Fire on Mount Athos: AP focused on WHAT?!?!

First things first.

There is a serious wildfire raging near one of the monasteries on Mount Athos, which is, without challenge, the most important center of Eastern Orthodox spirituality in the world. Few would dispute that this rocky peninsula in Greece is one of the world’s most important religious centers — period.

So those who care about the safety of men who have devoted their lives to praying for the world and its healing should start praying.

Now for the bizarre — in terms of journalism — element of this event. Frankly, I would not have believed the lede on the following Associated Press report was real, if it had not been sent around by my own priest.

So, stop and think about this.

Lives are in danger.

Thousands of irreplaceable historical manuscripts and works of holy art could be destroyed.

Suffice it to say that I could go on and on.

With all of that in mind, what is most important fact that one needs to know about Mount Athos? How do you need to identify this world-famous center for monasticism? This fact is so important, in fact, that it must be mentioned in both of the top paragraphs in this short, urgent news report:

A large forest fire that broke out at a remote monastic community in Greece where women have not been allowed for a thousand years spread Thursday to a nearby resort area, forcing the evacuation of a seaside vacation village and sending up a thick pall of smoke over the area.

It was not clear how the fire started Wednesday on the Mount Athos peninsula, a World Heritage site and self-ruled community of Orthodox monks that bans women — and even female animals — from entering. Officials said no damage was caused to the northern Greek peninsula’s 20 medieval monasteries, which visitors can only access by sea.

The story does, later, get around to mentioning the name of the monastery that is in danger. I guess that readers can be grateful for that.

The fire brigade said the conflagration started in a remote area in the vicinity of the Serbian Hilandar Monastery, the peninsula’s northernmost monastery and one that was badly damaged by fire in 2004. It was unclear how it started, and no immediate estimate was available on the extent of the burned area.

Greece is in the grips of a heat wave, and wildfires have been burning around the country.

As a rule, the Holy Mountain tends to receive pretty nuanced, high-quality coverage — I guess because it is such a unique, complex and historic place that journalists can’t help but take seriously the stark and humble lives of the men who labor there. Click here for some examples, or click here for a GetReligion post on a particularly good CBS “60 Minutes” feature.

As for this Associated Press report, I will now just shut up and turn my attention to prayers.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Whoa. Though the Mount Athos ban on women has annoyed me since I first learned about it as a young Greek School kid, I certainly wouldn’t have considered that angle as integral to this story, and certainly not in the lede! Um… maybe the reporter wanted to assure readers that no ladies are in danger? Maybe men are more likely to start/spread fires? Bizarre.

    There’s no byline. Maybe it’s a distant editor’s doing?

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    I’m sure the fires were started by men menaced by nearby women! What a joke these pieces of literary art are!

    Yes we have and will continue to pray for the safety of all affected by this fire.


  • The Old Bill

    Wait ’till the Womenpriests hear about this!

    Worse, Google shows that other papers ran with the lede.

    I guess we know the doctrines the writer believes in.

    Serious questions, Tmatt: Are the monks removing any of the art that is removable? How flammable is the monastery? What provisions have they made for firefighting? (I assume fire has always been a concern.) Will the monks stay at all costs? Will they evacuate and let firefighters take charge of things? Are there ceremonies specific to events like this?

    O, how much we have lost to fire throughout history! . Let us pray.

  • TWM

    Reminds me of the joke about the potential NY Times headline:

    World to End! Women and minorities hardest hit.

  • JWB

    Twice in two paragraphs seems excessive, but if the average non-Orthodox reader has ever heard of Mt. Athos at all, fairly or unfairly the no-women policy (which of course has not been without exceptions over the last millenium, e.g. during WW2) is almost certainly one of the things he has probably heard of. So in that sense it sort of helpfully reminds the non-Orthodox reader that this might be that Greek monastic place he’d heard of before, or maybe even seen a 60 Minutes piece on (or read that Vanity Fair article). Had the gist of the story been that the flames were menacing irreplaceable manuscripts and icons, I might feel differently, but that was not the case and in fact the gist of the story was that the flames were menacing an off-site and presumably co-ed resort town.

    This is primarily a story about a forest fire, not a story about monasticism.

  • Terry

    It’s the AP. This is upsetting?

  • tmatt

    The other Terry:

    AP is not a big black slab of granite. I still get upset when it does not act with the care shown to religion in the age of, well, Dick Ostling (and that Bobby guy).

  • Sabrina Messenger

    I’m surprised the AP covered the story at all. Most American newspapers and news services are woefully neglectful of international news unless it happens to involve Israel and affects the USA directly. As for sensationalizing the Abaton, it sounds to me like the AP has adopted the attitude of the infamous 19th/20th Century editor of the Denver Post, Frederick Bonfils who made the quote “a dogfight in a Denver Street is more important than a war in Europe.”

  • Mack

    I’m reasonably sure that, as a man, I would not be permitted to vacation on the grounds of a community of women religious.

    The communities of Mount Athos, happily, do not seek the approval of fashion.

    And thank God for Mount Athos; we cannot comprehend in this life the spiritual good given all of us each day through the prayers, works, and self-denials of the brothers.

  • Martha

    Women not even allowed there? What does that remind me of – oh, yes, I know: the 6th-century St Senan and his foundationon Scattery Island, where allegedly not even cattle were permitted because “Where there is a cow, there is a woman, and where there is a woman, there is trouble” and the record of the dialogue between St Senan and St Canera when she came to be buried there:

    ‘Women enter not this island’, saith Senan.

    ‘How canst thou say that?’ saith Canair. ‘Christ is no worse than thou. Christ came to redeem women no less than to redeem men. No less did He suffer for the sake of women than for the sake of men. Women have given service and tendance unto Christ and His Apostles. No less than men do women enter the heavenly kingdom. Why, then, shouldst thou not take women to thee in thine island?’

    ‘Thou art stubborn’ saith Senan.

    ‘What then’ saith Canair, ‘shall I get what I ask for, a place for my side in this isle and the Sacrament from thee to me?’

    ‘A place of resurrection’ saith Senan, ‘will be given thee here on the brink of the wave, but I fear that the sea will carry off thy remains.’

    ‘God will grant me’ saith Canair, ‘that the spot wherein I shall lie will not be the first that the sea will bear away’.

    ‘Thou hast leave then’ saith Senan, ‘to come on shore’. For thus had she been while they were in converse, standing up on the wave, with her staff under her bosom, as if she were on land. Then Canair came on shore, and the Sacrament was administered to her, and she straightway went to heaven.

    A small amount of historical knowledge of Christian monasticism would be nice, because Mount Athos is not engaging in some unique strange custom in this regard.

  • JWB

    @Mack, but the practice of Athos (which I certainly do not begrudge them) is quite distinctive within the Orthodox world. For example, female visitors/pilgrims are welcome at St. Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai, or St. John’s on Patmos or as far as I know pretty much anywhere else you might name as an Orthodox monastery that might be within striking distance of Athos in terms of historical significance (they might be required to dress modestly, they might not be able to stay overnight on the same basis as male visitors/pilgrims would be, but they wouldn’t be excluded altogether). I don’t think Athos needs to be embarrassed about it (and I don’t think they are), but even within the world of Orthodox monasticism it’s quite distinctive and thus notable/newsworthy, and thus fussing about passing journalistic references strikes me as unnecessarily defensive. The assumption seems to be that the only reason a secular journalist would mention this extremely well-known fact about Athos is to make the monks look bad, and I’m not sure why that should necessarily be true.

  • Jason Miller, Ph.D., M.P.A.

    The problem is that the reference to women has absolutely NOTHING to do with the heart of the story, which is about a wildfire. What if it was in a town of predominantly democrats? Would the AP then say “in a town that has very few Republicans”? There was an earthquake in Iran today – did the AP indicate “There was a large earthquake today in Iran, where it is illegal to be a Christian and where many women suffer acid attacks”? Put aside the fact that it reflects a certain agenda – it is completely illogical to include this information and if I was in a conversation with someone like this, it would indicate the sort of tangential thinking indicative of a thought disorder or ADHD (I am speaking as a Clinical Psychologist). Please don’t defend the indefensible. It reveals YOUR bias as well.

  • Bill M.

    The implication: Mt Athos is a redoubt of sexism, therefore it deserves to burn.

  • Karen

    I’m with JWB. That fact is what identifies Mount Athos for the woefully geographically illiterate American public. And twice is excessive, I agree. …

  • Proteios1

    The comments on excluding females seems so VERY out of place, it’s like casually burping mid sentence and expecting no one to notice. It reads silly. Bias or not, it’s poorly written and any rationalization is equally silly. The monastery stands for much and if they wished to take a paragraph to describe something of the history, it might be made to fit somehow, but I agree with the person who said it reads like the rumblings of an ADHD patient.

  • Chris

    There is a tradition that the Blessed Vrgin Mary appeared on the island, and from thenceforth, no other woman was allowed to set foot there. There is a reason for things. The prohibition of women was not an arbitrary decision.

  • mts1

    Mt. Athos, O holiest place on earth to me today. Where uninterrupted for centuries, endless prayer and Divine Liturgy saturates the air and ground. Where men go about their business with the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner) constantly on their lips. Where they still fly the Flag of the Byzantine Empire since it’s the last corner of that country never to be conquered by the Ottomans, and with this being the case, who has grounds to make them quit?

    These men dedicate their lives to distill away anything between them and God. The ban on women is nothing hateful toward women as it’s an admission that we are all weak souls who do not need either temptation or the reminder of what they left behind to bug their efforts. Remember, on one instance, St. Francis was in a town and saw a pretty lady. He began to have an “involuntary reaction” and immediately threw himself into a thorn bush to stop it from becoming lust of the mind. The monks on Mt. Athos are not supermen. They are normal men with normal passions attempting union with the Divine. In the Gospel, Jesus says if your eye is causing you problems, pluck it out, since it is better to enter the Kingdom one eyed than Gehenna with both. Please keep this in mind.

  • Anthony S. Layne

    @Proteios1: It is a mid-sentence mental belch. I tip my hat to your simile. If the author was attempting to impute a vector of divine vengeance for the monastery’s misogyny, all I can say is that it’s a bit late in coming. Otherwise, the phrase just sticks out like a bandaged big toe; the ban on women simply isn’t the most salient fact of the monastery.

  • Stella Baskomb

    Or maybe all AP means to suggest is “World Ends, Poor Men Hardest Hit”

    Ya think?

  • Nachum

    This happened in New York last week- the “Daily Page” program of Talmud study, which takes seven and a half years to complete, marked its conclusion (and the start of a new cycle) in the Meadowlands. Over 90,000 people were in attendance. The New York Times decided to make its almost exclusive focus on the fact that men and women sat separately. And that wasn’t as bad as one of the Jewish weeklies, which focused on- I kid you not- the traffic issues the event caused.

  • EBL

    Maybe they worry that if women show up, the monks will spontaneously all combust from all the “hotness.”

    Having seen poor reporting and sensationalizing of wild fires in the United States for decades, I can’t say I am terribly surprised.

    I am am surprised there was not a stronger editorial emphasis on global warming/climate change as a cause of the fire. Boy, the AP is really slipping!

  • John Penta

    Nachum: The traffic issues were pretty bad, even for the region (and oh yeah, the evening rush hour). However, you are correct – both the NYT article, and the article focusing on the traffic exclusively (if that was the only article) kinda miss the point.

    As to this story…My Lord, there are not words. Like Tmatt, I think I’m going to just try and wipe the poor media coverage from my mind and just pray. And look for other sources in English for news. (Help?)

  • Ted K

    I have found over the years that you should turn the page with anything that has the AP logo (Associated Press) on it. AP has shown itself to be very hostile to religion, and particularly to traditional religion such as Catholicism. They only know the language of ideological confrontational politics.

  • JWB

    It only takes a moment at google news to find numerous other stories about the fire – some mention more about Athos than others, some mention the males-only policy but others don’t. One mentioned that there were volunteer firefighters from Serbia assisting (perhaps because the closest monastery to the blaze is historically Serbian?), although perhaps that also is a reminder that there’s perhaps a non-religious story here about the basic competence of the fiscally-and-otherwise-challenged secular Greek government.

    I could see the strong reaction of some of the commenters above if the story had said “whose archaic and controversial policy excluding women has been condemned by the European Parliament,” or something like that. But I’m having trouble following why so many commenters are reading a subtext of such deep hostility to the policy into these passing and more neutrally-phrased mentions. Journalists insert random arguably unnecessary details into stories all the time for “color” or because they’re cutting and pasting from some prior story about the same subject where the detail was more salient. Maybe that’s clueless or lazy, but that’s not necessarily the same as gratuitously hostile. I would ask the more negative commenters to imagine they were writing an email to an AP ombudsman explaining why this story should have been done differently, with the intention of making a difference rather than just venting to make themselves feel better. How would they articulate their criticisms in a way a fair-minded outsider would be likely to accept and act on? Would starting with the thesis that “your reporter was obviously insinuating that the monks ought to be burned to death as karmic payback for being sexists” be the right tack to take?

  • Martha

    JWB, if someone has no or only the fuzziest idea what Mount Athos is or why it’s important, do you really think the most telling detail to kick off with is “this is the place that doesn’t admit women”?

    I see a lot of stories about American cities I know nothing about. If, for example, there are California wild fires threatening the famous (in America) *invented for the purposes of this post* town of Purple Rockville, noted for the World’s Largest Orange Juice Press, then do you really think it would help foreigners who never heard of the place understand why this is an endangered site if the story began “The latest batch of seasonal summer wild fires are coming dangerously near to Purple Rockville, the town where dogs are not allowed on the streets unless on a leash”?

  • Ben

    To be honest, I felt a similar sense of bewilderment and “missing the forest for the trees” when the most substantive GetReligion post on the Sikh shooting turned out to be a complaint that some vague wording in one report might be twisted to implicate Christians in Neo-Nazi ideology. I guess it’s hard to break the habit of focusing just on what one cares about.

  • JWB

    Martha, perhaps the question is whether the story is more trying to inform readers who have never previously heard of Athos about the place or remind readers who may have vaguely heard of Athos before about which place it is (given the problem that obviously there will be readers in both categories)? Think of it as like a wire story about a natural disaster in Iowa relating the location to the site of the long-ago Buddy Holly plane crash (which might be a vaguely helpful reference point for a lot of readers who are otherwise totally ignorant of the relevant geography) even though no doubt the local chamber of commerce has a bunch of other achievements they would prefer the media to focus on.

  • JWB

    But to suggest a future change of subject since we seem to be talking past one another here: for GR afficionados interested in finding media stories which badly suffer from substantive cluelessness about matters Eastern Orthodox, there’s a whole pile of new coverage about the “Pussy Riot” trial in Moscow that’s just begging for some intelligent critique. I was personally confused enough about exactly where in the church (not least on which side of the iconostasis) the defendants had performed their controversial actions that I ended up having to find some youtube footage since I realized I couldn’t rely on journalistic descriptions.

  • Martha

    JWB, from now on, every time I refer to the United States of America, I will make sure to add in parentheses “The nation that assassinates its heads of state”.

    After all, if someone is only vaguely familiar with the country, isn’t that the main thing they are most likely to have heard about it? (You’ve managed to knock off four presidents, to date!)