Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Religion makes news

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

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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.

jdl562000@yahoo.com

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

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