Update on the latest religion news

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By AP

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Updated: Wed, 25 Dec 2013 04:15:42 EST

HOLY LAND-CHRISTMAS

Crowds gather in Bethlehem for Christmas

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world have packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations, bringing warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus.

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, celebrated Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity.

Greeting English-speaking worshippers, he said, "Welcome to Bethlehem, the city of the word of God made flesh."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, were among the dignitaries attending the service.

Excited tourists milled about the town's Manger Square, stopping in restaurants and souvenir shops and admiring a large, illuminated Christmas Tree. Marching bands and scout troops performed for the visitors in the streets, and on a stage next to the tree.

Sound:

229-r-1:03-(Sound of choir singing "O Come All Ye Faithful" in Latin, at Christmas Eve Mass in the Church of the Nativity)--Sound of choir singing "O Come All Ye Faithful" in Latin at Christmas Eve Mass in the Church of the Nativity. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *229 (12/24/13)££ 01:03

228-w-32-(Steve Coleman, AP religion editor, with Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal)--Christians have begun their Christmas celebrations with worship services at the Vatican and in Bethlehem. AP Religion Editor Steve Coleman reports. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *228 (12/24/13)££ 00:32

213-a-10-(Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, at Christmas Eve Mass in the Church of the Nativity)-"God made flesh"-Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal gives an English greeting to worshippers at the Christmas Eve Mass in the Church of the Nativity. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *213 (12/24/13)££ 00:10 "God made flesh"

214-a-04-(Lecter reading from the Bible's book of Titus, at Christmas Eve Mass in the Church of the Nativity)-"God has appeared"-Sound of a lecter reading from the Bible's book of Titus at Christmas Eve Mass in the Church of the Nativity. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *214 (12/24/13)££ 00:04 "God has appeared"

215-r-23-(Choir and worshippers singing, at Christmas Eve Mass in the Church of the Nativity)--Sound of choir and worshippers singing at Christmas Eve Mass in the Church of the Nativity. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *215 (12/24/13)££ 00:23

VATICAN-CHRISTMAS EVE

Pope carries baby Jesus statue on Christmas Eve

VATICAN CITY (AP) —In his Christmas homily, Pope Francis says God "so loves us that he gave us his Son to be our brother, to be light in our darkness."

Francis began celebrating his first Christmas Eve Mass as pontiff by placing a baby Jesus statue in a replica of a manger in St. Peter's Basilica. The 77-year-old pope walked briskly up the main aisle of the basilica, which was packed with faithful and tourists at the start of Mass, which began 2 ½ hours before midnight.

Keeping with the theme of humility he has set for his new papacy, Francis carried the statue instead of an aide, and kissed a knee of the figure of the newly born Jesus.

The ceremony is the pope's only public Mass for Christmas.

On Christmas Day, Francis delivers the annual papal message to the world from the basilica's central balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square.

Sound:

207-r-31-(Choir singing "O Come All Ye Faithful" in Latin, at Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica)--Sound of choir singing "O Come All Ye Faithful" in Latin at Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *207 (12/24/13)££ 00:31

197-r-06-(Pope Francis, at Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica)--Sound of Pope Francis opening the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *197 (12/24/13)££ 00:06

196-r-11-(Pope Francis, delivering the homily in Italian during Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica)--Sound of Pope Francis, in Italian, saying, "God loves us, he so loves us that he gave us his Son to be our brother, to be light in our darkness." (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *196 (12/24/13)££ 00:11

199-r-15-(Choir singing, at Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica)--Sound of choir singing at Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *199 (12/24/13)££ 00:15

200-r-16-(Organ playing, at Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica)--Sound of organ playing at Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *200 (12/24/13)££ 00:16

198-a-21-(Lecter reading from the Bible's book of Isaiah, at Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica)-"prince of peace"-A lecter reads from the Bible's book of Isaiah at the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *198 (12/24/13)££ 00:21 "prince of peace"

CHRISTMAS CAROLS-VETERANS HOSPITAL

Augusta VA hospital bans some Christmas carols

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The angels won't be heard on high, nor will the little Lord Jesus sleep in heavenly peace at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center.

The Georgia hospital announced Monday that it's taking a stricter stance on its policy banning carolers from singing religious Christmas music in public patient areas.

Last week, the facility prevented a group of high school students from Augusta's Alleluia Community School from singing to its veterans a number of traditional holiday tunes that honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, such as Silent Night and O Come All Ye Faithful.

Alleluia Community School Principal Dan Funsch said he was sad to hear that the Veterans Affairs hospital's "spiritual care" only grants holiday exemption only to Frosty, Rudolph and the secular characters that make up the 12 Days of Christmas.

BLUE CHRISTMAS

Churches offer 'Blue Christmas' for those in need

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Christmas is a time of joy, but for those with hardships, it's far from the most wonderful time of the year.

Across the U.S., churches are increasingly catering to the needs of those struggling to get through the holidays.

The ornate Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis hosted a "Blue Christmas" service on Monday.

The goal of such services is to offer spiritual healing for those trying to cope with the loss of a loved one, divorce, economic hardship or other needs. The concept began about a quarter-century ago and has taken hold nationwide.

Some go by the name "Longest Night" because the service is traditionally held on or around the winter solstice.

DUCK DYNASTY-BAPTIST PRESIDENT

Black S. Bapt. leader disputes Duck Dynasty patriarch's race remarks

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention supports Phil Robertson's biblical views on homosexuality but disputes the "Duck Dynasty" patriarch's memory of race relations before the Civil Rights movement.

In a GQ magazine interview, Robertson said that in his Louisiana youth he picked cotton with African-Americans and never saw "the mistreatment of any black person," adding that they were "singing and happy" and didn't complain about white people.

The Southern Baptists' first black president, the Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans, has a different recollection. He says back then in Louisiana there was nothing happy about segregation or "being hung in a tree because of your race." He adds that blacks were definitely complaining, if not to Robertson.

But Luter defends Robertson's quotation of a Bible passage that calls homosexual acts sinful. Luter says he didn't consider those remarks hateful.

Fans of "Duck Dynasty" have rallied to support Robertson after the A&E network put him on indefinite "hiatus" from the reality show.

Sound:

192-a-03-(The Rev. Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in AP interview)-"they were complaining"-The Rev. Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, says blacks were definitely complaining about segregation when "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson was young. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *192 (12/24/13)££ 00:03 "they were complaining"

195-a-10-(The Rev. Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in AP interview)-"about a healing"-The Rev. Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, says he's praying for reconciliation in America this Christmas. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *195 (12/24/13)££ 00:10 "about a healing"

191-a-14-(The Rev. Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in AP interview)-"and your color"-The Rev. Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, disputes "Duck Dynasty" patriarch's memory of blacks "singing and happy" before the Civil Rights movement. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *191 (12/24/13)££ 00:14 "and your color"

194-a-04-(The Rev. Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in AP interview)-"not say that"-The Rev. Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, says he supports Phil Robertson's right to quote what the Bible says about homosexuality. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *194 (12/24/13)££ 00:04 "not say that"

193-a-04-(The Rev. Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in AP interview)-"of "Duck Dynasty""-The Rev. Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, says his New Orleans church hasn't paid much attention to the controversy over Phil Robertson's remarks. (24 Dec 2013)

<<CUT *193 (12/24/13)££ 00:04 "of "Duck Dynasty""

RELIGIOUS UNIVERSITIES-BIRTH CONTROL

Okla. judge grants injunction in health care suit

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A federal judge has temporarily dived the government from forcing four Oklahoma Christian schools to abide by the federal health care law's mandate that their insurance coverage include access to the morning-after pill and similar contraceptives.

U.S. District Judge Stephen P. Friot handed down a preliminary injunction on Monday that exempts Southern Nazarene University, Oklahoma Baptist University, Mid-America University and Oklahoma Wesleyan University from offering the contraceptives while their lawsuit challenging the mandate is pending.

The ruling is the latest decision preventing the government from enforcing the law's requirement that emergency birth control methods be covered by health insurance policies. On Friday, another federal judge in Oklahoma City granted an injunction preventing enforcement of the requirement on nearly 200 religious organizations.

In July, a temporary exemption from the mandate was granted to Christian-owned Hobby Lobby Stores, a ruling the government has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

CHRISTIAN COLLEGE-BIRTH CONTROL

Judge: Pa. school can exclude some birth control

PITTSBURGH (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that a Pennsylvania Christian college can temporarily exclude coverage for birth control like the morning-after pill and the week-after pill when it offers a health insurance plan to its employees.

The ruling Monday echoes an earlier finding, also by U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti, that Geneva College can exclude such coverage in a health plan it offers to students.

The preliminary injunctions remain in effect until the judge rules on the school's underlying lawsuit challenging looming federal health care reforms, or until a higher appeals court rules on the issue.

Conti's ruling indicates she expects the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the underlying religious freedom issues next year, now that it has agreed to hear two similar cases, including one filed by Hobby Lobby. The arts and craft chain has argued that the contraceptive mandates violate the beliefs of the "biblically founded business."

Geneva, a school near Pittsburgh that is affiliated with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, argues certain types of birth control violate its religious beliefs against abortion.

CHINA-CHURCH CRACKDOWN

China pastor's supporters beaten on Christmas Eve

BEIJING (AP) — The wife of a detained Chinese Christian pastor says a group of rights lawyers and churchgoers were attacked by hired thugs on Christmas Eve at her house in central China.

Wang Fengrui says dozens of thugs kicked and punched members of the group on Tuesday when they attempted to leave the house in Henan province.

The lawyers traveled to Nanle County to seek meetings with Pastor Zhang Shaojie, who was detained more than a month ago over a land dispute and has been denied access to lawyers. Churchgoers had hoped to hold a prayer meeting to rally support for Zhang, but were dived by authorities.

Supporters say the county government reneged on an agreement to provide the congregation with land for a building, leaving them without a place of worship.

CHURCH SIGN HUMOR

Church signs roll the dice getting hip with quips

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A Florida pastor recently used his church's marquee to put out a message: "Christmas — Easier to spell than Hanukkah."

Mike Butzberger of Lighthouse Baptist Church in North Palm Beach says he meant no offense. But he begrudgingly took it down after a woman complained and a local television station inquired.

Such is the challenge for pastors who are trying to update the age-old practice of luring worshippers with messages on marquees outside their churches. Long the place for Gospel quotes and Christmas Eve sermon hours, now the signs are often clever, catchy or funny.

But pastors are finding that joking about religion is serious business, and it's easy to cross a line.

Some say the messages help attract new members, others say they at least get people talking.

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