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Josh Duggar, formerly executive director of the Family Research Council Action, speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa August 9, 2014. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Brian Frank. *Editors: This photo can only be used with RNS-DUGGAR-MOLEST, transmitted May 22, 2015.

Duggars reeling from Josh’s sex-abuse scandal

Maria Puente May 22, 2015

The Duggars, the reality TV family famous for its progeny (19 Kids and Counting) and its conservatism, is reeling now that oldest son, Josh, has been forced to acknowledge he was investigated for molesting underage girls when he was a teenager in Arkansas.

His acknowledgement came after InTouch magazine published a story Thursday (May 21) about police records it obtained from Springdale, Ark., hidden since 2006, that show Josh Duggar confessed to his father, Jim Bob Duggar, who then waited more than a year before contacting police about what his then 15-year-old son admitting doing to five girls.

Josh Duggar apologized Thursday and abruptly resigned his job at the Family Research Council in Washington, one of the leading conservative groups fighting abortion and gay marriage among other causes.

For most of Thursday, his Twitter account was silent but by evening he had tweeted a link to the family’s statement.

“Twelve years ago, as a young teenager, I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret. I hurt others, including my family and close friends,” Josh Duggar, 27, said in the statement posted on the family’s Facebook page.

“We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing, and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling,” the statement said. “I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.”

Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, addresses the crowd at the Festival of Hope, an evangelistic rally held at the national stadium in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 9, 2011. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Allison Shelley

Franklin Graham’s Facebook prayers target Supreme Court justices on gay marriage

Lauren Markoe May 21, 2015

Evangelist Franklin Graham has taken to Facebook to plead for prayers on behalf of each U.S. Supreme Court justices as they prepare to rule on gay marriage.

Recognizing same-sex marriage as a constitutional right “would be a wicked, wicked thing,” said Graham, son of the iconic preacher Billy Graham “The only hope we have is prayer.”

“Imagine tens and tens and tens of thousands of Americans praying for God to hear their prayers and to change the hearts of these justices. God just might do that.”

So far, Graham has posted prayers for seven of the justices on his Facebook page, which has 1.4 million “likes.” He plans to do two more in the coming days, covering all nine justices, both those who may rule for and those who are against same-sex marriage.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide before the end of June. Many court observers believe the court is poised, if not to declare the constitutionality of gay marriage, then at least to require states to recognize gay marriages established in states where it is legal.

Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the Samaritan’s Purse charity, describes Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the subject of his latest post, as the daughter of immigrants who made good on the American dream.

Photo courtesy of Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter

We can’t make this up: The Blessing of the Toilet Paper

Kevin Eckstrom May 20, 2015

From an email from the Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter of the Congregational Church of Patchogue (N.Y.):

“I have never been so down on my luck that I had little or no access to toilet paper ~ but that is not the case with many people. We at the Congregational Church of Patchogue want to thank you for helping us to help people meet their most basic needs: simple foods, toilet paper, soap, feminine hygiene products and other items. This photo is from “The Blessing of the Toilet Paper” at the church. We serve people without regard or question as to their address, age, preferences, orientation, ethnicity. The only requirement is that they seek what we have to offer. And what we can offer is up to you. Please send contributions to The Congregational Church of Patchogue, 95 East Main St. Patchogue, NY 11772. Write pantry or TP in the memo section. 100% of contributions go to purchase much needed items.”

IMB President David Platt challenges the congregation at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky to go to unreached people living in hard places because we have an “incomprehensibly glorious God.” Photo courtesy of IMB

For SBC missionaries, the Baptist Faith and Message is the touchstone (COMMENTARY)

Greg Perreault May 19, 2015

The Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board trustees approved policy changes last week regarding baseline qualifications for missionaries. There have been various misunderstandings communicated online and in social media about these policies, and these reports have given us the opportunity to provide necessary clarifications concerning what this policy change means.

The driving force behind all these changes is to unify all SBC churches under the umbrella of the Baptist Faith and Message in order to send limitless missionary teams to unreached people and places for the glory of God.

One issue that has particularly drawn attention is the practice of speaking in tongues or the use of a private prayer language. Up until now, if a person had spoken in tongues or practiced a private prayer language, that person was immediately disqualified from appointment as an IMB missionary. IMB trustees voted last week to remove that automatic disqualification.

Rabbi Barry Freundel during morning prayers at Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, 2014. Photo by Lloyd Wolf

‘Peeping Tom’ rabbi sentenced to more than 6 years

Lauren Markoe May 18, 2015

A D.C. Superior Court judge on Friday (May 15) sentenced a prominent Orthodox rabbi to nearly 6 1/2 years in prison for secretly videotaping dozens of naked women in a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath.

Rabbi Barry Freundel pleaded guilty in February to 52 counts of voyeurism, one for each of the 52 women who prosecutors said were the victims of Freundel’s spying with a hidden camera during the three years for which the statute of limitations applies.

“The defendant repeatedly and seriously violated the trust and abused his power,” Judge Geoffrey Alprin said Friday, according to news reports. “The conduct is despicable. There is no justification. The defendant lured victims to the mikvah and secretly recorded them undressed without their knowledge or permission.”

Residents displaced due to the recent fighting between government and rebel forces in the Upper Nile capital Malakal wait at a World Food Program (WFP) outpost where thousands have taken shelter in Kuernyang Payam

World Vision suspends operations in key South Sudan state over escalating violence

Greg Perreault May 14, 2015

Amid killings, rapes and abductions, the international evangelical humanitarian agency World Vision indefinitely suspended its operations in South Sudan’s Unity State over the escalating conflict.

Multiple other aid agencies, including Doctors Without Borders, have taken similar action.

On Wednesday (May 13), gunmen torched towns in some of the heaviest fighting in the 17-month-long conflict in the predominantly Christian country.

World Vision partnered with the United Nations to distribute shelter materials and other emergency relief supplies, including food, water and sanitation services, and mosquito nets.

In addition, the organization’s nutrition programs target children under age 5.

Samar Abboud, the group’s acting national director, said aid workers could no longer work in Unity State under the circumstances.

(RNS1-MAY12) President Obama appears at Georgetown University for a panel discussion on overcoming poverty co-sponsored by Georgetown's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and the National Association of Evangelicals. RNS photo courtesy Georgetown University.

Obama: Defeating poverty takes money and ‘transformative power’ of faith groups

Cathy Lynn Grossman May 13, 2015

The African-American boy who grew up without a father, who started his work life as a community organizer on the payroll of a Catholic agency and who later became U.S. president had plenty to say about poverty in our “winner-take-all” economy.

President Obama spoke Tuesday (May 12) of “ladders of opportunity” once denied to blacks and now being dismantled for poor whites as their difficult lives get that much more difficult: “It’s hard being poor. It’s time-consuming. It’s stressful.”

Obama joined two policy voices from the left and right in a rare moment of participating in a panel discussion, part of a three-day symposium at Georgetown University on combating poverty. The audience of 700 included 120 Catholic and evangelical leaders.

Obama said he sees “the lucky and the successful” withdrawing from the shared spaces of American society, including schools and parks and other “common goods.” Meanwhile, the free market has “turbocharged” the divisions.

The interior of St. Roch Church in the Staten Island borough of New York is seen between Sunday morning Masses on Nov. 2, 2014. The New York Archdiocese announced last fall that, as part of a massive consolidation and closing process involving dozens of churches, Masses and sacraments will no longer be available on a weekly basis at St. Roch Church. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

Christians lose ground, ‘nones’ soar in new portrait of US religion

Cathy Lynn Grossman May 12, 2015

The United States is a significantly less Christian country than it was seven years ago.

That’s the top finding — one that will ricochet through American faith, culture and politics — in the Pew Research Center’s newest report, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” released Tuesday (May 12).

This trend “is big, it’s broad and it’s everywhere,” said Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religion research.

Christianity still dominates American religious identity (70 percent), but the survey shows dramatic shifts as more people move out the doors of denominations, shedding spiritual connections along the way.

Atheists and agnostics have nearly doubled their share of the religious marketplace, and overall indifference to religion of any sort is rising as well. Among the larger Christian bodies, only the historically black Protestant churches have held a steady grip through the years of change.

Remember the familiar map of American religion? The South: a bastion of white evangelicals. The Northeast: cradle of Catholics. The Midwest: nest of mainline Protestants. The West: incubator of “nones” — people who claim no religious brand label.

Don Albert Jakaj explains the architecture of St. John Church to the village locals, including the mayor of Brod, right, in Kosovo on April 13, 2015. Jakaj believes the church is a Roman Catholic burial church. Religion News Service photo by Valerie Plesch

Muslim Kosovars rediscover their long-forgotten Roman Catholic roots

Greg Perreault May 11, 2015

The Catholic priest followed the village elders up a narrow road that curved between the green hills in the tiny hamlet of Gjonaj in southern Kosovo.

As the priest, Don Albert Jakaj, 36, emerged from the wooded path, he saw the light gray stone church, believed by locals to be a thousand years old, surrounded by tall pine trees.

Jakaj had traveled to Gjonaj at the request of Avni Ademi, 35, a local who contacted the priest to get his opinion on the origin of the church and to validate his belief that the church belongs to former local Roman Catholics before the village converted to Islam.

The Serbian Orthodox Church claims ownership of the property and holds the keys to the building, which it renovated in 1993. But area residents believe it’s an ancient Albanian church, and they want it back.

Old churches in Kosovo such as the one in Gjonaj are reminders of the country’s deep-rooted Christian history, one some locals would like to resurrect.

‘Dig’ ends its TV run not with a bang but a flood

Kimberly Winston May 8, 2015

(RNS) It’s come at last — the end of “Dig,” the apocalyptic action series that concludes Thursday (May 7) on the USA Network.

The 10-part series by Tim Kring and Gideon Raff, two television hotshots with shows like “Heroes” and “Homeland” in their credits, consistently relied on religion and its zealots to fuel a complicated plot. Over and over, characters in the series warned of a coming “Armageddon.”

“If that mosque comes down, it will be World War III,” said Ian Margrove (Richard E. Grant), “Dig’’s evil archaeologist. “Armageddon. The end of everything.”

Maybe. Maybe not. But first, what is the origin and accuracy of the religious aspects of Dig’s, shall we say, rather storied plot?

Read on at your peril. Spoilers ahead.