New York Times puff piece on Sudan

I have mixed emotions about focusing the critical spotlight on this New York Times story about the plight of Christians in the Sudan. I am pleased that a story that speaks to the state sponsored persecution of Christians made it into the paper's pages, yet I would have wished they had fact checked their story. What we have in the 23 Dec 2011 article entitled "Fewer to Celebrate Christmas in Sudan After South’s Split" is an example of the good quotes/bad facts phenomena -- where an article has great color quotes but the facts and context to support the quotes are either incorrect or missing.

Because this is the Sudan, the assertions made by the Times take on a deeper significance. Is the Times guilty of sloppy reporting or are they acting as a shill (wittingly or unwittingly) for the National Islamic Front of President Omar al-Bashir? Let's take a look.

The article begins with a snapshot of Khartoum's Christian leaders on eve of Christmas. It begins with the camera focusing on a sparse living room, itemizing the objects to establish a Christian focus for the article.

Hanging from the wall of Bishop Ezekiel Kondo’s living room — a few blocks from a silver-coated dome marking the tomb of Sudan’s 19th-century Muslim leader, the Mahdi — are a cross, pictures of fellow clergy members and a photo of him with the former archbishop of Canterbury above a small plastic Christmas tree.

A nice word picture -- but should not archbishop have been capitalized like the Mahdi in the previous line? The Archbishop of Canterbury not the archbishop of Canterbury. Is this a hint of things to come? The story continues.

Much has changed for Bishop Kondo, and for the nation, since the holidays last year. Though he presides over one of Sudan’s largest churches, he is more in the minority than ever. South Sudan, with its large Christian population, became an independent nation over the summer, making for a Christmas of mixed emotions.

“This Christmas, since Southern Sudanese have gone, we don’t know what the attendance will be, but I would say people will celebrate with mixed feeling of joy and fear,” said Bishop Kondo, who is the bishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan and the former chairman of the Sudanese Council of Churches.

South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly in a referendum early this year to separate from Sudan, the culmination of a peace accord to end decades of war and hostilities with the largely Muslim north. But while South Sudanese Christians constituted the majority of what was the Sudanese Christian community, they are not all of them.

“There is an idea that Southern Sudanese have gone, therefore, the church has gone. That is not true,” Bishop Kondo said. “Sometimes, I am asked, ‘When will you go to South Sudan?’ ‘But I’m not from the south,’ I reply!” he said.

Bishop Kondo is from South Kordofan, a state dominated by ethnic Nuba, who are divided between Islam, Christianity and African traditional religions. Fighting erupted there last May between government forces and rebels allied with the party that now governs South Sudan. ...

The scene is set these paragraphs. The predominantly Christian South has seceded from the predominantly Muslim North. Bishop Kondo leads a church in the North that in the wake of independence will now be smaller, but Christians remain in the North.

The article offers voices of other Christian leaders that speak to the difficulties they face, and then Bishop Kondo returns to center stage.

While concerns weigh heavily on the minds of many Sudanese Christian leaders, Bishop Kondo pointed out that Sudanese government officials had expressed a keenness to work with them.

“The Ministry of Religious Guidance and Endowments have approached us to know what the timetable of services and celebrations are this Christmas, to come and congratulate, but to also make sure people celebrate peacefully,” he said. “I think this is a good gesture.”

"Well and good", you might say. A nice little story about the Christian minority in a Muslim country trying to make the best of a difficult situation. "What is the problem?", you might ask. Why is this a dreadful article?

For starters, Bishop Kondo is not the head of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. Bishop Kondo is Bishop of Khartoum, one of 31 dioceses of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. The head of the 4 to 5 million member church that spans North and South Sudan is Dr. Daniel Deng, Archbishop of Juba.

On one level this is not a fatal flaw. Adjusting Bishop Kondo's title does not change the story arc of Khartoum's vanishing Christians this Christmas. However, is something else going on?

The Khartoum government has sought to divide the Anglican Church in the past -- and at one point appointed an Anglican bishop to be deputy minister of foreign affairs. The government then helped this bishop, Gabriel Ruric Jur, to form a rival Anglican church and seized Khartoum's cathedral from Bishop Kondo to give to their bishop. Bishop Jur, in turn, endorsed the establishment of Sharia Law in Khartoum for all Sudanese citizens -- Muslim and Christian.

The Episcopal Church of the Sudan has also refused to divide now that the country is divided, even though the Khartoum government has pushed for church split. Why I raise all of this intra-Anglican detail, is that a Sudanese Anglican reading this story would see in this mistake the spectre of government interference in the church once again. Is the New York Times backing Khartoum's line, making Bishop Kondo head of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan (North). Or, is it  simply ignorance on the part of the New York Times.

The story also fails is in not developing the issue of "Where did all the Christians go?" The article notes that "the larger group of worshipers, administrators and teachers" of one church have moved to South Sudan.  It also states the Sudanese government claims that only three percent of the population is Christian. Bishop Kondo disputes that figure, saying it is closer to 10 to 15 per cent. That should give you a clue that there is story beneath this story.

What is missing from this story is the crucial bit of information about the government of President Omar al-Bashir's attitude towards Sudan's Christians.

In a 12 Oct 2011 speech to university students in Khartoum, President al-Bashir stated: “Ninety-eight percent of the people are Muslims and the new constitution will reflect this. The official religion will be Islam and Islamic law the main source [of the constitution]. We call it a Muslim state.”

When I reported on this issue for the Church of England Newspaper, one South Sudan bishop told me that he believed this meant that it was President al-Bashir's goal for Sudan to be only two percent Christian. Is that a fact? No, it is a view by an admitted partisan in the affair. However, as Reuters has pointed out, South Sudanese living in the North have been denied citizenship and must petition the government for citizenship or leave the country.

In Bishop Kondo's home province, South Kordifan, now on the Khartoum government's side of the border between North and South, the Islamist government of President al-Bashir has been denounced for engaging in ethnic cleansing, driving Christian Nuba across the border and burning the region's principle town of Abyei.

The violence prompted a statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. “Numerous villages have been bombed. More than 53,000 people have been driven from their homes. The new Anglican cathedral in Kadugli has been burned down,” Dr. Williams reported, adding that the region had also been “overrun by the army, and heavy force is being used by government troops to subdue militias in the area, with dire results for local people. Many brutal killings are being reported.”

The archbishop's complaints are not likely to deter President al-Bashir.  The International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2009 issued a warrant for the arrest of the Sudanese president on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2008 the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, accused Bashir of directing a campaign of mass murder that has left more than 300,000 civilians dead and driven more than 2.7 million from their homes in Darfur. President al-Bashir was the first sitting head of state to be charged by the Hague-based court with war crimes, and the first Arab leader to face the prospect of being tried for atrocities by an international tribunal.

All of this has been treated extensively by Catholic and Anglican news agencies but this background information is missing from this New York Times story. And its absence means the article fails the criteria of good journalism.

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