International News

Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

The Republic of South Sudan is one of the world’s misery portals. Since its independence in 2011, (it's the globe’s youngest fully-minted nation) South Sudan has known little else but war, poverty, hunger and political infighting among its power elites.

The result of which is ongoing misery for the north-central African nation’s ordinary people. This BBC backgrounder tells the tale -- though, curiously, it fails to mention that South Sudan sought to secede from its northern neighbor, Sudan, in large part over religion. Sudan is staunchly Muslim while the people of what is now South Sudan largely practice traditional African tribal faiths, though Christianity is also a major force.

A newly brokered power-sharing agreement could change things for the better. However, those in the international media paying close attention to South Sudan note that we’ve been here before. Al Jazeera English reported that this is the 12th ceasefire and second power-sharing arrangement between the current civil war’s rival parties. So don’t start clapping just yet.

All I’ve said so far is meant as a prelude to dissecting this recent -- and troubling -- Religion News Service story about an upsurge in South Sudanese refugees in Uganda seeking “healing” in Christian churches.

Here’s the top of it. This is long, but essential:

BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda (RNS) -- Every morning when Achol Kuol wakes up, she borrows a Bible from her neighbor and reads a verse to comfort herself before she meets others in an open-air church rigged from timber. They sing, dance and speak in tongues during the service. Some who feel filled with the Holy Spirit scream and jump -- not with joy, but remorse.

Confessions flow as they recall the ones they killed in the civil war back home in South Sudan. They cry out, lamenting ordeals they endure at night. Others weep in prayer as they ask God for forgiveness.

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In Russia coverage, the National Prayer Breakfast is a convenient whipping boy

In Russia coverage, the National Prayer Breakfast is a convenient whipping boy

I covered the National Prayer Breakfast once or twice, which sounds glamorous, but it was a thankless job in that the organizers loathed the media and the only sure way to get access was to be part of the White House press pool.

One rises at some ungodly hour to get to downtown Washington, D.C., through the security at the White House and into the press room, where we were all crammed into three black SUVs at the end of a long line of cars headed for the Washington Hilton.

Reporters were ordered into one corner of the room, then told to leave as soon as the president took his leave. This was confounding in that I’d been told I needed to report on the main speaker, which the president doesn’t always linger to listen to. During my first time at this event, as the pool headed out the back door, I leapt into the audience where I grabbed an empty seat. The Secret Service was not happy with me.

You see, I knew that the real story of the gathering wasn’t so much the massive breakfast, but all the wheeling and dealing going on before and afterwards. A lot of foreign officials showed up, with the mistaken impression they could get face time with the president, while a small army of people did their best to introduce these foreign contingents to Christianity. 

Which is why I was pleased to see the recent New York Times story on the machinations behind the breakfast. Unfortunately other publications have chimed in by alleging that what’s behind the breakfast is actually a right-wing conspiracy involving the Russians.

The truth is more complex. Here is the top of the Times piece:

WASHINGTON -- With a lineup of prayer meetings, humanitarian forums and religious panels, the National Prayer Breakfast has long brought together people from all over the world for an agenda built around the teachings of Jesus.

But there on the guest list in recent years was Maria Butina, looking to meet high-level American officials and advance the interests of the Russian state, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a Ukranian opposition leader, seeking a few minutes with President Trump to burnish her credentials as a presidential prospect back home.

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Jehovah's Witnesses: Why some persecuted faiths grab consistent headlines and others don't

Jehovah's Witnesses: Why some persecuted faiths grab consistent headlines and others don't

The world is inundated with sad examples of persecuted religious, ethnic and racial minorities. Journalistically speaking, however, each case may be reduced to a “story,” each competing for press attention at a time when shrinking industry resources and an ominous uptick in American political chaos make grabbing international media coverage increasingly difficult.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses is one such religious minority. The Kremlin has come down on Russian members of the faith like a ton of bricks.

The situation, from time to time, gains some coverage from western media elites. That attention soon fades, however, which prompts the following question: Why do some persecuted minorities trigger persistent journalistic attention while others do not?

I’ll try to answer that question below. First, though, let’s get current on the plight of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses.

This Los Angeles Times piece about their seeking refuge in neighboring Finland is a good place to start. Here’s a snippet from it:

In the 16 months since Russia’s Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group on par with Islamic State, raids and arrests of the religion’s estimated 175,000 members in the country have increased rapidly. The ruling criminalized practicing the religion and ordered its 395 branches closed. Members face prosecution for doing missionary work, a fundamental part of the faith.

There are now an estimated 250 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking asylum in Finland. They wait out their asylum applications in several refugee centers across the country, including the Joutseno refugee center outside Lappeenranta in southeastern Finland.

How has this impacted individual Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Read on.

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So how much do you trust Pope Francis? Here's why death penalty debate is heating up

So how much do you trust Pope Francis? Here's why death penalty debate is heating up

St. Pope John Paul II condemned the death penalty and urged government leaders to end it. 

Pope Benedict XVI did the same, in language just as strong as that used by his beloved predecessor.

Now Pope Francis has gone one step further, saying that the church can now say that the faith of the ages has evolved, allowing the Catholic Catechism to condemn the death penalty in strong, but somewhat unusual language. Is use of the death penalty now a mortal sin, like abortion and euthanasia? Well, the word is that it is "inadmissible."

This is, of course, a major news story and, no surprise, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the early press coverage in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

But what does this change really mean?

Did Pope Francis simply take the work of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI one step further? Thus, Catholic traditionalists can chill. 

Or is this an example of Pope Francis the progressive, moving one piece on the Jesuit chessboard to prepare for further shifts in the future on other doctrines? If the church was wrong on the death penalty for 2,000 years, who knows what doctrine will evolve next?

So, is this doctrinal shift a big deal or not? 

It appears, after looking at lots of commentary on social media, that the answer to that question depends on whether someone trusts Pope Francis or not. 

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China and its creepy facial recognition technology targets Uighur Muslims

China and its creepy facial recognition technology targets Uighur Muslims

The title of the article seemed to be a joke: “A Summer Vacation in China’s Muslim Gulag.”

Appearing in ForeignPolicy.com, the piece was about a Uighur student, called Iman, who was studying in the United States. He knew his homeland was a dangerous place to visit, but he had a mother he’d not seen in years.

So, he had no sooner stepped off the plane in eastern China than he was thrown into jail for nine days, then -– still shackled -– put on a 50-hour train ride to Xinjiang, his homeland in western China. He got to the city of Turpan.

The stress intensified as he was taken to the detention center, or kanshousuo. “I was terrified as we approached.” (As we talked, for the first time Iman directed his gaze at the ground, avoiding eye contact.) “The compound was surrounded by towering walls. Military guards patrolled the metal gate. Inside, there was little light. It was so dark,” he continued.

He was immediately processed. An officer took his photograph, measured his height and weight, and told him to strip down to his underwear. They also shaved his head. Less than two weeks before, Iman was an aspiring graduate at one of the top research universities in the United States. Now, he was a prisoner in an extrajudicial detention center.

Still in his underwear, Iman was assigned to a room with 19 other Uighur men. Upon entering the quarters, lit by a single light bulb, a guard issued Iman a bright yellow vest. An inmate then offered the young man a pair of shorts. Iman began scanning the cell. The tiled room was equipped with one toilet, a faucet, and one large kang-style platform bed -- supa in Uighur -- where all of the inmates slept. He was provided with simple eating utensils: a thin metal bowl and a spoon.

He endured 17 days of imprisonment for crimes he did not commit and then, unexpectedly, was released and allowed to go home and eventually to return to the United States to finish his studies. Not surprisingly, he’s not planning to return to China any time soon, plus his mother herself is imprisoned in the same kind of “re-education center.”

China’s barbaric treatment of its Muslim minority (represented by the blue flag with a crescent and star with this piece) doesn’t get any protests from the worldwide Muslim community, unlike the anger that’s released toward Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Foreign Policy makes that point in a piece published last week. A sample:

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Death penalty doctrine: Francis builds on insights of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

Death penalty doctrine: Francis builds on insights of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

Have you ever noticed that the amount of news coverage granted to the writings of Pope Francis tends to rise or fall based on the degree to which his pronouncements mesh with the editorial pages of The New York Times?

Notice, please, that I said the "amount" of coverage, not the "quality." This pope has made important, and complex, statements on hot-button topics that led to the spilling of oceans of ink and pixels in coverage that missed the point of his words. His comments defending traditional Catholic teachings -- think gender, for example -- often draw little or no response.

Then again, who am I to judge?

The news, today, is that Rome has changed the Catholic Catechism on an important issue linked to the defense of life, from conception to natural death. We are, of course, talking about the death penalty (confession: which I have always opposed, with no exceptions).

So far, the coverage has been good -- since this is a change welcomed by the religious left. However, let me note some information that really needs to make it into the coverage, to show readers how this change came to pass. So, here is a question: Who said the following?

"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

That would be the late St. Pope John Paul II, of course, in a 1999 sermon. That wasn't the only time that he signaled that the death penalty didn't align with pro-life doctrines.

Did the words of John Paul II make it into the early coverage that you read?

I am pleased to note that the evolving Times story about this issue now includes the following. Yes, this language pushes a political button, but that button is real:

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Is Israeli TV drama Fauda a harbinger of the news industry's coming iteration?

Is Israeli TV drama Fauda a harbinger of the news industry's coming iteration?

The cable television and online streaming explosion has produced a golden age of visual, fictionalized, but ripped-from-the-headlines story telling. Some religious and political conservatives may disdain the liberal-leaning views that many of the shows unabashedly embrace, but for those who create the programming it's an unprecedented era of opportunities.

It's also an era of unprecedented, and often confusing, crossover between news and entertainment. From shows dramatizing or spoofing Washington politics, to those cherry-picking storylines from current international intrigues, it’s often hard to tell the two apart, where fact takes leave and artful fiction enters.

As traditional news platforms continue to implode -- and loose their ability to devote adequate resources to in-depth, reporting-based investigative journalism -- it’s a trend that, for the foreseeable future, is likely to continue, for better or worse, but more likely the worse for informed civic debate.

Personally, I find great artistic merit in many of these shows. I also appreciate their willingness to highlight some of the social ills that plague our -- and virtually every other -- nation. That and because I relish a well-written and well-acted product. It helps to remember that I'm an ex-Los Angeles reporter who spent time on the Hollywood TV and film beats, and who also briefly worked in the feature film industry.

Still, I limit my watching because, well, because the shows are binge-watching addictive and I don't want to spend too much time watching TV, no matter how good and entertaining it may be. I’m old-fashioned. I’d rather waste time reading non-fiction, which my reactive mind argues is somehow healthier for me. But that may just be my generational snob appeal.

In a sense, all the fictional dramas I’m drawn to are some writer’s fantasy, but I tend to be drawn to the show's based on the possible, meaning that while I have little interest in a “Game of Thrones,” a series such as “Big Love,” the departed HBO show about polygamy-practicing, fringe Mormons, quickly sucked me in because of my interest in religious groups and the show’s artistic mastery (and a fantastic cast).

Likewise, my deep interest in Israel’s fate and that of the Middle East in general, has drawn me to the Netflix (in the U.S., anyway) show “Fauda,” which I have allowed myself to devour in binge-size bites.


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Churches for sale: New York Times visits a sexy former Catholic sanctuary in Quebec

Churches for sale: New York Times visits a sexy former Catholic sanctuary in Quebec

In case you have been on another planet for a year or two, let me state something rather obvious.

Lurking behind all of the confusion about what is and what is not "fake news" (click here for tmatt a typology on that term) is a reality that should concern journalists of all stripes. It is becoming more and more obvious that readers are having trouble telling the difference between hard news and analysis/commentary work.

For example, consider the New York Times piece that ran with this headline, "Where Churches Have Become Temples of Cheese, Fitness and Eroticism."

At the top of this piece is this label -- "Montreal Dispatch."

Now, is that part of the headline or is that a clue to readers that this is some kind of ongoing analysis feature in which the reporter is going to be given more freedom, when it comes to using loaded language and statements of opinion?

I'll confess that I don't know. I do know that this feature is an amazing example of the GetReligion truism "demographics shape destiny and doctrine does, too." It's a great story and one that will, at this moment in time, cause further pain for Catholic readers. But there is one, for me, disturbing passage that I want journalists to think about, a bit. Hold that thought.

At the center of this piece is the sanctuary known as Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours -- which was once a Catholic parish in Montreal. Here is a long, but essential, summary of the changes that have taken place there.

The once-hallowed space, now illuminated with a giant pink chandelier, has been reinvented as the Théâtre Paradoxe at a cost of nearly $3 million in renovations. It is now host to, among other events, Led Zeppelin cover bands, Zumba lessons and fetish parties. ... And it is one of dozens of churches across Quebec that have been transformed -- into university reading rooms, luxury condominiums, cheese emporiums and upmarket fitness centers.

At another event at the church, devoted to freewheeling dance, dozens of barefoot amateur dancers filled the space and undulated in a trance-like state in front of its former altar amid drums and chanting.

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#BishopsToo has arrived? Let's see what happens at Vatican 'World Meeting of Families'

#BishopsToo has arrived? Let's see what happens at Vatican 'World Meeting of Families'

It has always been hard for religion-beat pros to convince editors to open the newsroom checkbook to back coverage of a story on the other side of the country or somewhere on the other side of the world. It's even harder today, with the horrifying economic crisis that shaking newsrooms in the age of Facebook, Google and the digital advertising pirates.

The key is to be able to link an event to a really big, really hot topic in the news. Why? That's one of the big ideas in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Let's cut to the chase: Newsroom managers! Who wants to say "Yes!" to sending a skilled religion-beat professional to cover the Vatican's World Meeting of Families, which will be held Aug. 21-26 in Dublin, Ireland?

Yes, Pope Francis will be there. But it also helps to know that this gathering -- "The Gospel of the Family, Joy for the World" -- is being run by the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Note that ecclesiastical office is led by Cardinal Kevin Farrell. That's a name that has been in the news quite a bit because of he is the former auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C., where he served alongside his mentor Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Editors should note that this is "Uncle Ted" -- the cardinal at the heart of the current firestorm about accusations that he sexually abused young boys and teens, as well as decades worth of seminarians and young priests

This is the same cardinal who has been given credit for helping several other U.S. Catholic leaders -- in addition to Cardinal Farrell -- win their red hats. This is the same Cardinal McCarrick who, in a remarkable speech in 2013, described his (wink, wink) behind-the-scenes role in helping elect Pope Francis.

Hey editors: Need another news hook before you write that check? 

One of the major topics at this conference will be how the church relates to young people. It's hard to imagine that decades worth of scandals linked to clergy abuse of children and teens will not be discussed. That sounds like a news hook, to me. 

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