It was my intention today to look at religion news coverage of the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. And I hope to still do that. But I didn't come across anything particularly winsome or substantial. I'm sure there must be some good (or bad!) stuff out there. Please do pass it along. During my search, I came across a story that I do want to commend. Mostly for just being written.
This weekend I met someone who had journeyed to Maalula and had experienced great joy there. He was telling a group of us about encountering an icon in the deepest reaches of a church there. As he told the story, someone said that they thought Maalula had been taken by Syrian rebel forces that day. Reports coming out of Maalula are horrible. Absolutely horrible. And AFP has one that begins:
Jihadists who overran Syria's ancient Christian town of Maalula last week forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint and executed another one, residents said Tuesday.
"They arrived in our town at dawn on Wednesday and shouted 'We are from the Al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders," an Islamist term for Christians, said a still frightened woman who identified herself as Marie.
She spoke to AFP in Damascus, where she was attending the burial with hundreds of others of three Christians from Maalula killed in last week's fighting, the long line of mourners led by a brass band playing dirges.
"Maalula is the wound of Christ," mourners chanted as they marched through the narrow streets of the capital's ancient Christian quarter, their voices nearly drowned out by the rattle of automatic gunfire in honour of the dead.
There was an irony in that, as the assault on Maalula came only a couple of weeks before a major feast, the Exaltation of the Cross.
With a caveat that we could do without the Alanis Morissette-style use of "irony," a few thoughts. First, thank you for covering and featuring this prominently. I am shocked at how little news editors realize these stories are of interest and significance to many global readers. Also, thank you for the sourcing. Was someone forcibly converted at threat of being shot? Well, it's unlikely that any reporter could say for sure. It's appropriate to source it to "residents," although I would like reporters to attempt to confirm the report as much as possible. We don't get a name of the victim but we do get eyewitness accounts.
The story goes on to discuss the significance of Maalula to Christianity. It's one of the most renowned Christian towns in Syria. Its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The story isn't just about religion. We learn a little bit about why rebels find it strategically important.
We hear from a man who returned to Syria from the United States, where he'd run a restaurant in Washington State for 42 years. He says the worst part of what happened to Maalula was the reaction from Muslim neighbors who greeted the rebels. That is a powerful aspect to have in the story but, of course, it would be much better to hear from those same Muslim neighbors about their perspective. Were they happy? If so, why?
The piece ends with an anecdote:
The most tragic story was that of Rasha, who recounted how the jihadists had seized her fiance Atef, who belonged to the town's militia, and brutally murdered him.
"I rang his mobile phone and one of them answered," she said.
"Good morning, Rash rush," the voice said, using her nickname. "We are from the Free Syrian Army. Do you know your fiance was a member of the shabiha (pro-regime militia) who was carrying weapons, and we have slit his throat."
The man told her Atef had been given the option of converting to Islam, but had refused.
"Jesus didn't come to save him," he taunted.
Wow. What a kicker.
I suspect, based on nothing other than personal experience, that the situation for Christians in the Middle East has been a very important factor in the changing posture of Americans on interventionism there. There are a multitude of interesting and horrifying stories on the plight of Christians globally and how Christians throughout the world (and those who care about Christians) are responding to that plight.
Image of the escape route of Saint Thecla in Maalula via Shutterstock.