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Western Pa. town rejects atheist banner for inclusion in holiday display including Nativity

ELLWOOD CITY, Pa. — A western Pennsylvania mayor refused to include a banner from an atheist group that says "there are no gods" as part of a holiday display that includes a Nativity scene and has been erected annually on city property for decades.

Hundreds turned out to support the mayor's decision to go ahead with the display last week, which also includes symbols of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah and secular symbols, including Santa Claus, a snowman and a Christmas tree.

The city about 35 miles northwest of Pittsburgh added secular symbols to the display after the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained last year that the Nativity scene amounted to a government endorsement of religion.

Seeking to head off a similar challenge this year, the mayor also invited the Madison, Wis.-based group to contribute something to the modified display. The group mailed a sign that read: "At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Mayor Tony Court said he's yet to receive the banner in the mail, but he refuses to add it when it arrives. "It's offensive," Court said. "Nothing in our display challenges or puts down what others believe. I don't think you can say that about the banner the group is supposed to be sending."

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Cyprus Orthodox church leader, Israeli chief rabbi pledge forging closer bonds

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The leader of Cyprus' Orthodox Christian church and Israel's chief rabbi have signed a joint declaration aimed at forging closer bonds between the two countries' citizens.

Archbishop Chrysostomos II and Rabbi Yonah Metzger signed the declaration in the Cypriot capital Tuesday. Chrysostomos said the initiative is aimed at ending any "hostility or suspicion" that had "poisoned" Cypriot-Israeli relations in the past.

Metzger said Cyprus and Israel are partners and share a similar history. He says the declaration can help improve cooperation.

The declaration comes amid blossoming ties between the east Mediterranean neighbors. The two countries are in talks to cooperate on exploiting offshore natural gas deposits.

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Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese to run ad campaign aimed at drawing more Catholics to Mass

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend is planning to use television commercials and billboards to draw lapsed churchgoers back to Mass.

Bishop Kevin Rhoades said he hopes the local campaign — coinciding with a similar national campaign — will stir people and inspire some to return to religious practice. Rhoades says only about 30 percent of local Catholics attend Mass.

Rhoades learned about the initiative from other bishops and decided to use it in northern Indiana. Other dioceses around the country already have run ads featuring Catholics talking about why they returned to the church.

The ads will start airing in northern Indiana on Dec. 17 and continue through the end of January. Rhoades said the campaign will cost the diocese about $120,000.

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Jewish farmers' settlement in Connecticut to be recognized as historic site

MONTVILLE, Conn. (AP) — A small stretch of nondescript land tucked away in southeastern Connecticut soon will be recognized nationally as one of the area's most treasured historical sites.

More than a century ago, the land was home to the state's first rural synagogue and a community of Jewish farmers. The farmers, originally from Russia, immigrated in the 1880s to New York to escape the persecution and violence they faced abroad. By 1890, many had made their way to Chesterfield.

Earlier this month, the state's historic preservation council voted unanimously to accept a nomination to list the Chesterfield site among the National Register of Historic Places. By the end of the year, it is expected the site will be accepted to the register, which features more than 80,000 historic buildings, sites, structures and more scattered throughout the country.

The New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society, a nonprofit religious organization, has been at the forefront of the effort to preserve the Chesterfield site.

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Buddhist monks in Colorado hope to recover temple artifacts after fire

WESTMINSTER, Colo. (AP) — Buddhist monks say it may be a week before they can get back into their temple to look for historic artifacts after a fire destroyed the building.

The Lao Buddhist Temple is a total loss after fire destroyed the building on Monday. One monk suffered minor injuries.

Tom Pong says some of the artifacts are more than 100 years old and could be lost forever.

One of the most significant Buddha statues was removed from the building by Westminster firefighters, but another large Buddha had to be left in the building.

Fire investigators are going through debris, but the fire is not believed to be arson. Worries about asbestos are preventing members of the temple from going inside to assess the damage.

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Getty Museum buys St. John the Baptist sculpture

LOS ANGELES (AP) — J. Paul Getty Museum officials say they have acquired a 500-year-old limewood sculpture of St. John the Baptist.

Museum officials wouldn't say how much they paid at a London auction Tuesday, but Sotheby's online catalog shows the winning bid was about $488,000.

The 5-foot sculpture shows St. John the Baptist in a cloak cradling a lamb with a camel's head between his feet.

Officials believe it was originally part of a church altar at the Schloss Harburg castle in southwestern Germany.

Getty officials say it will improve the museum's collection of medieval sculpture and applied arts.

It is expected to go on display early next year.

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