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Asia Bibi acquitted, but is she safe? Fighting over blasphemy in Pakistan is far from over

Asia Bibi acquitted, but is she safe? Fighting over blasphemy in Pakistan is far from over

This is a day that human-rights activists have wanted to see for a long time.

Asia Bibi has been acquitted of blasphemy charges in Pakistan.

That’s the lede. What has impressed me in the early coverage of this decision is the degree to which international desk pros in several newsrooms grasped the importance of the news that will unfold after this story. I am talking about the reaction among Muslims who defend their nation’s blasphemy laws, which are used to punish freethinking Muslims more often than Christians, like Bibi, and believers in other religious minorities.

I could have lived without some of the political labels that many editors allowed in descriptions of key players in this story. I was also surprised how few reporters seemed interested in Bibi and the details of her own story.

But we will come back to that. Here is the top of a strong NPR story with the breaking news:

Pakistan's Supreme Court on Wednesday announced the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy in a case that has roiled the country.

In the courtroom, it took less a minute for the Chief Justice, Saqib Nisar, to upturn a series of legal rulings that had kept Bibi on death row for eight years. In terse remarks to the hushed, packed courtroom, he said that Bibi's conviction and sentence had been voided. 

In a 56-page verdict issued after the ruling, the three-judge bench appeared to side with Bibi's advocates. They have maintained that the case against the 51-year-old illiterate farmhand was built around a grievance by her fellow Muslim workers who appeared angry that she might drink from the same vessel as them. She was ordered by a local landlord to bring water to the women on a day while they were picking berries.

If you want to dig into the details, head over to this strong collection of background material that the BBC team had ready to go.

A major question: Bibi is now free, but is it safe for her to be free?

After all, most alleged blasphemers are killed by mobs, not legal representatives of the state. And, in the past, state officials who dared to criticize the blasphemy laws have paid a high price.

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Attention Washington Post: ISIS forced women from several religious faiths into sexual slavery

Attention Washington Post: ISIS forced women from several religious faiths into sexual slavery

The Islamic State isn't making as much news as it once did, as the so-called caliphate continues to decline in size and, in some ways, power. However, it leaves behind a complex legacy of persecution, torture, slavery and, yes, genocide.

There are many victims with stories to tell and it's clear that some journalists and diplomats have not mastered all of the details of this tragedy.

Consider the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: "‘Somebody had to tell these stories’: An Iraqi woman’s ordeal as an ISIS sex slave." It's a horrifying and important story.

The Post international desk did a fine job of presenting the story of Yazidi survivor Nadia Murad. That's important, since the Yazidis remain an obscure religious minority for most American readers.

But there is a problem: The Post report never mentions that the Yazidis were not alone. Christians, Shia Muslims and others suffered the same fate, with mothers, fathers and sons slaughtered and girls sold as sexual slaves. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in 2016:

... (In) my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions -- in what it says, what it believes, and what it does. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.

Kerry went on to specifically say that "Daesh captured and enslaved thousands of Yezidi women and girls -- selling them at auction, raping them at will, and destroying the communities in which they had lived for countless generations." He added: "We know that in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and elsewhere, Daesh has executed Christians solely because of their faith ... and that it has also forced Christian women and girls into sexual slavery."

The problem isn't that the Post focused so tightly on the details of Murad's story, since her testimony is what this report is all about. The problem is in the summary paragraphs that failed to inform readers that women and girls in other religious minorities suffered the same faith.

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This YouTube age: The Washington Post wrestles with a female genital mutilation debate

This YouTube age: The Washington Post wrestles with a female genital mutilation debate

It would be hard to imagine a religion-beat topic more difficult to cover, in an accurate and balanced manner, than that of female genital mutilation.

Some journalists attempt to ignore the whole subject and, in particular, deny that it has anything to do with debates inside the complex world of global Islam. There is a tendency to say this practice is rooted in backward cultural traditions linked to sexism and patriarchy (in isolated groups of Christians and some other faiths as well) and that is that.

That stance is hard to justify if journalists actually listen to the voices of people involved in these debates, which often take place in private, or in Muslim community events that draw few observers from the outside.

Now one of these debates has gone public in the Virginia suburbs near the Washington, D.C., beltway, drawing coverage from The Washington Post -- "A Virginia imam said female genital mutilation prevents ‘hypersexuality,’ leading to calls for his dismissal." This report is much better than the norm.

However, there is one tension in the Post article that is worth noting, because it is linked to a crucial fact: In a debate among Muslim leaders, it is highly likely that people on both sides are going to quote Islamic writings and traditions when stating their case. Hold that thought. Here is the overture in this report:

A Virginia mosque has publicly condemned the words of its leading imam, highlighting lingering divisions among Muslim leaders over the controversial and widely rejected practice of female genital mutilation.
The Board of Directors at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church said Monday that Imam Shaker Elsayed’s seeming endorsement of the outlawed practice as “the honorable thing to do if needed” ran afoul of both U.S. and Islamic law. 
Elsayed’s comments during a lecture on child rearing and family life last month sparked a brief controversy last Friday after a right-wing watchdog group circulated a video clip of his speech online.

The fact that it took actions by conservative groups to force this into the open complicates matters for some mainstream journalists. However, the YouTube videos are there to see and to debate.

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So many journalism questions remain, about current status of evangelism and missions in India

So many journalism questions remain, about current status of evangelism and missions in India

Why is Compassion International closing its doors (for now) in India?

That was the question at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which explored some of the themes in my post this week that ran under the headline, "Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole." I would urge you to click here and read the original Times piece on this topic.

Does the Times piece tell us why Compassion is leaving India? Well, it does and it doesn't. And that is where things get complicated, for readers and listeners who have never worked in a newsroom.

Patience please, as we try to walk through this.

You see, there is evidence in this important Times piece that various officials in India are saying different things. The evidence offered can be interpreted in a number of different ways and it's pretty obvious that the Times team was asking questions that the authorities in the Bharatiya Janata Party didn't want to address. So, as public officials often do, they declined to answer questions.

So what do we know? Let's look at four different options.

(I) At one point, it appears that Compassion is being pushed out because of accusations that its work led to people converting to Christianity. The charity, to use Times language, was suspected of "engaging in religious conversion."

(II) However, at another another point, Compassion officials deny accusations that they are --

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Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole

Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole

If you have followed news in India in recent years, you know that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party -- commonly known as the BJP -- has continued its efforts to promote "Hindutva," or Hindu-ness, which essentially argues that Hinduism is an essential component of what it means to be a citizen of India.

Thus, it's goal is to defeat secular pluralism and the recognition of a valid role for other faiths in public life. The side effect has, in many cases, been a crackdown on many of the activities of other faiths in India -- especially ministries linked to foreign groups.

Tensions between Muslims and Hindus remain a fact of life. Meanwhile, attacks on Christians -- including a much-publicized gang rape of a 71-year-old nun -- have risen by 20 or 30 percent in recent years.

This brings us to a detailed New York Times report on the latest battle in this conflict, which ran with this headline: "Major Christian Charity Is Closing India Operations Amid a Crackdown."

The key is that officials in India are accusing a major ministry of evangelism, of converting people to Christianity.  What the story never addresses are these questions: As a matter of human rights, do citizens in India have the right to convert to another faith? Do members of one faith have a right to discuss their faith with others? Here is the overture:

NEW DELHI -- India’s crackdown on foreign aid will claim its most prominent casualty this month, as a Colorado-based Christian charity that is one of India’s biggest donors closes its operations here after 48 years, informing tens of thousands of children that they will no longer receive meals, medical care or tuition payments.
The shutdown of the charity, Compassion International, on suspicion of engaging in religious conversion, comes as India, a rising economic power with a swelling spirit of nationalism, curtails the flow of foreign money to activities it deems “detrimental to the national interest.”

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About those Filipino Catholics: What does it mean when a murderer is elected president?

About those Filipino Catholics: What does it mean when a murderer is elected president?

In an increasingly insecure world, blow-back politics -- the lurch to the right after years of liberal government stumbles and outright failures -- has increasingly taken hold in the democratic West. We've seen it in Poland and earlier this year in Great Britain (Brexit).

It also goes a long way toward explaining how electoral long shot Donald Trump became President-elect Donald Trump.

How all this ends is anybody's guess. But let's hope it's not like the Philippines, where right-wing, electoral populism has birthed its deadliest spawn. That's where self-confessed murderer President Rodrigo Duterte has taken charge.

This week he uttered what arguably were his most outrageous comments yet. The Washington Post reported it thusly:

In his latest controversial statement, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, known for his bloody anti-drug war that has killed thousands, threatened to throw corrupt officials out of a helicopter, saying he has done it before, to a kidnapper, and won't hesitate to do so again.
“I will pick you up in a helicopter to Manila, and I will throw you out on the way,” Duterte said in Tagalog in front of a crowd in the Camarines Sur province Tuesday, according to GMA News. “I've done it before. Why would I not do it again?”

Yes. The people of the Philippines, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, freely voted into office a man who brags about his extra-judicial killing of those he judged to be incorrigible drug dealers and abusers, and others. And his henchmen follow his lead. And the Filipino people say they're, by and large, just fine with it.

This despite the fact that their church leaders openly and repeatedly condemned Duterte.

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Concerning that powerful, but strange, Los Angeles report on rape in Syria

Concerning that powerful, but strange, Los Angeles report on rape in Syria

First thing first: There is no way to read the recent Los Angeles Times report about the rape and torture of women caught up in the fighting in Syria without being sickened. This is powerful material and this lengthy news feature contains lots of on-the-record material about a crime that many are simply too humiliated and terrified to report.

But as I read through it, I noticed something rather strange. You can see hints in the opening anecdote:

Soon after the young woman was released by the Syrian government in a prisoner exchange, activists began noticing the signs.
The woman's husband immediately divorced her. She rarely ventured outside her parents' house. Not long after, she left for Turkey.
Activist Kareem Saleh, who knew the woman from their work within Syria's peaceful opposition, called her at her new home, hoping to document the suspected sexual crimes. But the woman resisted, asking why her story was important and how it would benefit the antigovernment cause. Saleh spoke to her over the course of several days, but even when the woman relented, she would describe the conditions of her captivity only in general terms.
"She said, 'There was a lot, a lot of torture,' and I said, 'What kind of torture?' She kept repeating, 'A lot, a lot of torture,' and I kept pressing until I wore her down and she finally began telling me specifically about the rape."

What does religion have to do with this? 

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Yo, Washington Post editors: Spot the religion ghost in that Syrian refugee crisis

Yo, Washington Post editors: Spot the religion ghost in that Syrian refugee crisis

Of the many agonizing news stories linked to the rise of the Islamic State, I have -- as an Eastern Orthodox Christian -- been paying quite a bit of attention to those focusing on the Jihadist persecution of a number of different groups of "infidels" and "crusaders." Click here, if you wish, for my Universal syndicate column on that topic.

This renewed persecution, especially the crushing of religious minorities in the Nineveh Plain region, has led to yet another wave of refugees fleeing ahead of the judges, swords and tanks of the Islamic State. In the case of the faithful in Christian flocks, it is logical to ask if these believers will ever be able to return to their destroyed homes, businesses and irreplaceable ancient sanctuaries.

In other words, will these refugees eventually need to seek asylum in new lands, perhaps noting that their lives are at risk because of their minority-faith status?

As you would imagine, I read with great interest the recent Washington Post report that ran under the headline, "U.S. to greatly expand resettlement for Syrian refugees.

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So who speaks for Islam in a time of terrorism?

So who speaks for Islam in a time of terrorism?

THE RELIGION GUY interrupts this blog’s usual answers to posted questions and feels impelled to highlight a development that ought to receive far more attention than it has.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly Sep. 24, President Obama said “it is time for the world -- especially Muslim communities -- to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIL” (the group also called ISIS or “Islamic State”).

As if in response, that same day 126 Muslim leaders issued a dramatic 15-page “Open Letter” to ISIL’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers that denounced them on religious grounds.

Implicitly, the letter targets as well the tactics of al-Qaeda, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and similar terrorist movements claiming Islamic inspiration. The technical argument relies on dozens of citations from the Quran, Hadith (accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds), and Sharia (religious law).

The signers of this blunt challenge, all from the faith’s dominant Sunni branch, come from 37 nations including the U.S. 

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