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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Boo! No ghosts in WSJ coverage of rural-urban divide

In a 2006 column about my grandparents, I reflected on my rural upbringing:

I close my eyes and I am back in Hayward, a speck on the map in southeastern Missouri’s Bootheel where my Papa and Grandma Ross lived.

I see my grandparents’ wood-paneled station wagon parked outside the two-story house that Papa built himself. Nearby, there’s a boat and fishing poles still dripping wet from a day on the Mississippi River.

I hear the crush of dirt under my feet as my brother, sister, cousins and I play hide-and-seek amid rows and rows of taller-than-us corn stalks. I smell the monster-truck-sized hogs that a neighbor raised in a cesspool of mud and slop.

I taste the ice-cold Grape Nehi soda in a glass bottle that we bought at the tiny store down the street — the same store that sold bologna sandwiches for a quarter and bags of candy for a dime.

Now in my mid-40s, I’ve lived my entire adult life in major metropolitan areas: Dallas-Fort Worth, Nashville and Oklahoma City. I love visiting the country — just as long as I don’t have be away from wifi, shopping malls and my favorite chain restaurants for too long.

Given my personal background, I was fascinated by a front-page Wall Street Journal story today. The in-depth report explores how differences between rural and urban America are an underappreciated factor in the nation’s political split.

Suffice it to say that red state America is much more rural than blue state America:

EL DORADO SPRINGS, Mo. — The owner of the nicest restaurant in town doesn’t serve alcohol, worried that his pastor would be disappointed if he did. Public schools try to avoid scheduling events on Wednesday evenings, when churches hold Bible study. And Democrats here are a rare and lonely breed.

Older, nearly 100% white and overwhelmingly Republican, El Dorado Springs is typical of what is now small-town America. Coffee costs 90 cents at the diner, with free refills. Two hours north and a world away in Kansas City, Starbucks charges twice that, and voters routinely elect Democrats.

There have always been differences between rural and urban America, but they have grown vast and deep, and now are an underappreciated factor in dividing the U.S. political system, say politicians and academicians.

Polling, consumer data and demographic profiles paint a picture of two Americas — not just with differing proclivities but different life experiences. People in cities are more likely to be tethered to a smartphone, buy a foreign-made car and read a fashion magazine. Those in small towns are more likely to go to church, own a gun, support the military and value community ties.

From the very top, the Journal emphasizes religion as a key factor. No ghosts here, folks.

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Bubbles, Lutherans and the Wall Street Journal

Can colored soap bubbles blow up church attendance? Can giant crossword puzzles spell success?

If you said “Wow, what great ideas!”, not only will you get a big hug from the Lutheran bishop of New York — you just might be Wall Street Journal material.

Yes, that Wall Street Journal. The staid, reserved chronicle of conventional urbanity gets all rah-rah over some of the wilder attempts by Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to bring up the numbers in his churches — or at least to stop them from falling further.

The WSJ article could be great for a journalism class on how not to write and report. Much of it is jarringly jumbled. The parts that do make sense don’t always match facts on the ground. And some statements contradict one another.

And the story wastes no time in, well, wasting our time. High up, we get:

… Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo may be the only spiritual leader trying to rebuild his flock with giant crossword puzzles in the subway and interactive art projects involving dye-filled soap bubbles.

‘We need to find the places where we’re not present and reach out…whether that’s on social media or elsewhere.’

“New York is different from the rest of the country,” said Bishop Rimbo, 63 years old, in an interview from his expansive office near Columbia University, complete with Hudson River views. “The younger demographic wants a religion that won’t divide,” he said, referring to social issues like gay marriage.

“Look at Pope Francis, he’s so humble and he’s removed the trappings of the papacy and made it more inclusive,” Bishop Rimbo said. “We need to find the places where we’re not present and reach out…whether that’s on social media or elsewhere.”

To that end, Bishop Rimbo has made a point of speaking his mind on several hot-button social issues and has worked with area pastors to create alternative church services throughout the New York City area.

Given the crucial lack of copy editors in newspapers these days, I won’t make a big deal of the repeated sentence about reaching out where they’re not present. It is worth noticing, though, that the topic of social media is brought up nowhere else in the story. So the bishop isn’t following his own advice, or the reporter didn’t ask a follow-up question, or he did and then deleted the answer.

But we have bigger deals to deal with here:

* What metrics make New York different from the rest of the country? Do New Yorkers want their religion packaged in giant crossword puzzles and colored soap bubbles? Or did the bishop mean something else?

* If younger New Yorkers want a religion that “won’t divide,” why does Rimbo make a point of speaking on “hot-button social issues”? Such issues would seem to be divisive by definition.

* If Rimbo considers gay marriage one of those divisive issues, why does he plan to perform one himself, as the article says later? Or are people being divisive only when they don’t approve of something?

* If Pope Francis is a good model for what Rimbo wants, how is Francis doing? American Catholics told a pollster they’re giving more, but another survey found “no statistically significant rise in the number of Americans who identify as Catholic; in frequency of Mass attendance by Catholics; in Catholics going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities.”

Despite the ELCA’s wish to get everyone together, in fact, the denomination has dwindled in New York, as the WSJ reports: falling by 20 percent over the last decade — more than half of that time during Rimbo’s tenure as bishop, starting in 2008.

It’s funny that Rimbo “has styled himself as the right man to reverse that trend,” according to the article. It’s even funnier that the Journal didn’t ask why he hasn’t yet done so.

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What’s God got to do with it — in Maidan square?

I’ve said it once, twice, and I’ll say it again — there is more than one Orthodox Church in the Ukraine.

Does this matter? Is this pettifogging carping — dull minded pedantry? Am I just showing off a store of useless knowledge, or Is it important to distinguish between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) (KP) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriachate) (MP) when reporting on the demonstrations in Kiev?

If you want to understand what is going on and break free from the narrative being peddled that this is a conflict over “fundamental European values” (Guardian) with the protestors “defying the post-Soviet order imposed by Russia” (Economist) in order to build what British Foreign Secretary William Hague believes will be a “free, sovereign, democratic” Ukraine — then it is important to understand the local issues driving this conflict. Contrary to what the Western European politicians want to believe, this is not a rerun of the Cold War with Angela Merkel and David Cameron replacing Ronald Reagan as the hero. What then is going on?

On page A8 this morning the Wall Street Journal ran a story entitled “Cathedral Turns Into Hospital as Ukraine Protests Worsen.” Casualties from the fighting in Independence Square, or Maidan Square as it is know to the locals, have been brought to the cathedral for treatment by volunteer doctors.

The lede states:

KIEV, Ukraine In St. Michael’s Cathedral, Orthodox priests chanting prayers have been replaced by doctors calling for medicine.

The golden-domed church has been transformed into a field hospital of sorts for protesters injured or worse in days of deadly clashes with police.

And then the story shifts to interviews and man in the street accounts from doctors, volunteers and patients being treated at the cathedral. The article is strongly written and crisply presents the sights and sounds observed by the Wall Street Journal’s man in Kiev.

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A ‘new twist’ in states’ same-sex marriage debates

A time or two, we’ve highlighted media coverage of what happens when religious liberty clashes with gay rights.

For example, the Wall Street Journal reported back in October:

As more states permit gay couples to marry or form civil unions, wedding professionals in at least six states have run headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

Now comes Reuters with what its headline characterizes as a “new twist” in the same-sex marriage debates.

The top of that wire story:

(Reuters) – Oregon voters will likely face two questions about gay marriage when they go to the ballot this year: whether to become the 18th state to let same-sex couples wed, and whether the state should be the first to allow florists, cake makers and others to refuse to participate in these weddings on religious grounds.

The ballot initiatives set up what some activists have said is the next frontier in the marriage debate — as more states move to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, those who object on religious grounds want a legal right to opt out.

“This is not a sideshow issue,” said James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to the Oregon ballot initiative and the coming debate over religious exemption. “This is going to be the issue that we fight about for the next ten years, at least, in the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement.”

The next frontier in the marriage debates? Perhaps.

A new twist? Maybe, although two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a story for Christianity Today with this headline:

Should the Marriage Battleground Shift to Religious Freedom?

But back to the Reuters story: What to make of the journalism?

Here’s my take: It’s a straightforward piece that presents the facts and quotes folks on both sides. (It’s written in inverted-pyramid style, but I don’t think it falls into the “suitcase lead” trap, to borrow a phrase I came across on Poynter.org this week.)

Among Reuters’ sources, we hear from an advocate for the proposed religious exemption:

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The second storytelling rule: Get the name of the church

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The first storytelling rule: Get the name of the dog.

So says Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark.

For the purposes of GetReligion, I’ll add a second rule: Get the name of the church.

I found myself frustrated with the generic churches featured in a Wall Street Journal story on South Africa’s national day of prayer, held Sunday in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death.

QUNU, South Africa — South Africans filled houses of worship on Sunday to remember their first black leader, Nelson Mandela, whose death last week sparked an outpouring of grief, remembrance and preparations for his hometown funeral and a memorial at a soccer stadium.

Mr. Mandela, who died Thursday evening at his Johannesburg home at 95 years old, enjoyed near mythical status in the racially divided country, and President Jacob Zuma had designated Sunday as a day of prayer and reflection on his life.

South African officials fanned out to different churches and synagogues in what amounted to a campaign to use the spirit of the late statesman to bridge the nation’s lingering societal divides.

“We should not forget the values that Madiba stood for and sacrificed his life for,” President Zuma told those gathered at a church in Johannesburg, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name. “He actively participated to remove the oppressor to liberate the people of this country. When our struggle came to an end, he preached and practiced reconciliation to make those who had been fighting to forgive one another and become one nation.”

That’s a perfectly fine summary of the day’s events. Except I want to know the name of the church. And beyond that, I’d love some insight on why the president chose the particular church where he spoke. Was there a historical or spiritual significance to the venue?

Later in the story:

“I’m worried about this current government but we must release Mandela because he has worked hard for us,” said 71-year-old Beatrice Mathsqi, attending another prayer service in Mqhekezweni, where Mr. Mandela lived after Qunu.

But what was the name of the church where she attended the prayer service? Am I wrong to want less vague identification of the houses of worship featured?

Contrast the story by the Journal — an exceptional newspaper that I praise way more often than I criticize — with the prayer day story published by the Washington Post:

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Moore of the same, but still a worthy effort

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I had a sense of deja vu this week as I clicked on a 2,000-word Wall Street Journal profile of Russell Moore:

For years, as the principal public voice for the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s biggest evangelical group, Richard Land warned of a “radical homosexual agenda” and pushed for a federal ban on same-sex marriage.

His successor, Russell Moore, sounded a different note when the Supreme Court in June struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. “Love your gay and lesbian neighbors,” Mr. Moore wrote in a flier, “How Should Your Church Respond,” sent to the convention’s estimated 45,000 churches. “They aren’t part of an evil conspiracy.” Marriage, he added, was a bond between a man and a woman, but shouldn’t be seen as a “‘culture war’ political issue.”

Since the birth of the Christian-conservative political movement in the late 1970s, no evangelical group has delivered more punch in America’s culture wars than the Southern Baptist Convention and its nearly 16 million members. The country’s largest Protestant denomination pushed to end abortion, open up prayer in public schools and boycott Walt Disney Co. over films deemed antifamily. Its ranks included many of the biggest names on the Christian right, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Today, after more than three decades of activism, many in the religious right are stepping back from the front lines. Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric and pull back from the political fray, given what he calls a “visceral recoil” among younger evangelicals to the culture wars.

“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” Mr. Moore said in an interview in his Washington office, a short walk from Congress. “Christianity thrives when it is clearest about what distinguishes it from the outside culture.”

I kept thinking: Haven’t I already read this?

In fact, I had, to an extent. The dearly departed Bob Smietana of The Tennessean scooped the WSJ on this story by three months and got his just reward.

The mention of Disney, Robertson, Falwell, et al also felt a little stale — as if we’d plowed this same ground a time or two before.

But you know what? I kept reading, and the WSJ — as it so consistently does — enlightened me with insightful, well-sourced details and context.

Yes, the WSJ makes broad statements like this:

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Pod people: Facts are your friends, journalists

Here at GetReligion, we make no secret of our bias.

That bias: our deep affection for good, old-fashioned journalism.

In two recent posts, I highlighted stories at opposite extremes of that ideal. I discuss those posts with host Todd Wilken on this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast.

In my “When religious liberty clashes with gay rights” post, I praised a Wall Street Journal story on lawsuits over wedding professionals — such as bakers and photographers — refusing to serve same-sex couples. I noted that the Journal quoted sources on both sides of the issue and fairly framed each side’s broad arguments.

That post prompted some interesting discussion from readers (some of it actually related to journalism). Reader cvg commented, in part:

This seemed like a good article. I wouldn’t say the quotes were really well balanced. The SSM quotes reflected personal trauma, while those on the liberty side didn’t. Perhaps it is the language each side naturally uses: one naturally in tune with successful PR, and one naturally out of tune? I suspect there would be stronger balance if quotes reflected how disturbing it can be for a person of faith to be forced to act against deep seated convictions. However, is it the journalist’s job to dig for balance, if those reflected each side don’t naturally portray such balance? Probably not. However, if you’re really after portraying balance, a decent follow up wouldn’t hurt. Too much leading?

My reply:

cvg,

You definitely make some interesting points concerning the balance on the quotes.

One issue at play: Attorneys are being quoted (instead of plaintiffs themselves) in most of these cases, and attorneys speak legalese.

Another issue: the relatively short word count on the story, which doesn’t allow for any source to elaborate a whole lot.

Still, I was pleased that the Journal made an attempt to let each source make its best case, albeit in a short amount of space.

Meanwhile, in my “Mormons softening opposition to homosexuality … or not” post, I raised a number of questions about what I characterized as an Associated Press “puff piece” on Mormons challenging the church’s stance on homosexuality.

Reader Darren Blair commented, in part:

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