When you share lentils and rice pilaf with people; when you attend church with them and talk to their pastor; when you pay a follow-up visit weeks later; you naturally convey a more intimate feel for your topic. This traditional wisdom of journalism is used to great effect in The Atlantic's feature on Muslim converts to Christianity in Germany.
The writer, Laura Kasinof, talks to three Iranian refugees in Berlin. She gets an overview with their pastor, a Lutheran minister, as well as an interchurch leader. She conveys the jubilant mood at a worship service. And she attempts to hint at the size of the trend of conversion, although she doesn't get comprehensive figures.
Kasinof did the story on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Whatever the sum, it was well spent. Her article is sensitive and thoughtful, and vastly superior to a similar piece in the Daily Beast this spring. As my colleague Julia Duin said then, the Beast somehow managed to link the trend to the U.S. presidential elections. Almost like clicking a nation-level selfie.
Astonishingly, the Daily Beast article has no quotes from any actual refugees, except those it borrowed from a newspaper. The Atlantic article doesn't neglect that vital facet:
The man who led the prayer said he had converted to Christianity in Iran after getting hold of a smuggled Farsi-language Bible. 'Before it was just theoretical to me, but now I can see it and feel it by my pastor’s kindness,' he said. Another said he converted in Iran because of an old neighbor who had been born Christian. Christians, he said, 'were kind people. In Islam, the person who does the killing and the person who dies yells Allahu Akbar,' he said. 'In Iran,' he noted, referring to the Arab occupation of Persia that began in the seventh century, 'we became Muslim by force.'
To be fair, the Atlantic story is a first-person account, which allows room for personal impressions. But Kasinof cannily interweaves them with concrete observations and quotes from her subjects:
I could feel a sort of happy chaos in the air that contrasted to the despair prevalent in refugee shelters I’d visited elsewhere in the country. Germans and asylum-seekers hung around drinking tea as children ran around playing; their arts projects hung across one wall. The church provides what is essentially pro-bono social work for refugees, assisting them with housing and other needs as they navigate Germany’s complex bureaucracy. People there were taking an active role in changing their situation or that of others, receiving a healthy dose of Christian optimism along with it.
Martens said his congregation was 'lucky' to have its pews filled with asylum-seekers from the Muslim world. Being around them, he said, brought meaning to his life. 'It’s such a job to be together with these wonderful people who have risked so much for their Christian faith,' he said. 'I can hardly imagine [working] in a normal German congregation anymore.'
The writer shows a disarming honesty about her own spiritual status. She is offered communion but declines. Her friend, a new believer, doesn't understand, but she explains to us: "The outward trappings of Christianity I grew up with in a non-denominational church in rural Maryland, by contrast -- sing euphemisms rather than cursing (darn rather than damn), voting Republican, eating Chick-Fil-A, and doing nothing remotely Catholic -- were difficult to explain. "
That kind of candor is doubtlessly an asset for her work. When you open up to people, they’ll often open up to you.
Kasinof is honest also about possible reasons for the conversions. She respectfully quotes the converts themselves on "the redemptive power of Jesus’s story, and disillusionment with Islam." But she also notes the "more earthly forces potentially at work: Germany does not grant refugee status to Iranians as easily as it does Syrians and Iraqis." The main exception for Iranians is refugee status because of persecution for their beliefs, especially Christian beliefs.
She runs into trouble, as do other reporters, when seeking signs that mass conversions of Muslims to Christianity are a trend. She tells of churches starting Farsi-language services to accommodate the many new members. She gets opinions by a regional church official and her young subjects' pastor in Berlin. But she doesn't give numbers even at that church, Trinity Lutheran, only that it "hosts a large Iranian congregation." The most she says is that the service she attended had around 300 people, mostly Iranians.
Occasionally, Kasinof uses the first-person style to take rather excessive liberties: "During conversations with newly converted Iranian asylum-seekers, it struck me that being born again after arriving in Europe was not only an act of faith, but a practical matter: Europe is largely Christian, after all." Europe may seem largely Christian to her, but she didn’t get that from researchers or news stories. Not when the Pew Forum predicts that Christianity in Europe will lose about 100 million people by 2050. Not when The Atlantic itself says that the mocking Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is active throughout the continent.
Finally, the story has what I think is a sizable omission: reaction from a Muslim leader or two in Berlin. I wonder if they have any plans to re-convert the ex-Muslims? This should have been part of the story, because Kasinof says the four young men she interviewed "asked that I not provide the exact location nor give their full names."
She doesn't say why they asked that, apparently expecting us to know. We could guess that it's because of a quote attributed to the prophet Muhammad: "Whoever changes his religion, kill him." But of course, we shouldn't have to guess. She should have spelled it out.
None of the above is meant to dampen my praise for this intimate, sincere look at these new believers. Many other media have caught a whiff of this new wind in Europe. Laura Kasinof may not have told us where the wind is blowing, but she gives us a touch of how it feels. Applause for her, and for The Atlantic.
Photo: Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin; screenshot from the Witness, Mercy, Life Together blog for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.