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Small Congregations

A few years ago, two faculty members at Hartford Seminary's Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut embarked on a sweeping project, a study of religious life in the United States across a wide array of faiths.

The result, released this week, is a survey called "Faith Communities Today," which includes data on topics like finances, programs and leadership, among 41 denominations and faith groups, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and Baha'i. The project's directors, David A. Roozen and Carl S. Dudley, have estimated that the material they gathered represents the experience of 90 percent of the nation's religious worshipers.

And that makes one finding in particular stand out: Half of all congregations, according to the report, contain fewer than 100 adults who regularly participate in those congregations.

This has many implications, not least for President Bush's hopes that the nation's "faith-based communities" can be encouraged toward greater collaboration with government in providing social services.

In an interview, Professor Roozen said that some people had had a better sense of these congregations when he compared them with small businesses. In the nation's economic life, he said, "small businesses seem to be the driving force of innovation, but they are fragile."

When it comes to congregations, he said, "large and small are not better or worse, but they're different." The small ones "draw people in at a higher level of personal commitment, because of the social relationships," he said. "That's part of their strength and vitality. I think that's why so many more Americans are involved in religious organizations than you find in European countries."

But their size also limits what these congregations can do.

Some small congregations function without even written budgets. "It works perfectly well as a house of worship," Professor Roozen said. "But it's hard to imagine that kind of congregation moving easily into an application for federal funding."

Again, he cited the analogy with small business. "It's one thing for I.B.M. to keep track of federal regulation, but with small business, it's hard."

But Professor Roozen said there was another way to look at how these small congregations might relate to the possibilities the White House has suggested. At least some of these houses of worship "work in partnership, especially the urban ones, so there's such-and-such County United Ministries," he said.

And even if they have not established a separate, nonprofit organization, the small congregations often "are contributing money and volunteers to other organizations," he said.

The project has an Internet site: www.fact.hartsem.edu.

Good News, Bad News

Religious life abroad, specifically Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, is the concern of Rabbi Berel Lazar, who as a youth studied in the Chabad Lubavitch yeshiva in Brooklyn, and now serves as elected chief rabbi of Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which represents Jews in 84 cities.

Asked on a visit to New York this week about the situation Jews face in the former Soviet Union, he reported good news and bad.

On one hand, he said, there is far greater religious freedom and resulting communal activity among Jews than what existed under the former Communist governments. And people in positions of political or cultural importance seem ready to acknowledge their Jewish roots publicly, which encourages Jews throughout Russia, Rabbi Lazar said.

The downside is that acts of anti- Semitism persist, he said, citing two cases of desecration of cemeteries and one in which a day school was vandalized. "We feel today that the government understands that this is a problem," he said, "but we believe there is a long, long way to go."

One positive sign, a gesture toward reviving Jewish religious life, Rabbi Lazar said, is the response in Moscow to a campaign in which he has been involved to distribute matzos for Passover.

"One of the things people do remember is Passover not so much the holiday, but the matzo," he said. "That's something the Communists couldn't stop, because if you wanted matzo, you made it at home."

The campaign has billboards around Moscow, alerting people to the availability of matzo brought in from Israel, distributed in community centers and synagogues. "There are lines of people forming," Rabbi Lazar said, "to get this matzo and bring it home and taste it again, the taste of childhood."

An Act Is Condemned

When Afghanistan's ruling Taliban government set out to destroy two massive statues of the Buddha, carved into a rock face more than 1,000 years ago, political and cultural organizations worldwide protested.

Some of those who tried to dissuade the Taliban, which espouses a very strict interpretation of Islam, were other Middle Eastern governments. But the Taliban went ahead.

Last week, the American Muslim Council, in Washington, released a statement condemning the destruction as "reprehensible" and a betrayal of injunctions in the Koran "that emphasize tolerance for all religions."

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