This past Sunday, I received an interesting email just after a got home from one of the most symbolic rites of the Eastern Orthodox year -- Forgiveness Vespers.
For Orthodox Christians, this service is the door into the long and challenging season of Great Lent, which leads to the most important day in the Christian year -- Pascha (Easter in the West).
During these vespers, each member of the congregation -- one at a time -- faces each and every other person who is present. One at a time, we bow and ask the person to forgive us of anything we have done to hurt them in the previous year. The response: "I forgive, as God forgives," or similar words. Then the second person does the same thing. Many people do a full prostration to the floor, as they seek forgiveness.
Then we move to the left to face the next person in line. Doing this 100 times or so is quite an exercise, both spiritual and physical. Tears are common. So is sweat.
The email I received pointed me to stories coming out of the Dagestan region of Russia, near the border of Chechnya. As worshipers came out of an Orthodox church in Kizlyar, a gunman -- shouting "Allahu Akbar" -- attacked with a hunting rifle and knife, killing five.
An Associated Press report merely said the victims were leaving a church service and even stated that the "motive for the attack was not immediately known."
I was struck by the timing, coming in the wake of the Ash Wednesday school shootings in Parkland, Fla. I had the same question as the GetReligion reader who emailed me: Were these worshipers shot after the Forgiveness Vespers?
It certainly appeared that this was the case, so I immediately wrote a post: "Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers." Needless to say, this was a topic of interest to Orthodox believers, and others.
Now, a reader who speaks Russia has found a link to a Russian website -- "Orthodoxy and the World" -- that confirms the poignant and painful timing of this attack. Here is his translation of that information, if you are into factual journalistic details of this kind:
On the 18th of February, immediately after the end of the evening service with the Rite of Forgiveness in Saint George's Cathedral, a young man opened fire on the people leaving the church.
That reader -- Matthew Casserly, who lives in Moscow -- kept digging for other details.
Turning to the website of the famous Sretenskiy Monastery -- the institution at the heart of the bestseller "Everyday Saints" -- he found an article (there is an English translation) entitled: "They Forgave All and Were Martyred." Key points:
* Two Muslim security guards were among the injured, but they lived.
* People inside the church were able to pull people in from outside and lock the door, protecting those inside.
* The five women who were killed were active parishioners, described with phrases like, "pillars of the community." They had just taken part in the Rite of Forgiveness.
* In a different article, a priest refers to one of the women as "the blessed Irina" and, from the context, Casserly said it appears people called her this before she was murdered. In Orthodoxy, "blessed" is often a term used to refer to someone who -- in the eyes of many -- may eventually be hailed as a saint.
* The women were all buried in the church courtyard -- meaning that it is likely to become a point of pilgrimage. Martyrs? No one knows if the gunman demanded that they renounce their faith. It appears to have been a mass shooting -- period.
Turning back to the wire-service reports in the West, Casserly made another excellent point. Many included references to a Russian festival called "Maslenitsa," which was described as a Russian holiday marking the start of Lent.
For example, consider this section of a BBC report, which includes several new pieces of information:
The Islamic State (IS) group said it was behind the attack but did not immediately provide any evidence.
The gunman used a hunting rifle, opening fire on worshippers leaving a service during celebrations for Maslenitsa -- a traditional pre-Lent festival. ...
The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church called the shooting a "monstrous crime" aimed at sowing discord between Christians and Muslims in Dagestan.
This story seems to think that the worshipers had just attended a church "Maslenitsa" rite of some kind, a statement that Russian Orthodox believers would find rather offensive.
Why? Let's translate this into a similar tradition in the Church of Rome.
If Catholic Christians were attacked as they left church following an Ash Wednesday service, would it be accurate for journalists to say that they were leaving a celebration of Mardi Gras? Would Catholic readers think that was an acceptable statement of the facts?
The bottom line: Why confuse a highly secular, in some ways faintly pagan, blow-out party saluting the end of Russian winter with one of the most solemn and emotional religious rituals of the Orthodox liturgical year?
Can you see how that some Orthodox readers might take that the wrong way?