Home again, home again. I am back at my desk in Washington, D.C., but my mind is still in Istanbul (and, as you would expect, my confused body does not know exactly where it is).
Several of you have written to ask why I was over there in the first place. I was at an Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life conference, "Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century."
I didn't mention this in advance because of security concerns in that remarkable, yet tense, city and land. While the Oxford Centre website is very thin at this time, eventually the texts of all of the presentations will be online -- including speeches by the likes of Zeyno Baran, Hasain Haqqani, Lamin Sasseh, Nevra Necipoglu, Jung Chang, Jon Halliday, George Gilder, Paul Marshall, Michael Gerson and others. Put any of those names in Google and you'll find interesting material. There were also regional reports on press-freedom issues around the world, similar to the Oxford Centre seminar last summer in England.
The discussion sessions were all off the record, because there were journalists in the room from every imaginable media environment around the world. But it is safe to say that there were many large issues looming in the background of all our conversations, from the Armenian genocide to the war in Iraq, from the impact of the Web on newsrooms to global tensions over, yes, the mainstream media failing to "get religion."
We also talked quite a bit about religious freedom, a subject that is often closely linked -- think First Amendment, here -- to freedom of the press.
While I was in Istanbul, the GetReligionistas received a reader email pointing us toward a post at Amy Welborn's open book weblog titled "Where's the coverage? / Of anti-Christian violence in Iraq?" This is a good question, and Welborn's post includes links to some recent tragedies that demonstrate that there is more to the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq than clashes between Sunnis and Shiites. Yet, I also have to admit that my GetReligion Guilt file contains links to more than a few important stories about the impact of persecution on Christians in the Middle East. In fact, Google the words "Christians fleeing Iraq" and you will find quite a bit to read.
There is no question that this is a religion story. I mean, consider this recent example:
Pope Benedict XVI and President Mary McAleese yesterday led tributes to an Irish-trained priest who was shot dead in Iraq. Fr Ragheed Ganni, 35, was killed by unidentified gunmen as he returned from celebrating Mass in his native city of Mosul on Sunday.
... He and three deacons, one of whom was his cousin, were shot dead when the gunmen stopped their car on Sunday morning.
Fr Ganni, who was a frequent visitor to Ireland, was also an engineer and a member of the Chaldean Rite, Christianity's most ancient branch. Pope Benedict XVI yesterday sent a blessing of consolation to the families of the dead men. He hoped their "costly sacrifice" would bring about peace and reconciliation in Iraq.
Clearly, Turkey is not Iraq -- as Gerson noted in a Washington Post op-ed column written during our conference. Yet, as I found during my first Istanbul visit three years ago, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned -- including shocking acts of terrorism. Gerson notes:
... (Even) in Turkey, religious liberty is the most disputed and troublesome of freedoms. The secular establishment, fearful of accumulated sectarian power, has traditionally denied minority religious groups the right to own property, to provide religious education beyond high school or to train their own clergy. As a result, the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches are slowly being asphyxiated for lack of priests -- and the government has sometimes hastened the process by expropriating church property without compensation. The nationalist yellow press whips up resentment against religious minorities by repeating popular conspiracy theories: that Christian missionaries run prostitution rings or bribe Muslims into converting.
... But even as the legal environment for religion improves in Turkey, rising Islamist influence has caused sudden storms of violence. Seven weeks ago, two Turkish Christian converts and a German citizen were ritually murdered in the southern city of Malatya by killers spouting nationalist and Islamist slogans. Pastors around the country have begun hiring professional security. The Armenian patriarch is followed by a bodyguard even during his procession to the altar -- an unsettling liturgy of fear.
Try to picture that last scene in your mind. Now try to forget it. Good luck.
The irony, at this point, is that the Turkish media are finally beginning to cover these kinds of stories, in large part because the tensions between legal secularism and public faith have been raised by debates over Turkey entering the European Union.
I hope that American media continue to be interested in issues of human rights and religious liberty. If you see good, or bad, examples of coverage that you want us to know about, by all means send in the URLs for us to chase. I also hope that many of the journalists who gathered in Istanbul last week will help GetReligion deal with these issues as well. This is a life and death matter.
Photo: The "Blue Mosque" (left) and Hagia Sophia.