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Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Those who read GetReligion on Dec. 20 (thereby postponing their holiday chores) may recall The Religion Guy’s list of the big three religion news themes for the new year:

(1) Ongoing debate over using the CRISPR technique to create human “designer babies” and manipulate genes that will be passed along to future generations. (The Guy – uniquely -- also proclaimed this the #1 religion story of 2018.)

(2) How Catholic leaders cope with multiplying cases of priests molesting minors, both at Pope Francis’ February summit and afterward. And don’t neglect those Protestant sexual abuse scandals.

(3) Reverberations from the United Methodist Church’s special February General Conference that decides whether and how to either hold together or to split over same-sex issues.

On the same theme, Religion News Service posted a longish item New Year’s Eve headlined “What’s coming for religion in 2019? Here’s what the experts predict.” This was a collection of brief articles commissioned from a multi-faith lineup. It turned out to be one of those ideas that seemed better in the story conference than in the resulting copy.

Understandably, no panelist expected an end to the persistent Catholic scandals.

Otherwise, the pieces predicted things like this:

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Got news? It is significant that an Anglican bishop's same-sex wedding was not big news?

Got news? It is significant that an Anglican bishop's same-sex wedding was not big news?

I’m sorry, but it’s time to share the “lighthouse parable,” once again.

Why? We are dealing with another very interesting news story that, well, didn’t seem to attract any attention from the mainstream press in North America. The fact that this news story was not considered a news story — except in niche publications on the left and right — is another commentary on religion-news reporting in this digital day and age.

Once again, silence is important. So, once upon a time there was a man who worked in a lighthouse on the foggy Atlantic Ocean.

As the story goes, this lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts. Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire.

This rare silence awoke the keeper, who leapt from bed shouting, "What was that sound?"

So what was the Anglican news a few weeks ago in Canada that drew mainstream silence? Here is the double-decker headline at GayStarNews.com:

Canadian gay bishop marries in Toronto cathedral

Marriage of bishop attended by Anglican Archbishop of Toronto

This event was not private, in any way, shape or form. As this story noted, the Diocese of Toronto posted a press notice online.

Clearly, this was a business-as-usual event for Canadian Anglicans, even though — in terms of liturgy and church law — official same-sex marriage rites remain very, very new. Hold that thought.

The bottom line: Many Anglicans around the world — left and right — would consider the same-sex marriage of a bishop, a rite held in a cathedral just after Christmas, to be a newsworthy event.

Was this news? Apparently not. This is interesting, a decade or so after the years in which every move by the openly gay Episcopal Bishop Vicky Gene Robinson drew intense coverage, if not cheers, from mainstream journalists.

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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?

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Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

One of the toughest disciplines for journalists to follow — if not the toughest — is setting aside personal judgements about others’ opinions. It’s a struggle for all practitioners of the craft, but it's particularly difficult for religion specialists.

That’s because of the deep and often unconscious psychological ties between personal identity and beliefs about life’s ultimate questions.

It's even harder to handle when covering faith systems outside the mainstream majority religions, with which we’re generally more familiar and, therefore, more comfortable.

I was reminded of this by two recent Religion News Service stories. RNS published them the same day, but what I want to focus on is how they took opposite approaches to covering some exotic territory.

One piece was about a subset of Pentecostal Christian leaders in Uganda warning their followers not to rely upon traditional Western medicine rather than their faith to see them through ill-health. The second concerned the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, the fourteenth in his lineage, and speculated about his reincarnation, or even if he should — which is monumental for Tibetan Buddhists.

Both pieces, I’d say, likely strained the belief systems of the preponderance of Westerners, including religion journalists.

Before we jump into those two stories, let me offer some caveats.

When I talk about putting aside our personal judgements I’m not including niche religion publications written for particular faith groups. Nor am I talking about opinion journalism, which includes the posts here at GetReligion.

Rather, I’m talking about mainstream news reporting, the sort historically defined by professional standards that attempt to provide “objective” journalism.

Frankly, I don't believe objectivity was ever really attainable for subjective humans (meaning all of us). So I prefer the label “fair and fact-based.” And yes, I’m fully aware that highly opinionated journalism is the increasingly preferred format in today’s 24/7, atomized, web and cable TV-dominated news environment.

One more thing. In no way should anything I write here be misinterpreted as an unqualified endorsement of any of the beliefs noted.

Now back to the RNS stories. Here’s the top of the Uganda piece:

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When covering Nigeria and Boko Haram, BBC consistently nails the crucial details

When covering Nigeria and Boko Haram, BBC consistently nails the crucial details

Boko Haram, the terrorist group that has torn up communities all over northern Nigeria, not to mention Cameroon, Niger and Chad, has been making more headlines recently.

This coming week includes the Oct. 15 deadline they have given for the Nigerian government to meet certain demands before they execute Leah Sharibu, a 15-year-old girl who was one of dozens of female students captured in February by Boko Haram. All the girls were released except her, mainly because she refused to give up her Christian beliefs as a condition for her release. She’s since become an international cause celebré, the subject of a book and potential Christian martyr.

At the same time, BBC has released a gorgeously produced piece on what life is like for the girls who are forced to become suicide bombers after being captured by Boko Haram. What we learn from the narrative is that poorly educated girls are imprisoned for months while being inundated with teachings from the Quran, then talked into getting a fast track to heaven by becoming a martyr to the cause.

I’ll begin first with the BBC piece, then cut back to Leah’s case. The former is headlined: “Made up to be beautiful: Sent out to die.”

Falmata is getting a full beauty treatment – a thick paste of henna, with its delicate pointed swirls, adorning her feet.

While it dries, a woman is batting with her hair. Comb in hard, she is stretching and straightening Falmata’s tight curls.

“We were allowed to choose any style for the hair and the henna,” remembers Falmata … (who) knows she’s going to look beautiful. But there’s a deadly consequence.

Once she’s made up, a suicide bomb will be attached to her waist.

So, these girls are being brainwashed into thinking they’re “marrying” martyrdom. She was told that if she killed non-believers, she’d go straight to paradise.

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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.

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When reporting on bitter fighting in central Nigeria, the truth is (somewhere) out there

When reporting on bitter fighting in central Nigeria, the truth is (somewhere) out there

Recently I saw a tragic piece on BBC about the Fulani –- a nomadic tribe in central Nigeria –- and the victims they prey upon. Knowing a little bit about the ethnic and religious divides tearing up Nigeria today, I knew that there had to be religion angle somewhere.

It turns out there's a ton of them and the story is more complex than you think. Sadly, there's not a ton of international media out there reporting about this mainly because it's Over There (Africa, where people are always killing each other, right?) and it's a dangerous place for a journalist to be. And persecution and warfare linked to religion is, well, not a subject many journalists want to ponder.

But today's troubles Over There often become tomorrow's troubles Over Here, as we saw with the 9/11 attacks. So, let us attend:

At least 86 people have died in central Nigeria after violent clashes broke out between farmers and cattle herders, police in Plateau state said.

Some reports say fighting began on Thursday when ethnic Berom farmers attacked Fulani herders, killing five of them.

A retaliatory attack on Saturday led to more deaths.

I had to look at the South China Morning Post to get more details. The Post's account said the Berom herders first attacked five Fulani herdsmen and cattle. Furious, the Fulani struck back and when the dust cleared, dozens were dead.

Back to BBC, including a glimpse of the complex religion angle in this tragedy. Note the important word "mostly." 

The area has a decades-long history of violence between ethnic groups competing for land. ... It's an age-old conflict that has recently taken on a new level of brutality.


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Reporting on the unthinkable: Ancient, multicultural roots of female genital mutilation

Reporting on the unthinkable: Ancient, multicultural roots of female genital mutilation

It's hard to imagine a topic that would be harder for journalists to write about than female genital mutilation (FGM).

In some parts of the world it is a procedure with deep cultural and even religious meaning. For others, it may be a way to keep young women attached to a tribe or a family structure that is truly patriarchal. Yet there are women who insist that it is an act that is totally necessary, if women are to be trusted, accepted and in any way empowered in certain cultures.

There is no question that there is a religious element to the FGM story, even though this rite "pre-dates both Christianity and Islam, and is commended in the core texts of neither faith," according to a disturbing, but fascinating, think piece at the website of The Media Project, the organization that supports GetReligion. 

The author of this reported essay is journalist and media-literacy pro Jenny Taylor, best known was the founder of Lapido Media in England.

How high are the stakes in this ongoing crisis? Taylor notes:

As many as one-third of girls in areas of Sudan where there are no antibiotics will die, according to another report. The complications range from haemorrhage to tetanus, blocked urethras and infertility.

A key figure in the essay is anti-FGM activist 55-year-old Ann-Marie Wilson, the founder of 28TooMany. The name is a reference to number of countries that had not banned this rite, at the time Wilson began her work.

How old is this ritual? This first paragraph contains a detail that I had never heard before:

Wilson, a doctor of psychology and a midwife who trained in Pakistan, recently completed a paper on the origins of FGM, claiming that the mummies in the British Museum show clear signs of FGM.


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Dapchi crisis: CNN is only U.S. network to follow up on missing Leah Sharibu

Dapchi crisis: CNN is only U.S. network to follow up on missing Leah Sharibu

Typically, the international media often tires of a crisis after a few months and departs the scene, leaving the rest of us to scan more local outlets to find out what happened to the victims.

But the story of more than 100 Nigerian school girls kidnapped in February by a terrorist group is different. Not only were nearly all these girls returned a few months later, there was one left behind. This was one Christian girl who refused to convert to Islam in exchange for her freedom. Not surprisingly, her plight has caught the attention of many.

Including the U.S. president. According to Vanguard Media, a Nigerian outlet, we learn that Leah’s captivity was discussed in talks between Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and President Donald Trump when the former was in Washington this month.

Meanwhile, CNN was the lone U.S. network to send a reporter to Nigeria to find out who is this 15-year-old girl who defied a terrorist army. She may pay for her bravery with her life. Their story begins thus:

Dapchi, Nigeria (CNN) - Under normal circumstances, Leah Sharibu would have shared a special birthday meal with her family under the bamboo covering protecting them from the Sahara desert dust swirling around them at their home in northeast Nigeria.

At some point during the celebration, they would have bowed their heads in prayer, asking God to bless Leah on her birthday and to make her dreams come true.

But this birthday, her 15th, was different and her family spent the day crying and fervently praying. They don't know where she is. 

Leah was one of the 110 schoolgirls kidnapped by members of the terrorist group Boko Haram in February from their school in Dapchi, in northeast Nigeria.

All the other kidnapped schoolgirls from Dapchi have been freed -- except Leah who her friends say refused to renounce her Christian faith to Boko Haram.

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