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Rome meets Russia: Media bury role of persecution in historic summit (# LOL update)

Rome meets Russia: Media bury role of persecution in historic summit (# LOL update)

Did you hear about the historic meeting that will occur today between the media superstar Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church of Moscow and All Russia? Is there up-front coverage of this in your newspaper this morning?

The meeting is taking place in Havana for the expressed purpose of voicing support for persecuted Christians facing genocide in parts of the Middle East, primarily -- at the moment -- in Syria and Iraq. There is very little that Rome and Moscow agree on at the moment, when it comes to ecumenical matters, but Francis and Kirill are both very concerned about the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in that devastated region.

Have you heard about this in major media?

If you are interested, this was the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in. I also wrote about the background of this meeting in a previous GetReligion post ("The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting") and in this week's "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate.

Now, call me naive, but I thought that this meeting would receive major coverage. This is, after all, the first ever meeting -- first as in it has never happened before in history -- between the leader of the pope of Rome and the patriarch of the world's largest branch of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Syria is also in the news, last time I checked. There is a possibility that Americans -- this is a nation that includes a few Christians who read newspapers -- might be interested in a statement by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill on the massacre of Christians in Syria and elsewhere.

I guess I am naive. It appears that the meeting in Cuba today is not very important at all. I mean, look at the front page of The New York Times website.

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Weekend think piece: The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting

Weekend think piece: The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting

First things first: Click play on the above YouTube. Now begin reading.

As you would expect, I have received quite a bit of email during the past 24 hours linked to my GetReligion post -- "What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq" -- about the mainstream media coverage of the stunning announcement of a Feb. 12 meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of the Orthodox Church of All Russia.

As you would expect, much of the press coverage has stressed what this all means, from a Roman Catholic and Western perspective.

This is understandable, since there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and Francis is the brightest star in the religion-news firmament at the moment. People who know their history, however, know that this meeting is also rooted in the life and work of Saint Pope John Paul II, who grew up in a Polish Catholic culture that shares so much with the churches of the East, spiritually and culturally.

I updated my piece yesterday to point readers toward a fine Crux think piece by the omnipresent (yes, I'll keep using that word) John L. Allen, Jr. Let me do that once again. Read it all, please. Near the end, there is this interesting comment concerning Pope Francis:

... His foreign policy priorities since his election have been largely congenial to Russia’s perceived interests. In September 2013, he joined forces with Vladimir Putin in successfully heading off a proposed Western military offensive in Syria to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Since then, Francis and Putin have met in the Vatican and found common ground on several matters, including the protection of Christians in the Middle East and the growing reemergence of Cuba in the community of nations.

This morning, my email contained another essay by a Catholic scribe that I stress is essential reading for those starting a research folder to prepare to cover the meeting in Havana. This is from Inside the Vatican and it is another eLetter from commentator Robert Moynihan.

This piece is simply packed with amazing details about events -- some completely overlooked by the mainstream media -- that have almost certainly, one after another, contributed to the logic of the Cuba meeting between Francis and Kirill.

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What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq (updated)

What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq (updated)

It is certainly the most important story of the day for the world's Eastern Orthodox Christians. Yes, even bigger than the announcement -- with the lengthy fast (no meat, no dairy) of Great Lent approaching -- that Ben & Jerry's is poised to begin selling vegan ice cream.

I am referring to the announcement of a meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Any meeting between the pope and the patriarch of all Russia would be historic, simply because the shepherds of Rome and Moscow have never met before. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

The big question, of course, is: Why are they meeting? What finally pushed the button to ease the tensions enough between these two churches for their leaders to meet?

In terms of the early news coverage, the answer depends on whether you are one of the few news consumers who will have a chance to read the Reuters report, being circulated by Religion News Service, or one of the many who see the Associated Press story that is, I believe, deeply flawed. Alas, the majority of news consumers will probably see a shortened version of the AP report and will be totally in the dark about the primary purpose of this historic meeting.

So here is the top of the Reuters report:

MOSCOW -- The patriarch of Russia’s Orthodox Church will take part in an historic first meeting with the Roman Catholic pontiff on Feb. 12 because of the need for a joint response to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the Orthodox Church said.
Senior Orthodox cleric Metropolitan Hilarion said that long-standing differences between the two churches remain, most notably a row over the status of the Uniate Church, in Ukraine. But he said these differences were being put aside so that Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis could come together over persecution of Christians.

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Top 10 religion stories for 2015: How would Pope Francis have voted?

Top 10 religion stories for 2015: How would Pope Francis have voted?

No doubt about it, journalists really love Pope Francis. In many cases, they love the version of this pope that they have created through misquotes, partial quotes and by ignoring much of what he has to say. Hey, but who am I to judge?

Pope Francis had a lot to say during 2015 and, frankly, I thought that most of it was somewhat predictable, in terms of what we already knew about him. His sermons and addresses during the visit to Acela land in the media-rich American Northeast had lots of substance, but very few surprises.

So here is my question: Would Pope Francis think that he was the world's most important news story in 2015? I think not.

If you were looking for remarks by Francis that received little coverage, consider his steady stream of remarks about the persecution of religious minorities worldwide -- especially Christians in the Middle East. In the following quotes, drawn from a July sermon in a Mass with Eastern Catholics, he even comments on how the powerful have been ignoring this truly historic massacre:

“Dear brothers and sisters, there is no Christianity without persecution. Remember the last of the Beatitudes: when they bring you into the synagogues, and persecute you, revile you, this is the fate of a Christian. Today too, this happens before the whole world, with the complicit silence of many powerful leaders who could stop it. We are facing this Christian fate: go on the same path of Jesus.”
The Holy Father also remembered the broader persecution of Christians in the present day. “We now, in the newspapers, hear the horror of what some terrorist groups do, who slit the throats of people just because [their victims] are Christians. We think of the Egyptian martyrs, recently, on the Libyan coast, who were slaughtered while pronouncing the name of Jesus.”

During this week's "Crossroads" podcast, host Todd Wilken and I -- as is our end-of-the-year norm -- worked out way through the Religion Newswriters Association poll to pick the Top 10 religion-beat stories. Click here to tune that in.

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Their blood still cries out: Crux opens series investigating global presecution of Christians

Their blood still cries out: Crux opens series investigating global presecution of Christians

If you follow religion news carefully, and you have been on Twitter over the weekend, you are probably aware that John L. Allen, Jr., and the team at Crux -- a Catholic-oriented news site operated by The Boston Globe -- have published the first in what will be a series of occasional stories about the persecution of Christians around the world.

This is not surprising, in light of the fact that Allen (surely one of the most productive reporters working on the religion-beat these days) has produced a book entitled "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution."

It is also significant that a recent Pew Research Center study found, as Allen noted in his opening report in this series, that Christians were harassed either by the government or social groups (think militias or mobs) in 102 of 198 countries -- more than any other religious group. Under normal circumstances, Pew surveys on this kind of news topic tend to lead to bumps in mainstream coverage.

However, talking about the persecution of Christians is not your normal subject, for a variety of reasons. There are people on the cultural left who simply cannot see Christians as anything other than oppressors. For two decades, powerful forces in Washington, D.C., have fought attempts to promote religious liberty at the global level.

Meanwhile, there are also people on the cultural right who -- when looking at the Middle East in particular -- struggle to identify with the groups being persecuted and slaughtered because these ancient flocks are not the right kinds of Christians. (For more information on that topic, see this "On Religion" column that I wrote nearly two decades ago.) Focusing on human rights can also be bad for business, you know.

In light of this deep and diverse skepticism, it's crucial that Allen's main story -- The New Christian Martyrs: Globally, religious persecution is Christian persecution -- includes the following:

Christians are, of course, hardly the only community facing savagery and oppression.

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Will U.S. journalists spot the religion ghost in Putin's mixed motives in Syria?

Will U.S. journalists spot the religion ghost in Putin's mixed motives in Syria?

It's hard to write a post about news stories that do not yet exist. However, based on the emails I'm getting, I expect to see major newsrooms writing about "this story" sooner rather than later. Do we really have to talk about religion "ghosts" in Syria?

So what is "this story"? 

Look for up-front use of the term "Holy War" in connection with Russia's involvement in Syria, where President Vladimir Putin is doing everything he can to save the territory most crucial to President Bashar al-Assad -- which certainly starts with Damascus. I expect prominent play to be given to the supporting role of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill, for reasons that our own Ira Rifkin mentioned in one of his "Global Wire" pieces the other day.

At the moment, your typical religion-haunted story on Russia's push into the Syria war focuses on politics, airplanes and hardware and the assumption that Putin is acting purely out of motives to maintain a power base in the Middle East and embarrass the United States and President Barack Obama. Please hear me say that there obviously truth in that assumption. In a current New York Times story, this is what that sounds like:

Although in its early stages, the coordinated attack has revealed the outline of a newly deepened and operationally coordinated alliance among Syria, Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to an official with the alliance, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military strategy. ...
For Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents alike, regionally and internationally, Russia’s increasing willingness to throw its full military power behind him is a game-changer.

But might there be religious logic to Putin's bold move, even if -- thinking cynically -- it is at the level of rationalization?

Just the other day, a Times story -- "Russian Soldiers Join Syria Fight" -- added a very brief reference to another layer of the conflict, well down into that text. Spot the ghost?

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Ripple effect: Reuters finds Catholics aiding generic Iraqi refugees in Lourdes

Ripple effect: Reuters finds Catholics aiding generic Iraqi refugees in Lourdes

Drop a rock in a lake, and you'll see a splash, then ripples. Everybody knows that. But it takes seasoned news people to spot ways that a story on one continent shows up on another. That's what Reuters did, with a smart, sensitive newsfeature on Christians fleeing from Iraq to Lourdes, France.

Reuters, BBC and others have (appropriately) thrown tons of time and resources into the human river of hundreds of thousands who have walked, floated, and sometimes died on the way from the Middle East to Europe. The Lourdes story takes a quieter, more personal look at the phenomenon -- and how believers in one town have responded.

In telling about the 60 Iraqis in Lourdes (so far), the article also adeptly works the story into the site's history:

For Iraqi Christians fleeing Islamic State militants in their native land reaching Lourdes, the French town long synonymous with miraculous religious visions, feels little short of a modern-day miracle.
Arriving in the town where peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous is said to have had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858, the refugees have also experienced real Christian charity through the efforts of some dedicated, Lourdes-based compatriots, an ex-soldier and the local parish priest.
"We are split between sadness and joy. But Lourdes is like a flower offering us her perfume. It is the town of the Virgin Mary, giving us our faith," said one of the refugees, Youssif, 48, a former teacher of the Aramaic and Syriac languages.

Reuters fills in background on the Middle East war, noting that the Christian community in Iraq has fallen from about a million in 2003 to 400,000 by July 2014. It notes that the Islamic State has killed not only many Christians but also "members of other religious minorities," including some fellow Sunni Muslims. (Should have mentioned the Yazidi, though; they’ve gotten more than their share of violence.)

We read shot bios of what the Iraqi Christians fled and how they found hosts in Lourdes. Turns out some residents, like Nahren and Amer, left the country years ago:

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Refugees flee ISIS: Maybe there is a religion angle in this tragic story? Maybe?

Refugees flee ISIS: Maybe there is a religion angle in this tragic story? Maybe?

If you have read anything about the rise of the Islamic State, you know that ISIS is crushing anyone who rejects its drive to build a new multinational caliphate rooted in its approach to Islam.

Thus, hundreds of thousands of people are either dead or fleeing. Who are they?

The answer is pretty obvious: They are the people who rejected the reign of ISIS. And who might that be? The answer is complex, but one fact is simple. It's impossible to talk about this refugee crisis without talking about the religion angle, because the refugees are either members of minority religions in the region, including thousands of displaced Christians, or centrist Muslims or members of Muslim-related sects that are anathema to ISIS leaders.

Now, the religion angle has jumped even higher in the story with the appeal by Pope Francis for every Catholic parish, school, monastery and social ministry in Europe to take in at least one refugee family. If you know anything about the Bible, you probably have a good idea what verses the pope is going to quote on this question.

But Europe is tense, not just because of the sheer number of refugees, but because of faith questions related to them.

So why, I ask, did The New York Times team basically ignore the religion content of this story in its major piece on the pope's challenge? The results are especially strange when contrasted with the corresponding international-desk story in The Washington Post. Here is the key passage in the Times piece:

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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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