Iraq

From the good old days to the hellish ISIS days for Christians in Middle East? Really?

From the good old days to the hellish ISIS days for Christians in Middle East? Really?

At the time of 9/11, I was living in South Florida and attending an Eastern Orthodox parish in which the majority of the members were, by heritage, either Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of time hearing the details of their family stories -- about life in the old country and the forces that pushed them to America.

The key detail: It was never easy living in the Middle East during the Ottoman Empire era, even when times were relatively peaceful. While it was easy to focus on the horrible details of the times of intense persecution, it was important to realize that Christians and those in other religious minorities had learned to accept a second-class status in which they were safe, most of the time, but not truly free.

In other words, the Good Old Days were difficult, but not as difficult as the times of fierce persecution, suffering and death.

Clearly, the rise of the Islamic State has created a new crisis, one that is truly historic in scope -- especially in the Nineveh Plain. The drive to eliminate Christian populations in a region that has been their home since the apostolic era raises all kinds of questions about religious freedom, as well as questions for the USA and other Western states to which these new martyrs will appeal for help.

In recent years, human-rights activists have asked when this phenomenon would receive major attention in elite American newsrooms. The coverage has, in recent years, been on the rise. That said, a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine feature on this topic must be seen as a landmark.
The epic double-decker headline proclaimed:

Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?
ISIS and other extremist movements across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight.

There is much that I want to praise in this piece. It's a must-read piece for everyone who cares about religion news in the mainstream press.

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Tablet explores the ethics of using hungry freelancers in risky war zones

Tablet explores the ethics of using hungry freelancers in risky war zones

As a young J-school student, my goal was to eventually land a job as a staff foreign correspondent for a prestigious newspaper. What could be more fun, more interesting, more exciting, more glamorous? 

I've had many great experiences as a journalist but that fantasy never happened, though I've worked overseas multiple times on an assignment basis or at a foreign publication.

Life takes its own course.

Given today's field tech advances and ease of travel, its arguably easier than ever today to call yourself a foreign correspondent. I don't mean as a full-time staffer, of course. That job is harder than ever to snag as news outlets have dramatically slashed their overseas bureaus and travel budgets to save their dwindling cash. Not to mention that every poll on the subject that I can remember makes clear that Americans, as a whole, prefer domestic to foreign news.

What is easier than ever, however, is to get as much high-tech equipment as you can carry and afford, buy an airline ticket to a news hotspot, call yourself a freelance foreign correspondent -- a stringer, by any other name -- and hustle to sell copy, audio, stills or video to anyone who will have them. 

Problem is, those news hotspots are generally the world's most dangerous locales in which to operate. Chief among them these days, is the chaotic, hyper-dangerous Muslim Middle East -- Yemen, Libya, Egypt, and above all, Iraq and Syria.

That's where Steven Sotloff headed, and he paid for it with his life.

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Seeing patterns here? ISIS keeps smashing some priceless artifacts and selling others

Seeing patterns here? ISIS keeps smashing some priceless artifacts and selling others

The tragic bottom line these days is that it is rarely news when the Islamic State blows stuff up -- including priceless antiquities that predate the rise of Islam.

This fact of life has become business as usual, to the point that many mainstream journalists no longer feel the need to include material in their reports noting why this is taking place. This is tragic and, frankly, an affront to the vast majority of the world's Muslims. This is yet another classic case of journalists needing to cover the doctrinal details of what ISIS believes -- it's take on Islamic doctrine and history -- in order to let readers understand that this is not the only or even the mainstream Islamic point of view.

Once this hard work is done, journalists can move on to another topic looming in the background: Why do Islamic State radicals destroy some parts of the region's past, while allowing others to be sold off to collectors? In other words, does ISIS hate all parts of the ancient past equally?

The latest news is that this battle as moved to Egypt, with some militants there pledging allegiance to the ISIS caliphate. Does this have anything to do with Islam? The Washington Post simply does not want to go there:

CAIRO -- Militants with explosives battled Egyptian security forces outside the famed ancient Karnak temple in Luxor on Wednesday, injuring at least four people in an attempt to strike another blow on Egypt’s fragile tourism industry.

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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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