Archaeologists Discover 'Earliest Church' in Holy Land

BY MICHELE CHABIN                                                                                             © 2005 Religion News Service

sraeli archaeologists excavating on the grounds of a prison have discovered what they believe are the remnants of the earliest church ever discovered in the Holy Land.

Yotam Tepper, the dig's chief archaeologist, said during a briefing for journalists Sunday (Nov. 6) that the find "is certainly the earliest church in Israel that we know of."

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced Thursday that excavations at the Megiddo Prison had unearthed "a rare Christian religious structure" from the third to fourth centuries. An inscription on the floor stated that the structure had been dedicated to "The God Jesus Christ as a memorial."

The excavations were launched seven months ago after construction workers preparing to expand the prison discovered artifacts that, according to the IAA, warranted further investigation. Construction work is routinely halted in Israel, where ancient ruins abound, when artifacts or bones are discovered, so that archaeologists can perform what they call "rescue digs."

The excavation, one of several being undertaken at Megiddo, the site of numerous battles and the place Christians believe Armageddon will occur,* was performed by dozens of prison inmates under the guidance of IAA archaeologists.

The IAA said that three Greek inscriptions were discovered on the structure's elaborate mosaic floor, which also contains motifs of fish--a symbol often used by early Christians--and geometric patterns.

Professor Leah Di-Segni of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who translated the inscriptions, said that the northernmost one had been dedicated by a military officer named Gaianus, who contributed to the construction of the mosaic floor from his own funds. The easternmost inscription memorializes four women: Primilia, Kiraka, Dorothea and Crista. The westernmost inscription recalls "a certain god-loving Akeftos," who donated the altar to "the God Jesus Christ as a memorial."

Tepper said that pottery shards dating back to the third century had been found atop the mosaic. This, coupled with the inscriptions' wording and style of their letters, strongly suggests that the mosaic is from this time period as well, he said.

"This is a unique and important structure vis-a-vis our understanding of the early period of Christianity as a recognized and official religion," Tepper said.

While there appears to be no doubt that the structure is indeed ancient, some scholars wondered whether it had been built for another purpose and only later transformed into a church.
* Many Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, do not hold this belief.

Pope Calls for 'Patient Dialogue' With Lutherans

BY STACY MEICHTRY                                                                        © 2005 Religion News Service

Pope Benedict XVI praised dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics on Monday (Nov. 7), but called on both groups to not ignore their differences on questions of doctrine.

"We should intensify our efforts to understand more deeply what we have in common and what divides us," Benedict said during a meeting with Bishop Mark Hanson, president of the Lutheran World Federation.

Benedict underlined the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran "Joint Declaration on Justification," calling the document "a significant milestone on our common oath to full visible unity."

In that document, Catholics and Lutherans aimed to settle their disagreements over justification--the issue of whether salvation is God-given or earned through good works. Divisions over the issue played a key role in prompting the Protestant Reformation.

The joint declaration stated that salvation was a gift from God that reflected good works.

While praising that formula, Benedict stressed that new moral challenges faced their dialogue, expressing concern over "a general climate of uncertainty regarding Christian truths and ethical principles which formerly went unquestioned."

"Our ecumenical path together will continue to encounter difficulties and will demand patient dialogue," Benedict said.

The International Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity is expected to release a document on the "apostolicity of the church" in early 2006, addressing differences between the churches over issues such as apostolic succession.

Although Hanson noted "differences" between the churches in governing style, he stressed a commitment to addressing moral challenges to the Lutheran understanding of salvation.

Methodist Bishops Criticize Ruling on Gay Church Membership

BY KEVIN ECKSTROM                                                                                             © 2005 Religion News Service

The bishops of the United Methodist Church have proclaimed homosexuality is "not a barrier" to church membership, despite a recent ruling by the denomination's Judicial Council that allowed a Virginia pastor to keep an openly gay man from joining his church.

The Council of Bishops, meeting in North Carolina, criticized the Oct. 31 ruling by the church's court that has raised concerns that pastors are also able to discriminate based on race, marital status or theological beliefs.

"We call upon all United Methodist pastors and laity to make every congregation a community of hospitality," the bishops said in a statement released Wednesday (Nov. 2).

On Monday, the court ruled in favor of the Rev. Ed Johnson, the pastor of South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church who denied membership to a man who was involved in a gay relationship. The court's ruling overturned Johnson's suspension and said clergy may exercise "pastoral judgment in determining who may be received into the membership of a local church."

The bishops quoted from the church's constitution that implores "families and churches not to reject or condone lesbian and gay members and friends." The bishops did not, however, say if they would try to overturn the ruling.

The bishops are also concerned that the ruling violates their authority to supervise clergy, and said they "affirm" the church's tradition that makes pastors accountable to bishops, local superintendents and other clergy.

Bishop John Schol of Baltimore-Washington, an outspoken critic of the ruling, said the church may be divided over homosexuality but "the Council of Bishops is of one mind: gay and lesbian people are not to be excluded from church membership."


Jewish Leaders Praise Establishment
of International Holocaust Day

BY MICHELE CHABIN                                                                                          © 2005 Religion News Service

Jewish leaders are expressing satisfaction over a United Nations decision to establish an International Holocaust Day, but said that such a gesture is long overdue.

The International Day of Commemoration will be held every year on Jan. 27, exactly 60 years after Allied forces liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

"This important declaration by the United Nations comes very late, but better late than never," said Rabbi Michael Melchior, the Israeli deputy minister responsible for Israeli society and the world Jewish community. "By declaring this day, the United Nations is recognizing the importance of dealing with anti-Semitism, which gave birth to the most terrible crime in the history of humanity."

The resolution passed Monday (Oct. 31) encourages member countries to promote Holocaust education and activities that will help their citizens better understand its implications as a means of preventing future acts of genocide. The resolution also renounces the practice of Holocaust denial, whereby people either deny that the Holocaust ever happened, or insist that its scale--the number of Jewish victims, for example--has been grossly exaggerated.

Jewish leaders consider the decision to commemorate the Holocaust in an official, fixed way especially significant because the initiative was spearheaded by Israel, a nation frequently criticized by Arab countries and their supporters.

Israel officially proposed the memorial day on Aug. 15, the day it began its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, a move applauded by the world community. For many years Israel declined to propose resolutions, believing that they would be automatically denied by anti-Israel member states.

Israeli officials were delighted with the resolution's passage, insisting that it signaled recognition not only of the suffering of the Jewish people, but of the often-maligned Jewish state.

"This is an historic decision which means that the U.N. relates to Israel as a country equal to other countries, and a step that contributes to Israel's international standing," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said. The number of living Holocaust survivors is dwindling. The vast majority are in their 80s and 90s.

"This is an important decision taking into account the fact that the number of Holocaust survivors is decreasing every year as they pass on," said Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Zeev Bielski.

"This will guarantee that the memory of the Holocaust and its lessons will not be erased."

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