In tsunami of Boston info, there are basic faith questions

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As the drama keeps unfolding in and around Boston, it’s safe to say that journalists now face crucial decisions about the role of religion — specifically radical forms of Islam — played in the motives behind this act of terrorist.

There is no way to read everything that is being written, at the moment, but we’re trying to stay informed (even while, in my case, teaching classes). However, over on the journalistic left, Mother Jones has published this sobering information:

Authorities have identified the deceased suspect in the bombing of the Boston marathon, which killed three and injured more than 170, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. A user by that name has posted a video to his YouTube playlist extolling an extremist religious prophecy associated with Al Qaeda. It is not clear yet whether the user is the same Tsarnaev as the deceased suspect.

The YouTube page includes religious videos, including one of Feiz Mohammad, a fundamentalist Australian Muslim preacher who rails against the evils of Harry Potter. One playlist includes a video dedicated to the prophecy of the Black Banners of Khurasan, which is embraced by Islamic extremists—particularly Al Qaeda. The prophecy states that an invincible army will come from the region of Khurasan in central Asia.

“This is a major hadith (reported saying of the prophet Muhammad) that jihadis use, it is essentially an end-time prophecy,” says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy “This is definitely important in Al Qaeda’s ideology.”

Buzzfeed has posted a virtual shopping list of information about the accused brothers, who continued to be identified as Chechen even through these appear to be ties that are rooted in emotional rather than lived experience and upbringing.

The Muslim card is clearly in play, after social-media links provided quotes such as these — drawn from Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s “Will Box For Passport” mixed martial arts site.

“Originally from Chechnya, but living in the United States since five years, Tamerlan says: ‘I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.’”

“Tamerlan says he doesn’t drink or smoke anymore: ‘God said no alcohol.’ A muslim, he says: “There are no values anymore,” and worries that ‘people can’t control themselves.’”

To what degree is it news that there are radical Muslims who look at American and feel primarily anger, as opposed to millions of other Muslims who have come to have varying degrees of acceptance and affection for this nation and its emphasis on religious freedom?

What are the crucial questions at this point?

GetReligion readers will not be surprised to learn that I think the best questions are the old ones, the questions that might yield factual information that journalists can use when attempting to portray the degree to which faith did or did not drive those behind these acts. It is also crucial to learn everything that can be learned about the form of Islam that the brothers claimed, repeat “claimed,” to have been following. Why? Because the world is Islam is large and complex and there is no one monolithic Islam that can be described in simplistic language.

What kind of questions are we talking about?

I was struck by one claim that I have seen in several publications. Here is the Buzzfeed take:

Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, is the remaining suspect in the Boston marathon bombings — the subject of a massive manhunt Friday morning in Watertown, Massachusetts, multiple sources reported Friday morning. His brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, has been identified as the first suspect and died overnight following a firefight with police.

NBC News’ Pete Williams said earlier Friday morning that the two suspects likely had “foreign military training,” and had been in the country for about a year.

Later he said they were brothers, and added, “They were legal permanent residents. They were in this country legally, at least a year. They appear to be from Turkey, possibly Chechens from Turkey. That seems to be the nationality here.”

Just before 7 a.m. Friday morning, the Associated Press confirmed Williams’ reporting and naming Tsarnaev.

Foreign military training?

Now, hours later, some of those claims are in question — primarily since it appears the brothers had been in America for a number of years (as verified by some family members). This NBC interview with an uncle is getting lots of attention:

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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:

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Van Cliburn on stage, at church and in private life

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You know how, when you are growing up, that there is always some kind of music that you want to play late at night and it drives (Will you PLEASE turn that down?!) your parents kind of crazy? Well, for my parents, the music they had to endure for most of my teen years was Artur Rubinstein playing Rachmaninoff (piano concerto No. 2, of course) and Van Cliburn’s epic performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1.

Yes, it did help matters that Cliburn was a Texan, and a Baptist, when one is growing up in the home of a Southern Baptist minister on the Texas Gulf Coast. It also matters that I had a friend who, week after week, made the long, long journey north into East Texas to study piano with Cliburn’s mother. So I knew, secondhand, a few things about the Cliburn family and the son’s struggles to break out of the glorious box created by his historic 1958 triumph in Moscow. How does a young Texas Baptist recover from a ticker-tape parade in New York City?

I say all of this for a simple reason, after reading through quite a few obituaries marking Cliburn’s death, from cancer, at the age of 78. Cliburn was a very private man, yet there was more to the religious element of his life than what is shown in this stunningly blunt, rather simplistic passage in the USA Today report.

On the personal front, Cliburn was a devout Baptist but also quietly gay; in the late ’90s, his longtime partner, Thomas Zaremba, unsuccessfully sued the pianist over compensation claims.

And that is that. Really?

What really matters, of course, is what the journalistic college of cardinals at The New York Times elected to say. First, there is this:

Even as a personality, Mr. Cliburn began to seem out of step. In the late 1950s this baby-faced, teetotaling, churchgoing, wholesome Texan had fit the times. But to young Americans of the late 1960s he seemed a strained, stiff representative of the demonized establishment.

Followed, later on, by a crisp summary of the pianist’s brief moment in the glare of legal and social scandal:

In 1978, at 44, Mr. Cliburn announced his withdrawal from concertizing. Having earned large sums of money and invested wisely, he was a wealthy man. He moved into a magnificent home in the Fort Worth area with his mother. There he hosted frequent late-night dinner parties, his teetotaling days long behind him.

As a young man, Mr. Cliburn was briefly linked romantically with a soprano classmate from Juilliard. But even then he was living a discreet homosexual life. His discreetness was relaxed considerably in 1966 when, at 32, he met Thomas E. Zaremba, who was 19.

The details of their romantic relationship exploded into public view in 1995, when Mr. Zaremba filed a palimony suit against Mr. Cliburn seeking “multiple millions,” according to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Mr. Zaremba, who had moved to Michigan and become a funeral director, claimed that during his 17-year relationship with Mr. Cliburn he had served as a consultant and business associate, arranging promotional events and trips, managing some of the pianist’s finances, and helping to care for Mr. Cliburn’s mother, who died in 1994 at 97. The suit was eventually dismissed because Mr. Zaremba could not provide written validation of his domestic arrangement with Mr. Cliburn, as required by Texas law.

There is no attribution, of course, for many of these facts or the degree to which the sexual side of this partnership was documented.

My point is not, of course, to say that the pianist’s private life is irrelevant in this context.

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About those Orthodox hermits in the Siberian wild

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Every now and then, someone sends your GetReligionistas the URL for a story that is simply too good, too interesting to post right away. The problem is that it’s hard to know what to write, when dealing with one of those stunning long reads that reads like the summary of a 12-hour documentary series, with all of the imagery playing on a big screen in your head.

That was certainly the case with the recent Smithsonian piece by Mike Dash that ran under the double-decker headline that certainly didn’t bury the lede:

For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II

In 1978, Soviet geologists prospecting in the wilds of Siberia discovered a family of six, lost in the taiga

So what is the hook for this amazing story of human survival? The story, in a way, begins in 1978:

A helicopter sent to find a safe spot to land a party of geologists was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into the thickly wooded valley of an unnamed tributary of the Abakan, a seething ribbon of water rushing through dangerous terrain. The valley walls were narrow, with sides that were close to vertical in places, and the skinny pine and birch trees swaying in the rotors’ downdraft were so thickly clustered that there was no chance of finding a spot to set the aircraft down. But, peering intently through his windscreen in search of a landing place, the pilot saw something that should not have been there. It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation—a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time.

It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored.

However, the deeper truth is that the story started much, much earlier than that — even before the Soviet Union. Other than the usual out-of-context use of the word “fundamentalist,” the story paints a quick and gripping image for why the Lykov family fled into the wild:

Slowly, over several visits, the full story of the family emerged. The old man’s name was Karp Lykov, and he was an Old Believer — a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century. Old Believers had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great, and Lykov talked about it as though it had happened only yesterday; for him, Peter was a personal enemy and “the anti-Christ in human form” — a point he insisted had been amply proved by Tsar’s campaign to modernize Russia by forcibly “chopping off the beards of Christians.” But these centuries-old hatreds were conflated with more recent grievances; Karp was prone to complain in the same breath about a merchant who had refused to make a gift of 26 poods [940 pounds] of potatoes to the Old Believers sometime around 1900.

Things had only got worse for the Lykov family when the atheist Bolsheviks took power. Under the Soviets, isolated Old Believer communities that had fled to Siberia to escape persecution began to retreat ever further from civilization. During the purges of the 1930s, with Christianity itself under assault, a Communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother on the outskirts of their village while Lykov knelt working beside him. He had responded by scooping up his family and bolting into forest.

That was in 1936, and there were only four Lykovs then — Karp; his wife, Akulina; a son named Savin, 9 years old, and Natalia, a daughter who was only 2. Taking their possessions and some seeds, they had retreated ever deeper into the taiga, building themselves a succession of crude dwelling places, until at last they had fetched up in this desolate spot. Two more children had been born in the wild — Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia in 1943 — and neither of the youngest Lykov children had ever seen a human being who was not a member of their family.

It’s amazing material. But there is one problem.

Obviously, for me, all of this raises questions about the form of the Orthodox lives of the various members of the family.

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Washington Post finds ghost in Russian adoption ban

Now that my husband and I hope to bring more children into our family through adoption, we’ve entered into a complex and incredibly bureaucratic and confusing world. We’ve made new friends, too, who have helped us through the process. Some of them have adopted internationally. In fact, most of the other adoptive families we’ve met have adopted internationally.

Some of our friends were in the middle of difficult Russian adoptions when the Russian government shut down adoptions from Americans. I can’t possibly convey how difficult and heartbreaking this has been for some folks who have spent a great deal of time and money pursuing the growth of their families through Russian adoption.

The story received a bit of coverage, but is there a religion angle? The Washington Post thought so, as you can read in this terribly interesting piece headlined “Russian adoption ban will hit disabled children, evangelical Christian families.” Here’s the lede:

In the “before” photos a pro-adoption protester carried outside the Russian Parliament last week, little Anton Delgado looks bloody, bruised and listless — baby steps away from death.

In the photos from after his adoption, his face fills out, his bandages off. Twenty-three-month-old Anton sits propped up on a couch with his adopted parents and siblings in Texas, thanks — his adoptive mother, Vanessa, says — to the grace of God.

“I prayed for God to tell me the right time to adopt,” said Vanessa Delgado, who met her husband, Jason, at church and regularly quotes Scriptures in her blog posts. “Then I saw a picture of Anton on Facebook, and I knew, ‘That’s my son.’”

Russia’s ban on U.S. adoptions brokered heartbreak for many would-be parents and their adoptive children last week. But the law may hit one community especially hard: evangelical Christians, who in the past five years have begun adopting in droves.

The article goes on to state in the next line that “Adoption statistics are not broken down by faith, but agencies have seen a strong uptick in adoptions from impoverished countries since mega-preachers such as Rick Warren took up adoption as a religious issue five years ago, said Susan Cox, vice president of public policy for Holt International, one of the world’s largest international adoption agencies.”

I have definitely heard the same thing — but I’m wishing we had any hard data to support the idea that “evangelical Christians … “have begun adopting in droves.” Are we sure that this is a recent phenomenon? What do studies tell us precisely, if anything?

We learn that “a number” of adoption ministries have emerged in recent years, including some focused on children with special needs. We’re told that “the movement” reached a head in 2010 and that it’s driven, in part, by Rick Warren’s push to focus on adoption. Christianity Today (to which many of us here GetReligion contribute) has highlighted the issue on its cover.

Given the lack of hard data on adoption breakdowns by religious affiliation, I like the effort to substantiate. I just still wonder what the numbers are.

The story gets back to the Delgados. We learn about Anton’s rare skin condition, his abandonment by his biological parents, and how the Delgados came to adopt him. Apparently the Delgados loss of their special needs twins in 2008 motivated them to adopt. One thing I liked about the story was the inclusion of this quote, which accurately represents the general Christian approach to adoption — something that is not universally shared by other adoptive parents:

“Adoption is a beautiful gift,” she said by phone from Fort Worth, where her kids yelled and played in the background. “God adopted us through Jesus when we did nothing to deserve it. It’s a beautiful picture of the Gospel.”

There are many other stories — really terribly interesting — that are shared in this piece.

The story keeps a fairly narrow angle — on how this Russian ban affects evangelical Christian adoptive parents in America. So it doesn’t include background information on what precipitated the ban. Part of that issue relates to concerns over how some Americans have treated the children they adopted from Russia. That might be worth including. There have also been criticisms of some of the agencies mentioned in the article, also worth mentioning.

And along with the problem with the general lack of data, it may have helped to know how many children with special needs have been adopted out of Russia in recent years and what percentage of total adoptions that represents.

Still, kudos for finding a very real and undercovered (in the mainstream press) angle to this huge story.

Adoption image via Shutterstock.

Generic Armenians fleeing Syria for no particular reason

For news consumers who are closely following events on the ground in Syria, especially those of us who are worried about the protection of religious minorities there, it will come as little surprise to learn that ethnic Armenians are fleeing the dangerous cities and towns of Syria.

Logically enough, The New York Times reports that many of these refugees are fleeing back into Armenia, to a “motherland most barely know.”

And what is this flight all about, according to the Times team? Might this have something to do with religion and centuries of persecution?

The following passage is long, but GetReligion readers need to see the logic of this piece. I will interject the occasional question of my own.

Their ancestors fled the Ottoman genocide in what is now Turkey nearly a century ago and flourished in Syria, reviving one of the many minority groups that have long coexisted there.

Nope, no signs of religious strife there.

Now, the flight of Syrian Armenians — one of many lesser-noticed ripple effects that could reshape countries well beyond Syria’s neighbors — is raising questions about the future of Syria’s diversity. And it is forcing Armenia, which depends on its strong diaspora communities to augment its otherwise scant geopolitical heft, to make delicate calculations about whether to encourage their exodus or slow it.

The future of Syria’s diversity? Nope. No signs of religious ghosts there, so let’s jump down a bit.

Ethnic Armenians are a fraction of an accelerating flood of fleeing Syrians expected to reach 700,000 by year’s end, mainly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. But since the Armenians, unlike other Syrians, can easily acquire an alternative nationality, Syria could see one of its vibrant communities permanently diminished.

One might even ask: Are many of those who are desperately fleeing Syria part of threatened religious minorities?

Syrian Armenians are known for their gold and silver craftsmanship and exquisite cuisine. They are also a critical component of Syria’s connection to Russia and the West, serving an intermediary role through their relations with the global Armenian diaspora.

Food is important. However, might Armenians also be known, in Syria, for their religious beliefs and traditions? Might that have something to do with those lingering ties to Russia, in particular, in addition to the Soviet Union history?

Just asking.

Then, a few lines later, but well into this report, Times readers learn:

While Syrian Armenians have remained officially neutral in Syria’s civil war, as Christians many are wary of the rebels’ Islamist strains, and as Armenians suspicious of the rebels’ Turkish support.

But, alas, that’s just about all that one learns on the religion questions looming in the background. You know those Armenians, this is really all about ethnic identity, politics, power and money. You see, in Armenia:

A vociferous minority has seized on fears of violence in Syria — and memories of the Ottoman genocide — to push for a larger nationalist goal, the return of all Armenians to the country.

“This is our land — not L.A., not New York, not Syria,” said Vartan Marashlyan, Armenia’s former deputy diaspora minister and the executive director of Repat Armenia, an organization founded in August to “actively champion” what it calls the “repatriation” of Armenians from around the world.

Syrian Armenians who yearn for Syria “want to be in the Aleppo of one year ago,” a setting whose peaceful coexistence may not return, he said. Referring to estimates of genocide deaths, he added, “We lost 1.5 million people to this mentality that it will all work out.”

You see, religion really isn’t that big a part of the emerging picture in Syria or, well, Egypt or Libya. Did religion have anything to do with that whole genocide business?

Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind. These ethnic groups and distressed minorities. Why can’t they just GET ALONG?

IMAGE: By Laura. An Armenian Orthodox church in Damascus.


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