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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Story behind the story in Istanbul

Constantinople5Press reports are starting to filter in on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey for the Feast of St. Andrew.

This is one of those cases in which there is a story that will be on the news and then there are other stories in the background, perhaps even buried or ignored in the mainstream coverage of the story. However, I have hopes that this will not be the case.

Why? Check out the opening of the initial report from Ian Fisher of The New York Times:

Pope Benedict XVI originally wanted to visit Turkey a year ago, for one quiet night, and Islam had nothing to do with it.

It was meant as a trip to help heal the 1,000-year rift with the world’s 220 million Orthodox Christians. The pope would celebrate the Feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30 with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the worldwide Orthodox Church, who lives in Istanbul, then return to Rome.

But for various reasons having to do with its complex relationship with Orthodox Christianity, the Turkish government protested. No doubt the nation’s leaders wish they had approved a visit then. Now, after the pope’s speech two months ago that many interpreted as suggesting that Islam was prone to violence, the trip that starts Tuesday has become far more complicated.

An even earlier report in the Los Angeles Times managed to balance the same two topics. Here is a key paragraph:

The Vatican has made it clear that the pope is traveling to Turkey chiefly to meet the leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, an ethnic Greek. Although he is a Turkish citizen and has lobbied hard for membership for Turkey in the European Union, Bartholomew is mistrusted by many here as a “Greek agent” seeking to reestablish Christian influence in this country.

The question, of course, is whether the tiny Christian minority in Turkey can be granted any kind of religious liberty without provoking violence among Islamists. Then again, how does Turkey hope to enter the EU if it cannot enforce the rule of law and basic human rights, such as religious liberty for minority groups?

So there is reason to hope for good journalism in a tough situation. Now we have to see if the 3,000 or so reporters making this trip into Turkey can meet the test.

Any event that even hints at Islamic relations and/or the European Union is going to grab the headlines. That’s a given. But it helps to remember that the original purpose of this trip was to push for religious liberty for minority groups in the allegedly secular state of Turkey. At the same time, this pope — as was the case with Pope John Paul II — is trying to test the edges of ecumenical relations with the other great ancient Christian communion, Eastern Orthodoxy.

Reporters who have been following that story for a decade or two will be paying close attention to any hints Big Ben may make about his concepts of limited forms of papal authority in the East or even a return to a first-among-equals relationship with the other patriarches in the ancient churches of the East. At the very least, he may try to better define the “impaired communion” that exists between East and West.

Here is a good summary paragraph about what is at stake from Catholic scholar George Weigel, writing in Newsweek:

There is … a link between what Benedict XVI thinks he’s doing during his Turkish pilgrimage and the world’s expectations of another episode in the confrontation between the West and Islam. That link involves the dramatic restrictions under which Patriarch Bartholomew and the Ecumenical Patriarchate must operate, thanks to the obstacles put in the patriarchate’s path by the Turkish government — restrictions that raise serious questions about Turkey’s ability to meet EU human-rights standards. Should the papal visit to the Phanar (sometimes referred to as the “Orthodox Vatican,” much to the aggravation of the Orthodox) focus world attention on the gaps in Turkey’s practice of religious freedom, the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate might be improved — and so, in consequence, would Turkey’s chances of a closer relationship to the EU.

Phanar2A key moment will occur when the pope passes the famous locked front gate of the Phanar (pictured), which — as I noted in 2004 — was

… (Welded) shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: “We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. … Patriarch you will perish!”

What will Benedict XVI do at this door? Will he pray there? Leave flowers? Choose that site as a backdrop for his remarks on religious liberty? Stay tuned.

Anyone interested in the original purpose of this papal journey should read Weigel’s essay. Also, for those interested in the picky details, the Vatican has already posted some of the details on the ecumenical services.

UPDATE: I did not know, when I wrote this, that Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher had published a column in The Dallas Morning News today based on the same theme as this post. By all means, read it all. Here’s a key passage:

Benedict has a clearer eye about Islam than his predecessor, who rarely missed an opportunity to abase himself before Muslims for the sake of improved relations and received little for his efforts. This pope is different. He is not prepared to pretend that it is of no matter that in Europe Muslims are free to worship as they please and to build mosques at will, while in Turkey and the Muslim world, Christians are generally not permitted to build churches and face state-sanctioned discrimination. It is better, says Benedict, to speak frankly about the world as it is, rather than about the world Western elites wish we lived in.

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Memory eternal, Father George Calciu

Fr  GeorgeIt is a very gray, rainy day here in Maryland, the kind of day that makes it easy to mope around (especially if one has a shocking cold) and feel rather sorry for oneself.

But if you need a ray of sunshine, look at the smile on the face of the elderly Romanian priest in this photograph. He is pictured with several members of the extended Mathewes-Green clan and the photo is taken inside Holy Cross Orthodox Church here in Linthicum.

The priest is Father George Calciu, who died yesterday in Fairfax, Va., after years of joyful ministry in the Washington, D.C., area. But before that, he was an immigrant from Romania for suffered for many years in communist prisons because he would not be silent about human rights and his faith, especially in his ministry to young people. To read one of his testimonies about those years, click here.

I was only able to hear Father George speak once. Afterward, I sat looking at my pages and pages of notes, thinking to myself, “There has to be a column in here somewhere. I’m a journalist. I can do this.” Later, I listened to my tape of his talk several times, thinking the same thing.

But I couldn’t do it. There was no way I could conceive of a 700-word newspaper column that would do any justice to this man’s life and the force field of joy that surrounded him, even after all the suffering he had endured.

I couldn’t find the “news hook” in the life of this near-martyr. There was only his remarkable faith and that was timeless — the opposite of what we think of as “news.” The world of contemporary faith is not full of men who can say “Repent!” with such a wonderful smile.

One of Father George’s spiritual children — in his ministry as a father confessor — is Frederica Mathewes-Green of Beliefnet, National Review, National Public Radio and many other media outlets. As it turns out, Frederica was able to write a column for Beliefnet — “Befriending a Cockroach” — that captures one remarkable piece of Father George’s life. Here is a key passage from the piece, which focuses on his spiritual struggles against the communist brainwashing and torture technique called “re-education.” In the first step, prisoners were simply beaten.

Next, they would begin to “unmask,” which meant requiring prisoners, under torture, to verbally renounce everything they believed: “I lied when I said ‘I believe in God,’ I lied when I said ‘I love my mother and my father.’” Third, prisoners were forced to denounce everyone they knew, including family. Because a diabolical element of this plan was to employ fellow prisoners as torturers, the targeted prisoners knew no rest. The abuse never ceased, not even in the cell, and every torture imaginable was employed.

Last, in order to show they had truly become “the communist man,” these prisoners were required to join the ranks of torturers and assist in the “re-education” of new prisoners. This last step was the most unbearable. “It was during this fourth part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves,” says Fr. George.

The experience created a spiritual crisis in Fr. George, who until his imprisonment had led an ordinary, reasonably devout life. “When you were tortured, after one or two hours of suffering, the pain would not be so strong. But after denying God and knowing yourself to be a blasphemer — that was the pain that lasted. … we forgive the torturers. But it is very difficult to forgive ourselves.” Though often angry at God, sometimes at night a wash of tears would come, and the prisoner could pray again. “You knew very well that the next day you would again say something against God. But a few moments in the night, when you started to cry and to pray to God to forgive you and help you, was very good.”

I think I will try to dig out that tape of Father George and listen to it again, in his memory. There are subjects that are just too big to fit into our little media boxes, and his life is one of them.

May his memory be eternal. And may God comfort Father George’s many spiritual children. They can find comfort in the memory of his smile and in the certainty that he will still pray for them, as they pray for him.

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Oh Canada

BobbleheadJesusA couple of weeks ago I stumbled across an article about the United Church of Canada and its move to add drinking bottled water to its list of “immoral” acts. While it seems trivial, it’s actually a very significant story, particularly from a business perspective.

Which is why Bloomberg had, as best I could tell, the most thorough article on the matter. As a pragmatic matter, the bottled water business is a multimillion-dollar industry and there is a chance that the church’s boycott could hurt the industry.

If there was a theological reason for this church’s move, Bloomberg didn’t give us one. But it did give us enough background to put this move into perspective:

The United Church has a tradition of staking out positions on social issues. It wants the Canadian government to recognize native land claims, stop its involvement in gambling and lotteries, and increase spending on affordable housing.

The church also supports same-sex marriage and wider access to contraceptives.

The effort against bottled water is part of the “Water in Focus” campaign, which encourages congregation members to pressure governments and corporations to protect watersheds from exploitation and pollution. Educational materials include action booklets, brochures and a map linking “water struggles” around the world.

The church says the world’s poor are losing access to clean water. It says more than 1 billion people worldwide lack safe drinking water and sanitation services.

Apparently opposing drinking water doesn’t give the church enough attention, so, as the Globe and Mail reported last week, the church is resorting to the baseball park strategy of handing out bobbleheads — of Jesus. Again, the reader is not to be surprised by this because it’s just one of many things designed to get attention as membership in the church steadily declines:

The United Church of Canada is launching the largest advertising campaign ever by a Canadian church in an attempt to spark debate about religious issues and encourage people to come back to the pews.

The series of advertisements poke fun at some traditions and tackle controversial topics such as sex and gay marriage.

One includes statues of two grooms on a wedding cake and asks, “Does anyone object?” Another features a can of whipped cream with the question, “How much fun can sex be before it’s a sin?” Still another depicts a bobble-head Jesus on a car dashboard and asks, “Funny. Ticket to hell. What do you think?”

The $10.5-million project, to be officially unveiled today in Toronto, includes advertisements in magazines, community newspapers and on the Internet. It will also include the creation of a website called WonderCafe.ca which will feature discussion forums on a variety of social issues. The church also plans to hold seminars to teach its 3,500 congregations how to be more welcoming to newcomers.

canadaThere is very little substantial news reporting in the article, so if you’re not a registered at the Globe and Mail site, don’t let that disturb you. The only source for this article is the Rev. Keith Howard, who is heading the project, and a bunch of polling data. There is very little in the form of probing questions. Essentially here is Howard’s plan, why he thinks it is important and some stats about the status of religion among Canadians. The same can be said, sadly, for this London Free Press article.

Also take a look at this WorldNetDaily piece by Ted Byfield. By no means do I want to associate myself with Byfield’s opinion, because we try not to do that here at GetReligion, but I want to bring it to the discussion over how journalists can better cover the bobblehead movement.

Perhaps there are articles out there that bring a more critical (probing?) line of questioning. Rather than just repeating the official church line, maybe journalists could get into the meat of the issues that the church is dealing with.

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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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Honest weblog headline of the day

falls chur episcopalOver at the always essential Christianity Today weblog, Ted Olsen kind of hit a wall and put up this headline for all of those who are paying attention to religion news this week:

“Gay, Gay, Gay, Gay, Gay — Plus: ABC pulls Assemblies of God ad, Talking Jesus toys return to tots, and a few other non-gay stories from online sources around the world.”

I mean, The Washington Post only managed to get three gay religion news events into one convenient package — the Presbyterian Church (USA) dismissing the lesbian wedding case, North Carolina Southern Baptists cracking down on churches that become gay friendly and, the big story, the U.S. Catholic bishops affirming Roman doctrines on homosexuality, marriage and sex, but managing to retreat over whether to offer public praise to a Catholic organization that actively advocates and teaches those doctrines at the grassroots level.

However, the Post did miss — or stunningly downplay — one of the biggest gay-theology-related mainline stories of the week, which hinged on the vestry votes at the historic Falls Church (Va.) Episcopal Church (pictured) and Truro Episcopal Church to exit the Episcopal Church. As Olsen noted, this is turning into one of those stories — huge, growing, evangelical Anglican parishes leaving the Episcopal fold in the wake of national innovations on sexual doctrines — that is becoming so common that each new headline no longer seems like a big deal. It is the new normal.

But the exit of these two churches is a giant Beltway-region story and it broke on page one of The Washington Times. Here’s veteran scribe Julia Duin’s opening:

Leaders of two of Virginia’s most historic Episcopal parishes have voted to split from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia, a move that could spark a legal battle over millions of dollars’ worth of property.

The vestry — or governing board — of Truro Episcopal Church, an 18th-century church in downtown Fairfax, voted unanimously Saturday to depart from the 2.2-million-member Episcopal Church over questions of biblical authority and the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, an active homosexual. Monday night, the vestry of the Falls Church, an equally historic Virginia congregation in the city of Falls Church, voted 15-2, with one abstention, to leave the Episcopal Church, a denomination it has called home for more than 200 years.

Its rector, the Rev. John Yates, called the process a series of “terribly hard decisions” in a Nov. 14 letter to church members. His church sits on $17 million worth of prime real estate; Truro’s property is worth about $10 million.

You can read about the emerging Anglican District of Virginia and other details in Duin’s report.

The Post responded with an Associated Press brief and then a staff-written brief.

Olsen added a fifith story to the “Gay, Gay, Gay, Gay, Gay” mix with links to reports that the fall of the Rev. Ted Haggard has once again opened up debates about the validity of ministries that strive to help gays and lesbians who seek, through prayer and therapy, to make changes in their sexual lifestyles.

The Associated Press notes that what some call “reparative therapy” is “espoused by many religious conservatives and disputed by many mental health experts.”

True. Of course, ministries of this kind are usually based on the work of religious believers who also happen to be mental-health experts and professionals, but talking to them might hint at some kind of break in the clergy vs. science story template. It would mean talking to a third group of people and trying to report their views. So never mind.

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When faith matters on the battlefield

soldiers prayingThe flurry of election-related news this past week has kept me from noting an excellent piece in The New York Times last week that is absolutely superb and touching in its handling of a sniper situation in Iraq. Reporter C.J. Chivers, with the help of producer Eric Owles, supplemented the article with an equally poignant photo gallery and voiceover.

The article helps readers feel as though they’re at the scene of the incident. I especially appreciated the article’s final paragraphs for their unflinching portrayal of spirituality in a time of war:

Inside the wire, First Lt. Scott R. Burlison, the company commander, gathered the group and told them that Lance Corporal Smith was alive and in surgery. He was critical, but stable. They hoped to fly him to Germany.

Doc had scrubbed himself clean. A big marine stepped forward with a small Bible, and the platoon huddled. He began with Psalm 91, verses 5 and 11.

“Thou shall not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day,” said the big marine, Lance Cpl. Daniel B. Nicholson. “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.”

Then he asked for the Lord to look after Lance Corporal Smith and whatever was ahead, and to take care of everyone who was still in the platoon.

praying soldiers“Help us Lord,” he said. “We need your help. It’s the only way we’re going to get through this.”

Doc stood in the corner, his arm looped over a marine. “Amen,” he said. There were some hugs, and then the marines and their Doc went back to their bunks and their guns.

I encourage you to read the entire piece. As the headline of the article says, the story is about taking care of a fallen Marine “with skill, prayer and fury.” It is an example of reporting a scene with honesty, accuracy and precise care for details. If only more reporting could be like this.

I don’t know if there are other examples of war correspondents drawing out the faith angle of the soldiers they cover, but I’ll greatly appreciate if any of you dig up some links to the pieces and post them in the comments section.

Prayer, faith and God are real parts of our world, and war and conflict seem especially suited to bring this out in journalism, but are there other areas where prayer plays a real part of the events on the ground? A recent example could be the account in The Atlantic of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s prayer group, but are there others?

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The BBC’s failed multiculturalism

BBC biasThe BBC doesn’t like Christians, and there are discussions of ways to change this. As revealed by the British conservative tabloid the Daily Mail, “the BBC is dominated by trendy, Left-leaning liberals who are biased against Christianity and in favour of multiculturalism.” To most on the right, this is not shocking news.

Let’s take a step back and consider some recent developments. The New York Times‘ Linda Greenhouse has come clean on her biases. The management at the NYT stumbles around to get its story straight and now the BBC has this embarrassment on its hands. As of Tuesday, the BBC had not addressed the situation, but it will be interesting to see what its response ends up being.

Are two major media organizations a trend? No, not yet, but this is certainly something worth noting as news organizations struggle to find their place in the fast-changing media landscape. Perhaps all news organizations should be more straightforward with their inherent biases. Much of a newsroom’s bias could be easily determined by charting the political and social views of its reporters.

This brings me back to the BBC story, in which the Daily Mail appropriately focused on the staffing of the taxpayer-funded newsroom:

A leaked account of an ‘impartiality summit’ called by BBC chairman Michael Grade, is certain to lead to a new row about the BBC and its reporting on key issues, especially concerning Muslims and the war on terror.

It reveals that executives would let the Bible be thrown into a dustbin on a TV comedy show, but not the Koran, and that they would broadcast an interview with Osama Bin Laden if given the opportunity. Further, it discloses that the BBC’s ‘diversity tsar’, wants Muslim women newsreaders to be allowed to wear veils when on air.

At the secret meeting in London last month, which was hosted by veteran broadcaster Sue Lawley, BBC executives admitted the corporation is dominated by homosexuals and people from ethnic minorities, deliberately promotes multiculturalism, is anti-American, anti-countryside and more sensitive to the feelings of Muslims than Christians.

One veteran BBC executive said: ‘There was widespread acknowledgement that we may have gone too far in the direction of political correctness.

bbcWhat is most interesting about this report is that a BBC executive claims a “widespread acknowledgement” that the BBC has gone too far toward political correctness. So tell us something we don’t know already, but are BBC decision-makers starting to realize this as well? Does this mean the BBC’s staff is going to move toward true diversity?

This brings me to another point. BBC Sunday morning political pundit Andrew Marr said in the story that the network has “an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias[,] not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”

What exactly is an “abnormally large number”? Unless the BBC decides to let us know, it will be difficult to determine exactly how abnormal its staffing situation really is. But the irony of the whole situation is that while BBC executives can rant and rave about how they promote multiculturalism, they to fulfill that mission if they do not have a staff and executive team that represents the wide range of views in the social landscape.

I’m not saying that newsrooms should hire political hacks to do their information-gathering. Rather, in considering hiring decisions for reporting positions, and ultimately editing positions, BBC executives should consider diversity of belief an important part of their mission of multiculturalism.

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