Finally, someone notices that Christians are suffering and dying in the Middle East. With few exceptions, many western secular media have seemed blind to the rising tide of antagonism and outbursts of violence against believers there. It apparently took the naked aggression of jihadists who have swallowed up much of Iraq's northern sector to get some attention.
Whether it's in time is another matter.
Holly Williams of CBS Evening News did a brisk but vivid report on Christians in Bartella, near Mosul, where a militia of 600 has organized after the Iraqi army ran off.
Williams says Christians have inhabited the town for almost 2,000 years, and the residents still pray in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. She deserves some kind of award for even visiting: She ventured to a checkpoint only 50 yards from the front line.
An evocative AP story details the plight of Chaldean Christians in Iraq, interviewing believers from Mosul who have taken refuge in the ancient city of Alqosh:
In leaving, the Christians are emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches. The past week, some 160 Christian families — mosly from Mosul — have fled to Alqosh, mayor Sabri Boutani told The Associated Press, consulting first on the number with his wife by speaking in Chaldean, the ancient language spoken by many residents.
AP writer Diaa Hadid works in historical and cultural details that give us a feel for the long heritage of Christians in a land that is being brutally overrun by Muslim militants. Hadid says that Mosul is the traditional burial site of Jonah, and that Chaldean Christians were trying to celebrate a harvest festival -- including a portrait of Pope Francis with white beans on the church floor.
The article distinguishes itself also for its numbers. Documenting population movements is hard in wartime, but Hadid offers some good guesses:
Iraq was estimated to have more than 1 million Christians before the 2003 invasion and topping of Saddam Hussein. Now church officials estimate only 450,000 remain within Iraq borders. Militants have targeted Christians in repeated waves in Baghdad and the north. The Chaldean Catholic cardinal was kidnapped in 2008 by extremists and killed. Churches around the country have been bombed repeatedly.
The exodus from Mosul — a Sunni-majority city that during the American presence in Iraq was an al-Qaida stronghold — has been even more dramatic. From a pre-2003 population of around 130,000 Christians, there were only about 10,000 left before the Islamic State fighters overran the city a week ago.
Abu Zeid estimated that now only 2,000 Christians remain in the city.
The article says that Kurdish fighters, known as the Peshmerga, have moved in to defend Alqosh. The Kurds, who have been fighting for independence for five decades, seem to be getting an image as heroes for their willingness to protect Christians and others.
Public Radio International reports on the Peshmerga as well. PRI says the Kurds are occupying posts in Kirkuk province, home to many Kurds, but also Arabs, Turkmens, Christians and others.
Ayub Nuri, an editor with Rudaw, the Kurdish news service, tells PRI that ISIS doesn't attack "because they know they are no match for the well-trained and disciplined and loyal Kurdish army.” (However, Foreign Policy magazine reports that ISIS has fought Peshmerga in two Kurdish-controlled provinces.)
Some Arab media, too, have contributed. Al-Jazeera's TV outlet America Tonight tells about Christians who have fled to St. Matthew's Monastery near Mosul. The network notes that St. Matthew's has served as a refuge since the fourth century, and is being pressed into similar service nowadays.
Using the name the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a variant of ISIS, the report shows sensitivity toward Muslim and Christian factions alike:
The current crisis in Iraq has been cast as a battle between Sunnis and Shias, but Iraqis of all faiths are caught in the middle – none more so than the ancient religious minorities along the Ninevah Plains between Mosul and the Kurdish territories. To Al-Qaeda and the group it inspired, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), anyone not adhering to its hardline version of Sunni Islam is a heretic to be converted or killed.
Once the largest of Iraq’s religious minorities, the Christian community has shrunk to one-third of the size it was before Saddam Hussein was toppled. The less than 500,000 Christians left are clinging tightly to their faith.
The story stumbles slightly in covering the arrival of the new Syriac Orthodox patriarch, saying he is to Orthodox Christians "what the Pope is to Catholics." As revered figures, yes. As ultimate rulers and arbiters of the faith, no, Orthodoxy is more conciliar.
But Al-Jazeera makes up for it with anecdotes of Christian suffering and courage. One has a man returning home from a shop, to find his father dead on a sidewalk. Another has children playing on rocks near the monastery, their former home of Mosul visible in the distance, as "inside, their worried parents drink tea and watch news of a region that has again become a battlefront."
And Christians are still shedding blood on this land. Since 2010, dozens of priests and nuns have been killed by Al-Qaeda in Mosul, Baghdad and other cities in attacks aimed at persuading Christians to leave.
Remarkably sensitive paragraphs, don’t you think? I wish I could read more of them in American media.
France 24 covered a deployment of Peshmerga fighters "under the steeple of Bashiqa's Syrian Orthodox Church, whose patriarch had traveled from Damascus to show support for Christians in the region."
An especially insightful passage illustrates why peaceful communities become targets:
Bashiqa is a microcosm of Iraq. Nearly all the religions that make up the country's sectarian mosaic live peacefully side by side. This makes it the perfect target for Islamist intolerance.
One building, which used to be a bar selling alcohol, was hit six months ago in a double car bombing. Since then there's been a third attack on the town. Now the locals have decided to take their security into their own hands.
Other media give briefer mentions to the plight of Christians in Iraq. JNS.org, a Jewish news service, reports on a plea by Pope Francis for prayers for Iraq and refugees, especially Christians. The story also links to the France24 report.
Al-Arabiya has a slideshow of children at a church. The weary, wary little faces in the pictures speak volumes about what the children have already endured. There's little text, though, and Al-Arabiya got the photos from AFP.
The media attention to the plight of Iraqi Christians is welcome and long overdue. But I have to wonder: If the media had paid this kind of attention a few years ago, could they have spared some of the Christians from being killed or driven off?