Prayers for the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo, even if #BringBackOurBishops didn't go viral

Once again, the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo ventured into the dangerous maze of checkpoints manned by competing forces along Syria's border with Turkey.

The goal, three years ago, was for Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church to help negotiate the release of two priests who had been kidnapped weeks earlier. Then, west of Aleppo, a pack of unidentified armed men attacked.

The bishops' driver was killed in the gunfire. A fourth passenger escaped and then testified -- consistent with other reports -- that the kidnappers did not speak Arabic and appeared to from Chechnya.

The bishops simply vanished. According to a new World Council of Arameans report: "No one has ever claimed responsibility for the abduction, neither has there been a clear sign of life of the bishops since April 22, 2013." Later reports were "all based on unverified rumors, hearsay and false reports which often contradicted each other."

This kidnapping never inspired global news coverage. For some reason, tweeting out #BringBackOurBishops never caught on with hashtag activists inside the Washington Beltway or in Hollywood.

But millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians -- especially those with Syrian and Lebanese roots -- are still praying for the bishops of Aleppo. These prayers escalated with the three-year anniversary of the kidnappings and then, this week, with the sobering rites of Holy Week leading to Good Friday, Holy Saturday and, finally, Pascha -- Easter ...

It's tragic that religious liberty has suddenly turned into something scary

NEW YORK -- Early in his career in Congress, Democrat Tony Hall of Ohio had his politics worked out, but he wasn't sure how to combine them with the convictions of his Christian faith.

Then he took an official research trip to Ethiopia during the great famines of the early 1980s and these two powerful forces in his life came crashing together.

"I saw 25 children die one morning. As I walked among these people, mothers were handing me their dead children, thinking that I was a doctor and that I could actually fix them, take care of them. I was stunned," said Hall.

"I came home from that experience -- seeing death. I had seen so many people die. I thought, this is a way that I can bring God into my work place and not have to preach."

About that time, Hall formed a friendship -- one rooted in decades of weekly "prayer partner" meetings -- with another member of Congress who was equally committed to defending human rights. Together, Hall and Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia excelled as a bipartisan team focusing on poverty, hunger and religious freedom.

They're still working together, even though Wolf left the House of Representatives in 2014. He currently holds the Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at Baylor University. Hall left Congress in 2002, when President George W. Bush asked him to serve for several years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on food and agriculture issues. Ambassador Hall has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

Both men agreed that it would be harder for this kind of bipartisan, faith-centered friendship to flourish today, in an era in which the levels of anger and distrust on display in Washington, D.C., have reached toxic levels.

To make matters worse, said Wolf, it has become harder to defend basic human rights when they are linked to faith, because "religious liberty" has turned into a dangerous term in public life, one consistently framed in quotation marks in mainstream news reports -- implying that it has become tainted.

Pope Francis and the shipwreck that is marriage in the modern world

Imagine that there is an active Catholic layman named "Bob" and that his complicated life has included a divorce or two.

But there is no one person named "Bob." Instead, there are legions of Catholics whose lives resemble this case study described by Father Dwight Longenecker in an online essay responding to "Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family)," a 60,000-word apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis.

The fictional Bob is a 1960s survivor and he has "lived that way." His first wedding was on a beach, after he and his lover got high and also got pregnant. Years later Bob married a rich older woman. Years after that he became a Christian in an evangelical flock, where he met Susan -- a lapsed Catholic.

This is where things get complicated.

Bob and Susan "married outside the church, but then Susan rediscovered her Catholic faith and she and Bob started going to Mass," wrote Longenecker. Then Bob converted to Catholicism in a liberal parish "where the priest waved a hand and said he didn't need to worry about 'all that annulment stuff.'

"So Bob became a Catholic and now 20 years later, he and Susan have six kids, a great marriage and are active members in the parish." After a chat with a new priest they discovered that, under church law, they were living in "an irregular relationship. Bob's second wife -- the elderly widow -- was dead, but he reckoned his first wife (the hippie who was married to him for less than a year) was still living somewhere, but Bob has no idea where she might be."

What's a priest supposed to do?

Year 28 -- The crux of religion-news coverage in a digital marketplace

No one is surprised when The Wall Street Journal covers Wall Street, Disney releases a princess movie or Apple creates another wonder framed in aluminum.

Some professionals just do what they do. Thus, anyone who follows religion news knew that The Boston Globe's Crux website, which debuted 18 months ago, was going to be bookmarked by legions of Catholic-news junkies. Reporter John L. Allen, Jr., was going to do that thing that he does.

Alas, as so often happens, an online journalism project that drew millions of computer-mouse clicks failed to generate the stream of advertising revenue Globe executives needed to keep the cyber-doors open. This has led to a partnership -- raising many Catholic eyebrows -- between Allen and the Knights of Columbus, producing a "Crux 2.0," which opened on April 1.

This kind of union is becoming increasingly common. The goal is to marry a commitment to real journalism with financial support from a cooperative nonprofit group.

For this to work, the "people on the other side of the deal have to believe in what you are doing and see the wisdom of becoming part of your brand," said Allen, reached by telephone in Rome. "Your partners also have to be smart enough to realize that a key part of your brand is that you are seen -- by your readers -- as being truly independent."

The Crux project is crucial to anyone who cares about the future of journalism and, especially, quality reporting on specialty news topics like religion. That certainly includes me, after decades of work in this field. That includes, as of this week, 28 years writing this syndicated "On Religion" column.

Those who follow Catholic news know that Crux is not Allen's first journalism rodeo.

United Methodist vows, the Sexual Revolution and the fragile doctrinal ties that bind

United Methodist vows, the Sexual Revolution and the fragile doctrinal ties that bind

When the United Methodist Church ordains ministers, the rite includes the kind of vow that religious groups have long used to underline the ties that bind.

In this case, the candidate for ordination is asked to accept the church's "order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?"

The candidate replies: "I will, with the help of God."

These vows may create problems for some clergy -- as noted in a remarkably blunt letter published recently by the independent Methodist Federation for Social Action. The context was the U.S. Supreme Court debate about a Health and Human Services mandate that requires most religious institutions to offer employees health insurance covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives.

Currently, actual churches and denominations are exempt. And there's the rub, for the letter's anonymous author.

"I chose to go on birth control because I didn't want to get pregnant and I wanted to have sex. Because I am a clergywoman in The United Methodist Church, and I'm single, that information could get me brought up on charges, and I could lose my ordination," she wrote.

Mother Teresa's private battles on the long path to sainthood

While no one knew it at the time, 1951 was a pivotal year for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the start of a private battle for the tiny nun millions hailed as a living saint.

"When we talk about Mother Teresa we celebrate her victories and all the good works she accomplished in her life. But what did this victor have to overcome? That's an important question," said journalist Kenneth Woodward, author of "Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why."

"We often miss this spiritual warfare component in the lives of the saints, that whole element of struggle and grace. … With Mother Teresa, this just has to be there or her story is not complete."

It was in 1928 that 18-year-old Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu left her family in Macedonia to join the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto, first working as a teacher in Calcutta.

Then, on Sept. 10, 1946, Sister Mary Teresa experienced a vision of Jesus calling her to move into the slums while serving the poorest of the poor. After this "call within a call" she created the Missionaries of Charity, beginning the work that produced waves of support for the Vatican to proclaim her a saint -- which will occur in rites on Sept. 4, the eve of the anniversary of her death on Sept. 5, 1997.

But another story was unfolding that remained a secret for decades.

It was in 1951 that Mother Teresa prayed that she be allowed to share the pain and loneliness that Jesus suffered on the cross. Her private letters made it stunningly clear that this prayer was granted. Her visions stopped, replaced by silence.

Historic fault lines emerging in evangelical camps in American politics

This hasn't been a run-of-the-mill academic year for Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Everett Piper. 

In December, he made news when he addressed the concerns of a student who told him that a chapel sermon "made him feel bad." 

"Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a 'safe place,' but rather, a place to learn," noted Piper, writing online. "This is not a day care. This is a university."

Weeks later, he was a symbolic guest at President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address. Republicans welcomed Piper because his school is part of the U.S. Supreme Court fight about the Health and Human Services mandate requiring many Christian institutions to cooperate with health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives.

Now, in response to press inquiries, Piper has made it perfectly clear -- in a post called "Trumping Morality" -- that there is one thing Oklahoma Wesleyan will not do that would make headlines. 

"Anyone who calls women 'pigs,' 'ugly,' 'fat' and 'pieces of a - -' is not on my side," he wrote. "Anyone who mocks the handicapped is not on my side. Anyone who has argued the merits of a government takeover of banks, student loans, the auto industry and healthcare is not on my side. Anyone who has been on the cover of Playboy and proud of it, who brags of his sexual history with multiple women and who owns strip clubs in his casinos is not on my side. … Anyone who ignores the separation of powers and boasts of making the executive branch even more imperial is not on my side." 

Piper concluded: "No, Donald Trump will not be speaking at Oklahoma Wesleyan University." 

'The Young Messiah' -- A new/old Bible movie that tries to stay orthodox

Ages ago, there was nothing unusual about Hollywood producing epics based on Bible stories.

In the so-called Golden Age, these movies had titles like "King of Kings," "The Ten Commandments," "The Robe," "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "Barabbas." At least one -- "Ben-Hur" -- was a character-driven classic that helped shape blockbusters for decades to come.

"I have watched them all. … No one called them 'Bible movies' back then or considered them strange. They were big movies about big stories and the big studios knew that lots of people wanted to see them," said Cyrus Nowrasteh. He is the director and co-writer, with his wife, Betsy, of "The Young Messiah" from Focus Features, which hits theaters this weekend.

"These movies went away for a long time … Then there was 'The Passion.' "

Nowrasteh was, of course, talking about "The Passion of the Christ" -- Mel Gibson's 2004 blockbuster that rang up $611,899,420 at the global box office. Hollywood's principalities and powers have been trying, ever since, to find the magic formula that will reach that same audience.

That's a challenge. Just ask the creators of "Noah" and "Exodus: Gods and Men."

Good news or bad news, these days, for the church in China?

Pope Francis didn't make global headlines on Aug. 14, 2014, when -- with permission from Communist Party leaders -- Shepherd One flew through Chinese airspace on the way to Seoul, South Korea.

Still, it was a symbolic moment that hinted at progress, after decades of bitter persecution for Chinese Catholics loyal to the Vatican. Then, a year later, Bishop Zhang Yinlin was ordained as bishop of Anyang, after nods of approval from both Rome and Beijing.

So things are looking up for religious freedom in China?

If so, what did it mean when the Rev. Gu Yuese -- leader of the largest Protestant megachurch in China's state-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement -- was recently jailed after opposing the government's demolition of thousands of crosses in "China's Jerusalem," part of Zhejiang province.

"There may be all kinds of reasons they arrested him, other than that he is famous and his church is huge. It's hard to know what's happening, when you're talking about the Chinese government," said Rodney Stark, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the author or co-author of 36 books on various religious issues, past and present, including "A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China," with sociologist Xiuhua Wang.

"We can say that we haven't seen the Nero effect yet, with the government putting heat on Christians because China's economic numbers are looking bad. … Also, it's important to remember that we've reached the point where many leaders in China now have kids who are Christians. In some villages, you may have a Communist Party leader with a cross on his wall."

The bottom line: There is truth in the popular saying that China is so huge and complex that just about anything someone says about religion in China will be true -- somewhere in China.

At the same time, it's crucial to understand that human-rights trends among the 1.38 billion people in China, even among minority groups, will have a major impact on world affairs.