And the Republican 2012 presidential candidates are off-with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty first out of the gate. Pawlenty, who led a Democratic-leaning state for two terms, announced March 21 that he has established a formal exploratory committee for a White House run. "We, the people of the United States, will take back our government," Pawlenty said in a music-infused announcement video posted on Facebook.
In the two-minute message, Pawlenty, 50, referenced the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. He also discussed his own hardscrabble beginnings: His mom died of cancer when he was a teenager, his dad drove a truck, and Pawlenty paid his way through college by working in a grocery. A pro-life Christian, Pawlenty fought tax increases while governor. He pledged to give Americans "the freedom to work hard and get ahead without government getting in the way."
The formation of an exploratory committee enables Pawlenty to raise money and hire staff, and is part of his effort to boost his name recognition in what will be a crowded GOP field. The first Republican presidential debate is May 2, while the first votes will be cast in 10 months.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, President Obama's nominee to be the next ambassador to China, said at a recent House hearing that he would "consider" worshipping at a house church when he takes up his post in Beijing. Locke is likely to win Senate confirmation easily. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., pressed him about the issue, and when Locke said his personal religious practice was "not something for the American people," Wolf slammed his hand on the table, according to Agence France-Presse, and said, "It is for the American people. . . . It's to stand with the dissidents who are being persecuted, who are being hauled away, and the American embassy in China ought to be an island of freedom. . . . [I]f you don't publicly identify with the persecuted in China, then more people will be persecuted." Locke parried, "We very much support, as a government, greater religious freedom, including the house churches, and we encourage people to attend those house churches, and all forms of worship within China." Former President George W. Bush stirred similar criticisms on his 2008 trip to China, when he attended one of the official state churches. Chinese house churches expressed disappointment in "Brother Bush."
The United Nations' Human Rights Council in March set aside an annual resolution that supports restrictive blasphemy laws in Islamic states. Following the recent assassination of a Christian Pakistani minister who worked to repeal blasphemy laws, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has proposed a much softer resolution that no longer excoriates the "defamation" of religion and no longer focuses on protecting the Islamic religion especially. Lindsay Vessey, advocacy director for Open Doors USA, said Shahbaz Bhatti's murder certainly made it more difficult to justify an anti-defamation resolution but added that the resolution has been losing support in the General Assembly for several years. Last year, a number of OIC member states told her they considered not introducing the resolution at all in 2010. The new resolution still contains potentially troubling language about criminalizing "incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief," but Vessey said, "It's a real victory that there is this compromise text, even if we don't agree with it 100 percent."
A common complaint leveled at evangelical Christians, according to David French, is that they're obsessed with gays and abortion. "The criticism is so common that it's often internalized and adopted by the church itself," he writes. So French, director of the Alliance Defense Fund ("a card-carrying member of the professional religious right"), decided to crunch some numbers-and found there's no comparison between what Christians give to cause-oriented organizations like his and what they give to anti-poverty groups like World Vision. We fight culture wars, he said, but our charitable obsession is "serving our fellow man."
The sweeping Republican gains last November are bringing about new abortion laws across the country. South Dakota's Republican governor signed a bill on March 23 that requires a three-day waiting period for abortions, the longest in the country. Idaho's legislature is in the process of passing a bill that would make abortions after 20 weeks illegal except to save the life of the mother-the bill has passed the state Senate and is expected to pass the state House soon, and gain the Republican governor's signature. And in Kansas, a focal point in the nation's abortion debate, the legislature passed two bills, one that requires consent from both parents for abortions performed on minors, and another that prohibits abortions after 21 weeks except to prevent substantial or permanent physical harm to the mother. New Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is expected to sign the bills. Idaho and Kansas join Nebraska, which last year passed a measure to restrict abortion after 20 weeks, the point at which research indicates an unborn child can feel pain. More than a dozen other states are considering similar measures, prompted by citations of fetal pain by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. "He's been cueing us," said Kathy Ostrowski, legislative and research director of Kansans for Life. "We're willing to go to court. In Nebraska they haven't yet filed suit [against the fetal pain bill]. You know why? They can read the same court decisions we do."
The New Hampshire Supreme Court has upheld a decision that bars a mother from continuing to homeschool her daughter. For six years, divorced parents Brenda and Martin Kurowski have battled over educating their daughter at home or in a public school. While the Supreme Court emphasized that the case was not about religion or the merits of homeschooling, the father claims homeschooling isolates his daughter among members of her own religion. Despite admitting that the girl was intellectually advanced and had opportunities to socialize outside church and home, a trial court decided it was in the girl's best interest to attend public school. In a statement, Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Joseph Infranco said that although ADF disagrees with the Supreme Court's decision, it appreciates the court's narrow ruling based on the facts of the case: "This decision cannot be used as a battering-ram against religious liberty or homeschooling."
Haitian voters welcomed a rarity in the strife-ridden Caribbean nation in mid-March: a relatively peaceful election. Voters at more than 11,000 polling stations cast ballots in the country's long-delayed presidential run-off. Preliminary results were due by March 31, and final results by April 16. Election observers said the March contests ran smoothly compared to the chaotic and fraudulent November elections that led to days of rioting in Port-au-Prince.
As Haitians waited to find out which candidate would prevail (pop singer Michel Martelly or former first lady Mirlande Manigat), another political leader grabbed attention: Former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to Haiti from a seven-year exile in South Africa just two days before the March elections. Thousands of supporters greeted Aristide at the airport, but the former priest-turned-president didn't interfere with the contests.
Meanwhile, another former president-ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier-laid low, weeks after shocking the island nation with his return. His low profile may stem from his current troubles: After crowds of supporters welcomed Duvalier in January, Haitian attorneys filed charges against the figure known as "Baby Doc," and the infamous former leader waits to find out if his homecoming will turn into a prison sentence. - Jamie Dean
Apple removed a faith-based group's iPhone app from its iTunes Store on March 22 after more than 150,000 people signed a petition urging the action. The app, from Exodus International, "violates the developer guidelines by being offensive to large groups of people," Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr told FoxNews.
Exodus is a Christian ministry that uses biblical teaching to help those struggling with same-sex attraction. Truth Wins Out, a gay-rights group, called the ministry's app "hateful and bigoted" and initiated the petition drive to remove it. Prior to its removal, the app had received a 4+ rating from Apple, meaning that it did not have any objectionable content and was suitable for users of all ages.
The app, which was an extension of the group's website, allowed iPhone owners to access directly information about ministry events, news, blog posts, videos, podcasts, and the group's Facebook page. One feature addressed bullying from a biblical perspective. "We are extremely disappointed to learn of Apple's decision to deny equal representation in the public square," said Exodus President Alan Chambers in a statement. "Discrimination of thought and belief obstructs essential dialogue and authentic diversity."
A similar petition drive last November led Apple to pull an app created by the Manhattan Declaration-a document affirming Christian belief in the sanctity of life and marriage. (See "iAttack," Dec. 2, 2010.)
Muslim youths shot and killed two Christians on March 21 as they left a church prayer service in Hyderabad, Pakistan, a city close to Karachi. Yunis Ilyas, 47, was a father of four, and Jameel Masih, 21, was newly married. Two others were injured and one remains in critical condition. As Christians were arriving for the service, the Muslims had been shouting insults at the women, and the Christians urged them to stop, according to officials with the Barnabas Fund who know Ilyas and his family through the Fund's food program and spoke with the pastor of the church after the shooting. As the Christians were leaving the service, the youths returned and began shooting. The murders follow the recent assassinations of two prominent advocates for the Christian minority in Pakistan: Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in Pakistan's cabinet, and Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, who had called for reform of laws that make criticism of Islam punishable by death.