Antiochian Orthodoxy

Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Trust me when I say that I understand why so many Christians in the ancient churches of the Middle East are frustrated with America, and American evangelicals in particular, when it comes to the complex and painful status of Jerusalem.

As I have mentioned several times here at GetReligion, when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy two decades ago my family became part of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese -- which is closely tied to the ancient Orthodox flock based in Damascus. Then, from 2001-2005 (including 9/11), we were active in a West Palm Beach, Fla., parish that was primarily made up of families with ties to Syria, Lebanon and, yes, Israel and the West Bank.

I will not try to sum up their lives and viewpoints in a few lines. Suffice it to say, they struggled to understand why so many American Christians have little or no interest in the daily lives and realities of Christians whose Holy Land roots go back to Pentecost.

Thus, I am thankful that the Washington Post international desk has updated a familiar, yet still urgent, news topic as we get closer to the Christmas season. The hook, of course, is the announcement by President Donald Trump about the status of the U.S. embassy in Israel. The headline: "Trump plan to move U.S. embassy to Jerusalem angers Middle East Christians."

The overture is familiar, yet sadly newsy:

JERUSALEM -- Some of the festive cheer was missing this weekend at a public Christmas tree lighting near the site where Christians believe an angel proclaimed Christ’s birth to local shepherds. 
“Our oppressors have decided to deprive us from the joy of Christmas,” Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the former archbishop and Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told the crowd in the town of Beit Sahour in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “Mr. Trump told us clearly Jerusalem is not yours.”
The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there has provoked widespread opposition among Christians across the Middle East. When Vice President Pence arrives next week on a trip touted as a chance to check on the region’s persecuted Christians, he will be facing an awkward backlash.

Right there, you see, is the story that has loomed in the background for decades.

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Will team Trump come through for Christians in Middle East? Will press cover this story?

Will team Trump come through for Christians in Middle East? Will press cover this story?

Two decades ago, my family converted to Eastern Orthodoxy -- becoming part of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church that is based on Damascus, located on the street called Straight (as in Acts 9:11).

From 2001-2004 we were members of a West Palm Beach, Fla., congregation in which most of the members had deep family roots into Syria, Lebanon or Palestine. Needless to say, they had stories to tell about the struggles of Christians in the Middle East.

Here in America, we tend to focus on the present. At the moment, that means talking about atrocities linked to the Islamic State. When you talk to Christians from the Middle East, the events of the present are always tied to centuries of oppression in the past. It's all one story.

Right now, the issue -- for many Christians, and members of other oppressed religious minorities -- is how to survive in refugee camps. After that they face the ultimate questions of whether to flee the region or attempt, once again, to return to their battered homes and churches and start over.

Thus, I noticed a story last week that received very little attention in the American mainstream press. Once again, we are dealing with a story that I first saw in an online analysis at The Atlantic. When I went looking for mainstream, hard-news coverage, I saw this short CNN report, and that was pretty much it. Here's the heart of that CNN story:

Washington (CNN) Vice President Mike Pence announced Wednesday night that the Trump administration will no longer fund "ineffective" programs run by the United Nations to help persecuted communities and will instead send money to such groups directly through the US Agency for International Development.
"President (Donald) Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations, ... and from this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID," Pence declared to extended applause while speaking in Washington to the group In Defense of Christians, which advocates for greater protection of Christians in the Middle East.
"While faith-based groups with proven track records and deep roots in the region are more than willing to assist, the United Nations continues to deny their funding requests," Pence said.
The vice president, who is deeply religious, urged his "fellow Christians" to support faith-based groups and private organizations.

    Note the strange, vague little phrase that Pence is "deeply religious," backed by the scare-quote "fellow Christians" reference. In other words, this move is just another attempt to play to the GOP base. Thus, this isn't really a story that matters.

     

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    Baltimore Sun gets the little picture: Convert-era Orthodoxy comes to local Greek parish

    Baltimore Sun gets the little picture: Convert-era Orthodoxy comes to local Greek parish

    More than 30 years ago, there was a big story that rocked the rather small and obscure world of Eastern Orthodox Christianity here in the United States.

    That was when a flock of evangelicals -- led by a former Campus Crusade leader, the late Father Peter Gillquist -- were embraced by the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church. Regular GetReligion readers know my own family later joined that number, through a close friendship with another leader in that flock, the late Father Gordon Walker of Franklin, Tenn.

    The mainstream press gave the "evangelical Orthodox" story a modest amount of ink at the time. Like I said, it was an important story in a small, but growing, flock. The key was that it was a sign of things to come for the faithful in the world's second-largest Christian communion.

    Years before I converted, I wrote a column about the growth of an American expression of this ancient faith, built on an interview with the late Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church. He was born in Turkey, but by the end of his life he could see ripples of change in America. The converts were coming, whether some Orthodox leaders wanted them or not.

    "I cannot visualize what an American Orthodoxy would look like. ... But I believe that it will exist. I know that it must be born," said Iakovos. ...
    "I do know this for sure. The essential elements of the Orthodox tradition will have to remain at the heart of whatever grows in this land. The heart has to remain the same, or it will not touch peoples' souls. It will not be truly Orthodox. I know that this will happen here, but I do not know when it will happen or how."

    That was 1992. Why bring this up now? Well, the Baltimore Sun recently published a lengthy and admirable feature about a local development in this larger national story. This piece offered an in-depth look at the story of a former Southern Baptist (from East Tennessee, of all places) who has found his way into the Greek Orthodox priesthood.

    To be blunt, there is only one problem with this story: It never really places this one priest in the context of this larger, 30-year-old trend in Eastern Orthodoxy. It also failed to note the degree to which this trend had already had a big impact in Baltimore, especially as symbolized by one of America's best-known "convert friendly" parishes.

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    Where are the essential facts about religion in news reports about fall of eastern Aleppo?

    Where are the essential facts about religion in news reports about fall of eastern Aleppo?

    American news consumers, as a rule, do not pay much attention to foreign news coverage. Here at GetReligion, we know that writing a post about mainstream media coverage of religion news on the other side of the planet is not the way to get lots of clicks and retweets.

    That doesn't matter, because news is news and it's genuinely tragic that many Americans are in the dark about what is happening outside our borders. We will keep doing what we do.

    This leads me to news coverage of the fall of the eastern half of Aleppo in Syria, a landmark event in that hellish civil war that is receiving -- as it should -- extensive coverage in American newspapers.

    As you read the coverage in your own newspapers and favorite websites, please look for a crucial word -- "Alawites." President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is a member of the often persecuted Alawite sect of Islam. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

    Let's start with the top of the Washington Post report, since this story is very typical of those found elsewhere, such as The New York Times and also Al Jazeera.

    BEIRUT -- Syria’s government declared Thursday that it had regained full control of Aleppo after the last rebel fighters and civilians evacuated the key city as part of an agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey.
    The Syrian military announced on state media that “security and stability” had been returned to eastern Aleppo, once the largest rebel stronghold. The “terrorists” -- a term used by the Syrian government to describe nearly all of its opponents -- had exited the city, the military said.
    President Bashar al-Assad’s consolidation of Aleppo marks the end of the opposition presence in the city for the first time in more than four years and deals a major blow to the rebellion to unseat him.

    Think about this as a matter of history, for a moment. Is there anything bloodier and more ruthless than a civil war, with fighting and acts of violence taking place inside a nation, pitting armies within its population against one another?

    If that is the case, then it is crucial how one labels and defines these armies.

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    Anti-Muslim hate crime targets a ... Lebanese Christian? That sad murder case in Tulsa

    Anti-Muslim hate crime targets a ... Lebanese Christian? That sad murder case in Tulsa

    At first blush, an Oklahoma murder making national headlines this week seems to be a case of anti-Muslim hate. That would mean that it's another story about "Islamophobia," as the news media like to call it.

    Except that Khalid Jabara, the 37-year-old man shot dead in Tulsa, was not a Muslim. The victim, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon, was an Orthodox Christian. That simple fact should have raised all kinds of questions for journalists working on this story.

    The basic details of the crime, via CNN:

    Tulsa, Oklahoma (CNN) For years, the Jabara family says, their Tulsa neighbor terrorized them.
    He called them names -- "dirty Arabs," "filthy Lebanese," they said.He hurled racial epithets at those who came to work on their lawns, they alleged. He ran Haifa Jabara over with his car and went to court for it.
    And it all came to a head last week when the man, Stanley Vernon Majors, walked up to the front steps of the family home and shot and killed Khalid Jabara, police said.
    "The frustration that we continue to see anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, xenophobic rhetoric and hate speech has unfortunately led up to a tragedy like this," it said.

    To what or whom does the "it said' refer after that last quote? What person or group produced this statement?

    I'm not entirely certain. My guess is that an editing error led to that awkward attribution. But the quote sets up the "anti-Muslim" angle:

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    Getting out of civil marriage biz? Tribune details one side of debate in Chicago

    Getting out of civil marriage biz? Tribune details one side of debate in Chicago

    Several months ago, I heard about an interesting decision made by Father Patrick Henry Reardon, a very outspoken and influential Eastern Orthodox priest up in the Chicago area. After the state of Illinois approved the redefinition of marriage -- including same-sex unions -- Reardon decided that he would get out of the civil marriage business and stop signing secular marriage licenses.

    This was, for Reardon, an intensely theological subject and he was most comfortable discussing the topic in those terms. It was a challenge to quote him in ways that were accurate, yet could be included in a column for readers in mainstream newspapers. This was pretty complex territory.

    The priest knew, of course, that a U.S. Supreme Court on this subject loomed in the near future and he assumed that it would complicate matters even further, especially in terms of the First Amendment and religious liberty. But the key, for him, was that he was discussing a sacrament of the church and doctrines on which he could not compromise. Thus, I ended my Universal syndicate column on this topic like this:

    At his altar, said Reardon, this means, "I cannot represent the State of Illinois anymore. … I'm not making a political statement. I'm making a theological statement."

    I also quoted the American leader of the branch of Orthodoxy in which Reardon serves, who, while not directly addressing the issue of civil marriage licenses, made it clear that his church would not be taking part in a major reshaping of marriage.

    The upcoming Supreme Court decision could "mark a powerful affirmation of marriage between one man and one woman … or it can initiate a direction which the Holy Orthodox Church can never embrace," stated Metropolitan Joseph, of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. "Throughout the history of our faith our Holy Fathers have led the Orthodox laity" to unite to "preserve the faith against heresy from within, and against major threats from societies from without."

    For me, as an Orthodox layman, the most interesting part of that statement were the words focusing on the church and the theological tensions that are ahead, the part when the metropolitan mentions the struggles to "preserve the faith against heresy from within."

    Heresy is not a word that bishops toss around without careful thought.

    Now, in the wake of the 5-4 Obergefell decision by Justice Anthony Kennedy and the U.S. Supreme Court, the Chicago Tribune has followed up with a news report about Reardon that does a good job of describing his decision, yet does very little to dig into the thoughts and beliefs of those who either oppose or dismiss his strategy. Consider, for example, this passage in which an Orthodox bishop seems to echo, in reverse, some of Reardon's thinking:

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    Memory eternal: Metropolitan Philip's life was a story

    Anyone who has worked on the religion beat for more than, well, a week knows that the membership statistics circulated by most mainstream religious organizations are rarely worth the paper on which they are printed. For example, while there may, in fact, be 1.2 billion Catholics in this world of ours this tells us very little about the number of believers who are in Mass every week, who frequent the rite of Confession or who, as parents, would be truly enthusiastic if a son declared his intention to become a priest. Some statistics are more important than others.

    Please trust me when I say that I am just as skeptical about the statistics indicating that the Eastern Orthodox churches around the world have somewhere between 200 and 300 million members, with 260 million being the most common estimate of this large, but in this land, rather obscure communion. And how large is the Orthodox flock in North America? You will find estimates between 1 and 6 million, with most insiders putting the number somewhere between 2 and 3 million in 2,000 or so parishes.

    Fine. How many of those parishes are growing? How many have baptized any adults in the past year? How many have produced new priests in the past decade? And, to be blunt, how many of them have gone a year or two without a single new member whose conversion was rooted in religious conviction, as opposed to marrying into an Orthodox family?

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    Good news: Generic nuns released in Syria!

    For three months now, members of my parish just south of Baltimore have been praying for the release of some of our sisters in the faith in Syria, along with two kidnapped bishops. Thus, I was thankful when the news spread recently that they had been released. I was also glad to see that their release was covered by The New York Times. It felt like a nod of respect for an oppressed minority religious group in a suffering land.

    However, as I read this report I noticed something rather strange. Here is the top of the story:

    BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian insurgents released 13 nuns and three attendants who disappeared three months ago from their monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, Lebanese and Syrian officials said …, ending a drama in which rebels said they were protecting the women from government shelling and Syrian officials said they were abducted in an act of intimidation against Christians.

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    What is the X-factor in Syrian bloodshed? DUH! (updated)

    It seems that many networkers in the online world remain fired up about that recent Washington Post explainer that ran under the headline “9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask.” That’s the one you may recall, in part because of this GetReligion post, that was the first of many similar mainstream media pieces that have tried to explain the rising violence in Syria without including information about its crucial religious divisions.

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