Egypt’s Coptic Christians to halt activities after security threat, sources say

Egyptian priests react during the funeral of victims of the Palm Sunday bombings, at St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Monastery "Deir Mar Mina" in Alexandria, Egypt April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians have been told by church leaders to cancel all events and activities outside churches in July because of a security threat, church and security sources said on Thursday.

The warning followed an attack in May by Islamic State on Copts traveling to a monastery in central Egypt that killed 29 people. A month earlier, 44 people were killed in bomb attacks at a cathedral and another church on Palm Sunday.

Sources said the warning was given to individual church leaders by a representative of the Coptic Orthodox Pope. Copts on trips or youth camps had been told to cut short their activities and return home early.

The Egyptian Catholic church said it got the same instructions. The church “complied with the interior minister’s decision to cancel church trips and camps until further notice,” Father Rafik Greish, a spokesman for the Coptic Catholic Church, told Reuters late on Thursday.

A Coptic church official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, told Reuters that his church received “oral instructions this week, nothing written, to prevent panic,” he said.

The source said the church was provided with more security forces to secure the gates of the church this week.

Egypt faces an Islamist insurgency led by the Islamic State group in the Sinai Peninsula, where hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed since 2013.

At least 23 soldiers were killed last week when suicide car bombs tore through two military checkpoints in the region in an attack claimed by Islamic State. It was one of the bloodiest assaults on security forces in years.

But Islamic State has also intensified attacks in the mainland in recent months, often targeting Coptic Christians. About 100 Copts have been killed since December.

(Reporting by Malak Ghobrial; additional reporting by Mahmoud Morad, Amina Ismail and Ahmed MOhamed Hassan; writing by Patrick Markey, editing by Larry King)

Christians caught up in Philippines’ urban battle with Islamists

A view of a fire caused by continued fighting between the government soldiers and the Maute group, in Marawi City in southern Philippines May 28, 2017.

By Tom Allard

ILIGAN CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Bishop Edwin Dela Pena was sipping coffee after dinner in a southern Philippines coastal town last Tuesday when he received a phone call: it was from one of his diocese priests, who sounded panicky and distressed.

Father Teresito “Chito” Sugarno, the vicar general of Marawi City, had been taken hostage by Islamist militants along with about a dozen of his parishioners.

“He was only given a few lines to deliver, and it was simply echoing the demands of the kidnappers – for the troops to withdraw,” said Dela Pena. If the demand was not met, he was told, “something bad would happen”.

There has been no further word from the group of Christians since they were caught up in a ferocious battle that has raged between Islamist insurgents and Philippines soldiers in Marawi for the past week.

As many as 180,000 people, about 90 percent of the population, have fled the usually bustling lakeside town nestled in lush tropical hills that, almost overnight last week, became a theater of urban warfare.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across Mindanao – the country’s southernmost island and an area the size of South Korea – as troops outside Marawi closed in on  Isnilon Hapilon, who was proclaimed “emir” of Southeast Asia last year after he pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

Mindanao has long been a hotbed of local insurgencies and separatist movements: but now, Islamist fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries have converged in Mindanao, stoking fears that it could become a regional stronghold of Islamic State.

More than 90 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million people are Christian, but here Muslims are in the majority. In 1980 Marawi proclaimed itself an “Islamic City” and it is the only city in the country with that designation.

For the small Christian community of Marawi, however, life in the city had until recently been peaceful and prosperous.

“We don’t consider ourselves Muslims or Christians, we are just friends,” said Dela Pena, who has lived for 17 years in Marawi but was out of town when the violence broke out.

That peace was shattered some months ago, he said, after the army bombed an encampment of Islamist groups some 50 km (30 miles) away.

“They said they pulverized the whole camp, but these people simply transferred their base of operation from the jungle to the urban center, to the city, Marawi,” he told Reuters in an interview from Iligan City, 37 km (23 miles) from Marawi.

“They came in trickles, a few people at a time. They have relatives there. They lived, they recruited,” he said, adding that authorities appear to have missed the looming threat.

Members of Philippine Marines walk next to an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) as they advance their position in Marawi City, Philippines May 28

Members of Philippine Marines walk next to an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) as they advance their position in Marawi City, Philippines May 28, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

CATHEDRAL ATTACKED AND TORCHED

Chaos was unleashed upon Marawi when troops searching for Hapilon were ambushed by heavily armed militants.

More than 200 local and foreign fighters from the Maute group and others allied to Islamic State fanned out across the city, seizing the main hospital and prison before attacking the Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora.

Inside, nearby residents told Dela Pena, Father Teresito and a group of worshippers were decorating the church for a holy day to celebrate the life of Mary, a sacred figure in both Christianity and Islam.

Dela Pena said they ran to the nearby bishop’s house, hoping they would be safe there, but the militants burst in after them. That evening, after bundling their captives into vehicles, they torched the church, according to the residents.

Photos showing the priest, a young man and a woman slumped against a wall have circulated on the internet. Dela Pena believes they are being used as human shields by the militants.

“I cannot imagine. I have no words to describe it,” he said.

Still, he remains hopeful that the city can unite again. The vast majority of Marawi’s citizens, whatever their faith, are appalled by the violence and disruption, he said.

“I think we can begin something more effective in terms of working together, in terms of dialogue, in terms of peaceful coexistence,” he said. “After all, we have shared the same predicament.”

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema in MANILA; Editing by John Chalmers and Lincoln Feast)

U.S. justices lean toward church in key religious rights case

The Supreme Court is seen ahead of the Senate voting to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch as an Associate Justice in Washington, DC, U.S. April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared poised to expand religious rights and potentially narrow the separation of church and state after liberal and conservative justices alike signaled support for a church denied Missouri taxpayer funds for a playground project.

A ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri in the case, one of the most important of the court’s current term, could pave the way for more public money to go to religious entities.

Justices across the nine-member court’s ideological spectrum indicated that Trinity Lutheran should be allowed to apply for the Missouri grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. The church runs a preschool and daycare center.

“It does seem as though this is a clear burden on a constitutional right,” liberal Justice Elena Kagan said during a one-hour argument, referring to Missouri’s prohibition.

A ruling is due by the end of June. It is unclear how far the justices will go in setting a precedent that would give states more leeway to fund religious entities directly.

The dispute pits two provisions of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment against each other: the guarantee of the free exercise of religion and the Establishment Clause, which requires the separation of church and state.

A broad ruling favoring the church could bolster religious conservatives who favor weakening the wall between church and state, including using taxpayer money to pay for children to attend private religious schools rather than public schools. President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a prominent supporter of such “school choice” plans.

Trinity Lutheran, whose legal effort was spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian activist group, could be headed for a lopsided win, with liberals Kagan and Stephen Breyer joining conservative justices in signaling support.

Missouri’s constitution bars “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state money, language that goes further than the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

Breyer questioned whether denying churches access to the playground grant money would be akin to refusing to provide police or fire services.

“What’s the difference?” Breyer said.

FEDERAL GRANTS

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito said several federal grant programs are open to religious entities, including one that provides money to enhance security at buildings where there is a risk of terrorist attack.

Synagogues, mosques and religious schools have received funding under that program, according to a brief filed by a Jewish group supporting the church’s position.

Alito asked Missouri’s lawyer, James Layton, if religious entities would be barred from applying if Missouri had a similar program. Layton said they would be prohibited.

Trinity Lutheran argued that Missouri’s policy violates its right to exercise religion as well as the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law. Missouri has said there is nothing unconstitutional about its grant program, noting that Trinity Lutheran remains free to practice any aspect of its faith however it wishes despite being denied state funds.

The court’s newest justice, Trump’s conservative appointee Neil Gorsuch, is known for an expansive view of religious rights. Gorsuch asked Layton why it is acceptable for Missouri to ban religious entities in some instances, such as with the playground program, but not in others, including safety and health services.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the most outspoken in backing Missouri’s ban, noting the difficulty states could face determining whether funds going to a religious entity are being used for a secular purposes.

“How do you separate out its secular function from its religious function?” Sotomayor asked.

Three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri’s barring funding for religious entities.

Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, last Thursday reversed the state policy that had banned religious entities from applying for the grant money, saying it was wrong for “government bureaucrats” to deny grants to “people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids.”

Missouri and the church both urged the justices to decide the case anyway because of the important issues at play and because the governor’s action was not irreversible. The issue was discussed only briefly during Wednesday’s argument, suggesting the justices are eager to decide the case on the merits.

A Trinity Lutheran victory could help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such as health and safety. It also could buttress the case for using publicly funded vouchers to send children to religious schools.

A challenge to a 2015 court decision invalidating a Colorado voucher program is pending before the justices, awaiting the Trinity Lutheran case’s outcome.

Trinity Lutheran sued Missouri in federal court in 2012. The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a trial court’s dismissal of the suit, and the church appealed to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. top court to hear key religious rights case involving Missouri church

The Supreme Court is seen ahead of the Senate voting to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch as an Associate Justice in Washington, DC, U.S. April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear a closely watched dispute over supplying taxpayer money to religious entities in which a church accuses Missouri of violating its religious rights by denying it state funds for a playground project.

The case, which examines the limits of religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution, is one of the most important before the court in its current term. It also marks the biggest test to date for the court’s newest justice, President Donald Trump’s appointee Neil Gorsuch.

The court’s conservative majority may be sympathetic to the church’s views. But there are questions over whether the nine justices will end up deciding the merits of the case after Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, last Thursday reversed the state policy that banned religious entities from applying for the funds.

Even though Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri could now actually apply for money from the grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires, its lawyers and state officials asked the justices to decide the case anyway.

Trinity Lutheran runs a preschool and daycare center.

Missouri’s constitution bars “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state money, language that goes further than the Constitution’s First Amendment separation of church and state requirement.

Trinity Lutheran’s legal effort is being spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian legal activist group, which contends that Missouri’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.

In court papers, the state said the ban did not impose a burden on the church’s exercise of religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which backed the state’s ban, asked the justices to drop the case, saying it is now moot following Greitens’ policy reversal.

A victory at the Supreme Court for Trinity Lutheran could help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such as health and safety. It also could buttress the case for using taxpayer money for vouchers to help pay for children to attend religious schools rather than public schools in “school choice” programs advocated by conservatives.

Three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri’s barring funding for religious entities.

Trinity Lutheran sued in federal court in 2012. The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a trial court’s dismissal of the suit, and the church appealed to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; additional reporting by Andrew Chung; editing by Will Dunham)

Egypt’s interior ministry identifies Tanta church suicide bomber: state TV

Relatives of victims react next to coffins arriving to the Coptic church that was bombed on Sunday in Tanta, Egypt, April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s interior ministry on Thursday identified the suicide bomber in the church bombing in the city of Tanta as Mamdouh Amin Mohamed Baghdadi, a resident of Qena, south of Cairo.

At least 45 people, as well as the bombers, were killed in attacks on a cathedral in Alexandria and the church in Tanta in the Nile Delta on Palm Sunday, April 9. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks.

A ministry statement said Baghdadi was born in 1977 and was one of 19 suspected militants believed to belong to a cell behind a December suicide bombing of Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral, another attack claimed by Islamic State.

The statement said the authorities had arrested 3 of the 19 suspected militants in the cell.

Egypt’s government imposed a three-month state of emergency in the wake of the Palm Sunday attacks.

Religious minorities are increasingly targeted by Sunni Islamist militants, posing a challenge to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has pledged to protect them as part of his campaign against extremism.

Islamic State has waged a low-level war against soldiers and police in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula for years but it is increasingly targeting Christians and broadening its reach into Egypt’s mainland.

(Reporting by Ali Abdelatti; writing by Asma Alsharif; editing by Andrew Roche)

At least 13 killed after Texas church bus crash

A still image of aerial video is shown of an accident scene involving a Texas church bus carrying senior citizens which crashed head-on with another vehicle about 80 miles (130 km) west of San Antonio, Texas, U.S., March 29, 2017. Courtesy WOAI/KABB/Handout via REUTERS

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – At least 13 people were killed, and two injured, when a Texas church bus carrying senior citizens collided head-on with another vehicle on Wednesday, the church and a Texas state trooper said.

The bus had 14 people aboard when it collided with a pickup truck carrying one person, about 80 miles (130 km) west of San Antonio. The cause of the crash was being investigated, said Sergeant Conrad Hein, a spokesman of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The vehicles collided when the truck crossed the center line, Johnny Hernandez, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, told the San Antonio Express-News.

The truck driver was airlifted to a San Antonio hospital, the paper said on its website. The survivor who was on the bus was in serious but stable condition, the First Baptist Church of New Braunfels said on social media.

A group of senior adults affiliated with the church were on the bus returning from a three-day retreat in Leakey, Texas, the church said on its Facebook page.

“Thank you for the outpouring of love and support,” it added. “Please continue to pray.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott and his wife offered condolences to the victims.

“We are saddened by the loss of life and our hearts go out to all those affected,” Abbott said in a statement.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Clarence Fernandez)

‘Religious left’ emerging as U.S. political force in Trump era

By Scott Malone

(Reuters) – Since President Donald Trump’s election, monthly lectures on social justice at the 600-seat Gothic chapel of New York’s Union Theological Seminary have been filled to capacity with crowds three times what they usually draw.

In January, the 181-year-old Upper Manhattan graduate school, whose architecture evokes London’s Westminster Abbey, turned away about 1,000 people from a lecture on mass incarceration. In the nine years that Reverend Serene Jones has served as its president, she has never seen such crowds.

“The election of Trump has been a clarion call to progressives in the Protestant and Catholic churches in America to move out of a place of primarily professing progressive policies to really taking action,” she said.

Although not as powerful as the religious right, which has been credited with helping elect Republican presidents and boasts well-known leaders such as Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, the “religious left” is now slowly coming together as a force in U.S. politics.

This disparate group, traditionally seen as lacking clout, has been propelled into political activism by Trump’s policies on immigration, healthcare and social welfare, according to clergy members, activists and academics. A key test will be how well it will be able to translate its mobilization into votes in the 2018 midterm congressional elections.

“It’s one of the dirty little secrets of American politics that there has been a religious left all along and it just hasn’t done a good job of organizing,” said J. Patrick Hornbeck II, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York.

“It has taken a crisis, or perceived crisis, like Trump’s election to cause folks on the religious left to really own their religion in the public square,” Hornbeck said.

Religious progressive activism has been part of American history. Religious leaders and their followers played key roles in campaigns to abolish slavery, promote civil rights and end the Vietnam War, among others. The latest upwelling of left-leaning religious activism has accompanied the dawn of the Trump presidency.

Some in the religious left are inspired by Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic leader who has been an outspoken critic of anti-immigrant policies and a champion of helping the needy.

Although support for the religious left is difficult to measure, leaders point to several examples, such as a surge of congregations offering to provide sanctuary to immigrants seeking asylum, churches urging Republicans to reconsider repealing the Obamacare health law and calls to preserve federal spending on foreign aid.

The number of churches volunteering to offer sanctuary to asylum seekers doubled to 800 in 45 of the 50 U.S. states after the election, said the Elkhart, Indiana-based Church World Service, a coalition of Christian denominations which helps refugees settle in the United States – and the number of new churches offering help has grown so quickly that the group has lost count.

“The religious community, the religious left is getting out, hitting the streets, taking action, raising their voices,” said Reverend Noel Anderson, its national grassroots coordinator.

In one well-publicized case, a Quaker church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 14 took in a Honduran woman who has been living illegally in the United States for 25 years and feared she would be targeted for deportation.

‘NEVER SEEN’ THIS

Leaders of Faith in Public Life, a progressive policy group, were astounded when 300 clergy members turned out at a January rally at the U.S. Senate attempting to block confirmation of Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, because of his history of controversial statements on race.

“I’ve never seen hundreds of clergy turning up like that to oppose a Cabinet nominee,” said Reverend Jennifer Butler, the group’s chief executive.

The group on Wednesday convened a Capitol Hill rally of hundreds of pastors from as far away as Ohio, North Carolina and Texas to urge Congress to ensure that no people lose their health insurance as a result of a vote to repeal Obamacare.

Financial support is also picking up. Donations to the Christian activist group Sojourners have picked up by 30 percent since Trump’s election, the group said.

But some observers were skeptical that the religious left could equal the religious right politically any time soon.

“It really took decades of activism for the religious right to become the force that it is today,” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College, a Catholic school outside Boston.

But the power potential of the “religious left” is not negligible. The “Moral Mondays” movement, launched in 2013 by the North Carolina NAACP’s Reverend William Barber, is credited with contributing to last year’s election defeat of Republican Governor Pat McCrory by Democrat Roy Cooper.

The new political climate is also spurring new alliances, with churches, synagogues and mosques speaking out against the recent spike in bias incidents, including threats against mosques and Jewish community centers.

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which encourages alliances between Jewish and Muslim women, has tripled its number of U.S. chapters to nearly 170 since November, said founder Sheryl Olitzky.

“This is not about partisanship, but about vulnerable populations who need protection, whether it’s the LGBT community, the refugee community, the undocumented community,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

More than 1,000 people have already signed up for the center’s annual Washington meeting on political activism, about three times as many as normal, Pesner said.

Leaders of the religious right who supported Trump say they see him delivering on his promises and welcomed plans to defund Planned Parenthood, whose healthcare services for women include abortion, through the proposed repeal of Obamacare.

“We have not seen any policy proposals that run counter to our faith,” said Lance Lemmonds, a spokesman for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a nonprofit group based in Duluth, Georgia.

(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou Jonathan Oatis)