Human Rights

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

It was the kind of outrageous story that grabbed the attention of GetReligion readers, as well as old-school First Amendment liberals who care deeply about protecting religious liberty.

Plenty of journalists saw the importance of this story last week, which tends to happen when a dispute ends up at the U.S. Supreme Court and creates a sharp 5-4 split among the justices.

The question, in this case, was whether journalists grasped some of the most symbolic, painful details in this execution case in Alabama. I looked at several stories and this USA Today report — “Alabama executes Muslim inmate Domineque Ray who asked for imam to be present“ — was better than the mainstream norm. Here is the overture:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama death row inmate Domineque Ray died by lethal injection Thursday evening with his imam present in an adjoining chamber. …

Ray was executed after an 11th-hour ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of execution pending a religious rights claim. Ray, a Muslim, had argued Alabama's practice of including a Christian prison chaplain in the execution chamber was in violation of the First Amendment. Ray sought to have his imam present in the death chamber at the time of his death.

Imam Yusef Maisonet, Ray's spiritual adviser, witnessed Ray's execution from a chamber which held media and prison officials. Two lawyers accompanied Maisonet.

When the curtain opened at 9:44 p.m., Ray lifted his head from the gurney, looking into the witness room. With his right hand in a fist, he extended a pointer finger.

Maisonet appeared to mirror the gesture and murmured that it was an acknowledgement of the singular God of the Islamic faith. When asked if he had any final words, Ray gave a brief faith declaration in Arabic.

OK, I will ask: What did Ray say, in Arabic? Did he speak Arabic? If not, then the odds are very good that Ray’s final words were a memorized quote from the Koran. It would have been good to have known the specifics.

That’s an important missing detail, but not the key to this story. The big issue, in this case, was that Ray was executed without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side. USA Today managed to get that detail — along with the crucial fact that state policy only allowed a Christian chaplain in the execution room — at the top of this report. That’s where those facts belonged.

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For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

Political power has as much to do with religious group fortunes as do the appeal of their message and the commitment of their followers. It's no wonder that the histories of each of the three major monotheistic religions emphasize, and even celebrate, stories of persecution at the hands of repressive political leaders.

Frankly, not much has changed over the centuries, despite any assumptions that modernity has birthed generally more enlightened attitudes toward politically weak minority faiths. Lip service means little when believers face immediate threats.

Here are two examples of politically linked religious persecution that produced international headlines last week.

The first is the dire situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. They’re persecuted by the government, in part because they’ve been deemed insufficiently loyal to the state, because they’re a relatively new sect with no historical ties to the Slavs and because they're a small and politically powerless faith with few international friends.

The second example is, arguably, the even worse situation of China’s Uighur Muslims. Not only does Beijing fear their potential political power, but until now they’ve also been largely abandoned by their powerful global coreligionists, again because of blatantly self-serving political considerations.

The good news here, if that’s not an overstatement, is they've received a modicum of  international lip service of late, even if only — no surprise here — out of political self-interest.

But let’s start with the Jehovah's Witnesses. I’ve previous chronicled their situation here, focusing on how the elite international media has -- or has not -- covered them. Click here and then click here to retrieve two of my past GetReligion pieces.

The latest news out of Russia is pretty bad. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent declaration of quasi-support for his nation’s Witnesses, a foreign-born member of the group has been sentenced to six years in prison for — well, basically for being a member of the faith.

Here’s the top of a Religion News Service report:

MOSCOW (RNS) —  A Russian court has sentenced a Danish member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years on extremism charges in a case that has rekindled memories of the Soviet-era persecution of Christians and triggered widespread international criticism.

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Associated Press story is only the latest chronicle of North Korea's persecution of Christians

Associated Press story is only the latest chronicle of North Korea's persecution of Christians

Probably the most unusual religion story out this past weekend was an Associated Press piece on the underground Christians of North Korea. They have been ranked the most persecuted church in the world for the past 18 years.

It’s tough to get people to talk about what really goes on in North Korea, as so few people survive escaping the Hermit Kingdom. This Fox News story gives an idea of the hell that prison life is and no doubt these stories don’t tell half of it.

Still the AP gave us a few ideas on how the North Koreans keep on keeping on.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — One North Korean defector in Seoul describes her family back home quietly singing Christian hymns every Sunday while someone stood watch for informers. A second cowered under a blanket or in the toilet when praying in the North. Yet another recalls seeing a fellow prison inmate who’d been severely beaten for refusing to repudiate her religion.

These accounts from interviews with The Associated Press provide a small window into how underground Christians in North Korea struggle to maintain their faith amid persistent crackdowns…

One woman interviewed said she converted about 10 relatives and neighbors and held secret services before defecting to the South.

“I wanted to build my church and sing out as loud as I could,” said the woman, who is now a pastor in Seoul. She insisted on only being identified with her initials, H.Y., because of serious worries about the safety of her converts and family in the North.

The pastor and others spoke with AP because they wanted to highlight the persecution they feel Christians face in North Korea. Although the comments cannot be independently confirmed, they generally match the previous claims of other defectors.

My one problem with the last paragraph; “they feel” Christians face in North Korea? Isn’t it pretty established by now that Christians are persecuted there? Some have compared it to Nero’s Rome, so let’s drop the caveats, OK?

The account tells of some haunting stories.

Another defector in Seoul, Kwak Jeong-ae, 65, said a fellow inmate in North Korea told guards about her own religious beliefs and insisted on using her baptized name, rather than her original Korean name, during questioning in 2004.

“She persisted in saying, ‘My name is Hyun Sarah; it’s the name that God and my church have given to me,’” Kwak said. “She told (the interrogators), ‘I’m a child of God and I’m not scared to die. So if you want to kill me, go ahead and kill me.’”

Kwak said Hyun told her about what she did during the interrogations, and Hyun’s actions were confirmed to Kwak by another inmate who was interrogated alongside her. Kwak said she later saw Hyun, then 23, coming back from an interrogation room with severe bruises on her forehead and bleeding from her nose. Days later, guards took Hyun away for good.

Actions like that strike many defectors and South Koreans as extraordinary

I’m not sure what that last sentence means. Does it mean the story is unbelievable?

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Religious persecution: Why not cover all groups feeling Beijing's wrath, not just Protestants?

Religious persecution: Why not cover all groups feeling Beijing's wrath, not just Protestants?

It seems that hardly a week goes by without China ramping up its campaign to mold domestic religious expression to its liking, and with some member of the international media elite taking a hard look at Beijing’s anti-religion policies.

Last week, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper took on the task. It’s grade? Let’s just say it achieved less than a perfect score. I’ll get to the widely circulated story’s (online, that is) limitations in a moment. But first let’s give it what praise it also deserves.

The piece focused on China’s Christians, or more accurately, on China’s Protestant Christians.

In this regard, the story was passable. It included the current talk out of China that the government intends to rewrite the Bible — though just which version is left unnamed — to suit its propaganda purposes. (In September, the online, evangelical website the Christian Post reported that both testaments were to be reworked to the government's liking, meaning more in line with its policies.)

Still, any story that draws attention to China’s hyper-paranoid approach toward religious expression is, in my book, a good thing, despite its shortcomings.

Only by hammering the point home again and again can outside pressure be brought to bear on Beijing’s policies, if, in fact, that’s even currently possible. (For example, don't expect President Donald Trump to ratchet up such pressure; for him and most world leaders relations with China are all about trade and financial investment).

The Guardian story led with the case of the Early Rain Covenant Church, one of China’s so-called “underground,” or non-government approved, congregations. Here’s the story’s top.

In late October, the pastor of one of China’s best-known underground churches asked this of his congregation: had they successfully spread the gospel throughout their city? “If tomorrow morning the Early Rain Covenant Church suddenly disappeared from the city of Chengdu, if each of us vanished into thin air, would this city be any different? Would anyone miss us?” said Wang Yi, leaning over his pulpit and pausing to let the question weigh on his audience. “I don’t know.”

Almost three months later, Wang’s hypothetical scenario is being put to the test. The church in south-west China has been shuttered and Wang and his wife, Jiang Rong, remain in detention after police arrested more than 100 Early Rain church members in December.

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Arguing in Anchorage: Christian women's shelter feuds with transgender woman

Arguing in Anchorage:  Christian women's shelter feuds with transgender woman

It’s been a very cold January in Alaska with temps in the -30s, -40s and even -50s in the central part of the state. It’s a tad warmer further to the south in Anchorage, but it’s still the kind of weather people can freeze to death in. That’s why homeless shelters are so important there.

But there’s something happening in Anchorage now that would give any director of a faith-based and feed-the-hungry shelter the willies. Imagine that your women’s only shelter includes a lot of women who’ve been raped or sexually molested in some way.

Then someone who is biologically a man — with an extensive criminal record — wants to share their sleeping space. And when the Associated Press rushes in to cover it, they concentrate not on the issues at hand but on how allegedly right-wing one of the legal organizations representing the shelter is. Read the following:

A conservative Christian law firm that has pushed religious issues in multiple states urged a U.S. judge on Friday to block Alaska’s largest city from requiring a faith-based women’s shelter to accept transgender women.

Alliance Defending Freedom has sued the city of Anchorage to stop it from applying a gender identity law to the Hope Center shelter, which denied entry to a transgender woman last year. The lawsuit says homeless shelters are exempt from the local law and that constitutional principles of privacy and religious freedom are at stake.

Alliance attorney Ryan Tucker said many women at the shelter are survivors of violence and allowing biological men would be highly traumatic for them. He told U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason that women have told shelter officials that if biological men are allowed to spend the night alongside them, "they would rather sleep in the woods," even in extreme cold like the city has experienced this week with temperatures hovering around zero.

The article appeared in the Anchorage Daily News, where (as I’m writing this) it has warmed up to 9 degrees. January nights are chilly up there.

Tucker said biological men are free to use the shelter during the day, adding there are other shelters in the city where men can sleep.

Ryan Stuart, an assistant municipal attorney, countered that the preliminary injunction sought by plaintiffs was premature because an investigation by the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission had not been concluded, largely because of the shelter's noncooperation. The investigation is on hold.

We learn further down that this transgender woman tried to get admitted to this shelter in January 2018 and has been giving them grief ever since.

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As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

Here’s an explosive combination: The democratic demand for freedom of speech and the equally emotionally laden demand that sincerely held religious beliefs not be subjected to indiscriminate insults and scorn.

Religiously speaking, we’re talking about blasphemy, an issue contemporary Westerners are apt to believe is more of a concern in Muslim communities and highly autocratic nations such as Russia — and which they would be correct to conclude.

Journalistically and artistically speaking, we’re talking about the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the novelist Salman Rushdie. Both were victims of blasphemy charges by Muslim. The former ended in horrific violence.

Now, Foreign Policy magazine — on the occasion of the Hebdo attacks fourth anniversary, and the 30th anniversary of the blasphemy fatwa issued against Rushdie by Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini — has published an intriguing analysis piece on this issue. It ran under this headline:

30 Years After the Rushdie Fatwa, Europe Is Moving Backward.

Blasphemy laws have been given new life on the continent.

Here’s a hefty chunk of the Foreign Policy essay.

But despite the unanimous rhetorical support for free speech after Charlie Hebdo, blasphemy bans have become more firmly anchored in some parts of the continent in recent years. In a recent case, the European Court of Human Rights even reaffirmed that European human rights law recognizes a right not to have one’s religious feelings hurt. The court based its decision on the deeply flawed assumption that religious peace and tolerance may require the policing rather than the protection of “gratuitously offensive” speech. Accordingly, it found that Austria had not violated freedom of expression by convicting a woman for having called the Prophet Mohammed a “pedophile.”

Some have argued that the court’s decision was a necessary defense of an embattled Muslim minority vulnerable to bigotry and religious hatred. But laws against religious insult and blasphemy are generally different from hate speech laws—which are problematic in themselves—that purportedly protect people rather than abstract religious ideas and dogmas.

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Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 religion story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 religion story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

On July 16, the New York Times ran a blockbuster story with this headline: “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal.

The man at the heart of this story was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — now ex-cardinal — long one of the most powerful Catholics in America and, some would say, the world. His spectacular fall led to a tsunami of chatter among religion-beat veterans because of decades of rumors about his private affairs, including beach-house sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians. Click here for a Julia Duin post on that.

There was another layer to all of this. McCarrick’s career was rooted in work in the greater New York City area and in Washington, D.C. He was one of the most important media sources among center-left Catholic leaders, so much so that a cluster of reporters linked to him became known as “Team Ted.”

Then came the brutal letters from the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, claiming that a global network of Catholic powerbrokers — including Pope Francis — had helped hide McCarrick and had profited from his clout and patronage.

In August there was an explosion of news about the release of a hellish seven-decade grand-jury report about abuse in six dioceses in Pennsylvania.

The bottom line: 2018 was a year in which there were major developments in two big clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic world. They were, of course, connected.

There was the old, ongoing story of priests abusing teens and children, starting with headlines in the early 1980s. Then there was the issue of how to discipline bishops, archbishops and even cardinals accused of abuse — a story in which all roads lead to Rome and, these days, Pope Francis.

Which story was more important in 2018? Which story centered on new, global developments? These questions are at the heart of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Our discussion centered on the release of the Religion News Association’s annual list of the Top 10 religion-beat stories — in which the Pennsylvania grand-jury report was No. 1 and McCarrick and Vigano fell near the end of that list.

In my own list, McCarrick and Vigano were No. 1 and the Pennsylvania report was No. 4, in part because 97 percent of its crimes were pre-2002, the year U.S. bishops passed strict anti-abuse policies.

There was another strange — IMHO — twist in this. RNA members selected Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as Newsmaker of the Year, after his long, progressive sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Oddly, McCarrick’s name was not even included on the ballot.

It helps to see the lists.

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Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

My wife was born in Israel and most of her extended family still lives there. We have several close friends living there, plus I also have journalist friends and acquaintances in Israel.

It’s wonderful to have so many people I care about in a nation to which I’m deeply connected. However, this means that when we visit, which is often, we generally have a packed schedule. This leaves us little down time for rest and seeking out new experiences, even when we’re there for a couple of weeks or more.

So for that we schedule stopovers in Europe, either going or coming. Just the two of us and a rented car, exploring and hanging out where our interests take us, including  beautiful and nourishing environments. We're also drawn to Jewish historical sites, old synagogues and the like.

We’re now thinking about another trip to Israel this spring or summer. But this time, we’re considering skipping our usual European respite. Why? Because of the increasingly overt anti-Semitism.

We have no desire to either experience it anew or spend our money in societies where the dislike of Jews and Israel are menacingly on the rise.

A disturbing survey, released just last week, by the European Union on the growing insecurity of the continent's Jews — and their increased desire to emigrate — prompted our reevaluation. Here’s part of how Bloomberg reported the survey's chief findings.

Insecurity fueled by anti-Semitism prompted a growing number of British, German and Swedish Jews to consider leaving their countries, according to a landmark survey conducted by the European Union.

Nine out of every 10 Jews sense anti-Semitism is getting worse with some of the most acute concern registered in northern Europe, according to the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. The survey is the largest of its kind worldwide and polled more than 16,000 Jews in 12 countries.

“Mounting levels of anti-Semitism continue to plague the EU,” said Michael O’Flaherty, the Irish human rights lawyer who runs the Vienna-based agency. “Across 12 EU member states where Jews have been living for centuries, more than 1/3 say that they consider emigrating because they no longer feel safe as Jews.”

Concerns over safety are prompting Jewish communities in some of the EU’s biggest economies to question whether they should remain, according to the data. In Germany, their share soared to 44 percent from 25 percent six years ago.


The BBC ran its online story on the survey under the headline, “Anti-Semitism pervades European life, says EU report.”

Let that sink in for a moment. “Pervades.”

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The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

Saudi Arabia is, currently, for the most part a political story. Though for the sake of historical perspective, let’s not forget that, this certainly is not the first time a United States president has decided to put markets or narrow politics ahead of social justice concerns.

Ever hear of Pinochet’s Chile, Batista’s Cuba, the Shah’s Iran, or Egypt and Pakistan under any number of leaders, just to name a few?

Perhaps it's the ham-fisted manner in which our current self-styled Lord of the Manor, President Donald Trump, has handled the matter that has elevated it to its current degree? Or perhaps it’s because of social media and our rapacious 24-7 news cycle that presidents no longer can easily sidestep policies their political opponents wish to highlight?

Politics aside — if that’s even possible — there are at least four religion angles to the Saudi story that are very much worth considering, however. The first three, I confess, I’m giving short shrift because I want to reserve ample space here for a forth angle, the knottiest of the quartet I’m highlighting.

Here are the first three.

Historically, the most important angle is how the (must we still say, “apparent”?) Saudi murder and coverup of former Washington Post oped writer Jamal Khashoggi has become part of the historic rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for dominance over Sunni Islam.

Here’s a solid backgrounder from Foreign Policy that covers that history.

One wonders whether any number of other Muslim nations would have raised Khashoggi’s death to the level that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did if they lacked his Ottoman fantasies?

The Post, of course, would probably have reacted as it did no matter where Khashoggi was killed — as it should have. But would the newspaper have had the same level of information to go on if not for Erdogan’s desire — remember Turkey is no friend of a free press — to rub Saudi Arabia’s nose in the mud?

A second angle is the nail in the coffin that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman —  the petroleum-rich, absolute monarchy’s de facto ruler — has put in the Pollyanish notion that his ascendancy to power would result in a loosening of the kingdom’s myriad and ultra-conservative religious reins, particularly in their application to women.

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