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Hey AP: Did you really mean to state, citing no source, that the Holy Fire rite is a fraud?

Hey AP: Did you really mean to state, citing no source, that the Holy Fire rite is a fraud?

The world's Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrated Pascha (Easter) this weekend, a full month later than Western churches this year. This is one of those exotic dates on the calendar that usually draws a little bit of coverage in the mainstream press.

At the very least, journalists spend a few lines trying to explain the mysteries of the ancient Julian calendar and why all those people with candles were marching around in the middle of the night singing (in the haunting Byzantine chant tone 6) the following, in English or the language of a particular parish's ethnic roots:

Thy Resurrection, O Christ Our Savior, the Angels in Heaven sing.
Enable us on Earth to Glorify Thee in Purity of Heart.

In recent years, there has been a growing news-media awareness of the ancient "Holy Fire" rites in Jerusalem, which offers journalists an annual chance to wrestle with claims of the miraculous. My theory is that this news story has, in part, been gaining some traction because of smartphone videos being posted on YouTube each year.

So here is the top of a typical short Associated Press report this time around, with one line that jumped out at me. See if you can spot it.

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Thousands of Christians have gathered in Jerusalem for an ancient fire ceremony that celebrates Jesus’ resurrection.

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Rites of mourning in Ukraine, as well as that Chernobyl verse in the Book of Revelation

Rites of mourning in Ukraine, as well as that Chernobyl verse in the Book of Revelation

If you want to spend a sobering day -- but a fascinating one as well -- then you need to pay a visit to the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev. I have been there twice and, if I returned a third time, I am sure that I would discover more layers of information and symbolism that I missed the first two times around.

Technically speaking, it's a very simple facility, with few of the multi-media bells and whistles that are now the norm in the museum world.

What hits you is the power of the, literally, the parables, icons and relics on display. The contents are simply overwhelming, for those with the eyes to see.

So if you ever enter the museum, look up at the ceiling above the main staircase and search for an explicit reference to the Book of Revelation. Here's what I described in a 2012 column:

KIEV -- The apocalyptic visions begin just inside the doors of the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum and many of them lead straight into the Book of Revelation.
The final pages of Christian scripture are full of angels, trumpets, flames, thunder, lighting, earthquakes and catastrophes that shake heaven and earth.
In this museum, the key is in the eighth chapter: "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."
When Ukrainians translate "wormwood" into their own language it becomes "chernobyl."

Didn't see that one coming, right?

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Weekend think piece: Tips for how to think your way through Pope Francis coverage

Weekend think piece: Tips for how to think your way through Pope Francis coverage

Let's get one thing clear right up front about this post. I have no intention of comparing Adolph Hitler with Pope Francis. Got that?

However, long ago -- while at graduate school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign -- I did a readings course about post-Holocaust trends in world Judaism. You can't read about that horror without reading about Hitler.

I wish I could remember who said this, because I would like to give full credit, but one of the authors I read said that, most of the time, commentaries about Hitler almost always tell you more about the writers than about Hitler. I know I ran into this concept again years later when I interviewed journalist Ron Rosenbaum, author of "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil."

What does this have to do with Francis?

Journalists on the religion beat, news-consumers at large, please ask yourself this question: When you stop and think about the public impact of Pope Francis, how much are you reacting to the pope's own words, as opposed to news-media (and church media) commentaries about his words? When you read elite media coverage of a new statement by the pope, are you confident that you know what the pope said as a whole, as opposed to one or two sentences that have been used to create a headline?

With these questions in mind, please consider this new think piece from The National Catholic Register by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, which ran under the headline, "5 Ways to Avoid Unhelpful Pope Francis “Mind Reading." Here is her overture:

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This faith-free BBC report asks: Why do so many modern wives in India commit suicide?

This faith-free BBC report asks: Why do so many modern wives in India commit suicide?

Is there a nation on earth in which religious beliefs and traditions play a more important, and more complex, role in daily life than India? At the same time, journalists have told me that it's almost impossible to write about many religious topics in India, especially in the country's own media.

Why is that?

To be blunt, there are issues that, as a Muslim student told me in a "Blind Spot" book forum in Bangalore, are too dangerous to cover, at least in explicit terms. If journalists write about some religious subjects in our newspapers, he said, then "people are going to die." Thus, reporters write about "community violence," instead of conflicts linked to religion. Their local readers know how to read the code.

Another key word in this code is "traditional." Hold that thought, as we dig into a BBC report that ran online with this headline: "Why are India's housewives killing themselves?" Here is the overture:

More than 20,000 housewives took their lives in India in 2014.
This was the year when 5,650 farmers killed themselves in the country.
So the number of suicides by housewives was about four times those by farmers. They also comprised 47% of the total female victims. Yet the high number of homemakers killing themselves doesn't make front page news in the way farmer suicides do, year after year. ... The rate of housewives taking their lives -- more than 11 per 100,000 people -- has been consistently higher than India's overall suicide rate since 1997.

This is all most strange, since -- as explained by a key source, Peter Mayer of the University of Adelaide -- marriage usually is linked to lower suicide rates. So what is happening in India?

Get ready for that key code word.

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Adam LaRoche plays by HIS own rules? That's what his story is about? #Seriously

Adam LaRoche plays by HIS own rules? That's what his story is about? #Seriously

You knew there was going to be some kind of sequel to the amazing story of Adam LaRoche and his decision to walk away from millions of dollars because Chicago White Sox leaders had second thoughts about allowing his son Drake to come to work with him day after day.

Sure enough, ESPN assigned reporter Tim Keown to do one of those ultra-personal feature stories -- built on a long, exclusive interview -- that come a week or two after a media firestorm that created way more heat than light.

So we get a deep feature piece, precisely the kind that makes me think there is some chance that ESPN will finally take seriously the religion angle of a major story. Take that headline for example: "Adam LaRoche goes deep on his decision to walk."

Now, this story does include all kinds of interesting details and colorful anecdotes, while answering a few obvious questions. Some LaRoche critics, for example, thought it was strange that this loving dad wanted his son to spend so much time around, well, baseball players. Aren't they known for being a bit, well, profane and crass?

Yes, LaRoche knew that Drake would be stretched a bit. Thus, I loved the evidence that some of the players actually tried to clean up their acts a bit. For example:

In 2012, Nationals utilityman Mark DeRosa cut a deal with Drake: I'll pay you every time you catch me swearing.

"Ten bucks a word."

So how much did the kid make? You can look it up.

Now, the whole idea is that LaRoche -- #duh -- has a different set of priorities than your average millionaire jock.

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New York Times pre-thumbsucker on Francis and family COULD be ... what?

New York Times pre-thumbsucker on Francis and family COULD be ... what?

So, journalists and news consumers, how do you feel about newspaper headlines published before major events that pivot on the word "could"?

As the clock ticks toward the family synods document by Pope Francis, journalists are rushing -- in what are often billed as news stories, as opposed to editorial commentary -- to tell readers all about the blockbuster doctrinal revelations that COULD be in the document.

Take this New York Times headline, for example: "How Pope Francis’ ‘Amoris Laetitia’ Could Affect Families and the Church."

In what could be an important moment for his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is scheduled to issue a major document on Friday regarding family issues. It is titled “Amoris Laetitia,” Latin for “The Joy of Love.”
In the document, known as an apostolic exhortation, the pope could change church practice on thorny subjects like whether divorced Catholics who remarry without having obtained annulments can receive holy communion. He might address debates over same-sex relationships, cohabitation and polygamy, an issue in Africa. Or, he could sidestep such divisive topics and stick to broader philosophical statements.

For those who are paying close attention, that would be "could," "could, "might" and "could."

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Muslims praying in Catholic churches? For starters, journalists need to define 'pray'

Muslims praying in Catholic churches? For starters, journalists need to define 'pray'

Raise your hands, gentle readers, if you are familiar with this old saying: "There will always be prayer in public schools, as long as teachers keep giving math tests (or pop quizzes, etc.).

Actually, I don't know about you, but I did most of my public-school praying before Latin exams, and I was not praying in Latin. But I digress.

I shared that old saying simply to note that it only makes sense if the word "prayer" is defined as students sitting silently at their public-school desks praying for help. I would imagine that teachers would frown on a Catholic student getting out her rosary and reciting a Holy Mystery or two out loud. Ditto for students in a religious tradition that asks them to humble themselves with a few deep bows or prostrations. Burn some incense or light a few beeswax candles? I don't think so.

So what, precisely, does it mean to ask if it is acceptable to Muslims to pray in a Catholic church? I ask that question because of an interesting Religion New Service piece that ran the other day, with this headline: "Italian bishop tells priests not to let Muslims pray in churches." Here is the overture:

ROME (RNS) -- An Italian bishop has clashed with a pair of priests who want to invite Muslims to pray inside their churches in a bid to promote tolerance in a diocese in Tuscany.
“The deserved, necessary and respectful welcome of people who practice other faiths and religions does not mean offering them space for prayers inside churches designed for liturgy and the gathering of Christian communities,” Bishop Fausto Tardelli of Pistoia said in a statement. ... They can very well find other spaces and places,” Tardelli said.
The bishop was responding to pledges by two local priests, the Rev. Massimo Biancalani and the Rev. Alessandro Carmignani, to welcome 18 Muslim refugees by giving them space to pray inside their churches.

Note the emphasis on giving the Muslims "space to pray."

This raises all kinds of questions. Religion-beat pros, how many can you think of?

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A stunning (and haunted) work of public art in honor of Cairo's famous garbage collectors

A stunning (and haunted) work of public art in honor of Cairo's famous garbage collectors

Now, here is a very beautiful and unusual story set in Egypt, one describing an astonishingly ambitious work of public art in a highly unusual place.

When I saw the headline -- "Sprawling Mural Pays Homage to Cairo’s Garbage Collectors" -- I immediately wondered if foreign desk at The New York Times was going to nail down the obvious religion hook in this story. Yes, this story contains a powerful religion ghost.

The headline raises two questions right off, one very obvious and one not so obvious: Who are the garbage collectors of Cairo? The second question: The implication of this tribute is that there is some organized or even natural mass of people who collect garbage in one of the most important cities in the Muslim world. Why is this?

Sure enough, there is a strong hint at the religion content at the very top:

CAIRO -- The intricate mural took shape over the past few weeks, little noticed at first, spreading across a harried quarter of Cairo where Egypt’s garbage collectors live, amid overflowing bundles of this overcrowded city’s trash.
By the time the painting was finished two weeks ago, it stretched across more than 50 buildings, making it the largest public work of art here anyone can recall. The mural, a circle of orange, white and blue in Arabic calligraphy, quotes a third-century Coptic Christian bishop who said, “If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes.”
When the first photographs of the mural circulated, reactions ranged from astonished delight to disbelief. Some people, struck by its seemingly impossible scale, seemed convinced that the images had been digitally altered, according to the man behind the project, a Tunisian-French artist known as eL Seed.

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News trends in latest numbers from Italy: What is going to happen to all those churches?

News trends in latest numbers from Italy: What is going to happen to all those churches?

Several years ago, I had a chance to go to Italy for a quick first visit. The work I was there to do involved lots of churches, naturally, and riding around in a van that seemed to pass 100 churches for every church that we went in.

For two days, I kept thinking the same thing: In a land with a sinking birthrate of about 1.40 -- that number would be lower for non-immigrant populations -- who was going to be worshiping in all of these lovely sanctuaries? You know, the whole demographics (and doctrine) is destiny equation.

This led to another thought: If there were no people to worship in these buildings, then what (Hello P.D. James) was going to happen to these treasures?

So with that in mind, reporters in the audience, look at this amazing little Religion News Service story from the other day.

ROME (RNS) -- Italy may be the spiritual home of 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church around the world, but a new poll shows only 50 percent of Italians consider themselves Catholic.
The poll, published in the liberal daily L’Unita ... challenges long-held perceptions that Italy is a ”Catholic” country, despite the popularity of Pope Francis and the historic role of the Vatican City State in the heart of Rome.

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