The Telegraph

Asia Bibi acquitted, but is she safe? Fighting over blasphemy in Pakistan is far from over

Asia Bibi acquitted, but is she safe? Fighting over blasphemy in Pakistan is far from over

This is a day that human-rights activists have wanted to see for a long time.

Asia Bibi has been acquitted of blasphemy charges in Pakistan.

That’s the lede. What has impressed me in the early coverage of this decision is the degree to which international desk pros in several newsrooms grasped the importance of the news that will unfold after this story. I am talking about the reaction among Muslims who defend their nation’s blasphemy laws, which are used to punish freethinking Muslims more often than Christians, like Bibi, and believers in other religious minorities.

I could have lived without some of the political labels that many editors allowed in descriptions of key players in this story. I was also surprised how few reporters seemed interested in Bibi and the details of her own story.

But we will come back to that. Here is the top of a strong NPR story with the breaking news:

Pakistan's Supreme Court on Wednesday announced the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy in a case that has roiled the country.

In the courtroom, it took less a minute for the Chief Justice, Saqib Nisar, to upturn a series of legal rulings that had kept Bibi on death row for eight years. In terse remarks to the hushed, packed courtroom, he said that Bibi's conviction and sentence had been voided. 

In a 56-page verdict issued after the ruling, the three-judge bench appeared to side with Bibi's advocates. They have maintained that the case against the 51-year-old illiterate farmhand was built around a grievance by her fellow Muslim workers who appeared angry that she might drink from the same vessel as them. She was ordered by a local landlord to bring water to the women on a day while they were picking berries.

If you want to dig into the details, head over to this strong collection of background material that the BBC team had ready to go.

A major question: Bibi is now free, but is it safe for her to be free?

After all, most alleged blasphemers are killed by mobs, not legal representatives of the state. And, in the past, state officials who dared to criticize the blasphemy laws have paid a high price.

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When Pope Francis trashes Satan, journalists need to do more legwork on why

When Pope Francis trashes Satan, journalists need to do more legwork on why

Not long ago, the London Telegraph ran a brief piece about Pope Francis cautioning people not to talk to the devil.

The mere existence of a papal discussion on the matter presupposes that enough people are talking with the Serpent Below to cause the Vatican some thought. I just wish the reporter had done more with this absorbing topic. 

The story begins with this:

The Devil is more intelligent than mere mortals and should never be argued with, Pope Francis has warned.
Satan is not a metaphor or a nebulous concept but a real person armed with dark powers, the Pope said in forthright remarks made during a television interview.
“He is evil, he’s not like mist. He’s not a diffuse thing, he is a person. I’m convinced that one must never converse with Satan - if you do that, you’ll be lost,” he told TV2000, a Catholic channel, gesticulating with his hands to emphasise his point.
“He’s more intelligent than us, and he’ll turn you upside down, he’ll make your head spin.

One hopes the pope was not referring to the famous head-spinning scene in The Exorcist.

Now, one needs to ask a basic question: What got Francis going on this topic? The Telegraph article doesn’t say, except to inform us that the pope has been on a defeat-Satan kick for some time.

"It's a Jesuit thing. He's a Jesuit who is deeply imbued with the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, which allow people to discern the movements of the good and bad spirit," said Austen Ivereigh, a Vatican analyst and the author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.
"For him, this is real, these are not metaphors. It may not be the way that people speak nowadays and some Catholics may be taken aback by it. A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of evil being real, but anyone who knows the spirituality of the Jesuits will not be surprised."

In other words, this is a personal foible, if you will, of a Jesuit pope and not something that reasonable 21st century folks need to be concerned about.

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Royal wedding quiz: Must a 'Protestant' be baptized in order to become an Anglican?

Royal wedding quiz: Must a 'Protestant' be baptized in order to become an Anglican?

If you hang out much with Anglicans, you know that many are not fond of references to King Henry VIII, and especially the role that his private affairs played in the history of their church. I have, as a reporter, heard my share of complaints about that -- especially during the decade when I was an Episcopalian.

However, it is kind of hard to talk about the history of the English Reformation without mentioning the guy.

In the end, the Church of England split off from the Church of Rome. For most people, especially low-church Anglicans, this (a) makes it part of the wider world of Protestantism. However, it should be noted that some people argue that (b) the Anglican via media -- a "middle way" between Protestantism and Catholicism -- is its own unique form of faith. The odds are good that some Anglican readers will be offended by my description of (a), (b) or (a) and (b). This is complicated stuff.

This brings us, of course, to the love life of Prince Harry and faith identification of his live-in significant other turned fiance Meghan Markle.

We will start with an Evening Standard piece that caused a bit of Twitter buzz. The double-decker headline proclaimed: 

This is why Meghan Markle will need to be baptised before she marries Prince Harry
Kensington Palace has confirmed that Meghan Markle will be baptised before her wedding next May

It appears that this report has been removed from the newspaper's website, but here is a cached version, allowing readers to know what all the buzz was about. The crucial section said:

Meghan will begin the process of becoming a UK citizen and will also need to be baptised and confirmed before the ceremony as she is currently a Protestant.

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Giles Fraser turns up the heat under the familiar debates about BBC and religious faith

Giles Fraser turns up the heat under the familiar debates about BBC and religious faith

This weekend's think piece comes to you with an official endorsement from the 105th occupant of the throne of St. Augustine in Canterbury.

That isn't something that happens every day.

This is the latest chapter in the ongoing debates about (a) the role of religious programming at BBC, England's state-backed utility for news and information and, on a deeper level, (b) the attitude that many elite British journalists often show toward religious faith and the lives of ordinary Brits. Sounds kind of familiar, right?

The headline in The Telegraph proclaimed: " 'Excellent comment': Archbishop of Canterbury praises article accusing BBC of sneering attitude to religion." And here is the overture:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that the BBC is “sneering” at people with faith after leading presenters criticised Thought for the Day.
Justin Welby said a column calling on the BBC to “stop sneering and keep the faith” was “excellent”.
It comes after John Humphrys, the Radio 4 presenter, claimed that the daily slot on the Today programme was “deeply, deeply boring”. He added that, in an increasingly secular society, it was “inappropriate” for the show to broadcast “nearly three minutes of uninterrupted religion”.
The Most Rev Justin Welby responded last night by endorsing the critical newspaper column  on his Twitter account.

In this case, we can point weekend think-piece readers to the actual essay by Father Giles Fraser in The Guardian that is at the heart of this debate, since it isn't hidden behind a paywall somewhere (which happens a lot when you're dealing with British media). The headline: "Here’s my Thought for the Day: stop sneering and keep the faith, BBC."

It's clear that this fight is not about Thought for the Day, which offers short reflections by well-known Brits and/or people who are in the news

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Getting it right: Britain's Telegraph nails problem with crack down on evangelical group at Oxford

Getting it right: Britain's Telegraph nails problem with crack down on evangelical group at Oxford

There's a little context needed here before I can dive into some interesting British news, and how well that news was reported by The Telegraph -- where (trigger warning) a journalist dared to talk to experts on both sides of a crucial debate.

But we need to start with a few Oxford facts. Specifically, it helps to know there are 38 "colleges" that comprise the famous University of Oxford. Someone isn't technically a student at Oxford as much as they are enrolled in one of these colleges, as Wikipedia explains.

Among Oxford's colleges is Balliol College, which numbers three former British prime ministers, five Nobel laureates and one monarch (Harald V of Norway) among its alumni. The school is more than 850 years old.

Also unique, it seems, is the attitude of Balliol's present leaders towards evangelical Christian students, or at least their student organization. The Telegraph picks up the tale:

An Oxford College has banned the Christian Union from its freshers’ fair on the grounds that it would be “alienating” for students of other religions, and constitute a “micro-aggression”.
The organiser of Balliol’s fair argued Christianity’s historic use as “an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism” meant that students might feel “unwelcome” in their new college if the Christian Union had a stall.
Freddy Potts, vice-president of Balliol’s Junior Common Room (JCR) committee, said that if a representative from the Christian Union (CU) attended the fair, it could cause "potential harm" to freshers.

Apparently, even the rigors of gaining a place at one of the world's top schools -- established centuries before Harvard or Yale -- leave entering students ("freshers" in British parlance) unprepared for the horrors of seeing evidence of the current existence of Christian faith.

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Archaeology as click bait: Is the news 'Santa is dead' or 'Tomb of St. Nicholas has been found'?

Archaeology as click bait: Is the news 'Santa is dead' or 'Tomb of St. Nicholas has been found'?

Let me start with a kind of religion-beat emotional trigger alert.

WARNING: Members of ancient Christian communions (and lovers of church history) should put down any beverages (hot or cold) that are in their hands before reading the following "Acts of Faith" feature in The Washington Post. It may help to take some kind of mild sedative.

Now, let's proceed. First there is the headline, which is both clever and totally outrageous, in light of the actual news hook in this story. Ready? Here we go:

Santa dead, archaeologists say

The New York Post headline? You do NOT want to know.

So can you say, "click bait"? Of course this is click bait and I understand why. However, the question is whether this report contains key information that is useful to readers who are interested in the real story -- which could turn out to have major implications for church history as well as ecumenical relations between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox churches of the East.

The "Santa" in the headline is actually St. Nicholas of Myra, one of the most beloved saints and bishops in ancient Christianity. Before we get to the real story, here is the creative (to say the least) overture of the Post report (which was not written by a religion-desk pro).

First the good news:
Whoever told you that Santa Claus was an impostor with a fake beard collecting a Christmastime check at the mall or a lie cooked up by your parents to trick you into five measly minutes of quiet was, at minimum, misinformed.
The bad news: Santa Claus is definitely dead.
Archaeologists in southern Turkey say they have discovered the tomb of the original Santa Claus, also known as St. Nicholas, beneath his namesake church near the Mediterranean Sea.

Pause: This man is "also known as St. Nicholas"?

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Lessons (long ago) from Hurricane Harvey news: Yes, even Brits fussed about Joel Osteen

Lessons (long ago) from Hurricane Harvey news: Yes, even Brits fussed about Joel Osteen

“A week is a long time in politics,” is a saying attributed to the late Harold Wilson, Prime Minister of Britain from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1976. What is of vital importance today, for politicians and the press, may be of no concern a week later.

A week? What about a month?

This phrase, like that attributed to Harold MacMillan, “events, dear boy, events,” has worked its way into the fingers of journalists around the Anglosphere. It is a handy cliche to be trotted out by the hack who wishes to appear world weary and sophisticated, and who is also pressed for time and cannot think of something original to say.

Biographers of Wilson and MacMillan claim not to be able to verify if or when these phrases were ever uttered by their subjects. Yet, provenance is no longer important when they appear in an article -- they serve to set a tone.

If one looks back in time, that furor over Joel Osteen’s alleged callousness towards those seeking shelter from Hurricane Harvey in Houston is a fine case study of reporting via tone. In American the press, social media and the television networks had extensive coverage of the report the telegenic pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston had failed to open his 16,000-seat church to those fleeing the rising flood waters in Houston.

The story seemed to be everywhere -- then 10 days later it was nowhere to be found (except in commentary pieces, of course).

The reason? “Events, dear boy, events.” Hurricane Irma, etc., displaced Hurricane Harvey in the press cycle and the lidless eye of Mordor media turned its gaze from Texas to Florida and back out into the Atlantic Ocean.

But back to that Houston case study.

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Daily Telegraph backs old guard in row over Church of England's 'Alpha' evangelicals

Daily Telegraph backs old guard in row over Church of England's 'Alpha' evangelicals

The Daily Telegraph has leapt into a dispute between two factions of a London church, offering its support to traditionalists who dislike changes brought by a new priest and the younger crowd of worshipers he has attracted.

The author of the 14 August 2017, article entitled “Proms conductor in row with musicians' church after it bans 'non-religious' concerts” would most likely reject this summary of her story. Yet the journalistic shortcomings of this article turn it into a club for traditionalists to beat modernizers.

Congregational conflicts are seldom newsworthy. But they are often vicious, taking their cue from the command to smite the Amalekites and “utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (1 Sam 15:3). And these church spats seem to revolve around the same set of problems that often boil down to a battle for power.

The exceptions to the rule, however, are often great news stories.

Who would not relish reading about the conflict in this Tennessee church:  “Pastor’s Wife And Mistress Fight At Communion Day Service In Church.”

The Daily Telegraph picked up a story about St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church in the City of London over a power struggle within a church, which has widened to include comments and criticisms from non-members.

The lede telegraphs the Telegraph’s construction of the story. We are told who are the villains and who the heroes.

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MZ for the win: Before taking shots at the Bible, journalists need to do their homework

MZ for the win: Before taking shots at the Bible, journalists need to do their homework

Every newspaper that I worked for had several shelves of reference books or an entire library of them, often backed with other pre-Internet reference materials.

In each case, there was large and somewhat intimidating Bible, often placed near a library-sized edition of a Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The whole idea (especially in a city like Charlotte, N.C.) was that journalists needed to be able to look up "Bible stuff" when religious people dared to mention religion in public.

That was how it was supposed to work. In reality, people used to swing by my desk and ask about "Bible stuff" and other religious questions. This was, at The Rocky Mountain News, the reason that people gave me a nickname that stuck -- "Monsignor Mattingly."

I would say that nine time out of 10, my newsroom colleagues found out that the Bible didn't actually say what people thought it said, or just as common, what newsroom people thought that it said. I also had to tell them that it was rarely enough to quote one Bible verse, often out of context, and then call it a day. I used to say over and over: The Bible is an adult book and it needs to be treated that way.

This brings me to another example of M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway of The Federalist having a bit of a GetReligion flashback when confronted with one or more examples of mainstream journalists tripping over a fact or two when covering a religious issue. It really sets her off when people mess up when talking about the Bible or Christian doctrines that have been around for 2,000 years or so.

Thus, here is a piece of "Classic MZ," offered as this weekend's think piece. The lesson this time around is a familiar one: If journalists are going to take shots at the Bible, or promote the work of people doing so, it really helps to do some homework (or call up scholars who can provide another point of view on the issue being discussed).

Take it away, Mollie. The headline: "Media Falsely Claim DNA Evidence Refutes Scripture." We pick things up a few lines into the piece:

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