BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – The global impact being made by the first Latin American pope was on the minds of many journalists attending late April’s IARJ conference, since they were meeting in the dynamic city where Jorge Mario Bergoglio spent most his life prior to becoming Pope Francis.
But the roughly two dozen journalists and scholars, most of whom were South American, also spent two days in discussion about how the religious scene is changing in Latin America, how it’s affecting inter-religious dialogue and how to handle tension between religion and freedom of expression.
Three of the leading religion journalists in Latin America, IARJ board member Pedro Brieger and IARJ members Sergio Rubin and Mariano De Vedia, all based in Buenos Aires, organized an outstanding program featuring some of the region’s finest and most influential religion writers, scholars and religious leaders.
After enjoying the chance to discuss both the challenges and excitement of covering religion in Latin America, the journalists expressed many ways they would like to further the goals of the IARJ, a global network of journalists promoting excellence in the coverage of religion and spirituality. The event was sponsored by the IARJ with support from the Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineracao (CBMM, a mining and metallurgical company based in Brazil).
Some in attendance know Pope Francis well, and they discussed the “Pope Francis effect” in their sessions at the University of Buenos Aires.
Several words of caution were voiced about the ability of any individual to make immediate changes in a global institution of more than 1.2 billion.
Sociologist Fortunato Mallimaci, of the University of Buenos Aires, said realities such as the rise of secularism, the passing of authoritarian regimes in Latin America and a more wary approach to organized religion mean the Catholic Church no longer has the same influence and most-favored status in cultural and political dialogues in Latin America.
The pontiff can welcome gays and promise accountability for those who cover up or commit crimes of sexual abuse against minors, but such overtures will only have meaning if they are implemented by church leaders throughout the world, said Mallimaci, a leading authority on religion and politics in Latin America.
Mariano de Vedia, religion journalist at the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion and the author of “Francis, the People’s Pope,” said the pontiff has taken on an ambitious agenda, from welcoming divorced people back into the church to reforming the Roman Curia so it serves the church “and not the other way around.”
Pope Francis’ biggest challenge, de Vedia said, will be to convince the rest of the church to work with him in promoting change.
That said, scholars, religious leaders and journalists already see signs Pope Francis is making a difference.
On an international scale, they note Pope Francis has been an influential voice speaking out on issues from the Syrian conflict and the Armenian genocide to helping the U.S. and Cuba restore relations.
The World Council of Churches sees Francis as a powerful ally and co-worker in lifting up issues such as climate change and environmental justice, said Marcelo Schneider, communications liaison for Latin America to the council.
“He’s a spokesperson for broader communities, not just the Catholic Church,” Schneider said.
In a session on the “Challenges of Interreligious Dialogue,” the journalists and scholars said there is still significant opposition to the pontiff’s bridge-building efforts across religious divides from both neo-Pentecostal groups that are a growing presence in Latin America and Asia and conservative Catholics who are distrustful of one another.
It’s easy, the journalists agreed, to divide people when working in the spheres of politics, economics and perhaps especially religion.
“In religion, we all think we have the truth, that we’re right,” said Jose Maria Poirier Lalanne, editor of the Argentine magazine, Criterio.
Raul Scialabba, a Protestant leader in the Argentine Council of Religious Freedom, said sometimes “religious intolerance has been supported by the state,” including in Argentina, where Roman Catholicism is the official state religion.
Scialabba urged people to follow the lead of Bergoglio and concentrate less on doctrinal “truths” and more on similarities. That’s the only way, Scialabba said, people can work with others to create “communities of peace and prosperity.”
In a workshop on freedom of expression and religion, the journalists began by describing the overall context: That one out of three of all the journalists killed each year around the world are Latin Americans.
Even though religious disagreements are not often the cause of those deaths, Alberto Barlocci, a director at Ciudad Nueva Publishing Group, noted journalists who cover faith issues regularly have to walk a fine line: “Free expression and religion often don’t get along.”
Even though Barlocci was horrified that 17 people were murdered this year in Paris in response to Charlie Hebdo magazine publishing cartoons depicting Muhammad, he called on listeners to balance the individual right to free expression with “the social consequences of those individual rights.”
Noting that religious organizations are generally inclined to restrict the freedom of journalists, Barlocci said that authentic journalism often adds up to “reporting something someone doesn’t want published.”
Barlocci, who is also a lawyer, noted it’s hard to hold the media completely responsible when someone claims a journalist has hurt their feelings, since “taking offence is up to the person receiving the message.”
Augusto Dos Santos, a radio journalist who also served as the former minister of information in Paraguay, said he hasn’t yet figured out if freedom of expression and religion can be reconciled.
The Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, Dos Santos said, has a mixed record. During times of dictatorships, it has sometimes bravely been “the voice of those who were afraid to cry.” At other times, he said, Catholic leaders have been guilty of suppressing freedom of expression.
Within the church in the past two years, Dos Santos noted, Pope Francis already has made a clear change of direction with his vows and actions to address issues from sexual abuse to the financial practices of the Vatican Bank.
The biggest impact of Pope Francis so far, he said, is making “it a more transparent church.”
In another conference session, journalists who run a variety of religion news agencies in Latin America talked about their struggles and successes in getting out news and views that are often missed by the secular media.
Cesar Dergarabedian, founder of Pulso Cristiano, discussed his passion for supporting an independent Christian voice in Latin America, where one of his biggest problems is dealing with evangelical pastors who “can’t tolerate criticism from outside their community.”
The challenges associated with raising the profile of women’s issues in Latin American religious circles were detailed by Marcela Gabioud, of the World Association for Christian Communication, and Claudia Florentin, of the Agencia Latinoamericana.
Sumer Noufouri, director of South America’s Islamic News Agency, said his online media outlet highlights issues often not covered in the secular media. Noufouri wondered why the news agencies of Christian and Jewish groups often get cited in Latin America’s mainstream media, but not his.
Eduardo Woites, of the Argentine Catholic News Agency, described how his news service emerged at a time when the Catholic church was being persecuted in the 1950s. Now it’s popular in Latin America and even in other parts of the world, particularly after the elevation of Argentina’s Pope Francis.
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