Religion News in Brief

July 27, 2011 - 1:58 PM

Leading pastor in China's underground Protestant church sentenced to 2 years in labor camp

BEIJING (AP) — An underground Protestant leader has been sentenced to two years in a labor camp as China cracks down on unapproved churches that are getting bolder in confronting government religious policy, a U.S.-based monitoring group said Tuesday.

The expansion and growing influence of unofficial churches has unsettled China's rulers, always suspicious of any independent social group that could challenge Communist authority.

China Aid Association said Pastor Shi Enhao, 55, was sentenced over the weekend for organizing illegal religious gatherings. He had been detained June 21 in the eastern city of Suqian in Jiangsu province.

Labor camp sentences are handed out without trial on the recommendation of police and can be extended beyond the usual two-year term.

Shi's church was also ordered to cease meeting and its car, cash donations, musical instruments and even choir robes were seized by police, said China Aid, based in Midland, Texas.

China's officially atheistic ruling Communist Party claims to protect freedom of worship and authorities usually refuse to comment on prosecutions against religious figures.

Local officials with the Suqian police and with the government's Religious Affairs Bureau said they knew of no such case.

Shi is a deputy chairman of the Chinese House Church Alliance, a national group of underground congregations established to provide mutual support and intercede with authorities who routinely threaten and harass unofficial churches.

China Aid said Shi's son, Shi Yongyang, was forced to sign a document confirming his father's sentencing, but was not provided with the required copy in an apparent attempt to downplay news of the sentence.

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Legendary Islamic school ousts reformist leader who irked many by praising Hindu politician

NEW DELHI (AP) — One of the world's most revered schools of Islamic learning ousted its reformist leader just months into his term, after he praised a Hindu nationalist politician loathed by many Muslims in India.

Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi had pledged to update the Darul Uloom seminary's curriculum and rein in hard-line religious edicts when he became vice chancellor in January.

But within days he upset conservatives and sparked protests by praising Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's development policies and reportedly saying Muslims in that western state should move on from the 2002 communal riots that left hundreds dead.

The board of the 150-year-old institution in the northern town of Deoband voted Sunday to replace 60-year-old Vastanvi, who is also an MBA, with Maulana Abdul Qasim Nomani.

"Now, I am the vice chancellor of the seminary," Nomani told Press Trust of India. The board had first debated a special committee's report on Vastanvi's conduct, prompting 14 board members to walk out, Nomani said.

Vastanvi objected that the report was incomplete. Nevertheless, the remaining board members voted 9-4 to remove Vastanvi.

"This is injustice and a conspiracy against me," Vastanvi reportedly said, but added that he would not seek to reverse the decision.

Darul Uloom has around 4,000 students and, as the center of the Deobandi school of Islam, is seen as the spiritual light for thousands of other schools across the Middle East, Britain, the United States, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

It was founded in 1866 to preserve Islamic culture in India and preaches an austere form of Islam that has inspired millions of Muslims, including the Taliban's hard-line interpretation.

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County Commissioners appeal ruling ordering removal of 10 Commandments monument at courthouse

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Dixie County officials will appeal a federal judge's order to remove a six-ton monument displaying the Ten Commandments in the front of their courthouse building.

County Commissioners voted 5-0 last week to appeal and also seek a stay in Judge Maurice Paul's decision requiring the granite monument be removed from the courthouse in Cross City.

The county's appeal to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals claims that Paul's ruling quashes private speech in a public forum, since the monument was paid for by a private citizen. The county also wants the appeals court to determine if plaintiffs in the case who do not live in the area have a right to sue. They contend the monument does not represent an official endorsement of religion.

Nearly identical monuments are also in place at the city hall in Chiefland and the Levy County Courthouse at Bronson, both within a short drive of Cross City in north Florida.

The monument in front of the Dixie County Courthouse was built and paid for by paving contractor Joe Anderson Jr. of Old Town, whose request to give Gilchrist County the same monument at its courthouse in Trenton was approved by their county commissioners in May.

Paul decided in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union Florida which brought the suit in 2007. The ACLUF argued that an official government display of a religious monument violates a clause in the First Amendment that prohibits the government from promoting religious messages.

"Despite the actual ownership of the monument, the location and permanent nature of the display make it clear to all reasonable observers that Dixie County chooses to be associated with the message being conveyed," Paul agreed.

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Connecticut man pleads guilty to fraud involving church, other investors

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — An Easton securities broker has pleaded guilty to federal charges that he swindled investors including members of a Greek Orthodox church out of more than $8 million.

Gregory Loles, 51, pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering charges in U.S. District Court in New Haven, federal authorities said Tuesday.

Loles convinced officials at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Orange as well as some parishioners that he was an investment manager and misrepresented his successes. Church members lost retirement and college funds.

He used the money to support his auto racing businesses and for personal bills, federal authorities said. He will be sentenced in October.