Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Religion makes news

Russia's annexation of Crimea is just one example of how faith shapes current events

  • Print

If you want to understand what is happening in Crimea, it helps to know something about the role religion plays in the crisis. That's what I told the journalism class at Red River College last month.

Each year the class brings me in to talk about why it's important for journalists to know something about religion to be good at their jobs.

For some of them, it's a revelation -- at a time when the popular narrative in the media seems to be the decline of religion and the rise of atheism, why would anyone need to take the subject seriously?

So we look at some stories in the news, checking for religious angles. They aren't hard to find: the debate over physician-assisted suicide, whether prostitution should be legal, gay marriage in the United States, the Quebec Charter of Values, the war in Afghanistan -- and the crisis in Crimea.

"As analysts debate Russia's interests in Crimea, they must not underestimate the role of religion," wrote Mara Kozelsky, a historian who studies Crimea, in the Washington Post.

Of course, there are many reasons why Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to annex the region -- political, economic and military.

But religion also played a role. Crimea is the place where, in 988 A.D., Russia's first ruler, Vladimir the Great, was converted and baptized. For many Russians, it is seen as the "cradle of Russian Christianity."

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church quickly sought to restore holy places in Crimea. Russian pilgrims poured in for guided tours that promised spiritual enrichment and healing.

For the Russian Orthodox Church, securing and safeguarding these holy places is of great importance. And when something is important to the church, it often ends up being important to Putin -- who has been anxious to secure its support.

"The close relationship between Russian church and state is everywhere evident," says Kozelsky,

She says Putin's support for the church includes his refusal to allow the Roman Catholic Pope onto Russian soil, restrictions on Protestant missionaries, the prosecution of the punk band Pussy Riot for performing in an Orthodox church and the Russian government's anti-homosexual legislation.

All this, she says, "reflects a new stage in the evolution of Russia's deeply conservative Orthodox identity... Crimea fits into this trajectory, too."

If you are surprised by the role religion plays in this crisis, you're not alone. Even an experienced diplomat like former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright admitted to underestimating the role religion played in foreign affairs before she took that job.

"I was unprepared for it," she said in an interview with Time magazine in 2006.

In a PBS interview that same year, she added that "in looking at what was going on in the world, it was evident that religion and the force of religion, and people's interpretation of how they saw God, really is very much a part of international relations."

What she needed to do her job well, she said, were not just economic and arms-control advisers, but "religious advisers that are complementing all the other advisers... rather than keeping religion and religious leaders out of things, we need their help."

Peggy Wehmeyer was the religion reporter at ABC's World News Tonight in the 1990s. She came to the attention of the network because of how she was able to tell stories of faith.

She recalls the time before going to World News Tonight when she worked at a Texas TV station. One day, she came back with another report that included an angle about religion.

"I handed in my script and the 10 o'clock producer banged his hand down and he said 'Wehmeyer, how come no matter what we send you out on, you come back with God?' And I said, 'How come you keep missing Him?' "

Religion isn't always part of the story. But when it is, only those who know to look for it will find it. That's good advice for budding journalists, and also for politicians and diplomats trying to understand and mitigate the crisis in Crimea.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 D15

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Key of Bart - Four Little Games

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Local- Peregrine Falcon Recovery Project. Baby peregrine falcons. 21 days old. Three baby falcons. Born on ledge on roof of Radisson hotel on Portage Avenue. Project Coordinator Tracy Maconachie said that these are third generation falcons to call the hotel home. Maconachie banded the legs of the birds for future identification as seen on this adult bird swooping just metres above. June 16, 2004.
  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local/Standup- Morning Fog. Horse prances in field by McPhillips Road, north of Winnipeg. 060605.

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google