Obama, Democrats and young evangelicals

ObamaTrinityThis may seem strange, but I think it would be useful to offer yet another look at Barack Obama’s sermon to his flock at the United Church of Christ convention.

This time around, let’s find out what Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson — former top scribe for W Bush — thought of the religious images and language in the speech and, this is more important, what the speech suggests about religious issues on the left that the mainstream press will end up covering. First of all, here is Gerson’s summary of the turf that Obama is willing to explore, as opposed to some other Democrats on the scene:

He spoke frankly of his faith: “I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him.” Obama recognized the central role of religion in the history of American social reform, from women’s rights to the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement. And he made a sophisticated distinction between the religious right and American evangelicalism, rather than lumping them together as a monolithic menace.

For Democrats, the speech was a class in remedial religion.

The problem, of course, is that Obama was — literally — preaching to the liberal choir, in terms of the liberal Christians who were sitting in front of him as he spoke. The more interesting issue for Gerson is the degree to which Obama’s sermon will interest a totally new audience, which is America’s young evangelicals who live in a constant fear of being connected in any way with the Religious Right.

As is often the case, this leads us to scholar John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, who believes there is a door here for Democrats.

Kind of. Gerson notes:

Survey research shows that evangelicals under 30 tend to be more concerned about the environment than are their elders, more engaged in international issues such as HIV-AIDS, a little more open on homosexual rights and less attached to the religious right. This should provide an opening for Democrats. But there is evidence, according to Green, that young evangelicals are as conservative on abortion as their parents and grandparents, if not more so.

Now, as someone who has spent a decade-plus facing classrooms full of young evangelicals (for the most part), this rings true to me. However, it helps to know that many, perhaps most, young Christians are much more interesting in discussing liberalized laws on same-sex civil unions than a state-enforced change in the actual definition of “marriage.”

There is room for political compromise here, but I have met very few young Christians who actually disagree with traditional Christian doctrines on sexuality and marriage. Would Democrats be willing to compromise and meet people in Middle-American pews in, well, the middle on this hot-button issue? Would the party’s leadership be able to convince its secular/religious liberal alliance to compromise?

At the very least, writes Gerson, the left will have to consider — in the wake of the Obama sermon — taking at least three steps. You can read them for yourself, but I want to quote the third one. Hang on tight.

Third, leading Democrats could make real policy changes on abortion, by adopting a more moderate position than abortion on demand. Given the current Democratic coalition, this doesn’t seem likely. But some of us still remember the example of Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, whose liberal heart bled for all of the weak, including the unborn.

In other words, it is one thing to talk about the “legal, safe and rare” option on abortion policy, but that is not going to help Democrats reach out to young evangelicals who want actual compromise on public policies about when abortion is and is not legal. Once again, the issue here is whether Obama and other Democrats can afford to compromise to reach the middle.

The Religious Right is often asked to compromise, because that is how government works. In the wake of the Obama sermon, it is interesting to ponder the compromises that the Religious Left will need to make — if Obama is serious.

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Obama’s ‘awesome’ testimony

barack obama 01We have, I realize, already had a post by young master Daniel Pulliam about the coverage of Sen. Barack Obama’s recent speech to the national convention of his own mainline Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ. Well here comes another one, because I think the emerging religious left (Religious Left?) is a major news story that deserves more coverage.

The key issue with the Obama speech was whether the Associated Press did readers a service by focusing on the political angle, his latest round of criticism of the Religious Right, while ignoring the personal, spiritual side of the address — his own journey into Christian faith.

Readers were divided, with some believing that the faith element was old news.

… Obama has told his conversion story many times, including in his bestselling autobiography and again at Sojourners‘ “Pentecost” conference last year. It ain’t news no more …
jim, June 26, 2007, at 9:51 am

Like Pulliam, I think the faith angle was the stronger, fresher story. To answer Jim’s comment, the candidate’s supporters (Sojourners, et al.) may know about his faith, along with those who have actually read his books. The faith element has also been written about quite a bit here inside the Beltway.

But, friends, it is also very, very old news that Obama thinks the Religious Right has given Christianity a bad name. Meanwhile, the actual number of speeches in which he has gone out of his way to express his own faith experience in language that echoes the language of evangelical Christianity is rather small. That’s why, in my opinion, this speech was so important. This pulpit-friendly orator is going to help shape debates inside many evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox congregations about faith and politics in the post-George W. Bush era.

So I thought I would post, this week, my “On Religion” column for Scripps Howard — since it focuses on the spiritual elements of the Obama address, while offering a brief glimpse of the religious and doctrinal conflicts that conservative Christians, Muslims and Jews are going to continue to have with his liberal political and, perhaps, theological beliefs.

Let me also note that reporters faced a common, but still interesting, challenge in covering this speech. Obama made some small, but important, changes as he delivered the speech. Thus, some news stories feature quotes from the written text when, in reality, he said something different to the UCC crowd.

Here is a small and, perhaps, symbolic example. It’s the sort of small edit that people will sit around and debate, if they know it exists. In the section of the speech about his conversion, Obama wrote:

… kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.

When delivering the speech, Obama changed “truth” to “truths” — which does match the plural noun “works” at the end of the line. Still, I think this plural “truths” reference might show up, sooner or later, in a Dr. James Dobson newsletter or some similar Christian niche-media location. The left tends to avoid references to “truth” — singular.

I suggest that anyone really interested in this speech watch the video archived at the UCC site (this requires, to my elitist shock, Windows Media Player). Meanwhile, here is the top of my Scripps Howard column:

Play the right guitar chords and worshippers in megachurch America will automatically start singing these words: “Our God is an awesome God, He reigns from heaven above. With wisdom power and love, our God is an awesome God.”

So Barack Obama caused raised eyebrows when he turned to that page in the evangelical songbook during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

“We worship an awesome God in the Blue States,” he said, in the speech that made him a rising star. “We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. … We are one people.”

Obama has mixed gospel images and liberal politics ever since and his ability to reach pews without frightening the skeptical elites is crucial to his White House hopes.

Thus, all kinds of people paid close attention last week when he spoke to the 50th anniversary convention of the United Church of Christ, a small flock that has proudly set the pace for liberal Christianity. At the heart of his speech was his own spiritual rebirth two decades ago, when he responded to an altar call by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

“He introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ,” said Obama. “I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.

“It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle … and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, like folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. … But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truths and carrying out His works.”

And here’s the rest of the column.

Photo: Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

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Rudy, Rome and abortion stories collide

rudyWhile Rudy Giuliani is heading toward a possible clash with Rome over his support for legal abortion, a second story about the Democratic Party’s moderating abortion stance is getting a decent level of press coverage.

Soon, these two stories could collide.

The tricky thing for reporters covering this story is trying to figure out how to cover a candidate in which Catholics may end up knocking Giuliani on abortion while the Democrats take the same position. Of course during primary season there are more than enough Republicans who are more than willing to tell reporters how their position represents what they believe is the base of the GOP, but what happens if Giuliani wins the party’s nomination?

What would the media do (WWMD?) if both sides of the 2008 presidential contest are pro-abortion rights? I’ve heard a thing or two about a third-party run, but wait, Mayor Bloomberg is also pro-abortion rights.

Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times has the Giuliani story but neglects to note the fact that pro-life Democrats are an emerging presence:

But church leaders say they are frustrated by prominent Catholic politicians like Mr. Giuliani who argue that while they are personally opposed to abortion, they do not want to impose their beliefs on others.

One American bishop, Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, R.I., recently wrote a caustic column for his Catholic newspaper calling Mr. Giuliani’s position “pathetic,” “confusing” and “hypocritical.” Other bishops said that they would not criticize a candidate by name but would not hesitate to declare Mr. Giuliani’s stance contrary to Catholic teaching.

Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark said: “I think he’s being illogical, as are all of those who take the stand that ‘I’m personally opposed to abortion but this is my public responsibility to permit it.’ To violate human life is always and everywhere wrong. In fact, we don’t think it’s a matter of church teaching, but a matter of the way God made the world, and it applies to everyone.”

In a Times op-ed, author Melinda Henneberger tells us why this could potentially be a groundbreaking story:

Even in the real world, a pro-choice Republican nominee would be a gift to the Democrats, because the Republican Party wins over so many swing voters on abortion alone. Which is why Fred Thompson, who is against abortion rights, is getting so much grateful attention from his party now. And why, despite wide opposition to the war in Iraq, Democrats must still win back such voters to take the White House next year.

Recent reports in both MSNBC and U.S. News & World Report also failed to make this connection. Both write about the shift within the Democratic Party on abortion, but why no mention of the potential massive shift in the Republican Party? While MSNBC even manages to cover the subject without mentioning the Catholic Church, at least U.S. News nails that angle:

Indeed, having witnessed both George W. Bush’s victory among Catholics in 2004 and the Catholic vote’s dramatic rejection of Republicans last year, Democrats are now waging a multifront offensive to shore up what was once a bedrock constituency. The Democratic National Committee has hired its first director of Catholic outreach. The DNC is also slated to soon unveil an organizing hub for Catholics on its website, and it’s planning to supply state parties with Catholic voter lists before the 2008 election. Catholic Democrats in Congress are introducing legislation to reduce demand for abortion, a top issue for the Roman Catholic Church. And some Democratic presidential candidates are already devising Catholic outreach plans. “You know things have gotten off track when a Roman Catholic candidate has to do outreach to people within his own church,” says Senator Casey, discussing his own 2006 outreach effort. “But we’re getting it back on track now.” With Catholics accounting for 1 in 5 American voters, the mobilization could determine whether Democrats win the White House and keep control of Congress in 2008.

The primaries are of course still months away and Giuliani has lost his once-dominant position in the polls. But regardless of the results, the widely accepted pro-choice Republican candidate and the softening of Democrats on abortion make for a compelling narrative that reporters should watch closely.

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There will always be an England

BlairBigBenI picked up one of the local newspapers this morning and there, across the top of page one, was a London Daily Telegraph story with a lede that the Brits have been expecting for some time now.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is to announce that he will convert to Roman Catholicism soon after his planned meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican tomorrow, according to church sources and his friends.

Mr. Blair, an Anglican, may even inform the pope of his intentions and seek his approval at the audience, which he is expected to attend with his wife, Cherie, a devout Catholic, and their daughter Kathryn.

The story covers almost all of the basics.

Let’s see. There’s the historical perspective (with the Anglican-state angle thrown in there for good measure):

There has never been a Catholic prime minister in Britain, although there is no longer a formal constitutional bar. However, Mr. Blair would have been aware that to convert while at 10 Downing Street could have caused a potential conflict with his role in choosing bishops for the Church of England.

The personal, what-happens-next angle:

It is likely that Mr. Blair would begin a private course of instruction with a spiritual director and would be expected to be formally received into the Catholic Church at a special service. His audience with the pope … will be his third visit to the Vatican in four years and reflects his growing fascination with Catholicism.

And finally, the section that has to leave the reader — especially a traditional Catholic reader — wondering, “Does reporter Jonathan Petre realize just how bizarre the words he is typing sound?”

Hang on for this:

Rumors that Mr. Blair intends to convert have been circulating in Catholic circles and in Westminster for years, but have grown increasingly strong as his departure from office nears. Friends say that he studies both the Bible and the Koran daily, and much of his political philosophy has been influenced by the social teachings of the Catholic Church. He is a particular admirer of the maverick German theologian Hans Kung.

Uh, that would be the liberal Hans Kung of Germany? The one who has never been known as a supporter of traditional Catholic teachings, the kind advocated by another German theology professor — that would be Pope Benedict XVI?

Methinks there is a very important angle in this story that has been buried.

But to Petre’s credit, the elephant in the Catholic sanctuary is finally mentioned — near the end — in material from an interview with Father Timothy Russ, the Blair family’s parish priest.

Three years ago his parish priest at Chequers, the Rev. Timothy Russ, disclosed that Mr. Blair had discussed becoming a Catholic with him.

But Father Russ added that Mr. Blair, whose views on a range of issues from abortion to stem-cell research are at odds with traditional church teaching, had “some way to go” on important moral issues.

In a new book, Father Russ also reveals that Mr. Blair even discussed the possibility of becoming a Catholic deacon, a position below that of a priest, which can be held by lay people.

In 1996, Cardinal Basil Hume, the late archbishop of Westminster, wrote to him demanding that he cease taking Communion at his wife’s church in Islington, although he added it was “all right to do so in Tuscany for the holidays … as there was no Anglican church nearby.”

Mr. Blair made it clear in a response that he did not agree, asking in a letter to Cardinal Hume: “I wonder what Jesus would have made of it?”

In other words, Blair disagrees with the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on a host of crucial issues and has, in the past, even clashed with the local cardinal on whether he needs to become a Roman Catholic in order to take part in the sacramental life of the Catholic Church? I mean, is this man an Anglican or what?

Has anyone seen a good quote or two somewhere — this story could have used one — in which Blair offers insights into why he wants to convert into (and perhaps even be ordained in) a church with which he has such profound disagreements? Just asking.

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What is an ‘evangelical Roman Catholic’?

Merry Go RoundNow this is going to be tricky. Let’s see if I can tiptoe into another post on media coverage of the Mitt Romney campaign without setting off a new tsunami of comment-board warfare about Mormonism.

That’s going to be hard, since The Washington Post‘s story on which I would like to comment ran with this headline: “Romney’s Mormonism Attracts More Scrutiny … and a Whisper Campaign.” The second half of that headline refers to a dumb move by an Iowa staffer for Sen. Sam Brownback.

Here’s the news hook, providing yet another sign that the Mormonism story is — sadly — not going to go away until Romney finds a way to satisfy the questions of many (but never all) of the evangelical leaders yanking strings connected to the GOP machine:

In an e-mail obtained by The Fix, former state representative Emma Nemecek, the southeastern Iowa field director for Brownback’s presidential campaign, asked a group of Iowa Republican leaders to help her fact-check a series of statements about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including one that says: “Theologically, the only thing Christianity and the LDS church has in common is the name of Jesus Christ, and the LDS Jesus is not the same Jesus of the Christian faith.”

Clearly, if a staffer wants to fact-check statements about Mormon doctrine he or she should ask Mormon leaders in Iowa and experts in the Romney campaign. The staffer can also seek information from mainstream religious bodies — check seminaries and missions offices — that have serious, informed, hopefully respectable debates with mainstream Mormon leaders.

But what is a campaign staffer doing getting involved in that kind of issue in the first place?

However, most of this is — sadly — another trip on the same political and journalistic merry-go-round.

What caught my eye in this story by reporters Chris Cillizza and Shailagh Murray was the following linguistic innovation, which I sure hope is not a sign of things to come:

… Brownback has publicly taken on Romney over the abortion issue — insisting that Romney’s conversion to an anti-abortion-rights position is more political positioning than personal evolution. (Both men spoke to the National Right to Life Convention in Kansas City, Mo., late last week.)

But Romney’s faith has not been a topic of contention for Brownback — a former Methodist who has become an evangelical Roman Catholic — until now.

Say what?

What, pray tell, is an “evangelical Roman Catholic”? I assume that this is not the same thing as a Roman Catholic evangelist, a combination of words that makes sense.

And, while we are at it, shouldn’t the story have said that Brownback is a former United Methodist? Last time I checked, that was a mainline Protestant denomination that contained millions of evangelical Christians, but certainly would not, as a whole, be called “evangelical” by most outsiders.

I realize that the word “evangelical” is very hard to define, and this is a topic that comes up here at GetReligion from time to time. Click here for a helpful essay on this topic at Wheaton College’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, a place where you will find evangelicals who know plenty about their own history.

I also realize that Time earned jeers from the GetReligionistas and many others when the editors included Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic priest, and Rick Santorum, a Catholic layman who was in the U.S. Senate at that time, in their list of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America. It seemed that they were political evangelicals, whatever that means.

So here we go again. Perhaps this is an issue that will have to be settled by the committee that governs The Associated Press Stylebook. It’s bad enough that “fundamentalist” has become a meaningless word that gets tossed around by journalists who do not know what they are talking about. Now we have people writing about “evangelical Roman Catholics”?

The last thing we need is yet another journalistic merry-go-round on the religion beat. So let me ask this again: What in the world is an “evangelical Roman Catholic”?

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Open and unafraid

JinAtOrdinationIn his first piece for The Atlantic, Adam Minter has written an in-depth and sympathetic profile of Aloysius Jin Luxian, bishop of Shanghai, who was approved by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association but not appointed by the Vatican. Minter begins the piece with an extended description of Jin’s return, after years of imprisonment, to the cathedral where he had been ordained:

On a June day in 1982, Father Aloysius Jin Luxian, a 66-year-old Jesuit just released from prison, walked into Shanghai’s St. Ignatius Cathedral for the first time in 27 years. In his youth, the building had been one of the great churches in East Asia, celebrated for its delicate Gothic arches and colorful stained glass. Now the color was gone, replaced by clear glass and harsh sunlight that bleached the cracked columns and tiled floor. The steeples, once among the tallest in Shanghai, were missing, as was the altar beneath which he’d been ordained, in 1945. Jin had spent nearly three decades under house arrest, in reeducation camps, and in prison, so he had few illusions about the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude toward religion. But the damage to the church was still hard to bear. St. Ignatius, he learned, had been converted to a grain warehouse during the Cultural Revolution, and the authorities had spent three days burning most of the diocese’s Catholic books in front of the church.

Minter’s report describes the difficult choices Jin had to make in the years since his return to that cathedral, especially in striving for an enculturated Catholicism. Minter explains that struggle well in an interview with Abigail Cutler of The Atlantic Online:

I think you’d be hard pressed to find any Catholic in the world who would say they thought Mao was good for Chinese Catholicism. But on the other hand, the fact that China threw out the missionaries and allowed Chinese Catholics to assume authority over Chinese dioceses was very important and remains, to this day, a matter of pride for many Chinese. So when Jin talks about the identity crisis he felt in 1949 and in the decades that followed, he’s also talking about the tension he and his peers felt under European control — the idea that if you were a Catholic, you had to be part of the European colonial enterprise. Come 1949, I think many Chinese Catholics — especially those of Jin’s generation — desperately wanted a way to assert themselves.

Minter tells a complicated story that eventually includes the Vatican’s recognition of Jin as a bishop. The high quality of Minter’s coverage is perhaps best explained in how he answers when Cutler asks whether he has a particular interest in reporting on religion:

I find it to be an interesting topic. My specific interest in Catholicism in China comes from my seeing it as the perfect laboratory through which to examine how Chinese civilization interacts with Western civilization. I think there’s probably no institution that epitomizes the West more perfectly than the Catholic Church. Certainly, it’s the oldest Western institution. The role it’s played in China — as far back as the sixteenth century — and the role it continues to play today is just fascinating to me. In addition to that, I find religion interesting in its own right; I also like talking to religious people — especially religious leaders — because they tend to be thoughtful people.

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Online confession, round two

ConfessionIt’s a sad thing when you hit middle age and your mind starts to go.

I recently wrote the other GetReligionistas (should we have a kind of Grateful Dead-ish shirt saying that at CafePress?) asking if we had done a post yet about MSM coverage of the whole online confession trend. You know, the ongoing stream of stories like this column by Nancy McLaughlin in the Greensboro (N.C.) News-Record:

He hasn’t paid taxes in 20 years, he tells IveScrewedUp.com.

“I keep moving and switching jobs to make it hard for the IRS to catch up with me,” the writer, who claims to be 38 and from Florida, taps into the keyboard. “I want to fix this but every time I think about it the anxiety grips me so that it causes convulsions.”

… Such anonymous soul-sharing, once reserved for the other side of a dark confessional booth, now unfolds daily in cyberspace. Visitors are encouraged to browse the Web sites — even to comment on the misdeeds of complete strangers.

Some people of faith say they think cyberspace confession provides a needed outlet. Others scoff at the trend, saying it trivializes a long-held spiritual tradition.

Personally, I think it would be hard to think up something more “Protestant” than online confession. By that, I mean that most free-church Protestant flocks have every right to adapt to modern times in any way that they feel is consistent with their private or collective interpretations of Scripture (on the right) or evolving Scripture plus The New York Times‘ editorial pages (on the left).

And then there is the question of the fading practice of sacramental confesssion in the Church of Rome (I have never seen any statistics on confession in Eastern Orthodoxy), while evangelical Protestants are trying to come up with their own small-t traditions, whether they are online or in small groups or in the giant, massive, enormous world of pastoral counseling.

Hot story tip for reporters: Check out the ratio of counseling majors to M.Divs on the evangelical seminary campus nearest you. Are pastoral counselors the true priests of American Protestantism these days?

Anyway, I thought of all of this when I received an email this morning pointing me toward a very fine essay on this topic at First Things. Here is a sample:

So where, how, and when does forgiveness come into play, if at all? In what ways are these online confession sites or Oprah shows similar to what you might get from a traditional church’s means of confession? Does the confessing individual forgive himself? Does the community forgive? Where’s the absolution?

American society has placed confession and absolution on two wholly separate tracks. In the church, there is no separation: We confess that we are poor, miserable sinners who have failed to do good and have broken the Commandments. And God absolves us, forgives our sins on account of Jesus’ sacrifice in our place.

… The culture views confession as psychologically therapeutic. By contrast, the “therapy” that the Church seeks to offer is the healing of the soul. That cannot happen with one’s computer. If the thousands of confessions dealing with online pornography and adulterous email relationships are any indication, penitents might want to forgo online confession and simply get away from the computer altogether.

And the author of this essay? One Mollie Ziegler Hemingway.

Turns out, we have looked at this before. Check out the Divine Mrs. MZ’s piece and let us know if you have seen any interesting variations on this theme in media near you. It ought to hit broadcast news pretty soon.

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A bodyguard during the liturgy?

ayasofya sultanahmetHome again, home again.

I am back at my desk in Washington, D.C., but my mind is still in Istanbul (and, as you would expect, my confused body does not know exactly where it is).

Several of you have written to ask why I was over there in the first place. I was at an Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life conference, “Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century.”

I didn’t mention this in advance because of security concerns in that remarkable, yet tense, city and land. While the Oxford Centre website is very thin at this time, eventually the texts of all of the presentations will be online — including speeches by the likes of Zeyno Baran, Hasain Haqqani, Lamin Sasseh, Nevra Necipoglu, Jung Chang, Jon Halliday, George Gilder, Paul Marshall, Michael Gerson and others. Put any of those names in Google and you’ll find interesting material. There were also regional reports on press-freedom issues around the world, similar to the Oxford Centre seminar last summer in England.

The discussion sessions were all off the record, because there were journalists in the room from every imaginable media environment around the world. But it is safe to say that there were many large issues looming in the background of all our conversations, from the Armenian genocide to the war in Iraq, from the impact of the Web on newsrooms to global tensions over, yes, the mainstream media failing to “get religion.”

We also talked quite a bit about religious freedom, a subject that is often closely linked — think First Amendment, here — to freedom of the press.

While I was in Istanbul, the GetReligionistas received a reader email pointing us toward a post at Amy Welborn’s open book weblog titled “Where’s the coverage? / Of anti-Christian violence in Iraq?” This is a good question, and Welborn’s post includes links to some recent tragedies that demonstrate that there is more to the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq than clashes between Sunnis and Shiites. Yet, I also have to admit that my GetReligion Guilt file contains links to more than a few important stories about the impact of persecution on Christians in the Middle East. In fact, Google the words “Christians fleeing Iraq” and you will find quite a bit to read.

There is no question that this is a religion story. I mean, consider this recent example:

Pope Benedict XVI and President Mary McAleese yesterday led tributes to an Irish-trained priest who was shot dead in Iraq. Fr Ragheed Ganni, 35, was killed by unidentified gunmen as he returned from celebrating Mass in his native city of Mosul on Sunday.

… He and three deacons, one of whom was his cousin, were shot dead when the gunmen stopped their car on Sunday morning.

Fr Ganni, who was a frequent visitor to Ireland, was also an engineer and a member of the Chaldean Rite, Christianity’s most ancient branch. Pope Benedict XVI yesterday sent a blessing of consolation to the families of the dead men. He hoped their “costly sacrifice” would bring about peace and reconciliation in Iraq.

Clearly, Turkey is not Iraq — as Gerson noted in a Washington Post op-ed column written during our conference. Yet, as I found during my first Istanbul visit three years ago, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned — including shocking acts of terrorism. Gerson notes:

… (Even) in Turkey, religious liberty is the most disputed and troublesome of freedoms. The secular establishment, fearful of accumulated sectarian power, has traditionally denied minority religious groups the right to own property, to provide religious education beyond high school or to train their own clergy. As a result, the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches are slowly being asphyxiated for lack of priests — and the government has sometimes hastened the process by expropriating church property without compensation. The nationalist yellow press whips up resentment against religious minorities by repeating popular conspiracy theories: that Christian missionaries run prostitution rings or bribe Muslims into converting.

… But even as the legal environment for religion improves in Turkey, rising Islamist influence has caused sudden storms of violence. Seven weeks ago, two Turkish Christian converts and a German citizen were ritually murdered in the southern city of Malatya by killers spouting nationalist and Islamist slogans. Pastors around the country have begun hiring professional security. The Armenian patriarch is followed by a bodyguard even during his procession to the altar — an unsettling liturgy of fear.

Try to picture that last scene in your mind. Now try to forget it. Good luck.

The irony, at this point, is that the Turkish media are finally beginning to cover these kinds of stories, in large part because the tensions between legal secularism and public faith have been raised by debates over Turkey entering the European Union.

I hope that American media continue to be interested in issues of human rights and religious liberty. If you see good, or bad, examples of coverage that you want us to know about, by all means send in the URLs for us to chase. I also hope that many of the journalists who gathered in Istanbul last week will help GetReligion deal with these issues as well. This is a life and death matter.

Photo: The “Blue Mosque” (left) and Hagia Sophia.

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