Was the Ahmadinejad story left behind?

atomic explosion   1The Religion Newswriters Association has released its annual poll to determine the top 10 religion-news events and trends of the year. It is, in my opinion, a very ordinary year with an all-too-familiar blend of politics, Episcopal sex, Middle East warfare, one tragedy and one (or often two) events involving the pope.

Some things rarely, if ever, change.

Meanwhile, you can click here to see all of the RNA poll materials, including the choice of the Amish — all of them — as the religion newsmakers of the year.

But this was one year when I really, really felt there was an important religion event that was overlooked in the poll. In fact, it did not even appear on the ballot as an option.

Thus, this is how I opened my Scripps Howard News Service column covering the RNA poll results. Yes, there are GetReligion echoes in this column — obviously.

Imagine the following event in your mind’s eye.

President George W. Bush is addressing the United Nations amid global tensions about nuclear weapons. He closes with evangelical language that expresses his yearning for the triumphant second coming of Jesus Christ and prays that this apocalyptic event will unify the world — sooner rather than later.

Do you think the speech would cause a media storm? Do you think journalists would dissect his mysterious words, along with his theology? Would this be considered one of the year’s most controversial religion-news events?

Bush, of course, never delivered an address of this kind. However, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did say the following as he ended his dramatic Sept. 20th United Nations speech.

“I emphatically declare that today’s world, more than ever before, longs for just and righteous people with love for all humanity; and above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet,” he said, referring to a Shiite doctrine about a coming apocalypse.

“O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return and his cause.”

If these references to “the perfect human being” do not sound familiar, there is a reason for that. This section of his address received little media attention. Thus, it isn’t surprising that the Iranian leader’s end times vision was not selected as one of the top 10 stories in the Religion Newswriters Association’s 2006 poll. In fact, it didn’t appear in the top 20 events.

Instead, the top story selected by the religion-news specialists was the deadly violence ignited by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in periodicals in Denmark and a few other European nations. Boycotts led to protests and then to destruction and, in Nigeria, Muslims and Christians died in the riots.

Clearly, mainstream journalists still struggle with the complicated religious beliefs that loom behind today’s headlines. Offensive cartoons in the West are a huge story. But mysterious words in the East — even offensive words — do not draw nearly as much ink.

Updates: If you want to read the whole Scripps Howard column, here is the full text. Sorry for the delay, but WiFi is hard to find in Crawford, Texas. Chicken-fried steak? That’s another matter.

If you want another point of view, here is a short version of the Religion News Service report on the poll. And the gang at Christianity Today‘s blog have now posted their take on the year’s top 10 events. It offers several non-RNA poll twists, but Ahmadinejad is missing from this list, too.

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When did the Anglicans “erupt”?

volc1Let’s flash back for a moment to the eruption of Anglican warfare in Northern Virginia that drew so much press coverage last weekend.

You may recall that I, well, blew up a bit over a wording in one of the crucial Associated Press stories, one written by religion-beat specialist Rachel Zoll.

That report is kind of hard to find online right now, since many websites took it down in favor of an updated report, one that does not include what I thought was an error that needed to be corrected. Still, here is the passage I questioned:

The ballots are part of a crisis over the Bible and sexuality that is battering The Episcopal Church and threatening its role as the U.S. wing of the global Anglican Communion.

The feud erupted in 2003 when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Supporters argued that the biblical ban on gay sex does not apply to monogamous same-gender couples. However, most overseas Anglicans disagree and have been pressuring the American church to follow traditional Christian teaching.

I thought it was wrong to say that “this feud” erupted in 2003, when the actual issues behind the global warfare in Anglicanism have been haunting the communion since the 1980s and exploded into open combat in the late 1990s. My criticism brought this comment from the Associated Press:

I read your Anglican Wars post, and just want to note that the labeling of a sentence of our story as “way, way way off base” seems to be based on a misinterpretation. According to Mirriam-Webster, “erupt” does not mean “to begin,” but rather “to force out or release suddenly and often violently something (as lava or steam) that is pent up to burst forth.” AP religion reporters and editors well know that this latest debate over Scriptural authority dates back decades. But it’s no stretch to say that 2003 was a major turning point for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

Rachel Zoll, who covered the 2003 Episcopal General Convention, notes that “volcanic” is indeed a good way to describe the tumultuous meeting, which was why she was drawn to the word “erupted.”

Posted by Kristin Gazlay, Managing Editor of National News, The Associated Press at 5:04 pm on December 18, 2006

Now I realize — as a wire-service columnist — the degree to which issues of word count often affect the contents of these kinds of stories. Honest, I do. Length is always an issue.

However, if you read the AP report you will note that there is no previous mention of an ongoing crisis in Anglicanism that predates 2003. I have no doubt that Zoll knows the warfare predates the Robinson consecration. However, there is no way the reader can know that by reading this report.

erupt“Erupt” is a good word and I understand Gazlay’s point. However, there is no evidence in the story that the volcano previously existed or that it has erupted in the past.

So what did the story need to say? All we needed was one tiny insertion of fact. Perhaps the clause “The ballots are part of a crisis over the Bible and sexuality” could have said, “The ballots are part of a three-decade crisis over the Bible and sexuality,” etc. That would have done the trick. Then the next sentence says, accurately, that there has been a new eruption. Amen.

If you want to see an accurate reference in a short wire-service report, click here to see the Religion News Service story on these events by Daniel Burke. Here is the key passage:

The Virginia congregations have thrust themselves to the front line of a conservative movement, in which U.S. parishes are aligning with theological allies in the wider Anglican Communion. While conservatives make up a minority of the 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church, a majority of the world’s 37 other Anglican provinces agree with their belief that the Bible trumps cultural accommodations on issues like homosexuality.

Tensions in the U.S. church, mounting since the decision to ordain women three decades ago, exploded after an openly gay man was elected bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

Note that the tensions exploded, or perhaps it can be said that they “erupted.” But they have been building for “three decades.”

That’s the ticket.

P.S. It is also interesting that a key player in the RNS report is “the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, rector of Truro Church.” This is an accurate reference under Associated Press style. He is a bishop, not a priest who is a “bishop.”

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So many Anglican questions, so little ink

20040611 2 hx0l8080 734vEvery time I sit down at a computer keyboard to write a 700-word column about the global Anglican wars, my head starts spinning.

There is just too much history, too much doctrine, too many names and too many competing networks, jurisdictions and churches. How can anyone keep all the facts straight? How can you describe the various sides in the debates in language that is accurate and as neutral as possible? I have the advantage, as a columnist, of being able to take a narrow focus on specific voices, issues and opinions. But I remember what it was like when I was a reporter covering news stories linked to this global conflict.

This is hard work and I know it. Believe me, I know it.

As I have written before, most mainstream reporters are framing their stories as if the votes by traditionalists to flee the Diocese of Virginia and the U.S. Episcopal Church are part of a national, American story. Period. This is wrong. This is a local story, a diocesan story, a national story and a global story. The global story is the biggest, since it involves the possible splintering of the third-largest Christian body in the world. And then there is the issue of when this national, Episcopal war began. It’s been raging, at the very least, since the late 1970s.

So how do you write that in a newspaper? Here is how veteran religion-beat specialist Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times opened her pre-game report on the Northern Virginia votes. People may dispute some of her choices later in the article, but I think this is about as good as you can get with the larger picture:

For about 30 years, the Episcopal Church has been one big unhappy family. Under one roof there were female bishops and male bishops who would not ordain women. There were parishes that celebrated gay weddings and parishes that denounced them; theologians sure that Jesus was the only route to salvation, and theologians who disagreed.

Now, after years of threats, the family is breaking up. As many as eight conservative Episcopal churches in Virginia are expected to announce today that their parishioners have voted to cut their ties with the Episcopal Church. Two are large, historic congregations that minister to the Washington elite and occupy real estate worth a combined $27 million, which could result in a legal battle over who keeps the property.

In a twist, these wealthy American congregations are essentially putting themselves up for adoption by Anglican archbishops in poorer dioceses in Africa, Asia and Latin America who share conservative theological views about homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture with the breakaway Americans.

. . . Together, these Americans and their overseas allies say they intend to form a new American branch that would rival or even supplant the Episcopal Church in the worldwide Anglican Communion, a confederation of national churches that trace their roots to the Church of England and the archbishop of Canterbury.

The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, is now struggling to hold the communion together while facing a revolt on many fronts from emboldened conservatives. Last week, conservative priests in the Church of England warned him that they would depart if he did not allow them to sidestep liberal bishops and report instead to sympathetic conservatives.

And so forth and so on. Click here to read the follow-up story in the Times.

I have read quite a bit of the mainstream coverage this morning, and it is pretty much what I expected.

But if you really want to grasp some of the subtleties of what is happening, please pause for a moment and consider this joke that I first heard back in the mid-1980s, although I assume it is older than that. It’s a joke that says quite a bit about First World Anglicans on the left and the right. It’s a joke that is sure to offend folks on both sides, and this is how I heard the joke told long ago:

The year is 2010 and two graduates of the very conservative Anglo-Catholic seminary called Nashotah House are standing in the back of the Washington National Cathedral as the church’s latest presiding bishop and her lesbian partner process down the long center aisle, carrying a statue of the Buddha aloft while surrounded by a cloud of incense.

As they watch this scene unfold, one of the priests leans over and quietly tells the other: “You know, one more thing and I’m out of here.”

Note that this is a joke traditionists tell on themselves, one that produces bittersweet laughter. The joke is rooted in the fact that Anglicanism is famous for its ability to compromise on almost every doctrinal issue faced in the Communion.

But now some Episcopalians are taking some big risks involving property, endowments, careers and pensions, rather than compromise. It is a sign of the times that public advocacy of homosexuality has become the line that many cannot cross, after decades of quieter debates about the liberalization of of so many other doctrines linked to salvation, the nature of Jesus Christ, the resurrection, divorce, the blending of world religions, the ordination of women, etc. This may tell us as much about the news media as it does about conservative and liberal Episcopalians.

Then again, as the joke suggests, maybe not. As a conservative bishop once told me, Episcopalians have become so skilled at compromise that they struggle when asked to face an issue on which compromise is impossible.

It goes like this: One side says that sex outside of marriage is a sin. The other says that sex outside of marriage is not a sin. The Anglican compromise? Sex outside of marriage is occasionally a sin. Here’s another: Salvation is through Jesus Christ, alone. Salvation is not found through Jesus Christ, alone. The compromise? Salvation is occasionally found through Jesus Christ, alone, which means that the right was wrong in saying that salvation is found through Jesus Christ, alone, in the first place. Or something like that. The debates, in the end, center on how fast to move toward a modernized or compromised version of the faith. The method only allows change to move in one direction — away from ancient absolutes.

wcg 3 stpaulscrosierBut I digress. If you want to compare the competing views of events on Sunday, all you have to do — once again — is read the accounts in The Washington Times and The Washington Post. Read the stories and then ask yourself these questions.

• Can churches remain in sacramental Communion with one another when they disagree over creedal and sacramental issues?

• Would Episcopal liberals agree or disagree that the church’s doctrines have been changed in recent decades? If it is wrong to say that the doctrines have become more “liberal,” what is the accurate word to use that is not slanted? “Modernized”?

• We have to ask the big question again: When did the fighting begin?

• Is the fighting about one issue, homosexuality?

• Will the conservatives essentially become congregationalists? Will they become members of different or even competing American networks or churches?

• And, finally, here is a journalistic question that editors will have to answer, a question of newspaper style and Anglican doctrine at the same time. The question: Is Martyn Minns a bishop?

Note that in some newspaper stories he is still a priest and in others he is — in terms of Associated Press style — identified as a priest who is for some reason called a “missionary bishop,” while other Americans are identified as real bishops — period. Yet Minns was ordained by a large circle of Anglican bishops and archbishops, men whose standing is equal to that of their American counterparts.

Think about it. So is Minns a bishop when he is in Africa but not a bishop when he is in North America? Is he a bishop when he is in England? What about when he is on an airplane flying over the Atlantic Ocean? Does his status change from bishop to priest somewhere in the process of going through U.S. customs?

Or, just maybe, we have learned that newspaper editors get to decide who is a bishop and who is not. And, yes, some will ask: Is someone a bishop when American hands are placed on a person’s head and the proper prayers are said by Anglican bishops, but is not a bishop when African hands are placed on a person’s head and the proper prayers are said by Anglican bishops?

Perhaps this issue could be addressed in the Associated Press Stylebook.

You know that, sooner or later, it will be addressed at Lambeth Palace and, perhaps, in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The first photo is from the White House, taken during the funeral of President Ronald Reagan.

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When did the Anglican war begin?

lebanonreligiousmapWhile the votes have been announced in those two historic Episcopal parishes, we really won’t know much about the actual media coverage of this event until tomorrow’s full-length reports are out in the elite newspapers.

Click here for the early draft of the Washington Post coverage by Bill Turque and Michelle Boorstein. It retains the basic mainstream-media perspective, which is that a small percentage of American Episcopalians are trying to rebel against their national church. This is one way to express the conflict. The other is that the national Episcopal Church is rebelling against the overwhelming majority of the world’s Anglicans, when it comes to issues of biblical authority, church tradition and sexual morality.

The hard part of covering this story is to manage to let readers know that both of these perspectives are true.

The early Post story begins:

Two large and historic Episcopal congregations in Northern Virginia have voted overwhelmingly to break away from the U.S. church and to seek to keep their property, setting up a conflict with their diocese that will be watched closely by other dissident Episcopalians around the country.

Officials at The Falls Church in Falls Church and Truro Church in Fairfax City announced the results of the week-long vote following their worship services this morning. Their leadership has been at the forefront of a national conservative movement that has been alienated from the Episcopal Church, the U.S. wing of the worldwide Anglican Communion, since the installation of a gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003.

At both congregations, more than 90 percent of the members voted to split from the U.S. church and to retain their church property.

However, you may be asking yourself right now: “Why does this post include a map of Lebanon?”

Good question. To answer, I would like to flash back to the Associated Press pre-game report that the Post ran the previous day. In that story, religion writer Rachel Zoll offered this background material:

The ballots are part of a crisis over the Bible and sexuality that is battering The Episcopal Church and threatening its role as the U.S. wing of the global Anglican Communion.

The feud erupted in 2003 when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Supporters argued that the biblical ban on gay sex does not apply to monogamous same-gender couples. However, most overseas Anglicans disagree and have been pressuring the American church to follow traditional Christian teaching.

Now look at that second paragraph. It does a nice job of balancing the American and the global elements of this conflict, even though it does use that controversial, and rarely defined, word “monogamous.”

However, what I want to underline is the first sentence in that paragraph, the one that says: “The feud erupted in 2003 when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.”

This is way, way, way off base. Episcopalians have been openly fighting over the status of sex outside of marriage for a quarter of a century, and the conflict spread to the global level in the mid-to-late 1990s. So this statement is simply inaccurate, as I am sure Episcopalians on the left would agree.

Anyone covering this story needs to click here and look at the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution that pushed the global conflict into overdrive, the moment when the rising power of Third World Anglicans drew a theological line in the sand for the Anglican establishment in England and North America.

Saying that “the feud” — global Anglican conflicts over sexual morality — began with the Robinson affair in 2003 is as accurate as saying that conflicts between Israel and Lebanon began in 2006, when Hezbollah fired rockets and mortars at Israeli military positions and border villages, while another rebel unit crossed the border and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.

In other words, this simplistic version of the Anglican conflict is totally inaccurate and the Associated Press should issue a correction. It isn’t even an accurate statement about conflicts in Northern Virginia, where tensions have been high over the leftward swing in Episcopal life for a decade or longer.

A personal note: Thank you to all of the readers who sent me links to the revised media-coverage memos issued by leaders of Truro Episcopal Church and the Falls Church. Obviously, I wrote yesterday’s post without knowing that the previous rules (PDF) had been changed.

Quite frankly, the new rules look pretty good to me as a print guy, and it even appears that some wiggle room was provided for broadcast journalists. It will be interesting to see if tomorrow’s coverage in the major newspapers includes any appropriate material gathered during the worship services themselves. It will also be crucial to see how the media guidelines were applied in the heat of the Anglican media storm — which will not end anytime soon, in Northern Virginia or many other locations.

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Anglican keys in Northern Virginia

17375414 tpTomorrow is a giant news day in the Anglican wars, which is a global story that also has an American angle, a New York City angle, a Virginia angle and a Washington suburbs angle.

That’s some story.

I am referring, of course, to the fact that a circle of conservative, and in some cases historic, Anglican parishes have been voting all week on motions to withdraw from the Diocese of Virginia and, thus, the Episcopal Church, which is currently the Canterbury-recognized branch of Anglicanism here in the United States of America.

It is a giant, complex story and a very hard one for reporters to cover. There are all kinds of people — left, right and center — who would prefer that the entire drama play out behind closed doors.

But that isn’t going to happen. Too much is at stake. However, the odds are good that there will be a media circus tomorrow as the decisions are expected to be announced. As I noted in a previous post, the most powerful of these parishes — Truro Episcopal Church and the Falls Church — have tried to control the media madness by setting some strict coverage guidelines.

It seemed to me that one of the main consequences of the media-riot memo was going to be keeping veteran reporters and columnists — the people who know the most about the issues at stake — from being able to cover the story, even if all they wanted to do was sit silently in pews and listen to what is said and, later, talk to people who were willing to talk with them. This drew a strong comment from one of these reporters, Julia Duin of The Washington Times:

Terry is absolutely right. The memo was aimed towards religion writers who folks could recognize at the door. Yours truly did make an appearance in disguise at, well, you guess the church. She did not want some bouncer to walk up to her during a service and ask her if she was “researching” or “worshipping.” One reporter (Mike McManus) who did not get the above memo and did attend the service at TFC was told to desist by one of the clergy present when he began interviewing two women. And they were willing to talk with him.

… God only knows what this coming Sunday is going to be like.

… So, TFC and Truro readers: Have patience. What you are doing is historic; it’s the largest chunk of churches leaving in the country — out of the largest diocese — so do be charitable towards those of us who are doing our best to accurately write the first draft of history about these events.

Posted by Julia Duin at 2:36 pm on December 13, 2006

People are tense for a number of reasons. Millions of dollars are at stake and, if you take issues of Communion seriously, central issues of doctrine and sacraments are a stake.

In the end, it comes down to one legal question: Who controls the keys to these churches?

And even if the liberal Episcopal establishment wins, who will worship at the altars inside these powerful churches after the faithful (and their resources, spiritual and material) have been locked out? Will the national church simply sell these buildings rather than let conservative Anglicans — Americans whose faith mirrors that of the majority of Anglicans worldwide — worship in them? And what happens to the people who leave? Do they form competing conservative groups? Can they maintain order and unity as a minority in a liberal land, with long-range ties to bishops in other parts of the world? Do they slide into congregationalism?

1 02There are lots of questions and the media have to cover the debates.

Which brings us back to the media-control memo.

One of the most important elements of journalism is the ability to hear words, record them and then quote them accurately. This requires access, or reporters are driven into second-hand reporting.

I think the sermons delivered in these churches tomorrow are important. I believe that the prayers said and the scriptures read are important. They have content relevant to this global story.

How do reporters hear, record and report these words if they are not allowed polite access? I would, by the way, feel exactly the same way if we were talking about a liberal Episcopal parish in traditionalist Fort Worth that was discussing fleeing that diocese in order to align with the establishment left in New York City.

How to you “get” the religion in these stories if you are prevented from reporting the religious content of these public services? Talking to people in the parking lot will not get you this theological content, other than second-hand reports. This story is too important for that.

So, no riots. No cameras, if that is what the churches want. No rude reporters disturbing the worshippers. No badgering the faithful who do not want to talk.

But if reporters — including the ones who know the story the best — want to sit in silence and listen, I say let them listen. Then they can leave the sanctuaries and talk to people who agree to talk with them, outside if that is what people prefer. In the parking lot, even, if that is what the church leaders want. But the reporters have to be there. They have work to do.

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Don’t know your Islam?

Don't know your Islam?Jeff Stein, the national security editor for Congressional Quarterly, has been doing some brilliant reporting lately. Yet it’s all so simple. Ask the leaders of our nation, particularly those in positions of power in intelligence, national security and international affairs, to explain the basic differences between Sunni and Shiite Arabs.

In his latest piece, Stein takes on Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the recently appointed chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for his failure to understand even the most basic differences among Muslims. If we are to defeat Islamic extremists, it might help to know the differences, right? Check out this snippet:

Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.

We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism’s major players.

To me, it’s like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who’s on what side?

The dialogue went like this:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

“Al Qaeda, they have both,” Reyes said. “You’re talking about predominately?”

“Sure,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he ventured.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.

That’s because the extremist Sunnis who make up al Qaeda consider all Shiites to be heretics.

A few months ago, Stein took on the Republican leaders in Congress in a widely discussed New York Times column. As I watched Stein on CNN, I wondered how well those interviewing Stein would answer the questions he poses to the politicians. How would the average religion reporter fare, or American reporters in the Middle East?

Kudos to The Washington Post for carrying this Reuters article on the CQ piece. The Post editors appropriately recognized it is big-time news when Congress’ designated top intelligence overseer doesn’t know basic differences in Islam.

The challenge of course is translating these Sunni-Shiite differences into everyday parlance. Ask simple, basic questions and include that simple, basic information. It won’t create news every single time, but it can’t hurt to ask and include the answers. Perhaps if every newscast and article on anything relating to Islam tagged the Muslims in the story by their school of thought, we would have a more informed electorate. At least it could help these poor politicians out a bit next time Stein corners them for an interview.

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GetReligion, burkas and the press

burkas and mini skirtEver since Doug LeBlanc and I started this blog, we have had problems explaining to some people what GetReligion is about and what it is not about.

Here’s the bottom line: This is a blog that tries to dissect religion-news coverage in the mainstream press. We strive to praise the good and we try to put a spotlight on stories that we believe are flawed or, perhaps, haunted by religion themes that the journalists didn’t seem to realize was there. We call those missing religious elements “ghosts.”

But we always stress that this is not a weblog for theological debates. We also cannot cover all the world’s religion news. We don’t even have the time to get to half of the stories that we wish we could feature on the blog. And television news? And international coverage? Oh man, I feel those guilt shivers already.

So we are not a religion-news blog. We are a blog about how the mainstream press covers religion.

Here’s why I bring this up. A dedicated GetReligion reader and critic, Joe Perez of the Gay Spirituality & Culture blog, sent us a pointed note the other day that went like this:

Why oh why haven’t you said anything about the Dutch burka ban news item from 11/17 among other stories. Those wacky liberal Europeans can’t so much as frown at a Pentecostal minister’s sermons without getting GetReligion exercised, but ban burkas and they get a free pass? I thought this would be a big story but the US press is ignoring it. Can you help me understand?

By the way, is that “exercised” or “exorcised”? Sorry, I could not help myself.

Actually, I have written quite a bit on this blog about some of the internal tensions in Europe these days, with the drive for multiculturalism clashing, at times, with classical liberalism. I think the legal issues raised in the burka debates are fascinating and a bit frightening for people on both sides. Clearly, this is an issue of freedom of expression and association that affects all kinds of people, even stewardesses on British Airways. What right does the state have to tell a Muslim woman that she cannot choose to wear a burka?

submission 01But there’s the issue. Some women choose to wear traditional Islamic dress — although there would be fierce debates about using “traditional” in that phrase — and others are forced to do so, often through violence. Is it cultural imperialism for a Western government to try to protect these women by banning this public expression of Muslim faith? And while we’re at it, did filmmaker Theo van Gogh need to die because he made a fierce, offensive movie (Submission) about these issues?

All of that interests me and I am glad that many newspapers have written about the issue. I, frankly, think that much of the coverage has been quite good. I have come very close to commenting on this several times — to praise the coverage. I have circulated at least 10 of these stories among our GetReligion inner circle. However, no one has elected to write on one of them — yet.

So I agree with Perez that this is an important story. He sent us a link to an Associated Press report that gave plenty of evidence that the issue is not going away anytime soon:

The issue has resonance throughout Europe[.] Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently caused a stir by saying he wants Muslim women to abandon the full-face veil — a view endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair. In France, the center-right’s leading presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has increasingly been adopting some of the rhetoric of the extreme right.

Germany, which also has a large Muslim immigrant community, has a law banning teachers in public schools from wearing head scarves, but no burqa ban.

In Holland, policies associated with the nationalist fringe in 2002 have been co-opted by the center: holding asylum-seekers in detention centers, more muscle for the police and intelligence services, and visa examinations that require would-be immigrants to watch videos of homosexuals kissing and of topless women on the beach. Everyone must learn to speak Dutch, and Muslim clerics must mind what they say in their Friday sermons for fear of deportation.

I have seen some fine stories on this topic in major news outlets. Has anyone seen a really bad one? Let us know.

Meanwhile, please try to understand when we simply cannot comment on every religion news story or trend that comes along. It usually means (a) we haven’t seen the same story you have, (b) we were not struck by something highly critical or positive to say about it or (c) we were simply swamped that week in our day jobs.

Patience! And repeat after me: “It’s not a religion-news blog, it’s a blog about how the mainstream press covers religion.”

Top photo from Muslim Refusenik

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Who are Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo from Compass Direct News.

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