RNS Daily Digest

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

Eds: Check RNS StoryPix from the week of July 19 for photos of Falun Gong protest at the Chinese embassy in Washington to accompany first item of Digest.

Update: China issues arrest warrant for Falun Gong founder

(RNS) Chinese officials issued an arrest warrant Thursday (July 29) for the founder of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement as part of their continuing crackdown on the group.

The report of the warrant and a description of Li Hongzhi were released by China’s official news agency, wire services said. China is expected to ask for international assistance to apprehend Li, who lives in New York.

China declared Falun Gong illegal July 22, fearing a political threat. Since then officials have begun a massive campaign to round up the leaders and”re-educate”thousands of Falun Gong members.

In China, members of the sect are mostly middle-aged women and laid-off workers who meet in city parks for exercises designed to harness cosmic forces. Falun Gong’s founder teaches that followers can gain supernatural powers and should view medicine warily.

The meditation group claims 100 million members worldwide with as many as 70 million in China. Chinese officials say the number in China is closer to 2 million.

U.S. members of Falun Gong expressed concern over reports of more than 1.5 million confiscated books and teaching materials. In Washington, supporters held protests as recently as Thursday at the U.S. Capitol.

Falun Gong”is a peaceful, meditative practice based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance,”said U.S. members of the movement in a statement.

Supporters called on the U.S. government to ensure Li’s safety and on the Red Cross to investigate reports of human rights abuses in China.

The U.S. State Department has been critical of the ban. Spokesman James P. Rubin criticized China for what he called”heavy-handed tactics.”Freedom House and other human rights groups have called the situation a clear case of religious oppression.

The crackdown appears to be the result of a Falun Gong rally April 25. President Jiang Zemin and Chinese officials were reportedly shocked when more than 10,000 silent protesters surrounded the Beijing compound where Zemin lives. The group said the gathering was to protest official harassment.

Study finds low divorce rates from interdenominational marriages

(RNS) The happiest and most successful Christian marriages are experienced by men and women who come from different denominations and settle on one tradition as a couple, a study shows.”The divorce rate in that group was only 6 percent,”said Michael Lawlor, director of Creighton University’s Center for Marriage and Family, in a Washington Times interview.

The 94 percent success rate holds regardless of whether Christian newlyweds choose one partner’s tradition or switch to a third altogether, said Lawlor, whose center is based in Omaha, Neb. He recently led a three-year study of 1,512 couples who were married since 1976 and belonged to a Christian denomination at engagement. The national survey selected participants at random.

Those findings are especially significant given that 35 percent to 40 percent of marriages are between Christians from different traditions. Meanwhile, 40 percent to 60 percent of marriages in the United States do not last.

Lawlor credited the high success rate to the sincere struggle, decision-making or adventure of converting to one church or deciding on a new tradition.

He found many instances where couples were each devoted to their different Christian traditions and chose to raise their children in both.”They had made a commitment to their marriage, and part of that commitment is to fashion a joint religious life,”Lawlor said.

Christians who married within their faith traditions ranked next with a 14 percent divorce rate.

Even couples who maintain their separate Christian traditions can sustain a relatively low divorce rate _ 20 percent _ if they manage their differences and”fashion a joint religious life,”said Lawlor.

Opponents continue to seek halt of Cleveland voucher program

(RNS) Groups opposed to controversial school voucher programs have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to ban a 3-year-old voucher program in Cleveland.

The coalition of teachers’ unions and civil liberties groups says the program violates the U.S. Constitution by funneling tax dollars into religious schools. The Cleveland program allows some 4,000 low-income students to attend private schools.

The groups include the National Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Besides the church-state issue, the critics charge that vouchers deprive public schools of much-needed funds. They also contend that test scores among participants do not improve.

The head of the Cleveland Scholarship Program says the success of the program is evidenced by its long waiting list.”This office has been under siege from the beginning of its existence,”Saundra Berry told The Washington Times.”I wonder who they are really thinking about _ certainly not the children _ when they want to disrupt so many lives.” With one month left before school is to resume, the Ohio Department of Education said it is prepared to accommodate the extra students if an injunction sends the thousands of pupils back to public schools this fall.”We would have to hire more teachers,”said Cleveland Public Schools spokeswoman Patricia Martin.”We will do whatever we have to do to get school off and running smoothly.” This is the second time groups have challenged the constitutionality of Cleveland’s voucher program. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in May that the program was not in violation of church-state separation guaranteed by the U.S. and Ohio constitutions. However, the program was shut down on a technicality in state law. The Ohio Legislature revived the program in June. That move prompted the latest legal challenge.

ELCA membership stable, income exceeded $2 billion in 1998

(RNS) The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) reported stable membership numbers and an income of more than $2 billion in its 1998 annual tabulation of statistics from congregations.

The membership includes 5,178,225 baptized members belonging to 10,862 congregations nationwide in 1998. This figure represents a decline since 1997 of 6,830 members, approximately one-tenth of a percent of the total membership.”The figures for 1998 showed steady overall membership in ELCA congregations, although even the slight decline of one-tenth of one percent in membership underscores the importance of outreach to current and new members,”said the Rev. Lowell G. Almen, secretary of the ELCA, in a statement.

Meanwhile, the denomination reported an annual income in excess of $2 billion for the second year in a row. The 1998 total represents a 5.64 percent increase from 1997.

Unrestricted offerings from congregants accounted for almost $1.5 billion, a 4.9 percent increase from the previous year. On average, each ELCA confirmed member gave 5.82 percent more than in 1997, donating approximately $450.

Almen called the increase in giving”significant.” Congregational contributions to Lutheran missionary projects and social causes, such as the World Hunger Appeal and Lutheran Disaster Response, increased 3.06 percent, and, despite a 2.25 percent decrease in synod-related”Special Benevolences”donations, money for community benevolent causes increased 7.34 percent.

Despite the positive financial news, Almen called on the church to be attentive to the drop of 27 congregations in the past year and a slight but steady decline in baptisms of children over the past nine years.”These statistics underscore the need for ELCA initiatives now under way, including those to deepen the worship life of members and to teach the faith, nurturing individuals as hearty disciples of Jesus,”Almen said.

Quote of the day: Karl Heinz Walter, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation

(RNS)”If there is not power to overcome hatred, the spirit of revenge will prevail. We must help people to show love and overcome hatred in a culture where blood revenge is part of the culture.” _ Karl Heinz Walter, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, at a recent General Council of the Baptist World Alliance in Dresden, Germany, speaking about the need for reconciliation in the Balkans.


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