Let me state my journalistic prejudice right up front.
If I am covering an event, in any faith, that centers on worship then I think it is relevant to quote some of the words being said by the worshipers. More often than not, in my experience, there are references in the worship texts themselves that are linked to the theme or event that has made this particular worship service newsworthy.
Does this make sense? If a worship rite followed a great tragedy, what were the prayers said in mourning? Were scripture readings chosen that offered some kind of commentary on the event? Using quotes from these texts can serve as a way to pull readers into the story.
I would argue that this principle would certainly apply if the worship itself is considered controversial. And what if the prayers are controversial or even -- imagine this -- illegal?
This brings me to a recent USA Today story -- focusing on the most controversial piece of land in the world's most controversial city -- that left me shaking my head. Here is how the story opens:
JERUSALEM -- In a move that could further inflame recent Palestinian violence, Jewish activists are defying Israeli law by secretly praying at a site holy to both Jews and Muslims.
On a recent Sunday at the hilltop complex known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, dozens of religious Jews shoved ahead of a line of tourists. While being closely monitored at the site by security guards, who questioned anyone suspected of engaging in prayer, a number of visitors from a group of about 15 mumbled prayers quietly as they pretended to speak on their cellphones and cupped their hands over their mouths. They recited the prayers from memory, as they had been instructed to leave behind their prayer books before entering.
The 37-acre complex is the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest site in Islam, housing the Al-Aqsa Mosque and gold-topped Dome of the Rock. Under a decades-old agreement, non-Muslims can visit the site but not pray, and Jordan is custodian of the walled compound in old Jerusalem.
Do you see my point? Does anyone else want to know what these believers were covertly praying, under the eyes of police? What are the words they are mumbling, from memory, into their cellphones?
Were they offering prayers mourning the loss of the Jewish temples? Perhaps reciting prayers that would be used on the mournful day of Tisha B'Av? At the very least, might they be praying some of the most famous, and mournful, lines from the Psalms?
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.
We hung out harps upon the willows in the midst of it.
For there those who carried us away captive required of us a song. And those who plundered us required of us mirth, saying,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
Or, and this would be even more controversial, have Jewish activists who are yearning for the rebuilding of the temple prepared special prayers to be recited on this spot, in these days? Are they praying for the Temple Mount to be made ritually pure, to be returned to Israel?
You can see my point. The content of the prayers themselves would say quite a bit about these illegal rites and why this issue is so controversial. So where are the quotes from these texts?
Yes, this is very controversial material and linked to a recent rise in violence. As the story notes:
The clashes erupted amid rumors that Israel plans to retake control of the site, and Palestinians point to the increase in Jewish visits there as a provocation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly denies the allegations and vows to maintain the status quo of the holy complex.
“Israel will continue to enforce its longstanding policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount,” Netanyahu said in a statement last month, adding that while Israel acknowledges the site’s religious significance to three faiths, it does not intend to divide the site.
Palestinian leaders, however, have linked the attacks against Israel to what they describe as defense of the Temple Mount. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in September that Jews are “defiling” the complex with their “filthy feet” and that he blesses “every drop of blood that has been shed for Jerusalem.”
A survey released in September by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research showed 50% of Palestinians believed that Israel was intent on destroying the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock to make way for a third Jewish temple.
This is not just a Jewish issue. As the story notes, there are Christians -- Arabs included -- who have their own motivations for praying on the Temple Mount.
A personal note: I have been to this site twice -- in 1972 and in 2000 -- and on both occasions I heard people, Jews and Christians, in various groups talking about ways to secretly pray on the site. Some had printed texts.
So here is my question again, concerning this long USA Today feature: If you are covering an event, why avoid the words spoken in the event (in this case, in secret)? Why not ask people what they were praying, perhaps off the record? If there were texts being memorized, from prayer books that had to be hidden, couldn't a reporter ask for references to look up?
If this is a story about illegal, secret prayers that could, literally, cause a war someday, why not quote the prayers?