A boring, non-sacramental Christmas in Syria

I hope all of our readers who celebrate Christmas are having a blessed one. As I prepared for my church’s Lessons and Carols service on Christmas Eve (where the youngest Hemingway made her choir debut), my thoughts turned to Christians elsewhere in the world where Christmas is not just a time to celebrate God made flesh but also a time to fear bombings or violence. This Reuters piece headlined “Christmas brings fear of church bombs in Nigeria” begins:

Kneeling over a dusty grave on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital, 16-year old Hope Ehiawaguan says a prayer, lays down flowers and tearfully tells her brother she loves him.

He was one of 44 killed on Christmas Day last year when a member of Islamist sect Boko Haram rammed a car packed with explosives into the gates of St Theresa’s Church in Madalla, a satellite town 25 miles from the center of Abuja.

Boko Haram has killed hundreds in its campaign to impose sharia law in northern Nigeria and is the biggest threat to stability in Africa’s top oil exporter.

Two other churches were bombed that day and on Christmas Eve 2010 over 40 people were killed in similar attacks.

But such is the commitment to religion in a country with Africa’s largest Christian population that millions of people will pack out thousands of churches in the coming days. It is impossible to protect everyone, security experts say.

“I feel safe,” Ehiawaguan says with uncertainty, when asked if she will come to church on December 25 this year.

“Not because of security here … because we have a greater security in heaven,” she says, wiping away her tears.

I say it all the time, but Reuters is a valuable source for religion news outside of the United States and Europe. The quotes the reporter got are theological even as the story itself blends politics and other aspects of culture. That story is much more substantive than this 24-second bit on the Pope decrying violence in Syria that was on CBS.

Sadly, terrorists did manage to kill 12 Christians, according to this CNS report:

Gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to an evangelical church in the northern state of Yobe, police said. Wire reports said the pastor was among the dead in the midnight attack.

Separately, a Baptist church in neighboring Borno state was attacked. Nigeria’s The Nation said six church members were killed.

But it was this BBC story that left me less than impressed with its headline and lede. The headline:

Syria crisis: Low-key Christmas for Christians

The lede:

During the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that the bread and wine he shares with them represents his body and his blood.

“This is my body, which is given for you,” he says. “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In Syria, the real blood of civilians was mixed with real bread in Halfiya, the day before Christmas Eve, according to opposition activists. They say the civilians were bombed by a government warplane as they were queuing at a bakery, killing some 90 of them.

OK. So the entire story is sad, with people refusing to speak with reporters or give their name for fear of being targeted. We learn that minority areas, including those dominated by Christians are being targeted by the government. The already-small population of Christians is fleeing the country. Is describing this simply as a “low-key Christmas” appropriate? What a boring headline for the reality of what Christians in Syria are dealing with this Christmas.

In any case, I don’t know where the Beeb reporter got her info, but Christians in Syria do not believe that Jesus told his disciples that “the bread and wine he shares with them represents his body and his blood.” Traditional Christian belief is that in the Eucharist we receive the actual body and blood of Christ.

The teaching that communion only represents Christ’s body and blood is certainly present among some Christians, but not among Orthodox Christians.

To further compound the error by saying “the real blood of civilians was mixed with real bread in Halfiya” is just insulting to those sacramental Christians who believe we partake in the real body and blood of Christ.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t be surprised. But how would a reporter not know this? I’d more expect a reporter to mock traditional Christians for this belief than be ignorant of it.

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  • Julia

    “The teaching that communion only represents Christ’s body and blood is certainly present among some Christians, but not among Orthodox Christians.”

    There are also a lot of indigenous and refugee Catholics in Syria, and they don’t think it’s only a remembrance, either. I met about 50 of them last month. They fled Iraq for Syria when a relative was beheaded a few years back, then most moved on to the US. They are pretty worried about those who didn’t leave. They are sometimes a minority within the minority Christians, but they are there even if most people don’t know it.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “But how would a reporter not know this?” Because reporters don’t “get religion.” They’re as confused as the rest of the population on matters religious. This could have been a reporter who normally covers the courts, business, style, education, the Royals, sport (as the Brits say) — anything but religion since we know that the execs of the press don’t think reporting on religion requires anyone actually trained in it. Heck, they have higher standards for hiring sports reporters than for religion writers.

  • Martha

    Trying to be fair here, the reporter probably used the least controversial language he or she could think of; for all of us who believe in the Real Presence, there are probably nearly as many who think it’s a spiritual communion, a symbolic representation, or a mere ordinance.

    Saying that “It is” rather than “It represents” would involve (1) asserting the truth of the claim, which a good secular publication cannot do (2) asserting one claim as true over another, which might lead to equally displeased Christians complaining “I don’t believe any such thing!”

    All that being said, it could have been phrased better and even better still, left out altogether since it comes across as a clumsy swipe (real blood of real dead people on real bread versus the make-believe ceremony of doctrinal insistence that it matters if you believe in Christ or not) at religion – see what harm is done by insisting that one version is better than another, if only everyone could agree that what really matters is being nice to each other – and even worse, using the tragedy of what is happening for a bit of political point-scoring.


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