Pope meets with investigators of disgraced Legion

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI met on Friday (April 30) with the leaders of a Vatican investigation of the Legion of Christ, a conservative Catholic movement whose founder fathered at least one illegitimate child and sexually abused minors. Five prelates from Europe and the Americas, including Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, met with Benedict to discuss the results of their probe into the Legion, also known as the Legionaries of Christ, which began in July 2009 and concluded last March. The investigation was prompted by revelations last year that the Rev. Marcel Maciel, founder of the Legion, had fathered an illegitimate daughter. Controversy around Maciel dates at least as far back as 1997, when nine former Legionaries accused him of sexually abusing them decades earlier, while they were studying to become priests under his authority. Maciel was not disciplined during the reign of Pope John Paul II, who favored the Legion and its lay arm Regnum Christi.

British judge: Christian beliefs have no legal standing

LONDON (RNS) A top British judge has ruled that Christian beliefs have no standing under secular law because they lack evidence and cannot be proven. Lord Justice John Grant McKenzie Laws made the declaration on Thursday (April 29) in throwing out a defamation suit by Christian relationship counselor who refused to offer sex therapy to gay couples. Gary McFarlane protested that he was fired because offering sex therapy to same-gender couples violates his Christian principles. But Laws said “religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence.” He added that to use the law to protect “a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified.”

Belgium poised to ban Muslim veil

PARIS (RNS) Belgium is poised to become Europe’s first country to ban the face-covering Islamic veil, after lawmakers approved such a measure Thursday (April 29) — just a week after the French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered similar legislation in France. Deputies in Belgium’s lower house of Parliament voted almost unanimously for banning the face veil, known in Afghanistan as the burqa and in the Arab world as the niqab. The measure must still be passed by the Belgian Senate before becoming law, and some critics suggest it may face legal obstacles. The law would ban the face veil in many public spaces. Violators could be fined up to $34 dollars or face short jail sentences.

Is high court’s cross ruling good for Christians?

WASHINGTON (RNS) Evangelicals cheered when a Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday (April 28) allowed a cross to remain as a war memorial in California’s Mojave Desert. Some Christians, however, caution that a celebration may not be in order. The high court’s decision was largely based on Justice Anthony Kennedy’s determination that “one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion.” Rather, he said, it “evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles.” In other words, the cross is more than a Christian symbol.

A war over water dries up good will between Jews, Arabs

JERUSALEM (RNS) Given the choice, Fatmeh Kawasmi has put her guests ahead of her flowers. With a limited supply of water, it’s comes down to giving a drink to her flowers or serving tea to her guests. So Kawasmi, as a good Middle Eastern host, pours water into the little cups instead of the soil, and hopes her flowers hang on for another week. “I consider the flowers and plants my friends,” said Kawasmi, a 69-year-old grandmother who lives in Qalandia, a West Bank town about 7 miles north of Jerusalem. “I watch them die because of the lack of water.”

Friday’s roundup

Pope Benedict XVI held meetings today over the fate of the Legionaries of Christ (photo, left), the conservative order that was devastated by abuse and out-of-wedlock children involving founder Marcial Maciel. The NYT says the abuse scandal spreading around the world is producing “nothing less than an epochal shift” for the Catholic Church. Washington state priest was found stabbed to death in Venezuela. NPR’s legal correspondent Nina Totenberg parses the Supreme Court’s church-state jurisprudence after Wednesday’s ruling that the Mojave Cross can stay; the LA Times calls the ruling “a blow to the First Amendment.” A church-state watchdog group says a cross on the motto of a Colorado Army hospital needs to go.

Chaplains ret., in favor of DADT

The letter sent to President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates by a group retired chaplains begging for retention of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell is not exactly a testament to intellectual honesty. The chaplains–evangelicals and other conservative Protestants–are exercised that if the military “normalizes homosexual behavior” it will impinge upon their own religious liberty. But as they are well aware, clergy don’t enjoy the same degree of religious liberty when they’re employed by the military as they do as civilians. There are rules limiting proselytizing, for example, and although these have always stuck in the craw of evangelical chaplains anxious to exercise the Great Commission, they have had to abide by them. If they can’t, then they can always pursue their calling outside the confines of military service.Deep into the letter, the signatories do admit that military chaplains only have their jobs by virtue of the need to enable other service personnel to exercise their own right of religious free exercise.

New Vatican figures show Catholic growth is outside Europe

ROME (RNS/ENI) The world’s Catholic population grew 11.55 percent between 2000 and 2008, from 1.045 billion 1.166 billion, which was slightly faster than the world’s overall population growth of 10.77 percent, according to new statistics published by the Vatican. The 2010 edition of the Vatican’s statistical yearbook shows that while the number of Catholics in Europe grew by 1.17 percent, in Africa growth was 33.02 percent, 15.6 percent in Asia and 10.9 percent in the Americas. Catholics in Europe make up a quarter of all Catholics while Catholics in the Americas account for nearly half of the world’s total. The number of Catholic bishops grew from 4,541 to 5,002, while the number of nuns fell from 801,000 to 739,000. While each priest in Europe is responsible for, on average, 1,440 Catholics, in the Americas the figure is 4,700, and in Africa, 4,800.

Retired chaplains oppose Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell repeal

WASHINGTON (RNS) More than 40 retired military chaplains warned President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that allowing gays to serve openly in the military will force current chaplains to choose between obeying God or men. “This forced choice must be faced, since orthodox Christianity — which represents a significant percentage of religious belief in the armed forces– does not affirm homosexual behavior,” the chaplains wrote in their Wednesday (April 28) letter. The retired chaplains — affiliated with denominations including the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America and the Southern Baptist Convention — said the change could force chaplains to water down their teachings, or force them to preach or counsel views that conflict with official military policies. In February, Gates said the Pentagon would spend a year studying the ramifications of repealing the 17-year-old Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy. The letter was spearheaded by the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defense Fund.

La. moves to allow armed worshippers

BATON ROUGE, La. (RNS) People qualified to carry concealed weapons should be able to keep them strapped on in a church or temple as a way to enhance security, a state House committee decided Wednesday (April 28). The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice voted 8-3 for bill that would allow a church to hire a security force or create its own by authorizing the church’s board or pastor to tap parishioners who have concealed weapons permits to bring them to church. Louisiana law currently bans weapons in houses of worship. The bill, sponsored by Republican Henry Burns, does not force churches to participate.

Panel faults Obama for lagging on religious freedom

WASHINGTON (RNS) The U.S. government is not doing enough to protect religious freedoms abroad, the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said Thursday (April 29) in its annual report to Congress and the White House. “The problems are above and beyond what we saw last year, and the administration must do more,” said Leonard Leo, chair of the commission, which was founded by Congress in 1998. The commission named 13 “countries of particular concern” on religious freedom violations: Burma, North Korea, Nigeria, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The panel also named 12 countries to a second-tier “watch list” that deserve close monitoring by Washington: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela. India was the only new addition from last year.

Thursday’s roundup

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom named 13 countries – including Saudi Arabia and China – as serious violators of religious freedom. The congressionally mandated panel also included as “countries of particular concern”: Myanmar, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. President Obama is among the hundreds of mourners at Washington National Cathedral for the memorial service of Dorothy Height, a matriarch of the civil rights movement. Obama is scheduled to deliver the eulogy. Forty retired military chaplains sent a letter to Obama asking him not to repeal Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.

Why does Tariq Ramadan cause such a stir?

WASHINGTON (RNS) With an open collared baby blue shirt and Dolce & Gabbana jacket hugging his slim frame, Tariq Ramadan appears the epitome of Western sophistication. But from 2004 until just a few months ago, the Department of Homeland Security viewed him with suspicion. Ramadan, a 46-year-old Oxford University professor and a golden child of American academia, was banned from the U.S. for six years because of alleged ties to a Muslim charity that supported the militant group Hamas. “A silly decision from the Bush administration,” as Ramadan prefers to put it now. Ramadan, the author of more than 20 books on Islam and the grandson of the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, is widely considered a go-to scholar on all things Islam.

COMMENTARY: Inflamed passions over Oberammergau

(RNS) Since 1634, the Bavarian village of Oberammergau has staged an elaborate Passion play that has become of the largest and longest-running stage depictions of the last week of Jesus’ life. The show now runs once every 10 years. During this year’s run of 102 performances between May 15 and Oct. 3, an estimated half-million spectators will descend on the tiny German hamlet to see the show; more than half are expected to come from North America. Many viewers will believe that what they’re seeing is the “Gospel truth.”