Got news? Has Kristallnacht come to the Middle East?

There was always an important, yet unstated, idea at the heart of the “On Faith” website at The Washington Post: Religion is an important and powerful force in the real world, but the reality is that religion is all about feelings, experiences and opinions, not facts about history, doctrines, laws, scriptures, traditions and governance that journalists should cover in an accurate and balanced manner.

Needless to say, your GetReligionistas have never embraced that foggy point of view.

As a result, the “On Faith” site has always been dominated by waves of low-cost opinion essays written by religious leaders, offering a mix of analysis and information about events and trends from their own perspectives. Most of this content has meshed comfortably with the interests of the agnostic, spiritual and/or Episcopal views of founding editor Sally Quinn, the legendary force of nature in DC social life and the newspaper’s Style pages.

Alas, “On Faith” never even created a format that consistently showcased the NEWS CONTENT generated by the many fine reporters on the staff of the Post, along with the resources provided by Religion News Service.

Now, as most GetReligion readers know, “On Faith” is changing homes. This PR bulletin came out on Oct. 18:

FaithStreet today announced it has hired Patton Dodd as editor-in-chief of On Faith, The Washington Post‘s popular religion website. Last summer, The Washington Post Company WPO +1.87% made an investment in FaithStreet that included the contribution of On Faith to FaithStreet. Dodd will take over the editorial direction of On Faith, while the Post‘s Sally Quinn will remain founding editor and continue to work closely with the site.

“We’re going to reimagine what covering religion can look like,” Dodd said. “I’ve read On Faith for years, and I’m thrilled about the future of this site. The partnership with FaithStreet and its deep connection to local communities of various faiths will give us an on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening with religious people in this country.”

Dodd will oversee a transition in the editorial mission of On Faith, whose content will continue to include religion news and commentary by religious leaders from across the faith traditions. The scope of the new On Faith will be announced early next year.

So, the site will continue to mix news and opinion, but there will be a “transition” in its editorial mission and its “scope” will change.

Does this mean more news or less news? More information or less?

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The Coptic ghost in those potential flights from Egypt

Let’s start with a few journalistic questions.

Am I surprised that The New York Times has published a story on the possibility that freethinking Egyptians are beginning to flee their troubled nation or, at the very least, to debate whether it is time to do?

No. That’s a perfectly valid news story.

Am I surprised that the team at the world’s most influential newspaper elected to focus this story on political activists, intellectuals, urbanites and artists who fit into the progressive and rather secular mold so popular with journalists from the international press who are based in Cairo?

No. While this is a small percentage of the Egyptian population, this is an essential element in a story on this topic — in large part because of the leadership roles these people played in the secular wing of the Arab spring.

All that said, am I surprised that this timely Times story contains absolutely zero references to a large and imperiled minority in Egypt — 10 percent of the population — that, in the face of deadly violence, is facing a rising tide of questions about its survival after centuries of persecution?

(Cue: Audible sigh.)

Yes, I was surprised that they story does not contain a single reference to the plight of the Coptic Orthodox Christians, along with other members of abused religious minorities in Egypt. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, but I was. (A potential follow-up story: Are Coptic leaders in North America preparing to help their sisters and brothers flee the old country?)

Here is a key chunk of this Times report, which includes a reference to dissident publisher Mohamed Hashem. Try to imagine taking on this topic and, after months of mob violence, not thinking about including the Copts.

Egypt has surrendered citizens to more prosperous countries for generations, unable to provide much hope or opportunity at home. But like Mr. Hashem, many Egyptians who say they are joining a new exodus had been loath to give up on their country; some had postponed the urge to leave, hoping the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 would pave the way to a better life.

Their change of heart signals a dark moment. Many people said they saw no end to the conflict between the military and its Islamist opponents, and no place for those who did not profess loyalty to either one.

Others lamented Egypt’s narrowing political horizons and what seemed like the growing likelihood that a military officer will become Egypt’s next leader. Some people said they were shocked at how cavalier their friends and neighbors had become about the rising level of bloodshed. And for everyone, there was still no relief from the grinding frustrations of daily life, the traffic, the rising prices, the multiplying mounds of trash in the streets.

There is no statistical evidence that more people are emigrating, and the notion remains far from the reach of most Egyptians, reserved for those with the qualifications or connections to find opportunities abroad. In interviews over several days, though, people said their conversations had turned more frequently, and urgently, to leaving; those who considered travel possible were just deciding when.

Please understand. The potential exiles included in this report are interesting and their stories are poignant. They are valid sources.

But is there more to this story than a potential “brain drain” of poets, graphic artists and Internet-economy pioneers?

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Lost in mobs, fire, guns and ink: Is Christ of Sinai safe?

What is the Mona Lisa worth?

At the time of their destruction by the Taliban, what were the Buddhas of Bamiyam worth, in terms of culture, history and money?

With that in mind, let me ask this simple question: What is the Christ of Sinai icon worth? Yes, it is priceless. Yes, for Orthodox believers it is the icon from which all other icons flowed, like the ripples emerging after one stone as been thrown into a still pond. Yes, it is irreplaceable.

Is this a relevant question? Please know that — with the potential chaos in Egypt, with the persecution of Orthodox believers and other religious minorities — many Christians are concerned about the future of the world-famous St. Catherine’s Monastery and the treasures contained inside.

Thus, I was glad to see that Washington Post story that ran the other day on the monastery and the Bedouin tribes that help protect it. It was good to see this story before the monastery was attacked, should that come to pass. It would have been even better to have seen the story on A1, instead of tucked inside. But let’s be thankful for some coverage.

So what is the news? Here is a crucial chunk of background material:

In August, the Egyptian government closed St. Catherine’s Monastery to visitors as a precaution. It was only the third closure in 50 years. While the monastery reopened its doors again after three weeks, Egyptian security forces are now everywhere, shepherding the handful of foreigners into the area in armed convoys.

The monks at the monastery, and the Bedouin who make their living as guides here, stress that the violence is taking place 300 miles to the north. In the northern Sinai, the restive tribes have been sabotaging natural gas pipelines, and smuggling weapons, drugs and gasoline through their network of tunnels with the Gaza Strip. In the power vacuum created by Egypt’s upheaval, the Bedouin there have raised the black flag for militant jihad, and are waging a guerrilla campaign of extortion, kidnapping and targeted assassination against the powers of the state. …

But in the south, the Bedouin tell their children the story of how the Roman emperor Justinian brought their tribe of mason-warriors to the Sinai in the sixth century to build the walled monastery here, and protect the monks with their lives.

So why is this monastery so important? What are the key elements of this story?

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Pay no attention to Rand Paul (or Christian persecution!)

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A Washington Post Politics news blog on Senator Rand Paul’s appearance before the Value Voters Summit in Washington last week has left me perplexed. Reading the article entitled “Rand Paul: ‘There’s a worldwide war on Christianity’”tells me little about what the Kentucky senator said.

Nor am I clear as to what a news blog is for. Is it a vehicle for a reporter to express an opinion about the news, or does this new format permit a newspaper to increase the amount of news stories without having to invest the time and manpower in producing original copy?

Perhaps it was the editorial decision of the Post that what Sen. Paul said was less important than the symbolism of his presence at the meeting of conservative religious activists. Maybe it was fueled by a desire to score points against Paul through irony. It did, however, work very hard in not reporting what the Kentucky senator said nor offering context to his remarks. The headline tells us there is a war on, but does not say who is fighting.

The article begins:

There’s a war raging against Christianity, but the attackers must police themselves, says Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R).

“From Boston to Zanzibar, there’s a worldwide war on Christianity,” the world’s most-practiced religion, he said Friday at the Values Voters Summit, an annual conservative gathering. The intensity of attacks is so high, he later added, that it’s “almost as if we lived in the Middle Ages,” a period that included the Crusades.

Who is waging this war against Christians? Two paragraphs into a five paragraph story we are not told. In the third paragraph we learn the problem is militant Islam, and the solution lies in moderate Islam taking responsibility for their radical kin. Pushing this key fact to the midway point of the story is questionable.

As is the irony. What does the line about the Crusades mean? It is standard Islamist agitprop to blame the crusades for the ills of the Muslim world and its subsequent history of military aggression, and to harken upon the crusades as a dastardly attack on peace loving Muslims by blood thirsty Christians. Some will push this line along with claims that jihad has nothing to do with war against the nonbeliever — nothing to see here folks. Pay no attention to the fact that Islamic jurisprudence holds the doctrine of jihad demands that the “House of Islam” (Dar al-Islam) must subdue the “House of War” (Dar al-Harb, the non-Islamic world). What ever could that mean?

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Pod people: Deja vu on global persecution of Christians

As a rule, I don’t discuss the contents of one of my new Scripps Howard News Service columns here at GetReligion. However, from time to time I need to do so in order to describe some of the content of a new podcast in our GetReligion “Crossroads” series with radio host Todd Wilken & Co.

This is one of those weeks. Click here to listen to the podcast.

Meanwhile, this week’s column for Scripps grew out of all of the reading I did writing a recent GetReligion post on the subject of the recent wave of persecution being inflicted on religious minorities, especially Christians, in Egypt, Syria, Kenya and Pakistan. That post included a link to an early post — a very GetReligion-esque essay — by a senior editor (M.Z. Hemingway to be precise) at the new webzine called The Federalist.

As I worked on that GetReligion post, I kept having flashbacks to an earlier Scripps column I wrote long ago on the same topic (“Persecution: The power of apathy“). Eventually, that’s where I decided to start this week’s column:

Churches were burning in Pakistan, while African Christians died and radical forms of Islam threatened monasteries, sanctuaries and villages in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

That was 1997. Human-rights scholar Paul Marshall kept hearing one question over and over when he addressed this rising tide of persecution: Why didn’t more American Christians protest as their sisters and brothers in the faith were jailed, raped, tortured and killed?

Some Christians, he said, were distracted by apocalyptic talk in which persecution was a good thing, a sign that the end of the world was near. Others weren’t that interested in violence on the other side of the world that threatened believers in ancient churches that looked nothing like their own suburban megachurches.

“The result is a stunning passivity that calmly accepts such suffering,” said Marshall, in an interview for an earlier column for Scripps Howard News Service. “Perhaps this … could be justified if we were dealing with our own suffering. But to do this with the suffering of another amounts to theological sadism.”

That was 1997. Marshall had just co-written the groundbreaking book “Their Blood Cries Out,” with journalist Lela Gilbert. Since then, I have worked with both of these writers in global projects about religion-news coverage.

After I filed the column, an editor emailed back a logical question. I had used the punch phrase, “That was 1997″ twice. Was that intentional or a typo?

Very intentional, I replied.

In fact I spent about an hour trying to find a clear, concise way to set up the haunting similarities between the religious persecution scene in 1997, which led to “Their Blood Cries Out” and developments in the past year or two that led to Marshall, Gilbert and Catholic lawyer Nina Shea writing their new book, “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.”

I found the similarities between the events, and thus the column, from 1997 and the waves of bloody headlines — often from the same nations — from the past two weeks to more than haunting, but downright agonizing. More on that in a minute.

So are some GetReligion readers thinking logical thoughts as I spell all of this out? Thoughts like, “Well, of course, Marshall, Shea and activists of their ilk think this is a front-burner issue. They are conservative Christians and we all know that conservative Christians see persecution behind every rock.”

That’s part of what I found so haunting. Many media people were already saying that back in 1997.

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LATimes looks at Egypt; sees only signs of Islamic life

Over the past two years, your GetReligionistas have frequently urged (one example here) journalists to cover news from Egypt in a way that draws some lines between that complex land’s many clashing religious camps, especially the Muslim groups that take different approaches to blasphemy and tolerance when dealing with religious minorities.

It helps that the Pew Forum team has offered solid poll data on precisely these issues. Click here for a Google search linked to that information. Dig deep.

Needless to say, I had high hopes when I saw the majestic double-decker Los Angeles Times headline that said:

God is everywhere in Egypt

The social and cultural mix is highly complex, but among Islamists, progressives and conservatives, the many faces of piety are rarely absent from discourse.

Finally, I thought, we are going to get a story that delivers the goods!

Uh, not really.

Instead, we got a story that offered insights into the political and religious differences between Muslims in Egypt, especially the divide between urban centers and rural regions, and that’s that. Believe it or not, the piece says next to nothing about the crucial issue I mentioned earlier (and a central issue in the Pew Forum data), which is the complex nature of beliefs in Egypt about liberal values such as freedom of religion, women’s rights and social tolerance. Here’s the opening of the report:

CAIRO – In politically fractured Egypt, there’s one belief that almost every faction seems to hold in common: God is on our side. (And not, therefore, on yours.)

Egypt’s social and cultural mix is hieroglyphic in its complexity: Islamists, progressives, conservatives, and those marching in lock step with the powerful military. But in the Arab world’s most populous and influential country, the many guises of piety are rarely absent from discourse.

For me, the first red flag went up with the use of the term “Arab world.” Was this going to be yet another piece that confused being Arab with being Muslim? And what about the millions of Egyptians who stress that to be an Egyptian is not the same as to be an Arab?

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Praying Jews flock to the Temple Mount; world notices

If there is a “Ground Zero” for the world’s three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — it would be the Temple Mount, or “Haram Al-Sharif” (“Noble Sanctuary”) in the center of Jerusalem.

Jews revere it as the site of the First and Second Temples, wherein the “Holy of Holies” was contained. Christians revere the Temple as the place where Jesus walked and reasoned with the rabbis — as well as chastised the Pharisees and money changers. Muslims view the site as the the third holiest location in Islam, the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem and ascent to heaven.

Within the space of two days, two prestigious newspapers have covered the relatively recent phenomenon of more and more Jews, mostly Israelis, visiting the Temple Mount and praying, usually surreptitiously. Though captured by the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1967 “Six-Day War,” the Temple Mount was almost immediately returned to Muslim control, and Jews were advised not to visit.

No longer, says The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, both of whose Jerusalem correspondents have investigated. Both stories document the relatively quiet return of worshipping Jews to the site, the occasional protests of Muslims there, and the now-increasing warnings from local Islamic leaders that unless the Israeli government does something, matters could get out of hand.

From Jodi Rudoren at the Times:

For decades the Israelis drawn to the site were mainly a fringe of hard-core zealots, but now more mainstream Jews are lining up to enter, as a widening group of Israeli politicians and rabbis challenge the longstanding rules constraining Jewish access and conduct. Brides go on their wedding days, synagogue and religious-school groups make regular outings, and many surreptitiously skirt the ban on non-Muslim prayer, like a Russian immigrant who daily recites the morning liturgy in his mind, as he did decades ago in the Soviet Union.

Palestinian leaders say the new activity has created the worst tension in memory around the landmark Al Aksa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, and have called on Muslims to defend the site from “incursions.” A spate of stone-throwing clashes erupted this month: on Wednesday, three Muslims were arrested and an Israeli police officer wounded in the face. And on Friday thousands of Arab citizens of Israel rallied in the north, warning that Al Aksa is in danger.

“We reject these religious visits,” Sheik Ekrima Sa’eed Sabri, who oversees Muslim affairs in Jerusalem, said in an interview. “Our duty is to warn,” he added. “If they want to make peace in this region, they should stay away from Al Aksa.”

Writing for the Monitor, Crista Case Bryant reports:

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Intended consequences — The Times & Jewish Jerusalem

Choosing determines all human decisions. In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services. All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another. Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference.

– Ludwig von Mises, On Human Action. (San Francisco: Fox  Wilkes, 1996 4th rev. ed.).

Newspaper writing is about making choices. They range from choosing a topic and its parameters to the style of writing, the story’s length and the degree of context down to the language used. Choices are conscious and unconscious. While I should think about the framing of a story — being aware of the worldview I bring to an issue — before I write, I do not do it as often as I should.

But the preconceived notions and assumption I bring add value as I can place stories in their historical/political context. I am able to discern if issue X is important, urgent or tired. Spin from PR flacks seldom moves me. Yet I have never written a sports story and can draw upon no well of knowledge to make an informed choice.

The conscious and unconscious choice applies to language. When I write “marriage equality” rather than “gay marriage” I am making a political choice with my vocabulary that signals the editorial stance of the publication or my personal views. This was especially true when I wrote for the Jerusalem Post. Through my upbringing and culture I knew to write “Jerusalem” as it would not have occurred to me to write “Al Quds”. But I learned to say “Judea and Samaria” not the “Occupied Territories” and “separation barrier” not “the wall” in line with the newspaper’s editorial policies. The vocabulary I brought to a story, whether innate to my worldview or learned from my employers, framed the article.

Choice results in consequences, whether intended or not. Let me draw your attention to the work of The Times foreign correspondent Michael Binyon to illustrate this point.

Binyon has penned a superior piece on one of the major under reported stories from the Arab Spring — the plight of Arab Christians. Taking as its news peg a report on a conference of church leaders in Amman hosted by King Abdullah of Jordan The Times article entitled “Middle East Christians face a bleak future” takes an indirect, but highly effective route in telling its story. It is a master class lesson in the craft of newspaper writing.

Yet this story also rang alarm bells within the Jewish community in Britain. “Did conference speakers call for the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem?”, a prominent Jewish activist asked me after she read the article. “Had the Church of England gone over to the replacement theology camp?” This did not appear in a surface reading of the paper, but I immediately grasped her concern when I read the story again through her eyes.

The Times lede is beautifully written.

Their churches have been bombed, burnt and ransacked. Thousands flee their homes to seek safety in exile, as ­Islamist extremists incite mobs to ­attack the dwindling communities that remain. Christians in the Middle East are today facing the ­greatest dangers they have known for centuries.

Moving from a strong opening, the article succinctly gives the who, what, when and where — before moving into an extended treatment of the why. Again, this is nicely and professionally done — you see the hand of a professional at work here.

The article then passes to a serious of comments and observations from participants, that give substance to the theme articulated in the lede. And at the end we hear from Church of England (hurrah!).

The Anglicans were well represented. The Episcopal bishops of Egypt and Jerusalem were joined by the Rev. Toby Howarth from Lambeth Palace and former Bishop Michael Langrish of Exeter representing the Archbishop of Canterbury. Mr Howarth made the point that Western Christians too often had a skewed assumption that Christianity was an import to the Middle East rather than an export from it. And he underlined the importance of intra-Christian and intra-Muslim dialogue.

He was also one of the few speakers to note the importance of women in faith issues. Only two nuns joined the panel of 80 male clerics. One male speaker said that if faith issues were left to women half the problems would disappear immediately.

Aside from the male cleric’s patronizing comment about women — and what did he mean by saying that if half the people (men) left you would have half the problems you now have? — there seemed little objectionable in these comments, and nothing that would suggest an anti-Jewish attack from the Church of England.

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