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c. 2006 Religion News Service

Swiss Religious Leaders Launch Europe’s First Interfaith Council

PARIS (RNS) Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders in Switzerland have inaugurated the country’s first interfaith council _ and possibly the first in Western Europe _ aimed at promoting dialogue, peace and understanding among the country’s three main religions.

“The most important thing is not just the inter-religious dialogue _ this goes on all the time among churches and religious organizations on many levels,” said Thomas Wipf, president of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, and a member of the new council. “It’s also tackling the challenge of how to live together.”

The new Swiss Council of Religions was launched Monday (May 15), and seeks to work together on thorny issues such as immigration and integration, and to try to understand religious sensitivities and priorities among its different members.

It will also act as a representative body for the three faiths before the Swiss government.

“It’s important to tackle very difficult and dividing questions, and not just the ones where we have the same opinions,” Wipf said in a telephone interview from Bern.

As elsewhere in Europe, the once overwhelmingly Christian face of Switzerland has changed markedly in recent decades. Today, Islam is the country’s second-largest faith after Christianity, with Muslims accounting for more than 5 percent of the country’s 7.4 million people.

“Now, we are more multi-religious and multicultural. It’s a new situation we have to deal with,” Wipf said of Switzerland. “Many people are afraid of it. And we don’t know what the Jews and Muslims think about the challenges in our society, and vice versa.”

The three faiths face another common challenge _ growing secularization in Switzerland, as in elsewhere in Europe.

Wipf first thought about creating the religious council in 2003, shortly before the start of the war in Iraq. Representatives from Switzerland’s main religious bodies signed a joint declaration at the time vowing to maintain peace among the faiths.

It was the first time, he said, that Jewish and Muslim leaders had met, face to face.

“We were all very concerned about the instrumentalization of religion by all sides,” Wipf said of the Iraqi conflict. “And we thought in every religion there is a very deep wish for freedom and to live together. We wanted to take our responsibility as Christians, Jews and Muslims in Switzerland.”

_ Elizabeth Bryant

Connecticut Priests Say Archbishop Should Have Heard Their Case

(RNS) Six Episcopal priests from Connecticut blasted Anglican leaders Tuesday (May 16) for refusing to hear their petition against a liberal U.S. bishop until all civil litigation between the parties is settled.

“We, our priests, vestries and congregations were shocked and gravely disappointed” to learn that the archbishop of Canterbury and a dispute resolution panel refused to hear their appeals at this time, the six pastors said in a joint statement.

The conservative pastors, known as the “Connecticut Six” say they have “extreme theological disputes” with their bishop, the Rt. Rev. Andrew Smith. Those disputes have led to legal tussles over church property, personnel and money.

The archbishop of Canterbury’s 13-member Panel of Reference was created 10 months ago to settle conflicts within dioceses. Archbishop Rowan Williams is spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, including 2.3 million Episcopalians in the United States.

Williams withdrew the Connecticut referral on Monday, citing the ongoing litigation between the parties.

“Regrettably, the Panel of Reference did not consult with us or give us an opportunity to speak to their need for a stay of pending civil litigation,” the six Connecticut pastors said in their statement.

According to the pastors, the panel would have agreed to hear the dispute if their legal adversaries, including the diocese, agreed to temporarily halt litigation.

The turmoil between the parties began when Smith supported the 2003 election of openly gay Bishop V. Eugene Robinson in New Hampshire.

In protest, the six pastors, who argue that the Bible strongly condemns homosexuality, sought oversight from another bishop and stopped sending financial support to their diocese.

Last year, Smith suspended and then defrocked the Rev. Mark H. Hansen, one of the six conservative pastors, who Smith said had abandoned the communion of the church.

_ Daniel Burke

Archdiocese Defends Boston College Commencement Address by Secretary Rice

(RNS) The Archdiocese of Boston has endorsed Boston College’s decision to invite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as its commencement speaker, despite strong dissent from some professors and students over her selection.

Rice’s slated May 22 appearance sparked on-campus debates after a protest letter by two theology faculty members was sent to the Catholic university’s faculty.

The May 2 letter reads, “Secretary Rice’s approach to international affairs is in fundamental conflict with Boston College’s commitment to the values of the Catholic and Jesuit traditions and is inconsistent with the humanistic values that inspire the university’s work.” It also mentions the late Pope John Paul II’s disapproval of the war in Iraq.

In response, an editorial in the May 12 edition of the archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, said Rice’s invitation is legitimate and “should not have provoked the negative reaction it has.”

“Use of the `Catholic’ or `Jesuit’ traditions to argue against the college’s decision is nothing more than a smoke screen to disguise the political and ecclesiological agendas of those behind the controversy,” the editorial said.

The editorial also said the church’s opposition to the war in Iraq is not as tough as its stance on stem cell research, euthanasia and abortion.

“Questions concerning the war in Iraq remain and are worthy of discussion, particularly in an academic setting such as Boston College,” the editorial said. “However, those who oppose the secretary of state’s appearance should not hide behind the veil of church teaching.”


Theology professor David Hollenbach, one of the co-authors of the letter that criticized Rice, said 175 faculty members signed his document. In addition, BC students who supported Hollenbach’s position submitted their own letter to the university newspaper, The Heights, earlier this month.

But the Heights editorial board endorsed the university’s selection of Rice for the commencement address and an honorary doctoral degree, as have philosophy professor Paul McNellis and political science professor Marc Landy. _ Piet Levy

Legalized Abortion in Colombia Sparks Fierce Reaction from Catholics

(RNS) A ruling by Colombia’s highest court that legalized some forms of abortion has fueled a heated debate _ and even threats of excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church _ in a country normally consumed with the problems of guerrilla insurgency, war and violence.

The May 10 ruling overturned a longstanding law _ among the most restrictive in Latin America _ that had outlawed all abortions and imposed jail sentences for women who had the procedure and those who performed them.

The 5-3 ruling by the Constitutional Court of Colombia decriminalized abortions in cases of rape or incest, if the mother’s life was endangered by the pregnancy or if it was determined that a fetus was so deformed that it could not live outside the womb.

The ruling, sought by abortion rights proponents in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, was harshly condemned by members of Colombia’s Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Bishop Hector Gutierrez said the decision amounted to legalized crime. Cardinal Pedro Rubiano warned that a woman undergoing an abortion could face immediate excommunication, as could a doctor performing the procedure or a boyfriend or husband urging a woman to have one, the Latin American and Caribbean News Agency (ALC) reported.

Monica Roa, a prominent abortion rights advocate and attorney who argued the case in the court, hailed the victory, saying a coalition of “women and feminists, doctors and academics” had worked for years “preparing the terrain” so that public opinion and the court would favor decriminalization of abortion in Colombia, the ALC reported.

By some estimates, nearly a quarter of all pregnancies in Colombia end in abortion, and unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal mortality in Colombia, according to abortion rights proponents.

With the Colombia ruling, Chile and El Salvador are now the only nations in Latin America that still have a total legal prohibition against abortion.

_ Chris Herlinger

Study: Canadians Prefer Private Spirituality to Formal Worship

TORONTO (RNS) Canadians shun houses of worship and formal religious exercise in favor of private spiritual practice, suggests a new federal study.

The Statistics Canada survey, based on data collected in 2002 and 2004, shows that while only one-third of adult Canadians attend religious services at least monthly, more than half engage in religious activities of their own at least one a month.

The study seems to confirm what many observers have noted for years: Most Canadians prefer private spirituality to formal religious expression. It will also likely contribute to the debate over whether Canada is becoming more or less secular.

At a minimum, the findings indicate that adult Canadians attach a higher degree of importance to religion and spirituality than religious attendance figures alone would indicate.

The study found that the number of Canadians who have not attended religious services in the past year rose to 25 percent in 2004, up from 21 percent in 2000. Canadians aged 15 and older were surveyed.

“Most striking,” the report notes, “was the proportion of Canadians who infrequently or never attend services, yet regularly engage in personal religious practices.

“Of those who infrequently attended religious services over the year prior to the survey, 37 percent said they engaged in religious practices on their own on a weekly basis. And of those who had not attended any religious services over the previous year, 27 percent said they engaged in weekly religious practices on their own.”

The report, titled “Who’s Religious?,” also indicates that the number of Canadians reporting no religious affiliation dropped slightly from about 20 percent in 2000 to 19 percent in 2004.

However, when the period between 1985 and 2004 is taken into account, the changes in the two categories are more dramatic: The number of Canadians reporting no religious affiliation rose from 12 percent in 1985 to 19 percent in 2004, and those shunning religious services in the previous 12 months jumped from 19 percent to 25 percent in the same time period.

Survey respondents were asked whether they engaged in private religious activities such as prayer, meditation and reading sacred texts.

_ Ron Csillag

Quote of the Day: Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney

(RNS) “It’s almost to the point where people are taking two of each kind of animal and putting them in their boats.”

_ Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaking about heavy storms that have flooded swaths of New England. He was quoted in the Washington Post.


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