NYTimes’ riveting portrait of a Christian in Afghanistan

The New York Times’ amazing profile of a Christian convert in Afghanistan is a must-read piece of journalism, generating much attention — and deservedly so — on social media:

KABUL, Afghanistan — In a dank basement on the outskirts of Kabul, Josef read his worn blue Bible by the light of a propane lantern, as he had done for weeks since he fled from his family in Pakistan.

His few worldly possessions sat nearby in the 10-by-10-foot room of stone and crumbling brown earth. He keeps a wooden cross with a passage from the Sermon on the Mount written on it, a carton of Esse cigarettes, and a thin plastic folder containing records of his conversion to Christianity.

The documents are the reason he is hiding for his life. On paper, Afghan law protects freedom of religion, but the reality here and in some other Muslim countries is that renouncing Islam is a capital offense.

Josef’s brother-in-law Ibrahim arrived in Kabul recently, leaving behind his family and business in Pakistan, to hunt down the apostate and kill him. Reached by telephone, Ibrahim, who uses only one name, offered a reporter for The New York Times $20,000 to tell him where Josef was hiding.

“If I find him, once we are done with him, I will kill his son as well, because his son is a bastard,” Ibrahim said, referring to Josef’s 3-year-old child. “He is not from a Muslim father.”

For Josef, 32, who asked to be identified only by his Christian name to protect his wife and young child, the path to Christianity was only one segment on a much longer journey, a year of wandering that took him through Turkey, Greece, Italy and Germany, seeking refuge from Afghanistan’s violence.

As you may recall, GetReligion just recently featured this headline:

The story on the Afghanistan convert prompted this email from a reader:

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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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People were massacred in North Korea for WHAT?!?

Contrary to popular belief, the mainstream press really isn’t very effective when it comes to telling individual citizens what to think.

However, as the old saying goes, the leaders of the mainstream news media (ditto for Hollywood) are much more effective when it comes to telling the American population, as a whole, what subjects to think ABOUT.

Some trends and events jump straight into the headlines, while others do not. Most reporters immediately grasp the political implications of events, facts, history and trends, for example. The religious implications? Uh, not so much. That’s the message your GetReligionistas have been trumpeting for almost a decade.

Thus, we tend to feel a surge of encouragement when major news organizations write about an important topic and include the religious element of the story, especially when it makes it into the lede.

Take, for example, that Los Angeles Times story the other day about a shocking massacre that may or may not have taken place in North Korea. Here’s the top of the report:

North Korea staged gruesome public executions of 80 people this month, some for offenses as minor as watching South Korean entertainment videos or being found in possession of a Bible, a South Korean newspaper reported Monday.

The daily JoongAng Ilbo attributed the mass executions to a single, unidentified source, but at least one other news agency, run by North Korean defectors, reported hearing rumors of the killings in seven cities across the reclusive country.

Authorities in Wonsan, a port on North Korea’s eastern coast that is being transformed into a resort in hopes of attracting foreign investment to the impoverished country, gathered more than 10,000 residents in a stadium and forced them to watch the firing-squad executions, the newspaper reported. The condemned were lashed to poles, hooded, then sprayed with machine-gun fire, JoongAng Ilbo quoted its source, who reportedly is familiar with North Korean internal affairs and recently returned from the country.

“I heard from the residents that they watched in terror as the corpses were so riddled by machine-gun fire that they were hard to identify afterwards,” the source was quoted as saying.

There is nothing new, of course, about North Korea being the subject of a report about the persecution of Christians and/or other religious minorities.

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Got news? Is a global ‘war on Christianity’ newsworthy?

Would it be newsworthy if a U.S. Senator claimed in a public address that American taxpayer dollars are being used in a war against Christian believers in — to pick one key region — the Holy Land?

Apparently not, since Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made that claim yesterday at the Faith and Freedom Conference and the media has all but ignored it. As James Hohmann of Politico reports:

“There is a war on Christianity, not just from liberal elites here at home, but worldwide,” he said. “And your government, or more correctly, you, the taxpayer, are funding it.”

Although it was noticed by a handful of the D.C.-based, politically oriented sites, few mainstream outlets picked up on the story (a mention by CBS News and the AP are the only ones I could find).

Why the silence?

Imagine if a senator — a potential candidate for president, in fact — had claimed we were funding a war on Islam, or Hinduism, or Judaism. Would that not be a front-page story? Why then the difference when it comes to Christianity?

Part of the reason, I suspect, is because few journalists understood what Sen. Paul is even talking about. The socially conservative Christians at the conference knew what he meant, but that is because they read alternative media sources. Religious media outlets mention persecution of Christians around the globe nearly every week, though such stories rarely find their way into mainstream news stories. Even when, earlier this month, the Vatican claimed that 100,000 Christians are killed annually because of their faith, no major media seemed interested enough to do a follow-up on the assertion.

Perhaps some journalists thought that by reporting on Sen. Paul’s statement they would be required to explain the context. But they needn’t have worried about that. Here, for example, is the entire mention by the Associated Press in their 900+ word article titled, “GOP leader says ‘a war on Christianity’ is funded by taxpayers”:

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Got news? Freeing Saeed Abedini

YouTube Preview Image I’m frequently pondering what makes news and what doesn’t. Take a gander at this Google News page for information about Pastor Saeed Abedini.

It’s not that you can’t find plenty of news about this Iranian-born American Christian pastor who is currently imprisoned in Iran. It’s just intriguing where that news is. Abedini has been held in Iran since the summer of 2012 and imprisoned since September. Just a few weeks ago, he was reportedly sentenced to eight years in prison for threatening national security with his Christian activities.

Read all about it in the Baptist Press, World magazine, the Christian Post and Human Events. There are also items on FoxNews.com and a Washington Post sub-blog written by someone affiliated with “the Christian right.” So you see a pattern here.

It’s not that this case hasn’t been full of interesting twists and turns. You can read over at the Washington Examiner‘s editorial page about some odd ways the State Department reportedly was handling the case:

State Department officials have reportedly hesitated to intercede on behalf of an American citizen facing trial and perhaps execution in Iran due to his “Christian activities,” in part because Iran refuses to recognize the pastor’s U.S. citizenship.

“I recently learned our State Department informed Pastor Saeed Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, that it could do nothing for her husband’s case because Iran did not recognize his U.S. citizenship,” Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said in a statement to The Washington Examiner. Abedini’s attorney, Tiffany Barrans of the American Center for Law and Justice, told World the State Department listed that among the reasons it could not help Abedini.

“Let me be clear: under no circumstances should the U.S. State Department allow Iran to determine who is or isn’t a U.S. citizen and who the U.S. should protect,” Franks continued.  “The State Department should be doing everything possible to ensure the safety of its citizens abroad and to defend this U.S. citizen who faces trial in Iran under the harsh Iranian judicial system.” The Iranian-born pastor married an American citizen and has a family in Idaho.

That same paper also wrote up “As D.C. parties, Iran marks Obama’s inauguration by prosecuting American pastor.” Their latest on the matter — “Lawmakers pressure John Kerry to aid American pastor jailed in Iran” — includes this information:

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