• In a Feb. 29 letter, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson and other U.S. leaders of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to directly address the crisis over the Gaza Strip during her March visit to the Middle East. The crisis, the leaders wrote, “is hindering progress on the peace process and also creates conditions that pose a particular threat to the small Christian community in Gaza. ... If action is not taken soon, the possibility of a larger military confrontation looms. ... The blockade [of Gaza] results in power outages, water and food shortages and a lack of adequate access to medical supplies that create a humanitarian crisis felt by all Gazans, while rocket attacks on Israel have targeted civilians indiscriminately and made normal life impossible in the areas affected.” They urged a cease-fire, called for an end to the blockade, and welcomed Rice’s Feb. 22 announcement that the U.S. would increase its support of aid to Gaza.
• ELCA International Disaster Response sent the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia $50,000 to support relief work after flooding killed 21 and left thousands homeless in eastern and northern Namibia. Y. Franklin Ishida, director for international leadership development, ELCA Global Mission, said the flooding “is not front page news” outside Namibia, but some northern regions were “hit with the worst flooding in 50 years.” ELCA funds will provide food, medicine, drinking water and emergency shelter.
• A study found that Protestants may soon become a minority in the U.S. The Washington D.C.-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said U.S. Protestants today are 51 percent of the population, compared to about two-thirds in the mid-1980s. The study was based on interviews with more than 35,000 adults in 2007. Researchers also found that about 44 percent of U.S. adults have changed or let go of their religious affiliation. Those with no affiliation—16.2 percent—are the most rapidly growing group. Roman Catholics, still the largest group in the U.S., had the most losses due to changes in religious affiliation. While nearly one-third of Americans grew up Roman Catholic, only 24 percent now describe themselves as such. Researchers also found that 20 percent of nondenominational churchgoers said they were mainline Protestants. Individually, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists each claim less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.
• Lutheran Church of the Reformation, Washington, D.C., hosted a March 7 worship service for “Christian Peace Witness for Iraq.” Bishop Richard H. Graham of the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Synod and host pastor Conrad A. Braaten led the service. Preachers were Sharon Delgado, a United Methodist minister from Nevada City, Calif., and Graylan Hagler, a United Church of Christ pastor in Washington, D.C. It was one of many March 7 ecumenical services or vigils around the U.S. calling for an end to war and occupation of Iraq.
• Kenyan church leaders welcomed a power-sharing agreement between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga. Peter Karanja, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, called it “good news for Kenya” and “a framework for starting the work on the real issues.” Violence erupted after Kibaki won the Dec. 27 presidential elections that Odinga said were rigged. About 1,500 people were killed and at least 300,000 were displaced by the violence. Religious leaders had previously held a national day of prayer where they owned part of the blame for the unrest since they, too, had been caught up in the ethnic divisions that polarized Kenya.
• Some Minnesotans in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are testing a 2006 change to the denomination’s Book of Order that allows gay and lesbian candidates for ordination to conscientiously object to church rules that ministers must be celibate outside of heterosexual marriage. After such an objection, local presbyteries or governing bodies decide if the objection is “a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity.” The Presbytery of the Twin Cities voted 197-79 to restore the ordination of Paul Capetz, an openly gay man and seminary professor removed from ministry in 2006.
• Bishop Margot Kässmann of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover asked the media and the church to show mutual respect. Kässmann told a Feb. 15 gathering of journalists in Berlin that newspapers and radio stations need short quotes, which “often doesn’t fit in with how we talk in church. A sermon lasts 15 minutes and a theological lecture at least 45.” While church people may scorn the media for seeking sound bites, she said, “I like to point out that most of Jesus’ parables probably last no longer than a minute and a half.” She said church leaders often fear the media, but “my experience is that transparency is the best strategy. ... If I have nothing to hide, then I can say openly exactly what is going on. ... I expect a certain respect from the media about the church and the Christian faith. ... [Still] I will defend people having the freedom to report critically about my faith and even more about any aberrations of my church.”
• The Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy said a decision by 17 Danish newspapers to reprint a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed in 2007 was “simply inflammatory.” The cartoon was first published in 2006 as an attempt “to establish the need for freedom of expression,” said institute president Joseph K. Grieboski. He condemned the reprint, saying, “A responsible media avoids inciting foreseeable violence.” After it was rerun Feb. 13, Denmark youth unhappy with the cartoon and what they called police harassment engaged in vandalism for several days. In Amman, Jordan, demonstrators reportedly burned Danish flags and in Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir threatened to expel Danish citizens and boycott that country’s products
• Nilton Guesse was elected as interim general secretary of the Latin American Council of Churches, following the February resignations of Israel Batista, former general secretary, Latin American Council of Churches, and six staff members. Guesse is a member of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil. Council board member Juan Schvindt of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church of the River Plate in Argentina told Ecumenical News International that the resignations came as a "surprise," just as he and other board members were to begin evaluating the organization's three-year plan. ENI said resigning staff and other sources cited a lack of recognition, poor policies for performance appraisal and an alleged struggle for control against Batista, a Methodist pastor who served the council for eight years. ENI also said Batista was critical of traditional ecumenism's emphasis on social justice programs, as well as a lack of dynamism and growth in so-called "historical" Protestant churches. His desire to open the council to Evangelical and Pentecostal groups created tension among churches in the region. (Ed. note: an earlier item incorrectly stated that another leader was elected general secretary of the Latin American Council of Churches. Our apologies for this error.)
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