Random thoughts on Veggies, Jesuits, etc.

holmes800x600Here are some random thoughts this misty Saturday morning while I’m reading the free-speech fallout on the wire services.

• I think that all over America, in zip codes blue and red, evangelical megachurches should get organized and have thousands of people pile into church buses and head over to their local NBC affiliates with signs and bullhorns and march around and around in a peaceful, nonviolent manner, chanting: “God made you special and he loves you very much! God made you special and he loves you very much! God made you special and he loves you very much!”

Won’t that scare some sense into people? Can you imagine NBC letting anyone mention God on television? The next thing you know they’ll be talking about letting Madonna hang on a mirrored cross while singing something offensive, right there on network television! Surely not. It isn’t good to offend people’s religious beliefs. The New York Times says so.

Why do I suggest this? Click here for a conservative editorial on the matter. Or click here for the views of Bob the Tomato, himself.

• And while I am on the subject of ironic forms of public protest, what would happen if leaders of the kicked-off-campus Georgetown University chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship applied to the leadership of the Jesuit school for permission to hold a public forum this week in which students and faculty would be asked to read and then peacefully discuss the text of Pope Benedict XVI’s actual speech text on faith, reason and jihad?

Perhaps the event could be held at the well-endowed Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding on the campus?

Just thinking out loud, you know. I am sure the campus administration would welcome such a request by the ousted Protestant groups to organize an ecumenical and even interfaith event focusing on the intellectual life of a man that Georgetown must realize is in the mainstream of Catholic intellectual life.

• Question: Does anyone here think that President Bush will say a word about the pope crisis? Just asking.

• Speaking of which, did you hear that the U.S. State Department has decided that Saudi Arabia isn’t such a bad place after all, when it comes to religious liberty. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is not amused.

“The Commission is simply shocked that the Department removed longstanding and widely quoted language from its report that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia,” said Felice D. Gaer, Chair of the Commission. In July, the U.S. government confirmed a variety of Saudi policies to improve “religious practice and tolerance” — many of which were first recommended in Commission reports. However, the new State Department report shows that such policies have not yet been implemented.

This did receive some coverage, but not much.

Back to reading the wires.

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New York Times: Kiss the Koran, big guy

pope koran 01And thus it came to pass: The content of Pope Benedict XVI’s speech stopped being the story — including the fact that the speech was an attack on secularism in the West — and the reaction of many Muslim leaders became the story.

That could only lead to one conclusion, in the mandated Unitarian-Universalism of the New York Times editorial-page suite, the holy of holies for the blue-zip-code faith. All religious roads have to lead to the top of the same mountain (even if saying that is, itself, an affront to Islam as well as to traditional Christianity). Otherwise, we would have to do basic, balanced, factual journalistic coverage of people on both sides of historic, complicated, emotional, intellectual religious issues. We would have to be journalists.

There isn’t much I can say about the Times editorial ordering the pope to apologize. GetReligion doesn’t focus on editorials very often, since this site is about the news coverage of religion events and trends. Besides, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has already been up since dawn dissecting the editorial and some of the events linked to it. Read it all.

But Rod also mentions something amazing that happened at an event that I attended as well. Here is something to chew on, if you care about intellectual freedom, press freedom and religious liberty. (See the edited transcript.) Dreher writes:

Longtime readers of this blog will remember that I was at a Pew Forum religion conference earlier this summer, at which an Ivy League professor considered to be one of the world’s leading authorities on Islam and Islamic history declined to talk with us journalists about certain relatively minor aspects of early Muslim history on the record. Why wouldn’t he? Because he was afraid that to do so might get him killed. That is astonishing, isn’t it? That a leading scholar did not feel free in the United States of America to discuss this or that aspect of Islamic history, for fear that Muslim fanatics would hunt him down on his campus and take his life for blaspheming the Prophet. This is not an uncommon situation; ask Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoonists. But the Times takes out against the Pope for one remark in a long speech about how violence can never be used for religious goals, only reason? Astonishing. And outrageous.

Now, it does appear that the pope will try to back down, to one degree or another. But will he go to Turkey after all? Will he take the risk?

But let’s be honest. A soft apology will not be enough for the Times editorial board. The principalities and powers in that domain will want him, when the time comes, to go further than that.

Will Pope Benedict XVI kiss the Koran?

Will he say that the Gospels are worthy of veneration and not the Koran?

That is all he has to say to insult the Times. And who will cover the news story for the newspaper of record, when this showdown takes place?

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This may, strangely enough, be the quiet day

033So, what did the pope say and when did he say it?

Actually, that is not the issue right now as we finish day two of this media storm, a day dominated — to the tune of 1,000 major media reports or so — by Muslim outrage about Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks in Germany about faith, reason and jihad. Click here for an early but updated collection of public reactions to his words, gathered by the awesome Christianity Today weblog crew.

Once again, it helps to read what the pope actually said. It also helps to know that no one should doubt his grasp of the basic facts involved in a discussion of Christianity and Islam. He is a scholar on these matters. The pope will be harder to dismiss or shout down than a circle of cartoonists.

At what point do people start burning the Vatican flag or this pope’s personal crest?

Or angry Muslims could do this, I guess.

At the moment, the press is covering the reaction of the streets. For those interested in the intellectual issues that are involved, the more important moment will come when the pope himself responds — especially in light of his planned Nov. 28 trip to Turkey. What will he say about the religious rights of minorities and the recent murders of priests there?

Meanwhile, here is the Washington Post summary of the basic facts:

In the lecture, Benedict quoted extensively from a book that recounted a 14th century conversation that purportedly took place between a Persian scholar and Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel II Paleologos on the merits of Christianity and Islam. Benedict told the audience at the University of Regensburg that the “erudite” emperor addressed the scholar “with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: ‘Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’”

According to a transcript of the lecture on the Vatican Web site, Benedict said Manuel explained in some detail “the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”

Benedict did not explicitly endorse or repudiate Manuel’s views. But he repeatedly returned to the emperor’s comments on Islam, noting that Manuel was also quoted in the book as saying: “God is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.”

Vatican City State flagClearly looking back to the cartoon crisis, the Los Angeles Times story said:

It is not yet clear if reaction to the pope’s comments will snowball into something more violent, as was the case when a Danish newspaper published cartoons last year satirizing Muhammad. Deadly riots erupted across the Muslim world.

The pope, by contrast, is a world religious leader whose comments come in a broader context that also advocates tolerance and cultural dialogue. Rhetorically, though, the fury was spreading. … In Kuwait, a high-ranking Islamist official, Haken Mutairi, called on all Arab and Muslim states to recall their ambassadors from the Holy See and expel any Vatican diplomats “until the pope says he is sorry for the wrong done to the prophet and to Islam, which preaches peace, tolerance, justice and equality,” Agence France-Presse reported.

I guess you could state the big doctrinal question this way: Will Pope Benedict XVI be willing to kiss the Koran? Or, will he insist that he has the right to air his own views about the contents of Islam and its relationship to Christianity and other religions?

How many legions does the pope have? Good question. And will any governments in the postmodern West rally to his support — perhaps the United States or the European Union — should he decide to stand firm? What if the street reactions to his remarks, ironically, turn violent?

In terms of news coverage this may be the quiet day. It all depends on what happens (a) in the demontrations and (b) in the private debates between the traditionalists and modernists inside the Vatican.

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Did Benedict XVI bury the lede?

ratzingerPaulII webEvery now and then, you get to see a reporter gently suggest that a major religious leader — take Pope Benedict XVI, example — has tried to pull a fast one. That may be what’s happening in this story earlier this week by New York Times reporter Ian Fisher about the pope’s complicated address on faith and reason, which included a highly significant illustration linked to Islam.

Actually, I think that Fisher did a good job of getting at the heart of this one.

Let’s face it: Popes are not sound-bite-friendly speakers. They have been known to float a policy balloon or two in the midst of a doctrinal tidal wave (how’s that for a mixed metaphor). I have seen bishops, in a debate here in America, lapse into Italian or Latin during public remarks so that journalists cannot quote them. It’s a nice trick.

In this case, the Times even got both angles into the headline: “Pope Assails Secularism, Adding Note on Jihad.” Here is the rather tortured lead, which must have been a bear to write.

REGENSBURG, Germany, Sept. 12 — Pope Benedict XVI weighed in Tuesday on the delicate issue of rapport between Islam and the West: He said that violence, embodied in the Muslim idea of jihad, or holy war, is contrary to reason and God’s plan, while the West was so beholden to reason that Islam could not understand it.

But the following section of the story gets to the heart of the matter, including the nice factual aside by Fisher that lets the reader know that the news lead was not the main topic of the pope’s actual address:

He began his speech, which ran over half an hour, by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, in a conversation with a “learned Persian” on Christianity and Islam — “and the truth of both.”

“Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword by the faith he preached,” the pope quoted the emperor, in a speech to 1,500 students and faculty. He went on to say that violent conversion to Islam was contrary to reason and thus “contrary to God’s nature.”

But the section on Islam made up just three paragraphs of the speech, and he devoted the rest to a long examination of how Western science and philosophy had divorced themselves from faith — leading to the secularization of European society that is at the heart of Benedict’s worries.

As Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher notes, the Times take on this is certainly a lot better than the headline on the Agence France Presse account of the speech: “Pope enjoys private time after slamming Islam.” Rod, by the way, also has a link to the actual text of the pope’s remarks.

Here is my question: Does Fisher realize that Benedict XVI may be opening the door into discussion of a controversial issue linked to the church’s teachings on salvation? To put it into GetReligion terms, the pope is touching on doctrinal issues linked to one of the “tmatt trio” — the question of whether salvation is found through Jesus, alone.

pope koranIt does appear, as Fisher notes, that this pope is trying to take a more conservative, traditional stance on issues linked to Islam and, perhaps, other world religions, in general. It is certainly clear that Benedict’s views on interfaith worship — as opposed to ecumenical worship with other Christians — are different than those of the late Pope John Paul II, who infuriated many conservative Catholics when he kissed a Koran, an act normally reserved for the Gospels.

What journalists have to realize is that, for traditional Christians, taking part in formal worship services involving other religions is a totally different issue than participating in forums and seminars. A service blending prayers from clashing world religions implies, at the very least, that these prayers are addressed to the same God, god or gods. Some would argue that this statement is true and some would say that it is false, but fierce debates would result no matter what.

This leads us to the loaded question of whether Allah and the God of the Christian Trinity can be called “the same” God. Those famous Koranic inscriptions inside Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock are there for a reason, the ones declaring that Allah “begets no son and has no partner,” that “he is God, one, eternal” and that “he does not beget, nor is he begotten.” See you later, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Forget those speeches by President Bush for a moment. Ask traditional and progressive Muslims if the Christian God is their God. Now ask conservative and liberal Christians the same question, then listen to the debates and the logic. You know, that issue would make a great Times piece.

To me, it seems that this pope is asking if Christians have the right to raise questions about Islam and then, if need be, demand the right to debate them candidly with Muslims. Benedict also seems to be more open to stating claims of Catholic authority in ecumenical talks with other Christians, a fact that may soon make a major impact on life in the Church of England.

GetReligion readers may want to dig into “The Year of Two Popes,” that interesting Paul Elie cover story in The Atlantic Monthly. One of its major themes is that Pope John Paul II and then Cardinal Ratzinger had major differences on the style and content of the Vatican’s interfaith and ecumenical work. Check it out. This story isn’t finished.

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Covering America’s day of remembrance

WTC CrossThe stories in today’s papers on 9/11 memorial services provide a broad sense of the nation’s religiosity. Some are better than others in capturing this sense, but overall they are generally good at capturing a sense of the individual experiences Americans are feeling five years later. Of course, whether Americans were feeling religious Monday is another, separate matter worth examining.

The main news articles followed the events’ measured tone and highlighted a handful of individual stories that attempt to speak for the thousands affected on that tragic day. Take, for instance, this New York Times article that is packed with religious imagery and words such as hope, healing and love:

At the pit in Lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center stood, they commemorated the day with familiar rituals: moments of silence to mark the times when the planes struck and the towers collapsed, wreath-layings, prayers, the music and poetry of loss and remembrance. All were freighted with emotions that still cut deeply but were showing signs of healing.

“How much do I love you?” Susan Sliwak, a mother of three, intoned at a microphone on a platform above the grieving crowd, quoting from an Irving Berlin lyric in tribute to her husband, Robert Sliwak, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee and one of the 2,749 killed at the trade center. “How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?”

As a bass viol, a flute and other instruments softly rendered the Pachelbel Canon, Albinoni’s Adagio and other solemn strains, about 200 spouses, partners and other loved ones took turns reading the names of the dead. Many spoke directly to their lost partners, often in firm, proud voices. Others told tearfully of the births of grandchildren or of having reaffirmed their marriage vows. Many simply expressed their love and that of their children, a promise never to forget.

Yesterday’s coverage was an opportunity for journalists to write their own stories on what the fifth year after the nation’s worst terrorist attack meant. Today, they were forced to follow those doing the remembering and mourning.

Take, for instance, this excellent Akron Beacon Journal article on George W. Sleigh’s amazing escape from the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Sleigh’s religiosity, particularly at the end, dominates his thinking and thus the story. There’s nothing particularly special about Sleigh’s faith, it’s just part of who he is and it is reflected in the story.

Similarly, The Washington Post‘s article on the day’s ceremonies picks up on subtle religious imagery that would have been easy to miss. It makes for a striking picture of sadness and, amazingly, hope:

Families and firefighters and cops in New York filed slowly down ramps into the three-story-deep pit that is Ground Zero, gray slurry walls rising around them. Bells sounded at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. — the moments when the hijacked planes slammed into the twin towers. On the podium, Carmen Suarez glanced skyward as she finished reading 10 names of those who died.

Her husband, police officer Ramon Suarez, died in those towers.

“If I could build a staircase to heaven I would,” Suarez said, “just so I could quickly run up there to have you back in my arms.”

On the other hand, I found the Los Angeles Times article on the day of remembrance strikingly devoid of any religious imagery. Was that a reflection of the day’s events, or did the reporters miss something?

bin ladenA fascinating piece of journalism on the NYT‘s opinion pages reveals the way that jihadi websites treated the anniversary. Not surprisingly, they saw the day through the eyes of their religion, although Muslim teaching prohibits celebrating anniversaries:

In the name of God the merciful and the compassionate, Monday morning is the fifth anniversary of the glorious attacks on New York and Washington accomplished by the 19 heroes of the Muslim community — may God have mercy on them and raise them to the highest rank for their sacrifice. They pressed America’s nose into the ground and allowed the whole world to witness the destruction of its economic and military citadels. In so doing, they crushed the myth with which America had terrorized the world, namely that it was the greatest power on earth and no one was strong enough to confront, let alone make an enemy, of it. …

That day changed the world, even by the admission of our enemies, and created … a world divided into two camps, as our sheik and leader Osama bin Laden — may God protect him — has stated: “A camp of belief and another camp of hypocrisy and disbelief.” Choose for yourself, o Muslim, which camp to belong to: that of belief, Islam and jihad under the banner of the holy warriors or that of hypocrisy and unbelief under the banner of America, the crusading West and those hypocrites who have banded with them. Our congratulations to all and we beseech God to show us in America another black day like that blessed Tuesday.

The religious contrast between the two sides could not be greater.

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Don’t mess with Texas evangelicals

03 00008 popLike I said, it’s hard to do a GetReligion commentary about a photo essay.

But here goes. Start by clicking here. Now click here. Finally, click here and look over this new photo essay — taken from the book The Amazing Faith of Texas, by Roy Spence — in the award-winning religion section of The Dallas Morning News. Does anyone else see any connections?

So what is the theological message of this photo essay?

The project conveys the rich diversity of faith in Texas — and shows that “when it comes to religion, what unites us is more important and deeper than what divides us,” said Mr. Spence, the head of GSD&M, the Austin ad agency best known for its “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign.

“When you ask Texans what they believe in, what they think about spiritually, they don’t talk about politics, gay marriage or anything like that,” he said. “They say, ‘I believe in God. I believe in the Golden Rule. And I’m pretty dadgum tolerant of other people’s beliefs.’”

Wow. I had no idea that Texas was such a National Council of Churches kinda place. But it must be true. Look at these pictures from a company in Austin. There are conservative Protestants in here, I guess. But their only institutional homes are old and empty (First Baptist Church, Dallas, at night) or tiny and funky (think tiny towns in West Texas).

Once again, where are the folks featured in this here article? It’s from Christianity Today and it calls Dallas “The New Capital of Evangelicalism.”

Well, I have known lots of Texans in my day (I am one, like it or not), and lots of them believe in the Golden Rule and still have lots of strong opinions and beliefs about all of that nasty stuff linked to divisive moral, religious and social issues. In other words, there are Texas Unitarians — but I don’t think they’re the folks who have made Texas the megachurch capital of the universe.

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Did 9/11 touch many souls?

911DevilAs you would expect, reporter Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times includes a passing reference to the impact of 9/11 on the spiritual climate in America. I am looking around online to see if other mainstream newsrooms do the same.

Please consider this an open thread on the spiritual elements of the Sept. 11 anniversary coverage today. Please let us know what you see — the bad and, especially, the good.

Here is the passing spiritual reference from Simon’s story. I thought it was especially fitting to include this right after the reference to the high percentage of Americans who now believe, or are willing to ponder the possibility, that their own government played a role in planning the attacks. If the devil didn’t make the terrorists act, then who did?

Tens of thousands of people have viewed an online film that asserts the government plotted to bring down the twin towers and blow up the Pentagon — and then pin the blame on Arab hijackers as a pretext to invade the Middle East. In the weeks after the attacks, when American flags seemed to fly from nearly every home, when nearly every marquee proclaimed “God Bless America,” it would have been impossible to imagine such a dark conspiracy theory gaining such traction.

In those days, many pundits predicted Americans would turn to God in their moment of stress, and, for a time, church attendance shot up. Polls showed Americans grappling with big questions about God and salvation.

The revival lasted three months.

By January, church attendance was back to normal. The Barna Group, a polling firm for religious groups, found no movement in standard measures of faith, such as Bible reading. “Spiritually speaking, it’s as if nothing significant ever happened,” says David Kinnaman, a Barna vice president.

As you would expect, I waded into this church-attendance myth back in 2001. It was a story that had to be checked out, after editors sent waves of reporters to church on the Sunday after the attacks. But, from the beginning, it sounded like a wave of anecdotes, to me.

Cross 911poemFirst you went to church. Then editors wanted the “Where Was God?” story covered. Then there were the stories and polls declaring that one form of absolute truth claim was just as evil as another.

Still, I have to admit I was surprised that the attacks had little or no impact at all. I would not have been surprised if they had had a negative impact on organized religion. But no impact? Here is the column I wrote at the time:

Sometimes the number is 38 percent and sometimes it’s something like 41.

For decades, Gallup Poll researchers have asked people if they attended worship services in the previous week. On rare occasions the percentage may soar to 48. It has been known to dip to 35. But that’s about it. There are seasonal ripples in the pews, but few big waves.

Then came the events of Sept. 11.

“Everybody started hearing all kinds of things from people all over the country,” said Mike Vlach of Church Initiative, based in Wake Forest, N.C. This evangelical support network … has about 5,000 churches on its mailing list.

“It seemed like we were talking about sizable changes in the spiritual landscape of the country. … We immediately started calling churches and asking, ‘What are you seeing out there? What are people asking? What are you doing in response?’”

Media reports joined the chorus, citing this return to faith as a ray of light in the darkness. Then the late September Gallup Poll … came out and the number was 47 percent, up from 41 in May. That was a rise, but not shockingly higher than the normal post-summer lift.

Vlach kept placing his calls and the news was good. Pastors said they were seeing larger crowds, including many inquisitive visitors. The atmosphere of uncertainty was lingering. “People have a heightened sense of alertness,” said a pastor in Indianapolis. A Chicago-area contact reported: “We have noticed a heightened desire in people to put their spiritual lives in order.”

The anecdotes were wonderful, but Vlach said he could not find strong evidence of lasting impact. Most church leaders were comforting their anxious flocks and welcoming any visitors who happened to walk in on their own. But few churches had tried to reach out to the un-churched.

Pastors preached one or two sermons linked to Sept. 11 and, perhaps, organized a memorial service. But that was about it, said Vlach. Few churches made sustained attempts to talk about life and death, heaven and hell, sin and repentance.

“I’m not sure that many churches even saw this as an opportunity to deal with these kinds of issues,” he said. “I’m not sure many church leaders are trained to think like that.”

By mid-November, the Gallup number was back to 42 percent.

Yes, 74 percent of Americans said they were praying more than usual, 70 percent said they had wept and 77 percent said they were being affectionate with loved ones. As the Gallup team said, Americans were seeking “spiritual solace.” But the data suggested that they were flying solo.

The evangelical market analysts at the Barna Research Group (www.barna.org) did a wave of national polling starting in late October, looking for statistical signs of revival. They found that worship statistics were following familiar patterns. Participation in prayer circles and Bible study groups “remained static.” Even among born-again Christians, they found a slight decrease in the number of believers who were sharing their faith with non-believers.

“After the attack,” said George Barna, “millions of nominally churched or generally irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life. Fortunately, many of them turned to the church. Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention.”

These seekers found comfort, but were not motivated to change their beliefs and lifestyles. The most stunning statistic was that the percentage of Americans saying they believe in “moral truths or principles that are absolute,” meaning truths that don’t change with the circumstances, actually declined — from 38 to 22 percent. In fact, only 32 percent of born-again Christians said they still believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.

“Our assessment,” said Barna, “is that churches succeeded at putting on a friendly face but failed at motivating the vast majority of spiritual explorers to connect with Christ in a more intimate or intense manner.” The Sept. 11th tragedy offered congregations a unique chance to “be the healing and transforming presence of God in people’s lives, but that … has now come and gone, with little to show for it.”

It seems that the larger story is the growth of radical individualism, with a secondary trend in which very traditional forms of religious faith survive and even grow among those who are counter-cultural. Of course, few things are harder for journalists to cover than trends that roll along at the level of individual choices that are not linked to movements and institutions. How do you cover an anti-movement movement?

Please help us watch the coverage today. Please use the comments pages to pass along headlines and URLs. Thank you.

Update 1: If you want the straight existentialist angle, which is a kind of spiritual viewpoint, check out this feature in today’s Style section (of course) in the Washington Post. Most haunting detail? The mourning mother’s desire to buy a Leatherman utility knife, just to know what it feels like in her hand. For a strange suburban form of existentialism, click here. How did the Post find the totally faith-free street?

Update 2: Back to the Los Angeles Times for a really cynical spin. Why face the reality of 9/11? Why change, when you can change the channel? That’s entertainment.

Update 3: As you would expect, the New York Times has produced another massive update on its stunning package of mini-portraits of those who have died. I have been reading through some of them at random and, I must say, they are amazingly faith free. Have I just had bad luck? Anyone else want to help me search?

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Yes, GetReligion still has questions

tsbgquesJournalists ask questions.

So the first question that I need to ask today is if andrew.white@frme.org is actually Canon Andrew White, who one would expect to be writing to this weblog from an address that would probably end with the domain name of his organization — which would be frme.org.uk, if you consider the URL for its website. The contact address is office@frme.org.uk. More on this in a minute.

It is possible that Canon White is the person who responded to my post on the forced conversions to Islam of those Fox News journalists, American Steve Centanni and New Zealander Olaf Wiig. All of this is linked to the fact that there have been mainstream media reports stating — click here for the Associated Press story — that the leaders of Holy Jihad Brigades did not think up this gunpoint conversion idea on their own:

Canon Andrew White, chief executive of the London-based Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East, said their conversion helped ensure their freedom.

“To be quite honest with you, that was our suggestion,” White told New Zealand’s National Radio. The conversion “absolutely” allowed the kidnappers to save face, he said.

“One of the key things you have to do in any kidnapping situation to work for release is to find a reason why people should be released,” he said. “So I have to admit the notion of trying to get them to say very publicly that they would convert was part of our suggestion of a way out.”

But there seem to be conflicts or holes in some of the news stories.

Thus, I have been asking if Canon White, or someone in his organization, (a) originated the idea of the men converting to Islam or (b) originated the idea of showing the videotape of the men’s statements to this effect, as a way of defusing a dangerous situation. The answer could be (a) and (b), of course.

Now I have other questions: Did the men actually convert to Islam? Or did they simply say that they would?

This leads to more questions: Do the men now consider themselves Muslims? If not, are they considered Muslims in the eyes of other Muslims, including some who might want to punish them should they choose to commit apostasy at some point in the future?

Of course, the main question I have been asking is: Why haven’t mainstream journalists been very interested in all of these questions? It’s hard to imagine many reporters drawing a similiar journalistic blank if there were forced conversions of Muslims who fell into the hands of American military personnel.

This leads us to this letter from andrew.white@frme.org that was sent to this blog. It is unedited.

As the person in question in this date I am rather amused by all of this information. First of all it should not have been published I talked to New Zealand Radio after Olaf’s father asked me to I refused all other interviews. I have worked on countless number of hostage cases and we do not talk about them. So I want to make the following pints

1, I am in no way a wooley liberal I am a very conservative and orthodox believer and lover of Jesus,

2, I did not get the video of the conversion made it was one of many already made several days before the release. I did suggest that this was the best video to show to get their release.

3, If you as so called orthodox Christians are really so good and strong may be you would like to join me here in my Church in Baghdadwhere I am now. All of my church leaders 11 have been killed in the past year. This is serving Jesus on the front line. Any body can make comments about Orthodoxy in the comfort and security of ther Western homes. It is not so easy here in Baghdad and Gaza.

From a Conservative Christian on the front line.

Canon Andrew White
Baghdad

whiteThe main point of this letter, which may or may not be from White, is that journalists should not be publishing the details of this story — period. This request is often made by religious leaders who are working in sensitive situations, let alone deadly ones. However, journalists tend to seek the facts anyway. Journalists ask questions and then they try to learn the answers.

As you can see from the comments at this site and others, there are emotional and divisive issues involved in this case. For some, the idea of an Anglican priest suggesting that these two men convert to Islam as a way of escape is totally logical. For others this idea is scandalous, especially if one or both of the men where, in fact, committed to another faith.

If this letter is from Canon White, it still does not answer the actual questions that are being asked. Whether he is a “liberal” or a “conservative” is really not a crucial question. However, I do admit that I asked a related question: Do First World Anglicans and Third World Anglicans take different approaches, when it comes to these kinds of life-and-death decisions about apostasy?

We who live in the safety of the West all need to admit that we have no idea whatsoever what we would do, should we or our loved ones be placed in a similar position. We can only pray for the believers who are there, including Canon White.

However, as journalists, we are allowed to ask questions. That is what journalists do.

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