Got news? Did Erdogan lead prayers in Hagia Sophia or not?

Eastern Orthodox Christians who follow events in the ancient homelands of the Eastern church have had May 29th marked on their calendars for several weeks now.

Why is that? Because of the following news, or potential news (this particular story is care of a mainstream news site in Finland). Note the time element at the end of this passage:

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government plans to turn Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia Basilica into a mosque in the afternoon and evening and a museum in the morning.

The historical monument, which draws millions of tourists every year, will have the Byzantine frescoes covering its walls cast into shadow by “dark light” so as to avoid offending Islam. The government would thus like to turn what is today seen as a symbol of Christianity back into a place of worship for Muslims, as it was after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Confirmation of the plan came … from the Turkish pro-government daily Yeni Safak, after press leaks … reported the prime minister’s intention to pray in the Byzantine basilica prior to the August presidential elections, possibly as early as May 29.

The date is a highly symbolic one, as it marks the 561st anniversary of the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Ottomans. A few days later the basilica became a mosque on the orders of Mehmet II the Conqueror ad remained so until 1934, when on the decision of the father of the modern Turkish “secular” Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk it was made into a museum.

Of course, for millions of traditional Muslims it is impossible for a building — once it has been used for Islamic worship — to cease being a mosque. This is another one of those issues that leads to debate INSIDE Islam, as can be seen by this debate in Turkey.

At the same time, however, Hagia Sophia is one of the most important Christian holy sites in the world, especially for Eastern Orthodox believers. It contains remnants of Christian frescos that are priceless and of great historical importance, over and above their importance as iconography. The building as a whole, of course, is one of the wonders of the world (click here for a YouTube overview) and for many represents the heart of what remains of Byzantine culture.

So, did Erdogan lead prayers there yesterday or not? If he didn’t carry through on that goal, why not?

I had hoped for coverage from Reuters, at the very least, after previous stories, such as this recent offering:

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‘Openly’ debating a key news issue in 2014 Summer of Sex

Faithful readers of this blog may have noted that your GetReligionistas rarely mention the names of reporters in our posts when we are critiquing news reports, unless a particular issue turns into a pattern that must be discussed.

There is a simple reason for this names-free policy and we have stated it many times: We have all been there in the press doing this difficult work.

We know that, far too often, reporters are assigned impossible stories and then given too little time and too little space. We also know that many errors and biases are actually edited into stories or reflect what is happening at the level of editors, more than the reporters. So we strive — as much as possible — to criticize news organizations, rather than individuals.

Praise, however, is another matter. We often end up mentioning Godbeat veterans who consistently get the job done right.

So readers will know that, when we see the “Peter Smith” byline, we know we are going to get a story that includes lots of basic reporting and, whenever possible, the people on both sides of hot debates are going to get to speak for themselves (as opposed to lots of vague “some” references and second-hand commentary). This is the case, once again, in his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news feature on a key element in the annual oldline Protestant Summer of Sex rites.

The goal here is a high-altitude overview of the doctrinal angles in same-sex marriage debates, with special attention given to events in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church. Thus, the opening:

“Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.”

Well, some chapels anyway.

With this week’s landmark federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, some houses of worship, including those affiliated with more liberal Protestant and Jewish denominations, will be opening their doors to gay couples — and in fact have been doing so for years before they had benefit of a marriage license.

Many other religious groups — including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and conservative evangelical Protestants — are holding fast to traditional doctrine as a matter of course. And for still other religious groups, the ruling only further complicates their long-running debates over homosexuality.

The leader of the region’s United Methodists is immediately given a chance to explain why the judge’s ruling has, primarily, turned up the heat on debates for religious leaders, as opposed to settling the debate.

“The ruling may change the understanding of marriage in the commonwealth, but it doesn’t alter the stand of the United Methodist Church at all,” said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of that denomination. “What it really does is heighten the debate that already exists within the church.”

The denomination forbids involvement of its pastors and churches in blessing same-sex unions. Bishop Bickerton said Thursday he would be issuing a letter urging pastors to find ways within the bounds of church rules to minister to gay couples and members. “I really believe our pastors, all of them, want to be in ministry to the people they’re serving,” he said.

Cautious, but clear words there. And the state of the liberal Presbyterians and other members of the old Mainline Protestant world?

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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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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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WPost probes hot debate on the banks of River Jordan

I have crossed the Jordan River twice in my life and both times the experience was quite memorable. The river itself isn’t much to look at, but the social dynamics surrounding the location are fascinating.

The first trip was a singer in a choral music tour, done with the cooperation of the U.S. government, to perform “The Messiah” for cultural and political leaders in both Israel and Jordan. No big deal, right? However, this effort took place in late December, 1972. Look that up in the history of the Middle East. The second trip was linked to the 2000 pilgrimage that St. John Paul II made to the region. Look that one up, too.

Do the math and I am automatically going to be interested in the Washington Post news feature that ran under the following headline: “Pope picks one of dueling baptism sites in visit to Holy Land.”

This is a solid story and, first things first, I want to praise the wide variety of images and information contained in it. However, at the same time, I want to challenge the Post assumption that most readers would be most interested in the financial and political angles of this story, as opposed to the religions questions that it raises. You can get to both of those subjects from the material at the top of the report:

WEST BANK OF THE JORDAN RIVER – Christians believe that Jesus was immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John the Baptist, who wore a cloak of camel’s hair and lived on locusts and honey in the desert wilderness.

But the Gospels are not precise about which side of the river the baptism took place on — the east bank or the west.

Although it might not matter much to a half-million annual visitors who come to the river for sightseeing or a renewal of faith, it matters very much to tourism officials in Israel and Jordan, who maintain dueling baptism sites, one smack-dab across from the other, with the shallow, narrow, muddy stream serving as international boundary.

Since many of those “visitors” can also be called “pilgrims,” as in believers making pilgrimages, it matters that Pope Francis is poised to become the latest major religious leader — more on that in a minute — to symbolically visit the Bethany Beyond the Jordan site on the Jordanian, or the east, side of the river.

Thinking hard news, it’s logical that the Post team jumped from the Pope Francis news hook straight into dollars, cents, tourism and politics. Viewed from this perspective, what we have here is Israeli tourism officials fighting to protect their market share in a tussle with Jordanian tourism officials.

I get that. I’ve seen that first hand, because the tourism battle is decades old. For starters, it’s easier — some say safer — to visit the Israeli side.

But is that the most important, the most interesting angle to take on this matter, from the viewpoint of the typical reader? I’m not convinced. I would ask: Why are most people going there? Trust me, this dispute is not about the scenery.

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Shock: Russian Orthodoxy gives drag queen thumbs down

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Dear GetReligion readers:

Some of you wrote to say that you wanted to know what I thought of the whole Conchita Wurst episode, referring to the drag queen — the term used in mainstream media reports — who won the recent Eurovision Song Contest. In particular, a few of you want to know what I thought of the coverage of the fact that Russian Orthodox Church leaders have condemned this minor earthquake in popular culture.

People, people, are you surprised that Eastern Orthodox Christian bishops do not think highly of modern trends in sexuality? Remember the case of the Russian bishop who had a church torn down because its priest — apparently he had been drinking — performed a same-sex union rite at its altar? The priest was defrocked and, if I recall correctly, the local bishop had the rubble from the building burned and workers then salted the ground? (I’m trying to find a URL for that old story.)

I am also not surprised that recent statements by the Russian Orthodox hierarchy have received some mainstream media attention, in the wake of events in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics, the media superstar status of the Pussy Riot activists, etc., etc. I mean, how often do you get to put “Russian,” “Orthodox,” “Patriarchate” and “drag queen” into the same news story or even in one spectacular headline?

Here at GetReligion, of course, we are more interested in the news coverage of the event than we are with the event itself. The link several people have shared is for a story by Sophia Kishkovsky, carried by Religion News Service. Readers may also know her byline from work published by The New York Times. Here is a key chunk of it:

The Eurovision contest draws well over 100 million viewers annually, and the contest has become a point of national pride in Russia, which began competing in the 1990s.

“The process of the legalization of that to which the Bible refers to as nothing less than an abomination is already long not news in the contemporary world,” Vladimir Legoyda, chairman of the church’s information department, told the Interfax news agency. “Unfortunately, the legal and cultural spheres are moving in a parallel direction, to which the results of this competition bear witness.”

Legoyda said the result of the competition was “yet one more step in the rejection of the Christian identity of European culture.”

No surprises there. It was good that the story noted that the church simply saw this as another example of a larger trend. It does not appear that bishops rushed to pound out a “Conchita Wurst” document. This rather blogging-style report — which is drawn from press statements and previous media reports — does have more than its share of vague attribution clauses, as in:

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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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Glorious Pascha! The Baltimore Sun gets the key parts right

I keep saying this year after year, but it’s true. One of the greatest challenges for religion-beat specialists, season after season, is the long, steady march of feature stories that editors want you to produce linked to the major holy days in the various world religions.

Easter was always one of the biggest challenges for me, in part because it’s always on Sunday morning (or in the ancient churches, at the stroke of midnight and on into the early hours of morning).

That sounds really obvious, but think it through. That means this story has to appear above the fold on A1 in the biggest newspaper of the week, which means editors have to think very highly of this story. It will also need large and spectacular color photography, for the reasons just mentioned. From the point of view of most secular editors, Easter is also a much more explicitly RELIGIOUS season than, let’s say, Christmas. That’s a problem.

But back to the art issue.

Do you see the problem? How do you get large, spectacular Easter art when that art must be produced BEFORE the holy day itself? And what are most churches — liturgical churches, at least — doing in the days before Easter, when you need to shoot these photos? They are observing the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday — beautiful, but solemn observances that, literally, offer visual images that are the exact opposite of what editors are going to want for that happy, happy Sunday A1 art.

In other words, it’s easier to report about Easter before Easter than it is to photograph Easter before Easter. You almost always end up with something that looks very fake and staged.

All of this is to say that I was rather surprised when I awakened from my post-Pascha (the Eastern Orthodox term for Easter) coma this morning (the service began at 11:30 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m., followed by a giant feast) and discovered that The Baltimore Sun had a produced a quite solid Pascha-Easter story for A1, a package that was way better than the norm.

The focus of the story was on the role of eggs in various Easter rites, but with the major emphasis on the beautiful “red eggs” tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy. The A1 art was a lovely picture of some children lighting beeswax candles at an icon stand on Holy Saturday, with lots of egg art inside the paper. This art was shot earlier in the week when the eggs were being dyed.

The story started with a general overview, before hitting the major themes:

Children pet bunnies and gobble jelly beans. Wal-Mart sells more than 500 types of Easter confection, including unicorn- and space alien-themed baskets. Just a few of them allude to Christianity.

How does eating a package of Peeps recall the man Christians believe redeemed the world by rising from the dead nearly 2,000 years ago? Balancing Easter’s secular and religious sides can be a challenge for area churches.

So you have your Catholic Easter egg hunts, symbolism-free Baptist services and mainline churches with hints of the ancient rites. Then:

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