Church vandalism cases in France starting to get the journalism attention they deserve

Church vandalism cases in France starting to get the journalism attention they deserve

Spending two weeks in France earlier this summer was a wonderful experience. While I was there to cover the Women’s World Cup, I did get an opportunity to travel extensively throughout Paris and the northern part of the country.

During my travels, I walked into a lot of churches. France is one of the few countries I have ever visited where churches were always open. There was something comforting seeing churches with their doors swung wide, inviting anyone to walk right in.

The other thing I noticed was how empty these houses of worship were. It’s not surprising given that church attendance in France is among the lowest in the world.

I’m used to New York City, where churches are often locked when Mass isn’t going on. The reasons are plentiful. Theft, vandalism and other factors often goes into why this has become a practice. You’d think they would have heeded the warning in France, where the vandalism of Catholic churches has become an all-too-common occurrence the past two years.

This trend has largely been ignored in the mainstream press (we discussed this extensively at GetReligion at the time of the Notre Dame blaze and again in the aftermath). It should be noted, once again, that the fire at Notre Dame was an accident and not part of the spate of attacks.  

This takes us to a great piece of journalism by Real Clear Investigations, the same people who run Real Clear Politics (full disclosure: I have written for Real Clear Sports in the past). A recent piece posted to the site takes a deep dive into the trend, quantifying it with anecdotes, lots of data and interviews with people in the know. The reporting sheds a spotlight on the string of attacks and what it has done to France. It may be one of the best reported pieces on what’s been going on there by any news organization to date.

What Richard Bernstein has been able to do here is the kind of reporting that we no longer see. A former foreign correspondent at The New York Times, Bernstein worked as the paper’s Paris bureau chief from 1984 to 1987. His knowledge of the country, the history and factors that may have influenced the events of the past year shows through his reporting. These two paragraphs early on, for example, illustrate the magnitude of the problem — with help from data collected by various French authorities:

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Sort of Friday Five: Of course the terrorist attack in New Zealand is a religion-beat story

Sort of Friday Five: Of course the terrorist attack in New Zealand is a religion-beat story

The terrorist set out to massacre Muslim believers as they gathered for Friday prayers in their mosques.

He covered his weapons with names of others who committed similar mass murders and military leaders that he claimed fought for the same cause.

The terrorist left behind a hellish manifesto built on themes common among radicals who hate immigrants, especially Muslims, and weave in virulent anti-Semitism themes, as well (BBC explainer here). He claimed to have “been in contact” with sympathizers of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people — most of them children — in 2011.

1. Religion story of the week. The gunman’s motives may have been pure hatred, with no twisted links to any world religion, but it’s clear that the New Zealand massacre is the religion story of the week — because of the faith of the 49 victims and the faith statements of millions of people that are offering prayers and help in the wake of the attack.

The gunman labeled his own motives, as seen in this New York Times report:

Before the shooting, someone appearing to be the gunman posted links to a white-nationalist manifesto on Twitter and 8chan, an online forum known for extremist right-wing discussions. …

In his manifesto, he identified himself as a 28-year-old man born in Australia and listed his white nationalist heroes. Writing that he had purposely used guns to stir discord in the United States over the Second Amendment’s provision on the right to bear arms, he also declared himself a fascist. “For once, the person that will be called a fascist, is an actual fascist,” he wrote.

The Washington Post noted:

The 74-page manifesto left behind after the attack was littered with conspiracy theories about white birthrates and “white genocide.” It is the latest sign that a lethal vision of white nationalism has spread internationally. Its title, “The Great Replacement,” echoes the rallying cry of, among others, the torch-bearing protesters who marched in Charlottesville in 2017.

Also this:

Video on social media of the attack’s aftermath showed a state of disbelief, as mosque-goers huddled around the injured and dead. Amid anguished cries, a person could be heard saying, “There is no God but God,” the beginning of the Muslim profession of faith.

Please help us spot major religion themes in the waves of coverage that this story will receive in the hours and days ahead. Meanwhile, with Bobby Ross Jr., still in the Middle East, here is a tmatt attempt to fill the rest of the familiar Friday Five format.

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Religion newswriters take note: Scholarly specialists are joining 'The Conversation'

Religion newswriters take note: Scholarly specialists are joining 'The Conversation'

Reporters and editors who specialize in religion should be aware of a young Web site -- -- and regularly check out its section devoted to “Ethics + Religion.

This innovative site was launched in 2011 in Australia, 2012 in Britain, and then 2014 for the United States, with funding from 11 foundations and sponsorship by a constellation of 19 major U.S. universities (oddly, no Ivy Leaguers).  

The stated concept here is to provide “an independent source of news and views” that allows “university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public,” as opposed to writing articles for narrow academic journals. TheConversation hopes that its “explanatory journalism” from experts will “promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues.”

The editor for the ethics + religion section is Kalpana Jain, a former reporter for The Times of India who has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

The site can help reporters by offering three things: 

(1) Added angles and background on themes in the news.

(2) Ideas for new stories.

(3) Perhaps most important, names of knowledgeable scholars on specific topics to keep on file as needed in the future.

This is, of course, similar to the ReligionLink material offered by the Religion News Association. Of course, when it comes to solid sources of information, reporters want to bookmark as many as possible.

A good example of this new site’s resources is the detailed July 19 piece “Explaining the rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S.”

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Veiled references in the press, as French restaurant ejects women for wearing hijabs

Veiled references in the press, as French restaurant ejects women for wearing hijabs

Crude and bigoted, yes. Ignorant, yes. And it violated the very secular principles he embraced when a French restaurateur threw out two diners just for wearing hijabs.

But c'mon -- a "vicious attack"? That's a bit much, even for the Daily Mail

Other mainstream media were less inflammatory, but they committed another sin: skipping over the obvious religious aspect of attire associated with a particular faith. Yep, a classic religion ghost.

The dustup began Saturday when the two women sat down at Le Cenacle restaurant. They were given the usual glasses of water, but then a man -- either the chef or the owner or both, the articles don’t agree -- ordered them to leave.

Here's how the Mail puts it:

Two women wearing headscarves were thrown out of a Paris restaurant after being threatened by its self-confessed racist owner who said ‘Terrorists are Muslims, and all Muslims are terrorists.’
The disturbing scenes at Le Cenacle follow a series of incidents in which grandmothers and mothers have been thrown off public beaches in France for wearing Islamic looking clothing.
Now a criminal enquiry has been launched into Saturday’s vicious attack at the restaurant in Tremblay-en-France, a north-east suburb of the French capital.

As you can see by the video above, one of the women recorded the confrontation. She captured hateful remarks like "Madam, terrorists are Muslims and all Muslims are terrorists," "I don’t want people like you in my place," and "It seems like you don’t understand. Now get out!"

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Anti-Muslim hate crime targets a ... Lebanese Christian? That sad murder case in Tulsa

Anti-Muslim hate crime targets a ... Lebanese Christian? That sad murder case in Tulsa

At first blush, an Oklahoma murder making national headlines this week seems to be a case of anti-Muslim hate. That would mean that it's another story about "Islamophobia," as the news media like to call it.

Except that Khalid Jabara, the 37-year-old man shot dead in Tulsa, was not a Muslim. The victim, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon, was an Orthodox Christian. That simple fact should have raised all kinds of questions for journalists working on this story.

The basic details of the crime, via CNN:

Tulsa, Oklahoma (CNN) For years, the Jabara family says, their Tulsa neighbor terrorized them.
He called them names -- "dirty Arabs," "filthy Lebanese," they said.He hurled racial epithets at those who came to work on their lawns, they alleged. He ran Haifa Jabara over with his car and went to court for it.
And it all came to a head last week when the man, Stanley Vernon Majors, walked up to the front steps of the family home and shot and killed Khalid Jabara, police said.
"The frustration that we continue to see anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, xenophobic rhetoric and hate speech has unfortunately led up to a tragedy like this," it said.

To what or whom does the "it said' refer after that last quote? What person or group produced this statement?

I'm not entirely certain. My guess is that an editing error led to that awkward attribution. But the quote sets up the "anti-Muslim" angle:

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Somebody somewhere said something nutty about Muslims — oh, he's a 'Christian pastor'

Somebody somewhere said something nutty about Muslims — oh, he's a 'Christian pastor'

Talk about the Elephant in the room.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump's call for "a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” has spurred months of news media focus on alleged "Islamophobia."

In general, that drumbeat of coverage hasn't thrilled your friendly GetReligionistas.

The lede:

A Christian pastor in the nation’s third-most-populous county tried to stop a Muslim man from serving in the local Republican Party because of his religion.
The massive jurisdiction of Harris County, Tex. — with 4 million residents in the city of Houston and its surroundings — has more than 1,000 precincts, and the Republican Party appoints a chair for every single one. Approving the people picked by a committee to fill some of those spots should have been a run-of-the-mill task.

But Trebor Gordon stood up at a meeting of the county’s GOP on Monday night. He said that Syed Ali — a 62-year-old Houston resident who has been a loyal Republican since the Reagan administration — should not be appointed.

Gordon said that Ali should be blocked “on the grounds that Islam does not have any basis or any foundation. It is the total opposite of our foundation.”

“Islam and Christianity do not mix,” Gordon said. Party chairman Paul Simpson said that Gordon serves as chaplain for the Harris County Republican Party and is a part-time pastor at a Houston-area church.

My knee-jerk translation after reading the first few paragraphs: Somebody somewhere said something nutty about Muslims — and now it's national news because he's a "Christian pastor."

To be sure, there's a certain level of truth to that assessment.

But after reading the whole story, I came away with a different point of view. I appreciate both the tone and the approach of the writer and the Post. 

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'Islamophobia': In reports on student kicked off Southwest flight, there's that term again

'Islamophobia': In reports on student kicked off Southwest flight, there's that term again

We journalists love victims.

Victims make for easy stories and enticing clickbait.

For one example, see GetReligion's posts on this week's alleged-gay-slur-on-a-cake-sold-by-Whole-Foods brouhaha: here and here.

For another, perhaps you've heard about the college student who was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight for the crime of ... speaking Arabic.

To read the news reports, it seems obvious that the student is a victim of "Islamophobia." Yes, that vague, undefined term shows up in most of these stories with no real explanation of what it means. Again.

If you're a regular reader of GetReligion, you know how we feel about that.

The only problem: When you read the full details of what happened in the latest scenario, it becomes a bit more complicated than the simple headlines.

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Hey media, here's one way to overcome that tired 'anti-Muslim backlash' storyline

Hey media, here's one way to overcome that tired 'anti-Muslim backlash' storyline

The backlash is baa-aack.

More precisely, the "Muslim backlash" stories are back. Just check out the front page of Thursday's USA Today.

As for an actual backlash against Muslims in the U.S.? That's a subject of some debate.

Here at GetReligion, of course, we've touched on this topic again and again and again.

With your indulgence, I'll reference one more time what I said in the immediate aftermath of this week's Brussels terror attacks:

Key, again, is factual reporting that highlights the various strains of Islam (as we have said a million times, there is "no one Islam") and avoids the simplistic "Islamophobia" propaganda that plagued so much of the coverage last time.

USA Today, whose news coverage is to journalism what McDonald's cheeseburgers are to fine dining, didn't get the memo. But give the national newspaper credit for going all the way with its totally predictable, stereotypical approach. This is the online headline on the story featured in Thursday's print edition:

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In wake of more terror attacks in Europe, factual reporting of #Brussels news is crucial (updated)

In wake of more terror attacks in Europe, factual reporting of #Brussels news is crucial (updated)

Like many of you, I woke up to news of the terror attacks in Brussels.

Notifications about the bombings flooded my iPad screen as I opened my eyes.

As the disturbing headlines struck me, I saw a note on Facebook from a fellow Christian, Paul Brazle, a missionary to Belgium with whom my Christian Chronicle colleague Erik Tryggestad and I stayed during a 2009 reporting trip.

Brazle's note said:

'Ik ben veilig!' (I am safe - We are safe.)
With this message, folks in Brussels airport or metro can - via Red Cross data centre - inform family or friends who can't reach them that they are OK. Others... are not so lucky, to be able to say that.
As you wake up today to news of Bombings in Brussels....
we want you to know that we are safely well out of any harm's way, but listening to the news carefully and waiting for news of any in our network who may have had reason to be in the airport today, or near the one metro station in the Europa district where bombs went off.

The Associated Press reports that "there was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday's attacks." Other news organizations — such as NPR and CNN — make no mention of a potential religion angle in their initial accounts.

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