Is China's economic imperialism a religious issue and, thus, a story for religion scribes?

Is China's economic imperialism a religious issue and, thus, a story for religion scribes?

Four years ago while vacationing in the Central American nation of Belize I noticed that the preponderance of grocery stores in the coastal and interior towns I visited were operated by Chinese immigrants. How come?

Few of the adults appeared to speak any Spanish or English, Belize's two most important languages, indicating to me that they were recent immigrants. Their children, it seemed, handled all their business translation needs, a not uncommon occurrence among first-generation immigrants everywhere.

I concluded that Belize, a small, seemingly unimportant geopolitical player with a polyglot population and limited infrastructure, had become another object of Chinese government economic imperialism meant to gain influence and create financially dependent allies across the developing world.

China, as one New York Times writer put it, engages big time in "buying loyalty." It does so by showering needy governments with loans and investments and sending its people to establish economically Important footholds.

I may be reaching here, but my gut tells me that, given China's miserable human rights record -- and in particular its treatment of religious movements -- that Beijing's ever-spreading tentacles is an issue to which American religious groups should be paying more attention.

Yes, that means that this is also a topic to which religion-beat journalists should be paying more attention.

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Welcome back, Qatar: Al Jazeera sets standard for reporting Mennonite gay issues

Welcome back, Qatar: Al Jazeera sets standard for reporting Mennonite gay issues

Here's a modern paradox: One of the best examples of the American Model of the press, as tmatt calls it, is the Arab news service Al Jazeera. A good example is its indepth on the struggle of Mennonites with gay issues.

"As I've come to expect as standard for Al-Jazeera, they dig deep and quote lots of different viewpoints on this issue, and look at a particular group that is not high in the public conversation," says a Faithful Reader who tipped us off to this story.

The reader is right. Al Jazeera, based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar but boasting a dozen U.S. bureaus, writes sensitively about all sides in the debate. The 1,800-word story starts with a man who feels torn between his attraction for other men and his love for the church.

Then it neatly summarizes a paradox:

The Mennonite church – often vocal on peace and social justice issues – won’t perform his vows and views his sexuality with a wary eye. Though often viewed as a church of old-fashioned, plain-dressed pacifists who live agrarian lives much like the Amish, the reality is that "Plain" and horse-and-buggy Mennonites comprise only about one percent of the church. 
The rest of the church, a Protestant Anabaptist sect founded during the Reformation in the 1500s, uses varying degrees of modern technology. And most adherents wear modern clothing. What unites all factions of the church is a commitment to pacifism and social justice. And it’s those very traits that are also threatening its unraveling, as the church – and the rest of America – comes to terms with recent progress in the fight for LGBT civil rights.

The article gives us a peek at the recent annual conference in Kansas City of the Mennonite Church U.S.A., which failed to yield an agreement on the LGBT community. The delegates simply admitted there was no consensus, then tabled discussion for another four years. In protest, some members -- in a group called "Pink Menno" -- stood with duct tape over their mouths, the story says.

Another good explainer:

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'Book of Mormon' opens in Salt Lake City to a sold-out crowd and fair coverage by AP

'Book of Mormon' opens in Salt Lake City to a sold-out crowd and fair coverage by AP

My wife and I saw "The Book of Mormon" musical when it came to Oklahoma City last year.

I had heard songs on the soundtrack and read news stories about the production, so I was curious.

I laughed a lot and squirmed a lot, too: Going in, I probably was naive. I'm one who tends to avoid even R-rated movies, so the extreme crudeness — language, sex objects, etc. — caught me off guard.

"The Book of Mormon" is back in the headlines this week, which is no surprise given where it's being staged.

The Associated Press reports:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The biting satirical musical that mocks Mormons received a rousing reception Tuesday in its first-ever showing in the heart of Mormonlandia, kicking off a sold-out, two-week run at a Salt Lake City theater.
The audience cheered wildly as the Tony Award-winning "The Book of Mormon" began, with the show's gleefully naive missionaries singing in front of a backdrop of the Salt Lake City skyline and Mormon temple that resembles the real one just two blocks away.
They laughed loudly as the jokes played out, many touching on Mormon lingo and culture that is intimately familiar in Utah. Some of the most raucous applause came during a scene when an African character sings, "Salt Lake City, the most perfect place on Earth." At the conclusion, attendees at the Capitol Theater crowd gave the actors a standing ovation.
Despite the jokes and jabs that create a caricature of Mormon beliefs, there were no protests outside and no mass walkouts during opening night. The playbill did include three advertisements from the Mormon church, including a picture of a smiling man with the words, "You've seen the play, now read the book."

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Colonial Jamestown reliquary: Secret Catholics or Protestants 'venerating' bones of saints?

Colonial Jamestown reliquary: Secret Catholics or Protestants 'venerating' bones of saints?

I love a good mystery hidden in the mists of history and it goes without saying that is doubly true of a mystery with a strong religion hook. So the Washington Post team had my my full attention when it pushed out an online promotion for a fascinating feature story about some of the latest finds in the Jamestown Rediscovery project.

The key: Researchers found a small silver box containing what appear to be human bones, with what they believe is the letter "M" inscribed on the cover. Hold that thought. Here is how the story opens:

JAMESTOWN, Va. -- When his friends buried Capt. Gabriel Archer here about 1609, they dug his grave inside a church, lowered his coffin into the ground and placed a sealed silver box on the lid. ...
The tiny, hexagonal box, etched with the letter “M,” contained seven bone fragments and a small lead vial, and probably was an object of veneration, cherished as disaster closed in on the colony.
On Tuesday, more than 400 years after the mysterious box was buried, Jamestown Rediscovery and the Smithsonian Institution announced that archaeologists have found it, as well as the graves of Archer and three other VIPs.
“It’s the most remarkable archaeology discovery of recent years,” said James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, which made the find. “It’s a huge deal.”

OK, but what was this small silver box? The story says it was probably an "object of veneration," but are we talking about some form of link to ancestors? The Post team, interviewing the experts, immediately locks into a crucial religious element of this mystery -- but misses some key questions and historical details.

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Mormons to the rescue: How to write about sex trafficking but leave out a few details

Mormons to the rescue: How to write about sex trafficking but leave out a few details

A few weeks ago, while scanning a few articles in a print copy of Foreign Policy, my go-to magazine for all things outside U.S. borders, I chanced upon a piece about human trafficking.

I began to read about how a group of Americans in Acapulco posing as sex tourists are really part of something called Operation Underground Railroad (OUR). The piece traces how they’ve invited some pimps and their girls over for an afternoon of fun when suddenly the local police rush in and arrest all the bad guys.

It’s gripping narrative and fun to read. Then the author spins us some background, how “strange bedfellows -- feminists who opposed sex work, politicians from both political parties, and right-wing Christians -- allied behind the cause of defeating modern-day slavery.” A few paragraphs later, it introduces Tim Ballard, the founder of OUR and how he got into the sex trafficking busting business. Then:

Ballard’s Mormon faith also heavily influences his work. “The other option was to face my maker one day and tell him why I didn’t do it,” he says of his decision to start combating crimes against children. Ballard insists that religious belief isn’t a requirement to join OUR but notes that the staff members often pray together. If someone isn’t “comfortable praying,” he says, “they’re not going to be comfortable working with us.” (In a February interview with LDS Living magazine, Ballard was more candid about his faith: He said he launched OUR after being instructed by God to “find the lost children.”)
Responding to the call for a moral crusade, a handful of private organizations have adopted what is now widely known as a raid-and-rescue strategy: identify where people are being sold for sex, send in police to haul them out, and arrest traffickers.
Today, OUR has a full-time staff of 12 people and a stable of trained volunteers, most of them Mormon. They include former military and intelligence officers, nurses and Army medics, cops and martial arts instructors. From small offices in Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Anaheim, California, OUR has coordinated more than a dozen raids in Latin America and the Caribbean. It claims to have saved at least 250 trafficking victims, including 123 -- 55 of whom were children -- in three stings coordinated across Colombia last October.

Screech of brakes. What did the article say? Mormons?

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Boy Scouts, church-based troops and the threat of lawsuits — about that big vote on gay leaders

Boy Scouts, church-based troops and the threat of lawsuits — about that big vote on gay leaders

Could the Boy Scouts of America's decision to accept gay leaders hasten the exodus of troops sponsored by conservative religious groups?

Could traditional believers who maintain ties with the Boy Scout face lawsuits if they limit scoutmaster roles to heterosexuals?

Those questions gain prominence in the aftermath of Monday's big vote.

The New York Times' latest lede is simple and to the point:

The Boy Scouts of America on Monday ended its ban on openly gay adult leaders.
But the new policy allows church-sponsored units to choose local unit leaders who share their precepts, even if that means restricting such positions to heterosexual men.

Despite this compromise, the Mormon Church said it might leave the organization anyway. Its stance surprised many and raised questions about whether other conservative sponsors, including the Roman Catholic Church, might follow suit.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply troubled by today’s vote,” said a statement issued by the church moments after the Scouts announced the new policy. “When the leadership of the church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with scouting will need to be examined.”

But in what seems to be a trend lately, the Times had to run a correction on its original story (click here to see the previous versions)

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From the good old days to the hellish ISIS days for Christians in Middle East? Really?

From the good old days to the hellish ISIS days for Christians in Middle East? Really?

At the time of 9/11, I was living in South Florida and attending an Eastern Orthodox parish in which the majority of the members were, by heritage, either Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of time hearing the details of their family stories -- about life in the old country and the forces that pushed them to America.

The key detail: It was never easy living in the Middle East during the Ottoman Empire era, even when times were relatively peaceful. While it was easy to focus on the horrible details of the times of intense persecution, it was important to realize that Christians and those in other religious minorities had learned to accept a second-class status in which they were safe, most of the time, but not truly free.

In other words, the Good Old Days were difficult, but not as difficult as the times of fierce persecution, suffering and death.

Clearly, the rise of the Islamic State has created a new crisis, one that is truly historic in scope -- especially in the Nineveh Plain. The drive to eliminate Christian populations in a region that has been their home since the apostolic era raises all kinds of questions about religious freedom, as well as questions for the USA and other Western states to which these new martyrs will appeal for help.

In recent years, human-rights activists have asked when this phenomenon would receive major attention in elite American newsrooms. The coverage has, in recent years, been on the rise. That said, a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine feature on this topic must be seen as a landmark.
The epic double-decker headline proclaimed:

Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?
ISIS and other extremist movements across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight.

There is much that I want to praise in this piece. It's a must-read piece for everyone who cares about religion news in the mainstream press.

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Mustachioed villain attacks brave theologian -- at least in St. Louis Dispatch story

Mustachioed villain attacks brave theologian -- at least in St. Louis Dispatch story

Remember the classic old-timey movie villain, twirling his mustache while laughing "Nyah-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaa"? Did you know he's Lutheran?

Well, no, he's not, as far as I know. That's just kinda the way Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, comes off in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Right in the first two paragraphs, we get this:

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod recently carried out what various members consider the equivalent of a modern-day heresy trial.
The Kirkwood-based church has 2.3 million members. The case pits two-term synod President Matthew Harrison — who is known for his bushy mustache and conservative views — against Matthew Becker, an outspoken pastor.

Hmmm. Maybe a little Grand Inquisitor there, too, judging by the "heresy trial" phrase.

Becker is a theology professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, a Lutheran school that isn't affiliated with LCMS. He has criticized the synod's teachings about creationism and women's ordination. In the latter, he even compared male-only ordination to slavery and racism, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Harrison also scolded Becker for his part in an interfaith vigil after the student shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a violation of the LCMS constitution, the newspaper adds.

But there's more. In a Facebook post -- which is linked in the newspaper story -- Harrison also accuses Becker of advocating homosexuality, the errancy of the Bible and communion with members of other faiths. Several panels investigated, then cleared Becker, the article says.

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B-I-B-L-E with a lowercase 'b': Hey Wall Street Journal, what's up with that?

B-I-B-L-E with a lowercase 'b': Hey Wall Street Journal, what's up with that?

Pop quiz for GetReligion readers: Without checking your handy-dandy Associated Press Stylebook, pick the proper journalistic style for the following terms:

1. Is it Scripture or scripture when referring to religious writings of the Bible?

2. Is it Bible or bible when referring to the aforementioned writings?

3. Is it Mass or mass when referring to the Catholic religious observance?

I'll provide the answers soon, but all three questions figure in a Wall Street Journal report today on tearful farewells at Roman Catholic churches in New York:

Parishioners of the Roman Catholic Church of All Saints in Harlem openly wept at Mass on Sunday as the sounds of the choir lifted up to the soaring ceilings.
Rosalind Maybank, president of the usher board, broke into tears as she thanked congregants for spending one last Sunday “with your family.”
“It’s very hard, but the love that we share among each other will always be with us no matter where we go, whatever church we go to,” said Ms. Maybank, 68 years old, as sunlight poured in through the stained-glass windows. “Family is always together, forever.”
The final Sunday services for thousands of area parishioners marked another step in the broad, controversial reorganization of the Archdiocese of New York parishes. Across a region stretching from Staten Island to the Catskills, 368 parishes are set to merge into 294, effective Aug. 1.

The WSJ story prompted this very GetReligion-esque note from a friend:

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