Skip to main content

Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

A religious place

Journalists miss a leading indicator if they ignore religion

A religious place

An Iraqi Christian holds her Bible in a makeshift shelter in Erbil for Christians who were forced to flee the Islamic State. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

From remarks to the 2019 State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C.

Despite being a religiously based journalist writing for a religiously based magazine, I am a convert to the importance of reporting on religious oppression, telling the stories of persecuted people. I began covering wars as most any journalist would—starting in the 1990s with the Bosnian War and then the civil war in Sudan.

At Srebrenica I interviewed Bosniak survivors of the 1995 massacre, only gradually coming to understand they were Muslims ethnically cleansed from their homeland by Orthodox Serbians, their husbands killed in what was allegedly a “safe zone.”

In Sudan’s Blue Nile State I encountered the Christian victims of a 20-year civil war, families burned out of their homes, at one site forced to feed their children dried corn husks—the same food they fed their goats. I watched one child there die of starvation.

Long before the attacks of 9/11 brought home for Americans religiously driven terrorism, I was learning about a stubborn evil. The United States and the West may have stripped religious ideas from our education systems, our textbooks, and our political discourse. But the rest of the globe never got the memo. The world was—and is—a religious place. 

Those who are willing to suffer and die for their religious beliefs have much to teach the rest of us.

When journalists ignore religious attacks and persecution, we are ignoring a leading indicator, one that affects not only war but also politics, economics, and daily life.

Sudan is also where I learned something else about harassed religious communities: their resilience. I walked a long road with aid workers to an abandoned mission station near the front lines. When we arrived to see the building where Christians had been burned to death inside, we found a remnant of believers there, worshipping under a few trees in 110-degree afternoon sun. 

These men and women had returned from a refugee camp in Ethiopia. They had walked the whole way. One of the women showed me her wrinkled Bible, which had gotten wet as she forded a river yet survived her trek. 

Since that time 20 years ago I have seen this kind of perseverance so often that I expect it. Those who are willing to suffer and die for their religious beliefs have much to teach the rest of us, particularly from our comfortable remove in the United States of America. This keeps me going, now for decades: the story of what happens when all else is lost.

The reporting I did before 9/11 prepared me for what came after. My work increasingly focused on the Middle East, where I discovered ancient Christian communities holding on despite having long faced discrimination under Muslim-dominated governments.

In Iraq and Afghanistan the Christians faced new threats—direct attacks from Islamic jihadists—and without protection from local authorities or the occupying U.S. forces. Over and over U.S. leaders worked with power brokers without regard for minority voices. This is why this Ministerial is historic and important. 

For short stints in Iraq I worked the Green Zone press events and was embedded with the U.S. military. I came away wanting instead to be embedded with the community. So I spent a week with an Iraqi family living in a Muslim neighborhood of Baghdad. I spent time over the years staying with pastors, sleeping sometimes in their churches, visiting targeted Christians in their safe houses. I saw how American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t improving the lives of Christians. They were endangering them. 

We journalists too often say, “What bleeds, leads.” We sometimes don’t stick around for everyday life. Communities, for instance, suffer when they lose their diversity. 

As one Syrian bishop said to me, “It’s important for the Muslims to have the Christians living alongside them.” In Iraq, Christians formed the backbone of the middle class. They were the shopkeepers and professionals. Without them, Iraq is poorer. The “victims,” then, aren’t only those who are targeted.

This ground-level reporting is what allows us to report progress and the gaps in rhetoric and action—gaps evident at an event like this Ministerial. I believe the journalists’ work can undergird the high ideals of what’s happening here this week, but at the same time hold officials accountable.

Thank you.