Two staff members of Hungarian Interchurch Aid, Gabor Dunajszki and Istvan Olah, who were abducted last October in Chechnya, were returned in July. The men worked in Chechnya under the mandate of Action by Churches Together, a network of agencies that includes the Lutheran World Federation. No ransom was paid and the release was peaceful, the foreign minister of Hungary said. The men were chained in a dark cellar and given little to eat for most of their captivity. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee removed from consideration a bill designed to penalize countries engaging in religious persecution. A similar version of the bill passed the House but it was removed, for the time being, when it appeared likely not to pass a committee vote. Adriaan Vlok, the former police minister of South Africa, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that former president P.W. Botha ordered the 1988 bombing of Khotso House, the downtown Johannesburg headquarters of the South African Council of Churches. Vlok is the first senior member of the former government to link Botha to wrongdoing, something he has consistently denied. A priest and a church cook were arrested in the killing of Juan Gerardi, a Guatemalan Roman Catholic bishop, whose death came after he released part of a report alleging human rights abuses by the Guatemalan army and paramilitary forces loyal to the government. Mario Leonel Orantes Najera and Margarita Lopez were arrested in San Sebastian Church where they and Gerardi worked. Roman Catholic theologians and activists continue to sort out the meaning of July's Vatican crackdown on dissent, opinions ranging from "repressive" to "just another piece of housekeeping." Call to Action, the Chicago-based reform group, predicted the pope's letter would lead to "repression" on Catholic college campuses and in parishes. But for theologian Avery Dulles at Fordham University, New York, "it's a little tidying up"-clarifications in church law. Some U.S. theologians fear the statement will inhibit efforts at Christian unity. Pope John Paul II, in response to declining Sunday worship, issued a letter urging Roman Catholics not to let Sunday become "merely part of a `weekend.' " Skipping church amounts to a "grave sin," the pope said. Paul van Buren, 74, a retired religion professor and leader in the "death of God" movement of the 1960s, died June 18 of cancer. Van Buren, who rejected the "death of God" term popularized in the media, built a faith on ethical behavior based on the historical Jesus. In his 1963 book The Secular Meaning of the Gospel: Based on an Analysis of its Language, he said he was "trying to find an utterly nontranscendent way of interpreting the gospel" so "sense could be made of it."
Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, asked the worldwide Christian community to correct the negative image of Africa portrayed in the media. "A body of opinion is building up in some parts of the world that Africa cannot help itself and for that reason is seen as incapable of making quality contributions to the affairs of this global village," Noko said in a speech to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania General Assembly. The Lutheran World Federation will continue providing aid in Eritrea for another year, as the remaining nongovernmental program active in the country. The Eritrean government had asked the LWF and other agencies to discontinue development programs and to hand over all material and equipment. LWF President Ishmael Noko made an agreement with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki that the LWF would facilitate rehabilitation and reintegration measures for the thousands of Eritreans being expelled from Ethiopia. Pastors and church officers in Kentucky can now legally carry concealed weapons inside their churches. A 1996 law allows residents to carry concealed weapons with a proper permit, but it banned them from schools, government buildings and houses of worship, except for judges in courtrooms and legislators at work. Church workers were added to the exception. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church announced it will leave the World Council of Churches. "We have no intention of ending church contacts or cutting links with other Christian organizations," a church spokesman said. "But our church took the decision to leave last April and will circulate its explanation shortly." While membership in the United Methodist Church is continuing to decline, church officials reported the decrease is slowing. The denomination lost 42,000 members last year, compared with 49,000 members each of the previous two years. If the figure is confirmed this fall by its finance agency, the decrease would be the smallest in 10 years. Membership is 8.5 million, compared to 11 million in 1968. Archeologists unearthed in Aqaba, Jordan, the remains of what may be the oldest building in the world designed for use as a church. The church may have been built as early as the third century. Action by Churches Together gave assistance for victims of the recent tidal waves in Papua New Guinea that killed thousands on the northwestern coast of the country. "Where have all the children gone, is being asked by some survivors," said Leva Kila Pat, general secretary of the Papua New Guinea Council of Churches. "Remembering that this is school holidays, many children were at home at the time of the disaster." Polish Catholics erected more than 50 crosses outside the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, setting up the possibility of a new confrontation with Jewish groups who view such actions as attempts to "Christianize" the Holocaust. Roman Catholics insist they have a right to mourn the members of their faith who also died at Auschwitz. Pope John Paul II is attempting to exert greater control over national bishops' conferences in an apostolic letter some church observers say has the potential to create ecclesiastical gridlock in Rome. The declaration requires actions on major statements of faith and practice from the world's 108 national bodies of bishops to be either unanimous or submitted to Rome for approval. Lutheran World Federation officials are keeping an eye on the continued internal conflict in Rwanda, fearing a repeat of the 1994 genocide. The LWF continues its rehabilitation and reconciliation work there. Some 13.6 million people worldwide left their home countries to seek refuge or asylum in 1997, the lowest total in a decade. But 17 million were internally displaced by war and persecution. According to the World Refugee Study, Palestinians were the largest group of displaced people, with 3.7 million looking for a new place to live. Africa had the most movement of any continent with 750,000 people leaving Brazzaville, Congo, during a civil conflict and 200,000 displaced in Uganda from rebel attacks. Some countries saw a return of their people, including 200,000 Rwandans and 90,000 from Burundi. Several humanitarian and religious groups, including the Lutheran World Federation, established an international coalition that will urge the world's governments to establish an effective ban on the growing use of children in militaries. Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch estimates that child soldiers, some as young as 8, are involved in 30 conflicts worldwide, including Uganda, Sudan, Burma, Indonesia, Peru and Colombia. A resolution that would have ended the government's role in appointing bishops in the Church of England was defeated by the denomination's general synod. Since 1977 bishops have been appointed by a process where a church committee gives two candidates to the prime minister, who forwards one of the names to the queen for nomination. But the prime minister can select either name or ask the commission to come up with two additional names, both of which have happened. Action by Churches Together is stepping up efforts to help end starvation in southern Sudan where drought has compounded a 15-year civil war. Perhaps as many as 2.5 million people are in dire need of food. Food and seed are being delivered, though rail and transport problems have caused some delays.