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c. 2004 Religion News Service

Presbyterians Fire Two Officials After Hezbollah Meeting

(RNS) Two officials of the Presbyterian Church (USA) who were part of a controversial delegation that met with Hezbollah officials in Lebanon have been fired.

Church officials, however, would not say if the firings of Kathy Lueckert and the Rev. Peter Sulyok were related to the Middle East visit. After angry criticism from Jewish groups, church leaders called the visit “misguided at best” and said statements by the alleged terrorist group were “reprehensible.”

The firings were announced on Nov. 11 by John Detterick, executive director of the church’s General Assembly Council (GAC), which acts as the church’s board of directors. He said legal restrictions kept him from disclosing details.

Lueckert was Detterick’s deputy and was essentially the church’s No. 3 official. Sulyok coordinated the church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which arranged the visit.

“I know these decisions raise many questions for staff, but please realize that all staff have the right to confidentiality regarding their employment,” Detterick said in a memo to church headquarters in Louisville, Ky.

“Therefore, this is all I can say. I am keeping Kathy and Peter in my prayers, and I hope you will also.”

The visit, which included a stop at a Hezbollah-run camp in Southern Lebanon, came on the heels of the church’s controversial decision to consider financial divestment in companies doing business in Israel.

Jewish groups were angered that church officials said “relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.”

_ Kevin Eckstrom

Bishops Approve New Audits, Delay Tracking System for Problem Priests

WASHINGTON (RNS) Roman Catholic bishops will conduct a third round of audits to gauge their compliance with sexual abuse reforms but will hold off on a tracking system for abusive priests.

The 2005 audits, approved in a 189-35 vote by bishops on Wednesday (Nov. 17) during their annual meeting here, will be self-reported. The result of audits conducted in 2004 are expected to be released next February.

The bishops are currently reviewing sex abuse rules implemented in 2002, a process that should culminate next summer. Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., a member of the bishops’ sex abuse committee, said most of the reforms are expected to remain intact because the bishops “wanted to change as little as possible.”

That includes maintaining “zero tolerance” for abusive priests, Cupich said, despite protests from some priests’ groups that the policy has denied them due process. The bishops also approved, 137-85, a national study to tally the number of new abuse cases reported to dioceses.

In an oral report to bishops, Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, head of the sex abuse committee, said some dioceses still have not implemented all aspects of the 2002 reforms.

“It is a matter of serious concern for all of us,” he said. “We made a commitment to our people and to one another and it demands we pay close attention to the situation. It is necessary for all of us to maintain our vigilance.”

Flynn said the bishops would postpone the development of a database that could track, from one diocese to another, men who had been turned away from the priesthood because of problems. Flynn said the bishops would need to address questions about the legality of an outside firm maintaining such data.

“For a non-governmental or non-regulatory agency to establish and maintain such a database is daunting,” he said. It is unclear if the database would track priests who have been convicted of abuse.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, accused the bishops of “backsliding” with the self-auditing procedures, and said the database would not effect real change. “Whatever data is collected, it won’t address the cause of the crisis _ complicit bishops,” SNAP said in a statement.

_ Kevin Eckstrom

Pope Warns Against Making Religion an Instrument of Intolerance

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Meeting with the Muslim, Orthodox and Jewish leaders of the Caucasian republic of Azerbaijan, Pope John Paul II warned Thursday (Nov. 18) that religion must never become an instrument of intolerance or aggression.

John Paul called the inter-religious delegation, which was returning the visit he made to Azerbaijan in 2002, a “symbol for the world” that “tolerance is possible and constitutes a value of civilization that poses the premise for a wider and more solid human, civil and social development.”

The 84-year-old Roman Catholic pontiff urged a final resolution of the conflict between predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan and the mainly Armenian Christian enclave of Nagorno-Karabagh. Hostilities, which broke out in 1992, were suspended with a cease-fire in 1994, but there has been no peace treaty.

In a broader appeal, apparently addressed to the strife-torn Caucasus, Iraq and the entire Middle East, the pope said, “No one has the right to present or to use religions as an instrument of intolerance or as a means of aggression, violence and death.”

“On the contrary,” he said, “their reciprocal friendship and esteem, if also sustained by the commitment of governments to tolerance, constitutes a rich resource of authentic progress and peace.”

John Paul’s words echoed the pledge to repudiate violence that he led during a pilgrimage of representatives of the world’s major religions to Assisi, home of the 13th century prophet of peace St. Francis, on Jan. 24, 2002. That was in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America by Muslim terrorists.

“There is no religious goal which can possibly justify the use of violence by man against man,” the pope told the Assisi gathering.

To the Azeri religious leaders, he said, “Together, Muslims, Jews and Christians, we want to address an appeal to humanity in the name of God and of civilization that it cease its homicidal violence and follow the way of love and justice for all. This is the way of religions.”

The delegation was made up of Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahurkur Pashazade, head of Caucasian Muslims, Orthodox Bishop Aleksandr of Baku, and the leader of the ancient community of the Jews of the Mountain, who was not identified by name.

According to Vatican statistics, there are only about 300 Catholics in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea.

_ Peggy Polk

Atheists Claim They Are, Indeed, in Foxholes

WASHINGTON (RNS) Atheists are objecting to the cliche “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

A U.S. Navy Chaplin’s recent remarks on national television has drawn the latest criticism.

Commander Kal McAlexander, who is on active duty in Iraq, said on CNN’s “American Morning” on Nov. 9 that “there is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole,” suggesting that, faced with the horrors of war, American soldiers depend on their religious faith to give them strength.

American Atheists, Inc., a civil rights group that advocates the separation of church and state, as well as the rights of atheists, vehemently objects to the commander’s assertion. The group, with nationwide chapters, was founded in 1963 by activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a litigant in the court case that removed organized prayer from public schools.

“The claim is both ridiculously inaccurate and divisive,” said the group’s president, Ellen Johnson, in a press release, “Statements like this are unprofessional and inappropriate especially when made by an active duty officer working for an organization that prides itself on diversity.”

Johnson asked for McAlexander to apologize and said that his statement discriminates against U.S. soldiers who are non-believers and are in harm’s way in Iraq to serve their country, alongside their believer commrades.

Johnson cited the Nov. 2002 Godless Americans March on Washington, in which hundreds of atheist military personnel and veterans participated, and the existence of the organization Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, which has a membership of both active duty and retired members of the armed forces.

“Chaplains of all services have perpetuated this prejudice by making statements to the effect that there can be no atheists in wartime,” states the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers on its web site.

It asks senior chaplains to publish an official condemnation of what they call a discriminatory practice against atheist service members.

_ Itir Yakar

Quote of the Day: Billy Graham

(RNS) “In fact, I’ve thought a number of times, the pope is going on with his message to the world at his age. I can go on at my age with the Gospel I’ve preached all over.”

_ Billy Graham, 86, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, as he prepared for a four-day evangelistic crusade in Pasadena, Calif.

MO/ JL END

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