Media too often ignore faith persecution, international religion journalists say at Utah conference

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Astrid Dalehaug Norheim discusses "The geopolitics of religion: why some religious conflicts get more international attention than others" at the International Association of Religion Journalists conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday Oct. 10, 2019.

From Christians in Nigeria to Muslims in Burma, entire communities across the globe are persecuted based on their religion or beliefs.

Some of these conflicts get significantly more international media attention than others. Why?

That was just one of the questions members of the International Association of Religion Journalist dissected during a conference, co-hosted by The Salt Lake Tribune, this week in Salt Lake City. It’s the first time the group, formed in 2012, has met in North America.

Founder David Briggs, a former writer for The Associated Press, said the group members — some of whom traveled from Argentina, Indonesia and Norway — works to “advance and support unbiased and ethical reporting on religion."

“These are dangerous times for journalists,” Briggs told the group Thursday, noting that there have been members jailed or imprisoned for their works.

To drive the point home, he noted that IARJ colleagues from Nigeria and Algeria — who had planned to attend the Utah conference — were not allowed to travel to the U.S. by their respective governments. “These are real issues for our members.”

For religion reporters in the U.S. — such as Patty Talahongva, with Indian Country Today — their stories focus more on attacks on religious freedom.

Take for instance the use of eagle feathers in Native American ceremonies. For millennia, indigenous Americans have worn and used feathers and other parts of the charismatic raptor for religious rites.

“We cannot take eagle feathers because it is a protected bird," she said. “There are only two repositories in the country, and sometimes it takes up to a year to get those feathers. How is that freedom of religion?”

Peyote — a plant with hallucinogenic properties but considered sacred medicine by Native Americans — also gives rise to religious contention, she said. “How does that show Americans have freedom of religion?”