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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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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Praying Jews flock to the Temple Mount; world notices

If there is a “Ground Zero” for the world’s three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — it would be the Temple Mount, or “Haram Al-Sharif” (“Noble Sanctuary”) in the center of Jerusalem.

Jews revere it as the site of the First and Second Temples, wherein the “Holy of Holies” was contained. Christians revere the Temple as the place where Jesus walked and reasoned with the rabbis — as well as chastised the Pharisees and money changers. Muslims view the site as the the third holiest location in Islam, the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem and ascent to heaven.

Within the space of two days, two prestigious newspapers have covered the relatively recent phenomenon of more and more Jews, mostly Israelis, visiting the Temple Mount and praying, usually surreptitiously. Though captured by the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1967 “Six-Day War,” the Temple Mount was almost immediately returned to Muslim control, and Jews were advised not to visit.

No longer, says The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, both of whose Jerusalem correspondents have investigated. Both stories document the relatively quiet return of worshipping Jews to the site, the occasional protests of Muslims there, and the now-increasing warnings from local Islamic leaders that unless the Israeli government does something, matters could get out of hand.

From Jodi Rudoren at the Times:

For decades the Israelis drawn to the site were mainly a fringe of hard-core zealots, but now more mainstream Jews are lining up to enter, as a widening group of Israeli politicians and rabbis challenge the longstanding rules constraining Jewish access and conduct. Brides go on their wedding days, synagogue and religious-school groups make regular outings, and many surreptitiously skirt the ban on non-Muslim prayer, like a Russian immigrant who daily recites the morning liturgy in his mind, as he did decades ago in the Soviet Union.

Palestinian leaders say the new activity has created the worst tension in memory around the landmark Al Aksa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, and have called on Muslims to defend the site from “incursions.” A spate of stone-throwing clashes erupted this month: on Wednesday, three Muslims were arrested and an Israeli police officer wounded in the face. And on Friday thousands of Arab citizens of Israel rallied in the north, warning that Al Aksa is in danger.

“We reject these religious visits,” Sheik Ekrima Sa’eed Sabri, who oversees Muslim affairs in Jerusalem, said in an interview. “Our duty is to warn,” he added. “If they want to make peace in this region, they should stay away from Al Aksa.”

Writing for the Monitor, Crista Case Bryant reports:

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Intended consequences — The Times & Jewish Jerusalem

Choosing determines all human decisions. In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services. All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another. Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference.

– Ludwig von Mises, On Human Action. (San Francisco: Fox  Wilkes, 1996 4th rev. ed.).

Newspaper writing is about making choices. They range from choosing a topic and its parameters to the style of writing, the story’s length and the degree of context down to the language used. Choices are conscious and unconscious. While I should think about the framing of a story — being aware of the worldview I bring to an issue — before I write, I do not do it as often as I should.

But the preconceived notions and assumption I bring add value as I can place stories in their historical/political context. I am able to discern if issue X is important, urgent or tired. Spin from PR flacks seldom moves me. Yet I have never written a sports story and can draw upon no well of knowledge to make an informed choice.

The conscious and unconscious choice applies to language. When I write “marriage equality” rather than “gay marriage” I am making a political choice with my vocabulary that signals the editorial stance of the publication or my personal views. This was especially true when I wrote for the Jerusalem Post. Through my upbringing and culture I knew to write “Jerusalem” as it would not have occurred to me to write “Al Quds”. But I learned to say “Judea and Samaria” not the “Occupied Territories” and “separation barrier” not “the wall” in line with the newspaper’s editorial policies. The vocabulary I brought to a story, whether innate to my worldview or learned from my employers, framed the article.

Choice results in consequences, whether intended or not. Let me draw your attention to the work of The Times foreign correspondent Michael Binyon to illustrate this point.

Binyon has penned a superior piece on one of the major under reported stories from the Arab Spring — the plight of Arab Christians. Taking as its news peg a report on a conference of church leaders in Amman hosted by King Abdullah of Jordan The Times article entitled “Middle East Christians face a bleak future” takes an indirect, but highly effective route in telling its story. It is a master class lesson in the craft of newspaper writing.

Yet this story also rang alarm bells within the Jewish community in Britain. “Did conference speakers call for the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem?”, a prominent Jewish activist asked me after she read the article. “Had the Church of England gone over to the replacement theology camp?” This did not appear in a surface reading of the paper, but I immediately grasped her concern when I read the story again through her eyes.

The Times lede is beautifully written.

Their churches have been bombed, burnt and ransacked. Thousands flee their homes to seek safety in exile, as ­Islamist extremists incite mobs to ­attack the dwindling communities that remain. Christians in the Middle East are today facing the ­greatest dangers they have known for centuries.

Moving from a strong opening, the article succinctly gives the who, what, when and where — before moving into an extended treatment of the why. Again, this is nicely and professionally done — you see the hand of a professional at work here.

The article then passes to a serious of comments and observations from participants, that give substance to the theme articulated in the lede. And at the end we hear from Church of England (hurrah!).

The Anglicans were well represented. The Episcopal bishops of Egypt and Jerusalem were joined by the Rev. Toby Howarth from Lambeth Palace and former Bishop Michael Langrish of Exeter representing the Archbishop of Canterbury. Mr Howarth made the point that Western Christians too often had a skewed assumption that Christianity was an import to the Middle East rather than an export from it. And he underlined the importance of intra-Christian and intra-Muslim dialogue.

He was also one of the few speakers to note the importance of women in faith issues. Only two nuns joined the panel of 80 male clerics. One male speaker said that if faith issues were left to women half the problems would disappear immediately.

Aside from the male cleric’s patronizing comment about women — and what did he mean by saying that if half the people (men) left you would have half the problems you now have? — there seemed little objectionable in these comments, and nothing that would suggest an anti-Jewish attack from the Church of England.

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NY Times gets religion … in Rome!

The New York Times published a lengthy travel piece with tons of religion in it. It’s written by David Laskin, and nicely weaves religion, history and travel together. A reader complained about one portion, incorrectly, but before we get to that, let’s look at the top of the story.

For half a millennium, the Portico d’Ottavia has been the heart of Rome’s Jewish ghetto, four cramped blocks wedged between the Tiber, the Turtle Fountain, the Theater of Marcellus and the Palazzo Cenci. Amid today’s celebration of earthly pleasures, I had trouble finding the small wall plaque that commemorates “la spietata caccia agli ebrei” — the merciless hunting down of the Jews — that took place here on Oct. 16, 1943.

Seventy years ago, the world was at war, Rome was occupied by the Nazis, and the ghetto was a virtual prison for a large part of the city’s Jewish community. On the morning of Oct. 16, 1943, SS Captain Theodor Dannecker ordered that the prison be emptied.

Trucks pulled up on the cobblestoned piazza beside the Portico d’Ottavia, the neighborhood was sealed, and 365 German soldiers fanned out through the narrow streets and courtyards. Families hid at the backs of their shuttered shops. The able-bodied and quick-witted jumped from their windows or fled along the rooftops. The unlucky were hounded from their homes at gunpoint and herded into the idling trucks. Of the more than 1,000 Roman Jews seized that day and later transported to Auschwitz, only 16 survived.

On a balmy night in April, I sat pondering that dark time with my wife and two of our daughters on the terrace of Ba” Ghetto, a lively restaurant near the Portico d’Ottavia. All around us, waiters were bearing platters of grilled meat and assuring tourists that their fried artichokes alla giudia were the best in Rome. Deep into the night, a sparkler ignited atop a slice of cake and everyone sang “tanti auguri a te” (happy birthday to you) to a 20-something beauty.

It was impossible not to be stunned by the contrast between the festive present and the somber past. Even a dozen years ago, when we first visited the ghetto, the neighborhood felt forlorn and insular. Old, suspicious eyes sized us up as we made our way past kosher butchers and shabby tailor shops. Jews had been confined to these flood-prone riverside streets in 1555 by Pope Paul IV, and in 2001, an aura of melancholy still lingered.

I had irreligious friends who lived near Portico d’Ottavio 15 years ago and they never described the neighborhood as forlorn or insular — far from it. Always good to remember that different people’s perspectives of a given neighborhood might vary quite a bit. This is just one (very good) travel writer’s perspective. And I’m thankful for a religion writer who understands the role religion plays in the character of a place.

The piece is long, and I want to quote extensively from it, but it’s best if you just read it. The writer acknowledges that the nine-month occupation by German forces was just a blip on what he calls “this city’s 2,000 years of glorious and inglorious history.” Of course, if we’re going to include all of its history, might it be better to refer to its 3,000 years? In any case, there’s some great World War II history, a mention of the Protestant cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, and various other tidbits. He visits “San Lorenzo’s mellow 12th-century brick campanile” and learns how American bombs caved in the roof of the basilica’s roof and shattered parts of the mosaic floor, one of the most beautiful in Rome (since set back into place). There:

As my guidebook instructed, I descended a short flight of steps at the end of the nave to find the tomb of St. Lawrence, who was martyred over hot coals in the year 258.

But the moment that will stay with me came in the 12th-century cloister. Amid the dainty paired columns and drifts of myrtle and herbs, I stumbled upon a fragment of a bomb’s casing that was pried out of the rubble in 1943 — a shard of American steel displayed incongruously in a sacred Roman garden.

St. Lawrence’s story is one of my favorites, and it’s nice to see a mention. The next paragraph is poignant as well. He asks locals if they have any bitterness over what the United States armed forces did to San Lorenzo. They explain that they are grateful to Americans for liberating them from the Nazis.

Here’s the part for which we received a reader complaint:

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WPost wants to know: So who built the Second Temple?

Kudos to the Washington Post for moving quickly to correct an error in Wednesday’s article on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

In a story entitled “An audacious plan at the Western Wall”, the WaPo reports on plans under consideration by the Israeli government to double the space available for worshipers at the Western Wall to accommodate the fissiparous Jewish community.

The story is well written, well researched, and offers views and statements from all parties concerned. There were, however, two things that caught my eye when I first read the story. When the article moved from  current events to background it stated King Solomon built the Second Temple. A bell went off in my head when I read that.

According to 1 Kings chapters 6-7 in the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, Solomon built the first temple on Mount Zion. The Bible goes on to record its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 2 Kings 25. Archaeological and rabbinic opinions differ as to the period of the temple’s construction and destruction offering dates of 10th century BC to 587 BC v. 832 to 422 BC. The Old Testament goes on to state in Ezra chapter 5 the Temple was rebuilt and completed during the six-year of the reign of King Darius the Great — approximately 517 BC.  Flavius Josephus records that Herod the Great completely rebuilt the Temple In the first century — and it became popular known as Herod’s Temple. In 70 AD the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and leveled the temple. The lower levels of the Western Wall are all that remain of Herod’s Temple.

I jotted down this error onto a notepad thinking I would return to it later in the day for a GetReligion piece. When I returned that afternoon to the web version of the article I found a correction had been posted at the top of the story. It read:

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that King Solomon built the Second Temple. Solomon built the First Temple. The story has been updated.

The body had been corrected to say that Herod built the second temple. Not quite – – still a mistake but not as big a brick as the first printing. I put the story to one side to move to pressing business and when I returned to the article on Thursday I thought it’d been corrected once more. The new correction states (and is at the top of the article as the date of this post):

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Jewish temple built by King Solomon. Solomon built the First Temple, not the Second. The article also incorrectly referred to Herod as the builder of the Second Temple. Although the temple is sometimes called Herod’s Temple in honor of his expansion of it, the original construction occurred centuries earlier.

The body of the story was corrected a second time too. I give them credit for fixing this error so swiftly, but it did rob me of a GetReligion story.

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