TASS on Russia’s talking dogs

Politicians were like talking dogs in a circus: the fact that they existed was uncommonly interesting, but no sane person would actually believe what they said.

Alan Furst, Dark Star (2002)

I am sympathetic to the sentiments expressed by Pravda journalist André Szara, the central character in Alan Furst’s political-historical novel Dark Star. (I consider it the best of his 13 novels to date.) Once upon a time I too spent a great deal of my time listening to politicians, reporting for the Jerusalem Post on Parliament and the British government.

I cannot blame the Episcopal Church or the Church of England for giving me my jaundiced eye. Reading the debates in Hansard and ministerial press hand outs was unpalatable work, akin to eating sand. I no longer follow politics and politicians. For my sins I now read denominational reports, church press releases and bishops’ sermons. I’ve exchanged sand for sawdust.

Yet, this work must still be done. Even though a great deal of fluff and nonsense is spouted by the great and good, reporters must keep their ears (and brain) open. Even politicians say things that are novel and important.

Foreign correspondents have a doubly difficult job in that what may be novel and important in one culture is drivel in another. And, if they do not speak the language, they must rely on what others tell them. Raw information passes through sieves of culture, language and spin before it lands in the ear of an American foreign correspondent, who then must make it interesting and intelligible for his home audience.

The result often is an incomplete, or wrong-headed news story. One that bears but slight resemblance to what was said or done.

As GetReligion’s editor tmatt has noted in a recent story, the conflict between Russia and the West is one are where the press has fallen short by omitting, ignoring or not understanding the religious issues that are in part driving the conflict. On June 4 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow the clash between East and West was a clash of religious worldviews (Orthodox Russia v. post-Christian Europe/America).

And, from what I have been able to find, this story has not appeared in the mainstream press.

The ITAR-TASS news agency published an English-language reporting summarizing Lavrov’s speech — but their correspondent seems to have slept through the talk. The TASS lede stated:

MOSCOW, June 04./ITAR-TASS/. Russia is not going to build anti-western constructions and get involved in senseless confrontations only for the sake of providing us and NATO with desirable enemy image, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said.

The policy of limiting Russia’s capabilities is conducted mostly not by European powers, but by the United States, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a meeting of Russia’s council for international affairs. “The oddest thing is that all this is happening contrary to the obvious and objective benefit the pooling of technologies, resources and human capital might yield for both parts of the European continent,” Lavrov said.

The remainder of the article continues along these lines — tedious babbling. All politics, all foreign policy wonkery — dull, dull, dull.

Yet the next day the Interfax News Agency put out a one-paragraph story reporting that Lavrov had said the clash between Russia and the West had arisen over Russian return to “traditional spiritual values” and that America and Western Europe were “more and more detached from their own Christian roots and less susceptible to the religious feelings of people of other faiths.” Oh my.

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Assad’s Easter and mysterious attacks on Syrian Christians

Why are Syrian Christians being targeted by Islamist rebels?

The Western press cannot agree on a reason, a review of recent reports from Syria reveals.

Can we credit the explanation given by the Wall Street Journal — that the rebels do not trust Christians — as a sufficient explanation? And if so, what does that mean? Are the reports of murders, kidnappings, rapes and overt persecution of Christians in Syria by Islamist rebels motivated by religion, politics, ethnicity, nationalism or is it a lack of trust?

Is the narrative put forward by ITAR-TASS, the Russian wire service and successor to the Soviet TASS News Agency — that the rebels are fanatics bent on turning Syria into a Sunni Muslim state governed by Sharia law — the truth?

On this past Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on its front page under this headline:

Christians of Homs Grieve as Battle for City Intensifies

That story examined the plight of Syria’s Christians. The Journal entered into the report by looking at the death of Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, who had been murdered by members of an Islamist militia in the town of Homs.

The well-written article offers extensive quotes from a second Syrian Roman Catholic priest on this tragedy and notes the late priest’s attempt to bridge the divide between Christians and Muslims. In the 10th paragraph, the story opens up into a wider discussion of the plight of Syria’s Christians and recounts Assad’s Easter visit to a monastery — whether Catholic or some variety of Orthodox, that detail is left out.

While the fighting raged in Homs, President Bashar al-Assad showed up unexpectedly on Sunday in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, about 30 miles northeast of the capital Damascus. The town was overrun by Islamist rebels in September and reclaimed by the Syrian army a week ago.

State media released video footage of Mr. Assad surveying smashed icons at the town’s damaged monasteries and quoted him as saying that “no amount of terror can ever erase our history and civilization.”

The fight over Maaloula, like the killing of Father Frans, both reflect the quandary of Syria’s Christians. Many feel an affinity for Mr. Assad. His Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominates the regime while the majority of Syrians—and opposition supporters—are Sunni Muslims.

Most Christians have become all the more convinced that only the regime can protect them after some rebels came under the sway of Islamic extremists who have attacked and pillaged their communities and churches and targeted priests and nuns.

Some Christians still seek to build bridges with both sides of the civil war, as Father Frans did. But in a landscape where religious and sectarian affiliations often define and shape the struggle, they find themselves under fire from both sides.

Many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians, while regime supporters see those who reach out to the opposition as naive or traitors. Father Frans found himself in that position, say some close to him

What are we to make of these assertions — “some rebels” are Islamists, or that “many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians?” Is that a fair, suffient or accurate statement of affairs?

A look at the Financial Times report on President al-Assad’s visit to Maaloula on Easter Sunday makes the argument that the Assad regime is playing up the Islamist angle for his political benefit. But it assumes the persecution is real.

President Bashar al-Assad made an Easter visit on Sunday to a historic Christian town recaptured by the army, in a rare appearance outside the capital that shows his growing confidence in state control around Damascus.

The visit also aims to portray him as the protector of Syrian minorities against a rebel movement led by Islamist forces.

The wire service stories also connect Christian fear of the rebels with support for Assad. AFP’s account closes with the explanation:

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