Balkan absurdist reporting by Reuters

At Get Religion it is usually considered bad form to criticize wire service reports for lacking context. There is only so much information that a reporter can pack into a 300 word story. The absence of an explanatory sentence or two that gives the reader some clues as to the meaning of the story is seldom fatal to an article’s journalistic integrity — but it can at times lead to an article coming across as a Haiku.

This article from Reuters entitled “Bulgarian police detain 120 after mosque attack” I readily concede does not fit into the 5 – 7 – 5 sound (on) pattern of classical Japanese poetry nor the 17 syllables of contemporary English Haiku. Nevertheless the imagery created in this short piece does a great job of telling the story.

A problem with imagery, however, is that the reader must be aware of the symbolic meaning of the nouns being used. The story has a wonderful lede:

Bulgarian police detained more than 120 people on Friday after hundreds of nationalists and soccer fans attacked a mosque in the country’s second city Plovdiv, smashing its windows with stones.

Why is this wonderful you ask? On one level there is an absurdist quality to this sentence with overtones of Monty Python, Lemony Snicket and Eugene Ionescu. A mosque has been attacked by a mob casting stones. A Bulgarian mosque has been attacked by a mob casting stones. A Bulgarian mosque in Bulgaria’s second city has been attacked by a mob casting stones. A Bulgarian mosque in Bulgaria’s second city has been attacked by a mob of soccer fans and (Bulgarian?) nationalists casting stones.

Each iteration makes the story ever so slightly more ridiculous, but at the same time it conveys the absurdity of life through the incongruity of its elements and apparent absence of reason. But this is the Balkans.

The story continues:

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A sad note of Orthodox reality in Eastern Europe

It’s impossible to know precisely what is happening inside the mind of a politician when he or she is taking part in a religious ritual, whether or not listeners are hearing the voice of a believer or that of a political realist who is skilled at watching national opinion polls.

The Russians have a special term for this slice of life in our sinful, fallen world and, truth be told, some public leaders do deserve this label — “podsvechnik.”

This word means “candlestick holder.” This is the politician who walks into a church sanctuary on a major feast day — usually Christmas or Pascha — lights a candle at an icon, makes the sign of the cross then stands around long enough for photographers to have a chance to take his picture.

Alas, in the lands of the former Soviet bloc, this same term can be applied to some church leaders.

Once again, however, it helps to remember that the human heart is a complex thing and some true believers struggle with major and minor sins throughout their lives. What if this person is wearing the vestments of a bishop?

Why bring this up? The other day, our own Father George Conger sent me a Reuters story from Bulgaria that was both fascinating and scary. Here’s the top of the report:

VARNA, Bulgaria (Reuters) – The death last week of one of Bulgaria’s most senior bishops, found floating in the Black Sea wearing a snorkel and flippers, was mysterious in its own right, but it was only the final chapter in an enigmatic life.

In the days after Bishop Cyril of Varna, 59, was found dead, a picture emerged of a man respected by many but who had also spied for the communist-era secret police, brokered land deals that raised questions and driven a luxury Lincoln sedan given to him by a local businessman.

Through it all, he was never investigated or disciplined, making him a kind of symbol of modern Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest member, where graft and organized crime often go unpunished and where many people feel public institutions — from the Church to the government — have betrayed their trust.

OK, that’s rather muddy, to say the least. In another nasty, yet powerful, image a believer describes the bishop cruising through crowds of people on Epiphany, flinging holy water on poor Bulgarians through the open window of his luxury car.

Is there more to the story? Yes, there is and, to the credit of the Reuters team, other details make it into the report:

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