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Pope Benedict Got Ball Rolling with Cuba on Gross
VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis rightly got credit for helping bring the U.S. and Cuba together and free U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross. But it was actually Francis' predecessor, Emeritus Benedict XVI, who made the first high-level Vatican manoeuver to release Gross, spurred in part by an unlikely group of papal lobbyists.
     The Associated Press has learned that the American Jewish Committee was one of several Jewish groups that approached the Vatican before Benedict's March 2012 visit to Cuba to ask that the German pontiff raise the issue on humanitarian grounds with Cuban President Raul Castro.
     An official familiar with the Holy See's diplomacy confirmed that Benedict did indeed discuss the Gross case with Castro during their March 27, 2012, meeting in Havana.


Irish Face New Abortion Row Over Brain-Dead Woman
DUBLIN - Ireland is debating its constitutional ban on abortion again amid a case involving a brain-dead pregnant woman on life support.
     Irish media reported Thursday that family members want to turn off the woman's life support systems but doctors are refusing because the law requires them to defend the right to life of her 16-week-old fetus. Fetuses typically cannot survive outside the womb until around 24 weeks.
     An expert on Irish medical law, Dr. Adam McAuley, says Dublin High Court most likely will determine whether the woman will be kept on life support to attempt delivery of the baby.
     Ireland last year amended its abortion ban, legalizing the right to a termination if a woman's life is endangered by continued pregnancy.
     Health Minister Leo Varadkar says Irish law remains too restrictive.


Jindal Defends January Prayer Rally at LSU Campus
NEW ORLEANS - Gov. Bobby Jindal is defending his role as headline speaker at a prayer rally on Louisiana State University's campus next month.
     The appearance has drawn the ire of protesters who say the group hosting the event promotes discrimination and an anti-gay agenda.
     The Jan. 24 prayer rally is expected to draw thousands of people to LSU's campus for what Jindal, a Roman Catholic, describes in an invitation as "a time of worship, prayer, fasting and repentance."
     But the event, called The Response, has drawn heavy criticism because of the views of its sponsor organization, the Tupelo, Mississippi-based American Family Association. The organization has linked same-sex marriage and abortion to disasters such as tornadoes and Hurricane Katrina.


Death Penalty Sought in Jewish Site Shootings
OLATHE, Kan. - A Kansas prosecutor will seek the death penalty against a white supremacist from Missouri who was ruled competent Thursday to face trial on charges of killing three people at two Jewish sites in suburban Kansas City.
     The state will seek the death penalty at a hearing for Frazier Glenn Miller, 74, of Aurora, Missouri, who has said he felt it was his patriotic duty to kill Jews.
     Miller is accused of killing Dr. William Lewis Corporon and his 14-year-old grandson, Reat Griffin Underwood, who were at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City . He also is accused of fatally shooting 53-year-old Terri LaManno, who was visiting her mother at a Jewish retirement home in nearby Overland Park.
     None of the victims was Jewish.


2 Women Add their Names to Lawsuit Involving Rabbi
WASHINGTON - Two more women have come forward to say they were sexually exploited by a rabbi accused of secretly videotaping women in a Jewish ritual bath.
     The women added their names to a lawsuit that was originally filed in early December on behalf of a Georgetown University law student. The women say they were exploited by rabbi Barry Freundel, who was arrested in October and is charged with voyeurism. He is accused of placing a hidden camera in the shower area of a Jewish ritual bath in Washington, The National Capital Mikvah.


Joplin Catholic Church Celebrates Reopening
JOPLIN, Mo. - Members of a Catholic parish in Joplin that had its church, rectory and elementary school destroyed in a May 2011 tornado have celebrated Mass at their new church for the first time.
     The Joplin Globe (http://bit.ly/13fYvTK ) reports hundreds of residents on Wednesday packed the new St. Mary's Catholic Church for a dedication service and its first Mass. The service was led by the Most Rev. James Johnston, bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese, and the Rev. Justin Monaghan.
     Parishioners applauded as Johnston was presented with the key and blueprints of the new 750-seat church. He then blessed the church, sprinkling water over the walls and the altar.
     A multimillion dollar fundraising campaign, insurance proceeds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations funded the construction of the new church.


Charlie Brown and a City's Ugly Christmas Tree
READING, Pa. - The official Christmas tree in the Pennsylvania city of Reading (REH'-ding) has brought plenty of grief. Good grief.
     When the 50-foot Norway spruce went up last month, it drew immediate comparisons to the scraggly sapling in "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
     Some residents and city officials called it an embarrassment and demanded it be replaced with a more suitable specimen.
     Instead, Reading decided to embrace the Charlie Brown theme.
     Workers wrapped a blue blanket around its base and adorned it with a single red ball. The city announced a worldwide photo and essay contest. And, this weekend, the public's invited to give the tree a makeover - just like the "Peanuts" gang surprised Charlie Brown by turning his puny pine into a trimmed, twinkling tannenbaum.


Rabbi Harold Schulweis Dies in Los Angeles at 89
LOS ANGELES - Rabbi Harold Schulweis, an influential Conservative synagogue leader, has died in Los Angeles at age 89 after a long illness.
     His death late Wednesday was announced by Rabbi Edward Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, where Schulweis was the spiritual leader for decades.
     Innovations credited to Schulweis include gathering small groups of families to share religious and family life, a new model for lay-professional synagogue leadership and, in 1992, welcoming gay and lesbian Jews into the synagogue.
     The author of nine books, he also founded or co-founded organizations that recognized Christians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, addressed poverty in the U.S., and worked to raise awareness of genocide in Africa.


Broken Treetop Hanging on Wire gets Holiday Decor
INDIAN ISLAND, Wash. - Some Washington state residents are getting in the holiday spirit by decorating a Douglas fir that toppled onto an unused utility line in a recent windstorm and looks like an upside-down Christmas tree.
     The 12-foot top of the tree that snapped off now dangles on the line on Indian Island, about 40 miles northwest of Seattle across Puget Sound.
     The Peninsula Daily News reports (http://bit.ly/13gZYcK ) that local residents decked out the tree with garlands, ribbons, ornaments and a sign that says, "Santa, I want it all!"
     A utility agency says the tree doesn't pose an immediate electrical hazard but advises residents to stay away.


Baby Jesus Statue Stolen, Returned to Get GPS
FRANKLIN, Ind. - The baby Jesus is getting a tracking device.
     The 2-foot-long Christ child statue that was stolen Dec. 7 from a central Indiana retirement home and returned four days later will be fitted with a GPS monitor.
     New York-based BrickHouse Security is donating several GPS monitors to the Indiana Masonic Home in Franklin, about 20 miles south of Indianapolis. Along with Jesus, other Nativity figures will be fitted with the tracking devices.

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