World Religions

The New York Times wishes us a Merry Hezbollah Christmas

The New York Times wishes us a Merry Hezbollah Christmas

Well, it sounded good on paper.

A New York Times article showing us a kinder, gentler, even interfaith Hezbollah was just one of a bunch of Christmas-themed pieces that ran in the paper this past week. One standout was this depressing piece on China’s holiday crackdown on churches, orchestrated by President Xi (the Grinch) Jinping.

It was just another day for China’s 30 million underground Christians with more people tossed in jail, sanctuaries and seminaries closed for the holiday and online Bible sales prohibited. There was also this piece on the Women’s March fragmenting due to anti-Semitism.

But the strangest article was this overseas dispatch with the headline: “Christmas in Lebanon: Jesus isn’t only for the Christians.” As I will explain in a bit, the piece didn’t get the greatest reception.

BEIRUT — The Iranian cultural attaché stepped up to the microphone on a stage flanked by banners bearing the faces of Iran’s two foremost religious authorities: Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and Ayatollah Khamenei, the current supreme leader.

To the left of Ayatollah Khomeini stood a twinkling Christmas tree, a gold star gilding its tip. Angel ornaments and miniature Santa hats nestled among its branches. Fake snow dusted fake pine needles.

“Today, we’re celebrating the birth of Christ,” the cultural attaché, Mohamed Mehdi Shari’tamdar, announced into the microphone, “and also the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.”

“Hallelujah!” boomed another speaker, Elias Hachem, reciting a poem he had written for the event. “Jesus the savior is born. The king of peace, the son of Mary. He frees the slaves. He heals. The angels protect him. The Bible and the Quran embrace.”

“We’re celebrating a rebel,” proclaimed a third speaker, the new mufti of the Shiite Muslims of Lebanon, the rebel in question being Jesus.

This being Lebanon, one can say something positive about Christianity; a luxury that Iran doesn’t allow Christians within its borders, as I wrote about recently. The audience at this event was mainly Shi’ite and an Iranian band was playing Assyrian and Persian Christmas carols; again, a luxury not allowed to Christians in Persia itself.

Nearly 30 years after the end of a civil war in which Beirut was cloven into Muslim and Christian halves connected only by a gutted buffer zone, Lebanese from all different sects now commonly mingle every day at home, at work and in public.

But few seasons frame the everyday give-and-take of religious coexistence quite like Christmastime in Lebanon.

Half the women snapping selfies with the colossal Christmas tree that stands across a downtown street from Beirut’s even more colossal blue mosque wear hijabs.

Children with veiled and unveiled mothers wait in line at the City Center mall to whisper wish lists to the mall’s Santa, and schoolchildren of all sects exchange Secret Santa gifts in class.

I wish the writer would clarify that Santa Claus isn’t a Christian concept and that the jolly Bearded One’s presence worldwide this time of year has more to do with shopping free-for-alls than religion.

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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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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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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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It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It is hard to evaluate the journalistic quality of a New York Times report about a complicated, emotional religious dispute with 1,000 years worth of history when the report — when push comes to shove — is a one-sided look at its contemporary political implications.

Once again, politics trumps church history and doctrine. Surprised?

I am referring to the clash in Ukraine between Orthodox Christians who back centuries of ecclessiastical ties between Kiev and Moscow and those who support the bid by President Petro O. Poroshenko, with the backing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to create an independent, canonical Ukrainian church. Here’s the overture for the recent report in the Times:

MOSCOW — Ukraine took a major step on Saturday toward establishing its own, autonomous Orthodox Church, setting the stage for increased tensions with Russia by altering a centuries-old religious tradition under which the Kiev church answered to Moscow.

Some 190 bishops, priests and other church figures spent the day closeted in St. Sophia’s Cathedral in downtown Kiev to elect the newly unified Ukrainian church’s head, Metropolitan Epiphanius. He is scheduled to travel in January to Istanbul, the historical seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to receive an official order granting autonomy.

Hundreds of supporters of the move cheered and some wept as President Petro O. Poroshenko, who had attended the session, emerged from the cathedral to announce that Ukraine had a new church leader.

Quoting from the national poet, Taras Shevchenko, Mr. Poroshenko said that “Ukraine will no longer drink Moscow poison from the Moscow cup,” and he called on supporters to remember the day’s events as “the final acquisition of independence from Russia.”

The assumption here is, of course, that (a) the tiny, endangered church in Constantinople has the power — there is no Vatican in Orthodox polity — to create an “autocephalous” Ukrainian church that will be recognized as valid by Orthodox churches around the world. Oh, and (b), the heart of this story is a conflict between Russian President Vladimir Putin and modern Europe, representing the free world.

Political sizzle always trumps church history.

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PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

Captive minorities in nations ruled by all-controlling despots play by the rules — or else. Iran’s estimated 9,000-15,000 Jews, one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, are a case in point.

Why? Because playing by the rules is just what happened recently when a visiting PBS journalist came calling on Iran’s Jews — with Teheran’s explicit permission, of course.

You’ll recall that Iran’s leaders constantly call for Israel’s physical destruction and that Teheran funds Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Both proxies are also sworn to destroy Israel.

This means that Iranian Jews are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Many of them have relatives in Israel, and the Jewish homeland is where their biblical-era ancestors fled from some 2,700 years ago, when forced into exile.

In late November, one of PBS’s premiere news platforms, “PBS NewsHour,” broadcast a piece that, like other attempts to explain the Iranian Jewish community, came up frustratingly short.

Once again, those Iranian Jews interviewed on camera said what they always say, which is that life for them in Iran is, on balance, secure — though not always perfectly so — and that Israel is their enemy simply because it's their government's enemy.

What else could they say in a nation where just one politically suspect utterance by a Jewish community member, particularly if made to a foreign media outlet, could mean devastating consequences for them and their co-religionists?

(“Special correspondent” Reza Sayah did note some of the tightly controlled circumstances in which Iran’s Jewish minority survives as second-class citizens. But PBS could have added the comments of an outside expert or two to more fully explain the Iranian context. I can’t help wonder why that didn't happen.)

Here’s the lede-in to the NewsHour story, lifted from the segment’s transcript:

Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they're safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic. Reza Sayah takes a rare inside look at life for Iran's Jewish minority.

“Safe and happy”? Perhaps in a Potemkin village sort of way.

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South China Morning Post's religious potpourri includes Buddhist nuns and winter spirituality

South China Morning Post's religious potpourri includes Buddhist nuns and winter spirituality

I love perusing through the South China Morning Post, surely the world’s most exotic mainline news outlet. A glance at their web site reveals everything from a journey through southern Tajikstan and a list of the best cities on the Silk Road to a piece on minimalist Japanese design and Chinese rice entrepreneurs.

Put “religion” in its search bar and you’ll get wonderful literary morsels about a monastery in remote Sichuan where wine-colored-robed Buddhist nuns must spend 100 days outside in unheated huts during the winter; how the actress who inspired India’s MeToo movement felt “inspired by God” and how a second ethnic Chinese politician, who is also a Protestant, is facing blasphemy charges in Indonesia.

The Indonesian piece is fascinating in how it openly wonders if religious freedom is at all possible in Muslim-majority Indonesia these days. And then there’s another piece on rampaging Hindu mobs angry with anyone who transports cows to slaughter houses or sells beef.

I wanted to draw attention to the Buddhist nuns piece, by freelance photographer Douglas Hook, because it’s related to other news on how China oppresses its religious minorities. We’ve all heard about the criminal behavior the Chinese government is showing toward its Uiygar minority in western China.

High in the mountains of Sichuan province, more than 10,000 Buddhist monks and nuns live in the austere surroundings of the Yarchen Gar monastery. Here, they follow the teachings of leader Asong Tulku, who counsels meditation and atonement for his disciples, and is revered as a living Buddha.

Established in 1985 by Lama Achuk Rinpoche, Yarchen Gar – officially known as Yaqing Orgyan – is located in Baiyu county, in western Sichuan’s Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. At 4,000 metres above sea level the difficult-to-reach monastery boasts one of the largest congrega­tions of monks and nuns in the world.

Because most of the devout here are women, Yarchen Gar has been called the “city of nuns”.

One reason this monastery has been growing is because Communist cadres have been taking over a larger monastery to the north.

Numbers at Yarchen Gar are rising once again due to evictions of Tibetans from a larger monastery, Larung Gar, to the north, where author­ities are acting to reduce the 40,000-strong congregation. Preparations are ongoing in Yarchen Gar to accommodate this influx of devotees. Roads are being built and sewers installed, and a massive temple is being erected in the eastern section, near the monks’ quarters.

Read this piece to find out how the Chinese government is borrowing from its Uighur Muslim playbook in terms of weakening religious groups by forcing them into jails or by installing atheist leaders as administrators.

Despite the use of smartphones along with other modern conveniences,

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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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A don't-miss-it deep dive: New York Times delivers a factual, balanced portrait of John Allen Chau

A don't-miss-it deep dive: New York Times delivers a factual, balanced portrait of John Allen Chau

Here’s the must-read religion story of this past weekend: the New York Times’ front-page treatment Saturday of the tragic death of missionary John Allen Chau.

I’ll offer a few quick grades (on a report-card scale of A to F) on the in-depth piece before urging you to read it:

• Readability: A.

Filled with “astounding details,” this is an exceptional read that immediately draws in readers.

The compelling opening anecdote (my apologies for copying and pasting so much text, but it’s crucial information):

Just months before undertaking the most forbidding journey in his life as a young missionary to a remote Indian Ocean island, John Allen Chau was blindfolded and dropped off on a dirt road in a remote part of Kansas.

After a long walk, he found a mock village in the woods inhabited by missionaries dressed in odd thrift-store clothes, pretending not to understand a word he said. His role was to preach the gospel. The others were supposed to be physically aggressive. Some came at him with fake spears, speaking gibberish.

It was part of an intensive and somewhat secretive three-week missionary training camp. Mary Ho, the international executive leader for All Nations, the organization that ran the training, said, “John was one of the best participants in this experience that we have ever had.”

For Mr. Chau, 26, the boot camp was the culmination of years of meticulous planning that involved linguistics training and studying to become an emergency medical technician, as well as forgoing full-time jobs so he could travel and toughen himself up.

He did it all with the single-minded goal of breaking through to the people of North Sentinel Island, a remote outpost of hunters and gatherers in the Andaman Sea who had shown tremendous hostility to outsiders.

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