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Observances Reflect on Right to Die

Florida Case Tinges Holy Week Services

By Susan Kinzie and Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 26, 2005; Page B01

Standing beneath a portico, just outside the reach of a steady drizzle, Carmen Guzman greeted parishioners as they entered St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Old Town Alexandria for Good Friday afternoon prayers. Many talked about Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed a week ago.

"It's a disgrace. We would never let our daughter suffer like that," said Barbara Muller, huddling under an umbrella with her husband, Richard. "There are worse things than dying."

At the Landover service, Pastor Freddie Jones of Parkview Baptist Church speaks, getting a pat from Pastor B. Louis Colleton of Shiloh Baptist Church. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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In churches, in temples and in solitary prayer this weekend, people will be thinking about the case playing out so dramatically in Florida courtrooms.

And although crowds of Christian conservatives have made passionate pleas to prolong Schiavo's life, many people of faith aren't so sure of the answers. Some see the case as one of complicated moral issues or believe she should be allowed to die.

For many Christians, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are bringing a particular resonance to difficult questions.

"Holy Week compels us to ask questions of mortality and questions of hope," said Bill J. Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Everywhere he has been this week, he said, people have been talking about these issues.

"I've found people just mystified by what this means, how one individual and one set of families can become symbols for these larger conversations," he said. "In that sense, this helps us to talk. In another sense, the nature of the conversation reveals how divided we are."

Guzman, a Eucharistic minister, was angry with the government for "trying to politicize God."

Megan Flannery said she and other congregants of Grace Lutheran Church in Woodbridge have discussed believing that supporters of Schiavo's parents are exploiting religion to advance their agendas and political ideals. Both sides "are saying that 'Jesus would want this to happen,' but they're taking over and playing God," she said.

Ahmed Al-Mortaji and his family chose in 1998 to take his mother off a machine after a few days after her heart surgery failed. "There is something called natural life and unnatural life," said Al-Mortaji, who was born to a Muslim family but considers himself nondenominational.

A recent poll suggests strong feelings and deep divisions: Gallup found that a slim majority of U.S. weekly churchgoers, 51 percent, believe her life support should end.

A couple of conservative Christian denominations, particularly Roman Catholics, have clearly defined convictions on the end of life, said Courtney S. Campbell, chairman of the philosophy department at Oregon State University. Many Protestant denominations offer general principles and leave families to determine individual cases within that framework.

Buddhism and Hinduism approach the issue very differently, he added, because they see the process of dying as important to rebirth and spiritual understanding.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America issued a statement that said Jewish law requires "that we preserve life, even under the most challenging conditions." But for some Jewish leaders, the issue is more complicated. Rabbi Richard Address of the Union for Reform Judaism said, "You just can't put one answer to all situations."

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