Assad’s Easter and mysterious attacks on Syrian Christians

Why are Syrian Christians being targeted by Islamist rebels?

The Western press cannot agree on a reason, a review of recent reports from Syria reveals.

Can we credit the explanation given by the Wall Street Journal — that the rebels do not trust Christians — as a sufficient explanation? And if so, what does that mean? Are the reports of murders, kidnappings, rapes and overt persecution of Christians in Syria by Islamist rebels motivated by religion, politics, ethnicity, nationalism or is it a lack of trust?

Is the narrative put forward by ITAR-TASS, the Russian wire service and successor to the Soviet TASS News Agency — that the rebels are fanatics bent on turning Syria into a Sunni Muslim state governed by Sharia law — the truth?

On this past Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on its front page under this headline:

Christians of Homs Grieve as Battle for City Intensifies

That story examined the plight of Syria’s Christians. The Journal entered into the report by looking at the death of Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, who had been murdered by members of an Islamist militia in the town of Homs.

The well-written article offers extensive quotes from a second Syrian Roman Catholic priest on this tragedy and notes the late priest’s attempt to bridge the divide between Christians and Muslims. In the 10th paragraph, the story opens up into a wider discussion of the plight of Syria’s Christians and recounts Assad’s Easter visit to a monastery — whether Catholic or some variety of Orthodox, that detail is left out.

While the fighting raged in Homs, President Bashar al-Assad showed up unexpectedly on Sunday in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, about 30 miles northeast of the capital Damascus. The town was overrun by Islamist rebels in September and reclaimed by the Syrian army a week ago.

State media released video footage of Mr. Assad surveying smashed icons at the town’s damaged monasteries and quoted him as saying that “no amount of terror can ever erase our history and civilization.”

The fight over Maaloula, like the killing of Father Frans, both reflect the quandary of Syria’s Christians. Many feel an affinity for Mr. Assad. His Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominates the regime while the majority of Syrians—and opposition supporters—are Sunni Muslims.

Most Christians have become all the more convinced that only the regime can protect them after some rebels came under the sway of Islamic extremists who have attacked and pillaged their communities and churches and targeted priests and nuns.

Some Christians still seek to build bridges with both sides of the civil war, as Father Frans did. But in a landscape where religious and sectarian affiliations often define and shape the struggle, they find themselves under fire from both sides.

Many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians, while regime supporters see those who reach out to the opposition as naive or traitors. Father Frans found himself in that position, say some close to him

What are we to make of these assertions — “some rebels” are Islamists, or that “many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians?” Is that a fair, suffient or accurate statement of affairs?

A look at the Financial Times report on President al-Assad’s visit to Maaloula on Easter Sunday makes the argument that the Assad regime is playing up the Islamist angle for his political benefit. But it assumes the persecution is real.

President Bashar al-Assad made an Easter visit on Sunday to a historic Christian town recaptured by the army, in a rare appearance outside the capital that shows his growing confidence in state control around Damascus.

The visit also aims to portray him as the protector of Syrian minorities against a rebel movement led by Islamist forces.

The wire service stories also connect Christian fear of the rebels with support for Assad. AFP’s account closes with the explanation:

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What does it mean to be transgendered in India?

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Is it possible to write intelligently about sex in the non-Western world for an American media audience? Or, is our culture so narcissistic, so incurious, so parochial that a newspaper would be wasting its time in attempting to explain the difference between our world view and their’s?

A recent spate of articles in the American press about Tuesday’s decision by the Indian Supreme Court creating a “third gender” under law prompted these musings. Stories in the Washington Post and MSNBC about the Indian court ruling are so slanted for an American audience (and these outlet’s particular audiences) that there is but a tenuous link between their reporting and reality.

The pro forma MSNBC story begins:

Transgender people in India no longer have to categorize themselves as “male” or “female” in official documents. India’s Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling Tuesday that allows hundreds of thousands of transgender people to identify themselves as a third gender. Human rights groups are lauding the decision as historic and groundbreaking.

The article follows a standard formula for legal news and provides snippets from the decision.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” the court wrote. “Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, one of the two head judges on the Supreme Court bench, told the court.

The article notes what the implication of the ruling might be:

The high court has ordered the government to allocate public sector jobs to transgender people, known as “hijras” and include them in welfare programs.

And also offers comments from a high profile transgender activist and refers to arguments made in the brief. It then offers political and legal context to the ruling and closes with a word of hope from the LGBT community.

While India now recognizes the transgender community as a third gender, the ruling only applies to transgender people and not gays, lesbians or bisexuals. In December, the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 court order that decriminalized homosexuality, reinstating a ban on gay sex. India’s general elections will be held on May 16, and LGBT rights activists hope the new parliament will repeal the anti-gay law.

All in all the structure and tone of this story is what one would expect of an MSNBC story about an American court decision on transgender issues. Voices opposed to the ruling would have provided balance and developing the apparent contradictions between this latest ruling and the December 2013 ruling criminalizing gay sex would have been welcome.

Yet, this is not a story about America, but India. And the American left-liberal model, with all of the assumptions implicit in that world view, does not work.

First off, can we assume that an American transgendered person is the same as an Indian transgendered person, or what the article calls a hijra?

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Francis links abortion with abuse, yet press doesn’t follow

The Italian press has placed an interesting interpretation on Pope Francis’ Friday comments on the clergy abuse. It reports that in the pope’s mind clergy abuse of children is tied to the “abomination” of abortion. Look for this theme in the Anglo-American press and tell me if you can find it? I can’t.

Francis’ comments to the International Catholic Child Bureau meeting at the Vatican on April 11 received wide spread coverage. CNN reported:

Pope Francis made his strongest condemnation yet of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy on Friday, asking for forgiveness and pledging to impose penalties on “men of the church” who harm children.

“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests — quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests — to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children,” the Pope said in remarks quoted by Vatican Radio.

As an aside, I chose CNN’s story over the others because of its aesthetic and journalist quality. It is really quite good. To my mind Daniel Burke is one of the most highly skilled writers covering religion and this article shows why he deserves that accolade. The language is tight, conveying the story in a minimum of words.  The story is told well with very little fluff or filler. The article is balanced — offering comments from abuse activists while also allowing Francis to speak. The author’s views on the issue can be discerned by the layout of the story — paragraph placement is one of the key elements in constructing an article — yet there is no preaching or bombast in a topic (clergy abuse of children) that is often spoilt by opinion masking as news. A great job all round.

Yet, Burke is back in America and must rely on material provided by others when reporting on Rome. Has he been given the full story by his stringers in Rome?

For on the same day as the pope spoke to the International Catholic Child Bureau, he addressed a pro-life group. For the Italian press, the messages Francis offered on the clergy abuse scandal and abortion were intertwined. The lede to the story “Pedofilia, il Papa chiede perdono per gli abusi commessi dai sacerdoti” in the Milan-based Corriere della Sera makes this clear. (N.b. with a circulation of over 350,000 Corriere della Sera is one of Italy’s largest and most influential newspapers. It’s main competitors are the Rome’s la Repubblica and Turin’s La Stampa.) It states:

Pope Francis has asked “forgiveness” for the child abuse perpetrated by men of the Church. In unambiguous tones, Francis said: “I am called to this burden” to “ask for forgiveness”, and to assure you that we will not take any “step back” in addressing this problem and seeing that “penalties will be imposed.” Children should be protected and have a family, the pontiff said. “They have a right to grow up with a father and mother.” And before that children must be protected in the womb, he added, because “the unborn child is the innocent par excellence.” Drawing upon the words of the Second Vatican Council Francis added “abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.”

The Corriere della Sera article gives a fuller picture of Francis’ views on the clergy abuse scandal than the CNN piece by stressing Francis’ argument that both are crimes against children and against God.

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Pod people: ‘Pinko’ Pat Buchanan and the Daily Mail

Heavy breathing this week from London’s Daily Mail, which has denounced American political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan as a toady of Vladimir Putin.

Yes, GetReligion readers you read that correctly, while he has escaped the pinko, secret traveler and useful idiot sobriquets due to the march of history, the Daily Mail nonetheless is calling Pat Buchanan a Russkie stooge.

The lede of the April 5 story entitled “Pat Buchanan claims GOD is on Russia’s side and that Moscow is the ‘third Rome’” pulls no punches. Not only is God on Russia’s side, but so too is GOD.

Conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan insists that God is now on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side. The bombastic pundit’s claims in a rambling diatribe posted to a conservative website that Russia is the ‘third Rome’ and the West ‘is Gomorrah.’

‘Putin is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity,’ Buchanan wrote in the op-ed published by Human Events, adding that his recent speeches echo those made nearly 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II — in which the pontiff also criticized the West.

The article proceeds to summarize,with evident distaste, Buchanan’s April 4 syndicated column “Who’s Side Is God on Now?”

Not quite a tabloid, or “red top” in British newspaper parlance, the Daily Mail straddles the line between respectable and hysterical journalism. This story leans to the hysterical side — to the delight I’m sure of Buchanan, for whom this is great publicity — but to the detriment of those seeking to understand what is happening in Russia today.

The story has undergone revisions since it was first posted online. The first printing called the former Nixon speech writer a “bombastic preacher,” though subsequent editions were changed to “bombastic pundit.” What has not been updated, however, is the Daily Mail‘s claim that Buchanan is making the claims about God and Russia — when it is quite clear when reading the original piece Buchanan is reporting on what Putin believes to be Russia’s mystical destiny.

Buchanan’s voice comes toward the end of his piece when he laments a world where the leader of Russia has donned the mantle of Christian morality. Good Catholics once prayed for the conversion of Russia, but today they should pray for the conversion of America.

In this week’s Crossroads podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I touched upon the poor job Western reporters have made in covering the deeper currents of the Russia-Ukraine clash. And, while being blissfully unaware of Buchanan’s column and the Daily Mail‘s coverage, we spoke of the “Third Rome” and the belief held by many Russians (including Putin it seems) that Russia has been given a mission from God to renew and redeem the world.

The GetReligion piece “No peace in our time for the Ukraine” was a “got news” story — that is a GetReligion category of a religion related news story that has somehow been overlooked by the media.

The Western press has done a good job in reporting the words of John Kerry, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and other Western leaders. Putin is painted by most newspapers as a villainous KGB thug. However, the enthusiasm shown towards then new leaders of the Ukraine has been tempered by frustration with their inability to govern their country.

All of interest to a degree, I concede, but not of significant importance. The deeper currents of religion, ethnicity and national identity, I told Todd, were not being given a proper hearing. Without the context of historical background, of the five hunded year clash between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, of the battle between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles, it was not possible to understand what was happening, beyond the level of caricature (Putin bad, protesters good).

The religion angle as essential to understanding this dispute, yet it was not being addressed by the Western press. In my GR piece I reported on Russian and Ukrainian newspaper articles that presented harsh denunciations by local church leaders of their opposite numbers. I wrote:

Reading the statements from the Russian Orthodox Church published in the Moscow newspapers and the statements of the Catholic leaders published in Kiev quite clearly demonstrates the religious dimensions of this dispute. Putin’s Moscow is the inheritor of the civilizing mission of Holy Mother Russia while the Catholic Church is the bulwark standing fast in the face of the Asiatic hordes.

Church leaders have picked up the tempo in recent days. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Cyril I (or Kyrill or Kirill, which means Cyril) offered his strongest critique of the unrest in the Ukraine last week, comparing it to the October Revolution.

In an interview with Interfax, Cyril stated:

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Florida Today on missing Bibles at the Missing Man Table

McCarthyism is alive and doing quite well in America, a scan of this week’s newspapers reveals. The mob mentality that promotes intolerance in the name of diversity has claimed the scalp of Mozilla CEO Brendon Eich and dominated the front pages of newspapers and the chat shows, but it has been the little things — the small local events and actions that condemn free speech, free thought and freedom of religion — I find so frightening.

An item in one of my local newspapers, Florida Today (part of the Gannett chain), illustrates the collapse of discourse in our culture — and the truly rotten state of affairs within the top ranks of our military.

The newspaper reported that the Missing Man Table in one of the dining facilities at Patrick Air Force Base had been removed after someone complained about the presence of a Bible.

The author enters into the story through the reaction of a dismayed veteran, angered over the disappearance of the table:

When Michael Tater did not see the POW/MIA Missing Man Table at the Riverside Dining Facility at Patrick Air Force Base, his reaction was of disbelief. Missing Man Tables — fully set tables left vacant for military members who didn’t return from combat — are commonplace at military and veterans organizations. One had been a fixture at Riverside. But a dispute over including a Bible as part of the display led to its removal from the dining hall.

Done right, a lede sentence that frames the issue according to the views of the man in the street makes for an interesting feature story. But care needs to be taken that the man in the street view is not being used by the author as a cloak for his own views. This is where balance and context comes into play. We hear side A, but also need to hear side B. And the two need to be placed in context.

This article is almost there — but not quite.

The story continues with a response from the base commander. Was the name withheld by the author or was the press release signed base commander? A name is necessary — especially in light of what follows.

But commanders at the base have rethought that decision. They said Friday that the table would again be displayed at Riverside, but they did not specify a time for the reintroduction of the table or what items will or will not be included on it.

“The 45th Space Wing deeply desires to honor America’s Prisoners of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) personnel,” commanders said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, the Bible’s presence or absence on the table at the Riverside Dining Facility ignited controversy and division, distracting from the table’s primary purpose of honoring POWs/MIAs. Consequently, we temporarily replaced the table with the POW/MIA flag in an effort to show our continued support of these heroes while seeking an acceptable solution to the controversy.”

“After consultation with several relevant organizations, we now intend to re-introduce the POW/MIA table in a manner inclusive of all POWs/MIAs as well as Americans everywhere.” the statement said.

The remainder of the article gives voice to local reactions to the news that the Missing Man Table is being returned. But should not there be a bit more context? What do the regulations say on this point? Did the base commander act according to the rules, or did he violate them?
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No peace in our time for the Ukraine

One hundred years from now, when the history of these past few months in the Ukraine have been told and retold, what will be the key points scholars will discuss in their analysis of events? Will it be John Kerry’s or David Cameron’s or Angela Merkel’s diplomatic initiatives?

I think not. Who today remembers the names or the diplomatic moves of the French or British Foreign Ministers during the Sudeten crisis? (George Bonnett and Lord Halifax). We remember Neville Chamberlain, but not for the reasons he may have desired. While the Angl0-American newspaper fraternity focuses on the Western political angle of the Ukraine crisis, there are deeper — more profound — forces at work that have been all but ignored.

Scholars and students will likely note the peripheral noises made by the great and good of America and Western Europe, but I suspect their work will focus on the age old clash between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East. The crisis in the Ukraine is really about the interplay of religion, nationalism and politics. (Bet that came as a shock that GetReligion would bemoan the absence of religion in the news reports out of Moscow and Kiev.)

We are not alone, however, in calling attention to this so far neglected aspect of the dispute. Writing in the Washington Post last month, Henry Kissinger stated:

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then.

Dr. K noted:

The Ukrainians are the decisive element.They live in a country with a complex history and a polyglot composition. The Western part was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939 , when Stalin and Hitler divided up the spoils. Crimea, 60 percent of whose population is Russian , became part of Ukraine only in 1954 , when Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian by birth, awarded it as part of the 300th-year celebration of a Russian agreement with the Cossacks. The west is largely Catholic; the east largely Russian Orthodox. The west speaks Ukrainian; the east speaks mostly Russian. Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other — as has been the pattern — would lead eventually to civil war or break up.

We can see the clash of Catholicism vs. Orthodoxy in statements made by leaders of the two churches. Statements that have so far gone unreported in the Western secular media and have only had an airing west of the Vistula in religious newspapers.

On March 26 the Catholic news service, Asia.Net reported:

The Moscow Patriarchate strongly condemned the Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Church in Ukraine for “meddling” in politics, in the current crisis in the country. For its part, Russia continues to accuse the Ukraine of “religious intolerance,” a charge the latter sharply rejects, noting instead how all religious denominations have come together to oppose violence and express support for Europe.

It cited a broadcast made by Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Russian Orthodox Department for External Church Relations, on March 22 aired on the Moscow-based television network Russia 24.

According to the transcript of the interview printed on the website of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion went for the jugular, attacking the Greek Catholics as a fifth column for Western interests in the Ukraine. He condemned the leader of the uniates, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk and his predecessor Lubomyr Husar for taking a:

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So how many gay bishops are there in England?

Spinning a news story is not as easy as it seems. Too light a touch and an author fails to convince his audience of the merits of his cause. Too much can spin the ball out of the author’s control — touching upon so many issues and arguments that readers may become enamored with the “wrong” issue.

Take Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Aesthetically a beautiful film (and evil too), it fails as propaganda for any but the true believer because of its heavy hand.

(As an aside: Riefenstahl created the cinema-graphic technique of the long entrance. Hitler’s entrance to the rally builds and builds, tension and anticipation mount. The shots follow him through the bowels of the stadium and culminate in his entrance to the stage. Should you take delight in upsetting your political friends, compare the shots Riefenstahl used in Triumph of the Will to the staging of recent Democrat and Republican conventions — Bill Clinton followed Riefenstahl’s playbook almost scene by scene inside the convention halls.)

The key to good advocacy journalism, as it is in all things, is moderation. The best propaganda is subtle propaganda. Too many claims, too much hyperbole and you cheapen your story.

A line in a  piece published in the Daily Beast on gay clergy weddings for the Church of England illustrates the merits of moderation. Let me say at the outset that the story in the Daily Beast is an advocacy piece, published on an openly liberal website. As such, this is not normal GetReligion material. However, this is an opinion article cloaked in the mantle of a news story.

The tone, focus and editorial voice of the recent story “Meet the Gay Priest Getting Married” lauds the subject of the profile, a Church of England priest who has vowed to marry his gay partner despite being told such an act violated church rules.

But the plea for sympathy and support for the priest in his battle with a harsh and oppressive bureaucracy, was overshadowed by the article’s crucial claim that almost a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay. The tabloids as well as the gay specialty press picked up this statement and the issue de jour became hypocrisy on high — not the little guy fighting the good fight.

The Daily Beast reported:

The Church of England, which broke from the Vatican in 1534 so that Henry VIII could take a second wife, has often been celebrated for its accepting and open attitude. In fact, Cain estimated that a third of the clergy in London are gay. A clergyman, who did not wish to be named, claimed that at least 13 of the church’s 42 bishops were also gay, although they have not publicly acknowledged it. “Gay people have very often a heightened sensitivity to things of beauty and spirituality,” Cain suggested. “There are an awful lot of gay people in the church.”

Before I start on the gay bishop claim, let me say a word or two about the canard that England got a new church because Henry wanted a new wife. It didn’t quite work that way. Also, the Church of England does not see itself as having been founded in the 16th century. It is the same church that existed in those isles from the time of St Augustine of Canterbury (circa 6th century). But like the Orthodox some 400 years earlier, during the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I the Church of England declined to accept the universal authority of the Bishop of Rome in England.

And, the indigenous reform movement within the Church of England predated Henry’s divorce and remarriage to Ann Boleyn. Henry’s anger at the pope’s refusal to grant him an annulment (a refusal made on political grounds not theological) was the wedge political issue the English reformers were able to use to break free from the theological dictates of Rome. The English reformers were willing to disagree amongst themselves and with Rome over the theology of Eucharistic presence but were prepared to go to the stake over the issues of justification by faith, the Bible in the vernacular, the uniqueness of the death of Jesus and for the right to disagree over second order issues — the principle of adiaphora.

Once again, the frisson this article created, however, has not been over same-sex marriage and the clergy or even Henry VIII, it is the claim that a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay.

Granted this appeared in the Daily Beast and the standards of attribution expected of traditional journalism is not the same as found in a mainstream newspaper. The expectations one would have of rigorous professionalism are not pertinent. But should it have printed this claim without further substantiation or explanation? Does not placing the claim into the mouth of an anonymous priest add to the impression that this is gossip?

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Is Christopher Senyonjo a gay martyr or gay icon?

The Associated Press has a story out today on a former bishop of the Church of Uganda who has broken ranks over the issue of homosexuality. For those who follow Anglican affairs the story of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (also spelled Ssenyonjo) will not be new. The bishop is a frequent visitor to the United States and has spoken many times in public forums about his views on homosexuality.

The AP story entitled “Despite new law, Ugandan cleric ministers to gays” breaks no new ground, but offers an updated profile of the bishop in light of the country’s new laws on homosexuality. Given the low state of knowledge about religion in Africa held by the general public and the controversy the Ugandan gay law has created I can understand the editorial thinking that went into commissioning and publishing this article.

“African church leaders are anti-gay. Several African countries, including Uganda, have adopted laws toughening sanctions against homosexual activities. Here is a bishop who is bucking the trend,” says editor A. “Go for it.”

The article does a nice job in quoting the bishop and gay activists in Uganda. It  fits into the wider Western media narrative about homosexuality also.

However, the article is not balanced in that it does not offer the voice or views of those who hold the contrary position. And it does not test the claims made by the bishop and his supporters.

Yes, the article cites a past statement on homosexuality by the head of the Anglican Church in Uganda, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, but we hear nothing from the church about this issue or about Bishop Senyonjo.

Which is a shame really as a little digging would reveal that the narrative given about Bishop Senyonjo is a false one. The story states:

For ministering to homosexuals, Senyonjo has become estranged from Uganda’s Anglican church. He was barred from presiding over church events in 2006 when he wouldn’t stop urging his leaders to accept gays. The parish that he once led doesn’t even acknowledge his presence when he attends Sunday services there, underscoring how his career has suffered because of his tolerance for gays in a country where homosexuals —and those who accept them — face discrimination.

The bishop was not kicked out of the Anglican Church over his views on homosexuality. I concede that this is not the conventional wisdom. In December 2013 Religion News Service ran a piece about Senyonjo that stated:

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