Every so often there’s a piece on TV that surprises you with its grace and pathos. Last Sunday’s 60 Minutes program on the persecution of Iraqi Christians by ISIS was one such program. This was the kind of mainstream media piece that I was calling for in my recent post "Why is the mainstream press (and Congress and churches) silent as Christians are literally being crucified?"
To do the show, Lara Logan -- the same correspondent who got so badly attacked in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 -- goes to the Nineveh plains, a vast area east of Mosul including villages that have been there some 2,000 years. I was in the area in 2004 and it truly does feel like ancient Mesopotamia. One almost expects to hear the crunch of the boots of Sennacherib’s troops.
The filming is done in Erbil (a regional Kurdish city) and in some of the other Christian towns only a few miles from ISIS lines. One was Al Qosh, the burial place of the Old Testament prophet Nahum and one of the more pristine examples of two millennia of Christian habitation.
If ISIS ever got up there, it’d be a catastrophe, as there’s an orphanage there within a new, elegant monastery. The script for the feature commences thus:
There are few places on earth where Christianity is as old as it is in Iraq. Christians there trace their history to the first century apostles. But today, their existence has been threatened by the terrorist group that calls itself Islamic State. More than 125,000 Christians -- men, women and children -- have been forced from their homes over the last 10 months.
The Islamic State -- or ISIS -- stormed into Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, last summer and took control. From there, it pushed into the neighboring villages and towns across this region, known as the Nineveh Plains, a vast area that's been home to Christians since the first century after Christ. Much of what took almost 2,000 years to build has been lost in a matter of months.
On the side of a mountain, overlooking the Nineveh Plains of ancient Mesopotamia, is the Monastery of St. Matthew. It's one of the oldest on earth.
The type of Christians in this place are Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean Catholics; species of Christian whom those in the West rarely get to meet. We get video of real people with names and faces and sorrows even if they belong to Christian denominations we’ve never heard of. And then there is an American Christian -- Brett Felton, an Iraq war veteran from Detroit -- who gets a segment to himself as to why some western Christians are coming back to Iraq to help Christians there.
I’m not suggesting the battle against ISIS is enough to unify eastern and western portions of Christianity that have been separated nearly 1,000 years. But at least it’s made the West care about their brethren in the East as Christians who’ve been low profile throughout the ages, but who’ve taken the brunt of Islamic fury for 1,400+ years.
If there is anything missing in this piece, it is a sense of outrage and a consistent grasp of the historical details about these communions.
This isn’t to say those who filmed it aren’t passionate about showing the cost of it all on the Christian community. The crew interviews a Christian refugee from Mosul who realized his 10-year-old daughter would become an ISIS bride unless he did something quick. He and his wife and child managed to flee to Erbil in a taxi. And I know it's tough to make what has become another refugee story fresh. But I didn't pick up what I know is happening over there; that people are still literally being crucified or enslaved in ways that resemble the African slave trade. Why couldn't those details have been represented in this report?
One of the clergy interviewed said the United States left Iraq way too early, resulting in this bloodbath. But talk of establishing a protected autonomous Christian enclave on the Nineveh plains was on the table years before we pulled out in 2011. The Americans didn't use any of their influence to build up protection for these Christians, but left them to the mercies of whoever should rule Iraq next.
And then along came ISIS.
Was this piece perfect? No. Was it a positive step, especially in the religion-reporting starved world of mainstream news on television. Yes.