Muslims fleeing to Europe: Yes, press can find religion angles in this ongoing tragedy

Earlier this week, I wrote a post -- "Refugees flee ISIS: Maybe there is a religion angle in this tragic story? Maybe?" -- in which I complained that quite a few journalists are having trouble spotting some big religion ghosts in the life-and-death story of thousands of refugees fleeing Islamic State persecution.

To demonstrate what I am talking about, I asked a rather basic journalistic question: Who are these refugees? Let's flash back:

They are the people who rejected the reign of ISIS. ... The answer is complex, but one fact is simple. It's impossible to talk about this refugee crisis without talking about the religion angle, because the refugees are either members of minority religions in the region, including thousands of displaced Christians, or centrist Muslims or members of Muslim-related sects that are anathema to ISIS leaders.

Sometimes, after making that kind of complaint, it is good to pause and find an example of a mainstream news report that GETS IT, that sees the ghost in this kind of story and tries to help readers understand what is happening. This brings me to a recent Associated Press "Big Story" feature about the phenomenon of Muslims converting to Christianity in Germany.

Refugees? To varying degrees, it appears.

Cynics are asking a blunt, and logical, question: If some members of oppressed minorities in the Middle East are converting to Islam to save, literally, their necks, might many Muslims in Europe be tempted to convert to Christianity in order to strengthen their cases for asylum? After all, can you imagine what would happen to Muslims who converted to Christianity if they are returned to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan or some other troubled land?

You can see that logic unfold in the anecdotal lede:

BERLIN (AP) -- Mohammed Ali Zonoobi bends his head as the priest pours holy water over his black hair. "Will you break away from Satan and his evil deeds?" pastor Gottfried Martens asks the Iranian refugee. "Will you break away from Islam?"
"Yes," Zonoobi fervently replies. Spreading his hands in blessing, Martens then baptizes the man "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."
Mohammed is now Martin -- no longer Muslim, but Christian.
Zonoobi, a carpenter from the Iranian city of Shiraz, arrived in Germany with his wife and two children five months ago. He is one of hundreds of mostly Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers who have converted to Christianity at the evangelical Trinity Church in a leafy Berlin neighborhood.

But? The other half of the equation? 

Like Zonoobi, most say true belief prompted their embrace of Christianity. But there's no overlooking the fact that the decision will also greatly boost their chances of winning asylum by allowing them to claim they would face persecution if sent home.
Martens recognizes that some convert in order to improve their chances of staying in Germany — but for the pastor motivation is unimportant. Many, he said, are so taken by the Christian message that it changes their lives. And he estimates that only about 10 percent of converts do not return to church after christening.

The story paints a very complex picture.

Many of the converts stress that their conversion is real, but that they believe many are shallow or faked. Some openly complain that fake converts are making life harder for the real ones.

Many flee to Germany from other nations because of its reputation for refusing to force Christian converts out, sending them home to sure persecution -- potentially imprisonment or death at the hands of mobs. Then there are converts who, when talking to reporters, fear to give their names because of what might happen to relatives back in the old country? Or is that a handy excuse for secrecy?

However, many of these new Christians are staying in the pews. 

... As other churches across Germany struggle with dwindling numbers of believers, Martens has seen his congregation swell from 150 just two years to more than 600 parishioners now -- with a seemingly unending flow of new refugees finding the way to his congregation. Some come from cities as far away as Rostock on the Baltic Sea, having found out by word-of-mouth that Martens not only baptizes Muslims after a three-month "crash course" in Christianity, but also helps them with asylum pleas.

What did this story lack? I would argue that it covered more than the basic facts. What it lacked, however, were the voices of the converts themselves. For most of the story, this silence on the part of the new Christians made the story lean in the direction of cynicism.

The logic of faking faith is clear. What is missing is evidence that, many many, this risky decision was taken for reasons of faith, not expediency.

Finally, at the very end, there was this, in a return to the opening scene:

Zonoobi, who dressed all in white for his baptism on Sunday, said he had attended secret religious services in Iran ever since friends introduced him to the Bible at age 18. He decided to flee to Germany after several Christian friends were arrested for practicing their religion.
For Zonoobi and his wife Afsaneh -- who since her baptism goes by the name of Katarina -- the christening marks a new beginning.
"Now we are free and can be ourselves," she said. "Most important, I am so happy that our children will have a good future here and can get a good education in Germany."

Sincere? Mixed motives? It would have helped to hear more voices, when trying to figure that out.

Please respect our Commenting Policy