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News for Sociology of Religion--Mon Mar 10 05:18:28 EST 1997

  • AS CHRISTIANITY DECLINES, THE DUTCH PONDER WHAT TO DO WITH SURPLUS
    AMSTERDAM, Netherlands—Every Friday afternoon, a courtyard along a busy Amsterdam street fills with Muslim men parking their bicycles and removing their shoes as they prepare for prayers. They (New York Times) (*)

  • EGYPTIAN NEWSPAPER EDITOR SLANDERS INTERIOR MINISTER
    Mr Hussein, bearded, bespectacled but smiling broadly, sits in the office of his cramped apartment in a black robe, family photographs on the walls, the words 'Allah' written in Arabic  (*)

  • MY CHANCE OF WINNING? IMPOSSIBLE
    Well, there's no longer any point in my entering the American Family Publishers sweepstakes. You might as well toss your entry into the trash, as well. It's

  • No headline.
    The Rev. Dr. Mac Charles Jones, the Baptist minister who led the National Council of Churches' drive to focus attention on a wave of racist arson fires at black churches in the rural South, died on (New York Times)



    AS CHRISTIANITY DECLINES, THE DUTCH PONDER WHAT TO DO WITH SURPLUS

    By MARLISE SIMONS<

    c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service<

    AMSTERDAM, Netherlands—Every Friday afternoon, a courtyardalong a busy Amsterdam street fills with Muslim men parking theirbicycles and removing their shoes as they prepare for prayers. Theymay not see it this way, but the worshipers at the Fatih CamiiMosque are part of a fundamental change in the Netherlands.

    The site where Allah is now loudly praised used to be a RomanCatholic church. It has been stripped of its crosses and paintings,and the spires on its two plump towers now carry a crescent moon.

    But it is not Islam, brought here mainly by Moroccan and Turkishimmigrants, that is troubling the Dutch priests and pastors. Ratherit is a more far-reaching shift, the continuing decline ofChristianity.

    Dwindling church attendance by Catholics and mainstreamProtestants has forced the clergy in much of Europe to confront thesame, often painful question their counterparts in New York andother American cities have asked: What to do with the cavernouschurches, the myriad chapels, and sprawling monasteries that havebecome redundant and require small fortunes to keep up.

    Unused churches can be found in Britain, France, Germany, andelsewhere in northern Europe, and many are simply closed. Germanchurches, though, are supported by tax revenues, and Frenchchurches long ago became municipal property, all of which help payfor maintenance.

    But in the crowded Netherlands, where the churches own thebuildings and space is precious, the response has been pragmaticand secular.

    Cash-strapped church elders have sold off more than 250 placesof worship in the last two decades, buildings where Catholics,Calvinists, and Lutherans had prayed for a century or longer. Manyhave already been converted into libraries, shops, culturalcenters, and even apartments and discotheques.

    Some changeovers signal another kind of transition. A handful ofchurches were bought by young evangelical sects, New Age groups,and growing Muslim communities.

    Jews have followed the trend, though on a smaller scale. Onecommunity sold a little-used 18th century synagogue in The Hague,and it was recently inaugurated as a mosque. Another synagogue, inAmsterdam, houses the Resistance Museum. A third is being turnedinto a store.

    The Dutch government's national heritage foundation often payspart of the conversion costs, particularly if it involves one ofthe 2,300 places of worship listed as protected. Protected or not,the churches are seen as part of the neighborhood, as a vital partof the urban landscape, said Jaap het Hart, director of thefoundation.

    ``They do not want them demolished or changed,'' he said. ``Butas the country goes on secularizing, there is less and less moneyavailable to keep the buildings going.''

    In much of Western Europe, church attendance has been slippingsince the 1960s, dropping particularly fast in the 1980s. Among theDutch, the decline has been especially steep. While in 1960, 18percent of the Dutch said they belonged to no church or religion,in 1995 that number had reached 40 percent, according to thenational Bureau of Statistics.

    The most precipitous drop has been among Protestants, who aresplit into various denominations. Catholics remain the singlelargest group, making up 33 percent.

    The dismantling of the churches has produced anxiety andsoul-searching among parishioners, even in a country that tends tobe more practical than emotional. Religion may seem irrelevant tomany people, but the power of its images and symbolism endures.

    ``People were offended at first and said things like: How dareyou violate the church?'' said Willem van Vliet, who in 1984 boughta large unused Protestant church in the heart of Hoorn, a townnorth of Amsterdam.

    The century-old, neo-Renaissance building had been closed for 20years, and the local ``save the church'' group had not managed tocollect enough money for basic repairs. Van Vliet and his partnerspaid $2.6 million for the hulking church and parsonage. Theheritage foundation and the provincial government put up a similaramount for repairs and conversion work.

    ``We had a lot of sleepless nights,'' said van Vliet, recallingthe overhaul of the slate roof, propping up four towers, andworrying about painstaking tasks like restoring leaded glasswindows, chimneys, and ornamented pillars.

    Today the church has five floors. Shops occupy the first two. Inthe soaring height of the nave, van Vliet built 18 apartments.

    ``I'm proud as can be,'' he said. ``We were so criticized, andnow we have a waiting list of 80 families wanting to live here.''

    One tenant, a young woman, said she was not religious but lovedthe idea of living in a church and sleeping under its slanted roof.For the neighborhood, there is another kind of comfort: up in itstower, the old carillon still chimes the familiar tunes.

    Tessel Pollmann, the author of a study of converted churches,said that not all projects had been an economic success and thatsome were struggling to survive. A few have become public librariesthat have proved impractical and difficult to heat.

    ``It costs a lot more to turn a church into an apartmentbuilding than to put up a new one,'' Ms. Pollmann said. ``There arearchitectural limits; it's expensive to maintain. But people keepdoing it. Land is scarce, and everything is urbanized and intenselymanaged. And this is a rich country where people can afford to doimpractical things.''

    Amsterdam, the nation's capital, has more than a dozen formerchurches with a new purpose. The Vondel Church, an elegantneo-Gothic structure named after a hallowed Dutch writer, housesseveral discreet offices with only tiny name plates on the door.But a few blocks away, the Holland Diving shop has painted theoutside of an unused Protestant church black, hung up large signs,replaced the pews with racks of wetsuits and flippers, and built aswimming pool in the apse.

    ``The church elders knew of our plans, and they accepted it,''said Lothar de Bruijn, the manager. ``But when the pastor came totake away the organ, he had tears in his eyes.''

    As merchants have become brasher, opposition has grown. On theedge of Rotterdam, local residents were furious when a Protestantchurch was turned into a carpet salesroom and campaigned until themost objectionable billboards were taken down. A synagogue in Weespthat was recently sold was about to re-open as a giant outlet fordiscount jeans. Local citizens, considering this undignified,mobilized and stopped the project.

    Selling property has sometimes put religious elders in anawkward position. When a Muslim group wanted to buy the big18th-century synagogue on Wagen Street in The Hague to use it as amosque, the Jewish community chose a go-between: it first sold thebuilding to the city, which then sold it to the Muslims.

    Of the country's close to 40 Orthodox synagogues, only about adozen are in use. Almost three out of four Jews who lived in theNetherlands before World War II died in the Holocaust. Today manydo not practice the faith.

    The Roman Catholic Church is clearly the most reluctant to sell.A Catholic church is considered to occupy consecrated ground,explained Leo Klok, the head of finance for the Archdiocese ofUtrecht.

    ``We must protect the dignity of the building, and that can bedifficult,'' Klok said. ``We make agreements with the government ora buyer, and they are not always met. So against our wishes a fewchurches have become offices, dance halls, and shops.''

    More than 125 Catholic churches have been closed since 1973, butas many smaller ones have been opened that allow for more versatileuse as community centers. The old buildings have been much indemand as mosques, because of their large size. But the archdiocesehesitates to sell them to Islamic groups, after a few ``difficult''experiences, Klok said.

    `` Islam has many currents, and you end up dealing not with areligious group but with the government behind them,'' he said.

    In Utrecht, for instance, the Emmaus Church was beingtransferred ostensibly to an Islamic foundation. ``It turned out wewere dealing with the Libyan government,'' Klok said.

    The archbishop's office has calculated that, in the comingyears, as people leave rural areas for the cities, 90 more Catholicchurches around the country will have to close, too great a numberto sell easily, specialists say.

    ``We prefer that the churches are used by other Christians orfor a cultural purpose—or perhaps even as funeral parlors,'' Kloksaid. ``If a dignified destination cannot be found, then we preferthem to be demolished.''

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    EGYPTIAN NEWSPAPER EDITOR SLANDERS INTERIOR MINISTER

    c.1997 The Independent, London

    EGYPTIAN NEWSPAPER EDITOR SLANDERS INTERIOR MINISTER: From ROBERTFISK CAIRO - Magdi Hussein is not a happy man. As an Islamistnewspaper editor, he has already paid a fine for allegedlyslandering Hassan Alfi, the Egyptian interior minister - and nowfaces further charges of libel for reporting on the businessactivities of Mr Alfi and his family. Ten Egyptian police generals,he claims, have now set up a construction company together - a``disgraceful act'' according to the gadfly editor of thetwice-weekly 'Al Shaab' - while the courts insist that enquiriesinto the commercial affairs of a minister are an invasion ofprivacy.

    Mr Hussein, bearded, bespectacled but smiling broadly, sits inthe office of his cramped apartment in a black robe, familyphotographs on the walls, the words 'Allah' written in Arabicscript in front of the library. President Mubarak, they say,personally loathes the diminutive editor and Mr Hussein clearlydoesn't object to the rumour. He sees Egypt as ever more deeplywounded by its involvement in the Arab-Israeli 'peace process',ever more in hock to a United States whose policies it must obey,ever more socially divided between the rich who prosper on thecountry's improving balance of payments and the army of poor whofind life more expensive and more intolerable by the week.

    Sometimes, Egypt seems to fit Mr Hussein's description. Thesuburbs and villages around Cairo are places of unutterable squalor- a fearful contrast with the glitzy hotels, nightclubs and islandapartments in the centre of the city - while America's grip appearsto grow tighter. Only last month, the Federal Bureau ofInvestigation director, Louis Freeh, opened an FBI investigativeoffice in downtown Cairo - ``to exchange information,'' accordingto Mr Alfi, ``and to cooperate with the Egyptian authorities in allaspects of security... Some crimes require more action, cooperationand exchange of information between international securityservices.'' Mr Freeh had just opened an identical office in TelAviv, part of an expansion - in the words of the US embassy inCairo - ``in US anti-terror...responsibilities.`` Mr Hussein notesthat international security cooperation moves laterally across theArab world, that Algeria and Tunisia are now using identicaltorture techniques to those employed by security police in Egypt.``The experience of investigating and interrogating suspects isbeing shared by the Egyptians,'' he says. ``In Tunisia they evencall the different tortures by the same names as the Egyptians - bythe names of popular Egyptian singers like Abdul-Halim Hafez andShadia. They are exchanging experiences between themselves -exchanging information about people, about those men who fought inAfghanistan. They are filling in spaces in each other'sinformation.'' The 'Afghanis' - the Arabs who fought the Soviets inAfghanistan - are widely defined by Egypt, Algeria and otherMaghreb countries as the font of the ' Islamist' revolution.

    At the same time, Magdi Hussein sees the Mubarak government'sgrip tightening on Muslim institutions in Egypt. ``You cannot givelessons in the mosque without a government licence,'' he says. ``Nocharitable collection can be made without a licence. Until now,Muslims could eat and sleep at their mosques in the last 10 days ofRamadan to pray together, a tradition that has existed since the14th century. Now this has been stopped; it is an attack on thepeople's liberty.'' The Egyptian authorities see their efforts tocurtail the spread of unrestricted charities as an attempt toprevent the 'Gema'a Islamiya' (Islamic Group) and other armedopponents of the regime from soliciting funds.

    Mr Mubarak's least favourite editor has little time for hiscountry's relations with Israel. ``Nobody has any confidence inIsrael. People here are angry about Jerusalem, about what happenedin Qana [where 100 civilians were massacred in an Israeli artillerybombardment in April last year]. But they are desperate people.There is no way they can fight Israel - Israel is our destiny. TheIsraelis are going to implement their project, however much weprotest. We shout, and they work on the ground. They are not angryabout us as long as we go on shouting. I'll give you an example:the commerce between Egypt and Israel increased by 135 per cent inthe first nine months of 1996 - and half of this time, Israel wasrun by Netanyahu. The Israelis don't think it's important ifEgyptian journalists write against them.`` Magdi Hussein stillenvisages an Islamic revolution in Egypt ``in 10 or 20 years'' - hebursts into laughter when my eyebrows rise in astonishment - butinsists that Egypt's revolution will be a peaceful one. Algeria isnot his role model. ``In Algeria, Islamists had already taken overlocal authorities and were about to win national elections whenthey were crushed. The Algerians are more severe and tougher thanthe Egyptians. They are a mountain people - we are a people of theplain. The Algerians use the mountains to hide in, they haveforests in which they can shelter. Here, we have no shelters. Here,our mountains are far from cities - in Algeria, the mountains areclose to the cities. Bosnia and Afghanistan are geographicallysimilar to the mountains of Algeria. Vietnam had forests. You needmountains and woods to have a guerrilla war. That's why such a waris difficult in Palestine. I believe that geography is veryimportant in political analysis.`` So presumably does Mr Mubarak,whose security police have set up their scruffy checkpoints on theNile roads south of Cairo, isolating each town and city from eachother whenever the mood takes them. The president, it seems, hasunderstood the advantage of having a flat country.

    ^(Distributed by New York Times Special Features)@=

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    MY CHANCE OF WINNING? IMPOSSIBLE

    By BILL GOODYKOONTZ<

    c.1997 The Arizona Republic

    Well, there's no longer any point in my entering the AmericanFamily Publishers sweepstakes.

    You might as well toss your entry into the trash, as well. It'snot that the $11 million top prize isn't enticing. Who couldn't usea mansion and a Jaguar?

    It's the competition that's got me throwing in the towel.

    After all, what chance do we have against God?

    You don't normally think of God as a big-sweepstakes kind ofguy. Being omniscient and omnipotent pretty much eliminate the needfor a lucky break, you would think.

    But there in the pile of mail for the Bushnell Assembly of GodChurch, in Bushnell, Fla., as you may have heard or read about, wasan announcement last month that God was a finalist for the $11million prize.

    Which would seem to cut into the rest of our chances of winningconsiderably.

    ``If God runs, can He lose?'' Bill Brack, the pastor at thechurch, asked over the phone from his office last week. ``Or doesGod have to enter to win?''

    Who knows? After all, it's not like this is an everydayoccurrence.

    ``I don't think we've ever gotten anything like this at thechurch,'' said Brack, who has retained an easy sense of humorthrough several inquiries into the subject. ``We get junk mail likeany business, but never any sweepstakes stuff.''

    Normally, Brack throws the junk mail away. He was inclined to dothe same with the sweepstakes announcement until the church's youthminister and secretary, who had read the notice and chuckled at itscontents, convinced him at least to have a look.

    ``It was not funny to me when I got it,'' Brack said. Buteventually, the youth pastor and secretary won out.

    ``I opened it up and read it,'' Brack said. ``(And) it was kindof hilarious.''

    The letter began, like most, with a simple salutation: ``DearGod.''

    It went on in the usual drivel such contest notices employ, thatbizarre kind of language that no one but salesclerks in departmentstores and phone solicitors use, in which they say your name at theend of nearly every sentence, lest you think you're not getting thegenuine personal touchy-feely treatment. Only in the context ofthis recipient, the old standbys were given a new twist.

    ``God, thank goodness we've finally found you,'' it said.``We've been searching for you.'' If God won, it continued, ``whatan incredible fortune there would be for God! Could you justimagine the looks you'd get from your neighbors?''

    To some, this kind of thing would be offensive. Others mightlaugh. Nothing if not practical, Brack read the sweepstakes noticeduring a church service, even though ``it had nothing to do withwhat I was talking about that morning.''

    But with lines such as ``Don't just sit there, God. You mustcome forward now,'' how could He resist? This is the kind ofmaterial that could only have come from, well, above. Or from theAmerican Family Publishers.

    ``Those are great phrases,'' Brack said, laughing. We had a lotof fun with it. We Christians sometimes can laugh.''

    Of course, not everyone shares Brack's sense of humor. That'sone of the reasons he hasn't sent the entry in just yet (he hasuntil Friday, March 14).

    ``I'm waiting to talk to some of my board, to see what theysay,'' he said. ``I don't know whether we'll hand it in or not.''Some members of the Assembly of God, he added, might consider sucha thing gambling, and frown upon it.

    Still, it's intriguing. If God did win, $1.1 million would go tomissions right off the bat, Brack said, because his church gives 10percent of financial gifts to undesignated missions.

    As for the rest, like most churches, the 140-member BushnellAssembly of God could find plenty of uses for it.

    ``You could do a sizable amount of work with that amount ofmoney,'' Brack said.

    Who knows, such a bounty might even turn some of the naysayersaround.

    ``If we won,'' Brack wondered, ``would they forgive us?''

    About 11 million times, I'd bet.

    (Bill Goodykoontz can be reached at (602) 271-8828, or atgoodyk@aol.com on the Internet.<

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    By ROBERT McG. THOMAS Jr.<

    c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service<

    The Rev. Dr. Mac Charles Jones, the Baptist minister who led theNational Council of Churches' drive to focus attention on a wave ofracist arson fires at black churches in the rural South, died onFriday at a hospital near Dallas. He was 47 and had been thecouncil's deputy general secretary for national ministries sinceMarch 3.

    Council officials said that Jones, who had recently moved toManhattan after more than a decade as pastor of St. Stephen'sChurch in Kansas City, Mo., died of a blood clot after collapsingat the Dallas-Fort Worth airport on a trip to El Paso for a meetingof the council's working group on racial justice.

    While people who knew him were shocked at the death of a vibrantman less than a week after his elevation to one of the council'sthree-highest positions—and also less than a week after hissecond marriage, on March 2—they could hardly be surprised thatJones had been on the road when he died.

    Long before he took a part-time position with the NationalCouncil of Churches in 1995 as associate general secretary forracial justice, Jones had been an inveterate traveler, as anofficial of his historically black denomination, the NationalBaptist Convention of America, and of the World Council ofChurches.

    Once Jones became the point man for the National Council ofChurches' campaign, he was rarely in Kansas City longer than ittook to deliver one of his spellbinding sermons and dash to theairport.

    The son of a Baptist minister, Jones was born in Phoenix andgrew up with a thirst for knowledge and a quest for justice. Aftergetting an associate degree from Phoenix College, he received abachelor's degree in communications from Lincoln University inJefferson City, Mo., a master's from Northern Illinois University,a master's in divinity from Virginia Union Theological Seminary,and, after further graduate study at Emory University in Atlanta, adoctorate from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

    After holding pastorates in LaGrange, Ga., and Franklin, Va.,Jones went to Kansas City in 1984, already a well-known figure inchurch and civil rights circles.

    Jones was a longtime board member of the Center for DemocraticRenewal, a group based in Atlanta that monitors the Ku Klux Klanand other hate groups. About the time he joined the NationalCouncil in 1995, he learned that the center had detected a surge inchurch arsons.

    His primary mission soon became investigating the fires,bringing them to public attention and combating the underlyingracism he saw as emboldening the arsonists.

    Jones, who served on an array of church and civil rights panels,organized and spoke at rallies across the country, testified beforea congressional committee and visited the sites of more than 40church fires, an experience that angered him.

    From a man who had dedicated his life to standing up for theunderdog, whether it was a poor white farmer, a woman orhomosexual, or a black congregation, the anger was both real anddeep.

    Yet through it all, Jones could always be counted on to find thehumor in untenable circumstances.

    Because not all the arsons stemmed from racial animosity—somebeing traced to black arsonists and others to mindless vandalism _some questions have been raised about the extent of the problem.

    But officials of the National Council, which conductedindependent investigations of 124 arsons labeled by the AtlantaCenter as hate crimes, found only 10 that were not clearly linkedto racism, even though many lacked the hard evidence necessary forprosecution.

    For Jones, who was credited with making the arsons a nationalissue, the fires were merely a symptom of an ingrained racism.

    The kind of man who never stifled a smile, Jones became famousamong his friends and associates for his impromptu bear hugs,gestures that never failed to delight but were not without somehazard, since they were delivered by a man who weighed 300 pounds.

    ``He was big all over'' is the way a friend, the Rev. Sam Mann,a Kansas City minister, put it the other day, referring, he said,both to Jones's size and his outsized heart.

    Jones, whose first marriage ended in divorce, is survived by hiswife, Jannella; his mother, Elverta Jones of Phoenix; a daughter,Lacey, of Kansas City; a son, Ayinda, of Phoenix; a brother, theRev. Robert Jones of Richmond, and a sister, Lillye, of Phoenix.

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