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Religious conflicts, patriotism dominate newscomment (0)

January 2, 2003

By Jennifer Davis Rash and Sue Ann Miller


Religion and a renewed sense of patriotism topped the news in 2002. From the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal to the fighting between religious extremists in Israel and Palestine, Americans learned much about the differences between faith groups.

Americans also experienced heightened patriotism resulting from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as well as facing the possibility of war with Iraq.

But amid it all the Catholic church garnered the most headlines.

In fact, the Religion Newswriters Association named Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston the top religion newsmaker of the year. He was the overwhelming choice for top religion newsmaker of 2002 after he resigned following almost a year of controversy over clergy sexual abuse. The abuse scandal that shook the Catholic Church was also named the top news story of the year.

And the American Catholic heirarchy was given the association’s “Into the Darkness Award,” a designation given from time to time to organizations or individuals that try to hide information from the public and the media.

Ranking number three on the list was the controversy growing amid increasing criticism of Islam by some evangelicals, as Franklin Graham calls the faith “an evil and wicked” religion and former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president Jerry Vines refers to the Prophet Mohammad as a “demon-possessed pedophile.”

The precedent of conflict between Muslims and Christians continued to breed around the world in 2002. Evidence of these acts of violence were blatantly obvious in countries such as Nigeria where Muslim extremists made incessant attacks on Christian churches in the city of Lagos. And in Nigeria’s capital city of Gusau, Muslim officials forcefully assumed control of a convent belonging to the Nigerian Catholic Church.

The Religion Newsmakers Association also said the conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian military was among top news stories.

Ranking number nine was Palestinian gunmen taking refuge in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, leading to a 39-day siege by the Israeli military. Suicide bombings, killings and other violence continue to spread fear throughout Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Americans also debated the issue of “just war,” as President George Bush contemplated and threatened a war against Iraq.

During an October presentation at Samford University Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, discussed the topic of “War Iraq and God.” He pointed out that Hussein had built himself six palaces and built up weapons of mass destruction while the Iraqi people went without basic necessities.

“Deterrents don’t work against people who don’t care whether their country is destroyed — or they are destroyed — if they can destroy you,” Land said. “He [Hussein] is more than willing to take his whole world down with him. Preemption is the only way,” Land stated.

Still, amid the religious controversies happening worldwide, Southern Baptists maintained their own family squabble.

In January of 2002, Jerry Rankin, president of the SBC International Mission Board (IMB), requested that all missionaries affirm the 2000 version of the Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M). Initially indicating the request was simply to demonstrate all missionaries serving overseas are in total compliance with the current teachings and convictions of Southern Baptists, Rankin said he believed the request would be filled by all missionaries immediately.

Tensions escalate

However, when 100 percent of missionaries did not sign an affirmation immediately, tensions over the issue heightened and officials were sent to talk with those who had not signed.

By the end of the year, it was stated that any missionary refusing to affirm the 2000 version of the BF&M would not be allowed to return to the field. More than 99 percent of the missionaries had affirmed the document by the end of the year, but a handful were holding out.

IMB officials said they had not planned to fire anyone but also were not planning to allow any missionary to serve without signing.

Several missionaries, including at least two Alabama Baptists, resigned during the course of the year, indicating the BF&M issue as one reason for their resignation.

Another Alabama couple, Rick and Nancy Dill, made national headlines when they refused to sign but also refused to resign.

At the end of the year, the Dills, who were serving on stateside assignment in Arkansas, said they planned to go back to their missions field in Germany with or without IMB funding. The indication was that the Dills would remain on the IMB payroll until their stateside assignment ended in May. Then, if they still refused to affirm the BF&M, they would be terminated.

Two other Alabama Baptists also felt repercussions from the BF&M when they were denied approval for missions field.

Don and Esther Gardner, members of Birmingham’s Baptist Church of the Covenant, applied for appointment with the IMB’s International Service Corps as part of their retirement plans. They were denied appointment, however, because their church appointed a woman pastor, Sarah Shelton, in August.

IMB officials noted that the theological issue of supporting a woman pastor, which is addressed in the BF&M, was a key issue in the board’s decision not to appoint the Gardners.

Other news making headlines during 2002 included:

ZThe June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court stating that the new federal education-choice program, ‘No Child Left Behind,’ allowed for the use of vouchers at religious schools.

ZThe controversy over the constituionality of the Pledge of Allegiance was another issue.

The controversy was generated by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that declared the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional. The ruling came in a case brought by a California father upset that his daughter’s second grade class recited the historic pledge, which included the belatedly added words “under God.”

ZPrayer also became a much talked about topic in 2002 triggered by 9/11.

For example, in February, while attending the 50th annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., President Bush told a packed room that he had been comforted by the prayers of the American people for him and his family during the national crisis.

“They [Americans] have prayed for comfort in a time of grief; for understanding in a time of anger; for protection in a time of uncertainty. Many, including me, have been on bended knee,” he said during the 10-minute speech.

ZAnd in December, Bush announced at a conference of 1,800 leaders of faith-based and community groups in Philadelphia, that he was expanding his inititive supporting federal funding of faith-based and community organizations.

He signed an executive order on Dec. 12 calling for equal treatment of religious organizations in the funding process and created offices in two more federal departments to further links between the government and social service groups.                                

(RNS contributed)

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