What is the X-factor in Syrian bloodshed? DUH! (updated)

It seems that many networkers in the online world remain fired up about that recent Washington Post explainer that ran under the headline “9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask.” That’s the one you may recall, in part because of this GetReligion post, that was the first of many similar mainstream media pieces that have tried to explain the rising violence in Syria without including information about its crucial religious divisions.

What kind of religious divisions at the heart of the violence?

Well, how many of you out in GetReligion reader land have seen the following Associated Press report in your local newspaper, a national newspaper or your favorite news (as opposed to analysis) website? You would have seen a headline that looked something like this: “Al-Qaeda-linked rebels assault Syrian Christian village.” A shout out to CBS, by the way, for at least covering that event online.

Anyway, all of that is to point readers toward a long, deep piece that ran the other day at the CNN Belief Blog, written by co-editor Daniel Burke, under this rather remarkable headline, in the current media climate: “Syria explained: How it became a religious war.” Here’s the top of the story:

(CNN) – How did Syria go from an internal uprising to a wider clash drawing funding and fighters from across the region?

In a word, Middle East experts say, religion.

Shiite Muslims from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran have flooded into Syria to defend sacred sites and President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. Sunni Muslims, some affiliated with al Qaeda, have rushed in to join rebels, most of whom are Sunni.

Both sides use religious rhetoric as a rallying cry, calling each other “infidels” and “Satan’s army.”

“That is why it has become so muddy,” said professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The theological question has returned to the center.”

So who is crying out that the key to the rising conflict is religion? That would be the United Nations.

Why does that matter so much?

Religious civil wars are longer and bloodier than other types of clashes, according to studies. They are also twice as likely to recur and twice as deadly to noncombatants.

“People hold onto religious fights longer than battles over land and water,” said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, an expert on foreign policy at Georgetown University and a 10-year veteran of the U.S. State Department. “It becomes existential and related to belief in a higher calling.”

Some combatants in Syria appear to believe that fighting in the name of God justifies the most barbaric measures.

Remember that video of a rebel eating the heart of a Syrian soldier while shouting “God is great!”? Or the other video showing the beheading of three men with butcher knives, also while praising God?

Of course, as CNN accurately notes, the ruling regime has been just as brutal in many cases. However, one complication — yes, captured in the CNN report — is that Syrian troops are often the only forces that are standing between tiny, in many cases defenseless, religious minorities and the elements of the rebel forces that can accurately be called Islamist and, in some cases, linked to al Qaeda.

So who are the other players on this sectarian chess board?

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PBS: Understanding Syria (minus any nasty religion stuff)

So here we go again.

This weekend I mentioned an online explainer piece served up by The Washington Post that pointed readers toward essential Twitter feeds linked to the civil war in Syria. The news-you-can-use pledge: Read these Twitter feeds and you’ll know what you need to know to understand the chaos and bloodshed in Syria.

Maybe, maybe not.

I thought it was interesting that, after looking these Twitter feeds over a bit, it appears that the Post thinks that religion plays no role whatsoever in the fighting in Syria between the Islamist rebels and the heretical (from a Sunni Muslim point of view) Alawite minority regime that is hanging onto power. Oh, and then there is the plight of other religious minorities — Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians, primarily. This is an angle of the Syria story that is often mentioned in places like — well, to name two — Rome and Moscow.

Now, here is another explainer piece — care of PBS. The headline aims at similar terrain: “Your Cheat Sheet to the Syrian Conflict.”

One of the most crucial aspects of the Syria story is that this land is a tense patchwork of groups that are defined in terms of ethnicity/tribe and religion. Right? Thus, PBS tells us:

What is Syria?

Syria is a nation of about 21 million people — roughly 2 million more than the population of New York state. It sits on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the Middle East.

The nation is about the same size as Washington state and slightly larger than North Dakota. Syria is run by the minority sect known as Alawites, which make up 11.8 percent of the population.

Interesting. The Alawites are a sect of what religion?

Later on in the piece there is this question:

Why the Civil War?

A series of peaceful protests during the Arab Spring in 2011 triggered an increasingly violent backlash from the government of Bashar al-Assad that in turn led to a full-fledged civil war.

The current death toll, according to UNHCR’s Peter Kessler, now stands at more than 100,000 people. The number of people who have lost their homes or been forced to flee has reached 6.2 million. The group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 40,146 civilians have been killed, including more than 4,000 women and more than 5,800 children.

Uh, by WHY is there a civil war? What are the fault lines in this conflict, the civic cracks that define it? The Arab spring caused everything to fall apart and that’s that? Really?

And then there’s the matter of the Reuters info-graphic that ran with this piece.

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How to follow totally secular Syria news on Twitter

The goal here at GetReligion is, of course, to look at the good and the bad in mainstream news coverage of religion events and trends. This means we devote 99 percent of our time to news articles. That’s no surprise.

Yet, in the Internet age, more and more newsrooms are offering — online — an expanded menu of materials that are RELATED to the news in ways that are hard to label. Some fit under the whole “news you can use” umbrella and others are clearly meant to be exercises in reader education.

I find the latter to be especially interesting since the folks running the newsroom are, in effect, telling readers what matters the most to the people who are producing and framing the coverage of the news. The result is often quite revelatory.

Consider the recent Washington Post piece that ran under this bold headline:

The 23 Twitter accounts you must follow to understand Syria

Wow. Really?

Now, it is certainly true that the civil war in Syria is a unique environment, when it comes to gathering news. After all, many of the most important players have a tendency to shoot at reporters they view as hostile. In this context, social media is crucial.

Please, please hear me say that I think Twitter is an information source that must be taken seriously in this context. As the intro to this piece notes:

The news about Syria has been, and continues to be, important, fast-paced and at times overwhelming. It’s a lot to keep up with, not least because every facet of the conflict and how the world responds is complicated and deeply controversial. Smart people can and do disagree vehemently about what it all means — and what to do about it.

These are the people you should follow on Twitter to keep track of what’s going on inside of Syria (as well as within relevant circles outside of it), what it means, why it matters and how to think about it.

You can hear the same reality expressed at the top of a major piece in The New York Times.

Western journalists are struggling to cover what the world has so far seen largely through YouTube. But while some television news crews have been filing reports from Damascus, the dangers of reporters being killed or kidnapped there — as well as visa problems — have kept most journalists outside the country’s borders and heightened the need for third-party images.

“The difficulty of getting into Syria, the shrunken foreign correspondent corps, and the audience gains for social media make it likely this story will be consumed differently by the American public than tensions or conflicts in past years,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Syria the deadliest country in the world for reporters. Last year, 28 journalists working there were killed, and 18 have died so far this year, according to the group, a nonprofit based in New York.

Thus, there is a clear need to follow Twitter feeds close to the action.

So, according to the principalities and powers at The Washington Post, who are the Twitter authorities who are crucial to follow if readers want to understand the events unfolding in Syria?

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Yes, we know two Orthodox bishops are missing in Syria

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Editor’s note: This happens now and then, every two or three years. Two GetReligion writers jumped on the same news subject and then proceeded to write and post at precisely the same time. What are the odds? In this case, we will simply let the two posts stand as written.

Yes, your GetReligionistas — the Orthodox guy in particular — have received more than a few emails seeking our take on the media coverage of the kidnapping of two Orthodox bishops in Syria.

I have seen quite a bit of coverage. You can read European sources. You can follow the story at in Arab media, including Aljazeera.com. You can read about the kidnappings in Catholic Media. You can read about these events at Fox News and other conservative media.

At this point, you cannot read about the kidnappings in reports by the mainstream American press.

Why is that? I don’t know, although it does appear that many mainstream editors seem to think that the persecution of Christians in troubled parts of the world is “conservative news.”

There have been reports that Orthodox Bishop Paul Yazigi — the brother of Antiochian Orthodox Patriarch John X Yazigi of Damascus — and Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church were kidnapped by terrorists in the village of Kfar Dael while they were on a relief humanitarian mission linked to relief efforts. Media reports indicate they were taken while on the road between Aleppo and the Bab al Hawa crossing with Turkey. The deacon driving their car was shot dead.

While there have been reports that the men were freed, this new report from Aljazeera states otherwise:

Two kidnapped Syrian bishops are still being held, sources have said, denying earlier reports that they had been released, and prompting calls by the international Christian community for their freedom.

Sources told Al Jazeera on Thursday that the two leading Christian figures remained captured a day after Pope Francis called for their release.

Early on Tuesday, reports quoting Greek Orthodox Bishop Tony Yazigi said that Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Bishop John Ibrahim of the Assyrian Orthodox Church, had been kidnapped while carrying out humanitarian work in the northern province of Aleppo. Later on the same day, reports said they had been released, quoting a Christian association.

A priest at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East in Damascus, who declined to be named, told Al Jazeera that the bishops have not been released.

“We haven’t heard anything from them. We do not know who kidnapped them,” the preist said.

And later in the story, readers are told:

“A rebel commander in Idlib told me he was sure they were not released,” Al Jazeera’s Basma Al Atassi, reporting from the Turkish border city of Antakya, said. “He said he believed they were kidnapped by an Aleppo-based battalion.”

As a member of an Antiochian Orthodox parish — Holy Cross Orthodox Church, just south of Baltimore — we prayed for the kidnapped bishops last night during the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (we are still in Great Lent, on the ancient Julian Calendar). Pascha (Easter) is May 5th. The leaders of these two ancient churches in the East have released a joint statement about the kidnappings, which remains posted online. Here is a key part of that document:

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