Copt Out II

Crossstations Very well written story in Newsday about the funeral for the slain family of Coptic Christians in New Jersey. Writers Daryl Khan and Solana Pyne do a good job of making the readers feel the grief and the rage of the mourners.

To wit:

At one point, a Muslim cleric walked in on the service, and a mourner became enraged, his voice rising out of a din of disapproval as Jersey City Mayor Jeremiah Healey was speaking.

“You are the killer!” the enraged man shouted at the cleric. “You are the killer!”

Eventually, police restrained the mourner and escorted him out of the church.

And then there was this scene at the funeral procession:

As pallbearers pulled each coffin out of the four hearses, Amal Garas’s mother, Farial Garas, wailed.

“Monica! No! No!” she moaned, banging on the side of the 8-year-old’s coffin. “Sylvia! Oh God! No! They’ve left me all alone!” She collapsed, surrounded by relatives who could offer little consolation.

Pretty wrenching stuff. A deacon for the St. George and St. Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church tried to explain away the anti-Islamic currents at the funeral by saying, “They’re saying it because they have so emotion inside they just want to blow up.”

According to an AP report, from Egypt, Talaat Armanious asked of his brother’s slaying, “Why would anyone do that to him?”

The brother demanded an “extensive investigation to find out what really happened,” and let slip: “We want revenge.”

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Poynter debate: Veteran help wanted on religion beat?

ScribecomputerframeA long, long time ago — a quarter century, to be precise — I was a copy editor and rock columnist at a daily newspaper in Central Illinois. Careerwise, what I wanted to do was write about religion, which was one reason I had studied the history of religion in America as well as journalism at Baylor University and then did a master’s degree in church-state studies, which combined theology, political science, history and some law.

I knew it would be hard to land that first job in religion writing. So I called up the late great George Cornell at the Associated Press and asked for his advice. I had a simple question: What does it take to be a religion writer in a mainstream newsroom?

Cornell’s answer had several layers, each of them relevant to the current debate growing out of Julia Duin’s “Help Wanted on the Religion Beat.”

The first thing you had to do, Cornell told me, was prove that you were a good reporter — not a religion reporter, but a reporter, period. That took time and, while you did that at an entry-level newspaper or two, you could try to build up some newspaper clips that focused on religion issues and news.

It also helped to have studied religion, formally or on your own. The beat was stunningly complex, he said, and it was hard to avoid mistakes. You had to know what you were doing and it helped if your editor was willing to stick with you and do some learning, too.

Once you had reporting experience and clips you could apply for a religion-beat job at a mid-sized newspaper and then, if things went well, you could move up to larger newspapers. But knowledge could not replace reporting skill and reporting skill alone was not enough. This was a two-sided equation.

The key was that the beat was important and worth it. He gave me a clue for arguing with editors about this. Just look at the annual list of the AP’s top 10 news stories. Year after year, the majority of them seemed to have some kind of religion hook. Look at the amount of time and money Americans dedicated to religion, compared with sports, he said. Surely newsrooms could find a way to hire a few skilled religion specialists.

A few years later, I drew on his advice as I researched my graduate project on religion news at the University of Illinois, which ended up on the cover of The Quill, and he influenced other articles after that. I was still quoting Cornell and a host of other religion-beat veterans — from Russ Chandler to Helen Parmley and beyond — when I spoke on some of these topics in 2003 at the Poynter Institute.

Call me old-fashioned, but I really believe that the best way for journalists to gear up to cover religion is the way they prepare to cover sports, opera, law, the environment and a host of other major beats. They need reporting skills, commitment and a broad knowledge of religion facts and trends, both national and global. It’s journalism, stupid.

That’s what I think Duin is saying, too.

Religion reporters must memorize a dizzying list of facts, 4,000 years’ worth of world religious history, and basic theology for more than a dozen religions. That takes time and experience. Yes, some of the novices to the beat have blossomed and done well. Others have not.

If they’re in the Bible Belt, they should. But the Nashville Tennessean, when it first advertised for a religion writer this spring, said in its ad “religion writing experience not required.” That brought to mind memories of The Washington Post’s famous November 1994 religion reporter job posting that, “The ideal candidate is not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.”

Now, I can’t find anywhere in her piece where Duin says that experience and knowledge are more important than reporting skills and talent. What has her fired up is evidence that the leaders of some major newsrooms seem to be opposed to hiring journalists with experience and knowledge. At best, some editors are indifferent, or nervous. They have sweaty palms.

This leads us, of course, to that infamous Washington Post job posting. Even Steve Buttry calls that ad “poorly worded,” which to me suggests that he still agrees with the principle that the “ideal” candidate for a religion-beat job is “not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.” He then reads Duin’s mind and says she is saying that religion reporters must be religious reporters. This misses her main point, or avoids it. Now I think the issue of ideological diversity in newsrooms is important, but that is not Duin’s subject in this piece. She isn’t saying that religion writers need to be edgy Unitarians or Bible-quoting Baptists or some other brand of believer.

What she is worried about is that word “ideal” in that Washington Post ad.

Duin knows that people can learn on the job. She knows, as Diane Connolly emphasizes, that there are ways for inexperienced religion reporters to learn on the job and seek post-graduate training. But once Connolly’s “novices” have blossomed into skilled veterans, does that make them lesser candidates for jobs higher up the ladders of news organizations? I don’t think so and neither does Duin.

What Duin wants to know is why a lack of experience and training is a PLUS, for some editors, when it comes time to hire a religion reporter. She wants to know why the rules are different for this beat than for other complicated news beats. Is the lack of knowledge a virtue?

Why would an editor choose a novice over reporters with resumes like, well, those of Connolly, Buttry or Duin? Why have editors chosen suburban reporters and business reporters over journalists who have won national awards and can produce stacks of national-level scoops and features? Why is the “ideal candidate” for religion-beat jobs in some of our best wire, print and broadcast newsrooms a journalist who is not “an expert in religion”?

As for me, I am with Cornell. What we have here is a two-sided equation. This is a beat that requires knowledge and talent, experience and skill. The “ideal candidates” for the top religion-beat jobs need all of these qualities and editors should seek out these journalists. The beat deserves it.

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Copt out?

Knife_1Kathy Shaidle yesterday passed along a deeply disturbing story from the New York Post. Four Coptic Christians were slashed to death in their New Jersey home. One initial motive, fingered by the Post, was Islamic rage.

As the Post put it:

[Hossam] Armanious, an Egyptian Christian, was well known for expressing his Coptic beliefs and engaging in fiery back-and-forth with Muslims on the Web site

He “had the reputation for being one of the most outspoken Egyptian Christians,” said the source, who had close ties to the family.

The source, who had knowledge of the investigation, refused to specify the anti-Muslim statement. But he said cops told him they were looking into the exchanges as a possible motive.

The married father of two had recently been threatened by Muslim members of the Web site, said a fellow Copt and store clerk who uses the chat room.

“You’d better stop this bull—- or we are going to track you down like a chicken and kill you,” was the threat, said the clerk, who was online at the time and saw the exchange.

And voila! the guy’s family ends up on the wrong end of a couple of carving knives. Sylvia, Armanious’ would-have-been-16-year-old daughter, took “the most savage punishment,” according to the Post. The assailant “not only slit Sylvia’s throat, but also sliced a huge gash in her chest and stabbed her in the wrist, where she had a tattoo of a Coptic cross.”

And that’s one side of the story. The local police are playing down the religion angle as much as possible, arguing that it was instead a robbery gone horribly wrong. According to the Jersey Journal, the four people were bound and their deaths were the result of a loss of blood from “puncture wounds to their heads, necks, and bodies, not from slit throats as was previously reported.”

Regarding speculation that this family of Copts was killed for their vocal religious beliefs, the local prosecutor said, “A lot of things are being reported (and) I think we have to be circumspect before assuming any motive in this case.” In the New York Times, a special agent of the FBI warned that his agency’s involvement in the investigation “does not mean that a hate crime took place.”

Some official Muslim groups have claimed that, whatever the identity of the killers, they were not acting with the moral sanction of Islam.

At the risk of pouring gasoline on a raging fire here, the evidence that has been made available to the public makes it sound very much like law enforcement, in full-spin mode, wants to sweep this one under the rug.

“Slit throats” vs. “puncture wounds to their necks”? Come on! Spokesmen for the local police have said that, contrary to the Post report, there wasn’t a lot of money or jewelry at the Armanious residence, but it is well within the realm of the possible that a wannabe jihadi would have removed these things in an attempt to throw the cops off his trail.

I should add that I abominate the very idea of hate crimes, where somehow weighing motives becomes more important than condemning actions. What could be more hateful than a murder? Why should we tack ten years on to someone’s sentence because he used a racial epithet while he was decapitating someone, or because he calls the victim a dirty infidel?

However, if we tweaked the situation a bit — say Egyptian Muslim immigrants were murdered and rabid Presbyterians were suspects — it’s hard to imagine law enforcement would be campaigning so vigorously against drawing conclusions, or that the press would by and large go along with that suggestion.

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Catholics increase their role on Hill — in GOP

Capitol_dome_b_1Since the purpose of this blog is to look at mainstream coverage of religion news, you would think we would spend quite a bit of time dissecting the coverage of mainstream print’s only wire service dedicated to covering religion. Makes sense, right? That would be the Religion News Service, or RNS, now operated by Newhouse.

But there are several problems. Since the goal of this wire service is to sell its copy, its website does not offer a quick and easy way to link to many or even most of its stories. But the bigger problem is that many American newspapers do not post the texts — with URLs — of the wire service reports they run. As a result, RNS copy may run in many newspapers, but often it is hard to find a solid, full-text version of any given report that you can link to online. Perhaps the best place to find RNS copy is Beliefnet’s news pages.

Anyway, the folks at the Pew Forum’s religion news project recently pointed out an RNS story by reporter Kevin Eckstrom that noted a quiet, but very significant, story that I don’t think I have seen anywhere else. It is, in a way, hooked into that comment by White House scribe Michael Gerson about the tensions, in the modern GOP, between a Libertarian stance and one rooted in a more Catholic, with a big C, approach to public life.

It seems likely that similar tensions may emerge on Capitol Hill. Why? Here is the key stuff:

There are 154 Catholics in the new Congress — an all-time high — including 87 Democrats and 67 Republicans. While Democrats hold their traditional lead among Catholics, Republicans are gaining, with two-thirds of new Catholic members coming from the GOP.

Political observers say party and ideology usually trump religious affiliation in casting votes, but they agree the numbers reflect a Catholic drift toward the Republican Party — a trend that could impact debate on hot-button social issues like abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage. They are members like Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican who holds a theology degree from the Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), and Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Louisiana convert from Hinduism who is also the second Indian-American member of Congress.

“The church is bigger than any one political movement or party,” said Jindal, who succeeded Republican David Vitter, a Catholic who moved to the Senate. “It’s a healthy thing that there are Catholics on both sides of the aisle.”

Eckstrom reports that one-quarter of Republican members are Catholic, compared to about one-third of Democrats. On the national level, Catholics are now evenly split three ways between independents and the two parties. No surprise: the GOP numbers are rising among the new Catholics of the Bible Belt and among more conservative Catholics who support the church’s teachings on hot button issues such as abortion and the sacrament of marriage.

On one level, this is another part of the whole “pew gap” story. But I have a hunch that pollsters could add one more question and find some interesting info linked to this. In the 2005 election, someone needs to ask Catholics how often they go to confession — then chart that next to their votes. Anyone what to predict what they will find?

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Heaven's gate: Timing is everything

Sunclouds_1When I first received a forward of this story, I thought for a second that it might be an urban legend. But no, it does seem to have been posted by the Associated Press. I have not seen it in any Florida media, however, and that surprises me. Rather than critique this simple story, let’s just read the heart of it.

OVIEDO, Fla. (AP) — A Presbyterian minister collapsed and died in mid-sentence of a sermon after saying “And when I go to heaven . . . ,” his colleague said Monday.

The Rev. Jack Arnold, 69, was nearing the end of his sermon Sunday at Covenant Presbyterian Church in this Orlando suburb when he grabbed the podium before falling to the floor, said the Rev. Michael S. Beates, associate pastor at Covenant Presbyterian.

Before collapsing, Arnold quoted the 18th century Bible scholar, John Wesley, who said, “Until my work on this earth is done, I am immortal. But when my work for Christ is done . . . I go to be with Jesus,” Beates said in a telephone interview.

Several members of the congregation with medical backgrounds tried to revive the minister and paramedics were called, but Arnold appeared to die instantly, Beates said.

Arnold had been the senior minister at the church until the late 1990s when he began traveling to Africa and the Middle East to teach pastors. The cause of death was believed to be cardiac arrest. He had bypass surgery five years earlier.

I have not been able to find a version that is much longer than this. I share it simply to ask this question: Is this a news story?

I guess over at Beliefnet this might lead to an interesting thread, asking readers how they would like to die, if they could choose the time and the place. From interviews, I know that friends of the Rev. Billy Graham have always said they thought he would like to die in the pulpit. If you ask Graham, he says such matters are up to God.

But, to repeat the question: Is this a news story? Human interest? Or is this the opening anecdote for a much bigger story, one that cuts into some thoughts and dreams and fears that people may not want to talk about? Just asking. And thinking.

UPDATED: A statement from the congregation involved, Covenant Presbyterian, can be found here with links to a Orlando coverage, etc.

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The Baylor plot thickens

baylor freedom.jpgLast February GetReligion mentioned the story of Matthew Bass, who was expelled from Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary who was expelled after administrators heard that he was gay and asked him about it.

Now Baylor has filed a lawsuit that accuses Bass of sending lewd e-mail to — and about — university employees.

Mike Anderson of the Waco Tribune-Herald describes the lawsuit’s claims:

The amended petition says many of the e-mails were sent under the names of Baylor employees or their family members. One e-mail cited in the petition was addressed as if it came from the child of an unidentified Baylor employee. In the e-mail the child implores the parent to stop committing sexual abuse. The e-mail was sent to the employee and many other Baylor staff members, the suit alleges.

The petition also says one group of e-mails incorrectly reported that a faculty member who had recently had a stroke had died. A message with the obituary of an administrator was sent to news organizations, the petition says. Another e-mail, sent in the name of a George W. Truett Theological Seminary administrator, reported to one of Baylor’s accrediting agencies that the seminary was involved in a cheating scandal involving faculty and students, the petition says.

The suit “appears to lack proof that the emails came from Bass,” says the Newscenter Staff, without elaboration.

Anderson’s story offers richer detail:

The petition says the e-mails were traced to the modem of an Internet service subscriber with Bass’s same home address, identified as his roommate. The suit continues that Bass using his own name repeatedly accessed various computer services hosted on Baylor computers last fall, with the calls originating from the modem at Bass’s residence.

“In order to access these services, Bass was required to ‘log in’ using a secure password known only to him, thereby indicating that he had personal access to, and used, a computer associated with the broadband modem in question,” the petition states.

Two other details appear in Anderson’s story but not at 365gay: “Other e-mails cited in the petition refer to sexual activities by Jesus Christ. The suit also alleges some of the e-mails contained racial epithets.”

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Lutherans choose not-so-sudden-death overtime

Rainbow_altarWhen you read about a sporting event, the first thing you what to know is who won and who lost. The same thing applies to elections and U.S. Supreme Court cases.

Of course, writing that kind of story is much easier when a reporter can look up at a scoreboard and read the numbers, or count the votes. It’s tougher when the players and officials in the game are speaking in highly technical, often ancient, theological code and, more than anything else, their goal is to prevent outsiders from being able to tell who won and who lost.

Which brings us to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America task force and its report on how to handle the explosive issue of same-sex unions and the status of clergy who are sexually active outside of marriage. After three years of work, the task force tried to cut the Solomonic baby right down the middle and craft a non-decision decision.

This suggested two things. The ELCA (1) is ready for shared Communion with the via-media experts at the Episcopal Church and (2) the ongoing storm of sex-war headlines will continue in oldline Protestantism as people fight over clashing concepts of truth — experiential progressives vs. traditionalists who stress moral absolutes. The issue of sex outside of marriage (gay and straight) makes for great headlines and points toward more fundamental differences in almost every set of pews in America.

Almost everyone covered this story and many linked the Lutheran events to the wider global conflict in the Anglican Communion. But what interested me were the leads. Almost everyone said that both sides of the conflict were ticked off (maybe). Who really won and who really lost? Let’s go to the instant replays. Thus saith the New York Times:

A task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommended yesterday that it retain its policy against blessing same-sex unions and ordaining gays, but suggested that sanctions could be avoided for pastors and congregations that chose to do so. … Some clergy members said that by giving local churches and synods wiggle room, the task force had found a way to preserve the unity of the church.

That sounds like a very mixed bag, except that the church’s laws are now meaningless. This reality seems a bit more clear in the Los Angeles Times:

Underscoring deep divisions in the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination, a task force on Thursday called for retaining the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s prohibition against ordaining noncelibate homosexuals, but urged caution in disciplining congregations and clergy who ignored the ban.

At the same time, the church’s Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality called for no change in the denomination’s practice of permitting local congregations to decide whether to bless the unions of same-sex couples.

The Chicago Tribune linked the story to a local leader and stressed that the church had decided that progressive bishops were now free to do whatever they wished. The bottom line? The game continues.

Both gay rights advocates and Lutheran conservatives panned a long-awaited sexuality report released by the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination on Thursday, saying it showed no signs of progress in the discussion about same-sex unions and gay clergy. …

The report did not suggest lifting the celibacy rules imposed on gay clergy, a change that Chicago Bishop Paul Landahl had hoped to see. … The report did recommend allowing bishops such as Landahl to choose not to punish congregations that ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians, as long as those congregations had discussed it beforehand with local church leaders.

Now, that sounds like a win for the left to me — in blue Lutheran zip codes. However, the lead that I think captured the most interesting element of the story came from Godbeat veteran Julia Duin at the Washington Times. She declared a winner and noted another fascinating wrinkle. Check this out:

A Lutheran task force handed a victory to homosexual rights groups yesterday by recommending that although the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America should not change its policy against ordaining homosexual clergy, it should not censure churches that break the rule.

But “those who feel conscience-bound to call people [as pastors] in committed same-sex unions should refrain from making the call a media event either as an act of defiance or with the presumption of being prophetic,” the task force warned.

In other words, progressive Lutherans, you are not to call attention to yourselves. Do not speak clearly. Keep your head down and run out the clock. Above all, do not turn this into more headlines that will hurt the denomination’s finances or statistics. This raises a question for me: What does it mean when conservative newspapers say the left won and liberal newspapers say that no one was victorious? Just curious.

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God on the rack

ClockworkAn odd story was passed along by Mark Shea, whose blog is on hiatus while he vindicates the Queen of Heaven.

According to a report from the other side of the pond, human research subjects “are to be tortured in laboratories at Oxford University in a United States-funded experiment to determine whether belief in God is effective in relieving pain.”

And no, this isn’t the Sun wot reported it; it’s from the Times of London. The new Center for the Science of the Mind, we are told, will use “imaging systems to find out how religious, spiritual and other belief systems, such as an illogical belief in the innate superiority of men, influence consciousness.”

Backed by a major grant of the Templeton Foundation, this two-year study “will involve dozens of people being subjected to painful experiments in laboratory conditions.”

In a twist that’s likely to be worse than The Godfather: Part III, “While enduring the agony, [subjects] will be exposed to religious symbols such as images of the Virgin Mary or a crucifix. Their neurological responses will be measured to determine the efficacy of their faith in helping them to cope.”

Further, “As they suffer, the human guinea pigs will be asked to access a belief system, whether religious or otherwise.” The Times explains:

Scientists have long been baffled at the persistence of these beliefs in the face of seemingly irrefutable logic. Professor Lewis Wolpert, the biologist, has speculated in the past that a belief in how the world was created and what happens after death may have conferred an evolutionary advantage.

By way of introduction, Shea wrote, “If it weren’t in the Times, I’d take it for a parody.”

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