Mild case of Christian-versus-Hindu violence

orissa riotsPlease read the following section of a report from the Catholic News Service, which includes material from a hospital bed interview with Father Thomas Chellen, the 55-year-old director of the Catholic pastoral center at Konjamendi in the Indian state of Orissa:

Following the Aug. 23 murder of a Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, by Maoist extremists, Father Chellen said Hindu mobs started attacking Christian centers in Kandhamal, the district where the slain leader was based. …

“They began our crucifixion parade,” said Father Chellen. The gang of about 50 armed Hindus “beat us up and led us like culprits along the road” to the burned pastoral center. “There they tore my shirt and started pulling off the clothes of the nun. When I protested, they beat me hard with iron rods. Later, they took the sister inside (and) raped her while they went on kicking and teasing me, forcing (me) to say vulgar words,” said the priest who has cuts, bruises and swollen tissue all over his body and stitches on his face.

“Later both of us, half-naked, were taken to the street, and they ordered me to have sex with the nun in public, saying nuns and priests do it. As I refused, they went on beating me and dragged us to the nearby government office. Sadly, a dozen policemen were watching all this,” he said.

Angry at his plea to the police for help, the mob beat the bleeding priest again.

This situation is totally out of control and you can find more reports on the violence at this weblog — Orissa Burning.

Or you can go read a very, very low-key New York Times report that skated right by me in the online version of the newspaper. Perhaps it was that strong, passionate headline: “Faiths Clash, Displacing Thousands in East India.”

There we read the following. Now tell me if you think the Times buried the lede on this one.

At least 3,000 people, most of them Christians, are living in government-run relief camps after days of Christian-versus-Hindu violence in eastern India, government officials said.

The government said that many people were also living in the jungle without any shelter or security because of the tensions, which erupted in violence after a Hindu leader was killed Saturday. At least 10 people, most of them Christians, have been killed since.

Christian community leaders say that at least 1,000 homes of Christians have been set on fire since Monday, rendering more than 5,000 people homeless. Many of those living in the jungle were without food or water, said the Rev. Dibakar Parichha, a priest at the Roman Catholic church in Phulbani, a town in Orissa State. Father Parichha said that about 90 places of worship, including small churches and prayer halls, had been burned down. Local officials said the figure was about 20.

The violence has occurred in Kandhamal, a district in Orissa State that has a history of communal and ethnic clashes. The latest conflict started Saturday night, when unidentified armed men stormed a Hindu school in Kandhamal and killed the Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his followers.

The police suspected that Maoist rebels were responsible. But Hindus blamed Christians.

Now, if you read that this was “Christian-versus-Hindu violence” and then you read that the riots began with the death of a Hindu leader, what would you assume? Let’s see, that would be Christians attacking Hindus and a Hindu leader was killed, thus leading to violence in which Hindus responded to the violence against them.

Read the above passage again. Way, way later we find out that the Hindu leader was, apparently, killed by “Maoist rebels.” The world does not contain many Catholic nuns and priests who are “Maoist rebels.” The Times reports that “police suspected” that Maoists did the deed. Catholic News Service reports this murder as fact.

Instead of offering a hat tip to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher on this one, let me share a piece of his post on this — in my opinion — bizarre little story in our culture’s newspaper of record.

Ah, yes, “faiths clash;” what’s next for the Times, reporting a gang rape by saying, “Sexes clash”? I’ve noticed this over the years when the MSM reports on violence members of other religions inflict on a Christian minority in a faraway land: they tend to present it as Just One of Those Things — that is, as if there really were no victims, only clashing parties. I noticed it six years ago, when Baptist medical missionaries serving the poor in Shia-controlled Lebanon were murdered by Muslims. The reporting I read framed it as a “faiths clash” deal. You know, Muslims and Christians are fighting, who can say who’s right, yadda yadda…

In a way, I think the opening of the Times story is worse than that — it suggests the exact opposite of what appears to be happening. Again, the story says this is a case of “Christian-versus-Hindu violence.”

I will try to keep an eye on this one, seeking reporting that documents the role of the Maoists in triggering this. If there has been violence by Christians, in response, it would be good to see that documented, too.

However, I will end with a final quote from the Catholic News Service report:

Asked about the how the nun coped with the trauma, Father Chellen said: “We had no option and were simply following their commands. We resisted as much as we could. This is like being tortured for Christ.”

Photo: From the World Prout Assembly website, a photo from earlier riots in the region.

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You gotta have faith

interfaiithSo I’m out here in beautiful Denver covering the Democratic Convention (I also came for my sister-in-law’s awesome naturalization ceremony last week!) and it’s been a blast. The spectacle is amazing, the crowds are enthusiastic, the alcohol is flowing (even in the morning!), the protesters are fun to watch. It’s everything I could have hoped for in a convention.

On Sunday I attended the interfaith worship service that kicked off the convention. I’ve had fun looking through various media reports of the lively event.

The service was disrupted almost immediately by a protester who opposed Barack Obama’s position on abortion. Shortly after the first protester was escorted out of the event, another one rose. Then another. And then the first keynote address focused on abortion. (This might be a good thing to ponder for readers who wonder what abortion has to do with media coverage of religion.) Christianity Today had some awesome live-blogging of the event and relative-of-this-blog Sarah Pulliam (who I got to meet yesterday) is covering all of the religion angles throughout the convention. Catholic News Service has a great straightforward write-up from a Catholic perspective. This Boston Herald notebook piece was probably the best short write-up of the event. It shows that even if you don’t have a lot of words, you can accurately characterize what went down.

I filed a story on the event, and I led with the abortion theme — as did many other reporters. The Associated Press, for instance, shipped a story about Rev. Charles Blake’s sermon opposing abortion. the Denver Post led with the abortion protests (and ended with protests from Latinos who felt the service wasn’t inclusive enough!).

Rocky Mountain News reporter Paul Anthony filed several stories about the day’s activities, including the only one I read that caught one of the odder parts of Sister Helen Prejean’s crowd-pleasing, charismatic address. He began another report this way:

Abortion has stormed onto the stage of the Democratic National Convention’s opening event.

Bishop Charles E. Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, called on presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama to “follow through on his promise . . . to reduce the number of abortions” while stopping just short of criticizing the Democratic Party for its support of the practice.

“Surely we cannot be pleased with . . . millions of terminated pregnancies,” Blake said to applause from the nearly full Wells Fargo Theater. “Something within us must be calling for a better way. If we do not resist at this point, at what point will we resist?”

I suppose it’s technically true that Blake’s comments received applause. I was smack dab in the middle of the venue, which housed a couple thousand people, and I heard someone clapping off to my left and maybe two people to my right. If there were more, there weren’t many more. It’s interesting to see how different reporters cover the same thing in different ways. Here’s how Dallas Morning News columnist Wayne Slater’s described the same thing:

“Surely we cannot be pleased with the routine administration of millions of surgically terminated pregnancies,” he thundered from the stage. “If we do not resist at this point, at what point do we resist?”

A smattering of applause.

He went on to say that, although Christians are sharply divided, they can find common ground in supporting programs to reduce the number of abortions.

A standing ovation.

Another AP report, filed by Eric Gorski, did a good job of covering the event and putting it in context. But he somehow didn’t mention the abortion issue. While some mainstream media acted like the interfaith gathering will help more evangelicals and “values voters” cross the political divide, Gorski explained how the religious outreach of Democrats differs from Republicans:

One hallmark of Democratic faith efforts at the convention is diversity, which might soften objections from party activists wary of the Christian right or any mixing of religion and politics. Behind the scenes, efforts to attract the religious vote will concentrate largely on Christian “values voters.”

“If we create or become a mirror image of the religious right, we have failed,” said Burns Strider, who ran religious outreach for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and now does faith-based political consulting. “But if we have increased the number of chairs around the table, … then we’ve succeeded.”

One thing I will note is that all civil religion has diversity. All civil religion looks for common denominator beliefs. As the Rev. Barry Lynn pointed out in his Beliefnet post, the right does interfaith stuff, too.

MormonWorkerStill, I’m just happy that Gorski isn’t assuming that visible religiosity is all it takes to get those religious Republicans into the Democratic Party. The AP story also looked for tangible evidence of religious outreach and whether it is having any effect. Now that I’ve had a day to reflect on the event, I’m amazed at how quickly Gorski turned that story out. Neglecting to mention the dominant abortion theme is odd but he packed the piece with information and context.

For a bad example, I have to point out the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s lede:

On the eve of their national convention, Democrats appeared eager to woo a segment of the electorate more identified with the GOP in recent presidential elections: the God vote.

What does that even mean? Argh. The media have underreported the presence of religious adherents in the Democratic Party and hyped the heck out of the values voters on the right. Usually the stories are on shaky ground, evidence wise, and are just used to push a commonly accepted meme. Now if the reporters actually think that the interfaith service would woo evangelicals in the GOP, they are probably high or know nothing about culturally conservative evangelicals.

The Omaha World-Herald had the same problem:

Democrats signaled Sunday that they aren’t ceding the churchgoing vote to Republicans in this presidential election.

Was that the signal? I could be wrong, but the type of churchgoers who would be moved by this service are probably already voting Democratic. And the data do not suggest that efforts such as this are having a tremendous effect on moving religious votes.

One of the most interesting parts of the service were the prayers and addresses from Muslims. Al Jazeera had a good write-up for that angle.

Other good comprehensive write-ups include National Public Radio and Washington Times.

Robert Tiernan of the Freedom from Religion Foundation also disrupted the service, attempting to shout down organizer Leah Daughtry when she said that Democrats were people of faith. It wasn’t as dramatic as the abortion protests but it’s interesting that no reporters mentioned that.

There are tons of religious angles throughout this convention, with invocations and benedictions each day of the convention, a new “faith caucus” and meetings of religious groups. Please let us know if you see particularly good or bad coverage.

Photos were taken by my husband. The second photo shows that even the protests have a religion angle to cover.

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Property of Jesus

prodigal2You may have heard that the son of a major Hamas leader announced that he is Christian. But if your curiosity was piqued as to why he converted, read Haaretz reporter Avi Issacharoff’s story about Masab Yousuf.

The article was a model in some ways for religious reporters. First, the lede was memorable, underscoring the man-bites-dog theme of the story:

A moment before beginning his dinner, Masab, son of West Bank Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef, glances at the friend who has accompanied him to the restaurant where we met. They whisper a few words and then say grace, thanking God and Jesus for putting food on their plates.

It takes a few seconds to digest this sight: The son of a Hamas MP who is also the most popular figure in that extremist Islamic organization in the West Bank, a young man who assisted his father for years in his political activities, has become a rank-and-file Christian.

Second, Issacharoff asked Masab the proper questions. It might have been tempting for the reporter to describe Masab’s conversion in a sentence or two. But Issacharoff let the subject speak Rosebud style, which as the exchange below illustrates was a wise move:

How were you exposed to Christianity?

“It began about eight years ago. I was in Jerusalem and I received an invitation to come and hear about Christianity. Out of curiosity I went. I was very enthusiastic about what I heard. I began to read the Bible every day and I continued with religion lessons. I did it in secret, of course. I used to travel to the Ramallah hills, to places like the Al Tira neighborhood, and to sit there quietly with the amazing landscape and read the Bible. A verse like “Love thine enemy” had a great influence on me. At this stage I was still a Muslim and I thought that I would remain one. But every day I saw the terrible things done in the name of religion by those who considered themselves ‘great believers.’ I studied Islam more thoroughly and found no answers there. I reexamined the Koran and the principals of the faith and found how it is mistaken and misleading. The Muslims borrowed rituals and traditions from all the surrounding religions.”

The story was not perfect, however. Its chief flaw was a lack of context. While I use this criticism frequently, it really applies to Issacharoff’s article. Consider the following passage in which Masab warns the readers of the Israeli-based Haaretz:

“You Jews should be aware: You will never, but never have peace with Hamas. Islam, as the ideology that guides them, will not allow them to achieve a peace agreement with the Jews. They believe that tradition says that the Prophet Mohammed fought against the Jews and that therefore they must continue to fight them to the death. They have to take revenge against anyone who did not agree to accept the Prophet Mohammed, like the Jews who are seen in the Koran as monkeys and the sons of pigs. They speak in terms of historical rights that were taken from them. In the view of Hamas, peace with Israel contradicts sharia and the Koran, and the Jews have no right to remain in Palestine.”

Those comments are harsh. Although they might be true, Issacharoff should have quoted an academic or outside expert to verify this claim, as well as others that Masab makes. The lack of context can be viewed as a tacit endorsement of Masab’s views of the relationship between Islam and Judaism.

In addition, the article’s headline is odd. The story of the prodigal son in the New Testament is about a fallen-away Christian or Jew who returns to His Father. By using this headline, are Haaretz’s editors saying that Masab will return to Islam? Or that Masab’s ancestry is Jewish, presumably because his family is from Palestine, and that he will return to a Jewish conception of God?

Bottomline: this story got religion — about Masab’s experience of it at least.

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The rite stuff in Fort Worth?

GregandAugFor years, Anglican-warfare watchers have been paying close attention to contacts between the old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Communion and the leadership of the Catholic Church. And, of course, one of the most interesting and candid addresses at the recent Lambeth Conference of the world’s Anglican bishops (or about 70 percent of them) was delivered by Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper, with the title “The Aim of Our Dialogue Has Receded Further,” urging Anglicans to say true to basic Christian traditions about scripture. Click here for a Catholic News Service report on that.

Anything involving Rome and people linked to Canterbury is going to be big news, but any pivotal talks about unity — real unity — are going to take a long time to filter out into the open. For one thing, strong voices in the liberal wings of the Catholic establishment in England and in America are not anxious to see a mini-wave of Anglican traditionalists swim the Tiber. That tension has existed for decades. It’s all very complex and slow, slow, slow.

All of this is to note that the Dallas Morning News is now paying close attention to a Texas development on this front, a development that also shows the close connections between the World Wide Web and activists on both sides of the Anglican-Episcopal crisis.

To watch how this happens click here, then here, then here for the News report. In what order should you click them? Does it matter?

Here’s the top of Sam Hodges’ story:

A delegation of Episcopal priests from Fort Worth paid a visit to Catholic Bishop Kevin Vann earlier this summer, asking for guidance on how their highly conservative diocese might come into “full communion” with the Catholic Church.

Whether that portends a serious move to turn Fort Worth Episcopalians and their churches into Catholics and Catholic churches is a matter of dispute. The Rev. William Crary, senior rector of the Fort Worth diocese, confirmed that on June 16 he and three other priests met with Bishop Vann, leader of the Fort Worth Catholic diocese, and presented him a document that is highly critical of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

The document states that the overwhelming majority of Episcopal clergy in the Fort Worth diocese favor pursuing an “active plan” to bring the diocese into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Now, if you want to read more of the fine details — and they are amazing — you have to head to the World Wide Web, where a crucial name emerges in the breaking of this story. That would be Katie Sherrod, a veteran voice in Texas media, an outspoken critic of the Fort Worth diocese and the wife of an outspoken Episcopal priest. Her “Desert’s Child” weblog is a perfect example of the kind of activist site that is playing a major role in the Episcopal-Anglican conflict (and in many other similar battles, all across the spectrum of American faith).

You see, someone gave Sherrod (on the left) what certainly appears to be the actual document from the talks (on the right) between the local Anglo-Catholics and the Catholic bishop. That document can now, naturally, be reached through a Dallas Morning News weblog, as well. This is the way things are done these days.

It’s all about the documents, people. There are all kinds of sites out there packed with all kinds of opinions. But the sites that matter the most to mainstream reporters — sites on the left as well as the right — are the ones that let the documents, the facts, the dates and the names speak for themselves.

And here is a crucial passage about that meeting with Bishop Vann, taken from the leaked document:

The icon presented to his Excellency Bishop Vann, an icon of both St. Gregory and St. Augustine, represents our desire to return home to Rome our first and true spiritual home.

What is it that we can offer to the greater Church? We believe we can offer a Catholic expression which for too long has been separated from the Universal Church. This is a tradition of inspiring liturgy, devout spirituality, loving pastoral care and a living spirituality. We believe it has a special and unique witness to the Faith, which we humbly offer as a beautiful jewel in the Catholic crown.

St. Gregory? Now would that be St. Gregory, as in the ancient “Liturgy of St. Gregory,” which happens to be one of the rites used by Western Rite congregations that are in Communion with Eastern Orthodoxy?

Read the document. What do you think about the news reports on this? Why not mention some of the document details in the coverage on dead tree pulp? Did the Sherrod blog item lead directly to mainstream coverage? Does it matter?

To me, this does seem to be hinting at a move beyond a mere “Anglican Use” status, which currently exists, and into an actual Anglican Rite in Communion with Rome.

Icon: St. Gregory and St. Augustine of Canterbury.

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John Edwards’ “special energy”

41CZ3QJZM8LAny story of moral failing has religious overtones, and sex scandals are no exception. They usually involve broken religious vows and provoke all sorts of questions about the religious views of the participants.

Usually the mainstream media can’t get enough of sex scandals. But for some reason, they constructed a cone of silence around John Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter. Whether or not the media should cover sex scandals such as these, the bizarre double standard only reinforces perceptions of bias. Anyway, there will be many more stories to come out of the sordid affair, probably dealing with the payments Hunter has received from those within the Edwards camp. And there may be interesting religious angles to come.

The story with the biggest religious angles thus far isn’t about Edwards so much as Hunter. I’m not quite sure why Newsweek reporter Jonathan Darman didn’t publish this story months ago, but he has a really interesting look at Hunter and her spiritual views:

I struck up a conversation with the woman at the next event, as we waited outside. She told me her name and asked me what my astrological sign was, which I thought was a little unusual. I told her. She smiled, and began telling me her life story: how she was working as a documentary-film maker, living with a friend in South Orange, N.J., but how she’d previously had “many lives.” She’d worked, she said, as an actress and as a spiritual adviser. She was fiercely devoted to astrology and New Age spirituality. She’d been a New York party girl, she’d been married and divorced, she’d been a seeker and a teacher and was a firm believer in the power of truth.

Hunter told Darman that she had met Edwards at a bar in New York and thought he was giving off a special energy. Darman cultivates Hunter as a source — in his mind at least. She appears to think of him more as a friend. They meet at a bar in New York:

Her speech was peppered with New Age jargon–human beings were dragged down by “blockages” to their actual potential; history was the story of souls entering and escaping our field of consciousness. A seminal book for her had been Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” Her purpose on this Earth, she said, was to help raise awareness about all this, to help the unenlightened become better reflections of their true, repressed selves.

She explains to Darman that Edwards is an old soul who had barely tapped into his potential. She believes that he could become a transformational leader such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ghandi. Eckhart Tolle is a popular spiritualist author who is big in the church of Oprah. Here’s a snippet from his Wikipedia entry explaining his writings:

Tolle’s non-fiction bestseller The Power of Now emphasizes the importance of being aware of the present moment as a way of not being caught up in thoughts of the past and future. His later book A New Earth further explores the structure of the human ego and how this acts to distract people from their present experience of the world. It is the feeding of the human ego that is thought to be the source of inner and outer conflict. Only in examining one’s ego may people begin to see beyond it and obtain a sense of spiritual enlightening or a new outlook on reality.

Interesting. Hunter told Darman that she and Edwards discussed Tolle “all the time.” It seems that other players in this story share some of Hunter’s spiritual views. In his Nightline admission, Edwards said that Bob McGovern called him and asked him to meet with Hunter at the Beverly Hilton. He also said that he would only go if McGovern would be there.

McGovern apparently lives in Santa Barbara, which is where Hunter was relocated by Edwards associates. Principals’ Web sites are dropping like flies but there is some information available on McGovern. The New York Times used some such information for its profile of McGovern today:

But little is known about Mr. McGovern, who is 64, according to records, and lives with his wife in a modest ranch-style home a few miles from downtown Santa Barbara. The Web site Margaretsweet.com, which promotes spirituality and New Age practices, recently carried a brief biography of Mr. McGovern, describing him as “an intuitive” and “a healer since 1988″ who had worked “with energy in the area of the emotional fields.” The biography is no longer on the site.

“He uses philosophy, psychology and the intuitive to find resolutions that move people back into alignment with the universe and into a place of peace, harmony and joy,” the site said. “Bob uses the intuitive to help people with a variety of life issues, including relationships, career and health.”

The description of Mr. McGovern, posted in a section called “Helpful Dudes,” also said he tried to empower people so they could deal with the challenges of everyday life with greater understanding.

“His knowledge of the past and the future helps people find balance in the present,” it said. “He is able to separate out surrounding negative energy, which allows people to have a clearer perception of their own options and choices.”

It is interesting that Edwards trusted McGovern so much. Perhaps the media will continue to do a horrible job with this story. But as the money trail gets scrutinized and the ties to Santa Barbara and Hunter’s trusted network undergo more examination, will it treat the New Age aspects as something loopy and marginal or will they soberly examine whether or how New Age beliefs played a part in this story?

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Nope, no religion in the protests

0129943150085Is it just me, or do the NBC announcers sound a bit tense during these first few days of the Olympics, whenever they are talking about issues linked to human rights or even the environment?

As young master Daniel noted the other day, religious issues have been part of these tension all along. President Bush went out of his way to spotlight religious liberty issues, but he was only scratching the surface.

If you don’t believe me, check out this Washington Post advance report from late last week. Just look at the opening paragraphs and count the religious ghosts.

China’s intense efforts to block any protest that would mar the Olympic Games were challenged … by foreign activists equally bent on diverting attention to issues as varied as Tibetan independence, the crisis in Darfur and religious freedom.

Two American and two British protesters slipped through a smothering Olympic security net, climbed a pair of lampposts and unfurled banners demanding freedom for Tibet near the new stadium where the Beijing Games are to open. … In Tiananmen Square, three American Christian activists spoke out against China’s rights record and protested its population control policies.

The story focuses most of its attention on Tibet, which is understandable. That is the story that is close at hand, the one drawing the widest array of protests.

Just how tense is this issue at the moment? Check this out:

To prevent such protests inside their own borders, Chinese authorities recently threatened to take away one female activist’s two babies as she tried to enter the country. A Tibetan woman surnamed Kemo was returning to China on July 18 after nearly two years in the United States, where she had had two children. She was stopped by a passport control officer, escorted to an interrogation room and asked whether she had ever participated in political protests.

“Yes, but a long time ago,” Kemo said she replied, speaking on the condition that her first name not be used. Officers then showed her computer printouts of photos of her participating at various U.S. protests. “You are lying to us,” an officer told her.

This is political, of course. But it is impossible to skip the religious content in the Tibet crisis. The same goes for Sudan and Darfur.

You know that some Christian activists are going to take stands during the games. Will we see this on television? What happens if the protesters are actual athletes? Another Washington Post report noted:

Sanya Richards envisions 91,000 fans at Beijing National Stadium and millions more on television watching her cross the finish line first in the 400 meters later this month. Immediately afterward, Richards said, she plans to kneel, say a quick prayer and then point skyward in spiritual appreciation. …

Richards is among the athletes who openly display their faith on the playing field, and feel the two are inextricably linked. Whether through a prayer or symbolic gesture, they use competition as a pulpit, sharing their belief with thousands of spectators.

So here is my request. Has anyone seen a clear story that explains the restrictions under which American announcers are operating?

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Goose-stepping Solzhenitsyn rites?

OrthodoxCandlesOK, I have some questions after reading the mainstream news coverage of the funeral rites for Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Let me see if I can say this first one clearly: Is a piece of music a “dirge” because it sounds like a “dirge” to the reporters present in a worship service, or is a piece of music a “dirge” because the actual texts are, well, dirge-like?

First of all, what is a “dirge”? Here are the two main definitions in one online dictionary:

1: a song or hymn of grief or lamentation; especially: one intended to accompany funeral or memorial rites

2: a slow, solemn, and mournful piece of music.

Keep those two different definitions in mind, while you read the following passages from coverage of the funeral rites for this profoundly Orthodox Russian writer. Most newspapers based their coverage on the Associated Press report, since was not the kind of story that draws travel-budget or bureau money in these financially-challenged times. There we read:

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose books exposed the horrors of Soviet slave labor camps, was buried Wednesday in a Russian Orthodox ceremony that included goose-stepping honor guards and a religious choir singing solemn dirges.

Solzhenitsyn — who died Sunday at his home outside Moscow at age 89 from a chronic heart condition — was buried according to his will amid the pink brick cupolas of Moscow’s Donskoi Monastery, where famous Russian cultural figures have been laid to rest since the 18th century.

Here’s another question I need to ask: Were those goose-stepping honor guards actual participants in the Eastern Orthodox ceremony itself? Really? Or were they involved in public events involved in getting Solzhenitsyn’s body to and from the rites?

The bottom line: I am not aware of any parts of the rite that call for secular guards on the march. So what actually happened in the service?

Over at the Washington Post, Peter Finn of the newspaper’s foreign service wrote this:

The burial took place after a solemn Russian Orthodox service, and the funeral was attended by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who broke off a vacation on the Volga River so he could be there. Medvedev laid a bunch of dark-red roses at the foot of Solzhenitsyn’s open coffin. Solzhenitsyn, a veteran of the Red Army, was buried with military honors, including a gun salute. There were no eulogies. …

A large portrait of Solzhenitsyn was placed at the head of the coffin at the viewing; the writer’s wife, Natalia, and sons stood to the side. Among the mourners paying their respects were former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who placed a bouquet of red roses at the foot of the coffin before speaking with Solzhenitsyn’s widow.

Note, again, that he was buried with military honors. I assume that this meant the guards were involved in the processions that took place between the funeral rites and the burial. Perhaps we should say that there were Orthodox rites, in between Russian civic ceremonies.

Oh, and while we are at it, Orthodox funerals do not contain eulogies — so that was perfectly formal. People often make remarks at tribute meals or family gatherings after the liturgical rites are over.

I know this sounds very, very picky. But believers care about the details.

This brings me back to those “dirges.”

The music in these services may have sounded like dirges, to outsiders. But the actual words of the litanies in the Orthodox funeral rites are packed with images of hope, beauty and even joy. There is mourning, in the reality of what is taking place. But I am always amazed — I am an active choir member in an Eastern Orthodox parish — that the words of these hymns are not dirge-like (especially if the rites take place in Bright Week after Pascha).

And those goose-stepping guards? Were they really taking part in the funeral liturgy? Really? I would like to know.

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Mixed Karadzic messages, again

011As you would expect, I am still following the coverage of the Radovan Karadzic case, still looking to see if anyone is going to provide on-the-record information to back up all of those charges that the world’s most infamous war criminal had, at some point, been hiding in Orthodox churches or monasteries.

I wrote my Scripps Howard News Service column about this issue last week, turning to the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America for input on the situation. He was not, to say the least, amused by all of the anonymous charges against the Serbian hierarchy, especially that ABC News report that turned the bizarre news about Karadzic’s career in alternative forms of medicine and therapy into this label — “Orthodox mystic.”

“It’s like that old saying that you can’t fight city hall,” said Metropolitan Christopher, in frustration. Journalists and outsiders “want to link all of this to the Serbian Orthodox Church. And they want to say that all Serbs, everywhere, are guilty of the actions of these violent men and that, most of all, the Serbs are the only people who have ever done these terrible things to their neighbors. …

“They forget that men like Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic were enemies of the church and used violence against the Orthodox, too. Our bishops were jailed and beaten for opposing the regime behind this violence.”

I know that this is all rather complex and byzantine.

But it’s crucial to realize that it was possible, during all of that fighting, to be in favor of the defense of Serbian villages and churches and even to oppose the creation of an independent Kosovo, yet to remain totally opposed to ethnic cleansing and the kinds of hellish violence unleashed by the likes of Karadzic. There were people who opposed the Milosevic regime and who backed cease fires, over and over. These brave leaders included Muslims, Jews, Catholics and, yes, Serbian Orthodox hierarchs.

Yet lines keep getting blurred in print. Notice this paragraph in a New York Times report late last week:

Mr. Karadzic, even before the outbreak of war in Bosnia, often declared publicly that his mission was to “protect” Christian Serbs from Bosnian Muslims threatening to create an Islamic state. He made virulent speeches, warning that if Bosnia broke away from Yugoslavia, its Muslim population could be decimated.

Note those quote marks around the word “protect.”

The first half of that paragraph does not mesh with the second. Defending Serbs in war-torn areas is one thing. The charges that Karadzic faces at The Hague go way, way, way past anything that military leaders would consider “defense.” If he had settled for a defensive role, he would not be on trial. Yes, there were Serbian villages and churches that needed to be defended.

However, that isn’t what this is all about:

The indictment is a 25-page document citing crimes in numerous locations, most crucially the three-year siege of Sarajevo, which left more than 10,000 civilians dead, and the mass killings at Srebrenica, where nearly 8,000 unarmed men and boys were executed in a weeklong massacre. …

The massacre at Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo have been thoroughly documented in other trials. Mr. Karadzic himself has been filmed visiting the Serbian gun positions that were pounding the civilians of Sarajevo. At Srebrenica, Mr. Karadzic can argue he did not order the massacre; prosecutors will have to prove that even if he did not issue such an order, he was kept informed and could have stopped the killing.

I know it’s confusing. I know it’s hard to keep all of this straight. But let’s focus on Karadzic’s crimes, which were offensive, not defensive.

Photo: A damaged icon in a war-ravaged Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo.

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