Christians attacked in Iraq: Media finally paying attention

Finally, someone notices that Christians are suffering and dying in the Middle East. With few exceptions, many western secular media have seemed blind to the rising tide of antagonism and outbursts of violence against believers there. It apparently took the naked aggression of jihadists who have swallowed up much of Iraq’s northern sector to get some attention.

Whether it’s in time is another matter.

Holly Williams of CBS Evening News did a brisk but vivid report on Christians in Bartella, near Mosul, where a militia of 600 has organized after the Iraqi army ran off.

Williams says Christians have inhabited the town for almost 2,000 years, and the residents still pray in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. She deserves some kind of award for even visiting: She ventured to a checkpoint only 50 yards from the front line.

An evocative AP story details the plight of Chaldean Christians in Iraq, interviewing believers from Mosul who have taken refuge in the ancient city of Alqosh:

In leaving, the Christians are emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches. The past week, some 160 Christian families — mosly from Mosul — have fled to Alqosh, mayor Sabri Boutani told The Associated Press, consulting first on the number with his wife by speaking in Chaldean, the ancient language spoken by many residents.

AP writer Diaa Hadid works in historical and cultural details that give us a feel for the long heritage of Christians in a land that is being brutally overrun by Muslim militants. Hadid says that Mosul is the traditional burial site of Jonah, and that Chaldean Christians were trying to celebrate a harvest festival — including a portrait of Pope Francis with white beans on the church floor.

The article distinguishes itself also for its numbers. Documenting population movements is hard in wartime, but Hadid offers some good guesses:

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Jihadists in Iraq: NYTimes reporting gets it right

After calling out the New York Times for misreporting several stories, I’m tempted to say the newspaper got religion in one of its latest reports on the collapse of Iraq under the blows of Islamic militants.

The report is not flawless, as we’ll see. But it gets maybe a silver medal.

It opens with the blend of faith and ferocity we’ve already come to expect from ISIS, the militant army known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria:

ERBIL, Iraq — When Islamic militants rampaged through the Iraqi city of Mosul last week, robbing banks of hundreds of millions of dollars, opening the gates of prisons and burning army vehicles, some residents greeted them as if they were liberators and threw rocks at retreating Iraqi soldiers.

It took only two days, though, for the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to issue edicts laying out the harsh terms of Islamic law under which they would govern, and singling out some police officers and government workers for summary execution.

For this story, the Times uses four reporters in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Washington, D.C. Much of it is the keen analysis and expert sourcing at which the newspaper excels. It includes a timeline of attacks that could be attributed to ISIS or its predecessor, the ISI — a sobering chart if true, because it reaches back a decade.

On the ground, via experts and through other media, the Times reports the ruthless nature of ISIS:

Perhaps the best indication of how the group sees itself these days is a recent promotional video called “The Rattling of the Sabers.”

The hourlong video is a slickly produced, hyperviolent propaganda piece that idolizes the group’s fighters as they work for two of their main goals: founding an Islamic state and slaughtering their enemies, mostly the Iraqi security forces and Shiites.

Some scenes show bearded, armed fighters from around the Arab world renouncing their home countries and shredding their passports. Other scenes show them preaching at mosques and soliciting pledges of allegiance to Mr. Baghdadi. Still other scenes emphasize attacks. Its fighters carry out drive-by shootings against men they accuse of being in the Iraqi army, in some cases chasing them through fields before grabbing and executing them.

No excuses for the downtrodden here. No misdirection about the need to solve the “problem” of Israeli settlements or the “treatment” of Palestinians. The focus is on the fighters, what they’re doing, what drives them and what they want.

And the religious nature of the group has been plain for years as well:

“What we see in Iraq today is in many ways a culmination of what the I.S.I. has been trying to accomplish since its founding in 2006,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS.

I guess it took a secular think-tanker to convince the Times that more than politics or ethnic differences were at work in Middle Eastern conflicts. The newspaper also calls ISIS a “Sunni extremist group” that wants a caliphate, which it defines as “an Islamic religious state.” And more:

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To be ‘killed, crucified or have their hands and feet cut off’ …

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At this point in the growing Iraq crisis, I think it is safe to say that European journalists, in comparison with their American counterparts, are much more comfortable putting the words “caliphate,” “sharia” and “decapitated” at the top of their news reports. Soon to come, bold references to the fate of “apostates” and perhaps even “Christians.”

Consider this sprawling headline in The Daily Mail:

ISIS butchers leave ‘roads lined with decapitated police and soldiers’: Battle for Baghdad looms as thousands answer Iraqi government’s call to arms and jihadists bear down on capital

At the same time, journalists are — accurately — stressing the looming clash between Shia and Sunni groups, especially with threats to Shiite holy places. They seem less willing to deal with the truly historic exodus — word carefully chosen — of thousands of Christians and members of other religious minorities who are being forced to flee their ancient centers in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. Where are they going?

So what is happening now in the mainstream coverage? The second-day Washington Post story is a good place to start. Note, at the very top, that al-Qaeda is back in the picture:

IRBIL, Iraq – Iraq was on the brink of falling apart Thursday as al-Qaeda renegades asserted their authority over Sunni areas in the north, Kurds seized control of the city of Kirkuk and the Shiite-led government appealed for volunteers to help defend its shrinking domain.

The discredited Iraqi army scrambled to recover after the humiliating rout of the past three days, dispatching elite troops to confront the militants in the central town of Samarra and claiming that it had recaptured Tikrit, the home town of the late Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, whose regime was toppled by U.S. troops sweeping north from Kuwait in 2003.

But there was no sign that the militant push was being reversed. With the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria now sweeping south toward Baghdad, scattering U.S.-trained security forces in its wake, the achievements of America’s eight-year war in Iraq were rapidly being undone. Iraq now seems to be inexorably if unintentionally breaking apart, into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves that amount to the de facto partition of the country.

So, essentially, are the Kurds now the keepers of the region’s “safe” zone? What does Turkey have to say about that?

The most sobering details in this Post report have been placed way down in the text, as opposed to being featured in bold headlines backed with links to horrifying video reports.

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NYTimes: Waves of generic refugees run for their lives in Iraq

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The news from Iraq grows more and more distressing, at least for those who favor old-liberalism virtues found in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations. Here is a typical mainstream-news update, care of The Los Angeles Times.

But let’s back up for a moment and look at two key elements of one of the first major stories that shook the mainstream press into action. I refer to The New York Times piece that ran under the headline “Sunni Militants Drive Iraqi Army Out of Mosul.”

I concede, right up front, that I am concerned about two key issues: (1) the symbolic and practical importance of Mosul to Christians and members of other religious minorities in the Middle East and (2) the tactics and goals of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militants behind this drive into Iraq. At the top of its report, the Times paints this horror story in very general terms.

BAGHDAD – Sunni militants spilling over the border from Syria on Tuesday seized control of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, in the most stunning success yet in a rapidly widening insurgency that threatens to drag the region into war.

Having consolidated control over Sunni-dominated Nineveh Province, armed gunmen were heading on the main road to Baghdad, Iraqi officials said, and had already taken over parts of Salahuddin Province. Thousands of civilians fled south toward Baghdad and east toward the autonomous region of Kurdistan, where security is maintained by a fiercely loyal army, the pesh merga.

The Iraqi Army apparently crumbled in the face of the militant assault, as soldiers dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes and blended in with the fleeing masses. The militants freed thousands of prisoners and took over military bases, police stations, banks and provincial headquarters, before raising the black flag of the jihadi group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over public buildings. The bodies of soldiers, police officers and civilians lay scattered in the streets.

OK, so we have thousands of generic civilians fleeing.

Is there anything else that can be said about that word “civilians”? Veteran human-rights activist Nina Shea — yes, writing at the conservative National Review Onlinenotes a few crucial details about the symbolic importance of Mosul. It helps to know that Iraq’s second-largest city has been the final safe zone for believers in the nation’s 2,000 year-old Christian community and for those in many other small religious minorities. Thus:

Mosul’s panic-stricken Christians, along with many others, are now fleeing en masse to the rural Nineveh Plain, according to the Vatican publication Fides. The border crossings into Kurdistan, too, are jammed with the cars of the estimated 150,000 desperate escapees.

The population, particularly its Christian community, has much to fear. The ruthlessness of ISIS, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, has been legendary. Its beheadings, crucifixions, and other atrocities against Christians and everyone else who fails to conform to its vision of a caliphate have been on full display earlier this year, in Syria. …

(In) February, it was the militants of this rebel group that, in the northern Syrian state of Raqqa, compelled Christian leaders to sign a 7th-century dhimmi contract. The document sets forth specific terms denying the Christians the basic civil rights of equality and religious freedom and committing them to pay protection money in exchange for their lives and the ability to keep their Christian identity.

News consumers who have been paying close attention know that ISIS isn’t just a group that is linked to al-Qaeda, it is a group that has been so ruthless and violent that it has been shunned by many jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda.

The bottom line that might interest American readers: One of the world’s most ancient Christian communities is literally running for its life, trying to escape militants who are too violent to work with al-Qaeda.

Now, read the bland Times report and try to figure out that this is one of the key elements — yes, I said ONE — of the tragedy that is unfolding. Here is how these realities are reported by America’s most powerful newsroom:

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NYTimes notices old doctrine wars over InterVarsity chapters

The debate started out behind closed doors but quickly jumped into the mainstream press. The news hook was that a lesbian student at Tufts University claimed that, under the campus nondiscrimination policy, she had been unfairly denied access to a leadership role in the Tufts Christian Fellowship, which was affiliated with InterVarsity.

The campus chapter was banished, at first, but then allowed to re-draft its charter to stress that it was a doctrinally defined religious association, one requiring its leaders to “seek to adhere to biblical standards and belief in all areas of their lives.” The story was already rather old at that time, as I noted in an “On Religion” column.

“We have had more challenges to our basic right to exist in campus settings during the past two years than in the previous 55 combined,” said Steve Hayner, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. “It’s not just us. … This is hitting Catholics and Muslims and others. What we are seeing is a growing challenge to religious free speech — period.” …

InterVarsity created a “Religious Liberties Crisis Team” in response to this dispute and similar cases on five other campuses. Then attorney David French of Cornell Law School and Tufts InterVarsity staff member Curtis Chang produced a sobering handbook for others who will face similar conflicts. French and Chang noted: “In a free country, individuals or groups are permitted to form schools that serve only Christians, or only Jews, or only Muslims, or only gays.” For traditional Christians at private schools, the “sad reality is that there may come a time when you are no longer welcome … and there is nothing that any lawyer can do to change that decision.”

The year was 2000.

I bring this up because of a New York Times story that — 15 years down the road — has noticed this legal issue and put it on A1 as a hot trend. To cut to the chase, this First Amendment story has reached Bowdoin College and another InterVarsity chapter is facing the same old fight for its rights as a doctrinally-defined association.

But read the following carefully and see if you notice something interesting in the Times frame around this story. This is long, but crucial:

After this summer, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship will no longer be recognized by the college. Already, the college has disabled the electronic key cards of the group’s longtime volunteer advisers. In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

At Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders. And at Vanderbilt, more than a dozen groups, most of them evangelical but one of them Catholic, have already lost their official standing over the same issue; one Christian group balked after a university official asked the students to cut the words “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” from their list of qualifications for leadership.

At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, says some chapters have even elected non-Jews to student boards.

My question: Did the Times team investigate whether the issue is a matter of practical work or mere symbolic statements? In other words, is the issue that traditional Christian groups — evangelicals, mostly — are simply not willing to pretend to go along with the policies? And what about in other doctrinally defined groups linked to science, the environment, arts, sexuality?

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What? You thought Francis, Peres and Abbas really prayed?

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Let’s state this in journalistic terms.

What? You thought that the mainstream journalists covering the remarkable Vatican rite offering prayers for Middle East peace rite would actually produce coverage that included any content from the prayers?

Friends and neighbors, this event was all about politics and statecraft. Clearly, if the men wanted to produce real change in the real world then the only words that they spoke that mattered were addressed to one another and, thus, to the press. Get real.

The story that most American news consumers saw this past weekend was from the Associated Press, so let’s consider that text (in the version used by The Washington Post). Here’s some of the key material about this encounter between Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:

The event had the air of an outdoor summer wedding, complete with receiving line and guests mingling on the lawn as a string ensemble played. …

Vatican officials have insisted that Francis had no political agenda in inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace. But the meeting could have greater symbolic significance, given that Francis was able to bring them together at all so soon after peace talks failed and at a time that the Israeli government is trying to isolate Abbas.

“In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important,” noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican.”

So was the omnipresent Father Reese actually, literally at this event or was he merely acting in his unofficial role as the press spokesman for all mainstream journalists and alleged Catholic insiders who would join him in calling a Vatican prayer service a “symbolic gesture”?

No one was hiding the fact that other talks took place behind closed doors. Also, no one was hiding the fact that, with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I joining in some parts of the ceremonies (but not leading prayers), there were actually two participants present who represented elements of the Palestinian people. Well, the pope would make three, since there are Eastern Rite Catholics in the region, as well. The AP report noted:

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Which religions favor separation of church and state?

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2014/06/which-religions-favor-separation-of-church-and-state/

LISA ASKS:

Do all religions teach separation between church and state? If not, which ones and why?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Separation of church and state (the usual phrasing though “of religion and state” is often more accurate) is an achievement of modern politics and by no means a universal one. Among world religions, after long struggle Christianity helped create the concept and broadly favors aspects of it in most countries. Islam stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, often considering it alien if not abhorrent. Interactions between religions and governments through history are too complex to summarize but The Guy will sketch some high points.

America’s latest church-and-state fuss (analyzed May 10 in “Religion Q and A”) involves Supreme Court allowance of prayers before local council meetings, even in a town where most of them were explicitly Christian. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is alarmed, asking in a headline whether this ruling is “putting the country on the path to church-state union.”

Well, no. There’s a vast gap between brief civic invocations and any “union,” and America to a remarkable degree has avoided situations common elsewhere, for instance:

Many European states, whether in Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant countries, subsidize churches or Christian education. Clergy are tax-supported civil servants in such religiously diverse lands as Egypt (Muslim), Germany (Protestant and Catholic), Greece (Orthodox) and Israel (Jewish). Britain’s prime minister chooses all bishops for pro forma appointment by the monarch who heads the Church of England, and 26 bishops sit in parliament’s upper house. India’s national government is officially non-sectarian but at the state level Hindus use anti-conversion laws to hobble competing faiths. Clergy are sometimes heads of state, including two who were revered as divinities not long ago, Tibetan Buddhism’s Dalai Lama and Japan’s Shinto emperor.

With Islam, the founding Prophet Muhammad was a political and military ruler and his faith has been closely intertwined with civil affairs ever since. Although the Quran says “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256), some Muslim nations force religious law (Sharia) upon non-Muslims and in extreme cases threaten converts to other faiths with the death penalty. Iran is a dramatic example of “church-state union” that is oppressively theocratic.

In Jewish tradition, God deemed rule by autocrats to be problematic (see 1 Samuel: 8) but biblical kings arose and combined religious with civil functions. Jews had no nation-state of their own through much of their history. Modern Israel’s successful democracy practices religious freedom with certain privileges for Orthodox Judaism.
Christianity starts from Jesus’s clever and cryptic saying “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (included in three of the four Gospels). Scholars say that rather that spelling out which “things” are which, Jesus left it to individuals to apply the principle. But he did imply a certain distinction, if not “separation,” between the two realms. That concept was later developed in St. Augustine’s masterwork “The City of God” and Martin Luther’s idea of the “two kingdoms.”

Though born as an oppressed minority under Roman rule, Christianity eventually became heavily involved with government, often to its detriment. Matters changed fundamentally during the 17th Century. The Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant regimes (1618-1648) devastated Europe and roused cynicism toward the church. The English Civil War (1642-1651) had similar effects. While the Enlightenment fostered individualism and religious skepticism, demands for free conscience emanated from Protestant dissenters in Britain and its American colonies.

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American suicide bomber: WPost flounders on his beliefs

Yet another horrific facet was added to the civil war in Syria with the recent revelation that an American, Moner Mohammed Abusalha, blew himself up in a suicide bombing there. But who was Abusalha? And what did he believe and practice? That proved a considerable challenge for a Washington Post article, despite its 988 words and six reporters.

First, there’s geography. “American who killed himself in Syria suicide attack was from South Florida,” blares the headline in big type. The South Florida connection is deemed important in a lot of “crazy” stories, and as a longtime resident myself, I’ll agree that it’s often warranted. Most of the hijackers behind 9-11 lived here for weeks.

Still, it’s good to know north from south. After saying Abusalha was from South Florida, the Washington Post says he went to high school in Sebastian and lived awhile in Fort Pierce, and his parents live in nearby Vero Beach and own a grocery story in Melbourne. All of those places are more than 65 miles from West Palm Beach, the northernmost point of South Florida. They’re closer to Cocoa Beach, the site of the Kennedy Space Center.

The only exception is a mention of a Facebook picture of Abusalha “smiling in Miami Beach.” Now, a New York Times story does say that he was born in West Palm Beach. Still a flimsy premise, I suggest. If the story were about me, would it say I was “from” New Jersey? Not likely. Not after living most of my life in South Florida.

The Post does a lot of noodling on how religious Abusalha was — either to show a connection between his faith and his fighting, or to show how a good boy could go bad. But the efforts largely flounder like a kid on the first day of summer swimming class.

The newspaper quotes Orlando Taylor, who says he’s a close friend with Abusalha’s older brother:

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