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Worldscan

• In November the ELCA Church Council approved a statement that formally apologizes for Lutheran persecution against Anabaptists in 16th-century Europe. The ELCA declared its “deep and abiding sorrow and regret for the persecution and suffering visited upon the Anabaptists during the religious disputes of the past.” During the 16th-century Reformation, early reformers such as Martin Luther argued that Anabaptists and others who don’t practice infant baptism should be punished by civil authorities. The Augsburg Confession explicitly condemns Anabaptists for adult baptism and their theology of grace. The council acted because “past statements have become problematic for the ELCA’s present-day relationships with” Mennonites “and other Christians who trace their heritage to the 16th-century Anabaptist reformers.”

• The Lutheran World Federation welcomed recent indications by several countries of openness to receiving Bhutanese refugees for resettlement. But “the LWF would like to underline that acceptance of third country resettlement does not extinguish the refugees’ right to return to the homes in Bhutan from which they were obliged to flee,” LWF General Secretary Ishmael Noko said. The LWF Department for World Service program in Nepal has supported more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in camps in eastern Nepal for more than 15 years. In accordance with the refugees’ expressed wishes, the LWF has pushed for their repatriation to Bhutan, which the Bhutanese government has so far failed to accept.

Christian politician Pierre Gemayel, a 34-year-old Maronite Catholic and cabinet minister, was shot at point-blank range near Beirut, Lebanon. “Of course, whenever somebody dies like this it is a loss for the Christian community and for the country,” said Mary Mikhael, president of the Near East School of Theology, an interdenominational institution in Beirut. “The sense of loss is there but also the sense of fear and anxiety.” Gemayel was a supporter of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, and the killing has heightened political tensions in the diverse Christian community in which he lived.

The U.S. Episcopal Church and breakaway churches in Virginia agreed to a 30-day cooling-off period about property issues after eight congregations announced they intended to leave the denomination. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia said it won’t initiate any legal action against the congregations—which have agreed not to try to transfer church property for the next 30 days—in the dispute that is related to the consecration of an openly gay bishop. Some observers say a legal dispute may be unavoidable, given that the properties are valued at about $27 million. “These recent departures have received a significant amount of publicity, but they represent a tiny percentage of the total number of Episcopalians in the church,” said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. “In the hope that some may decide to return, we intend to keep the door open and the light on.”

• By a majority vote the (Lutheran) Church of Norway General Synod supported the proposal of a commission to abolish Norway’s state-church system. Sixty-three of the 85 delegates attending the November synod meeting in Oyer, Hamar diocese, voted to delete the reference to the denomination as a “state church” from the country’s constitution. Rather, it should be founded on a separate act of parliament and the General Synod should undertake all church authority, currently vested in the King of Norway and government. Last year the government-appointed commission delivered its report that recommended abolishing the current relation between the Church of Norway and the state. The earliest date for possible changes is 2013.

Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, joined 33 leaders from Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations to urge U.S. President George W. Bush to make peace in the Middle East a “top priority” for his administration. The National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East released a joint statement Dec. 14 and also sent a letter requesting a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to “discuss the urgent situation in the Middle East.” The letter said: “In the aftermath of the war in Lebanon and in light of the ongoing crisis in Gaza, there is a new urgency for achieving an effective cease-fire and returning to the path of negotiations among Palestinians, Israelis and the neighboring Arab states.”

• The Lutheran World Federation expressed concern at reports of harassment of aid workers in Sudan’s western Darfur region. It criticized the Khartoum government for “failing to provide humanitarian agencies with the support it has agreed upon” and for “failing to provide access to the areas where people are in need.” The declaration of the LWF Office for International Affairs and Human Rights, submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council during a two-day emergency session convened on Darfur, also expressed concern of the LWF and its partners on “the slow implementation” of the Darfur Peace Agreement, “the inadequate efforts to broaden its support base” and “the failure to secure new parties to the Agreement.”

• An alliance of church groups and an association of pastors in Zimbabwe joined forces with civil rights groups to reject plans by the ruling party to extend President Robert Mugabe’s 26 years of rule by another two years. The Zimbabwe Christian Alliance and the Zimbabwe National Pastors Conference announced they would team up with 21 rights groups to press against the ruling Zanu-PF extending the rule of the 82-year-old president until 2010.

• The 13th Synod of the Lutheran Church in European Russia rejected a proposal for blessing same-sex couples. A report from the church office in Moscow said the synod wasn’t reacting to a problem existing in its congregations but wanted to “take a position within the global Lutheran family.” The denomination is an independent regional church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia and Other States, encompassing 170 congregations and congregational groups structured in 12 districts.

The (Lutheran) Church of Sweden and the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden signed an ecumenical agreement recognizing “each other as apostolic churches, participating in the Church of Christ ... holding the same confession of the apostolic faith” and “the same understanding of the sacraments,” the Church of Sweden said in a statement. The churches “aim to be open for a common worship at the local level and to work toward joint responsibility in the society and in the world,” the statement said. The Mission Covenant Church is a Reformed free church founded in 1878 that places emphasis on the word of God, baptism and communion based on biblical teaching. The two churches recognize each other’s ordained deacons, priests and pastors and welcome these to serve, by invitation and in accordance with their own regulations, without having to undergo re-ordination.

• Lutheran World Relief responded to Typhoon Durian with an immediate $15,000 contribution through the global network of church-related humanitarian organizations, Action by Churches Together. The money will provide emergency assistance and address short-term rehabilitation needs for affected communities in the Philippines. The immediate response included food, water purifiers, water containers, mosquito nets, blankets and sleeping mats, clothing, cooking utensils and medicine. Typhoon Durian destroyed at least 66,000 homes and killed hundreds of people, possibly more than 1,000, according to estimates.

• For the first time in its 300-year history, the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church in India has ordained women. “Oct. 31, 2006, became a remarkable and unique day ...,” said Suseela Gnanabai, one of six women to be ordained at the Tiruchirapalli Holy Trinity Church in Tamil Nadu on Reformation Sunday. Jeevajyothi Martin, the first woman in the Tamil Nadu Lutheran church to study theology, had waited 28 years for the affirmation of her call. She said she hopes “to be a role model for the upcoming women pastors through my ministry and life. ... My future plan is to encourage girls to enter into the ministry so that the devotion, sincerity, honesty and hard work of women could be used for the glory of God.”

The United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council rejected two separate attempts by regional conferences to evade a 2005 decision that allows pastors to bar gays and lesbians from joining the church. The court said a petition by the Kansas East Annual Conference that said pastors could not deny church membership “solely based on the candidate ... being a self-avowed homosexual” was contrary to the high court’s 2005 decision. While regional conferences and bishops are allowed to express opinions contrary to church rules, they may not direct pastors or lay members to disobey the rules, the court said. The council also ruled that Bishop Edward Paup of the Pacific Northwest Conference was correct to reject a petition that urged pastors to “voluntarily relinquish” their right to deny membership to homosexuals.

Ohio’s Roman Catholic bishops are offering a program that will allow survivors of childhood sexual abuse to get counseling independent of the church. In what appears to be the first voluntary program of its kind in the country, eight dioceses and an Eastern Rite jurisdiction contributed $3 million to a fund for victims of childhood sexual abuse who no longer trust the church to help them. “It’s the right thing to do,” said Timothy Luckhaupt, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio. “We’ve harmed people. We should help them.”

• Evangelical leaders, including a new corps of young activists, called for government officials to pay greater attention to climate change. “Our allegiance to Jesus Christ demands that the threat of climate change can no longer be ignored,” states a letter to President George W. Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The letter, from the Evangelical Youth Climate Initiative, is part of a growing movement to get evangelicals involved in environmental protection.

• Religious leaders and faith-based organizations are questioning the global political will to fight HIV and AIDS in light of the 2006 AIDS Epidemic Update issued by the U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS. “The human toll of the epidemic is undeniable and increasing,” said Manoj Kurian of the World Council of Churches. “The statistics represent the lives of our families and friends, our faith communities and our religious leaders. We all must do more.” The U.N. report released in Geneva, Switzerland, in November indicates that the number of people living with HIV increased in every region of the world from 2004 to 2006, with the greatest increases in East Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “Our governments must still learn to keep their promises,” said Sheila Shyamprasad of the Lutheran World Federation. She noted that “189 countries signed the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, but only 126 submitted their reports on how they have delivered [on their commitments].”

Church leaders in Kenya called for action following a report showing that sex tourism and sexual exploitation of children have reached an alarming proportion on the coast of the East African country, where thousands of foreigners and local tourists celebrated Christmas and the New Year. The UNICEF report indicated that 30 percent of girls aged from 12 to 18 in four districts at the Kenyan coast engaged in casual sex for cash.

The British government told publicly funded schools in England and Wales that materials advocating alternatives to the Darwinian theory of evolution should not be used in teaching science. This follows the recent distribution of material by the Truth in Science group that promoted the teaching of intelligent design, which centers around the idea that the universe has been created by a higher power. “Since neither intelligent design nor creationism are recognized scientific theories, the Truth in Science information pack is not a suitable resource for the science curriculum,” a spokesperson for the British government’s education department said.

• The U.N. war-crimes court for Rwanda convicted a Roman Catholic priest of genocide and sentenced him to 15 years for his role in the 1994 mass killings in the central African country. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found Athanase Seromba guilty on two of four counts he faced in connection with the genocide in which about 800,000 people, mainly minority Tutsis and some Hutus, died. The tribunal released Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, an 82-year-old former senior pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who was serving a 10-year prison sentence meted in 2003 for his role in the genocide.

• Tributes were paid to South African Lutheran pastor, Wolfram Kistner, who died at age 83, for his role in the struggle against apartheid. “He has been one of the clearest voices, articulating biblically and theologically why as Christians we had to support the struggle against apartheid which violated the very values he stood for,” said Samuel Kobia, World Council of Churches general secretary. “Working as director of the Division of Justice and Reconciliation of the South African Council of Churches from 1976-1988, he became the most prominent Lutheran theologian to condemn and de-legitimise the apartheid regime,” Kobia noted.


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