A mere 1 million 20th century Christian martyrs? (updated)

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Every now and then, a journalist gets pulled into a serious error when covering a speech or some other form of public presentation of complicated material.

It happens. It’s especially disturbing when the speaker — perhaps a person of great authority — makes an error and the reporter is in the position of having to quote the bad information or to challenge the information in print. Awkward.

However, it appears that The Baltimore Sun needs to run an immediate correction after this morning’s coverage of Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s final address as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here is the context of what almost certainly is a horrible and painful error.

“Painful”? Yes, especially if there are any Orthodox Armenians, Russians, Egyptians, Syrians or Romanians (I could make this list longer with ease) who still read this particular newspaper. Frankly, I know very few who are still subscribers.

Here is the top of the story, including the quote I am questioning:

At a time when the nation’s top Roman Catholic leaders have been making headlines with their stands on religious liberty and immigration reform, Cardinal Timothy Dolan opened this year’s convention of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by focusing his attention beyond American borders.

Actually, this lede is misleading. It’s clear that Dolan’s emphasis was on religious liberty AROUND THE WORLD, including the United States. Let’s move on:

Catholics and other Christians are facing so much violent persecution around the world today that the 21st century could accurately be termed “a new age of martyrs,” Dolan said Monday as he addressed church leaders gathered at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore.

More than a million people have been killed solely due to their faith in Jesus Christ since the year 2000, he said — more than suffered such a fate during the entire 20th century.

What was that again? There were a million Christian martyrs — or fewer than that — in the 20th century?

What about the Armenian genocide alone? That’s a controversial issue, but you will frequently see claims that 1.2 million or more believers died in that wave of persecution.

And what about the persecution of the church in Russia in the decades before and after the establishment of the Communist regime?

Once again, statistics vary widely for the number of Russian Orthodox bishops, priests and believers who died as martyrs. However, most academic studies put the number somewhere between 10 and 20 million killed. And what about Romania and the rest of Eastern Europe? What about previous rounds of persecution in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, etc.? And I in no way mean to imply that the Orthodox in these lands were the only Christians to die for their faith in the troubled 20th century! No way. I am simply noting some obvious cases.

I have searched to see if other media outlets have quoted Cardinal Dolan making this error.

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Got news? Religious freedom and India

indian20churches_p923123As you would imagine, I have — since my return from Bangalore and New Delhi — been especially sensitive to news reports with India datelines. At the same time, I am always interested in coverage of human rights issues, especially those linked to religious freedom and the rights of minority groups. Call me an old-fashioned liberal.

Thus, this news report caught my eye. We’ll discuss the source in a moment. For now, just read the exerpt:

India has rebuffed a U.S. government watchdog group tasked with monitoring religious liberty abroad by denying entry visas for the group’s planned visit.

A delegation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom intended to discuss conditions with officials in India, which has seen recent outbreaks of violence against religious minorities, especially Christians. The Indian embassy in Washington did not deliver the visas necessary for the delegation’s June 12 departure, however, and has not offered any official explanation for the decision. …

India is the only democracy to have blocked a visit by USCIRF, which had been requesting entry since 2001. More than 20 other countries, including Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, have allowed the commission to enter.

Now, this is amazing, even stunning news. It is, of course, linked the controversial 2007 riots in the state of Orissa. Click here for some GetReligion material on that, including a New York Times report that drew protests from Hindu groups.

So why were the visas denied?

The Times of India reported June 17 that prominent Hindu leader Shankaracharya Jayendra Sarawati had demanded that USCIRF not be allowed into the country, labeling the organization an “intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India.”

The American branch of the Hindu World Council also had bristled at the idea of a USCIRF visit to India, calling it “incomprehensible” and accusing the United States of lumping India, whose constitution guarantees freedom of religion, with countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Cuba.

Now, if you search Google news for the terms “religious,” “freedom,” “India” and “visas” you will find quite a bit of coverage of this. After all, there is all kinds of on-the-record material available about this shocking turn of events, both here in the United States and, obviously, in mainstream news in India.

But when you get your Google results, you will notice that all of the coverage is on the other side of the world, when it comes to mainstream media. And here in America, this seems to be another one of those strange cases where human-rights issues linked to religion somehow fall into that strange nowhere land called “conservative news.”

The report quoted above, after all, is of a major U.S. government agency. But the report comes from Baptist Press.

Did I miss mainstream coverage elsewhere?

Just asking.

New York Times is anti-Hindu?

harvesting souls of indiaThe Hindu American Foundation is very upset with the New York Times because of its ongoing coverage of anti-Christian violence in the Orissa State in eastern India, leading to a series of three letters calling for coverage that focuses more attention on the role of Christian missionaries in that region.

The latest letter makes the following comments about a recent Times article by Somini Sengupta that ran with the blunt headline, “Hindu Threat to Christians: Convert or Flee.”

As Hindu Americans, we unequivocally condemn and repudiate all of the violence consuming Orissa today. That the New York Times would engage in blatant, inflammatory race-baiting with the front-page headline above is shocking. If the intention is to spuriously allege that marauding Hindus across India are contemporary actors emulating the Crusades or the Islamic conquests — then mission accomplished! …

The tragedy unfolding in Orissa state results from the venomous amalgam of the Swami’s murder, and Hindu radicals in the area inflamed by evangelicals blaspheming Hinduism as they seek to meet quotas of new converts in a wild west battle for souls. Pluralism and respect for the tribals’ indigenous Hindu traditions became the first casualty that opened the door to the madness seen today.

While the focus seems to be on the work of evangelical missionaries, Hindu wrath has hit Catholic leaders and churches as well. Here is the latest summary material from the Times coverage:

India, the world’s most populous democracy and officially a secular nation, is today haunted by a stark assault on one of its fundamental freedoms. Here in eastern Orissa State, riven by six weeks of religious clashes, Christian families … say they are being forced to abandon their faith in exchange for their safety. The forced conversions come amid widening attacks on Christians here and in at least five other states across the country, as India prepares for national elections next spring.

The clash of faiths has cut a wide swath of panic and destruction through these once quiet hamlets fed by paddy fields and jackfruit trees. Here in Kandhamal, the district that has seen the greatest violence, more than 30 people have been killed, 3,000 homes burned and over 130 churches destroyed. …

Across this ghastly terrain lie the singed remains of mud-and-thatch homes. Christian-owned businesses have been systematically attacked. Orange flags (orange is the sacred color of Hinduism) flutter triumphantly above the rooftops of houses and storefronts.

Some facts are clear. In August, the popular Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati — a leader in efforts to oppose Christian missionaries — was attacked and hacked to death. Police blame Maoist guerrillas. Hindu leaders — the Hindu American Foundation included — insist that the Maoists were, in fact, converts to Christianity. As the Times article explains, the violence is also rooted in economic tensions between two tribes, the Panas (largely Christian) and the Kandhas (Hindus).

In one lurid event that has drawn worldwide news coverage, a nun said that she was repeatedly raped. The attack was also witnessed by a priest, who was severely beaten — but gave interviews from his hospital bed. Police also, after medical examinations, have agreed with the nun’s account.

This leads us to the other side of the story, as reported by the Times:

Given a chance to explain the recent violence, Subash Chauhan, the state’s highest-ranking leader of Bajrang Dal, a Hindu radical group, described much of it as “a spontaneous reaction.” He said in an interview that the nun had not been raped but had had regular consensual sex.

On Sunday evening, as much of Kandhamal remained under curfew, Mr. Chauhan sat in the hall of a Hindu school in the state capital, Bhubaneshwar, beneath a huge portrait of the swami. A state police officer was assigned to protect him round the clock. He cupped a trilling Blackberry in his hand.

Mr. Chauhan denied that his group was responsible for forced conversions and in turn accused Christian missionaries of luring villagers with incentives of schools and social services. He was asked repeatedly whether Christians in Orissa should be left free to worship the god of their choice. “Why not?” he finally said, but he warned that it was unrealistic to expect the Kandhas to politely let their Pana enemies live among them as followers of Jesus. …

Besides, he said, “they are Hindus by birth.”

There are many more sickening details in this report that are sure to upset the Hindu American Foundation and others who believe that their side of this story is being given short shrift.

There are, of course, factual questions that remain unsettled about these crimes. One can only hope that the Times and other publications (even Newsweek) will continue to follow the police investigation into the swami’s murder and the crimes that followed it. But can they also find a way to protect India’s tiny 2 percent Christian minority?

ILLUSTRATION: Hindu drawing depicting Christian missionaries “harvesting souls” of Hindu believers.

Why we need foreign bureaus

orissa riots 01Nothing makes you miss the former prevalence of overseas news bureaus like a really fantastic foreign service report. Emily Wax, who has moved from Africa to India, filed a personal but newsy account of the violence ravaging the state of Orissa.

Here’s how she sets the scene:

Babita Nayak was cooking lunch for her pregnant sister when a mob of Hindu extremists wielding swords, hammers and long sticks rampaged through their village, chanting “India is for Hindus! Convert or leave!”

The men, wearing saffron headbands, ransacked dozens of huts, searching for cash and looting bicycles and livestock. They torched the village church, leaving behind burned Bibles in the local Kui language and torn-down posters of Jesus. “Christianity is a foreign religion,” they shouted over bullhorns, according to eyewitness and police reports.

Hearing that such attacks were spreading in the mist-shrouded hills of this destitute part of Orissa state, the sisters fled with hundreds of neighbors, trekking through forest land. After two days, they reached this crowded makeshift relief camp, set up on the campus of a dank high school, 15 miles from their village.

Wax goes into great deal, putting the story in context of the more common violence between Muslims and Hindus. Even with how bad things are for Christians in Orissa right now, it’s been bad off and on for the past 10 years. There was the Christian missionary who was burned alive with his two sons in 1999. Last Christmas, there were four deaths and hundreds of Christian churches and homes burned. In recent weeks, some 4,000 Christian homes and 115 churches have been destroyed. Between 18 and 35 Christians were killed and 20,000 people have been displaced:

The violence is driven by rising anger over Christian conversions — members of the faith here are a mix of Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics — and economic tensions between communities, according to government and church officials.

She goes on to explain how even the economic tensions have a big religion angle — the Hindu caste system is deeply threatened by conversions of the lower castes to Christianity:

Conversions to Christianity have been happening fast among impoverished tribal communities in Kandhamal, a remote district with few links to the outside world or state services. The Christian population here, largely made up of traditionally nature-worshiping ethnic groups, has swelled from 6 percent in 1971 to 27 percent today, according to government census data.

Some people who convert often get better access to schools and health clinics run by Western Christian groups. But they lose their official status with the government as members of a disadvantaged caste and with it jobs and university seats reserved under the affirmative action program.

Christians among one such ethnic group, the Panos, have recently been agitating to continue to collect those benefits anyway. Some Hindu activists see this request as ridiculous. They say that Christians have rejected the Hindu-sanctioned caste system and should not get the benefits.

The entire story really must be read. Wax does a fantastic job of folding more and more perspective into each paragraph. She quotes Pope Benedict XVI and national leaders. She talks about events that sparked the violence. And yet she puts all of this context into a very human story. After introducing readers to Shyamala Nayak, the 7-months pregnant sister from the beginning of the piece, she ends with an anecdote about Hindu women marching outside a refugee camp demanding some of the food being offered to the Christians:

The camp seems barely able to manage as it is. It’s so crowded that children sleep on the floor of outdoor latrines. Most people have nowhere to shower and no fresh clothing.

Hearing the chanting women march by, Shyamala wiped her nose with her unwashed sari. She started to cry, again. Her feet are swollen and bloody, her stomach heavy. And she has a recurring nightmare.

“I am falling and falling down a big ditch. I see my newborn baby below me,” she said, weeping. “And it is dead.”

A heartbreaking story, beautifully told. Which is probably why she’s such an acclaimed reporter.

Mild case of Christian-versus-Hindu violence

orissa riotsPlease read the following section of a report from the Catholic News Service, which includes material from a hospital bed interview with Father Thomas Chellen, the 55-year-old director of the Catholic pastoral center at Konjamendi in the Indian state of Orissa:

Following the Aug. 23 murder of a Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, by Maoist extremists, Father Chellen said Hindu mobs started attacking Christian centers in Kandhamal, the district where the slain leader was based. …

“They began our crucifixion parade,” said Father Chellen. The gang of about 50 armed Hindus “beat us up and led us like culprits along the road” to the burned pastoral center. “There they tore my shirt and started pulling off the clothes of the nun. When I protested, they beat me hard with iron rods. Later, they took the sister inside (and) raped her while they went on kicking and teasing me, forcing (me) to say vulgar words,” said the priest who has cuts, bruises and swollen tissue all over his body and stitches on his face.

“Later both of us, half-naked, were taken to the street, and they ordered me to have sex with the nun in public, saying nuns and priests do it. As I refused, they went on beating me and dragged us to the nearby government office. Sadly, a dozen policemen were watching all this,” he said.

Angry at his plea to the police for help, the mob beat the bleeding priest again.

This situation is totally out of control and you can find more reports on the violence at this weblog — Orissa Burning.

Or you can go read a very, very low-key New York Times report that skated right by me in the online version of the newspaper. Perhaps it was that strong, passionate headline: “Faiths Clash, Displacing Thousands in East India.”

There we read the following. Now tell me if you think the Times buried the lede on this one.

At least 3,000 people, most of them Christians, are living in government-run relief camps after days of Christian-versus-Hindu violence in eastern India, government officials said.

The government said that many people were also living in the jungle without any shelter or security because of the tensions, which erupted in violence after a Hindu leader was killed Saturday. At least 10 people, most of them Christians, have been killed since.

Christian community leaders say that at least 1,000 homes of Christians have been set on fire since Monday, rendering more than 5,000 people homeless. Many of those living in the jungle were without food or water, said the Rev. Dibakar Parichha, a priest at the Roman Catholic church in Phulbani, a town in Orissa State. Father Parichha said that about 90 places of worship, including small churches and prayer halls, had been burned down. Local officials said the figure was about 20.

The violence has occurred in Kandhamal, a district in Orissa State that has a history of communal and ethnic clashes. The latest conflict started Saturday night, when unidentified armed men stormed a Hindu school in Kandhamal and killed the Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his followers.

The police suspected that Maoist rebels were responsible. But Hindus blamed Christians.

Now, if you read that this was “Christian-versus-Hindu violence” and then you read that the riots began with the death of a Hindu leader, what would you assume? Let’s see, that would be Christians attacking Hindus and a Hindu leader was killed, thus leading to violence in which Hindus responded to the violence against them.

Read the above passage again. Way, way later we find out that the Hindu leader was, apparently, killed by “Maoist rebels.” The world does not contain many Catholic nuns and priests who are “Maoist rebels.” The Times reports that “police suspected” that Maoists did the deed. Catholic News Service reports this murder as fact.

Instead of offering a hat tip to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher on this one, let me share a piece of his post on this — in my opinion — bizarre little story in our culture’s newspaper of record.

Ah, yes, “faiths clash;” what’s next for the Times, reporting a gang rape by saying, “Sexes clash”? I’ve noticed this over the years when the MSM reports on violence members of other religions inflict on a Christian minority in a faraway land: they tend to present it as Just One of Those Things — that is, as if there really were no victims, only clashing parties. I noticed it six years ago, when Baptist medical missionaries serving the poor in Shia-controlled Lebanon were murdered by Muslims. The reporting I read framed it as a “faiths clash” deal. You know, Muslims and Christians are fighting, who can say who’s right, yadda yadda…

In a way, I think the opening of the Times story is worse than that — it suggests the exact opposite of what appears to be happening. Again, the story says this is a case of “Christian-versus-Hindu violence.”

I will try to keep an eye on this one, seeking reporting that documents the role of the Maoists in triggering this. If there has been violence by Christians, in response, it would be good to see that documented, too.

However, I will end with a final quote from the Catholic News Service report:

Asked about the how the nun coped with the trauma, Father Chellen said: “We had no option and were simply following their commands. We resisted as much as we could. This is like being tortured for Christ.”

Photo: From the World Prout Assembly website, a photo from earlier riots in the region.

When controversy speaks for itself (updated)

jesuskrishnaLos Angeles Times reporter K. Connie Kang had another interesting story on the Godbeat or, in this case, the gods beat. Yes, the Episcopalians are involved.

It seems that the Diocese of Los Angeles hosted an interfaith service with Hindus at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral there on Saturday. Kang simply reported it without any analysis, which I think is good for an initial story on what turned out to be a rather controversial event. She described how a Hindu nun blew into a conch shell to begin the Indian Rite Mass. A band from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (aka Hare Krishna) chanted during the service.

The article is full of fascinating quotes from participants and observers:

During the service, the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, issued a statement of apology to the Hindu religious community for centuries-old acts of religious discrimination by Christians, including attempts to convert them.

“I believe that the world cannot afford for us to repeat the errors of our past, in which we sought to dominate rather than to serve,” Bruno said in a statement read by the Rt. Rev. Chester Talton. “In this spirit, and in order to take another step in building trust between our two great religious traditions, I offer a sincere apology to the Hindu religious community.”

The bishop also said he was committed to renouncing “proselytizing” of Hindus.

The comment went over well with the Hindu leaders who were honored during the service. I’m not sure how it went over with the Christians in Orissa and other Indian states. Kang also did a good job with play-by-play coverage during another part of the service:

All were invited to Holy Communion, after the Episcopal celebrant elevated a tray of consecrated Indian bread, and deacons raised wine-filled chalices.

In respect to Hindu tradition, a tray of flowers was also presented. Christians and Hindus lined up for communion, but since Orthodox Hindus shun alcohol, they consumed only the bread.

The sermon emphasized commonalities between Christianity and Hinduism, according to Kang.

Last week I noted that stories fail to explain why the Episcopal Church is so aggressive about property issues but not doctrinal issues. And with this story we have yet another example of why this needs to be explained by reporters.

For instance, Canon I.17.7 of the Episcopal Church (.pdf link here — see page 55) explicitly prohibits administering Holy Communion to unbaptized persons:

Sec. 7. No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.

And yet this service, hosted by none other than the Los Angeles Diocese, clearly offered communion to unbaptized people. Now let’s go to property disputes. The Episcopal Church’s argument for why it should retain the property in the disputes with the departed parishes is on the basis of another canon (Canon I.7.4 — page 40 of the previous link):

All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. The existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remains a part of, and subject to, this Church and its Constitution and Canons.

Wouldn’t a story examining the disparity between which canons are enforced and which canons are not enforced be interesting? Put another way, why are some bishops free to violate some canons while other bishops are threatened with punishment if they permit their dioceses to even vote about whether to realign? I’m sure the Episcopal authorities have their reasons, but we need to hear what those are. Why aren’t reporters asking them to explain how this works?

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times made a major, major, major correction to this story. So major, in fact, that we may have to look at this in an another post:


Hindu-Episcopal service: An article in Sunday’s California section about a joint religious service involving Hindus and Episcopalians said that all those attending the service at St. John’s Cathedral in Los Angeles were invited to Holy Communion. Although attendees walked toward the Communion table, only Christians were encouraged to partake of Communion. Out of respect for Hindu beliefs, the Hindus were invited to take a flower. Also, the article described Hindus consuming bread during Communion, but some of those worshipers were Christians wearing traditional Indian dress.

I’ve personally seen communion offered to non-Christians at Episcopal services in Washington and San Francisco. Others have publicly attested to the same — in the Los Angeles diocese and other locations. And, therefore, the questions I posed at the end of this post remain.

But, oh man, is this a major error. I’d love some more context for how this correction came about and where things fell apart. Please let us know if you know anything.

Becoming Bobby Jindal

OmOne of the nastiest campaign tricks in recent memory was the Louisiana Democratic Party’s attempt to derail the candidacy of Roman Catholic Bobby Jindal by quoting — out of context — statements he’d written about Protestantism. The thing I remember about the attacks is that Jindal seemed surprisingly theologically literate for a politician. Jindal explained his adult conversion from Hinduism in the New Oxford Review and the Democratic Party quoted some of it to give the impression that Jindal was a bigot. I know it’s Louisiana and all, but that’s cold.

Robert Travis Scott, writing in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, has a really interesting and well-researched story on Jindal’s religious conversion. It also has a really weird angle, although I think it works: what Jindal’s Hindu relatives in India think of his conversion. The gist of the piece is that Jindal’s conversion was aided by the open-mindedness of Hinduism combined with the lack of a significant Hindu presence in his home state of Louisiana:

His relatives’ perspective reflects a tolerant side of a religion that for thousands of years has survived philosophical transformations, rebellious counter-religions and numerous sects, only to claim them all in time as part of the infinitely flexible cosmos of Hindu faith.

“If you find and see that you get more peace of mind, more solace, in that religion, then why not change religion?” said Jindal’s uncle Subhash Gupta, a practicing Hindu. “In India, many people change to the Christian religion. And I can understand that some people maybe find Christian religion more satisfying to their needs.”

One of the religious aspects that Scott gets is that Hinduism is sort of an umbrella for differing belief systems. But I’m not sure that he accurately portrays the variety contained within Hinduism. India is officially secular but overwhelmingly Hindu. For the most part religious minorities are tolerated by Hindus. However, Hindu nationalists — who control some of the regions of India — are violently opposed to religious conversion and persecute Muslims and Christians. Not all Hindus are equally tolerant, in other words. But for a feature in a mainstream newspaper, Scott does a great job of introducing readers to some of what distinguishes Hinduism:

Jindal’s parents, Amar and Raj Jindal, are practicing Hindus and emphasize that they are monotheists. Hindus say they believe in one God, who also takes the form of a trinity.

In addition, Hinduism recognizes thousands, and by some counts millions, of deities who are considered incarnations, or avatars, of the one God, sent to Earth to right some wrong.

Few Hindus worship Jesus Christ, but they might easily accept the idea that he was an avatar. Or they might draw a parallel between their worship of various Hindu deities and the prayers that Catholics say to saints as couriers to God.

Scott describes various pieties, including choosing deities as personal guides to understanding spiritual truths and the reading of Vedas. Then he questions whether the variety of scripture in Hinduism and the lack of systematic theology influenced Jindal’s departure from Hinduism. Further, Scott suggests, Jindal may have never left Hinduism if it were practiced more widely in Baton Rouge:

Like his parents, Bobby Jindal grew up in a world in which Hindu religion was presented as a meaningful but broad-minded system of faith. But unlike them, Jindal did not grow up in a world where Hindu temples abound, where the home of almost every neighbor contains a small shrine and where typical conversations about weddings, food and social graces are laced with the vocabulary of the Hindu belief system.

The article limits its scope to how Hindus in India feel about Jindal’s conversion. It might have been interesting to have gotten more perspective from Jindal or other converts to Christianity — particularly to provide a bit more balance to Scott’s suggestions. Still, a very interesting article and much more substantive about Hinduism than we normally see.