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U.N. told discrimination against atheists occurs worldwide: News Roundup

In the news this week, U.N. told atheists face discrimination around the globe, Pope gives final Sunday blessing before resigning, and other stories.

Atheists, humanists and freethinkers face widespread discrimination around the world with expression of their views criminalized and subject in some countries to capital punishment, the United Nations was told on Monday.

In a document for consideration by the world body's Human Rights Council, a global organization linking people who reject religion said atheism was banned by law in a number of states where people were forced to officially adopt a faith.

"Extensive discrimination by governments against atheists, humanists and the non-religious occurs worldwide," declared the grouping, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) which has some 120 member bodies in 45 countries.

In Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan "atheists can face the death penalty on the grounds of their belief" although this was in violation of U.N. human rights accords, the IHEU said. Reuters

Pope Benedict XVI bestowed his final Sunday blessing of his pontificate on a cheering crowd in St. Peter's Square, explaining that his waning years and energy made him better suited to the life of private prayer he soon will spend in a secluded monastery than as leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

On Thursday evening, the 85-year-old German-born theologian will become the first pope to have resigned from the papacy in 600 years.

Sunday's noon appearance from his studio window overlooking the vast square was his next-to-last appointment with the public of his nearly eight-year papacy. Tens of thousands of faithful and other admirers have already asked the Vatican for a seat in the square for his last general audience Wednesday. NPR

When a would-be assassin disguised as a postman shot at — and just missed — the head of Lars Hedegaard, an anti-Islam polemicist and former newspaper editor, this month, a cloud of suspicion immediately fell on Denmark’s Muslim minority.

Politicians and pundits united in condemning what they saw as an attempt to stifle free speech in a country that, in 2006, faced violent rage across the Muslim world over a newspaper’s cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Since then, the newspaper that first printed the images, Jyllands-Posten, has been the target of several terrorist plots.

However, as Mr. Hedegaard’s own opinions, a stew of anti-Muslim bile and conspiracy-laden forecasts of a coming civil war, came into focus, Denmark’s unity in the face of violence began to dissolve into familiar squabbles over immigration, hate speech and the causes of extremism.

But then something unusual happened. Muslim groups in the country, which were often criticized during the cartoon furor for not speaking out against violence and even deliberately fanning the flames, raised their voices to condemn the attack on Mr. Hedegaard and support his right to express his views, no matter how odious. The New York Times

An advertisement in Athens intertwines a swastika with a Jewish star.  Hungarian politicians declare Jews a national security risk. A gunman executes three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in France.

Such recent instances of anti-Semitism reflect a growing wave of hatred toward Jews across Europe, one documented by civil rights groups and concerning to those who fear that, nearly 70 years after the Holocaust, it has again become socially acceptable to vilify Jews.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., convened a hearing on Wednesday (Feb. 27) on this rise in anti-Semitism, calling it a threat not only to Jews, but to other religious minorities and the ideal of tolerance in general.

“Unparalleled since the dark ages of the Second World War, Jewish communities on a global scale are facing verbal harassment, and sometimes violent attacks against synagogues, Jewish cultural sites, cemeteries and individuals,” said Smith, chairman of a House panel on global human rights, part of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Religion News Service

Four Missionaries may face Libya death penalty after arrest in Benghazi: News Roundup

In the news this week, four missionaries arrested in Benghazi may face Libya death penalty, Pope electors are sizing up their peers, and other stories.

Four foreign missionaries were arrested in Benghazi, Libya, last week on charges of printing and distributing materials that promote Christianity. One is an American citizen.
The Associated Press, which broke the news, reports that Benghazi police claim to have "found 45,000 books in [the missionaries'] possession and that another 25,000 have already been distributed."

"They were arrested on Tuesday at a publishing house where they were printing thousands of books that called for conversion to Christianity," Hussein Bin Hmeid, spokesman for Libya's Preventative Security, toldReuters. "Proselytizing is forbidden in Libya. We are a 100 percent Muslim country and this kind of action affects our national security." Christianity Today

There is no formal nominating process for choosing the man to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, and campaigning for oneself is counterproductive. But the cardinals who will file into the Sistine Chapel next month to elect a new leader of the Roman Catholic Church have been quietly sizing up potential candidates for years.

They were impressed when the young soon-to-be-cardinal of Manila, Luis Antonio Tagle, told bishops gathered for a momentous synod in Rome last October that the church should listen more and admit its mistakes. They took note a year ago when Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York delivered a winning address on evangelization to the College of Cardinals, the day before the pope gave him the red hat of a cardinal. The New York Times

A U.N. committee has accused U.S. legal authorities of failing to fully pursue cases of child sex abuse in religious groups, an issue especially troubling the Roman Catholic Church.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child wrote this month that it was “deeply concerned” to find widespread sexual abuse by clerics and staff of religious institutions and “a lack of measures … to properly investigate cases and prosecute them”.

Britain’s National Secular Society, which drew attention on Monday to the little-noticed report, said it hoped the Catholic pope to be elected next month would open Church files to help prosecute as yet undiscovered cases of clerical sexual abuse. Reuters

Employees at a Motor Vehicle Commission office in New Jersey called the police on Feb. 2, when a man claiming to be a "Pastafarian" — a follower of a parody religion called the "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" — refused to take a pasta strainer off his head for a new license photo.

Aaron Williams, 25, told employees at the South Brunswick motor vehicle office that “his pasta strainer was a religious head covering and it was his right to wear it for his license photo,” according to a South Brunswick Police Department report newly obtained by The Smoking Gun.
 
Per The Smoking Gun, officers were eventually able to convince Williams to remove the strainer for his picture and reported that Williams was calm and cooperative throughout the incident. The tongue-in-cheek Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was founded, in part, to protest the teaching of creationism in schools, according to CBS New York. The Huffington Post
 

Anti-Semitic incidents on the rise in the UK: News Roundup

In the news this week, report finds a 5 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the UK, India Pitcher Festival stampede death toll rises, sex abuse allegations surround L.A. Buddhist teacher, and other stories.
 
A report by the Community Security Trust (CST) on anti-Semitic incidents in the UK shows a slight rise of 5 percent in 2012 (640 incidents) compared to 2011. A total of 640 incidents were reported against 608 in 2011. According to the report, the total of 640 incidents included 100 reported under a new exchange program with the Metropolitan Police Service, whereby CST and MPS exchange all anti-Semitic incident reports received by either agency, in full anonymity, throughout the year. The Jerusalem Post
 
Anxious relatives searched for missing family members in northern India on Monday during one of the world's largest religious gatherings, unsure if their loved ones were caught in a stampede that killed 37 people or had simply gotten lost among the tens of millions of pilgrims.
 
People thronged to the main hospital in Allahabad to see if their relatives were among 37 dead and 39 people injured in Sunday evening's stampede at the city's train station. Tens of thousands of people were in the station waiting to board a train when railway officials announced a last-minute change in the platform, triggering the chaos.
 
An estimated 30 million Hindus took a dip Sunday at the Sangam – the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers – as part of the 55-day Kumbh Mela, or Pitcher Festival. Sunday was one of the holiest days to bathe. The Huffington Post
 
At 19, Shari Young was in search of enlightenment. She thought she had found it at the Cimarron Zen Center (now known as Rinzai-ji) in Jefferson Park and in a Buddhist teacher, a man named Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
 
But she said Roshi, as his followers call him, began using their one-on-one meetings to fondle her breasts and grope her body. She consented in confusion but left after nearly a year.
 
That was in the early '60s, she said. A recent investigation by an independent council of Buddhist leaders has suggested that Roshi, a leading figure in Zen Buddhism in the United States, may have abused hundreds of others for decades. According to the group's report, that abuse included allegations of molestation and rape, and some of the incidents had been reported to the Rinzai-ji board, which had taken no effective action. The Los Angeles Times
 
Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement on Monday that he will resign on Feb. 28 sets the stage for a succession battle that is likely to determine the future course of a church troubled by scandal and declining faith in its traditional strongholds around the world.
Citing advanced years and infirmity, Benedict became the first pope in six centuries to resign. Vatican officials said they hoped to have a new pope in place by Easter, while expressing shock at a decision that some said had been made as long as a year ago.

Saying he had examined his conscience “before God,” Benedict said he felt that he was not up to the challenge of guiding the world’s one billion Catholics. That task will fall to his successor, who will have to contend not only with a Roman Catholic Church marred by the sexual abuse crisis, but also with an increasingly secular Europe and the spread of Protestant evangelical movements in the United States, Latin America and Africa. The New York Times
 
When the national director of the Anti-Defamation League takes out a large advertisement in the print edition of The New York Times, you kind of have to take notice. Given the cost of such an ad (surely more than one in the Forward!), the February 7 statement by Abraham Foxman signals that his organization believes the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — known as BDS — is anti-Semitic hate speech that poses a real and potent threat to Jews everywhere. It is an assertion that you hear repeated by those trying to keep BDS sympathizers far outside the acceptable perimeters of the Jewish communal tent. Are they right? Yes and no. The Jewish Daily Forward

Pregnant Indian woman dies after being denied an abortion by Irish Hospital: News Roundup

In the news this week, thousands rally in Ireland after woman denied abortion dies, customer sues Muslim barber for refusing to cut her hair, Atheists sue IRS for failure to monitor church politicking, and other stories. 

Thousands of people rallied outside Ireland's parliament on Wednesday to demand strict abortion rules be eased after a pregnant Indian woman repeatedly denied a termination died in an Irish hospital.

Savita Halappanavar, 31, admitted to University Hospital Galway in the west of Ireland last month, died of septicaemia a week after miscarrying 17 weeks into her pregnancy. Her repeated requests for termination were rejected because of the presence of a fetal heartbeat, her husband told state broadcaster RTE. MSNBC

In case of competing rights, a Toronto woman has lodged a complaint against a barber who refused to cut her hair because he's Muslim. In June, Faith McGregor requested a man's haircut at the Terminal Barber Shop in downtown Toronto. Co-owner Omar Mahrouk told her that his Muslim faith prohibits him from touching a woman who is not a member of his family. All the other barbers in the shop said the same thing.

"For me it was just a haircut and started out about me being a woman," McGregor, 35, told the Toronto Star. "Now we're talking about religion versus gender versus human rights and businesses in Ontario." She has filed a complaint with Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario because the incident made her feel like a "second-class citizen." Religion News Service

A First Amendment watchdog group is suing the Internal Revenue Service for failing to challenge the tax-exempt status of churches whose pastors engage in partisan politicking from the pulpit.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates total separation of church and state, filed the lawsuit Wednesday (Nov. 14) in U.S. District Court in Western Wisconsin, where the 19,000-member organization is based.

The lawsuit claims that as many as 1,500 pastors engaged in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” on Sunday, Oct. 7, when pastors endorsed one or more candidates, which is a violation of IRS rules for non-profit organizations. The Washington Post

The faith-based Katallasso Family Health Center is set to open in York City's Salem Square neighborhood on Jan. 7. Treatment at the clinic will be free for York County residents, executive Director Brian Kreeger said. The story of Katallasso — a Greek word that means reconciliation — started a few years ago. Kreeger said he had a conviction to share Christ's love in a poor York City neighborhood. So, he headed to South Queen Street. York Dispatch

Tragedy in Wisconsin: News Roundup

In the news this week: Sikhs Killed in Wisconsin, a Missouri mosque burns, Romney ad raises religion, and other stories.

In the shadow of the White House, as speakers called for unity, trays of food circulated the audience: wraps, potato chips, and choley chawal, a chickpea and rice dish.
 
The candlelight vigil for the victims of the Oak Creek, Wis., Sikh temple shooting symbolically completed what a gunman interrupted on Sunday (Aug. 5) — the langar, a Sikh ritual meal for anyone who wishes to take part.
 
Wednesday’s vigil was one of many nationwide to respond to violence with peace as the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund called for a “National Day of Remembrance and Solidarity.”
 
The attack Sunday “attempted to make Americans afraid of their fellow neighbors, and it is something that the Sikh community has faced time and time again,” said Sartaj Singh Dhami, co-director of RestoringThePride.com, a Sikh advocacy group.
 
“Through resolve, through respect, we will overcome. This is a gift that Sikhs can give to all Americans.”   Washington Post
 
A mosque in Joplin, Missouri, was burned to the ground early Monday, just over a month after an attempted arson at the Islamic center, officials said.
 
Authorities are investigating the cause of the latest fire. The mosque's security cameras were destroyed in the blaze, according to Sharon Rhine of the Jasper County Sheriff's Office. CNN
 
The ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday challenging an amendment to the state's constitution it contends violates the religious rights of prison inmates.
 
On Tuesday, Missourians overwhelmingly approved the so-called "right to pray" amendment. The measure says the state can't infringe upon public expressions of religious beliefs, that students have the right to voluntarily pray in schools and that all public schools must display a copy of the Bill of Rights.
 
Critics of the amendment, including the ACLU, warned that it would lead to a flood of lawsuits, particularly a section that said no student "shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs." Sacramento Bee
 
A new TV ad from Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee asks voters whose values they share, then goes on to charge a component of President Obama's health care law as a "war on religion."
 
The ad, released Thursday morning, starts with a narrator asking, "Who shares your values?" It goes on to say the president's health care law is a "plan to declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith."   CBS News
 
Rocked in recent years by sex-abuse scandals and crises in leadership, the Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland has been struggling to keep its members close.
 
But this week, a new global survey on faith and atheism has revealed that the crisis of faith in Ireland may be much worse than previously thought.
 
According to the poll released by WIN-Gallup International, the traditionally Catholic country has seen one of the steepest drops worldwide in religiosity. Huffington Post

 

Protests Against the HHS Mandate Around the U.S.: News Roundup

In the news this week: countrywide protests against the HHS mandate, the history of tension between the Vatican and U.S. clergy, the first black leader of the Southern Baptists, and other stories.

Hundreds gathered on Capitol Hill and at rallies across the nation on Friday (June 8) in a double-barreled attack on President Obama’s health care law and a mandate to require employers to provide insurance coverage of birth control.
 
Speakers such as Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and anti-abortion activist Lila Rose rallied conservatives in one of 160 coordinated noontime rallies across the country.
 
Bachmann, a former GOP presidential candidate, emphasized that the fight over the insurance mandate is not about birth control or women’s rights, but the freedom to practice religion without government involvement.   Washington Post
 
A conflict that has entangled the Vatican, American bishops and the largest umbrella group for U.S. nuns may seem to have erupted suddenly, but it actually has its roots in decades-old disputes over Roman Catholic teaching.
 
The headlines came in April, when the Vatican orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, concluded that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious had strayed far from authentic doctrine and gave three American bishops the authority to overhaul the organization.
 
But the contretemps can be explained in the context of long-simmering differences that have also divided the broader church into opposing camps of theological liberals and conservatives — with many Catholics caught in between. Each side is acting consistently according to long-established priorities. Associated Press
 
NEW ORLEANS – Baptist pastor Fred Luter Jr. once preached the Gospel through an amplifier on street corners in this city's Lower 9th Ward.
 
Tuesday, he's set to become the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention— a group created more than a century ago to support slavery — at the group's annual meeting here.
 
The rise of Luter, 55, from street preacher to religious leader is more than a tale of personal fate. It's a historic moment in the denomination's 167-year history, a history tainted with racial segregation and human bondage, historians and convention leaders say. USA Today
 
A Massachusetts judge has found that the rights of an atheist couple and their children aren't being violated when the words "under God" are recited in the Pledge of Allegiance in Acton schools.
 
The Boston Globe reports that Middlesex Superior Court Judge Jane Haggerty also ruled there was no violation of state law or the school's anti-discrimination policy.
 
The judge ruled Friday that including "under God" in a voluntary patriotic exercise doesn't "convert the exercise into a prayer." She said the case presented a "familiar dilemma" of balancing conflicting interests in a pluralistic society. Masslive.com

 

38 Tibetan Self-immolations since 2009: News Roundup

In the news this week:   self-immolations in Tibet, support for a Vatican reprimanded nun, NYPD sued over targeting Muslims, and other stories.

At least 38 Tibetans have set fire to themselves since 2009, and 29 have died, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group in Washington. The 2,000 or so monks of Kirti Monastery in Sichuan Province have been at the center of the movement, one of the biggest waves of self-immolations in modern history. The acts evoke the self-immolations in the early 1960s by Buddhist monks in South Vietnam to protest the corrupt government in Saigon. New York Times
 
Jews face special risks that require vigilance, though there is no “specific, credible threat” against Jewish targets, Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told the Forward during a visit to the newspaper’s New York offices.
 
In a June 4 meeting with the paper’s editorial staff, Napolitano cited the particular exposure she said Jews face in explanation of a DHS security grant program that mostly benefits Jewish groups.
 
“Unfortunately there are risks attendant on the Jewish community that are not attendant on all other communities,” she said. Jewish Daily Forward
 
The board of the largest membership organization of U.S. theologians issued a statement of support Thursday afternoon (June 7) for Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, a member in their ranks who was the subject of harsh criticism from the Vatican just days ago.
 
Writing that it considers Farley’s work “reflective, measured, and wise,” the leadership of the some 1,500 member Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) says in the statement it is “especially concerned” that the Vatican’s criticism presents a limiting understanding of the role of Catholic theology.
 
In a formal notification released June 4, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith criticized Farley’s 2006 book on sexual ethics, titled Just Love.
 
Farely’s positions on masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions, the indissolubility of marriage and the problem of divorce and remarriage "contradicts" or "is opposed to" or "does not conform to" church teaching, the Vatican notification said. National Catholic Reporter
 
For whatever reason, neither President Obama nor his Republican challenger is talking much about religion these days — neither about his own faith nor that of his opponent, or the social issues that motivate religious voters.
 
It is a striking departure from the faith-based overtures heard in this year's Republican primary and in some past presidential campaigns, and it serves to mask a central aspect of each man's life story, in which faith plays an important role. But analysts on both sides of the political spectrum say religion is perceived as a no-win subject by both campaigns, and it is not likely to play a prominent role in the 2012 election. LA Times
 
Muslim civil rights activists are headed to court to end a New York City Police Department program that they say violates their constitutional rights by spying on Muslims based only on their religion.
 
The lawsuit, Hassan et al. v. City of New York, is the first legal challenge against the NYPD’s alleged spying and profiling of Muslim Americans in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that was first reported by The Associated Press last year. The suit, to be filed Wednesday (June 6) in a federal court in New Jersey, seeks an “immediate end” to the NYPD surveillance program, and calls for the NYPD to destroy all records of information obtained through the program. Washington Post

 

U.S. Nuns Break Silence: News Roundup

In the news: U.S. nuns respond to Vatican, struggling with Ramadan as an Olympic athlete, and other news stories.

The largest umbrella group for U.S. nuns on Friday broke weeks of near-silence on a stinging Vatican report that they had undermined Roman Catholic teaching, saying the inquiry was "flawed" and based on "unsubstantiated accusations" that were causing pain throughout the church.
 
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious had been considering for six weeks how they should respond to the Vatican findings, which accused them of promoting "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith," while failing to emphasize core teaching on abortion. The Vatican ordered a full-scale overhaul of the organization overseen by three American bishops, a decision that has led to an outpouring of support for the nuns nationwide. Kansas City Star
 
For far too long, the story of American Muslims has been told by others; rarely do American Muslim men emerge as protagonists of their own narratives, representing their religion or depicted in a way other than as violent extremists, misogynists, and irrational, angry, bearded brown men. That situation is changing with the release on June 1st of "All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim." San Francisco Chronicle
 
Recently, the HuffPost Religion section put a call out on Paganism that those interested in the varied strands of Paganism should read.
 
The result is a list of 27 books that range from introductory to scholarly in nature and cover the entire gamut of Pagan religions — Witchcraft, Wicca, Shamanism, Asatru, Druidism, Egyptian and Hellenic.
 
These books grapple with issues of sexuality, tell personal stories of faith, and provide information on the various Pagan religious rites.  Huffington Post
 
When the Qatari sprinter Noor al-Malki makes her debut at the London Olympics, she will not be among those contending for a medal. Breaking her own national record in the 100 meters will be enough of a prize.
 
But even this modest goal presents a challenge.
 
Al-Malki, 17, whose oil-and-gas rich country is sending women to the Olympics for the first time, knows she will need all her energy and strength to run a fast race. To do that, however, might require her to break the fast during Ramadan.
 
Muslims are required to abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk during the 30-day holy month, which begins on July 20 and overlaps with the Olympics. But al-Malki and the 3,500 other Muslim athletes expected to compete in London may look to ancient Islamic tenets that allow exemptions — for travelers, the sick and others — out of concern that not eating or drinking, even water, throughout the day could put them at a competitive disadvantage. Huffington Post
 
Education is the weapon of choice for a Chicago area Islamic leader in his fight against the radicalization of Islamic youth and the discrimination of American Muslims.
 
Dr. Sabeel Ahmed, 36, is the director of the Gain Peace project, an Islamic outreach program based in Chicago. Ahmed blames misinterpretations of the Quran and Islam for the dual extremes of Islamophobia and violent Islamist radicalism. He sees education as the way forward to both break down stereotypes and counter terrorist groups looking to recruit Muslim-Americans to commit acts of violence.
 
Ahmed’s organization sparked controversy five years ago after erecting a billboard near O’Hare Airport that asked “Why Islam?” But the Indian-born medical doctor insists education and peace are his goals, not conversion. Medill Report