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« Reply #870 on: December 20, 2009, 08:50:12 PM »

Christians Accused of Desecrating Quran Freed in Pakistan
Brian Sharma


December 18, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan (CDN) — A Christian in Faisalabad district and his 20-year-old daughter were released on Monday (Dec. 14) after 14 grueling months in jail on false charges of blaspheming the Quran.

Khalil Tahir, attorney for Gulsher Masih and his daughter Ashyana Gulsher (known as Sandal), said the case was typical of the way Pakistan's blasphemy laws can be used to harass innocent Christians.

"Christians are the soft targets, and most of the people implicated in these inhumane laws are Christians," Tahir said. "We Christians are fighting for the same, noble goal - to provide justice to the victims of blasphemy laws."

Masih said that inmates beat him at least five times since he was arrested on Oct. 23, 2008. His daughter was arrested two weeks earlier, on Oct. 10.

"These long 14 months seemed like ages," Masih told Compass. "There was one inmate, Ghulam Fareed, a rich man, who always harassed me, trying to coerce me to convert to Islam by saying he would make me rich and would send me abroad."

Fareed, who also promised high quality education for Masih's children, joined with Islamic extremists jailed for terrorist acts to beat him in an effort to force him to "come into the fold of Islam," Masih said. While in jail, he said, his wife told him that their daughter had been beaten several times by the superintendent of police.

Masih and his daughter were charged under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code for blaspheming the Quran. Before charges were filed in October 2008, Masih said an initial incident occurred on Aug. 25, when Ashyana Gulsher found some burned pages of the Quran in a garbage dump outside their community of Chak No. 57, Chak Jhumra in the district of Faisalabad.

Masih said she handed the charred pages to a woman, Lubana Taj, saying, "These are the holy page of your Quran and I found them in the garbage, so you take it."

There were still some pages left, which she gave to their neighbor, Khalida Rafiq, who burned them, he said.

"She had borrowed wheat from us a few weeks ago, and when my wife demanded it back, Khalida Rafiq said that we had burned pages of the Quran and was now accusing us of taking wheat," Masih said. "Some other women of the village also accused my children of making paper airplanes of the pages of the Quran."

The escalating conflict was defused with the help of other neighbors who knew the truth, he said, and local Muslim cleric Amam Hafiz Muhammad Ali also intervened, saying Masih's daughter had done a good deed and questioning why the neighbor women were repaying her with evil.

"We thought that the matter was buried, but it arose again on Oct. 7, 2008," Masih said. On that day 20-year-old Muhammad Qasim went throughout the village on bicycle exclaiming that Christians had burned the Quran, Masih said. Upon hearing this, village landlord Rana Sarwar called Masih and told him that his children had burned the Quran and had used pages to make paper airplanes.

"I told them that I was working in Asghar Christian Colony and never knew about the incident, and the son who had been accused of blasphemy had gone to school," Masih said.

His accusers were unmoved, he said.

"In the evening when I was returning home, I heard announcements from several mosques that Christians had burned the Quran," he said. "After hearing the announcement, people began pouring in. These announcements were made by Tariq son of Hafeez, Maqbool son of Hafeez and Maulana Tawaseel Bajwa."

When Masih called emergency police, they arrested him and sent him to the Jhumra police station, Faisalabad.

"The police asked me where my children were, and when I told them that the children were in the village, the police went back to arrest them," he said. "Rana Sarwar, Wajid Khan and Rana Naeem Khan came into the police station and argued that my children had blasphemed, so why was I the one being beaten? I told Rana Sarwar in front of the police that if my children have done this, then I was ready to bear consequences."

Police told them that the crowd outside wanted to hang him and that this was why they had arrested him. Masih said that the next day Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Yousuf Zai came and asked him why he had committed blasphemy.

"Rana Sarwar then told the DSP that it was all a political ploy, and that I had been implicated in the case for voting for the opposition party," he said. "If that day those Christian Members of Parliamentary Assembly had spoken up, then the police complaint wouldn't have been registered against me."

Masih added that the station house officer felt that he was innocent but had become legally entangled due to lack of support from the community. Masih said that the next day, Oct. 8, a few Muslims gave conflicting statements against him when charges were filed.

"One said he saw me burning the pages of the Quran at 10 a.m., the other said that he saw me burning the pages at 12 p.m. and still another said that he saw me burning the pages of the Quran at 2 p.m.," he said. "When I was sent in jail, the investigation office swore that I was innocent."

In a further contradiction, the complainants accused him of cutting up pages of the Quran and tossing them in the air, not burning them, Tahir said.

The complainant in the case was Mohammad Farooq Alam, and other prosecution witnesses named were Mohammad Maqbool Ahmad and Mohammad Akber, according to Tahir.

Masih said that initially he appeared before Judge Zulfikar Lon, but that whenever a judge asked for witnesses, he was transferred.

"In this manner eight months passed, and then Judge Raja Mohammad Ghazanfar came" and refused to be transferred, Masih said.

After Tahir's cross-examination of witnesses, Ghazanfar dropped all charges and ordered their release.

"During cross examination, I proved that the whole case was concocted, frivolous, fake and that the charges against the accused Christian brother were unfounded," Tahir said.

Tahir said that he had provided only legal assistance to the victims, with Johnson Michael, chairman of the Bishop John Joseph Shaheed Trust, providing paralegal assistance. An MPA in the Punjab Parliament, Tahir is the body's secretary for Human Rights and Minority Affairs and also serves as executive director of advocacy group Action Against Discriminatory Laws Trust Pakistan.
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« Reply #871 on: December 20, 2009, 08:51:18 PM »

Religion Today Summaries - Dec. 18, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff

Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * India: 20,000 Christians Face Christmas as Refugees
    * Majority of Americans Celebrate Christmas as Religious Holiday
    * Candlelight Services Prove Costly for Some Ala. Churches
    * Wycliffe Pushes to Establish Facilities in Southern Sudan



India: 20,000 Christians Face Christmas as Refugees

Christian Today reports that as many as 20,000 Christians in India will spend another year as refugees. About 50,000 people were displaced by militant Hindus in Orissa state two years ago, and many still fear to return to their villages. The state's courts have moved slowly, while witnesses to the violence have been threatened and intimidated outside the courtrooms. Groups such as Release International have lobbied the Indian government to speed up the justice process. Andy Dipper, CEO of Release International, which serves persecuted Christians worldwide, said: "Please pray for Christians in India this Christmas, especially those in Orissa who still face the high risk of attack and marginalization from the Hindu fundamentalists."

Majority of Americans Celebrate Christmas as Religious Holiday

The Westside Story reports that two-thirds of Americans still celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but that doesn't mean they believe the traditional Christmas story. A new Rasmussen Reports survey found that 66 percent of Americans consider Christmas to be religious, but 28 percent don't think he was born of a virgin. Another 19 percent say they did not agree that Jesus is the Son of God. Most Americans still accept the historical nature of Jesus as well - 82 percent said the historical Jesus really did walk the earth 2,000 years ago. Overall, about 85 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, even though 20 percent of the population puts up the tree without any religious overtones. Most Americans say they still prefer signs wishing them a "merry Christmas" instead of "happy holidays."

Candlelight Services Prove Costly for Some Ala. Churches

Religion News Service reports that an Alabama fire chief says churches that want to hold Christmas Eve candlelight services will have to pay four off-duty firefighters $100 each to monitor safety. Pastors of several churches in Homewood, Ala., which is just south of Birmingham, said they did not know the city requires a permit for candlelight or firefighters for candlelight services. Homewood Fire Chief John Bresnan said the law has been on the books for more than 10 years. Edgewood Presbyterian Church, a small church that expects about 200 at its Christmas Eve candlelight service, was recently notified of the permit requirement and told to hire four firefighters, said Pastor Sid Burgess. "People sit in their pews and sing 'Silent Night' while those candles are being lit," Burgess said. "We have fire extinguishers at the front and rear." The requirement to hire firefighters "does seem like overkill," Burgess said.

Wycliffe Pushes to Establish Facilities in Southern Sudan

Wycliffe Associates, an international Bible translator, is pushing to establish a permanent Bible translation center in Southern Sudan before the current peace agreement with the North ends in 2011. Bible translation efforts in Southern Sudan had been stalled for nearly 18 years as translators were forced to leave the country due to hostilities. Upon their return in 2005, translation teams lived in mud huts until housing and office space could be repaired. Bruce Smith, president and CEO of Wycliffe Associates, says the completion of a new translation facility within the next two years is critical to the future of Bible translation in the region. "Though much has been accomplished, there is so much work left to be done to provide these committed Bible translators," says Smith.
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« Reply #872 on: January 02, 2010, 04:56:19 PM »

Two-Thirds of World's People Live under Religious Restrictions
Adelle M. Banks


December 21, 2009

(RNS) - About one-third of the countries in the world have high restrictions on religion, exposing almost 70 percent of the globe's population to limitations on their faith, new research shows.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life based its analysis, released Wednesday (Dec. 16), on 16 sources of information, including reports from the U.S. State Department and human rights groups as well as national constitutions.

Overall, one-third of the countries were found to have high or very high restrictions on religion as a result of government rules or hostile acts by individuals and groups. Religious minorities often feel the brunt of hostilities because they are perceived as a threat to the culture, politics or economy of a country's majority population, the 72-page report said.

"The highest overall levels of restrictions are found in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, where both the government and society at large impose numerous limits on religious beliefs and practices," the Pew Forum concluded.

In some countries, such as China and Vietnam, government restrictions on religion were high, compared to moderate or low social hostilities. In contrast, nations such as Bangladesh and Nigeria had moderate level of government restrictions but ranked high in social hostilities.

Three-quarters of the countries affirm religious freedom in their laws or constitutions, and an additional 20 percent protect some religious practices. But researchers found that about a quarter of the governments "fully respected" the religious rights included in their laws.

The findings were based on an investigation of 198 countries and territories, which represent 99.5 percent of the world's population, from 2006 to 2008.
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« Reply #873 on: January 02, 2010, 04:57:44 PM »

Human Rights Court Rules in Favor of Turkish Church
Will Morris


December 22, 2009

ISTANBUL (CDN) — In a decision many hope will lead to greater religious freedom in Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that a Turkish court ruling barring a church from starting a foundation violated the congregation's right to freedom of association.

Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a Turkish attorney and legal advisor for the litigants, said the decision earlier this year was the first time the ECHR has held that religious organizations have a right to exist in Turkey. Other issues the court addressed dealt with organizations' rights to own property, he said.

Cengiz added that this case is just the first of many needed to correct conflicts within the Turkish legal system in regard to freedom of association, known in Turkey as the concept of "legal personality."

"This case is a significant victory, but it is the first case in a long line of cases to come," Cengiz said.

Ihsan Ozbek, pastor of Kurtulus Church in Ankara, which set out to establish the foundation, said he was pleased with the court's decision.

"It's a good thing to have that decision," he said. "It will help future churches and Christian organizations."

On Dec. 21, 2000, Ozbek and 15 other Turkish nationals applied to a court in Ankara to form the "Foundation of Liberation Churches," to provide assistance to victims of disasters. The court referred the matter to the Directorate General of Foundations, which opposed it because, according to its interpretation of the organization's constitution, the foundation sought to help only other Protestants. Such a purpose would be in violation of the Turkish civil code, which states that establishing a foundation to assist a specific community at the exclusion of others was prohibited.

On Jan. 22, 2002, the church group appealed the decision to the higher Court of Cassation. They agreed that the constitution should be changed to more accurately reflect the true nature of the organization, which was to give assistance to victims of natural disasters regardless of their spiritual beliefs. In February of the same year, the court rejected their appeal.

Later that year, on Aug. 29, 2002, under the guidance of Cengiz, the group appealed the decision to the ECHR. Founded in 1959 by the European Convention on Human Rights, the ECHR is the highest civil human rights court in Europe. Of the 47 countries that are signatories to the convention, Turkey accounts for more that 11 percent of the court's caseload.

On Oct. 11, 2005 the court agreed to hear the case. More than four years later, on June 10, it publicly issued a verdict.

In its decision, the court unanimously found that the Turkish Courts' "refusal to register the foundation, although permitted under Turkish law, had not been necessary in a democratic society, and that there had been a violation of Article 11."

Article 11 of the convention deals with the rights of people to associate and assemble with others.

"The applicants had been willing to amend the constitution of their foundation both to reflect their true aims and to comply with the legal requirements for registration," the court decision stated. "However, by not allowing them time to do this - something they had done in a similar case - the Court of Cassation had prevented them from setting up a foundation that would have had legal status."

The decision was issued by seven judges, one of them Turkish. The court awarded 2,500 euros (US$3,600) to each of the 16 members of the group, in addition to 5,200 euros (US$7,490) to the group as a whole.

After being forbidden to open a foundation, the Protestant group opened an association in 2004, after Turkish law had been amended allowing them to do so. Foundations and associations in Turkey differ mostly in their ability to collect and distribute money. The aims of the association were similar to that of the proposed foundation, with the exception of reference to supporting one particular community.

Ozbek said the directorate's office has been the main obstacle in preventing people from forming Christian foundations.
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« Reply #874 on: January 02, 2010, 04:58:49 PM »

American Faith Is a Religious Labyrinth
Robert Wayne

The meditation labyrinth that "spiritual seekers" walk at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio, is more than a peaceful place. The labyrinth is also a fitting metaphor for the multiple paths of religious diversity more and more Americans follow.

"The labyrinth can be whatever you want it to be," said John Neely, the minister of music at Westminster Presbyterian.

Even as the church labyrinth branches to and fro, with Protestants, Catholics and even non-Christian occupying different paths of the same mazelike design, a new Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study shows that Americans engage in multiple religious practices that mix elements of assorted traditions.

According to the study, worshipers say they attend services of one faith or denomination, but many also combine elements of Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs. Many people found astrology, reincarnation and the existence of spiritual energy in physical objects all compatible with their Christian beliefs. Sizeable minorities of U.S. religious groups claim to have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead.

The Dayton church labyrinth, based on a 5,000-year-old tool for prayer and meditation, is an example of a mainline church reaching out to a blended community by offering a cross-denominational experience.

"It's not Methodist. It's not Episcopalian. It's all through all denominations," Neely said, adding that non-Christians undoubtedly use the labyrinth as well.

Labyrinths can exist as anything from large grass walkways to handheld ornaments, all working to "activate and facilitate the transformation of the human spirit," according to The Labyrinth Society, based in Trumansburg, N.Y.

The vague definition fits with the findings of the Pew study: Americans are becoming more spiritually inclusive and open to religious experimentation.

This experimentation can be wherever you want it as well. The study showed that one-third of Americans (35 percent) say they regularly (9 percent) or occasionally (26 percent) attend religious services at more than one place. And most of these (24 percent of the general public) say they sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own.

Among those who attend religious services at least once a week, nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) attend at multiple places, while nearly 3 in 10 (28 percent) attend services outside their own faith.

That American religion no longer fits into conventional categories does not surprise Ennis B. Edmonds, associate professor of Religious Studies at Kenyon College.

"This type of borrowing is new for Americans, but African religions are based on borrowing," Edmonds said. "Even looking at popular culture, there is this thinking of a spirit of beauty in the world, so any Hollywood person who is an expression of beauty is viewed as being related to that spirit."

What specifically has prompted the recent mixing of spiritual messages in America? Edmonds notes two factors.

"One, there is a certain plurality of religion to which people are now exposed. People know more and so they are more interested in those things," Edmonds said, adding that the Internet has been a catalyst to greater availability of information.

"Two, people are disillusioned by what they called 'organized religion,'" he said. "There are these rules and structure they have to deal with. But even with the rise of New Age (thinking) and pluralism, people still have a need to be religious."

To Edmond's mind, no one is really rejecting religion. On the contrary, he says that "people need to be connected to a higher power in the universe. It's just that they don't want to be tied down in the traditional sense of religion, so you find different types of religion and people being open to experimentation."

Edmonds said such experimentation actually is part of the DNA of America.

"We invented (many) denominations. Now it's the same thing. We have this buffet approach to religion. The difference is that 100 years ago how many items were in the supermarket? How many religious options were there?"

The variety has indeed increased. The Pew study found that:

    * Roughly one-quarter of adults express belief in tenets of certain Eastern religions; 24 percent say they believe in reincarnation, while 23 percent believe in yoga not just as exercise but as a spiritual practice.
    * New Age thinking also is prevalent, with 26 percent saying they believe in spiritual energy located in things such as trees, mountains and crystals. And 25 percent believe in astrology. A smaller number (16 percent) believe in the "evil eye," that certain people can cast curses or spells that bring pain of suffering upon others.

Compared with other religious traditions, white evangelical Protestants consistently express lower levels of acceptance of both Eastern and New Age beliefs, the study found. Roughly 1 in 10 white evangelicals believes in reincarnation, compared with 24 percent among mainline Protestants, 25 percent among both white Catholics and those unaffiliated with any religion, and 29 percent among black Protestants.

Similarly, 13 percent of white evangelicals believe in astrology, compared with roughly one-quarter or more among other religious traditions. There are few differences among religious traditions in belief in the ability to cast spells and call down curses, though black Protestants do stand out (32 percent).

Edmonds thinks the long-term impact of such new extremes of belief will likely be minimal.

"My own feeling is that if you read the history of religion you have these things swing back and forth," he said. "People might swing toward experimentation, then toward a confessional posture, so who knows? We take something and run with it to the radical extreme, then try to moderate and come back.

"Think about the type of popular Christianity that is in vogue today, the rise of the independent churches and the kind of music and experiences we try to create in our churches. A lot of it is geared to reaching certain emotional or spiritual heights, rather than arguing about the right (theology) or the right interpretation of things. Everybody wants to be a community church."

The study of 4,013 adults was conducted Aug. 11-27. The margin of error is plus/minus 2 percentage points.
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« Reply #875 on: January 02, 2010, 05:00:27 PM »

Christians in Vietnam Hold Another Historic Celebration
Special to Compass Direct News


December 24, 2009

HANOI (CDN) — For the second time in 10 days, Protestant history was made in Vietnam yesterday when 12,000 people gathered for a Christmas rally here.

The event, which took place in the large square in front of the entrance to My Dinh National Stadium in the heart of Hanoi, was said to be 10 times larger than any prior Protestant gathering in history in northern Vietnam. On Dec. 11 in southern Vietnam, an estimated 40,000 people attended a Christmas celebration in Ho Chi Minh City (see "Unprecedented Christmas Gathering Held in Vietnam").

Local sources said long-requested written permission for the event, entitled "Praise Jesus Together," never came in spite of several reminders. But four days before the event was to take place, Hanoi authorities and police told organizers - in words as close as they would get to granting permission - that they would "not interfere."

"One can hardly overestimate the importance of such an event in the lives of northern house church Christians," said one long-time Compass source. "For many, this will have been the first time to join in a large crowd with other Christians, to feel the growing power of their movement, to hear, see and participate in the high quality, and deeply spiritual mass worship."

The day before the event, Christians gathered near the stadium for final prayer and to help with preparations. Witnesses said the huge public square at the entrance to the stadium was arrayed with thousands of stools rather than chairs - plastic, backless, and bright blue and red. In 10-foot tall letters, "JESUS' was emblazoned on the backdrop to the stage.

Invitations had been sent through house church networks even as official permission for the event was still pending. When church leaders decided to move ahead only days before, Christians were asked to send out mass invitations by text-message, leading some to speculate whether this may have been the largest ever such messaging for a Christian event.

Nearby Christians as well as those bussed from more distant areas began to fill the venue hours before the event. They were not dissuaded by a Hanoi cool spell of 12 Celsius (56 Fahrenheit) with a chill wind. Bundled in thick jackets, their heads wrapped in scarves, they waited expectantly without complaint.

They were not disappointed. Witnesses said the throng deeply appreciated a program of outstanding music and dance, a powerful personal narrative followed by a gospel message and an extended time for prayer for the nation. As at the previous event in Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 11 that house church Christians had long worked and prayed for, the program featured music from Jackson Family Ministries of the United States.

In a world of globalized gospel and praise choruses, songs included hymns such as "How Great Thou Art" as well as classic praise songs such as "Sing Hallelujah to the Lord." Witnesses said the music was accompanied by tasteful, emotionally engaging dance. Top Vietnamese artists performed, including news songs by Vietnamese songwriters, and a Vietnamese choir of 80 sang, as did a Korean choir.

A young man in his 30s who now pastors two house churches told the crowd how an encounter with Jesus proved more powerful than the grip of drug addiction. His story, simply and humbly told, proved an effective bridge to a Christmas evangelistic message by Pastor Pham Tuan Nhuong of the Word of Life house church. Then the winsome Pastor Pham Dinh Nhan, a top southern house church leader, gave a disarming but strong invitation to follow Jesus, witnesses said.

Organizers said approximately 2,000 people then poured forward in response, packing the large area in front of the stage.

The final portion of the program included a time of intense prayer for the nation, with pastors confessing and praying for righteousness for Vietnam's leaders, as well as for God's protection and blessing on their land. In their prayers they claimed Vietnam for Christ, witnesses said.

A high point for the throng was the superimposing of a large white cross on a yellow map of Vietnam on the backdrop. As the Korean choir sang a spirited revival hymn, the crowd raised thousands of hands and exploded in sound.

"The sound of crying, of praise, of prayer were blended as one, beseeching Almighty God for spiritual revival in Vietnam," said one participant.

The event was streamed live at www.hoithanh.com for Vietnamese and others around the world to see.

Until recently - and still in some places - most Vietnamese meet in small groups in homes knowing at any time there could be a hostile knock on the door, a source said.

"None of these groups is registered or recognized by the government," the source said of the crowd at yesterday's event. "What you see is Christians standing up!"

In addition to this event and the Dec. 11 event in Ho Chi Minh City, a large public Christmas rally was held by the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) at the Hoang Nhi church in Nam Dinh Province on Saturday (Dec. 19). Some 2,500 people gathered in the church's large courtyard, with sources saying 200 responded to an invitation to follow Christ.

In Tuy Hoa, on the coast of central Vietnam, a Christmas program is planned for Saturday (Dec. 26) in a 4,000- seat theater. Many smaller events are also planned in other areas, part of an unprecedented public display by Vietnam's Protestants.

At the same time, the freedom for Christians tolerated in large cities has not reached some more remote parts of the country, where ethnic minority Christians live. In Dien Bien Dong district of Dien Bien Province, authorities on Tuesday (Dec. 15) orchestrated immense ethnic social pressure on a new Christian couple to recant. The couple told Compass that police added their own pressure.

"The police said they would beat me to death, and take away all my possessions, leaving my wife a widow, and my children orphans with no place to live," the husband told Compass. "I folded. I signed promising that I would no longer follow God. I really want to, but it is very, very hard to be a believer where we live, as the officials will not allow us."
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« Reply #876 on: January 02, 2010, 05:01:41 PM »

Children of Inmates Receive Christmas Hope
Diana Chandler


December 25, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (BP)--Franklin Avenue Baptist Church is making Christmas brighter for some 225 children whose parents are imprisoned.

"We recognize it as fulfilling a need and planting a seed," said Elvira Brown, prison ministry director at the New Orleans church.

"The need is great on so many levels. Many of these children will not get any other gift for Christmas."

In Louisiana, Franklin Avenue is among more than 100 churches committed to serve nearly 4,000 children whose incarcerated parents signed up for Angel Tree, a benevolent and evangelistic outreach coordinated by Prison Fellowship.

Nationally, Angel Tree networks with thousands of churches to give gifts to children, presented as given by the parents, along with Gospel tracts and the parents' personal messages.

Brown said Angel Tree presents a positive image of Christianity to needy children and the families with whom they live, many of whom are not members of missions-minded congregations.

"They need to know that love is what we're all about," Brown said.

Louisiana houses about 3,000 federal inmates as well as about 38,000 state inmates, plus an uncounted number of local jail inmates. Children of imprisoned parents likely are impoverished, have emotional and behavioral problems and suffer sexual or physical abuse, according to the nonpartisan Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Churches develop relationships with the children and the families, ministering to them throughout the year, as Angel Tree encourages. Franklin Avenue distributed the gifts during a Christmas program Dec. 12, introducing the children to Christ through storytelling, a play and liturgical dance.

"We do have some families that do continue to come to church," said Brown, who is working to develop a mentoring program through Franklin Avenue's prison ministry. In addition to its Angel Tree outreach, the church plans to provide for an additional 20 children identified separately through the congregation.

Elsewhere in Louisiana, Trinity Baptist Church in Lake Charles, which has participated in Angel Tree nearly 20 years, distributed gifts to 90 children at a Dec. 5 Christmas musical and encouraged the families to continue to fellowship with the church.

"There are some who have come back and we have some families that have joined," said Pam Ford, Trinity's Angel Tree coordinator. "[These families] have become a part of the family and they are experiencing the ministry that is available at Trinity."

Angel Tree provides an opportunity to foster evangelism and giving among Trinity members while showing love for the incarcerated, Ford said. "It's a special opportunity for parents to teach their children and for the congregation as a family to express what the real reason of Christmas is," she said.

"We wrap our arms around everyone who comes through those doors. They get filled with the love of Jesus," Ford said of the outreach. "There's a connection that takes place where it doesn't matter about any differences that may appear outwardly. Our hearts are united as one."

First Baptist Church in West Monroe, meanwhile, is delivering Angel Tree gifts along with Bibles to the homes of the 80 children, said Joy Regan, who coordinates the outreach along with her husband Ed.

"It's a good ministry to serve or represent the person that's incarcerated, to be able to do something for the children that [their parents] can't do," Regan said. "We also want them to experience God's love in their lives."

And the children certainly are responsive, Regan said. "We can tell in these kids' eyes. They say, 'This is from my daddy?'"
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« Reply #877 on: January 02, 2010, 05:02:53 PM »

Children of Inmates Receive Christmas Hope
Diana Chandler


December 25, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (BP)--Franklin Avenue Baptist Church is making Christmas brighter for some 225 children whose parents are imprisoned.

"We recognize it as fulfilling a need and planting a seed," said Elvira Brown, prison ministry director at the New Orleans church.

"The need is great on so many levels. Many of these children will not get any other gift for Christmas."

In Louisiana, Franklin Avenue is among more than 100 churches committed to serve nearly 4,000 children whose incarcerated parents signed up for Angel Tree, a benevolent and evangelistic outreach coordinated by Prison Fellowship.

Nationally, Angel Tree networks with thousands of churches to give gifts to children, presented as given by the parents, along with Gospel tracts and the parents' personal messages.

Brown said Angel Tree presents a positive image of Christianity to needy children and the families with whom they live, many of whom are not members of missions-minded congregations.

"They need to know that love is what we're all about," Brown said.

Louisiana houses about 3,000 federal inmates as well as about 38,000 state inmates, plus an uncounted number of local jail inmates. Children of imprisoned parents likely are impoverished, have emotional and behavioral problems and suffer sexual or physical abuse, according to the nonpartisan Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Churches develop relationships with the children and the families, ministering to them throughout the year, as Angel Tree encourages. Franklin Avenue distributed the gifts during a Christmas program Dec. 12, introducing the children to Christ through storytelling, a play and liturgical dance.

"We do have some families that do continue to come to church," said Brown, who is working to develop a mentoring program through Franklin Avenue's prison ministry. In addition to its Angel Tree outreach, the church plans to provide for an additional 20 children identified separately through the congregation.

Elsewhere in Louisiana, Trinity Baptist Church in Lake Charles, which has participated in Angel Tree nearly 20 years, distributed gifts to 90 children at a Dec. 5 Christmas musical and encouraged the families to continue to fellowship with the church.

"There are some who have come back and we have some families that have joined," said Pam Ford, Trinity's Angel Tree coordinator. "[These families] have become a part of the family and they are experiencing the ministry that is available at Trinity."

Angel Tree provides an opportunity to foster evangelism and giving among Trinity members while showing love for the incarcerated, Ford said. "It's a special opportunity for parents to teach their children and for the congregation as a family to express what the real reason of Christmas is," she said.

"We wrap our arms around everyone who comes through those doors. They get filled with the love of Jesus," Ford said of the outreach. "There's a connection that takes place where it doesn't matter about any differences that may appear outwardly. Our hearts are united as one."

First Baptist Church in West Monroe, meanwhile, is delivering Angel Tree gifts along with Bibles to the homes of the 80 children, said Joy Regan, who coordinates the outreach along with her husband Ed.

"It's a good ministry to serve or represent the person that's incarcerated, to be able to do something for the children that [their parents] can't do," Regan said. "We also want them to experience God's love in their lives."

And the children certainly are responsive, Regan said. "We can tell in these kids' eyes. They say, 'This is from my daddy?'"
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« Reply #878 on: January 02, 2010, 05:04:05 PM »

Massive Muslim Mob Damages Church Building in Indonesia
Samuel Rionaldo


December 29, 2009

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CDN) — Hundreds of Muslims celebrated the eve of the Islamic New Year on Dec. 17 by attacking a Catholic church building under construction in Bekasi, West Java.

A crowd of approximately 1,000 men, women and children from the Bebalan and Taruma Jaha areas of Bekasi walking in a New Year's Eve procession stopped at the 60 percent-completed Santo Albertus Catholic Church building, where many ransacked and set fires to it, church leaders said. Damage was said to be extensive, but no one was injured.

The crowd initially gathered at the Tiga Mojang Statue about a mile from the church between 10 and 10:45 p.m., said Kristina Maria Rentetana, head of the church building committee. She said there were no hints that the group would become a mob and attack the church building.

Rentetana said she joined the crowd as they walked along. Upon nearing the church, she said, they began throwing stones.

"They shouted, 'Destroy it, destroy it,'" Rentetana told Compass. "Even women carrying babies joined in stone-throwing. Then a large group dressed in white robes entered the church, which was under construction, and started fires."

The mob burned the security post and leveled a nearby contractor's office. "They broke roof tiles, marble slabs, floor tiles, and lamps which had been placed in the building," Rentetana said.

Some among the mob apparently had come prepared to burn the church building; an empty jerry can was found at the site. The mob also left a computer belonging to the contractor trampled in the gutter.

Rentetana immediately called police, and the mob finally dispersed around 12 midnight after at least 100 officers arrived.

Sector Police Chief Imam Sugianto said the attack on the church was spontaneous.

"There were agitators among the crowd as they walked," Sugianto said. "These persons incited the crowd to burn the church."

At press time police had arrested 12 people thought to be leaders of the mob.

"It is not clear whether these are all from the same organization or not," Sugianto told Compass. Among those arrested was Amat Rosidi, accused of stealing a drill from the construction site.

A Santo Albertus Church priest identified only as Father Yos said the mayor of Bekasi had issued a valid building permit on Feb. 6, 2008. Bekasi is near Jakarta.

The priest said the church building was 60 percent complete on a plot of land of 2,261 square meters. He said he did not know the amount of losses.

Sugianto said he encouraged the church to proceed with plans for a Christmas Eve service and promised to provide adequate security.

"Please hold the Christmas Mass," he said. "The police will guard the church."

Rentetana confirmed that police had guaranteed security for the scheduled Christmas Mass.

Sugianto added that the attack on the church will be duly prosecuted, saying, "We will attempt to arrest all of the leaders of this action."
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« Reply #879 on: January 02, 2010, 05:05:16 PM »

Jewish Christian in Israel Faces Repeated Attacks
Ksenia Svetlova


December 30, 2009

JERUSALEM (CDN) — A Christian of Jewish origin who has been attacked on the streets here four times because of his faith in Christ is seeking police protection.

Jerusalem resident Yossi Yomtov said police have been slow to investigate hate crimes against him by youths wearing kippahs, cloth skullcaps typically worn by observant Jews. In two of the attacks a youth plied him with pepper spray and stun gun shocks, he said.

"This young man cursed me for my belief in Christ," Yomtov told Compass. "He used ugly curses and spoke in highly abusive language."

Yomtov, who founded social activist group Lemallah ("Upward") after moving to Israel from the United States in 1999, said he was last attacked on Dec. 19. On that occasion his group was holding a demonstration in downtown Jerusalem, he said, when a man chanting anti-Christian slogans and using foul language approached him and begin striking him. Police never showed up in spite of many calls to the police station, he said.

Yomtov said he received Christ in 1984, while still living in the United States. He said he became a Christian after he "hit the bottom" - taking drugs and engaging in "in illegal activity." He regards himself as a Jewish Christian belonging to no one church; he does not belong to the highly organized movement of Messianic Jews.

"I'm not secretive about my belief like some other people, and I often talk about it," he told Compass. "That's how many people are aware of me believing in Jesus Christ."

In previous attacks in the last few months, the assailants appeared to be teenaged or young men of French origin, he said.

"When they approached, one of them started cursing me - I ignored him, as I figured he wasn't about to attack me, but he did," Yomtov said. "I received a punch in the face and had to defend myself."

Police arrived and caught one of the attackers but refused his request to press charges, he said. Yomtov said he asked police why they didn't secure any witnesses.

"I was told to shut up," he said. "It was clear that they were not going to press any charges."

A month later, he said, he was attacked again. The same teenaged youth approached him on King George street in downtown Jerusalem.

"He sprayed my eyes with a pepper spray, and I stood there, blind, for at least 15 minutes," Yomtov said. "People at a nearby bus stop started calling the police, but they never showed up."

Late at night on Oct. 12, the harrasment continued.

"I was walking in the city center, in close proximity to a very central Ben-Yehuda street sometime after midnight, and a group of youths with stun guns attacked me brutally," he said. "I rushed to the police station, but the police officer again was reluctant to take up this complaint, and it took quite a few times and a lot of me convincing them to take this matter seriously."

Yomtov said he managed to take a photo with his cell phone of the youth who seemed to be the gang leader.
"Finally they agreed to start investigating this issue, yet so far there is no progress in the investigation, and I have totally lost a sense of personal security," he said. "I don't know when they'll come up to me next."

Police in Jerusalem declined to comment on Yomtov's case in spite of repeated requests by Compass.

On one street, Yomtov pointed to a morass of hatefull grafitti. Written with Hebrew characters, some of it employed foul language in referring to Christianity and Islam; other messages proclaimed threats such as, "Death to Arabs" and "Death to the left."

"It seems as if they don't want to stop the hate crimes, the hate graffities, until it's too late," Yomtov said. "If they were serious about enforcing laws against violence they would have at least identified the perpetrator and submitted that information in the complaint file for the prosecutor. Instead they threatened me with arrest, when all I wanted was to investigate the violent crime against me."

He referred to the recent indictment of ultra-orthodox Jewish extremist Jacob Teitel, an immigrant from the United States charged with multiple hate crimes, including the murder of an Arab shepherd and taxi driver in 1997 and the planting of an explosive device at the front door of a family of Messianic Jews in Ariel that seriously injured 15-year-old Ami Ortiz.

"I wonder whether the Israeli police could prevent the crimes Jacob Teitel performed, had they been taking him seriously from the beginning," said Yomtov. "It seems that the Israeli police only care to investigate hate crimes when someone is killed or seriously injured."
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« Reply #880 on: January 02, 2010, 05:08:10 PM »

Turkish Court Seeks to Link Murder of Christians to Cage Plan
Damaris Kremida


December 31, 2009

ISTANBUL (CDN) — Malatya's Third Criminal Court on Friday (Dec. 25) took further steps to connect the murders of three Christians in southeastern Turkey to a Turkish military plan to destabilize the pro-Islamic government.

Evidence surfaced in Turkish press last month linking the murders of the three Christians in the southeastern city of Malatya with army activities to overthrow the government in a special operation called the "Operation Cage Action Plan." The Malatya prosecutor and plaintiffs on Friday requested that the Istanbul prosecutor further probe links between the Malatya case and the Cage Plan, which included an elaborate scheme to attack Muslim-majority Turkey's religious minorities.

They also requested that the Malatya court open to plaintiffs the currently "classified" prosecutor's investigation into links between the Malatya murders and an alleged operation by the military and other political figures to destabilize the government known as Ergenekon.

Evidence of the Cage Plan, believed to be part of Ergenekon, centers on a compact disc found in April in the house of a retired naval officer; it was decrypted and leaked to the press last month. The plan, to be carried out by 41 named naval officers and dated March 2009, termed as "operations" the murders of the three Christians in Malatya, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andreas Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

"This Cage Plan starts with a reference to the Malatya, Dink and Santoro cases and mentions them as previous 'operations,'" said one of the plaintiff lawyers, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, adding that a connection of the murders with the Cage Plan would be difficult for any court to ignore.

Hearings for Ergenekon are ongoing in Istanbul. Istanbul prosecutors handling the Ergenekon case sent a response to the Malatya court this month in which they reported they have not been able to find a direct connection with the Malatya murders yet. The Malatya court is waiting for further investigations into possible connections with Ergenekon.

Cengiz said that although investigations are moving slowly, he is pleased with the willingness of the Malatya prosecutor to cooperate and find who is behind the murders.

"I see a good will on the part of the prosecutor," said Cengiz. "He's really trying to discover the possible links, and I'm glad to see his effort, and he was helpful and supportive to us. It was important."

Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske were tortured and stabbed to death in Malatya on April 18, 2007 at Zirve Publishing Co., which distributed Bibles and literature in the area.

Suspects Emre Gunaydin, Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who were caught at the crime scene, are still held in prison in Malatya. Two other suspects, journalist Varol Bulent Aral and Huseyin Yelki, a former volunteer at Zirve, are not under arrest, but the court expects them to attend all hearings.

Aral and Yelki are believed to have crucial links with the alleged masterminds of the murder plot.

The next trial is set for Feb. 19, 2010.
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« Reply #881 on: January 02, 2010, 05:09:22 PM »

Religion Today Summaries - Dec. 21, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff

Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * Multi-Site Churches Mean Pastors Reach Thousands
    * Prosperity Gospel Teachings 'Distort' Bible, Says Group
    * CCC Media Ministry Records Over 10M Decisions in 2009
    * Judge: N.C. Law Barring Sex Offenders from Church Unconstitutional



Multi-Site Churches Mean Pastors Reach Thousands

USA Today reports that multi-site churches like Manhattan's Redeemer Presbyterian Church are changing how pastors relate relate to their congregations. Redeemer's Tim Keller preaches to three-quarters of the 5,500 people who attend the multiple Redeemer church sites, while other pastors foster one-on-one relationships. About 37 percent of Protestant churches in the United States have more than one location under the same leadership, according to a study by the Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Conn. The method allows churches to forgo enormous buildings and additional parking space. "Even if people are just watching the senior pastor on a screen, they are still gathering, as the Bible commands, they are still serving the poor, engaging in worship and study, and encouraging one another," says Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research in Nashville, which studies church trends.

Prosperity Gospel Teachings 'Distort' Bible, Says Group

Christian Today reports that a group of theologians spoke out against the influence of prosperity gospel theology, just before one of its greatest proponents, evangelist Oral Roberts, passed away this month. While recognizing that "there are some dimensions of prosperity teaching that have roots in the Bible", the Lausanne Theology Working Group says its overall view is that "the teachings of those who most vigorously promote the 'prosperity gospel' are false and gravely distorting of the Bible". The group called prosperity gospel's influence particularly misleading in Africa. "We ... request the Lausanne movement to be willing to make a very clear statement rejecting the excesses of prosperity teaching as incompatible with evangelical biblical Christianity," the statement reads.

CCC Media Ministry Records Over 10M Decisions in 2009

Internet ministry Global Media Outreach (GMO) today announced a milestone in reaching people with the Gospel online. On Dec. 7, GMO saw the 10 millionth person this year indicate a decision for Christ through their Web sites. Over 1.8 million people have initiated follow-up for more information, guidance and discipleship during this same time period. In 2009, GMO presented the Gospel to over 55 million people through its more than 90 different Web sites globally. "It is humbling to be a part of the Great Commission and watching millions of people coming to Christ," said Walt Wilson, GMO founder and chair. "We have responders all over the world, connecting to people through e-mail for prayer, discipleship and church connections." GMO is an Internet outreach of Campus Crusade for Christ.

Judge: N.C. Law Barring Sex Offenders from Church Unconstitutional

The Christian Post reports that a Superior Court judge has found a North Carolina law barring convicted some sex offenders from churches is unconstitutional. While Judge Allen Baddour acknowledged the need to protect children, he said "there are less drastic means for achieving the same purpose... There are a host of protected religious activities abridged by this statute." The law, put in place last year, bars some offenders from congregating within 300 feet of "any place where minors gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational or social programs," which includes churches. Two registered offenders, James Nichols and Frank DeMaio, challenged the state law because it denied them the right to attend their choice of church. "I believe wholeheartedly if it wasn't for God, I don't know where I'd be today," Nichols told The Associated Press.
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« Reply #882 on: January 02, 2010, 05:10:26 PM »

Religion Today Summaries - Dec. 22, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff

Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * Uganda Pastors Chide Rick Warren, Defend Anti-Gay Bill
    * Sudan on Brink of New War, Diplomat Warns
    * New Zealand Church Stands by Controversial Billboard
    * 24 Girls Rescued from Mumbai Brothel



Uganda Pastors Chide Rick Warren, Defend Anti-Gay Bill

The Christian Post reports that a proposed anti-homosexuality law in Uganda has split Ugandan and American pastors. Ugandan pastors late last week demanded an apology from California megachurch pastor Rick Warren after he appealed to Uganda's pastors to oppose the bill. The pastors accused Warren of "very inappropriate (sic) bully use of your church and purpose driven pulpits to coerce us into the 'evil' of Sodomy and Gaymorrah (sic)," the pastors, which include Martin Ssempa, state in a letter emailed to Warren. Ssempa and supporters say the bill is misunderstood, and only extends current rape statutes to same-gender incidents. Warren and others note that they bill would force pastors to report gays instead of counseling them, while inflicting life imprisonment on those found guilty.

Sudan on Brink of New War, Diplomat Warns

Baptist Press reports that Sudan may again face war between northern Muslims and southern Christians and animists unless the international community pressures the government of President Omar al-Bashir. According to South Sudan's top diplomat in the United States, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, an estimated 400,000 civilians have died in the ongoing genocide in Darfur and more are threatened by a scheduled referendum in April. That referendum on secession could derail the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended a war in which about 2.5 million southern Sudanese people died. International Christian Concern's regional manager for Africa, Jonathan Racho, said, "We are very concerned about the possibility of another jihad against Christians and animists in South Sudan as well as the ongoing genocide in Darfur."

New Zealand Church Stands by Controversial Billboard

Christian Today reports that a "progressive" Anglican church is New Zealand has again posted a billboard that "lampoons literalism," say St. Matthew-in-the-city church leaders in Auckland. The billboard pictures Jesus' parents, Joseph and Mary, in bed and not touching with the headline, "Poor Joseph. God is a hard act to follow." Church leaders say the billboard "invites people to again about what a miracle is." The church, which has labeled Christian conservatives as fundamentalists while supporting openly gay clergy, says it wants to question traditional understanding of Advent. "For fundamentalist Christians, the incarnation is about the miraculous arrival of a baby soon to die and by his blood save us," said Cary in a sermon last Sunday. "For progressive Christians, the incarnation is about the miracle of this planet earth and all life that exists here."

24 Girls Rescued from Mumbai Brothel

ASSIST News Service reports that a joint force of the Indian Rescue Mission (IRM), Mumbai Police and a social activist has rescued 24 girls from a posh brothel in Mumbai, India. Police raided the building on Dec. 17 and a manager and a brothel keeper, while releasing the 24 girls, many of whom are minors. This brothel keeper had been arrested twice for keeping minor girls in the sex trade, but was released, allegedly thanks to her influence and money. The social activist on the case, Anson Thomas, called on the city's Congress House to step up their efforts against trafficking. The girls, who were forced into prostitution, will be sent to government protective homes, after which groups like IRM may apply to bring them into rehabilitation programs.
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« Reply #883 on: January 02, 2010, 05:11:33 PM »

Religion Today Summaries - Dec. 23, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff



Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * Church Groups Blast Failure of Copenhagen Summit
    * Israel: First Jesus-Era House Found in Nazareth
    * Spiritual Aid Helps Wellbeing of Terminally Ill, Study Says
    * House OKs Tougher Sanctions for Aid to Iran



Church Groups Blast Failure of Copenhagen Summit

Religion News Service reports that some faith groups have expressed disappointment over the outcome of Copenhagen climate conference, pledging to continue to press for climate justice. "With a lack of transparency, the agreement reached this past week by some countries was negotiated without consensus but rather in secret among the powerful nations of the world," the World Council of Churches' program executive on climate change, Guillermo Kerber, stated. Caritas Internationalis, an international consortium of Roman Catholic relief agencies, and CIDSE, an alliance of Catholic development agencies, denounced the Copenhagen accord as "a weak and morally reprehensible deal which will spell disaster for millions of the world's poorest people." A delegation that included Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other ecumenical leaders preached and marched during the 11-day meeting.

Israel: First Jesus-Era House Found in Nazareth

The Associated Press reports that archeologists have unearthed what they believe is a dwelling from Jesus' time in Nazareth. On Dec. 21, archeologists said they had found the remains of a wall, a hideout from Roman invaders, a courtyard and a water system that date back to the turn of the first millennium. Archaeologist Yardena Alexdre said the house was one of about 50 in Nazareth at the time. "This may well have been a place that Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar with," Alexandre said. A young Jesus may have played around the house with his cousins and friends, she said. "It's a logical suggestion." Father Jack Karam of the nearby Basilica of the Annunciation welcomes the discovery as further evidence of a true story. "They say if the people do not speak, the stones will speak," he said, smiling.

Spiritual Aid Helps Wellbeing of Terminally Ill, Study Says

Christian Today reports that terminally ill patients may face death more peacefully if they have a spiritual support team around them, according to a soon-to-be-published study. Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute found these patients were also more likely to reject aggressive medical intervention. "Our findings suggest that spiritual care from the medical system has important ramifications for patients at the end of life, including helping them transition to comfort-focused care and improving their wellbeing near death," commented the study's senior author, Dr. Tracy Balboni of Dana-Farber. "Furthermore, they highlight the need to educate medical caregivers in being attentive to the frequent role of religion and spirituality in patients' coping with advanced illness and importance of integrating pastoral care into multidisciplinary medical teams."

House OKs Tougher Sanctions for Aid to Iran

Baptist Press reports that the U.S. House of Representatives has approved stronger sanctions on oil-related imports to Iran. "This is a very important step in the right direction in doing all that we can to avert a war," said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "If we do not dissuade the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons, I am fearful that the Israelis will use the only tool at their disposal, which is their Air Force. And that will bring about a war, and no one except perhaps [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad wants that." The bill calls for the imposition of sanctions on anyone who knowingly enables Iran to continue or increase its domestic oil production or who aids in the importation of oil products to the southwest Asian country.
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« Reply #884 on: January 02, 2010, 05:12:40 PM »

Religion Today Summaries - Dec. 24, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff

Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * Pakistani Muslims Gun Down Christian Friend
    * Survey: Southerners Lead U.S. in Religious Devotion
    * British Vicar Criticized for Advocating Stealing



Pakistani Muslims Gun Down Christian Friend

Compass Direct News reports that a group of Muslims shot their Christian friend dead this month after saying they would spare his life only if he recanted his faith. The friends of Patras Masih, who died from gunshot wounds on Dec. 3 in Karol village, Punjab Province issued the ultimatum to him after accusing him of the murder of their friend Anees Mahammad. An autopsy reported showed Mahammad died from toxic alcohol earlier that day. Patras Masih's father, Gulzar Masih, said his son had no contact with Mahammad, and that his friends accused him of the murder only because he refused to recant Christianity and embrace Islam. Gulzar Masih said that when his son refused to recite the Islamic conversion creed, Sohail Muhammad, Imran Muhammad and Amir Muhammad sprayed bullets at his chest, killing him instantly. "He bravely embraced martyrdom," Gulzar Masih said.

Survey: Southerners Lead U.S. in Religious Devotion

Religion News Service reports that there's a reason the South is known as the Bible belt. A survey shows that Southerners -- and Mississippians in particular -- are most active in their religious practices and beliefs. Residents of Mississippi ranked first among Americans in all four measures of a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, with 82 percent saying religion is very important in their lives. Five other states had at least seven in 10 people stating that religion holds that kind of importance for them: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and South Carolina. The findings, published online by the Pew Forum on Monday (Dec. 21) and drawn from data from its 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, mirror earlier results released by the Gallup Poll in January 2009, which also found Mississippi to be the most religious state.

British Vicar Criticized for Advocating Stealing

ASSIST News Service reports that an Anglican priest in the United Kingdom has stirred up a firestorm over his comments that poor people who are desperate this Christmas should shoplift from major stores. The Rev. Tim Jones said in his sermon this week that stealing from shops was the "least worst option" -- better than burglary, robbery or prostitution. Premier Radio says he told stunned parishioners at St Lawrence's in York that it would not break the eighth commandment 'Thou shalt not steal.' The Diocese of York says Jones is guilty of giving 'very bad advice' to poor people this Christmas. Eleanor Course, a spokesperson for the Diocese, said Jones was right to acknowledge the hardship facing poor families in this economy, but offered a very bad solution.
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