Some from Newtown Join Vigil at National Cathedral
WASHINGTON - Members of the Newtown, Conn., community, including the parent of a teacher killed in a school massacre last year, have held a service at Washington National Cathedral to remember those killed by gun violence.
Gilles Rousseau said, "We are here today with the common goal of remembering our loved ones, and seeking to make our world a safer place."
The cathedral's dean, the Rev. Gary Hall, laid out a moral case for gun control, noting that 32,000 more people have been killed by gun violence since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Dec. 14.
The Rev. Mel Kawakami of Newtown United Methodist Church said, "We gather to say, 'No more.'"
Carole King sang a hymn titled "In the Name of Love."
Judge Orders Removal of San Diego War Cross
SAN DIEGO - A federal judge in San Diego says a 43-foot war memorial cross must be removed from the top of a mountain in 90 days because it violates separation of church and state.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns said Thursday that it's time for the long-running case to end.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2011 that the cross atop Mount Soledad violates the Constitution. After the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, the case went back to Burns to consider any alternatives.
Burns says it might have been a closer call if the federal government was on the verge of transferring the property to a private owner. He says the order to remove the cross would be put on hold if there is an appeal.
Atheist Group Erects 'A' at Chicago Holiday Market
CHICAGO - A few feet from a life-size nativity scene at Chicago's annual Christmas market is a new display that says "Bah Humbug" to all of that.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has erected an 8½-foot-tall, red "A," which stands for atheist or agnostic. Members say it's meant to send a message that they believe that religious displays on public property are a violation of the separation of church and state. A banner accompanying the letter reads, "Happy Winter Solstice."
Members say they're concerned that the "A'' will be stolen or defaced, which has happened to their displays in other cities.
But so far the reaction in Chicago has ranged from mild annoyance, to support, to confusion about what the letter is supposed to represent.
Church of the Nativity Undergoes Facelift
BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Visitors flocking to Bethlehem this Christmas season will notice scaffolding around the Church of the Nativity. The basilica located at the traditional site of Jesus' birth is undergoing a much-needed facelift after 600 years.
Experts say water is leaking from the rooftop and threatens to cause serious damage to mosaics and other priceless items.
The project manager says companies carrying out the work are obliged to minimize any disruptions to visitors and make sure that pilgrims can "pass freely inside the church and safely."
The church is one of Christianity's most sacred shrines. Standing above the grotto where, according to tradition, Jesus was born, the church attracted more than 2 million visitors last year. But the building, with remnants up to 1,500 years old, has been neglected for decades.
Bethlehem is located in a part of the West Bank where the Palestinians have self-rule.
House Measure Would Sanction Iran for Detaining Pastor
WASHINGTON - The wife of an American pastor imprisoned for more than a year in Iran is criticizing the Obama administration for not insisting on his release as part of negotiations to curb Iran's nuclear program and ease sanctions.
The wife of Pastor Saeed Abedini said, "His own government did not fight for him when his captors were across the table from them."
Naghmeh Abedini testified at a House hearing Thursday, two days after Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about efforts to win her husband's release. Kerry told a House panel Tuesday that efforts were ongoing, but were not linked to the nuclear talks.
At Thursday's hearing, Ohio Congressman Steve Chabot said as negotiations with Iran proceed, "the release of Pastor Abedini must be a priority." He added, "It should have been a precondition of negotiations from the start."
The Iranian-born pastor was starting an orphanage in Iran when he was arrested and later sentenced to eight years in prison for undermining state security.
Lawyers Protest Detention of Chinese Pastor, Aides
BEIJING - Fifteen Chinese lawyers have launched a hunger strike to protest being blocked from meeting a Christian pastor and several of his aides who were detained in a crackdown highlighting the Communist Party's often prickly attitude toward religious groups.
Lawyers Xia Jun and Liu Weiguo said they and the other attorneys who traveled to Nanle county in Henan to help the leaders of a state-approved church were repeatedly prevented from seeing them at a detention center.
In a phone interview, Liu said, "We strongly believe that this is a clear case of persecution of a religious group."
The lawyers say the detained pastor and other church leaders are being punished for resisting local authorities' attempts to seize the church's land. Officials in Nanle either could not be reached or said they were unaware of the case.
Liu said around 100 thugs surrounded the lawyers Thursday outside the detention center after their fifth attempt to meet Zhang.
C. African Republic Muslims Come Under Attack
BANGUI, Central African Republic - Aid officials in the Central African Republic says sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in the past week has left more than 500 people dead and more than 100,000 people displaced in the capital alone.
While some of the victims had belonged to a mostly Muslim rebel group, others are civilians targeted because of transposed rage.
Human rights groups have warned that Muslim civilians in Bangui are especially vulnerable because they're a minority in a country where 85 percent of the population is Christian, and where fury has grown about the abuses committed by Muslim ex-rebels.
In recent days, scores of Muslims have been killed by angry mobs who accuse them of being members of the Seleka rebel coalition that overthrew the country's Christian president. A crowd in one neighborhood picked up rocks and stoned one man to death. In another part of the capital, angry youth set a mosque ablaze and tried to tear down its walls with axes.
Rights Group: Nigeria Ignores Sectarian Violence
LAGOS, Nigeria - Human Rights Watch accuses Nigeria's government of largely ignoring years of "mass murder" in two states by failing to prosecute known perpetrators who have burned victims alive and hacked or shot to death others because of their tribe or religion.
The New York-based advocacy group, in a report published Thursday, detailed "horrific sectarian violence" that has killed more than 3,000 Nigerians since 2010 in the central Plateau and Kaduna states.
It says the absence of justice has led to revenge killings, further fueling the cycle of violence. It also documents what it calls "ethnic cleansing" of Muslim herders from some villages.
The group warns that Islamic militants waging an uprising in northeast Nigeria have invoked the lack of punishment for attacks on Muslims to justify the killing of Christians.
Putin Defends Russian Conservative Values
MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended his government's promotion of conservative values, chiding the West for treating "good and evil" equally.
Russia has faced Western criticism over a law banning "propaganda of non-traditional relations," which gay rights groups say has given a green light to harassment and intimidation.
Putin said Thursday in his annual state-of-the-nation address that Russia will continue to defend traditional family values. Quoting an early 20th century Russian philosopher, he said conservatism does not stop society from progressing but prevents it from falling backward into "chaotic darkness and the state of primitive man."
Putin, who is believed to be a Christian, has bolstered his support by promoting conservative values and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Chicago Man Sues Archdiocese Over Sex Abuse
CHICAGO - A 27-year-old man is suing the Archdiocese of Chicago, alleging a convicted former Roman Catholic priest molested him when he was a boy.
The Chicago Sun-Times says Darryl McArthur is the only alleged victim of priest pedophilia in Chicago to publicly identify himself. McArthur says he came forward "to remove the secrecy attached to childhood sexual abuse by priests."
McArthur says Daniel McCormack abused him while McCormack was the priest and coach in McArthur's parish school.
McCormack pleaded guilty in 2007 to abusing five children. He was sentenced to five years in prison and removed from the priesthood. He's currently confined to a state mental health facility.
The Archdiocese says it notified prosecutors promptly after receiving McCormack's allegation in 2011.
New Ulm Diocese Sued for List of Accused Priests
MANKATO, Minn. - A man who claims he was sexually abused by a priest in Granite Falls, Minn., is suing the Diocese of New Ulm and the Servants of the Paraclete to force the release of their lists of clerics accused of molesting children.
The lawsuit filed Thursday alleges the diocese and religious order were negligent in supervising the Rev. Francis Markey. The plaintiff claims Markey abused him when he was a boy at St. Andrew's Church in 1982.
The lawsuit seeks their lists of accused priests and other documents on them, plus more than $50,000.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and St. John's Abbey have released similar lists.
Markey was extradited to Ireland in 2010 to face charges of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old there in 1968, but died before trial.
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