Got news? Coptic monasteries under attack

As I have stated before, human-rights activists have long viewed the safety of Egypt’s ancient Coptic churches as a highly symbolic issue — the canary in the coal mine that is that complex land.

This is especially important right now, as the fragile coalition that currently leads Egypt tries to find its way along the tricky road from what was to what is and on to what will be. Many people are overjoyed and elated. Others are being cautious and quiet — with good cause.

However, I think anyone who knows anything about Egypt would have to say that journalists should be keeping their eyes on the actions of the military.

After all, the army is in charge right now.

With that fact in mind, the following Assyrian International News Agency report is troubling, to say the least:

For the second time in as many days, Egyptian armed force stormed the 5th century old St. Bishoy monastery in Wadi el-Natroun, 110 kilometers from Cairo. Live ammunition was fired, wounding two monks and six Coptic monastery workers. Several sources confirmed the army’s use of RPG ammunition. Four people have been arrested including three monks and a Coptic lawyer who was at the monastery investigating yesterday’s army attack.

Monk Aksios Ava Bishoy told activist Nader Shoukry of Freecopts the armed forces stormed the main entrance gate to the monastery in the morning using five tanks, armored vehicles and a bulldozer to demolish the fence built by the monastery last month to protect themselves and the monastery from the lawlessness which prevailed in Egypt during the January 25 Uprising.

“When we tried to address them, the army fired live bullets, wounding Father Feltaows in the leg and Father Barnabas in the abdomen,” said Monk Ava Bishoy. “Six Coptic workers in the monastery were also injured, some with serious injuries to the chest.” …

Father Hemanot Ava Bishoy said the army fired live ammunition and RPGs continuously for 30 minutes, which hit part of the ancient fence inside the monastery. “The army was shocked to see the monks standing there praying ‘Lord have mercy’ without running away. This is what really upset them,” he said. “As the soldiers were demolishing the gate and the fence they were chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and ‘Victory, Victory’.”

These are inflammatory and disturbing images, to say the least. The story includes similar reports from other monasteries, including more injuries from live ammunition and monks being beaten with batons by soldiers.

It is crucial, at this stage, to realize that there have been high-profile demonstrations in recent weeks in which many Muslims and Copts have stood together in calling for reform and for peace and cooperation between the vast majority of the nation that is Muslim and the 10 percent of the population that is Coptic, as well as members of Egypt’s other minority religions.

As always, however, it’s crucial to remember that there is no one Islam in this scene, including in the leadership of the nation’s army. That is a fact that is worthy of news coverage. Period.

One would hope that mainstream journalists would realize the intense symbolism of Egyptian soldiers attacking ancient monasteries that contain some of the land’s most treasured Christian icons, altars, relics and texts. Live ammunition used on monks who have attempted to guard the perimeter of their sanctuary? If there is another side to this report — and their might well be — journalists need to find it.

But here is the key: Let me know if you see a single mainstream news report that follows up on these attacks. Got news?

Alas, once again, these attacks seem to be material worthy of “Christian” or even “conservative” news, while mainstream journalists have not tuned in the reports. Here is a typical Google News search. Search around.

Well, there is this Associated Press report:

The deputy to Osama bin Laden issued al-Qaida’s second message since the Egyptian uprising, accusing the nation’s Christian leadership of inciting interfaith tensions and denying that the terror network was behind last month’s bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria that killed 21 and sparked protests.

The message Friday from Ayman al-Zawahri, the No. 2 leader of the terror network, comes amid renewed Muslim-Christian tension over the slaying of a Coptic priest and a dispute involving a monastery.

As with his first message, delivered Feb. 18, al-Zawahri in his new, 35-minute videotape makes no mention of the protests or Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power. Al-Qaida had advocated for the destruction of Mubarak’s regime — and al-Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor, was part of a failed militant uprising against the former president in the 1990s.

But the pro-democracy tone of the protests, led by secular liberals, contrasted greatly with the Islamic state al-Qaida envisions. In the latest video, al-Zawahri devoted much of the time to the Muslim-Christian divide. But he denied that his group was behind the Alexandria bombing, according to a transcript by the SITE Intel group, a U.S. group that monitors militant messages.

Ahead of the bombing, extremist Islamic websites affiliated with al-Qaida circulated lists of Coptic churches in Egypt and Europe — including one that was hit on New Year’s — along with instructions on how to attack them.

Egypt is a complex and dangerous place at the moment, even as the celebrations continue. Journalists attempting to find their way deeper into this coal mind might want to keep an eye on the canaries.

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Got News? Persecuted Christian edition

Sometimes I think back to August and September when most mainstream media outlets were obsessed about the construction of an Islamic Center near Ground Zero and/or the planned (but never realized) burning of a Koran by a leader of a small church in Florida. Everywhere the media looked, they saw Islamophobia and it became the overarching narrative adopted by many figures in the media.

It’s interesting to observe the media engaged in pack-like behavior and worth considering its causes and effects. Sometimes I wonder why the media just stopped covering the mosque in lower downtown Manhattan. Did it go away? No, but the media did.

In any case, there’s another story out there that is worthy of much more coverage. For some reason, almost all of the mainstream media have avoided it. I first learned of the plight of Said Musa, who is about to be killed by the Afghan government for converting to Christianity from Islam, from Paul Marshall’s post at National Review “America Quiet on the Execution of Afghan Christian Said Musa“:

Musa was one of about 25 Christians arrested on May 31, 2010, after a May 27 Noorin TV program showed video of a worship service held by indigenous Afghan Christians; he was arrested as he attempted to seek asylum at the German embassy. He converted to Christianity eight years ago, is the father of six young children, had a leg amputated after he stepped on a landmine while serving in the Afghan Army, and now has a prosthetic leg. His oldest child is eight and one is disabled (she cannot speak). He worked for the Red Cross/Red Crescent as an adviser to other amputees.

He was forced to appear before a judge without any legal counsel and without knowledge of the charges against him. “Nobody [wanted to be my] defender before the court. When I said ‘I am a Christian man,’ he [a potential lawyer] immediately spat on me and abused me and mocked me. . . . I am alone between 400 [people with] terrible values in the jail, like a sheep.” He has been beaten, mocked, and subjected to sleep deprivation and sexual abuse while in prison. No Afghan lawyer will defend him and authorities denied him access to a foreign lawyer.

While Marshall himself links to earlier attempts to draw attention to the matter, he notes that media coverage has been bizarre:

Newspapers in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe have reported the story, but with, the exception of the Wall Street Journal and, of course, NRO, American outlets have not found it worthy of attention.

You can read Said Musa’s plea for help (pictured above) from Christians worldwide, “President Brother Barak Obama President of the United States,” and the head of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan here. It is heartbreaking. (Other info here and here.)

The Wall Street Journal piece mentioned earlier was written in January and does a good job of laying out the fundamental issues. It tells about Said Musa as well as Shoaib Assadullah Musawi, who was arrested for giving a copy of a New Testament to his friend. The friend turned him in. The article explains the difficulties of being a Christian in Afghanistan and how the government, which has received so much funding and other aid from U.S. taxpayers, adopts similar or same policies to the Taliban. It explains why Hamid Karzai and his government support killing Christians, too:

Afghan officials have been unapologetic. “The sentence for a convert is death and there is no exception,” said Jamal Khan, chief of staff at the Ministry of Justice. “They must be sentenced to death to serve as a lesson for others.” Apostasy is a capital crime in Afghanistan, where the constitution is based on Shariah, or Islamic law.

That’s the way to write it out — just explain the positions of the various sides. One side thinks it’s wrong to imprison, abuse, torture and kill people for the free and peaceful expression of their faith. Another side views apostasy as a capital crime. Of course, we also need to know about the views in between. And I’m not just talking about those reform-minded Muslims who disagree with what Islam has to say about apostasy. Their voices, and the reasoning behind what they have to say, also should be included in these stories.

It also would be helpful to understand the variance on the other side of the equation. If you do a news search, you see that the people who seem to care about this situation are Christian news outlets and conservative media sites.

The same media outlets that obsessed over Terry Jones and his plans to burn a Koran don’t care about the destruction of a human life. If, as Marshall notes, the planned burning of a Koran led to a widespread media binge and a Presidential statement, certainly the destruction of a human life merits at least a little media coverage, right? What does it say that these stories have received such disparate coverage? It’s not like we can pretend that Americans aren’t interested — financially, politically and otherwise — in the lives of Afghans. Billions of dollars and 1,500 lives would indicate otherwise.

Maybe the media is too busy mocking folks from Oklahoma for their views on Sharia, I don’t know. But no matter the cause, the disparity in coverage of this situation and other recent stories is illuminating.

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Got news? Illegal Communion

As I have said many times here at GetReligion, I cannot think of a topic in my work for the Scripps Howard News Service that draws a higher rate of response from readers than columns I about changes in how believers worship — especially changes affecting the Church of Rome.

This leads me to the names of two men — Father Agustin Escobar and the Rev. Steve Whitney. If you put the names of these two clergymen into Google News you get precisely one Catholic media reference. If you do this again, with an ordinary Google search, you find lots of links, but they all lead you back into the world of Catholic media.

For me, this is curious.

You ask, “Why”?

“Good question,” saith this GetReligionista.

I am surprised that the controversial event that brought these two men together has not received coverage — any coverage — in the mainstream press. I am also surprised that it has not received any coverage in what you might call the “ecumenical press,” by which I mean news services linked to the National Council of Churches and the press agencies of Protestantism’s old guard churches, the “seven sisters” of oldline Christianity in America.

So what is the story? In terms of issues in Catholic tradition, we are dealing with a bizarre event, a high crime of liturgy. So here is the story in the California Catholic Daily.

Let us attend:

Some parishioners at St. Norbert’s Church in Orange describe themselves as “shocked and appalled” after a priest there allowed a Presbyterian minister to concelebrate a Mass and receive Holy Communion. …

Sources from the parish told California Catholic Daily that Fr. Agustin Escobar introduced Pastor Steve Whitney of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Sacramento at St. Norbert’s 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. The sources said Rev. Whitney concelebrated the Mass with Fr. Escobar, took Communion, and was allowed to distribute Communion to parishioners.

The parish’s pastor, Fr. Pat Rudolph, was away at the time and did not participate. Parishioners who tried to contact him about the situation were told he would not be back at St. Norbert’s until March. But, said sources at the parish, Fr. Escobar admitted he did not have the pastor’s permission to invite the Protestant minister to concelebrate Mass and receive Communion.

One parishioner fired off an angry email to Bishop Brown and other high-ranking diocesan officials, calling the occurrence at St. Norbert’s “a travesty.”

A shocked parishioner said that the priest was angry when confronted after the Mass, telling one woman that she wasn’t a “true Christian because Jesus would love everyone.”

Canon law is clear on the subject, making it clear that those who are not in full Communion with Rome are not to receive the consecrated bread and wine in the Mass. It goes without saying that clergy in these churches are not supposed to serve as priests in the rite, seeing as how they are not, well, Catholic priests.

The headline in this story is a classic example of understatement:

“Bishop Brown is disturbed by this”

Priest may be in hot water after allowing Protestant minister to concelebrate Mass, receive Communion at Orange County parish

“May be”? Say what?

Now, I realize that this seems rather “inside baseball.” Why do we need mainstream coverage?

Would the story get covered if Catholic officials, acting under orders of Pope Benedict XVI shut down a service of this kind? Of course. Will it be news if Rome tells the bishop to restrict the ministry of this priest? Of course. What if it turns out, oh, that this Presbyterian pastor is an activist linked to same-sex marriage rites? Will raise this event to the status of mainstream news? Of course.

Will it be a story if the bishop ignores this all together, seeking to calm the waters and save face? Uh, that’s kind of my point.

For practicing Catholics this is an interesting story, at the very least. For traditional Catholics it is an outright scandal. But here is the question that haunts me: What was going on here? What were these two pastors doing? What did they think they were doing? In other words, what’s the story here?

Bizarre. Interesting. Poignant. Plain old weird.

News? Apparently not.

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Got news? Islamic games rating system

Occasionally we’ll see stories where video games and religion collide, where a game might feature religion or a country might ban certain games if deemed religiously offensive.

For instance, one of my favorite stories includes one from last year about how a company hired a group to protest Dante’s Inferno, paying them to hold signs such as “Hell is not a Video Game” and “Trade in Your PlayStation for a PrayStation.” Believable, right?

Now we have a case where a group is trying to rate games for an entire religious body. Kotaku, a video game blog in the Gawker network, posts this interesting tidbit about how a group in the Middle East has launched a ratings system for games based on the tenets of the Islamic faith.

This makes it a world first, a system aimed at transcending national borders and laws and appealing directly to the parents and guardians of Muslims all over the world, regardless of which country they live in or which laws they live under.

The ratings body is called the Entertainment Software Rating Association, and “rates the content of…games based on parameters such as violence, promoting tobacco or drugs, sexual diversity [and] nudity”, according to a release issued by the group. As a result, “the rating system is designed based on the culture, society and the special values of Islam”.

What’s unclear is how these ratings will differ from the Entertainment Software Rating Board. For instance, when I look at the back of Mass Effect 2, it says that it’s rated Mature for blood, drug reference, sexual content, strong language and violence. The post’s author Luke Plunkett notes this and explains how it might differ.

“The approach of Islam is based on Human being innateness “Al Fitra”, and the most important innate trends are truth, virtue, benevolence, excellence tendency, innovation and creativity” he told attendants at the Dubai World Game Expo yesterday. “That’s why we made sure that ESRA team are proficient in these areas; Religion, Psychopathology, Educational psychology, Social psychology, Sociology of the family, Family Sociology, Emotional Psychology, Family therapy and Educational technology.”

As a freshly-launched initiative, there’s little other information on ESRA, though you’d imagine that it will mainly operate as an online reference for Muslim parents. That said, if ESRA ratings can be printed off on stickers and handed out to retailers in the relevant regions, there’s no reason it couldn’t also be used on game boxes not just in Islamic countries, but in any area there would be enough Muslim customers to make it worth their while.

The National, a government-owned newspaper in Abu Dhabi, published a report with a few examples of how it will assess the minimum age for each game: 6, 12, 15, 18 or 25.

Several games have fallen foul of regional moral standards in recent years. The Grand Theft Auto series, for example, was banned because it depicted prostitution, gambling and alcohol.

Dr Minaei said there were games that depicted Muslims as terrorists, while others were frightening for younger players.

He said the top age bracket was necessary because “there is a difference between an 18-year-old Muslim and a 25-year-old”. The latter, he said, “is more than likely married and some games are more suitable towards married people”.

After a little searching, it appears that the Entertainment Software Rating Association has been around for a few years now as the governmental rating system used in Iran. So is this group trying to branch out beyond Iran and become the definitive ratings system for all of Islam? Perhaps other reporters might do a little digging and find out whether this might have any impact on the gaming industry.

Cultures are sensitive to games, so occasionally you might see a game altered for a specific context. For instance, the use of the name “brahmin” was banned in India from Fallout 3. A few years ago, millions of copies of a game called Little Big Planet were withdrawn from warehouses after portions of the Koran were found in the accompanying music. As tmatt previously noted, “It does appear that ideas, yes, and beliefs, often have consequences–even in the digital world of virtual reality.”

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Rubio’s church life? It’s complicated

Three weeks ago, we enjoyed an interesting “Got news?” discussion concerning Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio’s religious affiliation.

That post delved into questions concerning a Roman Catholic politician who attends — and contributes tens of thousands of dollars to — a megachurch affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Regular GetReligion reader and Tennessean religion writer Bob Smietana earned “Quip of the Month” honors (or should have) with this response to that post:

This is the perfect American religion story. Here’s a candidate who says he’s Catholic but goes to a Baptist church which doesn’t have Baptist in its name.

After the GetReligion post, religion reporter David Gibson wrote a compelling piece for Politics Daily. Still, it surprised me that none of the major dead-tree news organizations picked up the story, especially given Rubio’s high-profile status as a freshman senator-elect already mentioned as a potential presidential candidate.

Over the weekend, though, New York Times religion writer Mark Oppenheimer stepped into the fray with a “Beliefs” column headlined “Marco Rubio: Catholic or Protestant?” In terms of the key question itself, Oppenheimer’s column fails to deliver a definitive answer, instead relying — out of necessity — on the now-standard response from Rubio’s spokesman:

Marco Rubio, the charismatic senator-elect from Florida, is in many ways similar to other Cuban-American politicians from his home state: conservative, Republican and a “practicing and devout Roman Catholic,” in the words of his spokesman, one who “regularly attends Catholic Mass” and “was baptized, confirmed and married in the Roman Catholic Church.”

But while Mr. Rubio, 39, presented himself on his Florida Statehouse Web site and in interviews as a Roman Catholic, bloggers and journalists have noted since his election that he regularly worships at an evangelical megachurch whose theology is plainly at odds with Catholic teaching.

While the Times offers no new insight on how Rubio himself views his dual Catholic/Protestant allegiances, the piece does an excellent job of explaining why the distinction is important — and why it isn’t.

Why is it important? Oppenheimer highlights precise reasons and lists specific unanswered questions:

Christ Fellowship, which has five campuses and draws about 6,000 worshipers on a typical weekend, is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and its beliefs include several that are alien to Catholicism.

Southern Baptists practice adult rather than infant baptism, for example. They do not recognize the authority of the pope. And the Christ Fellowship statement of beliefs says the bread and wine of communion are merely “symbolic,” thus do not become Christ’s body and blood, as Catholics believe.

As for Mr. Rubio’s involvement with Catholicism, his spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the senator-elect gives money to the Archdiocese of Miami; whether he agrees with Catholic teachings that suggest Protestants are in error; and whether he belongs to a Catholic parish, as most observant Catholics would.

Why isn’t it important? Again, Oppenheimer offers relevant analysis (and for copyright reasons, I’ll refrain from copying and pasting all of it, but do be sure to read the whole thing):

Fernand Amandi, whose Florida firm, Bendixen & Amandi, specializes in Hispanic opinion polling, says that among the population, few seem to care that Mr. Rubio is partaking of two religious identities.

“I don’t think there is any such consciousness of it at all,” Mr. Amandi said. “If he came out as an atheist, there would probably be a huge backlash,” but within Christianity “the Hispanic community is respectful enough of diversity that I don’t think this matters.”

A 2008 study by Trinity College, in Hartford, found that from 1990 to 2008 the proportion of American Hispanics identifying as Catholic fell substantially, to 60 percent from 66 percent. The study also found that the longer a Hispanic has lived in the United States, the less likely he or she is to be Catholic. And the non-Catholics are more likely to identify as Republicans.

Oppenheimer packs a bunch of facts and context into a relatively short space (an 850-word column). Short of the Times snagging an interview with Rubio himself on his faith and religious beliefs, this is a nice step forward in the (until now, scant) mainstream media narrative.

My only qualm with the Times piece: In the final paragraph, Oppenheimer wraps up the issue in an easy little package and ties a bow on it:

It may never be clear whether Mr. Rubio is more Catholic or Protestant. The question itself reduces a complex experience, human religiosity, to simple terms. What may be clear from this story — call it The Case of the First Catholic Protestant Senator — is that in America, religious distinctions matter less all the time.

It’s a column, so Oppenheimer is entitled to his point of view. But this statement struck me: In America, religious distinctions matter less all the time.

A fair statement? Or wishful thinking? What say ye, GetReligion readers?

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Got news? Is Marco Rubio really a Catholic?

As I watched CNN’s Election Night coverage last week, my GetReligion antenna immediately shot up when I heard the first part of Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio’s victory speech:

Let me begin tonight by acknowledging a simple but profound truth. We are all children of a powerful and great God. Of a God who isn’t always going to end — things are not always going to end up the way you want them. His will is not always going to be yours.

But I promise you this. No matter what you face in life, he will give you the strength to go through it. I bear witness to that tonight as so many of you do in your own lives and must always be acknowledged in everything we do and everywhere we go.

As political junkies know, the Tea Party favorite with Cuban-American roots makes no secret of his faith. He’s an avowed Roman Catholic (see his religious affiliation on his Florida House profile and on this CQ Politics candidate profile on Yahoo). A Catholic Advocate profile last February featured this headline:

Marco Rubio, A Catholic Candidate Who Will Not Compromise

RenewAmerica blogger Eric Giunta writes:

Mr. Rubio has long represented himself as a practicing Catholic, both at his once-official webpage at the Florida House and personally to a good friend of mine, who met him last year at a campaign stop in Tallahassee. I also know that the Catholic clergy of Tallahassee are under the impression Rubio was, and is, one of their own.

Apparently, the only thing not Catholic about Rubio is the church that he attends.

In the aftermath of Rubio’s election, UK Telegraph religion journalist Damian Thompson created a stir, particularly among Catholic blog sites, by questioning Rubio’s religious affiliation (first here and then here). In his first post, Thompson complained:

I assumed until this morning that Marco Rubio, the pro-life new senator-elect from Florida, was a Catholic. That’s because I kept reading in articles that he was “a conservative Roman Catholic.” Then I came across this curious article from Politics Daily which (without apparently realising that it is doing so) reveals that he has abandoned the faith of his Cuban parents:

Here are the pertinent parts of that Politics Daily item from just before the election:

What is Marco Rubio’s religion?

Rubio is a Roman Catholic.

Where does Marco Rubio worship?

Though he is Catholic, Rubio belongs to the Christ Fellowship nondenominational Church in West Kendall, Fla., where he has attended for the last six years.

As Thompson noted, Rubio has not hidden the fact that he attends Christ Fellowship Church. The St. Petersburg Times reported in May that Rubio gave $66,000 to charity between 2000 and 2008, much of it going to Christ Fellowship Church. A profile of Rubio by the evangelical World magazine reported in August:

Rubio turned to faith and family when trying to determine whether he wanted to run for the right reasons. “For those who have the Christian faith and are in politics, there is a constant struggle between a desire to do what is right and how that sometimes may not coincide with what is popular,” said Rubio, a Roman Catholic whose family has spent the last six years attending a Miami-area nondenominational church, Christ Fellowship. “I hope that, more often than not, I make the right choice.”

Now about that non-denominational church. Sometimes, non-denominational means that a church is not affiliated with a denomination. Sometimes, though, non-denominational means that we live in a world where denominational labels turn off potential congregants.

In the case of Christ Fellowship, the West Kendall church’s beliefs page includes this note at the top:

Christ Fellowship is aligned doctrinally and cooperatively in missions locally, nationally, and globally with the Southern Baptist Convention.

As you may be aware, the Southern Baptist Convention is a rather prominent denomination. (A bit off topic, but I remember writing about Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, a non-Baptist SBC church, during my time with The Associated Press in Dallas.)

Back to Rubio, a key question seems to be: Is Florida’s Roman Catholic senator-elect really a Southern Baptist? A related question: Does this matter? One Catholic blogger said he liked a commenter who suggested:

“Get back to me when he claims to be a Christian but is actually a Muslim.”

In other Catholic circles, though, there is a clamoring for more details on Rubio’s faith and what he believes (click here and here for two examples). As Giunta put it:

Still, one’s religious affiliation does matter; voters have a right to know what informs the ideology and worldview of their elected leaders, and to take religious affiliation into account when determining who to give their vote to. There’s also a question of honesty.

What are mainstream media reports saying about the brouhaha over Rubio’s religious affiliation? So far, as best I can tell, nothing. Hmmmmm, it certainly sounds like news to me. If I’ve missed any relevant news reports, by all means, please share the links in the comments section.

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Got news? Freedom, China and Lausanne

With the election finally over, I’m slowly emerging from the bunker at my newspaper in Washington, D.C. I work for an editorial page, and while I don’t strictly cover politics, obviously it has dominated the news for the last few months. I’ve been wanting to discuss something here for a while, but I’m just now getting around to it.

The week before the election, I got a brief respite from cataloging the minute-to-minute happenings of the 472 congressional elections. My editor, knowing I was interested in issues related to religious freedom, suggested I do a story on the 3rd Lausanne Congress that was just held in Capetown, South Africa. So I wrote it up.

The Congress was first organized by Billy Graham in 1974 and named after the town in Switzerland where it was held. The event brought together 2,700 Christians from more than 150 countries. The most recent Lausanne Congress was bigger than ever, according to the press release:

This Congress, perhaps the widest and most diverse gathering of Christians ever held in the history of the Church, drew 4,000 selected participants from 198 nations. Organizers extended its reach into over 650 GlobaLink sites in 91 countries and drew 100,000 unique visits to its web site from 185 countries during the week of the Congress.

The big news out of this year’s congress was that China barred leaders of China’s rapidly growing “house churches” from attending the conference. To their credit, both The New York Times and NPR both did stories on the Chinese authorities keeping House Church leaders from leaving the country. Both stories did good job of getting the contours of the religious freedom debate in China right, explaining the difference between “house churches” and the state-sponsored Christian churches. Even though I had the luxury of writing a column on the topic, I wrote it up (reasonably) straight. Here’s how I handled it in my piece:

China has only three state-sanctioned Christian groups — the China Christian Council, Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

There is a palpable difference between the house church Christians and the state Christian churches, said Michael Cromartie, former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“We went to China and met with those [state church] types. They were what you would expect a government religious leader to be, which is a totally government-controlled religious leader,” Cromartie said.

“The idea of sending house church people who the government does not trust to be encouraged in the faith and refortified by going to a meeting of 4,000 evangelicals from around the world is probably appalling to the Chinese government,” he said.

But interestingly enough, the Times and NPR articles were dated October 15 and October 14, respectively. That’s before the conference even began. As far as I can tell, my column was just about the only mainstream report on how the congress responded to the absence of the Chinese religious leaders:

Some 4,000 evangelical Christians from around the world had planned to highlight China’s burgeoning church on Oct. 18, the first full day of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism in Capetown, South Africa.

The 200 Chinese evangelicals selected to attend the Congress were the second largest national delegation at the conference, and, in anticipation of the event, they supplied the Congress’s leadership with a special song for the occasion, “The Lord’s Love for China.”

When the special day arrived, however, the 4,000 voices of Lausanne sang the “The Lord’s Love for China” next to 200 hundred empty seats.

Members of the Chinese delegation never left the airport after their government seized their passports and sent them home.

I also spoke to Lausanne leaders to get their perspective on the absence of the Chinese delegation and reported that Lausanne’s internet uplink was hacked while the conference was going on. Organizers noted that there were other contributing factors to their internet problems, but a cyberattack certainly fits the M.O. of the Chinese government.

Now I can’t brag that I’m some amazing shoe leather reporter for writing about all of this, because, man, did the religious press cover the heck out of what happened in Capetown (a small sampling of the coverage). I thought Christianity Today’s online coverage in particular was good. I suppose that’s why our own Sarah Pulliam, who works for that publication, was cognizant enough to mention the event in her post on China from yesterday.

But given the size of the event and the controversy, I’m really shocked that more secular and mainstream news outlets didn’t cover this event much more extensively.

In particular, what happened here has a great deal of relevance to the flare ups from earlier this year over the Obama administration’s alleged negligence regarding religious freedom issues. And the house church vs. state-sponsored church conflict in China speaks directly to the criticism the Obama administration has received for toning down their religious freedom rhetoric from “freedom of religion” to calling for “freedom of worship.” (For what it’s worth, Frank Lockwood offers up a defense of the administration on this point here.)

Regardless, the events at Lausanne speak to the bigger issue of religious freedom that I think is important to all Americans, not just the 4,000 evangelicals who hopped a plane to South Africa. I was able to put the congress in the broader context in my column, but regrettably not able to explore this theme at length.

Quite frankly, I was hoping for some back-up from my professional peers.

Speaking of which, you’ll note in my article I also called the State Department to ask for a comment on the incident. To the extent that journalists serve as watchdogs, it would have been nice if enough journalists had called Foggy Bottom’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor so that they felt compelled to explain what they thought of the Chinese government’s crackdown on house church leaders and how it relates to their efforts to promote religious freedom. Instead, it was probably pretty easy for the State Department to blow off my lone phone call on the matter, which is what exactly what they did.

If there was any good mainstream coverage that I missed, let me know. But all in all, I’m really disappointed the Lausanne Congress was so under covered.

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Don’t ask, don’t tell, deja vu

“It’s like deja vu all over again,” Yogi Berra said, or something to that effect.

For some reason, I thought of that quote as I read an excellent Associated Press story on the potential impact on military chaplains of repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The byline on the story is Tom Breen — a North Carolina-based AP newsman whose religion reporting has drawn past praise from your GetReligionistas.

Here’s the top of Breen’s story, which included contributions other AP writers:

Dozens of retired military chaplains say that serving both God and the U.S. armed forces will become impossible for chaplains whose faiths consider homosexuality a sin if the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is thrown out.

If a chaplain preaches against homosexuality, he could conceivably be disciplined as a bigot under the military’s nondiscrimination policy, the retired chaplains say. The Pentagon, however, says chaplains’ religious beliefs and their need to express them will be respected.

Clergy would be ineligible to serve as chaplains if their churches withdraw their endorsements, as some have threatened to do if “don’t ask, don’t tell” ends. Critics of allowing openly gay troops fear that clergy will leave the service or be forced to find other jobs in the military that don’t involve their faiths.

“The bottom line is religious freedom,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Douglas Lee, one of 65 former chaplains who signed a letter urging President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to keep “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

That’s a newsy, straightforward approach to an important topic. It’s a meaty, 1,300-word report. And it’s an angle that, as our own tmatt lamented a week ago, had failed to draw much mainstream media attention.

The head GetReligion guru asked last week:

This is a story, right?

Indeed, the AP answered a few days later.

Not only that, but the AP pursued almost precisely the same angle that tmatt tackled in a recent Scripps Howard News Service column that began like this:

The setting: The office of a priest who serves as a military chaplain.

The time: This hypothetical encounter occurs soon after the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that forbids gays, lesbians and bisexuals to openly serve in America’s armed forces.

The scene: An officer requests counseling about tensions with her same-sex partner as they prepare for marriage. The priest says this would be inappropriate, since his church teaches that sex outside of marriage is sin and that the sacrament of marriage is reserved for unions of a man and a woman.

The priest offers to refer her to a chaplain at another base who represents a church that performs same-sex rites. The officer accepts, but is less than pleased at the inconvenience.

What happens next? That question is driving the tense church-state debates that continue behind the scenes of the political drama that surrounds “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“If the government normalizes homosexual behavior in the armed forces, many (if not most) chaplains will confront a profoundly difficult moral choice: whether they are to obey God or to obey men,” stated a September letter from 60-plus retired chaplains to President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

What’s that old saying (and I don’t think Yogi Berra is the source of this one) about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery?

Consider yourself flattered, tmatt. Source by source, it’s almost the same story.

The key question (and there’s no real way to answer it): When was this AP story written? How long has it been on some editor’s cyber shelf?

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