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Notes on church-state affairs.

ALGERIA

Two car bombs that killed thirty people in Algiers may indicate an increase in activity by Islamist activists. One bomb exploded at the prime minister's office and another at a police station. The government has been battling insurgents for years in remote highlands. Political and religious violence wreaked havoc in the country in the 1990s after the army invalidated an election won by an Islamist party in 1992.

CHINA

Bishop Fu Tieshan, a prominent leader of the state-approved Catholic Church, died on April 20 just as Pope Benedict XVI was preparing a letter to address the division between the official and underground Catholic churches in China. Fu was head of the Beijing diocese, vice chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.

EGYPT

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned since 1954, is running twenty candidates as independents in June elections for the upper house of parliament. In the 2005 elections for the lower house the Brotherhood ran 106 candidates and won 88 seats out of 454. Since militia-style demonstration at Al-Azhar University in December 2006 the government has cracked down on the Brotherhood, arresting 310 members. The government is trying to keep Brotherhood candidates out of the June elections by requiring party affiliation and banning parties based on religion. The state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram wrote that the Brotherhood should not use the slogan "Islam is the solution, which it employed in the last election. The Brotherhood said it will anyhow.

ISRAEL

A group of Reform Jews sued Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu for comments he made on an ultra-Orthodox radio station. Eliyahu, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, said that the Holocaust came about because Germany was the home of Reform Judaism and that the Bible prohibited any altering of ritual. He said the six million who died were not all guilty but that divine wrath does not distinguish between the "virtuous and the evil." The plaintiffs include Avraham Melamed, chair of the Israel Reform movement and a member of the board of Yad Vashem. Melamed said that by blaming Reform Jews for the Holocaust Eliyahu was playing into the hands of anti-Semites.

JAPAN

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who advocates a vigorous foreign policy, is attempting to appease foreign critics of Japan s past while not losing support from his nationalist political base. Unlike his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi he has avoided visiting the Yakushi Shrine, where 2.5 million war dead, including fourteen executed class-A war criminals, are memorialized. However, he also has a history of revisionism about Japan's war crimes.

JORDAN

Zeki Bany Arshead is the new leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Amman. His leadership embodies an increasing moderation in the movement. The group now emphasizes bread-and-butter issues, works with non-Muslim groups, and welcomes women as members.

MEXICO

Some parts of Mexico are seeing changes in the country's traditional sexual values. Mexico City began performing civil unions for same-sex couples. Officials attended the first ceremonies, and newspapers ran advertisements announcing the unions. The city began allowing conjugal visits for homosexual couples. The city also approved a law that allows abortion in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy despite a letter Pope Benedict XVI wrote to Mexican bishops urging them to work against the measure. While most of the change has been in Mexico City, the northern state of Coahuila has also begun performing same-sex civil unions

MOROCCO

Three suspected terrorists exploded suicide belts and another was killed by authorities. Morocco generally has been among the more successful countries in dealing with Islamists. Their strategy has been slowing to allow some of the groups influence without undercutting more moderate groups. Political parties based on religion are banned but parties with "an Islamic reference" are allowed.

NIGERIA

Nigerians went to the ballot box on 14 April only to face so many irregularities that elections were conducted over again in twenty-six of thirty-six states. The announced winner by a supposed landslide was the People's Democratic Party (PDP), which has run the country for the last eight years. Even after the second vote opposition claimed that there still were irregularities, many foreign observers, including journalists, said they witness the stuffing of ballot boxes. All three top presidential candidates were Muslim, but the official winner was Umar Musa Yar'Adua, who is scheduled to replace President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian. When Vice President Tunji Abayomi complained about the election, Obananjo attempted to stop him from making an official complaint. His faction was looking to the courts for help. Nigeria is badly divided over religion, corruption, and the failure of its large oil industry to alleviate poverty, which is widespread in Africa's most populous country.

PAKISTAN

About 100,000 people demonstrated in Karachi against the Lal Masjid or Red Mosque, which is suspected of links to the Taliban. The mosque's chief leader, Maulana Abdul Aziz, has often spoken against Pakistan's support of U.S. policy. The mosque had recently announced plans to set up a court to deliver justice based on Sharia, Islamic law. The protest was organized by the Mutahida Aami Movement, a party that supported President Pervez Musharraf.

POLAND

Two marches organized by Radio Maryja, a very conservative Catholic station, merged into a demonstration against all abortion before the Polish parliament. The rally drew about four thousand people. Although the main ruling party, the Law and Justice Party, and President Kaczyniski support the ban, it is unlikely to be adopted. There would have to be a constitutional amendment, and that requires a two-thirds majority in the parliament. The main opposition party Civic Platform opposes the ban. Current law allows abortions up to the twelfth week and in cases when the mother's life is in danger, the fetus is damaged, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

THAILAND

After a coup on September 19, 2006, Thailand began work on a new constitution, but there is growing opposition to the draft document. In particular Buddhist monks are demanding that the constitution recognize Buddhism as the country's official religion. The controversy could interfere with the army's plan to hold elections in December 2007. The country is also trying to deal with an insurgency in the south where Muslims claim discrimination. About two thousand people have died in that conflict since 2004.

TURKEY

Pressure from the secular Turkish military led Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to withdraw his candidacy for president. Gul, who has led Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union, is a member of the Justice and Development (AK) Party. The party has roots in an Islamist ideology but denies that it currently has a religious agenda. Had the candidacy succeeded, the AK Party would have consolidated its hold on the various branches of government. Gul's withdrawal was the first defeat for the party since 2002.

UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND

Ian Paisley, the most outspoken Protestant leader of Northern Ireland, and Gerry Adams, leader of the Catholic Sinn Fein, reached an agreement of forming a local government. In the past Paisley has called Adams a terrorist and the pope the antichrist. Catholics in turn said Paisley incited violence against them. The new government began May 8.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said that conservative Christians misread St. Paul's comments in the Letter to the Romans in order to condemn homosexuals. Chapter 1, verse 27, speaks of men "committing shameless acts with other men," but Williams points out that this is followed by a more important passage. Chapter 2, verse 1, says that "in passing, judgment on another you condemn yourself...." According to Williams, therefore, the message includes a strong warning against Christian self-righteousness. Homosexuality has divided the worldwide Anglican communion with the African church being most opposed to acceptance of gays and lesbians. William said he had considered canceling the 2008 Lambeth conference because of the divisions but had decided in the end not to do so.

The University of Exeter s student guild suspended an evangelical group and froze its bank account for requiring that members sign a statement of belief in Jesus as savior. Defenders of the group say that the action violates the Human Rights Act, which prohibits public bodies from violating an individual's freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

UNITED NATIONS

The U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for a global ban on the public defamation of religion. The resolution was pushed through the Organization of Islamic Conference and mentions Islam but not other major religions. It cites what it calls a "campaign" against Muslim minorities and the Islamic religion in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The vote was 24-14 with nine abstentions. Canada, Japan, South Korea, and the European countries opposed the resolution.

UNITED STATES

Legal Activism: As part of a legal settlement, the Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to the addition of the Wiccan pentacle to its list of officially approved religious symbols that may be engraved on the headstones of veterans. The pentacle, a five-pointed star within a circle, is perhaps the most widely known symbol associated with Wicca, an ancient belief system whose practices are closely tied to nature and its cycles but which is often mistakenly associated with devil worship and witchcraft. A Pentagon survey estimated that there are approximately 1,800 Wiccans in various branches of the U.S. military, and the religious affiliation of these soldiers is already engraved on their dog tags.

A dispute over the land use rights of churches erupted in Southwest Ranches, Florida, where the city's Town Council denied the Christ Covenant Church's application to expand its facilities. The church, which opened its doors in 2000, has experienced significant growth and submitted a plan to expand its facilities by constructing a 2000 square-foot addition in 2005. The Town Planning and Zoning Commission of Southwest Ranches determined that the plan satisfied relevant zoning criteria and recommended its approval. However, the Town Council determined that the plan called-for an inadequate number of parking spaces and denied the request on that basis Attorneys for the Rutherford Institute have become involved in the ease and have charged that denial of the Church's expansion plan violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000, which attempts to insulate churches from negative effects of zoning and land use decisions.

A lawsuit was filed against the Newark, New Jersey, Public School System by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey charging that the district violated the religious rights of a Muslim student who was unable to attend his graduation ceremony because it was held in a Baptist church. The honor student from Newark's West Side High School, Bilal Shareef, determined that he could not attend the ceremony because it would require him to violate the Islamic prohibition that Muslims not enter buildings where religious icons are displayed. Graduation ceremonies for West Side High School were held in the New Hope Baptist Church in 2005, which resulted in the ACLU's warning that it would sue unless the district ended this practice. However, despite the ACLU's receiving written notification from the district's attorneys that it would change the venue for its graduation ceremonies, the graduation was again held in New Hope Church in 2006.

A coalition that includes the United States Department of Justice and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU)joined forces in challenging a New York Department of Correctional Services policy that forbids its officers from wearing religious head coverings. This action came about because of a legal challenge by a corrections officer who was denied the right to wear a kufi (a traditional cap worn by Muslim men) while on duty in Department of Correctional Services facilities. Christopher Dunn, who serves as associate legal director for the NYCLU, offered an explanation for the Department of Justice's involvement in the case: "As a public employer and prison administrator itself, the federal government knows better than anyone that public employees, including prison guard should not be forced to surrender their religious beliefs as a condition of keeping their jobs."

Legislation Affecting Religion: The United States House of Representatives rejected an amendment to House Bill HR 1429 that would have done away with prohibitions on the use of religion as valid hiring criteria for teachers and administrators in Head Start programs. Rules against religious discrimination in hiring practices have been part of the program since its inception during the Nixon Administration and its subsequent renewal by President Ronald Reagan. However, because religiously affiliated schools participate in the Head Start program, there has been pressure to those schools to favor the hiring of employees from their own faith traditions, which ultimately led to the proposal included in HR 1429.

"Partial Birth" Abortion Ban: In April, the Supreme Court announced its 5-4 decision upholding the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. In authoring the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that the absence of a provision requiring exceptions to the ban in cases where a woman's health is endangered does not necessarily make the law unconstitutional. This decision comes some seven years after the Court determined that a Nebraska law banning abortion was unconstitutional because it lacked an exemption for eases in which a woman's health is at risk. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Bush in November 2003, but it was ruled unconstitutional by three federal judges in different jurisdictions. The decision by the high court effectively overturns the previous rulings which had, among other things, determined that the law is unconstitutionally vague. Christian and other "pro-life" groups applauded the Supreme Court's action, while organizations lobbying the pro-choice position suggested that it may signal the erosion of abortion rights generally.

Abstinence-Only Sex Education Programs: A nationwide study of 2,000 young people tracked over a period of years has determined that abstinence-only sex education programs have had little effect in contributing to sexual abstinence among program participants. The study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., determined that the average age of first sexual intercourse among participants in abstinence-only programs was the same as that for non-participants: 14.9 years. The results of this study are disappointing to many Christian and other religious advocacy organizations that sponsor or support abstinence-only sex education programs, and to the federal government, which has invested approximately $176 million annually in these programs. Critics of the abstinence-only movement suggest that the results of the study were predictable. Martha Kempner, Vice President for Information and Communications of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, has called abstinence-only programs a "social agenda masquerading as teen pregnancy prevention."

Death of Jerry Falwell: Jerry Falwell, the Baptist minister from Virginia who formed the organization called the Moral Majority in 1979 that became a major conservative force in American politics in the 1980s, died of heart failure on 16 May 2007. Always controversial, Falwell created a stir in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks by suggesting that the acts were divine judgment for America having "thrown God out of the public square" and implying that abortionists, homosexuals, feminists, the ACLU, and other groups had helped to bring about this judgment through terrorism. FalwelI later apologized for implicating other groups besides the terrorists themselves in these acts.

Falwell founded Liberty University in 1971 in his effort to build a "major evangelical Christian university" in the United States. His 1980 book, Listen America, sought to call out the silent majority and return the United States to what Falwell described as its "Judeo-Christian ethic." During Falwell's ministry, he was able to expand the Thomas Road Baptist Church in his native Lynchburg, Virginia from 35 members in 1956 to 24,000 today.

Survey Results on Religion in America: The Pew Research Center has released the results of what is touted as the first nationwide, random sample survey of Muslim-Americans. Survey findings suggest that Muslims in the United States have assimilated well into American life and are largely content with their place in American society. Interestingly, the study also found that American adherents of Islam are generally moderate on issues that are often cited as forging a divide between the West and Islam, with almost a two-to-one ratio (63 to 32 percent) seeing no inherent contradiction between devotion to Islam and participation in a modern liberal society. Results also show that Muslim-Americans are more likely to reject Islamic extremism than their European counterparts. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed said that it is more difficult to be a Muslim in the United States after the 9/11 attacks.

Another study released b the Pew Center found that 30 percent of Americans surveyed would be less likely to support a presidential candidate if he or she is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. A similar poll conducted by the Gallup organization in February found that 46 percent of Americans have a negative view of the Mormon faith. These studies coincide with the bid of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a member of the LDS Church, for the Republican presidential nomination. These results showing highly negative American attitudes toward certain religious groups, including Mormons, are markedly different from studies taken only a few years ago. For example, a Gallup poll from 2005 reported that 25 percent of Americans viewed Muslims negatively while 19 percent responded in similarly negative fashion to Evangelical Christians (Catholics were viewed negatively by 14 percent of the American public and Jews by 7 percent).

Republican Candidates and Evolution: The 3 May 2007 debate among Republican presidential hopefuls in Simi Valley, California included a question by a reporter on whether the candidates participating in the debate believe in evolution. Three of the candidates--Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado--responded that they are not believers in the theory of evolution. Senator John McCain of Arizona offered a qualified response that while he believes in evolution, he also perceives the and of God when he hikes in the Grand Canyon. Several American media outlets reported on the uniqueness of evolution as a topic of debate at a "national" political event, noting that it has largely been an issue of state and local politics in the United States since the time of the Scopes Trial in the 1920s.

Religion and Education: According to a federal judge, the Liverpool School District in New York state violated a fourth-grade student's free speech rights by not allowing her to distribute flyers to other students that she had written about her life and "how Jesus Christ gave me a new one." The court determined that the religiously tinged literature would not be excessively divisive or disrupt school activities as the District claimed. The court also determined that, in general, the Liverpool School District's policy that requires advance approval of all student handouts is unconstitutional because of the lack of "objective criteria" in the policy for making such judgments.

Answers in Genesis (AiG), a Christian fundamentalist group, announced plans to open the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky on Memorial Day 2007. The museum cost $27 million to construct and covers approximately 50 acres with additional land available for expansion. AiG's founder, Ken Ham, has stated that the museum is an effort to restore the Bible and biblical truths to their proper place of authority in society. Exhibits will posit that human beings lived at the same time as dinosaurs and that the Bible's description of dragons had a basis in truth." The announcement of the Creation Museum's opening brought about a reply from approximately 700 teaching scientists in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana who placed their signatures on a statement that harshly criticized the museum's exhibits as being without scientific basis and even warned that students who are convinced of their veracity "are unlikely to succeed in science courses."

Concerns about biblical illiteracy among Americans have prompted some public school districts to develop and offer courses (mostly electives) the Bible. The State of Georgia Board of Education has approved two elective courses to be added to the Georgia public school curriculum that are intended to teach the Bible from a historical and cultural point of view and not allow material that would proselytize or promote Christianity over other religions. The Bible Literacy Project as reported that only 8 percent of American high school students have the opportunity to take courses on the Bible. Critics of theses, programs suggest that introducing courses on the Bible in the public school classroom without bias in favor of the Judeo-Christian tradition is impossible.

VATICAN

Pope Benedict XVI has been taking a firmly conservative stance on a number of social issues. He has rejected calls from bishops in German that divorced and remarried people be allowed to particiate fully in church life. He has also warned Catholic politicians that the faith's stances on abortion, euthanasia, and marriage are "not negotiable." Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the-Faith, has said that newspapers and television often seem like "a perverse film about evil."

WORLD BANK

Juan Jose Daboub, a managing director appointed by Paul Wolfowitz, removed all mention of family planning from a report about Madagascar. A draft document "Strategy for Health, Nutrition and Populations Results,' which he worded, contained only one reference to family planning. Historically the Bank has encouraged family planning, but the Bush administration has sought to impose its views on family planning on international organizations.
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Author:Hendon, David W.; McDaniel, Charles
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Words:3585
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