Ghosts in those one-sided reports about victims in Syria

Rare is the day that I do not receive at least one or two emails from Eastern Orthodox Christians, or those sympathetic to the plight of Christians in the Middle East, containing URLs pointing toward new reports about alleged atrocities linked to the fighting or acts of terrorism in Syria, Egypt or elsewhere. The common question: Why are these events rarely if ever covered by mainstream news organizations in North America?

These people are smart and they know their history. They understand, for example, that most American journalists see Christians and other endangered religious minorities in Syria as the allies of the corrupt regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his battle against a complex swarm of rebels and Islamists, including forces with strong ties to al-Qaeda and other jihadist networks. They also know that Russia supports the current Syrian regime and that President Barack Obama and the U.S. State Department now support many groups in the Syrian rebellion.

Let’s see: That would be Russian President Vladimir Putin vs. Obama. Of those two, which leader is more popular with the American press?

My friends know all of that. However, their views are sure to be closer to those of Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kan. Here’s a snippet of a column I wrote on that:

Anyone who prays for peace in Syria must acknowledge, at the beginning, that “vicious wrongs” have been done on both sides and that “there’s really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None,” concluded Bishop Basil.

“So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we’ve had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don’t know about except what they’ve shown us in this awful civil war.”

So my Orthodox friends are not asking why the American press seems to favor the rebels. They are not asking why so much ink is dedicated to coverage of atrocities against Islamist communities in Syria. They can do the math. What they want to know is why there is so little coverage of what is alleged to be happening to Christians and other persecuted religious minorities in the region. They struggle to understand the sins of omission.

Thus, they keep sending me reports like this one, which is from an alternative source, but includes lots of specifics and attribution links:

Negotiations intensify for release of Syrian nuns

The nuns of Maaloula may soon be in Lebanon, their abductors’ last refuge, if mediation and open channels with them do not quickly reach a solution, before the Syrian army’s attack on Yabrud expands in the next few days with the launch of the second phase of the military
operation in Qalamoun.

There are 12 kidnapped nuns — four Lebanese and eight Syrians. Three negotiating channels have taken turns trying to find out what the kidnappers want in exchange for releasing them. That the kidnappers immediately agreed to multilateral negotiations is cause for optimism because this is the first time Jabhat al-Nusra has wanted to quickly make a deal to release hostages it is holding. In the past, it took months before the fate of kidnapped persons was revealed or before the kidnappers agreed to negotiate.

Kidnapped nuns? What kidnapped nuns? Right, that Pope Francis guy is concerned about their plight, but it certainly appears that coverage of this story is strictly a Christian media or conservative media affair.

Or how about this report, from a religious press source? Yes, it includes doses of anti-mainstream media venom:

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Missing nuns, missing details, in Maaloula (updated)

Trust me on this. I know that it must be impossible for journalists to cover events in the war-torn land of Syria right now without getting their heads blown off. This is especially true for correspondents linked to Western news organizations that are trying to cover the actions of Islamist radicals.

However, how hard is it to cover the actual statements of major churches and, at times, even the Vatican? I realize that this can lead to unbalanced coverage, if these Western voices are quoted in isolation. I get that. However, what I don’t understand is journalists with major organizations — such as the Associated Press — failing to cover the basics on life-and-death stories of interest to many readers.

At the moment, Eastern Orthodox listservs and parish websites are buzzing with some horrifying news from the highly symbolic town of Maaloula (click here for a column I wrote on earlier events in the fighting there). First, here is the Associated Press brief. Try to make sense of this:

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – The mother superior of a Syrian convent says 12 nuns have been abducted by opposition fighters and taken to a rebel-held town.

Febronia Nabhan, Mother Superior at Saidnaya Convent, said Tuesday that the nuns and three other women were taken the day before from another convent in the predominantly Christian village of Maaloula to the nearby town of Yabroud.

Syrian rebels captured large parts of Maaloula, some 40 miles northeast of the capital, on Monday after three days of fighting.

Nabhan told the Associated Press that the Maaloula convent’s mother superior, Pelagia Sayaf, called her later that day and said they were all “fine and safe.” The state news agency SANA had reported Monday that six nuns, including Sayaf, were trapped in a convent in Maaloula.

I have no idea what is going on here. For starters, WHO is “fine and safe” right now? Six sisters in the other besieged convent in Maaloula or the 12 taken away to other location by rebels?

By the way, what is the name of the other convent led by Nabhan? (The answer, I assume, is Our Lady of Saidnaya.) Why not tell readers the religious tradition that is involved here? And what is the name of the besieged facility in Maaloula, which just happens to be one of the most symbolic Christian sites in the Middle East (and thus, the world)?

And what are we to make with the “three days of fighting” reference? Maaloula has been under siege for weeks, if not months. And why is this town so important to “opposition fighters” and “rebels”? Why is it so important to overthrow an ancient institution containing some nuns and lots of orphans?

So Eastern Orthodox Christians are not reading the Associated Press, for obvious reasons. We are having to turn to AsiaNews.it for some specifics.

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AFP gives Maalula its due

It was my intention today to look at religion news coverage of the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. And I hope to still do that. But I didn’t come across anything particularly winsome or substantial. I’m sure there must be some good (or bad!) stuff out there. Please do pass it along.

During my search, I came across a story that I do want to commend. Mostly for just being written.

This weekend I met someone who had journeyed to Maalula and had experienced great joy there. He was telling a group of us about encountering an icon in the deepest reaches of a church there. As he told the story, someone said that they thought Maalula had been taken by Syrian rebel forces that day. Reports coming out of Maalula are horrible. Absolutely horrible. And AFP has one that begins:

Jihadists who overran Syria’s ancient Christian town of Maalula last week forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint and executed another one, residents said Tuesday.

“They arrived in our town at dawn on Wednesday and shouted ‘We are from the Al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders,” an Islamist term for Christians, said a still frightened woman who identified herself as Marie.

She spoke to AFP in Damascus, where she was attending the burial with hundreds of others of three Christians from Maalula killed in last week’s fighting, the long line of mourners led by a brass band playing dirges.

“Maalula is the wound of Christ,” mourners chanted as they marched through the narrow streets of the capital’s ancient Christian quarter, their voices nearly drowned out by the rattle of automatic gunfire in honour of the dead.

There was an irony in that, as the assault on Maalula came only a couple of weeks before a major feast, the Exaltation of the Cross.

With a caveat that we could do without the Alanis Morissette-style use of “irony,” a few thoughts. First, thank you for covering and featuring this prominently. I am shocked at how little news editors realize these stories are of interest and significance to many global readers. Also, thank you for the sourcing. Was someone forcibly converted at threat of being shot? Well, it’s unlikely that any reporter could say for sure. It’s appropriate to source it to “residents,” although I would like reporters to attempt to confirm the report as much as possible. We don’t get a name of the victim but we do get eyewitness accounts.

The story goes on to discuss the significance of Maalula to Christianity. It’s one of the most renowned Christian towns in Syria. Its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The story isn’t just about religion. We learn a little bit about why rebels find it strategically important.

We hear from a man who returned to Syria from the United States, where he’d run a restaurant in Washington State for 42 years. He says the worst part of what happened to Maalula was the reaction from Muslim neighbors who greeted the rebels. That is a powerful aspect to have in the story but, of course, it would be much better to hear from those same Muslim neighbors about their perspective. Were they happy? If so, why?

The piece ends with an anecdote:

The most tragic story was that of Rasha, who recounted how the jihadists had seized her fiance Atef, who belonged to the town’s militia, and brutally murdered him.

“I rang his mobile phone and one of them answered,” she said.

“Good morning, Rash rush,” the voice said, using her nickname. “We are from the Free Syrian Army. Do you know your fiance was a member of the shabiha (pro-regime militia) who was carrying weapons, and we have slit his throat.”

The man told her Atef had been given the option of converting to Islam, but had refused.

“Jesus didn’t come to save him,” he taunted.

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Is a global fast for Syria a local news story?

According to Catholic News Agency:

Pope Francis made a global petition on Sept. 1 asking that everyone, regardless of religion or location, to fast and pray during the whole day of Sept. 7 for world peace, particularly in Syria.

I noticed that various friends and acquaintances were participating in a special day of prayer and fasting — some sent the word along to join in, some merely mentioned that they were doing it, some shared how their particular parish was taking up Pope Francis’ call. I had seen a few wire reports leading up to the day of fasting and prayer, but I was curious if this would be considered a local news story.

The answer is, it varied.

The New York Times didn’t consider it a story. Period. If you run a query for “Francis” and “fast” for the last seven days, nothing comes up. Rod Dreher has an absolutely fascinating commentary on what the New York Times decides from its perch is newsworthy and what it doesn’t, using just this week’s coverage as an illustration. Let’s just say that nothing about Christians and Syria registers. But, you know, if you want a touching story about an elderly gay couple reminiscing about lots of public sex or a lengthy look at an all-nude gay resort in the Ozarks — two stories that were featured prominently — that is definitely your paper of record.

What’s particularly odd about the New York Times‘ inability to mention Pope Francis’ call for a day of fasting and prayer against war in Syria is that the paper ran a big story headlined, “Obama Falls Short on Wider Backing for Syria Attack.” I don’t know if the reporters and editors attempted to leave religion angles out of the story but when even a world leader like the Pope doesn’t make the cut, you have to wonder what is going on.

The Washington Post didn’t have anything in the Sunday paper, but it did have an Associated Press report online. Not about the global fast so much as Francis and some pilgrims to St. Peter’s Square. Nothing at all about local Catholics or other religious adherents who joined in.

But while the Post and the Times didn’t think local (or global!) participation in days of fasting and prayer were particularly newsworthy, some news organizations did:

Catholics unite in prayer before Syria vote
News 12 Westchester – 10 hours ago
Pope Francis asked Catholics to fast and pray for the refugees in the civil war-torn nation,and for a quick and peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict. (6:17 PM). WESTCHESTER – Catholics across the Hudson Valley united in prayer during Sunday Masses …

NC residents take part in global day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria
News & Observer – ?Sep 7, 2013?
PEACEMASS0908. Members of the congregation pray the rosary during a special mass led by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Saturday, September 7, 2013 in Raleigh, N.C. The mass was held in observance of Pope Francis’ call to join in a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria. … At Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh, dozens of people filled the pews at a Mass for Peace organized quickly after the pope spoke out last week against Western military intervention in Syria.

Actually, This News & Observer piece is worth a quick look:

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What is the X-factor in Syrian bloodshed? DUH! (updated)

It seems that many networkers in the online world remain fired up about that recent Washington Post explainer that ran under the headline “9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask.” That’s the one you may recall, in part because of this GetReligion post, that was the first of many similar mainstream media pieces that have tried to explain the rising violence in Syria without including information about its crucial religious divisions.

What kind of religious divisions at the heart of the violence?

Well, how many of you out in GetReligion reader land have seen the following Associated Press report in your local newspaper, a national newspaper or your favorite news (as opposed to analysis) website? You would have seen a headline that looked something like this: “Al-Qaeda-linked rebels assault Syrian Christian village.” A shout out to CBS, by the way, for at least covering that event online.

Anyway, all of that is to point readers toward a long, deep piece that ran the other day at the CNN Belief Blog, written by co-editor Daniel Burke, under this rather remarkable headline, in the current media climate: “Syria explained: How it became a religious war.” Here’s the top of the story:

(CNN) – How did Syria go from an internal uprising to a wider clash drawing funding and fighters from across the region?

In a word, Middle East experts say, religion.

Shiite Muslims from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran have flooded into Syria to defend sacred sites and President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. Sunni Muslims, some affiliated with al Qaeda, have rushed in to join rebels, most of whom are Sunni.

Both sides use religious rhetoric as a rallying cry, calling each other “infidels” and “Satan’s army.”

“That is why it has become so muddy,” said professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The theological question has returned to the center.”

So who is crying out that the key to the rising conflict is religion? That would be the United Nations.

Why does that matter so much?

Religious civil wars are longer and bloodier than other types of clashes, according to studies. They are also twice as likely to recur and twice as deadly to noncombatants.

“People hold onto religious fights longer than battles over land and water,” said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, an expert on foreign policy at Georgetown University and a 10-year veteran of the U.S. State Department. “It becomes existential and related to belief in a higher calling.”

Some combatants in Syria appear to believe that fighting in the name of God justifies the most barbaric measures.

Remember that video of a rebel eating the heart of a Syrian soldier while shouting “God is great!”? Or the other video showing the beheading of three men with butcher knives, also while praising God?

Of course, as CNN accurately notes, the ruling regime has been just as brutal in many cases. However, one complication — yes, captured in the CNN report — is that Syrian troops are often the only forces that are standing between tiny, in many cases defenseless, religious minorities and the elements of the rebel forces that can accurately be called Islamist and, in some cases, linked to al Qaeda.

So who are the other players on this sectarian chess board?

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PBS: Understanding Syria (minus any nasty religion stuff)

So here we go again.

This weekend I mentioned an online explainer piece served up by The Washington Post that pointed readers toward essential Twitter feeds linked to the civil war in Syria. The news-you-can-use pledge: Read these Twitter feeds and you’ll know what you need to know to understand the chaos and bloodshed in Syria.

Maybe, maybe not.

I thought it was interesting that, after looking these Twitter feeds over a bit, it appears that the Post thinks that religion plays no role whatsoever in the fighting in Syria between the Islamist rebels and the heretical (from a Sunni Muslim point of view) Alawite minority regime that is hanging onto power. Oh, and then there is the plight of other religious minorities — Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians, primarily. This is an angle of the Syria story that is often mentioned in places like — well, to name two — Rome and Moscow.

Now, here is another explainer piece — care of PBS. The headline aims at similar terrain: “Your Cheat Sheet to the Syrian Conflict.”

One of the most crucial aspects of the Syria story is that this land is a tense patchwork of groups that are defined in terms of ethnicity/tribe and religion. Right? Thus, PBS tells us:

What is Syria?

Syria is a nation of about 21 million people — roughly 2 million more than the population of New York state. It sits on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the Middle East.

The nation is about the same size as Washington state and slightly larger than North Dakota. Syria is run by the minority sect known as Alawites, which make up 11.8 percent of the population.

Interesting. The Alawites are a sect of what religion?

Later on in the piece there is this question:

Why the Civil War?

A series of peaceful protests during the Arab Spring in 2011 triggered an increasingly violent backlash from the government of Bashar al-Assad that in turn led to a full-fledged civil war.

The current death toll, according to UNHCR’s Peter Kessler, now stands at more than 100,000 people. The number of people who have lost their homes or been forced to flee has reached 6.2 million. The group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 40,146 civilians have been killed, including more than 4,000 women and more than 5,800 children.

Uh, by WHY is there a civil war? What are the fault lines in this conflict, the civic cracks that define it? The Arab spring caused everything to fall apart and that’s that? Really?

And then there’s the matter of the Reuters info-graphic that ran with this piece.

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How to follow totally secular Syria news on Twitter

The goal here at GetReligion is, of course, to look at the good and the bad in mainstream news coverage of religion events and trends. This means we devote 99 percent of our time to news articles. That’s no surprise.

Yet, in the Internet age, more and more newsrooms are offering — online — an expanded menu of materials that are RELATED to the news in ways that are hard to label. Some fit under the whole “news you can use” umbrella and others are clearly meant to be exercises in reader education.

I find the latter to be especially interesting since the folks running the newsroom are, in effect, telling readers what matters the most to the people who are producing and framing the coverage of the news. The result is often quite revelatory.

Consider the recent Washington Post piece that ran under this bold headline:

The 23 Twitter accounts you must follow to understand Syria

Wow. Really?

Now, it is certainly true that the civil war in Syria is a unique environment, when it comes to gathering news. After all, many of the most important players have a tendency to shoot at reporters they view as hostile. In this context, social media is crucial.

Please, please hear me say that I think Twitter is an information source that must be taken seriously in this context. As the intro to this piece notes:

The news about Syria has been, and continues to be, important, fast-paced and at times overwhelming. It’s a lot to keep up with, not least because every facet of the conflict and how the world responds is complicated and deeply controversial. Smart people can and do disagree vehemently about what it all means — and what to do about it.

These are the people you should follow on Twitter to keep track of what’s going on inside of Syria (as well as within relevant circles outside of it), what it means, why it matters and how to think about it.

You can hear the same reality expressed at the top of a major piece in The New York Times.

Western journalists are struggling to cover what the world has so far seen largely through YouTube. But while some television news crews have been filing reports from Damascus, the dangers of reporters being killed or kidnapped there — as well as visa problems — have kept most journalists outside the country’s borders and heightened the need for third-party images.

“The difficulty of getting into Syria, the shrunken foreign correspondent corps, and the audience gains for social media make it likely this story will be consumed differently by the American public than tensions or conflicts in past years,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Syria the deadliest country in the world for reporters. Last year, 28 journalists working there were killed, and 18 have died so far this year, according to the group, a nonprofit based in New York.

Thus, there is a clear need to follow Twitter feeds close to the action.

So, according to the principalities and powers at The Washington Post, who are the Twitter authorities who are crucial to follow if readers want to understand the events unfolding in Syria?

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Off to war again. But a just one?

Everyone ready for another war? Ready or not, it appears that we are about to go to war with Syria. Or, as the Washington Post says:

An imminent U.S. strike on Syrian government targets in response to the alleged gassing of civilians last week has the potential to draw the United States into the country’s civil war, former U.S. officials said Tuesday, warning that history doesn’t bode well for such limited retaliatory interventions.

It’s all happening rather quickly and there are lots of angles to cover — the intelligence situation, the lack of Congressional approval, the political outcomes expected, etc. — but what about the religion angles? Of the many religion angles in this story, one deals with whether this war can be considered “just.” The Huffington Post hosted a piece by Maryann Cusimano Love, an associate professor of International Relations at Catholic University of America who serves on the Core Group for the Department of State’s working group on Religion and Foreign Policy, which notes:

St. Thomas Aquinas never imagined a world in which chemicals could kill thousands of people in a breath, but these old moral codes can still provide guidance in modern warfare. [Just War Theory] is a centuries-old guide to thinking about when and how it can ever by morally justifiable to violate the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” JWT holds that even during warfare we are still capable of moral behavior, and still obligated to protect human life and dignity. JWT stakes out the middle ground between realpolitik, which always allows war, and pacifism, which never allows war.

What are the arguments that bombing Syria is just? What are the debates surrounding whether this would be a just war? Well, I haven’t seen a particularly thorough treatment of the issue, but I did want to highlight a couple of pieces that did a great job introducing some discussions. The first comes from Religion News Service and begins:

WASHINGTON (RNS) As the Obama administration readies for a probable military strike against Syria, Religion News Service asked a panel of theologians and policy experts whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria in light of the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Would the “Just War” doctrine justify U.S. military action, and what is America’s moral responsibility? Here are their responses, which have been edited for clarity.

And we get a series of responses from folk such as Stanley Hauerwas, professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, and Qamar-ul Huda, senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Here’s one sample response:

The Rev. Drew Christiansen

Jesuit priest and visiting scholar at Boston College and longtime adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops on international affairs

My problem is that I don’t see why this kind of chemical attack matters so mightily when 100,000 civilians have been killed in Syria already. It seems to me that you’ve had massive attacks on civilians — with the world standing aside — that should have been the reason for intervention. But there’s also a question of proportionality and success, and I think that there are good reasons to think you might make things worse by a military attack.

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