Sri Lanka

Friday Five: Godbeat grant, Sri Lanka bombings, Easter perspective, Israel outlook, softball hot dogs

Friday Five: Godbeat grant, Sri Lanka bombings, Easter perspective, Israel outlook, softball hot dogs

I’ve highlighted it twice this week — here and here — but I’m still contemplating that big Lilly Endowment Inc. grant for religion reporting.

In case you missed my earlier posts, the $4.9 million Global Religion Journalism Initiative — long a topic of speculation — was confirmed this week.

It’ll fund 13 religion journalist positions at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation and create a partnership resulting in RNS content going to AP subscribers.

The Global Religion project has the potential to be really, really awesome (to borrow one of RNS editor in chief Bob Smietana’s favorite adjectives). But the ultimate verdict will rest in the implementation and what happens beyond the initial, 18-month grant period.

Here’s wishing the involved entities all the best in that process!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

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Political style question for tense times: What do you call people killed in church on Easter?

Political style question for tense times: What do you call people killed in church on Easter?

I have been covering the religion beat, to one degree or another, for 40 years and I have never heard “Easter worshippers” used as a replacement for the word “Christians.”

Is this a reference to people who worship ON Easter or, well, people who worship Easter?

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I am well aware that Christians around the world — due to the much-covered clash between the Gregorian calendar and the older Julian calendar — usually celebrate Christianity’s most important holy day (called “Pascha” in the East) at different times. (For the ancient churches of the East, today is the Monday of Holy week this year.)

All that aside, there is no reason to substitute an awkward term like “Easter worshippers” for the word “Christian,” when referring to the victims in the horrible Easter morning bombings in Sri Lanka.

So I was surprised to see this oh-so-Twitter firestorm erupt yesterday. Here is the top of a key D.C. Beltway report. The pro-forma headline at The Hill states: “Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity'.” And here is the overture:

Former President Barack Obama on Easter Sunday condemned a series of explosions at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka as "an attack on humanity."

"The attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka are an attack on humanity," Obama tweeted on Easter Sunday. "On a day devoted to love, redemption, and renewal, we pray for the victims and stand with the people of Sri Lanka."

As you would expect, “Christians” pounced and this quickly became a story in “conservative” media.

What caused this bizarre mini-train wreck? I can think of two reasons — one based on journalistic caution and the other based on Donald Trump-era cynicism.

Let’s start with the closest thing to logic that I can come up with, if one is seeking a non-political reason for this switch. To bluntly state the point: The terrorists attacked churches AND hotels, so one could make a case that Christians were not the only people attacked.

Now, yes, that still doesn’t explain “Easter worshippers” in the tweets by politicos.

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The Easter Sunday massacre: Sri Lanka's complex religious landscape is a challenge

The Easter Sunday massacre: Sri Lanka's complex religious landscape is a challenge

When I first heard news of the bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, I wondered which group was to blame this time. At first, the government was calling it a terrorist attack by “religious extremists.”

That’s it? Think of it: 290 people dead. That’s five times the amount of Muslims shot by in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. And everyone tried to sidestep the identity of the perpetrators?

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country and hardline Buddhist groups have consistently harassed the minority Christians there. This is a complex situation, as former GetReligionista Ira Rifkin noted in this post last year.

Writing in the Guardian, a Muslim writer points out here that religious Muslim and Christian minorities in Sri Lanka have been sitting ducks for militant Buddhists for a long time. Even after a Methodist church was attacked by Buddhists on Palm Sunday in the northern part of the country, no precautions were taken for Easter celebrations.

But when I heard the attacks were set off by suicide bombers, that brought to mind radicalized Muslims, not Buddhists. The former is known worldwide for its use of suicide bombers. (However, Sri Lanka is the birthplace of the mainly Hindu Tamil Tigers, who pioneered suicide bombings in the 1980s. More on that in a moment.)

As I wrote this Sunday night, no one was saying a word as to which religious group did this. Now, government officials say they believe an “Islamist militant group” is to blame. No group has taken credit for the attacks.

So far, the U.K. press has been more on top of this story than was American media, with the exception of the New York Times, which has turned out some very good pieces in the past 24 hours. First, so I turned to the Guardian:

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Sri Lanka: Buddhists again turn on Muslims. So where do Western Buddhists stand?

Sri Lanka: Buddhists again turn on Muslims. So where do Western Buddhists stand?

It’s no where near as widespread as the vicious attacks against Buddhist Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, but a similar inter-religious clash is currently roiling Sri Lanka.

If you're not current with the breaking situation, this Reuters news piece will help. So will this analysis from Britain’s The Independent.

There are two takeaways here that journalists need to understand.

First, some majority Buddhist nations -- all of them in Asia -- are reacting to the growth of Islam in their midst in similar fashion to the reaction of some European countries, not to mention a large number of American Christians (religious and cultural) and others.

That is to say, with much alarm; fear of Islamic terrorism being a prime motivator. A second motivator is cultural in nature; the fear of losing one’s historical national dominance as global demographics shift. Call this the tribal component.

This New York Times analysis explains what I mean in far greater detail. Its’s headlined: “Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent?” Here’s a taste of it.

Most adherents of the world’s religions claim that their traditions place a premium on virtues like love, compassion and forgiveness, and that the state toward which they aim is one of universal peace. History has shown us, however, that religious traditions are human affairs, and that no matter how noble they may be in their aspirations, they display a full range of both human virtues and human failings.
While few sophisticated observers are shocked, then, by the occurrence of religious violence, there is one notable exception in this regard; there remains a persistent and widespread belief that Buddhist societies really are peaceful and harmonious. This presumption is evident in the reactions of astonishment many people have to events like those taking place in Myanmar. How, many wonder, could a Buddhist society — especially Buddhist monks! — have anything to do with something so monstrously violent as the ethnic cleansing now being perpetrated on Myanmar’s long-beleaguered Rohingya minority? Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be compassionate and pacifist?

I know this is on the longish side, but allow me to also quote this part of the Times essay. It's illuminating, as is the entire article.

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Real fake news: Facebook's role in Buddhist Myanmar's deadly war against its Rohingya Muslims

Real fake news: Facebook's role in Buddhist Myanmar's deadly war against its Rohingya Muslims

Before I get to the Facebook angle of this post, please indulge me as I note what I believe are two widely held beliefs that we'd be better off dropping. Blame it on a recent The New York Times piece on Buddhist Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority.

The first is that Buddhists are all about peace and compassion. This idea persists in some circles, thanks to how Mindfulness and other Buddhist meditation practices are sold in the West. Well, get over it.

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist religious leader Tenzin Gyatso, better known by his title, the Dalai Lama, is a rare exception. In Myanmar, Buddhist monks are some of the fiercest instigators of nasty anti-Rohingya ethnic cleansing.

Two, we tend to believe that all Nobel Peace Prize winners are saintly advocates for equal justice for all. Well, what about Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the esteemed prize in 1991 while under house arrest for her peaceful opposition to her nation’s dictatorial military government.

These days, as her nation’s prime minister-equivalent, she defends the way the Rohingyas have been treated by her Buddhist brethren. She argues that the Rohingya are simply Muslim Bangladeshis who, in essence, are illegal squatters in Buddhist Myanmar.

So what do you know? Buddhists and Nobel Prize winners can be just as broken as the rest of us.

Now for that New York Times piece out of Myanmar written by the paper’s new Southeast Asia correspondent, Hannah Beech. She’s new to the Times, but certainly not to the region or elite journalism.

What struck me most about her excellent piece, however, were not the naive beliefs cited above. Rather, it was what she reported about the role that Facebook and other social media have played in the conflict. (Facebook and other social media are also the subject of Congressional hearings this week because of how the Russians used them in an attempt to confuse voters in the United States' 2016 president election.)

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Correction? Associated Press misses a key detail in story about canonization of Joseph Vaz of Sri Lanka

Correction? Associated Press misses a key detail in story about canonization of Joseph Vaz of Sri Lanka

Papal tours are, in many ways, the Olympics of the religion-news beat and, in each and every one, there are complicated stories that require even the most experienced of reporters to improve the quality of their research folders.

And so it is with the Associated Press team that cranked out a "Pope Watch" feature the other day on some of the colorful details of the Pope Francis visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. This version ran in The New York Times.

In one case, the editors got a bit too eager to find yet another example of this charismatic, superstar pope being willing to push traditions aside and do his own thing. This led to a mistake that I hope they correct.

The subject is the canonization of the Blessed Joseph Vaz as Sri Lanka's first saint. The background on Vaz notes that:

... He was actually born an Indian in 1651 in what was then the Portuguese colony of Goa. Vaz spent 23 years ministering to the Catholic community in Sri Lanka, sometimes working in secret because of the threat of persecution by the island's Dutch rulers, who were die-hard Calvinists.

Note the persecution reference.

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Do the words of the Dalai Lama matter to all Buddhists?

Do the words of the Dalai Lama matter to all Buddhists?

CNN reports the Dalai Lama --the spiritual leader of Tibet -- has urged his co-religionists  in Sri Lanka and Myanmar to halt the sectarian violence that has pitted majority Buddhist populations against Muslim minorities.

The assumption behind this story is that the Dalai Lama is a person of consequence whose words will carry weight with Buddhists round the world. What he says matters, CNN reports.

But does it? And if it does matter, to whom does it matter?

The attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have had the approval of Buddhists leaders and in some cases mobs have been led by saffron-robe clad Buddhists monks. The report from CNN cleanly and clearly reports on the Dalai Lama's call for peace, but it neglects to mention (or perhaps it assumes) that Buddhism is a monolith, a unified system of belief whose leaders are universally esteemed by its practitioners.

The bottom line: What the CNN team is doing in this story is projecting Christian assumptions about a church and hierarchy upon a non-Christian institution. These assumptions make the story intellectually accessible to a Western reader, but present the issue in a false light.

The article entitled "Dalai Lama to Myanmar, Sri Lanka Buddhists: Stop violence against Muslims" begins:

(CNN) -- Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has made a renewed call for Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to cease violence towards the countries' Muslim minorities, in an address delivered on his 79th birthday. Speaking before tens of thousands of Buddhists, including Hollywood actor Richard Gere, the exiled Buddhist leader implored the faithful in the majority-Buddhist countries to refrain from such attacks.

"I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime," he said in the Indian town of Leh. "Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking."

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Buddhists boldly bully buzzed Brits

The obnoxious Englishman abroad is a well loved story in the British press. The opprobrium once reserved for the British football hooligan abroad has now spread to his vacationing cousins. Cheap airfares and package holidays to the beaches of the Mediterranean, Florida and points East have given the Briton abroad a reputation for boorishness, lewdness, and alcohol-fueled vulgarity. “They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit,” the mayor of Malia, a popular Greek resort, told the New York Times in 2008. “It is only the British people – not the Germans or the French”.

Are the British the world’s worst behaved tourists? I think Americans can still give the Brits a run for their money. Let me note the annual horror of Spring Break here in Sunny Florida in defense of my claim of American exceptionalism. Aesthetically speaking the sunburnt, tattooed, shaven-headed, bandy-legged Briton abroad is an unpleasing sight. And the men are even worse!

The British government keeps track of the bad behavior of Englishman abroad, publishing an annual report on consular support given to jailed tourists, football hooligans and other assorted louts.The British press has a love hate relationship with yobos abroad. The Daily Mail and other popular newspapers will run stories bemoaning bad behavior and vulgarity with headlines like: “Beer-swilling British women are branded the ‘ugliest in the world’.” However, British television celebrates the bad behavior with documentaries and series like Channel 4‘s “What happens in Kavos” — an English version of the soft porn “Girls gone wild” films distributed in America.

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