To be ‘killed, crucified or have their hands and feet cut off’ …

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At this point in the growing Iraq crisis, I think it is safe to say that European journalists, in comparison with their American counterparts, are much more comfortable putting the words “caliphate,” “sharia” and “decapitated” at the top of their news reports. Soon to come, bold references to the fate of “apostates” and perhaps even “Christians.”

Consider this sprawling headline in The Daily Mail:

ISIS butchers leave ‘roads lined with decapitated police and soldiers’: Battle for Baghdad looms as thousands answer Iraqi government’s call to arms and jihadists bear down on capital

At the same time, journalists are — accurately — stressing the looming clash between Shia and Sunni groups, especially with threats to Shiite holy places. They seem less willing to deal with the truly historic exodus — word carefully chosen — of thousands of Christians and members of other religious minorities who are being forced to flee their ancient centers in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. Where are they going?

So what is happening now in the mainstream coverage? The second-day Washington Post story is a good place to start. Note, at the very top, that al-Qaeda is back in the picture:

IRBIL, Iraq – Iraq was on the brink of falling apart Thursday as al-Qaeda renegades asserted their authority over Sunni areas in the north, Kurds seized control of the city of Kirkuk and the Shiite-led government appealed for volunteers to help defend its shrinking domain.

The discredited Iraqi army scrambled to recover after the humiliating rout of the past three days, dispatching elite troops to confront the militants in the central town of Samarra and claiming that it had recaptured Tikrit, the home town of the late Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, whose regime was toppled by U.S. troops sweeping north from Kuwait in 2003.

But there was no sign that the militant push was being reversed. With the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria now sweeping south toward Baghdad, scattering U.S.-trained security forces in its wake, the achievements of America’s eight-year war in Iraq were rapidly being undone. Iraq now seems to be inexorably if unintentionally breaking apart, into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves that amount to the de facto partition of the country.

So, essentially, are the Kurds now the keepers of the region’s “safe” zone? What does Turkey have to say about that?

The most sobering details in this Post report have been placed way down in the text, as opposed to being featured in bold headlines backed with links to horrifying video reports.

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NYTimes: Waves of generic refugees run for their lives in Iraq

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The news from Iraq grows more and more distressing, at least for those who favor old-liberalism virtues found in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations. Here is a typical mainstream-news update, care of The Los Angeles Times.

But let’s back up for a moment and look at two key elements of one of the first major stories that shook the mainstream press into action. I refer to The New York Times piece that ran under the headline “Sunni Militants Drive Iraqi Army Out of Mosul.”

I concede, right up front, that I am concerned about two key issues: (1) the symbolic and practical importance of Mosul to Christians and members of other religious minorities in the Middle East and (2) the tactics and goals of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militants behind this drive into Iraq. At the top of its report, the Times paints this horror story in very general terms.

BAGHDAD – Sunni militants spilling over the border from Syria on Tuesday seized control of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, in the most stunning success yet in a rapidly widening insurgency that threatens to drag the region into war.

Having consolidated control over Sunni-dominated Nineveh Province, armed gunmen were heading on the main road to Baghdad, Iraqi officials said, and had already taken over parts of Salahuddin Province. Thousands of civilians fled south toward Baghdad and east toward the autonomous region of Kurdistan, where security is maintained by a fiercely loyal army, the pesh merga.

The Iraqi Army apparently crumbled in the face of the militant assault, as soldiers dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes and blended in with the fleeing masses. The militants freed thousands of prisoners and took over military bases, police stations, banks and provincial headquarters, before raising the black flag of the jihadi group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over public buildings. The bodies of soldiers, police officers and civilians lay scattered in the streets.

OK, so we have thousands of generic civilians fleeing.

Is there anything else that can be said about that word “civilians”? Veteran human-rights activist Nina Shea — yes, writing at the conservative National Review Onlinenotes a few crucial details about the symbolic importance of Mosul. It helps to know that Iraq’s second-largest city has been the final safe zone for believers in the nation’s 2,000 year-old Christian community and for those in many other small religious minorities. Thus:

Mosul’s panic-stricken Christians, along with many others, are now fleeing en masse to the rural Nineveh Plain, according to the Vatican publication Fides. The border crossings into Kurdistan, too, are jammed with the cars of the estimated 150,000 desperate escapees.

The population, particularly its Christian community, has much to fear. The ruthlessness of ISIS, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, has been legendary. Its beheadings, crucifixions, and other atrocities against Christians and everyone else who fails to conform to its vision of a caliphate have been on full display earlier this year, in Syria. …

(In) February, it was the militants of this rebel group that, in the northern Syrian state of Raqqa, compelled Christian leaders to sign a 7th-century dhimmi contract. The document sets forth specific terms denying the Christians the basic civil rights of equality and religious freedom and committing them to pay protection money in exchange for their lives and the ability to keep their Christian identity.

News consumers who have been paying close attention know that ISIS isn’t just a group that is linked to al-Qaeda, it is a group that has been so ruthless and violent that it has been shunned by many jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda.

The bottom line that might interest American readers: One of the world’s most ancient Christian communities is literally running for its life, trying to escape militants who are too violent to work with al-Qaeda.

Now, read the bland Times report and try to figure out that this is one of the key elements — yes, I said ONE — of the tragedy that is unfolding. Here is how these realities are reported by America’s most powerful newsroom:

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American suicide bomber: WPost flounders on his beliefs

Yet another horrific facet was added to the civil war in Syria with the recent revelation that an American, Moner Mohammed Abusalha, blew himself up in a suicide bombing there. But who was Abusalha? And what did he believe and practice? That proved a considerable challenge for a Washington Post article, despite its 988 words and six reporters.

First, there’s geography. “American who killed himself in Syria suicide attack was from South Florida,” blares the headline in big type. The South Florida connection is deemed important in a lot of “crazy” stories, and as a longtime resident myself, I’ll agree that it’s often warranted. Most of the hijackers behind 9-11 lived here for weeks.

Still, it’s good to know north from south. After saying Abusalha was from South Florida, the Washington Post says he went to high school in Sebastian and lived awhile in Fort Pierce, and his parents live in nearby Vero Beach and own a grocery story in Melbourne. All of those places are more than 65 miles from West Palm Beach, the northernmost point of South Florida. They’re closer to Cocoa Beach, the site of the Kennedy Space Center.

The only exception is a mention of a Facebook picture of Abusalha “smiling in Miami Beach.” Now, a New York Times story does say that he was born in West Palm Beach. Still a flimsy premise, I suggest. If the story were about me, would it say I was “from” New Jersey? Not likely. Not after living most of my life in South Florida.

The Post does a lot of noodling on how religious Abusalha was — either to show a connection between his faith and his fighting, or to show how a good boy could go bad. But the efforts largely flounder like a kid on the first day of summer swimming class.

The newspaper quotes Orlando Taylor, who says he’s a close friend with Abusalha’s older brother:

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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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Good news: Generic nuns released in Syria!

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For three months now, members of my parish just south of Baltimore have been praying for the release of some of our sisters in the faith in Syria, along with two kidnapped bishops.

Thus, I was thankful when the news spread recently that they had been released. I was also glad to see that their release was covered by The New York Times. It felt like a nod of respect for an oppressed minority religious group in a suffering land.

However, as I read this report I noticed something rather strange. Here is the top of the story:

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian insurgents released 13 nuns and three attendants who disappeared three months ago from their monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, Lebanese and Syrian officials said …, ending a drama in which rebels said they were protecting the women from government shelling and Syrian officials said they were abducted in an act of intimidation against Christians.

The handoff was infused with suspense until the last moment. Officials said Sunday afternoon that the nuns had crossed the mountainous border to Arsal, a pro-rebel town in Lebanon, to be handed off to Lebanese officials and driven to Syria.

But amid reports of last-minute problems, reporters and government supporters waited hours at the border with no sign of the nuns. Finally, early Monday, the Lebanese channel Al Jadeed showed the black-clad nuns at the border, beaming, as one embraced a Lebanese security official and officers carried another.

Mother Pelagia Sayaf, the head of the Mar Taqla monastery in Maaloula, thanked President Bashar al-Assad, saying he had worked with Qatari officials for their release. She said the nuns were “treated very well” by the insurgents and were not prevented from wearing religious symbols. Some had speculated that similar declarations on videos from captivity were forced.

This story does a good job of describing the complex nature of the negotiations that may, or may not, have led to the release of the nuns. All of the political fine points are discussed, as they should be.

The story also includes quite a bit of information about the abduction of the nuns.

All well and good. But two crucial pieces of information are missing from this report (maybe three).

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5Q+1: CNN Godbeat pro on his remarkable Lampedusa story

When one of the best religion journalists on the planet produces one of the most gratifying stories of his life, news consumers are in for a real treat.

Enter Eric Marrapodi, co-editor of CNN’s Belief Blog.

His 4,500-word  “Stepping-stones to Safety” story — featuring a family fleeing Syria’s war — ran over the weekend.

The gripping lede:

Lampedusa, Italy (CNN) – Abdel clung to his pregnant wife, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter as they sailed across an open stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.

They were in a dilapidated fishing boat with limited provisions and almost no sanitation, sharing a cramped space with some 400 other Syrians.

Abdel prayed quietly and recited verses from the Quran for two days and two nights as the boat swayed and motored precariously along the 180-mile route from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.

If they could make it, his young family would be one step closer to freedom.

He knew thousands had died making the same voyage.

Abdel prayed for safety. He hoped land would come soon. He worried his wife, 8 1/2 months pregnant, might give birth before they reached land.

Abdel and his family risked their lives to flee Syria for Italy.

Marrapodi agreed to respond to a few questions from GetReligion about his extraordinary report.  (If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to do so now. We’ll still be here when you get back.)

What’s the inside scoop on this story? How did it come about, and how long did it take to report, write and edit it?

I’d been hearing about Lampedusa and the refugees there for a long time. After Pope Francis made it his first visit outside of Rome, I knew I had to get over there. I was fortunate to be part of an extraordinary group of journalists who won Henry Luce Foundation grants for international religion reporting through the International Center for Journalists. ICFJ connected me with another grant winner, the wonderful Elisa Di Benedetto, who is an Italian journalist.

We met in Rome and flew to Lampedusa and Catania. We were on the two islands for a week total at the end of September. Because it was more of an evergreen story, we worked on the writing and the editing for months to get it right. We also had a lot of fact checking and following up to do.

It was a real challenge and a real joy to report.

Tell me about your travel experience. How big a journalistic adventure did you enjoy?

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Pod people: What was top 2013 story for Pope Francis?

I am sure that GetReligion readers will be shocked, shocked to know that the Godbeat professionals in the Religion Newswriters Association selected the election of Pope Francis Superstar as the top religion-news story of 2013. It goes without saying that Pope Francis was also named Religion Newsmaker of the Year.

Click here to read the official RNA release about the Top 10 stories of the year.

Faithful GetReligion readers will also be shocked, shocked to know that I understood the logic of the RNA vote, but had a slightly different take on the top news event or trend in 2013.

And finally, GetReligion podcast patrons will be shocked, shocked to know that host Todd Wilken and I dissected all of this material, and more, in this week’s “Crossroads” episode. Please click here to listen to that.

So here is my logic about this No. 1 story vote.

Of course I understand that the election of Pope Francis produced more headlines and glowing ink over the last year than any other religion-beat story. In terms of mainstream news coverage, the election of the charismatic, yet walk-his-talk humble, pope had to be one of the most powerful earthquakes in this past year’s news — period.

But stop and think about it.

How long has it been since the occupant of St. Peter’s throne resigned his post? That would be 600 years or so, right? Thus, one could make the case that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was one of the most important stories in Catholicism, and thus, Western Christianity in, well, decades — at the very least. Try to imagine the long-term ramifications of Benedict’s astonishing exit.

So how can a story be one of the most important stories in Western religion in DECADES and not be the most important religion story of the YEAR?

I know, I know. Pope Francis was the religion-news earthquake of 2013 and that’s that. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI finished in second place.

Well, I have one more angle I would like readers to pause and consider. Here’s how I put it in this week’s “On Religion” column for the Universal Uclick syndicate:

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Pope addresses world peace AND persecution (again)

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Covering speeches is tricky, I tell the students in my reporting classes.

A good public speaker says all kinds of interesting things before he or she gets to The Big Idea, the point to which they have been building all along. A good reporter, on the other hand, has to find a way to take The Big Idea — especially if it is truly newsworthy — and plant it right at the top of the story, while maintaining a sense of context.

The reporter can add the other important details later, I tell students. The key, as every journalist knows, is not to “bury the lede.” And may the journalism gods have mercy on a reporter who misses The Big Idea altogether.

This brings us to one of the most symbolic moments in the annual cycle of the Catholic liturgical year — the short message delivered by the pope at Christmas that is called “Urbi et Orbi,” which is Latin for “to the city and the world.” This is not the sermon in the Christmas Mass, but an address that is, to be blunt, aimed at the public square.

Thus, it often contains remarks linked to political events, although they are addressed in the context of Christian faith. Year after year, journalists write about the politics and ignore the faith framework. This is business as usual.

However, this year’s “Urbi et Orbi” coverage in The New York Times was, I though, especially interesting in that it featured point after point from the body of the remarks by Pope Francis and then — amazingly enough — ignored the key quote, The Big Idea, the thesis to which he had been building all along.

Here’s a key chunk of two of the Gray Lady text which, surprise, is rather political. Here’s the lede:

ROME – Pope Francis used the first Christmas address of his papacy on Wednesday to make a broad call for global peace and an end to violence in Syria and parts of Africa, urging atheists and followers of other religions to join together in this common cause.

OK, everybody is supposed to be in favor of peace. Moving on. The Times team needs to include the required shot at the previous pope:

In the nine months since he became pope, Francis has generated global excitement among Catholics, and others, with his humble demeanor and his shift in tone from the more strident papacy of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, whose resignation in February stunned the Catholic world.

Francis has regularly attracted huge crowds in Vatican City, and almost overnight he has emerged as a major figure on the global stage, surprising many Catholics with his nonjudgmental tone on issues like homosexuality and divorce, and his focus on the plight of the world’s poor. He has also been unpredictable, telephoning ordinary people who have written him letters, embracing a badly disfigured man at St. Peter’s and making unannounced visits in Rome.

He proved unpredictable again on Wednesday, when he went off script to include atheists in his call for peace, rare for a Catholic leader.

“I invite even nonbelievers to desire peace,” he said. “Let us all unite, either with prayer or with desire, but everyone, for peace.”

Yes, the atheist detail is interesting and deserves to be included. But what was The Big Idea in this Francis text (found here, in the English translation)?

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