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Dispatches The Buzz

The Buzz

(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Going her way

Senate Republicans, keenly aware they cannot stop confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, fought in televised hearings to air wider grievances with the Obama administration: "I fear that this empathy standard is another step down the road to a liberal, activist, results-oriented, relativistic world where laws lose their fixed meaning, unelected judges set policy, Americans are seen as members of separate groups rather than as simply Americans, where the constitutional limits on government power are ignored when politicians want to buy out private companies," said ranking Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, plainly referring to fiscal as well as judicial policy.

Under questioning from seven Republicans on her left-leaning positions on racial preferences, property rights, and gun ownership, Sotomayor the nominee tried to distance herself from Sotomayor the 17-year veteran judge-and from President Obama's own criteria of empathy in selecting a justice. "The job of the judge is to apply the law," Sotomayor asserted.

"If you had to sum up the week, the hearings were all about denial," observed Curt Levey, the executive director of the Committee for Justice. "She's pretty much denied the plain meaning of everything she's said in the past." Even so, a Senate vote on her confirmation, expected in August, is likely to go her way.

Iraq church attacks

An orchestrated attack against Iraq's ancient Christian community began July 11, encompassing churches revived after targeted bombings in 2004 and 2008. In Baghdad's Dora district, where intense fighting between Sunnis and Shiites once took place, a bomb hit a church that in April held its first Easter service in three years. Here's how it unfolded:

Saturday, July 11, 10 p.m.: At St. Joseph's Church in western Baghdad two bombs placed inside the church explode; no one in the church at the time.

Sunday, July 12, 4:45 p.m.: Three IEDs detonate outside two churches in central Baghdad and one in eastern Baghdad. Eight wounded as worshippers arrive for evening service.

5 p.m.: Bomb explodes outside St. James Church in Baghdad. Three wounded.

7 p.m.: Car bomb explodes near Church of the Virgin Mary in central Baghdad, killing four and wounding 21.

7:05: Chaldean church bombed, wounding 21.

Monday, July 13, 8 a.m.: Car bomb explodes outside Our Lady of Fatima Church in Mosul, injuring three children and damaging both the church and a nearby mosque.

Muthafar Yacoub, a member of a Baptist congregation in Baghdad, said Christians gathered to pray following the attacks: "We trust the Lord who calls us to serve Him in Iraq will protect us."

Afghanistan offensive

July will mark the bloodiest month for Allied forces in Afghanistan's almost eight-year war. Halfway through the month, 46 military personnel had been killed-more than any other month-as U.S.-led forces began their first major offensive in Afghanistan under the command of U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Saudi-funded school expansion

Flanked by police officers keeping peace, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (Va.) met to hear citizens speak on the expansion of the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA), a 25-year-old school funded by the Saudi government and based in Fairfax, Va.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) says school textbooks-also provided by the Saudi government-"do not conform to international human rights norms" and include "overt exhortations to violence." Saudi Arabia is one of the eight countries on the State Department's list of the most egregious violators of religious freedom. But Lynne Strobel, who presented the school's case to the board, defended it as "a private school of general education. It is no more nor no less than that." The school is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

ISA graduates-some now graduates of Ivy League schools-testified about the school's moderate education, but several have tangled with Homeland Security: Security officers stopped 2003 graduate Raed Al-Saif in the Tampa, Fla., airport in June after finding a butcher knife hidden in a seam of his bag. Another, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was convicted in 2005 of working with al-Qaeda and conspiring to assassinate former President George W. Bush. Ali was the valedictorian of his 1999 ISA class. The board may decide whether to allow school expansion by August. The county's zoning commission has already approved the expansion.

Gay bishops allowed

The Episcopal Church General Convention overwhelmingly passed a resolution to open to "any ordained ministry" openly gay clergy. The resolution passed during the denomination's triennial gathering in Anaheim, Calif. It defies a de facto moratorium on the ordination and consecration of gay bishops instituted by the worldwide Anglican Communion following the ordination of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson in 2003. It also goes against a plea from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who traveled to California the week prior to the vote to argue against it. While the move likely will create further schism within the church globally, Bishop of Iowa Alan Scarfe said the bishops who supported it "bring the church to transparency and remove any attempt at evasion; this is who we are."

Damage control

Weeks after confessing to a secret trip to Argentina to visit his mistress, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford left the state again in mid-July-this time, with his wife. "The governor remains committed to repairing the damage he's done to his marriage, and so it shouldn't be any surprise that spending personal time with his wife is a part of that process," said Joel Sawyer, Sanford's spokesman. Continuing to face the damage he's done to the GOP and to his career, Sanford looked set to keep his job: State law enforcement said the governor didn't misuse state funds on trips to South America, and the state's GOP voted to censure the governor but didn't ask for his resignation. Political observers credit the support of Sanford's wife Jenny in helping the governor survive the scandal: "Forgiveness opens the door for Mark to begin to work privately, humbly and respectfully toward reconciliation with me. However, to achieve true reconciliation will take time, involve repentance, and will not be easy."

China unrest

Tensions ran high in western China amid tight security more than a week after the regional capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, erupted in riots that the government says claimed 184 lives. Until last month ethnic Uighurs were known mostly to Americans for the controversy over 17 Uighurs held at the Guantanamo detention center as suspected terrorists. Chinese authorities have used that connection to name Uighur riot leaders as terrorists, though activists contend that China cracked down violently on what were peaceful demonstrations. In Washington Rabiya Kadeer, the Uighur activist who once spent six years in jail and is now accused of sparking the unrest, appeared at a news conference with Democratic lawmakers. She also met with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom July 15. Commission chairman Leonard Leo called on the Obama administration to impose targeted sanctions of exports from Xianjiang Province and travel restrictions on government officials. He blamed "Beijing's repression" in the sparsely populated region of 10 million mostly Muslim Uighurs and compared it to persecution in Tibet.

Drug regimen

Planned Parenthood researchers report in the New England Journal of Medicine that a revised method of conducting drug-induced abortions has reduced by 93 percent the risk of contracting a serious infection. The 2005 deaths of four American women from bacterial infections spurred Planned Parenthood to conform to FDA recommendations for administering RU-486 (now called Mifeprex), followed by a precautionary round of antibiotics. Experts say the latest research will likely spark an increase in drug-induced abortions: According to the Associated Press, about 184,000 U.S. women used Mifeprex. But Family Research Council spokesman Chris Gacek said, "It's hard to know whether this increases the (total) number of abortions."

Ending protection as we know it

Faith-based groups say there is reason to wonder about religious exemptions in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2009 (ENDA) introduced by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., June 24. Unlike a version which passed the House in November 2007, it seeks to prevent employment discrimination not only on the basis of sexual orientation but also of "gender identity," or transgendered workers. Both bills apply to employers of 15 or more people.

The new bill, H.R. 3017, includes the same exemption for religious organizations as did the 2007 bill, and also applies to employers of 15 or more people, but may not be adequate to protect some businesses. "It covers religious organizations, but not a religious person who owns or controls a nonreligious business or corporation no matter how deeply held the religious scruples of that person," according to a press statement from the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. These could include for-profit religious publishers, bookstores, retirement homes, child care facilities, broadcasters, or summer camps.

No body here

Hawaii became the first state to ban the exhibition of human bodies popularized in the traveling "BODIES . . . the Exhibition" show. State lawmakers determined that even the possibility of profiting off executed Chinese prisoners was not acceptable in a state where many residents come from Asian backgrounds. Premier Exhibitions, which puts on the show, says none of the bodies used in its displays are from executed prisoners, but a 2008 ABC 20/20 report uncovered evidence to the contrary.

Sore loser

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has suffered the worst annual membership slide since its formation a quarter-century ago. The 2008 active membership of 2.14 million was nearly 70,000 below the 2007 figure. One factor: 25 congregations quit for other denominations, mostly Evangelical Presbyterian Church recruits upset by changes that open the door to actively gay clergy. While conservatives believe doctrinal confusion causes shrinkage, liberal Presbyterian pastor/blogger John Shuck blames it on such "baggage" as "creeds, boring hymns, bashing gays, superstition, and the general nausea caused by Christian 'evangelism.'"

Meanwhile the conservative Presby-terian Church in America (PCA) reported a slight membership decline following continual growth since its 1973 founding: from 345,582 in 2007 to 340,852 in 2008.

Honduran crisis

The UN has condemned Honduras and the Organization of American States has suspended its membership following what has been widely, but erroneously, called a coup (including by WORLD in its July 18 issue). "Sometimes, the whole world prefers a lie," opined Octavio Sánchez, a lawyer and former presidential adviser in Honduras. The removal by military forces of President Manuel Zelaya in late June was lawful, say Latin American experts, because the Honduran constitution does not allow presidents to serve more than one term or to tamper with the constitution. According to Article 239: "No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President. Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform . . . will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years." Both the Supreme Court and the attorney general ordered Zelaya's arrest after he ordered government employees to participate in a constitutional assembly designed to amend the document to allow him to continue in office. But Zelaya travelled the region in exile, calling for his reinstatement, and encouraging populist resentment against the military's action.