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Terry Mattingly's weekly column on religion and the media.
Updated: 2 hours 9 min ago

The often overlooked Christian holy day that is precisely nine months before Christmas

Monday, March 27, 2017

Anyone who can do basic math knows that something mysterious happened to a young Jewish girl named Mary nine months before Christmas.

On the early Christian calendar, March 25 was designated as the Feast of the Annunciation -- one of Christianity's great holy days. This feast centers on the passage in the Gospel of Luke in which the Archangel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, announcing that she will conceive and bear a son.

"You have to think this through," said the Rev. Rudy Gray, a veteran Southern Baptist pastor in South Carolina who now leads the state's Baptist Courier newspaper. "If there is no conception, there is no virgin birth of Jesus. Without that you have no sinless life that leads to the crucifixion. Without the cross you don't have the resurrection and the resurrection is the heart of the Christian faith."

In St. Luke's Gospel, Mary responds with a poetic song that begins: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed."

The Latin translation became known as "The Magnificat," a text familiar to all Catholics who follow the church's holidays. The Annunciation is a major feast in Eastern Orthodoxy and this holy day is observed, to some degree, in other Christian bodies that use the ancient church calendar.

However, in many churches this holy day has vanished. The bottom line is that many Protestants are clear when it comes to knowing what they don't believe about Mary, but not at all sure about what they do believe about this crucial biblical character.

Gray stressed that he remains a Baptist's Baptist who is not trying to make a case for Roman Catholic doctrines about the Virgin Mary. That includes her Immaculate Conception, which Pope Pius IX, claiming infallibility, proclaimed in 1854.

Nevertheless, Gray published an essay last Christmas -- circulated nationally by Baptist Press -- in which he challenged readers to think twice about Mary's role in the life of Jesus.

"Mary has been too highly exalted by the Catholic Church and often devalued too much by the evangelical church," he wrote. "Yet she was chosen by God, empowered by God, blessed by God and obedient to God. She was a virgin, and likely a teen-ager.

"Her task was overwhelming, frightening and awesome: carry and give birth to God's Son, the Messiah of the world."

Gray said that during his three decades of ministry he has never seen Southern Baptists celebrate the Annunciation. This is even true in "moderate" Baptist churches that claim to emphasize the liturgical calendar. It's hard to say why this is the case.

"All I am saying is that Mary is right there, in the Bible," he said, reached by telephone. "We need to recognize the remarkable commitment of Mary and her obedience to God."

In another conservative flock here in America, the Annunciation remains on the calendar -- even if challenges remain when congregations try to celebrate the feast, said the Rev. Daniel Reuning, who taught at Concordia Theological Seminary for 31 years. In retirement, he serves at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Ind., which stresses that it is a "confessional, liturgical" Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation.

"I don't know why many people don't celebrate the Annunciation," he said. "It could just be ignorance. … In the past, many of our pastors -- especially those coming from other Protestant churches -- may not have known that we have Marian feasts that have always been part of our Lutheran tradition."

In some churches, there may be a practical reason that pastors struggle to have Annunciation services, he said. March 25 usually falls on a weekday and many members "think they are too busy to go to church on weekdays."

Then again, Reuning added: "Some of our people are really focused on Lent, so they don't notice the Annunciation. … But that is what makes this holy day so powerful to me. The message is that 'He came to save'; 'He came to die for us.'

"So here we are in the weeks that lead to Good Friday and Easter and the Annunciation is right there. It's doesn't interrupt Lent. It's part of that story."

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A married priest parses latest sound bite -- about married priests -- from Pope Francis

Monday, March 20, 2017

Every now and then, a typical Catholic asks Father Dwight Longenecker for his take on whether Rome will ever ordain more married men as priests. 

This is logical, since Longenecker is a former Anglican priest who is married and has four children. He was raised as a fundamentalist Protestant, graduating from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., and now leads Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in that same city.

These conversations begin with the layperson cheering for married priests. Then Longenecker mentions the "elephant in the room" -- the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae defending church doctrines forbidding artificial contraception. Surely bishops would strive to ordain men who, with their wives, would defend these teachings. Right?

"They might have a dozen kids," says Longenecker. "Who's going to pay for them?"

The typical Catholic assumes the bishop will do that. Actually, parishes are responsible for their priest's pay, even when his children go to Catholic schools and off to college. That might require parishioners to put more than $5 in offering plates.

The typical Catholic then says: "I don't think having married priests is such a good idea."

Longenecker is ready for more chats -- in person and at his "Standing on my Head" website -- after recent Pope Francis remarks to the German newsweekly Die Zeit.

Asked about the global shortage of priests, Francis expressed a willingness to consider ordaining "viri probati" (tested men), such as married men already ordained as deacons. While "voluntary celibacy is not a solution," he added: "We need to consider if viri probati could be a possibility. … We would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities."

This latest Pope Francis sound bite was not surprising, since Vatican officials have often discussed ordaining more married men, said Longenecker, author of 15 books on Catholic faith and apologetics.

"This is all coming, from his perspective, from South America," said Longenecker, referring to the pope's years in Argentina. "Catholics there can go a year without seeing a priest. Then he shows up on a donkey, after a long ride from somewhere else. … The crisis is even more pronounced than here."

So far, Longenecker has written a stack of articles addressing questions about married priests. One crucial fact is that celibacy for priests is a matter of church discipline, not doctrine. The pope could change this discipline and bishops could petition for changes to be considered.

Meanwhile, churches in the East -- Orthodox Christians and Eastern Rite Catholics loyal to Rome -- have maintained ancient traditions allowing married men to become priests, with celibate monks and priests serving as bishops. In the West, the celibate priesthood discipline evolved through the centuries, until the First Lateran Council made it a requirement in 1123. In 1980, Pope John Paul II created a pastoral provision in which some Protestant clergy, such as Longenecker, could convert and become Catholic priests.

Catholic laypeople need to know that a "viri probati" option would almost certainly lessen the shortage of priests, but it wouldn't be a "magic bullet" for all the challenges facing the church, noted Longenecker. And there is no guarantee that married priests would -- as many parishioners seem to assume -- "understand married people's problems better than a celibate man."

Married men are not automatically great husbands and fathers. The wives of pastors face their own challenges -- positive and negative -- as do their children. Married priests, just like other priests, may struggle with exhaustion, stress, workaholism and sin.

"Marriage is not the magic bullet that makes everyone live happily ever after and instantly makes all men wonderfully sympathetic pastors," argued Longenecker, writing at his weblog. "Guess what? Married clergy run off with other women (and men). They neglect their wives and kids. They are just as mystified as any other man about the strangeness of love and the demand for self-sacrifice. … I'm not saying that all married priests are skunks. I'm just saying that marriage is not an instant fix."

The bottom line: "A good, mature married man with a good marriage and his feet on the ground would be a good priest. But the same goes for a celibate man. If he is a good, mature, well-adjusted person he'll be a good priest."

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The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

Monday, March 13, 2017

NEW YORK -- Believe it or not, most Americans think their nation is becoming more tolerant, at least when it comes to warm feelings about most religious believers.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, in terms of "thermometer" ratings, Americans felt "warmer" about nearly all religious groups than they did in 2014. Even chilly ratings for atheists and Muslims are approaching a neutral 50 score.

But there was one glitch in this warming trend, with evangelical Protestants stuck on a plateau. Christianity Today magazine noted that, when the views of evangelicals were removed from the mix, only a third of non-evangelical Americans had warm feelings toward evangelicals. Flip that around and that means two-thirds of non-evangelicals have lukewarm or cold feelings about evangelical Christians.

"There's a sharp divide in this country and it's getting stronger. … This tension has been obvious for years, for anyone with the eyes to see," said political scientist Louis Bolce of Baruch College in the City University of New York. "It's all about moral and social issues. Some people don't like the judgmental streak that they see in traditional forms of Christianity, like in evangelicalism and among traditional Roman Catholics."

Bolce and colleague Gerald De Maio have, over two decades, mustered research demonstrating that journalists have shown little or no interest in the liberal side of this divide. While offering in-depth coverage of the Christian Right, journalists have all but ignored a corresponding rise in what the Baruch College duo have called "anti-fundamentalist" activists. Among Democrats, the term "evangelical" has become as negative as the old "fundamentalist" label.

When journalists deal with religion and politics, "prejudice is attributed to people on the Religious Right, but not to people on the secular and religious left. Everything flows from that," said De Maio.

Journalists and researchers, he added, fail to "recognize secularism as an analytical category to describe beliefs found in American public life. … They can see the Religious Right because they can see connections between what religious people believe and how they act. But they cannot see that secular people have beliefs that affect how they act."

Obviously, there have been dramatic changes in America's political landscape in recent decades, noted Bolce and De Maio, in a 2014 article in the Journal of the American Society of Geolinguistics. In the past, Catholics, Jews and Southern evangelicals, black and white, backed the Democrats. Most non-Southern whites -- especially mainline Protestants -- voted Republican.

Then came the 1960s, with liberals in a many religious traditions backing Democrats on issues of social justice, the Vietnam War and the Sexual Revolution. Evangelical Protestants, meanwhile, remained on the fringes of American political life -- until Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. By the end of the 1970s, the Religious Right had emerged as a key force in the rise of President Ronald Reagan.

Digging into decades of elite news media coverage, Bolce and De Maio charted one dominant trend. Journalists and political scientists focused all of their attention on the political activities of religious conservatives in the Republican Party, while failing to note a corresponding pattern, especially among white voters, on the left.

Now, as researchers are focusing attention on the rising number of "religiously unaffiliated" Americans -- a third of Millennial generation adults are "nones" -- Bolce and De Maio have noted that atheists, agnostics, "nones" and religious liberals are merging into a powerful coalition in the Democratic Party base.

Journalists have all but ignored this development.

"Partisan division rooted in religious differences -- at least from the perspective of the mainstream press -- was a Republican problem with occasional spillover effects afflicting the rest of America," wrote Bolce and De Maio, in their 2014 academic study. "The secularist-Democratic contribution to an increasingly religiously polarized nation was, for all intents and purposes, invisible to the press."

Most journalists and political professionals, said Bolce, "don't get this story because they see the secular or liberal point of view as normal and mainstream. … It doesn't stand out for them and, thus, it isn't salient. It isn't news.

"What's newsworthy about normal people acting in what they believe is a normal, rational matter? But these conservative religious people stand out, and are seen as a threat, because their beliefs are not normal. That's news."

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Philadelphia archbishop offers candid talk on new/old idols of our changing times

Monday, March 6, 2017

NEW YORK -- It was hard, especially when discussing faith during troubled times, for Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput to avoid the copper-tinted elephant in the national living room -- but he tried.

The leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia made only one reference to Donald Trump and his victory over Hillary Clinton. Why? Because Trump's win was just another sign of painful realities in American life.

"Some of those trends, in a perverse and unintended way, helped elect President Trump. But Mr. Trump is a REACTION to, not a REVERSAL of, the current direction of the country," said Chaput. "It's a sign of our national poverty that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump were so distasteful and so deeply flawed in the 2016 campaign."

The big idea at this forum -- held at the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in Manhattan's East Village -- was that believers cannot expect politicians to provide solutions for several decades worth of moral puzzles. The archbishop's address was built on themes from his new book, "Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World."

At some point, he said, clergy and laypeople alike will have to make hard choices about how to live faithful lives in a radically different environment.

"Nations and peoples are changing all the time. If they're not, it means they're dead," said Chaput. "America is built on change because we're a nation of immigrants -- ALL OF US. … A nation's identity breaks with the past when it changes so rapidly, deeply and in so many ways that the fabric of the culture ruptures into pieces that no longer fit together. I think we're very near that point as a country right now.

"Why do I say that? Here's why. In 60 years -- basically the span of my adult life -- the entire landscape of our economy, communications, legal philosophy, science and technology, demography, religious belief and sexual morality has changed. And not just changed, but changed drastically."

The 72-year-old Capuchin Franciscan friar is a key conservative voice in debates about Catholic doctrine. I have known him since the mid-1980s, when he was a pastor, campus minister and administrator in Denver. Chaput became a bishop in 1988 in South Dakota, before becoming Archbishop of Denver in 1997. Pope Benedict XVI named him Philadelphia's archbishop in 2011.

Chaput has defended Catholic teachings on topics such as abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as opposing the death penalty. He has called for compassionate efforts to help the poor, refugees and immigrants in the bluntest terms possible, such as: "If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell."

In "Strangers in a Strange Land," he argues that a major cause of today's distractions and confusion is an uncritical embrace of technology. Thus, a "central fact of modern American life is idolatry. … We worship ourselves and our tools."

To survive, and thrive, Christians must realize they are being tempted to bow to modern versions of ancient idols, said Chaput, before his speech.

Clearly, many people "worship Mammon," the god of riches, "to the point of replacing God," he said. Often a "desire for success, measured by financial success alone," causes them to become workaholics. This can cause cracks in marriages and families, "which is where so many temptations begin."

As in ancient times, many Americans worship sexuality. Chaput said it's easy to sense this while hearing confessions each week.

"It's incredible the role that pornography plays in the formation of people's lives today," he said. "I've noticed, in the past five years especially, that more women than ever before are bringing the same issue as men. … And pornography is being directed at women."

Finally, many believers are being tempted to put their trust in political power, even more than in the government itself.

"It's amazing to me the loyalty that people have to their political parties," said the archbishop. "This is true about Republicans and Democrats. It's not just one party." This is "especially true in the Northeast part of the country where … it's not my country, right or wrong, but it's my party, right or wrong."

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The true story of Army medic Desmond Doss, the soft-spoken Christian superhero

Monday, February 27, 2017

Facing a wall of flames and shellfire, Army medic Desmond Doss had to make an agonizing decision -- retreat with his 77th Infantry Division or stay behind to save the wounded.

On the big screen, this true story is the stuff of Academy Award nominations. The "Hacksaw Ridge" script gave actor Best Actor nominee Andrew Garfield few words to say, but his face had to display shock, confusion, doubt and determination. The film has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture.

"What is it you want from me?", Doss prays, in his slow Virginia mountains drawl. "I don't understand. I can't hear you."

Then a distant voice screams: "Medic! Help me!"

Doss quietly says, "Alright," and runs back into the flames.

Working alone, Doss -- who refused a weapon, because of his Seventh-day Adventist convictions -- lowered at least 75 injured men over a 400-foot cliff during the World War II Battle of Okinawa. He collapsed several times during that night, but kept going with these words on his lips: "Please Lord, help me get one more."

A Japanese soldier later testified that he aimed at Doss several times, but his rifle kept jamming when he tried to fire.

President Harry S. Truman presented Doss with the Medal of Honor on Oct. 12, 1945 -- the first conscientious objector to receive that honor. It took Doss years to recover from his war injuries -- he lost a lung to tuberculosis -- and he devoted his life to church work, dying in 2006 at age 87.

Doss should be listed among the "most heroic figures in American history. He was singular," said "Hacksaw Ridge" director Mel Gibson, during 2016 commencement rites at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., in the hills where Doss grew up.

Medal of Honor winners are usually recognized for amazing, singular acts in combat, noted Gibson, a Best Director Oscar nominee. But Doss "kept crawling into enemy fire to rescue his buddies. … He stuck by his convictions. He was a man of tremendous faith and it was these things that enabled him to display this courage over and over and do superhuman things -- superhuman in that he could go outside himself and depend on something greater than himself to achieve something truly extraordinary and miraculous."

While few Americans may have heard of Doss, Hollywood had long sought his cooperation in telling his story, beginning soon after the war, said Terry Benedict, who produced and directed the 2004 documentary, "The Conscientious Objector." Benedict was on the "Hacksaw Ridge" production team.

The problem was that Doss was afraid of compromises and wanted praise focused on God, not himself. Benedict, however, grew up in an Adventist home and embraced the faith elements of this story. The filmmaker promised Doss that if they worked together it would be "God first, you second and everyone else can get in line." He also knew the elderly Doss had to put his memories on the record -- soon.

There was so much to tell. Doss was abused during Army training because many soldiers considered him a coward. Army officials -- who "never got the memo" that conscientious objectors could train as medics -- repeatedly tried to have him discharged, said Benedict, reached by telephone.

During five days of grueling documentary interviews in 2003, Doss kept telling the same simple, humble story over and over. Finally Benedict shook his friend by the shoulders and urged him to speak from his heart. Doss began weeping, admitting that he thought he was having a mental breakdown on the ridge. He was "exhausted and in unmitigated desperation mode," said Benedict.

More than anything else, Doss believed there were more wounded men on that battlefield that God wanted him to save.

"You see, Desmond is the rock in this story and everything flows and changes around him," said Benedict. "That is not your normal character arc in a movie. Desmond and his convictions stay the same and everyone else changes as they learn more about him and see his beliefs in action. That is not a normal Hollywood story. …

"There is a hunger for this kind of story, but you have to tell it well. … You end up with this courageous man and his faith. That's enough."            

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Gallup Poll team offers an update on faith and our divided states of America

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The cartoon map of North America began appearing after the bitter "hanging chads" election of 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court put Republican George W. Bush in the White House.

In most Internet variations, part of the map is blue, combining Canada and states along America's left coast and the urban Northeast and Midwest into "The United States of Liberty and Education." The rest is red, with America's Southern and Heartland states united into the "Republic of Jesusland" or tagged with a nasty name beginning with "dumb" and ending with "istan" that cannot be used in a family newspaper.

Variations on the "Jesusland" map have been relevant after nearly every national election in the past two decades. The map's basic shape can also be seen in the latest Gallup survey probing "religiosity" levels in all 50 American states.

Once again, Gallup found that Mississippi was No. 1, with 59 percent of its people claiming "very religious" status, in terms of faith intensity and worship attendance. Vermont was the least religious state, even in the secular New England region, with 21 percent of the population choosing the "very religious" label.

"You can see the 'R&R' connection, which means that -- among white Americans -- the more actively people practice their religion, the more likely they are to vote Republican," said Frank Newport, editor in chief at Gallup.

After Mississippi, the rest of the Top 10 "most religious" states were Alabama, Utah, South Dakota, South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia. After Vermont, the next nine least religious states were Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Nevada, Alaska, Oregon, Connecticut, Hawaii and New Hampshire.

"Religion isn't always a perfect guide to politics at the state level," said Newport, reached by telephone. "After all, New Hampshire is a swing state and Alaska is just its own thing."

Nevertheless, a reporter with decades of religion-beat experience took these Gallup numbers to the next level, overlapping them with state results in the hard-fought 2016 campaign. In terms of the "pew gap" phenomenon, there are few surprises.

"President Trump won 23 of the 25 most religious states, the exceptions being No. 19 Virginia, whose pious Senator Tim Kaine was on the Democratic ticket, and heavily Hispanic New Mexico at No. 21," noted Richard Ostling, best known for his work with Time and the Associated Press. He is also one of my GetReligion.org colleagues.

"Hillary Clinton carried nine of the 10 most 'nonreligious' states. Tops was Bernie Sanders' Vermont," he noted. Meanwhile, Trump did take Alaska, while New Hampshire was "closely fought." Two other highly secular states, New York and California, "accounted for Clinton's popular vote margin."

All of this, Ostling explained, leads to an obvious Electoral College question: "Where and how might the troubled Democrats improve their prospects?"

Any search for answers starts with Catholics in pivotal Rust Belt states. Take Wisconsin, where the "citizenry identifies as 25 percent Catholic (and 22 percent evangelical Protestant) but is a modest No. 27 on Gallup's state religiosity ranking, which by conventional rule of thumb should help Democrats," noted Ostling, reached by email.

Similar trends exist in Pennsylvania, where the "population identifies as 24 percent Catholic (and only 19 percent evangelical), with a middling No. 25 on religiosity" and Michigan, where the "population is only 18 percent Catholic but 25 percent evangelical, with a rather weak No. 29 on religiosity."

Newport stressed that researchers are very familiar with all of these religiosity patterns, in part because they have changed so little in recent decades. While media coverage in recent years has stressed the rapidly rising number of "religiously unaffiliated" Americans -- the so-called "Nones" -- it is also important, especially at the state level, to note how little has changed on the other side of the faith spectrum.

The history and culture of these highly religious states will not change quickly or easily.

"In Mississippi, everybody goes to church more often than in Vermont," said Newport. "It's not just that there are more Baptists there or more African-American churchgoers there. More people go to church because there are more churches and more people there go to church. … 

"You go to Vermont and it's hard to find churches and hard to find people who go to church. We are talking about very different kinds of cultures."

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Complex facts on persecution hiding behind that Muslim Ban hashtag

Monday, February 13, 2017

The late 1980s were dark times for Jews trying to flee persecution in the fading Soviet Union.

Finally, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) acted, adding language to a massive 1990 appropriations bill to offer special assistance to refugees in persecuted religious minorities. Year after year, the Lautenberg amendment has been extended to provide a lifeline to Jews, Baha'is, Christians and others fleeing persecution in Iran, the former Soviet bloc and parts of Asia.

"There's nothing new about the United States taking religion into account when it's clear that refugees are part of persecuted minority groups," said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. He also teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

"Tragically, religion is part of the refugee crises we see around the world right now and that certainly includes what's happening in Syria and Iraq."

Thus, Tadros and a few other religious-freedom activists paid close attention -- during the #MuslimBan firestorm surrounding President Donald Trump's first actions on immigration -- when they saw language in the executive order that was more nuanced than the fiery rhetoric in the headlines.

In social media, critics were framing everything in reaction to this blunt presidential tweet: "Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!" Trump also told the Christian Broadcasting Network: "If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States. … If you were a Muslim, you could come in."

However, the wording of the executive order proposed a different agenda, stating that the "Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

The New York Times, however, summarized this part of the order by saying it "gives preferential treatment to Christians who try to enter the United States from majority-Muslim nations."

The hottest debates, of course, focused on seven Muslim-majority lands -- Syria, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen -- designated as "countries of concern" by Obama administration security experts.

It's crucial that while Christians face brutal oppression in those lands they are not the only minorities being targeted, said Tadros, in a telephone interview. Anyone who has followed the chaos unleashed by the Islamic State and other jihadist groups has seen reports about the persecution facing Yazidis, Alawites, Baha'is, Druze and believers in other faiths, as well as the region's ancient Christian communities. Shia Muslims often face persecution by majority Sunni Muslims.

During the previous administration, Secretary of State John Kerry used the strongest possible language under international law to describe this crisis. In March, 2016, he told reporters that "Daesh" -- the Arabic term for the Islamic State -- is "responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shi'ite Muslims. … Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions, in what it says, in what it believes and what it does."

However, refugees from religious groups facing extermination have few options when looking at the map. Can Yazidis -- called "devil worshippers" by radical Muslims -- flee into other Muslim lands? Are Assyrians safe in Kurdish territories? Can Christians flee into Turkey, which continues to oppress its own ancient Christian community? Can devastated minority-faith families return to the burned-out shells of their Nineveh Plain homes?

Meanwhile, noted Tadros, believers in all of these religious minorities face persecution in the very United Nations refugee camps in which they are forced to survive in order to climb the bureaucratic ladder toward approval for immigration.

"These camps are a reflection of the cultures that surround them," he said. "The hatreds and divisions inside these communities do not simply disappear when these people become refugees and head into these camps. …

"Look at it this way: Can you afford to go to church on Sunday morning in a refugee camp when you know that doing this will identify you as a Christian and place the lives of your children at risk?"

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Quran in the cathedral: A symbolic window into soul of multicultural England

Monday, February 6, 2017

In Christian tradition, the Epiphany feast marks the end of the 12-day Christmas season and celebrates the revelation -- to the whole world -- that Jesus is the Son of God.

Thus, it was highly symbolic when a Muslim participating in an Epiphany rite at St. Mary's (Episcopal) Cathedral in Glasgow, Scotland, chanted verses from the Quran, Surah 19, in which the infant Jesus proclaims:

"Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He hath given me the Scripture and hath appointed me a Prophet. … Peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!" The text then adds: "Such was Jesus, son of Mary: a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt. It befitteth not Allah that He should take unto Himself a son."

Cathedral leaders took to social media to hail this as a lovely moment. But in the Church of England, one of the chaplains of Queen Elizabeth II was dismayed by what many would consider an act of blasphemy -- a reading of this clear Islamic denial of Jesus being the Son of God.

The Glasgow rite was justified as "a way of building bridges and a way of educating people," the Rev. Gavin Ashenden told the BBC.

Nevertheless, he argued that it was wrong to insert such a reading into "the Holy Eucharist and particularly a Eucharist whose main intention is to celebrate Christ the word made flesh come into the world. … To choose the reading they chose doubled the error. Of all passages you might have read likely to cause offence, that was one of the most problematic."

After hearing from Buckingham Palace, Ashenden resigned as one the queen's chaplains. Thus, he surrendered his unique status in a land in which the Church of England has been weakened by almost every cultural trend, yet retains a unique niche in the national psyche.

This was, Ashenden said, a matter of personal principle and ancient doctrine. He also noted that he asked cathedral leaders to apologize because "I think Western clergy in their comfort have responsibility towards other Christians who suffer for their faith. That's part of being the body of Christ."

That kind of language can get a priest in trouble in today's multicultural England.

"They might have pushed me. They didn't. But we agreed that the things that I wanted to say, about the Gospel, about the faith, were becoming sources of embarrassment to the establishment," he said, in a recent "Anglican Unscripted" podcast.

"It's not easy for people outside England to understand that the queen is not just a person, she's an idea. … She is an office. So, behind the office, you have bureaucrats and the bureaucrats have views. The bureaucrats can be leant on by other bureaucrats in other palaces or offices. So the bureaucrats were getting increasingly uncomfortable, and not just with this issue of the Quran being read in the cathedral."

If anything, he said, this collision with Islam's rising presence in the United Kingdom and Europe is a sign that doctrinal traditionalists now face challenges on issues other than marriage, family and sexuality. In this case, it's telling that a public defense of the Incarnation of Jesus as Son of God -- a statement of faith at the heart of creedal Christianity -- created so much public controversy.

Reached by email, Ashenden said he understands that this kind of doctrinal clash may seem picky and unimportant to the growing number of unbelievers in this secular age in Western culture. But doctrine matters to traditional Christians and Muslims who do not believe all religions are the same. It would have been impossible, he noted, to read a biblical passage about the divinity of Jesus during Friday prayers in a major British mosque.

Yes, public battles over sexuality make bigger headlines. Nevertheless, Ashenden said that this Epiphany dispute -- as a "creedal issue" pitting the Quran against the Gospels -- was important. It offered a revealing window into larger disputes in which advocates of "relativism and syncretism" are colliding with the "objectivity of Christian claims about the Universe and God," he said.

 "Our culture doesn't like objective differences," he said. "They require people to make choices. … That is embarrassing."

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