Christians in Syria: Los Angeles Times runs powerful, tragic report

How often does news really terrify you? Not just worry or concern, but ... well, like it affected a woman in this story out of Syria?

As Islamic State militants closed in on her village, Asmar Jumaa, an Assyrian Christian, couldn't shake a terrifying thought.
"I remembered what they did to the Yazidi women," said Jumaa, 22, recalling the fate of thousands of female adherents of the ancient sect kidnapped last summer when the Sunni Muslim extremists swept through northern Iraq. "I didn't want that to happen to us."
She and eight family members, mostly women, were among several thousand Assyrian Christians who fled in late February as the militants advanced into dozens of largely Christian villages along the Khabur River in eastern Syria.

If only the international community paid as much attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East as some media, like the Los Angeles Times, have done lately. If nations with a conscience were stirred to action a year or two ago, people like those in this indepth story might not be living in fear.

The article focuses on the purge of Christians along the Khabur River, who lived among Muslims and Yazidis in eastern Syria. The Times gets on the ground in Sheikhan, Iraq, and tells the story through the Jumaa family.

The paper notes the kidnapping of hundreds of Christians from the Khabur area, either by the Islamic State or the al-Qaida-lined Nusra Front. The Times even tacitly acknowledges its own lack of follow-up, along with that of other media:

Although the kidnappings made global headlines, the plight of several thousand who managed to escape hasn't drawn much notice in a region that has lately seen massive displacements, including the more than 500,000 Yazidis and Christians who fled the Islamic State rampage in the summer.
As the Syrian civil war enters its fifth year, almost half of the people in the nation have fled their homes, one of the largest upheavals of humanity since World War II.
More than 3 million Syrians are refugees in other countries, and an additional 7 million are displaced in Syria, according to United Nations figures.

Note how the story smoothly folds in the context of the multi-sided struggle in Iraq and Syria.  It reports how the Islamic State advanced along the Khabur and that "Christian self-defense home guards with rifles were no match for the heavily armed Sunni militants."

The Jumaas were rescued when Kurdish militiamen evacuated Tel Bas, where the family lived. Then, as the Times says:

The Jumaas eventually made their way into Iraq across the Tigris, following the path of tens of thousands of Yazidis who had fled the Sinjar mountains in the summer. One of Kenyas Jumaa's daughters who moved to Sheikhan in northern Iraq previously welcomed her kin.
Sheikhan is a religiously mixed town whose skyline features the minarets of mosques, the crosses of Christian churches and the conical temples of the Yazidi sect, the majority here. The town, northeast of Islamic State-controlled Mosul, was largely abandoned in August as the militants advanced to within 10 miles or so. U.S.-led bombing helped push back the extremists; most residents of Sheikhan have since returned. Still, Islamic State's lines remain only about 20 miles away.

Later, the story says one of the Jumaa relatives was forced out of the Tabqa region, along with all other Christians, when the Nusra Front seized control there. In fact, many of the extended Jumaa family is now scattered: Sweden, Lebanon, Holland, Canada, New Zealand and Arizona. Kenyas Jumaa, the patriarch, says he hopes to emigrate with his immediate family as well.

The Times adds a dread déjà vu in pointing out that some of the Assyrians in the Khabur River region are descendants of Christians who fled in the 1930s to Syria, after many of them were murdered by Muslims in Iraq. But then the story puzzlingly calls it a case of "coming full cycle." It's not a cycle, in which the last event gives rise to the first. It's more like a repetition, with persecution repeating itself.

That's one of very few flaws in this tragically sensitive story. Another error, I believe, is identifying the Jumaas merely as ethnic Assyrians. It would have enlightened us readers to know that the Assyrians not only lived in Iraq and Syria long before Arabs; they also built a mighty Middle Eastern kingdom three millennia ago.

I think the Times erred also in portraying the Jumaas as what tmatt would call "generic Christians." It's true that their tormenters in Nusra and IS don’t care what kind; they just want them dead or gone. But whether they were Catholic or Chaldean or even Protestant, that would likely interest readers in Europe and North America.

But I don’t want to ride too hard on the few glitches in a powerful look at the tragedy that has fallen onto Middle Eastern Christians. Rather than dip into clichés, rather than stand off and quote military officials, the Times uses facts, quotes, history and sensitive writing. By the time we finish its 1,000 words, we've gained a brief but vivid glimpse of the price many people pay -- and are paying -- for the hatred of others.


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