Christianity

NPR offers a different take on Iranian converts to Christianity who are now marooned in Turkey

NPR offers a different take on Iranian converts to Christianity who are now marooned in Turkey

Outside of Iranian borders, Persians are increasingly forsaking Islam, usually for Christianity or atheism. That’s been going for several years in places like the Netherlands and Germany, which has welcomed many thousands of immigrants from Iran.

But not everyone fleeing the mullahs is able to get to Europe. Those who can’t end up in Iran’s next door neighbor, Turkey, which is where an NPR story on their plight starts.

From a journalism perspective, here is what we are looking for: What crucial voices are missing in this important story?

In a hotel conference room in Denizli, Turkey, about 60 Iranians sing along to songs praising Jesus mixed with Iranian pop music. When the music stops, American pastor Karl Vickery preaches with the help of a Persian translator.

"I'm not famous or rich. But I know Jesus. I have Jesus," he says, with a Southern drawl. The Farsi-speaking Christian converts shout "Hallelujah!" and clap.

Vickery, who's part of a visiting delegation from Beaumont, Texas, then offers to pray for each person in the room…

Among the parishioners are Farzana, a 37-year-old hairdresser from Tehran, and her daughter Andya, 3 … She doesn't want to give her last name because she says her family in Iran might face persecution for her conversion. Her family knows she is a convert and they're scared for their own safety inside Iran.

What might she face were she sent back?

There are hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iran. Those considered part of the native Christian communities are permitted to practice their religion with restrictions, but a Muslim converting to Christianity is considered an apostate. The Iranian government jails converts, especially those who proselytize.

It is also illegal to convert from Islam in several other Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, and punishable by jail time or death.

According to Open Doors, persecution is “extreme” in Iran and it’s the 10th worst country in the world to be a Christian. We’re not talking just being fired from jobs or being denied a university education. We’re talking about torture and death.

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How to turn that puff piece on Muslims loving Jesus into actual helpful, worthwhile journalism

How to turn that puff piece on Muslims loving Jesus into actual helpful, worthwhile journalism

Billboards with religious messages tend to draw tons of news media interest.

Last year, a Satanic Temple billboard protesting corporal punishment (“Our religion doesn’t believe in hitting children,” it said) rankled a South Texas town, as I reported for Religion News Service.

Other headline-making billboards have insulted Muhammad, promoted a traditional view of marriage and characterized the story of Jesus’ birth as a fairy tale.

Now, “Jesus in Islam” billboards put up in the Phoenix area are in the news.

Here is the lede from the Arizona Republic:

What do Muslims think of Jesus? It's a question Dr. Sabeel Ahmed said he gets often.

To help educate people on the significance of Jesus in Islam, Ahmed's group, The Humanitarians, a Muslim interfaith organization, is launching a monthlong campaign that includes billboards along high-trafficked areas in Arizona along with radio ads.

Ahmed, the group's founder and outreach coordinator, said the intent is to highlight similarities between Islam and Christianity and bring people together during the holidays. 

"We want to educate people on who we (Muslims) are and who we are not and show people that there are more similarities between the faiths than differences," Ahmed said Tuesday during a news conference at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe.

So Ahmed’s group bought the billboards in hopes of generating positive buzz in the community and the newspaper.

Mission accomplished, at least as far as the newspaper goes.

Keep reading, and you’ll discover that this story is the epitome of a puff piece: Group holds news conference. Reporter writes glowingly about it. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

I have been in and out of Nashville since the mid-1980s and I have heard that great city called many things.

Of course, it is the “Music City,” but I am more fond of the nickname “Guitar Town.”

Southern Baptists used to refer to the national convention’s large, strategically located headquarters as the “Baptist Vatican.” Then again, the United Methodist corporate presence in Nashville is also important.

This points to another reality: The historic synergy between the country music industry and the world of gospel music, in a wide variety of forms (including Contemporary Christian Music). Nashville is also home to a hub of Christian publishing companies that has global clout. All of that contributes to another well-known Nashville label: “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s an amazing town, with a stunning mix of churches and honky-tonks. As country legend Naomi Judd once told me, in Nashville artists can sing about Saturday night and Sunday morning in the same show and no one will blink.

This brings me to a massive New York Times feature that ran with this sprawling double-decker headline:

Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers

Nashville and others are thriving thanks to a mix of luck, astute political choices and well-timed investments, while cities like Birmingham, Ala., fall behind.

That tells you the basic thrust of the story. What interested me is that the Times covered the rapidly changing face of Nashville — many Tennesseans moan that it’s the new Atlanta — without making a single reference to the role that religious institutions have played in the city’s past and, yes, its present.

That’s really, really hard to do. But the Times team managed to pull that off.

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French teacher with vague Christian beliefs is fired for rejecting transgender pronouns

French teacher with vague Christian beliefs is fired for rejecting transgender pronouns

Greetings from the LGBTQ front lines, where this article caused a lot of chatter last week. It has all the earmarks of a good culture wars story: transgenderism, sex, the First Amendment, tax dollars and public schools. What more could you want?

What is my journalism issue with this Richmond Times-Dispatch story? The French teacher at the center of this employment drama insists that he is acting on his Christian beliefs — beliefs so vague that readers aren’t told what they are or how they relate to the student.

Here’s a good First Amendment/religious liberty story brewing here, yet readers are told next to nothing about the crucial facts about the role of religion in this case. For example: Try to find a reference to the teacher’s church tradition and its doctrines.

WEST POINT — A Virginia high school teacher was fired Thursday for refusing to use a transgender student’s new pronouns, a case believed to be the first of its kind in the state.

After a four-hour hearing, the West Point School Board voted 5-0 to terminate Peter Vlaming, a French teacher at West Point High School who resisted administrators’ orders to use male pronouns to refer to a ninth-grade student who had undergone a gender transition. The board met in closed session for nearly an hour before the vote.

Like a similar transgender rights case in nearby Gloucester County that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Vlaming’s situation could present a novel legal case as public bodies continue to grapple with how to reconcile anti-discrimination policies with the rights of religious employees.

All this is taking place not far from colonial Williamsburg in southeastern Virginia.

Vlaming, 47, who had taught at the school for almost seven years after spending more than a decade in France, told his superiors his Christian faith prevented him from using male pronouns for a student he saw as female.

The student’s family informed the school system of the transition over the summer. Vlaming said he had the student in class the year before when the student identified as female.

Maybe this is evident to the reporter, but what about the teacher’s Christian faith is forbidding him to change pronouns on this student?

Does he feel he is lying? Does he believe that gender is linked to DNA, at conception? I am curious.

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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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Friday Five: Christians + free press, John Allen Chau, exorcisms, dope pastor, foster care crisis

Friday Five: Christians + free press, John Allen Chau, exorcisms, dope pastor, foster care crisis

Is it possible to love Jesus and journalism?

Count me among those who do.

As such, I can’t help but endorse Daniel Darling’s column for Religion News Service this week on “Why Christians should support a free press.”

Darling, vice president of communications for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, writes:

Restoring faith in our media institutions is a shared responsibility. Christians should not only see the value of a free press but should support robust reporting, even journalism that reveals the misdeeds and sins in our own communities. Transparency doesn’t hurt the advance of the gospel. After all, the death and resurrection of Christ lay bare the gritty reality of every human heart.

In other words, a newspaper article cannot reveal anything about us that God doesn’t already know.

Meanwhile, the media could learn from some of the criticism of consumers. Too often, in our day, it seems that an undercurrent of bias exists against Christian ideals, even in subtle ways in which stories are reported or given the weight of breaking news or national importance. Too often journalists, especially on social media, seem to cheerlead rather than report.

Amen and amen.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: For the second week in a row, the death of American missionary John Allen Chau occupies this space. I’ll echo my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin, who said earlier this week that she “figured the story would be just a blip in the daily news flow.”

Some of the notable mainstream press coverage since Duin’s post includes NPR religion and belief correspondent Tom Gjelten’s piece titled “Killing Of American Missionary Ignites Debate Over How To Evangelize” and RNS’ in-depth report (by national correspondents Emily McFarlan Miller and Jack Jenkins) on the same subject.

But some of the must-read material on Chau’s death has come not in the form of news stories but rather first-person opinion pieces. Look for some insightful analysis of that in a think-piece post coming this weekend from GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly.

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Room in the inn? For homeless in California, there are spaces in (some) church parking lots

Room in the inn? For homeless in California, there are spaces in (some) church parking lots

As we enter the Christmas season (my apologies to those who celebrate Advent for skipping ahead), you may recall the biblical story of a baby born in a barn and placed in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

A few years ago, I wrote a Christian Chronicle story on programs such as Room In The Inn and Family Promise that — on colder nights — transform church buildings into temporary shelters for the homeless:

“Sheltering people in congregations is not as difficult as many people assume,” said Jeff Moles, Room In The Inn’s community development coordinator for congregational support. “People often think about their insurance needs, but Room In The Inn guests are covered just like any other visitors to the building.”

Most concerns about safety, security and liability disappear after a church hosts the program a few times, Moles said.

“Stereotypes are broken down,” he said, “and there is a ‘holy ground’ experience of people coming together in new ways.”

This week, I enjoyed a compelling Washington Post feature by freelancer Kimberly Winston on houses of worship in California opening their parking lots to the homeless. Yes, some people who have part- or full-time jobs and vehicles can’t afford a place to live.

That’s where people of faith come in:

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Monday Mix: Sex abuse probes, 'controlling' church, Mormon Jesus, sanctuary arrest, empty churches

Monday Mix: Sex abuse probes, 'controlling' church, Mormon Jesus, sanctuary arrest, empty churches

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. “The Catholic Church has proven that it cannot police itself. And civil authorities can’t let the church hide child sexual abuse allegations as personnel matters. They’re crimes. We need a full accounting of the church.”

The Washington Post rounds up the wave of state and federal investigations spurred by the Pennsylvania grand jury report:

The explosive report about sexual abuse by Catholic priests unveiled by a Pennsylvania grand jury in August has set off an unprecedented wave of investigations over the last several months, with attorneys general in 14 states and the District of Columbia announcing probes and demanding documents from Catholic officials. Those efforts have been joined by a federal investigation out of Philadelphia that may become national in scope.

The swift and sweeping response by civil authorities contrasts sharply with the Vatican’s comparatively glacial pace. While some U.S. dioceses have published lists of priests they say have been credibly accused of sexual abuse and two cardinals have been ousted, the Vatican this month put on hold a vote by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on measures to hold bishops more accountable until after a global synod in early 2019. In the meantime, Rome has done little to address the crisis.

2. "It totally sucks you away from all other aspects of your life. It doesn’t allow you to enjoy your life.”

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The death of a U.S. missionary: Was John Allen Chau's effort mere imperialism?

The death of a U.S. missionary: Was John Allen Chau's effort mere imperialism?

A few days ago, when news was dribbling out about a hapless American Christian missionary speared to death on an Indian island, I figured the story would be just a blip in the daily news flow.

Since then, a geyser of coverage of enveloped this story; not only about the slain man himself, but on the justifications used for missionaries being there in the first place. For some journalists, this has turned into another opportunity to bash missionaries, especially evangelicals, with one-sided stories that feature major holes, in terms of content.

Being that the John Allen Chau was from the southern half of Washington state, the Seattle Times (my local paper) has been full of coverage from the Associated Press.

SEATTLE (AP) — John Allen Chau spent summers alone in a California cabin as a wilderness emergency responder, led backpacking expeditions in the Northwest’s Cascade Mountains, almost lost his leg to a rattlesnake bite, and coached soccer for poor children in Iraq and South Africa.

But kayaking to a remote Indian island, home to a tribe known for attacking outsiders with bows and arrows, proved an adventure too far for the avid outdoorsman and Christian missionary. Police said Wednesday that he had been killed, and authorities were working with anthropologists to try to recover his body from North Sentinel, in the Andaman Islands.

“Words cannot express the sadness we have experienced about this report,” his family said in a statement posted on his Instagram account. “He loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people.”

Since his Nov. 16 death, everyone has gotten in on this story either to editorialize on what those stupid missionaries are doing in parts of the world that clearly don’t want them or to puzzle out what drove a healthy 26-year-old to face certain death.

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