5Q+1: Godbeat pro reflects on reporting inside Pakistan

Jaweed Kaleem, the Religion Newswriters Association’s 2013 Supple Religion Feature Writer of the Year, produces exceptional journalism on a regular basis.

Don’t be surprised if his latest story — in which he goes inside Pakistan to report on religious minorities — turns out to be one of the best religion news stories all year.

It’s a must read:

KARACHI, Pakistan — Every Sunday, thousands celebrate Mass at St. Peter’s, a three-floor, 21,000-square-foot Catholic church that’s the biggest in Pakistan. Dressed in their best tunics and loose cotton pants, worshippers sit barefoot in the pew-less building — a style adapted from nearby mosques — as they sing hymns to the sounds of drums and a piano. As the sun sets, a light shines in a 24-hour prayer room, something common in Western nations but a rarity here.

The success of St. Peter’s, which cost $3.8 million to build — making it the most expensive in the nation when it opened two years ago – has been hailed as a sign of progress for Christians and religious minorities. Yet beyond its bold size and growing attendance, the difficulties parishioners face stand out here as much as at any other non-Muslim house of worship in this overwhelmingly Islamic country. Guards are outside to protect worshippers from would-be suicide bombers and attackers. Prayers for recent Christian martyrs are said regularly during services. Priests use nonalcoholic wine or grape juice during Holy Communion, partly because it’s cheaper, but also to avoid inflaming Muslims who believe drinking is sinful.

Rather than copy and paste all 2,600 words, I asked Kaleem — the national religion reporter for The Huffington Post — if he’d respond to a few questions about this remarkable story.

What’s the inside scoop on this story? How did it come about?

Over the summer, I received a grant to do a foreign-based religion reporting project through the International Center for Journalists. Within ICFJ, this particular program was funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

As someone whose beat includes writing about death, dying, grief and loss, I initially wanted go to India to explore Hinduism and changing end-of-life traditions there. My visa was essentially denied because my parents are from Pakistan, so I had to scrap that plan and come up with a new one. I’m very interested in South Asia in general, so I decided to go to Pakistan, where one of the biggest religion stories is the rise of more conservative (Deobandi) Islam and the decline of freedoms for religious minorities, including Shiites.

Did you travel to Pakistan specifically for this story, and what was your experience as a journalist like there?

[Read more...]

Polish heavy metal clashes with mysterious blasphemy law

On some levels, the legal drama unfolding in Poland these days could be called the Son of Pussy Riot media storm. Alas, the media coverage of the case of heavy-metal man Adam Darski and his ripped of Bible will, in my opinion, rise or fall depending on whether journalists ask the same kinds of questions in Poland that they needed to ask in Russia.

But, for starters, let me note that I oppose blasphemy laws — period. I’m one of those First Amendment folks who believes that the answer to negative speech is more speech, not police locking people up. Even in the Pussy Riot case, I thought that the profane, iconoclastic protesters should have been hit with disturbing the peace charges and that’s about it.

So here is the top of a typical Darski story, care of Reuters and The Chicago Tribune, to set the scene:

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland’s Supreme Court opened the way … for a blasphemy verdict against a rock musician who tore up a Bible on stage, a case that has pitted deep Catholic traditions against a new desire for free expression.

Adam Darski, front man with a heavy metal group named Behemoth, ripped up a copy of the Christian holy book during a concert in 2007, called it deceitful and described the Roman Catholic church as “a criminal sect”. His supporters say it was an act of artistic expression, but conservatives say he offended the sensibilities of Catholics in Poland, the homeland of the late Pope John Paul II and one of the religion’s most devout heartlands in Europe.

The Supreme Court was asked to rule on legal arguments thrown up by the musician’s trial in a lower court on charges of offending religious feelings. It said a crime was committed even if the accused, who uses the stage name Nergal, did not act with the “direct intention” of offending those feelings, a court spokeswoman said.

The story fails to answer a few crucial questions. First of all, how old are these laws and who sought them? Also, how does the law define blasphemy?

As is often the case, the library of materials collected by Freedom House is a good place to start looking for answers. While it’s easy to say that, in heavily Catholic Poland, the church was the driving force behind the creation of the land’s law, that may not be the case.

It appears that conservative Catholics have frequently urged that the blasphemy law be used — for sure. However, the wording of the law suggests that this is another case of multicultural forces trying to prevent conflict by protecting religious symbols and, in the process, creating yet another vague law that is then easy to use and abuse.

For more information, click here for a .pdf of the Freedom House report on Poland, which notes:

Poland’s blasphemy law, Article 196 of the Penal Code, states that “anyone found guilty of offending religious feelings through public calumny of an object or place of worship is liable to a fine, restriction of liberty or a maximum two-year prison sentence.” Because of the focus on objects or places of worship, as opposed to religious ideas, personages, or divinities, many Article 196 cases have involved the use of religious symbols in different forms of art. However, the effect of the law is the same as that of other blasphemy laws, in that it places undue limits on freedom of expression and encourages self-censorship.

This “offending religious feelings” language, coupled with the need to defend a religious “object” or “place of worship,” results in precisely the kinds of laws that are now being used by radical Muslims (and promoted in the United Nations) was tools against blasphemers, as well as, in this case, artists who have offended Catholics.

Nevertheless, this story offers few, if any, factual material on the law. This is a story about Catholics attacking artists, even if the culture surrounding blasphemy talk in Europe is much more complex than that.

The Catholic church and its teachings have been at the heart of Polish life for generations, but changes in society are challenging the dominance of the faith. Opinion polls show that while 93 percent of Poles identify themselves as Catholics, the proportion who attend church or pray regularly is in decline, especially among young people.

Large parts of Polish society have also started to drift away from some of the church’s teachings, especially its ban on contraception and its opposition to homosexual partnerships. …

In one indication of the changes in society, the blasphemy trial does not appear to have harmed Darski’s show business standing. He is one of four judges on “The Voice of Poland,” a talent show broadcast on national public television.

I do not doubt that this information is accurate. But what about the law itself? Isn’t the content of this law, and its origins, part of the larger picture? Without the law, how would Darski’s oppressors be able to strike him down?