Prize-winning writer describes pitfalls of modern reporting on religion

By Ecumenical News International
November 29, 2007

Journalists writing stories on different religions that are then put into other languages face constant pitfalls of being 'lost in translation', says the editor working for a global wire service who won the John Templeton Award for the European Religion Writer of the Year - writes Peter Kenny.

"We often see in our own countries how misunderstandings about religious beliefs or terms can arise even when everyone speaks the same language," said the Paris-based religion editor of the Reuters news agency, Tom Heneghan. He was on 27 November presented with the award in Paris for three articles he wrote about Islam.

"What happens when we cross linguistic frontiers? Do the terms mean the same thing?" Heneghan asked. "Does the dominance of English on the Internet and satellite television add to understanding or misunderstanding of concepts from other cultures?"

He was speaking after he had received the award from Pamela Thompson, the US-based vice-president of the Templeton Foundation, which sponsors the European Religion Writer of the Year prize.

"Being in France, let me start with the classic example of the untranslatable word 'laicité'," said Heneghan. "There is no way I can put this word into English precisely. Laity might seem to be an equivalent, but it only means 'les laïques'. The word lay is almost only used in a religious context in English. So we have to turn to alternatives such as separation of Church and State or secularism."

But, said Heneghan, those translations convey "a pale shadow" of the strong spirit of laicité.

"There is a constitutional separation of Church and State in the United States, for example, and it is sometimes more clearly defined and enforced than in France - a fact some French I know refuse to believe," Heneghan noted. "What is missing in the US context is the militant laicité born of historical conflicts that have deeply coloured the issue in France.

"History has also given a different thrust to the idea of separating church and state in different countries. In France, laicité implies a separation that protects the State from a powerful church. Americans approached the issue the other way around, seeing the problem as protecting multiple churches from a powerful state. The separation is less clear in Britain, where there is an established religion but little emphasis on it, or in Germany, which treats the established churches as important partners among others in society."

The Conference of European Churches, which administers the European Religion Writer of the Year Award on behalf of the John Templeton Foundation, on 31 October announced that Heneghan was the winning journalist for 2006.

Heneghan's entry included three stories on Islam. One was a portrait of the French cartoonist René Pétillon, whose comic book "The Headscarf Affair", about Islam in France, has been praised by French Muslim leaders. Another was an interview with Sheikh Adnan Ibrahim, a Vienna-based imam who urges Muslims to be loyal citizens in their new European homes but warns against any idea that Europe's Muslims need to develop a "Euro-Islam". The journalist's final piece of work was a feature story on Muslim creationists in Turkey.

"The three articles Tom Heneghan submitted are very informative in regard to Muslim communities and their relation to Christians, and he provides real insights in a tight space," said one of the judges. Another stated, "Writing on the French cartoonist Pétillon, Heneghan underlined his contribution to more understanding and dialogue: this applies to Heneghan's work as well."

Heneghan was born in New York in 1951 and holds dual US and Irish citizenship. He joined Reuters as a trainee in 1977, and has held positions as correspondent and editor in London, Vienna, Geneva, Islamabad, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bonn and Paris. From Paris, he now directs the agency's coverage of religion worldwide, and writes mostly on Christianity and Islam in Europe.

The Templeton award, inaugurated in 1994, carries with it a prize of 5000 Swiss francs (US4475). Heneghan is the second journalist working in France to win the award. Henri Tincq, a journalist responsible for religious affairs on the French daily newspaper Le Monde, won the 2001 European Religion Writer of the Year Award.

Tom Heneghan's full speech:

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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