Israel’s Messianic Jews wary of stepped-up persecution

ARIEL, West Bank (RNS) After their teenage son was nearly killed last year by a bomb disguised as a holiday gift basket, few people were as eager for Ya’acov Teitel to see justice as Leah and David Ortiz. Teitel, an Orthodox Jewish loner who confessed to placing the package in the family’s stairwell said he targeted the Ortiz family because they are Messianic Jews — Jews who believe in Jesus as the Messiah. “We want justice, not revenge,” said Leah Ortiz, who has lived in this religiously mixed city of 30,000 since the late 1980s. “This happened because Teitel had hate in his heart. He needs to be in prison.”

Tuesday’s roundup

The health care bill passed second procedural hurdle in the Senate early Tuesday morning, but the compromise on insurance coverage of abortion continues to be criticized by both sides of the debate. The USCCB’s point man calls the legislative compromise “crazy”; it certainly is complicated. The attorney for accused Fort Hood killer, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, says the Army won’t let his client pray in Arabic with this family. He can pray with them in English via the phone, though.

Church finds hope, promise in season of rebirth

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) On just another Sunday morning at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church, the Rev. Sara Fischer preaches about the season of Advent, the coming of Jesus Christ and what this holiday season really means. “People who’ve been around me a long time know that I’m always saying this or that season or day is my favorite,” she says with a small laugh. “But really, truly, I love Advent.

COMMENTARY: Good tidings of great freedom

NEW YORK (RNS) We awakened to eight inches of snow last Sunday and, once the year’s shortest day had dawned, went straight to Central Park for a walk in what amounts to this city’s snowy “countryside.” There we found proof that the urge to be free can overcome almost anything. Despite grumbles from runners who don’t appreciate sharing their road, people insisted on walking slowly along the plowed service road and throwing the occasional snowball. On hillsides, children proved that not even over-involved helicopter parents trying to dictate their every movement could prevent them from having a good time on sleds. Nor could domineering older sisters prevent younger brothers from throwing snowballs.

Attacking J Street: the old playbook

In 1973, in the wake of the Yom Kippur war, more than 100 Reform and Conservative rabbis plus a number of leading Jewish intellectuals formed Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations. The organization, which at its height numbered over 1,500 members, was dedicated to finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the face of what it regarded as intransigence on the part of both the PLO and the Israeli government. It became best known for advocating an independent Palestinian state–the two-state solution to the conflict. In 1976, Breira was subjected to a concerted campaign of vilification. It was accused of being anti-Semitic and hostile to Israel.

Churches blast Copenhagen summit for lack of agreement

GENEVA (RNS/ENI) Faith groups have expressed disappointment and anger over the outcome of the United Nations talks on climate change that have ended in Copenhagen, 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. Kerber said an agreement “called the Copenhagen Accord was negotiated between five countries: the U.S., China, India, South Africa and Brazil.” The agreement “failed to make commitments to reduce emissions to keep the temperature rise in check.” After the conclusion of the Dec.

Church shuns decorations to help the poor and needy

GAINES TOWNSHIP, Mich. (RNS) Passers-by have called Redeemer Covenant Church the “church of lights” for its magnificent outdoor and indoor displays during the holidays. But this year’s decorations are all on the inside: canned goods, lining the steps leading to the altar along with large piles of hats, gloves and scarves. The Rev. Jack Brown said as he and some congregation members planned this year’s celebration at the church, spending between $200 and $300 on poinsettias alone just didn’t seem right. “The more we talked about it, the more we realized it wasn’t responsible — given the way the people in the church are hurting and how people in the community are hurting,” he said.

Survey: Southerners lead U.S. in religious devotion

WASHINGTON (RNS) 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. Six in ten of Mississippi residents said they attend religious services at least once a week, followed by several states that had at least 50 percent with that commitment: Utah, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arkansas. While 77 percent of Mississippians said they pray at least once a day, they’re followed closely behind by residents of other Southern states with more than 70 percent claiming to be as prayerful: Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Catholics urge collection plate boycott to protest closings

CLEVELAND (RNS) A grassroots group that’s fighting the ongoing closing of churches in the Cleveland Catholic Diocese is urging parishioners to boycott Sunday collections. The group, Endangered Catholics, has begun circulating forms that parishioners can fill out, saying they are withholding their money until Bishop Richard Lennon reconsiders some of the closings. The form, to be signed by a parishioner and placed in a Sunday collection basket, reads in part: “I will withhold any further financial contributions to any Roman Catholic Church until Bishop Richard Lennon agrees to mediation with each parish protesting its closing.” Endangered Catholics, organized in the wake of Lennon’s orders last March to close 50 churches in the eight-county diocese by the end of June, is made up of parishioners from 14 parishes, four of which are already closed. “We feel an injustice is being done because these churches are being closed without our consent,” said Dave Hoehnen of Mayfield Village, a key organizer of the boycott.

Jews angry after pope moves Pius XII closer to sainthood

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Jewish leaders warned of new strains in Catholic-Jewish relations after Pope Benedict XVI moved his controversial wartime predecessor, Pope Pius XII, one step closer to possible sainthood. Benedict signed a decree on Saturday (Dec. 19) recognizing Pius’ “heroic virtues” and declaring him “venerable.” That new status makes the late pope eligible for beatification, the rank just below sainthood. “While it is entirely a matter for the Catholic Church to decide on whom religious honors are bestowed, there are strong concerns about Pope Pius XII’s political role during World War II,” said Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress.

New Merton book stirs up controversy

(RNS) Rarely has a romance seemed so star-crossed. He was 51, she 25. She was a pretty, petite student-nurse; he was stocky and bald, with a roving intellect and a boisterous laugh. He was also the most celebrated Catholic monk in America. Margie Smith had read at least one of the books that made Thomas Merton famous when she walked into his hospital room in Louisville, Ky., in 1966.

Monday’s roundup

Senate Democrats scored a major health-care victory early Monday morning, as they brokered a compromise on abortion and broke through a Republican filibuster. No one seems very happy with the abortion compromise, with NARAL, NRLC, and the Catholic bishops all denouncing it. The bishops said the bill “should not move forward in its current form.” Fox news guy Huckabee compared Nebraska’s Sen. Ben Nelson to Judas for accepting the compromise and voting for the bill. Nothing sells Christmas books like a well-timed Judas jab.

Religiosity by state

Pew has a cool new study out on religiosity by state according to four scales: importance of religion to the individual, worship attendance, frequency of prayer, and belief in God. The national average for those who say religion is very important in their lives is 56 percent. Among the 22 states (plus D.C.) above the national average, 16 voted for John McCain in 2008 (including 14 of the top 15). Among the 29 below the national average, 23 voted for Barack Obama (including nine of the bottom 10). Interestingly, however, the states represented by the Republican ticket ranked lower on the importance-of-religion scale than those represented by the Democratic ticket: Delaware (Biden) 25th; Illinois (Obama) 29th; Arizona (McCain) 34th; and Alaska (Palin) 49th.

Day of Judgment

I’m sorry, but sometimes the truth overwhelms my desire to maintain at least some small measure of academic disinterestedness in this blog. Whitehouse has it right, not least about the return of the Hofstadterian right-wing paranoid style of the 1950s. And it’s time for the comfortable pundits of the Beltway to wake up and see today’s Republican Party for what it is. And call it as they see it.

Stupak’s crowd

In his wrap-up of the Great Senate Abortion Compromise on Politics Daily, David Gibson suggests that Bart Stupak’s opposition spells doom for the compromise in conference committee: “The reality, however, is that the House is not likely to pass a bill that Stupak does not support.” That seems to me a misreading of the situation. Once it became apparent that Stupak was going to pass in the House, a number of supporters of health care reform who are generally pro-life or who represent conservative districts (case in point: Tom Perriello of VA 5) clambered on board. But the reality, in my view, is that a Nelson-like arrangement on abortion will be good enough for enough of them, and will win the day in the House. Call them them the Bob Casey pro-life social-justice caucus.