Yes, we know two Orthodox bishops are missing in Syria

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Editor’s note: This happens now and then, every two or three years. Two GetReligion writers jumped on the same news subject and then proceeded to write and post at precisely the same time. What are the odds? In this case, we will simply let the two posts stand as written.

Yes, your GetReligionistas — the Orthodox guy in particular — have received more than a few emails seeking our take on the media coverage of the kidnapping of two Orthodox bishops in Syria.

I have seen quite a bit of coverage. You can read European sources. You can follow the story at in Arab media, including Aljazeera.com. You can read about the kidnappings in Catholic Media. You can read about these events at Fox News and other conservative media.

At this point, you cannot read about the kidnappings in reports by the mainstream American press.

Why is that? I don’t know, although it does appear that many mainstream editors seem to think that the persecution of Christians in troubled parts of the world is “conservative news.”

There have been reports that Orthodox Bishop Paul Yazigi — the brother of Antiochian Orthodox Patriarch John X Yazigi of Damascus — and Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church were kidnapped by terrorists in the village of Kfar Dael while they were on a relief humanitarian mission linked to relief efforts. Media reports indicate they were taken while on the road between Aleppo and the Bab al Hawa crossing with Turkey. The deacon driving their car was shot dead.

While there have been reports that the men were freed, this new report from Aljazeera states otherwise:

Two kidnapped Syrian bishops are still being held, sources have said, denying earlier reports that they had been released, and prompting calls by the international Christian community for their freedom.

Sources told Al Jazeera on Thursday that the two leading Christian figures remained captured a day after Pope Francis called for their release.

Early on Tuesday, reports quoting Greek Orthodox Bishop Tony Yazigi said that Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Bishop John Ibrahim of the Assyrian Orthodox Church, had been kidnapped while carrying out humanitarian work in the northern province of Aleppo. Later on the same day, reports said they had been released, quoting a Christian association.

A priest at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East in Damascus, who declined to be named, told Al Jazeera that the bishops have not been released.

“We haven’t heard anything from them. We do not know who kidnapped them,” the preist said.

And later in the story, readers are told:

“A rebel commander in Idlib told me he was sure they were not released,” Al Jazeera’s Basma Al Atassi, reporting from the Turkish border city of Antakya, said. “He said he believed they were kidnapped by an Aleppo-based battalion.”

As a member of an Antiochian Orthodox parish — Holy Cross Orthodox Church, just south of Baltimore — we prayed for the kidnapped bishops last night during the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (we are still in Great Lent, on the ancient Julian Calendar). Pascha (Easter) is May 5th. The leaders of these two ancient churches in the East have released a joint statement about the kidnappings, which remains posted online. Here is a key part of that document:

1 — The Christians living here are an essential part of their lands. They suffer the pain every person suffers, work as messengers of peace to lift the injustice off every oppressed: They follow the teaching of their Gospel telling them that love is the basis of human relations. The official positions issued by the spiritual leaders of the various churches, are the best expression in this respect and the mission fulfilled by the two kidnapped bishops is but a further proof of this orientation.

2 — The Christians in this East are deeply sorrowed by what their countries are going through, namely violence that is spreading and killing the sons of the one country and exposing their lives to various dangers of which kidnapping, that represents one of its the most horrible expressions due to its absurdity, and is jeopardizing of the lives of the peaceful and unarmed individuals. We call the kidnappers to respect the life of the two kidnapped brothers as well as everyone to put an end to all the acts that create confessional and sectarian schisms among the sons of the one country.

And later:

5 — We … call all the churches in the whole world to stand fast in the face of what is going on and witness to their faith in the power of love in this world. It is necessary to take steps that reflect their refusal to all kinds of violence hitting the human beings living in the East.

6 — We take the opportunity to call our partners in citizenship, from all Islamic confessions, to stand hand in hand and work on refusing the misuse of man and deal with him as a product, a shield in the battles or a means for monetary or political bribery.

7 — Finally we address the kidnappers and tell them that those whom they kidnapped are messengers of peace in this world. Their religious, social and national work witnesses for them. We call them to deal with this painful accident away from any tension that serves only the enemies of this country.

So why isn’t the kidnapping of two prominent Syrian leaders receiving any attention the elite American new media? Why is this “conservative” news?

I honestly don’t know. I find it especially interesting that the story did not draw coverage after it was addressed by Pope Francis. Usually, major American journalists will pay attention to big stories when the Vatican speaks. I mean, it’s hard to ignore the pope.

Over at the very non-conservative National Catholic Reporter, the omnipresent John L. Allen Jr., noted:

Rome on Tuesday reacted with alarm to the kidnapping of two Orthodox bishops in Syria, fearing it may mark the beginning of the nightmare scenario: that Syria will become the next Iraq, meaning the next Middle Eastern country where Christians emerge as primary victims of the chaos following the disintegration of a police state.

A Vatican spokesman called the kidnappings “a dramatic confirmation of the tragic situation in which the Syrian people and its Christian community are living.”

According to a report from the Asia News agency, the two bishops were stopped at gunpoint by armed men Monday on their way to the city of Aleppo. A catechist traveling with them was shot to death while the two bishops were forced out of the car and taken away. The prelates involved are the Syriac Orthodox bishop of Aleppo, Msgr. Youhanna Ibrahim, and the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo and Iskenderun, Msgr. Boulos al-Yaziji. Both are well known in Rome as veterans of ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic church.

Will the kidnappers demand ransom payments from the patriarch of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church, threatening to take the life of his brother bishop who is also, in this case, literally his blood brother?

Sounds like a story to me. But it appears that I am wrong.

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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.

  • chuck

    The answer to that is very simple. Crazy people doing crazy things in the Middle East is not news. It is only news if it affects Israel or Americans. The Bishops, being neither Israeli nor American are, by definition, not newsworthy.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The Boston Globe pulp paper edition had a story on Syria today on page 3 taking about one quarter of the page. But I saw no mention of the kidnapped bishops. And , of course, there is comparatively little coverage of the Protestant minister imprisoned in Iran.

  • http://holyincarnation.org Fr John W Fenton

    Another possible news source, which translates Arabic news reports:
    http://araborthodoxy.blogspot.com/

  • Martha

    “I find it especially interesting that the story did not draw coverage after it was addressed by Pope Francis.”

    Simple. It wasn’t about sex or “Vatican slams/cracks down”, only about members of ancient Christian churches being terrorised. What’s headline-grabbing about that?

  • tmatt

    I wasn’t talking about a BIG headline.

    But ordinarily people NOTICE papal statements linked to the Middle East.

  • Richard Mounts

    Terry, your comments about editors thinking this, and other stories about persecuted Christians in troubled parts of the world, is “conservative news” has me wondering. Have you been told essentially this from certain editors? I’m hoping so because I’d like you to name them and quote them so that I, and many others I hope, can write and call them. They need to know that they are wrong about what we want to see and read.
    Call them out! Name them and shame them.

  • sari

    The Church has a huge number of adherents outside the States, where its numbers are far less substantial than the R.C.C. or many mainstream Protestant denominations. It’s very possible that members of the U.S. media are unfamiliar with the Orthodox Church and so don’t recognize the Bishops’ significance.

    When was Fox ejected from the mainstream media? Because it has a conservative bent?

  • Pingback: Stories I’ve Found, 4/26/2013 | homiliesandstraythoughts

  • Matt

    The news sources have trouble identifying Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim’s church. Al Jazeera and the AP says he is a bishop of the “Assyrian Orthodox Church,” which I am not sure is the name of any church. Reuters and the Christian Science Monitor says he is a bishop in the Syriac Orthodox Church, an Oriental Orthodox Church. Reuters then states that the Greek Orthodox Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church are “part of a worldwide family of Orthodox churches,” which is not true as far as I know.

  • MJBubba

    Professor Mattingly said “You can read about these events at Fox News and other conservative media. At this point, you cannot read about the kidnappings in reports by the mainstream American press.”
    I agree with Sari. If you cannot call Fox News “mainstream Amrerican press,” then there is no such thing as mainstream any more. I do not think Fox spins the news any more to the political right than their competitors spin the news to the political left.
    The Christian Science Monitor, I think, can still be considered “mainstream,” if by that we mean less spin than average. But they are also to be watched out for.
    The past year and a half have been a period of astounding declines in the quality of news, by which I mean that during this recent period the news has been delivered to me with increasing amounts of editorializing and less actual information than ever before. Please keep up the good work here at GetReligion, but I will continue to stay plugged into Christian media. Otherwise I would never find out about the Orthodox bishops. Checking in at GetReligion periodically is a great way to learn about stories going un-covered, as well as finding out about some of the spin. I really appreaciate this site.

  • MJBubba

    Fr. John W. Fenton, thanks for the link to araborthodoxy.blogspot.

  • Julia

    Re: Syriac and Assyrian. The Assyrians are an ancient people whose center was around Nineveh, in what is now Northern Iraq. It’s my understanding that when the Greeks via Alexander took over that part of the world they started calling Assyrians “Syrians”. This has resulted in confusion ever since. I think today Syriac refers to the liturgical language which is essentially the same or nearly the same as Aramaic. The Assyrians have Syriac/Aramaic as their liturgical language, which complicates matters. The Assyrians are indigenous to what is now Northern Iraq on the East side of the Tigris. I’m not really clear who Syrians are – probably a mix of Phoenicians and others from the coastal region.
    At a recent family wedding of a Latin Catholic groom to an Assyrian Catholic bride, some of the relatives (from Iraq) were trying to explain all this to me. I’m probably not absolutely correct, but did understand that it’s controversial and very complicated.

  • Matt

    Was it unusual for bishops from two rival denominations (please forgo any “church”/”denomination” semantic objections) to be traveling together on a humanitarian mission? How are the usual relations between the Antiochan Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox?


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