Africa

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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Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

It’s one of the most familiar mantras in American journalism: "Follow the money." This is, of course, a cynical way to look at life on the religion beat, since many idealistic believers have been known to take doctrinal stands that clash with their own self interests. 

However, things are different when you are covering the actions of big ecclesiastical fortresses -- like the United Methodist Church. This is especially true when reality begins to threaten the "way things are done around here" and the foundations of the fortress start moving.

Now, with the money mantra in mind, let's look at the "first the right said this," and then "the left said this" opening of a new Religion News Service feature about the denominational chess game that’s being played ahead of a special General Conference slated for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis. This historic showdown is supposed to bring some form of peace after decades of doctrinal debates about marriage, ordination and sexuality. Here we go:

(RNS) -- United Methodist Church activists who sharply disagree about whether to ordain LGBT clergy or officiate same-sex marriages do agree on one point: A plan recommended by the Council of Bishops isn’t satisfying to either side.

Socially conservative evangelicals say the plan, which aims to avert schism in the 12 million-member denomination, goes too far by permitting individual pastors and regional bodies to make their own decisions on whether to perform same-sex weddings and ordain LGBT people as clergy. ...

Meanwhile progressives aren’t happy either. Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, two groups committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the United Methodist Church, also expressed concerns that none of the three plans included in the bishops’ report would affirm ordination and marriage for all the denominations’ LGBT members.

In other words, there is no plan that clearly upholds 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on marriage and sex, but there is no plan that clearly overthrows small-o "orthodox" church tradition, either. Orthodoxy would be optional, and we all know what that means.

But, once again: Follow the money.

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Compelling topic, imperfect execution: About that article on rising number of ex-Muslims

Compelling topic, imperfect execution: About that article on rising number of ex-Muslims

The headline grabbed me: "The number of ex-Muslims in America is rising."

My curiosity stirred, I clicked the link to the recent article from the U.S. print edition of The Economist.

A subhead noted that "even in the land of the free, apostasy isn't easy," so I was hoping to find both factual data and real-life stories from former Muslims.

I read the lede and noted this dramatic scene:

AS SOON as he stepped off the plane on a family holiday to Kenya, Mahad Olad knew something was wrong. His mother, a “very devout, very conservative, very Wahhabi” woman, was acting strangely—furtively taking phone calls when she thought he was out of earshot. His suspicions would soon be proved correct. Mr Olad’s family, Somali immigrants to America and devout Muslims, had discovered that he had not only renounced Islam but was also gay. The holiday was a ruse, an intervention to save his soul.
Mr Olad was told he would leave college and be turned over the next day to the care of Muslim clerics who would restore his faith. “I was aware of the horrors of these camps,” Mr Olad says. “They operate them in the middle of nowhere, where you cannot escape. They subject you to beatings, starvation and trampling.” He tried to contact the American embassy, but it could not send help because of recent terrorist attacks nearby. Luckily, he also managed to reach a Kenyan atheist group. In the dead of night he sneaked into his mother’s room, stole his passport and was whisked away by taxi to the embassy, which eventually returned him safely to America. He has not spoken to his family since.

Then comes the "nut graf" — journalistic lingo for the part of the story that boils down the essential essence/takeaway:

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Tagging refugees by religion: Does it matter whether they're Muslims or Christians?

Tagging refugees by religion: Does it matter whether they're Muslims or Christians?

Immigration tensions have tilted another European election. This time it's Italy, where right-wing populists with an anti-immigrant bent have dominated the national vote.

Immigrants? Now who might journalists be referring to when they employ that generic term?

Could they mean, in Italy's case, Muslims from such war-devastated, poverty-stricken nations as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, plus Africa’s Sahel, the broad swath of semi-arid land just south of the Arab north that is also predominantly Muslim?

But rather than stating what seems the obvious, some global media appear more comfortable leaving the immigrants’ primary religious affiliation -- Islam -- unsaid. Instead, they provide a geography lesson.

By which I mean that the immigrants' nations of origin, such as the ones I mentioned above, are cited instead of the immigrants primary religious affiliation, even though religion is far more of factor in Italy's case than are lines on a globe.

Take this New York Times analysis. It mentions immigration from Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, but not religion. I found similar wording in stories published by The Guardian, USA Today, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and other outlets.

Here’s how the Times piece handled this aspect of the story. This is long, but essential:

The issue continues to disrupt and inflame European politics, including in Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and now Italy. With Greece, Italy has borne the brunt of recent large movements of refugees and migrants into Europe from places such as Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.
There is a strong feeling that the mainstream parties have no answer and that Italy got little help from the European Union in Brussels or from other member states. Once Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany cut off the migrant flow through Central Europe by doing deals with Turkey, neither Berlin nor Brussels seemed to care any more, and a European policy on migration is still unresolved.

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When Boko Haram strikes again, the religious distinctions get blurry in news coverage

When Boko Haram strikes again, the religious distinctions get blurry in news coverage

Unbelievable. Just unbelievable. Boko Haram has struck again.

It was bad enough in 2014 when 276 girls were kidnapped from Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. Half the world, it seemed, demonstrated and hashtagged #BringBackOurGirls in favor of these children.

Not that it did a whole lot of good. Four years later, more than 100 of those girls are still missing. And now it’s happened again and, as always, there are many religion questions that journalists need to be asking. From BBC

The grounds of the boarding school in Dapchi town are eerily quiet. Instead of the high-pitched chatter of 900 schoolgirls, there's only the bleating of goats as they wander through empty classrooms.
Thirteen-year-old Fatima Awaal is walking down the dusty path. She walks past a littering of rubber sandals, lost by girls as they ran away on Monday 19 February.
When the militants from the Boko Haram Islamist group attacked, she was in her boarding house with her best friend Zara. They were just about to have dinner when they heard the gunshots.
"One of our teachers told us to come out," she said "And that's when we saw the gunfire shooting through the sky."

Zara, 14, was one of 110 girls kidnapped that night. What’s almost worse than the kidnappings is the government’s utter inability to do anything about it.

Since the kidnappings, there have been many conflicting lines from the authorities on what exactly happened in Dapchi that Monday night. It wasn't until three days after the assault that they finally acknowledged some girls had been taken. It was another three days before they gave a number of how many were missing.

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The pope’s Myanmar plight recalls church struggles with rotten regimes of the past

The pope’s Myanmar plight recalls church struggles with rotten regimes of the past

Journalists might tear themselves away from U.S. evangelicals’ moral entanglements with Donald Trump and Roy Moore to consider how church leaders should handle rotten regimes overseas as grist for a reflective essay.

Pope Francis’s visit to Buddhist Myanmar put this on the news docket. Beforehand, Father Thomas Reese said Francis risked “either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country,” so “someone should have talked him out of making this trip.”

That is, Francis might harm Myanmar’s tiny, persecuted Christian flock if he denounced the military’s campaign of rape, mass murder, arson and forced exile against Rohingya Muslims. Yet sidestepping of atrocities had already besmirched the moral stature of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The pope decided not to publicly utter the word “Rohingya” in  Myanmar,  offering only generalized human rights pleas. Only later, meeting Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, did he cite their name: “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

On the flight back to Rome, Francis told reporters that naming the victims in Myanmar “would have been a door slammed in my face.” Instead, he figured keeping silent  facilitated behind-scenes “dialogue, and in this way the message arrived.” So, did he defend the Rohingya when meeting the military? “I dared say everything I wanted to say.”

Despite criticism of the papal performance from human rights activists, Reese says Francis balanced his roles of “diplomat” and “prophet” to protect Christians while lobbying in private, and it’s unlikely public attacks “would have had any effect on the military.”

That recalls perennial complaints that Pope Pius XII should have more forthrightly denounced Nazi extermination of Jews.

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Religion ghost? Ethiopian refugee thrives with strong values, family and maybe something else

Religion ghost? Ethiopian refugee thrives with strong values, family and maybe something else

Every now and then, I get a letter from a reader that is rather poignant. It's like this person is reading a good story in the local newspaper and then there is a passage that produces a kind of melancholy feeling, a sense of curiosity and loss.

Was there a religion ghost hiding somewhere in the story? Would anyone else read this news report and feel the same way? Would other readers have the same suspicion that there was crucial religious material missing?

So the reader sends me the URL to the story, often with a note that reads something like this:

Numerous media outlets have published stories about Oromo Ethiopian refugee Tashitaa Tufaa's success in the US. ... As a Greek Orthodox when I read the article I was curious as to whether his religion -- Christian or Islam -- had any effect on him. I reviewed many of similar articles. Religion was never mentioned.

In this case we are dealing with a story from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The double-decker headline proclaims, success-story style:

Minneapolis/St. Paul transit entrepreneur Tashitaa Tufaa is Entrepreneur of the Year
Tashitaa Tufaa, who built a $12 million school bus service in just a decade, is the Metropolitan Economic Development Association's 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year

Simply stated, this is a business story about -- from all accounts -- a remarkable man:

Tashitaa Tufaa, whose walk to school in his native Ethiopia was a 10-mile round trip in bare feet, now sees to the safe transit of thousands of schoolchildren daily as president and CEO of Fridley-based Metropolitan Transportation Network Inc.

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Sex-trafficked Nigerian teens: Why so little reporting on religious roots of this tragedy?

Sex-trafficked Nigerian teens: Why so little reporting on religious roots of this tragedy?

There’s been some amazing articles out there about the modern-day slave trade involving Nigerians who think they’re fleeing to Europe for jobs, but end up getting forced into prostitution or crime.

The British press has been particularly astute in tracking this horrific trend, which involves west Africans, the majority who come from Nigeria, Gambia and Ghana and who head north via Libya only to end up in a tangle of slave markets patronized by Arab buyers. The Guardian, BBC, the Washington Post and many other media are describing how Libya is outdoing India in being the world capital of sex trafficking.

But not enough has been done when you consider there's a bizarre mix of voodoo and Pentecostalism undergirding it all. After all, CNBC calls Libya the “torture archipelago” for poor African migrants. The Guardian asks the world why it’s ignoring this African holocaust in its midst.

Possibly the best story of them all was the New Yorker’s “Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl” that ran in April. Now The Times of London did a piece on what happens to the few lucky Nigerian teenagers who get through this hell to reach Italy. 

 The Nigerian prostitutes working on street corners in Castel Volturno this summer look like schoolgirls dressed up for a fancy dress party in their mothers’ clothes and make-up.
The reason: they are schoolgirls, as young as 14, part of a new wave of children tricked into crossing the Sahara and forced by voodoo threats, beatings and gang rape to become prostitutes.
“No-one acknowledges what is going on, but customers are coming here from miles away just for a chance to have sex with these 14-year-olds,” said Blessed Okoedion, a Nigerian woman who escaped from prostitution and now helps working girls.

We’re not talking Sicily here; we’re only 12 miles south of Naples. And this is not a topic where one would expect religion to be an issue but the author does find a “Sister Rita,” who is an Italian Ursuline nun helping these girls. Then:

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Big question looming over Catholic news: What would it take to pop this pope's media bubble?

Big question looming over Catholic news: What would it take to pop this pope's media bubble?

As a rule, I post "think pieces" -- posts pointing readers toward essays about trends on the religion beat -- on the weekend. I'm going to make an exception because I can't imagine waiting a few more days for readers to see this one.

I mean, we're talking about a John L. Allen, Jr., analysis piece at Crux with this headline: "Can anything burst Pope’s media bubble? Nah, probably not."

Prepare to chat away.

The piece starts off with a complicated drama in the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria, where -- as Allen puts it -- Pope Francis has "thrown down one of the most authoritarian gauntlets we’ve seen any pope fling in a long time."

It's the kind of move, literally threatening the status of every priest of the diocese, that would freak out mainstream reporters if attempted by any other recent pope. But it's not the kind of thing that sticks to Pope Francis, because everyone knows what he is a friendly, populist kind of man who is gentle and kind, etc., etc. As Allen kicks things into gear, he writes:

What all this got me thinking about is the following: Had any other recent pope done such a thing, howls about abuse of power and over-centralization probably would have been deafening, especially from the press, where the rebel priests likely would have become folk heroes. Francis, however, gets more or less a free pass. ...
Yes, some coverage has been more critical of late, especially Francis’s handling of the sexual abuse scandals in the wake of the criminal indictment of one of his top aides, Cardinal George Pell, in Australia. Even then, however, the tone tends to be, “Francis is such a great guy, so why is this area lagging behind?”

The heart of the essay is a bit of speculation about what it would take to pop this amazing papal media bubble.

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