Jehovah's Witnesses

In ELLE, Jehovah's Witnesses + Sunni Jihadists = a non-religion story

In ELLE, Jehovah's Witnesses + Sunni Jihadists = a non-religion story

The story of sisters Samantha and Lori Sally is a jackpot of drama.

It includes, let’s see, a fierce sibling loyalty, strict Jehovah’s Witness parents, two sisters marrying two brothers, deceit, arms trafficking, betrayal, wife abuse, Islam in America, the Islamic State in Syria, child slavery, child rape, federal charges against Samantha (more often Sam) because of her late husband’s involvement in ISIS, and rekindled loyalty. Did I miss anything? Possibly.

Jessica Roy of ELLE tells most of this story with sparkling writing, empathy, and a sustained focus on the sisters’ respective struggles. Her report of 10,400 words (divided into Sam’s story and Lori’s story) is blessedly free of ideological posturing, jargon, or rambling diversions into first-person details.

Here’s a sample of Roy’s narrative style, from high in her first report:

How does a woman from Arkansas, a woman who used to wear makeup and take selfies and wear flip-flops, end up dragged across the border into a war zone by her fun-loving husband? How do you grow up in the United States of America, surrounded by Walmarts and happy hours and swimming holes, and end up living in Syria under a terrorist group?

Samantha Sally met her husband Moussa Elhassani in Elkhart, Indiana. A few years after meeting, she says he forced her to move to Syria so he could fight for ISIS.

Lori, maybe more than anyone, knows how. She’s the reason Sam moved to Indiana. And the bad guy Sam married, the one who became an ISIS fighter? He was Lori’s brother-in-law. The two sisters married two brothers. Lori was there with Sam, until Sam was gone, beyond reach. Until not even Lori knew whether what the Justice Department claimed—that Sam was an accomplice, not a prisoner—was untrue.

Lori passes through the metal detectors and makes her way to the fourth-floor courtroom, which is circular and paneled with brown oak. Sam seems to sense her little sister come in, and she looks up and smiles, gives a small wave. Lori slides into a bench near the back.

There is a significant qualifier amid my praise, however: in Roy’s reporting of this story, vast details are sealed off behind the word religious.

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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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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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Jehovah's Witnesses: Why some persecuted faiths grab consistent headlines and others don't

Jehovah's Witnesses: Why some persecuted faiths grab consistent headlines and others don't

The world is inundated with sad examples of persecuted religious, ethnic and racial minorities. Journalistically speaking, however, each case may be reduced to a “story,” each competing for press attention at a time when shrinking industry resources and an ominous uptick in American political chaos make grabbing international media coverage increasingly difficult.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses is one such religious minority. The Kremlin has come down on Russian members of the faith like a ton of bricks.

The situation, from time to time, gains some coverage from western media elites. That attention soon fades, however, which prompts the following question: Why do some persecuted minorities trigger persistent journalistic attention while others do not?

I’ll try to answer that question below. First, though, let’s get current on the plight of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses.

This Los Angeles Times piece about their seeking refuge in neighboring Finland is a good place to start. Here’s a snippet from it:

In the 16 months since Russia’s Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group on par with Islamic State, raids and arrests of the religion’s estimated 175,000 members in the country have increased rapidly. The ruling criminalized practicing the religion and ordered its 395 branches closed. Members face prosecution for doing missionary work, a fundamental part of the faith.

There are now an estimated 250 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking asylum in Finland. They wait out their asylum applications in several refugee centers across the country, including the Joutseno refugee center outside Lappeenranta in southeastern Finland.

How has this impacted individual Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Read on.

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Friday Five: Paige Patterson furor, Jehovah's Witnesses abuse, Austin bomber's life, NRA prayer and more

Friday Five: Paige Patterson furor, Jehovah's Witnesses abuse, Austin bomber's life, NRA prayer and more

This is going to be a briefer-than-normal intro to Friday Five.

That's because I've been on vacation most of the week (read: hanging out at the ballpark watching my beloved Texas Rangers take two out of three from the Detroit Tigers).

Suffice it to say that I haven't kept up with religion headlines as much as I usually do. My thanks to boss man Terry Mattingly for some help with this week's five.

Let's dive right in:

1. Religion story of the week: Washington Post religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey's trip to Texas to report on Paige Patterson's controversial comments concerning domestic violence and divorce is the obvious pick this week.

I'll link to the former GetReligion contributor's front-page report, but for more details and other vital coverage, check out Bailey's Twitter feed.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: This time around, Julia Duin has the No. 1 post. That was a commentary entitled "Jehovah's Witnesses and sexual abuse: The Philadelphia Inquirer lays it out."

A close second: Another tmatt post, this time on "How to cover Jordan Peterson, while avoiding truth-shaped holes in his 'secular' gospel."

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Jehovah's Witnesses and sexual abuse: The Philadelphia Inquirer lays it out

Jehovah's Witnesses and sexual abuse: The Philadelphia Inquirer lays it out

Late last month, a crime and justice reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer came out with the kind of religion-and-sex-abuse story that’s sadly become all too familiar these days. What’s unusual about this story is that it’s about Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Witnesses are one of the toughest religious groups to cover. In the years I spent in religion reporting, I can only remember one time that the Witnesses cooperated with me as I reported a news story. That was when, as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, I went door-belling with the Witnesses sometime in the late ‘80s.

Now, they also tried to convert me, but that’s just a typical day in the life of a religion reporter, believe me.

I was amazed at how rude people were to the Witnesses. I connected with them during that time, but since then, I’ve never had any luck getting any response from the Witnesses for any other story. That is why I was impressed when an Inquirer reporter did this lengthy piece on sexual abuse in this very private, even secretive, religious group.

A second was all it took. A second was all he needed.

The little girl was 4, round-faced and freckled and dressed in her Sunday best. She was fidgeting next to her father inside the Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Red Lion, York County -- a safe, familiar space for a family that spent nearly all of its free time preaching and praying.

Martin Haugh was momentarily preoccupied, doling out assignments to his fellow Witnesses for their door-to-door ministry work. When he looked down for his daughter, she was gone. Haugh plunged into the slow-motion panic of every parent's worst nightmare.

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Spot the religion ghosts: Who loves Charlie Gard the most, his parents or state officials?

Spot the religion ghosts: Who loves Charlie Gard the most, his parents or state officials?

Like millions of other people in the social-media universe, I have been following the tragic story of the infant Charlie Gard (see http://www.charliesfight.org) and the struggle between his British parents and various government and medical elites over his future.

What is there -- journalistically speaking -- to say about mainstream media coverage of this complex story?

The easiest, and certainly the least surprising, thing to say is that a sad story about a baby's fight for life is way more interesting to gatekeepers in major media when Citizen Donald Trump and Pope Francis enter the drama. #SURPRISE

So now we have some pretty in-depth coverage of the story of infant Charlie, his parents and their supporters around the world. Hold that thought.

If you have followed this story closely you know there are religious issues at the heart of this crisis. There are religion ghosts here. The big question: Who loves Charlie the most, his parents or the state? Who should get to make the final decisions about the long-shot efforts to save his life?

The parents are clearly motivated by religious beliefs and want to fight on, defending his right to life. The odds are long, but they have faith in both God and science.

Government leaders, backed by some (not all) medical experts, say they are defending the infant's quality of life and that the state has the ultimate right to end his pain and suffering.

One of the strongest points in a major New York Times story on this case is that it stresses that money is not the issue. The parents have a vast network of supporters -- now including Trump and the Vatican's pediatric hospital -- to help fund further, desperate treatments.

So what is the issue here? The big question appears to be when government experts can trump parental rights and, yes, religious liberty. Thus, I did find it disconcerting that readers did not learn the names of Charlie's parents -- Connie Yates and Chris Gard -- until 650 words or so into the Times story.

Still, the material that made it into this report is strong.

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Russia pulls trigger on Jehovah's Witnesses and, this time, mainstream media take notice

Russia pulls trigger on Jehovah's Witnesses and, this time, mainstream media take notice

This will be no surprise to anyone who's paid attention, but President Vladimir Putin's Russia has officially lowered the boom on its Jehovah's Witnesses.

The government's plan is to obliterate the organization's ability to function as a viable religious movement within its borders, treating it as a dangerous, hostile movement from outside Russian culture. The key slur is "Western."

That's a growing trend in Russia, as you have not noticed.

Here's the meaty top of a New York Times piece that delivered the news last week:

MOSCOW -- Russia’s Supreme Court on Thursday declared Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination that rejects violence, an extremist organization, banning the group from operating on Russian territory and putting its more than 170,000 Russian worshipers in the same category as Islamic State militants.
The ruling, which confirmed an order last month by the Justice Ministry that the denomination be “liquidated” — essentially eliminated or disbanded — had been widely expected. Russian courts rarely challenge government decisions, no matter what the evidence.
Viktor Zhenkov, a lawyer for the denomination, said Jehovah’s Witnesses would appeal the ruling. He said it had focused on the activities of the organization’s so-called administrative center, a complex of offices outside St. Petersburg, but also branded all of its nearly 400 regional branches as extremist.
“We consider this decision an act of political repression that is impermissible in contemporary Russia,” Mr. Zhenkov said in a telephone interview. “We will, of course, appeal.”

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Why care that Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses face persecution -- but get scant coverage?

Why care that Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses face persecution -- but get scant coverage?

The growing public rift between Washington and Moscow following our missile attack on a Syrian military airport couldn't come at a worse time for Russia's relatively small community of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Why? Because President Vladimir Putin's Russia appears ready to outlaw the sect for engaging in "extremist activities," a catch all legalism in Russia used to ensnare any group or individual the Kremlin is politically unhappy with.

What? You didn't know this?

I'm not surprised because other than The New York Times, no member of the American media elite appears to have done its own story on the Issue.

Of course the wires, including the Associated Press and Reuters, pumped out bare-bone versions of the story. But from my limited search it appears to me that the wire stories were largely relegated to media web pages.

Why's that? Perhaps because the few newsrooms with the ability to do their own story out of Russia view the plight of the Jehovah's Witnesses as a mere sidebar to the far more globally engrossing story of U.S.-Russia friction.

Not to mention that the sect never gets much media attention anyway. I'm guessing that's because the only familiarity the preponderance of American journalists have with the group is when it's members knock on their door to hand out tracts -- something they seemingly always manage to do at an inopportune time.

(Jehovah's Witnesses consider themselves Christians. But almost all mainstream Christians reject that claim, because of conflicts over the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Because this post is about journalism, not theology, I'm making no judgement here about that. Click here for more information.)

Here's some important background on the issue from the Times piece.

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