The story began with reports in "conservative" and religious media, which, tragically, is what happens way too often these days with issues linked to religious liberty and the persecution of religious minorities (especially if they are Christians).
Earlier in the week I saw this headline at the Catholic News Agency: "Patriarch urges prayer after at least 90 Christians kidnapped in Syria." The story began:
With reports circulating saying that ISIS forces have kidnapped at least 90 Christians from villages in northeast Syria, Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan said prayer is the only possible response.
“Let’s pray for those innocent people,” Patriarch Younan told CNA over the phone from Beirut Feb. 24. “It’s a very, let’s say, very ordinary thing to have those people with such hatred toward non-Muslims that they don’t respect any human life,” he said, noting that the only reaction to Tuesday’s kidnappings is “to pray.”
Alas, none of these believers were cartoonists. However, as the days went past the numbers in these distressing reports -- especially this soon after the 21 Coptic martyrs video -- began to rise.
I kept watching the major newspapers and, while I may have missed a crucial report or two, I did see this crucial story from Reuters -- always an important development in global news -- that represented a major escalation of the coverage, with several crucial dots connected. Do the math.
(Reuters) -- A U.S.-led alliance launched air strikes against Islamic State on Thursday in an area of northeast Syria where the militants are now estimated to have abducted at least 220 Assyrian Christians this week, a group monitoring the war reported.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the air strikes targeted Islamic State fighters near the town of Tel Tamr, where the militants, also known as ISIS, had captured 10 Assyrian villages.
A prominent Syrian Christian, Bassam Ishak, told Reuters: "Some people have tried to call them by cellphone, the relatives that have been abducted, and they get an answer from a member of ISIS who tells that they will send the head of their relative.
"They are trying to terrorize the parents, the relatives in the Christian Assyrian community," said Ishak, who is president of the Syriac National Council of Syria.
Ten villages! And what is the larger threat there?
Islamic State has staged mass killings of religious minorities, as well as fellow Sunni Muslims who refuse to swear allegiance to the 'caliphate' it has declared in parts of Syria, Iraq and other areas of the Arab world.
Yes, mass killings of "religious minorities" -- the word "Christians" could have been used -- as well as Muslims who are not backing the ISIS approach to Islam and sharia law.
At that point, I saw a short New York Times report (not a wire service story) online that began to point toward a major story. The original short story on Thursday, which has since been expanded, began like this:
ISTANBUL -- Continuing its assaults on a string of Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria, the Islamic State militant group has seized scores more residents over the past two days, bringing the number of captives to as many as several hundred, Assyrian organizations inside and outside Syria said on Thursday.
The number of captives reported by different Assyrian groups has varied because, in the chaos of fighting, many families are fleeing and it has taken time to verify by name those captured.
The Syriac Military Council, a militia formed in recent years to protect Assyrian villages in the traditionally diverse area of Hasaka, in northeastern Syria, said in a statement that more than 350 civilians from 12 villages had been abducted.
At this point, something happened that -- yes, this is the cynic in me talking -- turned this into a major story with front-page, major news potential. Heavens! This might even merit television coverage.
Forget hundreds of kidnapped Christians (some of whom, once again in those alternative conservative news reports, may have been murdered already). The Islamic State started targeting museums and works of art and some of that destruction is on video.
Beheading believers is one thing. Beheading statues? That's really bad. Actually, I think people matter more than art, but I think that both of these crimes are horrible and both merit coverage. Pronto.
So the BBC went with this report, which was all statues. However, BBC had been doing other reports that merit attention, both on the kidnappings and the Islamic State persecutions of Christians, as well. Check out this collection. Note the dates?
So that brings us to the expanded Times piece that puts both half of these equations together.
What's my point? Obviously, I wish (and my Eastern Orthodox Christian biases have been openly stated many times) that the mainstream press was more interested in early and timely reporting on the persecution of Christians and members of other minority faiths in this region, as well as the hellish oppression of Muslims who reject ISIS.
It is tragic, but perhaps inevitable, that the 21 Coptic workers had to be slaughtered on video in order to pull the plight of the Copts back into the news. It is sad that it takes attacks on priceless statues to get some (but not all) journalists to wake up to what is happening to the truly ancient Assyrian Christian culture that is being destroyed.
But in the end, finally, you can get a story that opens like this:
ISTANBUL -- The reports are like something out of a distant era of ancient conquests: entire villages emptied, with hundreds taken prisoner, others kept as slaves; the destruction of irreplaceable works of art; a tax on religious minorities, payable in gold.
A rampage reminiscent of Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, perhaps, but in reality, according to reports by residents, activist groups and the assailants themselves, a description of the modus operandi of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate this week. The militants have prosecuted a relentless campaign in Iraq and Syria against what have historically been religiously and ethnically diverse areas with traces of civilizations dating to ancient Mesopotamia.
The latest to face the militants’ onslaught are the Assyrian Christians of northeastern Syria, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, some speaking a modern version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Assyrian leaders have counted 287 people taken captive, including 30 children and several dozen women, along with civilian men and fighters from Christian militias, said Dawoud Dawoud, an Assyrian political activist who had just toured the area, in the vicinity of the Syrian city of Qamishli. Thirty villages had been emptied, he said.
And what about the art? The Times team described in terms that might bring a tear to the eye of even the most jaded editor in that elite newsroom:
An Islamic State video showed the militants smashing statues with sledgehammers inside the Mosul Museum, in northern Iraq, that showcases recent archaeological finds from the ancient Assyrian empire. The relics include items from the palace of King Sennacherib, who in the Byron poem “came down like the wolf on the fold” to destroy his enemies. ...
Islamic State militants seized the museum -- which had not yet opened to the public -- when they took over Mosul in June and have repeatedly threatened to destroy its collection.
In the video, put out by the Islamic State’s media office for Nineveh Province -- named for an ancient Assyrian city -- a man explains, “The monuments that you can see behind me are but statues and idols of people from previous centuries, which they used to worship instead of God.”
A message flashing on the screen read: “Those statues and idols weren’t there at the time of the Prophet nor his companions. They have been excavated by Satanists.”
Wait for it.
The men, some bearded and in traditional Islamic dress, others clean-shaven in jeans and T-shirts, were filmed toppling and destroying artifacts. One is using a power tool to deface a winged lion much like a pair on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Oh, by the way: Are the ISIS forces destroying any ancient churches and monasteries? Just asking.