ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 40

London church pays tribute to journalists killed on assignment

By Lachlan Carmichael

LONDON, (AFP) -In a tranquil church just yards from the London hubbub, a "journalists' altar" stands as tribute to reporters killed as far afield as Vietnam, Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Welcome to St Bride's Church, just off Fleet Street -- for generations synonymous with the mighty British press. The names of the journalists are engraved on the church's wood panelling, penned on their photographs or written on cards stacked at what began as the "hostage altar" 20 years ago when journalists were being abducted in Lebanon.

Memorials to journalists killed in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Balkans, and many more, sit on an alter in St Bride's Church, just off Fleet Street in central London, 27 February 2007. AFP

One card is from a widow who in January marked a 30th wedding anniversary that did not take place because her husband was killed in Iraq. A single red rose lies beside the card and her husband's photo.

"For members of the media, whatever their faith background, this is their spiritual home. We will do whatever we can for them in difficulty and crisis,"said Canon David Meara, the church's rector.

The church, which has been a sanctuary for journalists and printers for centuries, overcame hardship itself after a World War II bomb destroyed all but the steeple and outer walls. It was rebuilt with key funds from the newspaper industry.

The wife of CBS news cameraman Paul Anthony Douglas who was killed in Iraq last year finds comfort in a place that is "dedicated to journalists who have lost their lives" and lets her leave tributes like the anniversary card.

Although there is a church by her home in Bedford, Linda Douglas often makes the 50-mile train trip south to London to visit the church.

"It's a strange thing because I'm not religious. But over the last month I've really been drawn back to St. Bride's. I feel actually he's around in that church," Douglas said.

"It's quite poignant in there when you go to that altar and you see all those faces who were just doing their jobs," she said. "It's a lovely church."It has marble floors and retains the distinct white stone "wedding cake"steeple from the design by Sir Christopher Wren which was built after the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed the sixth church on the site. The current one is just a few minutes walk from Wren's masterpiece, St. Paul's Cathedral, and is the eighth to have been built on the site. The first was founded in the sixth century, possibly by St. Bride, or Bridget of Kildare.

Difficult to notice, St Bride's is tucked away in a close just off Fleet Street, once the heart and soul of the British newspaper industry that began in the 18th century in a neighborhood already long known as a printing centre.

And although Britain's leading newspapers have relocated to other points in London, St Bride's verger David Smith said the church's "links with the news business are just as strong as ever".

Among the more prosaic but landmark events in life, journalists and their families still make the trip to the church for weddings, baptisms and funerals as well as regular Sunday worship.

The church stands apart from others because, Meara said, it is both tied to a specific profession and offers solace to families, friends and colleagues of those who are killed, wounded or imprisoned doing their job.

"It brings home to you what a violent world we live and how vulnerable journalists are," according to Meara, summing up reactions from international visitors to the place of worship.

Amid the stacks of cards at the altar, there is a copy of a statement from the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers (WAN) sounding an alarm at the growing numbers of journalists being killed.

"Journalism today is more dangerous than ever, more than 500 journalists have been killed in the past decade, often for simply doing their jobs,"according to WAN's Timothy Balding.

"These murders are a direct attack not only on individuals but on society as a whole. Yet few of the killers are ever brought to justice," his statement read.

Though journalists have long been caught in the crossfire, it used to be rare for them to be hunted down, Meara said. "Now that seems to have changed.

Journalists now seem to be targeted."Some of the journalists remembered here were indeed targeted, such as Russian Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in Moscow in October last year, and Hrant Dink, the ethnic Armenian who was slain in Istanbul on January 19 this year.

They also include American Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded after he was kidnapped on January 23, 2002 by Islamist extremists while reporting in Pakistan.

Members of Pearl's family, who are Jewish, later the same year attended a memorial service for him at St. Bride's held by Meara and Mark Winer, the rabbi at the West London Synagogue of British Jews.

In a happier event, journalist John McCarthy and Anglican clergyman Terry Waite attended a thanskgiving service here after their kidnappers in Lebanon freed them in 1991.

"It will always have that special place in my memory," said Jill Morrell, who campaigned for the release of McCarthy who was her boyfriend at the time.

"It was difficult at that time to get people to be interested in that (hostage) issue and to believe that they were still alive. St. Bride's was one place where they did both -- the only place really."

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.