Why we need foreign bureaus

orissa riots 01Nothing makes you miss the former prevalence of overseas news bureaus like a really fantastic foreign service report. Emily Wax, who has moved from Africa to India, filed a personal but newsy account of the violence ravaging the state of Orissa.

Here’s how she sets the scene:

Babita Nayak was cooking lunch for her pregnant sister when a mob of Hindu extremists wielding swords, hammers and long sticks rampaged through their village, chanting “India is for Hindus! Convert or leave!”

The men, wearing saffron headbands, ransacked dozens of huts, searching for cash and looting bicycles and livestock. They torched the village church, leaving behind burned Bibles in the local Kui language and torn-down posters of Jesus. “Christianity is a foreign religion,” they shouted over bullhorns, according to eyewitness and police reports.

Hearing that such attacks were spreading in the mist-shrouded hills of this destitute part of Orissa state, the sisters fled with hundreds of neighbors, trekking through forest land. After two days, they reached this crowded makeshift relief camp, set up on the campus of a dank high school, 15 miles from their village.

Wax goes into great deal, putting the story in context of the more common violence between Muslims and Hindus. Even with how bad things are for Christians in Orissa right now, it’s been bad off and on for the past 10 years. There was the Christian missionary who was burned alive with his two sons in 1999. Last Christmas, there were four deaths and hundreds of Christian churches and homes burned. In recent weeks, some 4,000 Christian homes and 115 churches have been destroyed. Between 18 and 35 Christians were killed and 20,000 people have been displaced:

The violence is driven by rising anger over Christian conversions — members of the faith here are a mix of Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics — and economic tensions between communities, according to government and church officials.

She goes on to explain how even the economic tensions have a big religion angle — the Hindu caste system is deeply threatened by conversions of the lower castes to Christianity:

Conversions to Christianity have been happening fast among impoverished tribal communities in Kandhamal, a remote district with few links to the outside world or state services. The Christian population here, largely made up of traditionally nature-worshiping ethnic groups, has swelled from 6 percent in 1971 to 27 percent today, according to government census data.

Some people who convert often get better access to schools and health clinics run by Western Christian groups. But they lose their official status with the government as members of a disadvantaged caste and with it jobs and university seats reserved under the affirmative action program.

Christians among one such ethnic group, the Panos, have recently been agitating to continue to collect those benefits anyway. Some Hindu activists see this request as ridiculous. They say that Christians have rejected the Hindu-sanctioned caste system and should not get the benefits.

The entire story really must be read. Wax does a fantastic job of folding more and more perspective into each paragraph. She quotes Pope Benedict XVI and national leaders. She talks about events that sparked the violence. And yet she puts all of this context into a very human story. After introducing readers to Shyamala Nayak, the 7-months pregnant sister from the beginning of the piece, she ends with an anecdote about Hindu women marching outside a refugee camp demanding some of the food being offered to the Christians:

The camp seems barely able to manage as it is. It’s so crowded that children sleep on the floor of outdoor latrines. Most people have nowhere to shower and no fresh clothing.

Hearing the chanting women march by, Shyamala wiped her nose with her unwashed sari. She started to cry, again. Her feet are swollen and bloody, her stomach heavy. And she has a recurring nightmare.

“I am falling and falling down a big ditch. I see my newborn baby below me,” she said, weeping. “And it is dead.”

A heartbreaking story, beautifully told. Which is probably why she’s such an acclaimed reporter.

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Hey Kurtz: We’re mad about journalism

PalinPortrait LargeHere we go again, again, again and again.

Yes, your GetReligionistas are about to jump on Charlie Gibson and ABC News — again — about that serious error that took place in his interview with Gov. Sarah Palin. Actually, we also need to jump on one of Gibson’s defenders, which would be the all-powerful Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. I should stress that I am a huge fan of Kurtz and there are probably more of his books in my Washington Journalism Center course bibliographies than any other mainstream writer. I do not enjoy knocking one of my favorite mainstream journalists.

I know that there are readers out there who thing this blog has become a bit obsessive about this matter.

Grupetti says:
September 14, 2008, at 11:47 pm

Terry, GetReligion seems to have become a one-note Samba regarding this one mistake by Gibson. . . . Do you really want to keep up your image as a strictly partisan endeavor?

Yes, we will keep on dancing, when it comes to complaining about this error (thanks, by the way, for noting that Gibson made a mistake). Words matter. Mistakes matter. For that matter, doctrine matters. For us, this is about journalism, not partisan politics. With that in mind, let’s look at the latest from Kurtz.

But when Palin seemed puzzled by a question about the Bush Doctrine — which has several possible meanings — Gibson explained what he meant without making it sound like a gotcha moment. Earlier, however, he did follow up on her answer about not hesitating to become McCain’s running mate by wondering: “Didn’t that take some hubris?”

Some conservatives criticized Gibson for raising religion by asking Palin whether she considers the Iraq conflict a “holy war.” But how can it be unfair to ask about her own words, in a church, that “our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God”?

Apples and oranges, there.

Gibson did ask many perfectly valid and hard questions. Amen. Bravo. His handling of the “Bush Doctrine” subject verged on being unfair, because the term is so vague anyway, but the line of questioning was more than appropriate. His latest column also raises some interesting points about sexism and MSM coverage of, well, her physical appearance.

It was also more than appropriate to go hard on her, when it comes to Iraq. I would argue that it was also fair to ask her what she meant, during her remarks at the church. But — again — as many have noted, it is not fair to actually tear her words out of context (YouTube video here) and have her say the opposite of what she, in fact, said.

missthebullseyeKurtz is still missing the mark. He apparently does not know what he is talking about, when it comes to traditional Christian theology about prayer and the will of God. The same goes for whoever wrote that script for Gibson.

Once again, here is Steve Waldman of Beliefnet.com — who nails it.

GIBSON: You said recently, in your old church, “Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.” Are we fighting a holy war?

PALIN: You know, I don’t know if that was my exact quote.

GIBSON: Exact words.

Well, no. Palin asked members of the church to pray “that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.” That’s very different. She’s asking them to help insure that the war is part of God’s plan, not declaring that it was. …

This is a journalism issue. I would feel the same way of GOP spinners were cutting off the first half of a Barack Obama quote to make him say the opposite of what he actually said, on some point where doctrine intersects public life.

We still need a correction from ABC News. The same goes for the original Associated Press report.

Now, I think, we need a correction from Howard Kurtz, who could do so much to clarify what is happening in this case. He is an excellent reporter and writer. Kurtz needs to get this one right.

CARTOON: Posted at the conservative Culture and Media Institute.

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Why is this “conservative” news?

Pillar7 Society Universal Declaration of Human RightsIt appears that the following story is “conservative” news or, even worse, “Christian” news.

I cannot figure out why this is the case. Readers, perhaps you can enlighten me.

It seems, to me, that this is a story that combines elements of women’s rights and freedom of religion, both of which are strong themes in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Old-fashioned liberals used to have strong feelings about these kinds of human-rights issues.

Here is a short report from a Christian news source. Notice, however, that the report originated with mainstream-media sources in the region:

Reports are coming in of increasing persecution of Christian believers in the Saudi Arabia. A Saudi man recently cut the tongue of his daughter and burned her to death for converting to Christianity, according to a report by the United Arab Emirates-based Gulf News. The victim frequently wrote on various Web site blogs about her conversion from Islam. It is believed that she converted to Christianity after learning about the faith on the Internet and through Christian media.

The girl’s father is an employee of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — the arm of the government that enforces the nation’s prohibition of Christianity and conversion to Christianity. Sources close to the victim said that the father was being investigated for “honour killing” rather than murder, Gulf News reported. Shariah-ruled Saudi Arabia, where all Christian worship is forbidden, is ranked No. 2 on Open Doors’ 2007 World Watch List of nations where Christians are persecuted for their faith.

Under the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, apostasy is punishable by death if the accused does not recant.

And so forth and so on. I realize, of course, that mainstream journalists will discount this kind of story, since it comes from sources that are viewed as secondary.

Unfortunately, the only place I can find a mainstream reference to the killing of this convert is in a column in the New York Daily News — written by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. In other words, it is another advocacy piece. Thus the headline, “War on Christians in the Middle East must be stopped.”

The rabbi begins his piece:

An Islamic court in Shiraz, Iran, has just convicted two men of being infidels. Their crime? Converting to Christianity. The possible sentence? Death. Not too far away in Saudi Arabia, an outraged father recently hacked his own daughter to death for the same “abomination.”

In the daily drumbeat of Mideast news, there is one story of historic proportion that goes nearly unreported: the persecution and systematic destruction in the Islamic world of some of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

Again, here is my question: Why is this a “conservative” news story? Why is this hellish subject not worth mainstream attention?

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Why do they hate us?

Sept11Give credit to Michael Slackman and Nadim Audi of The New York Times. For their story about Egyptians’ perceptions of the 9/11 attacks, the two reporters were not content to flip through their rolodexes and call a bunch of experts. No, they interviewed ordinary Egyptians on the street. The fruits of their shoe-leather reporting were mostly ripe.

As you might imagine, the reporters discovered that religion shaped Egyptians’ attitudes toward the attacks. One attitude was a pathetic paranoia about Jewish people:

First among these is that Jews did not go to work at the World Trade Center on that day. Asked how Jews might have been notified to stay home, or how they kept it a secret from co-workers, people here wave off the questions because they clash with their bedrock conviction that Jews are behind many of their troubles and that Western Jews will go to any length to protect Israel.

“Why is it that on 9/11, the Jews didn’t go to work in the building,” said Ahmed Saied, 25, who works in Cairo as a driver for a lawyer. “Everybody knows this. I saw it on TV, and a lot of people talk about this.”

Another related attitude was misgivings about the United States’ motives in invading Afghanistan and Iraq:

Hisham Abbas, 22, studies tourism at Cairo University and hopes one day to work with foreigners for a living. But he does not give it a second thought when asked about Sept. 11. He said it made no sense at all that Mr. bin Laden could have carried out such an attack from Afghanistan. And like everyone else interviewed, he saw the events of the last seven years as proof positive that it was all a United States plan to go after Muslims.

“There are Arabs who hate America, a lot of them, but this is too much,” Mr. Abbas said as he fidgeted with his cellphone. “And look at what happened after this — the Americans invaded two Muslim countries. They used 9/11 as an excuse and went to Iraq. They killed Saddam, tortured people. How can you trust them?”

Slackman, the writer of the story, deserves a pat on the back for including these quotes in the story. By letting his subjects speak at length, he presented their point of view with a brusqueness that rarely appears in American news pages.

Yet Slackman and Audi also committed a sin characteristic of U.S. reporters, and European ones too for all I know: they failed to identify the religion of each interview subject. While the speakers’ ethnicity and occupation are noted, their religious background is not. This information might have shed light on why the interviewers detest America and Israel. Are their views based on ethnicity, religion, or a combination of both?

Also, the speakers refer to their side in different terms. Some talk about Muslims, others about Arabs. This is confusing. As tmatt noted, some Arabs are Christians.

And the reasons for the speakers’ disgust of Jews and the United States are unmentioned. Do they hate Jews partly because of Israel? Do they fear the United States partly because it has a large Christian majority?

Asking interview subjects about their religious background and attitudes is not easy. It invites stares and uncomfortable silences and, no doubt in some parts of the world, worse responses. But the questions are key in determining whether a speaker has a Regensburg lecture view of humanity or a Lion and the Unicorn one.

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Lawless regions in Pakistan?

lost 1 photoIf you are looking for the Bush White House to drop a bombshell on the fall campaign, keep your eye on the mountains of western Pakistan.

This is, of course, where American experts think that Osama bin Laden is hiding. An in-depth and important A1 feature by Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post makes it pretty clear that this assumption is widespread, but based on information that is sketchy. They think he’s up there in those remote mountains. Why? No one wants to talk about it.

The headline is that the U.S. is changing tactics, reverting to a kind of Clintonian approach. When in doubt, bomb people from high altitude with high-tech weapons that do not get Americans killed. So, the lede proclaims:

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Frustrated by repeated dead ends in the search for Osama bin Laden, U.S. and Pakistani officials said they are questioning long-held assumptions about their strategy and are shifting tactics to intensify the use of the unmanned but lethal Predator drone spy plane in the mountains of western Pakistan.

I guess U.S. tacticians are taking this on faith, but that isn’t the religion angle that interested me.

Later in the report, the Post offers one concrete and very symbolic fact. It isn’t surprising, but it’s powerful.

Bin Laden is believed to depend on a small circle of fellow Saudis for his personal security. But officials said the Taliban provides him and his lieutenants with a network of safe houses. According to an internal Taliban memo viewed by The Washington Post, Taliban security operatives have a code name for bin Laden — Taqwa, an Arabic term that means fear of or reverence for God.

Then a few sentences later, we hit the heart of the matter, the reason that Osama is still on the loose.

After the disruption of the airliner plot in London in August 2006, it became clear that al-Qaeda’s core command — previously thought to have been knocked out — had made a comeback. The CIA later dispatched scores of additional officers to Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province, where al-Qaeda had taken root.

The environment, however, had become more hostile than ever. Resurgent Taliban fighters had forced the Pakistani government to sign cease-fire agreements in the lawless tribal border areas of North and South Waziristan.

There are two key words here that I would like to challenge — “ungoverned” and “lawless.”

I think what the Post means is that these tribal areas are not ruled by the government or the laws of Pakistan. But that does not mean that these tribal regions have no rulers and, above all, no courts. That’s the point, isn’t it? These regions are ruled by Islamists who do not recognize Pakistan as a nation that is sufficiently Muslim. There are courts. There are Sharia courts that are sympathetic to Osama and, perhaps, controlled by people loyal to him.

“Lawless” and “ungoverned”? Not really. That’s the actual heart of the story, right there.

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Orthodox ties that bind

stninaIf you paid close attention to all of the mainstream coverage of the fighting between Russia and Georgia, you may have noticed that the stories ignored a crucial fact about these two nations.

Yes, there was a ghost in there. To the credit of the New York Times — this is why we need major newspapers with foreign resources — it finally plugged that hole in the soul. I’m sorry that this post is coming several days late, but your GetReligionistas have been caught up in, you know, Hurricane Sarah.

Here’s the plain, but solid, lede, offering information that all Orthodox Christians know, but was missing from the headlines:

MOSCOW – While the leaders of Russia and Georgia exchange recriminations, Christians in the two nations are worrying about the damage that the bitter conflict has inflicted on the cherished unity of the Orthodox Church.

More than 100 million Russians affirm the Orthodox faith, making up the largest Orthodox Church in Christendom. The post-Soviet Russian government has re-embraced Orthodoxy as the national faith. …

Georgia is equally identified with its Orthodox Church. But the supposedly unthinkable prospect of two Orthodox nations at war with each other failed to deter either Russia or Georgia from armed conflict in August.

The two churches expressed dismay. The patriarchs of both the Russian and Georgian Orthodox Churches issued immediate appeals for peace. The strong urgings were all the more striking for the Russian patriarch, Aleksy II, who rarely differs publicly with the Kremlin.

And, yes, there is a story there.

In that part of the world, it is news when religious leaders stand up to their governments, in whatever way they can. That has happened at the top of the Orthodox church leadership in Serbia (and in other religious hierarches in that region, too).

It’s pain to bullets flying, but it does offer moral clarity to hear religious leaders quoted as saying:

“Today, blood is being shed and people are perishing in South Ossetia, and my heart deeply grieves over it,” Patriarch Aleksy said in a statement on Aug. 8 as the fighting raged. “Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love are in conflict.”

Two days later, in a sermon in Tbilisi, Patriarch Ilia II of the Georgian Orthodox Church said that “one thing concerns us very deeply — that Orthodox Russians are bombing Orthodox Georgians.” According to the church’s Web site, he added: “This is an unprecedented act of relations between our countries. Reinforce your prayer and God will save Georgia.”

Read on. This is really a background feature, as opposed to a news story. Much of the information is sad. There are times when faith appeals do not work. At the very least, these events have to knock a hole or two in all of those mainstream media reports that Vladimir Putin is a devout churchman of some kind.

Orthodox readers will flinch when they read parts of this report and differ with some of the conclusions drawn from the facts presented. But this is a crucial part of the clash between Russia and Georgia. I hope that the Times continues to pursue this angle.

And that icon? If you know anything about Georgia, then you know about St. Nina, Equal of the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia. St. Nina, pray for Georgia and Russia.

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Amish church growth (think children)

Amish children playing baseballA few weeks ago I wrote about an increase in coverage of the “diverse Amish” lifestyles and found it curious that there had been a great deal of minor news articles on various legal conflicts the communities were having with the governments around them. An answer to my curiosity arrived in the form of an Associated Press article on the fact that the Amish have nearly doubled their population in about 16 years.

The article bases a lot of its facts on an upcoming book by a leading Amish expert from Elizabethtown College Professor Donald Kraybill. The book found that the states of Missouri, Minnesota and Kentucky have had Amish populations jump by more than 130 percent and now number 227,000 across the country. New Amish communities have been planted in about 28 states and a lot of this movement is due to their desire to acquire inexpensive farmland.

The article is a bit short on the theological aspects of the Amish (or Anabaptist) faith, but the description of the group is pleasantly descriptive, neutral in tone and accurate:

Also known as Anabaptists, most Amish reject modern conveniences and rely on horse-drawn carriages. They began arriving in eastern Pennsylvania around 1730. Along with English, they speak a German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania German.

Amish couples typically have five or more children. With more than four out of every five deciding in young adulthood to remain within the church, their population has grown steadily. More than half the population is under 21.

A small portion of the increase is also due to conversions to the faith.

The Amish are attracted to areas with relatively cheap farms, a rural lifestyle and nonfarming jobs such as construction or cabinet making that fit their values and allow them to remain independent. In some cases, they have migrated to resolve leadership problems or escape church-related disputes.

More could be said of course on the issue of church-related disputes, but that is probably a subject for another in-depth article on that particular subject. Note the typical size of Amish families and the high rate of decisions to remain in the church: what goes unsaid is that one does not become Amish until the point of baptism. Baptisms do not happen until the person is older (think 18 or 19) and understands exactly what they are committing themselves too. (Thankfully the article doesn’t attempt to blame global warming on large Amish families. Horse and buggy communities don’t emit many fossil fuels)

The article notes the conflicts that arise when the Amish move into areas, but the article also notes the benefits of having Amish in a community.

Journalists in communities with an influx or new community of Amish should look to this article and this book (when it comes out) when reporting on the issues. I suspect that the book provides an excellent resource for reporters looking at these issues.

Photo of Amish children playing baseball used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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“She’s a witch, she’s a mother . . .”

main willowWell, I think it’s safe to say that the mainstream media are struggling with Sen. John McCain’s pick for vice president. He clearly threw a curveball and they are working overtime to report more on Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. Writing about someone who hasn’t attended Washington cocktail parties or has never even appeared a single time on “Meet the Press” can be difficult. Sometimes we see some mistakes.

Far and away my favorite one was found on The New Republic‘s site in an essay written by the very respectable Alan Wolfe. The essay is really interesting and discusses what the Palin pick means for the supposedly in-play “evangelical” vote:

Sarah Palin named two of her children after witches, once took drugs, and refused to sign a bill forbidding domestic benefits for gay couples. Any one of these–especially the first–would raise suspicion in the eyes of a traditional Southern Baptist. But for the governor of a Western state, these are not only the kinds of things a conservative can do, they are also the kinds of things an evangelical can do. Palin, the gun-toting mom, has a libertarian streak in politics and a libertarian streak in religion. In neither case are they fully consistent; she seems to have a soft spot for creationism, for example, and no doubt she will profess support for the highly punitive Republican Party platform. But it is already clear that her style of evangelicalism is one shaped by the region of the country in which she lives.

Will any of this prevent Southern Baptists from voting for her? My guess is probably not, so long as she panders to them. But while Palin may be quickly endorsed by men speaking in Southern accents, she is neither a Billy Graham nor a Jimmy Carter. American evangelicalism, like John McCain, has many mansions. Sarah Palin inhabits only one of them.

The essay makes several good points (with inexplicably hostile language, but whatever) and I’m glad, as a libertarian, that someone is noticing Palin’s libertarian streak. But read that first part again. Did she really name two of her children after witches? Hunh?

Apparently that “fact” came from someone you should be careful taking seriously: the once-interesting Andrew Sullivan. He alleged that the children were named after television show witches based on, um, reader email. Never mind that the dates don’t match up.

Leave it to a gossip magazine — People — to resort to old-style reporting tactics and simply ask the Palins why they named their children the way they did:

Where do your children’s names come from?
TODD: Sarah’s parents were coaches and the whole family was involved in track and I was an athlete in high school, so with our first-born, I was, like, ‘Track!’ Bristol is named after Bristol Bay. That’s where I grew up, that’s where we commercial fish. Willow is a community there in Alaska. And then Piper, you know, there’s just not too many Pipers out there and it’s a cool name. And Trig is a Norse name for “strength.”

So, not witches. Before this meme gets too carried away, it would be good for reporters to remember to get their facts straight. Alan Wolfe makes some interesting points in the type of piece that adds context to the race, but he undercuts them by playing fast and loose with the facts.

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