Ripple effect: Reuters finds Catholics aiding generic Iraqi refugees in Lourdes

Drop a rock in a lake, and you'll see a splash, then ripples. Everybody knows that. But it takes seasoned news people to spot ways that a story on one continent shows up on another. That's what Reuters did, with a smart, sensitive newsfeature on Christians fleeing from Iraq to Lourdes, France. There's one important hole, or ghost, but we will get to that.

Reuters, BBC and others have (appropriately) thrown tons of time and resources into the human river of hundreds of thousands who have walked, floated, and sometimes died on the way from the Middle East to Europe. The Lourdes story takes a quieter, more personal look at the phenomenon -- and how believers in one town have responded.

In telling about the 60 Iraqis in Lourdes (so far), the article also adeptly works the story into the site's history:

For Iraqi Christians fleeing Islamic State militants in their native land reaching Lourdes, the French town long synonymous with miraculous religious visions, feels little short of a modern-day miracle.
Arriving in the town where peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous is said to have had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858, the refugees have also experienced real Christian charity through the efforts of some dedicated, Lourdes-based compatriots, an ex-soldier and the local parish priest.
"We are split between sadness and joy. But Lourdes is like a flower offering us her perfume. It is the town of the Virgin Mary, giving us our faith," said one of the refugees, Youssif, 48, a former teacher of the Aramaic and Syriac languages.

Reuters fills in background on the Middle East war, noting that the Christian community in Iraq has fallen from about a million in 2003 to 400,000 by July 2014. It notes that the Islamic State has killed not only many Christians but also "members of other religious minorities," including some fellow Sunni Muslims. (Should have mentioned the Yazidi, though; they’ve gotten more than their share of violence.)

We read short bios of what the Iraqi Christians fled and how they found hosts in Lourdes. Turns out some residents, like Nahren and Amer, left the country years ago:

The Iraqi Christian couple, who fled to France more than a decade ago, helped to organise the escape to France of Youssif and dozens of other Iraqi Christians with the active involvement of their parish priest, Jean-Francois Duhar.
"They asked me if we could help them to bring some of their friends and relatives (to France)," recalled Duhar.
He and his bishop contacted the French consulate in Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, just days after France agreed last year to grant asylum to persecuted Iraqi Christians. Visas were issued for those with host families to go to.

The couple has newcomers stay with them for some orientation, then go to live with other homes. The project is even brokered by a local Catholic organization called Echo 65, run by a retired soldier.

This generosity is all the more remarkable when we read that the Pyrenees region, to which Lourdes belongs, will be allocated other refugees as part of an overall plan by the European Union. The mayor of Lourdes even says the town will be "glad to welcome" them, although he's concerned about being overwhelmed.

But this isn’t just a bleeding-heart article; it's frank about flaws of the refugees. Most are unemployed, and their hosts complain about that. One says they tend to stay to themselves, so they "don’t get to practice their French much." Another says many of them "showed little desire to find work." But his forbearance shows in confessing he wouldn't know how he would react "if I had gone through what they’ve endured."

The article itself has at least one flaw, though.

It may sound strange to talk about a GetReligion-style religious "ghost" in a story set in Lourdes. But look again: What's the religious background of these refugees? Just because they're in a strongly Catholic town, can we assume they're Catholic? It's the kind of thing tmatt often complains about in mainstream media reporting -- "generic Christians" in the Middle East.

In fact, the region teems with several traditions: Armenian, Syriac, Assyrian, Chaldean, Byzantine Catholic, etc. If western Catholics are helping eastern Christians -- and if more eastern churches have organized in Lourdes -- that would be an interesting part of this story.

That said, I still regard this feature as a model for other mainstream media -- even Reuters itself -- to follow.

The wider the ripples spread from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, the more local reporters should watch for the effects where they live and work. People from the Middle East may well show up in their stores, neighborhoods and yes, churches.

Photo: Basilica at Lourdes. Photographer: Evgeny Shmulev via

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