Did you hear about ISIS razing an ancient monastery and desecrating saint's tomb?

Did you hear about ISIS razing an ancient monastery and desecrating saint's tomb?

What is there to say about the never ending Islamic State horrors being reported out of Syria? Clearly the soldiers of ISIS are equal-opportunity oppressors, when it comes to the lives and cultures of religious minorities unfortunate enough to cross their path.

When it comes to crushing truly ancient, irreplaceable wonders linked to the lives and histories of apostates, the ISIS jihadists may view one ruin or sanctuary as the same as the next.

The same, however, cannot be said of how most American journalists view these horrors. Apparently, some travesties are more important than others. Things are quite different on the other side of the Atlantic, however.

Right now, for example, journalists on both sides of the pond are -- as they should -- devoting quite a bit of coverage to the destruction of a priceless ruin in Palmyra. These was the news insiders had been fearing for weeks, especially after the shocking and disgraceful beheading of antiquities expert Khalid al-Asaad.

This solid Washington Post report -- pointing to the BBC -- was typical:

The Islamic State has reportedly destroyed another significant landmark in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria.
The temple of Baal Shamin stood for nearly two millennia, honoring the Phoenician god of storms and rain, as the BBC reported. Destruction of the site would be directly in line with the Islamic State’s campaign not just against people of other faiths, but against their culture. 
“Oh Muslims, these artifacts that are behind me were idols and gods worshipped by people who lived centuries ago instead of Allah,” one militant said of antiquities in Mosul, Iraq, earlier this year. After the Islamic State captured Palmyra in May, Baal Shamin seems to have fallen to the group’s philosophy.

As I said, this is major news that deserved solid coverage. We've been dealing with the complexities of these topics for weeks, as in this Ira post.

However, did you hear about the destruction of the irreplaceable frescos and sanctuaries at the Mar Elian monastery?

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The (insert adjective here) Islamic State strikes again, for reasons that are hard to explain

The (insert adjective here) Islamic State strikes again, for reasons that are hard to explain

Journalists continue to wrestle with a problem that they now face day after day: How to describe the Islamic State in a way that admits the obvious, that this horror is rooted in its leaders'  approach to the Islamic faith, yet using accurate words that are not offensive to mainstream Muslims.

This needs to be a formula that can be used over and over, with variations, and take a sentence or two at most.

For all of you non-journalists reading this: Accurate daily journalism is tough work.

I thought of this struggle yet again read some of the mainstream coverage of the tragic and twisted death of 83-year-old Khalid al-Asaad, the antiquities expert who was often called "Mr. Palmyra." This story continues to read like nightmares from "Game of Thrones" scripts. In the New York Times story there is this

After detaining him for weeks, the jihadists dragged him on Tuesday to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head in front of a crowd, Mr. Asaad’s relatives said. His blood-soaked body was then suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by Islamic State supporters. ...
The public killing of Mr. Asaad, who had retired a decade before and had recently turned 83, his son said, highlighted the Islamic State’s brutality as it seeks to replace the government of President Bashar al-Assad with a punishing interpretation of Islam across its self-declared caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.

What, precisely, does the word "punishing" mean in that context? There is no "punishing" element -- differences of degree, not kind -- in Iran or Saudi Arabia? What is the specific information readers are supposed to draw from that unique adjective? Hold that thought.

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Some crucial faith facts, in New York Times report on the young ISIS honeymooners

Some crucial faith facts, in New York Times report on the young ISIS honeymooners

When telling stories involving people motivated by faith, it is crucial for readers to be able to hear the voices of these individuals describing their beliefs and motivations. But what happens when it is either impossible to interview the key people, perhaps for legal reasons, or they have no intention of answering questions from journalists or anyone else?

This is where the Internet and, especially, forums linked to social media have become so important in this day and age. You can see how this works in a recent New York Times story, which centers on the latest shocking tale of young people from the American heartland who have been arrested while trying to flee the evils of America to join the Islamic state.

The story, this time, unfolds in Starkville, Miss., a university town in which the locals, as the Times team states in classic elite mode, "tend to be proud of Starkville’s relative tolerance." The key players are Muhammad Dakhlalla, a young man from an outgoing, community oriented Muslim family known as "a walking advertisement for Islam as a religion of tolerance and peace." His fiancé, 19-year-old Jaelyn Young, is an honor student, a cheerleader and a  recent convert to Islam. The two tried to marry as Muslims, but her father refused to grant his permission. Their plan was to say they were flying to Turkey on their honeymoon.

Obviously, legal authorities have been following their activities via email and social media. That leads to this brief, but revealing, exchange:

Ms. Young, who three years ago was broadcasting silly jokes on Twitter and singing the praises of the R&B singer Miguel, had more recently professed a desire to join the Islamic State, according to an F.B.I. agent’s affidavit in support of a criminal complaint. On July 17, the day after a young Muslim man in Chattanooga, Tenn., fatally shot five United States servicemen, Ms. Young rejoiced, the affidavit alleges, in an online message to an F.B.I. agent posing as a supporter of the Islamic State.
“Alhamdulillah,” she wrote, using the Arabic word of praise to God, “the numbers of supporters are growing.”

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Just asking: Does anyone know faith identity of Croatian killed by ISIS in Egypt?

Just asking: Does anyone know faith identity of Croatian killed by ISIS in Egypt?

These stories are, of course, becoming old news.

There is another semiprofessional video modeled on trailers for entertainment media. Another image of a captive kneeling in a desert in an orange jump suit. Another Islamic State soldier, face covered, holding a knife. More bloody photos that mainstream media cannot use, yet become fodder for the dark side of social media and independent websites.

The coverage is fading, along with -- apparently -- any interest in the faith element of these stories. This time around, the key was not who ISIS killed but where, apparently, the latest victim was located at the time he was killed. The Washington Post coverage was typical of what ran in numerous publications, Here is the top of that report:

CAIRO -- An Islamic State affiliate claimed ... to have beheaded a Croatian national held hostage for weeks in what would be the group’s first killing of a foreign captive in Egypt.

If confirmed, the death would mark a fresh challenge to Egypt’s economy and the country’s effort to stem a rising Islamist insurgency that has targeted major tourist sites and military outposts.

The Croatian hostage, Tomislav Salopek, worked for a French geoscience company in Egypt, which depends on many foreign firms for construction and other major projects.

A purported photo of Salopek’s decapitated body was posted Wednesday by an Islamic State-linked Twitter account. The caption said Salopek was killed because of his country’s “war” on the Islamic State but gave no further details.

Yes, and who -- in addition to tourists -- might ISIS threaten in Egypt?

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An ISIS 'Theology of Rape' — strong New York Times story retreats from Quran details

 An ISIS 'Theology of Rape' — strong New York Times story retreats from Quran details

It would be hard to imagine a story much more hellish than the lengthy New York Times piece that is racing around the Internet today that ran under this blunt headline: "ISIS Enshrines a
Theology of Rape."

However, it is the second piece of the double-decker headline that will be the most controversial and discussed part of this piece: "Claiming the Quran’s support, the Islamic State codifies sex slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria and uses the practice as a recruiting tool."

The bottom line: To make that statement, the Times team needs to show readers specific references in the Quran, by quoting them, and then show proof of how ISIS leaders are interpreting those passages, perhaps through a lens from earlier expressions of the faith. It would then help, of course, to show how mainstream Islamic scholars, and experts outside of Islam, read those same passages today.

The Times gets most of that done and must be praised for making the effort. It is interesting, however, that the weakest parts of the piece concern the actual contents of the Quran and the doctrines being debated. The piece is stronger -- brutally so -- when dealing with the people. 

The Times claims that this "theology of rape" essentially begins on Aug. 3, 2014, with the invasion of the Yazidis communities on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. Among those captured, men and older boys were forced to prostrate and then were sprayed with machine guns. Women and younger children were separated and carried away in trucks, with other goals in mind. Much of this reporting is based on documentation gathered by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

This brings us to the thesis passage of this massive news feature:

The systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and the radical theology of the Islamic State in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution. Interviews with 21 women and girls who recently escaped the Islamic State, as well as an examination of the group’s official communications, illuminate how the practice has been enshrined in the group’s core tenets. ...
A total of 5,270 Yazidis were abducted last year, and at least 3,144 are still being held, according to community leaders. To handle them, the Islamic State has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by the ISIS-run Islamic courts. And the practice has become an established recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.
A growing body of internal policy memos and theological discussions has established guidelines for slavery, including a lengthy how-to manual issued by the Islamic State Research and Fatwa Department just last month. Repeatedly, the ISIS leadership has emphasized a narrow and selective reading of the Quran and other religious rulings to not only justify violence, but also to elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous. 

In other words, rape is a form of spiritual discipline when the woman being raped is part of a religion that is considered heresy. Or, as a young girl described what happened before and after she was raped:

“He kept telling me this is ibadah,” she said, using a term from Islamic scripture meaning worship.

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Religion Writing 101: Parsing the language of true believers at the Dome of the Rock

Religion Writing 101: Parsing the language of true believers at the Dome of the Rock

Let's talk Religion Writing 101 for a moment. Which of the following statements is most appropriate in a mainstream news publication? 

I. "The crowd gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the ancient sanctuary containing the tomb where Jesus Christ was raised from the dead."

II. "The crowd gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the ancient sanctuary containing the remains of a tomb where Christians believe Jesus was raised from the dead."

III. "The crowd gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the ancient sanctuary containing the remains of a tomb that early Christians said is the place where Jesus was raised from the dead."

What is going on in these three wordings?

The first accepts a statement of Christian faith as historical fact, with no attribution of any kind. This language is often seen -- appropriately so -- in traditional Christian publications.

The second uses the word "believe" as part of this journalistic equation, noting that this fact claim is something Christians believe, while others may disagree.

The third statement adds more content with its factual reference to the early church, which gives the claim some authority, yet also accurately implies that (a) many Christians (especially Protestants) disagree that this sanctuary contains the site of the resurrection and/or (b) that some doctrinal progressives reject belief in the resurrection, yet continue to identify as Christians. Whenever possible, I'm an option III guy.

Why bring this up? This is actually a relevant topic in light of some interesting language in a Washington Post story that ran under the headline, "Meet the Israeli mom who called Muhammad a pig -- at al-Aqsa mosque."

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From BBC to silence in a convent, plus blunt words on religion news from another BBC pro

From BBC to silence in a convent, plus blunt words on religion news from another BBC pro

It's time to go deep, deep into my GetReligion folder of guilt, which is the name I pinned long ago on my email file where I stash pieces that I keep meaning to write, but other developments get in the way. However, this BBC-related piece now has an updated hook for a lede.

So, how many national-level journalists do you know who have decided to walk away from the newsroom and become a nun? This offering from The Belfast Telegraph is not, in other words, a run-of-the-mill headline: "Ex-BBC reporter Martina Purdy receives her veil in rite." And the top of the report:

Former BBC broadcaster turned nun Martina Purdy and one-time family barrister Elaine Kelly have taken a big step forward on their spiritual journeys
The former political correspondent and her friend received their veils yesterday in a ceremony at the Adoration Convent on Belfast's Falls Road. Her decision last year to swap a high-flying media career for the contemplative life sparked surprise and much comment.

So after 25 years in journalism, Purdy joined the Adoration Sisters, an order best known for its work baking altar bread -- work that is done in complete silence. This passage struck me as especially interesting:

"Only the Lord could call a chatterbox to a life of silence, but He does love irony."
Although she had been raised and educated a Catholic, faith was not always the driving force in her life, Ms Purdy said. But gradually her passion for journalism ebbed because her love for God left no room for the material world.

No room for the material world.

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How come Judaism is broken into several different branches?

How come Judaism is broken into several different branches?


What caused Judaism to break into branches? Are the branches even seen as a division? Does theology differ among them?


The questioner has “a Christian background" and, thus, is familiar with a religion made up of separate groups. 

Christianity has long been divided into four main families, the so-called “Oriental Orthodox,” the Eastern Orthodox, Catholicism and Protestantism. A fifth family of new, independent churches in the developing world developed in the 20th Century. 

Islam, too, suffered the big breach between Sunni and Shia believers in the first century that continues to be troublesome, and sometimes lethal, today.

By contrast, for much of its history Judaism was essentially one united faith, though naturally it encompassed various movements, tendencies, cultures and local variations.

That began to change with the modern emancipation and assimilation of Jews in Western Europe. A liberal form of the faith developed, especially in Germany, and flourished among 19th Century German immigrants in the United States. Worship was simplified, Hebrew was downplayed in favor of worship in common  languages with Protestant-style sermons, and age-old observances were eliminated or made matters of personal choice.

The resulting liberal branch or denomination eventually known as Reform Judaism centered on three North American institutions, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) that 34 synagogues formed in 1873, Hebrew Union College to train rabbis (1875), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1890).

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Backpacker heads out into the woods and gives Trail Life USA a fair shot

Backpacker heads out into the woods and gives Trail Life USA a fair shot

There is the Boy Scouts of America story, which is complex and getting more so every minute -- especially among decision-makers for American Catholics and leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Journalists are covering these stories, of course.

Then there is another story that could be covered, one that focuses on the people in religious flocks that are not interested in compromising on centuries of basic doctrines about marriage and family. There have been a few stories about these folks, but, so far, they have been rather thin and packed with stereotypes.

The former Boy Scout in me is interested in knowing what happens to the folks who have left. I'm interested -- as an Eastern Orthodox layman -- in some of these other options because I know that many members of Orthodox parishes are starting to look for ways out of the Boy Scouts. But do they want to join some kind of hyper-Evangelical Protestant alternative?

I'm happy to report that a freelancer linked to Backpacker Magazine -- a bible, of sorts, for people who wear out more than their share of hiking boots and rain slickers -- has turned out a serious story about Trail Life USA, one of the largest of the faith-friendly alternative camping-and-outdoors operations.

The key: This story focuses more on what boys are doing in these troops out in the woods, as opposed to what their lawyers are saying in courtrooms. There are sections of this piece that will make the palms of Unitarian Universalists or urbane Episcopalians sweat.

I also appreciated that reporter Patrick Doyle, who works out of Pittsburgh, didn't focus on a Trail Life unit in, let's say an evangelical megachurch in Bible Belt, Mississippi. He focused on a troop in a northern setting, based in a mainline Protestant flock. Here is the overture, focusing on the roots of this troop:

Boy Scout Troop 452 has been meeting at Concord United Methodist Church in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, as long as there’s been a troop, nearly 70 years.
But this isn’t the usual weekly gathering of the boys and their scoutmaster, Richard Greathouse. This meeting is just for their parents.

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