Hey CNN: Ghosts in the ties that bind Cyprus and Russia

So I’m sitting in a restaurant eating my lunch and, up on the wall, the large-screen television is tuned to CNN, where a lengthy report is unfolding about a European Union plan attempt to raise the corporate tax rates on Cyprus, a land in which wealthy Russians have funneled billions into tax shelters.

It’s all quite complex and offers yet another wrinkle in the larger financial crisis in Mediterranean markets and governance. This is a valid and important story.

I have not been able to find an online version of the exact CNN story that I saw earlier today, but here is a piece of a CNN Money story about the showdown, under the headline, “Why Russia is irate about the Cyprus bank tax.”

It’s easy to see why some in Russia are unhappy with a new proposal from the European Union to levy a one-off tax on Cyprus bank deposits of up to 9.9% in exchange for €10 billion in bailout money to help the government pay its bills. If most of Russia’s deposits get hit with the top tax rate, which applies to accounts holding €100,000 or more, the country’s citizens stand to lose more than $3 billion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin slammed the bank-tax proposal, while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called it “just like a confiscation of someone else’s money.”

There’s a suspicion that not all of that money was obtained honestly. Cyprus is believed to be a harbor for ill-gotten gains. The country “remains vulnerable to money laundering; reporting of suspicious transactions in offshore sector remains weak,” the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency wrote in its country brief.

Again let me stress that this is important and valid news.

What kept poking me, however, were all the on-screen headlines and prompts stressing that Russia and Cyprus share a long history of cultural, political and economic ties. It seemed that every time I looked up from my meal, there was a new caption offering a variation on that theme.

So why is Russia so involved in Cyprus? Money and politics, of course, which is true. In CNN wire-service coverage, that sounds something like this, with commentary from Marios Zachariadi of the economics faculty at the University of Cyprus:

Zachariadi said Greek Cypriots and the Russians have had a special relationship for centuries, with the Russians helping the Greeks during their war for independence in the early 1800s. Cyprus was one of the first countries to welcome Russian money after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both nations share a rocky history with the Turks.

Yes indeed, that is part of the picture. But what is missing?

The answer is tragically obvious: Centuries of ties linked to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Here are some relevant numbers from the website of the Cyprus embassy, describing decades of destruction of priceless sacred, cultural and artistic treasures:

[Read more...]

No Catholics in the new Europe

This is a great country. I’ve been privileged to live and work abroad, but there is no place like America. It’s a cleaner, cheaper, nicer place. Big cars, big hair, the big country — purple mountains majesty, amber waves of grain and all that — makes me proud to be an American. Give me a political landscape dominated by God, guns and gays and I’m happy. Yet, I must admit there are some things Europeans do better than Americans. I take away nothing from the observations made in Philip Jenkins book, “The New Anti-Catholicism, The Last Acceptable Prejudice”, but the Europeans do anti-Catholicism or anti-clericalism much better than we do.

While it is the French who have unfairly earned a reputation as cheese-eating surrender monkeys in the American psyche, it is the the European establishment — Matthew Arnold’s chattering classes — who deserve the accolade. But as church-eating surrender monkeys.

Religion has no place in the public square in European political life. In January the Irish Independent reported the Irish Labour Party had called for a secularist litmus test for senior civil servants. Catholics were bad people who needed to be kept under close scrutiny lest they undermine the government.

All senior officials in state bodies which are likely to have to deal with the Catholic Church should be screened to ensure that they will not show inappropriate deference to the Catholic Church. Those who feel they are ‘Catholic first and Irish second’ should seek promotion in other organs of the State.

Such sentiments are not exceptional. The news this week of the appointment of a new EU health commissioner offered an illustration of this Weltanschauung. On 28 Nov 2012 the BBC and the DPA (the German wire service) reported the European parliament had given its approval to the appointment of Malta’s Foreign Minister Tonio Borg as health commissioner. For those who missed this news here are extracts from the DPA story:

Maltese Foreign Minister Tonio Borg will be the European Union‘s new health commissioner, EU governments confirmed Wednesday, giving the appointment its final blessing. Borg, 55, will replace John Dalli, who resigned last month over claims he did nothing to stop an acquaintance from using his ties to ask a Swedish company for money to influence new EU tobacco rules.

Borg has vowed not to water down the rules, which he has identified as a priority and has said should be ready in January. Borg‘s nomination had proven controversial, after some EU parliamentarians raised concerns about his conservative views on abortion and homosexuality. He has pledged to abide by the EU‘s human rights charter, regardless of his personal views on social issues.

The story received more play from the Times of Malta and Malta Today, which ran a provocative second day story based upon an interview with a Swedish MEP.

Cecilia Wikström, the Liberal Swedish MEP who had dubbed Tonio Borg “a dinosaur that does not belong in our modern world” when the former foreign minister was nominated for the post of EU Commissioner, has reiterated her stand that Borg’s personal political standpoints did not make him fit for the post of health and consumers affairs policy Commissioner.

And these objectionable beliefs are?

“Borg is a very well known politician with a high education [who] would have been a fantastic leader of Europe a couple of decades ago,” Wikström said, pointing out that his conservative beliefs might put him at loggerheads with several aspects of his portfolio. “Had Borg’s portfolio been on something else, like fisheries, culture, higher education or even the internal market, he would have been a wonderful commissioner. “Since Borg’s portfolio deals with rights and the choices people make, I think this is going to be complicated for him,” Wikström said, mentioning as an example, sexual and reproductive health rights that would include the provision of safe and legal abortion for women.

Ms. Wikström, who also is a Lutheran minister, believes Borg’s Catholicism to be incompatible with government service, save in areas that don’t matter much like Fish & Agg.

The only mainstream English-language report on Borg’s appointment that I have seen that raises these questions was the New Scientist – the British science news weekly. Its article “Staunch conservative to be new EU health commissioner” framed the story around the objections to Borg’s Catholicism.

Borg is Catholic and is known for his conservative views on abortion, homosexuality and divorce. For example, he is a supporter of the Embryo Protection Act currently being debated in the Maltese parliament. If approved at the end of November, the bill will prevent experimentation on human embryos, ban egg and sperm donation, and prohibit the freezing of embryos for IVF procedures other than in a few special cases.

The article reported on the grilling MEPs gave to Borg during his confirmation hearings.

Some MEPs questioned Borg’s stance on abortion, recalling how he tried to incorporate the ban on abortion, even if the mother’s life is at risk, into Malta’s constitution. Borg replied: “The laws on abortion are a matter of national law… These are not matters within the competence of the Commission and the Union.”

But in the end Borg’s appointment was approved on a 386 to 281 with 28 abstentions. The New Scientist rounded out its story with comments from liberal MEPs who warned they would be watching Borg for signs his faith was influencing his job, and with comments from International Planned Parenthood and a stem cell researcher who said that:

“Although I do not dispute his technical skills, there is the risk that personal views, especially when radical in nature, will interfere with or slow down important projects which have already been endorsed by public opinion,” he says.

From the classical journalism perspective, the New Scientist story is incomplete. We have the back and forth between Borg and his critics, but the comments and critical observations offered that would give context are one-sided — Planned Parenthood and a stem cell researcher. Nothing is offered from those on the opposing side of the argument. That, however, is not a surprise, as the New Scientist’s reputation is one of being on the secular left — and I do not fault them for being true to their editorial line.

But from the mainstream media we have next to nothing. The wire services and the short BBC item do not do justice to the ethical issues at play. Part of the problem is the lack of space and resources. Not all stories can be covered and editors must pick and choose how they utilize their space on the page and their reporter’s time. However, I also believe there is an agreement in just about all newsrooms that the criticisms raised by the New Scientist are valid. This belief that religion belongs to the private sphere of life and is not welcome in the public square permeates the European press.

A response I hear from supporters of the secularist model runs along the lines of “If you want to hear a sermon go to church”, meaning the worlds of faith and news are so far apart that one should not trespass on the other. I do not agree. Incorporating faith or ethical issues into journalism is not proselytizing. It is being faithful to the dictates of honest fair and full reporting.

A quick, shallow visit to Mount Athos

Few subjects inspire the whole “National Geographic visits the strange natives” school of Godbeat journalism quicker than monasticism.

This is especially true when journalists attempt to write about a place as genuinely strange, in a good sense of the word, and other worldly as Mount Athos, the stunningly beautiful peninsula in northeastern Greece that the Orthodox call “the holy mountain.”

The key to writing about Mount Athos is to get all of the facts right, especially when dealing with issues of worship and history, and then to let the monks and pilgrims speak for themselves. If you report the colorful details with precision, one does not have to try to make the holy mountain sound other worldly and different. It’s going to sound holy and different, with all of the facts presented in a dry and dispassionate manner. Period.

Get the basics right and a story about Mount Athos will pretty much write itself. As you would imagine, I would love to take a shot at that task myself, someday.

This leads me to a recent Reuters piece that is, in many ways, a perfect example of how NOT to write about the holy mountain. In this case, the journalistic goal is to somehow lead the story with the Greek financial crisis and its impact on the number of pilgrims heading to Mount Athos in order to escape, well, reality. Thus, the story opens in this manner:

Mount Athos, a self-governed peninsula in northeastern Greece, has been attracting pilgrims to its Orthodox monasteries for centuries. But the debt crisis has led to a sharp rise in the number of guests seeking calm and solace there. Women still aren’t welcome, though.

Mornings on the sacred mountain begin with loud blows. A monk stands in front of the monastery church of Agiou Andrea and hammers a block of wood. The medieval percussion instrument, called a simantron, is the wakeup call for the first religious service of the day. Several black-clad, bearded men scurry across the courtyard. It is 4 a.m. and pitch-black, and the air is filled with the sound of cicadas.

In a few minutes, the oil lamps will be lit in Agiou Andrea, one of 12 “sketes,” or monastic communities, on Mount Athos. There’s not a single empty space in the choir benches. Sitting behind the singing, rhythmically chanting monks are pilgrims from Greece, Russia and Romania. They have slept a few hours on spartan beds, gone without electricity and warm water, and spent the night swatting at mosquitoes.

The fact that male monastics have, for centuries, banned women from the peninsula is a fact that — whether this commandment is printed in a newsroom’s stylebook or not — must be mentioned in the first paragraph or two. That’s OK. The Orthodox are used to that.

However, it’s clear that the lead reporter on this feature got a bit mixed up when studying the map of the holy mountain. There are plenty of “sketes” on the peninsula (definition here), but the key is that its monastic traditions center on 20, not 12, full-fledged monasteries that represent the whole Eastern Orthodox world, not just Greek Orthodoxy. That’s a pretty basic fact to get wrong and, frankly, Orthodox readers are going to rather skeptical about the article from that point on.

It does feature some nice, candid quotes from “guests.”

“I am here to wash myself clean of my sins,” says Ilie, a young Romanian who lives in Germany. “Here, we are closer to heaven than anywhere else.” Nikos, a Greek businessman, has come to the monastery to find himself. “To simply turn off, meditate and forget the material world,” he says.

Raise your hands if you would be interested in knowing more about why young men from various corners of post-Soviet nations and the largely post-Christian lands of Europe keep on coming to Mount Athos (and why some of them choose to stay there)? That strikes me as an interesting subject and one I have not seen in news print, in recent years.

Meanwhile, this report returns once again to the familiar issue of monks clashing with the European Union over, yes, women.

Legend has it that the Virgin Mary landed here on her way to Cyprus and was overcome by its beauty. God then gave her the mountain on it as a gift. And since the “Garden of the Virgin Mary,” as the place is known, is devoted to only the “purest of all women,” other women are not allowed in. At least that is the reason given by the monks who have ruled Athos as an autonomous monastic republic since the 10th century. Not even female animals are allowed on Athos, except cats.

Whenever European Union officials argue that the ban should be lifted, the monks point to a Byzantine document over 1,000 years old that promises them eternal sovereignty over Mount Athos. The men there take no orders from the outside world — especially not from the EU. The monks live in another era. …

It is this defiant renunciation of the outside world that fascinates many pilgrims. But recently it hasn’t just been the pious who are coming. Many Greeks have discovered Athos as a place where they can forget about the crisis.

And so forth and so on. Business as usual.

So what is this article actually about? I cannot tell, to be honest. It has fragments of travelogue color, mixed with politics, mixed with just a dash of snark. And what is life on the holy mountain all about? Why do the monks pray and pray and pray? That is old news, I guess.

Read the article, if you must. Tell me if you can figure out why it was written.