Iraq

60 Minutes shows the faces and the tears of Iraqi Christians beseiged by ISIS

60 Minutes shows the faces and the tears of Iraqi Christians beseiged by ISIS

Every so often there’s a piece on TV that surprises you with its grace and pathos. Last Sunday’s 60 Minutes program on the persecution of Iraqi Christians by ISIS was one such program.

To do the show, Lara Logan -- the same correspondent who got so badly attacked in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 -- goes to the Nineveh plains, a vast area east of Mosul including villages that have been there some 2,000 years. I was in the area in 2004 and it truly does feel like ancient Mesopotamia there. One almost expects to hear the boots of Sennacherib’s troops.

The filming is done in Erbil (a regional Kurdish city) and in some of the Christian towns only a few miles from ISIS lines.  One was Al Qosh, the burial place of the Old Testament prophet Nahum and one of the more pristine examples of two millennia of Christian habitation.  If ISIS ever got up there, it’d be a catastrophe, as there’s an orphanage there within a new, elegant monastery. The show commences thus:

There are few places on earth where Christianity is as old as it is in Iraq. Christians there trace their history to the first century apostles. But today, their existence has been threatened by the terrorist group that calls itself Islamic State. More than 125,000 Christians -- men, women and children -- have been forced from their homes over the last 10 months.
The Islamic State -- or ISIS -- stormed into Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, last summer and took control. From there, it pushed into the neighboring villages and towns across this region, known as the Nineveh Plains, a vast area that's been home to Christians since the first century after Christ. Much of what took almost 2,000 years to build has been lost in a matter of months.
On the side of a mountain, overlooking the Nineveh Plains of ancient Mesopotamia, is the Monastery of St. Matthew. It's one of the oldest on earth.

The type of Christians in this place are Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean Catholics; species of Christian whom those in the West rarely get to meet. We get video of real people with names and faces and sorrows even if they belong to Christian denominations we’ve never heard of. And then there is an American Christian -- Brett Felton, an Iraq war veteran from Detroit -- who gets a segment to himself as to why some western Christians are coming back to Iraq to help Christians there.

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How does U.S. Islam fit into the intensely religious gay-rights debates?

How does U.S. Islam fit into the intensely religious gay-rights debates?

America’s two dominant religious blocs, conservative Protestantism and the Catholic Church, face increasing hostility over their longstanding opposition to same-sex behavior and marriages, shared with Eastern Orthodoxy, the Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), Jewish traditionalists, and other faiths.

Mainstream news media have largely ignored that U.S. Islam agrees. Partly that’s because its leaders and organizations tend to shun the public debate, perhaps due to immigrant reticence, leaving adherents of the other faiths to pursue the politicking and legal
appeals.

In societies where Islam dominates, dictates of the holy Quran and Hadith (collected teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) often define civil law. The Washington Post reports homosexuality can be punishable by death in Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Iran’s Khomeini-ite theocracy has executed thousands of gays, and prison sentences ranging from 3 to 20 years are prescribed in other Muslim countries.

 American Muslim educator Taha Jabir Alalwani has declared that Sharia (religious law) calls for “painful worldly punishment before the severe punishment of the hereafter.”  But should that apply in the U.S., where Muslims are a small minority? How do imams and mosque attenders view the all-important gay marriage cases the Supreme Court will hear in late April? As liberalization proceeds, will devout Muslims become more isolated from mainstream America?

Reporters should ask.

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Now we're talking big news: ISIS attacks museums (plus Christians and other believers)

Now we're talking big news: ISIS attacks museums (plus Christians and other believers)

The story began with reports in "conservative" and religious media, which, tragically, is what happens way too often these days with issues linked to religious liberty and the persecution of religious minorities (especially if they are Christians).

Earlier in the week I saw this headline at the Catholic News Agency: "Patriarch urges prayer after at least 90 Christians kidnapped in Syria." The story began:

With reports circulating saying that ISIS forces have kidnapped at least 90 Christians from villages in northeast Syria, Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan said prayer is the only possible response.

“Let’s pray for those innocent people,” Patriarch Younan told CNA over the phone from Beirut Feb. 24. “It’s a very, let’s say, very ordinary thing to have those people with such hatred toward non-Muslims that they don’t respect any human life,” he said, noting that the only reaction to Tuesday’s kidnappings is “to pray.”

Alas, none of these believers were cartoonists. However, as the days went past the numbers in these distressing reports -- especially this soon after the 21 Coptic martyrs video --  began to rise.

I kept watching the major newspapers and, while I may have missed a crucial report or two, I did see this crucial story from Reuters -- always an important development in global news -- that represented a major escalation of the coverage, with several crucial dots connected. Do the math.

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Must-read think piece: German activist and scribe visits Islamic State, with his eyes open

Must-read think piece: German activist and scribe visits Islamic State, with his eyes open

Journalists have been known to do crazy things, dangerous things and sometimes both at the same time. For example, how is the outside world going to know what makes the Islamic State tick without on site, independently reported information?

Thus, German peace activist and "Why Do You Kill, Zaid?" author Jurgen Todenhofer, headed into the heart of ISIS -- guaranteed that he would be harmed. His family thought he was crazy. In an online think piece entitled "ISLAMIC STATE -- Seven Impressions Of A Difficult Journey" -- he notes:

The guarantee turned out to be genuine, and the ISIS stuck to their agreement during our visits to Mosul and Raqqa. Though, we were under surveillance by the secret service for most of the time and had to hand over our mobile phones and laptops. Also, all of our pictures and photos were inspected at the end of the journey. ...
On several occasions, ISIS and I ran into heated disagreements about details of the journey. Let me tell you that arguing with heavily armed ISIS fighters isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. I was close to abandoning the journey twice during that time. In view of the acute danger that all of the involved were dealing with daily, they often were short tempered. Yet, overall, I was treated correctly.

As the title states, Todenhofer offers seven observations about what he saw. This is not neutral, "American model of the press" material. However, I thought that journalists and those who care about religion news would want to see this.

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LATimes: Generic ancient, liturgical Christians are on the run in Iraq

LATimes: Generic ancient, liturgical Christians are on the run in Iraq

If news consumers in the United States have learned anything in the past decade or two, they should have learned that there is quite a bit of diversity inside Islam in the Middle East and around the world. The doctrinal differences between Shia and Sunni truly matter, for example. And there are crucial divisions among the Sunni that have often caused fierce, hellish conflicts such as the one between Saudi Arabia and the tribes forming the Islamic State.

If anything, the Christian churches in this troubled region are even more complex, with some divisions dating back to the early church fathers and others having roots in the past millennium or thereabouts. 

Take Iraq, for example. Even a short list of the Christian flocks in that war-ravaged land would have to include the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Armenian Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Christians with ties to Antioch and the Byzantine rite Catholic churches with ties to Rome. Yes, there are Latin rite Roman Catholics and various kinds of Protestants in these lands as well, including Anglicans.

At the moment, of course, these churches are united by one hellish condition -- persecution.

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Radical militants and religion: Obama says ISIL is not 'Islamic,' but not everyone agrees

Radical militants and religion: Obama says ISIL is not 'Islamic,' but not everyone agrees

In his prime-time address to the nation Wednesday night on fighting the Islamic State militant group — also called ISIS and ISIL — President Barack Obama declared:

Now let's make two things clear: ISIL is not "Islamic." No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al-Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria's civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

Noting what Obama said, CNN suggested:

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama was trying to make a broader point when he uttered "ISIL is not Islamic," but the four-word phrase could still come back to haunt him.
Critics on Twitter quickly fired off on the President for making the assertion, with many noting that ISIL in fact stands for the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant." (CNN refers to the group by the acronym ISIS in its news reports. The group recently started calling itself the Islamic State).

Religion reporter G. Jeffrey MacDonald posed relevant questions that may be helpful for Godbeat pros and other journalists.

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WPost ponders mysterious secular surge in support for U.S. action against ISIS

WPost ponders mysterious secular surge in support for U.S. action against ISIS

Faithful readers of this blog over the past decade or so will know that your GetReligionistas rarely write about the contents of mainstream news blogs or op-ed page columns, even as the line between news coverage and commentary continues to blur.

However, every now and then someone writes a piece that is highly relevant to work on the religion-news beat or offers a fresh insight into how mainstream journalists are covering an important religion event or trend. This brings me to a new piece in "The Fix," the self-proclaimed "top political blog" at The Washington Post.

In this case, the headline states the issue facing political writer Aaron Blake:

Americans strongly opposed airstrikes in Syria last time. Why would it be different now?

So what has happened in, oh, the past year or so in this region -- Iraq and Syria -- that may have changed the minds of many Americans? 

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Baltimore Sun covers prayer rite for Iraq, without noticing absence of Eastern churches?

Baltimore Sun covers prayer rite for Iraq, without noticing absence of Eastern churches?

If you have been looking at the big picture in Iraq and Syria, you know that one of the key elements of the Islamic State's rise to power has been its horrific persecution -- slaughter, even -- of the religious minorities caught in its path, as well as Muslims who disagree with the ISIS view of the faith and the need for a new caliphate. 

All of that is horrible and needs continuing coverage. However, the crushing of the ancient churches located in the Nineveh Plain region is a truly historic development, a fact that has begun to bleed into the mainstream-news coverage.

Many religious leaders are concerned and are crying out (click here for New York Times op-ed by major Jewish leader) for someone to do something to help the churches of the East, who have worshipped at now-crushed altars in their homelands since the earliest days of the Christian faith.

Needless to say, I was not surprised to pick up The Baltimore Sun and see a front-page feature on a major interfaith prayer service addressing this crisis. Alas, I was also not surprised to see a huge, glaring hole in this report.

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Does an Islamic state run on 'ideology,' 'theology' or both?

Does an Islamic state run on 'ideology,' 'theology' or both?

Long, long ago -- 1982, to be precise -- I had a chance to talk with CBS commentator Bill Moyers soon after he returned from a lengthy stay in the Middle East. Americans were, of course, still reeling from the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Iran.

Moyers was fascinated with the role of the mosque in a typical Muslim community in the region. The local mosque was the center for religious life, but it was also where people went for help in every other aspect of their daily lives -- including many contacts with government aid and programs. The key thing journalists and other outsiders needed to grasp, he told me, was that "there was no such thing as the separation of mosque and state." 

With that in mind, hear the words spoken by the man that the British are calling "Jihadi John" as he prepared to end the life of one of his Western captives:

This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen of your country. As a government, you have been at the forefront of aggression towards the Islamic State. You have plotted against us and gone out of you way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs. Today, your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq. Your strikes have caused casualties against Muslims. 

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