Local and VCU

Va. Christian activist hopes to distribute Qurans

Florida Pastor Terry Jones canceled his Sept. 11 Quran burning, but what has become of the Islamic holy books since the international controversy has subsided?

The answer rests with the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a well-known Christian activist from the Fredericksburg area.

Mahoney traveled to Gainesville, Fla., to pray on the grounds of Jones’ Dove World Outreach Center in the days before Sept. 11, trying to convince the preacher to cancel the burning.

Facing mounting pressure from politicians and religious leaders, Jones relented.

Mahoney returned to Florida last week and collected some 225 Qurans. He now expects to distribute them to Christian churches and missionary groups as a tool for interfaith dialogue.

“We plan to use them as a physical reminder of how the church is to reach out to our Islamic friends,” he said.

Mahoney brought some of them home and had the rest shipped to the Washington, D.C. office of the Christian Defense Coalition, which he leads.

Mahoney, who has prayed with Muslim leaders in Iraq and Morocco, told Jones that Islamic countries wouldn’t understand a church acting independently of the government.

Brief by the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Westboro members picket at Richmond churches

Five members of the Kansas-based hate group Westboro Baptist Church picketed at two Richmond-area churches Sunday morning.

About 10 counterprotesters picketed at Trinity Baptist Church in Richmond. The Westboro group’s protest at West End Assembly of God in western Henrico County got little attention from churchgoers and no counterprotests.

The Westboro members will be at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in eastern Henrico from 12:30 to 1 p.m.

The anti-gay, anti-semitic group — nationally known for heckling at military funerals claiming God kills soldiers as punishment for national tolerance of homosexuality — made waves when members came to Richmond in March, drawing hundreds of counterprotesters.

Albert Snyder, the father of a soldier killed in Iraq whose funeral service in Maryland was picketed by Westboro Baptist Church, is suing the group and its pastor, the Rev. Fred W. Phelps, for allegedly disrupting the service.

Snyder won a $5 million verdict in district court, but an appeals court reversed the decision, saying the protesters were exercising their right to free speech. The case is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In June, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli opted not to join 48 other states in filing a supporting legal brief on behalf of Snyder.

Brief by the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Richmond bike panel wants feedback

The city of Richmond is trying to bolster its bicycling bona fides.

A commission appointed by Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones to make the city more accommodating to bicyclists and pedestrians is seeking feedback on preliminary recommendations. Through an online survey, the city is asking residents about their bike-riding habits and their thoughts on bike lanes, trails, sidewalks and other facilities.

The commission envisions a city with an extensive network of on and off-road trails, as well as trail maps and bike racks and bike-sharing programs. The trail network could be anchored by an east-west route and a north-south route that basically would be the cycling equivalent of interstates 95 and 64.

“Mayor Jones established the (commission) to give him advice on making Richmond a more pedestrian-friendly city,” said Carolyn N. Graham, deputy chief administrative officer for human services. “We recognized that the mayor’s vision could not be realized without due consideration being given to bicycles and other clean-energy modes of transportation.”

Champe Burnley, co-chairman of the Pedestrian, Bicycling and Trails Planning Commission and president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, said he’s thrilled with the recommendations and how they’ve been received. After a well-attended public meeting last week, about 400 people had participated in the online survey within 36 hours of its launch.

“That tells me there’s a lot of pent-up demand and a lot of excitement about this,” Burnley said.

Brief by the Richmond Times-Dispatch

National and International

Judge orders lesbian reinstated to Air Force

A federal judge ruled today that a decorated flight nurse discharged from the Air Force for being gay should be given her job back as soon as possible in the latest legal setback to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton came in a closely watched case as a tense debate has been playing out over the policy. Senate Republicans blocked an effort to lift the ban this week, but two federal judges have ruled against the policy in recent weeks.

Maj. Margaret Witt was discharged under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and sued to get her job back.

A judge in 2006 rejected Witt’s claims that the Air Force violated her rights when it fired her. An appeals court panel overruled him two years later, leaving it to Leighton to determine whether her firing met that standard.

Witt, of Spokane, joined the Air Force in 1987 and was suspended in 2004, just short of retirement, after her commanders learned she was in a relationship with a civilian woman.

Her attorneys, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, insisted that Witt was well respected and liked by her colleagues, that firing actually hurt military goals such as morale, unit cohesion and troop readiness. Several members of the squadron testified to that effect and said they would welcome Witt back to the unit.

Lawyers for the Air Force said such evidence was irrelevant. Military personnel decisions can’t be run by unit referendum, they said.

Brief by The Associated Press

Ga. megachurch pastor pledges to fight accusations

The famed pastor of a Georgia megachurch said Sunday that he will fight allegations that he lured young men into sexual relationships, stressing that he’d be back to lead the church the next week.

Addressing a New Birth Missionary Baptist Church sanctuary packed with thousands, Bishop Eddie Long neither discussed specifics of the lawsuits filed against him nor flatly denied the accusations. But he drew thunderous applause when he addressed his flock publicly for the first time since the first lawsuits were filed several days ago.

“There have been allegations and attacks made on me. I have never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that’s being portrayed on the television. That’s not me. That is not me,” he said as applause interrupted him.

Four young men have filed lawsuits in the past week — three who live in Georgia and one from Charlotte, N.C., who attended one of Long’s satellite churches there. Two claim they were members of the church’s LongFellows Youth Academy, a program that taught teens about sexual and financial discipline, when Long gave them gifts and took them on trips to seduce them.

Long — who has been an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and whose church has counseled gay members to become straight — has been named as a defendant in the lawsuits, which claim the pastor abused his “spiritual authority.” But federal and state authorities have said they will not investigate the allegations because all four men were 17 and 18 years old when the relationships with Long began — older than Georgia’s age of consent, which is 16.

Brief by The Associated Press

Kenya says West wasting money on anti-piracy ships

Kenya’s foreign minister said Saturday the millions being spent to fight pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia should be spent instead on helping the country become a functioning state.

Moses Wetangula said in an interview with The Associated Press that Uganda has offered troops to expand the African Union force in Somalia from 7,100 to 20,000 to support the restoration of law and order.

But he said that nobody is stepping up to help with much needed money and equipment.

“Piracy is not born at sea. It’s born on land. And if you are able to patrol and protect your coastline, it’s unlikely that pirates will find a way to the high seas to cause the menace,” Wetangula said. “Instead, what are we seeing? 52 warships patroling … the waters of the Indian Ocean, but piracy is still going on.”

Wetangula said the flotilla should be disbanded and the money should be used instead to help Somalia “become a state.”

He warned that neglecting Somalia amid increasing attacks from militants and Jihadists trying to overthrow the weak U.N.-backed transitional government “may end up being a tragedy that would vibrate far and wide.”

Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991 when warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other, plunging the country into chaos. African Union peacekeepers have struggled to protect the small enclave in the capital, Mogadishu, where the Somali government operates.

Brief by The Associated Press

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