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• Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop and LWF president, urged U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to ask Tzipi Livni, Israel’s minister of foreign affairs, to resolve a tax case involving Augusta Victoria Hospital, Jerusalem. Hanson wrote Feb. 8: “Our urgent request is that the tax case involving the government of Israel be resolved so that nonprofit providers, including the Lutheran World Federation’s Augusta Victoria Hospital, can continue to provide care for Palestinian people who are in need.” He called it a “critical time” to affirm “all efforts to provide a foundation of good will.” The hospital may have to pay hundreds of thousands in taxes to Israel, jeopardizing its future. Israel won a 2002 court case rescinding the tax-exempt status the LWF has held since 1966. The LWF appealed the verdict to the Israeli Supreme Court.

• On Feb. 14 the Ohio Board of Education voted 11-4 to reject a plan to teach intelligent design. Critics of the plan said it was essentially creationism and an attack on the theory of evolution. Earlier a Zogby Poll had shown strong support in Ohio for teaching both evolution and criticism of evolution.

• At the end of February, the ELCA sent $800,000 for continuing relief efforts more than one year after the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami hit Southeast Asia. That includes $300,000 for Church World Service to rebuild houses in Indonesia; $200,000 for Yakkum Emergency Unit’s relief work in Indonesia; and $300,000 for relief efforts of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India. India’s Lutherans are building Jubilee Village, a housing and livelihood program that will especially benefit the Dalit class, who often face economic and other discrimination.

• To stave off famine in drought-stricken Kenya, the ELCA sent $100,000 in February to Action by Churches Together, an international alliance of churches and others. ACT officials said as many as 3.5 million people are at risk for starvation. In Kenya, ACT supports emergency aid and long-term development projects run by the Lutheran World Federation, Church World Service and ELCA companion churches. To help, send checks to ELCA International Disaster Response, P.O. Box 71764, Chicago, IL 60694-1764; (800) 638-3522; or www.elca.org/giving.

• Focus on the Family, a Colorado group that opposes gay marriage, supported state legislation extending rights to health insurance for two unmarried people. The bill—introduced by Republican state senator Shawn Mitchell­—allows gay couples and other adults to be involved in medical decisions, jointly own property and participate in such decisions as disposal of remains. Jim Pfaff of Focus on the Family told Religion News Service that the bill wasn’t “pro-gay” because it could help a range of people, including two elderly women living together and sharing Social Security benefits. But the Colorado-based Family Research Institute criticized such support as taking away the benefits of marriage.

• Joining a call by the U.N., the National Council of Churches asked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. In a letter to Rice, NCC General Secretary Robert Edgar said U.N. charges, which include the force-feeding of inmates, could only be dismissed by the U.S. allowing “independent, credible access to the detainees.”

• Lutheran church leaders in Denmark denounced cartoons of the prophet Muhammed that first appeared in a Danish paper. Danish church leaders met in February with Grand Imam Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, Egypt’s top Muslim cleric. Tantawi demanded that the Danish prime minister apologize for the cartoons and asked the world’s religious leaders to write a law that “condemns insulting any religion.” Bishop Karsten Nissen of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark brought an apology from the newspaper but told the imam the prime minister “cannot apologize for something he did not do.”

• The Air Force revised its interim guidelines on religious expression. The document says the Air Force will “respect the rights of chaplains to adhere to the tenets of their religious faiths [without requiring them] to participate in religious activities, including public prayer, inconsistent with their faiths.” One conservative group, Focus on the Family, praised the document while another, the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers, said it didn’t clarify if a chaplain can pray using Jesus’ name in a public ceremony. Liberal groups also disagreed, with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism saying the changes allow freedom of religion, and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State saying the document no longer addresses the religious freedom of people of minority faiths or nonbelievers.

• The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the U.S. Muslim community would continue to “condemn all violent actions” by protesters in response to editorial cartoons of the prophet Muhammed. Ibrahim Hooper, the council’s communications director, said “everyone has the right to peacefully protest defamatory attacks on their religious figures, but protesters should not reinforce existing stereotypes by resorting to violence or inflammatory rhetoric.”

• Southern Baptist pastor Wade Burleson said he’s being ousted from the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board for his defense of missionaries who speak in tongues (glossalia). At issue, Burleson said, is “the direction we seem to be moving as a convention that shuts out dissent and desires conformity in the interpretation of minor doctrines.” Church policies don’t allow pastors to speak in tongues publicly. As of November 2005, the board’s policy said candidates who speak in tongues, publicly or privately, can’t be considered for missionary work. The board said Burleson’s removal wouldn’t be about tongues but “broken trust and resistance to accountability.” The removal must be approved in June by the entire Southern Baptist Convention.

• Thirty-one religious leaders in central Ohio signed a Jan. 15 complaint asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the World Harvest and Fairfield Christian megachurches and their affiliates. The complaint accuses the megachurches’ leaders of promoting political officeholders, including gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell. One of the signers, Jack Seville, a United Church of Christ pastor in Columbus, said he was concerned whenever “religious organizations step across the lines that have been honored historically to separate church and state.” Seville said the complaint was meant to get a clarification from the federal government, not to attack the leaders. Calling the 31 pastors a “consortium of liberal clergy,” World Harvest pastor Rod Parsley said both megachurches had followed the law.

• While the Church of England voted to divest funds from companies doing business in Israel, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) investment panel chose to not recommend such a move to its General Assembly in June. The Church of England General Synod suggested divesting from Caterpillar, which manufactures vehicles Israel has used to demolish Palestinian homes. While the vote isn’t binding on those who manage denominational investments, The Daily Telegraph called it “symbolic.” The vote responded to a call for morally responsible investment by the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. Caterpillar, along with Motorola and United Technologies, was earlier suggested as a target by the Presbyterian Church, which was criticized by many Jewish groups after a 2004 vote to study divestment.

• A national poll of 1,000 high school seniors found that more than 60 percent wanted to preserve the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that overturned state laws restricting abortion. But a majority also said they didn’t favor abortions in four instances: a pregnant woman not wanting more children; an unwed pregnant teen; the threat of a serious birth defect; and poverty. The majority also said “abortion is always or usually morally wrong.”

• Churches in Sri Lanka expressed relief about February’s resumption of peace talks between the government and Tamil rebels. After a three-year lapse in peace talks in the ethnically divided country, the Norwegian negotiators who brokered a 2002 truce announced that the two warring groups would meet in Geneva. But Jayasiri Peiris, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Sri Lanka, cautioned: “We have a long way to go.” Since 1983, rebels have fought for autonomy for majority Tamil (predominantly Hindu) areas in the north and east of the island nation. Ethnic Sinhalas, in large part Buddhist, make up 74 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. Christians and Muslims make up about 13 percent of the population and can be found on both sides of the conflict. About 15 percent of the population is Hindu. More than 65,000 people have been killed and more than 1.8 million displaced during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Members of all religious groups have been victims of the violence.

• A University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, study of 373 black and white married couples found that husbands and wives who attend religious services together are less likely to divorce. Both spouses were of the same race. Begun in 1986, the ongoing study found that in the first seven years of marriage, education was a protective factor against divorce for wives; for husbands it was higher income and feeling affirmed by their spouses. Black couples were more at risk for divorce than whites. Researchers also said that frequency of attendance and importance of faith didn’t influence the risk of divorce. 

• The Vatican may expand its Roman Catholic-Jewish dialogue to include Muslims, according to the head of the Vatican’s office for interreligious dialogue, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald. The Vatican also called for talks with Islamic scholars about the Crusades, when popes launched military campaigns into the Holy Land, and latter centuries when Muslims conquered parts of Europe and the Mediterranean, including the Balkans.

• Eighty-three percent of Finland’s population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. That number reflects the 33,043 people who left the church in 2005. About 70 percent of those leaving were adults aged 20 to 39. An August 2003 religious freedom law made the resignation process easier, lifting a one-month waiting period and no longer requiring a personal appearance at an office. A follow-up survey of 600 of the former members found that many felt church membership lacked meaning. Others called the church either too liberal or too conservative. One in 10 wanted out of paying the church tax. But in 2005 the Finnish church also took in 9,559 new members and baptized nearly 50,000 children.

• At presstime, an Upper Room editor was still being held hostage by a rebel group in India. Tongkhojang Lunkim, editor of the Kuki edition of the Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide, was kidnapped in January by the Kuki Liberation Army, which demanded a $430,000 ransom. Christians are a minority in northwest India, where Lunkim works. Stephen Bryant, publisher of the Upper Room in Nashville, said Lunkim “has lived with threats and danger ever since Christ called him.” The same rebel group kidnapped and later released Lunkim’s son in 2003.


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