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Jewish critics: Presbyterian study guide equates Zionism with racism


© 2014 Religion News Service

Major Jewish civil rights groups are denouncing a new publication distributed by the Presbyterian Church (USA) that rejects the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

“Zionism Unsettled,” a study guide published last month by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a group chartered by the church, writes of the “pathology” of Zionism, the movement undergirding the founding of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

The booklet describes Zionism as inherently discriminatory toward non-Jews. It calls on Christians to see the conflict through the lens of Palestinian Christians who have declared Zionism “heretical” and “a doctrine that promotes death rather than life.”

“The fundamental assumption of this study is that no exceptionalist claims can be justified in our interconnected, pluralistic world,” the booklet states.

But Jewish groups say that in its accusations of Israeli “exceptionalism,” the booklet seeks to mask its authors’ bigotry.

“This publication is not an attack on particular Israeli policies but on the very idea of a Jewish return to Zion,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The church, he added “has deployed the nuclear option against the vast majority of Jews, calling us inherently racist and abusive. We call on our Christian associates — including those critical of some of Israel’s policies — to denounce this disgusting attack aimed at delegitimizing and demonizing the world’s largest Jewish community and all lovers of Zion. “

The booklet recounts in detail the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, using phrases such as “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid” and accuses Israel of “cloaking secular nationalism with sacred messianism.”

It laments that the major streams of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist — have included the “Prayer for the State of Israel” in their prayer books, reflecting that “most Jewish theologians have turned a blind eye to the darker implications of the wedding of religion and state power in Israel.”

At the same time, its critics note, the booklet makes scant reference to anti-Semitism, aggression and terrorism suffered by Israelis, or territories Israel has returned, such as the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.

The Rev. Walt Davis, education co-chair of the IPMN, called the reaction to the study guide “knee-jerk” and “emotional” and said the guide is meant to open a discussion on Zionism and the harm it has done to the Palestinian people.

He said he can understand the strong “blowback” to the study guide, in that he grew up in the South, and witnessed angry responses to the civil rights movement.

The publication of “Zionism Unsettled” comes as Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to broker a new peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, who have been negotiating since July.

Its publication also comes as the 2.4 million members of the PCUSA anticipate a June meeting of the General Assembly, which is expected to take up a resolution to divest church funds from companies, that, in the view of the resolutions’ proponents, further the Israeli occupation.

The “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement against Israel has an active base of support within the denomination, and a divestment resolution have failed by a slim margin at the last meeting of the General Assembly. It also strained Jewish-Presbyterian relations.

The study guide will further estrange the denomination from the Jewish community, said Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of intergroup and interreligious relations. He said he does not buy the church’s statement that the IPMN “speaks to the church and not for the church.”

“This is a distinction without a difference when you are chartering IPMN and selling their propaganda on your home website,” he said.

Denominational officials reminded that the IPMN does not speak for it in a statement on the booklet issued in response to a query from Religion News Service.

“Our church has a long history of engaging many points of view when it comes to dialogue on critical issues facing the world around us — it’s who we are, part of our DNA,” said Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

“There are likely as many differing opinions as there are Presbyterians — and, like many denominations, we don’t always agree.”

It affirmed the denomination’s support for a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

But some within the church came out strongly against the booklet, most notably the Rev. Chris Leighton, the executive director of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies, which is not affiliated with the church.

In an open letter to the church, he wrote that “to suggest that the Jewish yearning for their own homeland — a yearning that we Presbyterians have supported for numerous other nations — is somehow theologically and morally abhorrent is to deny Jews their own identity as a people.”


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Archbishop’s pricey retirement home spurs giving backlash


© 2014 Religion News Service

NEWARK, N.J. — Every year, without fail, Joe Ferri writes a $100 check to the Archdiocese of Newark for the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, a fundraising drive that benefits a variety of religious causes.

This year, Ferri left the empty envelope on his pew at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Bloomfield. He’s done writing checks.

“If this is the only way I can be heard, so be it,” said Ferri, 70. “I’m disgusted. The archdiocese is not going to get another penny out of me.”

Two weeks after The Star-Ledger disclosed that Archbishop John J. Myers is building a 3,000-square-foot addition on the expansive home where he will spend his retirement, it appears the work will cost the archdiocese far more than the $500,000 allotted for construction.

Parishioners, infuriated by what they call a tone-deaf show of excess at a time when Catholic schools are closing and when the pope has called on bishops to shed the trappings of luxury, say they’re cutting off contributions entirely or sharply curtailing them.

Others said they will continue supporting their local parishes but will ignore the annual appeal, which has been heavily promoted in churches over the past month across the archdiocese, home to 1.3 million Catholics in the New Jersey counties of Essex, Hudson, Union and Bergen.

At stake are millions of dollars that support schools, youth ministries, retired priests and Catholic Charities, the nonprofit agency that runs homeless shelters and provides a wide array of services for the poorest residents. In recent years, the appeal has brought in between $10 million and $11 million annually, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for Myers.

While acknowledging the good work the church does, the parishioners said they believe their complaints will be ignored if they don’t make the point more indelibly with their pocketbooks.

“The only language the church understands is money,” said Maria Bozza, 69, who has urged fellow parishioners at Holy Family Church in Nutley to withhold contributions to the archdiocese. “We need to start an ‘empty envelope month’ to replace the archbishop’s annual appeal. If parishioners in every church in the Newark Archdiocese sent in an empty envelope, then they will get the message.”

The Rev. John Bambrick, pastor of a parish in the Diocese of Trenton, and an occasional critic of Myers’ leadership, said he understands parishioners’ frustration. Many priests share it, he said, but are unwilling to speak out publicly.

“The average priest lives in two rooms with a bathroom, and the pope lives in a hotel room,” Bambrick said, a reference Pope Francis’ decision to live in a guest house instead of the papal palace. “I don’t understand why a 75-year-old man needs a 7,500-square-foot mansion with two swimming pools.”

Parishioners, Bambrick said, are now faced with a dilemma. By refusing to donate, he said, they are most certainly sending a message. But they’re also depriving the neediest residents of care, he said.

“It does hurt the poor,” Bambrick said. “As priests, that’s the hardest thing for us. It doesn’t hurt the archbishop. There’s no way to hold him accountable. But the poor are held accountable for his bad decisions.”

In church last Sunday and in parish bulletins, some pastors forcefully pushed back against the notion Myers had done anything wrong, exhorting parishioners to continue giving and characterizing coverage of the renovation by The Star-Ledger and other news outlets as anti-Catholic.

“For the love of God, the media is our devil,” the Rev. Peter Palmisano, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church in Garfield, wrote in the Feb. 28 bulletin. “DO NOT LET OPINIONS stand in the way of us doing God’s work, living the Gospel and helping the archbishop do the same.”

The Hunterdon County home —  situated on 8.2 wooded acres in the Diocese of Metuchen — has five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, a three-car garage and a basement office, according to documents on file in the municipal building.

An elevator was installed in 2011 at a cost of about $35,000, the records show. A large, kidney-shaped swimming pool sits behind the structure. The house was assessed last year at $776,000, with taxes of nearly $19,000.

The archdiocese, a tax-exempt organization, has paid the property tax each year because the house is not primarily used for religious functions, said Goodness.

The three-story addition, now under construction, will add 3,000 square feet and will include a bedroom with a sitting area, a large study with an attached library, a full-floor “gallery” on the third level, two bathrooms, three fireplaces and its own elevator.

A “wellness room” will contain a 14-foot by 7-foot exercise pool and an adjoining whirlpool tub, identified on blueprints as a hot tub.

Goodness said the addition’s cost will be borne by the sale of other properties, chiefly a Connecticut house once used by retired Archbishop Peter Gerety.

Donors also have contributed to the renovation, Goodness said, but he has declined to say how much the restricted donations amount to.

Under no circumstances, he said, will funds from the annual appeal be used for the construction or for ancillary costs, such as furnishing the home or landscaping work.

In a lengthy statement Friday, the spokesman urged parishioners to support the fundraising drive, saying it “all goes to people in need.” More than 50 percent of contributions — or more than $5 million — is earmarked for Catholic schools, he said. Another $3 million goes to Catholic Charities, he said. About $1 million is shared with parishes that meet or exceed fundraising goals.

“It’s painful to hear some people talking about stopping their contributions to the annual appeal and to the church in general,”  Goodness, wrote.  “By withdrawing their support, who are they harming? The very people that we as a church are pledged to help.”

Kevin Davitt, 59,  of Glen Rock refused to put his money in the collection basket this past Sunday.

And while he had already donated to the archbishop’s annual appeal — he said it was a “significant sum” — Davitt won’t do so again unless Myers reimburses the archdiocese or fully funds the construction with private donations.

“This just adds insult to injury,” said Davitt, who worked as a spokesman for former Gov. James E. McGreevey from 2001 to 2003 and who now works for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York. “We’re all still grappling with the problems of pedophilia and sexual inappropriateness of our priests, and then to have this come out of the blue is very discouraging to me as a Catholic.”

Last week, Davitt expressed his frustration in an email to Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States. Dozens of other parishioners said they had likewise written to the ambassador, known as the nuncio, or to Pope Francis at the Vatican.

“I am hopeful you might be able to communicate to our Holy Father the need to remove the archbishop from his position in Newark,” Davitt wrote.

(Mark Mueller writes for The Star-Ledger.)


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Violence against Muslims soars in Central African Republic


© 2014 Religion News Service

African religious leaders are appealing for an end to violence against Muslims in the Central African Republic as thousands flee to neighboring Chad and Cameroon.

In recent weeks, a pro-Christian militia known as anti-Balaka (or anti-machete) has killed and mutilated Muslims as they have tried to leave the capital Bangui by the truckload.

Muslims had enjoyed some protection when Michel Djotodia, the country’s first interim Muslim president, was in power. Djotodia resigned under pressure in January and Catherine Samba-Panza was appointed the interim president.

Earlier, Djotodia’s Seleka Islamist coalition faced accusations of atrocities against Christians. His departure did not stop revenge attacks.

“We are horrified by these killings in the Central African Republic,” said Sheikh Saliou Mbacke, the coordinator of Inter-Faith Action for Peace in Africa. “We appeal to both groups to cease the attacks and live side by side as they have done for many years.”

Mbacke, a Muslim leader from the Muridiya Sufi community of Senegal, said it was disturbing that the violence threatens to expel all Muslims from CAR.

“This is clearly manipulation of religion for some political gains, which must be rejected in Africa,” he said.

With the escalating violence, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said the plight of civilians in CAR has gone from bad to worse since September 2012. Bensouda announced preliminary investigations by the court based at The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. She said the victims had been deliberately targeted on religious grounds.

The international community must move quickly to find an immediate solution to the violence, or it may become too late, said Sheikh Hamid Byamugenzi, a religious studies lecturer at Uganda’s Islamic University.

“I know Muslims in other countries are pronouncing jihad on behalf of their Muslim brothers being massacred in Central Africa. If this is not stopped now, it will spread religious hate and tension across Africa. It will (result in) counterattacks that will be difficult to stop,” he observed.

According to Archbishop Nestor Desire Nongo-Aziagbia of Bossangoa, disarming the militia groups has been the biggest challenge. The fighters have failed to surrender the arms, despite an ongoing disarmament program.

Muslims make up 15 percent of CAR’s population. Christians comprise 50 percent; the rest are of various native faiths. More than 800,000 people have been displaced in the fighting. According to the United Nations, more than 2,000 have been killed there since March.


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NC high school faces legal challenge for refusing secular club


© 2014 Religion News Service

A North Carolina high school is facing a legal battle for refusing to allow a club for the nonreligious.

According to a letter sent by First Amendment watchdog groups to school administrators at Pisgah High School in Canton, N.C., an assistant principal repeatedly blocked requests to found a chapter of Secular Student Alliance there.

The letter, sent by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, state that the students were told such a club would not “fit in” and that no sponsor could be found. The school has about 30 extracurricular clubs.

That response is a violation of the Equal Access Act, the letter states. The act requires all schools receiving federal funds to refrain from discriminating against student groups on the basis of their religious, philosophical or political beliefs. It also requires schools to appoint a sponsor if none volunteer.

The conflict began last October when Ben Wilson, 17, asked assistant principal Connie Weeks for permission to establish a local chapter of Secular Student Alliance, a national organization of nonreligious students with 379 chapters, including 45 in high schools.

Weeks said she was unfamiliar with the organization and would look into it. Wilson and his sister, Kalei, 15, complained that no investigation occurred, requests for sponsors were hindered and additional requests for a club were declined.

When Ben Wilson left the school late last year, Kalei Wilson continued pressing school administrators. She reached out to the national office of SSA, which sent a letter to the school stating its refusal made them noncompliant with the law.

“I want a place where people who don’t have a religion can come and meet people with the same thoughts,” Kalei Wilson said. “This is a way to tell the school that not everybody believes in the same thing.”

Jessica Kirsner, a development associate with Secular Student Alliance, said her organization received 28 similar complaints from students from across the country in 2013 — about one every other week.

“In this case, the school did not respond and the student continued to receive pushback so we took it to our legal advisers,” she said.

So far school administrators have not responded to the letters. Attempts to reach administrators for comment were unsuccessful.


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Survey finds British children and adults are biblically illiterate


© 2014 Religion News Service

CANTERBURY, England — Three out of 10 British children have next to no understanding of the Bible and their parents aren’t that knowledgeable, either.

A survey released Friday (Feb. 7) by the Bible Society, founded in 1804 to spread knowledge about the Scriptures, said most boys and girls aged 8 to 15 years old did not know that Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark or Jesus’ birth were rooted in the Bible.

More than a third of the 800 children surveyed did not know that David and Goliath and the story of the Good Samaritan were Bible tales.

One in 10 mistakenly thought the story about King Midas and Icarus was in the Bible.

But not just children are Bible ignorant.

Nearly half of the 1,100 parents surveyed failed to identify Noah’s Ark as a story from the Bible. More than one-third thought a Harry Potter plotline was or might have come from the Bible.

The Bible Society published the research to mark the launch of its “Pass It On” campaign, which aims to encourage parents to keep the Bible alive by passing its stories on to their children.

In a foreword to the report, Richard Chartres, the Anglican bishop of London, said sharing Bible stories “is as vital now as it has ever been.” He added: “There is work to be done.”

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