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?

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Another religious holiday commercialized

I remember a sermon where a pastor pointed out that if it weren’t for commercialization of religious holidays, they’d be far less celebrated. This has stuck with me so much that it has changed my negative feelings about the commercialization of Christmas. Now I just wish Pentecost and Ascension were similarly “ruined” by capitalist entrepreneurs. I try to keep the liturgical holidays and seasons in my home but other than Advent, Christmas, Ephiphany and Easter … it’s pretty slim pickings.

So I really enjoyed this story about Ramadan from Huffington Post‘s Jaweed Kaleem. “Ramadan Business A Boon In Islamic Market As Muslims Talk Of Growing Commercialization.” (And don’t miss “Ramadan Start Date 2013: Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday? Muslims Disagree” by the same reporter.) Any reporter will tell you that they struggle to cover annual events. This leads to some systemic bias against the coverage of liturgical churches or against annual religious holidays, such as Ramadan. How does one come up with an informative but fresh angle on a story that is literally over a thousand years old? Here’s how Kaleem handled it:

Growing up in a mostly Christian neighborhood in southern Virginia in the 1970s and 1980s, Raana Smith remembers feeling “lacking” around the holidays. While friends frolicked at Easter Egg hunts and got giddy over the presents under their Christmas trees each December, her Muslim family’s traditions didn’t translate well into toys or games that other kids could understand.

Now 39 and the mother of a three-year-old, Smith is trying to help fill what she sees as a commercial hole for Muslim families raising kids in the United States. Ahead of Tuesday’s first day of Ramadan, the Islamic month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, her Islamic gifts and stationery business, Silver Envelope, has prepared hundreds of Ramadan wares for shipping. They range from an $8.50 Ramadan cookie decorating package to a $15 “Rockets ‘n’ Robots” Ramadan countdown kit (the concept is similar to that of an Advent Calendar) and, for the ambitious, a $69.95 “moon-sighting party” bundle (the holiday period begins and ends with the viewing of the new moon).

“To say Ramadan is busy for us is an understatement,” says Smith, who splits her time between Doha, Qatar and Richmond, Va. “We are targeting people who are looking to revive the Islamic spirit, who are looking to create their own American traditions grounded in Islam, who want to help children get excited about being Muslim through fun products and characters.”

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The powerful ghost in the death choir story

While I have listened to choirs that have bored me nearly to death with their singing, I never knew there were choirs that would sing to you when you are near to death.

Turns out, there are, and there’s a story there.

Jaweed Kaleem, the national religion reporter for The Huffington Post, highlights the small but growing trend of deathbed singers in his recent article on Threshold Choirs.

Death used to happen solely at home or in a hospital, with company limited to family, close friends and clergy. Solemn music would be reserved, perhaps, for the funeral. But as the options for the end of life have grown to include hospice, palliative care and other avenues that recognize not only physical but also emotional and spiritual well-being, Synakowski and like-minded volunteers are offering another service to the dying: soothing through a cappella song.

Each week, Synakowski and between five and 10 people gather around an imaginary bed to practice original songs written for the dying. The D.C. circle formed in January, and is one of the newest in a little-known, mainly U.S.-based network that began in Northern California 13 years ago and now includes dozens of groups across the country.

The full potential of web journalism is on display in Kaleem’s superb article. Just when you start to wonder what a deathbed song might sound like, the article drops in a sound clip of the choir performing two original songs. He even includes a slideshow of various choir groups and the people they sing for. From start to finish, it’s well-done, a solid piece of reporting.

But an article on death choirs shouldn’t be haunted by a holy ghost.

The choir members are recruited from churches, sing in churches and their practice session opens “as if it were a worship service.” So why don’t we hear more about the religious angle? The closest we come to finding out what sort of relationship the groups have toward religion is a line buried in a description of the singing events:

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