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c. 2000 Religion News Service

Bush Apologizes for Not Confronting Bob Jones University

(RNS) Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush apologized this weekend for not speaking out against the racist and anti-Catholic policies at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, telling New York Cardinal John O’Connor it was a “missed opportunity” he deeply regrets.

The Texas governor’s campaign has been dogged by charges of anti-Catholic bias since Bush kicked off his South Carolina campaign at the school Feb. 2. In a letter to O’Connor, one of America’s pre-eminent Catholic leaders, Bush said he wished he had distanced himself from the conservative fundamentalist school, which bans interracial dating.

“On reflection, I should have been more clear in disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice,” Bush wrote in his letter. “It was a missed opportunity causing needless offense, which I deeply regret.”

Taped phone messages sent to Michigan voters before last week’s primary described Bush’s visit to the campus, saying, “Bob Jones has made strong anti-Catholic statements, including calling the pope anti-Christ, the Catholic church a Satanic cult. Governor Bush has stayed silent.”

The messages went on to describe Arizona Sen. John McCain as a “friend of Catholics.” McCain’s campaign initially denied approving the messages, but later admitted they authorized them and defended the facts of the messages.

Bush, a United Methodist, said the anti-Catholic “smear campaign” was unfair, and pointed out his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and his wife, Columba, are both Catholics.

Appearing on the “Today” show on Monday (Feb. 28), Catholic League president William Donohue said Bush’s letter should “settle the issue.”

“A touchstone of Catholicism is forgiveness, the recognition that wrongdoers who are sorry for their offense should be forgiven,” Donohue said. “It would be inconsistent with our faith, therefore, if we as Catholics did not forgive Governor Bush for this incident.”

Farrakhan Pledges Greater Unity With Mainstream Muslim Groups

(RNS) Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan pledged Sunday (Feb. 27) to knit closer ties between his breakaway movement and more orthodox Muslim bodies during his annual “Savior’s Day” speech.

Mainstream Muslim leaders had hoped Farrakhan would use the event to spur a reconciliation between the Nation of Islam and groups such as Muslim American Society. Most who attended the 2 1/2-hour speech were not disappointed.

“Has Farrakhan changed? Has Farrakhan abandoned us?” the 66-year-old leader told the crowd of 20,000 people. “Yeah, I have. Everybody should be changing … but I haven’t abandoned you.”

The speech marked a major reconciliation between two of America’s most contentious religious rivals, although far short of a permanent unity. Farrakhan, often denounced for anti-Semitic and anti-white remarks, has undergone a spiritual metamorphosis of sorts in the last year after undergoing cancer surgery.

The Nation of Islam was born in 1934 under W.D. Fard, a Detroit Muslim. His student, Elijah Muhammad, took the reins of the movement until his death in 1975. His son, W. Deen Mohammed, assumed leadership, renamed it the Muslim American Society and moved it toward Orthodox Islam.

Three years later, Farrakhan bolted and re-founded the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad’s teachings and a wide gap slowly grew between the two sides. Orthodox Islam has never accepted the Nation of Islam as a legitimate Muslim organization.

Farrakhan and Mohammed embraced several times during Farrakhan’s speech. As they stood together on the stage, Farrakhan pledged to build closer ties “not for evil but for love, not for hatred but in good,” according to the Associated Press.

The move toward reconciliation is more than just rhetoric. The Nation of Islam now embraces traditional Friday prayers and observes the month of Ramadan, a holy time of fasting. In addition, the Nation now says the final teachings of Islam were revealed by the ancient prophet Mohammed of Mecca, who founded the religion in the seventh century, and not Elijah Muhammad.

Nation of Islam leaders have also largely avoided the controversial statements that in the past have embroiled the movement in controversy, such as calling Judaism a “gutter religion.” Farrakhan last year pledged to uplift “lost and fallen humanity, regardless of their color, their race or their creed.”

Religious Groups Urge Court to Uphold Nebraska Abortion Ban

(RNS) Calling late-term abortion procedures “more like infanticide than abortion,” seven religious bodies _ including the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the National Association of Evangelicals _ have filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold Nebraska’s ban on late-term abortions.

“The constitutional challenge to the Nebraska statute and similar legislation is a truly extraordinary chapter in American law,” the church groups declared in an amicus curiae brief filed Feb. 23. “That … anyone would seriously dispute that states have the authority to protect children mere seconds and inches from full delivery from the brutal and violent killing that Nebraska here has chosen to prohibit is perhaps a sign of just how far from a correct interpretation of the Constitution proponents of this procedure are willing to lead this Court.”

Nebraska’s ban on late-term abortion procedures contradicts neither the Constitution nor previous Court rulings on abortion, the religious groups maintain in their brief. They also contend that under a 1992 Supreme Court decision, not all abortions are protected by the constitution.

“(Planned Parenthood v. Casey) left the states free to advance their interests in protecting unborn life, preserving a woman’s health, ensuring that her decision to have an abortion is informed, and regulating and maintaining the integrity and ethics of the medical profession,” read the brief, which was also signed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Nebraska Catholic Conference, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Supreme Court will review the Nebraska statute in April.

Christian Coalition Sues IRS For Denying Tax Exemption

(RNS) The Christian Coalition has sued the Internal Revenue Service, claiming the federal agency discriminated against the political organization by denying it tax-exempt status.

The complaint, filed by the American Center for Law and Justice, the law firm founded by religious television broadcaster Pat Robertson, charges the IRS gave “disparate treatment” to the coalition’s application for tax-exempt status compared to “liberal” groups engaged in similar activities.

“This is a very troubling case of discrimination,” said Jay Sekulow, the ACLJ’s chief counsel, who filed the suit. “The IRS has singled out the Christian Coalition and engaged in discriminatory action against the coalition because of the organization’s political views.

“The IRS wrongly assessed and collected taxes and through its discriminatory practices has violated the First Amendment rights of the Christian Coalition.”

The IRS made a final determination last year to reject the coalition’s request for tax-exempt status.

The coalition also charges that IRS rules regarding exemptions are vague and unclear.

Coalition officials believe the IRS illegally collected taxes from their organization during the 1990 tax year and hope for a court decision that will refund its 1990 taxes and prevent the IRS from seeking taxes in the following years.

An IRS spokesman said the agency could not comment on the suit, citing disclosure laws.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, predicted the coalition’s lawsuit will fail.

“This lawsuit is an act of desperation by a group that has lost much of its membership and even more of its credibility,” Lynn said in a statement. “There is not a shred of evidence that the current IRS has any ideological bias.”

Pope: Reforms of Second Vatican Council Will Last

(RNS) Pope John Paul II has called on the Roman Catholic Church to harvest the fruits of renewal and reform that have matured in the 35 years since the Second Vatican Council concluded its deliberations.

Addressing prelates, theologians and lay teachers concluding a three-day symposium on the implementation of the council’s 16 decrees and declarations, the pope said Sunday (Feb. 27) that Vatican II provided “a true prophecy for the life of the church.”

“The small seed that John XXIII planted with an anxious soul and hand in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls Jan. 25, 1959, announcing the intention to convoke the 21st Ecumenical Council in the history of the church, has grown, giving life to a tree that has opened its majestic and mighty branches in the vineyard of the Lord,” the pope said.

“It has already yielded many fruits in these 35 years of life, and it will yield many more in the years to come,” he said. “A new season opens before our eyes: It is the time of deepening the councilor teachings, the time of harvesting what the council fathers planted.”

John Paul, who attended the four council sessions held between Oct. 11, 1962, and Dec. 8, 1965, first as a young Polish bishop and then as archbishop of Krakow, called an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985 to mark the 20th anniversary of its closing. The Vatican organized the current symposium as part of Holy Year celebrations of the start of the third millennium of Christianity.

John Paul stressed that although the council’s task was to modernize the church at a time of ferment in society, its actions grew out of the continuity of Catholic history. He said the council must be viewed “in a perspective of faith.”

“To read the council supposing that it involves a break with the past, while in reality it places itself in the line of the faith of forever, is decidedly on the wrong track,” he said.

“The council fathers faced a true challenge,” the pope said. “It consisted in the obligation to understand more intimately, in a period of rapid change, the nature of the church and its relation to the world in order to provide a suitable revision.

“We received this challenge _ I also was among the council fathers _ and we responded to it by searching for a more coherent intelligence of faith,” the pope said. “What we did at the council was to render manifest that if the contemporary man wants to understand himself deeply, he too needs Jesus Christ and his church, which remains in the world as a sign of unity and of communion.”

Several leading church figures, including Cardinal Carlo Mario Martini of Milan and retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, have called for another gathering on the lines of the council to consider the role of women, the priesthood and other key questions facing the church today.

But John Paul made clear he sees no need for any sweeping re-examination and renewal of the church on the lines of Vatican II during his papacy.

“The Ecumenical Vatican Council was a true prophecy for the life of the church; it will continue to be so for many years of the third millennium just begun,” he said. “The church, rich in the eternal truth that has been entrusted to it, will still speak to the world, announcing that Jesus Christ is the only true savior of the world: yesterday, today and forever.”

Report: 11th Falun Gong Member Dies in Chinese Detention

(RNS) With the United Nations human rights commissioner arriving in China in just days, a human rights agency in Hong Kong has reported an 11th Falun Gong follower has died while in police custody, and the parents of two jailed Falun Gong members have petitioned Chinese authorities for their release.

The Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China reported that 60-year-old Chen Zixiu, accused of intending to unite with Falun Gong protesters in Beijing, died a few days after her arrest Feb. 17 by police in the eastern city of Weihai, the Associated Press reported.

Police officials in Weifang denied any knowledge of Zixiu’s case, the Center reported, while the State Council offered no comment.

The group also reported the parents of two sisters jailed for their connection to the banned movement sent a petition _ dated Feb. 5 _ for their daughters’ release to China’s legislature, the Supreme People’s Court, the chief prosecutor’s office and the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

The two women, Li Xiaobing and Li Xiaomei, were sentenced last month to six- and seven-year prison sentences after they were found guilty of operating an illegal business (a bookstore) and using a cult to undermine laws.

“Before they were arrested, no law defined Falun Gong as a cult. When they were selling books, nobody told them these books were bad and could not be sold,” read the petition. The women’s mother, Nie Zhen, is a practitioner of Falun Gong.

The movement _ a combination of traditional Chinese exercises and Buddhist and Taoist principles _ was banned last July after Chinese leaders decided the group was a threat to the Communist Party.

The Information Center wants U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson to speak out against the alleged human rights abuses, urging her to avoid allowing Chinese officials to cover up human rights violations while she visits the country.

Robinson’s visit comes a few weeks before the U.N. Human Rights Commission convenes its annual meeting in March in Geneva, where the Clinton administration intends to push for a censure of China for its human rights record, a move that has been blocked in previous years.

O’Connor Cancels Appearance at Mass

(RNS) Weakness forced the ailing Cardinal John O’Connor to cancel a celebration of Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday (Feb. 27).

O’Connor _ who has suffered from a number of health problems, including two minor falls in October and brain surgery in August _ planned to celebrate Mass later at his chapel.

His doctors “have not reached any conclusion” about his condition, said archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling, the Associated Press reported.

“The cardinal has been experiencing weakness during this week, and doctors have some concern about his health at present,” said Zwilling. “While he’s been weak before, it seems to have been much more pronounced during this past week.”

The New York Times said Auxiliary Bishop James McCarthy, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Westchester County and a former secretary to the 80-year-old cardinal, stood in for O’Connor, who has served as archbishop of New York for 16 years and is expected to retire soon when Pope John Paul II names his successor.

New Southern Baptist Congregations Demonstrate Diversity

(RNS) More than half of the new congregations added to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1999 were predominantly ethnic or African-American.

“For so long Southern Baptists have been viewed by the world as white Anglo Southerners, and that is the case no longer,” said Robert E. Reccord, president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board.

The denomination saw a record 1,747 new congregations added to its rolls last year, reported Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. The previous record was 1,504 in 1996.

A record 675 of the newly added churches were ethnic congregations, including 311 Hispanic, 56 Korean and 32 Haitian. New African-American congregations totaled 225.

The total number of new congregations also included 154 existing churches that affiliated with Southern Baptists during 1999.

Quote of the Day: Juan Miguel Gonzalez, father of Elian Gonzalez

(RNS) “By not returning my son to me, despite having acknowledged repeatedly that it is the right thing to do, the U.S government has taken a position which is morally indefensible.”

Juan Miguel Gonzalez, father of Elian Gonzalez, in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner. He was quoted in the Monday (Feb. 28) edition of USA Today.

DEA END RNS

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