International News

Major Godbeat news! Lilly grant to fund 13 writers, editors at RNS, AP, The Conversation

Major Godbeat news! Lilly grant to fund 13 writers, editors at RNS, AP, The Conversation

Did you feel the earth move under your feet?

That was a pretty big announcement today from Religion News Service, The Associated Press and The Conversation, right?

In case you somehow missed the 9.5-magnitude quake that shook the Godbeat world, the creation of the Global Religion Journalism Initiative — long a topic of speculation — was confirmed in a news release that noted:

The initiative is funded by an 18-month, $4.9 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to RNF (Religion News Foundation). It is one of the largest investments in religion journalism in decades.

What does the grant mean in terms of actual journalists landing gigs?

Check this out:

Through the initiative, AP will add eight religion journalists; RNS will add three religion journalists; and The Conversation will add two religion editors. Additional business staff will also be hired across the organizations.

The reaction on Twitter was swift and enthusiastic, and rightly so:

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After Sri Lanka, news media pros should consider taking a long, detailed look at China

After Sri Lanka, news media pros should consider taking a long, detailed look at China

The horrendous Easter massacre in Sri Lanka dominates the current news cycle, with good cause.

By  coincidence, only weeks ago The Guy surveyed the worldwide phenomenon of  terror, murder and persecution against Christians. Looking ahead, the media might prepare features on a long-running and elaborate government effort aimed at all religions, with this upcoming peg: the 70th anniversary of Mao’s October 1 proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. 

Michael Meyer, author of “The Road to Sleeping Dragon” and other books on China, reminds us in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (behind pay wall) about three religious anniversaries in 2019. It is 10 years since deadly riots in Xinjiang province provoked a major crackdown against Muslims; 20 years since the party launched its effort to liquidate the Fulan Gong movement; and 60 years since Tibet’s young Dalai Lama fled Chinese occupiers’ harassment of Buddhists. All three campaigns persist.

As for Christianity, the regime fears the increasing numbers of converts and continually applies counter-measures.  In north central China, for example, troops last year demolished the Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen, spiritual home for 50,000 evangelicals, just weeks after a Catholic church was destroyed in Xian city.  Under Communist Party boss Xi Jinping’s policy of severe social control, less severe damage has been inflicted on at least 1,500 church buildings.   

The most recent U.S. Department of State survey on global religious freedom notes that China recognizes only five “patriotic” associations that cover Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam. All gatherings are required to register with the atheistic regime  -- which believers understandably resist – or risk criminal penalties.  “There continue to be reports the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups,” State says. 

For China roundups, writers might ask who  is the most important figure in the world’s largest nation in terms of religion.

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What happened to old-school journalism? Reporters keep slanting United Methodist coverage

What happened to old-school journalism? Reporters keep slanting United Methodist coverage

Here’s something that you don’t see every day.

I mean, it used to be perfectly normal to see a top editor at an American newspaper defend old-school virtues like balance, fairness and showing respect for people on both sides of hot-button debates. But recently, this has not been the norm — especially when dealing with news about religion and culture.

Consider, for example, recent coverage of the United Methodist Church and, especially, the trials and tribulations endured by leaders of this global denomination’s liberal U.S. establishment.

Please hear me: I have been covering this story for four decades and I know that activists and clergy on both sides have experienced lots of pain. All kinds of people have been tempted to head for the exits.

Liberal U.S. United Methodists, in particular, have seen one general conference after another vote against them, in part because the growing parts of this global — repeat GLOBAL — flock are doctrinally conservative when it comes to marriage, sex and the Bible. The left holds the high ground in American bureaucracies, but the right has more converts, more children and, thus, more votes.

Press coverage of the latest traditionalist victory, this past February in St. Louis, has been dominated by the beliefs and stories of the UMC left, usually with one quote provided by a conservative (90 percent of the time, that’s Mark Tooley of the Institute for Religion & Democracy). Click here for my post on an NBC News report that — so far — gets the gold medal for bias.

So, the other day a Toledo Blade reader named Joe Strieter wrote the newspaper’s managing editor to express concern about UMC coverage. The reader send GetReligion a copy of this very detailed letter and here is a sample:

Although the writer … did not specifically express her personal opinion, it's hard to avoid the impression that her sympathies lie with the "losing side."  …

Three people are pictured — all of them opposed to the action taken at the conference. No one is pictured who voted for or defended the resolution. …

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Why rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral could cost billions and take over a decade

Why rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral could cost billions and take over a decade

The catastrophic Holy Week fire that ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris completely destroyed the roof and center spire, although the famous facade of the centuries-old gothic house of worship was spared and remains intact, as did the lower part of the church.

As investigators continue to sift through the damage — which includes three massive holes in its vaulted ceiling — in an effort to pinpoint the cause of the inferno, French officials and architects are working to determine how much money and time it will take to restore Notre Dame to its previous glory.

“We have so much to rebuild,” French President Emmanual Macron said Tuesday in a televised speech from Paris. “We will rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral even more beautifully. We can do it, and once again, we will mobilize.”

French officials confirmed, a day after the blaze, that the stone walls of the cathedral are structurally sound. Macron vowed that the landmark church, a symbol of Paris and Roman Catholicism for the past 800 years, will be rebuilt. State officials will enact an ambitious timetable of just five years to get the project completed.

The investigation into the cause of the blaze remains under investigation. Despite a spate of vandalism at French churches over the past few months, authorities do not believe this latest incident to be arson.

How long will it take to rebuild?

French officials said an international effort would be needed to pay for the reconstruction. Although Macron said rebuilding would be completed by 2024 (with one estimate saying it could cost $8 billion), some experts said the cathedral’s full renovation could take up to 15 years.

In terms of money raised, the billionaire Pinault family has pledged $113 million, as did the French energy company Total and cosmetics giant L’Oreal. The family of Bernard Arnault, who own luxury goods group LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, has planned to donate $225 million. Donations are coming in from all over the world, including $100,000 from Notre Dame University.

It’s worth noting that the cathedral was not insured.

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Political style question for tense times: What do you call people killed in church on Easter?

Political style question for tense times: What do you call people killed in church on Easter?

I have been covering the religion beat, to one degree or another, for 40 years and I have never heard “Easter worshippers” used as a replacement for the word “Christians.”

Is this a reference to people who worship ON Easter or, well, people who worship Easter?

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I am well aware that Christians around the world — due to the much-covered clash between the Gregorian calendar and the older Julian calendar — usually celebrate Christianity’s most important holy day (called “Pascha” in the East) at different times. (For the ancient churches of the East, today is the Monday of Holy week this year.)

All that aside, there is no reason to substitute an awkward term like “Easter worshippers” for the word “Christian,” when referring to the victims in the horrible Easter morning bombings in Sri Lanka.

So I was surprised to see this oh-so-Twitter firestorm erupt yesterday. Here is the top of a key D.C. Beltway report. The pro-forma headline at The Hill states: “Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity'.” And here is the overture:

Former President Barack Obama on Easter Sunday condemned a series of explosions at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka as "an attack on humanity."

"The attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka are an attack on humanity," Obama tweeted on Easter Sunday. "On a day devoted to love, redemption, and renewal, we pray for the victims and stand with the people of Sri Lanka."

As you would expect, “Christians” pounced and this quickly became a story in “conservative” media.

What caused this bizarre mini-train wreck? I can think of two reasons — one based on journalistic caution and the other based on Donald Trump-era cynicism.

Let’s start with the closest thing to logic that I can come up with, if one is seeking a non-political reason for this switch. To bluntly state the point: The terrorists attacked churches AND hotels, so one could make a case that Christians were not the only people attacked.

Now, yes, that still doesn’t explain “Easter worshippers” in the tweets by politicos.

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The Easter Sunday massacre: Sri Lanka's complex religious landscape is a challenge

The Easter Sunday massacre: Sri Lanka's complex religious landscape is a challenge

When I first heard news of the bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, I wondered which group was to blame this time. At first, the government was calling it a terrorist attack by “religious extremists.”

That’s it? Think of it: 290 people dead. That’s five times the amount of Muslims shot by in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. And everyone tried to sidestep the identity of the perpetrators?

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country and hardline Buddhist groups have consistently harassed the minority Christians there. This is a complex situation, as former GetReligionista Ira Rifkin noted in this post last year.

Writing in the Guardian, a Muslim writer points out here that religious Muslim and Christian minorities in Sri Lanka have been sitting ducks for militant Buddhists for a long time. Even after a Methodist church was attacked by Buddhists on Palm Sunday in the northern part of the country, no precautions were taken for Easter celebrations.

But when I heard the attacks were set off by suicide bombers, that brought to mind radicalized Muslims, not Buddhists. The former is known worldwide for its use of suicide bombers. (However, Sri Lanka is the birthplace of the mainly Hindu Tamil Tigers, who pioneered suicide bombings in the 1980s. More on that in a moment.)

As I wrote this Sunday night, no one was saying a word as to which religious group did this. Now, government officials say they believe an “Islamist militant group” is to blame. No group has taken credit for the attacks.

So far, the U.K. press has been more on top of this story than was American media, with the exception of the New York Times, which has turned out some very good pieces in the past 24 hours. First, so I turned to the Guardian:

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National Geographic: It's Catholic beekeepers vs. Mennonites (whoever they are) in Mexico

National Geographic: It's Catholic beekeepers vs. Mennonites (whoever they are) in Mexico

I know Mennonites get around, but I didn’t know there was a large colony of them in Mexico. In the U.S., they’re often known as the Amish lite people — with similar German roots and Anabaptist beliefs that got them pushed out of Europe in the 16th century.

Many of those who ended up in Canada emigrated to Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century where the government needed farmers to work on land previously owned by William Randolph Hearst, as foreign landowners were expelled at the end of the Mexican revolution in 1921. The Mennonites bought the land as long as they were freed from Mexico’s educational laws and military service. (You can read more about that here. )

Most of the Mennonites settled in the states of Durango and Chihauhua where they farmed parts of the country no one else was touching and have brought prosperity to the area.

But the National Geographic found a more isolated group on the Yucatan peninsula and wrote about it, which is where the drama starts. Once again we face a familiar journalism question: Do readers need to know anything about what the Mennonites believe?

CAMPECHE, MEXICO — “How did it start?” asks Everardo Chablé. He’s propped on a stool in his living room as the daylight fades outside. The only noise in this tiny Mexican town in the Yucatán Peninsula—where there’s no cell signal and little electricity—comes from the music his father is blasting in the yard. He speaks up. “For thousands of years the Maya people had bee culture. Then the Mennonites came with large machines and started to deforest large parts of land where the bees feed. We had virgin forest with very delicate ecosystems—deer, toucans—but most importantly bees that keep up life. When deforestation started they destroyed everything from millennia back.”…

What he’s describing is a simmering battle between a growing community of Old Colony Mennonites—the insular religion’s most conservative Low German-speaking members, who eschew modern amenities like electricity and cars—and indigenous Maya beekeepers. It has electrified this sliver of the Yucatán Peninsula. …

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Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?

Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?

OK, Catholic readers of GetReligion (and you know who you are), we have a solution to a journalism mystery that many noticed in the wave of coverage following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral.

The big question raised by The New York Times: What’s the difference between a “statue” of Jesus and a priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament”? Hold that thought.

Let’s start with Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade and one of the heroes of efforts to save what could be saved inside the iconic cathedral. Quite a few people are reporting stories about the actions that he took when it became clear that there was no way to stop the flames in the wooden structures holding up the cathedral roof.

Here’s the top of my “On Religion” column for this week, which led with this angle of the story:

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

So here is a basic religion-beat journalism challenge: How does one describe the “Blessed Sacrament” in a few phrases? Some journalists struggled with that.

For some reporters, the crucial issue was trying to turn “sacraments” and holy relics into “art” and “artifacts.”

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If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story?

If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story?

Is it a news story if a church is set on fire or vandalized in some other way? What about if it’s part of a string of incidents? What if it happens five times? How about 10 times?

What if there are flames pouring out of one of the world’s most iconic cathedrals and it’s Monday of Holy Week?

We will come back to the flames over Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in a moment.

The answers to the earlier questions are yes, yes, yes, yes and, of course, yes! As someone who worked as a news reporter (and later a editor) at two major metropolitan dailies (at the New York Post and New York Daily News) and a major news network website (ABC News), I can tell you that any suspicion of arson at a house of worship, for example, is a major story.

It must somehow no longer be the case in the new and frenetic world of the internet-driven, 24-hour news cycle. That’s because a major international story — one involving at least 10 acts of vandalism at Catholic churches in France — went largely unreported (underreported, really) for weeks. The vandalism included everything from Satanic symbols scrawled on walls to shattered statues.

That’s right, a rash of fires and other acts of desecration inside Catholic churches — during Lent, even — in a country with a recent history of terrorism somehow didn’t warrant any kind of attention from American news organizations. Even major news organizations, such as The Washington Post, were late to covering it and only did after running a Religion News Service story.

This brings us to Monday’s fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where a massive blaze engulfed the 12th century gothic house of worship. It’s too early to tell if this incident is part of the earlier wave of vandalism, but it certainly comes at a strange time. For now, officials say the blaze remains under investigation. The cathedral has been undergoing some renovation work and the fire may — repeat MAY — have started in one of those areas.

It would be crazy to assume there is a connection between all of these fires and acts of vandalism. It would be just as crazy for journalists not to investigate the possibility that there are connections.

There will be more to come on the Notre Dame story in the hours and days that follow and comes at the start of Holy Week, the most solemn time on the Christian calendar.

But back to my questions about the earlier string of fires and the lack of coverage.

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