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Asparagus beats refugees for column inches

05 May 2017

Stuart Purfield

I WOULD have thought that it was news that the Pope had called the EU’s refugee “holding centres” on Lesbos “concentration camps”, but I didn’t see any reference to this in British print, although the Mail Online picked it up. Even that led with the “outrage” of Jewish leaders that he should have used such lan­guage.

One interesting thing about this story is that there were two perfectly good news lines in it: one about the persecution of Christians by Muslims, and one about the treatment of (largely Muslim) refugees in Europe. Both were in the Reuters report that almost all sub­sequent coverage was based on, and in the Catholic News Service reporting, but their order was different, and so was the slant of the resulting stories.

The Reuters story, by the respected veteran Philip Pullella, starts: “Pope Francis urged governments on Saturday to get migrants and refugees out of holding centres, saying many had become ‘concentration camps’.

“During a visit to a Rome basilica, where he met migrants, Francis told of his trip to a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos last year.”

Only in the third paragraph does it come to the point of the visit: “He met a Muslim refu­gee from the Middle East there who told him how ‘terrorists came to our country’. Islamists had slit the throat of the man’s Christian wife because she refused to throw her crucifix on the ground.”

(Read that paragraph and then consider the outrage of the Mail reader who commented that “The inmates of the concentration camps — including non Jews — had no choice and many died in the trains as they were trans­ported. Hardly applies to the economic refu­gees from the Middle East. . . They chose to leave their homes to take advantage of other countries’ benefits.”)

The Catholic News Service, however, buried both possible leads, even though it had some wonderful details. After two paragraphs in praise of love and forgiveness (which, axiom­atically, are not newsworthy things for a Pope to praise), it came to this: “Departing from his prepared text, Pope Francis said he wanted to add to the martyrs remembered at St Bartholomew by including ‘a woman — I don’t know her name — but she watches from heaven.’

“The pope said he’d met the woman’s husband, a Muslim, in Lesbos, Greece, when he visited a refugee camp there in 2016. The man told the pope that one day, terrorists came to their home. They saw his wife’s cruci­fix and ordered her to throw it on the ground. She refused and they slit her throat.

“‘I don’t know if that man is still at Lesbos or if he has been able to leave that ‘concen­tration camp,’” the pope said. . . But, getting back to the story of the Muslim man who watched his wife be murdered, the pope said, ‘Now it’s that man, a Muslim, who carries this cross of pain.’”


NONE of this, of course, was of nearly as much interest to the British papers as aspar­agus.

That story, about a service in Worcester Cathedral thanking God for the asparagus harvest (News, 28 April), seems to have ori­ginated with a piece of self-promotion by Adrian Hilton, who runs the Archbishop Cranmer blog, described in the origi­nal Telegraph piece as a “conservative theo­logian” rather than a “conservative hack”. But I don’t think that it would have got anywhere without the pictures, especially the one of the man dressed up as an asparagus spear.

These were just fun to look at. They ful­filled one of the essential functions of news, which is that it’s something that, when you hear it, you want to be the first to pass on. Nor does a picture of a man dressed up as asparagus in­­spire feelings of reverence or gra­titude for God’s bounty. No. It makes you want to giggle.

But, of course, it is necessary to dress this stuff up in wider significance, and so Olivia Rudgard, in the Telegraph, found the chief ex­­ecutive of Christian Concern, Andrea Wil­liams, Mr Hilton, and two priests from Twitter, who all condemned it as ridiculous. The Revd Peter Ould, to his credit, was per­­fectly sen­sible.

The question is not whether the procession looks slightly ridiculous: it is whether it is any more ridiculous to bless asparagus than an assortment of household pets, as many ca­­thedrals do, or the various militaria which are so much a part of English Heritage Chris­tianity.

The Hilton/Williams line was that blessing this particular vegetable showed the general decadence of the Church of England, which is of course an argument that always comes back to sex. To quote Mr Hilton’s ending: “Hon­estly, if the Church of England can bless in­­creasingly bent sticks of asparagus, it can surely offer a ceremonial rite for anything — literally, anything. And that, of course, is ex­­actly where we’re heading.”


RUSSIA under Vladimir Putin is, meanwhile, heading in the other direction. The Washing­ton Post carried a report on Ruslan Sokolov­sky, an atheist provocateur who filmed him­self playing Pokémon Go, the mobile game, in the cathedral supposedly built on the site where Tsar Nicholas II was murdered with his family. Sokolovsky pretended to be hunting “the rarest Pokémon of all, Jesus”. He now faces three years in prison.

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