Overwhelmed: Trying to see the big, historic picture in Iraq and Syria

Several times a year, a major national or international story simply takes over the news. The bigger the story, the more likely -- in my experience at least -- it is to have a religion-angle linked to it, often an angle of historic proportions.

However, since the primary religion of journalism is politics, in the here and now, religion angles often slide into the background until, finally, the role of religion in a major story is so obvious that it cannot be denied.

This is what is happening right now with the story of Iraq, ISIS (or ISIL) and the persecution of religious minorities, especially in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain region.

The truly historic story that looms in the background is -- literally -- the death of Christian communities that have existed in this region since the early church. As often happens, specific stories linked to this tragedy first circulated in social media and in explicitly Christian sources. In recent days, for example, this Episcopal News Service piece has gone viral.

The five-year-old son of a founding member of Baghdad’s Anglican church was cut in half during an attack by the Islamic State on the Christian town of Qaraqosh.
In an interview Aug. 8, an emotional Canon Andrew White told ACNS that he christened the boy several years ago, and that the child’s parents had named the lad Andrew after him.
“I’m almost in tears because I’ve just had somebody in my room whose little child was cut in half,” he said. “I baptized his child in my church in Baghdad. This little boy, they named him after me -- he was called Andrew.”

The broader story, of course, is that Islamic State forces are clearly targeting Christian villages, as well as other communities that have long been friendly to other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. This has been happening for several years now and, in one form or another, similar attacks have happened through the ages.

Of course, it is hard to cover all of these specific stories, since they are turning into a wave of reports from various activists and relief agencies that are trying to work in the region. I get that. It's understandable, isn't it, that journalists from mainstream media are struggling to do first-hand coverage? Here is another example of a story -- from Reuters -- about a specific event in this wave of bloodshed. Note the complexity of the sourcing:

Islamic State has crushed a pocket of resistance to its control in eastern Syria, crucifying two people and executing 23 others in the past five days, a monitoring group said on Monday. ...
Fighters from the al-Sheitaat tribe in eastern Deir al-Zor had tried to resist Islamic State's advance this month, according to residents near the area and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring organization.
In al-Shaafa, a town on the banks of the Euphrates river, Islamic State beheaded two men from the al-Sheitaat clan on Sunday, the Observatory said, and gave residents a 12-hour deadline on Monday to hand over members of the tribe. In other parts of Deir al-Zor province, the militants crucified two men for the crime of "dealing with apostates" in the city of Mayadin, and two others were beheaded for blasphemy in the nearby town of al-Bulel, the Observatory said.

So, "apostates"? A few specifics are needed. Alas, there are so many options in that simple word, at the moment.

You can see the religion angles in the background, for example, in major media reports -- like this Washington Post piece -- on the political angles here inside the Beltway, with the limited U.S. bombing attacks. The Post as, in recent days, also tried to give broad-strokes coverage to the whole religion minefield in the region. Consider this passage in one story of this kind:

The Yazidis are just the latest minority group the Islamic State has targeted in its brutal campaign of religious persecution and killings. While many recent Iraqi conflicts have been framed as clashes between Sunnis and Shiites, this one is different. The Islamic State has declared war against anyone different, anyone unwilling to convert to the its ascetic brand of Islam. It’s worse, Iraqi religious leaders say, than Genghis Khan. Overnight, the BBC and others reported that thousands of Christians were fleeing the minority’s biggest town in Iraq, Qaragosh, after militants captured it.
Most analysts agree there’s not a religious or ethnic minority in northern Iraq -- Shabaks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Christians -- that isn’t in danger.

So what is my point here?

I am staying that I understand why the mechanisms of daily news are coming up short, at the moment, when it comes to portraying the truly epic nature of the changes taking place in this blood-soaked region. How, in traditional news terms, to you balance the destruction of truly ancient shrines and sanctuaries with the latest press conference in D.C.? What are centuries of faith in comparison with the possible impact of these events on Democratic or Republican control of the U.S. Senate? 

As the old saying goes, journalism is often the rough draft of history. But right now, in the Internet age, some of the historians are getting the big picture into print faster than the daily journalists.

In particular, I wanted to point GetReligion readers to a piece by the famous historian Philip Jenkins, "Leaving Nineveh: The Last Days of Christians in Mosul" in The Christian Century. This piece can also be found elsewhere online, such as the Religion and Ethics page at ABC.net. Jenkins stresses that the current events are horrific, the specifics are important, but journalists need to back up a bit and see something bigger. A sample, focusing on Mosul:

That story has been prominently reported, but few reports have paid much attention to the identity of those Christians and their spiritual culture which now seems on the verge of extinction. For Westerners, those local Christians face an easy choice: Why don’t they just leave? If they do, though, they will be abandoning a Mosul that in its day occupied a central place in Christian thought and development. Would Christians happily forsake Assisi or Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury or Cologne, if threatened with a similar situation? Would they not be held back by centuries of Christ-haunted memory and tradition? The story of Mosul is at least equal to that of any of these later upstarts.
Mosul was originally a center of the fearsome Assyrians, and that connection attracted the attention of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. All three faiths esteem the prophet Jonah, whom God sent to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Ancient Nineveh itself was once separate from Mosul but has now been absorbed into the metropolitan area that the region’s Christians call Nineveh rather than Mosul. Under its Arabic name of Nebi Yunus (Prophet Jonah), the prophet’s grave was a pilgrimage destination for millennia—although reports suggest that ISIS thugs are in the process of demolishing the shrine.
Mosul was an early center of Jewish life and learning, where a Christian church emerged no later than the second century. It became a key center for the Church of the East, the so-called Nestorian Church, which made it a metropolitan see. Also present were the so-called Monophysites, today’s Syrian Orthodox Church. These churches used Syriac, a language close to that of the apostles, and the Mosul area still has some Syriac-speaking villages.
Mosul was at the heart of a network of very early monasteries. Within 30 miles of the city are St. Elijah’s and St. Matthew (Mar Mattai), which date from the fourth century, Rabban Hormizd and Beth Abhe from the sixth or seventh, and many others: Mar Behnam, Mar Gewargis (St. George), Mar Mikhael (St. Michael). The greatest of these yielded nothing to such legendary houses as Monte Cassino or Iona. At its height, Mar Mattai was one of the greatest houses in the Christian world, with thousands of monks.

That's worth a headline, right? Maybe even a 60 Minutes report? Please help us find the mainstream reports that GET IT, that realize that in this case they need to take history into account when deciding what goes on A1.

News is news, but sometimes it is also truly historic. That is what is hiding in the background during this blitz of coverage in Syria and Iraq. A very important corner of the world is changing, perhaps forever.

Small photo: Christian children in Mosul, in 1924 photo offering thanksgiving for U.S. aid in the region.

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