Muslims wait for signs of change from Obama

(RNS) Officially, President Obama was talking to the Muslim world in his State Department speech on Thursday (May 19), but U.S. Muslims were equally interested in how their faith will be treated in a post-Osama bin Laden era. U.S. Muslims tuned in hoping for clear direction from Obama on America’s plans for the unrest in the Middle East and strained relations with Pakistan, a critical but wobbly ally in the fight against terrorism. Adil Najam, who teaches international relations at Boston University, said Muslims — weary of being depicted as fundamentalists and terrorists — want to be taken seriously as partners in democracy who have risked their lives to overthrow Arab dictatorships. That change in image, he said, could improve the image that Americans have of their Muslims neighbors. “American Muslims are asking, `What does this mean to be Muslim in America?

First lady seeks help for military families

WASHINGTON (RNS) First lady Michelle Obama has asked religious leaders to join her initiative to assist military families by increasing programs to support veterans and the families of military members deployed far from home. “The faith community has been a strong bedrock for me as first lady,” she told religious and community organization leaders on Wednesday (May 18). “So I would be remiss if I didn’t bring this issue to you as well, and ask for your support, your leadership, and your guidance.” Obama, who launched her “Joining Forces” national initiative in April, said many congregations are already involved but that more can be done to include military families in a congregation’s outreach plans. “You don’t necessarily have to be an expert in military family issues to make a difference,” she said.

It’s the end of the world as they know it, and atheists feel fine

(RNS) Harold Camping’s campaign to warn Christians that the rapture is coming on Saturday (May 21) may have won him a band of followers, especially among those who have reportedly quit jobs or used up their life savings. But Camping’s acolytes may pale in comparison to the number of atheists and agnostics who are outraged — and perhaps a little amused — by the California radio evangelist’s predictions that Christians are about to be swept up to glory. Recognizing an opportunity, unbelieving Americans are using Camping’s doomsday scenario to host rapture parties, fundraisers, and conventions to raise awareness of their views. In America’s hotly contested religious marketplace, atheists know an opportunity when they see one. Or, as David Silverman, president of American Atheists put it, to “call out the stupid.”

Exhibit highlights Hindu `Blue-Skinned Savior’

NASHVILLE (RNS) In Hindu tradition, Lord Vishnu shows up in many forms. There’s Prince Rama, who killed the demon Ravana; Vamana the dwarf; Parashurama the vengeful; and Matsya the great fish. Then there’s Varasha, the boar who saved the world. “He’s like a superhero,” said Joan Cummins of the Brooklyn Museum in New York City and the curator behind the exhibit, “Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior.” The exhibit, currently on display at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual and headed back to Brooklyn in June, is billed as the first major American exhibit on Vishnu, one of central deities of Hinduism. The exhibit features 170 works of art portraying 11 different incarnations, or avatars, of Vishnu.

GUEST COMMENTARY: A solution in search of a problem

NEW YORK (RNS) A discriminatory and wholly unfounded idea is taking root in state legislatures across the country: attempts to pass laws that would explicitly and unnecessarily ban state courts from applying or even considering Islamic, or Shariah, law. One of the first, and worst, of these was a state constitutional amendment approved last year by Oklahoma voters. That measure has been temporarily blocked by a federal court, and the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations are seeking to have the measure struck down permanently. The Oklahoma law, and others like it, contains prohibitions on “international law” and “foreign law,” nonsensically conflating Shariah with foreign law. Other states, preferring not to wear their bigotry on their sleeves, don’t mention Shariah law per se, instead referring only to bans on “international law.”

Thursday’s Religion News Roundup

U.S. Catholic bishops, as we told you yesterday, released a 350-page study on the “causes and context” of the abuse scandal by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the verdict seems to be: blame the ’60s. Victims’ groups dismiss the conclusions, saying the blame lies with the church hierarchy. Researchers say their numbers and methodology are sound. Mark Silk has doubts about the celibacy findings in the report. Mike Huckabee’s exit from the 2012 race leaves many evangelicals without a natural choice, which may make GOP primary voters focus on economic (not social) issues.

Celibacy and sexual abuse

Those on the Catholic left are not very happy that the Jay Report declines in no uncertain terms to blame clerical celibacy for the sexual abuse crisis. As the report puts it:Factors that remained consistent over this time period, such as celibacy, do not explain the sexual abuse “crisis.” Celibacy has been constant in the Catholic Church since the eleventh century and could not account for the rise and subsequent decline in abuse cases from the 1960s through the 1980s.This
is the way social scientists, bless their hearts, look at
causation. You’ve got a “factor”; it’s constant through a period of
change; therefore it cannot be a cause of the change. Case closed.

Bishops at center of abuse scandal, and potential reform

WASHINGTON (RNS) A sweeping new report on the clergy sex abuse scandal compares the Roman Catholic Church to police departments, with similar hierarchies, moral authority and isolated working environments. And because the church, like the police, has “historically `policed itself,”‘ as the report says, some lay Catholics and victims’ advocates say even a stack of damning reports will not change a church that has been historically resistant to reform. A recent grand jury report that found dozens of accused priests still in active ministry in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, critics say, gives them little evidence for hope. The study by New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, released Wednesday (May 18), portrays the abuse scandal as largely confined to the past. More than 90 percent of nearly 10,700 allegations against Catholic priests occurred before 1990, according to the report.

Amnesty International chides Vatican for abuse

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Amnesty International has criticized the Vatican for falling short of its commitments to protect children from sex abuse. “The Holy See did not sufficiently comply with its international obligations relating to the protection of children,” the human rights group said in its latest annual report, released on Friday (May 13). “Increasing evidence of widespread child sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy over the past decades, and of the enduring failure of the Catholic Church to address these crimes properly, continued to emerge in various countries” during 2010, the report said. This is first time the group has included the Vatican in its annual report, which assesses the state of human right in 157 countries. That change follows a wave of scandals over sexually abusive Catholic priests in Europe and Latin America last year.

Israel removes land mines from site of Jesus’ baptism

QASR EL YAHUD, West Bank (RNS/ENInews) Pilgrims are flowing back to the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism on the Jordan River as Israel removes 40-year-old land mines and makes improvements to the area. “It is a very sensitive place politically and religiously and is of importance to both Christians and Jews,” said Lt. Col. Ofer Mey-tal, of the department of Civil Administration, who oversees the project. Located in a closed military area on the West Bank near Jericho, the site — has been revered since the fourth or fifth century as the place where John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Jewish tradition holds this also is where the ancient Israelites crossed into the Promised Land following their flight from Egypt.

Wednesday’s Religion News Roundup

U.S. Catholic bishops today will unveil the long-awaited “causes and contexts” study on the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Our sneak peak is here (bottom line: can’t blame the gays, or celibacy for the scandal), and NYT has their take here, and the Boston Globe, where it all began, is here. Chewing over what it all means, our pal Jim Martin says the church needs more, not fewer, (openly) gay priests. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad says his state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses aren’t only for evangelical favorites and doesn’t want any candidate to take a pass (he’s looking at you, Mitt Romney). After Bishop TD Jakes told Franklin Graham to mind his political p’s and q’s, BU’s Stephen Prothero says the younger Graham is an embarrassment to his father and evangelicalism writ large.

GUEST COMMENTARY: True reform would start with `I’m sorry’

(RNS) The Vatican has given the world’s Catholic bishops one year to set policies for handling allegations of child abuse, including reporting to police where required by local law. And on Wednesday (May 18), the U.S. bishops released a 300-page report on the “causes and context” of the abuse scandal here at home. Critics cite weak wording and anemic incentives in the Vatican’s directive, and in many respects, those complaints are valid. So, too, are criticisms that the U.S. bishops continue to pass the buck for allowing the scandal to fester. As a survivor of childhood clergy abuse, the Vatican’s directive is welcomed, and for me it feels like a step forward — a baby step to be sure, but nonetheless a long overdue turn toward the light.

Gay priests the solution, not the problem

That’s the big news out of the John Jay College Final Report on the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, due out at 2 p.m. today, according to David Gibson’s scoop for RNS last night (followed swiftly by NYT’s Laurie Goodstein, who also scored a copy). To wit:[T]he researchers found no statistical evidence that gay priests were
more likely than straight priests to abuse minors–a finding that
undermines a favorite talking point of many conservative Catholics. The
disproportionate number of adolescent male victims was about
opportunity, not preference or pathology, the report states. What’s more, researchers note that the rise in the number of gay priests
from the late 1970s onward actually corresponded with “a decreased incidence of abuse–not an increased incidence of abuse.” Over at In All Things, Jim Martin rings the changes on why this will come as a surprise to many, pointing specifically to the shortage of “‘public’ models of healthy, mature, loving celibate homosexual priests.”

RNS Exclusive: Report spreads blame for Catholic sex abuse

NEW YORK (RNS) Nearly a decade after revelations of widespread sexual abuse of minors rocked the Catholic Church in the U.S., a comprehensive report on the scandal is set for release on Wednesday (May 18), hoping to provide answers about a crisis that has raised myriad questions despite years of attention. Was celibacy to blame for the abuse? Gays in the priesthood? The social revolution of the ’60s, or the benighted seminary education of the repressive 1950s? The truth turns out to be far more complex, according to a copy of the report by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice that was provided by a church leader who believes the findings accurately reflect the causes of the church’s sexual abuse crisis, for good and for ill.