RNS Weekly Digest

Print More

c. 2006 Religion News Service

Sept. 11 Conspiracy Book From Presbyterian Publisher Raises Eyebrows

(RNS) A book published by the denominational press of the Presbyterian Church (USA) poses provocative questions about Sept. 11 and has raised the hackles of church conservatives.

Westminster John Knox Press, a division of Presbyterian Publishing Corp., is printing 7,500 copies of “Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11,” according to Davis Perkins, the corporation’s president and publisher. It was officially released during the second week of July, Perkins said.

The book is written by David Ray Griffin, a former professor of theology who has written two other books that posit a conspiratorial link between the U.S. government and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In the book Griffin argues that “the Bush administration planned the events of Sept. 11 so they could provide justification for going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq,” according to an article on Christianity Today’s Web site.

While the Louisville, Ky.-based Presbyterian Publishing Corp. has strong ties to the Presbyterian Church (USA), it is separately incorporated and receives no funding from the church, Perkins said. The publisher’s nine-member board of directors is appointed by the church’s General Assembly, but editors have wide latitude in the books they choose, Perkins said.

Under the John Knox Press imprint, “we have historically published thousands of books on a variety of topics and on popular culture and no one ever identifies those books as the official position of PCUSA,” Perkins said.

PPC said Wednesday (Aug. 2) that it would post a lengthy explanation titled “Why We Published This Book” on its Web site.

Still, negative reaction to the book among Presbyterians like Toby Brown, a pastor in Cuero, Texas, is heating up cyberspace.

“Why, out of all the things they could be publishing, would the church choose this?” Brown asked in an interview. “What business does the church have getting involved in theories about 9/11?”

Brown predicted “this is going to be a big deal” and said many Presbyterians gathered at blogs and chatrooms are planning a boycott of the publisher. “It makes it look like our church might be endorsing the book’s ideas, or at least close to that kind of notion, and that would be false,” he said. Brown said he has not read the book.

Perkins said the book is a “serious-minded treatment of the issues,” and of “how Christians may incorporate (the 9/11 attacks) into their faith lives.”

_ Daniel Burke

Pedophile Says Sex With Boys Is Sacred Religious Ritual

CLEVELAND (RNS) An admitted pedophile offered a bizarre defense this week to 74 charges of rape, drugs and pandering obscenity to minors.

Phillip Distasio, 34, told a Cuyahoga County judge Wednesday (Aug. 2) that his apartment in Rocky River was a religious sanctuary where engaging in sex with boys and smoking marijuana were considered sacred rituals and are protected under civil rights laws.

“I’m a pedophile. I’ve been a pedophile for 20 years,” Distasio said during a pretrial court hearing. “The only reason I’m charged with rape is that no one believes a child can consent to sex. The role of my ministry is to get these cases out of the courtrooms.”

Judge Kathleen Sutula warned Distasio, a self-appointed friar who compares himself to St. Francis and St. Ignatius, to confine his arguments to secular laws at his trial, scheduled to begin Sept. 11.

“If you want to challenge the law, that’s your right to do so,” Sutula said. “But we’re going to follow the laws of Ohio in this courtroom.”

Police arrested Distasio last September on charges he molested two disabled boys he was tutoring at his home and raped seven other autistic children at a Cleveland school for special-needs students. All but one of the boys was under 13, which carries a mandatory life-in-prison sentence if he is convicted.

Police found journals at Distasio’s apartment in which he described his activities, plus child pornography and videotapes of him engaged in sex with boys.

Distasio tried unsuccessfully in June to fire his court-appointed lawyer, Thomas Shaughnessy, who refused to go along with his religious-freedom defense.

“Not all pedophilia is bad, and sex (with boys) can be healthy,” Distasio said. “It’s an argument that I’m willing to make, but my attorney is not.”

Sutula decided to allow Distasio to represent himself at trial on the condition that Shaughnessy remain as his advisory counsel.

In motions filed with Sutula, Distasio accused prosecutors of threatening to dismantle his church, which he calls Arcadian Fields Ministries.

He described his apartment as a sanctuary, a place of worship, and a safe alternative to prison for a congregation of social dissidents. Distasio said he and his congregation consider the justice system to be corrupt and addicted to punishment, and believe it should be abandoned.

_ James F. McCarty

Muslims Cry Foul as Berlin Blocks Construction of Mosque

BERLIN (RNS) A decision to block the construction of a mosque and cultural center here has led to public outcries, suspicions of racism and an upcoming court case.

Stefanie Vogelsang, city planner and vice mayor for the Neukoelln district of Berlin, has blocked plans by the Islamic group Insaan to build a mosque. Vogelsang said the proposals do not meet building codes.

But in the past, she has also accused Insaan of having associations with radical terror groups, reported the Berliner Zeitung (Berlin Newspaper). “I am very happy the proposal does not meet standards,” she said as she rejected it Tuesday (Aug. 1).

Insaan said it will present a plan for a smaller mosque to try to meet guidelines. But it has also filed a lawsuit challenging the council’s decision to block work on a previous construction plan. The council blocked that plan, after first approving it, out of concerns that the mosque would disturb residents in the heavily Turkish neighborhood that includes many Muslim residents.

The back-and-forth over the plan has led to multiple outbursts. During one council meeting, Ibrahim El-Zayad, who owns the land for the proposed mosque, disrupted the session to proclaim that he does not support suicide bombers after Vogelsang had publicly mused about his support for terror organizations.

Insaan has presented a host of prominent Germans to vouch for them, including a former president of the German parliament.

Catholic churches have also questioned the wisdom of blocking the mosque, arguing that it would be easier to build ties with the Muslim community if they have public meeting places. “It’s a good sign if the mosques are not hidden in courtyards like they used to,” said Stefan Foerner, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Berlin.

_ Niels Sorrells

Robertson Says He’s Now a Believer _ in Global Warming

(RNS) The overwhelming heat that blanketed much of the East Coast in early August has convinced religious broadcaster Pat Robertson that global warming is a reality.

“It is the most convincing evidence of global warming I’ve run into in a long time,” Robertson said Thursday (Aug. 3) during his “The 700 Club” television show. He previously had been critical of claims about the dangers of climate change.

Robertson’s reaction to the hot weather is the latest pronouncement in a year that has featured different sets of evangelical leaders issuing statements and counter-statements about whether or not global warming is a serious, human-caused threat.

“I have not been one who believed in this global warming, but I tell you, they’re making a convert out of me with these blistering summers,” Robertson said on his show the day before his Thursday statement.

“And it is getting hotter, and the ice caps are melting, and there is a buildup of carbon dioxide in the air. And I think we really need to address the burning of fossil fuels. If we are contributing to the destruction of this planet, we need to do something about it.”

The Rev. Jim Ball, spokesman for the Evangelical Climate Initiative, welcomed Robertson’s change of heart and said his comments demonstrate “the kind of leadership we need to move beyond the vague concern of some religious figures.”

In February, Ball’s group issued a “call to action” signed by more than 80 leaders that urged evangelicals to address climate change. It plans to hold a series of educational forums on college campuses.

In late July, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance issued a rebuttal to the initiative’s statement that questioned its assumptions that global warming will be catastrophic and that human emissions of carbon dioxide are one of its primary causes. It was signed by more than 100 evangelical theologians and scientists.

_ Adelle M. Banks

Christians, Jews Mourn Death of Dutch Ecumenist

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Christian and Jewish leaders have joined Pope Benedict XVI in mourning the death of Dutch Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, a longtime champion of increased dialogue between the Catholic Church and other faiths.

Willebrands died Aug. 2 in Denekamp, Netherlands, at 96, leaving a legacy that traces the Vatican’s evolving embrace of other faiths and Christian denominations.

Willebrands, known informally as the “Flying Dutchman,” was a key participant in the Second Vatican Council reforms of the 1960s, helping to craft the 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate that repudiated anti-Semitism.

Benedict sent a letter of condolence to the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, which Willebrands headed 1969-89, praising the late cardinal for his work in ecumenical relations.

“He contributed to the development and intensification of the dialogue between all the churches and ecclesiastic communities,” the pope wrote.

Willebrands’ death also prompted condolences from Russian Orthodox leader Alexy II, patriarch of Moscow, who generally maintains icy relations with the Vatican. Alexy said he was “grieved” by the death of Willebrands, whom he described as an “outstanding church leader” and “a gifted theologian and diplomat.”

Willebrands also served as the first president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With Jews, playing a lead role in organizing the late Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Rome’s main synagogue in 1986.

“Not only did Cardinal Willebrands help shepherd the ideal of building a new positive relationship between Jews and Catholics into official church policy, he spent his career working to put those ideals into practice,” said Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League.

_ Stacy Meichtry

Canadian Muslim Leader, Citing Death Threats, Steps Down

TORONTO (RNS) The prominent, outspoken director of a leading Canadian Muslim organization has quit, citing anonymous threats and pointed criticism from other Muslim organizations.

“It’s not just for me. It’s for my wife and my daughters,” Tarek Fatah, the longtime head of the moderate Muslim Canadian Congress, said in an interview with the Globe and Mail newspaper.

“Part of it is also to get out of the limelight.”

Fatah also quit the Congress’ board, severing all official ties with the organization he helped found.

Fatah has filed a report with Toronto Police detailing what he says are a number of threats he has received since 2003. A police investigation is under way.

Fatah has been one of the most familiar voices in the media. He gave dozens of interviews following the arrests of 17 terrorism suspects in Toronto in early June. Many Muslims have accused Fatah of monopolizing the media spotlight.

Fatah’s unpopularity among conservative segments of Canada’s 650,000-strong Muslim community is well known. He has been a vocal advocate of gay rights for Muslims and the inclusion of secular voices in the Muslim community. He publicly opposed the adoption of Islamic law tribunals in Canada.

Fatah’s views “are diametrically opposed to most Muslims’. His point of view contradicts the fundamentals of Islam,” said Wahida Valiante of the Canadian Islamic Congress, without elaborating.

In late June, Fatah was named by the Canadian Islamic Congress as one of four people who are “anti-Islam.”

Fatah said he has been attacked physically and verbally, once at an Islamic conference in 2003, when dozens of young Muslim men mobbed him, and earlier this year, when he was accosted on the street by a man who accused him of being an apostate. His car windows were smashed.

_ Ron Csillag

Match-making Service Offers Help to British Clergy

LONDON (RNS) The 743 priests and deacons ordained in the Church of England this year have each received cards congratulating them on their ordination _ and, if they are single, offering them help in finding a suitable spouse.

The cards were sent out by friendsfirst, a friendship and dating agency based in Birmingham and launched in 1999 with the aim of helping Christians meet each other.

“I know from the experiences of many single clergy friends that dating as a single deacon or priest _ let alone a bishop _ is virtually impossible,” said the agency’s director, Katharine Gray.

She also pointed out that for clergy, their vocation comes first _ “so it is essential to find a partner who is committed to helping you develop your ministry.”

For the newly ordained who are already married or engaged, the card suggests they might like to remember what it was like to be single and thus offer help to members of their congregations who cannot find a mate.

About 4 percent of the agency’s 2,000 members who are looking for love are ordained clergy. In all, it has provided information to over 10,000 people.

Earlier this year, the agency recounted the story of two clergy it had matched who got married in 2003. Last February, the couple had their first baby.

_ Robert Nowell

Episcopal Splinter Group Sets Up Financial Plan for Members

(RNS) The Anglican Communion Network, a conservative splinter group of 10 Episcopal dioceses, approved membership donation requirements last week (July 31-Aug. 2) to fund the network’s missions and headquarters.

Under the agreement, each of the approximately 900 ACN-affiliated parishes are asked to give 5 percent of their operating budget to the network. Dioceses are asked to contribute 10 percent of their operating budget.

The Rev. Daryl Fenton, ACN’s director of operations, said the voluntary policy had already been in place, but was “clarified” last week athe network’s annual meeting in Pittsburgh.

The network was formed in January 2004 by conservative Episcopalians upset by the election of an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire and by what they perceive to be the leftward drift of the 2.2 million-member denomination.

Based in Pittsburgh, the ACN claims about 200,000 Episcopalians as members, according to a spokesperson.

Ultimately, the ACN hopes to break from the Episcopal Church and be named its own Anglican province _ with its own seminaries, churches and hierarchy, according to church watchers. It would then seek to replace the Episcopal Church as the American branch of the global Anglican Communion.

Since the Episcopal Church’s election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as its next presiding bishop, seven ACN-affiliated dioceses have asked to be put under the guidance of someone else.

The network has declined to disclose exact budget figures, but has raised about $4.5 million since 2004, according to a May news release.

The Episcopal Church expects to raise about $29 million this year in contributions from its 110 dioceses, according to church controller Alpha Conteh. Dioceses are asked to contribute 21 percent of their operating budget to the national church. The 10 ACN dioceses contribute far less, and at least four dioceses pledged to give nothing at all this year, according to Episcopal Church budget documents.

Approximately 50 percent of the ACN’s budget supports the network’s headquarters, including its nine-member staff. Most of the remaining money is directed toward foreign missions and starting new churches, according to Fenton.

_ Daniel Burke

Documentary Says Eruption May Have Caused Egyptian Plagues

(RNS) A new History Channel documentary, “The Exodus Decoded,” says a volcanic eruption may explain the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea surrounding the Israelite Exodus from Egypt.

The documentary, which will air on Aug. 20, theorizes that the eruption of the massive Greek volcano on the island of Santorini sometime around 1500 B.C. can explain the miraculous events recorded in the Bible.

Canadian filmmakers Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron use contemporary examples of geological mishaps to attempt to explain why the eruption _ believed by scholars to have been more than 100 times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima in 1945 _ created plaguelike effects.

The filmmakers, however, make no claims about how or if the findings should affect people’s belief in the story, or whether God had a direct hand in the events.

The water in Egypt appeared to have turned into blood, they say, because ancient tectonic plate movements released natural gas into the waters of Egypt, similar to what happened in Lake Nyos, Cameroon, in 1986.

George Kling, a marine biologist at the University of Michigan, says the natural gas leak moved high concentrations of dissolved iron from the bottom to the surface, and rusted when it contacted oxygen in Lake Nyos.

The contaminated waters explain the next four plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, and dead livestock.

The documentary features scholars from various fields, but none fully agree with the theories of the documentary. “But many possess critical pieces of the puzzle to what emerges as a challenge to even the most skeptical,” said Jacobovici.

Although archaeologists disagree on the precise dating of the Exodus, the documentary pegs it to around 1500 B.C., during the reign of Pharaoh Ahmose.

“Skeptics who would like to regard the Exodus as myth might resist the idea that it actually happened, because this would imply that God indeed exists,” Jacobovici said. “Believers, on the other hand, may feel that a scientific explanation of the biblical story takes God out of the equation.”

_ J. Edward Mendez

Quote of the Week: Veteran-Turned-Activist Mikey Weinstein

(RNS) “I’m the Field General of the Godless Armies of Satan! You can’t just steal my candy like that.”

_ Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force veteran who is suing the Air Force for alleged religious favoritism and proselytism in the military service. Weinstein, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, was recalling what he says to his wife, Bonnie, when she takes his favorite candy, reminding her of the label given to him by a megachurch in the Southeast. He was quoted by The Washington Post.


Comments are closed.