|Facing Africa's challenge|
Women hold placards that list challenges facing African women during an interfaith peace summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, coordinated by the Lutheran World Federation. The summit, which launched an interfaith campaign called "A Mother's Cry for a Healthy Africa," was attended by more than 240 participants and observers from Africa, Europe and North America. Women came from eight faith communities: African Traditional Religion, Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Rastafarianism.
• ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson and leaders of other mainline denominations said an April 24 teleconference unfairly portrayed those who disagree with Republicans about judicial appointments as hostile to people of faith
. Hanson called the event's rhetoric "damaging and divisive," warning that the fight over judges and the filibuster threatens to harm the country and the role of religion in public discourse. At "Justice Sunday," broadcast from a Louisville, Ky., Baptist church, conservative evangelical leaders said Democrats were acting "against people of faith" by "unfairly" trying to block some of President Bush's judicial appointments. Sen. Bill Frist, R.-Tenn., wants to change procedural rules so a minority of senators can't prevent a vote on a judicial candidate by prolonging debate. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, an advocacy group that organized the event, said, "This is not about faith, but a debate about fairness for people of faith, any faith."
• Saudi Arabia detained 40 Pakistani Christians for holding prayers at a home in Riyadh
. During a raid of the house, Saudi officials also found Christian books and tapes. Practicing any religion other than Islam is illegal in Saudi Arabia. Last year the U.S. State Department accused the country of severe violations of religious freedom, noting: "Freedom of religion is not recognized or protected under the country's laws and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam."
• In a statement to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the Lutheran World Federation said "landgrabbing" by Cambodia threatens the subsistence livelihood of most Cambodians
. The LWF has provided development assistance for Cambodians since 1979. The LWF report says Cambodia's government has "greatly compounded the general problem of landlessness and poverty in Cambodia" by granting land concessions to large multinational companies and businesses without consulting local people. More than a third of Cambodia's people live below the poverty level, and 85 percent are rural farmers.
• United Church of Christ President John Thomas rebuked Yale University officials after they told The New York Times the New Haven, Conn., school won't be maintaining its UCC ties. Administrators told the paper that the university and its chapel shouldn't be tied to one denomination but provide worship for a diversity of religious faiths. The decision "fails to honor our historic relationships in a meaningful or respectful way," Thomas told the UCC news service. "[It's difficult] to understand how disaffiliation from the church will enhance Yale's capacity to minister in a more meaningful way." Founded in 1701 by Congregationalists — UCC predecessors — to train clergy, Yale has been formally affiliated with the UCC since 1961.
• Ernest Michel, former chair of the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, warned that adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were again baptizing deceased Jews by proxy after a promise seven years ago to stop the practice
. Mormon theology says church members can research their genealogical histories and submit names of non-Mormon ancestors to be baptized posthumously. Mormon church officials met with Jewish leaders in New York to develop a process for removing Jewish names from a church index that allegedly includes at least 20,000 names of Holocaust victims baptized by proxy. While many Jewish leaders say the practice is insulting, Mormons believe souls can accept or reject baptism in the afterlife.
• Oregon's Supreme Court ruled April 14 to invalidate the marriages of 3,000 same-sex couples who were wed by licenses issued in 2004 by Multnomah County
. The court refused to decide whether the couples were eligible for the same rights and benefits as married couples. One day before the court's decision, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and a bipartisan group of state senators introduced legislation that would allow same-sex civil unions and outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians.
• Although they will still attend "to be available for conversation," Episcopal leaders voluntarily withdrew from participating in a June global steering committee meeting of the Anglican Communion. "We are mindful that Christ has made us members of one body, and that no part can say to any other, ‘I have no need of you.' " said an Episcopal Church statement. "At the same time we wish to express our openness to the concerns and beliefs of others." After international criticism for the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, World Anglican leaders asked the U.S. church to voluntarily decline to participate in the Anglican Consultative Council until 2008.
• Conservative Episcopalians developed three nine-point "covenants" that bishops, priests and members can sign to promise "I will not follow" if the Episcopal Church doesn't conform to the standards of the wider Anglican Communion. The bishops' covenant specifically contains a commitment to "build a personal and diocesan relationship" with an overseas diocese. After creating the "Windsor Action Covenants" at an April 18-2 meeting in Bedford, Texas, conservatives plan to distribute them before the church's 2006 General Convention that will act on same-sex unions and other issues. All three covenants respond to the Anglican Communion's Windsor report, which reprimanded U.S. and Canadian churches for allowing same-sex unions and an openly gay bishop.
• After criticism from Lutheran, Methodist and other church leaders in their state, Virginia's legislature defeated a bill to allow congregations to take their property with them if they left their denomination. Doug Smith, head of the Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said the bill would have contradicted the First Amendment, which "is intended to ensure that the state doesn't become so entangled by one faith that it begins to command how that church or faith should work."
• The All Africa Council of Churches called for an investigation after Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party won overwhelmingly in the March 31 parliamentary elections. The council said church observers saw voters being turned away, problems with voting lists, and discrepancies between the numbers of voters reported at polling stations and the final tallies. Council members also expressed unease over conditions that "contributed to an unlevel playing field," including suppression of the independent media.
• Despite protests by Jewish and Christian religious groups, shareholders of Caterpillar Inc. voted overwhelmingly to continue selling bulldozers to the Israeli army. Jewish Voice for Peace and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation protested outside Caterpillar's offices in Peoria, Ill., and at manufacturers and retailers in 20 U.S. locations. "Caterpillar is fully aware that their products are violating human rights laws, and they've chosen to do nothing about it," said protester Josh Ruebner. "Israel is using them as weapons ... armoring them and putting them into combat situations." Israel's use of Caterpillar bulldozers to tear down homes and destroy land has received more attention recently with moves toward selective divestment from Israel by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the World Council of Churches.
• "Any Protestant denomination that would consider the weapon of economic sanctions to be unilaterally and prejudicially used against the State of Israel ... creates an environment that makes constructive dialogue almost impossible," seven Jewish organizations wrote in an April 22 letter to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the ELCA, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and the National Council of Churches. The letter said the Presbyterian Church's decision to seek "phased selective divestment" from certain companies that do business in Israel — hurts Christian-Jewish relations. They urged Presbyterians and other groups to refuse to participate in "economic sanctions" and focus instead on "what can be done to support efforts to peace and confidence building." The Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Orthodox Union, Union for Reform Judaism, and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism signed the letter.
• A survey found that 75 percent of Americans want the government to enforce restrictions on TV content during children's prime viewing hours. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press also found that 69 percent of Americans want steeper fines for indecent network programming. And 60 percent thought those fines should be extended to cable programming. The survey found that 51 percent of white evangelical Protestants objected to the entertainment industry more than government restrictions, compared with only 27 percent of "secular" Americans.
• A Feb. 7 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, says the U.S. government is unfairly holding asylum-seekers in jails with convicted prisoners.
• The Roman Catholic Diocese of Sioux City (Iowa) objected after a communion wafer allegedly blessed by the late Pope John Paul II was sold on eBay for $2,000. An eBay spokesperson said the sale didn't violate company policy because it wasn't illegal to sell a wafer and it didn't promote hatred toward Catholics. The seller, from Iowa, said the wafer was received by going to communion twice.
• After a four-year decline in baptisms, the Southern Baptist Convention reported an increase from 377,357 in 2003 to 387,947 in 2004. It also reported 441 new congregations in 2004. President Bobby Welch is urging the 16.2-million member church to try to baptize 1 million people between June 2005 and June 2006.