American news consumers, as a rule, do not pay much attention to foreign news coverage. Here at GetReligion, we know that writing a post about mainstream media coverage of religion news on the other side of the planet is not the way to get lots of clicks and retweets.
That doesn't matter, because news is news and it's genuinely tragic that many Americans are in the dark about what is happening outside our borders. We will keep doing what we do.
This leads me to news coverage of the fall of the eastern half of Aleppo in Syria, a landmark event in that hellish civil war that is receiving -- as it should -- extensive coverage in American newspapers.
As you read the coverage in your own newspapers and favorite websites, please look for a crucial word -- "Alawites." President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is a member of the often persecuted Alawite sect of Islam. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.
BEIRUT -- Syria’s government declared Thursday that it had regained full control of Aleppo after the last rebel fighters and civilians evacuated the key city as part of an agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey.
The Syrian military announced on state media that “security and stability” had been returned to eastern Aleppo, once the largest rebel stronghold. The “terrorists” -- a term used by the Syrian government to describe nearly all of its opponents -- had exited the city, the military said.
President Bashar al-Assad’s consolidation of Aleppo marks the end of the opposition presence in the city for the first time in more than four years and deals a major blow to the rebellion to unseat him.
Think about this as a matter of history, for a moment. Is there anything bloodier and more ruthless than a civil war, with fighting and acts of violence taking place inside a nation, pitting armies within its population against one another?
If that is the case, then it is crucial how one labels and defines these armies.
Thus, Assad keeps using the term "terrorists" to describe the rebels that are trying to overthrow his government. To American ears this makes sense, because many groups within the rebellion (including forces supported by the United States) are linked to Al Qaeda, the Al-Nursa Front and similar radicalized forms of Islam. Elsewhere, of course, Syria and its allies are clashing with the Islamic State.
The Post story, as you would expect, describes the horrors of this conflict almost completely in terms of politics and tensions between the nations that are involved, such as Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Russia and America. This is crucial information.
However, as someone who has for years worshipped in an Eastern Orthodox Christian flock that is based in Damascus, I know that Arab Christians with roots in that region never discuss this conflict without mentioning the religious identities of the various forces. My daily prayers include an appeal for the safety of the church of Damascus -- the ancient Antiochian Patriarchate (think "street called Straight" in the New Testament).
The Post story ends with this rather standard summary statement describing the roots of this conflict:
In 2012, rebel forces had triumphantly stormed the eastern districts of Aleppo and hoped to use the city as a staging ground for their eventual assault on the capital, Damascus, where they hoped to unseat Assad.
Instead, the war dragged on. Government allies, notably Iran and Russia, helped Assad gain momentum, and residents of eastern Aleppo endured years of horrific bombardment from government and Russian warplanes that decimated hospitals, homes and entire families.
Now, plug the religious facts into that statement. So troops representing a Jihadist approach to Islam wanted to attack and conquer the ancient city of Damascus, one of the few remaining safety zones -- yes, protected by a brutal, totalitarian Assad regime -- for religious minority groups in the blood-soaked lands of the Middle East. If radicalized Sunni forces take Damascus, what happens to the Christians, Jews, Shia and Alawites?
There is that crucial word -- "Alawites."
If you want to understand how complex this conflict really is, then click here and read a BBC report from earlier this year in which the leaders of the Alawite sect sought to distance themselves from the actions of Assad's brutal regime. Here is the crucial passage, in which the Alawite leaders say:
... they hope to "shine a light" on the Alawites after a long period of secrecy, at what they call "an important moment" in their history. In the eight-page document, termed a "declaration of identity reform", the Alawites say they represent a third model "of and within Islam".
Those behind the text say Alawites are not members of a branch of Shia Islam -- as they have been described in the past by Shia clerics -- and that they are committed to "the fight against sectarian strife".
They also make clear that they adhere to "the values of equality, liberty and citizenship", and call for secularism to be the future of Syria, and a system of governance in which Islam, Christianity and all other religions are equal. And despite Alawites having dominated Syria's government and security services under Mr Assad and his late father Hafez for more than four decades, they stress that the legitimacy of his regime "can only be considered according to the criteria of democracy and fundamental rights".
Am I saying that this conflict is rooted in religion, alone? Of course not.
Am I saying that you cannot understand the dynamics of the civil war without taking into account that it pits rebels aligned with radical forms of Islam against a regime that controls a nation that is home to large numbers of moderate Muslims, Shia, Alawites, Christians and others?
Yes. That is my main point. What happens to minority religious groups in Damascus if it falls to rebels? As I have noted before, this also helps explain the claims by Russian leaders that they are trying to prevent the slaughter of Orthodox Christians in the region. Do the jihadist rebels want to replace Assad with a secular regime in which all faiths are safe?
When you are reading news reports about Aleppo, it also helps to look for language that distinguishes Western Aleppo, controlled by Syria, from Eastern Aleppo, which until now has been controlled by rebels. Has anyone seen a story that includes information about what religious groups live in the Western part of the city, as opposed to the East? I have not. Might that be a factor in the dividing of the city? Of course.
I wondered about that when reading this passage in the New York Times report:
Many in the government-held western part of Aleppo also celebrated the routing of the city’s rebels, who often fired improvised rockets at their neighborhoods, flooding hospitals with the dead and wounded. And as hundreds gathered on Tuesday to see the lighting of a Christmas tree, a bomb exploded in western Aleppo, wounding no one but sending residents fleeing.
Why would rebels try to bomb people who had gathered to light a Christmas tree?
Once again, I am saying that -- surprise, surprise -- religion plays a major role in this brutal conflict in Syria. There is no way for news consumers here in America to understand what is happening in Syria without information about the complex religious fault lines in its population. Is that information in the major news reports?
Let me end with some thoughts from an American Orthodox bishop, Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kan., whose family roots are in Syria and Lebanon. This is from an "On Religion" column -- "The evil the church already knows in Syria" -- that I wrote one year into the civil war. You might want to read the bishop's entire sermon on this topic.
Anyone who prays for peace in Syria must acknowledge, at the beginning, that "vicious wrongs" have been done on both sides and that "there's really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None," concluded Bishop Basil.
"So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we've had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don't know about except what they've shown us in this awful civil war."
FIRST IMAGE: The Christian quarter in Aleppo, after a 2015 attack on Easter.