Update on the latest religion news


Relatives of Americans in Iran press for their release

WASHINGTON (AP) — Relatives of four Americans held in Iran are calling on the Obama administration to do more to press for their release during negotiations with Tehran on a nuclear deal.

The wife of American pastor Saeed Abedini said negotiators should “help bring my husband home before you consent to any deal.”

Joining her Tuesday at a congressional hearing were relatives of FBI agent Robert Levinson, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati.

Republican Congressman Matt Salmon said that in the nuclear negotiations with Iran he would insist that “any deal is dead without the release of these prisoners.”

Naghmeh Abedini said her husband, who has been held almost three years, has resisted pressure to deny his Christian faith despite threats and abuse.

After the relatives’ testimony, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution calling for the release of all Americans held in Iran.


205-w-31-(Steve Coleman, AP religion editor, with Naghmeh Abedini, wife of American pastor Saeed Abedini, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.)–Relatives of four Americans held in Iran are calling on the Obama administration to do more to press for their release during negotiations with Tehran on a nuclear deal. AP Religion Editor Steve Coleman reports. (2 Jun 2015)


208-a-10-(Naghmeh Abedini, wife of pastor Saeed Abedini, at House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing)-“to break him”-Naghmeh Abedini, wife of pastor Saeed Abedini, says her husband is being abused in his third year of captivity. (2 Jun 2015)


209-a-09-(Naghmeh Abedini, wife of pastor Saeed Abedini, at House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing)-“been with us”-Naghmeh Abedini, wife of pastor Saeed Abedini, says she’s been advocating constantly for her husband’s release. (2 Jun 2015)


207-a-03-(U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., at House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing)-“of these prisoners”-Arizona Congressman Matt Salmon says Congress should reject a nuclear agreement unless Iran frees the Americans it’s holding. ((cut used in wrap)) (2 Jun 2015)


206-a-07-(U.S. Rep. Daniel Kildee, D-Mich., at House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing)-“any negotiated agreement”-Michigan Congressman Daniel Kildee says Iran should free four Americans before any nuclear agreement is finalized. (2 Jun 2015)



Parents sue Hobart district over prayers at school events

HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) — An Indiana school district is being sued over prayers that are said before athletic events, graduations and school board meetings.

Parents Jim and Nichole Bellar say they want to prohibit the prayers from being said at events in the River Forest Community School Corp. in Hobart.

The Bellars say their son has participated on several teams and objects to coach-led sectarian prayers said before the games. They also object to prayers before or during school board meetings and at graduation. They say their son has felt ostracized by the prayers.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Gavin Rose told The Times newspaper of Munster that the prayers are a “serious and flagrant affront” to the First Amendment.

School officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.


Dormitory at Ohio megachurch can keep its tax exemption

AKRON, Ohio (AP) — A court says a dormitory associated with a televangelist’s Ohio megachurch qualifies for a tax exemption because it facilitates public worship by providing free lodging for people attending services.

Suburban Akron’s Grace Cathedral is home to televangelist Ernest Angley (AYNJ’-lee). His tactics at controlling his congregation by requiring some parishioners to have vasectomies and other methods were the subject of a newspaper investigation last year. He denied wrongdoing.

Ohio Supreme Court justices sided Tuesday with the church in a state Board of Tax Appeals challenge.

The state argued unsuccessfully that Grace Cathedral uses the dorm to support events intended to benefit its private for-profit subsidiaries, not the general public, and so was ineligible for a charitable exemption.

The church said dorms housed people attending live religious services whose global reach and impact classify them as public worship.


State: Man who said Holy Spirit guided him ran Ponzi scheme

BOSTON (AP) — The Massachusetts secretary of state’s office says a man who told investors that the Holy Spirit guided his trading system has been charged with running a Ponzi scheme.

Secretary of State William Galvin said in a complaint filed Tuesday that Uxbridge resident Charles Erickson defrauded at least 25 investors out of about $3.5 million.

Authorities say about a third of those recruited for the program attended the same church as Erickson, who claimed the Holy Spirit had given him a proprietary day-trading system for a volatile type of futures contract. Authorities say he guaranteed returns of 96 percent over two years.

Galvin says Erickson was paying monthly returns using capital reserves deposited by later investors.

A woman who answered the phone at Erickson’s home said they had no comment.


Utah defends anti-polygamy law, saying it prevents abuse

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — State attorneys defending Utah’s anti-polygamy law say it should stay on the books because it helps prevent abuse of women and children.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office laid out the argument in new court documents appealing a ruling in favor of reality show star Kody Brown that struck down key parts of the law.

An attorney for Brown and his four wives contends that their TV show “Sister Wives” is evidence that polygamous unions aren’t necessarily abusive.

The state’s appeal comes after a federal judge ruled in December 2013 that a provision of the Utah law forbidding cohabitation violated the polygamous family’s freedom of religion.

Advocacy groups for polygamy and individual liberties hailed it as a landmark decision that removed the threat of arrest for Utah’s plural families.


France awaits Vatican word on ambassador said to be gay

PARIS (AP) — The French government is expecting the Vatican to decide within days whether to approve the nomination of a respected diplomat who is said to be gay as French ambassador to the Holy See.

Paris is hoping that Laurent Stefanini wins approval five months after the French presidential palace submitted his nomination. The French government is awaiting a response via Vatican diplomatic channels within a week to 10 days, a French official told The Associated Press.

The Vatican spokesman declined to comment.

Gay rights groups have accused the Vatican of delaying a decision because of Stefanini’s sexual orientation. Such decisions normally take just a few weeks.

French Catholic newspaper La Croix has reported that the Vatican might see the nomination as a “provocation.”


Report: Schools for Canada First Nations ‘cultural genocide’

TORONTO (AP) — A Canadian commission says the decades-long government policy requiring First Nation children to attend state-funded church schools was “nothing less than cultural genocide.”

From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were required to attend Christian schools to rid them of their native cultures and languages and integrate them into mainstream Canadian society.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report is the result of a six-year study. First Nation leaders have cited the legacy of physical and sexual abuse and isolation as the root cause of epidemic substance abuse on Canadian reservations.


Congregation at oldest US synagogue felt ‘blackmailed’

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A board member of the congregation that worships at the oldest synagogue in the U.S. says they felt “blackmailed” by the nation’s first Jewish congregation in a dispute over the sale of ceremonial bells for $7 million.

Lawsuits over control of Newport’s Touro Synagogue are being heard in federal court in Rhode Island.

David Bazarsky said Tuesday the congregation agreed to sell the bells to a museum only because they’d be on display to the public, and they wanted an endowment so Touro could operate in perpetuity.

Touro is owned by New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel. Newport says it acts only as trustee.

Bazarsky says Shearith Israel hasn’t been involved at Touro, even when asked for help.

Shearith Israel’s lawyer submitted documents showing New York’s involvement and relationship with Touro.


Israeli bank chief warns about demographic economic fallout

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s central bank chief says the low employment rate among ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and Arab women is hindering growth.

Ultra-Orthodox men often avoid the workforce and collect welfare stipends while continuing to study religion full time. Due to its high birthrates and unemployment, the ultra-Orthodox community is among the poorest in Israel.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage. They say outside forces are putting their ancient brand of Judaism under siege and that integration into the secular military and workforce will undermine their lifestyle.

Arabs, meanwhile, complain of poor education systems and lack of employment opportunities compared to Israeli Jews.


Israeli military punishes soldier for eating a pork sandwich

JERUSALEM (AP) — A U.S.-born Israeli soldier is deep in the mud after pigging out during training.

The military sentenced the soldier to 11 days in prison for eating a pork sandwich during a break in his commander’s course. The punishment was replaced with confinement to base after relatives made a stink in the media, and a lawmaker wrote the defense minister on his behalf.

As the Jewish state’s military, Israel’s army maintains kosher kitchens on its bases. The soldier, a recent immigrant from Boston who was not named, said he was unaware of the army’s dietary restrictions and was merely snacking on a lunch that his secular grandmother had made him.

The military said Tuesday that the trainee “violated rules and regulations and his commanders thought it necessary to discipline accordingly.”


Romanian St. George mural painted over after criticism

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — When a gigantic mural of St. George appeared next to a historic church dedicated to the revered figure, many hailed it as a brilliant piece of street art. But the influential Romanian Orthodox Church was not amused.

The surreal interpretation, replete with a faceless saint and a masked unicorn with a pink tail, went up just yards from the 18th century church — triggering outrage from priests and pious residents. Days later it was painted over.

The church denies having a hand in erasing the mural and insists it is opposed to censorship. The perpetrator of the whitewashing remains a mystery.

More than 80 percent of Romanians belong to the Orthodox Church, and some people in the neighborhood said the mural was disrespectful of traditional Orthodox artwork. By European standards, Romanians are fervently religious. Support for the church surged after communism ended in 1989.