RNS Daily Digest:

c. 2007 Religion News Service Egyptian Mufti Says Women Not Obligated to Prove Virginity (RNS) In a decision being hailed as a major step towards female equality in the Islamic world, the Grand Mufti of Egypt has said Muslim women have no obligation to prove their virginity to prospective husbands. Appearing on a popular Egyptian talk show, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa said he endorsed a recent fatwa, or religious edict, which said it is permissible _ though not required _ for women who have lost their virginity to have reconstructive hymen surgery, according to a Tuesday (Feb. 20) report from The Daily Star newspaper of Egypt. The fatwa was issued by Soad Saleh, a noted female Islamic scholar at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, one of the Islamic world’s most revered institutions.

Companies See Increased Interest in Spiritual Tours

c. 2007 Religion News Service GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. _ Tom and Geri Kartes are about to become pilgrims. They plan to take a lot of photos and record the experience when they go on a faith-based trip to Italy and Bosnia in May. The Grand Rapids couple will visit the Vatican, as well as religious sites in Monte Ste. Angelo, Loreto and Lanciano.

Spiritual tours; Padre Pio bread

In Friday’s RNS report, Mary Radigan looks at how companies are responding to the increased interest in spiritual tours: Tom and Geri Kartes are about to become pilgrims. They plan to take a lot of photos and record the experience when they go on a faith-based trip to Italy and Bosnia in May. The Grand Rapids couple will visit the Vatican, as well as religious sites in Monte Ste. Angelo, Loreto and Lanciano. In Bosnia, the city of Medjugorje holds a place where the Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to children every day since 1981. Their goal is to join a growing niche in the travel industry by developing programs and trips for those interested in religious-themed tours and vacations.

Mitt Romney’s Damascus Moment

The folks over at Get Religion have been chatting about Peggy Fletcher Stack’s article about Mitt Romney’s political evolution-from sounding like a liberal Mormon to sounding like a born-again Southern Baptist.

Bishop Stands Up for All Church Members

Quote of the Day: Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston “This church is either open to all, or it is closed to the Spirit. We either stand for what we know is just and embrace our (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) members, or we stand aside as justice is denied. There is no easy way out of this choice. There is only a gospel way forward.” -Bishop Steven Charleston, president of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., reacting to Anglican demands that the Episcopal Church stop blessing same-sex unions and allowing gay bishops.

10 Minutes With … Edward Gilbreath

Bruce Tomaso over at the Dallas Morning News has linked to Adelle M. Bank’s interview with Edward Gilbreath of Christianity Today on why evangelicals seem to have such a hard time with race relations.

Jews vs. Mormons on the Iraq War

Gallup has some new interesting numbers on the Iraq War-more specifically, if you’re Jewish, you’re probably against it. If you’re Mormon, you’re probably for it: Among Religious Groups, Jewish Americans Most Strongly Oppose War by Jeffrey M. Jones GALLUP NEWS SERVICE PRINCETON, NJ-An analysis of Gallup Poll data collected since the beginning of 2005 finds that among the major religious groups in the United States, Jewish Americans are the most strongly opposed to the Iraq war. Catholics and Protestants are more or less divided in their views on the war, while Mormons are the most likely to favor it. Those with no religious affiliation also oppose the war, but not to the same extent that Jewish people do. The greater opposition to the war is not simply a result of high Democratic identification among U.S. Jews, as Jews of all political persuasions are more likely to oppose the war than non-Jews who share the same political leanings.

For One Company, Snooping Around Is a Ministry

c. 2007 Religion News Service (RNS) For the folks at Oxford Document Management Company, it’s not snooping. It’s a divine mission. With a full-time staff of just three, the Anoka, Minn.-based background investigation firm has beat out bigger rivals to become the go-to gumshoes for religious groups across the United States. All but a handful of Oxford’s 1,000-odd clients are churches or denominational bodies, such as dioceses and synods.

For One Company, Snooping Around Is a Ministry

c. 2007 Religion News Service (RNS) For the folks at Oxford Document Management Company, it’s not snooping. It’s a divine mission. With a full-time staff of just three, the Anoka, Minn.-based background investigation firm has beat out bigger rivals to become the go-to gumshoes for religious groups across the United States. All but a handful of Oxford’s 1,000-odd clients are churches or denominational bodies, such as dioceses and synods.

Leaving a Mark

Quote of the Day: The Times-Picayune of New Orleans “The glitter of Mardi Gras has been washed away for another year, and the smudge of ash will be gone tomorrow. But the mark that Katrina has made on our hearts and minds is harder to remove.” -From an Ash Wednesday editorial published Wednesday (Feb. 21) in The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans.

RNS Daily Digest

c. 2007 Religion News Service Justice Department Launches `First Freedom Project’ WASHINGTON (RNS) The Department of Justice has launched a “First Freedom Project” to draw more attention to protecting the religious liberties of Americans. “Why should it be permissible for an employee standing around the water cooler to declare that `Tiger Woods is God,’ but a firing offense for him to say `Jesus is Lord,’?” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Tuesday (Feb. 20) at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn. “These are the kinds of contradictions we are trying to address.” The initiative includes a new Web site (http://www.firstfreedom.gov), a public education program and a task force that will review religious freedom policies and cases.

COMMENTARY: And Now, the Rest of the Purim Story

c. 2007 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Purim, the merriest of Jewish holidays, begins this year at sundown on March 3. In Hebrew, Purim means “lots” or “dice,” and it is based on the biblical book of Esther. Esther’s 10 brief chapters tell a chilling story of intrigue, drama and royal politics, recounting the downfall of Haman, ancient Persia’s wicked prime minister, who instituted a policy of mass murder against the Jews. Consumed with hatred, Haman cynically cast lots to determine the date for the executions.

Author Challenges Churches to Address `Crisis’ in Black America

c. 2007 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ Black churches should work together on specific problems facing African-American communities in order to address the “unfinished business” of helping people in need, argues the author of a new book on the subject. Robert M. Franklin, author of “Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities,” said churches are among the institutions that must combat gaps in education, income and health between blacks and whites. “This is a call to action … for churches and other houses of worship,” said Franklin, a respected black church scholar at Emory University in Atlanta, whose book was published by Fortress Press.

Oy Gay! Gay Jews See a Coming-Out Story in Purim’s Heroine

c. 2007 Religion News Service (UNDATED) As a child, Idit Klein celebrated Purim by wearing homemade gowns and tiaras to play the beautiful Queen Esther. She fantasized about how she, like the heroine who dangerously confessed her faith to save her fellow Jews in ancient Persia, could have somehow rescued her relatives from the Holocaust. Thirty years later, Klein, the director of Keshet, a pro-gay Jewish advocacy group based in Boston, likens Esther’s fearful revelation of her religious faith to the experience of coming out of the closet. “Purim is really a quintessential coming-out story,” said Klein, now 34.