Simply stated, it is one of the most haunting Associated Press photographs that I have seen in my journalism career.
The caption under the photo, as it ran with a recent New York Times report, says:
Orthodox priests pray as they stand between protesters and the police in Kiev early Friday.
Actually, the photo (click here to see it, since it is copyrighted) appears to show an Orthodox priest and a monk and, perhaps, two laymen. One of the men — it’s hard to see which one, in the dramatic amber lighting — is holding a processional cross.
In the background there is a long row of police, protected behind a wall of riot shields. Apparently the priests are facing a sea of protesters, silently pleading for non-violence.
Who are the priests? What are they doing there? What is their role in this dramatic standoff? Most importantly, in the context of the Ukrainian disputes, which church do they represent — the Orthodox body aligned with Russia, the one loyal to Ukraine or the Eastern-Rite Catholic church loyal to Rome, and more in alignment with Ukraine? Is anyone in this photo aligned with President Viktor F. Yanukovych?
Or consider this: Is there any chance that this brave quartet of men includes representatives of one or more camps in this conflict?
As our own George Conger recently wrote, in a post that was way out front on this angle in this story that, day after day, continues to make headlines around the world:
Religion ghosts haunt the stories out of Kiev … but the Western press has yet to hear their shrieks.
The events unfolding across the Ukraine — protests against the government’s move away from Europe towards Russia — are not faith stories as defined by editorial desks in London and New York, but the clash of nationalism and politics in Eastern Europe cannot be understood without reference to religion.
So what did this particular Times story have to say about the religion angle in the unfolding drama, the story behind that dramatic photo of the priests and their cross?
In a scene that veered from primeval to apocalyptic, demonstrators used sticks to hit barrels and sheets of metal, creating a savage drumbeat as a backdrop, while billows of smoke rose from piles of burning car tires along a barrier made of bags of snow.
During a meeting with religious leaders in Kiev earlier in the day, Mr. Yanukovych had vowed to restore stability and expressed frustration that opposition leaders seemed unable to exert much influence over protesters who had clashed with the police this week.
“I will do everything to stop this conflict, to stop violence and establish stability — certainly to stop radicals,” Mr. Yanukovych said during the meeting, according to a statement released by his office. “If we manage to stop them amicably, we will stop them amicably. Otherwise we will use all legal methods.”
So Yanukovych met with “religious leaders” and that is that. Might there be any facts associated with that meeting or do the facts not matter, when we are talking about religion?
As George wrote:
There are three principal churches in the Ukraine. One under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Moscow Patriarchate; an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church or the Kiev Patriarchate; and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. And the three churches have taken differing stands on the protests, with the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholics backing the country’s realignment towards Europe, while the Moscow Patriarchate backs the president’s alignment with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow. …
The Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Church have lent their support to the demonstrations. … The Moscow Patriarchate in Kiev has backed President Yanukovich — and its call for calm echoes the president’s public statements to date.
Are your GetReligionistas claiming that religion is the driving force in this dispute, a force that trumps politics, economics, etc.? No, that is not the point. Once again, let me quote George:
By raising these religion points, I am not stating the Eurorevolution is being driven by religion. I am arguing that a well rounded news report should touch upon the religion angles in this story — provide the context for a Western reader to understand. Not all of the protestors are motivated by religious fervor. However, religion lies close below the surface of national politics east of the Oder and good reporters should relate this information to their readers.
In this case, it’s not enough to say that a president met with generic religious leaders. In this case, readers need to know who is who and who is talking (or even praying) with who.
It’s a journalism thing.
So, what George said. What he said remains crucial to the ongoing coverage.