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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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As famine continues across East Africa, ELCA International Disaster Response sent $380,000 by the end of March. Lutheran partners in the affected countries received $250,000 for famine relief for Kenya, $100,000 for Ethiopia and $30,000 for Tanzania. “We ask you to remember in your prayers people who are facing this famine,” said Belletech Deressa, ELCA director for international development and disaster response. To give, send checks to ELCA International Disaster Response, P.O. Box 71764, Chicago, IL 60694-1764; (800) 638-3522; www.elca.org/giving.

The World Council of Churches Assembly elected Brazilian Lutheran theologian Walter Altmann as moderator of its Central Committee—the main governing body. Altmann is president of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil. WCC leaders also proposed that the WCC, the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches hold joint assemblies in the next decade. Mark Hanson, LWF president and ELCA presiding bishop, welcomed the proposal but said it would mean “careful talks” dealing with complex issues. ELCA Vice President Carlos Pena and ELCA member Kathryn Lohre were elected to the WCC Central Committee during the February assembly in Port Alegre, Brazil.

More than 150 Jewish and Muslim religious leaders at the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis in Seville, Spain, sent a March 19 message against extremism. Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger called for a “U.N. of religious groups” to help bridge divides. It’s unclear how many religious leaders back Metzger’s proposal, but it reportedly has broad support from conflict-resolution experts.

An Anglican bishop called for debate over clergy burnout. Stephen Lowe, bishop of Hulme in England, said some clergy work 70 to 80 hours a week and never take a vacation. In the next few years, he predicted, “the old practice of clergy having a freehold office, which means they are accountable to themselves, will go. [In its place] will come something nearer to most people’s experience of employment relationships: job descriptions, annual appraisals, disciplinary procedures”—and possibly a 48-hour workweek.

Continuing violence in the Middle East set off a Christian exodus from the Holy Land, a Vatican cardinal declared. In a letter to bishops, Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches, asked Roman Catholics worldwide to increase aid to the region’s dwindling Christian population. (See related story, "Building on the Mount of Olives.")

• Religious leaders and a bipartisan group of more than 100 members of Congress protested the Treasury Department’s new rules on religious travel to Cuba. The National Council of Churches and the American Baptist Churches, USA, said they can no longer travel to Cuba to visit partner churches and attend conferences. The same is true for Global Ministries—the mission arm of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can only travel there four times a year. Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said “a number of large organizations were abusing their religious travel licenses” so the rules ensure legitimate trips. “The policy also helps ensure that those simply looking for R&R on the island are no longer able to line Castro’s pockets under the pretext of religious travel,” Millerwise said. Religious leaders denied misuse of licenses.

• A USA Today article (March 3) says more than three dozen congregations left the Episcopal Church in response to the 2003 appointment of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, who is in a same-sex relationship. The congregations aligned with branches of the Anglican Communion in Rwanda, Uganda, Brazil and Bolivia, which have taken stands against homosexuality. The largest defections—10 in Florida—came in January. For example, Grace Church, Orange Park, Fla., joined the Episcopal Church of Rwanda and had to leave its building by Easter. Its pastor, Sam Pascoe, will ultimately be defrocked, says Canon Kurt Dunkle of the Diocese of Florida. Episcopal Church leaders say the breakaway congregations are a small part of more than 7,200 Episcopal parishes.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said it’s “deeply concerned” about a worsening situation for religious minorities in Iran. “A consistent stream of virulent and inflammatory statements by political and religious leaders and an increase of harassment, imprisonment and physical attacks against these groups is clear evidence of a disturbing, renewed pattern of oppression,” the group said.

Protestant leaders from Argentina and Uruguay want to mediate in the countries’ dispute about the building of two mills to produce eucalyptus pulp in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. Environmentalists staged demonstrations and road blockades, contending that chemical and organic waste generated in producing wood pulp will harm the environment. Juan Schvindt, general secretary of the Evangelical [Lutheran] Church of the River Plate, said, “The new understanding [of national borders] is crucial. When we are confronted with the reality of the ecosystems, upon which all life is based, those old frontiers lose their relevance.”

• A nuclear agreement between India and the U.S. signed during President George W. Bush’s visit to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan evoked mixed reaction from the region’s churches. Under the agreement, the U.S. will provide nuclear fuel to India for its nuclear energy program and India will open 14 of its 23 nuclear installations for international inspection. The U.S. Congress must still approve the deal. “This is a sign of recognition of India’s importance in international relations,” said Babu Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India. But Amelia Andrews of the National Council of Churches in India, to which India’s Lutheran World Federation-member churches belong, said the council was “alarmed by the euphoria” over the deal. “Nuclear technology is playing with fire and we should be very cautious on this front,” she added.

• South Africa’s highest court recognized the marriage of two Pretoria women and gave Parliament a year to extend legal marital rights to same-sex couples. The ruling will make South Africa the first country to allow such marriages on a continent where homosexual activity is widely condemned and often outlawed. Only the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada allow same-sex marriages. Several others, mostly in Europe, recognize civil unions between gay partners. The court’s judges unanimously agreed that South Africa’s 1996 constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, guarantees the right of gay men and lesbians to marry. The South African Council of Churches said the ruling provoked such diverse reactions that it’s unlikely to have a unified position.

• Angel Furlan, former president of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Argentina, criticized his country’s repayment of $9.5 billion—its outstanding loans—to the International Monetary Fund. Furlan is responsible for a Lutheran World Federation advocacy program on illegitimate foreign debt. He insists the repayment contributed to deepening the impunity enjoyed by its creditor and to worsening the social and economic well-being of Argentinians—40 percent of whom live below the poverty line. In December 2005, Furlan and citizens led by Nobel Peace Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel lodged an appeal with the country’s Federal Court of Administrative Affairs, demanding suspension of the payment. The group argued that the government made the decision to repay the debt in a “unilateral and nonconsultative manner.” Members cited disregard for a federal court ruling that substantiated the fraudulent nature of the debt.

• The Church of England’s Ethical Investment Advisory Groups refused to back a call for disinvestment from Caterpillar Inc., the U.S. manufacturer of bulldozers used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes. The demand came in a Feb. 6 resolution backed by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams at the church’s General Synod. That decision sparked protests from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who said the church was jeopardizing Christian-Jewish relations. In a March 7 statement, the Anglican advisory group said it had reaffirmed a September 2005 decision not to disinvest but to continue to engage with Caterpillar. “The decision was taken in the specific context that there are no current or projected sales of Caterpillar equipment for use by the Israeli government,” said John Reynolds, chair of EIAG, which advises the Church of England’s three investing bodies. “Caterpillar sold its equipment to a U.S. government body and had no direct sales to the Israeli government and the EIAG could find no compelling evidence that Caterpillar is, or has been, complicit in human rights abuses.”

• A high-ranking Vatican official said the Catholic Church must defend itself against the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. In La Stampa, an Italian newspaper, Monsignor Velasio De Paolis, secretary of the Vatican’s Supreme Court, said, “Faced with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, the West is closing its eyes as it did with Hitler.” Although the Vatican has called for interreligious dialogue in the face of escalating violence targeted at Christians, DePaolis expressed doubt that conversation can take place on reciprocal terms. “Islam is closed to the point of not admitting reciprocity,” he said. “Last Easter, visiting ‘moderate’ Turkey, I had to say mass at home without displaying Christian symbols. In Islamic countries, as soon as the church shows its true colors, it’s immediately accused of proselytizing. Until now, only points of commonality [between Muslims and Christians] have been discussed. But saying nothing about differences will have a ruinous effect.”

• Tom Fox, 54, a U.S. Quaker who had journeyed to Baghdad in November with three other members of a Christian Peacemaker Teams brigade, was tortured and killed by kidnappers, authorities said. British forces freed the three other activists abducted with Fox­­—Norman Kember of Great Britain, and James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden, both of Canada—in an operation in Mishahda, Iraq. CPT says it will continue its work in Iraq despite Fox’s murder. “In response to Tom’s passing, we ask that everyone set aside inclinations to vilify or demonize others, no matter what they have done,” noted a CPT statement.

• Speaking at a Faith-Based and Community Initiatives conference in March, President George W. Bush challenged corporations and foundations to fund religious charities “not for the sake of faith but for the sake of results.” The White House researched 50 large corporate foundations, finding that 20 percent prohibited funding for faith-based social service programs. Half of those that allowed such funding gave only 6 percent of their grants to religious charities. Speaking at the conference, Steve Wing, director of government programs for CVS Corp., reminded officials of faith-based and community organizations that businesses are interested in making money and will want to know how charities can help them. He cited a situation where he worked with a District of Columbia church leader to hold a job fair that brought in dozens of new CVS employees.

• Muslim organizations demanded that the Treasury Department release millions of dollars in donations held by charities whose assets were frozen because of suspected terrorism ties. Representatives of 10 charities, advocacy and civil rights groups made the demands after meeting to discuss the closure of KindHearts, a Toledo, Ohio, charity. “The [KindHearts] money was intended to go to feed and help the victims of the Pakistan earthquake, and now these intended recipients are going to suffer from the decision of the Treasury Department,” said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Washington-D.C.-based advocacy group. The council said more than 25 Muslim-American nonprofits have been shut down since Sept. 11 because of what it calls “vague allegations” of providing support to terrorists. Critics say the government still doesn’t have any convictions against employees or board members of the shuttered charities and has never uncovered a money trail. A Treasury Department spokeswoman rejected those criticisms, asserting that the government has made the evidence public, resulting in the March 2006 creation of the National Council on American Muslim Nonprofits.

• The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agreed to stop funding the Silver Ring Thing, an abstinence program in Moon Township, Pa., that included religious elements. The American Civil Liberties Union announced that a settlement had been reached between its lawyers and federal officials. “The ACLU supports the right of Silver Ring Thing to offer religious programming, but it may not do so using government funds,” said Julie Sternberg, an ACLU attorney. Court papers described presentations that included students reciting an abstinence pledge and wearing a silver ring inscribed with a reference to Bible verses from 1 Thessalonians: “God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin.”

• After a three-month study, Catholic Charities of Boston concluded that a Massachusetts anti-discrimination law makes it impossible for the agency to adhere to Roman Catholic teachings that prohibit the placement of children with same-sex couples. Rather than challenge the law in court, the agency opted to end its 103-year-old tradition of facilitating adoptions. Massachusetts’ four Roman Catholic bishops sought the state’s permission to limit the church’s adoption services to heterosexual couples. “We are asking the commonwealth to respect the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom and allow the Catholic church to continue serving children in need of adoption without violating the tenets of our faith,” the bishops said. Eight board members resigned their duties at Catholic Charities of Massachusetts in protest of the bishops’ position.

• A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 46 percent of Americans have a negative view of Islam, up 7 percent from the months immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A third of the 1,000 people polled said Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims. The poll was done March 2-5 on the heels of protests over cartoons of Muhammed published in several European newspapers. Sam Aboelela, who organized a “Progressive Muslim” meeting in New York, said perceptions would have been negative even if the protest didn’t happen. “There’s something negative in the news every night about Muslims. If it weren’t the cartoon controversy, it would have been something else,” he said.

• A Southern Baptist Convention campaign to baptize 1 million believers in a single year is barely off the ground as it approaches the six-month mark. The program’s Web site lists 1,555 baptisms from 141 churches as of March 16—0.16 percent of the 1 million goal has been reached. Southern Baptists aren’t looking at the question of how to do church differently, said David Kay, director of Baptist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. “They’re looking at programs that say, ‘What can we do to get back to our old numbers?’ It worked in the ’50s, but it’s not going to work now,” he added. Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch urged congregations and regional associations of churches to conduct baptism rallies. Ken Hemphill, a Southern Baptist strategist for evangelism, said 7,500 Southern Baptist churches can’t claim a single baptism in a year and more than half of all Southern Baptist churches are baptizing five or fewer people in a year. But some say the goal has prompted them to try new approaches, including staged events revolving around sports, motorcycles and rodeo to attract new members.


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