Something for USCIRF to do

Gary Trudeau is on the international religious freedom case this morning:Digging a little deeper, I note that Iraq has been a country of particular concern for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom since 2008, and a source of continuous worry since the U.S. embarked on its Iraqi venture back in 2002. So it occurs to me that as it embarks on its next phase, the USCIRF might consider tweaking its mission. Up till now, it has been a kind of Faith-based Foreign Policy Team B, scurrying around to interested members of Congress, such administration officials as would talk with them, and such media outlets that would give them a platform, raising alarms about threats to religious liberty in this country or that. Its annual reports mirror the State Department’s own mandated country-by-country assessment. And, as current (and soon to depart) commission chair Leonard Leo notes, in given cases the Commission takes it upon itself to “review how the U.S. government is responding, and as warranted, formulate options for further action.”Nobody likes a back-seat driver, and there’s good reason to be skeptical of the value of the endless kibbitizing.

U.S. jumps to top of charity index

ASHINGTON (RNS) Americans: the most generous people in the world. In this season of giving, that’s no idle gloat. According to a new study, the United States tops a massive global charity survey, rising from fifth place in 2010. The “World Giving Index,” based on 150,000 interviews with citizens of 153 nations, ranks the U.S. highest on a scale that weighed monetary donations, volunteer work, and willingness to help out a stranger. “In spite of economic hardships and uncertainty in the future, the American spirit is caring and strong, as these survey findings clearly show,” said David Venne, interim CEO of CAFAmerica, the Virginia-based charities consultant that released the results of the index.

Report shows Christianity shifting to Africa

(RNS) With 2.18 billion adherents, Christianity has become a truly global religion over the past century as rapid growth in developing nations offset declines in Christianity’s traditional strongholds, according to a report released Monday (Dec. 19). Billed as the most comprehensive and reliable study to date, the Pew Research Center’s “Global Christianity” reports on self-identified Christian populations based on more than 2,400 sources of information, especially census and survey data. Findings illustrate major shifts since 1910, when two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. Now only one in four Christians live in Europe.

TuesdayâÂ?Â?s Religion Roundup: Big Christianity, Mitt’s Top 10, Palin redux?

First night of Hanukkah is tonight. May your oil last the week. Christianity is the largest religious community in the world, with 2.2 billion adherents, and the United States counts the most Christians of any country, with 247 million believers, the Pew Forum reports. Yet in the birthplace of Jesus, the Middle East, Christians are a demographic blip and shrinking. Such are the vagaries of history.

Muslims caught in reality show crossfire struggle to understand controversy

DEARBORN, Mich. (RNS) When Fordson High School football coach Fouad Zaban was asked to be on a reality show about Muslim family life, his impulse was to decline. “It doesn’t seem like it now, but we kind of like our privacy,” Zaban said. “We are simple people. We don’t do crazy things.

COMMENTARY: A good year for a silent night

(RNS) This is a year for soft sounds in churches, like babies cooing, lovers wooing, believers holding candles and singing “Silent Night.” This is a year to turn down the volume, to dare to hear the still small voice of God. In a world of bare-knuckles politics, Christians don’t need to outshout the shouters. Let the frightened roar and the hate-filled rage. Let sidewalks and malls fill with great hymns turned to jingles.

USCIRF reigned in

So at the eleventh hour last Friday, the House and Senate passed a bill to keep the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom alive. And despite the yelps of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), it included the changes proposed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). As for the funds to reopen that federal prison in Illinois, if they were part of the deal it’ll presumably emerge later. What the Durbin amendment did was take a few steps to make the Commission less of a loose cannon.Most importantly, commissioners will be limited to two two-year terms, and if they’ve already completed two, they are gone in 90 days. This will stop the USCIRF from serving as a permanent bully pulpit for the likes of Nina Shea, who’s been there from the beginning thanks to a succession of Republican re-appointments.

Pope certifies miracles for two U.S. saints

VATICAN CITY (RNS) A 17th-century Native American woman who cared for the sick and elderly, and a Catholic nun who worked with lepers in Hawaii, are on the verge of becoming the newest American saints, after Pope Benedict XVI certified miracles due to their intercession, the Vatican announced Monday (Dec 19). The decrees concerned Kateri Tekakwitha and Mother Marianne Cope, both of whom had been declared “Blessed” by the late John Paul II. Each woman’s canonization still requires a papal bull, likely to come next year, calling for her veneration as a saint. Tekakwitha was born in 1656 along the Mohawk River, in what is now New York state. Her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother an Algonquin woman who had converted to Catholicism.

Muslim push Lowe’s boycott over reality series

LOS ANGELES (RNS) The controversy between Muslim Americans and the Lowe’s home improvement chain will spill into 2012 with a planned boycott of Lowe’s for dropping its advertising from the TLC reality show “All-American Muslim.” Leaders of the Muslim Public Affairs Council urged their members to boycott Lowe’s, and called on more than 50 major advertisers — including McDonald’s, Whirlpool and Bank of America — to keep their ads on the show. Salam Al-Marayati, the group’s executive director, on Saturday (Dec. 17) encouraged more than 900 attendees at an MPAC convention to move from complaining to more protracted, successful campaigns. “We want winners, not whiners,” he told the audience at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Muslims are more ‘All-American’ than corporate cowards

(RNS) Ingrid Mattson, the immediate past president of the Islamic Society of North America, summed up the challenge we Americans face in light of the controversy surrounding sponsorship of TLC’s new reality TV series, “All-American Muslim.” “Freedom of religion is a hallmark of this country,” she said. “It is time to decide whether or not we are going to live up to our values.” “All-American Muslim” highlights five American Muslim families experiencing life in ways that we as Americans hold dear: starting a family, serving in law enforcement, and coaching high school football. At the same time, they are shown practicing diverse expressions of their Islamic faith.

Lawmaker pulls bid to give rabbis control over electricity

JERUSALEM (RNS) An Israeli lawmaker succumbed to public pressure and scrapped legislation that would have given religious officials a say in how the country’s electricity is produced and distributed. Uzi Landau, minister of national infrastructure, on Sunday (Dec. 18) withdrew what was called the “kosher electricity bill,” an amendment to an existing law that would have empowered Israel’s chief rabbis to supervise power production. Landau drafted the amendment in response to the growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews who go off the national electricity grid, fearing that the power is produced in violation of Jewish law by, for example, employing Jews on the Sabbath. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews are now using private generators and other power sources, some of them of questionable safety.

Monday Godbytes: Tim Tebow’s Miraculous Loss; Saudis Snap Up Twitter; Flying Spaghetti Monster

Despite a six-game winning streak, Denver Broncos quarterback and vocal Christian Tim Tebow lost to the New England Patriots last night, 41-23. It was a sad day for Broncos fans, but the Jesus Needs New PR blog thinks Saturday Night Live (and Jesus) foretold the reason for loss before it happened. (also, the Patriots are really good.) Are the Saudis trying to buy out Twitter? Saudi Prince Alwaleed reportedly just invested $300 million in the microblogging service, raising questions as to whether the royal family was tring to control the technology that assisted Arab Spring protestors. Still, BoingBoing bloggers think the news is a bit overblown.

Monday’s Religion News Roundup: Deaths in threes; Pope Benedict XVI’s fatigue; Jesus goe

Is there something religious behind the superstition that famous people die in threes? While appreciations of Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel continue to pour in, news came on Sunday that North Korean despot Kim Jung-il has died of a heart attack. While Hitchens and Kim were ardent atheists, Havel, the former Czech president, was something of a transcendentalist, according to CT. The AP says that 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI seems worn out, raising questions about whether he will resign if he can no longer do the job. Newt Gingrich represents a new kind of Catholic politician, the NYT reports, suited to an era in which secularism, abortion and same-sex marriage are the church’s chief political concerns.

Ten Commandments scroll goes on display in New York

NEW YORK (RNS) It is an irony of history that the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai on two stone tablets are found in their purest form on a strip of ancient parchment so delicate that it is hardly ever seen by the public. A rare exception is being made this holiday season as the 2,000-year-old “Ten Commandments Scroll” goes on display through Jan. 2 in a New York City exhibit dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls. For once, at least, this display of the Ten Commandments is unlikely to become the focus of legal squabbles or impassioned religious rhetoric. Instead, the exhibit at Discovery Times Square in Manhattan could serve to underscore the remarkable power of faith to shape a culture — and the ability of that culture to transmit its bedrock teachings across the centuries, and around the world.