Is Reuters denying Holocaust denial?

Finding the line between sensation and responsible reporting can be a difficult task. There are times when the subject of a news story will say something outrageous that causes a reporter to lay down his pen and ask, “Did you really mean that?” Over the top quotes can make a story pop — providing better placement in a newspaper and a brief “buzz” for the story. It can also distort the narrative, changing the story from the issues under discussion to comments about the issues.

I’ve played this game. When writing for the Jerusalem Post a few years back I submitted a story about a call for divestment from Israel made by the General Synod of the Church of England. The article moved from the back of the newspaper to the front page after the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey told me the vote made him “ashamed to be an Anglican” — this comment ensured the story was a three-day wonder.

On another occasions I have omitted comments from a story that were equally strong — but would have distorted the story by changing the focus from the issue to offensive or dumb comments made by one of the subjects of the story.

A recent Reuters story on comments made by a Hamas spokesman following the visit to Auschwitz by an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas brought this issue to mind. Should Reuters have given the complete quote? Should Reuters have mentioned the religious angle lying beneath the story? Let me show you what I mean. “Hamas slams Palestinian visit to ‘alleged’ Holocaust site” begins:

The Hamas Islamist group in charge of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday denounced a Palestinian official’s visit to the site of a Nazi death camp in Poland, and called the Holocaust in which 6 million European Jews perished an “alleged tragedy.”

Ziad al-Bandak, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who governs in the occupied West Bank, had made a rare visit by a Palestinian official to the site of the Auschwitz death camp late last month.

“It was an unjustified and unhelpful visit that served only the Zionist occupation,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas. Hamas rejects Israel’s existence and interim peace accords reached by Abbas’ more moderate Fatah group with Israel.

Barhoum further called Bandak’s visit to Auschwitz, a camp where the Nazis killed 1.5 million people, most of them Jews but also other Polish citizens, during World War Two, as “a marketing of a false Zionist alleged tragedy.”

He said he saw this as coming “at the expense of a real Palestinian tragedy,” alluding to Israel’s control over territory where Palestinians live and seek to establish a state.

The article continues with mention of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and the political split within the PA between the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah controlled West Bank. The story closes by saying:

Bandak’s visit to Auschwitz, where he laid a wreath at the invitation of a group working for tolerance in Poland, was a rare one by a Palestinian to the death camp site. Muslim officials from other countries have also paid respects there.

Last week the AP reported on plans for the trip and included the detail that Bandak was a Christian.

Ziad al-Bandak, a Christian who advises Abbas on Christian affairs, visited prisoner blocs, gas chambers and a crematorium in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, which the Germans built and operated in southern Poland during their World War II occupation of the country.

Does this nugget advance the story, or does it polarize it by adding a faith dimension to Holocaust denial and Anti-Semitism?

And, the invaluable MEMRI news service provided the full quote from the Hamas spokesman, which was much stronger than the version printed by Reuters. The report entitled “PA Official’s Auschwitz Visit Evokes Enraged Responses from Hamas” said:

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said: “The visit helped Israel to spread the lie of the Holocaust, and does not serve the Palestinian cause. It has been clearly proven that the Israeli narrative [of the Holocaust] is fraudulent. [The Israelis] exaggerate what happened in order to garner international sympathy, which for years has come at the expense of the Palestinians.”

The “lie of the Holocaust” quote is extraordinary. Its omission lowers the temperature of the story. But does the omission change the story?

The traditional school of Anglo-American journalism seeks to present the world as it is, seeking to separate the reporter’s worldview from the narrative. But is that possible? In the example I offered from my own work, I demonstrated how I sought to exercise editorial judgment in preparing a story. I led with the ashamed quote in the  JPost story because I did not believe it was dumb — but others might say that it was a foolish statement that distracted from the underlying story.

Omitting mention of the Christian faith of the Palestinian statesman and downplaying the severity of the Hamas quotes, Reuters chose to exercise its editorial judgment — letting us know what it believed was important. I disagree with this judgment. To my mind the faith of Ziad al-Bandak and his position as an adviser on Christian Affairs is significant to the story as it sets up the underlying split between Hamas and Fatah — Christians are under the gun in Gaza and reports place the blame on Hamas.

I would also argue that Reuters sanitized Barhoum’s words. A story about reactions to the visit would not have been distorted by Barhoum’s extraordinary, delusional — some would say evil — comments. What say you Get Religion readers? Did Reuters let down its readers? Should it have led with the “lie of the Holocaust” or was it right to downplay these sentiments? Is Reuters denying Hamas Holocaust denial?

Forgiving monsters: The Dutroux Case

One of the most notorious criminal cases in modern European history has returned to the public eye, dominating the front pages and leaders of Belgium’s newspapers. A judge has agreed to release Michelle Martin from prison on the condition she enter the Convent of the Les Soeurs Clarisses de Malonne (Poor Clares) and remain under police supervision.

The news of the parole has prompted an appeal by state prosecutors, public protests, outrage in the press — and the mayor of Namur has ordered police to guard the convent. Why such a fuss? The opening paragraphs of a solid AP story tells us why.

BRUSSELS — The ex-wife of a notorious pedophile who aided her husband’s horrific abuse and murder of young girls – and who let two children starve to death while her husband was in jail – was approved Tuesday for early release from prison, infuriating the victims’ parents and reopening a dark chapter in Belgian history.

Michelle Martin, who is now 52, received a 30-year prison term in 2004 for not freeing girls her then-husband Marc Dutroux held captive behind a secret door in their decrepit, dirty basement in Marcinelle, 40 miles south of Brussels.

Dutroux, 55, is serving a life term for kidnapping, torturing and abusing six girls in 1995 and 1996, and murdering four of them.

During those years, Dutroux also spent four months in jail for theft, leaving it to his wife to feed Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, a pair of friends imprisoned in the basement. Martin let the girls starve to death. They were 8 years old.

Bumbling police work and claims by Dutroux that he was part of a wider pedophile network that included politicians, judges and police officials prompted public protests in Belgium and nearly led to the fall of the government. King Albert intervened and ordered a reorganization of the criminal justice system. The Dutroux affair had a profound effect on Belgium’s national psyche, some have argued, damaging public trust in the country’s civil institutions. Sixteen years into her 30 year sentence, Michelle Martin may be leaving prison to enter a convent.

While this has been a gruesome true crime, political intrigue and corruption story, it has now become a religious liberty story with faith taking center stage in this drama. The AP article closes with these paragraphs:

Under the terms of her release, Martin will have to remain at the convent and be assigned a task daily. Moreau, Martin’s lawyer, said it took some time for the convent to agree to have her live there. But in the end they realized that no one else would take her in, he said.

“They accepted because their vocation is to welcome people nobody wants,” he said.

The convent’s decision to give refuge to Michelle Martin has not been warmly received by the Belgian press, some of whom cite the clergy sexual abuse scandal as evidence of its institutional failings. The coverage of the Michelle Martin parole is a great example of the strengths and weaknesses of European advocacy style journalism. Working from the same fact base, the European press can give widely diverse interpretations of events. While you may not find a single truth in the diversity of accounts, a European reader will come away much better informed of the events and issues at play than an American reader.

For example, in its articles the liberal national daily Le Soir has taken an outraged stance. Its editorial argued:

There is great doubt, if not total disbelief about the chosen place of [Martin's] reintegration into society. .. . Certainly, the gesture of the Poor Clares is a remarkably generous. But a convent, cut off from the world and managed by women who have voluntary withdrawn from real life and any professional activity, should become a place for rehabilitation is breathtaking. That the Church – which has not shown great courage or clarity in recent years when confronted with deviant behavior – will serve as the monitor and guarantor  of Martin’s reintegration adds to the disorder.

Objections to her release were founded upon a belief that Michelle Martin was the incarnation of absolute evil — “l’incarnation du mal absolu” — the conservative national daily La Libre Belgique  reported. But no person was beyond redemption, the newspaper argued, saying the law must not “deprive anyone, not even the most heinous criminal, of any hope of getting out of jail. To challenge this principle based upon hatred of the criminal would be unreasonable.”

The Sudpresse‘s editor disagreed, saying this was “un impossible pardon”. The Belgian judiciary in complicity with the Catholic Church had committed a coup against the Belgian people: “mauvais coup (de la justice belge), perpétré avec la complicité de l’Eglise catholique”.

However, De Standaard has endorsed the church’s intervention. Its editor said the news of the parole had led him to experience two feelings at the same time: horror over the crimes of Michelle Martin and respect for the Catholic convictions of the Poor Clares.

De Standaard printed a letter from the Abbess of Malonne, where the sisters explained their decision to give Michelle Martin a home. They stated they had agreed to take her in as she has no family and no half-way house or other institution would have her due to the notoriety of her crimes. They stated that while she would be residing at the convent under the supervision of the judicial authorities, she would not be a entering the order but would be the guest of the Poor Clares. And, they felt it was their Christian duty to act as they did.

Nous avons la profonde conviction qu’enfermer définitivement le déviant dans son passé délictueux et l’acculer à la désespérance ne serait utile à personne et serait au contraire une marche en arrière pour notre société. Michèle Martin est un être humain capable, comme nous tous, du pire comme du meilleur.

Ideology plays its part in the coverage of this story. Self-identified Catholic newspapers have stressed the theme of penitence and redemption. Some secular newspapers have objected to the intrusion of Catholic sensibilities into the parole of a “monster”, but others have advanced ethical theories of crime and punishment. No one newspaper encompasses all of these views, but collectively the debate over the parole of Michelle Martin is an example of the best of the European press.

Can Michelle Martin be forgiven? Is parole a form of forgiveness? Should the church be accorded a custodial role in a secular state? All great questions. What say you?

Knife and faith in Italy

The Obama administration is not the only government to have come under fire from its critics for abusing the religious liberty of its citizens. Italy has refused to recognize Sikhism as a religion and denied Sikhs the right to practice their faith reports La Stampa, the Turin-based Italian daily newspaper.

A great religious liberty story, but is it true? The framing of the 23 July 2012 article entitled “Il pugnale sacro che fa litigare Italia e sikh” by La Stampa might well cause the reader to assume that the Minister of the Interior ‘s decision not to carve out a religious exemption from the country’s weapons laws to allow Sikhs to carry in public a Kirpan — a ceremonial dagger — served as a ban to the public profession of faith for its adherents. Yet, the story neglects to say what non-recognition by the state means. Nor are we told how this took place.

There is much cry and no wool in this article. No context and only one side of the dispute is offered. Let me walk you through the story and show you what I mean.

Worldcrunch, an invaluable website that has translations and paraphrases of non-English language news stories, has recast the lede for the La Stampa story from:

E’ un pericolo andare in giro con un coltellino da boyscout o con una delle piccole lame multiuso svizzere? Per il ministero dell’Interno in caso di questioni di culto si tratta di armi improprie e per questo ha negato ai sikh in Italia il riconoscimento della loro religione.


Should a boy scout walking around with a Swiss-army knife be considered dangerous? Should Swiss-army knives be banned altogether? Well, for the Italian interior minister, if the small knife is carried for religious reasons, then the answer is yes.

Last May, after years of court cases and appeals, the interior minister announced that it was refusing to recognize Sikhism as a religion, on the grounds that the kirpan, the small ceremonial dagger that Sikhs must carry at all times, is dangerous.

That is not quite what the lede says in Italian — but the gist is correct, and for consistencies sake I will work from the Worldcrunch translation. The article is laid out in traditional style, with comments from a leader of the Sikh community followed by a those of an Italian politician who has tried to intercede on behalf of the Sikhs. The politician’s encomium for his Sikh constituents is priceless:

” … They are the pillars of the production of the Parmesan cheese, just to give an example,” says Andrea Sarubbi, a member of parliament with the center-left Democratic Party …

However, the Sikh contribution to the Italian semi-hard cheese industry appears not to have persuaded the government to overlook the problem of the kirpan. La Stampa states:

Sikhs have to follow many rules. Men cannot cut their hair and must cover their heads with turbans. They also have to carry a comb, which is a sign of cleanness, traditional pants, a steel bracelet — and the much disputed kirpan dagger.

The turban has also been an issue in the past. The Italian Interior Ministry only authorized its use in official ID photos in 1995. Even if, once in a while, there are some problems at airport security checks, the issue of the turban is considered settled.

But this is not the case for the ceremonial dagger. After a first refusal from the interior ministry, Italy’s main administrative and judiciary body, the state council, confirmed that the kirpan was illegal in June 2010. In August 2011, Sikhs appealed, pointing out that the dagger was only carried under the belt, and could not be drawn. Moreover their religion does not require a specific length and so the knife can be shorter than 4 centimetres – so as not to be considered a weapon. Last May, the ministry rejected these objections.

The article closes with comments from the Italian Sikh leader asking for respect and further words of wisdom from the Italian politician.

“A multicultural society has to face the dimension of the different faiths. They are difficult challenges but they cannot be avoided. They exist and need solutions,” says Sarubbi.

As it has been crafted, this article gives but one side of the story. No explanation is offered as to why the state acted as it did. Nor is there an explanation of what non-recognition means. The story is also context free. Islam, for example, is not a recognized religion in Italy. In 2010 the AKI news service reported the government had declined to add Islam to the list of faiths eligible to receive state financial support from income tax revenue.

Mosques in Italy will not receive a share of income tax revenue the Italian government allocates to religious faiths each year. Hindu and Buddhist temples, Greek Orthodox churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses will be eligible for the funds, according to a bill approved by the Italian cabinet in May and still must be approved by parliament.

Until now, the government had earmarked 8 percent of income tax revenue for Italy’s established churches. The great majority of these funds go to the Catholic Church, although if they wish, individual tax payers may elect to give the money to charities and cultural projects instead.

Islam is not an established religion in Italy and there is only one official mosque in the country, Rome’s Grand Mosque (photo). Politicians from the ruling coalition cite radical imams, polygamy and failure to uphold women’s rights by Muslims immigrants as obstacles to recognising Islam as an official religion in Italy.

Until now, only the Catholic Church, Judaism and other established churches including Lutherans, Evangelists, Waldensians and 7th-day Adventists have received the income tax revenue from the Italian government.

Did the Sikhs seek a share of income tax revenue and were turned down? Was this solely an issue having to do with the kirpan? It is difficult to say what happened with precision because so much is missing from the story.

The collision of Sikhs and the state in the West over the kirpan and the turban has been an on-going topic for years. But the bottom line with this story is that sufficient information is not provided for a reader to understand the dispute. While the religious explanation for wearing the kirpan is provided, the secular argument against possession of weapons in public is not. And is it fair to say that Italian government’s refusal to give an exemption to Sikhs to allow them to wear a kirpan amounts to a prohibition of their faith?

What say you Get Religion readers? Doth this article protest too much? Is this a case of the violation of religious liberty? Is it a fair report on the controversy?

Romney on the Palestinian work ethic

The elected Christian is in the world only to increase this glory of God by fulfilling His commandments to the best of his ability. … Brotherly love, … is expressed in the first place in the fulfillment of the daily tasks given. … This makes labor in the service of impersonal social usefulness appear to promote the glory of God and hence to be willed by him.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (1905/2002), pp. 108-9.

Reporters on the campaign trail have a difficult task. They must report faithfully on the words and actions of their subject — while at the same time rendering these words and actions interesting and intelligible to their readers. The two do not always go hand in hand as campaign handlers works very hard to make sure their candidate does not stray from a script, keeping “on message” at all times. It is a good day then, when a candidate says something new, interesting or controversial for it allows a good reporter to show his command of the craft.

The presumptive Republican Party presidential candidate has been taking some hits for comments made on his latest overseas tour. Some members of the press corp have been putting a bit of stick about in their coverage of Mitt Romney, characterizing his latest comments as insensitive gaffes. Romney is not ready for prime time is the song playing on the campaign radio right now.

A 30 July 2012 story in the Washington Post entitled “Romney faces Palestinian criticism for Jerusalem remarks as he heads to Poland” is representative of this style of reporting. But in their zeal to play gotcha with the Mittster and focus the criticisms, the five WaPo reporters credited on the story have overlooked ethical and religious ghosts that might well have made this a better piece. And what is better? Better is an article that peals away on campaign cant giving a fresh look into the mind of Mitt Romney.

Let me walk you through this story and show you what I mean. The lede begins:

JERUSALEM — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy has outpaced that of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.”

Palestinians said that Romney was ignoring long-running Israeli restrictions on crossings from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which are an enormous drag on commerce.

“All I can say is that this man needs a lot of education. He doesn’t know the region, he doesn’t know Israelis, he doesn’t know Palestinians, and to talk about the Palestinians as an inferior culture is really a racist statement,” Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said in an interview.

Though this appears in the domestic politics section of the Washington Post, the Post’s reporters have written a story about the opinions of second-tier Palestinian government officials. An accusation of racism is leveled at the top of the story by a Palestinian official in response to Romney’s comments on culture.

The article notes Romney’s  comments on the sharp economic disparity between Israel and Palestine and recounts the words that led to the racism charge. Citing a 1998 book by Harvard economics professor David Landes entitled “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” Romney said:

“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from the book, by David Landes. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

A decision was made by the authors of this narrative to enter the story through the door of response to comments. Why? As we go deeper into the article there are signs the Romney campaign were unhelpful. It moves to denials by the Romney campaign of any “attempt to slight the Palestinians.” The article did note that Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, pushed his boss deeper into the mire: “Reporters pressed him to explain what Romney meant by ‘culture,’ but he declined to do so.”

The action shifts to Washington with comments from the Obama campaign and World Bank officials before it moves on to the next leg of Mitt’s overseas adventure. A diagram of the article’s content and perspective would be: Key Sentence: Romney is a racist Palestinian official claims — Palestinian quote — Romney quote — Romney campaign non-explanation — Obama response critical of Romney — Expert voice critical of Romney — Close as scene moves to Poland.

The Romney campaign appears to have been unhelpful and their man comes off badly from their actions. Yet what is also missing is an inquiry by the Post into Prof. David Landes and his book — which would go a long way toward answering the question of “what is culture?”.

And it is here was have the ethical and religious ghosts to this story for Landes’ book places great stress on the role of religion in economic development.

Two avenues of inquiry immediately present themselves — corruption and Islam. Is Mitt Romney saying that the Muslim culture of the Palestinian Authority is less conducive to economic advancement than the Jewish culture of Israel? Sociologists have been debating the role of religion and economic growth for over a century — most famously we have Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper last year entitled “Religious Identity and Economic Behavior” that found in the U.S. there were differences between the faith groups/denominations on their attitudes toward work.

We randomly vary religious identity salience in laboratory subjects to test how identity salience contributes to six hypothesized links from prior literature between religious identity and economic behavior. We find that religious identity salience makes Protestants increase contributions to public goods. Catholics decrease contributions to public goods, expect others to contribute less to public goods, and become less risk averse. Jews more strongly reciprocate as an employee in a bilateral labor market gift-exchange game.

While Islam did not play a part in this study, recent academic studies have sought to include the attitudes toward work in the Muslim world and define an  Islamic work ethic. Is the economic success of Israel due to its Jewish culture — and are the economic failures of the surrounding states tied to their Muslim cultures?

And then there is corruption. It is odd the Washington Post article would stress the economic disadvantages of the security check points and trot out an expert to say this is a cause of the problem — some commentators have taken this idea and rather foolishly run with it even further. Why I saw it is odd is that the World section of the Post has featured articles discussing the problem of corruption for the economic, social and political development of the Palestinian Authority. A March 2012 Palestine Public Opinion Poll identified corruption as a significant problem in the PA.

73% say there is corruption in the PA institutions in the West Bank while only 62% say there is corruption in the institutions of the dismissed government in the Gaza Strip. These percentages are similar to those obtained three months ago. In the context of the recent step by the PA in the West Bank to submit corruption cases to courts, we asked the public if it thinks the PA is serious about fighting corruption: 53% said it was serious and 43% said it was not serious.

Is corruption a Muslim problem or a Palestinian problem? I don’t think so. In my own work I have reported on the problems of corruption within the Christian churches of the Palestinian Authority, and have written dozens of stories over the years about corrupt and crooked bishops from the U.S. to Africa.

Also, please hear what I am not saying — I am not saying Israeli security measures do not have some degree of harm for the Palestinian Authority’s economy — I am saying that there are other factors involved that may play as great or a greater role.

And, I am also saying the Washington Post story missed an opportunity to tell us more about Mitt Romney. There is a hundred years of sharply contested scholarship on the intersection of religion and economic advancement. Given Romney’s Mormon faith and its pronounced views on this topic I would have thought that this area would be explored in any story on culture and the economy emanating from the campaign. What we have is a rather tired and predictable story that advances a silly claim by a Palestinian functionary and partisan campaign officials. It is not really worth the time it takes to read.

What say you Get Religion readers? Did the Post miss the story? Was it justified in playing “gotcha” in light of the apparent unhelpful Romney campaign? With five reporters on the story should it have cracked open the covers of the book that formed Romney’s thinking on nations and culture? Or, because I write about religion, do I see it everywhere? Was this really just a Romney gaffe story? Or, has the press decided the trip was a failure and hence everything that arose from it must be deemed a failure?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Catholics, Commies, and Gays — Oh my!

Where is Dan Brown when you need him?

The story of Archbishop Róbert Bezák is ready made for the Da Vinci Code treatment. Yet the press has bungled a Catholic story — the Associated Press piece that ran in most U.S. newspapers devoted more space to a rehash of the clergy pedophile scandal than the church conflict in the Slovak Republic.

This story has gays, Nazi sympathizers, Communist secret police agents, liberal Catholics, Vatican intrigue, and the “Rottweiler” — Pope Benedict XVI — playing the heavy. And what we are offered is the tired (and irrelevant) clergy abuse saga.

Our tale begins — in press terms — with the announcement from the Vatican that Archbishop Róbert Bezák of Trnava had been sacked. The AP story opens with:

The pope fired a 52-year-old Slovak bishop on Monday for apparently mismanaging his diocese in a rare show of papal power over his bishops.

Usually when bishops run into trouble – either for alleged moral lapses or management problems – they are persuaded by the Vatican to resign. But Pope Benedict XVI has become increasingly willing to forcibly remove bishops who refuse to step down, sacking three others in the last year alone.

His willingness to do so raises questions about whether he would take the same measures against bishops who covered up for sexually abusive priests. So far he has not.

As you can see, while the story ostensibly is about Archbishop Bezák, it really is another opportunity to club the pope and the Catholic Church.  We do learn a bit about the unemployed archbishop. The AP story states:

On Monday, the Vatican said Benedict had “relieved from pastoral care” Bishop Robert Bezak of Trnava, Slovakia. No reason was given, but Italian news reports suggested administrative problems were to blame and Slovak news reports quoted Bezak as saying he thought his criticism of his predecessor may have had a role.

But this detour into news soon ends and we go back to assumptions and assertions.

The exercise of the pope’s ability to fire a bishop has important implications, particularly concerning bishops who mishandle pedophile priests.

In the face of U.S. lawsuits seeking to hold the pope ultimately responsible for abusive priests, the Holy See has argued that bishops are largely masters of their dioceses and that the pope doesn’t really control them. The Vatican has thus sought to limit its own liability, arguing that the pope doesn’t exercise sufficient control over the bishops to be held responsible for their bungled response to priests who rape children.

The ability of the pope to actively fire bishops, and not just passively accept their resignations, would seem to undercut the Vatican’s argument of a hands-off pope.

And so on and so forth. I’ve read this sort of thing dozens of times before and repetition does not make it any more newsworthy.

The front page of the 23 July issue of Pravda — not that Pravda, but the other one, the Bratislava daily newspaper — is devoted to a discussion of Church/State relations in the Slovak Republic and the fallout from the Bezák affair. The Pravda lede begins:

[Slovak] churches will receive more than 37 million euros in state support this year, and from this amount 21 million euros will be given to the Catholic Church.  The state is facing a financial shortfall and church support is a huge burden, but so far the government has been reluctant even to begin discussing the separation of church and state.

… The debate on the separation of church and state is once again in the public eye due to the events surrounding the appeal [of the dismissal] of Trnava Archbishop Robert Bezák … 

The focus of the Pravda story is on the return or restitution to the Catholic Church of properties confiscated by the Communist regime. The neighboring Czech Republic has been debating the issue in Parliament and the Slovak government is about to follow suit.  However, the no-compensation group has a strong political base, Pravda notes.

One expert is cited in the article saying that during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Czechoslovak Republic of 1919 to 1938 and the Nazi-puppet Slovak Republic of 1938 to 1945 the state owned church properties, which were entrusted to the Catholic Church for the use and benefit of the people.  “Each year [the Catholic Church] had to account to the state for the management of the property it used.”

The article then returns to Archbishop Bezák, with one expert saying the dismissal of the Archbishop of  Trnava for his progressive social views was grounds not to compensate the church as it could not be trusted to put the interests of the people first.  The bottom line — the Bezák story is not another episode in the clergy abuse saga but falls into another popular press theme — good liberal Catholics, bad conservative Catholics.

A 14 July story in TASR, the state news agency, reports that one of the letters of complaint lodged against Archbishop Bezák found its way to the TA3 television network.

Among the accusations listed by the Vatican in the documents are Bezak’s selection of homosexual priests and those having illegitimate children as his close associates, and alleged mockery of the cassock as a piece of clothing worn by sorcerers, while he himself wears jeans or sweatpants. The Vatican also asked whether it’s true that Bezak speaks of the pope merely as “Mr. Pope” in the public, and describes other Slovak bishops as “old and fogy”, while he is a “modern bishop and enlightened liberal”.

Bezak in a response said that his predecessor Jan Sokol didn’t alert him to any priests in the diocese that would have “dubious reputation”, while he isn’t interested in any ill-based accusations and observes the principle of benefit of the doubt instead. Similarly, Bezak rejected the accusation that he would have ever mocked the cassock and have worn indecent dress. He also said that he has never described himself as a “modern bishop and enlightened liberal”, as he had been in office less than three years, which was too little to define himself in any way. He further said that he describes the pope with due reverence, using terms such as “pope, pope Benedict XVI, Holy Father, Holy Father Benedict XVI and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI”.

If the TASR story is true, one faction of the Slovak Church complained to the Vatican about the new archbishop’s liberal social views and progressive lifestyle. The story continues to build:

Drawing upon reports published by the Slovak newspaper SME, the English-language Slovak Spectator stated local protests by some Catholics followed the bishops removal. It offered further comments from political leaders perturbed by the Vatican’s removal of the young archbishop. Part of the dispute, the Slovak press reports, arises from the sharply different styles and personalities of the former archbishop and the new archbishop.

Bezák, aged 52, replaced controversial former archbishop Ján Sokol three years ago. The step was widely welcomed given Sokol’s repeated praise of President Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest who led the Nazi-allied wartime Slovak state during which, among other atrocities, tens of thousands of Slovakia’s Jews were deported to Nazi death camps. Bezák won popular respect when he announced that Tiso should have resigned as soon as the first train transporting Jews left the country.

…  [archbishop] Ján Sokol is known by Slovaks as one of the more controversial personalities in the local Roman Catholic Church, especially because his name appeared on the payroll of the communist-era secret police, the ŠtB.

Now I’ve not found an Opus Dei angle to the story so far, but a Gay-Nazi-Commie-Catholic-Conspiracy story is the sort of thing that religion reporters lie awake at night dreaming about.

It is not a crime for a journalist to run a short item. I am not criticizing the AP for being unaware of the back story of Archbishop Bezák. What troubles me is the padding of this story by the AP.

Yes, I get it. You don’t like Benedict and you are suspicious of the institution. But that sort of heavy breathing and speculation is inappropriate in a news story. The AP should have reported the fact of the archbishop’s dismissal and the Vatican’s decision to decline to comment. Droning on and on about bad Benedict and the clergy abuse scandal served no purpose. Simply put, by playing to its prejudices, the AP blinded itself and its readers to the real, much more interesting, story.

BBC bias from Cuba

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.

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 speaks poorly of the professionalism and rigor of BBC reporting. At best it is ignorance, at worst it is bias.

Good TV: WFAA on the Episcopal Wars

While GetReligion is on the topic of local television news religion reporting, let me draw your attention to a thoughtful, intelligent broadcast from Dallas/Fort Worth station WFAA. Quality local TV news reporting on religion? And on the convoluted Episcopal wars too? Is such a thing possible?

Yes — Tune into this broadcast from the ABC affiliate Channel 8 entitled: “Episcopal blessings create theological divide over same-sex unions” to view an example of solid religion reporting. The uneven quality and quantity of reports on the Episcopal Church’s recent decision to authorize local rites for same-sex blessings also makes this story stand out.

The recently concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis (5-12 July 2012)  did not draw reporters outside of the church press. The local Indianapolis newspaper was present and I saw someone from Reuters at one point, and GetReligion‘s Sarah Pulliam Bailey filed a great report for Christianity Today. But unlike the last few Episcopal shows there were no satellite trucks from CNNFox or the networks and the national newspapers and religion reporters from the wire services were absent.

However, there has been a great deal of high-powered commentary from Time, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Power Line — I even was pulled in by ABC (the other one, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) to add local color to their commentary on the fun under the Indiana sun. The WFAA report I would like to single out because it gives local context and meaning to the story. As TMatt has pointed out, as a medium local television news has its limitations and one should not expect a New Yorker-style 5000 word report — but let’s take a look.

FORT WORTH — St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church is at the center of another theological divide.

When the General Convention of the Episcopal Church authorized the blessing of same-sex unions last week in Indianapolis, the local church took out a series of half-page advertisements.

Sunday’s ad encouraged Episcopalians to “stand firm on the word of God in faith and morals.” Wednesday’s ad calls the blessings “false inclusivity and pluralism.”

Church rector Dr. William Dickson could not meet with News 8 because of scheduling conflicts. Instead, church member Rob Sell spoke on behalf of St. Andrew’s. He was not part of the decision to place the ad, but said it speaks to Episcopalians who have reservations about the direction of the national church.

“We’re not looking down our nose at anybody,” Sell said. “We simply want to adhere to classical, historic, Christian doctrine.”

The report then presents the voice of a supporter of the changes.

Across town, one of the churches that remained with the national group cheered the decision to bless same-sex unions.

Katie Sherrod was at the Episcopal General Convention last week. She and her bishop at St. Luke’s in the Meadow Episcopal Church voted to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions.

“We are as Christian as they are,” Sherrod said. “We simply have interpreted scripture differently than they have.”

There were eight days of discussions before the vote was taken, and there were emotional arguments made by gay and lesbian church members who sought the church’s blessing. The Fort Worth Diocese deputies unanimously voted to authorize the blessing.

“We’re moving forward toward a church that buys into the fact that God loves you — all of you. No exceptions,” Sherrod said, adding the bishop would consider the blessings on a case-by-case basis.

The story closes with further background information on the convention and ties the story together at the close by noting:

St. Andrew’s and several other local Episcopal churches left the general convention four years ago when they sensed a change in theology. There is an ongoing legal battle over church property that has yet to be decided. There are two, independent Fort Worth Dioceses operating with separate bishops.

This story works on several levels. The reporter demonstrates his skills and a command of his craft by placing what could be an arcane dispute into a recognizable local context — how a conservative Episcopal congregation has responded to this news. After tethering the story to a local landmark, he then allows the actors in the drama to speak for themselves. But in selecting which quotes to use in his story, he eschewed quick and easy soundbites about homosexuality for thoughtful quotes that express theology. Now this is my assumption, of course, and it may be that he happened on just the right people to speak to these issues — but I remain impressed nonetheless that the subtly and nuance of the theological arguments were preserved in the story.

Again let me say that this report is far from an exhaustive of definitive treatment of the issue — but judged by the standards and limitations of the medium in which it was presented, this is a gem of a story.

Well done, indeed!


French Evangelicals through an American lens

A mixed review is the best I can give to an article in the Christian Science Monitor on the rise of Evangelical Christianity in France. The 1400-word article entitled “In a France suspicious of religion, evangelicalism’s message strikes a chord” tells a fascinating story about the changing religious landscape in France, but for every two steps forward it makes in its narrative, it takes a step back with its assumptions. It’s a “yes, but …” article. A stronger editorial pencil would have made it great.

Let’s walk through this piece and I will show you what I mean.

The author structures the story by opening with an illustration of the phenomena he is describing — a French mega-church.

In a large former factory warehouse outside Paris on a Friday night, some 4,000 people assemble in prayer and praise to a God who loves all equally, they are told. It’s mostly a minority crowd: young, African, from mixed heritage, and white. Hands are raised; a choir moves from jazzy to solemn gospel tones. Faces mark a wide range of emotions at week’s end.

“His love goes past all borders, forgives everything, has no limits,” the pastor cries out to a great many “amens.”

This working-class area is one of France’s official “urban sensitive zones.” The Charisma Church, as it is called, abuts the back of a trucking center. But the mood is welcoming. People actually smile. Many worshipers travel an hour or more to get here, and press into dozens of church buses that ramble between local tram and train stations. It is a “megachurch” in a country where faith is officially relegated to the private sphere and unofficially frowned upon.

But the church is growing. Sunday services top 6,000 attendees on a regular basis. In fact, French scholars say, evangelicalism is likely the fastest-growing religion in France – defying all stereotypes about Europe’s most secular nation.

This opening sets the scene rather well and is an effective way of using imagery to make the point that the Charisma Church is not stereotypically “French”. Yet, I am also uneasy about the sentence structure and the tone. There is an undercurrent of anthropology here — we are watching strange (maybe better to say ‘different’) people performing rituals akin to practices found in a substratum of another culture. What is the purpose of the “But” in “But the mood is welcoming”? While popular culture may tell Americans the French are an unfriendly crowd, that is not what is being said here. The “But” signals that because the church is in a poor part of town and abuts a “trucking center” the worshipers should not be happy. The joy the author found comes as a surprise. Poor people being happy?

And, as an aside, France is not the most secular nation in Europe. That honor belongs to the Czech Republic followed by Germany.

The article then offers reasons for the growth of Evangelical Christianity in France.

The reasons are manifold: growing minority populations in France from Africa and Asia are less strictly secular and more religious. Evangelicals offer a “friendlier” and less hierarchical model of worship, with more community warmth and room for emotive expression. Leaders say they “speak to the heart” in a Europe preoccupied with wealth and worldliness, and provide a haven in times of harsh economic setbacks.

“France itself is changing, and this is a reflection of this transition,” says Sebastian Fath, a researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and an expert on evangelicalism.

Again, this strikes me as being more of a scientist peering through the branches sort of response to the growth rather than an explanation of religious conversion or the awakening of faith. We have speculation on how, but little on why. Perhaps French evangelicals with whom the Christian Science Monitor spoke were shy about giving a faith testimony, mentioning Jesus, sin, redemption and so forth — but their absence from this story about the growth of Evangelical Christianity I find odd.

The story continues with a statistical section followed by comments from some members of these churches. I was struck by the use of first names only in this section — as if these were members of an underground church — but that may be more a matter of taste on my part. Comments about the friendly form worship takes in these churches follows and the story then moves to a facile comparison to American Evangelicalism.

Nor are French evangelicals as politically conservative as their American kin. The French perception of American evangelicals as super-patriots of the political right is a cross French evangelicals have to bear.

“We don’t want the American style, we are French,” says an Assembly of God pastor, Thomas Okampo, whose church is just off a side street in the 15th district of Paris. Mr. Okampo was born in Kinshasa but studied religion in Brussels.

It may well be true that French evangelicals are not as politically conservative as their American brethren, but the quote offered to support this assertion does not say this. Is it the author’s opinion that American evangelicals are “super-patriots of the political right” and a “cross French evangelicals have to bear”, or is it the view of those interviewed for the story? And, given the recent French presidential campaign and the stories about the strong link between religious attendance and voting patterns, what data is there to support the contention made by the author? And, is it possible to compare French politics and voting patterns to American patterns? Is the author expressing his opinions and assumptions here?

There have been a number of French newspaper articles covering the immigrant and conversion fueled growth of Evangelical Christianity in France. This story has legs and I expect to see it again and again in the years to come. The bottom line with this article, however, is that it gives a nice narrative but appears not to comprehend what it is reporting. There is no there there.