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Assad’s Easter and mysterious attacks on Syrian Christians: GetReligion, April 24, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Antiochian Orthodox, Get Religion, Greek Orthodox, Islam, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Why are Syrian Christians being targeted by Islamist rebels?

The Western press cannot agree on a reason, a review of recent reports from Syria reveals.

Can we credit the explanation given by the Wall Street Journal — that the rebels do not trust Christians — as a sufficient explanation? And if so, what does that mean? Are the reports of murders, kidnappings, rapes and overt persecution of Christians in Syria by Islamist rebels motivated by religion, politics, ethnicity, nationalism or is it a lack of trust?

Is the narrative put forward byITAR-TASS, the Russian wire service and successor to the Soviet TASS News Agency — that the rebels are fanatics bent on turning Syria into a Sunni Muslim state governed by Sharia law — the truth?

On this past Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on its front page under this headline:

Christians of Homs Grieve as Battle for City Intensifies

That story examined the plight of Syria’s Christians. The Journal entered into the report by looking at the death of Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, who had been murdered by members of an Islamist militia in the town of Homs.

The well-written article offers extensive quotes from a second Syrian Roman Catholic priest on this tragedy and notes the late priest’s attempt to bridge the divide between Christians and Muslims. In the 10th paragraph, the story opens up into a wider discussion of the plight of Syria’s Christians and recounts Assad’s Easter visit to a monastery — whether Catholic or some variety of Orthodox, that detail is left out.

While the fighting raged in Homs, President Bashar al-Assad showed up unexpectedly on Sunday in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, about 30 miles northeast of the capital Damascus. The town was overrun by Islamist rebels in September and reclaimed by the Syrian army a week ago.

State media released video footage of Mr. Assad surveying smashed icons at the town’s damaged monasteries and quoted him as saying that “no amount of terror can ever erase our history and civilization.”

The fight over Maaloula, like the killing of Father Frans, both reflect the quandary of Syria’s Christians. Many feel an affinity for Mr. Assad. His Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominates the regime while the majority of Syrians—and opposition supporters—are Sunni Muslims.

Most Christians have become all the more convinced that only the regime can protect them after some rebels came under the sway of Islamic extremists who have attacked and pillaged their communities and churches and targeted priests and nuns.

Some Christians still seek to build bridges with both sides of the civil war, as Father Frans did. But in a landscape where religious and sectarian affiliations often define and shape the struggle, they find themselves under fire from both sides.

Many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians, while regime supporters see those who reach out to the opposition as naive or traitors. Father Frans found himself in that position, say some close to him

What are we to make of these assertions — “some rebels” are Islamists, or that “many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians?” Is that a fair, suffient or accurate statement of affairs?

A look at the Financial Times report on President al-Assad’s visit to Maaloula on Easter Sunday makes the argument that the Assad regime is playing up the Islamist angle for his political benefit. But it assumes the persecution is real.

President Bashar al-Assad made an Easter visit on Sunday to a historic Christian town recaptured by the army, in a rare appearance outside the capital that shows his growing confidence in state control around Damascus.

The visit also aims to portray him as the protector of Syrian minorities against a rebel movement led by Islamist forces.

The wire service stories also connect Christian fear of the rebels with support for Assad. AFP’s account closes with the explanation:

Syria’s large Christian minority has sought neutrality throughout the three-year war, and has viewed the Sunni-led rebels with growing concern as jihadists have flocked to their ranks.

The Los Angeles Times opens its story on the Maaloula visit noting that both Assad and the rebel leadership are courting Syria’s Christians.

But Assad appears to be winning.

DAMASCUS, Syria — President Bashar  Assad made a symbolic Easter visit Sunday to the heavily damaged town of Maaloula, a Christian landmark  enclave recaptured from Islamist rebels last week by government forces. The president’s visit, broadcast on state television, underscored his efforts  to portray himself as a defender of Christians and other minorities as he  prepares for an expected reelection bid in the midst of a devastating war now in  its fourth year.

Maaloula and several of its historic churches sustained significant damage  during heavy fighting and bombardment. Church leaders say priceless icons were  looted or destroyed during the rebel occupation of Maaloula, famous for its  preservation of Aramaic, a version of the language spoken by Jesus Christ.

“No one, no matter the extent of their terrorism, is able to erase our human  and cultural history,” Assad declared in Maaloula while in the company of senior  Christian clerics. “Maaloula will remain steadfast … in the face of the  barbarity and darkness of all who target the homeland.”

Opposition groups seeking Assad’s ouster generally dismissed the trip as a  stunt or faked. The exile-based Syrian National Coalition sent Easter greetings  to Syria’s Christians “at a time when Assad destroyed the country because of a  people who are demanding freedom.”

Comparing the reporting by Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph on the plight of Syria’s Christians to the the Wall Street Journal reveals the shallowness of the WSJ’spiece. Reporting on his visit to Maaloula shortly after it was recapture by government forces, Oborne writes:

Below, the village itself appeared practically deserted; most of its 5,000-strong, mainly Christian, population have fled since it first came under rebel attack, on Sept 4 last year.

According to Samir, a soldier who said he had been born in Maaloula, and joined up to defend his village, the ancient religious centre “will not change hands again because most of the young men in the village have joined the military”.

His friend, Imad, said there had been 32 churches in Maaloula and claimed that “all of them have been destroyed” – although it was clear from the vantage point near the monastery that in fact churches were still standing, albeit with signs of damage and some burning.

Anger among regime supporters at what they claim are the excesses of the rebels – who include radical Islamist insurgent groups – was palpable. “I can’t describe my feelings because the terrorists are destroying the Christian religion,” said Imad, who said he had been an electrician in Maaloula before he joined the military and the rest of his family moved to Damsacus two years ago. Samir claimed that the rebels had behaved brutally to young men of the town when they first arrived, killing many.

However, there have been no documented massacres of Christian inhabitants under the rebels’ rule of Maaloula and a group of nuns who were released last month after being kidnapped by the Islamist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, said they had been treated well.

Oborne’s article allows both sides to speak, while offering facts that put the claims in context. The complexity of the war in Syria is better served by the balanced but nuanced approach taken by the Daily Telegraph, I believe, than the shy style adopted by the WSJ. While I have no firsthand knowledge of the events unfolding in Syria, Oborne’s story just feels right — it is a first-class example of the craft of reporting.

Where does the truth lay in all of this? The WSJ piece doesn’t feel right to me. I am not saying it is incorrect, but it is incomplete.

As a stand-alone piece on the murder of Father van der Lugt, the WSJ article is great. It seems to get into trouble, however, when it moves into a wider discussion of the causes and political-religious currents of Syria’s civil war. Frankly, I am not convinced it is telling the full story. It leaves me wonder why the WSJ is being shy in examining the persecution of Christians by Muslims?

Is the media missing out on African-American church news?: Get Religion, December 6, 2013 December 9, 2013

Posted by geoconger in African Methodist Episcopal Church, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Hell hath no fury like a reporter scorned, is my version of the traditional proverb.

Last night the Los Angeles Times had me going. A report on the lawsuits surrounding the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles — a major player in the city’s African-American community — in a story entitled “Judge dismisses defamation lawsuit filed by ex-First AME pastor” had me working the phones, calling lawyers and sources in California to track down news that was new to me. And for a reporter whose beat includes church law to be caught flat footed was quite a comeuppance.

Had I missed a major story? Here’s the lede:

A Los Angeles County judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit by the former pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, who alleged he suffered emotional distress when he was removed from the helm of Los Angeles’ oldest black church.

Last December the paper reported the church filed suit against its former pastor the Rev. John Hunter, his wife and a group of other church officials and directors of affiliated corporations. It said:

Hunter has had a rocky tenure at the church. Since taking over First AME in 2004, Hunter has been sued for sexual harassment, a civil claim that was settled for an undisclosed amount. The Times reported in 2008 that an internal audit found he charged $122,000 in jewelry, family vacations and clothing to the church’s credit card. He later agreed to a nine-year repayment plan.

He earned a generous salary during his tenure, lived in a $2-million home and drove a Mercedes-Benz paid for by the church. His wife earned $147,000 a year running nonprofit organizations connected to the 19,000-member congregation. But over the last few years, the hilltop church in the West Adams district has fallen into debt. The church owes nearly $500,000 to creditors and some vendors say they have not been paid in more than a year.

The latest LA Times story reports on Hunter’s counter-suit, where he alleged First AME had:

“embarked upon a campaign to discredit and defame” him “by asserting maliciously false and inflammatory statements as well as taking steps to publicly humiliate him.”

This story is light on context. First AME has over 19,000 members and plays an active role in the community with numerous charitable and educational programs for at risk youth and the disadvantaged. Perhaps readers would have known this, but the importance of the church in the community was not spelled.

While the apparent disinterest by the LA Times was a point of concern, what set off my new news alarm was this statement in paragraph five.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Holly Kendig granted the church’s motion to dismiss the case brought by Hunter on grounds that a recent Supreme Court case limited the state’s action when dealing with religious affairs.

What court decision? Which Supreme Court? California or the U.S.? Covering the Episcopal Church has led me to write dozens upon dozens of stories on the litigation between it and conservative breakaway groups. Most of the cases have involved congregations seeking to withdraw from what they describe as “liberal” dioceses — including three cases in Los Angeles and Orange County, Cal., as well as dioceses seeking to leave the national Episcopal Church — including the Diocese of San Joaquin (covering California’s inland empire).

If the California Supreme Court had handed down a ruling that limited power of the courts to adjudicate church disputes this was major news. And quite an embarrassment for me. It is part of my job to follow these issues and not be surprised. Hence the flurry of emails and telephone calls to California from me asking to be let in on the secret.

One of my canon lawyer contacts responded:

I’m not sure what the case is to which the court had reference. If it’s the California Supreme Court, there are no “recent rulings” from it (of which I am aware) that could affect such a suit. Most likely the case meant is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Hosannah-Tabor case — which does not affect any of the Episcopal withdrawal cases (though [the Episcopal Church’s lawyers] would like it to).

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S. ___ (2012), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations’ selection of religious leaders. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts held:

the Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.

Nothing to do with church property disputes then. My professional crisis was averted and my ego assuaged. Perhaps I read too much into the Times‘ account, but its explanation of the court’s decision was inadequate. Hell hath no fury like a reporter scorned when he sees a major story slip away.

The pedant in me must point out that this phrase too is not quite right. The line is from William Congreve’s tragedy The Mourning Bride (1697), III, 8: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, / Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

But given the ink expended on the Episcopal Church cases by the LA Times over the past decade, it seems somewhat miserly to cover a story about a major African-American church (whose membership is comparable in size to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles) with such a paltry article.

Tell me Get Religion readers are the historically African-American churches under covered in the press? Are the mainline churches over exposed? Should the LA Times have put a bit more effort and information into its report?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

Surprised by sin – African clerical celibacy: Get Religion, May 9, 2013 May 9, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Abuse, Church of the Province of Uganda, Get Religion, Roman Catholic Church.
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Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”

Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

“True Humility” by George du Maurier, in Punch, 1895.

There is much to praise in the Los Angeles Times article “Uganda priest ostracized for publicizing sexual abuse”. The May 4 article addresses the question of sexual misconduct by Roman Catholic clergy in Africa – – child abuse and violations of the vow of celibacy. And it does so through the voice of Fr Anthony Musaala, an Ugandan priest suspended in March by his Archbishop for having brought the church into disrepute for exposing these problems.

I also like the article because it “gets Africa”. It understands the culture of shame that often manifests itself as cover up and denial, and makes reporting about the African scene so difficult. But there is also curate’s egg quality to the piece. Parts of it are quite good yet there is a bit that is off.

It is a mistake to conflate the sexual abuse of children scandal with the question of clerical celibacy. In this case while the African church is loathe to talk about child abuse it is not correct to say that they are silent on the question of celibacy. The article would also have been helped by addressing the question “why” — Why the homosexual abuse of young boys prompts such a visceral reaction by the church in Uganda.

The article begins:

He is a celebrity across eastern and central Africa, a gospel music star known to many as the “Dancing Priest.” But for years he also was a keeper of painful secrets — his own and many others’. In going public, Anthony Musaala has forced the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda to confront a problem it had insisted didn’t exist. And he may stir a debate far beyond Africa’s most Catholic of countries.

The Ugandan priest has been suspended indefinitely by the archbishop of Kampala for exposing what he calls an open secret: Sex abuse in the Catholic Church is a problem in Africa as well as in Western Europe and North America. The African Catholic Church is fast-growing, pious and traditional. As the church elsewhere forks out billions of dollars to compensate the child sex abuse victims of priests, few African Catholics have questioned the assumption, voiced recently by Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson that the African church is purer than its counterpart in the West, which is regarded as secular and permissive.

It’s not more pure, says Musaala. He says he has the evidence to prove it. “The Vatican turns a blind eye because it doesn’t want to be embarrassed about this blooming church. But I think it’s time we had the truth,” Musaala says.

The article reports that in March Fr Musaala wrote Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga “about priests who fathered children, kept secret wives or abused girls or boys, and called for a debate on marriage for priests” and stated that as a young boy he too had been abused. It said:

The letter was leaked to the news media. And in response, Lwanga suspended Musaala, saying his statements stirred up contempt for the Catholic Church and damaged the morale of believers. Later in the month, Lwanga acknowledged that abuses had taken place, apologized to victims and set up an internal inquiry. But he did not backtrack on Musaala’s unpaid suspension.

This account conflicts with other press reports. All agree that Fr Musaala was suspended, but the Ugandan press reported this was an open letter given to them and to the Archbishop. It would also have helped this story if the LA Times had unpacked the religious context. The Catholic and Anglican churches in Uganda, who account for 80% of the population, celebrate the feast of the Martyrs of Uganda. As an aside if you should ever want evidence as to why you should not trust Wikipedia compare the politically correct and false version on Wikipedia with the story told on the website of the shrine to the martyrs.

The first martyr to die was King’s major domo and leader of all Christians, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, on 15th November 1885. He was killed because he had pleaded to King Mwanga to abandon the vice of homosexuality and not to kill Bishop Hannington, an Anglican missionary who had entered Buganda from Busoga (the backdoor of Buganda kingdom). From that time he became angry with all Christians as they all refused to give in to his sinful demands and were persuading all other pages to do the same. On 25th May, 1886, King Mwanga ordered for a number of Christians to be brought before him and he passed on them the death penalty. 20 of the 22 martyrs were killed between 26th May 1886 and 3rd June 1886.

The Ugandan martyrs died because they refused to countenance the king’s homosexual advances because their Christian faith taught them that sodomy was a sin. Omitting this historical context — one of the defining sagas of the Catholic Church in Uganda leave the story untold.

Would the story have been helped by mention of the Ugandan Martyrs? Or by mention of Fr Musaala’s on-going fight with the archbishop in the press? Does it make a difference to the denouement of the piece if the letter was leaked to the press or given to the press by Fr Musaala?

The linkage between abuse and clerical celibacy was also unfortunate, as the Church has been far from silent on this point.  The 2009 Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of Africa convened by Pope Benedict discussed the question and problems of priestly celibacy for the African church. In the neighboring Central African Republic an archbishop was suspended for having families, while a number of clergy in Kenya have quit the church over mandatory celibacy. Silence over celibacy and its challenges for the clergy is not a problem — silence over abuse is.

First printed in Get Religion.

Los Angeles Times: Fact and fantasy on Mrs. Thatcher: Get Religion, April 10, 2013 April 13, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The death Monday of Margaret Thatcher has generated a huge amount of ink from newspapers on both sides the Atlantic. Opinions about the “Iron Lady” vary sharply — and some of these opinion pieces have found their way into the news reports of recent days.

This Los Angeles Times article reports the funeral arrangements –  but it has been crafted less to tell the story about the funeral than to offer its opinions about Margaret Thatcher. Save for a few knowledgeable insiders most reporters covering these sorts of affairs work off of the same press releases and from the same press conferences. The Home Office, Foreign Office, Downing Street, the Church of England, the Metropolitan Police, Buckingham Palace, the Ministry of Defense, and other government offices have been busy telling reporters of their role in the memorial service.

For example, here is the press release from the Ministry of Defense:

The Ministry of Defence has announced details of the Armed Forces’ involvement in the Funeral of The Rt Hon The Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven LG OM PC FRS, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990.

The Funeral will take place on Wednesday 17 April at St Paul’s Cathedral, involving more than 700 Armed Forces personnel. The Coffin will be drawn on a Gun Carriage of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery from St Clement Danes Church (the church of the Royal Air Force) in the Strand to St Paul’s, with the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force lining the route. Outside the Cathedral a Guard of Honour and Band of 1st Battalion Welsh Guards will be formed up. While the Ceremonial Procession takes place, the Honourable Artillery Company will fire Processional Minute Guns from Tower Wharf, HM Tower of London.

Carrying the Coffin of Lady Thatcher into the Cathedral will be a Bearer Party made up of all three Services, including those from ships, units and stations notable for their service during the Falklands Campaign. Positioned on the steps will be a Step Lining party made up of 18 tri-Service personnel and a contingent of In-Pensioners of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Senior military representatives will attend the service.

The reporter’s task is to distill these press releases into a single story. A good reporter seeks to add value to the story by finding a particular angle that would interest his readers and perhaps a first-person observation from someone or some institution mentioned in the press release. Working from the MOD statement, a knowledgeable reporter could develop a unique angle based on the type of funeral (military v. state), the place of the funeral,  the procession through the city, or some of the military aspects. What he should not do is offer unfounded speculation.

Let’s look at the Los Angeles Times.

LONDON — The funeral of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest-serving leader of the 20th century, will be held in St. Paul’s Cathedral on April 17, officials said Tuesday. Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, are expected to attend what will be the most elaborate funeral to be staged in London since the death of the queen’s mother in 2002. It will be the first funeral of a prime minister that the queen will have attended since Winston Churchill’s in 1965. Thatcher, who died Monday at age 87 after years of declining health, will be given a ceremonial service with military honors, a service almost indistinguishable from an official state funeral.

Further facts are reported before it moves into its particular angle.

The expected presence of the queen at Thatcher’s funeral is an indication of the impact Britain’s first female prime minister made, even though the two women, who were born six months apart, are believed to have had a frosty relationship.

Thatcher raised eyebrows with her increasingly regal style toward the end of her 1979-90 premiership, particularly her announcement of the birth of her first grandchild: “We have become a grandmother.” Elizabeth is said to have disliked the social division that Thatcher’s policies exacerbated among her subjects.

The reputed edge between them is on show in a new play in London’s West End. “The Audience” depicts imagined accounts of the meetings the queen holds weekly with the prime minister of the day. Oscar-winner Helen Mirren portrays Elizabeth and actress Haydn Gwynne takes the role of Thatcher in a fraught but fictionalized encounter.

These three paragraphs are problematic. It asserts the Queen and Mrs Thatcher did not care for one another. No facts are presented to support this statement nor is a second source offered to substantiate the claim. Instead we have the verbal phrasing “are believed”. Believed by whom?

How does the LA Times know the mind of the Queen? Is it the royal mind of the monarch or the royal mind of the Times editorial board who believes dislikes the “social division that Thatcher’s policies exacerbated among her subjects”? And where is the evidence for this? Conventional wisdom among the liberal establishment does not count.

Perhaps I have been at this game too long but the only news value I can see in mentioning the West End play “The Audience” is that it allows the author to put his ticket on his expense account.

Now I am not saying that the claims of friction between the two women do not exist — but they are merely claims and not fact. If the Times wants to mention them it needs to put these words in the mouths of others because the Times is not an insider or a knowledgeable source — they do not have the necessary credibility to get away with it. This is gossip not news.

First printed on Get Religion.

Don’t mention the war! : Get Religion, December 20, 2012 December 21, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion.
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“Don’t mention the war!” is the catch phrase from “The Germans” episode of the British television series Fawlty Towers. I thought of this episode and John Cleese when I prepared a story for GetReligion on the New York Times‘ and Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the Bundestag’s vote to protect the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims by forbidding courts to ban the circumcision of infant boys.

The two Times were unable to get past the war in their reporting on this story, and ultimately missed the real story picked up by NBC, which was that German objections to circumcision were not crypto-Nazi prejudices but a consequence of the secularization of German society.

In “The Germans” episode, John Cleese, playing a concussed and bandaged Basil Fawlty, insults a party of German tourists dining at his hotel. Even though he warns his assistant Polly, “don’t mention the War”, he proceeds to do so with each line taking on a sharper tone. The comedy reaches its zenith when Basil gives an impression of Adolf Hitler and goose-steps round the hotel.

The humor in this episode comes from the interplay between the slightly mad Basil Fawlty’s attempts at maintaining  bourgeois respectability and his German jokes. The audience also comes to this episode with a common cultural understanding that the Second World War was the fault of the Germans. However, being British, it is impolite to mention it.

This tone of anti-German animus was the topic of this week’s Crossroads podcast with host Todd Wilken, along with a quick discussion of British reporting on the appointment of Tim Scott as South Carolina’s first African-American senator — but the meat of our conversation was on the dastardly Hun.

Germans, like Catholics, remain one of the few “safe” topics of Anglo-American humor, and I find national stereotyping amusing. But when ethnic and national stereotypes blind reporters to the true issues at play, it is a problem for journalism.

My argument in this week’s Issues, Etc., show was that mentioning the war, e.g., alluding the Nazi past when referring to a court ban on circumcision, clouded the issues. As NBC News’ story pointed out, the objections to circumcision arose from the de-Christianized culture of Germany that ascribed no religious significance to the practice, and as such, viewed circumcision as a barbaric cultural practice that should not be permitted in an enlightened European state.

Ignorance of faith, not anti-Semitism, lay behind the circumcision ban. Well, that is what I hoped to have said. Listen — and let me know what you think.

If I blow this gig, could I try my hand at radio?

First printed at GetReligion.

Interview: Issues, Etc., December 19, 2012 December 21, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Issues Etc.
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Here is a link to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on 19 Dec 2012.

3. Media Coverage of Circumcision Laws in Germany – George Conger, 12/19/12

Scratch a German, find a Nazi, the New York Times reports: Get Religion, December 13, 2012 December 13, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The end of term is just round the corner with Christmas less than two weeks away. But before the semester ends we have to sit our exams. You have 45 minutes to compare and contrast these stories from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and NBC on Wednesday’s vote in the German Bundestag on circumcision. Which story “gets religion”?

Each outfit ran original stories on this topic and all touched upon religious element in the stories — but I will give you a hint as to the answer I am seeking and say NBC. The New York Times‘ suggestion that Germans are crypto-Nazis will not receive full marks.

The basic political facts are aptly summarized by the New York Times in its article “German Lawmakers Vote to Protect Right to Circumcision”.

BERLIN — German lawmakers on Wednesday passed legislation ensuring parents the right to have their boys circumcised, bringing a close to months of legal uncertainty set off by a regional court’s ruling that equated the practice with bodily harm.

The measure passed by a vote of 434 to 100, with 46 abstentions, in Germany’s lower house of Parliament, the Bundestag. The vote followed months of emotional debate, and angered and alienated many German Jews and Muslims, for whom circumcision is a religious rite, integral to their beliefs.

But opponents of the bill, including 66 lawmakers who had proposed a version of the legislation that would have banned the procedure for boys younger than 14, insisted that removing a healthy body part from a child too young to have a say in the matter violates basic human rights.

The Los Angeles Times story entitled “Germany votes to keep circumcision legal” pointed out the issue of religious freedom.

The new legislation accommodates Jews who insist that the ritual must be carried out by a specially designated person known as a mohel. The Central Council of Jews in Germany said it would start a training program to ensure that mohels receive proper medical training.

The legality of circumcision in Germany was thrown into question in May after a district court in the western German city of Cologne ruled that the circumcision of a young Muslim boy amounted to bodily harm and was illegal. Jews and Muslims, for whom the practice is a key element of the faith, erupted in protest, and the central government quickly vowed to pass legislation to guarantee its legality nationwide. The months of debate that ensued centered on balancing medical concerns with religious freedom.

And the New York Times drove this point home with some strong quotes.

“There is no country in the world where the circumcision of boys for religious reasons is considered a criminal act,” Ms. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said. “With this legislation, the German government makes clear that Jewish and Muslim life is clearly welcome in Germany.”

The NY Times also provided context for the American reader.

Unlike common practice in the United States, infant boys in Germany and most other European countries are not routinely circumcised for health reasons. Consequently, the practice is unfamiliar to the general public, even to most lawmakers voting on Wednesday, as [Social Democrat Bundestag member of Turkish descent] Aydan Ozoguz pointed out.

The Gray Lady’s sympathies were clearly with the supporters of circumcision. The lower court ruling that banned circumcision as being a form of child abuse:

proved an embarrassment to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, painfully aware that postwar Germany can ill afford to be seen as supporting such a dangerous message of intolerance.

This paragraph is problematic on many levels. It is an editorial assertion. The verb “proved” should be proved by reference to claims of embarrassment, whilst the claim that the Germans would best not appear to be anti-Semitic in light of the Nazi era should spring from the mouths of someone other than the reporter. Without a fuller exposition this paragraph leaves the reader thinking, “What really is behind German opposition to circumcision?

Turn to the NBC story written by Donald Snyder you can see the difference between adequate and great reporting. The article entitled “Circumcision to remain legal in Germany” provided the same political background and offering quotes from a number of MPs. It also addressed the religious freedom question from the perspective of Judaism and Islam. But in the same space as the New York Times it did a better job in conveying why this issue was important to supporters and opponents of circumcision.

While the Times noted the infrequency of circumcision in Germany, NBC took this angle further.

German society is highly secular. Religion is generally viewed as a relic from the past. This is especially true in what was formerly Communist East Germany, where atheism was the official doctrine for 44 years.

“The basic sentiment here is anti-religious,” said Sylke Tempel, editor-in-chief of Internationale Politik, a foreign policy journal published by the German Council of Foreign Affairs. “And Germans throw overboard anything that has to do with tradition.”

According to Tempel, the Cologne ruling was not a deliberate attack on Islam or Judaism but showed a total misunderstanding of how important circumcision is to both religions. TNS Emnid, a German polling organization, found in a July 2012 survey that 56 percent of Germans agree with the Cologne ruling.

Deirdre Berger, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, a Jewish advocacy organization, said that the Cologne ruling can be traced to a body of law and medical literature that has been accumulating over the past decade. This school of thought, based on little scientific evidence, holds that circumcision does irreversible physical damage and causes emotional trauma, a view held by the German Association of Pediatricians, which has called for a two-year moratorium on circumcisions. By contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization endorse circumcision for its medical benefits, particularly in fighting the spread of HIV in Africa.

These closing paragraphs from NBC provided context missing in the two Times pieces — making it far and away the best story of the three, I would argue. Now for the extra credit question.

Why do we go on so much about “religion ghosts” in the media, highlighting the absence of the faith angle in news reporting here at GetReligion? Yes, reporting on the reporting is what we do — but are we merely a bunch of cranks who have found a niche from where we can fling out sarcasm and snark at the passing parade of news reporting? Laying aside the issue of personal failings and character flaws — a topic that keeps our analysts gainfully employed — what drives the work of GetReligion is the quest for quality.

My approach to the stories I write for GetReligion is founded upon the belief that the journalist is an artist who is guided by moral precepts. The journalist has an obligation as a literary artist to chronicle, to create, to order, and thereby serve not merely personal and superficial truths but universal ones. This obligation to the truth is the goal of classical journalism. A journalist need not be conscious of the philosophical theories behind his profession any more than a driver need understand the laws of physics that propel his automobile — yet the obligation remains to speak the truth.

Many European newspapers do not see their task in this  light. Advocacy newspapers are guided by the truths of their ideologies and consciously and publicly present stories in the light of these principles. My criticisms of American newspapers have been that they are unaware of their biases. Whilst claiming to print all the news that’s fit to print, as often as not, the definition of “fit” is constricted by intellectual and ideological blinkers. And at other times, they just make a hash of it.

The two Times pieces mention the religious obligations of circumcision for Jews and Muslims, but it was NBC who fleshed the story out by placing circumcision within the religious/medical/philosophical context of German society.

Without this crucial bit of news from NBC, the reader is unlikely to get past the New York Times implicit assertion that German objections to circumcision had some sort of latent Nazi overtone to them. There may be something in this, but that is not the whole story.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. First printed in Get Religion.

Where have all the foreign correspondents gone?: Get Religion August 22, 2012 August 22, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Church of Myanmar, Free Speech, Get Religion, Politics.
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“Truth is true only within a certain period of time,” observed a spokesman for the Burma’s military junta in the aftermath of that country’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising, reported Emma Larkin in her 2004 political travelogue-cum-biography “Finding George Orwell in Burma”. “What was truth once may no longer be truth after many months or years.”

My mind turned to Burma and these musings on the nature of truth after reading Thomas Fuller’s solid story in the New York Times on the end of press censorship in Burma. Reading this piece also brought home the importance of having a correspondent in place that knows the territory, the players, the culture – a reporter who not only is in place, but who “gets it”. Compare the coverage in the New York Times with its story datelined Bangkok with that of the Los Angeles Times article written from California and you can see what I mean.

The LA Times opened its article with:

Journalists in Myanmar will no longer have to send their articles to state censors before publication, a landmark step announced Monday toward lifting restrictions on the press.

But reporters in the changing country still fear being punished for what they write. Free speech activists say other rules that clamp down on government criticism or touchy topics are still in place, inhibiting journalists from writing freely.

It followed with analysis, drawing quotes from scholars and Burmese activists outside of the country. On its face a nice, but thin story.

Compare it to the New York Times piece which opened with:

BANGKOK — The government of Myanmar said on Monday that it would no longer censor private publications, a move that journalists described as a major step toward media freedom in a country where military governments have tried for decades to control the flow of information.

The announcement was made to editors on Monday and posted on a government Web site. “All publications in Myanmar are exempt from the scrutiny of Press Scrutiny and Registration Department,” the government said in a terse statement.

It then moves to an analysis of the event, quoting Burmese journalists in Burma before moving to the close with context and further detail.

Like the democratization process itself in Myanmar, the government has scaled back censorship gradually. In June 2011, articles dealing with entertainment, health, children and sports were taken off the list of subjects requiring prior censorship. In December, economics, crime and legal affairs were removed. Education topics were taken off the list in March. The only two topics remaining on the list — religion and politics — were freed from censorship on Monday.

Like the New York Times, the Telegraph’s South Asia editor took an upbeat tone, but what the Times put in its last sentence the Telegraph put in its first:

Until yesterday all political and religious news had to be submitted to the government’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department for prior approval, but the requirement was dropped in what was hailed as another significant step in Burma’s fast-moving democratic reform process.

In the past twelve months, since democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi met former military leader President Thein Sein, the government has relaxed censorship and controls on trade unions, freed hundreds of political prisoners, and held a series of by-elections which were almost all won by the Nobel Laureate’s National League for Democracy and hailed as ‘free and fair.

Given that there has been a gradual relaxation of press restrictions over the past year, it makes sense that politics would be one of the last taboos. But why would religion reporting be banned?

The LA Times article does not mention the topic of religion at all, while the New York Times does not explain why religion reporting and not economics, for example, was banned. Why would a report on Burma’s parlous economic state be less of a threat to the regime than a report on a religious topic?

My assumption is that as Buddhist monks have been at the forefront of the pro-Democracy movement news about religion would be controlled by the state – but I have no knowledge on this point, and none of the articles address this. Nor is this likely to be something that falls within the catch-all of conventional wisdom about Burma – for until recently foreign reporters were banned from the country and its citizens were threatened with jail if they spoke with foreign reporters.

Why was religion so dangerous to the military junta? I can guess, but after reading these articles I do not know.

The New York Times however did a good job in capturing the excitement resident Burmese journalists felt. A joke current in Myanmar during the year Emma Larkin researched her book about George Orwell, who served as a colonial policeman in Burma during the 1920’s, was that “Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of ‘Burmese Days,’ ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.”

Larkin saw some truth in this joke noting that Orwell’s 1934 novel “Burmese Days” savaged British colonial rule; “Animal Farm” (1946) prophesied Burma’s “miserable experiment with socialism,” which transformed the country from one of the richest in Asia at the time of the left-wing military coup in 1962 to the one of the poorest today; while “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949) foresaw the transformation of the country into a society dominated by informers, doublespeak, political repression, torture and censorship.

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four” the protagonist Winston Smith works as a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, redacting history to conform to the party line of the present. Just as Winston Smith would “vaporize” dissidents from memory, until last year it was a crime in Burma to write the name of someone held to be an unperson, like pro-Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The tone of the New York Times piece better states, to my mind, the freedom felt by the Burmese, as does the Telegraph story. While skill in the craft of journalism plays its part, I also credit the high quality of these stories to the presence of Western reporters in the region.

This is now to often the exception rather than the rule. In an article entitled “How to Read Today’s Unbelievably Bad News” published by the Gatestone Institute, the Istanbul-based American journalist Claire Berlinski argues:

In-depth international news coverage in most of America’s mainstream news organs has nearly vanished. What is published is not nearly sufficient to permit the reader to grasp what is really happening overseas or to form a wise opinion about it. The phenomenon is non-partisan; it is as true for Fox News as it is for CNN.

Do look at this great piece by Ms. Berlinski — whose work I long have admired. It speaks to the reasons and consequences of the collapse of overseas reporting. Focusing on overseas religion reporting for GetReligion, I feel at times that I am working under a double disadvantage. The quantity and quality of international news coverage in U.S. and British newspapers has declined — and on top of that the few remaining foreign correspondents sometimes do not “get religion”.

First published in GetReligion.

BBC bias from Cuba: Get Religion, July 24, 2012 July 25, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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In my experience, the BBC does not ‘get religion’. I am not speaking of the reporters assigned to cover religion stories — they are a professional crew and are always worth reading. I find the problem with the BBC’s coverage arises when a religion angle appears in a non-religion story. More often than not the BBC is at sea when it comes to the faith. You can see this confusion in the BBC’s coverage of the death of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya.

The BBC story entitled “Cuba dissident ‘forced off road’ to death, says family” consists of 24 paragraphs, each one sentence long. It begins:

Family members of prominent Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, who died in a car crash on Sunday, say they believe his car had been forced off the road.

At a funeral mass attended by hundreds of people in Havana, Mr Paya’s son, Oswaldo, told the BBC that his father had received many death threats.

An official statement said the driver lost control as it drove on a road in eastern Granma province and hit a tree.

Mr Paya, 60, was one of Cuba’s main pro-democracy campaigners.

The story proceeds to offer details of the auto accident; the claim by the family that it was murder; a summary of his anti-Castro activism, his awards from European Human Rights organizations; and the funeral arrangements. The BBC notes:

Mr Paya is best-known as the founder of the Varela Project – a campaign to gather signatures in support of a referendum on laws guaranteeing civil rights.

And then offers one or two snippets about what might have motivated the man to stand against the Communist regime. The

Paragraph 13 gives us a hint:

Mr Paya was sent to a work camp in 1969 as punishment for his faith.

But it is not until paragraph 22 (of 24) that we learn that Oswaldo Paya was:

A devout Christian, Mr Paya was also the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, which campaigns for political change, civil rights and the release of political prisoners.

What sort of Christian Mr Paya was the BBC does not say. We may infer he was Roman Catholic as the story reports that his funeral was held at San Salvador Catholic Church. The photo the BBC used to illustrate this article may also be a give away as to the man’s beliefs — he is standing in front of a mural of Jesus Christ with hands raised to mid-chest — though obscured it could be a representation of the sacred heart of Jesus or of his giving a blessing.

Compare the BBC’s treatment of Mr Paya with the Los Angeles Times. The lede in its story entitled “Oswaldo Paya dies at 60; Cuban anti-Castro activist” begins:

Cuban activist Oswaldo Paya, who spent decades speaking out against the communist government of Fidel and Raul Castro and became one of the most powerful voices of dissent against their half-century rule, died Sunday in a car crash in Cuba. He was 60.

Paya and a Cuban man described by media as a fellow activist, Harold Cepero Escalante, died in an accident in La Gavina, just outside the eastern city of Bayamo, Cuban authorities said. A Spaniard and a Swede also riding in the car were injured.

Cuba’s International Press Center told the Associated Press that witnesses said the driver of the rental car lost control and struck a tree. Rosa Maria Paya, the dissident’s daughter, told CNN en Espanol that other witnesses said the car was run off the road by another vehicle. Police are investigating.

Paya, who drew strength from his Roman Catholic roots as he pressed for change in his homeland, continued to voice his opposition after Fidel Castro resigned due to illness in early 2008, calling the passing of the presidency to younger brother Raul a disappointment.

The LA Times story notes Paya became a dissident when he “founded the non-governmental Christian Liberation Movement, which emphasized peaceful, civic action.” It states Paya:

… gained international fame as the top organizer of the Varela Project, a signature-gathering drive asking authorities for a referendum on laws to guarantee civil rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.

… The Varela Project was seen as the biggest nonviolent campaign to change the system the elder Castro established after the 1959 Cuban revolution.

The LA Times article closes by stating:

Oswaldo Jose Paya Sardinas was born Feb. 29, 1952, the fifth of seven siblings in a Catholic family. An engineer by training, he was employed at a state enterprise that deals with surgical equipment. Survivors include his wife and three children.

Reading these two articles, which do you believe paints a better portrait of the man? The BBC pushes his faith all the way to the end of the story — mentioning in passing that he was religious. The LA Times places the man’s faith front and center, stating that it was his Catholic faith that led him into opposition against the Communist regime.

We see in these two stories a clash of sensabilities. For the LA Times, Paya could not be understood apart from his faith. For the BBC, the pertinence of his Catholic faith is not understood and added as a subordinate item to the main story.

Perhaps one could argue in defense of the BBC article that it led with the accusation of foul play — that Paya may have been murdered. It might be argued that his Catholicism was not the proximate cause of his suspicous death — and hence more time was devoted to his political work such as the Valera project.

Yet the LA Times also places the suspicious circumstances of Paya’s death high in the story. And by the way it links his politics and his faith a reasonable assumption is that if this was a political murder, exploring Paya’s motivation for his politics is necessary to the story. The BBC also appears to have missed the significance of the name of Paya’s civil rights project. Padre Felix Valera was a Cuban Roman Catholic priest who was forced to flee the island after he was sentenced to death for his agitation against slavery and Spanish political tyranny.

On 12 April 2012, the Sun-Sentinel reported Fr. Valera is currently in the process of canonization.

 It may have been Easter, not Christmas; but South Florida Catholics — especially the Cuban-Americans among them — got a gift when the church declared Father Felix Varela “venerable,” one of three steps toward possible sainthood.

Varela, a 19th century priest, philosopher and statesmen, was approved for the title by Pope Benedict XVI, reported the Archdiocese of Miami. The title is given to Catholics whose lives are considered virtuous and worthy of emulation.

As one measure of Varela’s regard in the United States, the announcement was shared on April 7 by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in New York and by Father Juan Rumin Dominguez at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami. The shrine not only has a statue of Varela, but a mural of Cuban patriots that is dominated by his face.

I am not saying the BBC made factual errors in this story. Rather the story it told was incomplete. The BBC appears tone deaf to the religious meaning and significance of words and to Cuban history. Nor is this a one-off mistake. When dealing with religion — apart from anthropologically tinged stories about non-Western faiths or deferential, often cringe-inducing stories about Islam — the BBC more often than not is incapable of reporting accurately. There is an institutional blindness against Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and Protestantism — no sympathy, no empathy, no understanding of what is going on or why.

The inability to understand the role faith played in the life and death of Oswaldo Paya and of Cuba is speaks poorly of the professionalism and rigor of BBC reporting. At best it is ignorance, at worst it is bias.

First printed in Get Religion.