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c. 2007 Religion News Service Ukrainian Catholics Protest Plans by U.S. Firm to Make Church a Casino (RNS) Ukrainian Catholics are fighting to stop a U.S.-owned company from turning a 19th-century church into a casino, according to international reports. Protesters inside St. Joseph’s church in Dnipropetrovsk were forcefully evicted before the roof and ceiling were […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

Ukrainian Catholics Protest Plans by U.S. Firm to Make Church a Casino

(RNS) Ukrainian Catholics are fighting to stop a U.S.-owned company from turning a 19th-century church into a casino, according to international reports.

Protesters inside St. Joseph’s church in Dnipropetrovsk were forcefully evicted before the roof and ceiling were removed Friday (July 20), according to Ecumenical News International.

“The authorities are laughing at us, thinking we can do nothing as they take the church to pieces under our eyes,” said the Rev. Jan Sobilo, vicar-general of the Roman Catholic Kharkiv-Zaporizhia diocese.

Sobilo said Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, has requested an explanation from local government officials, who have defended the firm’s right to use the building as private property.

But Sobilo believes that the U.S. firm working on the renovation, which ENI named as California Dagsbury Inc., was not properly informed that the structure is a church.

“The only other places of worship we have here are a house belonging to the Capuchin order, and a small chapel with room for just 60,” Sobilo said. “This explains why we’re so desperate to keep the church.”

Catholics have long struggled to reclaim church property that was confiscated during Soviet rule. Though ENI says there are 870 Catholic parishes in Ukraine, St. Joseph’s was the only church in Dnipropetrovsk, a city of over a million.

The Catholic News Agency estimates that there are 4 million Catholics in the country of over 46 million.

_ Michelle Rindels

Buddhist Monks Oppose Bhutan’s Electoral Laws

CHENNAI, India (RNS) Buddhist monks in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan are opposing laws that deem them ineligible to vote in forthcoming parliamentary elections and to run for office.

The country’s first democratic elections are scheduled for later this year.

Under the Bhutanese constitution, monks are to “remain above politics.” Some of the monks in the country agree, saying “in the Buddhist tradition spiritual leaders should not handle political issues.”

Other monks, however, view the ban as contrary to the reformist spirit announced by the king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who gave up absolute power in 1998 after a reign of more than 30 years.

The king announced in December 2005 that he would step down in favor of his son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, following the first democratic elections.

Satisfied that the democratic transformation was under way, Jigme Wangchuck turned over the crown to his son last December.

Bhutan, which is surrounded by India to the south and China to the north, has many monasteries. Buddhism is the state religion. Bhutan has little contact with the outside world, although tourism has been encouraged in recent years. There are no railways, but roads join many parts of this small country.

_ Achal Narayanan

Pro-Gay Baptist Groups Excluded From Official Role in Unity Event

(RNS) Leaders of an upcoming Baptist unity celebration have denied two Baptist organizations an official role in the event because they support gay rights.

The Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America learned in mid-July that they could not be “participating organizations” of the “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant” that has been endorsed by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and will be held in Atlanta from Jan. 30 to Feb 1, 2008.

The Rev. Alan Stanford, general secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship, said fellowship officials decided the groups could not be members of the fellowship and thus could not be formal sponsors of the event.

“We agreed that we would work together on the things that we had broad consensus on, and that is certainly not an issue that there is broad consensus on,” Stanford said.

“It’s not negative about those organizations. It’s just beyond the scope of what the different chief executive officers of the North American Baptist Fellowship … felt comfortable doing together.”

The Rev. Ken Pennings, executive director of the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, said his group had looked forward to working on addressing poverty with the other Baptist groups.

“We asked to be a participating organization because we value the same things the New Baptist Covenant values,” he said. “This is not a new covenant at all. This is the old covenant of exclusion, people being excluded based on their … belief system.”

_ Adelle M. Banks

Suicide Bombings Never Justified, Majority of Muslims Worldwide Say

(RNS) George Bush and Osama bin Laden are both losing the battle for Muslim hearts and minds, according to a new report.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project, a 47-nation survey, found that rising prosperity in the Islamic world has helped slash support for terrorism and bin Laden, but has not changed minds about the U.S., which most Muslims still view as a military threat.

Majorities in 15 of 16 Muslim countries surveyed said suicide bombings can be rarely or never justified, the report said. The Palestinian territories were the exception, where 70 percent of respondents said suicide bombing is sometimes or often justified.

The percentage of Muslims saying that suicide bombing is justified fell sharply since 2002 in five of eight countries where the trend could be measured. In Pakistan, for example, 9 percent of Muslims said suicide bombings to defend Islam are often or sometimes justified, compared with 33 percent in 2002.

Bin Laden’s popularity also fell. Between 2003 and 2007 in Jordan, support for the al-Qaida leader declined from 56 percent to 20 percent. In Lebanon, it decreased from 20 percent to 1 percent.

But America’s image remained “abysmal” in the Muslim world, the report said, with solid majorities in every country saying they worried that the U.S. is a military threat.

The report also found mixed support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and growing worries about the spread of violence between Shiites and Sunnis.

_ Omar Sacirbey

Mother Angelica Still Brightens the Days With Humor

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. _ The worldwide Catholic television network founded in Alabama by a witty, genial nun-turned-media magnate now runs without her, but Mother Angelica still watches.

With a small television in her room at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, she can watch reruns of the “Mother Angelica Live!” talk show that made her famous and helped turn the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) into one of the largest religious networks in the world.

“She never liked to see herself on TV,” said Sister Mary Catherine, who as mother vicar runs the monastery Mother Angelica founded.

These days, debilitated by a stroke, Mother Angelica tunes in to her old show from time to time.

“She watches herself and laughs,” Sister Mary Catherine said. “She’s got a jovial laugh.”

Mother Angelica, 84, suffered a second major stroke on Christmas Eve 2001 that left her with partial paralysis and impaired speech. The 44 nuns who live at the monastery have watched Mother Angelica struggle since then. “She told me, `You don’t know how hard it is, not being able to communicate,”’ Sister Mary Catherine said.

“I guess it’s hard because of her calling as a communicator,” said Birmingham Bishop David Foley, who visited Mother Angelica last month and gave her an anointing of the sick, which she receives several times a year because of her advanced age and condition. “She was in very good spirits. She’s a wonderful person and has done such good work. She expresses with her eyes and gestures. She’s very upbeat and joyful.”

Although she’s able to speak on occasion, Mother Angelica has been mostly silent.

“If she needs to say something, she’ll say it,” Sister Mary Catherine said. “She makes us laugh.”

Earlier this week (July 22) the nuns dressed Mother Angelica in her Poor Clare nun’s habit and pushed her wheelchair into the visitors’ parlor where she could meet her fans.

“Many of them were crying,” Sister Mary Catherine said. “So many people were in town because of the EWTN Family Celebration.”

“Mother wanted EWTN to be a big family,” said Sister Mary Catherine, who left the cloistered monastery to attend the event.

_ Greg Garrison

Homosexuality `Inconsistent’ With God’s Plan, New Mormon Booklet Says

(RNS) Mormon officials have issued a new booklet on homosexuality that states that same-sex relationships are “inconsistent” with God’s plan, but some people may not be able to “overcome” such attractions.

The document, “God Loveth His Children,” was posted on the Web site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in late July with little fanfare.

“While many Latter-day Saints, through individual effort, the exercise of faith, and reliance upon the enabling power of the Atonement, overcome same-gender attraction in mortality, others may not be free of this challenge in this life,” the new church document reads.

Faith in the Atonement, Jesus’ sacrifice for human sins, can empower those with “same-gender inclinations” to resist improper conduct, it states.

The document says if God’s plan is followed, “our bodies, feelings, and desires will be perfected in the next life so that every one of God’s children may find joy in a family consisting of a husband, a wife, and children.”

It differentiates between those who have same-gender attractions and those who act on them. “Attractions alone do not make you unworthy,” the document states, adding that God has declared any sexual relations outside marriage unacceptable.

In a similar move earlier this year, Brigham Young University, the nation’s largest Mormon university, changed its honor code so it no longer listed homosexual “feelings” as a violation. Acting on such feelings remains grounds for expulsion.

The immediate former co-chair of Family Fellowship, a Provo, Utah-based support group for Mormon families with gay children, said the new church document was an improvement over three previous pamphlets on homosexuality but “still woefully inadequate.”

Dr. Gary Watts said the first pamphlet, which called homosexuality “evil,” was published in 1994.

“Until the church can figure out a way to place some value on committed same-sex relationships, the problem will never go away and the church will continue to lose a very high percentage of their gay and lesbian members,” he said.

Watts said the latest document is an improvement because it does not imply that homosexuality is chosen and it says that same-sex feelings exist and are not sinful unless acted upon.

The document encourages those with same-sex attractions to fill their lives with spiritual activities, such as public and private worship, church and temple attendance, “association with good friends” and prayer.

“Notwithstanding your present same-gender attractions, you can be happy during this life, lead a morally clean life, perform meaningful service in the church, enjoy full fellowship with your fellow saints and ultimately receive all the blessings of eternal life,” it states.

_ Adelle M. Banks

Evangelicals Try to Correct `Misperception’ on Middle East

WASHINGTON (RNS) A broad coalition of evangelical leaders is attempting to “correct a serious misperception” that all evangelicals oppose creating a Palestinian state.

Led by Ron Sider, a professor at the American Baptist-affiliated Palmer Theological Seminary and head of Evangelicals for Social Action, the coalition sent a letter to President Bush expressing support for a proposed two-state solution.

“The only way to bring the tragic cycle of violence to end,” reads the July 27 letter, “is for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a just, lasting agreement that guarantees both sides viable, independent, secure states.”

Historically, evangelicals have adopted a pro-Israel stance in defense of the biblical “chosen people.” The letter reflects a more nuanced perspective on the conflict _ one that affirms legitimate property rights on both sides while also placing blame for violence on both sides.

“We know that blessing and loving people (including Jews and the present state of Israel) does not mean withholding criticism when it is warranted,” the letter said, suggesting that “the best way we can bless Israel” might be to “remember … the profound teaching on justice that the Hebrew prophets proclaimed so forcefully.”

Thirty-four evangelical leaders signed the document, including a former president of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, current presidents of Fuller Theological Seminary and Bethel University, the editor of Christianity Today and the national director of Vineyard USA.

The letter was released not long after a recent Washington convention hosted by John Hagee, a San Antonio megachurch pastor who heads Christians United for Israel, a staunchly pro-Israel group. He told The New York Times, “Bible-believing evangelicals will scoff at that message.”

The letter also affirmed the new diplomatic role of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and requested a meeting with Bush to discuss how evangelicals might help the administration negotiate peace in the Middle East.

_ Michelle Rindels

John Paul as Big in Death as in Life at Catholic Expo

CLEVELAND (RNS) Judging by some of the paraphernalia offered to retailers at the Catholic Marketing Network’s international trade show, one thing is clear: Pope John Paul II is as big as Bono.

A photo of him before he became Bishop of Rome, in which he is wearing shades, a beret and a slightly devilish smile graces coffee mugs, T-shirts and key chains.

“Is that JP II??!!!” yelped a young woman working the entrance of the recent International Exposition Center in Cleveland, which housed nearly 60 exhibitors for four days. She had spotted an “Xtreme Papa” dog tag around a guest’s neck. “I LOVE JP II! I bawled my eyes out when he died.”

“Papa Ben” merchandise, featuring current pontiff Pope Benedict XVI, doesn’t move as well.

“As far as T-shirts go, you can’t beat Pope John Paul,” said Dominic Scarnecchia, an associate moving “Catholic to the Max” merchandise, a hip division of Nelson Woodcraft in Steubenville.

A student at Franciscan University, he could easily be working the floor at Abercrombie & Fitch or Old Navy, but instead, he was hawking “Get Holy or Die Tryin’ ” and “Puttin’ the STUD back in Bible study” license plate frames and messenger bags.

“You have to start with the youth,” Scarnecchia said. “It’s the future of the Catholic Church, like Pope John Paul said.”

Which explains “Heavenly Lips” _ tubes printed with images of holy icons and marketed as “Our Lady of Guadalupe LipPro Lip Balm.” The irreverent tone is meant to be playful, not sacrilegious, and trendy enough to appeal to buyers swaddled in brand-name apparel from cradle to high school graduation.

While traditional religious artifacts were in evidence _ crucifixes and giant praying hands “handmade in the holy land,” heavy embroidered vestments, glow-in-the-dark Fatima statues from Portugal _ there was a decided whiff of Madison Avenue at the 2007 Expo.

Like the Wearable Service Rosary, also known as the “tough guy rosary necklace” made with a safety break-away clasp. Why? Because traditional rosaries, strung onto piano wirelike thread, can be used to choke troops in hand-to-hand combat, explained Dede Laugesen of The Rosary Project. There have been no such reports, but “it could happen,” she said. Introduced in November, “they’re selling like hotcakes.”

The Boulder, Colo., company also markets rosaries for jocks; strung among the plastic beads are tiny baseballs, basketballs or footballs.

_ Andrea Simakis

Quote of the Week: Pope Benedict XVI

(RNS) “This clash (between evolution and creationism) is an absurdity because on the one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.”

_ Pope Benedict XVI on the debate between creationism and evolution. The pope went on to say that evolution falls short of answering “the great philosophical question `where does everything come from?”’ He was quoted by the Reuters News Agency (July 26).