5Q+1: Godbeat pro reflects on reporting inside Pakistan

Jaweed Kaleem, the Religion Newswriters Association’s 2013 Supple Religion Feature Writer of the Year, produces exceptional journalism on a regular basis.

Don’t be surprised if his latest story — in which he goes inside Pakistan to report on religious minorities — turns out to be one of the best religion news stories all year.

It’s a must read:

KARACHI, Pakistan — Every Sunday, thousands celebrate Mass at St. Peter’s, a three-floor, 21,000-square-foot Catholic church that’s the biggest in Pakistan. Dressed in their best tunics and loose cotton pants, worshippers sit barefoot in the pew-less building — a style adapted from nearby mosques — as they sing hymns to the sounds of drums and a piano. As the sun sets, a light shines in a 24-hour prayer room, something common in Western nations but a rarity here.

The success of St. Peter’s, which cost $3.8 million to build — making it the most expensive in the nation when it opened two years ago – has been hailed as a sign of progress for Christians and religious minorities. Yet beyond its bold size and growing attendance, the difficulties parishioners face stand out here as much as at any other non-Muslim house of worship in this overwhelmingly Islamic country. Guards are outside to protect worshippers from would-be suicide bombers and attackers. Prayers for recent Christian martyrs are said regularly during services. Priests use nonalcoholic wine or grape juice during Holy Communion, partly because it’s cheaper, but also to avoid inflaming Muslims who believe drinking is sinful.

Rather than copy and paste all 2,600 words, I asked Kaleem — the national religion reporter for The Huffington Post — if he’d respond to a few questions about this remarkable story.

What’s the inside scoop on this story? How did it come about?

Over the summer, I received a grant to do a foreign-based religion reporting project through the International Center for Journalists. Within ICFJ, this particular program was funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

As someone whose beat includes writing about death, dying, grief and loss, I initially wanted go to India to explore Hinduism and changing end-of-life traditions there. My visa was essentially denied because my parents are from Pakistan, so I had to scrap that plan and come up with a new one. I’m very interested in South Asia in general, so I decided to go to Pakistan, where one of the biggest religion stories is the rise of more conservative (Deobandi) Islam and the decline of freedoms for religious minorities, including Shiites.

Did you travel to Pakistan specifically for this story, and what was your experience as a journalist like there?

I went to Pakistan specifically to report on religious minorities. I had heard a few stories that had made international news about the climate for minorities, but I did not know specifically what I would find out or the article I’d end up writing.

I met with Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Christians (Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, evangelical, others), Ahmadis, atheists, Shiites and of course Sunnis in Karachi, Lahore and, to a lesser extent, Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

My experience as a journalist was mostly like that of any other foreign reporter anywhere else in the region. I used fixers part of the time. My trips were more planned and less spontaneous than they would be at home. But people were also incredibly interested in speaking with me and telling their stories.

How long did the reporting take? Was this one of those stories where the actual site visit was just the beginning of digging into the issue? Or did that occur before the trip?

I was in Pakistan for three weeks and spent the majority of that time reporting. That said, I had a lot of research and follow-up reporting to do when I returned to the U.S. Lucky for me, I speak some Urdu and Punjabi, though I’m far from perfect at those languages. Research occurred before, during and after.

I also have plenty I didn’t use in this article. There are possibly other stories to come. I haven’t finalized plans yet.

What kind of reaction have you received to the story, both from American readers and Pakistanis?

I’ve gotten generally positive reactions on both sides. A lot of Americans have said they had no idea there was such a diversity of religions in Pakistan or that there was such a thing as the blasphemy ordinances. People were also interested to read about interfaith efforts in the country. My article went live during the evening in Pakistan, so I’m waiting for late tonight (Monday) and tomorrow morning to hear more Pakistani reactions.

To get into real journalism inside baseball: You use a lot of links that provide great background on some of the facts you report. If you were writing for a print publication, would have have felt the need to provide fuller attribution? Or are the links more for extra reader value for those who might want to know more?

Yes, in print I would definitely need to attribute more in certain parts of the story. Online, it’s easier on the reader’s eye and makes more sense to link directly to one’s sources instead of having to repeat the “according to” or “this person or group said” lines over and over with every number, fact, etc. That said, there is still plenty of attribution in the story when I refer to facts, numbers and ideas.

Just because the piece is online doesn’t mean attribution is obsolete. As you said, links are also there in order to provide more value and context for the reader who wants to dive deeper into the issues presented.

On a personal level, where does this story rank for you? How satisfying was it to produce journalism of this magnitude?

This was my first piece reported from a different country, so that was an important accomplishment in that regard. I’m happy with the article, but I would say this story is far from telling the total picture of religious minorities in Pakistan. That would take years of reporting and a book or two or three. I’m also my worst critic, so I hope to do bigger and better pieces down the road covering religion in Pakistan and elsewhere.

IMAGE: Jaweed Kaleem visits a human rights organization in Karachi, Pakistan.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • The Ubiquitous

    I realize this post is about the interview and not about the article linked, but —

    Priests use nonalcoholic wine or grape juice during Holy Communion, partly because it’s cheaper, but also to avoid inflaming Muslims who believe drinking is sinful.

    Are you sure about this? Sure it isn’t mustum? Alcohol-free wine, so far as I know, is verboten. Are you sure it’s a Catholic church? And, if it is indeed alcohol-free wine, and if it is Catholic, are you missing maybe an angle of the story?

    If so, it would mean that they aren’t celebrating Mass at all, because the presence of alcoholic wine — mustum as an option, so says Wikipedia — is necessary for a valid celebration of Mass, not optional.

    It’s also possible this is a lie from the reporter to prevent retaliation against the community, in which case you’d be better off without saying anything. It’s also possible it’s a lie from the priest, I guess, but I’m only saying that to cover all the options.

    Maybe ask, too: Is it possible they reserve one species of the Eucharist and only distribute the other? That would make a lot more sense than non-alcoholic wine.

    • The Ubiquitous

      Just to clarify, again: Even if one species is reserved, both must be present for the Mass to be valid.

    • The Ubiquitous

      Mr. Kaleem very kindly e-mailed me in regards to this, and is doing more research on this detail.

      His diligence is very much appreciated. Kudos to him and the GetReligion team.


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