Who are Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal?

CompassTurkeyDuring this busy week, I have been watching to see if two men’s names showed up, at any point, in Google News.

I mean showed up in mainstream news sites, not the sites that care about issues like religious liberty. Of course, once upon a time, we could assume that, as a rule, journalists tended to care quite a bit about issues like free speech and the rights of oppressed minority groups. Where is A.M. Rosenthal when you need him?

Anyway, the names are Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal (left to right in the photo).

You can find out why they are important by flashing back to an AsiaNews report from earlier this month.

But I have been watching to see if their names surfaced in coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey. Why? To answer that question we have to turn to some form of advocacy media — like this Compass Direct report by veteran journalist Barbara G. Baker (a friend of this blog), which was, thank goodness, picked up by Baptist Press.

To cut to the chase, these two men continue to be accused of “insulting Turkishness” because they have, as evangelicals, tried to do evangelical things. You know, the kinds of basic free-speech activities that people can do in countries that are part of the European Union. I think.

Formally the two Christians are charged with violating Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, under which scores of Turkish intellectuals and writers have been prosecuted in the past 18 months for allegedly denigrating “Turkish identity.” The former Muslims also are accused under separate statutes of reviling Islam (Article 216), as well as secretly compiling files on private citizens for a Bible correspondence course without the individuals’ knowledge or permission (Article 135).

“We don’t use force to tell anyone about Christianity,” Tastan said. “But we are Christians, and if the Lord permits, we will continue to proclaim this.”

Describing himself and Topal as “citizens of the Republic of Turkey who love its democratic, secular system,” Tastan emphasized that he and Topal had nothing to hide in defending themselves in court. “We are not ashamed to be Turks. We are not ashamed to be Christians.”

Now, what does this sound like from the other side of the issue, from the side of the rising tide of — depending on who is doing the labeling — the “ultranationalists” or in some cases “Islamists.” Are the Christian men anti-secularist or anti-Islam? Which label will get you jailed or killed quickest?

The attorney pushing to silence Tastan and Topal is Kemal Kerincsiz:

“Christian missionaries working almost like terrorist groups are able to enter into high schools and among primary school students,” Kerincsiz told reporters. “They deceive our children with beautiful young girls.”

At this, one Turkish Christian in the crowd shouted, “He’s lying!” Several nationalist demonstrators reacted violently, starting to shove the converts’ supporters and hitting one. But police promptly intervened to detain and remove the attacker, releasing him a few minutes later.

The Christian who had been struck also was detained briefly by the authorities, who questioned him and then photocopied his identity card before releasing him.

. . . By this time, a group of local nationalists had unfurled a banner in front of the cameras reading, “Missionaries: Keep your hands off our schools and children.”

There’s a lot more to read. Here is my question: Why isn’t this mainstream news if the back story to the papal visit is Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union and, well, the Western world built on some form of rule of law? I am glad that “Christian news agencies” cover these stories, believe me. I respect the work they do. But why do I need to read about this religious-liberty issue on “religious” news sites?

I want to read about this in the elite MSM newspapers and wire services. It’s news.

Right? Does religious liberty matter? Does free speech matter? How about the freedom of assembly? And isn’t this linked, in a way, with the freedom of the press?

Photo from Compass Direct News.

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Covering two stories at the same time

img home togetherDue to a busy class schedule, I have not had the time to address much of the new coverage of the liturgical meetings between Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, celebrating the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. I think most of the symbolism and the substance in those meetings will be included in the major stories tomorrow and I should be able to catch up a bit.

Meanwhile, you can see some of the major texts and a collection of stunning official photographs at the official website of the patriarchate. You can also find materials at the Vatican home page and at EWTN.org.

However, I want to address a question raised in the comments pages.

Tmatt, would you grant that while the Orthodox-Catholic discussion is important theologically, any objective person looking at the world scene today would have to say the Catholic-Islam dynamic (and within that, the push for reciprocity for the Orthodox community) is far more important in its ramifications? In that sense, I don’t think Time really missed the big picture.

Posted by Jens at 11:07 pm on November 29, 2006

This is an important question, especially since some GetReligion readers may be thinking that I want the mainstream press to focus on the ecumenical side of this story because of my own interest in the topic, since I am a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.

As I wrote earlier this week, it’s clear that stories linked to the pope and Islam will be hot, even if not much happens on that front. I know that and I agree that this story is important.

Nevertheless, my point was that we had reason to hope that mainstream reporters would not — as that one Time report did — lock in on the Islam issue and ignore the original purpose of the trip, which was the pope’s desire to reach out to Eastern Orthodoxy as part of a move to promote the human rights of minority groups in Turkey. This story, in turn, is linked to another major issue — whether Turkey will ever enter the European Union. In fact, I would arge that the question of whether Turkey can enforce the rule of law and defend essential human rights is the key issue in the EU debates (along with a rising Islamist tide in Turkey).

I am happy to report that it is possible to blend coverage of both of these major stories into one report. Three cheers for the New York Times report today that did precisely that. And the Los Angeles Times report by Tracy Wilkinson was especially graceful in its inclusion of nice details.

So here is the essence of one major theme in the Los Angeles Times story:

The day saw the pope shifting his focus from Muslim reconciliation to Christian solidarity. The Vatican on Wednesday also responded to a statement from Al Qaeda in Iraq denouncing the “crusader campaign” of the pope in Turkey as an affront to Islam. Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said such threats were precisely the reason violence must be separated from religion, which he said was the core of the pope’s message. Lombardi added that the pope was not worried about the threat.

Then there is the second major theme that needs to be reported. The story ends with a look at the first of the liturgical encounters between the pope and the patriarch.

The two religious leaders, in flowing robes and sparkling capes, followed a procession of priests who held long candles the color of honey and sent wafts of smoky incense into the air.

The city called Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire for nearly a millennium, and the center of eastern Christianity. Turkey today is a country of about 70 million Muslims. Christians are dwindling in number, to perhaps 100,000, and those that remain complain of harassment and discrimination. Among the problems they suffer are severe restrictions on their ability to buy and sell property and run schools to train their clergy.

… The dilemma for Benedict is that as he offers support for Christians he risks again offending the Muslims he is seeking to engage.

I especially like that, at the end, Wilkinson does precisely what needs to be done — linking the two topics. It is hard to defend the rights of minorities — especially Christians — in a supposedly secular Muslim state that has to worry about the rising rage of an Islamist minority in its midst.

Well done.

Photo from the press pages at Patriarchate.org.

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Time, Newsweek in early schism over the pope

Nicaea iconWow. Reader Janette Kok dropped us a note noting the radical difference taken in the Time‘s article on the papal trip to Turkey, in comparison to that in Newsweek, which, in fairness, was written by a ringer — Catholic scholar George Weigel.

The Newsweek piece is about the important ecumenical trip the pope planned long ago that has been changed, radically, by the tempest over his remarks about Christianity, Islam and human reason.

The Time piece by Jeff Israely focuses totally on Islam and politics, with little or no content on the original papal goal of pushing for human rights and religious liberty in Turkey (with a special emphasis on the plight of Orthodox Christians). Everything starts with the headline, which is “The Pope Tones Down His Act in Turkey — Long known for his rigid thinking, Benedict XVI shows new flexibility in trying to mend fences in the wake of his controversial speech about Islam.”

No, I didn’t make that up. Read the article for yourself.

Meanwhile, one of the early Associated Press reports contains a fine, concise paragraph of statistics — a wire-service basic — and then a historical paragraph that is, to say the least, puzzling or incomplete.

First the statistics:

Of Turkey’s 70 million people, some 65,000 are Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 are Roman Catholic, and 3,500 are Protestant, mostly converts from Islam. Another 2,000 are Greek Orthodox and 23,000 are Jewish. The European Union has called on Turkey to expand religious freedoms.

So far, so good. Then comes this:

The pope planned to travel to Istanbul later Wednesday to meet Bartholomew I, leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. The two major branches of Christianity represented by Bartholomew and Benedict split in 1054 over differences in opinion on the power of the papacy. The two spiritual heads will meet in an attempt to breach the divide and reunite the churches.

Well now. Papal authority certainly was an issue, but I think the great ecumenical schism was a bit more complex than that and it involved more than “opinion.” Click here for background. However, I will admit that this question looms in a discussion of wire-service coverage of complex theological issues: How many newspaper readers have heard of the Nicene Creed, let alone the filioque clause?

Meanwhile, does anyone on either side of the schism think that the pope and the patriarch are actually meeting “in an attempt to breach the divide and reunite the churches”? That’s overstating the matter a bit.

By the way, has anyone seen MSM coverage noting that the leadership of the massive Greek Orthodox Church may have a different take on Turkey entering the European Union than the tiny church that remains based in Istanbul? Greece is not a minor country in the Orthodox East.

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Christ-free Christmas? Don’t blame Islam

trafal guysndolls 011I heard something interesting last summer while I was over in Oxford helping lead a seminar on press freedom and blasphemy.

A veteran British thinker told me something interesting. Obviously, the whole concept of multiculturalism — often simply called “multicult” — has continued to gain power in Great Britain. The question was, “Just how powerful is multicult going to become?”

In many ways, this boiled down to the issue of how well the Island of the Mighty would learn to deal with the growing Islamic presence in its midst.

Could multicult trump academic freedom? Just try to find courses on textual criticism of the Koran (as opposed to the Old and New Testaments).

Could multicult trump artistic freedom? That’s an easy one too.

Then things got tougher on the secular British left.

Could multicult trump feminism? That, I was told, has come to pass. But what would happen when multicult took on sexual freedom? Was it possible that multicult could trump even that? Would some segments of the British and, yes, the European left even back away from confronting Islam on that precious issue? I don’t know, let’s ask Theo van Gogh and Hirsi Ali.

But this past week, reporter Paul Majendie of Reuters wrote a story that raised an even more interesting issue. What would happen when multicult actually clashed with Islam itself? What if the drive to wash away many of the traditions of Great Britain actually reached the point where Muslims began to be offended or began to fear some kind of backlash? Here’s the lede:

LONDON — Christian and Muslim Britons joined forces yesterday to tell city officials to stop taking the Christianity out of Christmas, warning them that this simply fuels a backlash against Muslims. They attacked local authorities who used titles such as “Winterval” for their Christmas celebrations and avoided using Christian symbols in case they offended minority groups, especially Muslims and Hindus.

The question of how best to integrate Muslims into European society, which has Christian roots but is increasingly secular, has become a burning issue, with Britain playing its part in the debate after years of promoting multiculturalism. The Christian Muslim Forum, set up by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Church of England, complained that taking the Christian message out of Christmas played into the hands of extreme nationalists who then accuse Muslims of undermining Britain’s Christian culture.

“The desire to secularize religious festivals is in itself offensive to both our communities,” said Ataullah Siddiqui, vice chairman of the forum.

Anglican Bishop of Bolton David Gillett said that when local authorities rename Christmas so as not to offend other religions, their stance “will tend to backfire badly on the Muslim community in particular.”

manageremptyIs it possible that Islam has a more favorable view of Jesus and his mother Mary than the mainstream British multicult authorities who think they are trying to discern the true wishes of Islam? This is, after all, England — not Saudi Arabia.

Now this is a Christmas wars story worth following, certainly more complex and interesting than the Merry Christmas standoffs that are already making headlines on this side of the Atlantic. But here come the Christmas wars stories, like them or not.

So thank you to the GetReligion readers who are already sending URLs for early Christmas stories.

But folks, that’s just too easy. Let’s raise the bar. Look for the really good stories and the really bad ones. Let’s look for news coverage, like this Reuters story from London, that breaks new ground — for good or ill. Here we go.

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Sports reporters turning to God

ray lewisThe domain of sports reporting often overlaps into religion, and appropriately so. The best sports reporting focuses on people, and people are often religious.

I always find it interesting when sports reporters decide to put the religion issue front and center. Was the religious element front and center in the subject’s life? Or is religion front and center in the reporter’s life? Or a combination of the two?

Two religion-in-sports stories caught our attention recently. First, GetReligion reader Bill Caraher pointed us to last week’s Sports Illustrated cover piece on Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. The cover art is clear on what this piece is about, and anyone who has a scant idea of Ray Lewis’s background would understand the clashing of symbols and stories.

Where to start with this piece? Caraher suggests that we look at the end, which contains some not so subtle language that I think nips at the idea that journalists often see the athletes they cover as some type of modern-day heroes whose stories have the potential to change lives:

“What do y’all want me to do, seriously?” Lewis says of his critics. “The thing you’ve praised me for — being a courageous leader — is the same thing y’all trying to crucify me for now. I’m doing what you want, to say, ‘Dammit, I’m not going to put up with this!’ and suddenly [the team] said, ‘Ray wanted to talk about money.’ I never played this game for money, but now I do?”

Yes, there’s that word again: crucify. It’s no slip. Lewis won’t go so far as to call himself the Second Coming, but he’s close to believing himself a prophet of sorts, and if martyrdom is the price, so be it. “God has me to do what people are afraid to do: tell the truth,” he says. “Yes, racism does exist. Hatred exists every day. I’m not afraid. The worst thing that could happen to me — and I don’t see it as the worst — is to be killed and go to heaven.”

Delusional? Maybe. There are many who won’t take kindly to Ray Lewis, of all people, telling them how to live. After Baltimore’s season-opening win at Tampa Bay this season, three of Lewis’s sons were standing outside the Ravens’ locker room, their dad’s name and number on their backs. A woman walked up to their mother and, speaking just above their heads, hissed, “I can’t believe you let your kids wear that murderer’s jersey.”

It’s a story of a redeemed and reformed modern-day athlete that focuses as much on Lewis’ religious convictions as his own self-absorption and hero status. Lewis is the one who is booed when he enters stadiums. Lewis is the one who has reformed his life by turning to God. The story is sadly more about Lewis than it is about God.

Revelation 195Stepping over to the National Basketball Association, ESPN.com’s Sam Alipour got to spend some time with Lamar Odom of the Los Angeles Lakers, who has his own redemption story to tell.

While this piece deals with some random theological issues, it’s largely because Odom’s new line of T-shirts were deemed controversial by Alipour, who took issue with the shirt’s image of Jesus Christ.

I wouldn’t want to get in a street fight with the dude whose image is emblazed on Lamar Odom’s soon to be unveiled T-shirt line. And that’s partly because it’s the image of The Dude, himself. Jesus, with “white like wool” hair, eyes of “blazing fire” and feet — or, in this case, face — of “burnished bronze.” So, is it extreme? According to Odom’s interpretation of Revelation, Chapter 1, Verses 14 and 15, it’s accurate.

. . . “The book says his hair was ‘white like wool,’ which doesn’t sound like long stringy hair to me,” he explains. “It doesn’t talk about blue eyes. Hopefully, these shirts will be a big-time history lesson as well. The description of Jesus in the Bible is never used. He made people nervous, scared. He didn’t look ordinary.”

What, eyeballs of raging fire aren’t ordinary?

“Yeah, the first thing people say is why’s there fire in his eyes? It’s kind of demonic,” Odom admits. “But if you read the Bible verse, I don’t think the Son of Man will be too happy when he returns. The world has been flipped upside down.”

Well, that’s interesting. It’s also interesting that Alipour never made it clear what Odom’s beliefs are. We just know he is spiritual. And that’s great, if that’s all he is, except he decided to skip over a major religion issues that could have produced some interesting, or maybe not so interesting, commentary on the potential intersection of Islam and Christianity in Odom’s life:

Odom has made it his mission to educate himself on the world’s religions, including enlisting the guidance of a Muslim cleric and family friend to learn about Islam. The lesson was driven home when Odom visited Istanbul, Turkey, during the ’04 Olympics.

“There’s unity in Istanbul, where 99 percent are Muslim,” Odom says. “In America, we’re divided, even within Christianity. Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists — there’s no unity. Too often, religion means infighting and holy wars and territory.”

It’s great to focus on Odom’s depiction of “The Dude” on T-shirts, but if we don’t know what Odom actually believes, we’re all left hanging.

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Breeding is believing

cassatMolly Moore, who writes about France for The Washington Post, filed a report on French fertility. It is an anecdote-driven, uncritical look at French regulations’ effect on working mothers. It’s a bit light on data for being so heavy on conjecture, but here’s the nut:

While falling birthrates threaten to undermine economies and social stability across much of an aging Europe, French fertility rates are increasing. France now has the second-highest fertility rate in Europe — 1.94 children born per woman, exceeded slightly by Ireland’s rate of 1.99. The U.S. fertility rate is 2.01 children.

. . . But the propensity of women here to have more babies has little to do with notions of French romance or the population’s formerly strong religious ties to the Roman Catholic Church.

France heavily subsidizes children and families from pregnancy to young adulthood with liberal maternity leaves and part-time work laws for women.

The article describes how the many labor regulations make it easier for professional women to have children. And we all should know that regulations incentivize behavior. In other words, if you pay a woman to have a child, she’ll be more likely to do so. This is why American regulations that gave single mothers — but not married women — access to welfare ended up incentivizing women to stay single. This is also why a wonderful restaurateur in Paris told me he had a hard time finding employees since unemployment benefits were so high.

But is this all about incentivizing women to have children? Does this really have nothing to do with religion? Let’s get the biggest ghost in this story out of the way. What is the second-largest religion in France, practiced by as many as 5 to 10 percent of the population, according to the CIA World Factbook? And what do we know about the fertility rates of these folks?

Let’s look at another story about fertility, this one written by Eric Kauffman for The Prospect. The whole piece is great, arguing that demography favors the fertile. And the fertile are religious. Here’s a bit about the ghost:

[I]t is difficult to predict what proportion of Europe’s population will be of non-European descent in the future because few European countries collect census data on ethnicity and religion. The occasionally cited figure of 30 per cent ethnic minorities in western Europe by 2050 is little more than an educated guess. One of the few countries to collect ethnoreligious census information is Austria, where a recent projection — based on a conservative estimate of 20,000 immigrants a year and various assumptions about religious abandonment and fertility — predicted that Muslims would make up between 14 and 26 per cent of the population in 2050, up from 4 per cent today.

The word Muslim doesn’t appear in Moore’s article. But let’s even get back to her contention that general religiosity has nothing to do with French fertility. Kauffman’s analysis of the data suggests otherwise. He says that half of Europeans are expressing a high degree of religiosity even if they don’t regularly attend church — including France — and that

These people, described by Grace Davie as “believing without belonging,” are seen by some as carriers of a flimsy faith which will soon disappear, and which doesn’t affect behaviour or attitudes. But if this is the case, how do we explain the fact that the fertility of these non-attending believers is much closer to church attenders than to non-believers? The non-attending religious are also significantly more likely than non-believers to identify themselves as ideologically conservative, even when controlling for education, wealth, age and generation.

Even though Moore hid one ghost and casually dismissed another, they may be hard to keep out of the story.

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Yankees and Red Sox: Which league are they in?

red sox yankeesIf the leaders of the United States don’t understand the basic differences between Shiites and Sunnis, then what should one expect from the average American?

A column in The New York Times by Congressional Quarterly‘s Jeff Stein is causing quite a ruckus on the Web. Stein says he has received more feedback on this piece than any other he has written. It is currently the NYT‘s most emailed articled. And Stein appeared on CNN Wednesday afternoon to discuss his piece.

To borrow an effective analogy made by Stein on CNN, what would Major League Baseball do if most people did not know the difference between Yankee fans and Red Sox fans? How many of you know which league they are in (National or American)? Do you know which cities they are based in? How’s this for a curveball: Which team most recently won the World Series? Which team has won the most World Series?

To most of the people I interact with daily, these are easy questions. But to those who do not follow professional baseball, I would not expect them to know the answers. And that’s perfectly fine because this is relatively useless information, at least by national security standards.

One would expect, though, that those in charge of Major League Baseball know the answers. And one would also expect the leaders of the United States and experts in the area of keeping our country safe from Islamic radicals to know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. Sadly, Stein found that key people involved in national security know little about the basic differences:

A “gotcha” question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?

After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants? In a remotely similar but far more lethal vein, the 1,400-year Sunni-Shiite rivalry is playing out in the streets of Baghdad, raising the specter of a breakup of Iraq into antagonistic states, one backed by Shiite Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.

A complete collapse in Iraq could provide a haven for Al Qaeda operatives within striking distance of Israel, even Europe. And the nature of the threat from Iran, a potential nuclear power with protégés in the Gulf states, northern Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, is entirely different from that of Al Qaeda. It seems silly to have to argue that officials responsible for counterterrorism should be able to recognize opportunities for pitting these rivals against each other.

But so far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?

Stein goes on to cite the failure of an FBI chief and two members of Congress to know the difference between the two branches of Islam. So what is the media’s role in this? They are hardly responsible for educating members of Congress and federal law enforcement officials on the basics of Islam.

But I would be curious to see if any of the major polling agencies are gearing up their call centers to find out how average Americans would answer that question. My guess is that they will fare little better than our nation’s leaders. And that is the responsibility of the media.

Are journalists going to go beyond simply repeating the bland differences between Sunnis and Shiites, and doing some showing, not telling, in order to better educate the public? We would all, including members of Congress and FBI agents, be better off for it.

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Modern Russia does have its ghosts

moscow theater 007Dang it, that’s what I get for waiting an extra day or two before writing about that sprawling Los Angeles Times series, “The Vanishing Russians.” I was waiting until the last day to see if reporter Kim Murphy elected to dig into the religious questions raised all the way through this fascinating and depressing set of four articles.

This is a textbook “project” in a great mainstream newspaper, complete with loads of statistics and personal stories to back them up. This clip will give you the flavor of the thing:

Russia is rapidly losing population. Its people are succumbing to one of the world’s fastest-growing AIDS epidemics, resurgent tuberculosis, rampant cardiovascular disease, alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, suicide and the lethal effects of unchecked industrial pollution.

In addition, abortions outpaced births last year by more than 100,000. An estimated 10 million Russians of reproductive age are sterile because of botched abortions or poor health. The public healthcare system is collapsing. And many parents in more prosperous urban areas say they can’t afford homes large enough for the number of children they’d like to have.

Let’s see. We have suicide, AIDS, substance abuse, rampant abortion and a loss of hope in the future. All of this in a nation that, in the past century, saw the rise of an atheistic regime that tried to stamp out the practice of faith. Still, the city skylines are dominated by crosses and onion domes.

Let’s see. Do you think there might be a religion element in here somewhere?

But I waited too long. My friend Roberto Rivera, a brilliant Catholic thinker who now writes for The Point blog linked to Prison Fellowship, beat me to it. However, we offer him thanks for using, with credit, a term from GetReligion in his analysis. Rivera says that the opening story in the series is:

… such an important piece that I feel bad about pointing out that it’s haunted by what the folks at GetReligion call a “religion ghost.” (That’s their term for an unacknowledged religious element in a story.) How do you write a story about declining populations, especially declines fueled by substance abuse, abortion and suicide, without mentioning religion? For that matter, how do you write a story about the Russian people without mentioning the role of religion? But, apart from quoting an Orthodox priest on the effects of the Soviet system, Murphy’s story is a religion-free zone.

Reading it, I thought of the scene in War and Peace in which Napoleon asks the Tsar’s emissary, Balashov, if it’s true that Moscow has hundreds of churches and monasteries. When told it is, Napoleon says that this many churches and monasteries are a “sign of the backwardness of the people.” The joke, of course, is on Napoleon: it is “very religious” and “backward” Russia that shatters both his army and the myth of his invincibility. You can’t tell a good, much less complete, story about Russia without talking about her religion or, in this case, the lack thereof. And you especially can’t do it here — the correlations between what is killing Russia and religious observance is just too great.

All kinds of questions leap to mind. Where to begin?

teremFor starters, I wanted to know if officials or researchers have seen any differences between the Russians who are secular and the Russians who are believers in the major faiths of that culture. Are religious believers more likely to have children? This is, after all, a pattern seen in other cultures.

Sure enough, by the time we make it to the fourth installment in the series we discover that Muslim believers are on the rise for multiple reasons, including birthrate. It appears that trends in Russia resemble those in post-Christian Europe.

Which raises another point. Russia is not Europe. Is it impossible for Russia to fit into the Western world on the terms of the modern Western world? The Communists tried to tear an ancient form of Christianity out of the heart of Russia. Is the modern world attempting the same thing, only in the name of — what? — the glories of the shopping mall? Globalization?

The ghosts actually break into song when Murphy has to deal with the issue of suicide:

Russians fling themselves from balconies, slash their wrists or simply walk out in the snow on a bitter night. Russia’s suicide rate, at about 36 per 100,000 people, is second only to that of Lithuania, according to the Serbsky National Research Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry. In some remote areas of Russia, the rate exceeds 100 per 100,000.

Nikolai Zavada, a 21-year-old musician who goes by the name Serial Self-Killer, posted a song on http://www.mysuicide.ru, a well-known website that was later shut down because of public pressure:

I’m going out.
And it doesn’t matter whether it’s up or down.
Or who’s holding your hand, an angel or otherwise.
The cold has worn me out.

“People have a lack of hope,” Zavada said in an interview. “That all their efforts are in vain. And also, they have a feeling of eternal emptiness.”

So here is the obvious questions: When it comes to “eternal emptiness,” are all Russians created equal? Are some spiritually emptier than others? Do those who practice a faith face the same sense of emptiness as those who have flung the faith of Mother Russia aside? This is a gripping series, full of crucial questions. I am simply saying that it needed to explore one more big question about this dark night in the Russian soul.

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