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Archived News & OP EDs

Sunday, December 30, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

African pastor fathers child with daughter

The girl who was allegedly raped and impregnated by her own father dreams of going back to school and would like to see her daddy punished.

Lucia (real name withheld), 17, says she was raped by her father, Herbert Bugembe of Mutungo, in Kenya last year. She delivered a baby boy on June 17 but her father has reneged on his written commitment to provide for both children. (See, 'Pastor rapes, impregnates his daughter'; The Weekly Observer, December 20-26).

In an interview last week, Bugembe denied the accusations. He charged that her daughter was being used by rival pastors happy to bring him down.

But The Weekly Observer has seen documents Bugembe signed admitting to being the father of her daughter's child. The matter was reported to CID headquarters in Kampala but the Police had taken no action by press time.

Speaking from her mother's home in Kayunga, Lucia said she was still struggling to reconcile with the man she first met as a father and the man who she says, later destroyed her future.

"I want him to be jailed because what he did to me was so bad...," she said of her father, a preacher with the now defunct Great Commission Christian Centre. "I am here suffering. He really destroyed my life. Yet he was the same person who used to tell me to take care of myself."

She said she would like to go back to school, or do a vocational course that can enable her earn a living.

If she had remained in school, Lucia said last week, she would now be in Senior Four. Breaking down in tears, Lucia reported how men in the neighbourhood taunted her about the fact that her father raped her and even fathered a child with her.

"I need help from God. My mother has many children and I do not want to be a burden to her. At least I wish God would help me master hair braiding so that I can support myself."

At Kayunga, Lucia lives in a rented room with her half-sisters, just next to another room occupied by her mother, tep father and the younger siblings. Her mother, a casual hair braider, says she is all Lucia has.

Lucia's step father, a boda boda motorcyclist, said he was shocked to learn what happened to the girl and advised to stay and share whatever little he can make for the family.

Her mother, Joyce, said: "Her education was on and off and yet she was a bright child". She shared her daughter's worry that the girl had become family-less, given that she would no longer fit in her father's family.

Lucia studied up to P.4 when she lived with her aunt at Nsambya. She then went to live with her father in Mutungo but that was when her father started showing his preying instincts and she never proceeded to P.6.

In 2006, her father paid fees at a vocational school in Kayunga but for only one term.

STORY LINK

Saturday, December 29, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Retired pastor sentenced to prison for molestation

A retired pastor from Canada was sentenced to three years in prison today after telling a McHenry County judge he was sexually harassed by the 4-year-old Lake in the Hills girl he pleaded guilty to molesting.

Kenneth R. Cooke, 73, appeared to have reasonable chance at a probation sentence given his age, health problems and lack of criminal history heading into his sentencing hearing this afternoon.

But the Calgary man who once headed his own ministry likely blew his chance of avoiding prison when he took the witness stand and painted his pre-school age victim as a sexual aggressor.

"On a couple of occasions I felt I was sexually harassed," Cooke said. "I think there is psychological evidence that children even in their younger years can become interested in sex."

He later said he did nothing inappropriate to the girl, but pleaded guilty two months ago to avoid putting his family through a trial.

Judge Joseph Condon responded harshly, telling Cooke his statements show that he has no remorse and is a threat to young children.

"That just boggles my mind," Condon said. "It is my opinion that you have a significant problem, and that other 4-year-olds have a significant problem (around you). What I'm about to do is necessary for the protection of the public."

Cooke pleaded guilty in October to one count of aggravated criminal sexual abuse stemming from allegations he fondled the girl in the summer of 2003 while he was visiting family in Lake in the Hills. The girl was not a family member.

Although indicted in January 2004, Cooke refused extradition back to the United States, setting up a 3 1/2-year legal battle than ended when a Canadian court in June denied his final appeal. Cooke surrendered to American authorities shortly after the ruling.

The girl's mother read a statement before Cooke's sentencing saying that both her daughter and her entire family continue to suffer as a result of the former preacher's actions. The girl, she said, has gotten into trouble at school for acting out sexually and has difficult making friends.

"She has stated on many occasions she is a bad person and wishes she had never been born," the girl's mother said. "You can't imagine how hard it is to hear that from your own child.

"This crime has been an emotional and psychological drain on my entire family and I don't see any end in sight for us."

County prosecutors had asked for the maximum seven-year sentence for Cooke, calling his remarks "disgusting and despicable."

"It's sickening and shows this court the defendant is not taking any responsibility for his actions," Assistant McHenry County State's Attorney Sharyl Eisenstein said.

Cooke likely will receive day-for-day credit while imprisoned, meaning he could receive parole in 18 months or less.

STORY LINK

Pastor indicted on sex charges

Simpson
Simpson

A Keller miniature train enthusiast and Church of Christ pastor accused of sexually abusing young children during parties at his home was indicted this week on 12 charges, authorities said.

Clinton Don Simpson, 65, has been free on bail since Dec. 19, after a judge reduced his total bail from $1.65 million to $305,000, said Alana Minton, chief prosecutor for the Tarrant County district attorney's office crimes against children unit.

As a condition of his bail, Simpson must wear an ankle monitor and is confined to his home except for approved outings, Minton said. He is also restricted from being around children, Minton said.

The charges

Simpson faces nine charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child by threat and three charges of indecency with a child by fondling, according to court records.

Aggravated sexual assault of a child is a first-degree felony punishable by up to life in prison and a $10,000 fine. Indecency with a child is a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Minton said the grand jury returned indictments on all the counts that prosecutors put before them.

Keller police had served Simpson with 17 arrest warrants in connection with 12 accusers.

Minton said that no further court dates have been set and that a trial is "a long way off."

Investigation background

Police began investigating Simpson on Oct. 7 after a 3-year-old girl said he touched her inappropriately during a birthday party at Mr. Don's Whistle Stop, a miniature train park he operated in his back yard.

Simpson, a semiretired minister and graphic artist, had built the trains, which ran on more than a quarter-mile of track through his back yard, including over a bridge and through a tunnel. The Whistle Stop was a favorite spot for children's parties for years.

At the beginning of the investigation, Simpson gave police a statement in which he admitted touching the girl and others, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

Simpson's attorney has said the statement was coerced and given after an "emotional breakdown." Simpson has spent time under suicide watch, the attorney said.

When word of the investigation surfaced, Keller police received more than 200 calls from concerned parents.

Specialists spent weeks interviewing more than two dozen children.

The cases that went forward were based on the word of 11 girls and one boy, all between 3 and 9 years old, police have said.

Civil litigation

In November, the parents of two sisters who accused Simpson filed a civil suit against him in Tarrant County District Court.

The family belonged to Haslet Church of Christ, where Simpson was pastor, the suit states.

Story LINK

Mega-church music minister arrested for incest

The music minister at the Heritage Christian Center was arrested Thursday after a 15-year-old relative accused him of sexually assaulting her, the Arapahoe County sheriff said.

James Howard Brown, 38, was arrested for investigation of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust, displaying a pattern of sexual assault on a child and aggravated incest.

He was being held under $50,000 bail. It was not immediately known if he had an attorney.

Sheriff J. Grayson Robinson said there was a disturbance at Brown’s home Thursday morning after the girl told relatives Brown had assaulted her, prompting Brown’s wife to call authorities.

"It doesn’t appear that there are other victims at this time, though we are still investigating," Robinson said.

Garret Leonard, executive pastor at Heritage Christian Center (and second son of the church's pastor, Bishop Dennis Leonard), said Brown has been relieved of his duties.

“We will assess the situation as more details become available. We will continue to pray for all parties involved in this situation,” Leonard said in a statement.

The Denver church has more than 10,000 members. Brown was the director of the church choir’s first album “Send It Down,” recorded in 2001.

STORY LINK

Friday, December 28, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Atheism - A belief in the here and now

Atheist Fernando Aguilar of Walla Walla reads extensively to learn about the world around him and believes it's possible to live a moral life without religion.

Atheist Fernando Aguilar of Walla Walla reads extensively to learn about the world around him and believes it's possible to live a moral life without religion. "Live your life the way you want other people to live. Enjoy family. Do something in the community that helps others. It's the community and family, to me, that are most important," he said.

When mortar shells were exploding near Fernando Aguilar in Iraq, he didn't pray to God for help.

He doesn't believe God exists. And his long-held conviction didn't change when he traveled to a war zone.

Aguilar, 55, of Walla Walla, is a civil engineer and his work has taken him to some of the most dangerous places in the world. He's been to Iraq twice and Afghanistan once since 2003, helping to build water systems, hospitals and schools.

He's also done relief work in Southeast Asia and volunteered in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

Using the skills he has to benefit others is part of the code Aguilar lives by.

He has a soft voice and he chooses his words with care. He's kind and he dotes on guests.

What We Believe
This week, the Herald is featuring a handful of men and women from different faith traditions as part of a seven-part series, "What We Believe."

Their stories are personal, but they speak to universal truths about faith, God and people in the Mid-Columbia and beyond.

Monday: A Kennewick woman discovers Buddhism in her 50s, and through it a way to connect spirituality to her daily life.

Tuesday: An act of kindness at Christmas helps a young Christian man from Pasco feel God's love.

Wednesday: A cooking teacher from Kennewick turns part of her kitchen into a shrine honoring the Hindu gods who've kept her safe.

Thursday: A Muslim teacher from Richland educates people about the faith he loves.

Today: A Walla Walla man who dodged mortar fire in Iraq says his atheism gives his life meaning.

Saturday: A Jewish woman from Kennewick feels close to God when she prays with her friends.

Atheism
Atheists believe that God doesn't exist.

An atheist is different from an agnostic, who believes it's impossible to know whether God exists.

Source: Religion Newswriters Association.

Aguilar and his longtime love, Yvonne Hall, share a house that's filled with colorful murals she's painted. One of them is of the couple dancing. Hall is wearing an orange dress and Aguilar is smiling.

She understands his beliefs about religion because she's atheist too.

Aguilar grew up in the Pacific Northwest and served as a Catholic altar boy. He can remember being puzzled by Holy Communion.

People told him the bread and wine transformed into Christ's body and blood. But to him, the bread still tasted like bread. The wine was still just wine.

He didn't see how anyone could ever walk on water.

Aguilar realized he was an atheist when he was 24.

He's not afraid to speak his mind when it comes to God. He believes people should be able to pray, read Scriptures and practice their faith. But he doesn't think religion belongs in courts or schools.

He's been active in the national American Atheists organization and once clashed with the Walla Walla City Council because members were starting the meetings with prayer. The council eventually went to having a moment of silence.

Aguilar says no two atheists hold exactly the same views because atheism isn't a belief system. It's simply a way of describing someone who doesn't believe there's a God.

For Aguilar, that's the only take that makes sense. He's an engineer, and he understands what he can measure and prove.

He believes that when you die, your mind and consciousness die too. That urgency gives his life meaning.

He tries to be a good partner to Yvonne and a good father. He has a daughter in college and son who's a teacher, and he beams when he talks about them.

He tries to help other people when he can. That's what he believes in.

"Ultimately, the way you live your life should be fruitful for those around you so you leave the world a little bit better," he said. "(People) will remember you for that."

Yvonne told a story about when Aguilar was in Iraq he didn't pray to God when the mortar rounds were exploding around him. He turned to a friend and asked if she needed help.

l

Pastor arrested on gun charges

A pastor at a Cold Spring church was arrested on two counts of carrying a concealed weapon on Christmas Eve.

According to the Cold Spring Police Department, Johnny R. Coleman (Randy), 1069 Parkside Drive, Alexandria, the pastor of Christ Baptist Church in Cold Spring, was arrested after police found him at 12:30 p.m. with a loaded Glock 9mm handgun and a loaded .25 caliber handgun, in a briefcase at the Mr. Spotless Car Wash in Cold Spring.

Cold Spring Police Chief Ed Burk III confirmed Coleman is a pastor at the church.

According to the police report, Coleman told an officer he was in line for a car wash when he was cut off by another person. According the report, "Mr. Coleman stated he told the victim someone could get shot over this."

The person who allegedly cut Coleman off told police he believed he saw Coleman loading the hand gun, according to the police report

Coleman was arrested and taken to the Campbell County Detention Center and released the same day on his own recognizance.

Coleman could not immediately be reached for comment.

A woman who answered the phone at Christ Baptist Church, who declined to give her name, said Coleman was out of town for the holidays.

Christ Baptist Church was started in 2004 by former members of First Baptist Church of Cold Spring after suspicions arose that church money had been used improperly by former pastor Larry Davis.

STORY LINK

Thursday, December 27, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Priests brawl at Jesus' birthplace

Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests attacked each other with brooms and stones inside the Church of the Nativity as long-standing rivalries erupted in violence during holiday cleaning on Thursday.

The basilica, built over the grotto in Bethlehem where Christians believe Jesus was born, is administered jointly by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic authorities.

Any perceived encroachment on one group's turf can touch off vicious feuds.

On Thursday, dozens of priests and cleaners were scrubbing the church ahead of the Armenian and Orthodox Christmas, celebrated in early January. Thousands of tourists visited the church this week for Christmas celebrations.

But the clean-up turned ugly after some of the Orthodox faithful stepped inside the Armenian church's section, touching off a scuffle between about 50 Greek Orthodox and 30 Armenians.

For a quarter of an hour bearded and robed priests laid into each other with fists, brooms and iron rods while the photographers who had come to take pictures of the annual cleaning ceremony recorded the whole event. Seven people were injured.

A dozen unarmed Palestinian policemen were sent to try to separate the priests, but .
two of them were also injured in the unholy melee. Then, Palestinian police armed with batons and shields quickly formed a human cordon to separate the two sides so the cleaning could continue, then ordered an Associated Press photographer out of the church.

Four people, some with blood running from their faces, were slightly wounded.

STORY LINK & LINK

Wednesday, December 26, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor accused of hitting on minor child... again

JACKSONVILLE, FL -- It's a sensitive situation over at Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church. Some members are standing by their pastor regardless of the allegations brought forth. Others want to know the facts and say they want all the answers before making a decision.

Broadcast live on television and the internet, Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church Pastor Darrell Gilyard has a large following. After recent allegations of sexual assault against a minor, church members want light shed on whatever the truth may be.

"I was shocked. I was shocked because he is someone that I really respect," says a church member.

This member did not want their identity shown but says the news is startling.

"He is this person people really respect in the church and we just really want to know what's going on, the truth. Everybody is really supporting him," says the church member.

Allegations surfaced in a police report after the mother of a minor came forward saying her daughter received explicit text messages that were sexual in nature from Gilyard.

Gilyard's attorney released a statement Monday afternoon.

"The issues and situation that have been presented to us are ones that we take very seriously and as such we are conducting a thorough and complete review of the facts. Once those are known we will proceed accordingly," says Brian Coughlin, legal counsel for Gilyard.

The church says Gilyard has decided to take an indefinite paid administrative leave of absence. As the investigation moves forward, members wait to see what will be revealed.

"They just want to know the real story and he pretty much has our full support," says the church member.

Police are still in the process of investigating this case and the congregation is waiting for answers.

Pastor Darrell Gilyard has not been officially charged with any crime regarding this case.

Fred Franklin, an attorney for Shiloh, also sent us their statement:

"The leaders of Shiloh Baptist Church take these matters seriously and are committed to a full and through review of all pertinent facts. Pastor Gilyard has decided and proposed that he voluntarily take an indefinite, paid, administration leave of absence pending such review. The church has agreed to his proposal. Once a review of all the facts is completed, the church will proceed accordingly."

Gilyard has dealt with charges of sexual misconduct in the past.

Dallas news media reported in 1991 Gilyard resigned from his church there after allegations of sexual misconduct.

He started as pastor at Shiloh two years later.

Gilyard had also just been appointed to Mayor Peyton's new anti-crime task force.

But Sunday he told the mayor's office he was resigning.

Related articles:

Tuesday, December 25, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

An atheist’s Christmas wish

Michael is a recently lapsed Jehovah’s Witness living in my block of flats at the end of the corridor. Since he split from his wife of five years, he’s been dabbling in Anglicanism which, from his description, sounds less like a faith than a hobby. He tried Catholicism first, but found the hymns grim and the sermons hard on his knees.

Now, as before, Michael is an affable guy, though he is still affable a little too frequently.

So, there’s the knock at my door on a Saturday afternoon. Luckily, Anglicanism isn’t the only new thing Michael is trying; he has, in each hand, a cold beer. The kind of cold that sticks to the palms of your hands. If only he’d thought of this technique when he was trying to covertly slip Watchtower magazines on to my coffee table.

In fold-out chairs, our feet up on the balcony rail, I feel the deep, dull satisfaction of heterosexual male bonding. Tedious, yes. But comforting too.

Somehow we land on that old conversation about the commercialisation of Christmas.

“Are you trying to save me again, Mike?”

“I’m not! It’s just ... since when is it all about the gifts?”

Feeling the yawn coming on, I suggest that it might have started with frankincense, myrrh and gold.

“Surely the three kings could’ve just given Baby Jesus a nice homemade Christmas card,” I say.

Michael laughs and I feel very hip and edgy.

“If Jesus were around today,” I continue, “do you think he’d wear Crocs? They are, after all, holey.”

Michael stares me down and I know that I’ve crossed the line by suggesting that the Son of God would wear plastic shoes.

Then he mumbles: “There’s nobody more religious than an atheist.”

He has a point. And we’re only getting more religious.

It’s been a good year for the Smartypants Squad. With Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, we have the kinds of books we can tuck under our arms, as snug and as obvious as Bibles while we wander about airports looking for converts. This past year, I’ve even found a couple. Now, I’m busying myself by putting the X back into Xmas.

But I’ve hit a couple of wobbles. Two things are testing my faith.

One, there’s something quite ugly about the new atheism. It carries a petty, childish tone. Every sentence of Dawkins’s big red book seems to end with an implied, “Ha!”, “I told you so!” or “So there!”

Two, there’s something quite appealing about that old time religion. That thing is ... denial. And denial isn’t all that bad.

Seems to me that religion is one way of denying our animal nature, of thinking ourselves beyond our biology and beyond the obvious.

It’s obvious, looking at a dead body and observing the disintegration that follows death, that the human being that was, is no more. But, we imagine something beyond that.

It’s obvious, looking at the way human beings are built, that we cannot fly. But, we imagine something beyond that too.

Both the invention of an imagined afterlife and the invention of human flight began, I believe, with a still moment of “What if?”

Sure, we believe a lot of things that are untrue. Religious nuts and atheistic nuts alike have waged wars and been nuisances at dinner parties as a result of their mad convictions. But this species also routinely makes wild dreams real by the sheer will of that same unreasonable human imagination.

We defy our physiology and demand that we will fly, not only as far and as high and as fast as birds, but all the way to the moon and beyond. We bake cakes, whip cream, pick cherries and imagine that they might all go well together. And, yes, we dream up rain dances and elephant gods and men in the sky who part seas and write books. We cling to them beyond their usefulness too. But, hey, who’s perfect?

So, here’s a thought. More than that, an atheist’s Christmas wish: let’s be less snotty. Let’s do better than “So there!” and “I told you so!” If we think a scientific view of the universe is useful for any reason other than being able to feel superior, then we need to spend less time snuffing dreams out and more time inviting people to dream bigger.

Carl Sagan described our planet as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. There are pictures taken from space of that mote of dust; our mote of dust stranded in a vastness almost completely unknown to us. And to see such a picture is to realise that the idea of an ark filled with all the earth’s animals, two-by-two, for all its human poetry, is just not big enough.

Being such a finite, tiny part of something so infinite is not meaningless. It’s just meaningful in a way larger than religion has ever imagined.

STORY LINK

Thursday, December 20, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Gunman admired Ted Haggard

Raise up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old...

DENVER -- Among the items taken from a search of gunman Matthew Murray's home was a picture of former New Life pastor Ted Haggard, according to police documents released Wednesday.

Murray lived in the Englewood home in with his father, mother and brother. The family was very devout and the parents had home-schooled both children, neighbors said.

According to the police documents, officers confiscated a Beretta, ammunition, a pamphlet entitled "Fall of America," literature on Youth With A Mission, a Bible, a journal, a pistol, a homicide investigation manual, prescription pills, several hard drives, gun cases and boxes of ammunition.

In several online writings, posted weeks before the two deadly church shootings, Murray expressed his rage at organized religion and at Youth With A Mission, which had kicked him out of a missionary program for unspecified "health reasons."

Murray wrote that he would rain Columbine down on the Christian world. He came "armed to the teeth," as he promised, bringing an assault rifle, two handguns and 1,000 rounds of ammunition when he walked into New Life Church.

He also wrote that Haggard was his mother's favorite pastor and in a post about four hours before the shootings at New Life, he wrote that Christianity to him was "hate, abuse (sexual, physical, psychological, and emotional), hypocrisy, and lies."

Haggard is the former pastor at the New Life megachurch and was forced to step down last year after he admitted to "sexual immorality." A former male escort claimed that Haggard had paid him for sex and meth over the course of three years.

Nine people were shot in the two church shootings on Dec. 9; five at New Life Church in Colorado Springs and four at the Youth With a Mission training center in Arvada.

Stephanie Works and her sister Rachael Works were killed at New Life Church. Their father, David Works, churchgoer Judy Purcell and Larry Bourbannais were hurt.

In Arvada, missionaries Philip Crouse and Tiffany Johnson were killed. Johnson's boyfriend, Dan Grievenow, and Charles Blanch were injured.

Previous Stories:
CHURCH SHOOTINGS
NEW LIFE CHURCH
YOUTH WITH A MISSION

Wednesday, December 19, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

O come all ye faithless

A controversial Christmas card reading “O come all ye faithless” has been strongly criticized by Christians as an “ill judged and insensitive joke.” Borders book stores began giving away the card free with every copy of Richard Dawkins’ well known atheist work, The God Delusion, this Christmas.

The Rev. Jonathan Edwards, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. said the idea was “crass.”

“I am quite sure that Borders intended their Christmas card as a joke. However, I personally find it an ill-judged and insensitive joke,” he said, as reported by Baptist Times.

He continued, “Christians have always been used to being punch bags but I would have hoped that, in a society in which we are seeking to show respect to all people and beliefs, we might have grown out of this kind of nonsense.”

He was supported by Justin Thacker, head of theology at the Evangelical Alliance, who said, “It won't surprise me if this spectacularly fails. Christmas still holds a high place in people's hearts - I think a lot of people will be offended by it."

Borders has responded to the criticism by issuing a statement which said it “did not intend it as anti-Christian or a swipe at the Christian faith,” and said that it “apologizes to any of our customers who feel it was that,” according to Baptist Times.

The book store described the card as a “continuation” of the debate on atheism that had come as result of the book, which was a bestseller for Borders this year.

“Our customers are intelligent, curious people who enjoy exploring all types of books and music. Naturally, some of the thousands of books and music selections we carry could be considered controversial or objectionable depending on individual views, tastes and interest,” Borders said in a statement.

"However, Borders stands by its commitment to let customers make the choice.”

The Evangelical Alliance's Thacker noted, “I think the atheists will love it because it's bashing Christians around the head. It's another thing to take a Christian festival and abuse it.

"Borders wouldn't do this to any other religious festival. Borders [has] made a strategic mistake and Christians will boycott it.”

STORY LINK

Tuesday, December 18, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Christians from Africa fight the Devil in Washington


WASHINGTON: At an hour when most people here are sleeping or sinning, the worshipers of the Spiritual Warfare ministry gather in the cold sanctuary of a neighborhood church to battle evil.

The students, taxicab drivers, homemakers and entrepreneurs, all Christians, mostly from French-speaking Africa, attend a midnight service four nights a week to seek deliverance from lust, anger, fear and sadness.

They sing. They pray fervently. Finally, they kick and shadowbox with what they contend is the real force behind life's problems: the witches and devils whose curses they believe have ground down their families, towns, entire nations in Africa, and that have pursued them to a new country, making it hard to find work, be healthy and survive.

"Some situations you need to address at night, because in the ministry of spiritual warfare, demons, the spirits bewitching people, choose this time to work," said Nicole Sangamay, 40, who came from Congo in 1998 to study and is a co-pastor of the ministry. "And we pick this time to pray to nullify what they are doing."

Founded by a Congolese couple, Spiritual Warfare is one of many ministries and congregations in the growing African diaspora in the United States and abroad grappling with witchcraft. In most other churches, Sangamay said, you could not even raise the issue, let alone pray to combat its effects.

Those other churches may argue that such a focus on witchcraft is a relic of Africans' old beliefs, a dangerously pagan preoccupation. But scholars say this is Christianity made profoundly African. Spiritual Warfare considers itself Pentecostal, and like many other Pentecostals, worshipers see the battle between God and Satan, or what they also call the Bible against witchcraft, shaping the world.

"Religion for them is not like in the West," said Jacob Olupona, a professor of African religious traditions at the Harvard Divinity School. "It's not simply seen as meaning and reference to a transcendental order. Religion is seen as something that works. It has a utilitarian view, and people are looking for solutions in different angles and different ways."

The Spiritual Warfare congregants here said that because their ancestors were not Christians, they were cursed, Africa is cursed, and the sins of their fathers are now visited upon all the children.

One blustery Monday night, men and women trickled into the ministry's rented space at Deeper Life Bible Church on Sargent Road Northeast.

Rene Tameghi put his Bible and notebook down before kneeling, placing elbows in his chair and praying. Sita Waba would have to be at work at 8:30 a.m., but these two hours, she said, holding a cup of coffee, gave her strength. A few parents carried sleeping toddlers.

"Say, 'Jesus, I am here for you tonight,' " Jose Shinga told the congregation from a small, raised stage covered in red carpeting and bordered by pots of silk flowers.

The men and women, still in coats, vests and caps, sang a song of "Hallelujahs" in French, stomping, clapping and shuffling along with the joyful beat. The voices seemed stronger than those of the 25 people gathered, a quarter of the regular Sunday attendance. The neighbors once called the police to complain, a congregant said, and the police told them to keep it down.

The day before, the parishioners began a fast. "Why do we fast toward the end of the year?" Shinga said to the worshipers. "That is when Satan wants sacrifices, blood, and so we ask God to protect us and our families."

When Shinga asked the worshipers to pray for forgiveness, the loud pleas of each man and woman, faces turned to the floor or heavenward, rose together like the rumble of a train.

People repeat accounts that they have heard of cancer and infertility cured through Spiritual Warfare. But few such events have occurred so far in Washington, Sangamay said, because the congregation is only two years old. Still, she said, people turn to her and her husband for "soul therapy," which involves prayer and fasting. The ministry does not turn people away from secular resources like counseling or medicine.

"Every day in the village, or even here, people are putting curses on you," said Yemba Shinga, Jose Shinga's husband and the other preacher Monday. "They declare that you won't get a job, or will be separated from your family or get an incurable disease.

"But you know how to pray to God. Tell them, 'C'est fini! I will not repeat the story of my ancestors, of my past, of the devil.' "

The congregants shouted, "C'est fini!"

They listened, they moved the red chairs to the back of the hall, and then they called on the Holy Spirit to fight the enemy. Following Yemba Shinga, they said: "I rise now against every form of the devil! You want me under a curse, but I renounce you in the name of Jesus."

With each prayer, young men and middle-age women punched, kicked or stood and quaked. They pounded their fists. They reviled the devil in all his forms.

They sliced their arms through the air to cut the chains of evil binding them. They pretended to tie up Satan. Yemba Shinga ran out of breath as he urged on the worshipers. The prayers ended. They did all that they could.

"We declare this place to be blessed," Jose Shinga said, as the worshipers quieted down. "Thank you, Lord, Jesus Christ. Go in the peace of the Lord."

People had already zipped up against the chill. They walked out into the Washington night, ready.

STORY LINK

Friday, December 14, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

African Christians declare war on child witches



WM note: When I was a Christian, I heard time and time again how miracles were constantly happening in Africa and other undeveloped parts of the world. The reason? Because the people there were more filled with faith!

In the West, science, education and a general prosperity encourages skepticism in regards to the supernatural. In contrast, the ignorance and poverty of the Third World reinforces magical thinking. And when magical thinking dominates a population...

From The Observer:

The rainy season is over and the Niger Delta is lush and humid. This southern edge of West Africa, where Nigeria's wealth pumps out of oil and gas fields to bypass millions of its poorest people, is a restless place. In the small delta state of Akwa Ibom, the tension and the poverty has delivered an opportunity for a new and terrible phenomenon that is leading to the abuse and the murder of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children. And it is being done in the name of Christianity.

Almost everyone goes to church here. Driving through the town of Esit Eket, the rust-streaked signs, tarpaulins hung between trees and posters on boulders, advertise a church for every third or fourth house along the road. Such names as New Testament Assembly, Church of God Mission, Mount Zion Gospel, Glory of God, Brotherhood of the Cross, Redeemed, Apostalistic. Behind the smartly painted doors pastors make a living by 'deliverances' - exorcisms - for people beset by witchcraft, something seen to cause anything from divorce, disease, accidents or job losses. With so many churches it's a competitive market, but by local standards a lucrative one.

But an exploitative situation has now grown into something much more sinister as preachers are turning their attentions to children - naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush.

Some parents scrape together sums needed to pay for a deliverance - sometimes as much as three or four months' salary for the average working man - although the pastor will explain that the witch might return and a second deliverance will be needed. Even if the parent wants to keep the child, their neighbours may attack it in the street.

This is not just a few cases. This is becoming commonplace. In Esit Eket, up a nameless, puddled-and-potholed path is a concrete shack stuffed to its fetid rafters with roughly made bunk beds. Here, three to a bed like battery chickens, sleep victims of the besuited Christian pastors and their hours-long, late-night services. Ostracised and abandoned, these are the children a whole community believes fervently are witches.

Sam Ikpe-Itauma is one of the few people in this area who does not believe what the evangelical 'prophets' are preaching. He opened his house to a few homeless waifs he came across, and now he tries his best to look after 131.

'The neighbours were not happy with me and tell me "you are supporting witches". This project was an accident, I saw children being abandoned and it was very worrying. I started with three children, then every day it increased up to 15, so we had to open this new place,' he says. 'For every maybe five children we see on the streets, we believe one has been killed, although it could be more as neighbours turn a blind eye when a witch child disappears.

'It is good we have this shelter, but it is under constant attack.' As he speaks two villagers walk past, at the end of the yard, pulling scarfs across their eyes to hide the 'witches' from their sight.Twelve-year-old Mary had acid thrown in her face after being accused of being a witch

Twelve-year-old Mary had acid thrown in her face after being accused of being a witch.

Ikpe-Itauma's wife, Elizabeth, acts as nurse to the injured children and they have called this place the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network, a big name for a small refuge. It has found support from a charity running a school in the area, Stepping Stones Nigeria, which is trying to help with money to feed the children, but the numbers turning up here are a huge challenge.

Mary Sudnad, 10, grimaces as her hair is pulled into corn rows by Agnes, 11, but the scalp just above her forehead is bald and blistered. Mary tells her story fast, in staccato, staring fixedly at the ground.

'My youngest brother died. The pastor told my mother it was because I was a witch. Three men came to my house. I didn't know these men. My mother left the house. Left these men. They beat me.' She pushes her fists under her chin to show how her father lay, stretched out on his stomach on the floor of their hut, watching. After the beating there was a trip to the church for 'a deliverance'.

A day later there was a walk in the bush with her mother. They picked poisonous 'asiri' berries that were made into a draught and forced down Mary's throat. If that didn't kill her, her mother warned her, then it would be a barbed-wire hanging. Finally her mother threw boiling water and caustic soda over her head and body, and her father dumped his screaming daughter in a field. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she stayed near the house for a long time before finally slinking off into the bush.Mary was seven. She says she still doesn't feel safe. She says: 'My mother doesn't love me.' And, finally, a tear streaks down her beautiful face.

Gerry was picked out by a 'prophetess' at a prayer night and named as a witch. His mother cursed him, his father siphoned petrol from his motorbike tank and spat it over his eight-year-old face. Gerry's facial blistering is as visible as the trauma in his dull eyes. He asks every adult he sees if they will take him home to his parents: 'It's not them, it's the prophetess, I am scared of her.'

Nwaeka is about 16. She sits by herself in the mud, her eyes rolling, scratching at her stick-thin arms. The other children are surprisingly patient with her. The wound on her head where a nail was driven in looks to be healing well. Nine- year-old Etido had nails, too, five of them across the crown of his downy head. Its hard to tell what damage has been done. Udo, now 12, was beaten and abandoned by his mother. He nearly lost his arm after villagers, finding him foraging for food by the roadside, saw him as a witch and hacked at him with machetes.

Magrose is seven. Her mother dug a pit in the wood and tried to bury her alive. Michael was found by a farmer clearing a ditch, starving and unable to stand on legs that had been flogged raw.

Ekemini Abia has the look of someone in a deep state of shock. Both ankles are circled with gruesome wounds and she moves at a painful hobble. Named as a witch, her father and elders from the church tied her to a tree, the rope cutting her to the bone, and left the 13-year-old there alone for more than a week.

There are sibling groups such as Prince, four, and Rita, nine. Rita told her mum she had dreamt of a lovely party where there was lots to eat and to drink. The belief is that a witch flies away to the coven at night while the body sleeps, so Rita's sweet dream was proof enough: she was a witch and because she had shared food with her sibling - the way witchcraft is spread - both were abandoned. Victoria, cheeky and funny, aged four, and her seven-year-old sister Helen, a serene little girl. Left by their parents in the shell of an old shack, the girls didn't dare move from where they had been abandoned and ate leaves and grass.

The youngest here is a baby. The older girls take it in turn to sling her on their skinny hips and Ikpe-Itauma has named her Amelia, after his grandmother. He estimates around 5,000 children have been abandoned in this area since 1998 and says many bodies have turned up in the rivers or in the forest. Many more are never found. 'The more children the pastor declares witches, the more famous he gets and the more money he can make,' he says. 'The parents are asked for so much money that they will pay in instalments or perhaps sell their property. This is not what churches should be doing.'

Although old tribal beliefs in witch doctors are not so deeply buried in people's memories, and although there had been indigenous Christians in Nigeria since the 19th century, it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs. Evil spirits, satanic possessions and miracles can be found aplenty in the Bible, references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians, and literal interpretation of scriptures is a popular crowd-pleaser.

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. 'We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.' Soft of voice and in his smart suit and tie, his church is being painted and he apologises for having to sit outside near his shiny new Audi to talk. There are nearly 60 branches of Liberty Gospel across the Niger Delta. It was started by a local woman, mother-of-two Helen Ukpabio, whose luxurious house and expensive white Humvee are much admired in the city of Calabar where she now lives. Many people in this area credit the popular evangelical DVDs she produces and stars in with helping to spread the child witch belief.

Ita denies charging for exorcisms but acknowledges his congregation is poor and has to work hard to scrape up the donations the church expects. 'To give more than you can afford is blessed. We are the only ones who really know the secrets of witches. Parents don't come here with the intention of abandoning their children, but when a child is a witch then you have to say "what is that there? Not your child." The parents come to us when they see manifestations. But the secret is that, even if you abandon your child, the curse is still upon you, even if you kill your child the curse stays. So you have to come here to be delivered afterwards as well,' he explains patiently.

'We know how they operate. A witch will put a spell on its mother's bra and the mother will get breast cancer. But we cannot attribute all things to witches, they work on inclinations too, so they don't create HIV, but if you are promiscuous then the witch will give you HIV.'

As the light fades, he presents a pile of Ukpabio's DVDs. Mistakenly thinking they are a gift, I am firmly put right.

Later that night, in another part of town, the hands of the clock edge towards midnight. The humidity of the day is sealed into the windowless church and drums pound along with the screeching of the sweat-drenched preacher. 'No witches, oh Lord,' he screams into the microphone. 'As this hour approaches, save us, oh Lord!'

His congregation is dancing, palms aloft, women writhe and yell in tongues. A group moves forward shepherding five children, one a baby, and kneel on the concrete floor and the pastor comes among them, pressing his hands down on each child's head in turn, as they try to hide in the skirts of the woman. This is deliverance night at the Church of the True Redeemer, and while the service will carry on for some hours, the main event - for which the parents will have paid cash - is over.

Walking out into the night, the drums and singing from other churches ring out as such scenes are being repeated across the village.

It is hard to find people to speak out against the brutality. Chief Victor Ikot is one. He not only speaks out against the 'tinpot' churches, but has also done the unthinkable and taken in a witch to his own home. The chief's niece, Mbet, was declared a witch when she was eight. Her mother, Ekaete, made her drink olive oil, then poison berries, then invited local men to beat her with sticks. The pastor padlocked her to a tree but unlocked her when her mother could not find the money for a deliverance. Mbet fled. Mbet, now 11, says she has not seen the woman since, adding: 'My mother is a wicked mother.'

The Observer tracked down Mbet's mother to her roadside clothing stall where she nervously fiddled with her mobile phone and told us how her daughter had given her what sounded very much like all the symptoms of malaria. 'I had internal heat,' she says, indicating her stomach. 'It was my daughter who had caused this, she drew all the water from my body. I could do nothing. She was stubborn, very stubborn.' And if her daughter had died in the bush? She shrugged: 'That is God's will. It is in God's hands.'

Chief Victor has no time for his sister-in-law. 'Nowadays when a child becomes stubborn, then everyone calls them witches. But it is usually from the age of 10 down, I have never seen anyone try to throw a macho adult into the street. This child becomes a nuisance, so they give a dog a bad name and they can hang it.

'It is alarming because no household is untouched. But it is the greed of the pastors, driving around in Mercedes, that makes them choose the vulnerable.'

In a nearby village The Observer came across five-year-old twins, Itohowo and Kufre. They are still hanging around close to their mother's shack, but are obviously malnourished and in filthy rags. Approaching the boys brings a crowd of villagers who stand around and shout: 'Take them away from us, they are witches.' 'Take them away before they kill us all.' 'Witches'.

The woman who gave birth to these sorry scraps of humanity stands slightly apart from the crowd, arms crossed. Iambong Etim Otoyo has no intention of taking any responsibility for her sons. 'They are witches,' she says firmly and walks away.

And by nightfall there are 133 children in the chicken coop concrete house at Esit Eket.

· Watch the video: Child witches in Africa

· Click here to see photos of the witches.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Sexual abuse is in EVERY church!

The following article expresses an Evangelical Christian viewpoint.

From the Conservative Voice:

It is almost obscene to think that there are people in Bible oriented churches every Sunday who sexually abuse children; however, it is true even in evangelical and fundamental churches! Yes, Virginia, we have sexual child abusers in our best churches! I had read in mainline media that at least 30% of adult women had been molested in their younger days, but I did not believe it was a valid number. Surely, that was propaganda from the screaming feminists. I discovered that I was wrong.

It is a fact that one-third of all children are sexually abused before age 18: About 40% of all females and 30% of males! That number seemed to be impossibly high; however, my wife and I did a national two-year survey during our Christian Couples’ Conferences in Bible teaching churches, and discovered that the number is right on target.

In the last year or so, I have been outraged by the “soft” approach many pastors take toward sexual abuse of children. One example is the Bob Gray case in Jacksonville where the pastor, a friend of mine, admitted to French-kissing little girls in his Christian school. His large church slapped his wrists in a mockery of church discipline and sent him to Germany as a missionary. He should have gone to jail, not Germany. During a visit to the states in May of 06, he was arrested and died November 11, 2007, just before his trial was to begin. His church still refuses to admit their unseemly, untoward, and unscriptural handling of the sin. Gray’s many victims are seeking satisfaction in civil action that could cost the church millions of dollars if a cover-up is proved in court.

One must keep in mind that all sexual abusers of children do not always go on to violent sexual abuse. That is probably true with Bob Gray who admitted to “French-kissing” little girls but strongly denied anything more. Abusers reason “this” to be not as bad as “that,” not acknowledging the seriousness to the victim; however, sexual abuse is any sexual contact with a child or the use of a child for the sexual pleasure of someone else.

Most pastors are shocked to hear that sexual child abuse is prevalent in their churches. They do not know that fact or do not believe that fact, or have chosen to ignore that fact. To recognize the frequency of sexual child abuse, pastors would be forced to deal with it.

Think about it: in each church service, there are men (and maybe some women) who have molested or are molesting a child usually multiple children! Surveys reveal that most child sexual abusers attend church, even your church! Many of those men are viewers of attractive, alluring, and addictive pornography that is affordable, anonymous, and accessible that feeds and promotes their sexual assaults. And most pastors are saying nothing about it! Those same preachers often boast about preaching the truth and standing for family values and personal morality but don’t hone in where the preaching hurts, or helps and heals!

There are many reasons why there is little preaching about sexual child abuse. It is an unpleasant subject. It can make people uncomfortable. We like to think “our crowd” may eat too much from time to time, snatch a peek at some television filth, skip church for a special ball game, or even smoke a cigarette occasionally. But sexual abuse of children? No way, not in “our” congregation. A pastor who thinks like that is willfully ignorant—headed for trouble.

Why do many pastors who boast about “preaching the whole Bible” never preach on sexual sins? Many reasons. First, they may be careless or thoughtless. Second, they may be guilty themselves. Third, they may know they are preaching to powerful members who are guilty. Why kick a sleeping dog that might bite you? Or maybe they are prudes similar to me in my early days when I was uncomfortable saying “pregnant” in the pulpit.

I suggest that all pastors insist that their church board (plus wife, good friends, etc.) hold them accountable for their personal lives and for balance in preaching. Those who are presently involved in sexual sins, especially with children, should not only lose their pulpits, but their freedom. From pulpit to prison! (But sadly, too often back to the pulpit again.)

Transgressing preachers should confess sexual sins today and forsake them. It is astounding that preachers whine, whimper, and weep as they are led away in handcuffs or tremble in anger and fear when reliable evidence is presented during a service about their sexual activities. I have seldom heard of one who can’t live with his secret sins and confesses before he is exposed! Instead, after the exposure he emulates Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, or Ted Haggard!

If, reacting to preaching on sexual child abuse, a man confesses to his pastor that he has sexually assaulted a child, the pastor is obligated to report it to the proper authorities and remove the man from any association with children. Most pastors will be strongly inclined to handle the problem “in house;” however, that is usually illegal and always unwise. One thing that almost all “experts” agree on is that child molesters will continue to molest. I am sure there are exceptions since God will forgive and cleanse a man of all sins—if he is sincere, but are you willing to take the chance that he is sincere? What if the abuser’s next victim is your child or grandchild? What if the victim is killed?

It is time for Protestants and Baptists to stop pointing fingers at the Roman Catholic sex scandal and clean up their own house—church house, that is. No church should ever put anyone on staff, paid or unpaid, who had any involvement in any sexual sins against children. No exceptions. If a former preacher repents and seems to prove his sincerity, he can clean the church, repair buses, act as usher, visit the sick, sing in the choir, etc. Just keep him away from children or youth and out of the pulpit.

To keep himself from temptation and from untrue accusations, a pastor should never counsel anyone alone without an open door or a window in the door. After all, his reputation that has taken a lifetime to build can be lost in a careless moment. Counselors should keep notes on all counseling sessions although realizing that someday a court may demand those notes that I believe should be refused! Stay away from pornography online or off. Permit your wife and assistants to have full access to your mail and your computer.

Committed pastors must raise their voices against this rampant sin of sexual child abuse that is going on in every church. Not to do so makes such a pastor a compromiser, a coward, and a confederate with evil.

Copyright 2007, Don Boys, Ph.D.

Dr. Don Boys is a former member of the Indiana House of Representatives, author of 13 books, frequent guest on television and radio talk shows, and wrote columns for USA Today for 8 years His most recent book is ISLAM: America's Trojan Horse! His websites are www.cstnews.com and www.Muslimfact.com.

Monday, December 10, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

"Sinners" blamed for drought

A radical Christian group with the ear of prominent politicians has blamed “sinful” Australians for the nation’s record drought.

Catch the Fires Ministries, which has links to several prominent politicians including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, has hired Festival Hall so 5000 of its followers can pray for rain on Australia Day.

Leader Danny Nalliah said moral decline, not climate change, was responsible for the drought.

“Australia has turned away from Almighty God … the sinful condition of mankind has contributed to the stem of rainfall,” he said.

But Mr Nalliah, who was one of two pastors sued for vilifying Muslims, said prayer was breaking the drought.

The group has a national database of 10,000 names.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sent a video address to one of the ministry’s events. And Mr Nalliah, who has addressed the anti-Semitic League of Rights, has had meetings with John Howard and Peter Costello.

“When John Howard called the nation to pray for rain, and the church enthusiastically responded in united prayer, the heavens opened,” he said.

“Since that historic prayer gathering in our nation’s capital, Australia has experienced unceasing drought-breaking rain.”

Despite his opposition to Islam, the pastor’s position is similar to that of Muslim cleric Mohammed Omran. This year Sheik Omran preached the drought, climate change and pollution were due to Australians’ lack of faith in Allah.

“The fear of Allah is not there. So we have now a polluted earth, a polluted water, a wasteland,” he told a meeting.


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Saturday, December 08, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Famous atheist comments on the Golden Compass

Golden Compass

Hollywood spent a mind-boggling $180 million to bring author Philip Pullman's celebrated anti-religious novel, The Golden Compass, to the silver screen, but essentially stripped the work of its devastating attack on organized religion.

On the eve of the film's release, WIRED asked America's most famous atheist, Dr. Michael Newdow, how he feels about this. Dr. Newdow is a California attorney and physician best known for his efforts to ban schools from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance because of the phrase "under God."

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has commented on the release of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. The final line is, "And remember, his twin goals are to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity." Accordingly, the League "wants Christians to stay away from this movie."

This is obviously different from when the Catholic League supported Mel Gibson's work, The Passion of Christ. The Passion, many would say, had similar twin goals: promoting Christianity and denigrating Judaism. Thus, we see what is not unexpected, especially when religion is at issue: People lend their support when their system of belief is advocated, and wish to do anything but when the advocacy is for the belief systems of others. That is what the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment absolutely protect. Accordingly, let the clamor continue, and let each of us weigh in (or simply listen) with whatever biases we bring to bear.

There is another clause in the First Amendment, however, which is quite different. That one is the establishment clause, which has nothing to do with expression by private actors, be they individuals, organizations or whatever. The establishment clause speaks only to what the government may say. In other words, we don't want the government getting involved in these arguments. As Justice Scalia has written, "The government may not … lend its power to one or the other side in controversies" of such a religious nature.

While the Catholic League maintains its animus towards The Golden Compass, one hopes that it will support this notion of government neutrality. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. It was a Catholic organization, after all, that was the key group behind the 1954 alteration of the Pledge of Allegiance. In that year, the Knights of Columbus lobbied Congress to modify the words "one Nation indivisible" so that "one Nation under God, indivisible" (italics added) is what is now recited in our public schools. They still congratulate themselves over the change.

Interestingly, Catholics in the founding era were very much treated like the atheists of today. Our Founding Fathers literally hated the Catholics. Samuel Adams, for instance, wrote that "much more is to be dreaded from the growth of popery in America, than from the Stamp Act or any other acts destructive of civil rights." John Jay, the nation's first chief justice, attempted to have the right to the free exercise of religion open to all "except the professors of the religion of the Church of Rome." And when the Quebec Act was passed in support of the (Catholic) government in neighboring Canada, the Continental Congress wrote in protest to the people of Britain, complaining that Catholicism was "a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world."

This in not meant to single out Catholics. Protestants, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Buddhists and every other religious group is just as capable of being discriminated against, and of discriminating against others. It is just a call to exult in both of the religion clauses in our marvelous Constitution. While we all impart our views to the tapestry of opinion and celebrate not only the freedom of others to disagree, the muzzle that has been placed on government in this one subject area has been (and continues to be) responsible for so much animosity, suffering, cruelty and death.

The Golden Compass, situated in a different universe, is named for what is called an "alethiometer." Referred to as "a GPS device for locating the truth," it essentially reigns supreme in terms of value for that world's inhabitants. In religion, it seems there is only one truth: that we will never all agree. Whatever one's views on atheism or other religious belief, in this universe and on this world, the establishment clause of our First Amendment deserves the esteem of an alethiometer.

---

The Rev. Dr. Michael Newdow is a minister in the First Atheist Church of True Science and the plaintiff in the case that went to the Supreme Court in 2004, challenging the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. He requests that we disclose that he has yet to see the movie, The Golden Compass, which wasn't released to the public until Dec. 7.



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Wednesday, December 05, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Nothing predates Christianity?

The new co-host of "The View," Sherri Shepherd, yesterday insisted Christianity was older than ancient Greece, and even Judaism.

Shepherd - who said earlier this year that she didn't know if the world was flat or round - said during a short-lived discussion of Greek philosophy on yesterday's show that she was pretty sure nothing "predated Christians."

The verbal jousting began when Joy Behar mentioned watching a History Channel show on the Greek philosopher Epicurus and his definition of happiness.

"Keep in mind that probably when [Epicurus] was around, there was no Jesus Christ stuff going on," said co-host Whoopi Goldberg said.

"They still had Christians back then," Shepherd interrupted.

"They had gods," Goldberg said.

"They had Christians," Shepherd insisted. "And they threw 'em to the lions."

"I think this might predate that," Goldberg said.

"I don't think anything predated Christians," Shepherd shot back.

Behar then piped in.

"The Greeks came first, then the Romans, then the Christians," she said.

"Jesus came first, before then," Shepherd said.

"No, not on paper," Goldberg sadly said, meaning the Bible.

Barbara Walters was not there yesterday to see the latest bizarre moment for Shepherd, a 40-year-old comedian and actress who was hired last fall to replace Star Jones on the panel of the morning women's show.

Born in Chicago and raised a Jehovah's Witness, according to reports, she became a born-again Christian after moving to LA.

Last September, after saying she did not believe in evolution, Whoopi asked her rhetorically if also believed the earth was flat.

Taking the question seriously, Shepherd responded: "I don't know."

The following day she said she'd just been flustered by the question and did, indeed, know the earth was round.

Neither the show or Shepherd had any comment yesterday.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

The price of battling the Christian Taliban

At Mikey Weinstein's home in the suburbs of Albuquerque, the picture window in the living room has been twice shot out. Sometimes Weinstein opens his front door to find dead animals on his porch, feces smeared on his walls, or slashes in his tires. Men have called to threaten his daughter, women to chant rhymes about shooting him in the head, small children to inform him that he will burn in hell. To his critics, he says, "Take a number, pack a picnic lunch, and stand in line." He's not going anywhere, and neither is his 5'6" ex-Marine security guard, Shorty.

Weinstein is the middle rung in three generations of soldiers. A former Air Force JAG and White House attorney for Ronald Reagan, he has adopted a shock-and-awe approach to battling efforts by the military to impress Christianity upon American soldiers. "We have the Christian Taliban and the Christian Al Qaeda inside our military," says Weinstein, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, "and they really have WMD, unlike Saddam."

An amateur pugilist with shoulders like a butcher block and a head like a cannonball, he several times challenged evangelical minister Ted Haggard to a boxing match. (Haggard declined.) His adversaries call him, to his great delight, "The Field General of the Godless Armies of Satan," though his friends prefer nicknames like "Ticktock" and "Motor Mouth." During one of his trademark rapid-fire, profanity-laced diatribes, he proclaimed, "Our job here is to kick ass, take names, and leave sucking chest wounds on the people who are trying to engage the machinery of the state to push their biblical worldview." To allies who suggest that perhaps Weinstein should appoint someone more diplomatic to lead the foundation, he offers, "First they will have to prove to me that what we are engaged in is a polite exchange of views" with right-wing Christians, "instead of a bloody battle that only ends with the last person standing."

Weinstein is certain that fundamentalists will stop at nothing to transform the United States military into an army of God. He notes that Officers Christian Fellowship, with chapters in every major U.S. military installation in the world, envisions—and here he quotes its mission statement—a "spiritually transformed military, with ambassadors for Christ in uniform, empowered by the Holy Spirit." The group has helped boost fundamentalist Christianity among the armed forces from a negligible presence 20 years ago to a faith currently held by 30 percent of U.S. soldiers, according to Weinstein. He adds that many of those soldiers—hardcore end-timers and Dominionists—desperately want America to invade Iran, thereby triggering the biblical prophecy of the Rapture.

This summer he uncovered plans by the Pentagon to ship "freedom packages" to soldiers in Iraq that were to contain Bibles, proselytizing material in English and Arabic, and Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a video game inspired by post-Rapture novels in which "soldiers for Christ" hunt enemies who look suspiciously like U.N. peacekeepers. Partly due to Weinstein's efforts, the packages were never sent. "It's not just the Holocaust or the inquisition or the pogroms or the nine—count 'em: nine—crusades," Weinstein cautions. "It's everything that's happened since then. Whenever a virulent form of any faith has engaged the machinery of the state, in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, we have ended up with tidal waves of blood."

And so Weinstein is laying sand bags. He has fielded more than 6,000 complaints from soldiers who claim to have been persecuted by Christian evangelicals; 95 percent of the complaints come from mainstream Christians. Tipsters helped him catch uniformed military officers publicly endorsing an evangelical group and ferret out an anti-Semitic Bible study guide on an army base website. In September, he shunted many of the complaints into a massive lawsuit against the Department of Defense. His lead plaintiff, U.S. Army Specialist Jeremy Hall, alleges that a major at Iraq's Speicher base threatened to block his reenlistment in the Army in retaliation for organizing a meeting of atheists.

A then-Democrat, now-Republican who represented Reagan during the Iran-contra affair, Weinstein criticizes the former president for creating an opening for evangelical Christians in the military, but excoriates George W. Bush for dropping the floodgates. Bush, he says, is a "suboptimal human being." The Military Religious Freedom Foundation's supporters include refugees of the Bush years such as David Iglesias (one of the U.S. attorneys dismissed this year) and Ambassador Joe Wilson (husband of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame). "A lot of the anecdotal evidence that Mikey told me I found very troubling from a constitutional perspective," said Iglesias, who is an evangelical Christian. Wilson cites security implications: "They are proselytizing not on behalf of the Constitution of the United States and the national security interests of our country," he said, "but rather on behalf of some sort of fanatical view of end times. And they are using our army to affect that."

For Weinstein, the battle has been personal from the start. In 1973, during his freshman year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, he repeatedly found anonymous anti-Semitic notes in his dorm room. He had nearly forgotten the experience when his son, Curtis, entered the Air Force Academy in 2003 and discovered that strains of anti-Semitism had metastasized. (By then Colorado Springs had come to be known as the "Vatican of the Religious Right" for its concentration of evangelicals.) Cadets and officers targeted Curtis Weinstein on eight or nine separate occasions during his freshman year with anti-Jewish remarks. During a football game, an upperclassman reportedly asked, "How does it make you feel to know that you killed Jesus Christ?"

That year Mikey Weinstein tried to work with the academy's leadership to reform its religious culture, but he faced disinterest from high-ranking Generals. That's when he gave up on diplomacy and launched the foundation. It began as a two-person operation in 2005 run out of his home. (He currently employs the equivalent of 25 full-time workers.) Due to his agitating that year, the air force investigated the Colorado Springs academy and substantiated many of the foundation's early findings: Football coach Fisher DeBerry had hung a "Team Jesus" banner in a locker room; Brigadier General Johnny Weida had taught a class a "J for Jesus" hand signal; and 250 faculty members and officers had signed a campus newspaper advertisement declaring, "We believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope in the world."

Since then, the academy has created a mandatory training session on religious sensitivity, a cadet interfaith council, and a religious pamphlet for commanders. Still, Weinstein says, it has spawned a generation or more of evangelical Christians who promote their faith with impunity in the Air Force at large. Take the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which he claims makes the academy look like the ACLU. Reportedly, at a mandatory retirement ceremony, a lieutenant colonel opened a Bible at the podium and used the occasion to conduct a sermon. (A spokesperson for the base did not respond to a request for comment.)

Weinstein continues his aggressive fight. In October, he returned to the Air Force Academy and delivered the invocation at his 30th class reunion. As he began speaking, a classmate stood up and screamed, "Jesus Christ!" Weinstein just kept talking. This month his foes discovered that he'd held a fundraiser for the foundation at the Los Angeles home of activist Jodie Evans. A few days after, Evans received a bomb threat in the mail. Weinstein long ago stopped believing that evangelicals in the military will grow more tolerant or less militant when faced with calm talk and logical reasoning. The Constitution is the only weapon there is against them, he says, and he has faith that it's a powerful one. "If you don't agree with me," he often scoffs, "then tell it to the judge."



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Friday, November 30, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pope blames atheism for world's woes

Pope Benedict XVI strongly criticized modern-day atheism in a major document released today, saying it had led to some of the "greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" ever known to mankind.

But in his second encyclical, Benedict also critically questioned modern Christianity, saying its focus on individual salvation had ignored Jesus' message that true Christian hope involves salvation for all.

"Saved by Hope" is a deeply theological exploration of Christian hope in the afterlife - that in the suffering and misery of daily life, Christianity provides the faithful with a "journey of hope" to the Kingdom of God.

"We must do all we can to overcome suffering, but to banish it from the world is not in our power," Benedict wrote. "Only God is able to do this."

In the 76-page document, Benedict elaborates on how the Christian understanding of hope had changed in the modern age, when man sought to relieve the suffering and injustice around him. Benedict points to two historical upheavals: the French Revolution and the proletarian revolution instigated by Karl Marx.

Benedict sharply criticizes Marx and the 19th and 20th century atheism spawned by his revolution, although he acknowledges that both were responding to the deep injustices of the time.

"A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God," he wrote. But he said the idea that man can do what God cannot by creating a new salvation on Earth was "both presumptuous and intrinsically false."

"It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice," he wrote. "A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope."

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Thursday, November 29, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Music minister and youth leader goes to prison for pedophilia

Christians rally in support of the minister

ASHEVILLE – A former church youth leader was sentenced to at least 14 years and four months in prison Wednesday after pleading guilty to seven counts of indecent liberties with a child.

The charges against Leonard Smith date back 20 years and involve three children. Three more serious charges, which were dropped in a plea bargain, date to 1976.

David Clement, spokesman for the extended family that brought charges against Smith, said he is pleased with the jail sentence.

“We knew him and his family for 30 years,” Clement said. “We trusted him and we loved him. … You can’t undo love, but if anybody needs the light turned on them, it’s a pedophile.”

Smith, 53, was music director and worked with the youths of Sycamore Temple Church of God in Christ in Asheville.

About 50 people turned out in support of Smith, and six ministers and three others testified in support of mercy in sentencing him. The other side of the courtroom, where the Clement family sat, was nearly empty.

“We have been ostracized,” Clement said. “Not one church leader has reached out to us.”

The Rev. Charles Mosley said he still sees Smith as a Christian man who has done good things in the church and the community.

“He is still needed in the church,” Mosley said. “He is still needed with the young people. He is still needed with the senior adults.”

Assistant District Attorney Kate Dreher jump-ed in, asking whether Mosley knew Smith was performing sex acts on boys.

“And you still say the youth need him?” she said.

Dreher called Smith “a pedophile masquerading as a man of God.”

Each of the nine people who testified on behalf of Smith said they believed he deserved punishment but each also asked for mercy.

“It hurts,” said the Rev. L.C. Ray, pastor of Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church and co-founder of the youth mentoring agency One Youth at a Time. “It really hurts. But I can’t get around the fact that God calls me to fall on the side of mercy.”

The Rev. Louis Grant, pastor of Little Mount Zion and Mount Carmel Baptist churches in West Asheville, called for the church to apologize.

He also said Smith should get counseling, and that both the Smith and Clement families should get counseling for all the damage that has been done.

Smith was arrested in May after a member of the Clement family said he had been molested by Smith, and then two other family members came forward.

Before Judge James Downs issued the sentence, Smith spoke to the court.

As he rose, weeping, his attorney, Todd Williams, told the judge Smith had been molested as a youth and never told anyone.

Smith, who uses a walker and has health problems, apologized to the Clement family and to his own family, and then tried to explain his actions.

“In these situations, the care and concern went a little too far,” he said. “I shouldn’t have overstepped my boundaries.”

Smith went on to describe the good deeds he had done for children. He also said he never “manipulated” any child in his care.

District Attorney Ron Moore said after the sentencing he was not impressed with Smith’s words.

“It was not much of an apology,” he said.

Downs sentenced Smith to 16-20 months in jail for each of four counts of indecent liberties with a child that happened after 1994, when sentencing laws changed, and three years each for the three counts that occurred before 1994, all to be served consecutively.

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