Refugees

Deportation of a Chaldean Christian to Iraq, and where he died, gets some decent coverage

Deportation of a Chaldean Christian to Iraq, and where he died, gets some decent coverage

This is a news story about religion, mental illness, the U.S. government, deportation and Iraq.

Perhaps you’ve already heard about the heartbreaking story of Jimmy Aldaoud, the diabetic Chaldean Iraqi man who was deported to a homeland he never knew, only to die there a short time later because he couldn’t get enough insulin.

The story publicizes the plight of Chaldeans, an ancient branch of Catholicism that’s been in Iraq almost since the beginning of Christianity. They used to number 1 million, but 80 to 90 percent have emigrated over the years, especially after the death of Saddam Hussein, who for years protected the Chaldeans.

America’s Chaldean refugee community, many of whose members have long been threatened with deportation, have been warning that to send any of them to Iraq would be a death sentence. They, plus several members of Congress, are especially angry over Aldaoud’s death. If things don’t change soon, his fate will be their own.

The Intercept has the most complete story on Aldaoud,

BEFORE HE WAS deported, Jimmy Aldaoud had never stepped foot in Iraq. Born in Greece to Iraqi refugee parents, he immigrated to the United States with his family via a refugee resettlement program 40 years ago, when he was just 15 months old. He considered himself American and knew hardly anything of Iraqi society. Still, on the afternoon of June 4, he found himself wandering the arrivals terminal of Al Najaf International Airport, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, with around $50, some insulin for his diabetes, and the clothes on his back.

Najaf, by the way, is a Shi’ite stronghold and not the safest place for Christians of any stripe.

Aldaoud was used to getting by with little. For most of his adult life, he had experienced homelessness, working odd jobs, and stealing loose change from cars as he grappled with mental illness. But that was in the relative comfort of his hometown — for decades, he rarely strayed more than a few miles from his parents’ house in Hazel Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He had no idea how to survive in Iraq, and he was unprepared to make a run at it; he hadn’t known his deportation would come so soon, and officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement wouldn’t let him call his family before they sent him off.

Aldaoud spoke no Arabic, had no known family in Iraq, and nobody knew he was there. Disembarking in Najaf, he was “scared,” “confused,” and acting panicked, according to an Iraqi immigration officer he encountered.

And 63 days later — this past Tuesday — he was dead.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Political reporters take note: There are Catholics on both sides of hot immigration debates

Political reporters take note: There are Catholics on both sides of hot immigration debates

The country is divided. You already knew that.

People are going to argue like crazy about whatever President Donald Trump says no matter that he says. You already knew that, too.

Why America is divided and the issues and people that drive that division on both sides is key to understanding our present situation. Consider, of course, immigration — and specifically the construction of a border wall — that not only shut down the federal government last month, but continues to be a source of debate between Trump and his allies (who want a wall) and Democrats (who do not).

The religion angle? The immigration debate, on the whole, has lacked adequate mainstream media coverage when it comes to how various faiths play a policy role.

Aside from the occasional message from Pope Francis calling on wealthy nations to open their arms and stop the policy of separating families, you don’t see much mention of Catholics — or religion in general — when it comes to this polarizing issue. After all, many of those in Congress who favor and oppose the wall are Catholic and a great many of those seeking asylum share those same religious beliefs. While the border wall remains a thorny issue that has recently dominated news coverage, the media has largely been on the fence when it comes to committing resources that actually looks at the issue from a faith-based perspective of those who favor stricter border enforcement.

The unreported story here is that there are many good Catholics (both politicians and voters) who support efforts to build a wall along the southern U.S. border in order to keep out other (mostly Central American) Catholics.

The truth is there are fissures within the church, the clergy and everyday Catholics (voters to politicians) when it comes to the issue. Those internal debates are a big reason why the overall electorate in fractured on the immigration debate and why Republicans and Democrats have been battling one another for months. This has led to a partial government shutdown and stalemate with Trump over border enforcement funding. Remember when some Democrats mangled the Christmas story to make a point on the issue?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

Onions and garlic, slowly simmered with tomatoes and olive oil.

Does that make you hungry? It leaves me salivating. Pour it -- generously, if you don't mind -- over a heaping plate of pasta and I'm your best friend.

Perhaps that’s why I found this story out of India (first sent my way by a friend, N.K.) so interesting. It's about Hindus who reject eating onions and garlic for religiously ascribed health and spiritual reasons.

Moreover, given that it’s the end of the year, I’m also inclined to offer up this story as a metaphor for the world of religion, and its concurrent global political and social machinations, as 2019 prepares to dawn.

But first, here’s a bit of the gastronomical Hindu brouhaha story, courtesy of the liberal-leaning, India-focused news site Scroll.in.

(So you understand: In the Indian numerical system, a lakh equals 100,000; Karnataka is a state in southwest India, and ISKCON is the official name for what Westerners tend to call Hare Krishnas, a modern iteration of an ancient Hindu school of religious thought. Additionally, Ayurveda is an Indian dietary and health care system rooted in early Hindu scripture.)

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

But why onions and garlic? What do members of this Hindus sub-group know that the cooks of so many other global cuisines don’t or don’t care about? Even Western and natural medicine practitioners say that onions and garlic are particularly good for our health.

So what’s up?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

For reporters looking ahead: How politics will impact the Catholic church in 2019

For reporters looking ahead: How politics will impact the Catholic church in 2019

Elections matter. That’s the mantra you hear from both Republicans and Democrats — usually from the side that won said election — every time a piece of legislation being pushed finds legislative obstacles and serious opposition.

The recent midterm elections saw a split decision (Dems took the House, while the GOP held the Senate), leaving the nation polarized as ever heading into the what is expected to be a political slog heading into the 2020 presidential race. With the Catholic vote split down the middle again following these recent elections, it’s worth noting that Catholics, as well as the church itself, will be tested starting in January with the start of a new legislative session from Congress down to the state level.

Indeed, elections matter. Here are three storylines editors and journalists at mainstream news outlets should look out for that will impact the church in the coming year:

Clergy sex abuse: As the scandals — that mostly took place in past — continue to trickle out in the form of grand jury reports and other investigations, look for lawmakers to try and remedy the situation for victims through legislation on the state level.

With very blue New York State voting to put Democrats in control of both the state Assembly and Senate (the GOP had maintained a slight majority), look for lawmakers to pass (and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Catholic, to sign) the Child Victims Act. The Empire State isn’t alone. Other legislatures in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey and New Mexico are considering similar measures.

The New York legislation would allow victims of abuse suffered under the age of 18 to seek justice years later as adults. Removing the statute of limitations on cases involving private institutions, like the Boy Scouts and Jewish yeshivas, is at the heart of the battle.

New York law currently prevents victims from proceeding with criminal cases once they turn 23. As we know, many victims don't come forward until years later. The church has opposed past attempts at the legislation — along with the GOP — after successful lobbying efforts by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The ability to sue the church, even many years later, could bankrupt parishes, while public schools would be immune to such penalties. Another source of contention in the legislation is the one-year “look back” window that would allow victims to bring decades-old cases to civil court.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

RNS points out how ICE detainees' religious rights get shafted in prison

RNS points out how ICE detainees' religious rights get shafted in prison

Shortly after I posted a blog about Sikhs in a western Oregon jail last week, Religion News Service came out with piece about what kinds of spiritual counsel –- if any –- detainees get in America’s prisons.

The idea for the story, reporter Tom Verde said, came in September while he was watching something on TV about jailed immigrants and wondering if any of them have access to any clergy. The resulting story apparently took about six weeks of research and digging.

The short answer to his question is: Infrequently or not at all.

(RNS) — In May, Roberto Rauda, an undocumented immigrant, went to a New London, Conn., courthouse to pay a fine for carrying an open container of beer. Instead he was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in a routine sweep and ended up in the Bristol County House of Corrections in North Dartmouth, Mass.

Rauda, 37, who came to New York from El Salvador as a teen and several years ago found work in construction and at a lobster processing plant in Connecticut, was released in September, after members of the New London advocacy group Unidos Sin Fronteras paid his legal fees and $3,500 bail.

Sitting in his lawyer’s living room, Rauda grimly recalled conditions at the Massachusetts facility, such as cramped and uncomfortable sleeping arrangements and inedible food.

Yet his face softened as he recounted how prayer helped him endure.

“We had a Catholic priest who came every two weeks, and we would get together in a room to pray and sing hymns,” Rauda told Religion News Service through a translator. “I was scared I wouldn’t get out, that my wife would be left alone, and I prayed to God that she would be all right,” he said.

Rauda was one of the more fortunate ones, according to Verde’s piece. Typically, there’s nothing at all.

Being that the prisons weren’t too forthcoming about this information, he had to rely on information from the International Institute of Akron, a refugee services organization, whose lawyers have access to detainees. He also got a quote from CoreCivic, a private corrections company.

CoreCivic Manager of Public Affairs Rodney E. King, in an email, said that NEOCC provides for the spiritual needs of detainees. The facility, he said, has “a full-time chaplain, as well as a part-time chaplain.”

He added that there are six active religious service volunteers who currently serve evangelical Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Sikhs for the U.S. Marshals Service and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. One of those, the Catholic volunteer, has recently been cleared by ICE to minister to detainees and approvals are pending for a Muslim and a Sikh, King wrote.

But reports from human rights organizations, immigrant advocacy groups and the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general chronicle religious rights concerns at various ICE detention centers. The concerns range from prison guards mocking some faith traditions to the disruption or denial of detainees’ rights to worship.

First, getting access to a prison as a clergy volunteer can take forever.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Sikhs imprisoned in Oregon: How a national scandal hit a small farming town

Sikhs imprisoned in Oregon: How a national scandal hit a small farming town

Oregon is a diverse state and one in which I did lots of religion coverage during the my early reporting years. There are generous concentrations of Jews, Christians and Muslims and sprinklings of other groups — but Sikhism are one faith that isn’t heard about often.

This 2013 Oregonian piece estimates there are probably less than 1,000 Sikhs in the entire state, which may explain why officials at a local prison knew nothing about this 500-year-old faith when a load of Sikh immigrants was dumped at their door.

The mistreatment of these Sikhs –- and the number of Oregonians who volunteered to help them -- led to an Associated Press story that ran last week.

We’re going to be looking at several interesting stories, because this is — sadly — a story that isn’t going away anytime soon.

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — With the sun bearing down, Norm and Kathy Daviess stood in the shade of a prison wall topped with coiled razor wire, waiting for three immigrants to come out.

It’s become an oddly familiar routine for the Air Force veteran and his wife, part of an ad hoc group of volunteers that formed in recent months after the Trump administration transferred 124 immigrants to the federal prison in rural Oregon, a first for the facility.

The detainees were among approximately 1,600 immigrants apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border and then transferred to federal prisons in five states after President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy left the usual facilities short of space.

Almost half of those sent to the prison outside Sheridan, an economically struggling town 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Portland, on May 31 are from India, many of them Sikhs — part of an influx of Indian nationals entering the U.S. in recent years...

The story is not new.

In June the Portland-based Willamette Week covered a demonstration of religious leaders railing against the detaining of so many religious refugees at this prison.

Religious leaders from the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice today denounced the treatment of the 123 immigrants detained in a federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., saying many of the men are religious refugees fleeing persecution in their home nations.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

Return with me now to 1965, when as a newly minted journalist I read a story in The New York Times that so thoroughly impressed me that I still recall its emotional impact.

This now-legendary piece by John McCandlish Phillips was about a New York Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi, Daniel Burros, who unbeknownst to his cronies, was actually a Jew, despite his hate-filled public ranting against Jews and Israel.

The legendary reporter dug deeper and deeper In his interviews and research, until his shocking discovery. Burros threatened to kill Phillips, then committed suicide after his true identity was unmasked.

Why am I bringing this up now? Stay with me, please. I’ll explain below. There’s a paywall to read Phillips’ original piece, now a pdf document. Click here to access it. Also, I should note that GetReligion is housed at the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College in New York.

When Phillips died in 2013 — long after he left The Times, and journalism, to start a small Pentecostal Christian outreach ministry in Manhattan that still exists — his Times’ obit referred to his story as “one of the most famous articles in the newspaper’s history.” The obit also called Phillips “a tenacious reporter and a lyrical stylist.”

The article’s quality and the splash it made are certainly part of why Phillip’s story has stayed with me. But here’s another reason.

As a Jew, it seemed unfathomable to me back then that someone raised, as was I, in New York in the mid-20th century — when Jewish communal bonds were much stronger than they are today — could think and act like Burros, who at the time was just six or so years older than I was.

So why have I brought up Phillips’s story?

Because of recent stories out of Germany linking that nation’s Jewish community with rightwing, Nazi-sympathizing politics.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Danes, Muslims, Christmas and why immigration is always a religion-beat story

Danes, Muslims, Christmas and why immigration is always a religion-beat story

Know what’s new from the land of hygge and hot chocolate and high standards of living?

Denmark, which has consistently polled as one of the happiest places to live on Earth apparently isn’t so happy according to a spate of articles just out. 

The reason is about a quarter-million immigrants from the Middle East and Pakistan who have sought asylum there from nasty conditions in their homelands and for the rich benefits Denmark hands out to whoever’s fortunate enough to reside there. To the point where Danes are seeing their place as the world’s happiest place to live slipping by the day.

What’s not so apparent in some stories is how big a part religion plays in it all, being that the overwhelming percentage of these new arrivals are Muslim whereas Danes are Lutheran (at least in name). The Danish government says 4 percent of its 5.7 million population is Muslim, which comes out to 228,000 people.

This piece from CityLab sees a set of new rules as a rich/poor issue instead of a religious one. The word “Muslim” is mentioned only once.

Time magazine pulled the same trick in its reports on “parallel societies” that now exist in Denmark. Remember, Denmark just passed a "burka ban" law early last month.

So I turned to a July 1 piece in the New York Times, which had a more accurate account about what’s at issue here:

COPENHAGEN — When Rokhaia Naassan gives birth in the coming days, she and her baby boy will enter a new category in the eyes of Danish law. Because she lives in a low-income immigrant neighborhood described by the government as a “ghetto,” Rokhaia will be what the Danish newspapers call a “ghetto parent” and he will be a “ghetto child.”

Starting at the age of 1, “ghetto children” must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and Danish language. Noncompliance could result in a stoppage of welfare payments. Other Danish citizens are free to choose whether to enroll children in preschool up to the age of six.

Denmark’s government is introducing a new set of laws to regulate life in 25 low-income and heavily Muslim enclaves, saying that if families there do not willingly merge into the country’s mainstream, they should be compelled.

This sounds to me like some pretty desperate measures that are just short of kicking all these immigrants out.

Please respect our Commenting Policy