Missionaries

Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Trust me when I say that I understand why so many Christians in the ancient churches of the Middle East are frustrated with America, and American evangelicals in particular, when it comes to the complex and painful status of Jerusalem.

As I have mentioned several times here at GetReligion, when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy two decades ago my family became part of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese -- which is closely tied to the ancient Orthodox flock based in Damascus. Then, from 2001-2005 (including 9/11), we were active in a West Palm Beach, Fla., parish that was primarily made up of families with ties to Syria, Lebanon and, yes, Israel and the West Bank.

I will not try to sum up their lives and viewpoints in a few lines. Suffice it to say, they struggled to understand why so many American Christians have little or no interest in the daily lives and realities of Christians whose Holy Land roots go back to Pentecost.

Thus, I am thankful that the Washington Post international desk has updated a familiar, yet still urgent, news topic as we get closer to the Christmas season. The hook, of course, is the announcement by President Donald Trump about the status of the U.S. embassy in Israel. The headline: "Trump plan to move U.S. embassy to Jerusalem angers Middle East Christians."

The overture is familiar, yet sadly newsy:

JERUSALEM -- Some of the festive cheer was missing this weekend at a public Christmas tree lighting near the site where Christians believe an angel proclaimed Christ’s birth to local shepherds. 
“Our oppressors have decided to deprive us from the joy of Christmas,” Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the former archbishop and Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told the crowd in the town of Beit Sahour in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “Mr. Trump told us clearly Jerusalem is not yours.”
The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there has provoked widespread opposition among Christians across the Middle East. When Vice President Pence arrives next week on a trip touted as a chance to check on the region’s persecuted Christians, he will be facing an awkward backlash.

Right there, you see, is the story that has loomed in the background for decades.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Pew 'state religion' survey: Putting data in context is crucial, something The Guardian forgot

Pew 'state religion' survey: Putting data in context is crucial, something The Guardian forgot

While I'm not an expert on Transcendental Meditation, it's my understanding that having a personal mantra assigned to you by an instructor is essential to the practice of TM. Thus, if I were to select a mantra for meditating on the press and religion, it'd be "Con-text, con-text, con-text." (You know, I'm feeling better already.)

Bad meditation jokes aside, careful readers of this blog might sense that calling for context is, in fact, my mantra, or pretty close to it. A good example of why it's important -- as well as what's missing when journalism omits this -- comes courtesy of the Pew Research Center, the Washington, D.C.-based group which this week released a study on life in nations which have an official state religion.

In this country, such a choice is prohibited by the Constitution of the United States, specifically by the Bill of Rights ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, etc."). However, that sanction doesn't exist in other nations, such as the United Kingdom.

Let's begin with Britain's The Guardian, which sticks to the bare facts in its report:

More than one in five countries has an official state religion, with the majority being Muslim states, and a further 20% of countries have a preferred or favoured religion. A slim majority (53%) of counties has no official or preferred religion, and 10 (5%) are hostile to religion, according to a report by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
Most of the 43 countries with state religions are in the Middle East and North Africa, with a cluster in northern Europe. Islam is the official religion in 27 countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa as well North Africa and the Middle East.
Thirteen countries -- including nine in Europe -- are officially Christian, two (Bhutan and Cambodia) have Buddhism as their state religion, and one (Israel) is officially a Jewish state. No country has Hinduism as its state religion.

Now, as you can see from the 2013 RT television clip atop this page, having a state religion doesn't always guarantee prosperous times for the faith in question. If anything, the Church of England's fortunes are less secure now than they were four years ago, but that's a story for another time.

What is germane to the Guardian report -- but also is absent there -- is any information providing context about how having a state-sanctioned religion affects the people who live in these states.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The New York Times got it right: Faith had something to do with Sister Ruth Pfau's ministry

The New York Times got it right: Faith had something to do with Sister Ruth Pfau's ministry

If you drew up a list of the 10 most common complaints made by GetReligion readers about mainstream religion news coverage, this would be one of them.

The complaint: Why do so many journalists ignore the role that faith plays in the lives of prominent and inspirational figures, especially when writing major profiles or, most symbolically, in their obituaries?

No, we're not just talking about sports heroes and entertainers.

In this latest case, we are talking about one of the world's most courageous Catholic nuns, the woman often called the "Mother Teresa of Pakistan." Here is the top of a major report from Al Jazeera:

Tributes are pouring in for a German nun who spent more than half a century in Pakistan battling leprosy and helping the country's most vulnerable people.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi announced in a statement that a state funeral would be held for Ruth Pfau who died on Thursday, aged 87.
"She gave new hope to innumerable people and proved through her illustrious toil that serving humanity knows no boundaries," the statement said. ...
Pfau trained as a doctor in her youth and went on to join a Catholic sisterhood. She arrived in Pakistan, where she spent the rest of her life, in 1960. She specialised in the treatment of leprosy, a disease that causes discolouration of the skin, sores, and disfigurements.

Now, some of the stories -- because of her medical training -- referred to this Catholic hero as "Dr." Ruth Pfau.

However, it took some time to find a report that included a rather important word -- "Sister." As a GetReligion reader noted: "Might this woman's faith have had something to do with her work?"

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Reporters fail to link Chinese couple killed in Pakistan with huge missionary enterprise

Reporters fail to link Chinese couple killed in Pakistan with huge missionary enterprise

It seemed like a rote international news story: ISIS kills a Chinese couple in northwest Pakistan, one of the most dangerous areas in the world for a non-Muslim.

Then came the Reuters story with an unlikely claim: ISIS was saying the murdered pair were “preachers.”

It was then that I realized these might have been no ordinary Chinese expatriates. They were possibly part of one of the most ambitious missionary enterprises in 2,000 years of Christianity plotted by none other than Chinese Christians. First, the story:

Pakistan identified on Monday two Chinese nationals recently abducted and killed by the Islamic State and, in a new twist, said the two were preachers who had posed as business people to enter the country.
The interior ministry named the two as Lee Zing Yang, 24, and Meng Li Si, 26, and said their violation of visa rules had contributed to their abductions. Previously officials said they were Chinese-language teachers.
The two were abducted by armed men pretending to be policemen on May 24 in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan province. Last week, Islamic State's Amaq news agency said its members had killed them.
"Instead of engaging in any business activity, they went to Quetta and under the garb of learning (the) Urdu language from a Korean national ... were actually engaged in preaching," the ministry said in a statement.

Interesting word, "posed."

Of course, they could have been involved in business projects AND in efforts to work with and support local Christians. They could have been, to use the Christian term, "tentmakers" who had legitimate business skills and interests, as well as a commitment to spreading Christianity.

Anyway, I checked with Dawn, the English-language Pakistani daily, about these murders, but the newspaper only said the pair were Chinese language instructors. What reporters obviously don’t realize –- but somehow ISIS did –- was that these weren’t just any instructors.

It is quite possible they were part of a Chinese initiative called the “Back to Jerusalem” movement.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Manipur, India, horses, polo and societal change: So what's missing in this picture?

Manipur, India, horses, polo and societal change: So what's missing in this picture?

In the beginning, it appeared to be merely a story about quasi-abandoned horses in northeastern India and for the most part, that’s what “In the Kingdom of Dying Ponies” was a recent offering of Foreign Policy Review.

Until I began realizing the scene was set in Manipur, that neglected corner of India that tourists rarely get to. Northeastern India is the one part of the country that is either majority Christian or has equal parts Hindu and Christian, which is the case with Manipur.

A bit of history: It was mainly the Baptists who swept through the area converting folks in the late 19th century, plus establishing schools, hospitals and translating the Bible into their language. That area of India has seen its Muslim population grow due to immigration from nearby Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

So … in a piece about society in Manipur, would you expect to see at least a little bit about the religious demographics happening there?

Two paragraphs into the piece:

Polo is the archetypal sport of snobs. But in Manipur, where the British learned of the game before introducing it to the world -- or at least the aristocracy -- polo is still a commoner’s game. And the exalted status of the Manipuri pony, the only breed used at the Manipur tournament, is one reason why. The indigenous semi-feral pony is a sacred figure for residents of Manipur, featuring prominently in the ritual life of the Meitei people, the area’s majority ethnic group. The ponies are treated as regal mounts, never put to labor, and trace their origin in local lore to the Pegasus-like Samadon Ayangba, the “swift first among beasts.

The Meitei, by the way, are Hindu.

But the ponies’ regal status has not stymied their slow demise. For decades, the ponies’ numbers have gradually dropped and now there are thought to be only around 500 left. In Imphal, one spots them on the streets, huddled together in pitiful herds, red-eyed, skinny, and surrounded by honking traffic. At night, they forage through garbage piles alongside cows and mongrels. Many of them seem hardly in a condition to be used in sport, which is just as well, because there are far fewer places in Manipur to play polo than there once were. “People in Manipur have forgotten the legacy of the pony,” lamented one local musician.
The ponies’ sorry state is a symbol, and result, of Manipur’s own downward trajectory. For centuries a prosperous, independent kingdom, it is today a pariah on India’s fringes. If it is ever in the national conversation, it is over its separatist unrest, heavy militarization, endemic corruption and overall dysfunction. But for residents of the New Jersey-sized state, the biggest shift isn’t just the violence and disorder -- it’s the area’s marginalization, and the way it has sapped the city’s pride, autonomy, and political will.

The author only sees political reasons behind the region’s poverty of spirit. Something is missing.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

ESPN doctrine: Politics and 'social issues' are part of sports, but what about religion?

ESPN doctrine: Politics and 'social issues' are part of sports, but what about religion?

I'm sure there are lots of GetReligion readers who are familiar with the old etiquette rule stating that there are two things people are not supposed to talk about in polite company -- religion and politics.

However, we now know that the same rule -- or half of it -- does not apply to sports talk at ESPN.

This is complicated. The other day, our own Bobby Ross Jr., followed up on a great tip from a reader about some North Caroline State football players who volunteered some of their time to do mission work in Kenya. The headline on that piece stated: "Shhhhh! Don't mention Christian faith because ESPN wants to pretend it doesn't matter."

You see, despite all kinds of social media references to the fact that this was a Christian missions trip (Do secular groups use the word "missions" in this context?), the ESPN team went way out of its way to avoid any references to religious faith. At the end, Bobby said:

Please don't misunderstand me: I think it's great that ESPN decided to report on a "life-changing experience" that made a "profound impact" and "inspired (one of [punter A.J.] Cole's teammates) so much."I just wish ESPN would go ahead and tell the rest of the story -- the one that involves those unmentioned words above.
Seriously, why is ESPN -- seemingly -- so afraid of religion?

As the video at the top of this post notes, Cole has been doing this generic missions work for quite some time now.

Anyway, we have received emails from readers claiming that ESPN has an actual policy forbidding discussions of religion on the air -- but have never been given direct evidence of this. There has also been talk (think Christmas wars) about ESPN banning adds that mention Jesus, etc.

Meanwhile, ESPN ratings have been in a dangerous spiral that some, in addition to the obvious ties to young viewers cutting cables to their screens, have linked to the sports giant airing more and more commentaries backing progressive cultural and political causes, some of which have implications for traditional religious believers.

Now, ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady has written a very interesting essay about new ESPN policies affecting political speech during news reports. The headline: "New ESPN guidelines recognize connection between sports, politics."

Please respect our Commenting Policy

St. Patrick of Ireland: It's time to make one tweak in the Religion News Service 'Splainer

St. Patrick of Ireland: It's time to make one tweak in the Religion News Service 'Splainer

The headline on a timely "'Splainer" feature from Religion News Service could not be more direct: "The ‘Splainer: Who was St. Patrick, and would he drink green beer?"

You know, or think you know, St. Patrick.

The guy with the shamrock. The cultural excuse for some of the most rowdy parties in the history of humanity, anywhere on earth where there are people who have any claim to be Irish.

Allow me a moment, along those lines, for a personal note: I am about an English as one can be, in terms of family heritage. However, my patron saint is St. Brendan of Clonfert, better known as St. Brendan the Navigator, who is another great hero of Irish Christianity. So cut me some slack on this topic.

So how does one start a news-you-can-use explainer feature about someone who is famous as a cultural figure, yet not as well known as the great Christian saint that he actual is? Let's look at the RNS overture.

Hint: My major problem with this piece is right here at the top.

For Catholics, Episcopalians and some Lutherans, March 17 is the Feast Day of St. Patrick. For the rest of us, it’s St. Patrick’s Day -- a midweek excuse to party until we’re green in the face.
But who was Patrick? Did he really drive the snakes out of Ireland or use the shamrock to explain the Trinity? Why should this fifth-century priest be remembered on this day?

OK, hold it right there.

Now, as everyone knows, there are about 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. That ancient communion goes right at the top of the list, if you are talking about feast days for St. Patrick. And it's true that there are about 85 million Anglicans in the world and, here in America, the small flock of Episcopalians is still a major player when it comes to making news. When you add up the various branches of Lutheranism, you get nearly 80 million believers.

Now, who are we missing there in this list of Christian communions that honor St. Patrick?

That would be the world's second largest Christian communion, as in the various Eastern Orthodox churches. So do the Orthodox have a feast day to honor St. Patrick?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

So many journalism questions remain, about current status of evangelism and missions in India

So many journalism questions remain, about current status of evangelism and missions in India

Why is Compassion International closing its doors (for now) in India?

That was the question at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which explored some of the themes in my post this week that ran under the headline, "Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole." I would urge you to click here and read the original Times piece on this topic.

Does the Times piece tell us why Compassion is leaving India? Well, it does and it doesn't. And that is where things get complicated, for readers and listeners who have never worked in a newsroom.

Patience please, as we try to walk through this.

You see, there is evidence in this important Times piece that various officials in India are saying different things. The evidence offered can be interpreted in a number of different ways and it's pretty obvious that the Times team was asking questions that the authorities in the Bharatiya Janata Party didn't want to address. So, as public officials often do, they declined to answer questions.

So what do we know? Let's look at four different options.

(I) At one point, it appears that Compassion is being pushed out because of accusations that its work led to people converting to Christianity. The charity, to use Times language, was suspected of "engaging in religious conversion."

(II) However, at another another point, Compassion officials deny accusations that they are --

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole

Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole

If you have followed news in India in recent years, you know that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party -- commonly known as the BJP -- has continued its efforts to promote "Hindutva," or Hindu-ness, which essentially argues that Hinduism is an essential component of what it means to be a citizen of India.

Thus, it's goal is to defeat secular pluralism and the recognition of a valid role for other faiths in public life. The side effect has, in many cases, been a crackdown on many of the activities of other faiths in India -- especially ministries linked to foreign groups.

Tensions between Muslims and Hindus remain a fact of life. Meanwhile, attacks on Christians -- including a much-publicized gang rape of a 71-year-old nun -- have risen by 20 or 30 percent in recent years.

This brings us to a detailed New York Times report on the latest battle in this conflict, which ran with this headline: "Major Christian Charity Is Closing India Operations Amid a Crackdown."

The key is that officials in India are accusing a major ministry of evangelism, of converting people to Christianity.  What the story never addresses are these questions: As a matter of human rights, do citizens in India have the right to convert to another faith? Do members of one faith have a right to discuss their faith with others? Here is the overture:

NEW DELHI -- India’s crackdown on foreign aid will claim its most prominent casualty this month, as a Colorado-based Christian charity that is one of India’s biggest donors closes its operations here after 48 years, informing tens of thousands of children that they will no longer receive meals, medical care or tuition payments.
The shutdown of the charity, Compassion International, on suspicion of engaging in religious conversion, comes as India, a rising economic power with a swelling spirit of nationalism, curtails the flow of foreign money to activities it deems “detrimental to the national interest.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy