It was an eye-opening experience to gather in Brazil in the fall of 2013 with more than 20 of Latin America’s leading religion journalists and scholars – ranging from two leading biographers of the new Argentinian pope to South America’s high-profile correspondent for Al Jazeera.

Historic changes within the influential Roman Catholic Church were on the minds of everyone attending the October 15th to 18th conference in Belo Horizonte, a large city north of Rio de Janeiro, as a result of the recent elevation of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff.

Dima Khatib speaking on a panel
Antonio Marujo and Dima Khatib (Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien)

The conference heard from the developer of the pope’s Twitter account; discussed the revival, under Francis, of the theology of liberation; explored the growth of charismatic Catholicism and probed the ongoing vibrancy of Latin America’s indigenous folk religions.

With contributions from prominent Latin America religion scholars, lively discussions took place about the rise of Pentecostalism and its direct involvement in politics and the media in many countries of Latin America, where dictatorships are fading into memory and secularism, democracy and pluralism are expanding.

Read the articles emerging from the Religion and Journalism in Latin America conference.

At a professional level, helpful exchanges took place about the slowly improving atmosphere for writing about religion and politics in Latin America, the pressure on some journalists to avoid offending readers of faith and techniques for convincing editors to give prominent display to articles on religion.

The conference had a truly participatory nature, as all participants worked together to identify needs and drawing up a plan for improving religion coverage in Latin America, said María-Paz López, senior religion writer for La Vanguardia in Barcelona, Spain, who is chair of the IARJ.

There were proposals about the need for the media in Latin America to develop their own agenda, in religion and all matters, and be less influenced by the editorial decisions of the major English-language media outlets, such as CNN and the نيويورك تايمز.

The impressive group of journalists and scholars from throughout the region of almost 600 million people came together in response to the invitation of the International Association of Religion Journalists, which is devoted to promoting high journalistic standards in the name of increasing understanding and reducing global conflict among followers of different worldviews.

Participants worked in three languages through simultaneous translation – Portuguese (the language of Brazil, population 200 million), Spanish (the language of most of the rest of Latin America) and English.

The Latin-American-based journalists, and scholars (including Maria Machado, Rodrigo Coppe and Carlos de Souza) hailed from a diverse range of countries—Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela. Other specialists in religion journalism came from Spain, Canada, the U.S., South Africa and Portugal.

The ground-breaking event was made possible by the generous support of the Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM, a mining and metallurgical company based in Brazil) and the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais (PUC Minas), which was where the conference was held on its first day. The second day shifted to the countryside; the world-famous Inhotim botanical gardens and outdoor art museum.

There were so many high-quality journalists and scholars at the event, and so many topics covered, that a brief summary cannot do them justice. Nevertheless, here are a few highlights:

  • Argentina-based religion journalist Sergio Rubin of the Clarín newspaper, co-author of an authoritative biography of Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio before he was elected pope, described how his book has now been updated and translated into dozens of languages. A modest fellow, Rubin admitted with a laugh he didn’t pick Cardinal Bergoglio as a front-runner for pope in 2013. Speaking about religion coverage in Latin America, Rubin added that less than three decades ago it was dangerous to write about religion, especially as it related to politics. But now it’s widely accepted. Rubin also noted how the goal posts are always moving in Latin America as more liberal attitudes develop related to abortion and homosexuality.
  • Elvira Lobato, a brave investigative journalist for Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, described the controversy over her stories about how Brazil’s powerful Pentecostal leaders are being elected to political office and becoming heavily involved in the country’s TV and newspaper industry. Lobato did a tremendous job uncovering highly questionable financial dealings as church leaders moved into the broadcast arena. As a result, Lobato and her newspaper have been forced to respond to more than 120 different lawsuits launched on behalf of Pentecostal denominations. The lawsuits are considered by neutral officials to be harassment of the highest order. Lobato and her newspaper deserve international support.
  • Jose Maria Mayrink, the venerable religion writer and editor for O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper in Brazil, said that, during his five decades in journalism, the most difficult organizations from which to obtain information have been the military and the Catholic church. The Catholic church has been closed, he said, adding that for years it was hard to get a story about it in the newspaper unless it was positive. But an atmosphere of free expression for journalists, he said, is gradually improving in Latin America.
  • Gustavo Entrala, CEO of the Spanish firm 101 that developed the Pope’s Twitter account, @Pontifex, gave a presentation that was open to the public and well-received, including by Brazilian media. Using various means of persuasion with Vatican officials, Entrala is the marketing whiz who convinced Pope Benedict to greatly expand the church’s web services and begin a Twitter account, which now has millions of followers and records numbers of retweets. However, after being questioned by ace Mexican journalist Luis Chaparro, of Mexico, Entrala still wouldn’t say how much money his company is receiving from the Vatican. Entrala said religious issues are arguably the most popular subject on Twitter.
  • Al-Jazeera’s Dima Khatib, who has been putting a human face on Latin America for her worldwide audience, spoke about the importance of educating the world about how religion is crucial to understanding Muslim-majority countries. Khatib speaks eight languages and is one of the Arabian world’s best-known journalists, with a specialty in exploring religious diversity on several continents. In an age in which Muslim terrorism dominates the news, she would like to see more journalists become educated about Islam and more journalists producing human-interest stories related to religion, which bring out individuals’ humanity.
  • Mariano de Vedia, an Argentinian journalist at the leading newspaper, La Nación, and author of a biography of Pope Francis based on his contacts when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, posed questions about whether it is best for newspapers to give religion a specific section or a weekly supplement, or instead to place religion stories throughout the paper, depending on the topic. De Vedia’s stories appear in the International, Politics, Culture and Society sections of his newspaper.
  • Portuguese journalist António Marujo, two-time winner of the Templeton European Religion Writer of the Year award, emphasized the need to find alternative voices in religion stories, but assumed that “it is not possible to ignore the institutional side of religions.” Marujo said he is particularly interested in “the plurality of ways of looking at God,” adding that a religion journalist should “be creative, accurate, know more than the others, and keep studying”.
  • Prominent Argentinian broadcast journalist Pedro Brieger, who is on the board of the IARJ, emphasized the importance of strengthening Latin American journalism – so that the people of South America, Central America and the Caribbean will be less influenced by English-language media in particular. It’s time for Latin Americans’ self-identity, he said, to be less dominated by news outlets such as نيويورك تايمز, CNN and the BBC, as well as Spain’s El Pais newspaper. Brieger believes raising the profile of Latin American media outlets would help the region evolve economically, democratically, culturally and in regards to religious pluralism.

At the end of the event, IARJ chair María-Paz López commented: The journalists and scholars from different nations, cultures and religious backgrounds who took part in this conference worked together with a collaborative spirit. That is a value the IARJ considers to be at the core of its mission.