'NATIONAL TRAGEDY'Irish Bishops Decry Alcohol Abuse Roman Catholic bishops in Ireland have branded their country's abuse of alcohol a "national tragedy" and urged citizens to cut alcohol consumption by one-third during Lent. The bishops' pastoral letter, titled "Alcohol: The Challenge of Moderation," was announced ahead of Ash Wednesday, marking the start of the season of Lent. Ireland, the bishops said, has become "one of the wealthiest nations in Europe," but at the same time "our struggle with alcohol continues."

"We owe it to this generation and the next to find a way which is not destructive or harmful to enjoy alcohol as a gift from God," they said.

The bishops also called for the Irish government to prioritize funding for treatment and recovery centers.

--Religion News Service MARCH 9 ARLINGTON FORUMChurches Seek Education Act FixThe National Council of Churches will sponsor a national conference March 9 in Arlington on "fixing" the No Child Left Behind education act. Although the event will include secular participants, the involvement of the nation's largest ecumenical religious organization signals a growing grass-roots concern about the 2002 law, which is scheduled for reauthorization by Congress this year.

"It's a complex issue, and we want people to get a handle on it so they can speak from their faith," said Jan Resseger of the United Church of Christ, chairwoman of the council's Committee on Public Education and Literacy. "We hope people will be well-prepared to speak to Congress."

The National Council of Churches is among 105 organizations that have signed a statement demanding changes in the federal education law, including a call to decrease the testing burden on states and to ease sanctions against struggling schools and districts.

-- Religion News Service STRUGGLE OVER SCRIPTUREPresbyterian Churches Asked to StayThe threat of churches leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) has become so serious that leaders have issued a letter asking them to stay. The Presbyterian Church, like other mainline Protestant groups, has been struggling to reconcile members who disagree over how to interpret Scripture.

At least eight churches have left since a Presbyterian General Assembly voted to give leeway to install partnered gay clergy and allowed church officials to propose experimental phrasings for the Trinity in place of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, a denominational leader, wrote in the Jan. 29 letter that "there's no question that the vast majority of Presbyterian churches are going to stay," but, "I think any exodus is too many."

-- Associated Press FIRST FREEDOM PROJECTU.S. Fights Religious DiscriminationAttorney General Alberto R. Gonzales announced this week that the Justice Department is launching a program to protect Americans from religious discrimination. Gonzales told Southern Baptist leaders in Nashville that the First Freedom Project will hold educational seminars about religious discrimination across the country in coming months. He also announced plans to create a department-wide Religious Freedom Task Force to review cases and policies.

-- Associated Press REPAIRING RELATIONSPope to Meet With Grand SheikThe grand sheik at the highest theological college in the Sunni Muslim world has agreed to meet with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome, the Vatican said. Cardinal Paul Poupard, who leads the Vatican commission on relations with Muslims, went to al-Azhar mosque in Cairo to meet with Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, grand sheik at the al-Azhar mosque, and extended the invitation. No date was announced for the visit.

Benedict has been trying to improve relations with the Muslim world, particularly after a speech he gave Sept. 12 touched off violent Muslim protests.

The pontiff had quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," citing "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

Benedict has expressed regret that the citation offended Muslims.

-- Associated Press