Can Christian unity help a troubled Ukraine?

SANDRA ASKS:

Can common ground be found to unite the Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine [and could the harmony across church lines] during the Maidan protests point the way?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Possibly. But this troubled nation with a declining population of 45 million has excruciating religious and political history to overcome. It is blessed and cursed by geography, with rich farmlands and mineral resources yet perennially caught between East and West.

Now that Russia has seized power over the Crimea province, its agents and Ukrainian allies are subverting added areas in the east, with fears that Russia might invade, or exercise effective control without needing to invade. Threats from these pro-Russian operatives prevented voting in some sectors but on May 25 the nation managed to elect new President Petro Poroshenko, who called for a “unitary Ukraine.”

By coincidence, unity was also on the agenda that same day in Jerusalem as Catholicism’s Pope Francis conferred with the veteran symbolic leader of Eastern Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. They issued a joint declaration hoping for full spiritual concord and shared communion between their two major branches of Christianity.

Ukraine, more devout than many nations in western Europe, has seen bitter rivalry between Catholics and the Orthodox, and serious splits within Orthodoxy. Church differences are intertwined with the divide Sandra notes between Ukrainian-speakers in the west and Russian-speakers to the east (though in practice Ukrainians are largely bilingual).

There was substantial church support for the months of mass protests in Kiev’s Maidan (“square”) that toppled a corrupt regime aligned with Russia. Sandra notes that during these demonstrations believers from the various Orthodox and Catholic groups overcame historical barriers to join together in countless open-air prayer meetings. (Also backing the protests were most of the minority Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.)

Both the Ukrainian and Russian nations trace their founding to the A.D. 988 conversion to Orthodoxy by a state centered in Kiev. Over centuries, control of the land seesawed among Mongols, Poland to the west, and Russia to the east. After the Communists’ 1917 takeover in Russia, Ukraine declared independence, but was soon forcibly absorbed into the new Soviet Union. After Soviet tyranny collapsed, Ukraine again declared its independence in 1991 but has had huge problems establishing an honest and stable democracy.

Bishop Borys Gudziak, who ministers to Ukrainian Catholics in western Europe, summarizes some history: During Communist rule and two world wars “more than 17 million people are estimated to have died violently on Ukrainian soil.” Among the Orthodox in the Soviet Union “tens of thousands of bishops, priests, monks and sisters were executed, as were hundreds of thousands of lay martyrs.” Then Stalin turned with a vengeance against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, making it “the largest illegal religious body in the world, … outlawed, mercilessly hounded, and driven into the catacombs.”

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Pod people: Vatican III? Nicea III? Press blind spot 666?

The questions jumped into Twitter in a flash, which is what one would assume would happen when there is a chance that a once-a-millennium news story could be breaking.

So Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Pope Francis have proposed a 2025 event to mark the great Council of Nicea.

Line up, religion-news consumers, to ask your big questions. Father James Martin, you go first:

So no Vatican III?

But a proposal for Nicea III?

Slow down. First things first. Was this a proposal for a true Ecumenical Council between the ancient churches of East and West?

It quickly became clear, from Rome and Istanbul, that this was not the case.

But what did it mean, really, to say that this date — so far off in the future — is now on the calendar for an ecumenical gathering to celebrate the great Ecumenical Council of Nicea? That, of course, is the gathering of the church fathers best known because of the Nicene Creed and its proclamation of the Holy Trinity.

Once again, I was amazed that the big guns in the mainstream media didn’t jump in on this story. Amazed.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast chat, host Todd Wilken and I pondered, once again, why journalists concluded that the Pope Francis pilgrimage to the Middle East was primarily a political event about statecraft. It was not, repeat NOT, as the Vatican kept stating, an event that grew out of the highly symbolic invitation by Bartholomew for the pope to meet him in Jerusalem. (Click here to listen in.)

In this case, I had written both a GetReligion post (click here) and a Universal Syndicate column (click here) on this topic. In the column I noted:

The symbolic leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, the successor to the Apostle Andrew, had earlier invited Francis, the successor to the Apostle Peter, to join him in Jerusalem to mark the 50th anniversary of the breakthrough meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I. Their embrace ended 900-plus years of mutual excommunication in the wake of the Great Schism of 1054.

So why wasn’t this gathering newsworthy? Why was it missing from the vast majority (kudos to the Associated Press for being a major exception) of the mainstream reports about this trip?

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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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BBC: Another generic, mysterious ‘honor killing’ (updated)

This time the bloody honor killing took place in a public place, for all to see — outside the Lahore High Court. The short BBC report noted:

Police said 30-year old Farzana Bibi died on the spot after being attacked with bricks and sticks. Her father handed himself in, but police say her brothers and former fiance, who also took part in the attack, were still free. …

Farzana Bibi’s parents accused her husband, Muhammad Iqbal, of kidnapping her, and had filed a case against him at the High Court. However, she testified to police that she had married him of her own accord. Police said the couple had been engaged for a number of years.

Religion, apparently, had nothing to do with this event, which was said to be a mere cultural phenomenon. However, the report ended by noting:

Under Pakistani law, the victim’s family is allowed to forgive the killer. However, in many cases family members are themselves responsible for the killing.

And what legal system forms the foundation of Pakistani law? What, for example, has been the root cause for the headline-generating Pakistan cases in which believers in a minority faith, usually Christianity, are accused of apostasy against the faith at the heart of the nation’s government and culture?

(By the way, the Associated Press included — in its lede — another detail BBC missed or omitted, the fact that Bibi was pregnant at the time she was murdered.)

There is no need to dwell on the Islamic element of this crime and it would be wrong to suggest that all Muslims in Pakistan, and elsewhere, practice, accept or ignore “honor killings.” In fact, a Washington Post report on this same crime did an excellent job of including the essential details. For example:

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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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Short 30 for 30 slam dunk that gets the faith angle just right

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You have to be a pretty intense hoops fan to remember many of the details of the career of Shawn Bradley.

Other than, of course, you know what.

Take a look at the YouTube at the top of this post some of the details will come back to you. Or even click here for a short video dedicated to one of the most famous dunks — the Tracy McGrady classic — in which the 7-foot-6 Bradley was, as the saying goes in pro basketball, “posterized.” That’s the term for the man caught underneath the basic when a high-flying ace goes in for a picture-perfect slam.

“In your face” is the kind way to express the results.

However, there is much more to Bradley, the man, than posters. The purpose of this post is to encourage GetReligion readers, even those who don’t care about sports, to CLICK THERE and spend the mere 12 minutes it takes to watch an amazing little ESPN film called “Posterized,” which is a fantastic example of a piece of news-feature material that gets the religion angle of a story just right. Did I mention that it’s really short?

As hoops scribe David Astramskas noted, in an online piece about this short film from the 30 for 30 branch of the ESPN kingdom:

If you search “Shawn Bradley” on YouTube, the majority of the results will be videos of people dunking on him or trying to fight the 7’6 center that was picked in between the much loved Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway during the 93 draft. Now, I don’t mind those videos dominating the video results, but I do mind hearing people that have never watched him play in the 90?s say he was a “horrible player” or just some useless big man — which could be said about a long list of big men in the past 14 years that were lottery picks and sometimes #1 picks.

Keep reading for the faith angle.

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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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