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Location: Tallahassee, Florida, United States welcomes all opinions from any religion or viewpoint in the common appreciation of Chick tracts. This blog, however, will highlight religious events and controversies that would be of special interest to regular Chick readers. You don't have to agree with them or each other, but if you read Chick tracts or Battlecry, you might expect these type stories to be addressed. (Sorry, no personal attacks allowed.) All main postings are from writers and any responses are from the public

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Terror Plots Continue

Intelligence agencies have uncovered a sophisticated al-Qaida plot to kidnap and murder tourists at landmarks across Europe, allegedly modeled after the 2008 Mumbai siege that left nearly 200 people dead in hotels, cafes and a train station in India.

The plot has been thwarted by the CIA, which launched a recent barrage of drone strikes against Pakistani militants in the mountainous border region with Afghanistan, a senior U.S. intelligence official told Fox News.

So far European security officials haven't raised their national terror warning levels. The Eiffel Tower was briefly evacuated late Tuesday after someone called in a bomb threat from a telephone booth. Nothing was found, but it was the second such threat there in two weeks.

The plan by al-Qaida and possibly Taliban organizers was in an "advanced but not imminent stage," and suspects had been under surveillance by Western spy agencies "for some time," Sky News reported. Several of them were killed in the drone attacks, it said.

An unidentified British official told The Associated Press the plot had an "Islamist connection" but wouldn't confirm it was "al-Qaida inspired."

Meanwhile, a German counterterrorism official told CNN that a German citizen of Afghan descent, Ahmed Sidiqi, is the source of intelligence on the plot. Sidiqi was detained in Kabul in July and transferred to U.S. custody, where he "revealed details about the terror plot," the official said. Sidiqi used to attend the same mosque in Hamburg where al-Qaida militants met to plan the Sept. 11 attacks, the official said.

And in Spain, a U.S. citizen of Algerian descent has been arrested on suspicion of fundraising for al-Qaida's North African branch, police told Reuters today. It's unclear whether his arrest is connected at all to the larger European plot.

The CIA has launched a record number of more than 20 drone strikes in Pakistan so far this month to thwart the plot, The Wall Street Journal reported. American officials are also looking into whether the planned attacks in Europe might have extended to targets inside the U.S. as well, it said. But another U.S. official told NBC News that no U.S. link has been discovered.

Four people were killed in a suspected U.S. missile strike in Pakistan's South Waziristan region on Tuesday, but it's unclear whether they were connected to the alleged plot.

Without referring to the latest plot, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate hearing last week that "increased activity" by militant groups signals a heightened threat to Western targets.

"We are all seeing increased activity by a more diverse set of groups and a more diverse set of threats," Napolitano said, according to Al-Jazeera. The growing threat is "directed at the West generally," she said. See Chick's SKY LIGHTER.

Obama Campaigns On Christianity

In an effort to combat the perception that he's a Christian in name only, President Obama spoke about his religion on Tuesday, telling residents in New Mexico that he is a "Christian by choice" who came to religion later in life after being inspired by the teachings of Jesus Christ.

During a stop at the home of an Albuquerque school teacher and her husband, a disabled veteran, the president spoke about the economy, education, abortion, the upcoming elections, and why he believes the Republican agenda would set the country back on the wrong path.

But it was a question about religion that garnered one of Obama's longest responses. "Why are you a Christian?," he was asked.

The president said while his mother was "spiritual", he wasn't raised as a churchgoer. It was only as an adult did he embrace Christianity.

"And it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead -- being my brothers' and sisters' keeper, treating others as they would treat me," Obama said, adding that his public service is "part of that effort to express my Christian faith."

Obama said that as president he's "also somebody who deeply believes that part of the bedrock strength of this country is that it embraces people of many faiths and of no faith." He said while the country "is still predominantly Christian... we have Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and... their own path to grace is one that we have to revere and respect as much as our own."

Obama has faced criticism from Americans who have questioned his Christianity and even accused him of being a Muslim. His campaigned was almost derailed when video tapes revealed his church minister engaged in racist rants, and Obama incurred public outage more recently when he sided with building a mosque next to "ground zero", where nearly 3,000 Americans were murdered by terrorists motivated (at least in part) by Islam.

Tuesday's stop was part of a four-state campaign swing as he tries to rally Democrats to get out the vote in November's election. Democrats are expected to lose their House majority and perhaps even the Senate if current poll numbers continue their downward slide. See Chick's THE GREAT ONE.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Muslims Target Female Cartoonist

A Seattle cartoonist who became the target of a death threat with a satirical piece called "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" has gone into hiding on the advice of the FBI.

Seattle Weekly editor-in-chief Mark D. Fefer announced in Wednesday's issue that Molly Norris' comic would no longer appear in the paper.

Fefer wrote that the FBI advised Norris to move, change her name and wipe away her identity because of a religious edict issued this summer that threatened her life.

"She is, in effect, being put in a witness-protection program — except, as she notes, without the government picking up the tab," Fefer wrote. He told The Associated Press on Thursday that he had nothing further to say because it's a sensitive situation.

The FBI also declined to comment Thursday. David Gomez, the FBI's special agent in charge of counterterrorism in Seattle, told the New York Daily News in July that the agency was doing everything it could to protect individuals on a fatwa list issued by Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Awlaki said in the June issue of English-language Muslim youth magazine "Inspire" that Norris is a "prime target" who should reside in "Hellfire."

Norris' cartoon inspired a Facebook page that caught the attention of authorities in Pakistan, who banned the social networking site in response.

Most Muslims regard any depiction of the prophet, even favorable ones, as blasphemous.

The Facebook page encouraged people to post images of Mohammed to protest threats against the creators of the American TV series "South Park" for depicting the prophet in a bear suit during an episode earlier this year.

Although the Facebook page was taken down by its creator, references to the page and to Norris' cartoon remain online.

Norris wrote in a post on her website that she meant her work only to be a commentary on the "South Park" controversy.

"I made a cartoon about the television show South Park being censored," she wrote. "I never started a Facebook page. I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this 'day' be called off."

Her cartoon posted at the end of April declared May 20, 2010, as the first annual "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," and depicts a group of colorful animated objects under the headline: "Will the real likeness of the prophet Mohammed
please stand up?!" The cartoon says it is sponsored by "Citizens against Citizens against Humor."

That fictional group now has its own website featuring cartoons and comments.

Attempts to reach Norris for comment were unsuccessful because her telephone number is not listed. Her website has been taken down.

It is not the first time that images of the prophet have sparked anger.

Pakistan and other Muslim countries saw large and sometimes violent protests in 2006 when a Danish newspaper published cartoons of Muhammad, and again in 2008 when they were reprinted. Later the same year, a suspected al-Qaida suicide bomber attacked the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, killing six people. See Chick's MEN OF PEACE?

Vatican To Baptize Aliens?

The Pope's Astronomer, Guy Consolmagno, says that intelligent life elsewhere is probable, but believes that we are unlikely ever to encounter it.

Intelligent aliens may be living among the stars and are likely to have souls, a senior Vatican scientist said yesterday.

The Pope's astronomer, Guy Consolmagno, said he would be happy to 'baptise an alien' - but admitted that the chances of communicating with life outside the Earth were low.

Speaking at the British Science Festival in Birmingham, Dr Consolmagno also dismissed Creationism and claimed that the revival of 'intelligent design' - the controversial theory that only God can explain gaps in the theory of evolution - was 'bad theology'.

Dr Consolmagno, one of a team of 12 astronomers working for the Vatican, said the Catholic Church had been supporting and funding science for centuries.

A self-confessed science fiction fan, he said he was 'comfortable' with the idea of alien life.

Asked if he would baptise an alien, he replied: 'Only if they asked.' He added: 'I'd be delighted if we found life elsewhere and delighted if we found intelligent life elsewhere.

'But the odds of us finding it, of it being intelligent and us being able to communicate with it - when you add them up it's probably not a practical question.' See Chick's "WHY IS MARY CRYING?"

Friday, September 24, 2010

Prosperity Preacher Under Fire For Gay Affairs

Embattled Bishop Eddie Long is not only the pastor of a megachurch but the leader of a spiritual empire who is unapologetic about his success.

"We're not just a church, we're an international corporation," Long told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2005, as he defended himself against criticism that he had profited too generously from a charity his church created. Between 1997 and 2000, the pastor earned $3 million from the charity, Bishop Eddie Long Ministries Inc., the paper showed.

The North Carolina-born pastor seemed to bristle at the suggestion that he was being overcompensated for his work.

"We're not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can't talk and all we're doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation," Long told the paper. "You've got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that's supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering."

Now, the 57-year-old preacher is battling accusations that he used that influence to coerce young men in his church into having sexual relationships with him, something the married pastor and father of four has vehemently denied through surrogates. But as a major evangelical figure who preaches against homosexuality -- and one who has far from avoided the limelight in his meteoric rise -- the pastor will find it hard to escape scrutiny.

When he arrived at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in 1987, it was home to just a few hundred members, according to its website. Over the past two decades, though, thousands began to flock to the church as the pastor's prominence grew. Long became a popular televangelist with his weekly TV show and authored numerous books about faith and relationships, including one called, "What a Man Wants, What a Woman Needs."

Today, the suburban Atlanta church has more than 25,000 members, making it one of the largest in the country. It boasts a school, a youth fellowship for young men called LongFellows Academy and a list of well-heeled and well-connected congregants from Atlanta's black upper class. And at its center is Long, a flashy and charismatic leader who wears diamonds, lives in a $1 million home and has hosted heads of state such as President Bill Clinton.

Long's lifestyle doesn't resonate with everyone, however. Julian Bond, a former head of the NAACP and a longtime rights activist, said the pastor's gospel is one of financial success.

"He is a prosperity minister," Bond told AOL News today in a phone interview. "He preaches that if you follow his teachings then you will become rich. So it's not as much about salvation as it is about putting cash in your pockets. And he puts cash in his pockets too. He's extravagantly paid."

In 2007, Long attracted the attention of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who demanded that Long and five other prominent pastors turn over their financial records to determine whether they were abusing their tax-exempt status. At the time, Long called the probe "unjust," "intrusive" and "an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights," according to WSB-TV.

Supporters also pointed out that Long's church has given generously to charity and has worked to help drug addicts and the homeless. And many of his congregants are standing behind him. Samuel Midgette, 40, said he doesn't believe the allegations, in part because of how often Long speaks about his wife. "A man who talks about his wife as much as he do ... I can't see it. Unless I'm blind," Midgette told AOL News in a phone interview this week.

The pastor's outspoken views on homosexuality have come under particular scrutiny since four men in his church filed lawsuits this week accusing Long of using cash and cars to coerce them into having sexual relationships with him as teenagers.

Long, who is married to Vanessa Griffin Long, has called homosexuality and lesbianism "spiritual abortions" and helped start a group at his church called "Out of the Wilderness" to help gay members live a heterosexual lifestyle.

Bond described the pastor today as a "raving homophobe." In 2006, when New Birth was chosen as the site of the funeral for Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, Coretta Scott King, Bond refused to attend. He said homophobia is prevalent in many black churches. "It's sad. It's religious-based, and it's based on ignorance," Bond said today.

Lester Spence, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, said the allegations against the pastor are likely to hit the congregation hard. "People who are members at that church probably felt better about themselves because they are members," he told The Associated Press. "Now there are a bunch of people trying to figure out what their place is, what's going to happen to the church and what's going to happen to them."

Long is expected to address the allegations directly at his church on Sunday. On his Twitter account Thursday, he thanked his supporters. "Thanks for all your prayers and support! Love you all," he wrote.

Long's lawyer did not return calls for comment. See Chick's SIN CITY.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rep. Jesse Jackson Defends Infidelity

Rep. Jesse Jackson says he's "deeply sorry" about his "social" relationship with a woman other than his wife, but he denied a separate allegation that he directed a Chicago-area businessman to offer former Gov. Rod Blagojevich $6 million in exchange for a vacant U.S. Senate seat.

"I know I have disappointed some supporters, and for that I am deeply sorry," he said, according the Chicago Sun-Times. "But I remain committed to serving my constituents and fighting on their behalf."

The Chicago newspaper said Oak Brook businessman Raghuveer Nayak, a Jackson fundraiser, has told federal authorities that Jackson asked him to offer Blagojevich $6 million if the then-governor would name him to Barack Obama's Senate seat in 2009. Nayak also said, at Jackson's request, he paid for two plane trips between Chicago and Washington for a restaurant hostess named Giovana Huidobro.

Jackson (D-Ill.) acknowledged knowing Huidobro, calling her a "social acquaintance." That's a private matter, he said "between me and my wife that was handled some time ago. I ask you to respect our privacy." Having a third party pay for flights would appear to constitute gifts to a congressman, which must be reported in ethics disclosure statements, the Sun-Times said. But Jackson made no such disclosures in his House ethics filings.

As for any offer to Blagojevich, Jackson said the charges about fundraising and the Senate seat were not new. "I've already talked with the authorities about these claims, told hem they were false, and no charges have been brought against me."

Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office by the Illinois legislature. His first federal trial on corruption charges -- including the claim that he tried to sell the Obama seat -- ended in a hung jury on 23 counts and one conviction for lying to the FBI.

Jackson, in his eighth term, is the son of civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson. See Chick's BUSTED.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Italian Ice Cream Ad In Trouble

Britain's advertising watchdog has banned an Italian ice cream ad featuring a pregnant nun, saying it causes offense to Catholics.

The magazine ad for ice cream maker Antonio Federici showed the nun eating a tub of ice cream, with text that read: "Immaculately conceived ... Ice cream is our religion."

The Advertising Standards Authority said Wednesday it has received 10 complaints from magazine readers who said the ad was offensive to Christians. The agency said imagery used to illustrate immaculate conception was likely to be seen as mocking the beliefs of Roman Catholics.

The Italian company said the idea of conception represented the development of their ice cream and the ad aimed to gently satirize religion. Good thing they didn't satirize Italy's past in the same tone. They might have featured Italian Jews in Nazi chains pushing a giant wheel to turn the cream. It is doubtful many would be amused by a logo claiming, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for Italian Ice Cream!" See Chick's THE MAD MACHINE.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Suicide Sect" Found Unharmed.

The leader of a religious sect was hospitalized for a psychiatric evaluation today after members of the group left farewell messages for relatives saying they were going to heaven to meet Jesus.

The messages frightened relatives and police, thinking the group might be planning a mass suicide, and a massive search was launched for the 13 sect members. The five adults and eight children were found safe late this morning, praying in a Los Angeles-area park, police said.

Police said Chicas gave them a false name during questioning and began rambling, the AP and the Times said.

Authorities had earlier issued a public plea for members of the sect to contact them.

They are members are part of a "religious off-shoot group" that's "cult-like" and "fundamentalist in nature," Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore told KTLA, a local TV station, earlier. "If you're watching this, come home," he said in a plea on live TV. "Come home alive to the people who care for you."

In addition to Chicas, the group included three sisters, Salvadoran immigrants ages 30, 32 and 40, an 18-year-old son and eight children aged 3 to 17.

The search began Saturday afternoon when two husbands went to a sheriff's station to report their wives missing, and told authorities they suspected the women had joined a cult that broke off from a mainstream Christian church in northern Los Angeles County, San Diego's Channel 6 TV station reported.

One of the men told investigators he was ordered to guard and pray over a purse, but after several hours he got suspicious and looked inside. He found five cell phones, ID cards, deeds and letters in English and Spanish, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"The letters essentially state that they are all going to heaven shortly to meet Jesus and their deceased relatives," the California governor's office said, according to CNN. "Numerous letters found say goodbye to their relatives. It is believed, through further investigation, that the missing persons' intentions are to commit mass suicide."

One of the husbands told investigators that he believes his wife and the other missing people were brainwashed by Chicas, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Police put out an APB for three vehicles and used helicopters to scan Antelope Valley, a nearby area mentioned in some of the letters left behind. They also searching Vasquez Rocks, another wilderness spot where authorities believe the group had planned to go six months ago to wait then for the apocalypse or other catastrophic event. That previous trip was called off after a cult member told relatives about their plans.

All 13 members of the sect were spotted late this morning at Jackie Robinson Park in Palmdale, Whitmore said.

Sheriff's Capt. Mike Parker told the Los Angeles Times the group members were cooperative with authorities. They told police they were praying to end school violence and sexual immorality.

Paker said the group were surprised to learn there there fears they might commit suicide. "They seemed shocked," Parker told the Times. "They said we are Christians, and we would never harm ourselves."

Another California Cult Suicide

Police in southern California are searching for 13 alleged members of a cult -- five adults and eight of their children -- who left behind notes saying they're awaiting "the Rapture" and telling relatives farewell.

The missing are all El Salvadoran immigrants and include three sisters ages 30, 32 and 40, an 18-year-old son and eight children aged 3 to 17.

The search began Saturday afternoon when two husbands went to a sheriff's station to report their wives missing, and told authorities they suspected the women had joined a cult that broke off from a mainstream Christian church in northern Los Angeles County, San Diego's Channel 6 TV station reported.

One of the men told investigators he was ordered to guard and pray over a purse, but after several hours he got suspicious and looked inside. He found five cell phones, ID cards, deeds and letters in English and Spanish, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"The letters essentially state that they are all going to heaven shortly to meet Jesus and their deceased relatives," the California governor's office said, according to CNN. "Numerous letters found say goodbye to their relatives. It is believed, through further investigation, that the missing persons' intentions are to commit mass suicide."

One of the husbands told investigators that he believes his wife and the other missing people were brainwashed by the cult's leader, Reyna Marisol Chicas, and that they may be at risk, the L.A. Times reported.

California highway patrol have put out an alert for three vehicles: a silver Toyota Tundra pickup, a 1995 Mercury Villager and a 2004 white Nissan, according to The Associated Press.

Police helicopters are scanning Antelope Valley, a nearby area mentioned in some of the letters left behind. They're also searching Vasquez Rocks, another wilderness spot where authorities believe the group had planned to go six months ago to wait then for the apocalypse or other catastrophic event. That previous trip was called off after a cult member told relatives about their plans. See Chick's NO FEAR.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pope Visits Angry UK

LEEDS, England (Sept. 15) -- England has been a thorn in the side of the Vatican since the days of Henry VIII. And Thursday's planned papal visit -- the first-ever state trip to Britain by any pontiff in history -- isn't likely to be any different.

When Pope Benedict XVI arrives here for a four-day stay, he's likely to find a more secular, belligerent Britain than ever before -- a country just as ready to thumb its nose at papal authority as it was in the 16th century. Throngs of protesters are expected to greet him in Scotland, London and Birmingham, angry about the price tag for his trip, the church's sex abuse scandal and its increasingly isolated stances on contraception, homosexuality and abortion.

Pope John Paul II visited England and Wales in 1982 on a so-called pastoral visit, which essentially means the Vatican paid his way. That was a religious mission, funded by the Catholic Church.

This time, Benedict is coming to Britain supposedly on state business, as head of the independent country of Vatican City -- meaning the British taxpayer will foot part of the bill for his security and hotels, as it does when President Barack Obama or any other head of state comes to town. He's expected to rack up a tab of up to $30 million -- a figure Britons aren't stomaching too well amid the worst economic recession since World War II.

"The British government doesn't fund visits by the grand mufti of Mecca or the chief rabbi of Jerusalem. Why should the pope get privileged financial support?" human rights activist Peter Tatchell, one of the organizers of the Protest the Pope campaign, told a news conference Tuesday in London. More than 2,500 supporters have joined a Facebook group for the drive.

Some 77 percent of people surveyed by The Guardian said British taxpayers shouldn't have to contribute to the cost of the pope's trip, and 79 percent said they have "no personal interest" in the visit. "Pope Nope" T-shirts are selling fast online.

The idea that the pope is a head of state, with full diplomatic immunity and benefits, has irked a vocal cadre of English atheists inspired by the authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who are trying to get Benedict's diplomatic status overturned -- potentially making him vulnerable to criminal charges for priestly abuse that happened on his watch (and John Paul's).

Because Vatican City isn't recognized as a state by the United Nations, its head might not necessarily be entitled to diplomatic immunity, Dawkins told The Sunday Times earlier this year. Theoretically, Interpol could put out an arrest warrant for the pope.

"This man is not above or outside the law. The institutionalized concealment of child rape is a crime under any law and demands not private ceremonies of repentance or church-funded payoffs, but justice and punishment," Hitchens told the same paper.

But a papal arrest isn't likely to happen on this trip, said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society and one of the organizers of this week's demonstrations. The pope's diplomatic immunity depends on how Britain, not the U.N., views Vatican City -- as a sovereign state, at least for now.

"We have now discovered that there is no real prospect of a prosecution being made against the pope. Until the status of the Vatican is really sorted out, whether it's a state or not, the pope is safe from any kind of legal challenge," Sanderson told told The Daily Telegraph.

Advocates for church abuse victims, who are gathering for protests this weekend in London, say the pope's legal status doesn't matter much to them, as long as the church stops its alleged cover-up of crimes by pedophile priests.

"It's not our issue whether he's the head of a religion or head of state, but he should be accountable for what he's done," said Barbara Dorris, outreach director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "Anybody who commits a crime should be subject to the laws of that country. If the pope has committed crimes, he should be held accountable."

Dorris spoke to AOL News by telephone from Dublin, where she was meeting with abuse survivors. She heads to London on Friday to join the chorus of papal dissenters.

Meanwhile, all this dissonance over the pope's upcoming visit has forced British Catholics to confront uncomfortable realities about their church and faith.

"You can't change what's happened in the past. The pope may or may not be responsible [for covering up sex abuse], but let's concentrate on the future, not the past," Lisa Hadley, a 43-year-old Catholic from Yorkshire, told AOL News. "The whole abuse scandal is horrendous but I don't let it affect my faith -- I need it more than ever now."

Hadley, whose 12-year-old daughter is one of 2,000 students chosen to sing at the pope's Birmingham mass on Sunday, said she feels increasingly alone as Britain grows more secular. "I talk about my faith. I tell people we go to church every Sunday. I know it's rare in England, certainly among my neighbors and friends," she said.

A recent survey by the U.K.'s National Centre for Social Research revealed that only 17 percent of Britons believe firmly that God exists, and only 6 percent said they faithfully follow religious leaders when it comes to matters of right and wrong.

Those are sobering numbers for Benedict, a German whose appointment in 2005 was seen by some as a last-ditch effort by the church to re-invigorate Catholicism in an increasingly secular Europe. Last year, Benedict launched what some saw as a controversial recruitment drive in Britain by inviting dissident clergy from the Church of England to defect to Catholicism. His offer was aimed at conservative Anglicans offended by their church's move toward ordination of gay bishops and women, which has divided the Anglican Communion.

Benedict's initiative was seen both as a gesture toward unity between the two churches, and as an affront to Anglican sovereignty. He risks the same reaction on Sunday, when he beatifies Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th-century Anglican who defected to the Catholic Church. The beatification of Newman is the main event of the pope's U.K. trip, putting a figure who betrayed the Church of England one step closer to sainthood.

On Friday, Benedict will also visit Westminster Hall, a medieval chamber inside Britain's parliament where Thomas More, a Catholic aide to King Henry VIII, was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1535. Catholics consider More a martyr and saint for refusing to condone Henry's marriage annulment -- the event that sparked the English Reformation.

Outside a Catholic Church in Yorkshire, Hadley said she believes the pope's visit will help heal divisions that split England's faithful nearly 500 years ago.

"We're all Christians whether we're Catholic or follow the Church of England, and many of us increasingly don't even believe at all," she said. "I hope there aren't protests but I guess people are entitled to their opinions." See Chick's THE POOR POPE.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Texas Town: Insensitivity Evil, Stealing Heroic

A shirtless skateboarder has become an Internet sensation after he foiled an attempted Quran burning by a radical evangelist in Texas on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Amarillo Globe-News reports that skateboard-toting Jacob Isom, 23, grabbed the Muslim holy book from David Grisham -- head of the Christian activist group Repent Amarillo -- on Saturday as the evangelist argued with a group of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists who were protesting the planned torching.

"I snuck up behind him and took his Quran," Isom told KFDA-TV. "He said something about burning the Quran. I said, 'Dude, you have no Quran,' and ran off." That video went viral and, T-shirts, badges and baseball caps boasting a book-wielding skateboarder were soon on sale across the Internet. And the Facebook page of "Amarillo Citizens Against Repent Amarillo" had by this morning clocked up more than 3,400 fans, up from 35 on Friday.

Isom -- part of a 200-strong group of protesters, mostly recruited by a local Unitarian Universalist congregation -- described himself to the Globe-News as an "atheist concerned with religious liberty."

"I believe in freedom for everyone and not to mess with everybody's beliefs," he told the paper. "I don't believe in the Quran. I believe you shouldn't burn it in front of people that do."

After snatching the kerosene-covered book from Grisham, Isom handed it to Dennis Cobbins, an imam at the Islamic Center of Amarillo. Cobbins says he was overwhelmed by the support he'd received from the community. "The city we live in has zero tolerance for bigotry," he told the paper.

Grisham -- known locally for extremist acts, such as demanding his supporters boycott Houston because of its "social ills" -- left the park peacefully, to cheers from demonstrators waving crosses and "Love Thy Neighbor" banners. However, speaking to the Globe-News, he declared it ironic that Isom was praised for his actions -- which he calls "theft" -- while he was denied his right to free speech.

He says he bears no hard feelings toward the skateboarder, though, and doesn't plan to press charges.

Isom, meanwhile, plans to cash in on his new-found fame by auctioning off the skateboard he had with him at the weekend. "Maybe [I'll] get a new skateboard and something to go with it," he told the Globe-News. See Chick's THE TRIAL.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Reid Plots New Pro-Gay Vote Before Elections

Facing the potential loss of a liberal majority in November, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is set to push for a vote of a defense appropriations bill that would repeal the policy that forbids gays and lesbians from openly serving in the U.S. military.

Just days after an activist federal judge in California ruled that the "don't ask, don't tell" guidelines violated the First and Fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the Washington Blade reported that Reid would include the wording that would effectively do away with DADT as part of a defense authorization bill that will come to the Senate floor for a vote next week.

An aide to Reid, who is locked in a difficult re-election contest with tea party candidate Sharron Angle, says the majority leader is "hopeful" he will have the votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.

"Don't ask, don't tell" was put into place in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton. It prohibits gays and lesbians from openly divulging their sexuality while serving in the military. Soldiers who do reveal their homosexuality, or are outed, are frequently honorably discharged for violating the policy.

The House of Representatives has already approved the Murphy amendment, which repeals DADT pending a study by the Department of Defense. Democrats want to overturn the law before the military survey shows opposition to the measure. See Chick's DOOM TOWN.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Koran Burning Called Off (Until Mosque Is Built)

The Florida pastor who threatened to burn Korans to mark 9/11 and in the process became the center of a domestic and global maelstrom said Saturday morning that he had definitively canceled the book burning because he had accomplished his mission of revealing Islam to harbor dangerous elements.

"Not today, not ever. We are not going to go back and do it" -- burn the Koran. "It is totally canceled," Pastor Terry Jones told NBC's "Today" show.

Jones had traveled to New York late Friday night following several days of often bizarre brinkmanship as he suddenly made moving the controversy-plagued Islamic center planned near Ground Zero a condition of his canceling the Koran-burning ritual, which was originally set for 6 p.m. Saturday on the grounds of his small, fundamentalist Gainesville church.

Jones told NBC that he came to New York hoping to meet with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, leader of the Cordoba Initiative that is planning to build the mosque, but had no meeting scheduled.

He said that while he hoped to meet Rauf and convince him to move the mosque, he felt his threats to burn some 200 copies of the Koran had fulfilled his goal and that God was telling him to stand down. (If the mosque is built, it is likely other groups like the Westboror Baptist Church will burn the Koran in response. So in effect, it's up to mosque builders if they want to burn the Korans or not.)

"We feel when we started this out that one of our reasons was to show, to expose that there is an element in Islam that is very dangerous and very radical," Jones said. "I believe that we have definitely accomplished that mission."

Jones said the fact that he has received more than 100 death threats without yet burning a Koran, Islam's sacred text, was proof of his views.

Appearing just an hour before the city and the nation would mark the moment nine years ago when the first plane hit the tower at the World Trade Center, Jones -- pastor of a Pentecostal-style 50-member church called the Dove World Outreach Center -- paused dramatically when he was asked directly if the Koran-burning was off. He sighed heavily, and after a moment said it was canceled and would never happen.

Jones also again compared his actions to the biblical story of Abraham, whom God told to sacrifice his son Isaac on a mountaintop. Abraham was set to do the deed when an angel stayed his hand, and God provided a ram to sacrifice instead. Jones said he "was also called to do something crazy," and now God at the last moment indicated he should hold off.

"Of course, Abraham was much wiser than us -- he told no one," Jones said.

Jones and his church had drawn international condemnation and domestic pressure to stop his "stunt" (in President Obama's words) from military, political and religious leaders, from the Pentagon to the Vatican, from Jones' fellow Pentecostals to pundits and pols like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.

In recent days Jones for the first time raised the prospect of halting his plans if the Mosque in New York would be moved. Controversy over the Ground Zero mosque is widely seen as having primed public attention so that Jones, while a fringe figure, could become the focus of global attention and condemnation with his plans to burn the Koran.

Jones said Saturday he hoped his "first step" in canceling the book burning would open the door to dialogue with Rauf and leaders of the Islamic center project. Rauf has said he is willing to meet anyone of goodwill, and Jones said negotiations were ongoing.

Jones categorically denied that his plan, which he first announced in July as "International Burn a Koran day," was a publicity stunt to draw attention to himself and his church.

Jones, author of a book called "Islam Is of the Devil," was accompanied to the "Today" show interview by his assistant pastor, Wayne Sapp. When asked his views of Islam, Sapp offered a somewhat more nuanced view than the men have expressed previously, going so far as to compare radical elements of Islam to radical elements in Christianity.

"As there are in denominations in Christianity as well, I believe there are facets in Islam as well that push one element more than others," Sapp said. "But that element is alive and well throughout the entire religion." It is also worth noting that the vast majority of Christians publicly objected to burning the Koran because it was insensitive and provocative, but very few Muslims discouraged the building of the Mosque next to the grave of 3,000 victims murdered in the name of their religion. It is also interesting to note that Muslims rioted over the threat of their holy book could be burned by Christians in America, but when it was discovered that the Obama-led military had burned Christian Bibles in Afghanistan, no riots or protests were made. See Chick's MEN OF PEACE?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

China Continues Bullying Those Who Oppose Forced Abortions

Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng was freed Thursday after four years in jail, to find the Chinese civil rights movement he helped pioneer weak, but lawyers still in the fight.

Mr. Chen, a self-taught “barefoot lawyer,” earned worldwide fame for calling attention to forced abortions and sterilizations as part of China’s one-child policy, and for helping people seek legal redress for official injustices.

He and two like-minded lawyers were jailed, however, and the Chinese government has since cracked down hard on lawyers pursuing human rights or public interest litigation.

“It is rare now that lawyers are jailed, like Chen Guangcheng, but government repression of human rights activists and lawyers is worse than four years ago and more common,” says Jiang Tianyong, a former lawyer who was disbarred last year.

Chen was a leader of the first generation of Chinese civil rights activists, encouraged by signs that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao wanted to widen avenues of legal redress for injustice so as to dampen popular discontent.

The government changed tack, however, and in 2006 Chen was arrested. A prominent human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was also jailed, as was another member of his firm Guo Feixiong, who had represented villagers alleging official corruption. Mr. Gao has now disappeared, and is believed to be in government hands. Mr. Guo remains in prison.

Last year the authorities “shifted from individual repression of lawyers to collective punishment,” says Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong based researcher for Human Rights Watch. Around 20 of the country’s most outspoken civil rights lawyers were threatened with the loss of their professional licenses.

Mr. Jiang was among them; he had successfully defended a Tibetan monk accused of concealing weapons. “We took sensitive cases and we did not listen to the Beijing Judicial Bureau’s orders” he says, explaining the trouble he ran into.

Eventually only Jiang and four others did not get their licenses renewed. But almost all of the rest were forced out of the law firms they had worked for, he says.

Instead of arresting lawyers, the government now restrains them in more subtle ways, explains Jiang. The authorities do not renew their licenses, communist party committees have been set up in law firms to keep a closer eye on them, and law firm partners are pressured to fire recalcitrant members of their firms.

Sometimes the authorities simply close law practices that do not bow to their demands. The Beijing-based An Hui firm that refused to sack Tang Jitian, a lawyer who lost his license last April after representing members of the outlawed Falun Gong religious movement, failed its annual government check and is no longer allowed to operate.

“These are all very effective measures” says Jiang. “Before they would just warn us and if we weren’t afraid we’d take the case anyway. That’s not true any more.”

At the same time, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) seeking to use the courts to advance their social causes “have less room for maneuver” than they once did, says Prof. Balme.

They could be forgiven for feeling intimidated: Gongmeng, a prominent group with strong international support, was closed last year on tax grounds after taking up the cases of victims of poisoned milk powder. A well-known womens’ legal aid center was expelled from Peking University, its host for many years. And the head of Aizhixing, an NGO advocating AIDS patients’ rights, fled China earlier this year saying it had become impossible to work here.

“The landscape is much tougher for legal activists,” says Mr. Bequelin. “But it is not dead. A new generation is coming up.”

Ordinary citizens’ awareness of their rights is growing, adds Xu Zhiyong, the former head of Gongmeng, and “more lawyers are standing up to defend justice” he says. “Society is making progress.”

“If violations of peoples’ rights continue to be common, even if the government keeps repressing lawyers, new ones will join the group” of rights activists, predicts Jiang. “I haven’t seen many give up.” See Chick's KINGS OF THE EAST.

Obama Urges Cancellation of Quran Burning

President Barack Obama called upon a Florida pastor not to burn the Quran, denouncing the act as "completely contrary to our values" and warning that it could become a "recruitment bonanza" for al-Qaida. However, instead of calling the pastor on the phone to really try to persuade him, he chose to announce his comments publicly to the press. (So it probably won't have any effect.)

"If he's listening, I just hope he understands that what he's proposing to do is completely contrary to our values," the president said in an interview with ABC's "Good Morning America" today. "This country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance."

Obama said a plan by the controversial pastor, Terry Jones, to burn the Quran on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks was a "stunt" that would endanger U.S. troops abroad.

Jones, the 58-year-old leader of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., regards Islam as a "false religion" and has said he wants to burn the Quran to "send a clear message to the radical element of Islam" that the United States "will no longer be controlled and dominated by their fears and threats." He is the author of a book titled "Islam Is of the Devil."

Obama, who has described himself as a "devout Christian," (despite attending for decades a controversial church that had racists overtones) appealed to the pastor's sense of religion today. "He says he's someone who is motivated by his faith," Obama told ABC. "I hope he listens to ... those better angels."

The president is only the latest in a growing number of public figures, from Angelina Jolie to the Indonesian president, to have spoken out against the planned Quran burning in recent days and pleaded with the bombastic pastor to stand down.

Unlike their liberal counterparts who actually encouraged Muslims to build a Mosque at ground zero, conservatives have denounced the provocative act as insensitive and inflammatory. On her Facebook page Wednesday evening, Sarah Palin slammed Jones' plan as an "insensitive and an unnecessary provocation."

"If your ultimate point is to prove that the Christian teachings of mercy, justice, freedom and equality provide the foundation on which our country stands, then your tactic to prove this point is totally counterproductive," she wrote. "Book burning is antithetical to American ideals."

The planned Quran burning, a local event that has metastasized into seemingly global significance, is expected to draw far more protesters than participants to Gainesville. Scores of religious leaders have condemned Jones' plans, but concerns sharpened this week after Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, warned that burning the Muslim holy book could "endanger troops" and "endanger the overall effort."

During a U.N. goodwill tour of Pakistan, actress Jolie said, " I have hardly the words that somebody would do that to somebody's religious book."

On Tuesday, the Vatican issued a simple statement on the matter on the front page of its official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. "No one burns the Quran," the headline explained plainly. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder have also spoken out publicly against the event.

In Indonesia, where thousands protested against the Quran burning earlier this week with chants of "Long live Islam" and "Death to America," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sent a formal request to Obama asking him to stop the "hideous act." But Jones is protected under the First Amendment, and experts agree it would be very difficult to stop the pastor through legal means.

Jones, for his part, shows no signs of backing down. "We have no intention of canceling," he told reporters Wednesday. See Chick's comic, THE PROPHET.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Afghan's Kinky Secret

Western forces fighting in southern Afghanistan had a problem. Too often, soldiers on patrol passed an older man walking hand-in-hand with a pretty young boy. Their behavior suggested he was not the boy's father. Then, British soldiers found that young Afghan men were actually trying to "touch and fondle them," military investigator AnnaMaria Cardinalli told me. "The soldiers didn't understand."

All of this was so disconcerting that the Defense Department hired Cardinalli, a social scientist, to examine this mystery. Her report, "Pashtun Sexuality," startled not even one Afghan. But Western forces were shocked - and repulsed.

For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers. Some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz, the term for an older man with a boy lover. Literally it means "boy player." The men like to boast about it.

"How can you fall in love if you can't see her face," 29-year-old Mohammed Daud told reporters. "We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful."

See Chick's DOOM TOWN.

Outrage Over Muslim Koran Burning... but what about ours?

While the world gets angry about the possible burning of Koran copies by a Jacksonville Church, is anyone paying attention to what the US Military does to Christian Bibles? Military personnel threw away, and ultimately burned, confiscated Bibles that were printed in the two most common Afghan languages amid concern they would be used to try to convert Afghans, a Defense Department spokesman said Tuesday.

The unsolicited Bibles sent by a church in the United States were confiscated about a year ago at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan because military rules forbid troops of any religion from proselytizing while deployed there, Lt. Col. Mark Wright said.

Such religious outreach can endanger American troops and civilians in the devoutly Muslim nation, Wright said. See Chick's THE CHAPLAIN.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

More Punishment For Iranian Death Inmate

An Iranian woman who'd already been condemned to death faces another sentence of 99 lashes because of a case of mistaken identity in a photograph, according to foes of the execution.

Iranian authorities imposed the sentence after they saw the photo of a woman without a head scarf in a newspaper, the International Committee Against Stoning, a human rights group, said Friday.

In an apology, The Times of London, which ran the photo on its front page on August 28, said the woman was wrongly identified as Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who had previously been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.
The Times said the photo actually is of Susan Hejrat, a political activist living in Sweden.

Iranian law requies all women, regardless of their faith, to wear garments that cover their hair and bodies.
According to the Times, one of Ashtiani's former lawyers, Mohammed Mostafaei, gave the paper the photo.
Mostafaei told CNN Saturday that he still thinks the photo may be of his former client.

The Times said Mostafei told it that Ashtiani's son, Sajjad, 22, had e-mailed him two photographs three months ago and told him both were of his mother.

"One was the widely used picture of Ms. Ashtiani with her face obscured by a chador [cloak], and the other was the one used by The Times ... That showed the full face of a woman," The Times said in a statement Friday.

Sajjad Ghaderzadeh wrote in an open letter that another lawyer sent the paper an authentic photo of his mother, but that it did not appear in the Times article. The letter was circulated by the International Committee Against Stoning on Friday.

"We do not know how that picture was originally obtained, nor to whom the picture belongs," Ghaderzadeh said in the letter.
"My mother has been called in to see the judge in charge of prison misdemeanors and he has sentenced our helpless mother to 99 lashes on false charges of spreading corruption and indecency by disseminating this picture of a woman presumed to be her [Sakineh] without hijab," he wrote.

Asked about whether the photo printed by the Times is of Ashtiani, Mostafei said, "In my opinion it is Ms. Ashtiani. It was given to me by her own son. If it is not indeed her, it looked just like her. She was wearing religious clothes in the photo, she had the same face, same everything."

Ashtiani was sentenced to death by stoning after she was convicted of adultery. Iranian judicial authorities say a final verdict in her case has not yet been made, ISNA news agency reported recently. In July, Iran's judiciary said the case was under review.
Ashtiani, who is being held in Tabriz, Iran, no longer has visitation rights, the family told CNN.

The Committee Against Stoning has said that Iran announced she will not be executed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends around September 9. Iran's judiciary could reinstate her sentence of death by stoning, execute her by other means, or possibly grant her a reprieve, according to human rights groups.

See Chick's THE OUTCAST.

Hawkings Goes PC on Creation Debate

Entering the ongoing debate between faith and science, renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking claims that modern physics has now proved that God played no role in the creation of the universe.

In a new book -- "The Grand Design," co-written with American physicist Leonard Mlodinow -- the theoretical physicist sets out to demolish Sir Isaac Newton's claim that an "intelligent and powerful Being" must have shaped the universe, which he believed could not have emerged from chaos. Hawking and Mlodinow rule out the possibility of divine intervention, saying that new theories have made the idea of a supernatural creator redundant.

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing," the pair write, in an extract published in today's London Times. "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going."

"The Grand Design," which goes on sale next week, is a significant shift away from Hawking's previous comments on the divine. In his 1988 best-seller, "A Brief History of Time," he suggested that it was possible to believe in the concept of God as creator and also hold a scientific view of the universe. "If we do discover a complete theory ... of why it is that we and the universe exist ... it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we would know the mind of God," he wrote.

And in a 2007 interview, he appeared to portray himself as an agnostic. "I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science," he told the BBC. "The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws."

Hawking now argues that Newton's assertion that the laws of nature cannot alone explain the existence of life and the universe started to fall apart in 1992, when astronomers discovered the first extrasolar planets (planets beyond our own solar system) orbiting other sunlike stars.

"That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions -- the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass, far less remarkable, and far less compelling evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings," he writes. Hawking believes that other universes, as well as other solar systems, are also likely to exist. But if God's purpose was to create mankind, he wonders, why would He make these redundant and out-of-reach worlds?

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and high-profile atheist, welcomed the book, telling the Times that Hawking had developed a theory of Darwinism for the entirety of nature, not simply the creatures that live within it. "That's exactly what he's saying," Dawkins told the paper. "I know nothing of the details of the physics, but I had always assumed the same thing."

Sponsored LinksHowever, religious commentators have criticized Hawking's theorizing, saying he can never hope to explain what is essentially unexplainable.

"If all the physical laws had been explained and proved -- which is a million miles from the case -- our understanding of the actions of God would not be one whit greater: his existence and his actions are of a different order," writes Quentin de la Bedoyere, science editor of the U.K.'s Catholic Herald newspaper. "Most particularly it would not touch the question of how something existing comes out from nothing. That is a question which science cannot answer, and will never answer, because nothingness is not within its domain. ... Neither [Hawking], nor you, nor I will ever explain creation, except through faith." See Chick's THE GREAT ONE.