Church and religion take back seat as a secular Ireland votes on abortion

Pro-Life campaigner Vicky Wall holds a poster ahead of a 25th May referendum on abortion law, in Wicklow, Ireland, May 8, 2018. Picture taken May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

By Conor Humphries and Emily G Roe

NENAGH/CORK, Ireland (Reuters) – Three decades after Ireland introduced one of the world’s only constitutional bans on abortion, the Church that was so pivotal in securing the law’s passage finds itself a minor player in the now mainly secular battle to repeal it.

A vote on May 25 on whether to scrap the 1983 ban is the latest referendum to gauge just how much has changed in Ireland, once one of Europe’s most socially conservative and staunchly Catholic countries.

Polls suggest the repeal camp is in the lead but the vote is much closer than three years ago when Ireland became the first country to back gay marriage in a national referendum. The one-in-five who are undecided are likely to decide the outcome, both sides say.

As in the gay marriage case, the role of the Catholic Church this time is tricky: some feel the Church should be out in front robustly defending one of its core teachings. Others worry moralizing by celibate priests may prove counter-productive.

“The priests in a way are damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” leading anti-abortion activist Vicky Wall said as she campaigned in central Ireland against repeal.

The leaflets she distributed around the rural market town of Nenagh mentioned religion just once, to address concerns that campaigners in favor of the ban were imposing their beliefs on the country.

“Not true. You don’t have to be from any faith tradition to agree that human life should be protected… The right to life is first and foremost a human rights issue,” it read.

Religion was front and center when Ireland voted to ban abortion in a 1983 referendum described by columnist Gene Kerrigan as part of a “moral civil war” between conservative Catholics and progressive liberals for the country’s future.

The eighth amendment to enshrine the equal right to life of mother and her unborn child was proposed by a coalition of Catholic groups who feared Ireland would follow the United States and United Kingdom into expanding access to abortion.

Protestant churches felt the wording was too rigid, but it passed by a margin of two to one.

The result showed the depth of Catholic influence in Ireland. But it also consolidated opposition when the implications of the ban became clear in a series of legal cases just as clerical abuse scandals rocked trust in the Church.

Ireland was transfixed by the 1992 case of a 14-year-old rape victim barred from leaving the country by judicial order after she told the police she was planning to get an abortion. The injunction was lifted by the Supreme Court on the grounds her life was deemed at risk by suicide.

A referendum later that year enshrined the right of women to travel for an abortion, legalizing a stream of more than 3,000 women who go to Britain every year for terminations.

In 2012 a 31-year-old Indian immigrant died from a septic miscarriage after being refused an abortion that might have saved her life.

The ensuing outcry led to legislation the next year to allow abortion when a woman’s life is in danger and, combined with criticism from the United Nations and European Court of Human Rights, helped build political pressure for a referendum to repeal the ban.

CHURCH BATTLE

With just over two weeks to go before the vote, the Church has only recently begun to get involved, putting up posters at a few churches and allowing some anti-abortion campaigners to speak from the pulpit during Mass.

The small interventions have caused a rare public split.

The liberal Association of Catholic Priests, which represents more than 1,000 priests in Ireland, called the sermons “inappropriate and insensitive” and said that they would be regarded by some as “an abuse of the Eucharist.”

“As leadership of an association made up of men who are unmarried and without children of our own, we are not best placed to be in any way dogmatic on this issue,” it said.

Pastoral letters from some of the country’s 25 bishops have used increasingly emotive language in defense of the ban in recent days, however.

“We must not be naive about what is at issue in this Referendum. It is a great struggle between light and dark, between life and death,” Bishop of Cloyne William Crean said in his letter. “I invite you to CHOOSE LIFE!”

Campaigners on both sides say they are generally avoiding religion because they are afraid to alienate undecided voters and because it’s just not as relevant as it once was.

Seventy-eight percent of Irish people identified as Catholic in the 2016 census, down from 92 percent in 1991; 10 percent said they had no religion and 3 percent were Protestant. But a survey by national broadcaster RTE in 2006 showed Mass attendance had dropped to 48 percent from 81 percent since 1990. In 2011 the Dublin diocese said as few as 18 percent of Catholics in the capital went to Mass every week.

“I think telling voters to vote a particular way because God wants them to was never likely to be a winner for either campaign on either side,” said John McGuirk, spokesman for the Save the 8th umbrella group.

He described the campaign as a “much more secular battle” than 1983. While religious iconography featured in one recent national anti-abortion rally, campaigners are focusing on the science of how the fetus develops in the stages of pregnancy.

Yes campaigners, outfitted in the black sweatshirts with ‘Repeal’ in white that have become their symbol, talk about women’s rights and the medical dangers they say are created by the ban.

“It’s about the fact that … women don’t get a say in what they do with their bodies under the eighth amendment,” said 22-year-old Fay Carrol, a chef from Dublin who lives in Cork.

Others argue that since abortion is a reality for Irish women – by traveling or by ordering pills online – it should be acknowledged and integrated safely into the health care system.

“To require women to be dying to access termination of pregnancy… to demand that women who were raped carry their pregnancy to term, these are unacceptable risks and unacceptable situations,” said Rhona Mahony, Master of Dublin’s Holles Street Maternity Hospital.

Even without the Church’s active involvement, some Yes campaigners are concerned that the conservatism linked to Ireland’s Catholic tradition still guides many voters’ views.

“People are struggling with that legacy of centuries of Catholic Church teaching,” said veteran women’s rights campaigner Ailbhe Smyth. “I think this is, and will be, a very tight referendum.”

(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Jailed U.S. pastor denies terrorism charges in Turkish court

Jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson's wife Norine Brunson arrives at Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Ezgi Erkoyun

ANKARA (Reuters) – A U.S. pastor denied terrorism and spying charges in a Turkish court on Monday and called them “shameful and disgusting”, in a prosecution that has been condemned by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Andrew Brunson, who could face up to 35 years in jail, denied links to a network led by U.S.-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, accused of orchestrating a failed military coup in Turkey in 2016, and the outlawed Kurdish PKK militant group.

The Christian pastor from North Carolina has lived in Turkey for more than two decades and has been jailed pending trial since 2016.

“I am helping Syrian refugees, they say that I am aiding the PKK. I am setting up a church, they say I got help from Gulen’s network,” Brunson said, referring to the testimonies of anonymous witnesses in court.

One of the secret witnesses accused Brunson of trying to establish a Christian Kurdish state, and providing coordinates to U.S. forces in the delivery of weapons to the Kurdish YPG militia, active in northern Syria.

“My service that I have spent my life on, has now turned upside down. I was never ashamed to be a server of Jesus but these claims are shameful and disgusting,” Brunson told the court in the Aegean town of Aliaga, north of Izmir.

Brunson has been the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city.

TURKEY WANTS GULEN EXTRADITED

Brunson’s legal case is among several roiling U.S.-Turkish relations, including one in New York against a former executive of Turkish state lender Halkbank. The two countries are also at odds over U.S. support for the Kurdish militia in northern Syria, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.

Erdogan suggested last year Brunson’s fate could be linked to that of Gulen, whom Turkey wants extradited.

Gulen denies any association with the coup attempt. Tens of thousands of Turks have been arrested or lost their jobs over alleged connections with it.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted after Brunson’s first court appearance last month that the pastor was on trial for “no reason”.

“They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!” Trump said.

Outside the court on Monday, Sandra Jolley, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, called for the clergyman’s release.

“Every day that Andrew Brunson spends here in prison is another day that the standing of the Turkish government diminishes in the eyes of not just the U.S. but the entire world,” she told reporters.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who is expected to meet with U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo in Washington this week or next, said on Saturday any decision was up to the court.

“They say that the government should release him,” he said. “Is it in my power? This is a decision the judiciary will make.”

(Writing by Ece Toksabay; editing by Andrew Roche)

Pope says Mafiosi ‘carry death’, can’t call themselves Christian

Pope Francis leads the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican, March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis on Wednesday told members of the Mafia in Italy, where many go to Church and worship openly, that they cannot call themselves Christians because they “carry death in their souls”.

Francis’ improvised words before tens of thousands of people at his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square was his strongest attack on organized crime in nearly four years.

“So we don’t have to go far, let’s think about what happens right here at home (Italy),” he said while speaking generally about “fake Christians” who are corrupt while pretending to be righteous.

“(What about) the so-called Christian Mafiosi,” he said. “They have nothing at all in them that is Christian. They call themselves Christians but they carry death in their souls and inflict it on others.”

Many members of organized crime groups in Italy, such as Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta, see themselves as part of a religious, cult-like group.

Particularly in smaller towns and cities in the south, they take part in Catholic sacraments, go to church and in some cases have also found complicity by some churchmen.

The town of Oppido Mamertina in the Calabria region made headlines in 2014 when locals carrying a statute of the Madonna in a traditional religious procession diverted its route to pass by the home of local mob boss who was infirm.

They paused before the boss’ house and tilted the statue slightly as if to kneel in a sign of respect toward the clan boss.

When Pope Francis visited the Calabria region the same year, he accused organized crime members of practising “the adoration of evil” and said Mafiosi excommunicate themselves from the Church by their actions.

At the audience in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, Francis asked the faithful for prayers for Mafiosi, “so that the Lord touches their souls”.

In 1993 Pope John Paul sternly warned members of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra that they would “one day face the justice of God”. The crime group responded several months later with bomb attacks against several churches in Rome, including the Basilica of St. John’s, which is a pope’s church in his capacity as bishop of Rome.

In recent years, the Calabria-based ‘Ndrangheta has overtaken Sicily’s Cosa Nostra as the most feared and lucrative Italian crime group, making most of its money from drug trafficking. It has spread throughout the world.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Peter Graff)

For Iraqi Christians, a bittersweet first Christmas home after Islamic State

Iraqi Christians pray during a mass on Christmas eve at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

By Raya Jalabi

TELESKOF, Iraq (Reuters) – Inside the newly renovated Church of Saint George in the Northern Iraqi town of Teleskof, Hayat Chamoun Daoud led children dressed as Santa Claus singing “Jingle Bells” in Aramaic.

Like every other resident of Teleskof, this was Daoud’s first Christmas back home in three years, since Islamic State militants overran her town and forcibly displaced its 12,000-strong Chaldean Christian community.

“It’s so special to be back in my church, the church where I got married, the church I raised my children in,” the school headmistress said, tears in her eyes.

Faced with a choice to convert, pay a tax or die, Daoud, like many other Christians in the Nineveh Plains, chose to flee. Most sought refuge in nearby towns and cities, but many sought permanent asylum abroad. Though the militants were only in Teleskof for a few days, residents only began returning home earlier this year.

On Sunday, they celebrated their first Christmas together again at the town’s main church, which was overflowing. Hundreds of congregants, dressed in their finest, poured in to pray and receive communion from Father Salar Bodagh, who later lit the traditional bonfire in the church’s courtyard, a symbol of renewal he said.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘JOY SOAKED IN TEARS’

Despite the obvious joys of being able to celebrate openly once again, it was a bittersweet Christmas for most across the Nineveh Plains, the epicenter of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities which can trace their history in the country back two millennia.

Though Iraq declared full victory over the militants just two weeks ago after a brutal three-year war, the damage done to Christian enclaves was extensive, and left many wondering whether they could overcome their recent history.

Islamic State ravaged Christian areas, looting and burning down homes and churches, stripping them of all valuable artifacts and smashing relics.

The damage in Qaraqosh, a town 15 km (10 miles) west of Mosul also known as Hamdaniya, was extensive, particularly to the town’s ancient churches.

At the Syrian Catholic Church of the Immaculate, congregants gathered for midnight Mass on Sunday surrounded by scorched and blackened walls, still tagged with Islamic State graffiti. They also sat on donated plastic chairs – the church has not yet been able to replace the wooden pews the militants used to fuel the massive fire which engulfed the church.

Most families will require tens of thousands of dollars to repair their homes and replace their stolen goods. But most say they can overcome the material damage, unlike the forced separation of their families.

Before the militant onslaught, Qaraqosh was the largest Christian settlement in Iraq, with a population of more than 50,000. But today, only a few hundred families have returned. Entire congregations have moved overseas, such as the Syriac Orthodox congregation of the Church of Mart Shmony.

On Saturday afternoon, Father Butros Kappa, the head of Qaraqosh’s Church of the Immaculate was trying hard to summon any sense of hope to deliver his congregation during Christmas Mass.

“We’ll have a Christmas Mass like in previous years, but this year, ours will be a joy soaked in tears, because all of our people have left Iraq,” said Father Kappa.

Holding Mass in the singed and upturned ruins of his church was therefore important, he said, “to remind everyone that despite the tragedies that have befallen us, we’re still here.”

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017.

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘NO FUTURE FOR US’

In Teleskof, 30 km (20 miles) north of Mosul and itself one of the oldest continuing Christian communities in the world, some families were skipping Mass altogether upset at their forced dispersal.

“We usually celebrate with our entire family,” said Umm Rita, as she prepared the traditional Christmas Day dish of pacha (sheep’s head, trotters and stomach all slowly boiled) at her home. “But how can we be happy this year? Our brothers and sisters, even my own daughter, her husband and child I’ve never met have all moved away.”

Community leaders estimate more than 7,000 of Teleskof’s residents are now scattered across Iraq and it’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, the United States, Australia, Germany, Lebanon and Jordan.

Amid ongoing tensions between the central government in Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds after a referendum on Kurdish independence was held over Baghdad’s objections in September, Teleskof’s residents fear violence once again. “We just want to live in peace,” said Umm Rita. “We are more anxious now than when Islamic State was in our homes.”

“Our community has been gutted,” said Firas Abdelwahid, a 76-year-old former state oil employee, of the thousands who have sought permanent shelter overseas. Watching children play by the church bonfire, he felt melancholy.

“But what do we expect? The past is tragic, the present is desperate and well, there is no future for us Christians in Iraq.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Mary Milliken)

Lapse in background check database allowed Texan church gunman to buy weapons: Pentagon

Lapse in background check database allowed Texan church gunman to buy weapons: Pentagon

By Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Maria Garza

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – The man who committed the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history was able to buy guns legally from a sporting goods store because a prior domestic violence conviction was never entered into an FBI database used in background checks, officials said.

Devin Kelley, the gunman in Sunday’s massacre at a church in rural southeastern Texas, was found guilty by court-martial of assaulting his first wife and a stepson while assigned to a U.S. Air Force logistics readiness unit in 2012, the Pentagon disclosed on Monday.

The Air Force also acknowledged that it had failed to transmit information about Kelley’s conviction to the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) system, a U.S. government data bank used by licensed firearms dealers to check prospective gun buyers for criminal backgrounds.

Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Freeman Martin put the number of victims killed in the attack at 26, including the unborn child of a pregnant woman who died. The dead otherwise ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years.

Twenty others were wounded, 10 of whom remained in critical condition late on Monday, officials said.

Two handguns were found in Kelley’s getaway vehicle, where he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head after a failed attempt to flee from the scene of Sunday’s shootings, Martin told a news conference on Monday night.

The Air Force opened an inquiry into how it handled the former airman’s criminal record, and the U.S. Defense Department has requested a review by its inspector general to ensure that other cases “have been reported correctly,” Pentagon officials said.

Firearms experts said the case involving Kelley, 26, who spent a year in military detention before his bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force in 2014, had exposed a previously unnoticed weak link in the system of background checks.

It is illegal under federal law to sell a gun to someone who has been convicted of a crime involving domestic violence against a spouse or child.

A sporting goods retail outlet said Kelley passed background checks when he bought a gun in 2016 and a second firearm this year.

Neither the NCIC nor two related databases contained any information that would have barred Kelley from legally buying any of three weapons police recovered from their investigation of the slayings, said Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation office in San Antonio.

Mass shooting at Texas church – http://tmsnrt.rs/2lZg61c

‘TEXAS HERO’

Police said Kelley stormed into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, dressed in black and wearing a human-skull mask, and opened fire on worshippers with a Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle.

Kelley was shot twice – in the leg and torso – by another man, Stephen Willeford, who lived nearby and confronted Kelley with his own rifle as the gunman emerged from the church.

Kelley managed to flee in a sport utility vehicle as Willeford waved down a passing motorist, Johnnie Langendorff. The two then gave chase in Langendorff’s pickup truck until Kelley’s vehicle crashed in a ditch.

Martin later hailed Willeford as “our Texas hero,” crediting him with preventing further carnage in Sunday’s rampage, which ranks as the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in the state and one of the five most lethal in modern U.S. history.

Authorities also said Kelley had been involved in a domestic dispute of some kind with the parents of his second wife, whom he married in 2014, and had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law before the shooting.

Although his in-laws were known to occasionally attend services at the church Kelley attacked, Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said family members were not present on Sunday.

The attack stunned Sutherland Springs, a community of about 400 people. One family, the Holcombes, lost eight members from three generations in the attack, including Bryan Holcombe, an assistant pastor who was leading the service, a relative said.

The first shots came through the windows of the church, according to an account related to CNN by the son of one of the survivors, 73-year-old Farida Brown, who was shot in both legs. The assailant then stalked inside and sprayed the pews with gunfire, walking up and down the aisles targeting people even as they ran for cover or lay on the floor.

Farida Brown was in the last pew, beside a woman who was shot multiple times, her son, David Brown, said.

“She was pretty certain she was next, and her life was about to end. Then somebody with a gun showed up at the front of the church, caught the shooter’s attention. He left and that was the end of the ordeal,” David Brown told CNN.

Martin said investigators found hundreds of spent shell casings inside the church after the shooting, as well as 15 empty 30-round ammunition magazines.

Major shootings in the U.S. – http://tmsnrt.rs/2AgtU9E

(Additional reporting by Jane Ross in Sutherland Springs, Texas; Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)

Fear and faith: Church security scrutinized after Texas massacre

Fear and faith: Church security scrutinized after Texas massacre

By Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Maria Garza

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – After one of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings unfolded on their doorstep, pastors and parishioners around the tiny Texas hamlet of Sutherland Springs have begun asking whether guns have a rightful place inside their houses of worship.

It is a debate that is echoing across the United States as security experts and some politicians ask churches to consider a wide range of enhanced measures to thwart tragedies like Sunday’s deadly rampage at the First Baptist Church.

Barbara Burdette, who knew the 26 people killed in the massacre and as well as the 20 wounded, is ready to see her church hire armed security, or allow congregants to carry their own concealed firearms for self-defense.

“God is our protector,” said Burdette, 62, “but I do still think that we need to have people with conceal carry.”

Her pastor at the First Baptist Church of La Vernia, a one-story brick sanctuary 7 miles from the shooting scene, said the issue of guns in church requires a delicate balance between providing safety instead of fear.

Arming parishioners is not the only option. At the historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white gunman killed nine at a June 2015 bible study session, uniformed police officers now attend regular worship services.

“It’s part of our new normal,” said Reverend Eric Manning at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, by phone. He said the church also created in-house security, as have most black churches in the region.

Muslim and Jewish institutions for years have added security measures to address the threat of violence and hate crimes. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) stresses the importance of security cameras, strong doors and clearing brush away from buildings so attackers have no place to hide.

A law enforcement vehicle prominently parked in front of a house of worship is also a strong deterrent to crime, said Claude Pichard, director of Training Force USA, which worked with churches across the country to improve security after the Charleston shooting.

The question of enabling, or even encouraging, parishioners to shoot back is a discussion particularly important to communities where guns are a part of life, such as rural Texas.

In Sutherland Springs, the shooter was confronted as he left the church by a resident who shot and wounded him.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told Fox News that churches should consider whether they wanted parishioners to be armed as a way of preventing another tragedy.

His state allows for the concealed carrying of handguns by licensed owners. It is not clear exactly how First Baptist Church, where the shooting occurred, addressed gun issues.

A sheriff in Williamson County, Texas, a two-hour drive from the massacre, expects to discuss arming parishioners at a church security summit he is organizing in the wake of the attack. He said churches have a responsibility to ensure that responding officers can distinguish a protector from the assailant.

“What are you doing to make sure we don’t have a friendly on friendly fire?” said Sheriff Robert Chody by phone.

New Life Church, a congregation of 10,000 people in Colorado Springs, Colorado, requires churchgoers to leave their guns in their vehicles, a decade after it was the scene of a deadly shooting that killed two. A parishioner trained in church security used a firearm to wound the shooter, preventing greater carnage, said pastor Brady Boyd.

“Pastors are now waking up to this reality that we are not living in Mayberry anymore,” he said, referring to the fictitious North Carolina hometown on the “Andy Griffith Show,” a long-running 1960s television comedy.

He pointed out that no church could have security in place to withstand an attack by a military-trained shooter using an assault rifle, the scenario that unfolded this weekend in Texas.

About 10 miles from the shooting, Floresville Christian Fellowship Pastor Bennie Herrera said he needed to re-examine security but knows there is only so much that can be done.

“We will not be gripped by fear,” he said. “Faith will rise up and we will come together,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Writing and additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Detroit; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)

Tennessee church shooter may have sought revenge for Charleston murders: report

The scene where people were injured when a gunman opened fire at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jamie Gilliam

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – A man accused of killing a woman in a shooting rampage at a Tennessee church this week might have acted to avenge the murders of nine black people in a South Carolina church two years ago, the Washington Post reported on Friday.

A note in the car of Emanuel Kidega Samson, 25, indicated a possible plot spurred by the fatal 2015 shootings at Emanuel AME church, a historic African-American house of worship in Charleston, the newspaper said, citing unnamed people familiar with the investigation.

Samson, who police say was wearing a mask, is accused of killing a woman in the parking lot of Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Nashville on Sunday. He shot and wounded six worshipers in the building, before shooting himself in a scuffle with an usher, police have said.

Reuters could not immediately confirm whether investigators had found the note in Samson’s vehicle.

Representatives for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment. A Nashville police spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Dylann Roof, a 23-year-old avowed white supremacist, was convicted last year of 33 federal criminal counts related to the Charleston shooting, including murders as a hate crime.

Roof pleaded guilty earlier this year to separate state murder charges in the deaths of the nine black churchgoers he killed. He was sentenced to death.

Samson, who is black, was taken to jail after being treated at a hospital, police said, and was charged with criminal homicide.

Photos of events at the Nashville church posted on its Facebook page show people who appear to be from a range of ethnicities, including white people.

Federal authorities have opened a hate-crimes investigation into the Nashville shooting.

Samson lawfully bought a .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol, which was found in his sport utility vehicle after the shooting, Nashville officials said in a statement on Wednesday.

The other three firearms, including a .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol believed to have used to fire the shots at the church, were legally bought by a relative and given to Samson for safe-keeping, the statement said. An AR-15 rifle was found in the vehicle.

Samson attended the church in the past but not recently, church members told investigators, according to Nashville police.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Richard Chang)

Filipino bishops urge bell-ringing, prayers to protest bloody drugs war

A sign is posted outside a Catholic church which translates to "Let us pray for the victims of extrajudicial killings, bells will toll at 8:00pm" in Quezon City, metro Manila, Philippines September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao

By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) – Stepping up a campaign against President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, Catholic bishops in the Philippines have called for church bells to be rung for the next 40 nights, and congregations to light candles and pray for the killing to end.

A pastoral letter by Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) sent to priests urged Catholics to pray for victims from Saturday until All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, when Filipinos traditionally pay respects to the dead.

More than 3,800 people have been killed in anti-drugs operations in the past 15 months and at least 2,100 murders are suspected of being drug-related, according to police data, though human rights groups believe the numbers are understated.

“The relentless and bloody campaign against drugs that shows no sign of abating impels us, your bishops, to declare: In the name of God, stop the killings!” Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the head of the CBCP, said in the letter.

Such messages are typically read aloud in church or distributed to their congregations.

Many Catholic churches in the capital have already started lighting candles and ringing bells for five minutes each day at 8 p.m..

Thousands of Filipinos rallied against Duterte on Thursday to protest against what they fear is an emerging dictatorship, and several churches held mass against the killings and urged people to renounce violence.

The bishops are among the most influential dissenting voices to come out against the Duterte’s uncompromising strategy.

Having been largely silent on the issue when it first erupted last year, priests have increasingly taken a stand against the anti-drugs campaign.

As bodies started to appear nightly in Manila’s slums, the church stepped up its opposition, denouncing the killings and in some cases, providing sanctuary to witnesses of killings and drug users who feared they could be targeted.

Villegas said the country’s bishops were firmly against drugs, but killing was not the solution and prayer was “the most powerful weapon in our arsenal”.

Rights groups dispute official police accounts that say drug suspects were killed because they violently resisted arrest. Critics accuse police of executing users and small-time dealers and planting evidence, which police reject.

Pablo Virgilio David, bishop in Manila’s Caloocan City, where large numbers of drug-related killings have taken place, urged the authorities to end the killings and let healing begin.

“We disagree that we should treat them like monsters to be eliminated like stray cats and dogs,” he said of drug users and criminals. “We disagree that a criminal has no more hope of changing his life.”

(Editing by Martin Petty & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Texas churches sue FEMA for disaster relief after Harvey

FILE PHOTO: A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) employee waits for the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump during a visit at FEMA headquarters in Washington, U.S., August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been sued by three Texas churches severely damaged in Hurricane Harvey, over what they called its policy of refusing to provide disaster relief to houses of worship because of their religious status.

In a complaint filed on Monday in federal court in Houston, the churches said they would like to apply for aid but it would be “futile” because FEMA’s public assistance program “categorically” excludes their claims, violating their constitutional right to freely exercise their religion.

They said FEMA’s ban on providing relief where at least half a building’s space is used for religious purposes, a policy also enforced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, contradicts a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision making it easier for religious groups to get public aid.

That June 26 decision, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc v. Comer, said U.S. states must sometimes provide such aid even if their constitutions explicitly ban such funding.

Becket, a nonprofit that advocates for religious freedoms and represents the churches, said the same principle should apply to federal FEMA relief for Harvey victims.

“States and the federal government are different, but the First Amendment applies the same to both,” Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer for Becket, said in a phone interview. “The principle is that governments can’t discriminate on the basis of religious status, and that is unapologetically what FEMA is doing here.”

The three churches, he added, “need emergency repair, now.”

A FEMA spokeswoman said in an email it would be inappropriate to discuss pending litigation.

The Texas churches that sued are the Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, which lost its roof and steeple and suffered other structural damage, and the Harvest Family Church in Cypress and Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, which were flooded.

“This may be the first case this court will hear regarding Hurricane Harvey disaster relief, but it is surely not the last,” the complaint said.

The case is Harvest Family Church et al v Federal Emergency Management Agency et al, U.S, District Court, Southern District of Texas, No. 17-02662.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Nigeria church shooting kills 11

Nigeria church shooting kills 11

ABUJA (Reuters) – Gunmen killed 11 people and wounded 18 others in a church in southeastern Nigeria on Sunday in an attack arising from a feud between members of the local community, officials said.

However, police believe that a man the gunmen were hunting for was not present in the church and so escaped the attack.

The attackers struck the church in Ozubulu early in the morning, said Garba Umar, head of police in Anambra state.

They were believed to have been trying to kill a local man, who was not identified by the authorities.

“The gunmen came thinking that their target was in the church but incidentally he was not,” Umar said, adding that the violence may be linked to drug-trafficking.

No arrests have been made, he said.

Nigeria’s southeast is predominantly Christian and the attack is a rare act of violence at a church.

Anambra State Governor Willie Obiano said the attack stemmed from a feud between members of the local community who were living outside Nigeria.

“We are not going to relent until we bring those that perpetrated this heinous crime to book,” he said.

Nigeria is wracked by insecurity, with Islamist insurgency Boko Haram having killed more than 20,000 people since 2009, sparking one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.

Ethnically-charged violence is common throughout the central states and militancy is a constant threat in the oil-rich southeast.

(Reporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu; Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Adrian Croft)