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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As usual, good Francis and bad Benedict at the BBC


The honeymoon continues for Pope Francis and the press.

Coverage of the pope’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories was rather good. Save for a brief flutter over what language Jesus spoke, the press coverage was sympathetic, balanced and thoughtful, and in marked contrast to the treatment afforded Benedict when he traveled to Germany or England or Mexico.

Yet the visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories also highlighted the shortcomings of the craft of journalism — shortcomings not in the form of errors or omissions, but unexamined assumptions. When should a reporter stop and ask himself if he is repeating the conventional wisdom — taking on trust that something is a fact, when it is an opinion?

A BBC story on Francis and the Middle East entitled “Pope Francis cements reputation for deft diplomacy” repeats the now rather tired conventional wisdom of the good Francis / bad Benedict. While the two popes have very different styles, I do not believe there are facts that would substantiate the good/bad claims.

Benedict has had a tough time of it from the start. While the German press lauded his election, the first German pope in 1000 years, the secular press in Europe seems to have taken against him from the start. There was no honeymoon for Benedict from The Economist in 2005, which saw him as “an unsurprising choice.” And “to many, he will inevitably be a disappointing one.”

While the BBC stated:

Critics have attacked not just his tough conservative stance – speculating that it may alienate churchgoers of the 21st Century who prefer a more flexible doctrine – but also wonder whether the 78-year-old is charismatic enough to engender much affection.

By way of contrast, Francis has been described as a breath of fresh air by the secular press. In choosing Francis as its “person of the year” for 2013, Time magazine’s editor Nancy Gibb wrote Francis had:

done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.

The new pope was a kinder, gentler man, Time believed, who had rejected “church dogma.” He was teaching a softer, more inclusive Catholicism, noting his:

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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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What language did Jesus speak? The Tablet knows

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So, did the pope and Israel’s prime minister have a rancorous exchange in Jerusalem over the topic of Jesus’ mother tongue?

One thing is certain: Headline writers had a field day with the “spar”, as Reuters characterized the encounter. Was it a “spat,” as per The Chicago Tribune? Did they “publicly bicker” as per The Age of Melbourne? Did Francis “correct” Netayahu, as Time reported? Or was the National Post  correct in calling it a “quibble”?

Commentators were quick to jump. I’ve seen a fair number of anti-Semitic comments on Facebook, as well as anti-Catholic ones (I move in mixed circles), that denounce Francis or Netanyahu with vigor.

Aslan Reza tweeted his views:

Carolyn Glick of The Jerusalem Post noted the political ramification of the remarks, placing them in the context of what she saw as a failed papal visit that set back Catholic-Jewish relations.

In one of his blander pronouncements during the papal visit, Netanyahu mentioned on Monday that Jesus spoke Hebrew. There was nothing incorrect about Netanyahu’s statement. Jesus was after all, an Israeli Jew.

But Francis couldn’t take the truth. So he indelicately interrupted his host, interjecting, “Aramaic.”

Netanyahu was probably flustered. True, at the time, educated Jews spoke and wrote in Aramaic. And Jesus was educated. But the language of the people was Hebrew. And Jesus preached to the people, in Hebrew.

Netanyahu responded, “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.”

Reuters’ write-up of the incident tried to explain away the pope’s rudeness and historical revisionism, asserting, “Modern-day discourse about Jesus is complicated and often political.” The report went on to delicately mention, “Palestinians sometimes describe Jesus as a Palestinian. Israelis object to that.”

Israelis “object to that” because it is a lie.

Setting aside the politics of the Middle East and inter-faith realtions, when it comes to the reporting on the interchange between pontiff and prime minister Yair Rosenberg of The Tablet has the story. Offering a cross section of headlines that painted the exchange in tense or harsh tones, Rosenberg wrote:

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What was the ‘real’ reason Francis made this pilgrimage?

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It’s time, once again, to face the obvious. There is no subject in the world of religion that matters more to the big-hitters in mainstream journalism than the world travels of a pope. Therefore, we have work to do, after the wave of media coverage of the Middle East trip by media superstar Pope Francis.

The big question for today: Why did Pope Francis go to Jerusalem, with stops in tense locales nearby?

Let’s ask The New York Times:

JERUSALEM – Pope Francis inserted himself directly into the collapsed Middle East peace process on Sunday, issuing an invitation to host the Israeli and Palestinian presidents for a prayer summit meeting at his apartment in the Vatican, in an overture that has again underscored the broad ambitions of his papacy.

Francis took the unexpected step in Bethlehem, where he became the first pontiff ever to fly directly into the West Bank and to refer to the Israeli-occupied territory as the “State of Palestine.” …

Presidents Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority accepted the pope’s invitation to pray together; Mr. Abbas’s spokesman said the meeting would take place June 6. … Pope Francis’ actions on Sunday posed a striking example of how, barely a year into his papacy, he is seeking to reassert the Vatican’s ancient role as an arbiter of international diplomacy.

The meeting will primarily be symbolic, but this was the big news.

Let’s ask the same question to The Washington Post, which gave major attention to the invitation to Peres and Abbas, but led with:

JERUSALEM – Pope Francis honored Jews killed in the Holocaust and other attacks and kissed the hands of Holocaust survivors as he capped his three-day Mideast trip with poignant stops Monday at some of the holiest and most haunting sites for Jews.

At Israel’s request, Francis deviated from his whirlwind itinerary to pray at Jerusalem’s Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial, giving the Jewish state his full attention a day after voicing strong support for the Palestinian cause.

Finally, let’s ask The Los Angeles Times:

A day after he threw his moral weight behind the establishment of a Palestinian state, Pope Francis paid tribute Monday at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the man whose dream of a Jewish homeland led to the creation of modern-day Israel.

It was a finely balanced gesture on the last day of the pontiff’s visit to the Holy Land, where even the smallest acts are fraught with political symbolism. … The move is likely to annoy many Palestinians, who blame Zionism for the confiscation and occupation of their ancestral lands. But a day earlier, Israelis were themselves dissatisfied with the pope’s decision to travel directly to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, from Jordan rather than arrive in Israel first, and with the Vatican’s pointed reference to the “state of Palestine.”

So what is the unifying thread that runs through these basic stories on the final events of this high-profile papal trip?

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The pope and the Palestinians: AP tries balanced reporting

As Pope Francis prepares to visit the Holy Land this weekend, the Associated Press takes a stab at balance in a story on West Bank Palestinians — a report that nevertheless leaves a number of holes.

The story at first walks the beaten path of the Palestinian plight — poverty, crowded camps, unemployment — but for once, it isn’t all blamed on Israel:

Many feel increasingly neglected by the Palestinian self-rule government and the United Nations agency responsible for their welfare. Resentment can be seen in the rise in stone-throwing protests by camp youths and a recent two-month strike of thousands of local employees of the U.N. aid agency demanding higher wages.

The article does play a familiar note: the supposed right of return of Palestinians to their homeland.

In Palestinian public discourse, a large-scale return is seen as the main goal. Israel vehemently objects, saying this would dilute its Jewish majority. Palestinian leaders say each refugee has the right to choose where to live, including in a future Palestinian state. The Palestinians want to set up such a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

As you can see, however, the story does give at least a sentence to Israel’s position. And in a previous paragraph, it points out that Palestinian refugees and their descendants now number more than 5 million people.

The AP story has other fresh material as well. It tells of a budget cutback in free meals in schools by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. It says that the refugees “feel looked down upon by their better-off urban neighbors” and ignored by the Palestinian Authority. And it cites an unemployed refugee accusing the PA of nepotism, saving jobs for families of officials.

AP also says that “Teens routinely throw stones at Israeli troops or at cars with Israeli license plates passing near the camps,” blunting the image of refugees as total doves. But AP also reports a “sharp rise” in Israeli troop violence against Palestinian refugees — from zero dead and 38 injuries in 2012 to 17 dead and 486 injured in 2013. Fair enough.

What’s wrong with the AP article, then? At least four things.

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NPR asks Vatican experts to discuss hopes of the Orthodox

Try to imagine a story about crucial, tense talks between Democrats and Republicans that only offered material drawn from interviews with Republicans, even when talking about the beliefs and aspirations of the Democrats.

Try to imagine a report about, oh, talks between liberal Episcopalians and conservative Anglicans that only featured commentary from one side or the other (actually, in some mainline publications that’s pretty easy to imagine). Or how about a pre-Super Bowl story that tried to cover the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams in the big game, but only talked to experts skilled in covering one of the teams or only talked to the coaches on one team. Can you imagine veteran journalists doing that?

This brings me to a report by NPR superstar Sylvia Poggioli that ran, online, under this headline: “The 1,000-Year-Old Schism That Pope Francis Seeks To Heal.”

Hear me now: This is not a fatally flawed news story, although some of the information is rather shallow. For example, any discussion of attempts to heal the painful schism between the ancient churches of East and West simply has to begin with, or at least mention, the efforts of St. John Paul II and this issue was a high priority for Pope Benedict XVI as well. NPR didn’t need to get these two popes into the headline, but one sentence in the story itself? That’s a must.

Also, let me note that the sources quoted in the piece are very qualified, especially when it comes to all things Rome. However, let’s see if we can spot a pattern in this report:

Meeting in Jerusalem in 1964, Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras set a milestone: They started the process of healing the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity of the year 1054. Moves toward closer understanding followed, but differences remain on issues such as married clergy and the centralized power of the Vatican.

OK, pause. It’s crucial to know that the smaller Eastern Rite Catholic bodies, like the large churches of Eastern Orthodoxy, already follow the ancient tradition of having married priests and celibate, usually monastic, bishops. While the celibate priesthood is the norm in the West, I have never heard anyone say that this is a big issue affecting healing between Catholics and Orthodox. What’s up with that strange unattributed claim?

Back to the story:

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