By Michele Green

Jerusalem, 23 December (ENI) --The heads of the main Christian denominations in Jerusalem have issued a joint Christmas message asking their faithful to pray especially for children and young people in the Holy Land so they can overcome "all evil and hatred".

The signatories of the Christmas message include the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III; the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of the Roman Catholic Church; the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Torkom I Manooghian; Anglican Bishop Riah Abu el-Assal; Lutheran Bishop Mounib Younan and other Orthodox and Coptic leaders.

In their message they thanked their Christian brothers and sisters across the world for expressing solidarity with them. "However the way to go is still long in order to come to the end of all oppression and violence, in order to suspend the building of the Wall, to stop killing taking prisoners and end the occupation," the clerics said in their yearly Christmas message.

"Please pray particularly for our children and young people so that they can overcome all evil and hatred, thus having their hearts full of the joy of Christmas despite all the difficulties," they urged. In a separate message Palestinian-born Sabbah said: "To all our faithful, to all those who are afraid, those who have among the family members a prisoner or someone under torture, to those who had to face death and to all those who are inclined to fill their hearts with hatred, we say: 'Purify your hearts; let the joy of Christmas renew your whole life'."

He also urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to find a peaceful resolution to more than a century of conflict. Repeating a message from last Christmas, Sabbah said an Israeli barrier that cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem to the north prevented the city's 30 000 residents from leading a normal life and turned Jesus' birthplace into a giant prison.

"While people enter through a beautiful gate it is still a big prison and not a normal way of living. They cannot have a normal economic life, which affects the social life," he told reporters. Israel says the barrier has stopped 90 per cent of suicide bombings and saved scores of live. [375 words]


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By Michele Green

Bethlehem, West Bank, 22 December (ENI)--The sparkling red and green lights on the pine tree in the Christmas Tree restaurant give a festive air to the Bethlehem eatery which a few years back was so crowded with tourists there was barely an empty table.

Today, five years after the start of a Palestinian uprising called by some the second intifada, all the tables are empty. The restaurant has become a metaphor for the town of Jesus' birth. Five years of fighting turned many of the town's streets into virtual war zones and decimated the lifeblood of the Bethlehem economy - the tourist industry - leaving the Palestinian-ruled West Bank town crushed.

Today, with the uprising in a lull, Bethlehem is quiet and safe but is no longer the town of yester-year. Its northern neighbourhoods, adjacent to Jerusalem are surrounded by a towering concrete wall. "It is choking the people. It is choking our businesses. It is choking the life out of this city," said Nikoli, the restaurant's Palestinian owner, a Greek Orthodox Christian.

Once the main attraction after Jerusalem for tourists and pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, today Bethlehem is almost off the beaten track despite being only 15 minutes drive from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Holy City. Tourism has improved from the meagre 15 000 foreigners who visited the town at the height of fighting in 2002. But the 200 000 tourists that Palestinian tourism officials expect to visit Bethlehem this year has dwindled from the 850 000 who visited in 2000.

It is also a less lucrative type of tourism. Instead of staying in the town and spending money to boost the depressed economy, visitors make brief side-trips from Jerusalem on tourist buses. They hardly have time to visit souvenir shops to purchase olive wood carved nativity sets and icons let alone a few hours to enjoy local restaurants like the Christmas Tree.

"People don't stay in Bethlehem and they don't sleep in the hotels," said Marwan Abu Ayyad, the owner of a florist selling Christmas trees. "They come to visit the Church of the Nativity. They stay for maybe two hours which does nothing to help the economy and then they leave. This city is dying," he rued.

The lack of serious tourism means that hotels, including the Bethlehem Hotel, is almost empty in the run-up to Christmas even though it expects a 100 per cent occupancy on Christmas Eve as local Arab Christians visit the town to attend midnight Mass at the nativity church.

Residents of Bethlehem are desperate to shake off their depression this Christmas. They find it a difficult task in the shadow of the towering concrete wall, which Israel built with the stated aim of stopping suicide bombings infiltrating into its cities from the town.

"I think that over the past five years the situation here has got progressively worse," said Mary O'Regan, an Irish ecumenical monitor who is helping Palestinians living in Bethlehem. The depressed economy has accelerated the exodus of Bethlehem's Christian residents who were once the majority there. Today they are estimated to be about 30 per cent of the town's 30 000 residents. But that proportion keeps shrinking as the more affluent and well educated Christians seek a better life and future for their children abroad.

There is also simmering tension with the town's Muslim population who are growing in religious fervour as well as numbers. Bethlehem residents privately express concern that a mosque on Manger Square is overshadowing the Church of the Nativity especially on Fridays when the church bells are drowned out by prayers blasted from megawatt speakers at the mosque.

That tension sometimes erupts into violence such as an incident several months ago in which a Christian girl from the town eloped with her Muslim boyfriend. The mayor of Bethlehem and the Palestinian tourism minister are doing their best to try to improve tourism but they say the future of the town depends on Israel's willingness to open the borders. That means allowing Palestinians and tourists to move freely and openly to and from Bethlehem as happened before the uprising. Yet Israel says it must take security precautions to prevent suicide bombings and other attacks in Jerusalem.

"Religious places must be open throughout the year to all those who want to practise their religion regardless of whether it is in Jerusalem or Bethlehem or whether they are Christians, Muslims or even Jews," said Ziad Bandak, the Palestinian tourism minister. [763 words]


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By Callie Long

Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka, 21 December (ENI)--One year after the coast of Sri Lanka was bludgeoned by a devastating tsunami, people are still struggling to come to grips with the events of that fateful day. Added to their woes have been increasing tensions between rebel groups and the government following a spate of attacks on the army and police.

In the north and north-western parts of the island, and in particular in the Wanni region controlled by Tamil rebels and which includes the Kilinochchi district, people are also quick to refer to the legacy of a war that lasted more than 20 years.

"People were already affected by the war, had lost their loved ones, although not in a few minutes, then the tsunami," said the Rev. G. Monoruban, the pastor of a small Anglican parish in Kilinochchi. He recounts with horror the events of 26 December 2004 when some 3000 people were killed in the north of the country alone, and at least 6000 people were injured.

Monoruban is himself a survivor of the two-decade long civil conflict in which more than 60 000 people lost their lives in fighting between government forces and rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam seeking autonomy for Tamil majority areas. He missed death when he was hit by a large piece of shrapnel at the age of 13.

In 2002, the signing of a cease-fire agreement brought a precarious peace to the island but people are afraid for the future, as a series of attacks in recent days on troops and police has put the cease-fire under threat. And 12 months after the massive waves smashed into the country's shoreline, it is difficult to discern the damage resulting from nature's destructive force, and that caused by human beings in the form of warfare.

Nadarajah Jeyaganash, who lives in the Kilinochchi district and is one of hundreds of fisherfolk to have been assisted after the tsunami by the global Action by Churches Together (ACT) International alliance, says, "It is important to be alive and to have hope." Still, he noted it had been a "difficult year"; an understatement, given that his family, including his parents and siblings lost everything they had ever owned on the morning of 26 December 2004. But, said Jeyaganash, "If you don't have hope, you don't have life."

Jeyaganash's father says he remembers the sound when the tsunami struck of what he thought to be a plane flying overhead, a reminder of the times of war when the noise of bomber aircraft was a regular occurrence. He had no idea the sound was being generated by the ocean that he had lived next to all his life. The fisherman's daughter, Shanty, who nearly lost her life when the tsunami washed her inland, before being saved by her brother Jeyaganash, remembers the waves as "rolling, rolling, hitting people."

The Rev. S. D. P. Selvenal, who heads up a small Anglican parish in Thanneerootu in Mullaittivu, remembers the effects of the years of brutal conflict due to the civil war. "Everyday we knew people would die, just not how or when," he says. "Everyday we expected death. When a plane flew over, we knew someone would die."

The hardship caused by the tsunami should not obscure the continuing need of those who suffered in the war, Selvenal thinks. "There were so many people affected by the war," he says, "now we have people whose lives are affected by the tsunami. We cannot afford to only help people affected by the tsunami."

Nearly a year after the tsunami changed much of Sri Lanka's coastline for ever, and almost four years after the signing of the cease-fire agreement, people remember how fragile their world is. People are afraid of another war. And for those who survived the tsunami - its ghost too still haunts them daily, especially when storms blow in from the Indian ocean.

The Rev. Jeyasiri Peiris, general secretary of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, says that hope lies in the "empty cross" left by Jesus after the crucifixion. "It is about resurrection," he explains. "After the tsunami, the 'empty cross' is important in all this destruction we have experienced. We need to rebuild our lives and communities - more than just the tsunami, but also the war."

:: Callie Long is the communications officer for the global alliance of churches and related agencies, Action by Churches Together (ACT) International [759 words]


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By Michele Green

Bethlehem, West Bank, 23 December (ENI)--Bethlehem stars and other Christmas decorations were hung in Manger Square on 23 December in preparation for this year's festivities in the West Bank town where Jesus was born. At the Church of the Nativity, hundreds of pilgrims and tourists patiently queued up for a glimpse of the underground manger where tradition holds that Jesus was born. They lit candles and said prayers at the site. Workmen added the final touches to the adjacent Roman Catholic St. Catherine's Church where Midnight Mass was to be held on Christmas Eve .

"I hope that this Christmas will herald a more peaceful and prosperous year for all of us living in Bethlehem," said Rula Batish, a Palestinian-Christian. Christmas celebrations were to go into full swing on 24 December when the Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, and other church officials were to conduct their annual procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. They wind their way through the streets of Bethlehem until they reach the Church of the Nativity where the Roman Catholic leader patriarch will conduct midnight Mass on Saturday night for thousands of worshippers.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to attend the service in his role as Palestinian leader. Thousands of Palestinian Christians, Israeli-Arabs and tourists have poured into Bethlehem for Christmas. Local hotel owners say that all their inns are full this year.

Tourism is up slightly in Bethlehem which is relatively peaceful these days despite the towering Israeli concrete barrier and occasional army raids to arrest suspected militants. Tourists had stayed away in droves for the past three years following the 2002 siege of the Nativity church in which Israeli soldiers besieged Palestinian gunmen holed up in the shrine.

On 21 December, in a reminder of that incident, a group of masked Palestinian gunmen took over the Bethlehem city hall, overlooking the church, and forced workers to leave. The gunmen, who had demanded money and jobs, left after negotiations with police. But the incident was a reminder of the fragility of life in Bethlehem.

Souvenir shops in Manger Square displayed hand crafted nativity sets to visitors who they hope will help Bethlehem rebuild its shattered economy. But the mood in Bethlehem is bleak this year as it's the first since Israel completed a concrete barrier, cutting off Bethlehem from adjacent Jerusalem, in a move it says is aimed at stopping suicide bombings.

"We are people of the manger, whose Saviour has warmed and welcomed us, the Saviour who was born to break down the walls of hate and fear by transforming the love of power into the power of love, a power that enables us to continue to work with courage and sacrifice for the sake humanity," Lutheran Bishop Mounib Younan said in his annual Christmas address. [476 words]


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By Chris Herlinger

New York, 20 December (ENI)--The death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI to succeed him were the top religion stories of 2005, according to rankings by a group of American journalists who cover religion.

Other top stories in a survey of members of the Religion Newswriters Association released on 13 December included the controversy around the life and death of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who died amid a national controversy surrounding the removal of her feeding tube.

Also cited were the religious-based response to Hurricane Katrina in the United States and the tsunami of late 2004 that affected a huge area of southeast Asia, as well as the ongoing controversies and debate within Protestant churches over the ordination of homosexuals as clergy.

In order, the top stories selected by the RNA are: 1. Pope John Paul's death.
2. The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.
3. The Terri Schiavo case.
4. The religious response to natural disasters, including to Hurricane Katrina and the late 2004 tsunami.
5. The continuing debate over homosexuality within the church.
6. Debate within the US on the merits of evolution and the theory of "intelligent design".
7. The US Supreme Court's approval of the posting of the Ten Commandments outside the state capitol in Texas and disapproval of their posting inside Kentucky courthouses.
8. Religious reaction to President Bush's nominees to the US
Supreme Court, including evangelical opposition to the nomination, later withdrawn, of Harriet Miers.
9. The Vatican's release of a statement on homosexuality.
10. Billy Graham's last crusade in New York City. [283 words]


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By Anto Akkara

Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka, 19 December (ENI)--Life seemed to have reached an impasse for 42-year-old Nahanandini when her manual labourer husband died suddenly in October leaving her with three young children to look after. "I would have committed suicide but for my faith," said Nahanandini, standing in front of her home, a hut made of coconut palm leaves in Kinkatharai village in the Wanni region in the north of Sri Lanka, under the control of Tamil rebels fighting for autonomy.

Nahanandini became a Christian only weeks before the sudden death of her husband but now she feels embracing the faith was "a timely act" that will help her face the hard life awaiting her. "We have a big problem now - how to survive," Nahanandini told Ecumenical News International. "But I have faith in God. I am lucky that I decided to become a Christian before this tragedy. Otherwise, I don't know how I would have faced the situation."

Her father-in-law Shanmugarajah at first staunchly opposed Nahanandini's conversion from Hinduism but he now also feels her change of faith has given her courage to face the loss of her breadwinner husband. Encouraged by the confidence shown by his daughter-in-law, Shanmugarajah says he has also decided to become a Christian, though he has yet to enter a church.

"I am sure that our faith is giving these people courage to face hard life here," said J. Gnanaruban, a pastor from the Methodist church, which launched a mission in the area five years ago during the height of the country's civil war. As a result of more than two decades of conflict between the Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan government forces, the half-million Tamils in Wanni live in only basic conditions, often in huts without electricity, running water or even proper roads, eking out an existence from agriculture.

Since the launching of the Methodist mission in 2000, the church now has 75 families. Six deacons attend to the converts, who are scattered in remote villages in jungle tracts around Kilinochchi, the main township in the rebel-controlled area. "If we convert all the people who come to us seeking help, we would have hundreds of families by now," said Gnanaruban, who shuttles between the areas looked after by his six deacons on a moped.

Meanwhile, the Church of South India (CSI), which has a diocese in Sri Lanka, is also registering growth among Tamils in the Wanni region. "The condition here is such that we don't need to prompt the people to convert," said Pastor S. I. Anandaraj of the CSI congregation at Murukandy near Kilinochchi. "They are coming forward of their own accord." People in Wanni are "craving for spiritual guidance", because of repeated displacements and the harsh life in the war zone, he said.

Still, the issue of conversions in the region is delicate, noted Roman Catholic priest the Rev. G. Peter, the social service director of the Jaffna diocese's Kilinochchi region. "The people here certainly need [spiritual] guidance to cope with the situation," Peter acknowledged. But, he said, churches "should be very cautious" about conversions, and should focus more on improving people's quality of life.

Gnanaruban, the Methodist pastor, recounted how village church centres are full of people seeking help and ready to become Christians, in the monsoon season when the huts roofed with coconut leaf mats start leaking.

Still, he stressed, "we do not link our support to conversions. We are helping as many needy people as possible." And, he noted his Methodist team discourages conversions from people aiming for material support alone: "We admit only those who seek spiritual and emotional guidance to face the harsh life." [625 words]


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By Chris Herlinger

Banda Aceh, Indonesia, 15 December (ENI)--The residents of Aceh suffered a disaster nearly one year ago that may have killed as many as 170 000 in their province of Indonesia alone. But some have noted that the violence of nature also appears to have stemmed a 30-year civil conflict that had made the area one of the most militarised places on earth.

While no one talks about a "benefit" from the 26 December tsunami, residents say that if anything good came from the disaster triggered by a massive earthquake, it was a kind of peace that has, by nearly all accounts, taken root in a region once wracked by civil war.

"For the love of Aceh, people were willing to put down their guns," Muhammad Redhammarta, aged 23, a field worker with the Indonesian relief and development organization Mamamia, said as he accompanied a group of relief workers on a tour of several villages in the province.

Asked by Ecumenical News International to rate the long-term chances for peace on a scale of 1 to 10 - 10 being most optimistic - Redhammarta, replied: "An 8." For three decades, Aceh - the northernmost province on Sumatra and the westernmost point in Indonesia - had experienced years of conflict between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM, in Indonesian).

The rebels, citing what they said was long-standing neglect by the central government, called for Aceh's independence. The government, afraid of a strategically important and resource-rich area splintering away, responded with military force. The result was 29 years of sustained low-intensity war in which 15 000 were killed and human rights abuses became common. Tens of thousands also became displaced when the tsunami hit, although many said the experience of displacement was already well-known in Aceh.

The scale of the December 2004 event forced a fundamental change among both the rebels and the government, leading both to lay down their arms and focus their efforts and energy on Aceh's reconstruction.

A cease-fire agreement in August was greeted by both parties and by observers with caution as there had been other breaks in the fighting in the past but which did not last. A report released prior to the signing by the International Crisis Group (ICG), which monitors global conflicts, said that no one "should underestimate the difficulties of bringing an end to a 30-year-old conflict. Deep reservoirs of fear and distrust remain."

However, in villages such as Data Makmur, just outside Banda Aceh, Amir Udin, a farmer, said the peace agreement has had a discernible effect on day-to-day life in Aceh. "Life is much different now," he said in an interview. "Before we felt confined to the land; now we feel we can travel and move around."

Even the ICG has noted the change. In a report released on 13 December entitled "Aceh: So Far, So Good", the organization said the tsunami "reordered the [Aceh] political landscape". It noted: "The Aceh peace process is working beyond all expectations."

"There are still serious challenges ahead, of course - most importantly the reintegration of GAM fighters back into society," said Gareth Evans, president of the crisis group. "But what has been achieved so far is a real credit to the government and GAM."

:: Chris Herlinger, a New York-based correspondent for ENI, was recently in Aceh on assignment for the relief and development organization Church World Service. [579 words]


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By Anto Akkara

Colombo, 7 December (ENI)--Leaders of Sri Lanka's major Protestant denominations are facing calls to step up efforts to create a union of churches, 65 years after the start of inter-denominational dialogue on the island for a united church.

"We are still waiting for fruition of the dialogue initiated by visionary church leaders," said Narme F. Wickremesinghe, coordinator of the Franciscan Communion, which describes itself as a forum of concerned lay Christians, and who addressed an inter-church service to mark the anniversary of the union talks.

Anglican, Baptist, Dutch Reformed, Methodist, Presbyterian, Salvation Army and Church of South India (CSI) bishops and leaders assembled on 15 November at Colombo's Anglican cathedral for the service where prayers were said in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

Addressing the congregation, Wickremesinghe noted the day marked both the 65th anniversary of the start of the union talks and also the 500th anniversary of the first recorded celebration of the Lord's Supper by Roman Catholic Franciscan missionaries in what is now Sri Lanka.

In 1963 church leaders gave initial approval to the church union scheme after dialogue that started on 15 November 1940. By 1972, all the churches had approved the scheme and church heads held a "covenanting service" to endorse the agreement and began reciprocal inter-communion. However, this unity effort was halted by some church members who obtained a court injunction against the union.

In 1998, the eight member churches of the island nation's National Christian Council had decided to revive the unity efforts. But, "soon the churches went into a cocoon", Wickremesinghe lamented. "Reviving the church unity effort has been one of the priorities of our group" he said of the Franciscan Communion initiative set up three years ago by concerned Christians to promote church reform. [306 words]


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By Chris Herlinger

New York, 15 November (ENI)--A controversy about the teaching of "intelligent design" which centres around the idea that the universe is created by a higher power, not referred to specifically as God, is gripping school boards in the United States. The board of education in the state of Kansas approved new standards on 8 November for the teaching of biology that downplay the Darwinian theory of evolution. The 6 to 4 vote was seen as a victory for advocates of the "intelligent design" theory.

Still, voters in Dover, Pennsylvania, also on 8 November ousted a local school board that had promoted an "intelligent design" alternative to teaching evolution, and elected new candidates who promised to remove the concept from science classes. President George W. Bush said publicly earlier this year that intelligent design theory and evolutionary theory should both be taught in US classrooms giving those advocating the theory a boost.

Supporters of intelligent design say they are advocating a "balanced" debate about biological origins and seek intellectual freedom and free inquiry. Critics have said the Kansas decision and other moves are part of a conservative religious agenda creeping into US public education. The move by the Kansas school board was not supported by State Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who warned the decision risked the region's economic future.

"If we're going to continue to bring high-tech jobs to Kansas and move our state forward, we need to strengthen science standards, not weaken them," she said. The new Kansas standards say high school students must understand major evolutionary concepts, The Associated Press reported. But they also declare that basic Darwinian theory has been challenged in recent years by fossil evidence and molecular biology.

In its statement, the National Science Teachers Association said: "The [new] standards, as approved, contain significant errors regarding the scientific theory of evolution that compromise the document's integrity, as well as all of science." Rob Crowther, a spokesman for the Discovery Institute which advocates research for intelligent design theory, said in a statement that reports about the Kansas decision were incorrect, and that the board had simply voted to approve new standards that included scientific criticisms of Darwinian theory. [374 words]


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By Michele Green

Jerusalem, 15 November (ENI)--Archaeologists are excited about recent discoveries from excavations in Israel, which date from the biblical period and provide an insight into life in the Holy Land some 3000 years ago. Among the finds is an inscription with a name remarkably similar to that of "Goliath", the biblical giant slain by David. The discovery may provide the first extra-biblical evidence that the story of Goliath has some historical basis.

Professor Aren Meir, the archaeologist who discovered the inscription on a shard of pottery in the ruins of the ancient Philistine city of Gath, said the chance that the name refers to the Goliath of the biblical account is "small if non-existent". But Meir, an archaeologist from Israel's Bar-Ilan University, said it does show that Goliath was a common name among the Philistines at the time. The shard dates to around 950 B.C., about 100 years after the estimated date of the biblical story of David and Goliath.

The ruins of Gath, which lie between the modern-day Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon and Jerusalem, is where Goliath lived according to the Bible. Goliath was killed by David, a goatherd armed with a slingshot, who became an Israelite king. "This means that at the time there were people there named Goliath," Meir said. "Thus, this appears to provide evidence that the biblical story of Goliath is, in fact, based on a clear cultural realia [signifying the objects of a local culture] from, more or less, the time which is depicted in the biblical text," he said.

The discovery will be presented at an archaeology conference in the United States later in November. At the conference, US archaeologists will present what they believe to be an ancient Israelite alphabet etched in stone, discovered at the excavation of a town called Tel Zayit near Jerusalem. Ron E. Tappy, the archaeologist at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary who directed the dig near Jerusalem, said the inscription dates to about the 10th century B.C. The alphabet may indicate that Tel Zayit was a flourishing border town in an expanding Israelite kingdom ruled by King David and his son Solomon.

If true, it would undermine arguments by many archaeologists that David and Solomon were tribal chiefs rather than the empire builders of the biblical stories. Tappy was quoted in a New York Times interview saying that a border town of such size and culture suggested a fairly advanced system that would support the biblical accounts of a golden age in Israelite history under David and Solomon. [434 words]


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By Anto Akkara

New Delhi, 14 November (ENI)--Infectious diseases are spreading fast among Pakistani earthquake victims camped in tent villages. Church relief workers have launched emergency preventive measures to curb the new killer that has already claimed hundreds of lives. "Water and sanitation is very crucial at this point," Anne Angeltveit, coordinator of the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) relief team in Pakistan told Ecumenical News International by telephone. Angeltveit said on 11 November from the tent village run by Action by Churches Together member Church World Service (CWS) in Balakot that "with the spread of water borne diseases, our target is to provide clean water and to make the camps as hygienic as possible".

Pakistan Health Minister Nasir Khan said on 10 November that the death toll from October's quake had reached more than 86 000 while the number of injured is estimated at more than one hundred thousand. There have been hundreds of cases of diarrhoea reported among homeless quake survivors living in makeshift tents and there are fears it could be cholera, a World Health Organization team coordinator Khalid Shibib said, warning it could severely disrupt humanitarian efforts. Conditions at camps packed with homeless quake victims could trigger a new wave of deaths, relief workers have cautioned.

At the same time, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported a sudden spurt in tetanus and measles claiming dozens of lives in the camps. "Our people are setting up water purification structures in the camps to clean the water provided to the camp people," said NCA's Angeltveit. She explained that NCA has been erecting proper toilets to improve hygiene in the crowded temporary camps. Apart from managing the water and sanitation in the CWS camp, the NCA is also attending to tent villages set up by government and UN agencies which shelter hundreds of families from the increasingly wintry climate, she noted.

Bishop Samuel Azariah who heads the Raiwand diocese of the Church of Pakistan told ENI that church medical relief workers are vaccinating children to curb "the real threat" of measles and other diseases which have already claimed dozen of lives. He welcomed the government's approval of his diocese's proposal to send a mobile hospital unit with medical staff, including doctors, to the remote villages worst-affected in Kashmir. "Our team will stay in these villages for three to six months helping the people overcome the dangerous winter," Azariah said.

Meanwhile, CWS in a statement on 13 November said that government health authorities have launched a two-week campaign to immunise 800 000 children in the region. [443 words]


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By Anto Akkara

New Delhi, 10 November (ENI)--Roman Catholics in India are celebrating a judgement by the high court in the southern state of Kerala overruling a decision by the local bar council to deny enrolment as lawyers to nuns and priests. "The honourable high court has corrected an anomaly which debarred priests and religious women from bringing justice to the poor and the marginalised," said Sister Mary Scaria, secretary of the Delhi Catholic archdiocesan justice and peace commission, and herself a lawyer.

In its ruling of 7 November, the high court upheld the appeal of two nuns and a priest against the decision by the bar council which said they were ineligible for registration because they were already full-time professionals. The court noted that although Catholic nuns and priests belonged to a "religious profession", this could not be treated in the same category as "trade or business which generates income". In addition, the entry of the Catholic clergy dedicated to the service of God and people would "add lustre" to the legal profession, the court said.

Justice K. Balakrishnan Nair, a Hindu, said the legal profession "needed selfless and dedicated persons to take up the cause of the downtrodden without being concerned about fees". The priest who brought the case, the Rev. Thomas Pudussery of Irinjalakkuda diocese in Kerala, said he was delighted by the judgement.

"I went to the court after the Bar Council rejected my enrolment application. But the court has given a very hearty tribute to our commitment to social justice," said Pudussery. The bar council decision surprised many Catholics since a number of nuns and priests have been already enrolled as lawyers and this was the first time an objection had been raised.

"This is a very positive judgement," said the Rev. P. D. Mathew, coordinator of the national forum of Catholic religious lawyers, from his office at Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Mathew noted that India has more than 500 Catholic clergy with graduation degrees in law. He said the judgement would encourage more Catholic nuns and priests to take up social justice concerns as lawyers. The legal profession had become "increasingly commercialised" with few lawyers willing to take up grievances of poor people, Mathew noted. [383 words]


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Anto Akkara

New Delhi, 8 November (ENI)--A non-profit, Christian-owned pharmaceutical factory in India has launched production of AIDS treatment drugs that can prolong the lives of the burgeoning number of HIV positive people in the world's second most populous country. The Comprehensive Medical Services India, the pharmaceutical unit of the Inter-Church Service Association (ICSA), released the first batch of the anti-retro-viral (ARV) drugs on 28 October in Chennai. This was done in the presence of church health workers including Dr Jane Masiga of the Ecumenical Pharmaceutical Network.

"The number of people affected by HIV and AIDS is shooting up [in India]," Dr Moses Manohar, the director of ICSA told Ecumenical News International on 4 November from Chennai. "Most of them are poor people and cannot afford to buy the expensive ARV drugs available in the market. That is why we decided to enter this field." According to India government data, the country has 5.13 million HIV/AIDS cases, while non-governmental organizations and other health experts assert that the figure is much higher and could make India the country with the largest number of HIV positive people.

Addressing the ARV launch by the Indian church network, Dr Masiga hailed the ICSA for launching the production of such drugs and for making them cheaper and more easily available to poor patients. A strip of 10 Nevirapine antiretroviral tablets is sold for 135-158 rupees (US$3 to $3.50) by Indian pharmaceuticals, but Manohar said ICSA sells the same ARV drug for 59 rupees (about $1.35). Similarly, the Zidovudine tablet which is normally sold on the market at between 153 and 180 rupees, will be available from ICSA at 109 rupees.

Manohar told ENI, "Our aim is to ensure that the [HIV positive] poor have a better chance of living when the drugs are available at a cheaper rate." He said the free distribution of ARV drugs to poor patients had not been undertaken in the past by missionary hospitals as the drugs were very expensive. But, with the launch of the cheaper ARV drugs, Manohar said, missionary and other charitable hospitals that make bulk purchases from ICSA could start distribution of the drugs to the needy.

ICSA's fully automated drug factory following World Health Organization norms produces essential drugs worth around 17 million rupees ($ 400 000) a year for more common diseases like leprosy, malaria and tuberculosis. It markets these at almost half the market price by direct selling to hospitals avoiding marketing agents who take expensive commissions. [426 words]


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By Michele Green

Jerusalem, 7 November (ENI)--Israeli archaeologists have uncovered near a prison what they believe could be the oldest church ever found in the Holy Land - a discovery that experts say may shed new light on early Christianity. The structure was discovered in Megiddo, lower Galilee, near a site traditionally believed to be the Armageddon described in the New Testament's Book of Revelation, where the final battle between good and evil is prophesied to occur.

Dating back to around the third century, the church was discovered during an archaeological dig in the grounds of the Megiddo Prison where Israel jails hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners along with ordinary convicts. Inmates detailed to work on an excavation discovered it. The small, rectangular building lacks the characteristics of later churches. But it contains mosaics said to be breathtaking including one of a fish design. It also contains a Greek inscription that mentions a woman called Ekeptos who "donated this table to the God Jesus Christ in commemoration".

"It's a historic discovery that serves as confirmation to Christians all over the world," Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's envoy to the Holy Land, told Israeli television. It appears that a table rather than an altar stood at the centre of the church at which a sacred meal was held to commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus. Researchers said the apparent use of a table sheds new light on early Christian rituals. "This is a unique and important structure that expands our understanding of the early period of Christianity as a recognised and official religion," said Jotham Tefer, who supervised the excavation.

Other Greek inscriptions in the church include a dedication to a Roman officer who paid for the floor of the structure as well as a dedication to four women. The building is believed to be one of the oldest Christian holy sites in the region. Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion, dates to about AD 330 but it contains only scant remains of the original structure.

"Christian religious structures from this period are a rare archaeological find in Israel," Tefer said. The mosaics were so rare archaeologists said they would have to compare them with discoveries in Antioch or Rome rather than Christian mosaics found locally which are from slightly later periods. Christian scholars say the building could provide a wealth of information on early Christianity practised in the Holy Land in the first two centuries after the crucifixion.

"Of course, all Christians are convinced of the history of Jesus Christ," Sambi said. "But is it extremely important to have archaeological proof of a church dedicated to him? Certainly." [456 words]


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