TASS on Russia’s talking dogs

Politicians were like talking dogs in a circus: the fact that they existed was uncommonly interesting, but no sane person would actually believe what they said.

Alan Furst, Dark Star (2002)

I am sympathetic to the sentiments expressed by Pravda journalist André Szara, the central character in Alan Furst’s political-historical novel Dark Star. (I consider it the best of his 13 novels to date.) Once upon a time I too spent a great deal of my time listening to politicians, reporting for the Jerusalem Post on Parliament and the British government.

I cannot blame the Episcopal Church or the Church of England for giving me my jaundiced eye. Reading the debates in Hansard and ministerial press hand outs was unpalatable work, akin to eating sand. I no longer follow politics and politicians. For my sins I now read denominational reports, church press releases and bishops’ sermons. I’ve exchanged sand for sawdust.

Yet, this work must still be done. Even though a great deal of fluff and nonsense is spouted by the great and good, reporters must keep their ears (and brain) open. Even politicians say things that are novel and important.

Foreign correspondents have a doubly difficult job in that what may be novel and important in one culture is drivel in another. And, if they do not speak the language, they must rely on what others tell them. Raw information passes through sieves of culture, language and spin before it lands in the ear of an American foreign correspondent, who then must make it interesting and intelligible for his home audience.

The result often is an incomplete, or wrong-headed news story. One that bears but slight resemblance to what was said or done.

As GetReligion’s editor tmatt has noted in a recent story, the conflict between Russia and the West is one are where the press has fallen short by omitting, ignoring or not understanding the religious issues that are in part driving the conflict. On June 4 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow the clash between East and West was a clash of religious worldviews (Orthodox Russia v. post-Christian Europe/America).

And, from what I have been able to find, this story has not appeared in the mainstream press.

The ITAR-TASS news agency published an English-language reporting summarizing Lavrov’s speech — but their correspondent seems to have slept through the talk. The TASS lede stated:

MOSCOW, June 04./ITAR-TASS/. Russia is not going to build anti-western constructions and get involved in senseless confrontations only for the sake of providing us and NATO with desirable enemy image, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said.

The policy of limiting Russia’s capabilities is conducted mostly not by European powers, but by the United States, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a meeting of Russia’s council for international affairs. “The oddest thing is that all this is happening contrary to the obvious and objective benefit the pooling of technologies, resources and human capital might yield for both parts of the European continent,” Lavrov said.

The remainder of the article continues along these lines — tedious babbling. All politics, all foreign policy wonkery — dull, dull, dull.

Yet the next day the Interfax News Agency put out a one-paragraph story reporting that Lavrov had said the clash between Russia and the West had arisen over Russian return to “traditional spiritual values” and that America and Western Europe were “more and more detached from their own Christian roots and less susceptible to the religious feelings of people of other faiths.” Oh my.

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Shock: Russian Orthodoxy gives drag queen thumbs down

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Dear GetReligion readers:

Some of you wrote to say that you wanted to know what I thought of the whole Conchita Wurst episode, referring to the drag queen — the term used in mainstream media reports — who won the recent Eurovision Song Contest. In particular, a few of you want to know what I thought of the coverage of the fact that Russian Orthodox Church leaders have condemned this minor earthquake in popular culture.

People, people, are you surprised that Eastern Orthodox Christian bishops do not think highly of modern trends in sexuality? Remember the case of the Russian bishop who had a church torn down because its priest — apparently he had been drinking — performed a same-sex union rite at its altar? The priest was defrocked and, if I recall correctly, the local bishop had the rubble from the building burned and workers then salted the ground? (I’m trying to find a URL for that old story.)

I am also not surprised that recent statements by the Russian Orthodox hierarchy have received some mainstream media attention, in the wake of events in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics, the media superstar status of the Pussy Riot activists, etc., etc. I mean, how often do you get to put “Russian,” “Orthodox,” “Patriarchate” and “drag queen” into the same news story or even in one spectacular headline?

Here at GetReligion, of course, we are more interested in the news coverage of the event than we are with the event itself. The link several people have shared is for a story by Sophia Kishkovsky, carried by Religion News Service. Readers may also know her byline from work published by The New York Times. Here is a key chunk of it:

The Eurovision contest draws well over 100 million viewers annually, and the contest has become a point of national pride in Russia, which began competing in the 1990s.

“The process of the legalization of that to which the Bible refers to as nothing less than an abomination is already long not news in the contemporary world,” Vladimir Legoyda, chairman of the church’s information department, told the Interfax news agency. “Unfortunately, the legal and cultural spheres are moving in a parallel direction, to which the results of this competition bear witness.”

Legoyda said the result of the competition was “yet one more step in the rejection of the Christian identity of European culture.”

No surprises there. It was good that the story noted that the church simply saw this as another example of a larger trend. It does not appear that bishops rushed to pound out a “Conchita Wurst” document. This rather blogging-style report — which is drawn from press statements and previous media reports — does have more than its share of vague attribution clauses, as in:

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Glorious Pascha! The Baltimore Sun gets the key parts right

I keep saying this year after year, but it’s true. One of the greatest challenges for religion-beat specialists, season after season, is the long, steady march of feature stories that editors want you to produce linked to the major holy days in the various world religions.

Easter was always one of the biggest challenges for me, in part because it’s always on Sunday morning (or in the ancient churches, at the stroke of midnight and on into the early hours of morning).

That sounds really obvious, but think it through. That means this story has to appear above the fold on A1 in the biggest newspaper of the week, which means editors have to think very highly of this story. It will also need large and spectacular color photography, for the reasons just mentioned. From the point of view of most secular editors, Easter is also a much more explicitly RELIGIOUS season than, let’s say, Christmas. That’s a problem.

But back to the art issue.

Do you see the problem? How do you get large, spectacular Easter art when that art must be produced BEFORE the holy day itself? And what are most churches — liturgical churches, at least — doing in the days before Easter, when you need to shoot these photos? They are observing the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday — beautiful, but solemn observances that, literally, offer visual images that are the exact opposite of what editors are going to want for that happy, happy Sunday A1 art.

In other words, it’s easier to report about Easter before Easter than it is to photograph Easter before Easter. You almost always end up with something that looks very fake and staged.

All of this is to say that I was rather surprised when I awakened from my post-Pascha (the Eastern Orthodox term for Easter) coma this morning (the service began at 11:30 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m., followed by a giant feast) and discovered that The Baltimore Sun had a produced a quite solid Pascha-Easter story for A1, a package that was way better than the norm.

The focus of the story was on the role of eggs in various Easter rites, but with the major emphasis on the beautiful “red eggs” tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy. The A1 art was a lovely picture of some children lighting beeswax candles at an icon stand on Holy Saturday, with lots of egg art inside the paper. This art was shot earlier in the week when the eggs were being dyed.

The story started with a general overview, before hitting the major themes:

Children pet bunnies and gobble jelly beans. Wal-Mart sells more than 500 types of Easter confection, including unicorn- and space alien-themed baskets. Just a few of them allude to Christianity.

How does eating a package of Peeps recall the man Christians believe redeemed the world by rising from the dead nearly 2,000 years ago? Balancing Easter’s secular and religious sides can be a challenge for area churches.

So you have your Catholic Easter egg hunts, symbolism-free Baptist services and mainline churches with hints of the ancient rites. Then:

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Pod people: ‘Pinko’ Pat Buchanan and the Daily Mail

Heavy breathing this week from London’s Daily Mail, which has denounced American political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan as a toady of Vladimir Putin.

Yes, GetReligion readers you read that correctly, while he has escaped the pinko, secret traveler and useful idiot sobriquets due to the march of history, the Daily Mail nonetheless is calling Pat Buchanan a Russkie stooge.

The lede of the April 5 story entitled “Pat Buchanan claims GOD is on Russia’s side and that Moscow is the ‘third Rome’” pulls no punches. Not only is God on Russia’s side, but so too is GOD.

Conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan insists that God is now on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side. The bombastic pundit’s claims in a rambling diatribe posted to a conservative website that Russia is the ‘third Rome’ and the West ‘is Gomorrah.’

‘Putin is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity,’ Buchanan wrote in the op-ed published by Human Events, adding that his recent speeches echo those made nearly 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II — in which the pontiff also criticized the West.

The article proceeds to summarize,with evident distaste, Buchanan’s April 4 syndicated column “Who’s Side Is God on Now?”

Not quite a tabloid, or “red top” in British newspaper parlance, the Daily Mail straddles the line between respectable and hysterical journalism. This story leans to the hysterical side — to the delight I’m sure of Buchanan, for whom this is great publicity — but to the detriment of those seeking to understand what is happening in Russia today.

The story has undergone revisions since it was first posted online. The first printing called the former Nixon speech writer a “bombastic preacher,” though subsequent editions were changed to “bombastic pundit.” What has not been updated, however, is the Daily Mail‘s claim that Buchanan is making the claims about God and Russia — when it is quite clear when reading the original piece Buchanan is reporting on what Putin believes to be Russia’s mystical destiny.

Buchanan’s voice comes toward the end of his piece when he laments a world where the leader of Russia has donned the mantle of Christian morality. Good Catholics once prayed for the conversion of Russia, but today they should pray for the conversion of America.

In this week’s Crossroads podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I touched upon the poor job Western reporters have made in covering the deeper currents of the Russia-Ukraine clash. And, while being blissfully unaware of Buchanan’s column and the Daily Mail‘s coverage, we spoke of the “Third Rome” and the belief held by many Russians (including Putin it seems) that Russia has been given a mission from God to renew and redeem the world.

The GetReligion piece “No peace in our time for the Ukraine” was a “got news” story — that is a GetReligion category of a religion related news story that has somehow been overlooked by the media.

The Western press has done a good job in reporting the words of John Kerry, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and other Western leaders. Putin is painted by most newspapers as a villainous KGB thug. However, the enthusiasm shown towards then new leaders of the Ukraine has been tempered by frustration with their inability to govern their country.

All of interest to a degree, I concede, but not of significant importance. The deeper currents of religion, ethnicity and national identity, I told Todd, were not being given a proper hearing. Without the context of historical background, of the five hunded year clash between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, of the battle between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles, it was not possible to understand what was happening, beyond the level of caricature (Putin bad, protesters good).

The religion angle as essential to understanding this dispute, yet it was not being addressed by the Western press. In my GR piece I reported on Russian and Ukrainian newspaper articles that presented harsh denunciations by local church leaders of their opposite numbers. I wrote:

Reading the statements from the Russian Orthodox Church published in the Moscow newspapers and the statements of the Catholic leaders published in Kiev quite clearly demonstrates the religious dimensions of this dispute. Putin’s Moscow is the inheritor of the civilizing mission of Holy Mother Russia while the Catholic Church is the bulwark standing fast in the face of the Asiatic hordes.

Church leaders have picked up the tempo in recent days. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Cyril I (or Kyrill or Kirill, which means Cyril) offered his strongest critique of the unrest in the Ukraine last week, comparing it to the October Revolution.

In an interview with Interfax, Cyril stated:

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Back in the USSR! Izvestia on the Crimea

Save for Mitt Romney, no one — in my opinion, at least — appears likely to benefit from the Anschluss in the Crimea. Not only has the annexation of the Crimea by Russia been a blow to the Ukraine, it has underscored the fecklessness of the EU and President Obama while also pointing to the structural weakness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

And it is really, really bad news for the Russian Orthodox Church.

Bet that line caught you by surprise. When the crisis in the Ukraine first arose, GetReligion chided western newspapers for omitting the religion angle to the conflict. The press eventually caught up to what most Ukrainians knew about the interplay of religion, politics and ethnicity, but only after pictures of Orthodox and Catholic clergy acting as human shields to halt clashes between police and protesters in the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kiev flashed round the world via the wire services.

And when monks from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) opened their cathedral near the Maidan to the wounded, turning the church into an unofficial headquarters for the anti-Moscow protestors, even the Western press took notice.

The religion angle of the unraveling of the Ukraine continues to be under reported in the West, but it is emerging in reports out of Eastern Europe. Last week Izvestia reported that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) would not turn over its parishes in the Crimea to the Russian Orthodox Church now that the Crimea is once more part of Russia.

But before we dive into this article let’s say a few words about Izvestia. In the bad old days (good old days), from 1917 to 1991 Izvestia (which means Reports in English) was the official newspaper of record of the Presidium — the Soviet Government. Its formal title was Reports of Soviets of Peoples’ Deputies of the USSR. Pravda was the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union Izvestia was privatized but then purchased by oligarchs close to the regime. While not an official government organ, it does represent the views and voices of Putin’s regime.

Reading Izvestia and Pravda in the olden days was an art form — part astrology part psychoanalysis. There was always some truth to be found and for those with an eye and ear for the nuances of the regime Izvestia was a pretty good guide to what the people at the top believed to be true or were debating amongst themselves. (Which is not the same thing as truth itself, but I digress).

The paper still performs this role to a lesser extent. I make no claims of expertise in the intricacies of palace politics in Putin’s Russia, keeping track of the Byzantine ways of the Anglican Communion is a full time job for me, and it may well be this piece in Izvestia is a straight news story. Or does it reveal a discussion taking place within the Kremlim?

Patheos will not let me use Cyrillic script on this page, preventing me from pulling the direct lines from the story. But in a nutshell, the article says Patriarch Philaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) will seek to register its dioceses in the Crimea with Moscow as religious entities separate from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) — the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches located in the Ukraine and under the ecclesiastical authority of Moscow — told Izvestia that they had not decided whether to move from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) to the Russian Orthodox Church.
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The New York Times misses battle for Belarus

I would like to draw your attention to a 28 July 2013 piece in the New York Times entitled “Putin in Ukraine to Celebrate a Christian Anniversary”. The article reports on the interplay of religion, politics and culture in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Yet the mention of religion in a story does not necessarily mean the reporter “gets religion.”

The article opens by focusing on what the Times sees as the political significance of the event, and then moves to an appreciation of the interplay of religion with politics.

MOSCOW — In an apparent attempt to use shared history to make a case for closer ties, President Vladimir V. Putin attended religious ceremonies in the Ukrainian capital on Saturday to commemorate the 1,025th anniversary of events that brought Christianity to Ukraine and Russia. At a reception in Kiev, the capital, Mr. Putin spoke of the primacy of the two countries’ spiritual and historical bonds, regardless of political decisions that often divide them. Relations have been rocky in part because of attempts by Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, to formalize its political and economic ties with the European Union.

“We are all spiritual heirs of what happened here 1,025 years ago,” Mr. Putin told church hierarchs at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, one of the holiest sites of Orthodoxy, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “And in this sense we are, without a doubt, one people.”

Mr. Putin’s trip was also the latest sign of the deepening ties and common agenda of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. The events last week commemorated Prince Vladimir of Kiev’s decision to convert to Christianity and baptize his subjects in 988, an event known as the Baptism of Rus,  … The attention has also lent apparent endorsement to church criticism of Western democracy and secular culture, particularly homosexuality….

Patriarch Kirill invoked the concept of the Holy Rus, referring to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as a unified spiritual expanse united under the faith. … The patriarch has sought to unify the faithful with warnings of the encroachment of secular values. He recently warned that legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe posed a grave threat to Russia.

The article then looks at the church’s illiberal teachings, pulling quotes from Cyril made outside the Kiev celebrations.

The patriarch has sought to unify the faithful with warnings of the encroachment of secular values. He recently warned that legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe posed a grave threat to Russia.

“This is a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom, and we must do everything so that sin is never validated by the laws of the state in the lands of Holy Rus, because this would mean that the people are starting on the path of self-destruction,” he said at a Moscow cathedral, according to the Web site of the Moscow Patriarchate. He previously said that such “blasphemous laws” could prove as dangerous to believers as the executioners of the Great Terror during the government of Stalin.

Before I move to an analysis of the distortions to the story caused by the particular worldview of the Times, let me say a word about nomenclature beginning with names. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is called Kirill in this article and in other outlets is named Kyrill and Cyril. They are all the same name, but coming as I do out of an older style of journalism that anglicizes everything because that is how God intended it to be, I use Cyril — just as I call the pope Francis. And some regions of the world and nations are prefaced by “the” — the Sahara, the Arctic, the Sudan, the Ukraine — less frequently the Lebanon and the Yemen. I am not making a political statement when I call the host nation “the Ukraine”, implying it is a region rather than a nation state, or a mystical idealized place like la France of Charles de Gaulle, rather it is the style in which I was educated. That having been said …

The word “apparent” in the first line is problematic. It begs the question “apparent to whom?” The Times states this is Putin’s political goal and offers extracts from his speeches to illustrate this point, but spends little time in offering other views.

I am not saying the Times was incorrect in stating the trip for Putin was an opportunity to bring the Ukraine closer to Moscow. This theme was noted in the Russian press also. Moskovsky Komsomolets a Moscow-based daily with a circulation of approximately one million, called Putin’s Ukrainian visit “the  second baptism of the Rus”, implying shared spiritual values make Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians “one people”.

The official text of Putin’s 27 July 2013 speech Putin makes this point clear.

The Baptism of Rus was a great event that defined Russia’s and Ukraine’s spiritual and cultural development for the centuries to come. We must remember this brotherhood and preserve our ancestors’ traditions. Together, they built a unique system of Orthodox values and strengthened themselves in their faith …

Putin then moves from spiritual unity to national economic solidarity, arguing the Ukraine’s strategic choice lies with the Eurasian and not the European integration project.

Competition on the global markets is very fierce today. Only by joining forces we can be competitive and stand a chance of winning in this tough environment. We have every reason too, to be confident that we should and can achieve this.

The stress placed on this point by the Times is not misplaced, but it is unbalanced. We are hearing only Putin and Cyril in this story — and what the New York Times thinks about them.

The article does not contrast Putin’s vision to the Ukrainian premier Viktor Yanukovych’s administration’s goal of Kiev assuming a leadership role in bringing not only the Ukraine, but also Russia and Belarus closer to Europe. It may well be the Moscow-based reporter’s job to write all-Putin all the time stories, yet the article’s emphasis on Putin clouds the issue.

The content of Putin’s speech is news as is the fact of the celebration of the anniversary of the Baptism of the East Slavs, but the significant event from a political and religious perspective is the boycott of the proceedings by the Premier of Belarus — a fact mentioned only by the omission of his name from the heads of state list given by the Times.

In other words, it is not new news the Russian Orthodox Church believes nationality, or Russianness is born from Orthodoxy. Nor is it news the Orthodox Church is opposed to gay marriage. Nor is it news that Putin is seeking to pull Kiev into Moscow’s orbit. Nor is the Times‘ comments about the rapprochement  between church and state new news. Putin has been moving the state closer to the church for over a decade — and as the article states Putin revealed he had been baptized as an infant in the Leningrad during the Stalinist era. By focusing on the familiar — of how the ceremony relates to Putin, the Times missed in its coverage is the significance of the boycott of the ceremony by the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka.

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A sad note of Orthodox reality in Eastern Europe

It’s impossible to know precisely what is happening inside the mind of a politician when he or she is taking part in a religious ritual, whether or not listeners are hearing the voice of a believer or that of a political realist who is skilled at watching national opinion polls.

The Russians have a special term for this slice of life in our sinful, fallen world and, truth be told, some public leaders do deserve this label — “podsvechnik.”

This word means “candlestick holder.” This is the politician who walks into a church sanctuary on a major feast day — usually Christmas or Pascha — lights a candle at an icon, makes the sign of the cross then stands around long enough for photographers to have a chance to take his picture.

Alas, in the lands of the former Soviet bloc, this same term can be applied to some church leaders.

Once again, however, it helps to remember that the human heart is a complex thing and some true believers struggle with major and minor sins throughout their lives. What if this person is wearing the vestments of a bishop?

Why bring this up? The other day, our own Father George Conger sent me a Reuters story from Bulgaria that was both fascinating and scary. Here’s the top of the report:

VARNA, Bulgaria (Reuters) – The death last week of one of Bulgaria’s most senior bishops, found floating in the Black Sea wearing a snorkel and flippers, was mysterious in its own right, but it was only the final chapter in an enigmatic life.

In the days after Bishop Cyril of Varna, 59, was found dead, a picture emerged of a man respected by many but who had also spied for the communist-era secret police, brokered land deals that raised questions and driven a luxury Lincoln sedan given to him by a local businessman.

Through it all, he was never investigated or disciplined, making him a kind of symbol of modern Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest member, where graft and organized crime often go unpunished and where many people feel public institutions — from the Church to the government — have betrayed their trust.

OK, that’s rather muddy, to say the least. In another nasty, yet powerful, image a believer describes the bishop cruising through crowds of people on Epiphany, flinging holy water on poor Bulgarians through the open window of his luxury car.

Is there more to the story? Yes, there is and, to the credit of the Reuters team, other details make it into the report:

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Gosh! Finding meaning in great Russian literature?

I spent most of last week on the other side of the planet (a Media Project-Poynter.org event in Bangkok) or getting to the other side of the planet and an odd little post I had been planning slid down into the tmatt file of guilt.

The Washington Post did an interesting story the other day that I really wanted to salute, while at the same time noting that it was haunted by a rather obvious religion ghost.

The story ran under a pitch-perfect headline: “Crime and punishment: Juvenile offenders study Russian literature.”

The bottom line in this story: Russian literature offers the kinds of hard-hitting, muscular truths that even appeal to young people behind bars. If you can get them started on “War and Peace,” they will come back for more. That’s what is happening in a class offered by the University of Virginia, with inmates at the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center.

Say what? Here’s a key chunk of the report:

Researchers have documented positive changes in behavior, decision-making, social skills, educational goals and civic engagement, according to a study by U-Va.’s Curry School of Education. The study also points to benefits for the undergraduates who study alongside incarcerated youths.

The demand for the service-learning class, the response and the impact it seems to have prompted U-Va. to give Andy Kaufman, a lecturer and fellow at the university, a $50,000 grant to expand his experiment. He hopes to bring classics of Russian literature to more U-Va. students, more people at Beaumont, and more inmates at other prisons in Virginia and nationwide.

Beaumont residents said privately that the course had a profound effect on them. Jonis Romero, just released back home to Woodbridge, said that since taking the class, he thinks constantly about how he wants to live his life. He got a job at a carwash right away and hopes to go to George Mason University. Alex Espinoza, an 18-year-old from Arlington County, said it “helped me acknowledge the little things, not worry about greedy things.”

One inmate told researchers that for the 90 minutes of class each week, he felt like a human being again. “When they leave Beaumont,” lead research assistant Rob Wolman said, “do we want them feeling like human beings or feeling like criminals?”

The key is that these books play for keeps, asking big questions about good and evil, life and death, sin and grace, repentance and forgiveness, heaven and hell and, yes, crime and punishment. What is the meaning of life? What happens when the sins of the fathers plague the lives of the sons? Is there life after you have been sentenced to a living hell? What are the lessons someone learns when they watch people die? That’s what the “Books Behind Bars” concept is all about.

So where’s the ghost?

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