Religion news in brief

AP News
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Posted: Dec 30, 2009 3:14 PM

North Korea acknowledged it has detained an American for illegally entering the reclusive country, news welcomed by relatives of an Arizona missionary who feared they would never hear from him again after he sneaked across the border.

Activists say they last saw Robert Park as he slipped across the frozen Tumen River into North Korea on Christmas Day, carrying letters urging the country's absolute leader to step down and free the hundreds of thousands of people held in political camps.

After four days without any word, relatives of the 28-year-old Korean-American said Tuesday they were relieved when the communist country finally announced it had a U.S. citizen in custody _ though analysts say Park's actions are likely to be seen as hostile to the regime and could draw a long prison sentence.

"My fear was that they say they don't know anything about it and may get rid of him secretly," Manchul Cho, an uncle of Park, told The Associated Press in California. "Once they recognize it, that's really good."

The two-sentence dispatch from the official Korean Central News Agency said an American was being investigated after "illegally entering" the country on Christmas Eve.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that North Korea had "confirmed it is holding a U.S. citizen pending an investigation," and that the U.S., which does not have diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, would seek consular access to the citizen through the Swedish Embassy.

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Monks, tourists, villagers mark Asian tsunami

PHUKET, Thailand (AP) _ Buddhist monks in orange robes chanted on a Thai beach, an Indonesian mother mourned her children at a mass grave, and a man scattered flowers in now-placid waters to commemorate the 230,000 killed five years ago when a tsunami ripped across Asia.

An outpouring of aid that followed the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami has helped replace homes, schools and entire coastal communities decimated by the disaster. But at Saturday's ceremonies, survivors spoke of the enduring wounds.

Thousands in Indonesia's Aceh province, which was hardest hit, held prayer services at mosques and beside the mass graves where tens of thousands were buried. The 167,000 people who died in Indonesia accounted for more than half the total death toll.

On Saturday's anniversary, Indonesian villagers briefly panicked when another strong earthquake struck deep under the sea off the eastern coast, officials said. Residents in Saumlaki, about 1,680 miles (2,700 kilometers) east of the capital Jakarta, said the magnitude-6.0 quake cut electricity, but there were no reports of damage or injuries.

In Thailand on Saturday, hundreds of residents and foreigners returned to the white-sand beaches on the southern island of Phuket. More than 8,000 people were killed along the country's shores. Buddhist monks in bright orange robes chanted prayers. Onlookers wept and embraced.

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Swastikas painted on Jewish temple, church in Wis.

OSHKOSH, Wis. (AP) _ Black swastikas were found spray-painted on a Jewish temple and Methodist church in Oshkosh, and police say they're still looking for suspects.

The damage was discovered on Christmas Eve at B'Nai Israel Congregation and Algoma Methodist Church.

Avi Stern is the president of the Jewish temple. He says the swastika is a symbol of hate, but he doesn't think the attack was anti-Semitic since a church was also damaged.

Police Sgt. Andrew Lecker says the vandalism could be considered a hate crime, which would enhance the range of penalties.

Most of the vandalism has been cleaned up, and Stern says the healing has already begun. He tells WLUK-TV he's inspired that a number of strangers have called and e-mailed to pledge their support.

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NE Pa. town tells church 'no' to homeless housing

SUGAR NOTCH, Pa. (AP) _ Officials in a small northeastern Pennsylvania borough are questioning a church's plan to house a group of homeless men for a week.

Holy Family Church in Sugar Notch, Luzerne County, wants to house around 40 homeless men for a week in January. The church got a notice from the borough saying that's a violation of local zoning laws punishable by a $500-a-day fine.

Borough Councilman Herman Balas said he's acting in the best interest of his constituents. He said some of the homeless men could be violent or drug users or have shady pasts.

Vince Kabacinski is director of VISION, a nonprofit organization that coordinates the temporary shelter program. He says dozens of area churches participate.

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Burglars steal 700-pound safe with gold items inside from southern Indiana church

NORTH VERNON, Ind. (AP) _ Police say burglars stole a large safe during a break-in at a southern Indiana church.

The Jennings County Sheriff's Department told The Tribune in Seymour that St. Anne's Catholic Church near North Vernon was broken into either late Sunday or early Monday. Someone forced open a rear door of the church and took the safe estimated to weigh more than 700 pounds.

Police say the safe contained gold items valued at several thousand dollars.