, which are hosting the convocation. Expressing his wishes that the IEPC be "an inspired and inspiring event," Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding emphasized the crucial role of both the church and state in the ethical development of societies worldwide today, especially in contexts – as in his own country – marked by crime and violence.

The delegation also visited Jamaican parliamentary opposition leader Portia Simpson-Miller and the Supreme Court of Jamaica. Tveit led a prayer for child victims of violence during a short visit to a monument in downtown Kingston erected in their memory.

One of the convocation's goals is to have a concrete impact on Jamaica's struggle to overcome violence, said Metropolitan Prof. Dr Gennadios of Sassima (Limouris), vice-moderator of the WCC Central Committee.

The convocation's location in Jamaica intentionally acknowledges the region's involvement in the Decade to Overcome Violence, said the Caribbean Council of Churches general secretary, Gerard Granado. Kingston was one of the focus capitals of the WCC's "Peace to the City" campaign launched in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1997.

The Rev. Dr. Margaretha Hendriks-Ririmasse, also a vice-moderator of the central committee, called on churches to search for mutual collaboration among governments worldwide. "People are losing faith in Christianity," she said. "We must rescue the interest of people in the gospel by showing how we can work together in this world."

Throughout the week, a team of young people from the World Student Christian Federation will create daily video interviews with Christian peacemakers at the convocation, which will be posted at www.IEPCstories.com.

"The questions young people ask are different and offer a new perspective," said Mark Beach, WCC director of communications. "We believe the audience they reach will be their peers, who have a great interest in the role of the church in peacemaking. Peace and justice is not only about today but the future as well."

Founded in 1948, the Geneva-headquartered WCC brings together 349 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches representing more than 560 million Christians in more than 110 countries and works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church.

Churches asked to share pulpits with Muslims

(From Religion News Service)


Religious and human rights activists are asking U.S. churches to invite Jewish and Muslim clergy to their sanctuaries to read from sacred texts next month in an initiative designed to counter anti-Muslim bigotry.

The June 26 initiative, called "Faith Shared: Uniting in Prayer and Understanding," is co-sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance and Human Rights First. Leaders of the two Washington-based groups said the event hopes to demonstrate respect for Islam in the wake of Quran burnings in recent months.

"As a Christian minister who is a pastor in a local congregation, it is important to me for our nation and our world to know that not all Christians promote hate, attack religions different from their own and seek to desecrate the scripture of others," said the Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, on Tuesday (May 17).

More than 50 churches in 26 states already have committed to the initiative, including the Washington National Cathedral and New York's Riverside Church.

Tad Stahnke, director of policy and programs for Human Rights First, said he hopes the initiative will draw attention to religious freedom, and counter negative stereotypes of Christian leaders making anti-Muslim statements.

"We want to send a message to the world that Americans do respect religious differences and reject religious bigotry and the demonization of Islam or any other religion," he said.

Dalai Lama, Nobel laureates tussle (gently) over violence

(From Religion News Service)


NEWARK, N.J. -- The Dalai Lama says peace in the world begins with peace in oneself. Some of his fellow Nobel laureates, however, aren't convinced.

"It isn't that I'm just an angry human being, it's anger at injustice," said Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work to ban land mines. "I'm still struggling with inner peace and I'm not sure I'll ever work it out."

About 1,500 people turned out Friday (May 13) for the start of the city's three-day Peace Education Summit. Though two dozen small workshops dealt with different aspects of achieving peace, a debate emerged over the role of forgiveness and inner peace.

The Dalai Lama, whose strategy for nonviolence begins with a Buddhist approach of transcending inner conflict, urges his followers to let go of anger and achieve tranquility.

"Like children, a little quarrel here takes place, a fight," the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism said. "But to keep ill feeling is very bad."

Williams and fellow Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, however, cautioned against easy forgiveness, suggesting that anger at oppression could be a tool for fighting injustice.

"Forgiving the oppressor while he is committing injustice is permitting him to continue," said Ebadi, who won her Nobel Prize in 2003 for defending the rights of women and children in Iran. "Therefore the timing of forgiveness is very important."

Ebadi said that after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, women went from relative equality to servant status. "Fifteen years later, studies were done and the number of women killing their husbands increased," she said.

Williams worried too much talk of tranquility contributed to the stigma of peace advocates as "wimps."

"Shirin Ebadi is no wimp. His Holiness, fighting for the freedom of his people, is no wimp. Gandhi was no wimp. Martin Luther King was no wimp," Williams said, adding that peace had become synonymous with weakness.

The Dalai Lama agreed, saying tranquility should not be confused with ease.

"Peace is not just the absence of violence. Peace is something fuller," he said. "Real nonviolence you confront, conquer the problem ... You have the ability to use force, but you restrain."

James "Loose" White, 28, a one-time member of the Crips gang who advocates for nonviolence on the streets, agreed with the Dalai Lama that restraint can be harder than giving in.

"It takes courage to act like an individual and choose the right path," he said. "To take all that aggression and redirect it in a positive way."

(David Giambusso writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)

China's Christians need clergy, says government minister

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Fredrick Nzwili

Nairobi, Kenya -- Christians in China need qualified clergy who can contribute to the development of society, China's Minister of State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) said in Nairobi, where a delegation from China is visiting the Anglican Church of Kenya.

"In the past, Christianity was treated as a foreign religion, but now we treat it as ours. There are a lot of Christians there, but they lack clergy. They cannot find qualified clergy to carry out development work among them," said Wang Zuo'an on 13 May at a meeting with Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, primate of the Anglican Church of Kenya.

Wang, who is on his first visit to Africa, was accompanied by a delegation of ten officials. During the five day visit, from 12 to 16 May, the group is visiting church missions in Nairobi and Mt. Kenya South dioceses. They are also visiting schools and children's homes, and learning about Mothers Union saving and credit societies.

The minister said the purpose of the visit was to enhance the relationship between the Anglican Church, the Global South Anglican Communion and the Chinese church. The Anglican Church officials had earlier said the delegation wanted to learn about the co-existence of state and religion. Wang will also be going to Uganda and South Africa.

China has one of the fastest growing Christian communities in the world, according to Wang, a development he attributed to the country's opening up to the rest of the world in 1980s. The Christian Protestant community has grown from 700,000 to 23 million, according to the delegation officials, with another six million belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. The population of China is about 1.3 billion.

Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism are recognized by the state, which considers the practice of any other faith illegal. Religious organizations in China are required to register with one of five state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations, each of which is supervised by SARA.

Many Christians who attend so-called "house churches" choose not to register with the state and Chinese authorities have cracked down on such churches. Leaders of an evangelical Protestant church, Shouwang, have been under house arrest for more than one month, according to media reports. On 11 May, a group of 19 pastors petitioned the Chinese parliament for an end to the crackdown and for more religious freedom.

Communication in matters of faith and development between the Kenyan or African churches and those in China has been minimal in the past, according to Wang, unlike relationships between governments. Kenya's diplomatic relationship with China is 48 years old, they noted. Church-to-church relations will play a crucial role in strengthening these state relationships, he said. "We have come to learn and share with each other. We have already learned a lot. This is useful to us," he said.

Wabukala suggested that Kenyan clergy could learn Chinese and serve there. "This gives us much hope in Kenya and Africa to see the church is still flourishing there," said Wabukala.

He was last month elected the chairman of the conservative Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON). "I invite the Chinese church to actively participate and be involved in the activities of the Global South," he added. The minister said Chinese churches were interested in working with GAFCON.

China has a visible presence in Kenya, Wabukala noted. China sends varying levels of funding, material and experts in the areas of road construction, housing and sports structures. "There is a lot of government to government cooperation in roads and other development sectors, but we were concerned the moral aspect is being left out," he said.

He told the delegation the Anglican Church and the government related well and have been working together for development. It is the oldest denomination in the country. It was established in 1844, alongside the British colonial administration. "Kenya has grown to where it is today because of the partnership between the government and the church. There also many churches and we work together in an ecumenical partnership," he said.

Russian, Greek Orthodox leery of ID cards

(From Religion News Network)


MOSCOW -- Russian and Greek Orthodox leaders are objecting to plans in both countries to introduce electronic identity cards intended to streamline bureaucracy.

Church officials are demanding close study of the cards, and asking that authorities make them optional. The personal and financial information embedded in the cards could be manipulated to discriminate against believers, they fear.

In a recent interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, an official government newspaper, Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations, said: "Credit cards ... are one thing, but a personal card in which all the information about a person's life and activities will be entered ... is a different matter."

Conservative and nationalist wings within the two churches have held demonstrations in Athens and Moscow, and fear the cards will compromise national and religious identity.

Segodnia.ru, an online publication that often covers religious and nationalist issues, said the cards could help build "an unheard of, super-totalitarian electronic dictatorship, in which each individual person becomes ... a robot with a bar code on his body or a microchip implanted under his skin."

Following massive rallies in Athens in March, the Synod of Bishops of the Church of Greece met with government officials in April.

Metropolitan Prokopios said the church was assured that the numerals 666 -- the nefarious "mark of the beast" from the Book of Revelation -- would not appear in the cards in any form.

Even after win, gay clergy likely to remain limited

(From Religion News Service)


Gay and lesbian advocates celebrated a landmark victory on Tuesday (May 10) when the Presbyterian Church (USA) entered the expanding ranks of Christian denominations that allow openly gay, partnered clergy.

The winds of change, they said, are at their backs.

"Presbyterians join a growing Protestant movement of Lutherans, Episcopalians and United Church of Christ members who have eliminated official barriers to leadership by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons," a coalition of pro-gay Presbyterians said in a statement.

The momentum of the gay clergy movement, however, may soon grind to a halt.

"There is not another denomination I see on the horizon right now that is on the cusp of this," said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan research and consulting firm.

Officially, the PCUSA's decades-old barrier will fall in July, after Presbyterians in Minnesota voted to effectively revoke a rule that had barred sexually active gays and lesbians from becoming ministers, elders and deacons.

The new policy, which was passed by the church's General Assembly last summer, required approval from a majority of 173 regional presbyteries. Since 1997, three similar amendments had failed at the regional level.

Lisa Larges, a San Francisco lesbian blocked from pursuing ordination for 25 years, called Tuesday's vote "a new beginning," for her calling and her church. "With this vote, our church is demonstrating that we are choosing to reach out to a new generation," Larges said.

But even as gay and lesbian Christians celebrated, some acknowledged that steep challenges lie ahead in other denominations, particularly the country's largest four: the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Those four denominations, whose leaders show few signs of accepting gay clergy or relationships, together count nearly 100 million members. By contrast, the four largest denominations that allow gay clergy together count less than 11 million members. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, has about 2.1 million members.

"I do think there is momentum on this," said the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, a UCC minister and director of the church component of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "But I don't think it's going to happen with lightening speed, and I don't think it's inevitable." she said.

Gay rights activists in the United Methodist Church, for example, have labored in vain for years to remove a rule that calls homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching," and bars the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians.

According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, just 32 percent of Methodist ministers want to allow gay clergy.

"The data would not suggest that United Methodist clergy are on the cusp of supporting gay and lesbian ordination," Jones said.

Moreover, the UMC, which has about 12 million members worldwide, is growing most rapidly in Africa, where Christians tend to hold conservative views on theology and sexuality, noted Alan Wisdom, vice president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based conservative think tank.

And while polls show American lay Catholics becoming more accepting of homosexuality, the hierarchy remains staunchly opposed. In fact, the Vatican mounted an investigation aimed at eradicating "homosexual behavior" from U.S. seminaries after the clergy sexual abuse scandal exploded in 2002.

The Mormon church, with about 6 million U.S. members, does not have full-time clergy, but said last year that celibate gay Mormons who are "worthy and qualified in every other way" should be allowed to have "callings," or church assignments.

However, the church still says homosexuality "violates the commandments of God, is contrary to the purposes of human sexuality, and deprives people of the blessings that can be found in family life and in the saving ordinances of the gospel."

Jones and other social scientists say young evangelicals are more gay-friendly than previous generations. But the nation's largest evangelical denomination, the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, has dug in its heels.

Homosexuality is "prohibited and condemned in both the Old and New Testaments," the SBC said in a 2009 resolution. The resolution, which passed by a wide margin, also calls gay marriage "diametrically opposed to God's word."

Church of England says attendance is growing at cathedrals

(From Religion News Service)


CANTERBURY, ENGLAND -- In a challenge to conventional wisdom that church attendance is plummeting across Britain and Western Europe, the Church of England says attendance at its 43 cathedrals grew 7 percent last year.

A report by the Rev. Lynda Barley, head of research and statistics at the Archbishops' Council, said "attendance at services outside Sundays" was up 10 percent in 2010, and "steady growth" in the past decade "is restoring confidence in mission."

About 15,800 adults and 3,100 children and young people attend Sunday services at cathedrals; over the course of a typical week, that figure rises to 27,400 adults and 7,600 children.

Following the April 29 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton at London's Westminster Abbey (which is not considered a cathedral), the Venerable Simon Burton-Jones, archdeacon for the Diocese of Rochester, told ENInews: "I think we're going to have to wait a year or so to see just how the wedding impacted on people."

Lisa Emanuel, a spokeswoman for Canterbury Cathedral, told ENInews that it's not unusual to welcome more than 20 nationalities at services. "We love sharing this holy and very special place and are delighted with the recent figures released by the Archbishops' Council," she said.

Canterbury Cathedral is considered the "mother church" of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, and welcomes more than 1 million visitors every year.

The report said regular cathedral services attracted 2 million people in 2010, while an additional 1.63 million attended about 5,150 public or civic events.

After seminary, 'Lost Boy' headed back to Sudan

(From Religion News Service)


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- It has been more than two decades since Deng Alier fled war in his homeland. Now, armed with a master's degree in educational ministry, the former "Lost Boy" is ready to find his way back to Sudan.

Alier, Deborah Makuei and Rebecca Deng were among 63 students graduating last week (May 6) from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. "This is a time to thank people who have made a difference in my life," said Alier, 28. "This is the moment they've been praying for me."

Alier, Makuei and Deng began their studies three years ago free of charge when the seminary launched a program to inject young, educated Christian leaders into the country torn by civil war.

Deng, who plans to marry in June, will receive her master's of arts in ministry leadership, said John VerBerkmoes, the seminary's vice president and academic dean.

Makuei, 26, who came to the U.S. in 2000 through Bethany Christian Services, is graduating with a master's degree in counseling. She is interning at Bethany and looking for a job here, with plans to counsel women in Sudan.

"For me to go there, that will encourage young girls to have the passion for going to school," Makuei said. A member of South Sudan's largest tribe, the Dinkas, Makuei graduated from East Grand Rapids High School and Albion College.

"I can tell them, 'I don't have to get married when I'm 12 years old,'" she said. "Going here (to seminary) has set me up really well." The students spent a semester in Sudan through the seminary and will have their undergraduate loans repaid as they return to work there with their master's degrees. In July, the southern part of Sudan where the students lived will become independent from the northern, Muslim part of the country.

"From the beginning, we saw it as an opportunity to invest in the lives of students that had tremendous passion for their homeland," VerBerkmoes said.

Living in the United States, Alier said he has learned that different people can live in the same place and get along. Seminary education has given him a deeper understanding of biblical principles that can help Sudanese Christians live in harmony with "our Muslim brothers," he said.

A Dinka who also has a degree from Western Michigan University and works at Walmart, Alier taught at Gideon Theological School in 2009 during the semester in Sudan and now plans to teach there with a mission agency.

"We are so blessed to be here," Alier said. "Now we have transformed ourselves. I think God will use us to transform Sudan in a positive way."

(Matt Vande Bunte writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich.)

In Latin America, growth of Protestantism will stabilize, says sociologist

(From Ecumenical News International)

Sao Paulo -- While Latin America has traditionally been overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the face of religion there is being transformed with the growth of Protestantism expected to stabilize over the coming decades, according to a Brazilian sociologist.

Paul Charles Freston, a senior researcher at Baylor University and professor at the Federal University of Sao Carlos, Sao Paulo, predicted that Protestantism would eventually comprise 20 to 35 percent of the population in Latin America, the Latin America and Caribbean Communication Agency reported.

It is unlikely that it would become a majority in any country of the area, added the academic. In the case of Brazil, which claims the world's largest baptized Roman Catholic population, Freston said he foresees a totally transformed evangelical scenario.

"It will not have the same triumphalism and the same hardened way," said Freston. "Other types of leaders will be produced, other relationships among the different religions and with politics."

The Catholic church will also stabilize, said the sociologist, because it will have to adapt to a new social political scene, marked by democracy and religious pluralism. "It is difficult to maintain hegemony in civil society because it is becoming more and more independent, autonomous and plural. For example, the dictatorships, the same that pursued the (Catholic) church, were more favorable situations for the maintenance of the social position of the church," that on many occasions served as an umbrella for groups in opposition to the military regime, he said.

Although the Brazilian censuses show that the Catholic church loses about one percent of its members each year, Freston said that decline also had positive aspects. When membership stabilizes, he explained, those remaining in the church will likely be more practicing, identified and committed, and no longer merely nominal.

Besides the numerical decline, the historical weight of the Catholic church in each country of Latin America will also change, related to the nature of its members. When church membership falls in relation to the total population, it becomes more difficult to justify certain privileges. "The idea of the church is something that gets confused with nationality and it demands a certain preferential status within society. It is that that is more and more threatened," said Freston.

U.S. Supreme Court to weigh 'Israel' on U.S. passports

(From Religion News Service)


JERUSALEM -- The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to tackle the question of whether American passports issued to children born in Jerusalem should include the word "Israel."

Until now, passports issued in this disputed city have designated the children's birthplace as Jerusalem, but not Israel.

American officials have long maintained that replacing Israel with Jerusalem would constitute recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the city, which Israelis and Palestinians both claim as their capital.

The U.S. maintains that the future of Jerusalem, which was designated as an international city by the United Nations in 1947, must be decided in negotiations.

The case before the Supreme Court was filed by the American-born parents of Menachem Zivotofsky, an American Israeli born in 2002. Their petition was denied by lower courts.

Although Congress passed a law in 2002 that permits consular officials to list Israel as a birthplace, then-President George W. Bush reserved the right not to enforce the law on the grounds that it could prejudice the outcome of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

Nathan Lewin, the family's lawyer, told the JTA news agency that they are gratified that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear their case.

"Once the State Department's passport practices and policy are closely examined," he said, "the court will see that the argument that Congress has interfered with the president's constitutional authority is unjustified, and that the State Department's policy simply discriminates against American citizens who are proud to have been born in Israel," Lewin said.

Minister moms split between pulpit and potty training

(From Religion News Service)


WASHINGTON -- Every now and then, the Rev. Amy Butler will find herself having to do a little simultaneous parenting and preaching from her pulpit at Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Washington.

"My daughter, in particular, knows the look," said Butler, whose teenage children sit -- and occasionally chat -- with their friends in the balcony. "And if I'm up front leading worship, I can see everything ... so if I need to shoot a look, I do.

"And they know exactly what that means."

Female pastors with one flock at home and another in the pews say being a minister and a mom is a perpetual juggling act, with high expectations, never enough time and challenges that their male colleagues will never face.

At the same time, they say, it can also be a profound blessing. "Baptist women ministers more than ever before are young, married, and starting families," said Pam Durso, executive director of the group Baptist Women in Ministry.

Pregnancy, in particular, creates unusual dynamics for clergy and congregations. The Rev. Rachel Cornwell doesn't usually talk about herself in her sermons, but one Sunday during Advent, two days before her son was born, she couldn't help but draw parallels to the baby Jesus.

Now, the pastor of Woodside United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Md., is preparing for the birth of her third child in August.

"It's the kind of job where you don't clock out ... but I had to make sure that I was really taking my days off and really honoring my family as well as my congregation and my responsibilities to them," said Cornwell, the mother of a 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

Across denominations, clergy moms speak of the gifts of sharing their children with their congregations, and the challenges of meeting everyone's needs.

Joe Stewart-Sicking, who has studied Episcopal clergy with young children, calls it the "church-home spillover." He assisted with a recent study of Episcopal clergy, which found that 84 percent of clergywomen said balancing the dual roles was difficult, compared to 61 percent of clergymen.

Clergywomen relayed a number of sticky situations, especially with small children.

"They talk about their 3-year-old seeing them in their clericals and they would tell them, 'Please take that off,"' said Stewart-Sicking, an assistant professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola University Maryland. "They knew that that meant Mommy was going away."

Even when children are in the sanctuary, the distance between the pulpit and the pews can be difficult for some ministers' children. The Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, recalled one Sunday when her son, Dorian, preferred the company of his mother over his babysitter.

"He still got away ... and he ran right up there to the pulpit and he held on to my leg, and I kept on doing what I had to do," she said of her now-19-month-old. "When it came time for me to preach, one of the ushers, she came and got him."

Despite the growing acceptance of a woman in the pulpit, congregants often worry about how the church will deal with her absence when her baby is born. When Cornwell took eight weeks of maternity leave, she arranged for others to fill in on Sunday mornings.

"You always have this issue if the young woman you hire ... gets pregnant, then who's going to take care of their church?" said Adair Lummis, a sociologist at Hartford Seminary who has studied women clergy.

The Rev. Tonya Vickery of Cullowhee Baptist Church in Cullowhee, N.C., said she and her co-pastor husband split parenting and pastoral duties between them, with each of them baptizing one of their two daughters.

"Whoever's on call as the minister at that moment, the other is on call as the parent at that moment," she said.

Clergywomen with adult children say the dynamics have changed as more churches have grown comfortable with female pastors.

"Certainly in the early years, we were trying to prove that women could be ministers, could do this work," said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches, and the mother of a 26-year-old daughter.

"And, on the other hand, there was built into us culturally and perhaps biologically this push to be good mothers, too."

Now, she says, many denominations have groups for women in ministry that provide clergywomen with informal networks to discuss how to juggle roles.

Leaders of the Young Clergy Women Project, an online community with more than 500 members, say the most popular sections of their online publications are the ones devoted to "Moms and Ministry."

This Mother's Day, Cornwell will spend her weekly day off -- Friday -- at a special Mother's Day party at her children's day care programs. On Sunday after she finishes preaching, her husband will treat her to a special lunch.

"I feel very celebrated," she said. "I feel very blessed."

Vatican praises bloggers as church's 'public opinion'

(From Religion News Service)


VATICAN CITY -- The pope may not be ready to start a blog or a Twitter account, but the Vatican is taking note of the unruly world of the blogosphere, recognizing its potential and the value of online "conversations."

That much was clear on Monday (May 2) at the Vatican's first-ever bloggers' convention organized by the Vatican's Pontifical Councils for Social Communications and for Culture.

The 150 invited bloggers were mostly Catholic, picked from among 750 applications. Orthodox Catholic commentators were alongside skeptical observers and priests who became Internet celebrities for their posts on "Star Wars."

In his opening remarks, the Vatican's top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, conceded that he himself was not a blogger but that his life has "changed" since he started receiving an "informal" digest of Catholic blogs every morning.

Lombardi said the Vatican will launch a multimedia news portal (www.news.va) in the coming months to harness the potential of expanding social networks. Catholic bloggers, he added, are influential because they give voice to "the public opinion in the Church."

Vatican correspondent and blogger Paolo Rodari wrote that an "important Vatican personality" told him during the meeting that "some bloggers' views" have a great impact on the appointment of bishops.

But Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, remarked after the summit that some bloggers' "aggressive language" is "astonishing."

For some Catholic bloggers, their voice is a necessary counterweight to a perceived anti-Catholic bias of traditional media. "The Internet is the land of he who speaks louder. So we have to shout too," noted one French blogger, Francois Jeanne-Beylot.

NEWS ANALYSIS: Is it OK to cheer Osama bin Laden's death?

(From Religion News Service)


(This story was reported by Daniel Burke, Adelle M. Banks, Nicole Neroulias, Omar Sacirbey and Alessandro Speciale.)

WASHINGTON -- Jesus said "love your enemies." If only he had said how we should react when they die at our own hands.

After President Obama announced that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had been shot dead in Pakistan, ebullient crowds gathered outside the White House and at Ground Zero to cheer the demise of the world's most wanted terrorist, smoking cigars and breaking into chest-thumping chants of "USA! USA!"

Watching from her home in suburban Virginia, Christian ethicist Diana Butler Bass felt a growing sense of unease.

"What if we responded in reverent prayer and quiet introspection instead of patriotic frenzy?" she posted on Facebook. "That would be truly American exceptionalism."

At the Vatican, too, where church leaders had just wrapped up joyous celebrations elevating the late Pope John Paul II to one step below sainthood, officials urged caution.

"A Christian never rejoices" in the death of any man, no matter how evil, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said, but instead "reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us has before God and before man."

For many Americans, bin Laden's death was quite literally an answer to prayer. Muslims who saw bin Laden as an apostate breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Ethicists and pastors searched for the appropriate space between vindication and vengeance.

U.S. special forces did what they had to do. How everyone else is supposed to feel about it is a little less clear.

"As Christians, we believe that there can be no celebrating, no dancing in the streets, no joy, in relation to the death of Osama bin Laden," Christian ethicist David Gushee said. "In obedience to Scripture, there can be no rejoicing when our enemies fall."

Indeed, the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel warned that our enemies are not necessarily God's, who takes "no pleasure in the death of wicked people," preferring only that they "turn from their wicked ways so they can live."

The questions around bin Laden's demise tended to break into two different camps: Were we right to kill him? And is his death something to cheer?

For many, what set bin Laden apart was his defiance, unrepentant violence and coldly calculating designs to rain destruction upon Americans, innocent civilians and even fellow Muslims.

"While vengeance is not a responsibility of us mortals, the pursuit of justice is," said a statement from Agudath Israel, an Orthodox umbrella group. "As believing Jews, we see in bin Laden's demise the clear hand of God."

In a larger sense, removing the singular threat of bin Laden can also lessen the violent threat of radical extremism and terrorism. Put another way, taking one life can save countless others.

"It is a sad truth that one man's death can represent a step forward in the progress of human relations," said Zainab Al-Suwaij, president of the Washington-based American Islamic Congress.

For many people, bin Laden's guilt or innocence never needed to be adjudicated in a court of law, and an American bullet to his head was judgment enough. Scholars cautioned, however, that there's a difference between judging a man's actions and judging his soul.

The Rev. John Langan, a Jesuit professor of Christian ethics at Georgetown University, said killing bin Laden to prevent future attacks is morally valid, but cautioned that vengeance is ultimately a divine, not human, right.

"I knew people who died in 9/11," Langan said. "I feel deeply the evil of that action. But I am part of a religious tradition that says that we don't make final, independent judgments about the souls of other men. That rests with God."

Which all leads back to Americans' response to the death of a madman.

"You have to have compassion, even for your enemies," said A. Rashied Omar, a research scholar at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

"The Quran teaches that you never should allow enmity to swerve you away from compassion, because without compassion, the pursuit of justice risks becoming a cycle of revenge."

Others said there is a difference between rejoicing in bin Laden's death and finding a certain degree of satisfaction -- a "subtle but important difference," said the Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, an Episcopal priest who teaches at the Pacific School of Religion.

"I'm not sorry Bin Laden is dead," Johnson posted on Twitter. "That's not the same thing as celebrating his death."

And that, perhaps, is where Americans will live in the coming days and weeks, caught in the gray space between satisfaction and celebration, glad that bin Laden is finally gone but not wanting to dance on anyone's grave.

"Without apology, we all sleep better in our beds knowing that Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat," said R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "But celebration in the streets is something that falls short of the sobriety that I think Christians should have on our hearts in reflecting on this event."

Acceptance grows for autistic kids in church

(From Religion News Service)


CALDWELL, N.J. -- Halfway through a Mass in Caldwell College's campus chapel, Chase Keith rose to his feet for one of the most challenging parts of a challenging day.

It required the boy from Basking Ridge, N.J., to offer his hand to strangers in the traditional sign of peace. With his mother whispering in his ear and guiding his arm, the 7-year-old stuck out his small hand toward a fellow parishioner.

"How you? Peace," Chase said.

Afterward, his mother slipped him a Goldfish cracker as a reward for his correct behavior. Chase had gone through months of intensive training with a specialist to get to this point -- where he could sit through a Catholic Mass with his family.

Chase, who has autism, is among a growing number of children with developmental disabilities who are being welcomed at religious services.

Autism is particularly acute in New Jersey, which has the nation's highest rate of autism, affecting about one in every 94 children, compared to the national rate of about one in every 150 children.

The symptoms of the disorder differ from person to person, but most children with autism have social, behavioral and communication problems. Some may shout or laugh at inappropriate times or have trouble keeping still. Others have an aversion to loud noises or crowds.

That makes attending a Catholic Mass -- with its big crowds, loud music and periods of silence -- daunting for many families dealing with autism. Some report receiving disapproving looks from fellow churchgoers and scoldings from ushers. Others say their children have been denied Communion by disapproving priests or been told by parishioners that they "don't belong" at Mass.

In Minnesota, one church made headlines in 2008 when it got a court order to ban a 13-year-old with autism from Mass because of his loud outbursts.

"The church has a wonderful theology and heart. ... We don't always live it out well," said Anne Masters, the director of pastoral ministry with persons with disabilities for the Archdiocese of Newark.

Masters oversees a program designed to welcome Catholics with disabilities. Her "Attends Mass" program includes training for religious educators and support groups for parents. A handful of churches offer special monthly Inclusive Family Masses, where children with autism and other disabilities are permitted to be loud or disruptive without fear of being asked to leave.

"There is some more awareness being developed in the parishes," Masters said. "They're asking for it."

Other religions have also made efforts to be more inclusive of children with developmental disabilities, though the programs are usually local and not well-known, advocates say. Some synagogues have programs to help children with autism make their bar or bat mitzvah.

Mary Beth Walsh, a Caldwell College adjunct professor and parent of an autistic teenager, is on a seven-member task force formed by the National Catholic Partnership on Disability to study how churches across the nation deal with autism.

"Autism can be a very isolating diagnosis," said Walsh, of Maplewood, N.J. "Sometimes the only place you can go as a family is church."

Walsh began taking her son, Ben Hack, to church when he was 5 years old. In the early days, Walsh said she wondered if it was worth the trouble. "How's he ever going to have a personal relationship with someone he can't see?" Walsh said, referring to God.

In the end, Walsh decided it was enough for her son to have a relationship with people gathering in Christ's name. Ben now considers church one of his favorite places and plans on being confirmed, Walsh said.

At a recent Mass, Ben helped bring the bread and wine up to the altar. He smiled and laughed through the service, paying close attention to the priest. When the bishop donned his tall miter at the end of the service, Ben put his program on his head, copying the gesture.

About a dozen children across the state have gone through a special free training program where they work with autism specialists, called "Mass mentors" and "Mass buddies," who slowly teach them how to attend Mass. The one-on-one training starts by taking children to the last five minutes of a service.

"All they were required to do was sit quietly," said Jessica Rothschild, a Caldwell College graduate student who served as a Mass mentor for four children.

The children go to Mass a little earlier each day or each week for months, in a practice known as "backward chaining." They are given food or other rewards for correct behavior. Eventually, most are able to attend the entire service, said Rothschild, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the method.

Caldwell College's new Center for Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis is preparing undergraduate and graduate students to use a campus chapel to train children with autism to go to religious services, said Sharon Reeve, the center's executive director.

"I can turn that chapel into a synagogue, a mosque, whatever they need," Reeve said. "The procedure is applicable to any denomination."

(Kelly Heyboer writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)

Panel cites Egypt for religious freedom violations

(From Religion News Service)


WASHINGTON -- A religious freedom watchdog panel has added Egypt to its list of the worst violators of religious liberty, citing attacks on Coptic Christians that occurred surrounding the downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak.

"The Egyptian government engaged in and tolerated religious freedom violations both before and after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11," said Leonard Leo, chairman of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which released its report Thursday (April 28).

"In his waning months, religious freedom conditions were rapidly deteriorating and since his departure, we've seen nothing to indicate that these conditions have improved."

Members of the independent commission also continued their criticism of the Obama administration for not making religious freedom a higher priority.

"President Obama's administration has yet to break from the practice of previous administrations of keeping the issue of religious freedom on the margins of U.S. foreign policy," the report states.

Leo acknowledged the recent confirmation of the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook as the new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and said he hopes it will lead to "meaningful actions" in the near future.

Commissioners, who are appointed by the president and members of Congress, listed a total of 14 countries that they recommend the State Department designate as "countries of particular concern." The department currently lists eight such countries, a number that remains unchanged since President George W. Bush left office.

Countries on the State Department's list include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

In addition to Egypt, USCIRF says the list should also include Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

State Department spokesman Evan Owen differed with the commission's analysis, saying his department issues reports on both religious freedom and anti-Semitism, and now has special envoys for both areas. He said the department will consider USCIRF's recommendations as it weighs updating its list of the worst violators of religious freedom.

"It's a long process and with the appointment of an ambassador for religious freedom, we expect it to be a more streamlined process in the future," he said.

Commissioners continue to hope that Pakistan and other nations will rescind anti-blasphemy laws that they believe lead to violent violations of religious freedom. The panel's 379-page report was dedicated to Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani minister for religious minorities who was assassinated in March after challenging such laws.

"Pakistan is arguably the most glaring omission to the State Department's CPC list, as the government is both responsible for and tolerates egregious violations of religious freedom," said Commissioner Nina Shea.

USCIRF also designates "watch list countries," nations whose violations do not merit a listing as the worst offenders but nevertheless require monitoring. This year's list includes Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela.

Granberg-Michaelson Signs Circle of Protection Statement

(From RCA Communications)

RCA general secretary Wes Granberg-Michaelson has signed A Circle of Protection: A Statement on Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor. He is one of 50 Christian leaders who signed on to the document.

"As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare," the statement reads. "As Christian leaders, we urge Congress and the administration to give moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times."

The statement was also signed by the heads of the RCA's Formula of Agreement partner churches, Geoffrey Black in the United Church of Christ, Mark Hanson in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Gradye Parsons in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

U.S., Canadian Anglicans await royal wedding festivitie

(From Religion News Service)


An ocean away from the pomp and circumstance of Prince William and Kate Middleton's nuptials on Friday, parishioners at Grace Anglican Church in Brantford, Ontario, will host their own royal festivities, complete with a free continental breakfast and traditional wedding bunting.

"Lent (is) over, so it will be time for a party," said the church's rector, the Rev. David M. Ponting, who said the church is inviting people to dress up as their favorite royal or British celebrity.

"I haven't decided if I will be the Archbishop of Canterbury or Elton John," he joked.

The Ontario church is one of a scattering of Episcopal churches in the U.S. and Anglican churches in Canada that are steeping the tea and toasting the crumpets in honor of their spiritual cousins across the pond.

Canadian Anglicans and U.S. Episcopalians are the North American branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which grew out of the Church of England as the British Empire spread around the world.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who will officiate at the wedding in Westminster Abbey, is considered the spiritual leader of a far-flung Anglican flock, although he has no direct power over any of the communion's 44 member churches.

The Church of England has a direct tie to Britain's storied monarchy -- Queen Elizabeth II holds the title of "Supreme Governor" of the Church of England, and Williams' predecessors have crowned British monarchs for nearly 1,000 years.

Ponting said Anglicans typically hold the British royals in high regard -- bells tolled in mourning upon news of King George VI's death in 1952, prompting hundreds of townspeople to gather at Grace Anglican to mourn.

In Chicago, members of the Episcopal Church of Our Savior hosted a black tie fundraiser in 1981 to celebrate the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, said Roger Gumm, chair of the parish's royal wedding breakfast event.

This time around, the event will be a more casual free breakfast, said the church's rector, the Rev. Brian Hastings. He added, however, that the church's assistant rector, the Rev. Martha Korienek, intends to buy a new hat for the affair.

Beyond food and the optional dress up, Grace Anglican will be accepting donations for its feed-the-hungry program, and host Communion following the wedding, Ponting said. Gumm will offer a service of morning prayer at the end of the Chicago event.

The clergy said they'll be proud to see the world stop to watch a decidedly Christian -- and Anglican -- wedding ceremony inside the storied Westminster Abbey. They'll also be cheering for Prince William, who will one day inherit his grandmother's title of Supreme Governor for the Church of England.

"It's a celebration of our roots and extends our identity to a larger group in England and across the world," says the Rev. David Klutterman, pastor for The Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist in Wausau, Wis., which will serve tea to guests at a wedding-viewing and fundraising party.

"If Anglicans can't have high tea to celebrate the royal wedding, who can?"

In Kenya, texting the Resurrection on mobile phones

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Fredrick Nzwili

Nairobi, Kenya -- Christians in Kenya over the Easter weekend exchanged thousands of text messages on mobile phones, announcing the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday and marking his Crucifixion on Good Friday.

"Love is strong as death. He rose again and gave us eternal breath," said one text received by a reporter on 24 April, Easter Sunday. On Good Friday, one text read, "If you have Jesus' number, call and tell him not to go Jerusalem. There are people who want to crucify him. I do not have airtime to call him now."

"The frequency of the messages sent out has been very high. Looking at the usage, it is clear the phones have become central to people's lives," Fr. Maloba Wesoga, a Roman Catholic priest in the Nairobi Archdiocese told ENInews on 25 April.

The phones are revolutionizing Africa where nearly 500 million people are subscribers, according to telecom groups. Many Christians use them to exchange Bible verses, share sermons and access popular preachers. They can also send monetary offerings through mobile money transfer services.

This Easter, Christians have used the phones creatively and imaginatively, observed Dave Buchere, a Kenyan government public relations officer who also serves as secretary of men's fellowship in a local Pentecostal church. "The phones are now part of ordinary people's lives," he said in a mobile phone interview with ENInews.

Some Christians here said they received nearly 150 texts over Easter, in a country where nearly 20 million people (out of a population of 40 million) are mobile phone subscribers. "We are in the technological age and the gadgets have wide usage among Christians. Their operation is also simple compared to computers, which few people have access to," added Wesoga.

Salome Gathoni, a Christian communications expert, said Christians are able to access useful services including songs and gospel ringtones. "They shorten distances and are affordable. It is not a surprise they were used to announce the Crucifixion and Resurrection," said Gathoni.

Many church leaders encourage creative use of the phones, saying they are a blessing to the church and a good tool for evangelization.

Poll: Americans see clash between Christianity, capitalism

(From Religion News Service)


Are Christianity and capitalism a marriage made in heaven, as some conservatives believe, or more of a strained relationship in need of some serious couples' counseling?

A new poll released Thursday (April 21) found that more Americans (44 percent) see the free market system at odds with Christian values than those who don't (36 percent), whether they are white evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics or minority Christians.

But in other demographic breakdowns, several categories lean the other way: Republicans and Tea Party members, college graduates and members of high-income households view the systems as more compatible than not.

The poll, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, found that although conservative Christians and evangelicals tend to want their clergy to speak out on issues like abortion and homosexuality, they also tend to hold left-of-center views on some economic issues.

"Throughout the Bible, we see numerous passages about being our brother's keeper, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and healing the sick," said Andrew Walsh, author of "Religion, Economics and Public Policy" and a religion professor at Culver-Stockton College.

"The idea that we are autonomous individuals competing for limited resources without concern for the welfare of others is a philosophy that is totally alien to the Bible, and in my view, antithetical to genuine Christianity."

The findings add a new wrinkle to national debates over the size and role of government, and raise questions about the impact of the Tea Party's cut-the-budget pressure on the GOP and its traditional base of religious conservatives.

The poll found stronger religious distinctions over the question of businesses acting ethically without government regulation, and whether faith leaders should speak out about economic concerns such as the budget deficit and the minimum wage.

White evangelicals (44 percent) are more likely than other Christians or the general population to believe that unregulated businesses would still behave ethically, and they place a higher priority on religious leaders speaking out about social issues over economic concerns.

Minority Christians, in contrast, believe clergy should be vocal about both areas -- particularly on the economic issue of home foreclosures, which 76 percent considered important, compared to 46 percent of the general population.

"Minority Christians have a deep theological tradition of connecting faith and economic justice, and we see that link in the survey," said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute. "Because minorities in the U.S. generally continue to have lower incomes than whites, economic issues are also more salient in these congregations."

In other findings:

-- Half of women believe that capitalism and Christian values are at odds, compared to 37 percent of men.

-- A majority (53 percent) of Democrats believe capitalism and Christian values are at odds, compared to 37 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of independents. A majority (56 percent) of Tea Party members say capitalism is consistent with Christian values.

-- Nearly half (46 percent) of Americans with household incomes of $100,000 a year or more believe that capitalism is consistent with Christian values, compared to just 23 percent of those with household incomes of $30,000 a year or less.

-- Most Americans (61 percent) disagree that businesses would act ethically on their own without regulation from the government. White evangelicals (44 percent) are more likely than Catholics (36 percent), white mainline (33 percent) or minority Christians (34 percent) to say unregulated businesses would act ethically.

"The most idolatrous claim of the Christian right is that the invisible hand of the free market ... is none other than the hand of God," Walsh said, "and any attempt to regulate the free market, according to this theology, belies a lack of faith in God."

The Rev. Jennifer Butler, executive director of the Washington-based group Faith in Public Life, said the fact that religious values seem to trump political or class differences can help groups like hers advocate for the poor.

And in ongoing debates in Washington over the budget and cuts to domestic spending, that means "making the wealthiest Americans and corporations pay their fair share in taxes" she said.

"People of faith have a unique ability to show political leaders that the economy is a moral issue," she said. "Even some members of Congress are beginning to echo our argument that protecting the most vulnerable as we get out of debt is a moral duty."

The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll was based on telephone interviews of 1,010 U.S. adults between April 14 and 17. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Easter Message from Iraq

Received from Elder Yousif Al-Saka
Chairman of Presbyterian Church of Baghdad

"And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." (1 Corinthians 15-14)

Yes Christ is risen, then our preaching is blessed and our faith is true.

With joy and happiness the Christian world celebrate these days the resurrection of Christ from the dead. This resurrection gave us new life and bestowed upon us a complete victory over death.

"I am the resurrection, and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." (John 11-25).

In this resurrection Jesus conquered death and broke the sting of the grave. "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1 Corinthians 15-55).

In this resurrection we were given courage to proclaim our faith with pride and confidence, it planted in us hope and gave us joy in the eternal life, it taught us that love will never fail and that God is love without boundaries.

While we, Iraqi Christians, share the rest of the world in welcoming this blessed occasion, as everyone else, with joy praising and glorifying the sacrosanct name of the Father.

We Iraqi Christians rejoice in the resurrection of Christ as other believers around the world do, we rejoice the victory over the deadly sin. But, our joy is somehow different from the joy of others, it's a joy blotted by things emanating from the sorrows of the land. However, it's not like the sorrow of those who have no hope.

"... that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope." (1 Thessalonians 4-13).

There are pains that squeeze our human hearts for the departing caravans of Martyrs from our sons and daughters who have departed from us to their home in heaven as a result of the very difficult security situation that our country is passing through.

The Martyrs who had clinched to the soil of their land, until their chests received the death fired by the hands of the killers, the terrorists; so that their bodies will return back and be encompassed by the soil of their homeland, which they loved.

Our joy is blotted by the sorrow for the Martyrs of the massacre that took place at the Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, where scores of worshipers were slaughtered inside the church. And which was rightly considered the drama of our era.

Yes, we may encounter death in its different forms every day, but we say with full faith: we are not afraid of death; we believe that the resurrection of Christ made death a way to elevate to the heavenly glories under the umbrella of the Almighty Father. Blessed are those who are chosen by the Lord to be Martyrs for the glory of His name.

In this holy occasion, the occasion of the resurrection of Christ from the dead, we raise our prayers to the Lord to protect the church of Iraq and the believers, the sons and daughters, of the church of Iraq, to build a wall around them to protect them from all evil and to strengthen their faith in order to spread His word so that peace and stability may prevail in the Land of Peace, and its people may live in prosperity and tranquility under His umbrella and may Iraq enjoys His perpetual peace.

We beg the Lord who had risen from the dead for the sake of all peoples of the world, so that peace may prevail on earth in these difficult times and for all nations to live with reciprocal respect among them and continuous love among all.

Thanks to the Father for the glory that descended from heaven and flooded the earth, which renewed faith in us and bestowed upon us eternal life. Thanks to the Father for the resurrection that gave us heavenly joy no one can remove from us.

"But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept." (1 Corinthians 15-20)

Hallelujah - Amen

Scholar challenges Thursday date of Last Supper

(From Religion News Service)

LONDON -- A top British scientist claims his biblical, historical and astronomical research shows Christians have been observing Jesus' Last Supper on the wrong day of the week.

Cambridge University Professor Colin Humphreys says Jesus' final meal with his disciples actually was eaten on the Wednesday before the Crucifixion -- one day earlier than has been traditionally accepted.

The mix-up, Humphreys concludes in his new book, "The Mystery of the Last Supper," may be because Jesus and disciples Matthew, Mark and Luke used one calendar, but fellow disciple John used another.

Humphreys notes the Gospels attributed to the first three claimed the last meal coincided with the Jewish Passover, whereas John's Gospel says the meal took place "before" Passover. Eminent biblical scholar F.F. Bruce once described that contradiction as "the thorniest problem in the New Testament," but Humphreys said, "if we use science and the Gospels hand in hand, we can actually prove that there was no contradiction."

Humphreys theorizes that Jesus employed an age-old Jewish calendar -- perhaps dating back to the Exodus from Egypt -- rather than the official lunar calendar popular at the time.

That, Humphreys said, would put the Passover and Last Supper meals on the Wednesday rather than Thursday, and means Jesus' arrest, interrogation and trials were not all crammed into a single night but were instead spread over a longer period of time.

Humphreys based his project on earlier research he conducted with Oxford University astrophysicist Graeme Waddington 28 years ago, which established the date of the Crucifixion as Friday morning, April 3, 33 A.D.

An Earthquake Report from Michinoku

(From RCA Global Mission)

Nozomu Konishi, pastor of Sendai Kita Church in Japan, wrote this report on April 3. Konishi's church is part of the Kyodan, or United Church of Christ in Japan, an RCA mission partner.

I am writing this report 23 days after the great earthquake and tsunami in eastern Japan on March 11, 2011. One of the members of my church is still unaccounted for, and I am still very busy dealing with the aftermath of this devastating event. There are many reports on the Internet that give information about the situation, and many of our churches have posted reports.

First, I want to relate the experience a friend of mine had in the city of Ishinomaki, which was destroyed by the tsunami. After the sun set, everything went pitch black, because there was no electricity, and he could hear people crying for help in the distance. They were apparently holding on to floating cars and roofs, but because it was so dark, there was nothing he could do to help them. Many of these lives were lost, and the survivors have to live with the sounds of those voices still ringing in their ears. So, what can we do in this situation?

On the fourth day after the quake, I led a delegation from the Kyodan to visit the Kyodan churches in the disaster zones. We saw that the churches there are doing their utmost in responding to the needs of their communities in spite of the fact that they themselves experienced considerable damage. As we were leaving one particular church, a member of that church asked us if we could take a person to Sendai. It seems that this man had been on company business in the area when the tsunami hit, and he had to ditch his car and climb up on the roof of a building to escape. He spent the night on the roof and then began to walk back toward Sendai. The church member, whose own home was flooded on the ground floor, took this stranger in to care for him. This was an example of victims reaching out to other victims to help each other. When we delivered this fellow to his company, we witnessed him being hugged by his fellow employees in a joyous reunion.

The Tohoku District was able to set up a victim support center by the fifth day and began giving direct support to constituents of each local church. In the early days, relief efforts centered around getting supplies to the people, and now the effort is shifting more toward providing work teams of volunteers, particularly of young people who are helping in the clean-up efforts. The next step is the establishing of the Committee on Support and Rebuilding of Tohoku District Churches. This effort will be a long-term effort to help churches to rebuild and to support the victims of this disaster. The Ou District is likewise following essentially the same plan.

The disaster response has also resulted in considerable ecumenical cooperation. The Sendai Federation of Christian Churches set up a Victim Relief Network to share information and to cooperate in practical ways. Each week, more than 50 representatives from various denominations gather, and several have commented that the breadth of fellowship and cooperation is beyond anything they have witnessed before. Likewise, there is cooperation between Christian pastors and Buddhist priests in mass memorial services and grief counseling.

I must also touch on the nuclear reactor accident. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility is owned and operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company for the purpose of supplying electric power to the Tokyo metropolitan area. Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro even went so far as to state that the tsunami was divine judgment, though he later retracted his ill-conceived words. He certainly doesnt show any understanding of the issues the Michinoku District faces and why there are 10 nuclear reactors and a nuclear fuel processing plant in this district just to provide electric power to the Tokyo metropolitan area. The Ou District has also released a statement of protest concerning this. Both the agricultural and fishing industries have been severely affected, and the prospects are that this situation will last quite a long time. From the time Japan began to modernize, there was a discriminatory expression about this area of Japan to the effect that it was a backward land of little value, and the present situation indicates that such attitudes are still an issue. A local newspaper, the Kahoku Shimpo, took its name from that expression in order to show the rest of Japan that this despised land of Michinoku could "cause the flower of civilization to bloom." It is with that same thought in mind that we want to respond to this natural disaster. Likewise, we all need to be reminded that having discriminatory attitudes is an issue that faces all of us, and so we must also deal with that.

Burned church nears completion as suspect found guilty

(From Religion News Service)


SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (RNS) As a white man surrendered to federal marshals Friday (April 15), workers were rebuilding the pulpit of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ he was convicted of burning down the night of President Obama's election.

Michael Jacques, 26, surrendered a day after a jury convicted him on civil rights and arson charges. Jacques expressed sympathy for parishioners of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, whose $2.5 million church was burned to the ground several hours after Obama was elected the nation's first black president.

"I'm sorry that that did happen," Jacques told reporters outside the courthouse. "I obviously didn't do it. My heart does go out to those people. But I am innocent, and I will appeal, and justice will prevail."

Along with two other white men, Jacques confessed a role in the gasoline-fed blaze that razed the church. Jacques later recanted, claiming investigators pressured him during a 6 1/2-hour interrogation.

The two other men -- Benjamin F. Haskell and Thomas A. Gleason, both 24 of Springfield -- pleaded guilty in June. Haskell was given a 9-year sentence; Gleason will be sentenced in October.

By the time Jacques is sentenced on Sept. 15, the new Macedonia Church of God in Christ will have been open for three months, if construction continues on schedule.

"We're 90 percent finished, maybe 95 percent," said James A. Tarrant, the church's principal contractor, as he pounded nails into the pulpit area of the 18,000-square foot building.

The rebuilt church's exterior is completed, and most of the interior work -- from installation of heating, air conditioning and sprinkler systems -- is also done, Tarrant said.

By the time the church opens, Tarrant will have spent four years at the site, he said. "This is the longest project I've ever worked on," he said.

The church's pastor, Bishop Bryant Robinson, said the conviction marks the end of another chapter in the arson saga for his congregation. "I'm pleased on one level that a jury of (Jacques') peers determined he was material to this heinous crime," Robinson said.

(Jack Flynn writes for The Republican in Springfield, Mass.)

Study: Longer life spans mean less need for church

(From Religion News Service)

LONDON (RNS) Researchers at two of Britain's top universities claim that church attendance in many Western nations is falling because people are living longer and therefore have less fear of death.

The result, the studies say, is a "graying church." In Britain, one in four older adults (65 or older) attends church, while just 11 percent of those between 16 and 44 are regular churchgoers.

The project was conducted by researchers at St. Andrews University in Scotland and the University of East Anglia in England and published in the International Journal of Social Economics.

East Anglia's Elissaios Papyrakis wrote that younger people question the benefits of going to church year after year, whereas the elderly are far more apt to consider religion's promise of life after death.

Some critics, however, say the theory is a harder match for the U.S., which leads other industrialized nations in church attendance.

Papyrakis said churches should concentrate more on the good things religion can offer, starting early. That, he added, "can counterbalance the negative impact of life expectancy on religiosity -- which in effect reduces concern about life after death."

Just how long did Jesus stay in the tomb?

(From Religion News Service)


As Christians worldwide prepare to celebrate Easter, they will follow a familiar chronology: Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose from the dead on "the third day," in the words of the ancient Nicene Creed.

But if Jesus died at 3 p.m. Friday and vacated his tomb by dawn Sunday morning -- about 40 hours later -- how does that make three days? And do Hebrew Scriptures prophesy that timetable?

Even Pope Benedict XVI wrestles with the latter question in his new book, "Jesus: Holy Week," about Christ's last days. "There is no direct scriptural testimony pointing to the 'third day,"' the pope concludes.

The chronology conundrum is "a bit of a puzzle," said Marcus Borg, a progressive biblical scholar and co-author of "The Last Week," a book about Holy Week.

But Borg and other experts say the puzzle can be solved if you know how first-century Jews counted time, and grant the four evangelists a little poetic license.

Jews of Jesus' time followed a lunar calendar, meaning that days began at sunset. For them, Saturday night was actually Sunday, a schedule that still guides Jewish holy days, such as Shabbat.

Ancient Jews also used what scholars call "inclusive reckoning," meaning any part of a day is counted as a whole day, said Clinton Wahlen of the Seventh-day Adventist Biblical Research Institute in Silver Spring, Md.

Using these counting methods, a backward calculation from Sunday morning to Friday afternoon makes three days.

Besides, the four evangelists were likely not counting time literally, according to some scholars.

"Expressions like `three days' and '40 days' are imprecise in the Bible," Borg said. For the evangelists, "three days" means "a short period of time."

Ben Witherington, an evangelical scholar of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., agreed.

The phrase "three days," is a colloquialism comparable to "directly" in Southern-speak, meaning "after a little while," he said. It's anachronistic to expect the evangelists to monitor time like modern-day men, Witherington said.

"The Gospel writers didn't walk around with sundials on their wrists the way modern scholars walk around with wristwatches," he said. "They were not dealing with the precision that we do."

But precision, especially when it comes to the Bible, has been a hallmark of faith for many Christians -- especially those who equate truth with historical facts.

Most troubling for these believers is Jesus' own prophecy, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, that he will rise from the dead after "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

Trying to reconcile that prophecy with the Holy Week calendar, ancient Christian theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa and Cyril of Jerusalem counted the eclipse of the sun after Jesus' death as a night, said the Very Rev. John Behr, dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.

"Didascalia Apostolorum," a third-century Christian treatise, took a more radical approach.

It proposes that Jesus and his apostles followed a different calendar than other Jews and celebrated the Last Supper on a Tuesday, meaning the crucifixion happened on a Wednesday. Some fringe Christian denominations still promote that theory.

Others dismiss historical revisions and say Jesus simply misspoke. "To be technical, Jesus made a false prophecy, and that's not something most Christians would want to put that way," said Robert Miller, a professor of religion at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.

But the point of Jesus' prophecy is to draw a comparison to Jonah, who was willing to die to save his shipmates (and spent three days in the belly of a big fish), not to set a timetable for the Resurrection, said Witherington.

Martin Connell, a scholar at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., calls the chronology conundrum a "never-ending question." "So unsettled is the evidence, and so elastic, that the debate will likely always continue," Connell said.

The Apostle Paul wrote that the third-day Resurrection accords with the Hebrew Scriptures.

Some scholars, such as Wahlen, think Paul is pointing to a passage in the Book of Hosea, which says God will "heal" and "restore" Israel after three days.

Benedict says that theory "cannot be sustained."

There may be a very practical reason for the Resurrection to have happened in three days after Jesus' death, scholars say.

First-century tradition held that only after three days could you be sure someone was dead; after four days the spirit was presumed to leave the body.

Archaeologist claims to find nails from Jesus' cross

(From Religion News Service)


JERUSALEM -- An Israeli-Canadian journalist believes he may have tracked down two of the iron nails used to crucify Jesus to the cross. Or at least objects that "could be" the long-lost relics.

While researching a segment for the History Channel series "Secrets of Christianity," host and producer Simcha Jacobovici learned something that startled him: In 1990, Israeli archeologists excavating a 2,000-year-old burial cave discovered two nails crafted by the Romans, but kept the discovery quiet.

They did, however, publicize the discovery of two ossuaries -- stone burial boxes filled with human bones -- with the inscriptions "Caiaphas" and "Joseph son of Caiaphas." The latter intricately carved ossuary toured the world and is now prominently displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

According to the Gospels, Caiaphas was the Jewish high priest who handed Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion.

"There's a general scholarly consensus that the tomb where the nails were found likely belonged to Caiaphas. Nails at that time were a dime a dozen, but finding one in a tomb is exceedingly rare," Jacobovici said outside the high stone walls of the Old City, where Jesus spent his final days.

When Jacobovici found a brief reference to the nails in the official archeologists' report, "my jaw dropped," he said.

"It would be as if, 2,000 years from now, archaeologists uncovered the cave of Muhammad Ali but neglected to mention the pair of boxing gloves found there. Sure, boxing gloves are common, but perhaps those particular gloves had special significance to the boxer?"

Jacobovici also hosts the "Naked Archaeologist" series on History International and collaborated with filmmaker James Cameron on the controversial 2007 documentary, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus."

In the segment "Nails of the Cross," which will air on April 20 on the History Channel, Jacobovici attempts to discover why the researchers felt the nails were unimportant.

"Everything else is so meticulous, yet there are no photos or drawings or measurements of the nails. When I inquired at the Israel Antiquities Authority, I was told they had gone missing."

"Caiaphas is known for one thing only: the trial and Crucifixion of Jesus," Jacobovici said. "He may have felt compelled to take these nails with him to his grave."

There was also the belief among some ancient Jews that nails had healing powers "and were a ticket to the afterlife. Other items found in the tomb show that this was a superstitious guy," he added.

The history detective searched the IAA's vast warehouses and then tried to find the location of the long-sealed tomb, which now lies beneath a public park.

Finally, on a hunch, Jacobovici approached Israel Hershkovitz, a forensic anthropologist at Tel Aviv University, who is also expert on crucifixions.

"When I asked Hershkovitz if he'd received two nails about 20 years ago, he knew exactly what I was talking about and located them within minutes," Jacobovici recalled.

Hershkovitz could not say where the nails had been found because the original packaging lacked the information. He could not be reached for comment.

While Hershkovitz knows for certain the nails came from the IAA, there's no conclusive link that they came from the Caiaphas tomb. Israeli archaeologists seem as reluctant to comment this time around as they were back in 1990.

When the anthropologist showed Jacobovici an ancient heel bone impaled with a nail -- the only such crucifixion specimen ever unearthed -- "I realized that the Caiaphas nails were similar, though shorter. The tips appeared purposely bent to keep them from falling off the wood." Jacobovici asked Hershkovitz whether the nails could have been used to crucify a person's hands to a cross. Hershkovitz said "yes."

The limestone residue on one of the nails clinched it for Jacobovici, "because one of the nails was found in the ossuary, the other on the ground" of the burial cave, where it would be exposed to limestone.

Gabriel Barkay, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, called Jacobovici's investigation "very challenging, very interesting, very intriguing, but it's a TV show and not a scholarly study. "There's no proof whatsoever that they originate in the tomb of Caiaphas," he said. "It's all conjecture."

Nails were used for "many purposes," Barkay noted, "from fixing iron gates to wooden doors and coffins." And for crucifixions.

Ronny Reich, a Haifa University archeologist who deciphered the writing in the Caiaphas cave, believes the cave "belongs to a member of the Caiaphas family, but we have no evidence it belongs to the high priest."

Jacobovici, however, is certain his research will withstand scrutiny, even if it seems largely circumstantial at first glance.

"Skepticism is good. As with the Shroud of Turin, you can't be 100 percent certain, but believers don't need 100 percent certainty. They need a solid 'could be,' and that's what we're offering."

French ban on full-face veils takes effect

(From Religion News Service)

PARIS -- Police arrested several veiled Muslim women Monday (April 11) and protests continued to spread as France's controversial ban against the full-face veil came into force.

At least two women wearing the face-covering veil, or niqab, were reportedly arrested at a small protest in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in downtown Paris, along with several sympathizers.

"All I have done is to practice my rights as a citizen, I haven't committed any crime," one of the woman, Kenza Drider, told French radio before being taken away in a police car.

Championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ruling UMP party, the legislation bans all face-covering garments in public spaces. Supporters say the ban is critical to enforce France's strict separation of church and state -- and to ensure respect for women's rights.

Neighboring Belgium has similar legislation and other European countries are eyeing it, but France has become the first country to enforce it.

But critics -- including Muslims who do not wear or even approve of the niqab -- say it unfairly targets France's estimated 6 million Muslims. Only about 2,000 women wear the niqab, according to French government estimates.

"This law puts France to shame -- a country that prides itself on the human rights it claims to promote and protect, freedom of expression included," said Amnesty International's John Dalhuisen.

At the Fraternite, or Brotherhood, mosque in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, 22-year-old Someya said she would comply with the legislation.

"But it breaks my heart," she added, "because it's a personal choice, a statement of my faith."

Diver searches for St. Paul's shipwreck

(From Religion News Service)


HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Even long before the times of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, Malta was the rocky knob at the western edge of the Roman Empire, the place where the leftovers of the Mediterranean Sea washed up and dug in.

And Malta is the site of what Huntsville software salesman John Harkins believes will be the last and best quest of his life. Harkins, a mild-mannered, Bible-reading, Church of Christ deacon and marine biologist, is determined to be the first person since the biblical Luke to see evidence of the ship that carried Paul nearly to Rome.

"I'm quite in the minority in thinking there might be some remnant," Harkins said, unrolling charts of the island on his desk at work. "But I know we're going to find something, though it may not be from Paul's wreck."

According to Acts 27, a chapter in Luke's history of the nascent Christian movement, a huge ship loaded with grain, sailors, soldiers, prisoners, passengers crashed into the coast at the end of a 14-day storm.

The ship broke in half, spilling everyone into the sea. Miraculously, the entire crew was able to struggle to shore, where they were met by the inhabitants of the 200-mile-long island, who built them a fire.

"The natives showed us unusual kindness," Luke writes.

Harkins said Malta's government places a high value on caring for and understanding relics washed on its shores. Museums catalogue ancient weapons, structures, tools, and, of course, fragments of the shipping trade that made Malta a crucial outpost of vessels attempting to round the Italian boot to get to Rome.

"God put that ship there, and I figure he put it where he wants it," Harkins said. "He gave it to the Maltese people, and frankly, he couldn't have given it to people who do more to preserve their heritage -- and it's their heritage, along with the rest of us."

Harkins can't remember a time when the story of Paul's shipwreck didn't fascinate him. It was one of the stories that leapt out of the dim and musty antiquity of ancient stories to snap into Technicolor. "The very first time I read it, it sounded so real," Harkins said. "I thought, 'Holy cow, I know this happened!' I had no doubt it was real."

Doubt is something he's hoping to help other people overcome if he finds evidence confirming Luke's account.

"It could be one more thing where somebody said something didn't exist and we can say, 'Yeah. It did,"' Harkins said. "Maybe it will help someone who has lost their faith and wants to come back."

When Harkins and his partners return to Malta in May for what will be his third visit to the island, he hopes to map the sub-bottom profile of areas he's decided are likely shipwreck locations given prevailing winds and the land forms.

Among the experts he has consulted are second-century essayist Lucian and a 19th-century book by the preacher son of an East India Company merchant. His book shelves also bulge with various doctoral dissertations on relics found underwater and other books on archaeology, sailing and diving.

Gordon Franz, an archaeologist at the Akron, Pa.-based Associates for Biblical Research, remembers responding cautiously to Harkins' first letters some years ago.

"We get all kinds of crackpots who contact our office about their crazy ideas or discoveries," Franz said. "After a few exchanges, I realized this fellow knows what he is talking about, so I called him. We talked for about an hour, and he shared some nautical insights into Acts 27 which I had never considered before."

Older shipwrecks than the one Harkins seeks have been found, Franz said. But if Harkins can find the remains of an Alexandrian grain ship, like the one that carried Paul, it would be a first.

"It would add to our knowledge of the grain ships and the grain trade in the Roman world," Franz said. "Finding the wreck would put the Acts account on solid historical grounds."

And if Harkins finds nothing at all, despite self-funding his search and taking time away from family and work?

"I believe we all have to search for something," Harkins said. "And one of the reasons I'm doing this is because, who else would do it? It's not important to other people who would rather search for sunken treasure.

"The most important thing is the searching, and you have to find something you think worthwhile to search for."

(Kay Campbell writes for The Huntsville Times in Huntsville, Ala.)

Diverse implications of world Christianity

(From the World Council of Churches)

“We must avoid stereotypes,” said Rev. Dr Nikolaus Schneider, chair of the council that coordinates relations and activities within the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). As diverse groups encounter one another in the contemporary dynamics of world Christianity, he added, the key questions are whether the calling of the church is being fulfilled by a given community, and whether Jesus Christ is to be found there.

Schneider made his comments during a wide-ranging discussion of Christianity in the 21st century during a three-day visit by EKD leaders to the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland. Taking part in the conversation were staff members and other representatives of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC).

Prof. Odair Pedroso Mateus, a Brazilian theologian teaching at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland, observed that Western theologians of a century ago tended to experience Christian plurality “in a traumatic way,” in terms of dispute, disaffection and disunity. It was in the context of the global South that pluralism came to be seen in a positive light, providing an opportunity for diverse groups of people to confront common challenges.

Rev. Dr Martin Sinaga, an LWF staff member from Indonesia, noted that in many nations Christianity sees itself as “the little flock” that needs to embrace a wider religious pluralism in order to make an impression prophetically and politically. Even so, a distinctive Christian identity forms the basis for minority churches’ witness to the gospel through their life and work.

Kristine Greenaway, the WCRC communication secretary, warned that many promising opportunities for cooperation among Christians “are blocked by our stereotypes about one another,” separating the member churches of ecumenical councils from more conservative evangelical and charismatic bodies.

“Changes in our situations are being perceived through a lens of mutual misunderstanding,” she concluded, arguing that the so-called “ecumenical” churches need to communicate more openly and effectively, and to gain an institutional competence in languages beyond the traditional, European, “official” languages of the councils.

Rev. Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel of the Protestant aid agency Brot für die Welt, a member of the EKD delegation, noted that “plurality is threatening to people when they feel that they have to give up something important, or adopt beliefs that are not their own.”

Rev. Christoph Anders of the Association of Protestant Churches and Missions in Germany (EMW) observed that new church movements tend to be less bound to historical traditions and more likely to want to join in common reflections on common problems.

Rev. Dr Fidon Mwombeki, a Lutheran leader from Tanzania, applauded recent dialogues and conversations that have opened their examination of issues with practical realities in today’s churches rather than with the finer points of theological doctrine.

Prof. Kathryn Johnson, a US theologian and assistant general secretary of the LWF, testified to exciting developments in inter-church dialogues among widely differing communities: “Christian world communions are very aware of growing diversity,” she said. “We live it all the time.” This is true not only on the global scale, but in every nation and city: “The world is coming to us.”

Rev. Dr John Gibaut, director of Faith and Order for the WCC, agreed that varying confessions, cultures and nationalities are living side by side, interacting, facing common challenges. “The most pressing ecclesiological question before us,” he asserted, “is migration. This is not merely a matter of practicalities; it is profoundly ecclesiological. It speaks to faith, unity, mission and local ministries. Today, the migrant communities in our societies, and in our own neighbourhoods, are where ecclesiology and pastoral responsibility meet.”

The Geneva visit by EKD leaders began on Wednesday 6 April and continues through Friday 8 April.

British astrophysicist wins Templeton Prize

(From Religion News Service)

A British theoretical astrophysicist who has achieved renown for his study of the cosmos and for sounding warnings about the future of humanity has won the $1.6 million 2011 Templeton Prize.

Martin J. Rees of Cambridge University, a former president of Britain's prestigious Royal Society, was announced the winner on Wednesday (April 6) by the John Templeton Foundation.

The annual prize honors an individual who has made "exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension." Rees is a somewhat unorthodox choice because he holds no formal religious beliefs.

Rees, 68, has long studied questions surrounding black holes, the big bang and what some call the "dark age" of the early universe. Rees has also speculated on the idea of infinite universes, sometimes called "multiverses," and has pondered how large physical reality actually is.

Rees has helped reshape "crucial philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life, fostering the spiritual progress that the Templeton Prize has long sought to recognize," the Templeton Foundation said in announcing the prize.

"The questions Rees raises have an impact far beyond the simple assertion of facts, opening wider vistas than any telescope ever could," said John M. Templeton, Jr., president and chairman of the John Templeton Foundation started by his father.

"By peering into the farthest reaches of the galaxies, Martin Rees has opened a window on our very humanity, inviting everyone to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence," he said.

In recommending Rees for the honor, Robert Williams, president of the International Astronomical Union, said Rees "is very unusual in that he constantly touches on spiritual themes without dealing explicitly with religion. I do not know whether he is a theist, for example."

In an interview, Rees acknowledged he holds no formal religious beliefs, but honors the traditions of the Anglican Church as a member of his "tribe."

"I do participate in services because I value them for their aesthetic and social value," he said.

Rees has won notoriety as a scientist concerned with the survival of the planet. In a 2004 book, published in the United States as "Our Final Hour," Rees argued that civilization likely will suffer a severe setback in the next century. He argued that humans, with their interconnected world vulnerable to disruption, have no more than a 50-50 chance of surviving until 2100 without some sort of serious event or problem linked to technology or the environment.

Though hopeful about what science and technology can do to improve life, "in terms of politics, I am not optimistic."

In remarks prepared for Wednesday's announcement in London, Rees said the "intractable politics and sociology -- the gap between potentialities and what actually happens -- engenders pessimism."

"All too often the focus is short term and parochial -- the urgent and the local loom higher on political agendas than even the gravest long-term challenges."

The Templeton Prize is the world's largest annual award to an individual and is intended to exceed the monetary value of the annual Nobel Prizes. Britain's Prince Philip will award Rees the prize on June 1 at Buckingham Palace.

The Templeton Prize began in 1973 as an initiative by the late philanthropist and global investor Sir John M. Templeton. It was initially given to such religious figures as Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. In recent years, however, the prize has been awarded to scientists and theologians whose work focuses on the field of science and religion.

WCC concerned about religious conflict in Cote d'Ivoire

(From the World Council of Churches)

The World Council of Churches (WCC) has expressed concern that the deteriorating situation in the West African country of Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire) "is on the verge of enflaming religious conflicts."

In a statement released today, WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit said, "Already, religion is being used to wield political and economic power. We appeal to all people of goodwill to reject such manipulation. It is in this context that the World Council of Churches urges leaders on both sides to take adequate measures to end the hostilities and work for a negotiated political settlement to attain justice, peace and reconciliation within the country."

While recent analysis says the current conflict is based on President Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to yield to newly elected and internationally recognized President Alassane Ouattara, the conflict also has roots in long term divisions along ethnic, religious and economic lines.

Supreme Court takes dim view of church-state challenges

(From Religion News Service)

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday (April 4) rejected a challenge to an Arizona school tuition credit program critics contend was principally benefiting religious institutions.

The 5-4 decision, combined with a 2007 ruling rejecting a similar challenge to the Bush administration's faith-based office, seems to solidify the court's skepticism toward attempts to derail government funding of religious programs.

Monday's decision was hailed by supporters of religiously based education and makes it tougher for taxpayers to challenge such scholarship programs by claiming they violate church-state separation. The Arizona tax credit, enacted in 1997, allows participants to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations to so-called "student tuition organizations," or STOs, of up to $500 for individuals and $1,000 for married couples.

The Arizona Department of Revenue reported that two STOs -- the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization and the Catholic School Tuition Organization of the Diocese of Phoenix -- received 38 percent of the total donations in 2009. Court documents showed the total percentage of religiously affiliated STOs was 67 percent that year, down from 94 percent in 1998.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court's conservative majority, said the taxpayers who filed suit lacked legal standing to challenge the program because they incorrectly viewed the tax credit as a form of government spending.

"While the state, at the outset, affords the opportunity to create and contribute to an STO, the tax credit system is implemented by private action and with no state intervention," he wrote.

The decision echoed the court's 2007 ruling in a case filed against the White House office by an atheist group; in that case, too, the justices said challengers did not have standing.

"In an era of frequent litigation, ... courts must be more careful to insist on the formal rules of standing, not less so," Kennedy concluded in the Arizona decision.

In a strongly worded dissent, the court's freshman member, Justice Elena Kagan, argued that taxpayer standing should not be based on whether the money subsidizing religion comes through a tax break or a direct grant.

"Either way, the government has financed the religious activity," she said. "And so either way, taxpayers should be able to challenge the subsidy."

She was joined in her dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

RCWS Responds to Earthquake in Myanmar

(From RCA Communications)

Overshadowed by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a 6.8 earthquake shook eastern Myanmar on March 24. Many buildings suffered significant damage and the death toll is over 150 according to some sources.

Reformed Church World Service has been in touch with contacts in Myanmar. Two churches in the affected area sustained damage and numerous people are reported injured or missing.

Report: Small churches feeling financial squeeze

(From Religion News Service)


Almost all U.S. churches witnessed a change in the financial giving they received in 2010 compared to 2009, with smaller churches feeling the squeeze but larger churches faring relatively better, according to a new report.

Only 12 percent of churches reported unchanged giving from 2009, according to the State of the Plate survey released Wednesday (March 30), while 43 percent of churches experienced a giving increase and 39 percent reported a decrease.

Smaller congregations were more likely to see a decrease in giving, said Matt Branaugh, an editor at Christianity Today International, which helped gather the data for the State of the Plate for the past two years.

"We do see smaller churches continuing to struggle, it seems more so than larger-sized churches," Branaugh said.

The report found that about 40 percent of churches with fewer than 249 attendees experienced a drop in giving. Only 29 percent of megachurches, with an average weekend attendance of more than 2,000, reported a decrease in giving, according to the report.

The percentage of churches that reported a drop in giving in 2010 rose slightly from 2009, from 38 percent to 39 percent. Churches that reported an increase in giving rose from 35 percent in 2009 to 43 percent in 2010.

The State of the Plate survey was launched in 2008 when Brian Kluth, founder of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Maximum Generosity, realized there was minimal solid data on church finances.

The following year, Kluth's financial consulting firm recruited Christianity Today International in compiling the report. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability joined both organizations this year to analyze self-reported 2010 data from churches.

The survey is a constituency survey, based on email responses submitted by 1,507 congregations and is not a traditional random phone sample with a margin of error.

Almost all responding churches (91 percent) expressed concern over the potential of a government revision of the rules for charitable deductions. Kluth said the Obama administration's proposal to reduce tax deductions for high-end charitable donors will impact gifts given to churches.

"If the government's plan to change the rules on charitable tax deductions goes through, giving to charities and churches and the help they give to others will likely be negatively impacted at a time it is needed the most," Kluth said in a statement.

Expert says faith groups play an environmental role

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Fredrick Nzwili

Nairobi -- Religious denominations and people of faith play crucial roles in caring for the environment and mitigating the effects of climate change, according to the head of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC).

"[Faith groups] will not be able to answer the scientific questions of climate change, but they can change the way we behave. I think we can address it. It will not happen fast, but will happen sustainably," Martin Palmer, ARC's general secretary told ENInews on 29 March in Nairobi. "We have seen huge impacts," he said, adding, "now almost every religious organization is talking about the environment. They are doing tree planting, they are talking about energy cuts. They are teaching their own people (about environment)."

Palmer spoke while attending a workshop on religion and environment, which is organized by ARC and hosted by the Nairobi-based All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC). The conference, titled "Faith Commitments for a Living Planet," runs 29-30 March. It has brought together leaders from Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, among other faiths in Africa, to focus on sustainable land and water management, with a particular emphasis on forestry, food, farming and education. Delegates are from 11 African countries.

Palmer said religious denominations have found ways to show communities how to live sustainably with the environment without destroying habitats and livelihoods. "They have learned to live in a balance with nature. They have learned to encourage people and draw them into practical activities," said Palmer, whose organization, based in Bath, England, is helping faith groups launch long-term programs on environmental care and protection.

The Rev. Andre Karamaga, the AACC's general secretary, said that in the past, religious groups cared for everything in nature including trees, mountains and water bodies. "It would not have been shocking to see our forebearers speaking to these natural features. This spoke about harmonious co-existence ... We need to re-discover this harmony between man and nature," he said.

Diminishing ice at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, for example, has inspired people in the Northern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania to develop an environmental protection policy. "The drop in the ice made people ask questions. They first started praying, but later decided to take action by planting 8 million trees. At the end of each year, they plant 1.2 million. All members of the churches are involved," Bishop Fredrick Shoo told the seminar.

Each faith group is developing a plan depending on its strength, according to ARC. For example, faith retreat centres are looking at food sourcing, Lutheran and Shinto members are exploring their impacts on forests, Sikhs are concentrating on water pollution because that is where their land is suffering, Jews are looking at community supported agriculture and Buddhists in Shanghai are cleaning the river.

'Word is God' at Shakespeare theatre's season in London

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Jo Siedlecka

London -- Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London has entitled its 2011 season "The Word is God" and will mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible with a cover-to-cover reading between Palm Sunday, 17 April, and Easter Monday, 25 April.

Twenty actors, including many Globe regulars, will take part in the reading, which will take 69 hours over the eight days. They will recite all 1,189 chapters of the historic bible, considered an essential part of the development of the English language, in the theater built as a replica of the place that saw many of Shakespeare's greatest plays.

"Four hundred years ago, a set of church scholars sat in Stationer's Hall by St. Paul's Cathedral and put the finishing touches to the King James Bible. Across the river, a set of playwrights, Shakespeare foremost amongst them, entertained a town. The playwrights listened to the clerics in church, the clerics sneaked in to listen to the plays in the theatre. Between the two of them they generated an energy, a fire and wit in the English language. We will honour that achievement this summer, starting with the recital of one of the greatest and most significant English texts - the Bible," Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole said in an interview.

The theater's season will also include the story of the creation of the King James Bible in the play "Anne Boleyn," by Howard Brenton. The story looks at the legacy of Henry VIII's second wife, who conspires with the exiled William Tyndale to make England Protestant forever. Starting 70 years after her death, the play examines how King James united England's religious factions with a common Bible, and the debt he owed to Anne.

In August, the Globe will present "The Globe Mysteries," a set of medieval mystery plays in a new version by poet and playwright Tony Harrison. "The Globe Mysteries" will bring stories from the Bible to life whilst celebrating the spirit of street theatre and processional performance.

The King James Bible anniversary is echoed within the Globe's education program, which will host a series of events entitled "The Heard Word: Pulpit Vs Playhouse." They include a lecture by Professor Graham Holderness of the University of Hertfordshire on the relationship between the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

In modern drama, the theater will present the world premiere of "The God of Soho" by Chris Hannan, a hectic comedy about modern Britons looking for the divine.

Churches in Japan recovering in the midst of ecumenical spirit

(From Ecumenical News International)

New York -- As recovery efforts in Japan proceed, the full impact of the earthquake and tsunami two weeks ago continues to be felt by many churches that are providing disaster relief while grieving lost members and buildings. At the same time, prayers, letters of solidarity and donations are coming in from the ecumenical community in Asia as well as around the world.

A magnitude-9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on 11 March hit the northeastern coast of Japan, devastating towns and farms. More than 9,700 people have been killed and more than 16,500 remain missing, according to police. Officials are monitoring radiation leakage from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, crippled by the disaster.

In a letter sent on 23 March to churches in Japan, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), expressed the "dismay and sorrow" of the world wide church community. Speaking for the 349 WCC member churches Tveit said, "We pray for God's grace and divine protection for those who are risking their own lives in order to save others."

The tragedy has also brought together WCC member churches in Japan as they respond jointly to the needs in the disaster area, said the Rev. Dong Sung Kim, responsible for regional relations with Asia at the WCC. "The show of support from churches in Asia as well as Europe and around the world is also part of what it means to be the ecumenical community," Kim said, according to the WCC.

In a report on 24 March from Teruki Takada, staff member of the Commission on Ecumenical Ministries for the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan), it was said that some churches in Japan still have members missing, others are hosting refugees and in one case a group of pastors was part of an emotional reunion.

Some churches remain damaged by the tsunami, while in others cleanup has begun, according to Takada's report. Some churches continue to live with uncertainty. In the Sendai Kita 3-Bancho Church, seven members are still missing. Another five church members are missing in the Sendai Itsutsubashi Church.

Even with this uncertainty, churches are finding ways to reach out to those in need.

The Sendai Higashi Church has hosted 15 refugees. The Sendai Minami Church has hosted 13 refugees while the Miyagino Aisen Church hosted another 16. In one situation, four pastors from the United Church of Christ in Japan (UCCJ) were able to assist a survivor who spent a snowy night on the roof of a three-story building. The Kyodan team of pastors was able to give the man a ride to the coastal area of Sendai City where he was reunited with his co-workers.

ACT Alliance, a Geneva-based global church emergency and development organization said that the situation in the disaster zone remains "chaotic and confusing as the extent of the loss and damage is so vast." However, ACT Alliance is coordinating with its members working in the country and has offered to send a team of emergency specialists should the churches in Japan request it.

ACT Alliance said Lutheran groups have formed a joint emergency response team incorporating the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church, Kinki Evangelical Lutheran Church, Japan Lutheran Church and the West Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church. The team will include office and field personnel and will coordinate closely with the National Council of Churches in Japan (NCCJ). Currently the groups are supporting through two partner organisations: Plan Japan and Shaplaneer.

Another ACT Alliance member, Church World Service, is providing emergency relief to some 25,000 people now living at 100 evacuation sites in northeastern Japan. They are focusing on areas where basic needs of food, water, sanitation, electricity and fuel are not being met and are working with a coalition of 32 Japanese agencies who know best where resources are needed, ACT Alliance said.

The impact of the disaster is hitting elderly people particularly hard, said the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) through its Lutheran World Information service. About 25 percent of Japan's population is over the age of 65, but the percentage is higher in the northeast as young people have left for jobs in the urban south. About 400,000 people have been left homeless by the disaster and police report that many elderly are at shelters.

Lutherans, including Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church (JELC), Kinki Evangelical Lutheran Church and Japan Lutheran Church, all member churches of LWF, as well as West Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church, have set up the joint emergency task force Japan Lutheran Emergency Relief to coordinate their response in the wake of the disaster. The LWF member churches there have also joined Anglicans and the bigger Roman Catholic Church in relief efforts.

JELC pastor the Rev. Suguru Matsuki pointed out that congregation members had donated 5,000 kg of rice and 10,000 meals of instant noodles and various canned foods. Church workers from the Ichigaya emergency center noted that four people had left for the coastal area of Sendai to assess needs, said Lutheran World Information.

On 18 March the Catholic Bishop of Sendai, Monsignor Martin Hiraga, and other bishops opened a center in Sendai to serve the areas affected by the tsunami. They noted that many shelters were without water, electricity, fuel or medicine, causing physical and mental distress for the displaced.

Poll: Most Americans don't blame God for disasters

(From Religion News Service)

We may never know why bad things happen to good people, but most Americans -- except evangelicals -- reject the idea that natural disasters are divine punishment, a test of faith or some other sign from God, according to a new poll.

The poll released Thursday (March 24), by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, was conducted a week after a March 11 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan.

Nearly six in 10 evangelicals believe God can use natural disasters to send messages -- nearly twice the number of Catholics (31 percent) or mainline Protestants (34 percent). Evangelicals (53 percent) are also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline Protestants to believe God punishes nations for the sins of some citizens.

The poll found that a majority (56 percent) of Americans believe God is in control of the earth, but the idea of God employing Mother Nature to dispense judgment (38 percent of all Americans) or God punishing entire nations for the sins of a few (29 percent) has less support.

From Noah's fabled flood to 21st-century disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, some people blame incomprehensible calamities on human sinfulness.

Such interpretations often offend victims, however. Public outcry prompted Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara to apologize for calling the disaster a "divine punishment" for Japanese egoism.

"It's interesting that most Americans believe in a personal God and that God is in control of everything that happens in the world ... but then resist drawing a straight line from those beliefs to God's direct role or judgment in natural disasters," noted Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.

The poll found that most racial and ethnic minority Christians (61 percent) believe natural disasters are God's way of testing our faith -- an idea that resonates with African-Americans' history of surviving through slavery and racial discrimination.

(Japan's population is predominantly Shinto or Buddhist -- religions that view nature as a force beyond our control or understanding -- but the poll could not get a representative sample of those groups in the United States.)

In other findings:

-- Most white evangelicals (84 percent) and minority Christians (76 percent) believe God is in control of everything that happens in the world, compared to slimmer majorities of white mainline Protestants (55 percent) and Catholics (52 percent).

-- Nearly half of Americans (44 percent) say the increased severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of biblical "end times," but a larger share (58 percent) believe it is evidence of climate change. The only religious group more likely to see natural disasters as evidence of "end times" (67 percent) than climate change (52 percent) is white evangelicals.

-- Across political and religious lines, roughly eight in 10 Americans say government relief aid to Japan is very important (42 percent) or somewhat important (41 percent), despite our current economic problems.

"After one of these disasters, people turn to their clergy and their theologians and they look for answers, and there are no great answers," said Gary Stern, author of "Can God Intervene? How Religion Explains Natural Disasters."

"But almost every group believes you have to help people who are suffering."

The question of God's role in, and humans' response to, disasters has long vexed the world's major religious traditions, Stern said, even as answers often remain elusive.

Prompted by the 2004 tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia, Stern interviewed dozens of American ministers, priests, imams, rabbis, monks, professors and nonbelievers about their theories. They offered disparate views, sometimes at the same time: forces of nature are impersonal; God is all-knowing but not all-powerful; nature is destructive because of original sin or collective karma; victims are sinners; suffering helps test our faith and purify us.

"The evangelical world is definitely focused on original sin and on the general sinfulness of our world ... and it won't end until Christ returns," Stern said. "In the mainline world, their theology is not well-suited to why God allows these things to happen, so their emphasis is on looking for God in the rescue efforts. And Catholics feel that suffering makes us holy, and there are mysteries that we can't answer in this life, and we'll find the answers in the next life."

But among evangelicals, there's a wide gulf between the fundamentalist perspective that sees disasters as proof of God's wrath and the moderate view that sees "a distinction between an earthquake as part of God's plan and God causing that earthquake," said R. Douglas Geivett, a religion professor at Biola University in California.

"There are a lot of things that I wouldn't cause to happen to my children to teach them certain lessons, but I might allow them to happen, so they might learn the lesson," said Geivett, a former president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

"This is tragic, but if you ask (why God allows) earthquakes, you have to ask it anytime that people die. We would have to be prophets of God to know that."

The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll was based on telephone interviews of 1,008 U.S. adults between March 17 and 20. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Churches in Japan recover as ecumenical spirit shines

(From the World Council of Churches)

As recovery efforts in Japan proceed, the full impact of the earthquake and tsunami two weeks ago continues to be felt by some of the World Council of Churches (WCC) member churches there.

At the same time prayers, letters of solidarity and, in some cases, monetary support are coming in from the ecumenical community in Asia as well as around the world.

In a letter sent yesterday to the churches in Japan, the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, expressed the "dismay and sorrow" of the world wide church community.

Speaking for the 349 WCC member churches Tveit said, "We pray for God's grace and divine protection for those who are risking their own lives in order to save others."

The tragedy has also brought together WCC member churches in Japan as they respond jointly to the needs in the disaster area, said the Rev. Dong Sung Kim, responsible for regional relations with Asia at the WCC.

"The show of support from churches in Asia as well as Europe and around the world is also part of what it means to be the ecumenical community," Kim said today.

This same support was shown during earlier natural disasters in Pakistan and New Zealand: "But it is an important sign of the vitality of the ecumenical community in the region, showing solidarity with brothers and sisters in need," Kim said.

In his letter, Tveit recognized the potential for a nuclear catastrophe and said, "The more recent news of radioactive contamination in food has heightened the apprehension and concern as the fragile web of life in which we live is endangered."

In a report today from Teruki Takada, staff member of the Commission on Ecumenical Ministries for the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan), it was said that some churches in Japan still have members missing, others are hosting refugees and in one case a group of pastors was part of an emotional reunion.

Few of the churches in the earthquake and tsunami region have been left untouched by the tragedy. Some remain damaged by the tsunami, while in others cleanup has begun, according to Takada's report.

Still, nearly two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami some churches continue to live with uncertainty. In the Sendai Kita 3-Bancho Church, seven members are still missing. Another five church members are missing in the Sendai Itsutsubashi Church.

Even with this uncertainty, churches that were spared the double tragedy of an earthquake and tsunami are finding ways to reach out to those in need.

The Sendai Higashi Church has already hosted 15 refugees, both members and non-members. The Sendai Minami Church has hosted 13 refugees while the Miyagino Aisen Church hosted another 16.

In one situation, four pastors from the UCCJ were able to assist a survivor who spent the night on the roof of a three-story building in the snow. The Kyodan team of pastors was able to give the man a ride to the coastal area of Sendai City where he was reunited with his co-workers. "No wonder his colleagues burst into joy when he arrived at his company," Takada reported, "because his presence had never been confirmed before."

Yamamoto Arrives in Japan

(From RCA Communications)

Andrew Yamamoto, supervisor of RCA mission in Asia and the Pacific, has just arrived in Japan and will be there for the next eight days. He plans to meet with RCA mission personnel and with leaders from the United Church of Christ in Japan (UCCJ), an RCA mission partner that is responding to pressing needs in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The death toll from the disaster is now estimated at more than 18,000.

Yamamoto reports that Tokyo is not as bright as usual, as people are turning off unnecessary lights, and that the train was not running as usual due to rolling blackouts.

During his time in Japan, Yamamoto will send updates as he meets with mission partners and personnel. Please pray that his time with personnel and partners further clarifies the needs and best ways to respond to this difficult time, and pray for his safety. Please also continue to pray for the people of Japan and the UCCJ as it reaches out through local congregations. Click to donate

Reformed Church World Service has distributed $10,000 to the UCCJ to meet immediate needs. As further donations come in, RCWS will also partner with Food for the Hungry and Church World Service to respond to both urgent and long-term needs.

Methodists shun the bottle that no one wants to talk about

(From Religion News Service)

The Rev. James Howell knew he had a problem on his hands when several teenagers arrived at a church dance drunk and had to be taken from the church by ambulance for treatment for alcohol poisoning.

Starting in 2009, he urged his flock at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., to give up drinking for Lent and donate the money they would have spent on booze to a "spirit fund."

To date, Myers Park has raised more than $34,000 for local substance abuse programs, and seven parishioners have sought treatment for alcoholism.

"It isn't that alcohol in and of itself is bad; Jesus drank wine," he said. "We emphasize the role it plays in our lives."

Part of that discussion, Howell and others have found, involves acknowledging a fact that some Methodists prefer not to talk about: some Methodists drink -- even if many don't like to admit it.

From teetotaling Baptists to Episcopalians who uncork champagne in the parish hall, what to do with the bottle can be a tricky question for religious groups to answer -- especially during holy periods or holidays.

Catholics are not supposed to drink on Fridays in Lent, while Muslims are called to abstain from alcohol during the holy month of Ramadan. But to celebrate Purim, Jews are encouraged to actually get silly drunk, and what Christmas Eve would be complete without spiked eggnog?

Unlike prohibition-minded Mormons or Catholics who belly up to the bar at a Friday fish fry, Methodists -- the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination -- have a more ambiguous stance. Now, the denomination's General Board of Church and Society is following Howell's lead and is pushing a churchwide Alcohol Free Lent campaign.

The 7.8 million-member UMC has long had a love/hate relationship with alcohol. For decades the church -- at least officially -- strongly supported temperance. The father and son who founded the Welch's grape juice company weren't only good Methodists, but also savvy businessmen who saw a huge market in pushing juice for Communion to temperance-minded churches.

In the years since, Methodists have trended toward a more liberal stance. While the UMC still encourages abstinence, in 2008 the church's Social Principles were revised to allow for "judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint, with Scripture as a guide."

The result has been a somewhat uneasy relationship between Methodists and the bottle.

"We are very uncomfortable acknowledging that Methodists drink," said the Rev. Cynthia Abrams, who works on alcohol, addictions and health care issues for the Washington-based social policy agency.

"This is a campaign that opens the doors to conversation, a way to talk about alcohol, about drinking, its impact on young people, on our own perspectives and to dialogue about what that means for us as a church today."

Founded in 18th-century England by John Wesley, Methodism grew rapidly among working-class miners and factory workers who often drank heavily. In response, Methodism staked out a position of temperance early in its history, explained historian Ted Campbell of Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology.

"The General Rules of 1743 ruled out buying or drinking `spirituous liquors' except in cases of extreme necessity, meaning medicinal use," Campbell said. "It was not total abstinence, but abstinence from the hard stuff, whiskey and gin in particular."

After the Civil War, as Methodism expanded in the United States, Methodists -- women especially -- began to steer the denomination toward a harder line as the temperance movement gained steam. And by the early 20th century, the church endorsed prohibition and required Methodist ministers to pledge abstinence from alcohol. It wasn't until the 1950s and '60s that the church began to soften its stance.

For some conservatives, the churchwide Alcohol Free Lent campaign is a welcome reminder of the Methodists' temperance heritage -- "a brief flicker of remembrance of those origins," said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and author of "Taking Back the United Methodist Church."

"For several decades the board has mostly neglected its call, so it's positive that at least during Lent they are upholding that," said Tooley, whose Washington-based institute is a frequent critic of the General Board of Church and Society.

The issue is still a rallying cry for conservatives, who recently lost a legal fight to make the Church and Society agency adhere to its charter and focus exclusively on alcohol and temperance issues.

But more than a simple say-no-to-booze campaign, Alcohol Free Lent is about reflection, said Abrams. "Somehow there is this perspective that because the church mentions abstinence we are saying people cannot drink," she explained.

That's not the case. Instead, the campaign seeks to encourage an open dialogue on a touchy subject.

And that, Abrams said, "is a very Methodist approach."

Missionaries grapple with leaving Japan

(From Religion News Service)

Wolfgang Langhans, a Tokyo-based field director for missionaries, calls the week since the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan "the busiest and most stressful week of my life."

But when those twin crises created a third -- the threat of dangerous radiation leaks from a damaged nuclear plant -- the balancing act between living out a missionary calling and keeping safe became particularly difficult.

"That was and still is a great concern," said Langhans, a German Baptist who works for the group OMF International, which has some 100 missionaries in Japan.

"We constantly inquire about the latest news and advice and have prepared evacuation places in the west of Tokyo should radiation danger reach Tokyo," he said in an e-mail Friday (March 18) between rolling power blackouts.

His organization has left evacuation decisions up to individual staffers. So far, seven have decided to leave Japan. Across the devastated country and back home in the United States, missions leaders are grappling with whether staffers should stay put or move away, either to other parts of Japan or out of the country entirely.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has evacuated 187 missionaries out of the Sendai and Tokyo regions to other parts of Japan. They also are sending home an additional 45 missionaries who have almost completed their assignments.

Radiation from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, which is about 150 miles north of Tokyo, was not the sole factor in the decisions, spokeswoman Kim Farah said.

"The infrastructure in those areas is dangerous," she said. "We didn't want people having to use their resources to support the missionaries when they needed to concentrate on their own families."

The Southern Baptists' International Mission Board also has moved its staffers in eastern Japan to a region southwest of Tokyo.

"The safety and security of our personnel is very important," said board spokeswoman Wendy Norvelle on Friday. "We are also mindful of the Japanese people and want to minister to them in any way we can."

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has relocated three missionaries from Tokyo to Kobe, in southern Japan. Two others in the western city of Niigata are not being moved.

"The move is more of a precautionary measure as the situation has worsened given the nuclear crisis," said spokeswoman Vicki Biggs. Other groups had determined they were far enough from the nuclear complex to continue their work. Several Catholic orders, for example, are staying put.

Sister Nancy Conboy, minister general of the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement based in Garrison, N.Y., said the six nuns in her order in Japan are about 500 miles away from the affected region so "we really feel it is safe for the sisters to be there."

The Divine Word Missionaries, with 135 in Japan, and the Daughters of Charity, also are far from the quake area.

The three-pronged crisis in Japan is prompting unusual challenges for missionaries, said Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

"Missionaries in general, who are tied very closely to local situations, are often the last people to leave or to evacuate," he said. "Tsunamis and earthquakes and even war or pestilence -- they historically have been the very last people to go because this is their home, so to speak, where they work. But radiation is just a completely different thing."

Japanese churches continue searching for disaster victims

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Hisashi Yukimoto

Tokyo -- Churches are among those who keep searching for missing people, including clergy, members and their families, as the death toll after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami has reached the highest in the history of natural disasters in postwar Japan.

The National Police Agency has reported that as of 18 March, more than 6,500 people have been confirmed dead, which is more than 6,400 killed by the Kobe earthquake in 1995. The agency also reported on 18 March that more than 10,300 are missing, and 2,500 injured, with more than 3,500 buildings destroyed. Meanwhile, workers at the quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continued to try to contain radiation leaks.

Church leaders and members are using online information boards to get updates on their members and families who are missing and struggling to survive. Some, however, have been found dead or lost their churches, houses and other properties.

"Some children at Catholic kindergartens in the diocese died," Shiro Komatsu, an official of the Sendai Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, reported. A wake for Fr. Lachapelle Andre, 76, of the Quebec Foreign Mission Society, who died following the tsunami, was held at its cathedral near the epicentre on 15 March.

"The first floor of the Kamaishi Church in Iwate Prefecture has been flooded," Komatsu said. "In Fukushima Prefecture, Onahama Church on the coastal area has been utterly destroyed."

Earlier on 15 March, Bishop Hiromichi Kato of the Sendai Diocese of the Anglican-Episcopal Church reported that one of its members at Isoyama St. John Church on a coastal area of Fukushima was killed by the tsunami.

In Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, "the chapel of Kesennuma First Bible Baptist Church, which was built only some years ago, is gone," a Japanese Christian news media, The Christians, reported.

The Orthodox Church in Japan reported that one of its members at a coastal area of Ishimaki, Miyagi Prefecture, was confirmed dead. The church also reported on 17 March that the building of Yamada Parish and Holy Annunciation Chapel in Iwate Prefecture "was destroyed and burnt out."

But on 15 March, the church began to accept relief donations and operations to support the church and parishioners who have suffered from the disaster.

A growing number of churches and Christian-run facilities and Christian homeowners are offering their church buildings as shelters for victims and those who are evacuated from the area around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The National Council of YMCAs of Japan is spreading its nationwide support to victims s part of a worldwide response to the disaster through the Asia-Pacific Alliance of YMCAs.

Japanese churches respond to earthquake-tsunami disaster

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Hisashi Yukimoto

Tokyo -- Churches across Japan are responding with prayers, donations, and relief operations to the impacts of the 11 March earthquake and its subsequent tsunamis and nuclear power plant accidents.

As of 16 March, more than 3,700 people were confirmed dead, more than 7,800 missing, and about 2,000 injured, according to the National Police Agency. More than 400,000 people have been evacuated from the disaster zones in northeastern Japan. The earthquake also damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where workers have been struggling to contain radiation leaks.

On 15 March, the first meeting of the interdenominational Earthquake Christian Disaster Centre was held at the United Church of Christ in Japan's (UCCJ) Northeast District Centre in Sendai near the epicentre. The UCCJ also said church members, including moderator the Rev. Hideo Ishibashi, are visiting disaster areas. The denomination's two local congregations near the Fukushima nuclear power plants were evacuated to one of them but are unable to escape from there, the report said.

Caritas Japan, part of the Roman Catholic Church, has launched a national donation campaign and is working with dioceses and Caritas Internationalis to support disaster victims, according to its website.

The National Christian Council in Japan (NCCJ), a grouping of Anglican, Protestant and inter-denominational organizations, is asking for emergency relief donations. "We are coordinating a network of local support for those most severely affected," said the Rev. Isamu Koshiishi, the council's moderator. The Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) has released a pastoral letter calling for donations to be sent to the NCCJ via the CCA Emergency Fund.

The Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church said it is working on relief operations with its two congregations in Sendai, a city particularly hard-hit, as well as with other denominations. The Anglican-Episcopal Church in Japan has set up relief headquarters at its office in Tokyo.

The Japan Baptist Union (JBU) reported on 15 March that one of its members and the grandmother of another member were killed and the house of another member was washed away by the tsunami. The JBU and the Okinawa Baptist Convention are working with a team from Baptist World Aid for their relief operations.

On 15 March, the Russian Orthodox Church announced that it started fundraising to help the Orthodox communities in Japan and the earthquake victims.

The YWCA of Japan is calling for donations to support victims and survivors, particularly "women, children, elderly and those who are marginalized," as well as calling for the shutdown of nuclear power plants in Niigata and Shizuoka in central Japan that the group says "are within the area where there are risks of aftershocks and another earthquake."

The Japan Evangelical Alliance and its member Protestant churches and organizations, such as the Salvation Army of Japan, the Japan Alliance Christ Church, World Vision Japan, the Japan Evangelical Church Association, Jesus Christ Church in Japan, are also engaged with relief operations, communicating through Facebook, websites and the online information board of a Japanese Christian news publisher named The Christians.

The World Conference of Religions for Peace, the world's largest multi-religious coalition, has begun to collect donations, along with its Japanese committee, to support municipalities in the affected areas and non-governmental organizations that are conducting rescue operations.

Japanese look to ancient traditions for strength

(From Religion News Service)

When uncounted thousands have died in a disaster such as last week's earthquake and tsunami, where will the Japanese people find spiritual strength?

Experts on Japanese culture say they'll find it in the critical, comforting rituals of religion.

They will rely on centuries-old traditions of a distinctive Buddhist culture and the ancient Shinto beliefs of their earliest people. Japan is 90 percent Buddhist or Shinto or a combination of the two, with young urban Japanese more inclined to have drifted from religious attachments.

Right now, most Japanese survivors are at the stage, like survivors of the 9/11 attacks, of posting photos of missing loved ones. For families who have found their dead, wakes, funeral prayers and cremations may already be under way, said Duncan Williams, a survivor of the Friday (March 11) quake and a scholar of Japanese Buddhism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Seven days after the quake and tsunami, memorials will begin in whatever temples remain near the disaster zone. In Buddhist traditions, the seventh day ritual begins 33 years of formal mourning ceremonies, Williams said.

Just as Christians and Jews in the West may offer prayers for those who have died and those who mourn, so these rituals and prayers will come from throughout Japan, as well as from Thailand and Taiwan, where many share the Japanese form of Buddhism, said Williams, a native of Japan.

Buddhism addresses and tries to alleviate suffering, physical and mental. It stresses compassion while still acknowledging that death is part of life. Monks in Japan will assure people that they survived for a reason, Williams said.

"In the memorial services, after prayers and chants, the monks and the people will offer all the merit, the good karma, from these rituals to those who have perished and those who are suffering. They will pray to the gods that "the kings of hell will not take your loved one away," Williams said.

Such talk of gods and hell kings doesn't sound like the meditative Buddhism better known in the West, cultural anthropologist John Nelson said. He's an expert on Shinto and Buddhist shrines and chairman of the department of theology and religious studies at University of San Francisco.

Nelson described Shinto culture as "like Native American or tribal religions, it is strongest in rural environments. If you are in the mountains, you speak of the mountain deities, for example. It's all about the local spirits of that particular place, and they may have a dual nature -- beneficial or destructive."

By contrast, Buddhism, the dominant religion now, is less about the spirits of the natural world and more about rituals of society, family and state, Nelson said.

"Japanese Buddhism is similar to Western religions with deities that can be petitioned and can intervene in worldly affairs, and there are many mechanisms to appeal to them, to pray for miracles," he said.

Even so, the idea that gods also punish people turned up Monday in the Japanese press. Nelson said he read at online sites of two major newspapers that the governor of Tokyo described the tsunami as "punishment from heaven for the greed of the Japanese."

Churches in Japan devastated by earthquak

(From Religion News Service)


TOKYO -- Christians in Japan are looking for survivors and assessing damage to church buildings after Friday's (March 11) devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The National Police Agency announced that as of Monday about 1,800 people have died and 2,400 are missing. The death toll may eventually reach more than 10,000, according to police.

Churches and Christians in northeastern Japan, the most heavily affected area, are still out of contact days after the disaster.

Studies estimate that 2 percent of Japanese are Christian, with the vast majority practicing Buddhism and the indigenous Shinto religion.

A spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan told ENInews that the Rev. Lachapelle Andre, 76, of the Quebec Foreign Mission Society, was killed in Sendai, one of the cities hardest-hit by the quake and tsunami.

The priest went back to investigate damages to the Shiogama Church that he led, said the spokesman.

There were conflicting accounts from diocesan officials about the cause of death, though, with some saying he died of a heart attack or was caught in the tsunami that devoured towns on the coast.

The Anglican Christchurch cathedral in Sendai is badly damaged, according to a statement from Archbishop Nathaniel Makoto Uematsu.

"While there were still so many aftershocks, the church carried out their first Sunday after Lent service in the diocesan office," he said.

The Sendai-based Northeastern District Center Emmaus of the United Church of Christ in Japan, the country's largest Protestant denomination, has reported churches and schools have been damaged. No casualties among their members have been reported.

The UCC in Japan also reported a chapel of its Shinsei Kamaishi Church in the coastal fishing city of Kamaishi is "drowned into the water" and filled with mud and oil.

The pastor and his wife were evacuated. Built in 2000, the chapel was known as a pioneer "eco-church," with a solar-power system and transparent glass roof.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Saitama, north of Tokyo, reported "severe damage" to a monastery in the coastal city of Mito.

"The wall of the church's chapel fell down, with the ceiling of one of its rooms broken down," the diocese said on its website.

The Orthodox cathedral in Sendai was not damaged, according to several Orthodox websites.

The Japan Baptist Union said eight of its local churches in the east coast of Japan have not been in touch with information about their safety.

No casualties have been reported yet from the rest of its churches in that area.

RCWS Works with United Church of Christ in Japan on Relief Efforts

Reformed Church World Service is sending an initial $10,000 to its mission partner the United Church of Christ in Japan (UCCJ) to aid relief and recovery efforts in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The UCCJ has received reports of extensive damage to its churches in the impacted areas. Although all ministers have reported that they are safe, many church members are dead or missing. The UCCJ has established a relief planning committee and has dispatched staff to the Sendai area.

Jhonny Alicea-Baez, director of RCA Global Mission, has been in contact with leaders of the UCCJ. Drew Yamamoto, supervisor of RCA mission in Asia and the Pacific, who is currently traveling in Asia, will be visiting Japan in the next two weeks to meet with UCCJ leaders and RCA mission personnel.

"We raise our hearts and prayers to our brothers and sisters in Japan," says Alicea-Baez, "and thank the Lord that we are able to work with a dedicated partner to provide assistance there."

In addition to the UCCJ, two RCA partner organizations, Church World Service and Food for the Hungry International, are monitoring the situation. RCWS is watching these partners for opportunities to mobilize a response to survivors' needs in the near future.

Concerns were mounting over the physical and mental well-being of survivors as rescue workers combed the tsunami-battered region north of Tokyo and struggled to care for millions of people who are without power and water.

Many survivors have spent freezing nights huddled in blankets around heaters in shelters along the coast. The Japanese government reported that almost 2 million households were without power, and about 1.4 million households were without water.

Evacuation centers for hundreds of thousands of survivors of the devastating earthquake may need to stay open for as long as three months as aid workers brace for a prolonged humanitarian crisis, a spokeswoman for Japan's Red Cross said on Monday. Kyodo News Agency reported that there are more than 450,000 evacuees from quake- and tsunami-hit areas.

All RCA mission personnel in Japan have reported that they are safe.

What You Can Do

Pray for the people of Japan as they grieve the loss of loved ones and begin to rebuild their lives. Pray also for the government of Japan as it coordinates rescue, response, and recovery efforts.

Donate to provide food, water, and temporary shelter to those affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Send contributions, designated "Japan Earthquake," to Reformed Church in America, Attn: Finance, 4500 60th St. SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49512 or, in Canada, to Regional Synod of Canada, 201 Paradise Road N., Hamilton, ON L8S 3T3. To donate by credit card, call (800) 968-3943, ext. 247, or go to www.rca.org/japan.

Reuters AlertNet contributed to this report.

RCA Missionaries in Japan are Safe

"Japan has just experienced the most significant earthquake in decades, some sources are saying the worst in 100 years," say RCA missionaries Nathan and Nozomi Brownell in an email they sent to RCA Global Mission staff earlier today.

"The worst hit area is Sendai City, the Miyaki Prefecuture and North Eastern coastal areas. The tsunami wave has been estimated at up to 7 meters (23 feet) high and reached up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) inland. There is significant damage and fatalities.

"The quake was felt as magnitude 5 here in Yokohama. Fortunately, our family and the other missionaries affiliated with the GreenHouse Youth Center are safe. While we need to inspect our facilities in morning, we do not have any obvious damage and all utilities are functional."

"Please pray for the pastors, churches, and congregations in the coastal northeast of the country and for those across the Pacific region who are still at risk from the tsunami."

Global Mission has contacted all RCA missionaries in Japan, and all have reported that they are safe. Reformed Church World Service is currently evaluating how to respond to the earthquake and the tsunami it has set off.

NCC reasserts a message: a common Easter date enhances the Christian testimony

(From the National Council of Churches)

New York -- For the second year in a row, due to an unusual coincidence of calendars and moon phases, Easter will be observed on the same Sunday in all Christian traditions.

Most years, Easter is celebrated on different dates in western churches and most Orthodox churches because of ancient discrepancies in calculating the calendar. This year Easter is celebrated by all traditions on April 24.

Now the National Council of Churches is renewing a call to Christians to make this happen every year and agree on a common date to celebrate the most important event in Christian history.

Last year, NCC general secretary, the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, and Dr. Antonios Kireopolulos, the NCC's associate general secretary for Faith & Order and Interfaith Relations, sent a letter to member communions lamenting that "almost every year the Christian community is divided over which day to proclaim this Good News. Our split, based on a dispute having to do with ancient calendars, visibly betrays the message of reconciliation. It is a scandal that surely grieves our God."

Now Kinnamon and Kireopoulos are reasserting proposals in the letter to continue the movement toward a common Easter date based on the recommendations of the Aleppo Conference of 1997. Aleppo called upon Christians to:

  • adhere to the decision of the first ecumenical council at Nicea to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, thus maintaining the biblical association between Jesus' death and Passover;
  • agree to use the most up-to-date scientific methods to analyze the astronomical data (which is consistent with Nicea); and,
  • use the meridian of Jerusalem (due to its centrality in the Passion of Christ) as the point of reference for these calculations.

Kinnamon and Kireopoulos wrote: "May we truly revel in the joy that comes with our united proclamation of the Good News. May God grant that in 2012 and beyond we may continue to proclaim with one voice that 'Christ is risen!' For he is risen indeed."

Muslims and supporters protest congressional hearings

(From Religion News Service)

NEW YORK -- When Anam Chaudhry, 17, sang the national anthem to several hundred protesters in Times Square on Sunday afternoon, she wore a Muslim headscarf, and around her shoulders, another garment: the American flag.

"We love this country," said Imam Shamsi Ali, head of the Islamic Cultural Center here, after Chaudhry opened the interfaith rally. "We want to see America remain the most powerful and most beautiful country in the world."

Faith leaders and supporters braved the rain on Sunday to protest the upcoming congressional hearings on homegrown Islamic terrorism planned for this Thursday (March 10).

Protesters held signs and wore t-shirts bearing the rally's slogan, "Today, I am Muslim, too," while others said it was unjust to single out a religious group as a threat to national security.

As the rally wore on, another slogan took shape in the speeches and protests. It was a cry for inclusion, an expression of patriotism: "I am American, too."

"People say Islam is the enemy," said rally organizer Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is also a co-founder of a controversial project to build a mosque near Ground Zero. "The real enemy is radicalization and extremism, and we, as Americans, are against it."

Some faith leaders have encouraged Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who, as chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has spearheaded the hearings, to widen its scope to include other threats to national security.

"That's absolute nonsense," King told The New York Times on Sunday. "The threat is coming from the Muslim community, the radicalization attempts are directed at the Muslim community. Why should I investigate other communities?"

Leaders at the rally expressed a desire to help fight against the threat of terrorism.

"The threats to our country are too big to disqualify any person who 'loves freedom' -- as (former President George W.) Bush would say -- from lending a hand," said the Rev. Chloe Breyer, an Episcopal priest. Some protesters said they saw the hearings as a kind of hazing period for Muslims in America.

Protesters from an array of countries waved American flags, but not everyone at the rally shared in the patriotic fever.

"I don't like this country," said Muhammad Rashwan, 27, who moved to New York from Egypt two years ago. "The press is unfair to the Middle East, and people act like the words of the press come from God."

Four blocks south of the rally, 50 people gathered in a counter-protest, but disbanded early on as the rain fell.

Pakistani churches mourn assassinated Christian minister

(from Ecumenical News International)

By Anto Akkara

Bangalore, India--Christian schools and colleges across Pakistan on 3 March began shutting down for three days to protest the 2 March assassination in Islamabad of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Roman Catholic who was Minister for Religious Minorities.

The call for the action came at an emergency ecumenical meeting chaired by Archbishop Lawrence Saldana, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan. In a press statement from the meeting, church leaders said that if Pakistan "becomes a killing field" of people "who exercise their freedom of conscience and expression," then "criminals trying to take charge of the country" will be emboldened.

In addition, churches decided to observe Sunday, 6 March as a day of prayer and fasting. On 3 March, Christians and secular groups marched in the cities of Lahore, Karachi, Hyderabad and Faisalabad to protest Bhatti's killing.

Bhatti, 42, was ambushed and shot dead as he was being driven to his office. His funeral is set for 4 March in his native village of Kushpur. A critic of Pakistan's blasphemy law, which makes criticism of the Prophet Muhammad a capital crime in the Muslim-majority nation, Bhatti last November initiated a clemency petition for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman currently in prison on blasphemy charges. "My life is under threat. I am getting threat calls regularly," Bhatti had told ENInews at the end of a telephone interview on 22 November. On 4 January, another high-ranking government figure, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, was killed after he criticized the blasphemy law.

Saldana told ENInews, “we salute the courage of Shahbaz who knowingly put his life in danger by speaking up boldly against the blasphemy law. We decided to close all the institutions to honour his sacrifice."

Victor Azariah, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan (NCCP), told ENInews from his office at Lahore that "words cannot describe our feelings" at the news of Bhatti's killing. "We are stunned," he said.

"This is a big loss to the Christian community. We have a lost a fearless leader," Joseph Francis, founder director of CLAAS (Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement), told ENInews. "We are stunned by the failure of the government to provide proper security to Bhatti. When his car was ambushed, there were no security men around," said Francis, who knew Bhatti from his student days. CLAAS has been defending Christians and others charged under the blasphemy law.

World leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Pope Benedict XVI, paid tribute to Bhatti. In New York, the Islamic Society of North America said it was "outraged" by the killing. In a letter to the prime minister of Pakistan, the general secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit called the crime "heinous and outrageous." He added that "extremists will stop at nothing in their desperate attempt to force religious extremism and violence on Pakistani society" and called for the protection of religious minorities.

Bhatti launched the Christian Liberation Front in his student days and later founded in 2001 the All Pakistan Minority Alliance. He joined the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in 2002. When the PPP assumed power in early 2008 under president Asif Ali Zardari, Bhatti was nominated to Pakistan’s National Assembly under the reserved quota for Christians and was made the federal minister for minority affairs.

Pakistan's minister for religious minorities assassinated

(from Ecumenical News International)

Islamabad, Pakistan--Pakistan's Minister for Religious Minorities and the only Christian cabinet member, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated on 2 March outside his home in Islamabad. He was the second high-ranking Pakistan government official murdered this year after expressing opposition to the country's law that makes criticism of the Prophet Muhammad a capital crime.

Bhatti was leaving for his office when the attack occurred. Witnesses and police said three or four gunmen in a white car drove up, firing as many as 50 shots at his black sedan.

Before escaping, the assassins dropped leaflets around the scene that stated Bhatti was murdered due to his opposition to the blasphemy law. The pamphlets said the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda were responsible for the slaying.

Bhatti had said he felt he was in danger as he called for reform of the law. "I am receiving threats on speaking against the blasphemy law, but my faith gives me strength and we will not allow the handful of extremists to fulfill their agenda," he said recently.

The international social-justice organization, Human Rights Watch, said that Bhatti's killing was the result of "appeasement of extremist and militant groups" in Pakistan. It criticized the "political cowardice" of the ruling party, the Pakistan Peoples Party.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Batthi's murder "demonstrates that the Pope’s insistent addresses regarding violence against Christians and religious freedom have been justified." The attack appeared to be connected to Mr. Bhatti’s support for changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Lombardi noted that Bhatti was the first Catholic to hold his post. "He had been received by the Holy Father last September where he had affirmed his commitment for the pacific cohabitation between the religious communities of his country," Lombardi said.

On 4 January, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was gunned down after he expressed support for a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who is imprisoned for the alleged crime of blasphemy. Taseer had campaigned to reform the law, which calls for the death penalty for those accused of speaking against the Prophet Muhammad.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, said they heard of the murder "with the greatest shock and sorrow." They said that "this further instance of sectarian bigotry and violence will increase anxiety worldwide about the security of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, and we urge that the government of Pakistan will do all in its power to bring to justice those guilty of such crimes and to give adequate protection to minorities."

The U.K. advocacy group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said Bhatti was dedicated to realizing the vision of Pakistan's founders: "a harmonious, pluralist society." Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said Bhatti and Taseer's murders mean "questions need to be asked about the government's ability and willingness to protect those who speak out against extremism in Pakistan." He noted that Bhatti had coordinated a statement in July 2010 in which "leaders of all faiths denounced acts of terror in Pakistan." The killing "shows more than ever before the need for others to take up the mantle of his pioneering work," Thomas said.

Bishop Samuel Azariah, Presiding Bishop of the Church of Pakistan, said the Christian community is sad and hurt and considers itself "absolutely unsafe in the present circumstances of Pakistan. We do not have the freedom of expressing our point of view." He also said that the government has either lost the will or the control over groups and individuals who kill leaders in the name of religion. He added that the blasphemy laws are being misused and abused by religious zealots.

Harvard minister Peter J. Gomes remembered as "an original"

(from Ecumenical News International)

By Chris Herlinger

New York--The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, best known as an imposing but beloved figure on the campus of Harvard University, where for many years he served as the minister of the university's Memorial Church, is being remembered as one of the era's great preachers. Gomes, 68, died 28 February in Boston of complications from a stroke he suffered in December.

"Peter Gomes was an original," said Harvard President Drew Faust. "For 40 years, he has served Harvard as a teacher in the fullest sense - a scholar, a mentor, one of the great preachers of our generation, and a living symbol of courage and conviction."

But it was not only at Harvard where Gomes was acclaimed. An African-American preacher of great power and renown, Gomes probably came as close as anyone in the 21st century to being a kind of "circuit rider," a minister who traveled the country and the world delivering sermons of commanding eloquence and magisterial power.

The New York Times said of Gomes: "In clerical collar and vestments, he was a figure of homiletic power in the pulpit, hammering out the cadences in a rich baritone." At the same time, Gomes had an actor's sense of presence and a comedian's sense of timing. One observer at Harvard said Gomes was a combination of "Shakespearean actor and the sitcom character Frasier" (or "a blend of James Earl Jones and John Houseman," as the New Yorker magazine put it in a 1996 profile).

In a tribute today by the National Council of Churches, the nation's largest ecumenical body, the NCC noted that "Gomes' outsized personality and keen intellect also made him a controversial figure throughout much of his life." The NCC also noted that Gomes, an ordained American Baptist minister, "straddled a wide gulf of the political spectrum" during his career.

Once a Republican who delivered the benediction at President Ronald Reagan's first inaugural in 1981, in later life Gomes became an outspoken advocate on behalf of gay rights. He publicly declared his own homosexuality in 1991 during protests and furor at Harvard over incidents of "gay-bashing." At the time, Gomes told colleagues and students that he was “a Christian who happens as well to be gay."

Among Gomes' best-selling books were "The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart," and "The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News." These and other books under-girded Gomes' argument that biblical texts were liberating, not oppressive, to gays, blacks and women. At the same time, he argued for readings of the Bible that take into account the complexity of biblical texts. "The Bible isn’t a single book, it isn’t a single historical or philosophical or theological treatise," Gomes said. "It has 66 books in it. It is a library."

Gomes was the son of a musician mother and a father who worked in Massachusetts' cranberry bogs. Gomes first publicly preached at age 12; he graduated from Bates College, received his divinity degree from Harvard, and eventually became Harvard's Plummer Professor of Christian Morals.

Religious groups fight for tax deductions

(from Religion News Service)

By Richard Yeakley

For the third time in three years President Obama's proposed budget will attempt to reduce tax deductions for high-end charitable donors, and for the third time nonprofits and religious organizations are pushing back.

Many religious nonprofits, which supplement their budgets heavily with donations from wealthy donors, are concerned that reducing the tax write-offs for charitable donations will cause a decrease in giving, said Diana Aviv, the president and CEO of Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofit organizations.

"The question is, `Do tax incentives work, do they stimulate more money than they cost?'" Aviv said, "Experts estimate that this proposal could reduce charitable giving by $7 billion dollars."

Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 includes a 30 percent reduction in itemized deductions for high-income taxpayers. Individual donors making more than $200,000 or families earning more than $250,000 would be able to claim 28 percent of any donation as a tax deduction rather than the current 35 percent.

That would mean that a wealthy taxpayer who donates $10,000 to a charity would be able to only claim a $2,800 deduction on his taxes, rather than $3,500.

Obama has defended this reduction several times, most recently at a White House press conference on Feb. 15.

"When it comes to over the long term, maintaining tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, when that will mean additional deficits of a trillion dollars, if you're serious about deficit reduction, you don't do that," Obama said.

As in years past, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America is again a vocal opponent of Obama's plan.

"The proposal to reduce the rate of tax deductibility for contributions is a recipe for disastrous displacements and cuts in much-needed nonprofit sector institutions and services," Nathan Diament, the union's director of public policy, said in a statement.

Several studies have researched the potential outcome of similar proposals and all concluded there would be a decline in donations, although the significance of the decline varied.

A similar reduction to the one proposed occurred between 2002 and 2003, when the top income tax deduction giving was lowered from 38.6 percent to its current 35 percent. After that reduction, individual charitable contributions actually increased, according the Obama administration.

Women of Chile will lead the prayers on World Day of Prayer March 4

(from the National Council of Churches)

New York-- The World Day of Prayer, an ecumenical event conducted by Christian women around the world for more than a century, will highlight the women of Chile on March 4.

The 2011 theme of the annual event is "How Many Loaves Have You," based on the biblical story of Jesus' feeding of 5,000 persons in Mark 6:30-44.

A message from the U.S. World Day of Prayer office in New York says, "the women of Chile invite us to join them in an opening procession, carrying a 'panera,' the name Chileans give to their everyday bread basket." In addition to symbolizing the biblical reference to the feeding of the 5,000, bread is a universal sign of hospitality.

A tapestry depicting the feeding of the 5,000 was created by the late Norma Ulloa of Concepción, Chile.

Prayers on March 4 will follow the lead of Chilean women "to enter a process that draws us into the bible, into the context of Chile and into the real situations of our lives and communities," planners say.

Additional information and resources for celebrating the World Day of Prayer can be found at www.wdpusa.org .

The people of Chile have endured many challenges in recent years, including a devastating earthquake in February 2010 and two additional earthquakes in 2011.

Women on the World Day of Prayer planning committee in Chile have remarked on the enduring stresses of the murderous junta of General Augusto Pinochet who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. During the Pinochet regime, thousands of women were among the victims who were tortured and killed. The lingering effects of the brutality continue despite recent democratic governments in Chile.

Other issues that the women of Chile say require a unified faith community include:

Gender issues resulting in the gap in women in women's rights in theory and in practice, especially regarding equity and respect in the workplace; the lack of prospects for young people and issues such as drug use and trafficking, prostitution and broken families; and the impact of globalization and social and environmental issues such as pollution and overpopulation.

The World Day of Prayer is a worldwide ecumenical movement of Christian women of many faith traditions who come together to observe a common day of prayer on the first Friday in March. Women -- and thousands of men -- pray together from sunrise to sunset.

Through World Day of Prayer, women affirm that prayer and action are inseparable and that both have immeasurable influence in the world.

African bishops warn against rushed elections in Zimbabwe

(from Ecumenical News International)

Harare, Zimbabwe--Catholic bishops in Southern Africa have warned that conditions are not yet fit for elections in Zimbabwe after the bloody presidential run-off election which left scores of people dead.

"Conditions in the country are emphatically not conducive to elections in 2011. We strongly believe that holding elections at this stage would be dangerously premature," said the group. The bishops are from Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Sao Tome and Principe, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The statement was prepared at an Inter-regional Meeting of Bishops of Southern Africa held in Pretoria, South Africa, last December and released on 22 February.

The bishops said Zimbabwe's voters' roll had not been updated for years while cases of violence had increased following the announcement of possible elections later this year. They also said freedom of association and of the media was severely restricted and that the nation was in the grip of extreme fear. There are increasing signs of intimidation and violence as the election campaign has built up, they said.

Their statement came after Zimbabwe's long-ruling president, Robert Mugabe, said he will call for elections later this year with or without reforms agreed to in a pact with his strongest rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, who is now prime minister. Tsvangirai and Mugabe are in a shaky power-sharing government that was formed in February 2009.

Zimbabwe's last elections in June 2008 were marred by violence which saw the deaths of more than 300 supporters of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party.

Following the disputed elections, a regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community, persuaded Mugabe and Tsvangirai to form a powersharing government to avoid a descent into full-fledged conflict and mend an economic crisis that featured hyper-inflation.

Under the pact, the two political rivals agreed to reforms including drafting a new constitution and changing electoral and media laws to ensure free and fair elections in future.

The work of the compromise government has been characterised by fighting over the allocation of key government posts while the drive to collect people's views for the new constitution was disrupted several time by violent clashes between supporters of the two main political parties.

Last month, scores of supporters of Tsvangirai's party sought refuge in churches after they were attacked and forced out of their homes by militant supporters of Mugabe's party.

Middle East churches need to work together for peace, archbishop says

(from Ecumenical News International)

By Judith Sudilovsky

Jerusalem--Churches in the Middle East must work together to overcome the problems facing the region in order that "peace can prevail," Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus said in an address on 18 February at an extraordinary meeting in Cyprus of the Executive Committee of the Middle East Council of Churches.

"We believe strongly that the time has come for all of us -- all the churches of the Middle East -- to join forces and work consciously towards a solution of the many serious problems that exist in our region, and above all so that peace can prevail in our countries and among our peoples, far from religious fanaticism and bigotry," the archbishop told the gathering.

However, he noted, in order to be effective the MECC must overcome its own internal disagreements and he reiterated his proposal that the Church of Cyprus undertake the secretariat support of the council's offices.

"As can be easily understood, in order for us, the Middle East Council of Churches, to be able to exercise our role and make an active and fruitful contribution to the desired objective of establishing a better and happier world in our region, without wars and bloodshed, we must focus with Christian love and in a spirit of good will and mutual understanding, on the task of examining the problems we are facing, in order to give answers and achieve solutions," he said.

All four church groups -- including the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical churches -- were represented by their presidents and five additional representatives from each church. One of the objectives of the meeting was to prepare for the general assembly scheduled to take place in Cyprus in August.

Some representatives from churches in Egypt were unable to attend because of the political situation in their country, said the Rev. Munib A. Younan, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and president of the Evangelical family of churches.

The current situation in the Middle East was discussed at the executive committee meeting, said Younan in a telephone interview on 21 February.

"We are all for political and economic reforms but at the same time our message is very clear that we have to let the grassroots (movements) who are supporting (the protests) know they should always be moderate, promote human rights, freedom of religion and speech," he said. "We hear the cries of the people and we tell the people to use their sanity and not only their frustrations, (in order to build) a moderate civil society."

He added that the Cyprus meeting had served to "strengthen and re-invigorate" the unity amongst the MECC member churches despite any "moments of disagreements."

"Ecumenalism is always in our discussions, seeing how we can improve our unity in a situation we are living in with such political upheaval, in a situation where extremism and fanaticism is growing in the whole Middle East including our country," said Younan.

Christians are an integral part of Middle Eastern societies, he added, and so far the demonstrations in the region have not been against any religious groups but have remained protests against authoritarian political regimes. "We are still monitoring and watching what is happening," he said.

In his address, Chrysostomos also noted that the executive committee meeting was taking place during "critical times for the region." In particular, he noted "the regrettable phenomena of the rise of religious fanaticism and the serious violation of religious freedoms." He said that in the northern part of Turkish-occupied Cyprus, Turkish security officials are preventing priests from carrying out their religious duties.

WCC criticises U.S. veto of UN resolution on Israeli settlements

(from Ecumenical News International)

By Jerry L. Van Marter

Geneva--With one U.S. delegate dissenting, the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee on 21 February criticised the U.S. veto on 18 February of a UN Security Council resolution condemning continued settlement construction by Israel in the Palestinian Territories.

The WCC's main governing body expressed its "deep concern and disappointment" at the U.S. veto – the resolution was co-sponsored by 130 countries and supported by every other member of the 15-member Security Council – and called the veto "a deeply regrettable mistake."

It called upon the U.S. government to "to intensify efforts to promote peace and reconciliation in the region with respect to law and justice."

Only the Rev. John Jillions of the Orthodox Church in America opposed the Central Committee resolution. "There is no reference in the text why the U.S. voted against the [UN] resolution," he said, "so it is unbalanced and makes me uneasy."

The U.S. veto, the WCC said, "contradicts the statement" made by U.S. President Barack Obama in Cairo last June that "the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

The WCC statement reaffirms its longstanding position acknowledging the right of the State of Israel to exist in security within internationally recognised borders, but insists that "the settlement policy of the State of Israel violates international law and obstructs the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians."

Libyan Christian clergy vow to stay on amid violence

(from Ecumenical News International)

By Fredrick Nzwili

Nairobi--Christian clergy in Libya said they have no intention of leaving the country, where several days of protests and retaliation by government armed forces have left hundreds of people dead.

"We feel we belong here with our sisters who are giving their services in social centres. Their work is so much appreciated by the Libyans here and often finds support and appreciation," Rev. Daniel Farrugia, a senior Roman Catholic priest at the St. Francis Catholic Church in Tripoli told ENInews on 22 February.

He said the leaders were safe as well as the church structures, with the church’s life in the mornings being almost normal, although many foreigners were leaving the country.

"We pray for all those who are suffering in these moments and for the leaders to have wisdom in their decisions," said Farrugia. In Libya, 1.8 percent of 6.7 million people are Christians. Islam is the dominant religion.

The Catholic Church, which is the largest denomination in Libya, has been allowed two places of worship: St. Francis Church in the capital of Tripoli and Immaculate Conception church in Benghazi. There are also Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and some Pentecostal churches.

The priests serve more than 80,000 Christians who come from Asia, Africa and Europe. Together with the pastoral care service, the church also offers social services to large number of African immigrants. Nearly 100 nuns are working in hospitals and health centers in various places.

With violence intensifying, Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli in Libya was quoted media reports on 22 February saying that many Christians were going into the churches to pray for peace.

"The two churches in Tripoli and Benghazi have not suffered any damages. The different communities of religious sisters working in hospitals in Cyrenaica (the eastern coastal region of Libya which includes Benghazi, Tobruk and other areas), are busy treating those wounded in clashes," said Martinelli.

He had on 21 February told Vatican Radio from Tripoli that the unrests were based on legitimate and fundamental requests by young people for better future such as to be able to have a house, a better salary and a job. "Libya is relatively well-off," he said, "and perhaps here is where the crisis arises. Young people see a country that could help them, but that doesn't," said Martinelli.

He told the radio service that it was difficult to foresee a resolution of the crisis, but the Catholic Church wanted to see a form of reconciliation that allows the Libyan people to have what is just.

WCC pressed to develop new policy statement on gender justice

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Jerry L. Van Marter

Geneva--Members of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee, at their meeting here, took a fresh look at the ecumenical movement's progress on gender justice issues and many members didn't like what they saw.

Introducing on 19 February a plenary session on "The Community of Women and Men," the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson of the United Church of Christ in the U.S. and the WCC's North American president, noted that in 1981 the Central Committee established a commitment to have women delegates make up 50 percent of the WCC Assemblies and the Central Committee.

"As a WCC president, I want to express sadness that we seem to have moved away from that commitment," Powell Jackson said. "It’s about more than numbers – it's about how we share power and God's bountiful resources."

Later in the plenary, Kathryn Lohre of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America urged the WCC to conduct a comprehensive study of gender justice issues and develop a policy statement on the role of women in the WCC and its member churches and societies.

The Rev. Karin Achtelstetter, general secretary of the World Association of Christian Communication, told the Central Committee that WACC has been compiling such research for a number of years "and is prepared to offer our data and findings as our contribution to the WCC."

The Rev. Gregor Henderson of the Uniting Church in Australia noted that "across the churches there are very different understandings of the role of women" and that a number of churches don't ordain women "even though in probably every WCC member church the majority of church members and worshipers are women."

He echoed the call for greater attention to the role of women in the church. "Women's participation in the church has not been a prominent issue in the WCC," Henderson said. "We've had no systematic collection of data since 1981. We don't even know how many of our churches ordain women."

The issue of ordination of women is a non-starter for Orthodox churches, said Archbishop Anastasios of the Orthodox Church of Albania. "To implement such an idea would be to isolate us and set back the goal of the participation of women," the WCC's Orthodox president said. "There are many ways to empower women without the issue of ordination."

Building just communities of women and men lies far beyond issues of ordination of women and voting percentages, said Magali Nascimento Cunha, a Brazilian Methodist. "This [50 percent women's representation goal] is a challenge, yes," Cunha said.

"However, it has to be accompanied by other actions … Full participation of women through numbers has to be achieved," she said, "and has also to mean women being able to speak, being able to do, to lead, women being respected as partners being seen, being heard, their gifts being recognized and valued."

Cunha, too, called for a new "WCC gender policy statement to guide the council’s actions concerning guaranteeing participation in governance, staff positions and representation."

Churches in India challenged to support indigenous people

(from Ecumenical News International)

By Anto Akkara

New Delhi--Churches in India have been urged to stand up for indigenous peoples who have been affected by such development projects as dams and mines.

A conference organized by the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) said in a statement that "(indigenous people) are rendered more helpless when the churches choose to remain silent spectators and sometimes themselves (become) the instruments of violence."

The NCCI, which includes 30 Orthodox and Protestant churches, held the 13-16 February conference to examine violence and violation of human rights affecting indigenous people.

"More than 55 percent of the people displaced by development projects are tribals (indigenous peoples)," said the Rev. P. B. M. Basaiawmoit, NCCI vice president, addressing the conference, which was attended by more than 60 delegates and social activists from across India.

Basaiawmoit, said the Christian ideal of human endeavour and development has led to the exploitation of tribals' areas, displacing them from their habitats in the name of development. "So, we have a greater duty to undo this damage and stand up for them," added the Presbyterian church member from the tribal majority north-eastern state of Meghalaya.

Acknowledging that indigenous people in the mineral-rich mountain areas are displaced by development projects, the conference urged the churches "to establish structures" to take up the causes of the indigenous who have become "refugees in their own homelands."

"They are subjected to new forms of violence like state repression. The state, instead of being the protector, monopolizes and perpetrates violence with scant regard for human lives, livelihood and dignity," said the conference declaration.

Hundreds of people have died at the hands of security forces that have been trying to crush a rebel insurgency in the mineral-rich indigenous belt known as the "red corridor" that comprises 170 of the 626 districts of India.

The conference urged the churches "to use the pulpits" to speak up for the indigenous, who number about 100 million of India’s 1.2 billion people. The conference expressed alarm over the "displacement in the name of development, exploitation of natural resources, ruining biodiversity and the symbiotic relationship between land and (indigenous) people" and the consequent "disappearance of indigenous art forms and cultural practices."

Agelios Michael, NCCI vice president (representing the youth) told ENInews that "the big brother attitude" is visible even in the development programmes churches run for the tribal people. He has run a major development programme in Orissa for three decades, and said that "the control of the project is still with the non-tribals."

He added that "they should have been trained in leadership and the project should have been entrusted to them," added Michael, who is from the Lutheran church.

Hrangathan Chhungi, secretary of the NCCI Commission for Indigenous Peoples, told ENInews that the declaration from the conference will be placed before the NCCI executive to finalize a policy on indigenous peoples.

In Southern Sudan, ecumenical movement turns to nation-building

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Jerry L. Van Marter

Geneva--Having successfully brokered a historic and peaceful referendum in southern Sudan -- on 9 July the Republic of South Sudan will be born -- ecumenical organizations in Africa and around the world are focusing on the equally challenging task of helping to build the new nation.

During an 18 February briefing at the Ecumenical Centre here, three African religious leaders praised ecumenical bodies -- particularly the World Council of Churches (WCC) -- for helping create "the miracle" of southern Sudanese independence.

They warned, however, that "the journey is still long" and continuing efforts by the ecumenical community will be needed for some time into the future.

"At the end of the day, we thank God for bringing all this war to an end," the Rev. James Lagos Alexander of the Khartoum-based Africa Inland Church, told the packed hearing on Sudan during the WCC Central Committee meeting here.

"The referendum proved that the southern Sudanese are capable, please continue to accompany them," he said.

In the 9 January referendum, nearly 99 percent of voters in southern Sudan -- which is predominantly Christian and animist -- chose to secede from the Islamic State of Sudan based in the northern capital of Khartoum.

The referendum ends nearly 60 years of intractable conflict in the country -- which gained its independence from the British and Egyptian governments in 1956 -- including two civil wars that consumed more than three decades (1963-1972 and 1983-2005). During those years more than 2 million Sudanese died and 4 million were displaced.

The referendum was mandated by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the north and south that churches were instrumental in brokering.

The effort was spearheaded by the Sudan Ecumenical Forum (SEF) -- created in 1995 in the midst of the second civil war -- the All Africa Council of Churches (AACC), the Sudan Council of Churches, and most recently by an SEF diplomatic team led by the Special Ecumenical Envoy, Samuel Kobia, former general secretary of the WCC.

The churches and ecumenical community will have a critical role to play for the foreseeable future, said Bishop Robert Aboagye-Mensah, a Ghanian Methodist and vice-president of the All Africa Council of Churches.

"It is important to understand the important role of the church in making these changes possible," he said. "If the church had not accompanied the Sudanese, the CPA would not have been possible and the referendum would not have happened. Now, as this new nation is built, the message of the Sudanese to the church is 'Please don't abandon us!'"

Kobia outlined eight key post-referendum issues that must be resolved.

They include a follow-up referendum in the oil-rich border state of Abyei and further border demarcations, an oil revenue-sharing agreement, water management, disposition of indebtedness, citizenship agreements, and international and security arrangements.

Having been so active in facilitating the peace process, the churches "must enter a process of discernment about how to accompany the people in solidarity on nation-building," Kobia said.

That the referendum came off peacefully and as scheduled is widely attributed to African religious leaders and ecumenical organizations in the region and throughout Africa.

"By 2009, it was clear to Sudan churches that preparations [for the vote] were not going well," Kobia said, "so we appealed to the international ecumenical community to rescue the CPA."

The SEF team moved quickly in four directions, Kobia said: making sure that all parties to the CPA remained committed to holding the referendum as scheduled, creating a peaceful atmosphere for the voting throughout southern Sudan, promoting unity of purpose for the voting, and mounting a voter education effort.

"This was the first time voting for most Sudanese," Kobia said, "so churches dispatched 350 observers. I don't think any election anywhere has been so closely observed."

The universal conclusion that the balloting process was very valid, Kobia said, means "there was no one to dispute the results. The first to acknowledge this was Omar al-Bashir," he added, referring to the Sudanese president who stubbornly resisted the referendum.

Kobia also worries about Christians in the north, where stricter Sharia law is inevitable. "Khartoum wants no rights for Christians in the north," he said. "Many Christian churches and schools are now empty, but we still have a vibrant Christian community in the north, so we are talking with the AACC and the Middle East Council of Churches to see how we can best support our brothers and sisters in the north."

Flight of Iraqi Christians cannot dim churches' witness, leaders say

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Jerry L. Van Marter

Geneva---- Declarations of "mission accomplished" and U.S. troop withdrawals notwithstanding, Iraqi Christians continue to flee because their safety cannot be guaranteed and there is little hope their lives will improve soon, six Iraqi church leaders said on 18 February during the meeting of the World Council of Churches Central Committee.

"It is more difficult for all the people of Iraq, but especially for Christians," said Archbishop Georgis Sliwa of the Armenian Church of Iraq. "Those remaining are not feeling any security, especially politically, and have no hope for their children’s futures."

The six Iraqi leaders were in Geneva, said Patriarch Addai II, to solicit help from the ecumenical community. "We work very hard with the Iraqi government about violence and struggles and how to end it so people can come back," Addai said. "When we don’t get an answer, we turn to our friends elsewhere for support. Our hope is that all who left will return once conditions – safety, stability, infrastructure – are in place, but right now we have little hope and the urgency now is for those still in Iraq," he added.

To create those conditions, Sliwa said, requires "international advocacy to stop terrorist activities so all citizens will feel safe and secure and to demand investigations why acts of violence happened and who was responsible."

All Iraqis "must work to empower the strength" of the fledgling Iraqi government, Sliwa continued. "Our constitution guarantees equal rights for all Iraqis. Strengthening the government will make it possible to protect all our people," he said.

The Rev. Yousif Al-Saka of the Presbyterian Church of Baghdad said he does not expect the political unrest sweeping through the Arab world to affect Iraq. "The regimes in all those countries are dictatorial while we are a constitutional system," he explained. "The main problem in Iraq for all the departures is social security. If we want people, especially Christians, to return, we have to establish security."

The Iraqi church leaders hailed the support of their ecumenical partners around the world.

Attendance at the Baghdad church pastored by Archbishop Avak Asadourian of the Armenian Church of Iraq has declined by 85 percent in the last five years, but he said that "we have very good relations with the Catholics and the mainline Protestants." However, he added, "we have question marks about para-churches because they proselytize people who are already Christians – every Iraqi Christian is already a church member."

Said Archbishop Severius Hawa of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Baghdad: "These [para-church] groups are not churches and they create groups, not churches. This disfigures the image of the church in Iraq."

Though their numbers are depleted, the churches’ witness in Iraq persists. Regular worship services still take place, Asadourian said, "but they are quieter and we have some police protection."

Diaconal work continues, as well. "Diaconia work is very active, because of the need," Asadourian said. "It is the Christian women who visit the homes. They help families with medical help, monetary aid, food, housing. The need is very sharp so there is frequently not enough." The church, said Sliwa, "is the spiritual refuge of the people."

The Christian churches in Iraq are not about to give up, they said. "Despite all the difficulties, we are hopeful because we are Christians," said Asadourian, "and we love our country."

Egypt's Christians keep wary eye on Muslim Brotherhood

(From Religion News Service and USA Today)

By Alice Fordham

CAIRO: In Magdi Shnouda's cafe in Cairo, pictures of Jesus and the saints hang on the shabby walls, and the men playing backgammon and dominoes are a mixture of Christians and Muslims.

Sucking down glasses of sweet tea and strong coffee, they drape arms around one another and talk of how well they get along. They live in a neighborhood dotted with mosques and churches, and grew up like brothers, they say.

Another thing they agree on is the toppling of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who left office after 17 days of anti-government protests. The country is now being run by the military, which has dissolved a parliament full of Mubarak cronies.

"It's excellent what's happening," said Nasraddin Mustafa, 55, a decorator and friend of Shnouda's. "Christians and Muslims are the same ... there will now be more safety and more friendship between Christians and Muslims."

The revolutionary solidarity in Shnouda's cafe was shaken, however, when the subject of the Muslim Brotherhood came up.

"If the Brotherhood take control, I will be the first to leave the country," said Baha al-Rashid, 40, a driver playing backgammon.

The Brotherhood, a strictly Islamic political party, is the country's most organized opposition group. Some Christians fear that if it gains more influence, it would impose Shariah, or Islamic law, and forbid them from practicing their faith.

"Neither Christians nor Muslims like them, because they are a group with their own ideas, but the rest of the Muslims are good with Christians," said Eid Ibrahim, 41, also a driver and a Christian.

Egypt has about 8 million Christians, the largest Christian population in the Middle East. Most belong to the Coptic Orthodox church ("Coptic" means "Egyptian"). The faith has been in Egypt for 2,000 years, they say.

The Bible says Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with the infant Jesus to escape King Herod's decree that baby boys in Bethlehem be killed. Tradition holds that St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century. Islam did not arrive until six centuries later.

Christians here have long complained that they are shut out of some government jobs and treated as second-class citizens.

Christians have been targeted by terrorists in attacks that Mubarak's Interior Ministry blamed on "foreign elements." In the largest of many attacks against Christians last year, a car bomb in the northern city of Alexandria killed 21 people in December at a Christmas ceremony.

But during the recent demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square, many Christians joined in, protecting Muslims from police and Mubarak supporters while they prayed. Christian doctors manned some of the first-aid stands, and posters with a crescent moon and a cross proclaimed unity.

At St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral on Sunday (Feb. 13), there were christening parties and worshipers caressed babies and chatted. They agreed that a new Egypt is a good thing but that there could be problems ahead.

"In the last year, there (have) been a lot of demonstrations," said David Samuels, 31, a master's student and a Christian, speaking in a bar near the upscale Heliopolis area of Cairo. "They were protesting because of anger and discrimination against them."

Many Christians say they suspect the government was involved in the attacks to keep Egyptians divided.

"When the demonstrations started, I doubted that what would happen in Tunisia would happen here," Samuels said. "But then I understood that there was real anger and people were talking about being Egyptian, not about being Christians or Muslims, and my Muslim friends were angry that the government was making conflict between Christians and Muslims worse."

Despite the euphoria, he, too, is nervous about the Brotherhood. "I read a lot about the history of the party," he said. "They know there are a lot of bad vibes against them, so they will first try to get to the top of all the syndicates and then come to power, which would be the worst for Christians.

"Christians have been raised on fear, and they are always afraid," he said.

In Shnouda's cafe, the owner was quiet as his friends chattered about the revolution, about how the political elite who stole all the money had gone, how Egypt was entering a time of more freedom and how the new government would not try to divide Christians and Muslims as the old one did.

Asked whether he agreed that the government would bring people closer, Shnouda paused. "Come and ask me this question in a year," he said. "We hope it will be better."

(Alice Fordham writes for USA Today.)

World Council of Churches leaders stress unity

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Jerry L. Van Marter

Geneva--In opening addresses to the World Council of Churches (WCC) central committee today, leaders of the world’s largest ecumenical body cited Jesus' prayer for unity in the Gospel of John, chapter 17 -- "that they all may be one."

That is "the rationale behind, beside and before everything we do as the WCC," said Olav Fykse Tveit, the WCC's general secretary since September 2009. "We have all received the same call – the call to be one comes from Jesus Christ. It comes from one another as churches, and it comes from the whole of humanity who needs to see the churches giving joint witness about Jesus Christ to bring peace and reconciliation that Christ brought to the world." The WCC's 150-member central committee is meeting here from 16 to 22 February.

The WCC, which has been in the forefront of numerous political and social movements during its six-decade history, is not about to abandon its commitment to justice and peace, said Walter Altmann, a Brazilian Lutheran who is moderator of the central committee.

The central committee is poised to choose between two proposed themes -- "God of life, lead us to justice and peace" and "In God's world, called to be one" -- for its 10th Assembly in October 2013 in Busan, South Korea. Altmann argued for the adoption of both.

"The proposed themes should not be seen as basically alternatives," Altmann said in his address. "Each of these two perspectives is part of the one overall understanding of the ecumenical calling and commitment that unites our fellowship."

The focus on justice and peace is necessary, said Altmann, because events such as the global financial meltdown and recent democracy movements in Arab countries "bring to our attention the risks of policies that affront human dignity and oppress whole populations."

That's why, Altmann said, "the eradication of poverty, the campaign against hunger and commitment to justice in international economic relations must remain on the WCC's programme agenda."

He called for the WCC to "place even more intensively on its agenda our concern for the Middle East, especially also for the Holy Land." He expressed particular concern for the Christian minorities in many Middle East countries, noting that the WCC's efforts "contribute to creating and maintaining an atmosphere of mutual respect and recognition on which peace with justice can be built."

Tveit sounded the same note in his address a short time later. "We are focusing on what it means to be one through the perspective of 'just peace,' as we are preparing for the ecumenical peace convocation in Jamaica in May."

That event marks the culmination of the WCC's "Decade to Overcome Violence."

"We are called to be one so that the world may believe that peace is possible," Tveit said.

Tveit also extensively addressed the Middle East, signalling that the region will be high on the WCC's agenda. Noting that the WCC has always supported "the internationally legal status of the state of Israel as defined by the United Nations Security Council," Tveit pressed for an open Jerusalem.

"Jerusalem is a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims," he said. "The three religions should share this city and have equal free access to the holy sites within it. The faithful of all three religions need to find ways of living together in justice and peace so that the cradles of our religions can be signs of hope for the whole of humanity."

Peace is no less important within the ecumenical movement, Altmann said. Because Christian unity "is a reality in the heart of God," Altmann said, the task of the churches is "to persevere in that unity, not to depart from it, not to rebel against God and not to break off relations with one another."

And because unity is not "the result of establishing institutional structures," Altmann called for a "broadening and deepening" of the ecumenism that recognizes that "there is only one ecumenical movement, of which the WCC is a part."

Such efforts, he concluded, "require open minds, prayerful attitudes and rigorous theological work."

Tveit intimated that he, too, supports the dual themes for the next assembly. "The WCC in one way or another must know and focus on how, in everything we do, to respond to the call to be one in our role to bring reconciliation and peace into all contexts. I understand that the WCC can have a role far beyond our fellowship of member churches by being 'the including other' and not 'the excluding other.'"

Report: U.S. churches continue growth, decline trends

(From Religion News Service)

While mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. continue to experience decades-long decline, the memberships of Pentecostal traditions are on the rise, according to new figures compiled by the National Council of Churches.

The Roman Catholic Church (No. 1) and the Southern Baptist Convention (No. 2) are still significantly larger than all other North American denominations, but Catholics posted minimal growth of less than 1 percent, and Southern Baptist membership fell for a third straight year, according to the 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.

Produced annually by the NCC, the yearbook is considered one of the most reliable recorders of church membership. The figures in the 2011 yearbook were compiled by churches in 2009, reported to the NCC in 2010 and released Monday (Feb. 14).

Mainline Protestant churches that have seen a fall in membership since the 1970s continued their decline; the Presbyterian Church (USA) reported the greatest membership drop (2.6 percent) of the 25 largest denominations.

Other denominations reporting declines include the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church as well as the more evangelical Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

The membership declines in mainline churches led to a 1 percent decrease in total U.S. church membership, to 145.8 million.

Despite the national decline, some smaller denominations' memberships are increasing.

"Churches which have been increasing in membership in recent years continue to grow and likewise, those churches which have been declining in recent years continue to decline," writes the Rev. Eileen Lindner, the editor of the yearbook.

Pentecostal churches make up four of the 25 largest churches, and both the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) increased in membership. Only six of the 25 largest memberships increased over the previous year.

Jehovah's Witnesses experienced the greatest growth percentage overall, gaining 4.37 percent according to the yearbook. Several historically black denominations continued a years-long practice of not submitting fresh figures.

The 10 largest Christian bodies reported in the 2011 yearbook are:

1. The Catholic Church: 68.5 million, up 0.57 percent.
2. Southern Baptist Convention: 16.1 million, down .42 percent.
3. The United Methodist Church: 7.8 million, down 1 percent.
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 6 million, up 1.42 percent.
5. The Church of God in Christ: 5.5 million, no membership updates reported.
6. National Baptist Convention, USA: 5 million, no membership updates reported.
7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: 4.5 million, down 1.96 percent.
8. National Baptist Convention of America, 3.5 million, no membership updates reported.
9. Assemblies of God: 2.9 million, up .52 percent.
10. Presbyterian Church (USA): 2.7 million, down 2.61 percent.

Report: Churches, charities not in competition for dollars

(From Religion News Service)

Houses of worship and other charities often aren't in competition for dollars but instead tend to reap donations from similar donors, a new study shows.

Slightly more than 50 percent of people who financially supported congregations also gave to at least one charitable organization in the last year, according to a study conducted by Phoenix-based Grey Matter Research Consulting.

Researchers also found that the more Americans give to a house of worship, the more they donate to other groups. And the trend continues with the generosity of the donor.

For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.

"Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period -- including to charitable organizations," said Ron Sellers, president of the Phoenix-based research firm, formerly known as Ellison Research "Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving."

The study, which was commissioned by the nonprofit fundraising firm Russ Reid Co. of Pasadena, Calif., was conducted last May by telephone and online among a nationally representative sample of 2,005 American adults. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

Buddhist Bhutan wrestles with 'shocking' abuse study

(From Religion News Service)

NEW DELHI -- The government commissioner charged with promoting "Gross National Happiness" in the tiny Buddhist nation of Bhutan said he was deeply dismayed by a recent study that found a majority of Bhutanese women think their husbands have the right to beat them.

Karma Tshiteem, head of Bhutan's Commission for Gross National Happiness, called the findings "surprising" and "shocking," and said such attitudes are "totally inconsistent" with Buddhist teachings.

The survey by Bhutan's National Statistics Bureau found that roughly 70 percent of women say they deserved beating if they neglect children, argue with their partners, refuse sex or burn dinner, reported the Business Bhutan newspaper.

The acceptance of domestic violence is highest (90 percent) among the women in Paro, a picturesque valley that's home to Bhutan's most revered monastery, Takshang. The capital city of Thimphu scores the lowest acceptance rate, about 50 percent, for wife beating.

"Any form of violence is totally contradictory to the teachings of the Buddha," Tshiteem said, noting that Ahimsa (non-violence) "is a central tenet in Buddhist philosophy."

Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan, where a vast majority of the 700,000 citizens are Buddhist.

Gross National Happiness, which seeks to create an "enlightened" society in which government fosters the well-being of people as well as other "sentient beings," was first envisioned by Bhutan's former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972.

The landlocked Himalayan nation -- about half the size of Indiana -- peacefully transitioned to democracy after the king abdicated power in 2006, but Buddhist principles continue to shape the country's government.

Bhutan's Gross National Happiness index -- as opposed to more traditional measures like a nation's economic activity -- is based on nine components of happiness: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance.

Because healthy family relationships are key to harmonious communities, "attitudes accepting such behavior, in these relationships or even outside, would be totally inconsistent" with Gross National Happiness, Tshiteem said.

Covering 15,000 households, the Bhutan Multiple Indicator Survey also found that more than one in four women believe HIV/AIDS is transmitted supernaturally; one in four children do not attend school and one in five children are involved in child labor.

Vatican says iPhone apps won't forgive sins

(From Religion News Service)

VATICAN CITY -- Just in case Catholics are wondering if a new iPhone app might be able to forgive their sins, the Vatican has issued a clarification: No.

"One may not speak in any sense of confessing via iPhone," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, said in a statement on Wednesday (Feb. 9).

According to its U.S. producers, "Confession: A Roman Catholic App" is designed to help users prepare for confession through a "personalized examination of conscience for each user, password protected profiles, and a step-by-step guide to the sacrament."

The Indiana-based company, Little iApps LLC, says its app is the first to receive an imprimatur, or official permission for publication, from a Catholic bishop -- in this case, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Lombardi said the "Sacrament of Penance necessarily requires the relationship of personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor and absolution by the confessor present."

"This cannot be substituted for by any information technology application," he said.

The Vatican has cautiously embraced information technology and new media in recent years, but Pope Benedict XVI last month warned digital communication poses special dangers to Christian values and face-to-face relationships.

New Nepal PM urged to ensure Christians' rights

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Sudeshna Sarkar

Kathmandu, Nepal -- With the former Hindu kingdom of Nepal ending a seven-month political deadlock by electing a new prime minister, Christian organisations are asking the new government to finalise a new constitution by May and guarantee the rights of Christians, including allowing an official burial site.

British religious rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide has asked the new premier, Jhala Nath Khanal, to ensure that the new constitution – that failed to be completed by an earlier deadline last year – is enacted before 28 May and upholds freedom of religion, including the right to conversion.

"The election of a new PM is a positive step for Nepal, which we hope will give momentum to the constitution-drafting process," said Andrew Johnston, CSW's advocacy director. "The new constitution is essential for Nepal to complete its transition to secular democracy, and it must enshrine the human rights enshrined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Nepal is a state party."

CSW also supports the right to burial grounds in the new constitution, a current contentious issue in the South Asian republic. Though Nepal was declared secular by Parliament in 2006, its non-Hindu religious minorities, except for Muslims, still do not have official burial sites.

Christians had been using a forested land owned by the country’s oldest temple, the Pashupatinath, to bury their dead secretly. However, the trust that runs the shrine began demolishing non-Hindu graves in the forest this year, saying their presence hurt Hindu sentiments.

Nepal's Christian organisations are protesting against the demolitions. The United Christian Alliance of Nepal, an alliance of the Catholic church and nine religious bodies, asked the government to allot a separate plot for a Christian cemetery and form a religion ministry or commission.

Protestant organisations have been more insistent, threatening to leave corpses in front of the enclave housing the prime minister's office and other major ministries if the demand for a separate grave site was not heeded.

There is increasing fear among the religious minorities that protracted political turmoil will derail the new constitution yet again. The new government is the third one in three years and Khanal, who won the election on 3 February after 16 rounds of voting, has still not been able to name his cabinet due to power-sharing conflicts with his key ally, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

U.K. Catholics caution followers on 'dangers' of witchcraft

(From Religion News Service)

LONDON -- The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, worried about the growing influence of Harry Potter and his team of young wizards, has published a guide aimed at helping teenagers deal with 21st century witchcraft.

The British church's publishing arm, the Catholic Truth Society, said its booklet, "Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Dangers," offers advice to parents who find their children showing an interest in Wicca, paganism and the occult.

The society said it was concerned by the growing popularity among youths of the Potter stories and other aspects of witchcraft bordering on hero worship.

Elizabeth Dodd, the book's author and herself a former Wiccan who became a Catholic, conceded on the group's website that "Wicca and witchcraft have proved attractive, with much to offer."

She said the booklet is intended to help Catholics assess the history and beliefs of Wicca, and also how to talk to Wiccans they might meet in a pub.

Dodd also said Catholics should find "ways in which it is possible to bring witches and Wiccans to Christ and his church."

Pope can't be organ donor, church says

(From Religion News Service)

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI was once a card-carrying organ donor, but the offer expired when he assumed the papal throne, according to the Vatican.

A donor card acquired by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1970s "became ipso facto obsolete" with his election as pope, according to Monsignor Georg Ganswein, Benedict's private secretary, as reported by the German website of Vatican Radio on Wednesday (Feb. 2).

Ganswein recently wrote to Dr. Gero Winkelmann, a German physician, to refute frequent references to Benedict's donor card in lectures and articles promoting organ donation.

In a 2008 speech, Benedict praised organ donation as an "act of love," provided that extraction of the organs is done with "informed consent" of the donor, and not as part of a business transaction.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, said that Ganswein's statement did not reflect any change of heart by the pope on the value of organ donation. Nor is there any Vatican policy of conserving papal body parts to provide relics in case of canonization as a saint, he said.

"But the idea that a man of his age, when he dies, that somebody might present himself seeking his organs, makes no sense," Lombardi said. "It's surreal."

Churches closing in north Sudan after referendum

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Fredrick Nzwili

Juba, Southern Sudan -- Some churches, parishes and church schools in northern Sudan are closing due to a large movement of people to the south after the independence referendum, according to some church leaders.

"This is the trend. There are some centres in the parishes that are far apart and the populations have decreased drastically. These are closing," Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Adwok, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Khartoum Archdiocese, told ENInews on 3 February.

In the referendum, held in mid-January, voters in southern Sudan overwhelmingly approved independence for their region, the site of two long civil wars. The area is expected to become independent in July.

Adwok said the closures were occurring after people who had settled in a northern area during the conflict travelled voluntarily and en masse to the south. He said more movement was expected during the interim period between February and July this year. "We expect more to leave within this period ... But we do not expect a big change in the main towns, especially in the main cathedral in Khartoum," he said.

Rev. Ramadan Chan Liol, the general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC), a grouping of Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches, confirmed that some of these parishes were mainly of southern people. "With the mass movement of the southerners and people from the Nuba Mountains, some of the churches have been left empty," he said. "Individual denominations are considering what to do with the properties of such parishes."

The Roman Catholic Church is planning to restructure and merge some parishes in the north, according to the Rev. George Jangara Modi, the Khartoum diocesan education secretary. "We are updating records. We want to see who will remain in the parishes," he said.

Jangara explained the churches, parishes and schools most affected were in the camps of the displaced people or areas where displaced people had settled. He said some schools which had nearly 500 or 400 pupils recorded numbers as lows 70 or 60.

Although many of the Christians are said to have returned to south voluntarily, some observers said they had departed because they could not be assured of their safety. "We are concerned about the security of Christians in the north because they are going to be a minority. We are trying to see if they can be protected through a law as minorities," Rev. Ramadan Chan, the general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches recently said in an interview.

The church leaders are concerned that if the Muslim government in the north adopts strict Sharia law, as it has promised, then the church will suffer. In addition, they note that some northern government officials said during the referendum campaign that Christians in the north will not be able to have services if the south secedes.

Archdiocese posts trove of slave records online

(From Religion News Service)

NEW ORLEANS -- The Archdiocese of New Orleans on Tuesday (Feb. 1) unveiled a new online database containing records of baptisms, marriages and deaths in colonial New Orleans, including those of African slaves.

The first batch of five registers to go online contains baptismal records of slaves and free persons of color, most of them bereft of family names. Until now, the records were largely beyond the reach of most genealogical researchers.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond acknowledged the records will also draw renewed attention to the uncomfortable fact that in colonial New Orleans the church and its religious orders were often slave-holders.

The publication of the records is offered with an apology, he said.

"I apologize in the name of the church because we allowed some of these things to continue," Aymond said. "This is sinful. Racism is sinful."

Emilie Leumas, the church's chief archivist, said the indexed records online now mostly contain only people who, because of their enslavement or low social status as free persons of color, were known only by first names.

Aymond suggested the database affords a measure of public dignity for lives lived in crushing anonymity. Bringing the name of a long lost person into public view "is a way of getting in touch with that person's spirit," he said.

Critics raise concerns about House hearings on Muslims

(From Religion News Service)

WASHINGTON (RNS) A coalition of more than 50 Muslim, human rights, and faith organizations is urging House leaders to raise concerns about planned hearings this month on the "radicalization" of American Muslims.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, plans to focus his hearing on homegrown terrorism, including the Fort Hood shooting and attempted Times Square bombing, both plots hatched by American-born Muslims.

King has accused U.S. Muslim leaders of failing to cooperate with law enforcement officials and said that 80 percent of American mosques are run by extremists, a figure that Muslim leaders and scholars sharply dispute.

"Singling out a group of Americans for government scrutiny based on their faith is divisive and wrong," the coalition wrote in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The 51-member coalition includes Amnesty International USA, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and the Interfaith Alliance, as well as dozens of local and national Muslim groups.

"I don't believe it warrants an answer," King said of the letters. "I am too busy preparing for the hearings."

A few members of Congress, including the House's two Muslims and former Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., have already denounced King's plans.

Does faith need the church? Putting faith into action does, Reformed church leader replies

(From the World Communion of Reformed Churches)

Swiss churches are asking if the church is necessary for people to have faith. The question is prompted by statistics which show that 80% of young people in Switzerland believe in God but only 20% feel close to a church.

An interfaith group of panelists took up the debate at an open forum hosted by the Swiss Federation of Protestant Churches (FEPS) during the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland last week. The session on 28 January was titled "Does Faith Need Religious Institutions?"

In a response issued on Monday to the discussion, Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), comments that the question should rather be "Does action based on faith need the church?"

The answer to that question is an unequivocal "yes," Nyomi believes. Noting that Tuesday, 1 February marks the start of the first annual observance of a United Nations' sponsored week to promote understanding and peaceful relations among the world’s faith groups, Nyomi says:

"As we prepare to engage in the first World Interfaith Harmony Week, we are conscious of how WCRC's church-based programme for justice offers individual Christians the opportunity to join with people of other faith traditions and put their values and beliefs into action for economic rights and environmental protection."

The Ghanaian theologian adds "This will broaden and enrich our individual efforts to respond to the needs of the damaged and hurting world that we share with our neighbours of all religions."

The General Secretary notes he agrees with the input of the President of the Council for the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, Gottfried Locher, to the debate about whether faith needs the church. Locher, an officer of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, indicated at the debate in Davos that the church is "not just a human institution that we want to secure, but a movement that ought to continue."

"Clearly, it's easier and more effective for an individual believer to put his or her faith into action with a group of believers than alone," Nyomi says.

Calls for Prayer and Fasting for Egypt

(From The National Council of Churches)

The member communions of the National Council of Churches are joining Christians in the Coptic Orthodox Church in North America in a three-day period of prayer and fasting to seek God's presence amid the upheavals in Egypt.

The proclamation from the Coptic Orthodox Church reads: "In response to the tragic events in our homeland of Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox bishops of North America have declared January 31 - February 2, 2011 as a period of fasting and prayer.

"During these days, we are to observe strict abstinence as any Wednesday or Friday. In addition, many churches will offer the celebration of the Divine Liturgy every day during this period to pray for peace and safety in Egypt for all our Egyptian brothers and sisters.

"May God remember the land of Egypt and her people."

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, called upon NCC member communions "to honor this call from the Coptic Orthodox Church and to express their prayerful solidarity with all the people of Egypt, including the Christian minority and foreign service workers from the U.S. and other nations."

Kinnamon said he prayed that "the people of Egypt will experience a just and hopeful resolution of the current crisis."

Also today, the World Council of Churches based in Geneva, Switzerland, issued a statement of concern for the situation in Egypt.

"Member churches in all parts of the world are praying for the people of Egypt," the WCC statement said. "There are disturbing reports of increasing numbers of people being killed, of assaults and threats and of many living in fear. Our hopes and prayers are for the safety of citizens, for wisdom and compassion on the part of the authorities and for a non-violent and just resolution of conflicts and grievances."

Kinnamon said the U.S. NCC joins with the World Council's call "for peaceful dialogue and joint efforts at every level of society to find the way forward to a future that brings hope and security for the good of all people and communities ... We pray to God for mercy and protection for the Egyptian people and for all religious communities, and we are standing together with the churches in these challenging times."

U.S. Muslim population to double in 20 years

(From Religion News Service)


The U.S. Muslim population is expected to double over the next 20 years, fueled by immigration and higher-than-average fertility rates, according to a new report released Thursday (Jan. 27).

The authors of the report, "The Future of the Global Muslim Population" from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said fears of a Muslim takeover of Western society or Muslim global domination are overblown.

The number of Muslims in the United States is projected to rise from 2.6 million, or 0.8 percent of the U.S. population, to 6.2 million, or 1.7 percent in 2030.

That rate of growth would make Muslims about as numerous as Jews or Episcopalians in the U.S. today.

The report comes as some critics accuse Muslim Americans of seeking to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, in the U.S., and some Europeans raise the specter of a Muslim-dominated "Eurabia" if countries don't tighten immigration.

"The numbers are very far away from the Eurabia scenario of runaway growth," said Alan Cooperman, one of the report's co-authors.

Although Muslim populations in some Western countries are expected to double in the next 20 years, they would still not be high enough to fundamentally shift the religious or ethnic balance of European societies, the authors said.

Even some conservatives expressed skepticism at the idea of homegrown Islamic fundamentalism threatening to overtake the U.S. "We welcome all Muslims here who pledge allegiance to the Constitution, and believe in the separation of religion and state," said the Rev. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Liberty Commission. "I don't worry about Shariah creep because Americans won't let it happen."

Researchers also found that nearly two-thirds (64.5 percent) of Muslim Americans are immigrants, while 35.5 percent were born in the U.S. -- a figure that is projected to rise to almost 45 percent by 2030.

Assuming that many of these young immigrants start families, the number of U.S. Muslims younger than 15 will more than triple by 2030, to 1.8 million in 2030.

According to the report, the world's Muslim population is expected to increase by about 35 percent in the next 20 years -- rising from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion by 2030 -- compared to general population growth rate of about 16 percent.

If current trends continue, Muslims will make up 26.4 percent of the world's total projected population of 8.3 billion in 2030, up from 23.4 percent of the estimated 2010 world population of 6.9 billion.

At least one Christian observer said the numbers, as well his own experience, suggest that Muslims are doing a better job evangelizing and gaining converts, especially in developing countries.

"The assistance that's coming in from the Muslim world is outpacing what's coming from the Western world and Christian organizations," said Jordan Sekulow, director of international operations at the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative activist firm founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

"We have to be the one's also building schools, building medical facilities, or else we're going to lose the race for souls," Sekulow said.

Many genocides to be commemorated on Holocaust Memorial Day

(From Religion News Service)

CANTERBURY, England -- After the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II, the world cried out "never again." But one of Britain's best-known young rabbis, Jonathan Romain, said the phrase has proved tragically wrong.

"Genocide has happened again and again and again," he told ENInews ahead of Thursday's (Jan. 27) Holocaust Memorial Day observances 66 years after the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

"We only have to think about Biafra, Bosnia, Darfur and there are other examples," said Romain, a leading spokesman for Reform Judaism in the United Kingdom. "The list is deeply depressing and screams out that Holocaust Memorial Day is needed as much now as ever before."

Survivors and mourners have been asked by the Holocaust Memorial Trust in London to remember victims of other mass killings -- the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 5.4 million people have been killed since 1998; Cambodia, where an estimated 1.7 million were murdered by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979; the Bosnian war in the 1990s that claimed at least 98,000 lives; Burundi, with 50,000 deaths in 1993 and Rwanda, which saw 800,000 deaths in 1994 due to tribal conflict.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams emphasized this year's theme of "lost stories."

"If the stories are not told over and again, we lose the memory of those who suffered and we risk losing something that protects our humanity ... I commend for our remembrance the untold stories of Jewish people living in Britain during the medieval era, those of the Holocaust and the stories from the genocidal tragedies of many other contexts in our deeply damaged world today," he said in a statement.

Archdiocese upset after St. Patrick finds a home in restaurant

(From Religion News Service)

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. -- And now, let us raise a toast to St. Patrick.

Once a cherished icon for generations of Catholics, a statue of Ireland's patron saint from Sacred Heart Church in Newark has landed in a South Orange restaurant -- much to the chagrin of local Catholic leaders.

On a recent night, as college-age students mingled at Cryan's Beef and Ale House, St. Patrick watched silently from a corner in the restaurant section, a shepherd's staff in his left hand.

The move, from pious to pub, has provoked some debate. The 6-foot-tall plaster statue was relocated after the Archdiocese of Newark closed the venerable church last summer.

Bar owner Jimmy Cryan said his family had long supported Sacred Heart, holding fundraisers at the bar and pitching in for restorations. "The response has been overwhelming," he said. "It's just nice to have a piece of old Sacred Heart around."

But archdiocese officials, who plan to reuse items from the church in other religious buildings, are not pleased.

"The (Cryan) family expressed some interest in the statue because they had been involved in its restoration," said archdiocesan spokesman Jim Goodness. "They asked if they could have it. Our expectation was that it would be in a house, or a place for appropriate veneration."

Generations of local Catholics flocked to Sacred Heart in the heavily Irish Vailsburg neighborhood to pay their respects to the icon.

"It was gorgeous," said Paul Reilly, a former parishioner. "The St. Patrick's parade in Newark had their Mass there every year, and they used to bring the statue out. The place would be packed."

Citing falling attendance, the archdiocese shuttered the church in June, despite bitter protests from longtime worshippers.

Bob Madara, who joined the church in the 1970s, said he enjoyed having St. Patrick preside over his meals.

"It's in a respectable place," he said. "It's great. When people saw it on Christmas, it was one bright spot (after the church closed). It's a morale booster."

Former UCC president suspended after affair

(From Religion News Service)

The former president of the United Church of Christ has been suspended for one year and ordered to undergo a "program of growth" after he admitted last year to an affair with a former co-worker.

An association within the denomination's Ohio Conference will oversee a ministerial fitness review of the Rev. John H. Thomas, former general minister and president, the church announced.

The Rev. David T. Hill, an association official, said Thomas' ministerial standing had been suspended for at least a year, "with reinstatement of standing contingent upon completion of a prescribed program of growth."

Due to term limits, Thomas left office in 2009 after serving as president for a decade. In August 2010, the church announced he was divorcing his wife and said "he has formed a relationship with another woman with whom he worked" within the Cleveland-based denomination.

Thomas, an adviser and visiting professor to the president of UCC-affiliated Chicago Theological Seminary, expressed dismay that within 12 hours of a call alerting him to the decision, preparations were being made to make it public.

"However, given the voyeuristic nature of the church's approach to intimate details of my personal life over the past few months, I guess I should not be surprised," he said in a statement requested and released by the UCC.

The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, the current UCC president, said in a statement he was "very saddened" by the events that led to the decision.

"It is my prayer that as a church, we will be gracious and compassionate with each other and move forward together in search of healing and reconciliation," he said.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity draws attention to Jerusalem

(From the World Council of Churches)

Shortly after the beginning of each year, Christians around the world pray for church unity. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, traditionally celebrated from 18-25 January, draws on resources sponsored jointly by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity of the Roman Catholic Church. The materials for January 2011 have been prepared in partnership with the churches of Jerusalem.

"In a present-day context of despair and suffering, the churches of Jerusalem show determination and witness together with the global church for a just peace in the city of peace," said WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit in a sermon at Geneva's Ecumenical Centre during a service of prayer organized by the city's churches. The service on Wednesday evening, 19 January, included traditional music from the Middle East and was led by local church leaders. It was attended by more than 200 people.

Tveit observed that the New Testament portrayal of the Jerusalem church "describes the original oneness of those early believers in Jesus. Being one means being together, breaking bread, praising God, but also giving and sharing, according to who is in need." He described the image of sharing around the table as a striking image that "gives great spiritual energy" to ecumenical endeavours.

He continued, "The table is also a place and space that demands that we think about justice and the way food and access to power are shared in the world, especially at a time when speculation with food prices will mean that the poorest will become poorer, and go hungry."

Tveit noted that "there is still sadly one table where we as Christians do not yet eat together," referring to differences among churches that mean all Christians cannot share together in the eucharist. "Yet here too the witness of Christians in Jerusalem, the mother church of us all, can help us. They show us that it is possible to work together despite divisions, to carry forward prophetic calls for justice and peace, and try to be one in action together."

In the Geneva service, Father Mikhail Megally of the Coptic Orthodox congregation thanked other local churches for their support in the wake of recent violence perpetrated against the Coptic community in Egypt. He told the gathering, "Copts are children of the Middle East. They belong to this region and are part of its development and identity. We cannot imagine either Egypt or the Middle East without their Christians."

Religious leaders praise new Obama policy on Cuba

(From Religion News Service)

WASHINGTON -- Faith leaders with long-term ties to Cuban organizations are hailing a change in White House policy that reduces limits on religious travel to the island nation.

The White House announced Friday (Jan. 14) that President Obama had directed changes that include permitting religious organizations to sponsor trips through a general license. The administration also will create a general license that permits remittances to religious institutions in Cuba that support religious activities.

"The president believes these actions, combined with the continuation of the embargo, are important steps in reaching the widely shared goal of a Cuba that respects the basic rights of all its citizens," the statement said.

During a November meeting, officials with the National Council of Churches had asked Obama to address limitations on travel to Cuba by U.S. religious leaders.

"The White House announcement is an important first step toward more just and open relations between the U.S. and Cuba," said the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, NCC general secretary. "We look forward to the day when the U.S. embargo of Cuba will be lifted completely."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also welcomed the changes as a positive move to help the Cuban people.

"We hope and pray that these needed measures to remove unnecessary restrictions on purposeful travel to Cuba and to offer greater people-to-people assistance to Cubans will be another step toward supporting the people of Cuba in achieving greater freedom, human rights, and religious liberty," said Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Clergy answer King's 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail

(From Religion News Service)

A coalition of Christian churches answered the Rev. Martin Luther King's 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," conceding that Americans have often have chosen to be comfortable rather than "prophetic" on racism.

Leaders of Christian Churches Together in the USA, meeting in Birmingham, Ala., said they were "chastened by the unfinished nature" of overcoming racism after visiting Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where a bomb killed four young black girls in 1963.

"Too often, our follow-through has been far less than our spoken commitments," the group said in a letter released Friday (Jan. 14). "Too often we have elected to be comfortable rather than prophetic. Too often we have chosen not to see the evidence of a racism that is less overt but still permeates our national life in corrosive ways."

King's 1963 letter was a response to local clergy who urged black protesters to drop their "unwise and untimely" civil rights protests and engage in "negotiations" with white authorities.

King responded that "there comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience."

CCT officials said "so far as we know, no one has ever issued a clergy response to Dr. King's letter." They acknowledge that "some of us have not progressed far enough beyond the initial message from the Birmingham clergy."

Christian Churches Together, which was officially formed in 2007, is the nation's largest ecumenical Christian group, bringing together evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant and historic black churches, as well as independent groups like Habitat for Humanity and the American Bible Society.

Pakistani churches criticize government's refusal to amend blasphemy law

(From Religion News Service)

BANGALORE, India -- Pakistani churches say they're frustrated by the government's refusal to amend a controversial blasphemy law that makes it a capital crime to insult Islam or the Prophet Muhammad.

Human rights groups have urged for the law to be repealed or amended to protect the rights of minority faiths in a nation that is overwhelmingly Muslim and increasingly volatile.

A Pakistani governor who advocated for reforming the "black law" was killed by his security guard on Jan. 4, prompting large-scale demonstrations on behalf of the accused killer by Muslims who want the law preserved.

Pakistani officials have brushed off calls from outsiders for the law's repeal. On Tuesday (Jan. 11), Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told reporters that "it is our law and we will work according to our law."

"We are disappointed by the stand taken by the Prime Minister," said Joseph Francis, director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance & Settlement, which has defended dozens of Christians and Muslims charged under the law.

"With the protests growing from both sides, we were expecting the government to take a strong stand on this," Francis said. "Unfortunately, the government response has been negative."

The National Council of Churches in Pakistan also expressed displeasure with Gilani, though general secretary Victor Azariah said he was not surprised by the reaction.

The governing Pakistan People's Party has just 125 seats in the 342-member National Assembly, and must rely on independents and Islamic parties that support the blasphemy law to keep its fragile governing coalition intact.

"When the government survival itself is dependent on (political) parties that support the blasphemy law, what can we expect from the government?" Azariah said.

A year later in Haiti 'we see people trying to move on with their lives'

(From Church World Service)

Port-au-Prince, Haiti -- Media coverage of the first year since the devastating January 12, 2010, earthquake is focused on government inaction, the slow pace of recovery and the seeming inability of Haiti to recover.

But the story has another side: Haitians helping Haitians, say Church World Service staff and CWS partners in anticipation of this week’s anniversary.

"One year after the earthquake, the situation in Haiti remains extremely grave and extremely serious. Overall reconstruction of the country has been much slower than anyone would have liked," said Aaron Tate, Church World Service's Haiti earthquake response coordinator. "Haitians are frustrated, and I'm frustrated."

In a country with so many problems, Tate said, "it's easy to blame the government, the international humanitarian organizations and even the Haitian people for the problems of the last year."

What is ultimately more useful, he said, is to continue work on "positive things that can multiply and build a new kind of Haiti."

"In the communities where we work, we see people trying to move on with their lives."

Burton Joseph, Haiti project manager, added that while criticism of humanitarian organizations is understandable in the current Haitian context, it deserves repeating that thousands of Haitians are alive today because of the initial and ongoing response of both Haitian and non-Haitian aid workers and the agencies they work for.

"Many people would have died without such assistance," he said.

Church World Service partners in Haiti also acknowledge problems in the last year. Polycarp Joseph, head of CWS partner FOPJ said top-heavy and top-down assistance without Haitian participation helps explain the current "frustration in the country." He and representatives from other CWS partners say the world has forgotten that Haiti needs sustainable development -- development that helps as many as possible and gives Haitians a voice in their future.

"Ultimately, people from outside can't do that," said Herode Guillomettre, president of the Christian Center for Integrated Development, a CWS partner known by the Haitian Creole acronym SKDE.

Guillomettre said 13 food cooperatives in northwest Haiti in the Northwest and Artibonite regions -- which receive support from SKDE and Church World Service -- are proof that Haitians are living lives of quiet dignity, working together toward the common good. The co-ops pool resources, raise and harvest crops, and provide agricultural credit to members.

They have also provided assistance to earthquake survivors of Port-au-Prince who have fled the Haitian capital to begin new lives. "It's the co-op that has helped us since we've returned from Port-au-Prince," Ophliase Joseph, 55, the mother of seven children and whose home was destroyed in the earthquake, said recently. While Joseph said she misses the family home in the Haitian capital, life in the "Hand in Hand" co-op, in Mayombe, Artibonite, has made her realize that she and the family need to put life in Port-au-Prince behind them. "We're all staying here," she said.

CWS-supported food co-ops are also meeting the challenge of providing food for their members and their families. "It means life to us," said Elvius St. Fulis a member of the "Hand in Hand" co-op.

The initial response by CWS included providing initial emergency assistance, such as hygiene kits, blankets, tarps, school kits and baby kits -- valued at more than $600,000 -- to more than 200,000 persons.

Now CWS is focused on several priorities as the response in Haiti continues. These include:

  • Continued support and expansion for the 13 food cooperatives, which have more than 3,000 members.
  • Ongoing support for programs run by FOPJ for vulnerable Haitian children in Port-au-Prince, including restavek children (domestic servants), former gang members and teenage mothers.
  • Continued support for 1,200 persons with disabilities and their families in metropolitan Port-au-Prince. Six-hundred persons have received six-month, $75 per-month grants and 30 families have received assistance in repairing damaged housing.

Among those receiving assistance is Anouk Noel, 30. Noel's family has used the cash grant to purchase cosmetic items that family members have re-sold in order to support the family. The home Noel shares with her family has also been repaired, and Noel said the family is relieved to have returned to the home in November following nine months in one of Port-au-Prince's tent cities. "I didn't think we'd be able to come back," she said.

Pope warns diplomats on threats to religious freedom

(From Religion News Service)

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI on Monday (Jan. 10) decried violence against Christians in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, as well as more subtle "threats to the full exercise of religious freedom" in the secular West.

The pope made his remarks in his annual address to foreign ambassadors to the Vatican. Returning to the theme of his recent message for the World Day of Peace, Benedict focused on religious freedom as the "first of human rights," which he said is widely "violated or denied" around the world.

The pope paid special attention to the Middle East, noting recent attacks on Christians in Iraq and Egypt, and called upon "governments of the region to adopt ... effective measures for the protection of religious minorities."

Much of Iraq's Christian minority has fled the country amid violence following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003; a car bomb outside a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt, on New Year's Day killed at least 21 people.

Benedict also lashed out against Pakistan's blasphemy law, which he said "serves as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities." On Jan. 3, the governor of Punjab was killed by a security guard for supporting changes to the law.

The pope made no explicit reference to Islamist terrorism, which has been widely blamed for the anti-Christian attacks he mentioned in his speech, including bombings in Nigeria which killed 38 people on Christmas Eve.

Following months of tension with China over the communist government's restrictions on Catholic clergy, Benedict was relatively restrained in his reference to a "time of difficulty and trial" for the church there.

The pope was positively friendly to the Communist government of Cuba, voicing hope that its "dialogue happily begun with the church may be reinforced and expanded."

Benedict also warned against the "marginalization of religion, and of Christianity in particular" in the West. He called for a defense of the "right to conscientious objection" by medical professionals who refuse to participate in abortions, and of the right to display religious symbols, such as the crucifix, in public places.

In an apparent reference to recent controversy over the public school curriculum in Spain, Benedict denounced "obligatory participation in courses of sexual or civic education" that contradict church teaching as an "attack on the religious freedom of families."

Prayers for Sudan

(From RCA Communications)

"Please keep Sudan in your prayers as it prepares for the referendum beginning January 9," says Derrick Jones, supervisor of RCA mission in Africa.

The referendum, which will determine if Southern Sudan becomes an independent country, begins on January 9 and lasts for a week. The referendum vote was a condition of a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended decades of civil war between North and South Sudan.

"The air here is pregnant with excitements and joy," reports an RCA mission partner in the city of Juba in Southern Sudan.

"I have grown up in this city but have never seen anything like it! Hotels are fully booked and the day I came from Nairobi, the Jet Link flew three aircrafts to Juba on a single day. Hotel business is at its peak, as all the pre-fabricated Riverside hotels and other smaller hotels in town are fully booked by foreign journalists and other monitoring agencies."

Assassination complicates controversial blasphemy law

(From Religion News Service)

BANGALORE, India -- Church officials in Pakistan say the assassination of Salman Taseer, an outspoken critic of Pakistan's blasphemy law, is a "setback" for the campaign to overturn the law that makes illegal to speak against Islam.

"This assassination has made it now extremely difficult for us to campaign against the blasphemy law," Victor Azariah, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan (NCCP), told RNS from his office at Lahore on Wednesday (Jan. 5). "Everyone here is scared."

Taseer, 64, was governor of Punjab province before he was shot dead on Tuesday by one of his security guards in the provincial capital of Lahore.

The alleged assailant, Malik Mumtaz Husain Qadri, immediately surrendered and told the police he carried out the murder to avenge the "insult" to the blasphemy law by Taseer, who had called it a "black law."

Taseer had drawn the ire of Islamic fundamentalists after he initiated an unsuccessful clemency bid for Aasia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian mother who was sentenced to death on questionable blasphemy charges in early November.

Islamic scholars issued an apostasy decree against the governor, who had met Bibi in jail to listen to her story and lobbied for her to be granted clemency.

"When such a high government official is killed for speaking out (against the blasphemy law), what can the ordinary people do?" asked Azariah.

The assassination, he said, is "a setback to our demand for abolishing or amending the blasphemy law."

Archbishop Lawrence Saldana, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan, also acknowledged the assassination would have "a negative impact" on civil and church activists campaigning against the blasphemy law.

"This (assassination) will only add to the fear that is already there," said Saldana, who heads the Catholic Church in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.

Radical Muslim groups, meanwhile, publicly hailed the assassination of the outspoken governor who had tweeted a week ago that he was under "huge pressure to cow down ... on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing."

"We pay rich tributes and salute the bravery, valor and faith of Mumtaz Qadri," said a statement by a group of fundamentalist clerics.

2011: A year of hunger demanding local action, says CWS

(From Church World Service)

"Hungry people can't afford to wait for world bodies to solve the problems"

NEW YORK -- If 2010 was the year of large-scale disasters -- including the devastating Haiti earthquake and wide-spread floods in Pakistan -- 2011 is likely to be the year when issues of hunger become increasingly significant on the global stage, international humanitarian agency Church World Service says in a New Year's assessment.

The relief and development agency also says that 2011 will need to be the year of ground level action, with governments, local communities, and humanitarian players taking the lead to enact their own solutions to hunger and food crises.

"The hungry and poor can't afford to wait for world bodies to solve the problems. More than ever, 2011 should be the year to think and act locally," backed by even greater international supports, said CWS Executive Director and CEO John L. McCullough.

"Hunger has always been with us, but in 2011, it will increasingly take on more importance, both as a fact of life for tens of millions and as an issue for the humanitarian community to respond to and lift up," he said.

"We also know we can't treat problems in isolation: You can't address the issue of food without dealing with the issues of climate change and water."

And indeed, the year 2010 found global actors focused on the inter-related issues of hunger, climate change and water at international forums, such as the Cancun, Mexico, Climate Summit. Some successes were found -- such as agreement in Cancun of setting global emission mitigation targets. In September a renewed focus was made on keeping the world on track toward reaching the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, including the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.

But troubling trends that began in 2010 -- including the steepest rise of food prices since the global food crisis of 2008 and the impacts of commodities market trading -- are likely to continue this year, according to a growing number of agriculture and economic experts, with the grave likelihood that millions more people will be forced into poverty and that those already poor will experience even greater hunger and malnutrition.

Maurice A. Bloem, CWS's deputy director and head of programs, cited the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's November Food Outlook/Global Market Analysis, as a troubling sign: The report said that international prices for most agricultural commodities "have increased in recent months, some sharply."

The FAO Food Price index gained 34 points since the previous food outlook report in June -- averaging 197 points in October, only 16 points short from its peak in June 2008, the FAO said.

"The upward movements of prices were connected with several factors, the most important of which was a worsening of the outlook for crops in key producing countries, which is likely to require large draw downs of stocks and result in tighter global supply and demand balances in 2010/11," the report said.

Experts attribute the worsening outlook for crops and food insecurity -- the unavailability of sufficient, safe and nutritious food -- in great part to crop failures brought on by drought. For example, a drought in Russia this past summer caused exports of wheat to drop dramatically, helping fuel global food price increases.

Bloem said such trends will put increased pressure on the world's vulnerable persons, who already are having difficulty making ends meet and finding food and nutrition security -- the access to healthy and safe food. One result is that millions of mothers are not able to provide proper nutrition in the developmentally critical first 1,000 days, or roughly first three years, of a child's life. "This has to continue to be an important focus globally," Bloem said.

"Much is already being done, but more needs to be done -- and must be done at ground level -- by country governments, by community and municipal governments, by community groups, and by humanitarian groups like Church World Service," Bloem said.

Steps that CWS is advocating include:

  • Ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable -- the urban poor and refugees and mothers and children under the age of 3 -- are properly addressed.
  • This can at least partly be done by addressing severe acute malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies through a community-based approach using affordable, ready-to-use therapeutic foods and micronutrient powders or supplements for home-fortification of foods.
  • Seeking sufficient investments in local agriculture, especially to support smallholder farmers and small-scale rural and urban "homestead" food production or home gardens, coupled with initiatives to promote dietary diversity, and the sustainable production of animal-source foods, vegetables and fruits.
  • Advocating at national and global levels for additional funds to address the present food crisis, funding for critical research on global food systems (of which climate change issues are also a part), and continued advocacy on trade justice and trade policy issues, which are key to food sovereignty and the security of smallholder farms.
  • Promoting leadership by and among consumers to practice and demand more sustainable production and consumption -- through social movements, purchasing habits, and legislative advocacy that drive change at corporate, market and policymaking levels.

McCullough said one of his own New Year's resolutions and that of CWS overall is in making "sustainable consumption" a public priority. "All of us need to ask, what can we do, what can I do?"

The new homesteading

One thing the world's rural and urban poor can do to improve their own access to more and better quality food -- with minimal cost and space -- is with small-scale homestead gardening, McCullough said. "Even in the poorest urban settings, there are household and small community spaces that are often available for shared family gardening. And it doesn't require much by way of assistance to help start small gardens that can keep on producing.

"There's nothing new about backyard gardening," said McCullough, "but what is new is a rising groundswell to make homestead food production part of an intensified, global food security policy and strategy for the world's poor.

"At ground level, development agencies are making that trend more of a priority than ever, focusing on fresh, cheap and sustainable ways for vulnerable families to grow much of their own food and nutritional sufficiency," he said. "But there's still much to be done."

Church World Service is a global humanitarian relief and development agency that has fought global and domestic hunger for more than 60 years. Some 1,600 CWS CROP Hunger Walks held across the U.S. each year raise millions of dollars for hunger-fighting programs at home and abroad, CWS is a member of the international ACT Alliance of faith-based humanitarian assistance and development organizations.

Missouri Synod president to keep preaching skills polished

(From Religion News Service)

ST. LOUIS -- Soon after his installation as the new president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Rev. Matthew Harrison was studying the responsibilities of his office in the denomination's constitution and bylaws.

One paragraph jumped out at him.

Under Section 3.3 -- "Elected Officers of the Synod" -- he learned that the synod president "shall be a full-time executive" and "shall not be in charge of a congregation or hold a chair at any educational institution."

But, the bylaw continued, he "may be called as an assistant pastor, provided such services do not interfere with his official duties as President."

Harrison knew no church president had simultaneously helped pastor a church since the 1950s. He also knew, as the author of a book about the church's first five leaders, that early church presidents commonly held a pastoral role in a local congregation.

Harrison approached the pastor of his new parish, Village Lutheran Church in St. Louis, and asked for his thoughts.

"We sat down and talked to make sure we were on the same page, but I wasn't too concerned about that," said the Rev. Kevin Golden, Village Lutheran's pastor. "I was familiar with where he stood theologically and we have mutual friends who reassured both of us that we were on the same page."

Golden approached the 200-member church's board of elders, and "as soon as we started talking about it, they saw that it would be a very healthy thing to have the president grounded in a local congregation," Golden said.

In October, Village Lutheran issued "a call," or an invitation, for Harrison to be its assistant pastor. In a move not seen in the synod for 60 years, Harrison will not only manage the second-largest Lutheran denomination in the country, but he'll also get his uniform dirty.

"The Missouri Synod has been stagnant for 40 years," Harrison said. "There are many different reasons for that, but this is a public affirmation of the importance of a local parish, and local pastors."

Golden said Harrison's new position would benefit both parties.

"When a church calls a pastor, it's not just about the pastor caring for them, but them caring for the pastor," Golden said. "We're taking seriously our responsibility to care for Pastor Harrison."

For the synod president, the new position will involve occasional preaching and teaching and visiting a handful of shut-ins each month. Harrison stressed that it will not involve meetings or administrative duties, and he will not receive any compensation from his church.

Village Lutheran will install Harrison as its assistant pastor on Jan. 9. His first duty will be to officiate during Communion.

New Year's Eve attack on Christian worshippers in Egypt condemned by U.S. Christians, Jews and Muslims

(From the National Council of Churches)

New York -- The National Council of Churches has been joined by a wide range of faith leaders, including Jews and Muslims, in condemning the murderous New Year's Eve bombing of worshippers in All Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt.

"The perpetrators of this outrage are apparently so blinded by hatred that they have lost touch with the tenets of any known faith," said the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, NCC general secretary. "It is simply agonizing to think that many around the world will mistake this horror as the attack of one religious community on another. Christians, Jews and Muslims around the world are united by their outrage and condemnation of this soul-less act.

"This is not a struggle between religions but between those who value the life of every neighbor and those who clearly do not," Kinnamon said.

At least 21 people were killed at the conclusion of a New year's midnight mass, and scores were seriously injured.

In a message to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kinnamon said "attacks on Christians anywhere in the world are attacks on Christians everywhere. We know you share the pain we feel at this evil attack on our sisters and brothers in Alexandria. We hope you will express to President Mubarak and other government officials in Egypt that Christians and persons of faith in the United States look to them to protect Christians and other minorities in Egypt. We look to them to find the persons responsible for planning this attack, and bring them to justice."

The full text of Kinnamon's letter to Clinton is available online.

Kinnamon sent a message of support and solidarity to Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii, a member of the National Council of Churches governing board. "I am sick at heart for the loss of life outside the church in Alexandria," Kinnamon said. "Please know that my prayers are with the whole Coptic Orthodox community."

The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its origins to Saint Mark the apostle and evangelist in the middle of the first century.

Kinnamon expressed the appreciation of the NCC's 37 member communions to the Muslim and Jewish communities for their unqualified condemnation of the violence, as well as for their support of the Christian community.

President Imam Mohamed Magid of the Islamic Society of North America issued a statement today declaring, "It is a sad day for all people when a simple act of worship or community celebration is marked by violence and innocent deaths. ISNA asks Muslim community members and organizations in Egypt and Nigeria to lend support to the families who lost loved ones during these attacks and urges Muslim Americans to join them in prayer for God to ease the suffering of all those affected by this terrible tragedy."

At least 38 people died in Christmas Eve attacks across Nigeria, including the six killed at churches in the country's north by suspected members of a radical Muslim sect. In central Nigeria, 32 died in a series of bomb blasts in the worst violence to hit the region in months.

Magid added: "These bombings are absolutely reprehensible. ISNA condemns any and all acts of violence against innocent civilians. The attacks in Egypt and Nigeria are unacceptable and ISNA urges the Egyptian and Nigerian governments to take all measures to prosecute the individuals responsible for these heinous crimes swiftly and to the fullest measure. We applaud President Obama's commitment to lend support from the United States to prosecute these individuals and bring peace to innocent civilians."

ISNA Secretary General Safaa Zarzour said ISNA and the American Muslim community recognize that these acts of violence requires us to double our efforts in promoting religious harmony and the right of people to worship free from fear and violence everywhere in the world. "The small faction of fanatics that wish to ignite religious violence and strife across the world must not be allowed to succeed" he said.

ISNA is an association of Muslim organizations and individuals that provides a common platform for presenting Islam, supporting Muslim communities, developing educational, social and outreach programs and fostering good relations with other religious communities, and civic and service organizations.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs today also expressed solidarity with the Coptic Orthodox Church.

"We are pained to see the New Year begin with such blind hatred, bigotry, and wanton disregard for human life," said JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow. "Every human being is created in the divine image. The targeting of any people because of their faith is an attack on all people of faith and indeed all humanity. Coptic Christians have had a peaceful home in Egypt for centuries. Their pain is our pain."

"We mourn this senseless loss of life. We know from our own experience the vulnerability of religious minorities," said JCPA Chair Dr. Conrad Giles. "Violence against minorities strikes fear across entire communities and regions. The barbarism of this and similar attacks must be a wake-up call. Threats of violence must be taken seriously and the protection of these communities given the highest priority. The perpetrators must be brought to justice."

JCPA, the public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community, serves as the national coordinating and advisory body for the 14 national and 125 local agencies comprising the field of Jewish community relations.

Elsewhere, World Council of Churches general secretary, the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, expressed "profound sorrow as well as condolences and prayers for the families of the victims, for the wounded and for all the people of Egypt." Tveit encouraged Egyptians "to stand firm and united through the many trials and tribulations that continue to threaten."

The events of January 1, 2011 are a reminder of other tragedies in the region, including an attack on Coptic worshippers in Nag Hammadi, Egypt on January 7, 2010 and the lethal assault on the Church of Our Lady of Salvation (Sayidat al-Nejat) in Baghdad, Iraq on October 31, 2010.

Commentary: Lessons from 2010 for 2011

(From Religion News Service)


Among the many highlights of 2010 was a thread of spiritual pondering that wove its way through the year's events -- both personal and global. As is my tradition in this space, here are a few of the most intriguing spiritual insights I heard (and in some cases rediscovered) from the last 12 months.

May 2011 be full of blessings and rich insights into faith and the divine. Happy New Year to all!

"Be thou comforted, little dog. Thou, too, in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail."
-- Martin Luther

"You can no more force character on someone than you can force a tree to produce fruit when it isn't ready to do so. The person has to choose, again and again, to develop moral muscles and skills which will shape and form the fully flourishing character."
-- Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright

"Goodness is not the coin with which we anxiously pay for God's love. ... 'Being good' is the wrong goal. Attached to that notion of 'being good' are all the 'oughts' and 'shoulds' that we think will win us the prize we truly crave: God's love and divine favor. We are wearing ourselves out in a quest to buy what is already ours: God's unmerited love."
-- Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, the Rev. Mpho Tutu, in their book, "Made for Goodness"

"Someone believes in us, shows us the light, and on we go until the next leap of faith. ... There's a name for these beacons of light and belief. They are called friends."
-- Judith Dupre in "Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art and Life"

"This harvest season, we are also reminded of those experiencing the pangs of hunger or the hardship of economic insecurity. Let us return the kindness and generosity we have seen throughout the year by helping our fellow citizens weather the storms of our day. ... I encourage all the people of the United States to come together ... to give thanks for all we have received in the past year, to express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and to share our bounty with others."
-- President Barack Obama in his Thanksgiving 2010 proclamation

"Pray for me. Oh help me God. If there is a God, and I hope that there is because I have to believe that there's going to be someone on the other side who's going to leave the light on for me when I get there, that there's going to be someone there to welcome me."
-- Laura Linney as "Cathy" in the Showtime series "The Big C"

"Your story of what God did for you is your dad's story, it's your mom's story. And now it's my story, too. ... Vasco, this is all of our story. As people we are living lives with hearts that need to be fixed, in places that are unsafe. Jesus comes and gives us new hearts and puts us in a new family and gives us a new name, his name. God has given you a wonderful story and I want you to always tell your story."
-- My son Vasco's godfather, John Michael Pillow, at Vasco's baptism

"Those three people standing outside (in the rain) aren't problems to be solved -- they are my teachers. They aren't going to mug me -- they're going to show me the way to God."
-- Jane Knuth in "Thrift Store Saints: Meeting Jesus 25 Cents at a Time"

"The good news ... is the news of abundance and not the news of limits."
-- Bill McDonough, founder of the environmental design movement "Cradle2Cradle," in his address to the TED convention

"Love them in your sermon and through your sermon."
-- The Rev. Tripp Huggins of Wilmette, Ill., offering his best advice for wedding celebrants as I prepared to officiate for the first time.

"Faith is like swimming the backstroke, reaching above and behind into an unknown we cannot see. Faith is like driving forward with only the rearview mirror as a guide."
-- Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

(Cathleen Falsani is the author of "Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace" and the recent book, "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.")

Scandals prompt exodus from Catholic church in Germany

(From Religion News Service)

BERLIN -- Beset by a series of sex abuse and financial scandals, the Catholic Church in Germany is seeing membership plunge as 2010 comes to a close, according to a series of surveys conducted by German media outlets.

The results released did not include an overall nationwide tally, but based on figures for individual dioceses, tens of thousands of Catholics have opted to officially leave the church over the course of the year.

The departures are not just a matter of filling church pews, but also coffers, since people who officially separate from the church are no longer required to pay a church tax automatically withdrawn from their salary.

According to the data gathered by the German Press Agency dpa and the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, the diocese of Augsburg was one of the hardest hit, with 11,351 departures in 2010, up from 6,953 in 2009.

The Augsburg diocese was at the center of a dispute over a bishop who fought to hold on to his job after allegations that he had hit orphans and misused church funds.

Questions were also raised about whether Pope Benedict XVI, while still a cardinal in Munich, adequately policed known abusers in his archdiocese.

Other dioceses seeing big departures were Rottenburg-Stuttgart, with 17,169 departures (up from 10,619 last year) and Wuerzburg, with 5,484 departures (compared to 3,788 in 2009).

"Every single departure hurts and is one too many," Wuerzburg Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann told dpa, even as he expressed hope others might eventually return.

Catholic leaders had already seen indications that 2010 could be the continuation of a bad trend. Figures released last spring by the German Conference of Bishops showed 125,585 departures in 2009, up from 121,155 in 2008. However, both those figures remain below a big spike in 1992 of 192,766 departures.

For year's top religion stories, a major case of deja vu

(From Religion News Service)


The calendar may have said 2010, but for Pope Benedict XVI and much of his global flock, it looked and felt a lot like 2002.

For the second time in a decade, damning charges of child molestation at the hands of Catholic priests dominated headlines, this time reaching the highest levels of the Vatican, as critics questioned whether Benedict himself mishandled abuse cases.

The Roman Catholic Church wasn't the only institution battling a sense of deja vu, as some of the most controversial religion stories from the past 20 years returned to the headlines.

A 1994-style fight over health care reform not only pitted Republicans against Democrats, but also Catholic bishops against Catholic nuns. Lingering questions about President Obama's Christian faith morphed into a belief among one in five Americans that he's actually a Muslim. Nearly 10 years after 9/11, Islamophobia returned with a vengeance as a Florida pastor threatened to torch a pile of Qurans, and Tennessee officials debated whether Islam is actually a religion.

This time, the resurrected stories were more pointed, the debates more polarizing. Old stories found new life online, and voices that once would have been dismissed as extreme were amplified by the Internet, Facebook and Twitter.

"New media has had the effect of keeping certain news stories alive, bringing them back from the dead and propelling them into the news," said Diane Winston, a scholar of religion and media at the University of Southern California.

The 2010 abuse scandal, unlike the 2002 crisis in the U.S., was largely confined to Europe, starting in Ireland and later erupting in the pope's native Germany. Four bishops resigned, and Benedict ended the year by telling cardinals that worldwide guidelines for handling abuse cases will be forthcoming.

"It was really almost like the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything," the pope told a German journalist in a book-length interview.

Here at home, the ghosts of 9/11 loomed large as a fight over a planned Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero became a litmus test for tolerance toward American Muslims. Evangelist Franklin Graham was uninvited from a National Day of Prayer event at the Pentagon for calling Islam an "evil" and "wicked" religion, comments he made back in 2001.

Even as Michigan's Rima Fakih was crowned the first Muslim Miss USA, 53 percent of Americans admitted harboring unfavorable views of Islam. Oklahoma voters passed a pre-emptive ban on judges using Islamic law in state courts.

Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he is most concerned by the reaction against the organizers of Park51, the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero.

"These are the most interfaith-y group of Muslims imaginable," he said. "They are as successful an American story as it gets; it's the perfect immigrant narrative. These are people who get sent by the State Department overseas to say Muslims can live freely in this country, and then they are caricatured as jihadist radicals."

Distrust of Islam was not limited to American shores. A year after Switzerland banned minarets at mosques, Belgium and France banned Muslim women from wearing full-face veils in public.

Like the 1994 Republican resurgence, the Democrats' midterm "shellacking" was fueled, in some ways, by anger over government attempts to reform health care. The plan split American Catholics, with bishops opposing it and Catholic hospitals and nuns supporting it. The hierarchy later dismissed dissenters' support for the plan as mere "opinion," however "well-considered."

In the Episcopal Church, it felt a lot like 2003 again as the Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool was elected the church's second openly gay bishop. New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, whose 2003 election sparked a global schism, announced that he will retire in 2013.

Glasspool's election prompted Anglican leaders in London to sideline their rebellious American branch on some international panels. The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted -- for the fourth time in a dozen years -- to allow openly gay clergy, and new rules that allow gay clergy prompted dissident Lutherans to form the North American Lutheran Church.

In a flashback to 1976, when Episcopalians opened the priesthood to women, the last hold-out diocese, in Quincy, Ill., finally ordained its first female priest.

A rash of teen suicides and gay bullying spurred religious leaders, rock stars and even Obama to join the "It Gets Better" project, while an October poll found that two-thirds of Americans see a link between religious teachings against homosexuality and higher rates of suicide among gay youths.

Religious teachings against homosexuality are not enough to justify a ban on gay marriage, a federal judge ruled in August in striking down California's Proposition 8. And religious beliefs are not enough to justify the unconstitutional law that created the National Day of Prayer, another federal judge ruled in April.

Pioneering televangelist Robert Schuller, after a bitter and public family feud, handed his Southern California pulpit over to daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman, who filed for bankruptcy in October, citing church debts of $43 million.

In Oregon, prosecutors traveled down familiar terrain as two parents from a controversial faith-healing church were sentenced in the death of their teenage son; their daughter and son-in-law had been acquitted on similar charges last year. Another set of parents from the same church face similar manslaughter charges.

Religious and humanitarian groups rallied to deliver relief to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, where an estimated 220,000 died, more than 300,000 were injured and more than 1 million left homeless. Ten U.S. missionaries were detained, and later released, on charges of trying to smuggle Haitian orphans out of the country.

Along the Gulf Coast, social service agencies were stretched thin trying to deliver relief to families and businesses struggling to cope with the massive BP oil spill.

2010 saw several prominent culture warriors take a bow from the national stage:

  • After stepping down last year as chairman of Focus on the Family, James Dobson turned off the mic at his daily radio program only to start his own show.
  • Ill health forced Donald Wildmon to retire as head of the American Family Association.
  • Ergun Caner was forced to step down as dean of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary after exaggerating his dramatic conversion from militant Islam.

At the same time, several controversial newsmakers from years past re-emerged for a second act in 2010:

  • Colorado Springs pastor Ted Haggard started a new church four years after a stunning fall from grace in a scandal involving a male escort and drugs.
  • Obama's fiery former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, alleged that the president "threw me under the bus" during the 2008 campaign.
  • Roy Moore, who lost his job as chief justice on the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 for refusing to remove a 5,300-pound Ten Commandments monument, lost his second bid for governor.
  • Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan returned to the spotlight to demand an apology from Jews for "the most vehement anti-black behavior in the annals of our history."
  • Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr was named president of Baylor University, the world's largest Baptist school.

2010 also saw the passing of several notable figures: Jews for Jesus founder Moishe Rosen died at age 78; pioneering feminist theologian Mary Daly died at age 81; "Davey and Goliath" creator Art Clokey died at age 88. Gospel artists Doug Oldham died at age 79, Albertina Walker at age 81 and Walter Hawkins at age 61.

Lutheran leader calls for prayer and help on Sudan referendum

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Peter Kenny

Geneva -- The general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, the Rev. Martin Junge has called for prayer and assistance over Christmas for the people and churches of Sudan in anticipation of the 9 January referendum on autonomy in South Sudan.

"Our hope is that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 between the respective Sudanese parties will hold, that the people of South Sudan will be free to vote in the referendum and free to choose the future direction for their region, and that whatever the result of the vote the consequences will play out in a way that is peaceful and respectful of human dignity," Junge said in a 21 December letter to LWF member churches worldwide.

The referendum on independence for southern Sudan is part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in Nairobi that sealed the end of a 21-year-long civil war which led to the deaths of more than two million people.

The conflict pitted Sudan's south, where Christianity and traditional religions predominate, against the north, where most people are Arabs, and Sunni Islam is dominant. With 44 million people Sudan is Africa's biggest country.

"The situation in South Sudan and with Southern Sudanese in the North is tense," noted Junge, a Chilean theologian who said he wanted to back a similar call for prayers and support issued recently by the World Council of Churches general secretary, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit.

"Many people are fearful," said Junge. "The already serious humanitarian challenges in South Sudan have been confounded by the movement of tens and tens of thousands of Southern Sudanese from the North to the South."

The LWF leader noted that while some of this movement is voluntary, much of it stems from fear and intimidation as many people have no place to stay due to a lack of organized reception centres. In addition, many people who want to move to the South have been unable to do so and remain in the North.

Junge urged Lutherans around the world "during this special time of Christmas" to pray for the people and churches of Sudan and to assist those in countries where the South Sudanese in diaspora are entitled to vote, such as Australia, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States. "I wish you a blessed Christmas. May there be peace in the New Year throughout our world, and especially in Sudan," he said.

After 100 years, Japanese Protestant-run schools face pressures

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Hisashi Yukimoto

Tokyo -- The Association of Christian Schools in Japan, a nationwide grouping of Protestant-run schools in the country, has marked its centennial anniversary amid decreasing enrolment.

"We would like to look back on the history of our foundation, thank God for His invisible guidance, confirm the mission given to the association, and pray together for His blessings on the...association from now on," said the Rev. Sinya Nomoto in a statement in November.

He chairs the board of directors of the Tokyo-based association and heads the board of the Protestant-run Doshisha school in Kyoto.

The anniversary was marked with a ceremony and a symposium in Tokyo on 23 November and the publication of the first of three Japanese books on Christian school education in the country.

The association currently has 97 member schools. The Christian population in Japan has remained below one percent of the country's population - now at 127 million - since the end of the Second World War. There are many Christian schools in Japan, including 239 Roman Catholic institutions.

The Christian schools' association was founded in Kyoto in 1910 by about 10 men's schools "to take actions together" against the government's 1899 order to ban religious education in the country. Many of the member schools were founded with the help of Western missions.

"Our problems today include 'internal pressures' instead of external pressures [from the government], such as the decrease of candidates for the entrance examinations, competitions with other schools, and secularisation," said the Rev. Masanobu Fukamachi, who chaired the association's board of directors from 1999 to 2003.

"Christian schools should be faithful in worshipping and praying to God the Father and working for Him," said Fukamachi, chairperson of the board of directors of the Clark Gakuen school in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.

The Rev. Ichiro Yamauchi, another former chairperson of the association's board who served from 2003 to 2005, pointed out that in 1910 the association faced both the government's nationalistic pressure and an international wave of ecumenism following the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh.

"Today, we should promote a true globalism with the effort for peace in the context of nationalistic tensions in the remaining Cold War structure in East Asia, in the era of globalisation," said Yamauchi, who is professor emeritus at Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya in western Japan. "Our vision should be future-oriented while facing up to reality. The social mission of Christian schools should be nothing but promoting education of hope with courage."

Poll: U.S. split on 'Happy Holidays' vs. 'Merry Christmas'

(From Religion News Service)


While more than nine out of 10 Americans say they plan to celebrate Christmas this year, they are divided on whether businesses should use messages like "Season's Greetings" rather than "Merry Christmas," according to a new poll.

The latest PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll, released Thursday (Dec. 16), found Americans are split, 44 percent in favor and 49 opposed, on whether retailers should use generic holiday greetings out of respect for people of different faiths.

The so-called "War on Christmas" has been a rallying cry for conservatives in recent years as they resist attempts to remove nativity scenes from town squares, Christmas carols from public schools and the words "Merry Christmas" from sales flyers.

The poll found a significant number of people engaging in secularized celebrations of Christmas, with Americans more likely to watch Christmas movies like "It's A Wonderful Life" (83 percent) than attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (66 percent).

The holiday season is also slightly interreligious: One in 10 Americans say members of their families also celebrate another December holiday, such as Hanukkah or Kwanzaa.

Researchers said the range of ways that Americans celebrate Christmas could explain why the holy day is taking on a less religious feel.

Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, which conducted the poll in partnership with Religion News Service, said Christmas has always evolved, from its Dec. 25 date claimed from a Roman pagan festival, to the decorated tree from German tradition.

The fact that significant numbers of Americans read both the biblical story of Jesus' birth and "'Twas the Night before Christmas" is a continuation of that tradition, he said. The PRRI/RNS poll also found that:

  • College graduates, Democrats and people with no formal religious affiliation are more likely to have family celebrating more than one December holiday.
  • Slightly more Americans (43 percent) read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" than read a Christmas story from the Bible (40 percent).
  • Half of Republicans, three in four white evangelicals, and two in three black Protestants say they read the Christmas story from the Bible. Fewer portions of Democrats (34 percent), white mainline Protestants (37 percent) and Catholics (26 percent) do likewise.
  • Most white evangelicals (79 percent) and Catholics (82 percent) attend Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services, compared to 63 percent of white mainline Protestants.
  • White evangelicals (69 percent) and Republicans (64 percent) are most likely to say stores should use "Merry Christmas," while a majority of Democrats (58 percent) and Catholics (55 percent) prefer generic holiday greetings instead.
  • People in the Midwest (56 percent), South (54 percent) or rural areas (53 percent) are more likely to object to generic holiday greetings than those living in the Northeast (33 percent) or urban areas (47 percent).

While some Christians bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, interfaith organizations and Christmas advocates see reason to cheer its wider appeal.

Robert Putnam, a Harvard scholar and co-author of "American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us," said he found it surprising that nearly half of Americans choose "Happy Holidays" as their preferred consumer greeting.

"That represents a major change over the last 50 years toward greater interfaith sensitivity," he said.

Although there's no long-term data on the trend -- "because no one would even have thought to ask that on a survey," he said -- Putnam suspects it closely mirrors American's growing acceptance of intermarriage.

Edmund C. Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, which encourages Jewish-Christian couples to raise Jewish children, agreed that a declining stigma against interfaith marriage has had an impact.

InterfaithFamily's own December survey, which polled 586 people, found that about half of interfaith families put up a Christmas tree, nearly 80 percent exchange Christmas presents, and about 20 percent would take offense to someone wishing them a "Merry Christmas."

"They say that it's a nice family time, and it's a tradition for the parent who grew up with it," Case said. "They consider it kind of like Thanksgiving."

Phil Okrend, president of MixedBlessing, a company that makes interfaith and multicultural holiday cards, said it makes sense to consider regional demographics regarding December behavior.

"If you live somewhere with a majority of Christians, then you can say 'Merry Christmas,' and if you're in a more diverse area, you can say 'Happy Holidays,'" he said. "It's not diminishing anything, because we're more alike than not."

The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll was based on telephone interviews conducted Dec. 9 to 12, with 1,015 U.S. adults. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Legends abound for lords-a-leaping and maids-a-milking

(From Religion News Service)


Twelve drummers? Ten leaping lords? Two turtle doves?

Chances are, the gifts in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are not high on anyone's Christmas list this year. In fact, it's hard to imagine they were ever popular presents.

"It's not a literal song," said Mickey Mullany, a professional caroler in Baltimore who admits to sometimes forgetting parts of the famously long lyrics. "If it was a literal song, it would be monstrous."

Indeed, in the NBC sitcom "The Office," a salesman attempts to kindle romance with a co-worker by sending her presents from "The Twelve Days." After her cat kills the turtledoves and the French hens nest in her hair, the co-worker begs him to please, stop.

"Is it my fault the first eight days are basically 30 birds?" the lovesick salesman protests.

Given their unsuitability as gifts, how did dancing ladies, piping pipers, and a bevy of birds become part of one of the season's best-known carols? What, if anything, do they symbolize?

It depends on whom you ask.

The song has French origins, and was published in an English children's book called "Mirth without Mischief" around 1780. Most people believe it began as a memory game sung at Twelfth Night parties. The 12 days of Christmas in Western Christianity refer to the time between Christ's birth on Dec. 25 and the arrival of the Magi to honor the newborn, known as Epiphany, on Jan. 6.

In recent times, the song has been searched for coded references to Catholic doctrine, ancient Egyptian holidays, Roman myths, and the menu at medieval feasts. It has even become an annual index of economic inflation. Purchasing all the gifts from "Twelve Days" would cost about $23,400, an increase of more than 9 percent from last year, PNC Financial Services Group announced last month.

In the 1990s, a story began floating around the Internet that "The Twelve Days" was used as a secret catechism by Catholics persecuted after the Reformation in England. The "true love" who offers the gifts refers to God, according to this theory. The partridge is Jesus, the two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments, the three French hens represent the virtues of faith, hope and charity, and so on.

But California folklorists who run Snopes.com, an urban legend website, dispute the catechism tale. None of the tenets supposedly encoded in the song were points of conflict between Anglicans and Catholics, the website notes, so there would have been no reason to keep them secret. Also, it's impractical to rely on a seasonal song to teach the faith, the folklorists said. What did persecuted Catholics do for the rest of the year?

William Studwell, who was considered the dean of Christmas carol scholarship before he died last August, was also skeptical.

"If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song," he said in a 2008 interview with Religion News Service. "It's a derivative, not the source."

"The song can still be used as an educational or devotional tool by using the symbols as a mnemonic device," said the Rev. Dennis Bratcher, a Church of the Nazarene minister and director of the Christian Resource Institute. "Many Christians today hear the song in those terms anyway, regardless of its origins."

That's how "The Twelve Days" sounds to Ace Collins, an evangelical author of numerous books about Christmas carols.

On the surface, the carol seems as nonsensical as "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," Collins said. But a deeper meaning lies below the silly lyrics, he said, comparing the carol to "Roll, Jordan, Roll" the gospel song that was both biblical and a code for black slaves seeking to escape the South.

"Whether it was written that way, or adapted that way, either way it allows people to consider things they don't normally think about," Collins said of the carol, "and can possibly become a road that leads people to a greater understanding of Christ."

Leigh Grant, who wrote and illustrated a children's book about "The Twelve Days," said the gifts are popular parts of medieval feasts, often held during Twelfth Night celebrations. The birds were eaten while the pipers, drummers, and lords entertained the guests. The five golden rings in the song refer not to jewelry, but to ring-necked pheasants.

But the song is also rife with symbolism, Grant said.

Partridges and pears, for instance, were considered emblems of fertility during the Renaissance, she said. Likewise, geese and swans were seen as intermediaries between the earth and the sky, and thus humans and heaven.

"I've heard a lot of theories about this song," Grant said, "and I don't know if any of them are true. But what often happens to songs is that people change them, and so does the meaning people find in them."

Dutch synod tries to heal centuries-old Protestant splits

(From Religion News Service)

By Andreas Havinga

Utrecht, Netherlands -- A gathering to improve relations between the many Protestant denominations in the Netherlands has taken place on the site of an earlier historic synod, though any idea of complete church unity taking place is said to be, "an unrealistic utopia".

About 700 Christians from 50 Protestant churches attended what was billed as a "national synod" on 10 and 11 December in the main church in the town of Dordrecht.

The gathering's name echoed that of the Synod of Dordt, a six-month-long historic assembly held in the same building from November 1618 to May 1619, and called to settle a dispute between Calvinists and Arminians.

Calvinists believe that God preordains only some people for salvation; Arminians say that all can be saved.

Calvinism won the day at the 17th-century Dordt synod, and has held sway in the Netherlands ever since. Still, its history has been marked by disputes that have resulted in distinct, rival Reformed denominations in The Netherlands. Today, Protestant Christians, mainly Calvinist, make up about one-third of the country's 16.3 million population.

"Our society can rely on us to be people who seek to go on their way in faith, hope and love," the latest synod said in a statement presented during the meeting to the government's home affairs minister, Piet Hein Donner.

Despite its title, the national synod had no authority to take binding decisions. Instead, its members discussed with each other what their religious beliefs have in common. An often-heard phrase was, "There is more that binds us than divides us."

The country's ecumenical broadcaster, IKON, reported that the establishment of a single Protestant church was not one of the assembly's aims, and quoted one participant as saying that such an outcome was, "an unrealistic utopia".

Barend Kamphuis, one of the organisers, said that a national synod would not be an annual event, though there will "certainly" be two more such synods before 2018, the 400th anniversary year of the Synod of Dordt. It is hoped that there will be a synod in 2018, and that it will be able to take binding decisions.

Gerrit de Fijter, a former president of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, and the person credited with the idea of holding the modern-day national synod, said that the next step was to involve denominations that had refused to attend the December meeting. The absentees included both liberal and conservative Protestant denominations, notable of which was the Remonstrants Brotherhood. The 17th-century synod had condemned the Remonstrants as heretics and banished them from the Reformed churches.

The Protestant Church in the Netherlands was founded in 2004 as a result of the merger of the country's two largest Reformed denominations and the smaller Lutheran church.

Bulgarian priests join union over late paychecks

(From Religion News Service)

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- The decision by Bulgarian Orthodox priests to join a trade union because they haven't been paid on time has angered at least one church hierarch, saying it goes against the church's internal canon law.

According to Bulgarian-language media reports, the new union will be part of Podkrepa, one of Bulgaria's two national trade union federations.

In the northwestern town of Vratsa, priests said that they had not been paid on time, and their statutory health and retirement insurance had not been paid, the Standart daily newspaper reported.

Metropolitan Kipriyan of Vratsa, however, said it is "absurd" for priests to join a union.

The move follows complaints about the low and late pay of priests and lay employees, a criticism echoed by Bozhidar Dimitrov, the cabinet minister in charge of Bulgarians abroad, who had said priests in villages are "living in poverty."

Church employee Hristo Latinov, named as head of the union, told Bulgaria's Darik Radio on Monday (Dec. 13) that it is "unacceptable, immoral and scandalous" that priests are classified in the same labor law category as gravediggers and people with no college education. The same labor classification, meanwhile, assigns bishops and metropolitans the status of corporate directors.

The Standart reported on Tuesday that union membership will include priests, sextons, administrative staff and employees who manufacture candles, although it is unclear how many people have or will join the union.

Bulgaria's Trud daily newspaper reported on Dec. 9 that the church had earned about $8 million from the sale of candles, which is exempted by law from value-added tax.

The sale of candles was meant to cover the pay of priests, but in some smaller dioceses, not enough candles were sold to achieve this. The alternative was that priests were paid in kind by being given candles.

"I cannot eat candles," Trud quoted an unnamed priest as saying.

The newspaper reported that in the Danube River city of Rousse, 80 priests in the diocese were paid an average monthly maximum of around $240.

Belgian football club declines Catholic shirt deal as 'too sensitive'

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Andreas Havinga

Utrecht, Netherlands -- A football club in Belgium's top division has declined the offer of a sponsorship deal from a leading Roman Catholic newspaper, for fear of attracting ridicule, Belgian media report.

The revelation coincides with news that the Vatican is examining the case of a former Belgian bishop, who resigned in April after admitting to sexually abusing a family member.

The weekly Kerk&Leven (Church&Life), which claims about one million readers in Flanders, the country's Dutch-speaking region, approached Cercle Brugge with the sponsorship offer in May.

Cercle Brugge is one of two top division football clubs in Bruges, a city in the northwest of Belgium. The decision by the club to decline the sponsorship offer meant the club missing out on income of approximately 50,000 euro (US$66,000).

In keeping with an annual tradition, the club announced it will promote the CliniClowns, a national charity that deploys clowns to entertain hospitalised children. Last year, Cercle Brugge promoted the Catholic development aid agency Caritas International.

The sponsorship offer was made in "a spontaneous contact between Kerk&Leven and our club", Cercle Brugge’s commercial director Marc Tanghe told the Belgian daily newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. "They wanted their name on our shorts or underneath the shirt number and offered a very nice deal.

"But given all the scandals in the Catholic Church, especially concerning Bishop Roger Vangheluwe in Bruges, we thought it to be too sensitive," said Tanghe. "We feared becoming a target of ridicule. Moreover, we also thought that it is not appropriate for us as a football club to be associated with a particular way of looking at life.

"Some members of our board would have gladly accepted the financial input. However, Cercle also has supporters who belong to other religions," he said.

"We had to think long and hard about it," Cercle Brugge chairman Frans Schotte told Het Nieuwsblad. “For at least a section of our players, supporters and sponsors, it would have been very difficult to identify with the religious message that would have featured on our shirt.

Cercle Brugge's decision avoided a clash with the Belgian football association, KBVB.

"The rules are clear: in no way may shirt advertising be of a political or religious nature,” said spokesperson Nicolas Cornu of the KBVB.

Pope Benedict XVI asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith several weeks ago "to look into" the case of the former bishop of Bruges, Vatican spokesperson, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told the news agency AFP on 3 December.

The Pope accepted Vangheluwe's resignation on 23 April, after he admitted to sexually abusing his nephew between 1973 and 1986. Vangheluwe was Belgium's longest-serving Catholic bishop, and was set to retire at the end of 2011.

There are over seven million Catholics in Belgium, about three quarters of the total population. However, Sunday church attendance is said to be below 10 percent.

Philippine justice minister discusses human rights with WCC delegation

(From the World Council of Churches)

By Aneth Lwakatare

"Good intentions are not enough," said the secretary of the Philippine department of justice, Leila de Lima, during a meeting with the World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation currently visiting the Philippines. She met with the "Living Letters" team on Friday 3 December.

The group of church representatives from Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia and Canada visited the Philippines, 1-5 December, with the aim of looking at the current human rights situation in that country. They spoke with the justice secretary prior to an encounter with participants in a hunger strike supporting parties involved in the "Morong 43" case.

The Morong 43 have been detained since February following their arrest during a workshop sponsored by an alliance of health workers in Morong, Rizal province. Authorities have claimed the health workers possessed firearms and explosives, but the detainees insist the evidence against them was planted.

De Lima has presented arguments in favour of the detainees' release, and she told the Living Letters delegation that she will issue a second memorandum soon re-stating her position in the hope that it will bring about a positive solution for the prisoners and their families.

She confirmed a report on extra-judicial killings in the Philippines suggesting that most such crimes committed this year have never been properly addressed. She stated her intention of forming a special commission of the department of justice with the mandate to investigate extra-judicial killings. "This will be a response to the many cases not given enough attention, and a way of breaking the culture of injustice that is prevails," she said.

De Lima continued, "The best intentions are there, but we need actions that will bring an end to all the human rights violations and extra-judicial killings."

"We look for more international calls to pay attention to this current situation, for dialogues and international public statements of support in relation to the present human rights situation and all forms of injustice against the Filipino people," the secretary of justice said at the conclusion of the meeting.

Some members of the delegation then visited the defendants in the Morong 43 case, who for the past 10 months have been detained in Camp Bagong Diwa.

Meanwhile, farmers of the Hacienda Luisita community received other members of the WCC sponsored delegation. The farmers have been demanding land rights promised to them for the past fifty years.

Hacienda Luisita is in the central plains of Luzon. The land has been owned and controlled by the powerful Cojuangco family since 1957. The current president, Benigno Cojuangco Aquino III, belongs to this family. Hacienda Luisita comprises 6,435 hectares of sugar cane plantations. Although the Cojuangco family took over the property on an understanding that the land would be given back to farmers after a period of 10 years, this has not happened and there is no sign that it will happen soon.

In a general strike in November 2004, the farmers of Cojuangco Hacienda Luisita united with sympathizers in peaceful protest, calling for an end to the injustices committed against them. The protest involved about 5,000 farmers. On 16 November 2004 seven farmers were killed and more than 100 wounded when the military dispersed the protesters. Six other farmers were killed during 2005 and 2006.

Talking to the delegation, farmers explained that they are compelled to work in a sugar mill and are paid the paltry sum of 9.5 Filipino pesos per day, and are allowed to work only once a week. This has a serious impact on their livelihoods and families.

In addition to their current struggle for decent livelihood, the farmers shared concern about the heavy military presence in the area, including that of foreign forces. This has resulted in the limitation of their right to assemble freely. They are not allowed to meet in public spaces or places where community gatherings would normally be held. These farmers are under constant surveillance resulting in them living in constant fear, harassed, oppressed and interrogated by militiamen (or CAFGU) that were recruited by the military.

The farmers have organized to provide a common voice against the politically and economically influential and powerful Cojuangco family, and to ask for better wages and regular work. None of their demands has been positively answered. Instead, more than 300 of the mill workers have been laid off, thus intensifying the community’s misery. The Cojuangco family continues to ignore orders from the government to distribute land to the farmers.

King James Bible still exerts influence, literary scholar argues

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Chris Herlinger

New York -- The King James Bible may not be the dominant cultural reference point it once was in the United States, but it still influences contemporary letters in the country, argues a new book.

While "we no longer have a culture pervaded by Scripture, where Bible reading is a daily practice in parlour and pulpit," the King James Bible's influence remains embedded in American culture, writes scholar Robert Alter in Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible.

The King James Version of the Christian Bible was authorised by King James I of England. Completed in 1611, it became the standard Bible in the English-speaking world up through the 20th century. Its cultural influence in Britain, and subsequently the American colonies and later the United States, has long been noted.

However, its stylistic influences have not been widely studied.

Alter, who teaches Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that writing style is not merely based on aesthetics, but is, in fact, the essential medium through which writers conceive and present their literary visions. "Style is the great agent of transformation in the constructed worlds of novels," Alter writes.

The great novel "Moby-Dick" by U.S. writer Herman Melville, with its distinct style, was influenced by the King James Bible, as well as by the works of Milton and Shakespeare. The writing style "elevates the motley crew and crazed captain of a 19th century commercial whaler into the indelible actors of a cosmic drama".

Alter also examines the works of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, and contemporary writers Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy.

Alter finds Robinson's novel "Gilead", about a Protestant minister's reflections on religious faith and McCarthy's "The Road", a chronicle of post-nuclear horrors, both rooted in a tradition in which the King James Bible has exerted an influence, stylistically and thematically.

The King James Bible, Alter argues, continues to present "a whole world of values with which both writers and readers have to contend - a demanding, often stern morality; a ringing promise of redeemed history in which it seems increasingly hard to give credence; a contrasting vision of the horrors to which life in history is exposed; a penetrating sense of the unfathomability of human nature; the belief in a benevolent, providential deity and a vehement challenge to that very belief".

Alter told ENInews that while "Pen of Iron" has not received much response from religious communities, scholarly reception to the book has been "quite positive". "What people are recognising is that, though the influence of the Bible on American culture has been thoroughly discussed by scholars, no one until now has directly addressed the question of how the King James Version has helped shape style in American writing …. As I argue, style is the medium for a vision of reality."

"Pen of Iron" is published by Princeton University Press.

Books probe Christmas' religious origins

(From Religion News Service)


Somewhere in all of the sparkly lights and wrapped packages and jolly elves of Christmas, there is -- or was -- a religious story at the heart of the holiday, and three new books argue it shouldn't be forgotten.

In Christmas: A Festival of Incarnation, Lutheran theologian Donald Heinz emphasizes the importance of the incarnation of Christ -- God made flesh -- as the root of Christmas.

Heinz's book highlights how the manger story has influenced music, literature and art throughout history, and warns that the commercialization associated with the holiday should not take precedence over its religious origins.

"Christmas is being buried by an avalanche of materialism and commerce," said Heinz, a professor of religious studies at California State University, Chico. "The church is going to have to reclaim the religiousness of Christmas if it's going to survive."

Heinz doesn't completely condemn Christmas shopping or gifts; instead he tries to balance between "holiday" and "holy day." The focus, he said, should not be on glamorous presents, but instead on what Christians believe was God's gift in the manger.

"It's easier to imagine (Christmas) without religion than it is without shopping," he said in an interview. "That's kind of dramatic ... but it seems to be true to me."

Greg Tobin, an award-winning Catholic author, also calls for a return to the religious roots of Christmas and other holidays in his upcoming book, Holy Holiday! The Catholic Origins of Celebration.

The New Jersey author explores Catholic and other religious traditions of holidays, from Easter to Halloween to New Year, showing just how much church history is intertwined with the origins of popular holidays.

Christmas, or "Christ's mass," is no exception, even though Tobin says the actual date of Jesus' birth likely was not Dec. 25.

"The birth date of Jesus has never been fully answered," he said. "The Gospel accounts, as well as other traditions that have grown up around it, have enriched our appreciation for the event but in my mind only deepened the mystery."

Besides celebrating the birth of Jesus, Tobin notes that Christmas trees, cards and gifts all have connections to the church. In fact, tradition holds that the first person to light a Christmas tree was none other than Martin Luther.

While Heinz and Tobin focus on the religious roots of Christmas, biblical literature scholar Brent Landau offers a new story about the three wise men in his book, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem.

The story, which he translated into English from an 8th century manuscript squirreled away in the Vatican library, fills in the details about the wise men the Gospel of Matthew does not include.

In Landau's translation of the ancient manuscripts, the Magi descend from Adam and Eve's third son, Seth, and a prophecy of "a star of indescribable brightness" received in the Garden of Eden. The Magi -- probably more than three, perhaps as many as 12 or dozens more -- traveled from China and were eventually baptized by Thomas, the apostle.

Their names are exotic: Zaharwandad, Austazp, Mihruq, Nasardih. The visiting wise men are not named in the Bible, and tradition has called them Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

In this story, the term "Magi" doesn't connote images of magicians or astrologers, but rather something closer to a mystic who prays silently. At one point, the Virgin Mary accuses the visitors of trying to steal her baby.

"Of the witnesses we've got, this one is the most impressive because it gives the magi a back story," said Landau, a religious studies professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Landau presents "The Revelation of the Magi" as a way to enrich the traditional Christmas story, and said it "sheds some light on what early Christians were thinking about these characters."

Chinese church officials see unity behind growth

(From the World Council of Churches)

Unity among Chinese Protestants is an important factor in the rapid growth of the church in China, the general secretary of the China Christian Council, the Rev. Kan Baoping, said during a visit to the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland.

A 7-member delegation with top leadership from the China Christian Council met with the general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and other staff of church organizations based at the Ecumenical Centre on Monday, 6 December.

It was the 4th such visit to the WCC secretariat since the post-denominational China Christian Council (CCC) was established in 1980. The most recent previous visit took place in 2003. The CCC, which counted some 19 million members in 2009, was reunited with the WCC fellowship in 1991at the Canberra Assembly.

In a Round Table meeting organized by the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches, the members of the delegation made presentations on three themes that are pertinent to the life and witness of the church in China – "religious policies in China", "the role of religion in promoting a 'harmonious society'" and "the role of the church in today’s China".

While analyzing religious policies and church-state relations, the delegation expressed the common opinion that "this is a golden era for the development of religions in China". The church in China is engaged in various means of promoting a "harmonious society" in China.

The Rev. Kan Baoping explained that religious communities in general and the Protestant church in particular have experienced rapid growth in China over the last 30 years. He said that having moved beyond denominational divisions was one reason for the church's vitality, partly because Chinese culture puts more emphasis on commonalities than on differences.

Another success factor identified by Kan was the understanding that every church member shares the responsibility of spreading the gospel to family and neighbours as an expression of the priesthood of all believers.

Kan emphasized evangelization methods that have developed from a mere spreading of the word towards making the gospel visible through social services such as AIDS prevention and care for orphans.

In his words of welcome to the Chinese delegation, the WCC general secretary, the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, expressed his appreciation for the role played by Chinese Christians in the foundation of the WCC. He also said he looked forward to future cooperation with the new CCC leadership, especially in view of the next WCC Assembly being held in Asia, at Busan, Korea in October 2013.

Among the delegation were the general secretary and the president of the CCC, who were both elected in 2008, as well as leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in China. Tveit described the Chinese context as "one of the most exciting ones for the future of Christianity".

Rev. Zhang Shuilian, vice-chairperson of the Hubei Provincial Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant church, said that Christians generally had a good image in today's China. This is due to their response to societal needs, for example by collecting donations for the victims of the 2008 earthquake in China's Sichuan province, she added.

Zhang said that urban churches often had special programmes to welcome migrant workers, while in rural areas church life was important to fill the gap experienced by the elderly and children who were left behind as other family members went to seek employment in the cities. Encouraging stability in family life, she continued, is one way in which Christianity and other religions cooperate in the government’s policy aimed at maintaining a "harmonious society". Robust interfaith relations also support this goal.

In a reflection presented during a prayer service with staff at Geneva's Ecumenical Centre, the CCC president Rev. Gao Feng said that the church was a "fellowship of forgiving sinners", adding that "when we forgive, we experience God's forgiveness; when we love, we can experience God's love".

Following the Round Table discussion, the CCC delegation had lunch with the general secretaries of the WCC, the Lutheran World Federation – the Rev. Martin Junge, the World Communion of Reformed Churches – the Rev. Dr Setri Nyomi – and the World YWCA – Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda.

Later in the day, the delegation also visited the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey.

Churches push hard on last-minute legislation

(From Religion News Service)

WASHINGTON -- With three weeks left before the 111th Congress adjourns, faith groups are mounting a full court press on Capitol Hill on a number of bills, including a nuclear treaty with Russia and an immigration bill.

Advocates are pressing for action on The DREAM Act, which would allow illegal immigrants to gain citizenship through military service or a college education, and the START nuclear treat with Russia.

Churches and other religious groups scored an early victory on Thursday (Dec. 2) when the House passed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill, which devotes $4.5 billion to child nutrition programs over 10 years, following Senate passage in August.

More than 10,000 people from Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations have enlisted supporters to call senators to pass the DREAM Act, which has already passed the House.

"People from across the faith communities would agree that we've waited too long already to pass the DREAM Act," said Kristin Ford, a spokeswoman at the Washington-based group Faith in Public Life.

Groups are rallying around Bernard Pastor, an 18-year-old Ohio high school graduate who came with his family from Guatemala at age 3 and faces possible deportation without the path to citizenship outlined in the DREAM Act.

"Every year, 65,000 Bernards graduate from high school and face the threat of being deported," said the Rev. Troy Jackson, a Cincinnati pastor who is rallying supporters behind Pastor's case. "If the Senate wants to talk about tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and not address the DREAM act for people like Bernard, then their priorities are not in line with the vast majority of Americans."

Meanwhile, the conservative Family Research Council is lobbying for an extension of Bush-era tax cuts that are scheduled to expire on Dec. 31. The Washington-based group supports a plan by Senate Republicans to hold up all other legislation, including the DREAM Act, until the tax cuts are extended.

"The days of kicking Senate Republicans around are over," the FRC said. "Without 60 votes the Democrats are powerless to move anything on their social agenda."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism are pushing the Senate to approve a new START Treaty with Russia to limit U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles. Senate Republicans, led by Arizona's Jon Kyle, say the treaty needs more debate.

"The church's concern for nuclear weapons grows out of its commitment to the sanctity of human life," said Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., in a Nov. 29 letter to the Senate.

Stephen M. Colecchi, director of bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace, said the U.S. and Russia have been in limbo for more than a year since the last START Treaty expired.

"It will make our world and nation safer the sooner a verification process is back in place," said Colecchi.

Colecchi said action needs to happen before a new Senate takes office in early January.

"This is the Senate to which the treaty was submitted, and they are the ones who have had the hearings concerning the treaty," said Colecchi. "If they wait until next year, there will be a new Senate, and the new Senate would have to go through the same process."

Clergy's professional reputation hovers in the middle

(From Religion News Service)

What do nurses, soldiers, pharmacists, elementary school teachers, doctors, and police officers have in common?

Americans say they are all more ethical and honest than members of the clergy, according to a Gallup survey released on Friday (Dec. 3).

Slightly more than half of Americans (53 percent) rate the moral values of priests, ministers and other clerics as "very high" or "high." That percentage is a slight bump from 2009, when only 50 percent of Americans said men and women of the cloth are ethical paragons, the lowest number in Gallup's 32 years of measuring professional reputations.

Before the Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal erupted in 2002, two-thirds of Americans had regularly approved of ministers' morals, according to Gallup.

"Stability is generally the norm in Americans' ratings of the honesty and ethics of professions, but Americans' opinions do shift in response to real-world events, mostly scandals, that reflect poorly on a profession," Gallup said.

A third of Americans this year said the clergy's morals are "average," and 8 percent rated them "poor," according to the survey. Bringing up the bottom of the professional ethics list were lobbyists, car salesmen, and members of Congress.

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Nov. 19-21, 2010, with a random sample of 1,037 adults, aged 18 and older. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Locals rally behind mosque after terror suspect's arrest

(From Religion News Service)

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Rain didn't stop the Corvallis community from showing up in swarms at a candlelight vigil Tuesday (Nov. 30) outside a mosque that was hit by arson after an occasional worshipper was charged in a terror plot.

Residents came by the hundreds, sporting winter rain gear and umbrellas, holding their hands over their candles to protect the flame.

The vigil outside the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center was organized largely by local religious leaders to unite the community after the mosque was hit by arson early Sunday morning.

The fire, which charred the mosque office before it was contained, was ignited after the arrest of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, of Corvallis, on suspicion of plotting to bomb a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland. Mohamud occasionally prayed at the mosque.

Local residents have visited the mosque in the days since to offer support and let the Muslim community know that "this is not Corvallis."

"This doesn't represent Corvallis in the slightest bit," said Kevin Skillings, an industrial arts teacher at Corvallis High School, a few blocks away from the mosque. Skillings said he came to support his former and current Muslim students, many of whom spend their lunch hour Fridays praying at the mosque.

Lisa Gonzales huddled with friends under umbrellas after the vigil, while the crowd formed a ring around the mosque. Gonzales said when she found out about Mohamud's arrest and learned that he lived in Corvallis, she immediately feared for the mosque.

"I'm saddened and distressed, but not surprised," she said.

Mayor Charlie Tomlinson, Beit Am Synagogue Rabbi Benjamin Barnett and Islamic Center Director Mohamed Siala spoke to the crowd. They thanked participants for braving the chilly rain and uniting against the "abhorrent" act of arson.

"I would like to express sincere gratitude and appreciation for those who came to the center," Siala said. "This is what Corvallis is all about."

Korean churches say global prayers needed after military clash

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Hisashi Yukimoto

Tokyo -- The head of the Seoul-based National Council of Churches in Korea has urged global prayers during Advent for peace on the peninsula following a North Korean military attack on a South Korean island.

The council's newly-elected general secretary, the Rev. Kim Young-Ju, said he wanted the "prayer and solidarity of the worldwide churches" to help nurture peace.

Advent marks the period of the church year before Christmas and commemorates the coming of Jesus into the world.

Kim made his appeal in a 1 December statement on the council's Web site, which also urged North and South Korea to use only peaceful means to achieve reunification of the two countries that were divided after the Second World War.

He condemned the 23 November shelling by North Korea's military of Yeonpyeong island, which led to the deaths of four people. Kim also warned that South Korea's military exercises in the region may contribute to tension.

"Similar incidents would be happening for days to come if the North and the South depend only on military forces," said Kim. "Korean churches have to pray that mutual trust between the North and the South should be established."

In 1950, South Korea and a U.S.-led United Nations force fought against North Koreans backed by Chinese ground troops and aided by the Soviet Union. Hostilities came to a halt in an armistice signed at Panmunjom on 27 July 1953, but a formal ceasefire has yet to be signed.

In a 26 November statement, the NCCK had issued an "appeal to all nations to reject any attempt to cheapen life by treating Korea as a pawn in diplomatic gamesmanship, while ignoring the welfare of the people".

The church council has also requested global partners to urge governments, "to refrain from further inflaming the political atmosphere and to exercise the maximum restraint so that reason and diplomacy can prevail over narrow self-serving military, strategic or political interests".

The council said that it "deplores the North Korean military for using powerful weapons against the civilian community in the most serious incident since the signing of the armistice in 1953".

Separately, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, said in a statement that "force and military power will not resolve the problems" on the Korean peninsula.

Praying for change in Myanmar

(From the World Council of Churches)

"We believe in change and ask that you continue to pray for us." This was the message an international team of church representatives heard again and again, as they visited people and churches in Myanmar recently.

The group, which included Christians from Bangladesh, Canada, Australia, Norway and the United Kingdom, was travelling as "Living Letters" on behalf of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

The Living Letters team, hosted by the Myanmar Council of Churches, visited Myanmar between 28 October to 3 November, shortly before the country held elections for the first time since 1990.

As they met with Myanmar member churches of the WCC as well as partner organizations and civil society movements, the team learned first hand about the churches' witness to just peace despite the nearly four decades of military rule in the country.

The call for peace and justice is not an easy one to convey, the team was told, especially as churches there strive to support their communities in times of political and economic difficulty.

One of the poorest countries in South East Asia, Myanmar has seen a rapid degradation of its economy and environment. It is within this context that churches work ecumenically to provide assistance to communities in need.

Often working with the "poorest of the poor", the churches are confronted daily with the realities of communities that are on the receiving end of decades of poor macroeconomic management, isolationist policies and trade sanctions. The issues they tackle range from the internal displacement of people, relief and resettlement, water security, HIV and Aids, to violence against women and children.

Despite such challenges, the churches retain a spiritual vibrancy and hope for the future that remains a powerful witness to a country in flux.

The general election which was held 9 November amid boycott calls by the dissident National League for Democracy (NLD) and a crescendo of international criticism of the poll process did not yield a hoped for change in the political landscape.

Instead the ruling elite maintained most of the power. One hopeful outcome, however, was the 13 November release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who had been under house arrest for a decade and a half.

Churches are conveying a clear message to their membership that they have an important role to play in civil society promoting peace within Myanmar. They are also seeking to provide opportunities for ongoing dialogue and reconciliation in contexts of violence and conflict. During the Living Letters visit, WCC member churches in Myanmar reiterated their commitment to the movement for Christian unity and encouraged the WCC fellowship to stand in solidarity with their churches.

Noting their relative isolation to the outside world, the Myanmar Council of Churches called for more opportunities for mutual encounter and learning. This desire for closer relations was also palpable when the international visitors met with the Rev. Dr L. B. Siama of the Mara Evangelical Church.

The church, which is located in a remote, underdeveloped corner in the northern part of the country, joined the WCC in 2001, becoming its fourth member church in Myanmar. "We want to walk hand in hand with ecumenical brothers and sisters around the world – drawing strength from each other," Siama, principal of the Mara Evangelical Church's Lorraine Theological College, told the Living Letters team.

Protests greet donation of Austrian Catholic church to Orthodox

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Jonathan Luxmoore

Warsaw -- The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Austria has denied being "anti-Polish" after members of Polish congregations in Vienna protested against his decision to offer one of the city's Catholic churches to Serbian Orthodox Christians.

"In recent weeks, many stormy events have taken place around a church in the Neulerchenfeld district," said Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the chairperson of the Austrian Catholic Bishops' Conference.

"Untruths and simplifications have been spread, filling me with great sadness," said the cardinal. "It has gone so far that I have been accused of deliberately acting against Polish Catholics, and this information has even circulated in southern Poland. I must assure you the truth is quite different."

Schönborn was reacting to protests by local Polish Catholics against news that the city's Our Lady of Sorrows church would be handed over in June 2011 to members of the 160 000-strong Serbian Orthodox community.

More than 130 Catholic priests from Poland are currently ministering in the Vienna archdiocese, where Polish Catholicism is one of 36 foreign-language communities recognised by the Catholic Church.

The cardinal had said in a 19 November open letter he had promised to donate the church to the Orthodox after determining it could no longer be maintained by its declining congregation, and would otherwise have had to be closed and sold.

The move had faced protests by local Catholics, including a large group of Poles and their priest, the Rev. Tadeusz Cichon, who rejected Cardinal Schönborn's explanation and accused him of an "act of unfriendliness towards Poles".

In his letter, the cardinal noted that the number of Christians of other denominations had been growing rapidly. "We must help them in Christian solidarity, among other things by transferring places of worship to them," said Schönborn.

"I am aware that this is a painful decision for people connected with this place. But the churches we own were built in other times and in the expectation that there would be more Catholics," he stated. "We cannot preserve such a large number of churches forever."

Catholics make up three-quarters of Austria's 8.1 million inhabitants and have been divided over the past decade over calls for women priests, voluntary celibacy and other reforms.

For year's top religion stories, a major case of deja vu

(From Religion News Service)


The calendar may have said 2010, but for Pope Benedict XVI and much of his global flock, it looked and felt a lot like 2002.

For the second time in a decade, damning charges of child molestation at the hands of Catholic priests dominated headlines, this time reaching the highest levels of the Vatican, as critics questioned whether Benedict himself mishandled abuse cases.

The Roman Catholic Church wasn't the only institution battling a sense of deja vu, as some of the most controversial religion stories from the past 20 years returned to the headlines.

A 1994-style fight over health care reform not only pitted Republicans against Democrats, but also Catholic bishops against Catholic nuns. Lingering questions about President Obama's Christian faith morphed into a belief among one in five Americans that he's actually a Muslim. Nearly 10 years after 9/11, Islamophobia returned with a vengeance as a Florida pastor threatened to torch a pile of Qurans, and Tennessee officials debated whether Islam is actually a religion.

This time, the resurrected stories were more pointed, the debates more polarizing. Old stories found new life online, and voices that once would have been dismissed as extreme were amplified by the Internet, Facebook and Twitter.

"New media has had the effect of keeping certain news stories alive, bringing them back from the dead and propelling them into the news," said Diane Winston, a scholar of religion and media at the University of Southern California.

The 2010 abuse scandal, unlike the 2002 crisis in the U.S., was largely confined to Europe, starting in Ireland and later erupting in the pope's native Germany. Four bishops resigned, and Benedict ended the year by telling cardinals that worldwide guidelines for handling abuse cases will be forthcoming.

"It was really almost like the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything," the pope told a German journalist in a book-length interview.

Here at home, the ghosts of 9/11 loomed large as a fight over a planned Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero became a litmus test for tolerance toward American Muslims. Evangelist Franklin Graham was uninvited from a National Day of Prayer event at the Pentagon for calling Islam an "evil" and "wicked" religion, comments he made back in 2001.

Even as Michigan's Rima Fakih was crowned the first Muslim Miss USA, 53 percent of Americans admitted harboring unfavorable views of Islam. Oklahoma voters passed a pre-emptive ban on judges using Islamic law in state courts.

Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he is most concerned by the reaction against the organizers of Park51, the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero.

"These are the most interfaith-y group of Muslims imaginable," he said. "They are as successful an American story as it gets; it's the perfect immigrant narrative. These are people who get sent by the State Department overseas to say Muslims can live freely in this country, and then they are caricatured as jihadist radicals."

Distrust of Islam was not limited to American shores. A year after Switzerland banned minarets at mosques, Belgium and France banned Muslim women from wearing full-face veils in public.

Like the 1994 Republican resurgence, the Democrats' midterm "shellacking" was fueled, in large part, by anger over health care reform. The plan split American Catholics, with bishops opposing it and Catholic hospitals and nuns supporting it. The hierarchy later dismissed dissenters' support for the plan as mere "opinion," however "well-considered."

In the Episcopal Church, it felt a lot like 2003 again as the Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool was elected the church's second openly gay bishop. New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, whose 2003 election sparked a global schism, announced that he will retire in 2013.

Glasspool's election prompted Anglican leaders in London to sideline their rebellious American branch on some international panels. The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted -- for the fourth time in a dozen years -- to allow openly gay clergy, and new rules that allow gay clergy prompted dissident Lutherans to form the North American Lutheran Church.

In a flashback to 1976, when Episcopalians opened the priesthood to women, the last hold-out diocese, in Quincy, Ill., finally ordained its first female priest.

A rash of teen suicides and gay bullying spurred religious leaders, rock stars and even Obama to join the "It Gets Better" project, while an October poll found that two-thirds of Americans see a link between religious teachings against homosexuality and higher rates of suicide among gay youths.

Religious teachings against homosexuality are not enough to justify a ban on gay marriage, a federal judge ruled in August in striking down California's Proposition 8. And religious beliefs are not enough to justify the unconstitutional law that created the National Day of Prayer, another federal judge ruled in April.

Pioneering televangelist Robert Schuller, after a bitter and public family feud, handed his Southern California pulpit over to daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman, who filed for bankruptcy in October, citing church debts of $43 million.

In Oregon, prosecutors traveled down familiar terrain as two parents from a controversial faith-healing church were sentenced in the death of their teenage son; their daughter and son-in-law had been acquitted on similar charges last year. Another set of parents from the same church face similar manslaughter charges.

Religious and humanitarian groups rallied to deliver relief to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, where an estimated 220,000 died, more than 300,000 were injured and more than 1 million left homeless. Ten U.S. missionaries were detained, and later released, on charges of trying to smuggle Haitian orphans out of the country.

Along the Gulf Coast, social service agencies were stretched thin trying to deliver relief to families and businesses struggling to cope with the massive BP oil spill.

2010 saw several prominent culture warriors take a bow from the national stage:

-- After stepping down last year as chairman of Focus on the Family, James Dobson turned off the mic at his daily radio program only to start his own show.

-- Ill health forced Donald Wildmon to retire as head of the American Family Association.

-- Ergun Caner was forced to step down as dean of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary after exaggerating his dramatic conversion from militant Islam.

At the same time, several controversial newsmakers from years past re-emerged for a second act in 2010:

-- Colorado Springs pastor Ted Haggard started a new church four years after a stunning fall from grace in a scandal involving a male escort and drugs.

-- Obama's fiery former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, alleged that the president "threw me under the bus" during the 2008 campaign.

-- Roy Moore, who lost his job as chief justice on the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 for refusing to remove a 5,300-pound Ten Commandments monument, lost his second bid for governor.

-- Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan returned to the spotlight to demand an apology from Jews for "the most vehement anti-black behavior in the annals of our history."

-- Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr was named president of Baylor University, the world's largest Baptist school.

2010 also saw the passing of several notable figures: Jews for Jesus founder Moishe Rosen died at age 78; pioneering feminist theologian Mary Daly died at age 81; "Davey and Goliath" creator Art Clokey died at age 88. Gospel artists Doug Oldham died at age 79, Albertina Walker at age 81 and Walter Hawkins at age 61.

WCC general secretary calls for return to peace negotiations on Korean peninsula

(From the World Council of Churches)

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, has said that "force and military power will not resolve the problems" in a 24 November statement issued as an expression of concern over tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The crisis erupted on Tuesday, 23 November, when cross-border artillery fire killed several people on the South Korean-controlled Yeonpyeong Island. Pyongyang accused South Korea of firing first. The Southern military said it had conducted exercises but shelling was directed away from the North.

"In the interests of people in both countries and their neighbours in Northeast Asia, the World Council of Churches urges the authorities in both North and South Korea to refrain from actions that exacerbate the tensions," Tveit said, calling for a "return to peace negotiations that will lead to peaceful co-existence and mutual respect". He added that the governments of the two states should "engage in a new process of confidence-building measures at the earliest possible date".

The WCC Assembly, the council's highest governing body, is scheduled to meet in Busan, South Korea in October 2013.

'God Box' in New York more diverse as it turns 5

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Chris Herlinger

New York -- The 19-story granite building on Manhattan's upper west side, often referred to as the "God Box", has been seen as a symbol of "unbridled arrogance" on the part of traditional Protestantism, but now represents a much more diverse religious community.

New York's Interchurch Center is one of the most visible symbols of Christian ecumenism in the United States as it marks its 50th anniversary, the year the modern ecumenical movement for Christian unity is celebrating its own centenary.

A series of events in 2010, including a rededication in May, have marked the anniversary of the centre, often called the "God Box", by tenants and visitors.

American philanthropist and Baptist layperson John D. Rockefeller, Jr, played a major role in the planning of the God Box, and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended the groundbreaking ceremony in October 1958.

Asked by ENInews to reflect on the building's historical significance, Randall Balmer, who teaches U.S. religious history at nearby Barnard College and Columbia University, said that he once regarded the centre, "as an expression of unbridled arrogance on the part of mainline Protestantism, an arrogance that was symbolised by the international style design … and in the fact that Eisenhower himself, the symbol of post-war, white-bread Protestantism, laid the cornerstone."

Built in the late 1950s, and dedicated in 1960 to house the National Council of Churches, the largest ecumenical body in the United States, the Interchurch Center remains the home of the NCC, as well as the main mission body of the United Methodist Church.

The "God Box" also once housed a number of national denominational headquarters, including those of major U.S. Presbyterian and Lutheran communions.

"I revelled in the paradox that I, who grew up as a fundamentalist in the Midwest, occupied an office that looked across the street into the God Box," Balmer said. Still, the historian says he now regards the Interchurch Center with, "considerably more sympathy".

Today, the building houses more diverse groups, including other religious bodies, local or regional offices of U.S. churches, humanitarian and philanthropic agencies, faith-based activist organizations, New York Theological Seminary, and some offices of Columbia University.

The term "God Box", sometimes used with affection and sometimes not, is a reference to the building's "international style" block shape, which some architecture critics have dismissed as bulky and graceless.

"I still believe that postwar ecumenism, driven as it was by the Cold War, was a mistake in that it reduced Protestantism to a theology of the lowest common denominator," Balmer commented. "I nevertheless admire the impulse behind it: interdenominational cooperation that would maximise resources by eliminating the duplication of effort."

While nostalgia is discernable among veterans of the building - once there was real thought that the building would become a "Protestant Vatican" - Michael Kinnamon, the current NCC general secretary, hailed the building's current character.

"The Interchurch Center is a richly diverse community of many faiths: Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and more," Kinnamon said during the May rededication ceremony. "The Interchurch Center family today is almost a perfect microcosm of God's world."

He added, "Clearly, the fact that we did not evolve into what our creators expected us to be is part of the eternal promise that God is not through with us yet."

The rededication came just before church bodies marked the centenary of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, a 1910 event described as the launch of the international ecumenical movement for church unity, and which triggered the eventual founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

The expense of being in Manhattan and a desire for some U.S. communions to be in a non-New York City locale closer to their members have been cited as reasons for some Protestant bodies leaving the Interchurch Center.

Still, the building does have a reasonably priced cafeteria, one blogger has noted. "The God Box … houses a fairly good and decently priced café that is opened to the public. Think beyond loaves and fishes, my friends, because the God Box café offers a variety of food to fill the stomach, if not the soul," wrote Pete C. on the blog www.yelp.com/biz/the-interchurch-center-new-york.

When the centre was built, the prominence in the 1950s of what are called the U.S. "mainline" Protestant churches was at its height. Today, such churches work in a far more religiously pluralistic society in which they are no longer dominant.

Kinnamon noted that predictions of the future are rarely safe, especially for religious institutions. "Just state your plans for the next 50 years if you want to hear God laugh," he said.

Hunger group hopes for progress in 2011 on global malnutrition

(From Religion News Service)

WASHINGTON -- Significant progress on global malnutrition can be made in 2011, the ecumenical anti-hunger group Bread for the World said Monday in its new annual report on hunger.

The U.S. government's "Feed the Future" initiative has the potential to reduce hunger by addressing long-term economic development and focusing on small farmers, said Asma Lateef, director of Bread for the World Institute.

The report calls for emphasizing nutrition, especially for young children and pregnant women, and fostering rapid response to hunger emergencies. It also urges a rewrite of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act to emphasize poverty reduction as a key aspect of U.S. foreign policy.

The report, "Our Common Interest: Ending Hunger and Malnutrition," was released as interfaith leaders have mobilized U.S. houses of worship to work on fighting domestic poverty. Officials of the National Council of Churches, Catholic Charities USA and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) gathered in Washington on Monday to call on Congress to address poverty through legislative action, including reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act.

Recent federal statistics show an additional 3.8 million people in poverty and one in seven American households unable to purchase adequate food.

"Despite more people falling into poverty, federal programs are helping to make a difference to provide people with access to affordable, ... healthy food," said Josh Protas, Washington director of JCPA, in an interview. "Federal intervention can make a critical difference as people are on the cusp of falling into poverty and losing so much of what's important in their lives."

Canadian court rules dissident churches must abandon property

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Leanne Larmondin

Toronto -- An appeals' court has ruled in favour of a Canadian Anglican diocese in a parish property dispute with those opposed to same-gender blessings.

In a unanimous decision released on 15 November, British Columbia Court of Appeal Justice Mary Newbury, writing on behalf of herself and two fellow judges, dismissed an appeal by four breakaway parishes against a 2009 lower court ruling.

Justice Newbury said that the dissident clergy of the four parishes in the Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster cannot, "remove themselves from their bishop's oversight and the diocesan structure and retain the right to use properties that are held for purposes of Anglican ministry in Canada".

The diocese has begun to replace the clergy of the four Vancouver-area churches, whose properties are worth an estimated 20 million Canadian dollars (US$19.6 million). One of the churches, St John's Shaughnessy, is widely considered one of Canada's wealthiest parishes.

Clergy and trustees of the four churches, which split from the Anglican Church of Canada over issues of same-gender blessings and the interpretation of the Bible, had asked the court to give them control over the properties.

Those who have left have joined a breakaway group called the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC), which they say is the true, "orthodox" Anglican church. They walked away from their diocese after it voted in 2002 to authorise a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex couples.

Still, the dissidents gained one victory, when the British Columbia court also dismissed an appeal by the diocese against a 2009 court decision granting that a 2.2 million Canadian dollar (US$2.1 million) bequest from a former parishioner of one of the churches be held in trust for the, "building needs of the ANiC congregation".

The court decision on property rights could set a precedent for similar cases across the country. Six out of 30 Anglican dioceses in Canada, where same-sex marriages are legal, currently permit or have guidelines for the blessings of same-gender relationships.

"Obviously, we are deeply disappointed by this decision, which is currently being reviewed by our legal counsel," said ANiC legal advisor Cheryl Chang in a statement on the network's Web site. "We are awaiting their advice before any discussion about an appeal can take place. The congregations have always said that if they are forced to choose between their buildings and their faith, they will choose their faith."

Israel finds common cause with evangelicals

(From Religion News Service)


JERUSALEM -- When Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee wrapped up a visit to Israel on Monday (Nov. 15) with 40 pastors in tow, he sought out the places where Jesus walked, preached and prayed some 2,000 years ago.

But there was another meeting on the itinerary that was a must-not-miss event for Hagee and his host: a sit-down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The fact that Netanyahu -- knee-deep in contentious talks with Palestinians over a freeze on Israeli settlement construction -- found time to meet Hagee's contingent speaks volumes about the ties between Israeli officials and evangelical Christians.

Christian Zionist support for Israel is at an all-time high, observers say, and Israelis, American Jews, and Palestinians are all taking notice -- some favorable, some not.

While Israel has long courted financial and political support from evangelicals, many Jewish American leaders have viewed the alliance with suspicion, leery about potential proselytizing and uncomfortable with evangelicals' domestic agenda at home.

Recently, though, the American Jewish community has found a new appreciation for evangelical support at a time of mounting international criticism of Israeli policy and financial hardships for many prominent Jewish groups.

Hit hard by the economic downturn and the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme that decimated Jewish charities, American Jewish groups are sending less money to Israel. Dozens of evangelical groups "have definitely stepped in to fill some of the void," said Dan Brown, creator of the website e-jewishphilanthropy.com.

One of those groups is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), a Chicago-based evangelical group that has donated as much as $70 million to Israel in 2009 alone, and another $30 million to Jewish causes in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.

Five years ago, Hadassah magazine, a mainstream Jewish women's magazine, rejected an ad from Eckstein's group. But this year, after a large donation to a Hadassah-affiliated hospital in Jerusalem, Hadassah honored Eckstein's group at its annual gala.

"We still haven't been embraced by the establishment Jewish organizations, but I do think there's a growing admiration because we've been able to grow by leaps and bounds over the past three years while the Jewish federation system and other sources of Jewish philanthropy have suffered declines," said founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.

Evangelical leaders say their reliance on thousands of small donors -- rather than a few mega-givers -- has helped them weather the recession and actually increase their funding to Israel. No one knows how much Christian Zionists give Israel in total, but the amount is substantial.

The organizations, including many based in the U.S., support Israeli hospitals, schools, and social welfare programs. A few pay for bomb shelters and ambulances, and assist elderly Holocaust survivors and victims of terror attacks. Hagee's San Antonio-based group has donated more than $50 million since 2006, including $8.5 million this year. Monetary support, however, is just part of the equation.

For the past four years, another Hagee group, Christians United for Israel, has held an annual Washington summit to push Israeli concerns on U.S. lawmakers. Christian Zionist groups sponsor letter-writing campaigns and are active on college campuses.

Joshua Reinstein, director of the seven-year-old Knesset Christian Allies Caucus in the Israeli parliament, said there has been "an explosion of support" from evangelical political leaders. The group now has pro-Israel "legislators of faith" caucuses in 18 countries, including the U.S.

Palestinian Christians, who have successfully cultivated their own powerful and wealthy allies in the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, are vocally opposed to Christian Zionism. Many of their church allies are active in the so-called Global BDS movement -- boycotts, divestment and sanctions of Israeli goods and citizens.

Christian Zionism is "a heretical and false interpretation of Christian theology" that "justifies violence and oppression in the name of God," said Jonathan Kuttab, chairman of the West Bank's Bethlehem Bible College.

Ari Morgenstern, a spokesman for Christian United for Israel, reads the Bible differently.

"The biblical mandate for Christian Zionism is Genesis 12:3," he said, referring to a verse where God promises to bless those who bless Israel, and curse her foes. "As Pastor Hagee has said, Christians should support Israel because it is simply the right thing to do."

Holy Land Jews and Muslims pray together for rain

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Judith Sudilovsky

Jerusalem--Unseasonably dry weather in the Holy Land region, with no predictions of rain in the near future, has led a group of about 60 local Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, plus one Christian, to join in praying for rain.

Rabbi Yehuda Stolov of the Interfaith Encounter Association, which helped organize the gathering, said that the prayers on 11 November were not only a plea to God for much-needed rain but also showed the commonality that the residents of the region shared.

The Christian involved was a Roman Catholic priest from Bethlehem.

"They are joint needs. They [the people] need the same things, and they ask for them from the same God," Stolov told ENInews.

The prayers were said at a natural spring in a valley between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which lie close to one another, and near the village of Wallajah, whose land is under threat during the expansion of an Israeli-built separation barrier, which juts into Palestinian-held land.

The joint prayer occurred after a group of rabbis had visited the West Bank village of Beit Fajjar, where they met Bethlehem governor Abd Al Fattah Hamayel several weeks ago, after Israeli settler were accused of vandalising a village mosque.

"It [the joint prayer session] was a very emotional experience," said Rabbi Elchanan Nir, coordinator of the Abraham's Tent group, which brings together rabbis and Muslim sheiks for monthly meetings.

Nir said it was the first time such a joint prayer for rain had been held in the Holy Land with rabbis and sheiks, and added, "It was a very strong prayer. We saw them pray, and they saw us pray. I hope it will bring rain, and that it will bring unity."

Stolov commented that the presence of media representatives prevented a true meeting between the worshippers, which was one goal of the event, but they were able to witness each others' prayer, "which is something to be valued".

A speech by Bethlehem governor Al Fattah began the proceedings. Then, a Jewish prayer for rain was recited, after which the sheiks recited their regular afternoon Islamic prayers, plus a prayer for rain.

"The purpose of this joint prayer gathering was to break the boundaries between Jews and Muslims," Ibrahim Embawi, the Muslim coordinator for Abraham's Tent, told ENInews. "We both inhabit the same land, and need the same water. We all pray to the same God. If it does not rain, we both will be in trouble."

U.S. hunger stats stable, but still at record high

(From Religion News Service)

WASHINGTON--The number of Americans struggling with hunger remained stable in 2009 despite the economic downturn, but remained at the highest recorded level, according to new federal figures.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released statistics Monday (Nov. 15) that showed one in seven American households could not buy adequate food last year due to lack of money and other resources.

The number of people suffering from "food insecurity" increased only one-tenth of a percentage point from 2008, but that number is almost more than 4 percentage points higher than it was 10 years ago, and the highest since 1995.

"It could be worse," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of the ecumenical anti-hunger group Bread for the World, in an interview with CNN. "I was struck that the numbers did not increase from the end of 2008 to the end of 2009."

The poverty rate increased by 3.8 million people -- a little more than 1 percent -- during the same time frame, according to a Census Bureau report released in September.

The three largest federal nutrition programs -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children; and the National School Lunch Program -- have all seen an increase in need, the USDA said.

More than half of food-insecure households participated in at least one of these assistance programs, according to the report, with SNAP showing the sharpest increase (5.3 million people) in average monthly participation.

Hunger was more prevalent in large cities than in rural areas and suburbs, and was substantially higher in black and Hispanic families.

Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for the USDA Food Nutrition and Consumer Services, said the USDA anticipates that "food security will improve as the economy improves, but in the near term, without these benefits, many families would face far more severe problems getting the nutritious food they need."

Respect result, Christian leaders say in advance of Sudan plebiscite

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Fredrick Nzwili

Nairobi--The head of a grouping of Roman Catholic bishops in Africa has urged Sudan's government to respect the results of an upcoming referendum on self-determination for the southern part of Africa's largest country.

"Anybody trying to go against the majority… can be sure that he is turning against the will and the plan of God," said Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, the Catholic archbishop of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, while leading prayers on 7 November in Rumbek in southern Sudan.

Pengo, the president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, was speaking in advance of a special meeting of the Sudan Catholic Bishops' Conference.

"It is our hope and prayer, [that] the will of God expressed through the majority will be respected as such, as the will and plan of God," said Pengo.

The 9 January referendum on independence for southern Sudan is part of a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in Nairobi that sealed the end of a 21-year-long civil war which led to the deaths of more than two million people.

The conflict pitted Sudan's south, where Christianity and traditional religions predominate, against the north, where most people are Arabs, and Islam is dominant.

Separately, the leaders of two international Christian groupings urged religious and political leaders in Africa and around the world to assure a free and fair referendum and for all to abide by the results.

The Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, and Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, said the referendum should be held on the date promised, be free and fair, and the results accepted by all parties.

"We have come to a point where we need to say the people of the Sudan have suffered enough and the people of Sudan must have the right through democratic processes to define and decide their own future," Tveit said in an interview issued on 11 November by the Geneva-based WCC.

Tunnicliffe said, "We have both been there and we've listened to the church leaders, and to underscore the fact that for 50 years Sudan has suffered greatly, we believe that the people of Sudan need a better way."

A separate referendum in the oil-rich Abyei region between north and south Sudan will determine whether it should be part of the north or the south of the existing country.

In a 10 November statement, the Sudan Catholic bishops urged African governments to ensure the referendums be "free, fair and transparent" and to respect the choice of the people of southern Sudan.

They also urged that minorities in northern and southern Sudan be "recognised and protected".

Poll: Americans of all faiths see a civility problem in U.S. politics

(From Religion News Service)


Whether they rally behind Fox News' Glenn Beck to "Restore Honor" or Comedy Central's Jon Stewart to "Restore Sanity," Americans agree on one thing: our political system has a civility problem. Four out of five Americans, regardless of party or religious affiliation, think the lack of respectful discourse in our political system is a serious problem, according to a PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll released Thursday (Nov. 11).

The findings echo sentiments expressed by a range of religious leaders, including Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and author of "Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World," and Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Alarmed by the 2010 campaign season, which 4 in 10 Americans consider more negative than past elections, Mouw, Gutow and others are calling for a kinder, gentler tone -- even on hot-button topics like Islamophobia, homosexuality or abortion.

"We've had heated public debates before, but the level of discourse in this campaign and even following the campaign has been atrocious," Mouw said, citing as an example Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's pledge to prevent President Obama's reelection, as opposed to advocating for policy shifts.

"There's a real hostility now, and Christians with very strong and more conservative convictions really don't seem to be contributing much to a civil discourse and a calming of the heated discussions in the larger culture," Mouw said.

In fact, white evangelicals and Republicans are less likely than other Americans to say the 2010 election's tone was more negative than past campaigns, which PRRI research director Daniel Cox said may reflect their satisfaction with the outcome.

Mouw has another theory: evangelicals are more accustomed to inflammatory rhetoric from the pulpit, and therefore don't see it as a problem in politics.

Other findings from the poll, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, include:

-- One-third of white evangelicals report that the election was more positive than past elections, a figure that's significantly higher than among white mainline Protestants (17 percent), the unaffiliated (17 percent) or Catholics (23 percent).

-- Two-thirds of Americans say that people in their local community work well to overcome differences, and more than eight in 10 Americans who attend religious services say people in their congregation work well to overcome differences.

-- Nearly 6-in-10 Americans think the country is more divided over politics today than in the past; more than four in 10 Americans said the country is more divided over religion than in the past.

-- About half of white evangelicals and black Protestants think the country is more divided over religion than it was in the past, compared to less than 40 percent of Catholics and white mainline Protestants.

-- Young adults (50 percent) are less likely than seniors (61 percent) to say Americans are more divided over politics, but more likely to say Americans are divided over religion (42 percent of young adults and 33 percent of older adults, respectively).

Americans are justifiably afraid and upset about the stagnant economy and terrorism, Gutow said, but he agreed with Mouw that 24/7 cable news channels and the blogosphere have encouraged and magnified negative, fear-based rhetoric.

In his organization's new Statement on Civility, prompted by polarizing debate over Israel as well as domestic concerns, Jews agree to "treat others with decency and honor and to set ourselves as models for civil discourse, even when we disagree with each other."

The JCPA pledge has collected more than 1,100 signatures since it was launched Nov. 1, and will form the basis for dialogue amongst Jews and with people of other faiths.

"I don't think this country, and I don't think our community, are going to make good decisions if people can't talk to each other rationally and pragmatically," Gutow said. "We need to lean back, talk to each other, look each other in the eye and respect each other's humanity."

Calls for civility have clear religious roots. In Judaism, Talmudic study encourages back-and-forth conversation, Gutow noted. In the New Testament, Mouw said, the Apostle Peter tells Christians to express their convictions "with gentleness and reverence."

"In the world where our Savior has not yet returned to make all things right, we're going to have to find our way of coping in the present and trying to do as much good as we can without oppressing other people, without bearing false witness against other people," Mouw said.

"We have to defend the faith, that's clear, but it says to do it with `gentleness and reverence."'

The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll was based on telephone interviews conducted Nov. 5-8, after the midterm elections, with 1,022 U.S. adults. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Zimbabwe church groups warn over new elections

(From Ecumenical News International)

Harare--Church and rights groups in Zimbabwe have warned against new elections saying the situation in the country is "highly volatile, uncertain and tense" after a bloody presidential run-off election two years ago.

"The polarised environment does not favour the holding of elections as violence would most likely erupt," the groups, which include the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, the Christian Alliance and the Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe, said at the end of October.

The warning came after President Robert Mugabe told his supporters to prepare for elections in 2011. At the same time, there have been increasing reports of intimidation by security forces.

"The political environment remains highly volatile, uncertain, and tense," the groups said in a statement sent to ENInews.

Rallies to collect people's views for a new constitution have often turned into violent clashes between supporters of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change.

Separately, the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said that in Zimbabwe, Anglican bishops had been threatened with assassination. The Anglican church in Zimbabwe says it faces constant intimidation from an excommunicated former bishop closely allied to Mugabe.

Nolbert Kunonga, the former bishop of Harare, was a staunch defender of Mugabe and was given a farm confiscated from a white farmer as a reward. He was excommunicated in 2008 after trying to withdraw the Harare diocese from the Anglican church. He claims he defected from the mother church because it supports the ordination of gay priests.

Kunonga, with the backing of police and security forces, has seized control of church halls and other property in Harare and has regularly blocked Harare's Bishop Chad Gandiya and other Anglicans from using the churches to worship.

In their statement, the church and rights groups say free and fair elections will not be possible unless laws and institutions that have been manipulated to favour Mugabe's party are changed.

"Institutions and infrastructure that support violence such as the [Zanu-PF] youth militia, war veterans and a partisan security force remain unreformed and therefore a threat to democratic elections," the groups said.

Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections in 2008, which Mugabe's party lost, were marred by violence. Prime Minister Tsvangirai has said more than 100 of his supporters were killed and thousands displaced. Mugabe in turn accused followers of Tsvangirai of destroying properties belonging to Zanu-PF supporters.

Tsvangirai withdrew from the 2008 presidential run-off election citing violence against his supporters. That gave Mugabe victory in the second round after he had lost in the first.

Following pressure from other southern African countries, the bitter rivals formed a power-sharing government aimed at easing tensions and mending an economy wrecked by hyperinflation which rendered the local currency unusable.

But the MDC says the work of the compromise government has been hampered by Mugabe's group refusing to hand over key portfolios and, in October, Tsvangirai wrote a letter to the United Nations protesting at unilateral appointments by Mugabe.

The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper reported on 28 October that Mugabe's party is trying to mobilise voters by appealing to younger people and trying to penetrate churches, especially apostolic groups who often combine traditional beliefs with Christianity, in a bid to win the elections he wants to take place in June.

World's 'lowest city' Jericho celebrates 10 000 years

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Judith Sudilovsky

Jerusalem--Many people in the area believe there is little to celebrate, but Jericho, made famous in the Bible and one the earth's lowest and oldest inhabited cities, has begun a year-long celebration of its 10 000th anniversary.

So far it has been a quiet affair as the city that borders Jordan in the Palestinian-administered West Bank area is not a global tourist haven. Still a special cabinet meeting opened the festivities on 10.10.10, a day deemed good for the biblically-famed town that features in many popular Western songs.

The 10 000 year celebration launch in the city that lies below sea level was led by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who said the celebrations were part of a national project aimed at completing the "building and preparation" of the Palestinian State.

The celebration also included a 4.5 kilometre (2.8 Mile) race, a brass band and fireworks.

The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism said it hoped to "solidify" Jericho as a key tourism destination by building on the city's "ancient history, culture, religious heritage and unique geography".

Jericho is also the second most visited city on the West Bank, following Bethlehem, the town in which the Bible states that the birth of Jesus took place.

The Old Testament of the Bible records in the book of Joshua 6, how the ancient Israelites captured Jericho by following God's instruction to walk round the city sounding a ram's horn leading to the collapse of its walls.

The Palestinian ministry says it is working in conjunction with the private sector and donors on the three-year "Jericho 10 000" project to develop the tourism infrastructure in Jericho and the Jordan Valley. Projects range from site restorations and developing new themed routes that would combine spiritual, cultural and nature activities.

News agencies reported, however, that local residents complained about the low-key character of the opening celebrations and officials said they were unable to complete many infrastructure projects, planned since 2007, due to Israeli restrictions and a lack of international funding.

Jericho, known in the Bible as "The City of Palm Trees", was the first West Bank town to be handed over to Palestinian control in 1994 as part of the Oslo accords, which were at the time seen as a breakthrough in Middle East peace efforts.

On 25 October, the Jerusalem-based Media Central organization said it had cancelled a planned tour of journalists from Israel to Jericho, which was to have taken place the following day. It said they were "unwelcome" after it received the message about foreign journalists visiting through Israeli media facilitators.

Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of 20 consecutive settlements in Jericho, the first dating back to 9000 BC. They have also found urban fortifications dating back to 7000 BC. Archaeological remains in the area also include the winter palace of King Herod, who ruled in the area at the time of Jesus. There is the winter palace, dating from AD 743 and what Israeli archaeologists claim to be the world's oldest Jewish synagogue dating back to 50-70 BC.

Communion for unbaptised dismissal, confirmed for Japan pastor

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Hisashi Yukimoto

Tokyo--Japan's largest Protestant denomination has confirmed the dismissal of one of its pastors for continuing to allow unbaptised people to receive Holy Communion at his local church near Tokyo, which met with protests from fellow believers.

The dismissal of Rev. Jiro Kitamura was finalised at a three-day general assembly of the United Church of Christ in Japan in Tokyo that began on 26 October.

The original decision to dismiss Kitamura from his Yokohama church was made earlier in the year, after had been told in 2007 to stop giving communion to unbaptised people.

An attempt at the assembly to nullify the dismissal was rejected by the Rev. Nobuhisa Yamakita, then the moderator of the denomination and a motion he proposed was approved in a secret vote.

Most of the members of the denomination's Kyoto diocese and its sacked pastor, Kitamura, walked out of the assembly venue in protest at the decision.

Some church members raised a banner saying, "The deprivation of Jiro Kitamura's rights as a [general assembly] member is unjust and illegal, and this general assembly cannot be held. We protest against it, do not approve of the general assembly, and will walk out."

Yamakita had said in a statement released in the 9 October issue of the Kyodan Times newspaper, "I pray that the minister Jiro Kitamura will accept this decision and makes his way to return with repentance."

Kitamura had campaigned for some time to give the Eucharist, another name for Holy Communion, to people who had not been baptised. During Holy Communion services, in Protestant churches, people receive bread and wine as symbols of the body and blood of Jesus.

"The one-sided punishment is strongly exclusive in its logic," Kitamura had told ENInews in February. "It is unfair and wrong."

Kitamura had on 12 February, appealed against his dismissal to Yamakita, after a UCCJ commission had ordered he be fired on 26 January. Following deliberations at the denomination's executive council, five adjudicators ruled on the issue.

"Offering communion to unbaptised persons violates the Article 1 of the Constitution and is an act that considerably disrupts the order of the United Church," the Rev. Hideo Ishibashi, who chaired the adjudicators, had been quoted as saying.

Korean peace impossible without justice for all, Reformed church leader says

(From the World Communion of Reformed Churches)

The success of peace and reconciliation initiatives in the Korean peninsula is linked with justice issues such as the right to free association and access to food and education, a senior church leader has told a global gathering of peace advocates and academics in Seoul.

“Providing charity alleviates some of the symptoms but we need much more than that. We need a clear commitment to justice for all,” Setri Nyomi, General Secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), says in a keynote speech delivered on 3 November.

Nyomi was addressing more than 100 participants from 51 countries who are in Korea for a four-day seminar exploring the theme Building Communities of Peace.

The event which runs from 31 October to 4 November is the third in a series of seminars on peace and reconciliation hosted by Youngnak Presbyterian Church to honour its founding pastor, Kyung-Chik Han.

Originally from North Korea, Han dedicated his career to seeking reconciliation in the divided country. The Religious Studies Section at York St. John University in Great Britain is co-sponsor of the event that marks the tenth anniversary of Han’s death.

Participants in the seminar include representatives from South Africa, Croatia, Burundi and Sri Lanka.

In his presentation, Nyomi paid tribute to the efforts of WCRC member churches in Korea for their commitment to reconciliation between North and South Korea.

“There is a need to strengthen the contacts between the church in North Korea and the church in South Korea,” Nyomi said in speaking of his dreams for the region.

“Efforts at annual prayer meetings ... and the development of common prayer give us a glimmer of hope.”

Christians represent 29.2 percent of the population in South Korea with 8.6 million Protestants and 5.1 million Catholics. Reliable statistics about North Korean Christians are not readily available. However, the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation, a Protestant organization, has 12,000 members.

The seminar opened with a trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates North and South. In a ceremony at the Songak Prayer House overlooking North Korea, international representatives offered prayers accompanied by traditional Korean music.

The gathering of Christians at the border came in the wake of meetings on 30 October where families from North and South Korea met for the first time since the country was separated in the 1950’s. An additional 80,000 people are said to be waiting their chance for a family reunion.

In a sermon on 31 October, Nyomi told worshippers at a parish in Seoul that they could set a good example for secular society and political authorities by working to overcome divisions among churches. By accepting those who are different from them, Nyomi says, “Christians will be in a strong position to challenge the powers that want to keep Korea divided and speak clearly on the fact that this is one people.”

Indian churches commit to "zero tolerance" for the "sin" of casteism

(From the World Council of Churches)

Naming casteism as "sin, apostasy and rebellion against God", churches in India have committed themselves to serve as "zero tolerance zones" for caste-based discrimination. They also called for Lent 2011 to be "a time of purging caste" from Christian communities.

Representatives of 31 churches grouped in the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) made those commitments at an ecumenical conference held in New Delhi on 22-24 October. The event was convened by the NCCI and the World Council of Churches (WCC).

"The moment of truth has come", said the NCCI president Bishop Dr Taranath Sagar, speaking at the opening of the conference. He called on churches to get involved, in all sincerity and faithfulness, with the liberation of Dalits as part of the mission of God.

Despite the fact that the caste system was abolished under India's constitution in 1950, "untouchability" is still practiced, particularly in rural areas. Caste-based discrimination affects at least 160 million people in India. One of the jobs assigned to the caste of Dalits in India is the manual removal of human feces from dry latrines. About 80 percent of manual scavengers are women.

In an affirmation of faith issued at the 22-24 October gathering, Indian churches representatives defined caste discrimination as "a crime against human beings" and "a grievance against the Holy Spirit".

According to the confession-like statement, "Dalit children are shunned, stunted and have their childhood shattered. Dalit women are beaten, raped, and murdered. Dalit men are dispossessed, locked up, and lynched".

"We are ashamed that we as Christians have remained silent while our brothers and sisters have been violated and killed", the church representatives continued. However, they wrote, "Dalits resilience and resistance" is an invitation to the church "to join in solidarity to denounce and resist the 'spiritual forces of evil'."

"This conference is remarkable as it has for the first time enabled the Indian churches to name caste as an evil system and caste discrimination as a sin and a crime", said the Rev. Dr Deenabandhu Manchala, WCC programme executive for Justice and Inclusive Communities. "Equally important", he added, "it has moved from building on Dalit suffering to Dalit resistance and determination to dismantle an oppressive social order."

Participants at the gathering expressed their expectation that the Christian liturgical season of Lent 2011 may become an "occasion for developing resources, both theological and liturgical, for use in Sunday Schools, youth groups, women's and men's fellowships and pastors' and bishops' retreats with the specific mandate to root out casteism in our mindset and caste discrimination in our way of life."

Speaking at the conference, Bishop Geevarghese Mor Coorilos, moderator of the WCC's Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, called for the "Dalitization of the Indian churches". "Churches have to be inclusive, and any discrimination in any form will not make it the body of Christ", Coorilos said.

'Protect religious minorities' says Muslim at talks with Christians

(From Ecumenical News International)

By Stephen Brown and Peter Kenny

Geneva -- The coordinator of a Muslim initiative to promote common ground with Christians says that leaders of the two religions have a duty to protect adherents of the other faith against followers of their own.

"For both our religions harming religious minorities among us is evil, is absolutely forbidden and is ultimately a rejection of God's love and a crime against God himself," Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad Bin Talal of Jordan said on the opening day of a 1-4 November meeting of Muslim and Christian leaders and scholars in Geneva.

Speaking at the Ecumenical Centre, which houses the World Council of Churches, Ghazi urged leaders of the two faiths to, "defend the other against followers of our own religion when the other is weak and oppressed, especially in a social minority context".

Prince Ghazi is the coordinator of the "Common Word" initiative, a document released in 2007 by 138 Muslim scholars seeking common ground between Christian and Islamic religious traditions.

The Geneva meeting has been convened by the WCC, the Libyan-based World Islamic Call Society, the Jordanian-based Royal Aal al Bayt Institute and the Consortium of "A Common Word".

Organizers told ENInews it is intended to address issues of common concern and provide guidance for cooperation between Muslims and Christians, including joint action involving the world's two largest faiths.

Addressing participants, WCC general secretary the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit said religious leaders need to provide "moral leadership" in their communities.

"Many conflicts in our world today are related to religious identities even if these conflicts have primarily political, economic or cultural reasons," said Tveit, a Norwegian Lutheran theologian. "It is our task to make sure that religion is not a synonym with conflict in the eyes of people, but a synonym for justice and peace."

The WCC with its headquarters in Geneva groups 349 churches, primarily Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member but works with the WCC on a number of issues.

Tveit praised the churches in Switzerland, in "an outstanding example of what is needed", for raising their voice against the ban on building minarets that was approved by the Swiss people in a referendum in November 2009.

In the referendum, Swiss citizens voted against allowing the construction of any more than the four minarets currently in their country. Some commentators viewed the vote as more against Libya, which was having a diplomatic spat with Switzerland than against Islam, but others saw it as growing antipathy to Muslims.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi called for a Jihad against Switzerland in a speech held on the occasion of the Islamic feast of Mawlid, four months after the vote, and said that "any Muslim in any part of the world that works with Switzerland is an apostate".

The Rev. Thomas Wipf, president of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches and the Swiss Council of Religions, noted in his speech to the Muslim-Christian gathering that the proportion of people from other cultures and religious traditions is particularly high in his country.

"With some 350 000 members, Islamic communities make up the third-largest religious group in Switzerland, following the major Christian churches," said Wipf.

"In the light of increasing cultural and religious diversity, this conference is focusing on a challenge facing us both here in Switzerland and throughout Europe: To be transforming and transformed societies and communities in which Christians and Muslims can shape our future together," he said.

The president of the Geneva-based Lutheran World Federation, Palestinian Bishop Munib Younan, who is attending the conference, told ENInews in advance of the meeting, "The World Council of Churches is an organization that is ideally situated to facilitate inter-faith dialogue. It should do more of it."

When Younan as a Lutheran leader, who is on a number of inter-faith bodies, was invited to attend a special Vatican meeting of all its leaders from the Middle East, he commented in his speech, "Our challenge is nothing less than loving our neighbours as ourselves."

In his speech to the Muslim-Christian gathering in Geneva, Prince Ghazi noted, "whilst there are places where Christians are clearly several oppressed by Muslims, such as Pakistan, Iraq and Sudan, and places where Muslims are clearly severely oppressed by Christians, such as the Philippines, there are a lot of other places where it is not clear who is oppressing who, such as the Muslim-Christian 'fault line' in sub-Saharan Africa."

Moreover, "religious leaders in different places have various and varying degrees of political power or social influence and ... they have different degrees of responsibility ranging from merely denouncing oppression to mobilising social awareness and action against it," said the Jordanian prince.

In his speech, Prince Ghazi noted that the United Nations general assembly had supported an initiative of Jordanian King Abdullah II to declare the first week of each February as World Interfaith Harmony Week.

The prince referred also to the "mixed blessing" of the world's media. "Most of what the public receives about Muslims as such is news of terrorism, violence and demonstrations, however statistically insignificant these may be relative to other activities Muslims engage in, and most of the news about Christians as such ... involves controversy, schism and scandal."

Muslims and Christians to meet in Geneva to build a common future

(From the World Council of Churches)

High-ranking Muslim and Christian leaders as well as renowned scholars and interfaith practitioners will gather 1-4 November at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva for an international consultation on Christian and Muslim concerns.

The international consultation, which is called "Transforming Communities: Christians and Muslims Building a Common Future", will identify and address issues of common concern and provide guidance for cooperation between Muslims and Christians, including faith-inspired approaches for joint Christian-Muslim action.

A joint statement will be issued at the end of the consultation on 4 November during a press conference.

The consultation will open with keynote addresses by His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad bin Talal, personal envoy and special advisor to His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Archbishop Anders Wejryd of the Church of Sweden.

Also participating in the consultation will be: the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit; Dr Muhammad Ahmed Sharif, general secretary of the World Islamic Call Society; Dr Abdulrahman Al-Zayed representing the Muslim World League; and Ayatollah Muhammad Ali Al-Tashkiri, secretary general of the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought.

Rev. Thomas Wipf, president of the Federation of the Swiss Protestant Churches and the Swiss Council of Religions, and Sheikh Yousef Ibram, imam of the Geneva mosque, will also be attending.

The consultation, which builds on the solid basis of past initiatives and achievements by a variety of organizations and networks, is a joint Christian-Muslim initiative in planning, funding and participation. The conveners are the World Council of Churches (WCC), the World Islamic Call Society, the Royal Aal al Bayt Institute and the Consortium of A Common Word. "Christians and Muslims have a joint responsibility to contribute the very best of their theological, spiritual, and ethical resources for the common good of humanity", stated the organizers.

The group expects the consultation to "develop concrete ways of building a common future, in order to achieve more compassionate and just societies, based on equality, co-citizenship and mutual respect".

The group will also visit St. Pierre’s Cathedral and the Islamic Cultural Center and mosque in Geneva on Thursday morning, where members of the group will meet with members of Geneva faith communities and the Geneva Interfaith Platform. The 60 participants plus consultation guests will address three key issues in the present context of Muslim-Christian relations:

  • Beyond Majority and Minority
  • From Conflict to Compassionate Justice: Building ecologies of peace
  • Learning to Overcome; formulating educational tools to resolve issues
Service blends American Indian and Christian beliefs

(From Religion News Service)


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Smoke wafts upward as the Rev. Mike Peters blows on the Knick-Knick, a sacred herbal blend of spearmint leaves, red willow bark, sage, sweet grass and bayberry bush.

"As the smoke goes up, the Creator's blessings go down," Peters says. A dozen people sitting in a circle listen as he prays.

"I pray for the healing of hearts," Peters says. "In the name of Jesus, we claim back our culture so we may glorify him again."

To Peters and other local American Indians who yearn to discover or reclaim their cultural and religious heritage, the 4 Fires Ministries service, or circle, can offer a bridge between Christian and Native American spirituality.

The burning of Knick-Knick, a centuries-old ritual, is a case in point. The smoldering herbs are believed to absorb prayers sent to the Great Spirit, or in 4 Fires' case, the Holy Spirit.

To the uninitiated who are accustomed to a Eurocentric model of worship, such rituals may be considered anathema to Christianity. Such a mindset is familiar to local First Nations people, many of whom were taught that blending their culture and Christianity is unchristian and pagan, even satanic.

As a result, some consider Christianity a white man's religion, and practicing it means worshipping a white man's God.

Less than 4 percent of American Indians in the U.S. are Christian, according to Peters. "There's very few natives like myself," said Peters. "Some of it is because too many in