Pope calls lack of religious freedom a `threat to security and peace’

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday (Dec. 16) called limits on religious freedom a “threat to security and peace,” and said Christians are persecuted more than any other faith group. The pope, in his annual message for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, said the freedom to profess and express one’s faith is an “authentic weapon of peace” now under threat, especially in Iraq. The message made special mention of the plight of Iraqi Christians, recalling the Oct.

U.S. split on `Happy Holidays’ vs. `Merry Christmas’

(RNS) While more than nine out of 10 Americans say they plan to celebrate Christmas this year, they are divided on whether businesses should use messages like “Season’s Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas,” according to a new poll. The latest PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll, released Thursday (Dec. 16), found Americans are split, 44 percent in favor and 49 opposed, on whether retailers should use generic holiday greetings out of respect for people of different faiths. The so-called “War on Christmas” has been a rallying cry for conservatives in recent years as they resist attempts to remove nativity scenes from town squares, Christmas carols from public schools and the words “Merry Christmas” from sales flyers. The poll found a significant number of people engaging in secularized celebrations of Christmas, with Americans more likely to watch Christmas movies like “It’s A Wonderful Life” (83 percent) than attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (66 percent).

COMMENTARY: The uncensored, unsanitized real Christmas story

(RNS) There’s a Christmas pageant video circulating on YouTube this week that shows a camel named Lulu Bell walking down the aisle of First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Fla. Lulu Bell, following the script, stops to kneel. And that’s when mayhem ensues. As Lulu Bell begins to rise from her knees, the trainer (with the traditional Christmas pageant bathrobe on) tries to restrain her before she rolls sideways onto two church pews, throwing one of the Magi tumbling onto the hapless attendees seated below. The church says no one was injured when the 1,000-pound beast toppled over, but animal rights activists are up in arms. Lulu Bell was cut from the show, and people across the land are remembering mishaps in their childhood church pageants.

Thursday’s Religion News Roundup

The on-again, off-again repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell appears to be back on again after the House passed a stand-alone repeal yesterday; it now heads to the Senate, where advocates are more optimistic things might work out this time after last week’s defeat. Two men accused of torching two East Texas churches earlier this year pleaded guilty. Turns out that California inmate who wanted to celebrate Festivus just wanted an excuse to get kosher meals; sounds like a Seinfeld episode to me. A Catholic woman who worked at a Manhattan frame shop is suing after her Jewish boss told her to remove a crucifix necklace, even though male employees wore yarmulkes and Jewish women wore Star of David necklaces. Tea Party fave Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) says keeping Congress in town to debate a nuclear treaty with Russia so close to Christmas is “sacrilegious”; Arizona’s Jon Kyle, the Senate’s No.

Henry Kissinger, weasel

Henry Kissinger’s attempt to weasel out of the appalling comments he is now revealed to have made regarding U.S. policy on Soviet Jewry is not, shall we say, convincing. Here, courtesy of Jim Besser’s good post on the subject, is what Kissinger said to Richard Nixon in the White House in 1973:The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of
American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the
Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian
concern.And here is his post-facto “contextualization”:The quotations ascribed to me in the transcript of the conversation
with President Nixon must be viewed in the context of the time. President Nixon and I had raised the issue of Jewish emigration from the
Soviet Union early in his Administration.

Disorder has haunted saints and, especially, sinners

(RNS) Chad’s bout with scrupulosity began earnestly enough. An Idaho health-care worker and devout Mormon, Chad (who asked that his real name not be used) began wondering if he was totally upfront with patients. Soon, he started scrutinizing his past, looking for times he might not have been completely honest. “It started to steamroll on me,” the 35-year-old man says. He began phoning and e-mailing past bosses and acquaintances.

Republicans join FRC in ad countering hate group listing

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Family Research Council, joined by prominent Republican allies, is mounting an aggressive defense to a decision by the Southern Poverty Law Center to designate the powerful conservative lobby as a hate group. “The group, which was once known for combating racial bigotry, is now attacking several groups that uphold Judeo Christian moral views, including marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” reads a Wednesday (Dec. 15) FRC ad placed in the print editions of Politico and the Washington Examiner. The ad, in the form of an open letter, was signed by more than two dozen Republican leaders, including several potential GOP presidential candidates: Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Other signatories included House Speaker-designate John Boehner of Ohio and House Majority Leader-elect Eric Cantor of Virginia.

Swiss urged to continue to allow Mormon missionaries

WASHINGTON (RNS) Thirteen members of Congress are urging Swiss authorities to allow Mormon missionaries to continue serving beyond 2012, when a new rule would forbid non-European Union citizens from serving as missionaries. Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, both Utah Republicans, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, joined other Mormon members of Congress in urging the Swiss government to meet with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to figure out a way for missionaries to continue serving in the country. “It would be a great tragedy for our two nations if the long-standing missionary program of the LDS Church in Switzerland were terminated,” the members wrote. “Switzerland can have no more enthusiastic, lifetime ambassadors in the United States than these young people when they return home.”

Update: British group withdraws invite to Fla. pastor

LONDON (RNS) A right-wing political group that had asked a controversial Florida pastor to appear at an anti-Islam demonstration next year now says it has withdrawn the invitation because “he is not the right candidate for us.” Terry Jones, who gained international notoriety for threatening to burn copies of the Quran at his Gainesville church earlier this year, said he had been invited by the English Defense League to “speak out against the evils of Islam.” The British government has said Jones had been “on our radar for several months” and suggested he could be barred from landing in Britain. But the EDL told the BBC on Tuesday (Dec. 14) that “after doing some research and seeing what his personal opinions are on racism and homosexuality, we are not allowing him to speak at our demonstration.”

Bishop says Virgin Mary appeared in Wisconsin, but who can say for sure?

(RNS) In 1859, a Wisconsin farmwoman recounted three mystical meetings with the Virgin Mary, who told her to pray for the conversion of sinners and teach children the Catholic faith. Last Wednesday (Dec. 8), the Bishop of Green Bay finally sanctioned Adele Brise’s visions as both supernatural and “worthy of belief.” It was the first officially approved Marian apparition (the Catholic Church’s term for paranormal appearances by Mary) in the United States. Of the many questions kindled by Bishop David Ricken’s announcement, two seemed particularly keen: How does the church investigate mystical visions?

10 minutes with … Danny Alpert

(RNS) “The Calling,” a four-hour documentary that airs Dec. 20-21 on PBS stations, looks at seven young Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish seminarians as they train for the ministry, grapple with their sense of calling and their new responsibilities. Director Danny Alpert talked about the $1.8 million project that followed some of its subjects for two years. Some comments have been edited for length and clarity. Q: Why did you decide to make training for ministry the subject of a documentary?

COMMENTARY: When God calls, be sure to answer

(RNS) Despite having largely lost his Calvinist religion by the time he reached adulthood, the 19th-century Scottish satirist Thomas Carlyle famously noted that the idea of “calling” was all pervasive in broader society. “The latest gospel in this world is, `Know thy work and do it,”‘ Caryle said. When we consider the idea of “calling,” most of us think of ordained ministry. Pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and clerics of all traditions are supposed to have heard and heeded a divine “call” that leads them into a life of religious service. Still, religious leaders from Martin Luther to the founder of Opus Dei, St.

Wednesday’s Religion News Roundup

More bad news on the fiscal front. A growing number of Protestant churches have seen their Sunday collections drop this year, according to a survey reported in the Tennessean. Megachurches, however, seem to be doing fine. The Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix is threatening to strip a local hospital of its Catholic status if it doesn’t guarantee compliance with church teaching. Earlier this year, the hospital permitted an abortion for a woman whose life was threatened by her pregnancy.

Faith-based theory and practice

Over at WaPo’s On Faith, Melissa Rogers, the key player on the first Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, offers an appreciative but not uncritical assessment of the Obama continuation of the Bush faith-based initiative–essential reading for anyone interested in the thing. Rogers bears witness to the ongoing ideological struggles over the rules governing public funding of social service providers that are, in one sense or another, religious.Some will say that this has been a can of worms that should never have been opened. What needs to be recognized, however, is that the can that was opened–a little by the Charitable Choice provisions of the 1996 welfare reform act and all the way by George Bush–had far less to do with programs than with principles. Faith-based organizations (FBOs) were an integral part of the web of social service provision long before 1996. But through an undemonstrated but viscerally felt belief that FBOs are more effective than secular providers, the federal initiatives forced a confrontation with underlying principles of church and state that a highly messy system was ill-equipped to handle.For a sense of how the effort to handle it has played out on the ground since welfare reform, I know of no better case study than a book with the unfortunate title of Pracademics and Community Change: A True Story of Nonprofit Development and Social Entrepreneurship during Welfare Reform, by Odell Cleveland and Robert Wineburg.