Pope and imam dial back talks about Christian concerns, with assist from some journalists

The leader of a billion-plus Catholics met with a leader of a billion-plus Muslims, and media gave it appropriately thorough coverage.

Except for one matter: persecution of Christians in Muslim lands.

Pope Francis himself was oddly timid on the point. But that doesn't mean mainstream media had to downplay it also -- especially when they cover plenty of such incidents.

Typical was the Associated Press report:

Pope Francis on Monday embraced the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the prestigious Sunni Muslim center of learning, reopening an important channel for Catholic-Muslim dialogue after a five-year lull and at a time of increased Islamic extremist attacks on Christians.
As Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib arrived for his audience in the Apostolic Palace, Francis said that the fact that they were meeting at all was significant.
"The meeting is the message," Francis told the imam.

Following this press release-style lede, though, AP says the two leaders discussed "the plight of Christians 'in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Mideast and their protection,' the statement said." It adds that Al-Azhar broke off talks alks with the Vatican a decade ago, after Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor saying that some Muhammad's teachings were "evil and inhuman."

The article also retells some bloody specifics:

Benedict had demanded greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a New Year's bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria killed 21 people. Since then, Islamic attacks on Christians in the region have only increased, but the Vatican and Al-Azhar nevertheless sought to rekindle ties, with a Vatican delegation visiting Cairo in February and extending the invitation for el-Tayyib to visit.

But if any Mideastern Christian leaders had opinions on the meeting -- and it's hard to imagine they wouldn't -- AP wasn't interested.

The respected Crux, the Boston-based Catholic newsmagazine, seemed to change its tone depending on the story. The headline item on Monday was pretty benign:

According to a press statement from the Vatican, the both noted the "great significance" of this meeting in the framework of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam.
"[They] spoke mostly about the issue of the common commitment of the authorities and faithful of great religions for peace in the world, the rejection of violence and terrorism, the situation of Christians in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Middle East and their protection," the Vatican said of the meeting, which lasted 25 minutes and took place in the pope’s private library.

The article does add some background on its own. It mentions the "series of attacks against Christian churches Alexandria, and that Benedict "demanded more protection for Christians in Egypt, which Al-Azhar took as "meddling in the internal affairs of another country."

Crux followed up yesterday with quotes from el-Tayeb's interview in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper. He said Muslim and Christian leaders attended a conference last year at Al-Azhar and issued a plea not to confuse terrorism with Islam.

But the paper adds: "The imam also said that the current violence in the Middle East shouldn’t be portrayed as 'persecution of Christians' because the largest number of victims are Muslim, and that if anything, the two are 'suffering this catastrophe together.' "

That arched the eyebrow of John Allen Jr., the veteran Vatican-watching editor of Crux. In a commentary piece, he voices sympathy over Francis' dilemma in reaching out to moderate Muslims in the Middle East, while also raising consciousness about the region’s persecuted Christians.

But Allen also asks why reporters didn’t push back against el-Tayeb's blurring tactic:

Somewhat remarkably, none of the journalists present seemed to ask the obvious follow-up question: Does el-Tayeb truly believe there isn’t a specifically anti-Christian streak to many versions of Islamic radicalism – for instance, the more militant quarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in his own Egypt, where Copts routinely complain of harassment, violence and discrimination?
Is it plausible to maintain that "persecution of Christians" is the wrong narrative on the Middle East when multiple global bodies, including the U.S. State Department, have acknowledged that a genocide of Christians and other minorities is under way in areas controlled by ISIS?

Later, Allen says that even when a Muslim majority isn’t actually attacking Christians, "they’re often relegated to a sort of second-class citizenship that reflects a deep current of social prejudice."

Indeed: You can read story after story on that fact. One from March tells of ISIS burning 8,000 books of "infidels" -- i.e., Christians -- in Mosul. The article accuses Muslim governments of trying to erase even the memory of Christianity from the region.

As I often say, mainstream reporters could likely have found such articles as fast as I did.

But that's a scary thought, isn’t it? You don’t need ISIS or Al-Qaida to blur or erase the memory of Christianity from the Middle East. All you need are docile reporters who don’t read archives or ask enough questions.

IMAGES: Pope Francis addresses senior government officials and diplomats in the Philippines, January 2015. Photo by Benhur Arcayan of the Malacañang Photo Bureau. Public Domain photo via Wikimedia Creative Commons.

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