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Wars down under: Sacking of rugby star ignites debates on religion, free speech, sex and race

Wars down under: Sacking of rugby star ignites debates on religion, free speech, sex and race

Rugby fans in Australia were getting used to superstar Israel Folau talking about his evangelical faith.

Then he posted a warning from St. Paul, from his Epistle to the Galatians: "Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God."

For Rugby Australia officials, the problem was that Folau jammed that into Instagram lingo: "WARNING. Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters. HELL AWAITS YOU! Repent!" Folau added: "Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him."

A Code of Conduct Tribunal in May determined that Folau had violated this Rugby Union Players Association rule: "Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby."

Folau was sacked, ending his new 4-year contract worth $4 million (Australian) dollars. This was not what fans wanted to hear with the Rugby World Cup looming in September.

The result was an Aussie firestorm about rugby, religious freedom, race, sexuality and free speech -- in roughly that order.

Former Wallabies coach Alan Jones took this shot, in the press, at Rugby Australia leaders: "They've destroyed his employment and internationally destroyed his name for quoting a passage from the bible for God's sake."

Rugby Australia Chief Executive Officer Raelene Castle released this statement: "I've communicated directly with the players to make it clear that Rugby Australia fully supports their right to their own beliefs and nothing that has happened changes that. But when we are talking about inclusiveness in our game, we're talking about respecting differences as well. When we say rugby is a game for all, we mean it."

But there's the rub, according to many Australians. By firing Folau for alleged hate speech, rugby's principalities and powers may have attacked his "religious background," as well as his Polynesian heritage.

Doctrinal debates that define the divided United Methodists (Part II)

Doctrinal debates that define the divided United Methodists (Part II)

The word "conversion" has been at the heart of Christianity for two millennia, with missionaries and evangelists urging sinners to repent and change their wicked ways.

Jesus also needed to be converted from his "bigotries and prejudices," according to Bishop Karen Oliveto, who leads the United Methodist Church's Mountain Sky region. Consider the New Testament passage in which Jesus seems to rebuke a Canaanite woman who seeks healing for her daughter. The woman persists and, seeing her faith, Jesus performs the miracle.

"Jesus, Jesus, what is up with you? … Too many folks want to box Jesus in, carve him in stone, create an idol out of him," wrote Oliveto, in a 2017 online essay that was later taken down. "The wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting one, prince of peace, was as human as you and me. … We might think of him as the Rock of Ages, but he was more like a hunk of clay, forming and reforming himself in relation to God."

In this case, Jesus changed his mind, noted Oliveto, who is the first openly lesbian United Methodist bishop and is married to a deaconess. The global United Methodist Church has repeatedly affirmed its Book of Discipline bans on same-sex marriages and the ordination of "self-avowed practicing" LGBTQ clergy.

 Jesus, she added, "is meant to be a boundary crosser, and in the crossing over, reveals bigotry and oppression for what they are: human constructs that keep all of us from being whole. … If Jesus can change, if he can give up his bigotries and prejudices, if he can realize that he had made his life too small, and if, in this realization, he grew closer to others and closer to God, then so can we."

This doctrinal approach inspires many in the UMC's Western Jurisdiction, a vast expanse stretching from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean. While this region's population has soared in recent decades, 2017 reports found only 295,308 United Methodists. The Southeast Jurisdiction, meanwhile, reported 2,668,806 members.

While 40 years of fighting over sexuality have grabbed headlines, a recent online survey by United Methodist Communications and Research NOW suggested that these fights have been signs of deeper doctrinal cracks in what is now a global flock.

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" -- to both.

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Early in the Iraq war, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana took part in a congressional fact-finding trip to meet with U.S. troops.

Some of the lessons he learned during his first trip to that troubled land had more to do with religion than with warfare. While meeting with local officials, for example, Pence watched the local imam rush to embrace a friend -- the Catholic bishop in southern Iraq. A translator said the imam thanked the bishop for staying in touch after the recent death of his mother.

That was enlightening, said Vice President Pence, during the recent "Help the Persecuted" summit in Washington, D.C. But he also learned a crucial fact that day. 

"I turned to the diplomatic aide who was with me," Pence recalled, "and said, 'So there's a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'Yes, yes there is.' And I said, 'How long has there been a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'About 1,500 years.' "

That's a sobering fact, since Iraq's Christian population has fallen 80 percent since that 2004 meeting, said Pence. The Christian population of Syria has fallen 50 percent in the past six years.

"As you all know, no people of faith face greater hostility or hatred than followers of Christ," said the vice president. "In more than 100 nations, spread to every corner of the world … over 245 million Christians confront intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion, abuse, assault or worse."

Nohere is this onslaught more evident than in the "ancient land where Christianity was born," he added. "In Egypt we see the bombing of churches during Palm Sunday celebrations. In Iraq we see monasteries demolished, priests and monks beheaded and the two-millennia-old Christian tradition in Mosul clinging for survival. In Syria, we see ancient communities burned to the ground and believers tortured for confessing the name of Christ. … Christianity now faces an exodus in the Middle East unrivaled since the days of Moses."

Pence has made similar remarks before, but these statements rarely gain traction outside the world of Christian media. The problem is that the words "religious persecution" -- especially when linked to suffering Christians -- remain controversial among some public officials and journalists.

In Britain, for example, immigration officials ruled against the asylum claim of an Iranian national who had converted to Christianity. Here's what made headlines: The Home Office backed this action with claims that Christianity is not a religion of peace, quoting Leviticus 26:7 ("Ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword") and the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:24 ("Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword").

Meanwhile, the Christian Broadcasting Network and other conservative groups have noted, in recent weeks, the deaths of an estimated 120 Christians in central Nigeria.

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

For more than 30 years, the Reconciling Ministries Network has openly opposed United Methodist teachings that marriage is the "union of one man and one woman" and that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Now, a special meeting of their denomination's General Conference has affirmed those doctrines and passed laws requiring clergy to follow them -- even in sanctuaries in which they have long been ignored.

Reconciling Ministries leaders were blunt: "The Traditionalist Plan was passed by the efforts of organized opponents to gospel inclusion who … have dared to call out a white nationalist strain of Christianity."

Leaders in Africa's booming United Methodist churches -- key players in efforts to defend ancient doctrines on marriage and sex -- find it "farfetched" to link them to white nationalism, said the Rev. Jerry P. Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia.

It's understandable that many United Methodists are "angry, bitter, discouraged and frustrated," said Kulah, after the St. Louis conference. After all, they invested years of money and work to pass the One Church Plan favored by most bishops, UMC agencies and academic leaders. It would have removed current Book of Discipline teachings on homosexuality and allowed local and regional leaders to settle controversial marriage and ordination issues.

Kulah said United Methodists in Africa and the Global South believe they have centuries of church history on their side.

"For us it is a foregone conclusion that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman -- as taught throughout scripture and as the missionaries from America and Europe taught our parents -- not between two persons of the same sex," he said. "No argument. No compromise."

At the heart of this clash is evolving United Methodist math. Unlike other Protestant bodies, the UMC is truly global, with 12.5 million members worldwide -- a number that is growing. However, there are only 6.9 million in the United States, where key statistics are declining -- especially in the more liberal North and West.

The more converts, the more members, the more votes in General Conference.

The Vatican sexual-abuse summit: Sister Veronica of Nigeria faces the men in black

The Vatican sexual-abuse summit: Sister Veronica of Nigeria faces the men in black

At the end of the movie "Spotlight," the screen went black before a message appeared noting that The Boston Globe's investigative reporting team published nearly 600 stories, in 2002 alone, about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

 The next screen noted, "249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese."

 But there was more. The first time Sister Veronica Openibo of Nigeria saw this film -- which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016 -- she was stunned to see four screens packed with the names of 223 American dioceses and nations in which major abuse scandals had been uncovered.

 "Tears of sorrow flowed," she said, speaking at the Vatican's global summit on clergy sexual abuse. "How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable."

Didn't any of these priests and bishops, she asked, go to confession? Didn't they wrestle with their sins while talking with the spiritual directors who guide their lives? Later, she went further, asking why these clergy were allowed to remain in ministry after committing these atrocities. Why weren't they defrocked?

"We proclaim the Ten Commandments and parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards, values and good behavior in society," said Openibo, who on several occasions turned to speak to Pope Francis, seated nearby. She is the first African to lead the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and one of three women who addressed the nearly 200 bishops at the recent summit. Openibo was the only person from Africa's booming churches chosen to speak.

"Hypocrites at times? Yes," she asked. "Why did we keep silent for so long? How can we turn this around for a time to evangelize, catechize and educate all the members of the church, including clergy and religious? Is it true that most bishops did nothing about the sexual abuse of children? Some did and some did not, out of fear or cover-up."

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

After one trip into Libya as a migrant worker, Tawadros Youssef Tawadros reported that he had been warned that his Christian name -- "Theodore," in English -- might anger Muslim radicals.

His widow, Maleka Ayad, recalled him saying: "Anyone who starts changing his name will end up changing his faith."

Malak Ibrahim Seniut was more blunt, in a final talk with his priest. Told that Christians could be witnesses by living a long, faithful life, the young man replied: "That's not enough for me. I want to do it through death."

On Feb. 15, 2015, both were among the men beheaded by Islamic State soldiers on a beach in Libya. All 21 -- 20 Egyptian Copts and a Ghanan who professed his Christian faith -- were soon declared martyrs by the Coptic Orthodox Church. This is the latest chapter in a long drama, detailed by writer Martin Mosebach, of the German Academy of Arts.

"The Coptic Church, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist, is among the earliest manifestations of Christianity. In 1,400 years of suppression after the Islamic conquest, it has still preserved its original form and it has proven to have the most amazing vitality," he said, at an event this week in New York City, marking the release of the English edition of his book, "The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs."

"The faith found in this church was and is stronger than all of the economic and social disadvantages Christians have to suffer. The Coptic Church has never been broken by political oppression. The Christianity of the first millennium is still to be found there and is … a living reality."

After immersing himself in the village culture surrounding these new saints, the Catholic author reached this conclusion: For these men, liturgy and martyrdom were "two sides of one and the same coin."

There was something truly iconic about those 21 men in orange jumpsuits kneeling on that beach, said Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London.

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Once again, Coptic Christians faced bloody bodies in the sands of Egypt, as terrorists killed seven pilgrims who had just prayed at the Monastery of St. Samuel.

No one was surprised when the Islamic State took credit for that November attack south of Cairo. After all, 28 pilgrims were massacred near the same spot in 2017.

In Syria, Orthodox believers marked the fifth anniversary of the kidnapping of Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church -- who were trying to negotiate the release of priests seized weeks earlier. Today, their followers know less about the identity of the attackers than they did in 2013.

In the Nineveh plains of Iraq, Christians slowly returned to communities in which their ancestors had worshipped since the first century after Christ. Zero Christians remained in Mosul after ISIS demanded that they convert to Islam or pay the jizya head tax, while living with brutal persecution.

But nothing remained of the 1400-year-old Dair Mar-Elia (Saint Elijah's Monastery), after invaders blew it up twice and then bulldozed the rubble.

Try to imagine the faith it requires for believers to carry on after all this has taken place, said the Prince of Wales, speaking at a Westminster Abbey service last month celebrating the lives of Christians who endure persecution in the Middle East.

"Time and again I have been deeply humbled and profoundly moved by the extraordinary grace and capacity for forgiveness that I have seen in those who have suffered so much," said Prince Charles, who has worked to build contacts in the ancient Christian East.

"Forgiveness, as many of you know far better than I, is not a passive act, or submission. Rather, it is an act of supreme courage, of a refusal to be defined by the sin against you. … It is one thing to believe in God who forgives. It is quite another to take that example to heart and actually to forgive, with the whole heart, 'those who trespass against you' so grievously."

The persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East was not one of 2018's big news stories. Instead, this parade of horrors became a kind of "old news" that rarely reached the prime headlines offered by elite newsrooms.