The role of the news media in covering religion at a time of increasing political activism and influence by religious groups was the subject of a public panel held within the framework of the International Herald Tribune’s Publishing Alliance Conference in Athens on Thursday. Serge Schmemann, editorial page editor of the IHT, moderated the discussion on «Covering Religion: The Superpower of the 21st Century?» Issues discussed by the panelists and the other participants, from the public and the representatives of 11 newspapers and media organizations, included the way in which the rise in the political power of religious groups in America caught the mainstream media by surprise. Other issues concerned the need for special training by reporters on the religion beat, the need for awareness of other people’s religious beliefs and the need to cover with greater interest society’s more disadvantaged members. «In the United States religion has become a political battlefield,» Schmemann said. Recent controversies in America include the debate over whether Terry Schiavo – a brain-damaged woman who lived for years in a persistent vegetative state – should be allowed to die, a dispute over stem cell research, gay marriage, and evolution. Strong support by evangelical associations helped President George W. Bush win re-election last year. «The world has become such a charged place,» said Mirette Mabrouk, publisher of the Daily Star Egypt. «We have to make sure that we don’t contribute to the kinds of misunderstandings that have appeared,» she said, referring to the need for journalists to be objective. «In Egypt we are not concerned whether the person next to us is religious but whether he will use religion as a pretext for violence.» M.J. Akbar, editor of the Asian Age, called for understanding among religions. He decried the concept of a conflict between the «West» and «Islam.» «The one is a geographical term, the other a religion,» he said. «Religion is a system of miracles and fantasy… But we must respect the other’s sense of fantasy.» Akbar, a Muslim himself, noted that the Muslim world fell behind when it lost «the scientific edge.» Costas Iordanidis, diplomatic editor of Kathimerini, noted the political context of religion, arguing that it would be difficult to keep religion and politics separate. Nikos Konstandaras, editor of Kathimerini’s English Edition, said that «we are living in a period of anxiety.» «As long as this continues, many people will turn toward religion,» Konstandaras said. «Whether religion is the next ‘superpower’ will depend on developments in the political and social spheres.» Other newspapers and organizations participating in the IHT’s partnership conference are Haaretz from Israel, Joong Ang Daily from Korea, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, The Daily Star (Lebanon), El Pais of Spain, Bloomberg, Mitchell’s NY delivery service, Thai Day and The Moscow Times.