Bashar al-Assad

Crux reports from Lebanon-Syria border, where Western ideals clash with deadly local realities

Crux reports from Lebanon-Syria border, where Western ideals clash with deadly local realities

One of the greatest gifts I’ve derived from being a journalist has been to repeatedly face situations in which what seemed obvious to me made no sense to someone else. This helped me understand that's it's an enormously complicated world that requires empathy toward others to comprehend it at any depth.

This can happen when you're fortunate enough to mix with people who have a world view that’s quite different than you're own. You learn that preconceived notions about “the facts” of a story can be a barrier to grokking the heart of the story.

Crux, the online Roman Catholic journal, reminded me of this last week via a series of stories it published about besieged Christian villages in the Lebanese-Syrian border region.

That's a pretty tough neighborhood. In such places, simple survival -- particularly for religious and ethnic minorities -- can mean assuming positions that seem morally unthinkable for those of us fortunate enough to live in far gentler environs.

Take the case of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for example. Who of us thinks him to be anything less than a brutal murderer with little -- “none” might be the better word -- regard for anything but his own survival? Who of us would be willing to live under his leadership?

As part of the series, Crux editor John L. Allen, Jr., in a piece labeled analysis, wrote that what seems apparent about Assad to most of us in the West holds little sway for Christians living in Lebanon and Syrian. His piece ran under the following headline: “Meeting Middle East Christians is where Western stereotypes go to die.”

 

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Syrian Christians: Targeted in Aleppo, still being ignored in the New York Times

Syrian Christians: Targeted in Aleppo, still being ignored in the New York Times

Despite all the reports of atrocities, news out of Syria can still shock. And not always for the battlefield events; sometimes for the callous, clueless coverage in media like the New York Times.

Numerous outlets have reported that some Christians have been beheaded or crucified, others ejected en masse from ISIS territory. Two Orthodox archbishops have been kidnapped and many believe that one, or both, are already dead (at the hands of rebels with past ties to U.S. agencies). And irreplaceable churches, monasteries, sacred art and libraries have been systematically demolished.

Just as shocking, none of that is in the latest "in depth" on the war in the Times.

The article deals with the ongoing war over Aleppo, Syria's largest city. It mentions the Sunni-linked Al-Qaida and the Shia-linked Hezbollah.  It looks at the army of President Bashar al-Assad and Russian air power.

What of the estimated half-million Christians, including 40,000 still in Aleppo? Silence. Everything in the Times story is about strategy and alliances, with religion pushed backstage as if it plays no role in this drama whatsoever.

Granted, the barrel bombs and gas attacks don’t ask about religion. The Times says much about the generalized suffering:

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The battle for Aleppo -- Syria’s most populous city -- is once again raging, once again trapping hundreds of thousands of civilians, once again rallying fighters seeking an advantage in the five-year-old civil war.

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'Moderate' rebels once funded by USA behead Syrian boy: Would readers want to know why?

'Moderate' rebels once funded by USA behead Syrian boy: Would readers want to know why?

As I have mentioned many times, your GetReligionistas have never figured out what to do with material published at The Daily Beast.

For the most part, it is a liberal publication that focuses on a pushy, but often interesting, brand of openly slanted, advocacy journalism of the old (and returning) European Model. That's fine and I'll keep reading. However, that is not the kind of hard-news work that we like to focus on here at this blog, unless we are pointing religion-news consumers toward a relevant "think piece."

However, the Beast has also been known to produce features -- especially international news -- that are 99.9 percent basic news. If there is advocacy there, it's because these editors are choosing to cover these stories and others are not. To me, that raises just as many questions about the pros in all of those newsrooms that are ignoring these news events.

Take, for example, the horrible news that the Daily Beast published under this double-decker headline:

U.S.-Backed ‘Moderate’ Rebels Behead a Child Near Aleppo
It’s the kind of stomach-wrenching brutality you’d associate with ISIS. Except this time, it’s American-armed rebels who are cutting off a boy’s head

No, I don't want to click on video URLs that have anything whatsoever to do with this story. I apologize for needing to run the relatively tame screen-grab image that I did, at the top of the post.

However, once again I want to say -- especially since this glimpse into hell has a strong American hook -- that it's amazing that this story is only running at the Beast and in some publications on the other side of the Atlantic, where editors and/or readers seem to have more interest in global news.

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You are a priest in Syria (or a U.S. pastor): What do you think of the news today?

You are a priest in Syria (or a U.S. pastor): What do you think of the news today?

Let's run through this life-and-death equation again, because it's at the heart of this week's GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast, which centered on two different posts (here and here) about threats to the ancient Christian churches in Syria. Click here to tune that in.

Start here. You are a priest in an ancient church in Syria, part of a body linked to a form of Eastern Orthodoxy or with Catholic ties of some kind. In recent years you have seen members of your flock -- perhaps even a bishop -- kidnapped or killed. This may have been by the rising tide of the Islamic State or by one of more of the insurgent groups that is trying to defeat the armies of President Bashar al-Assad. 

You know all about the crimes of the Assad regime. However, you also know that -- at the moment -- Assad knows that religious minorities of all kinds in Syria are under attack and thus they are standing together.

The bottom line: ISIS is killing Christians faster than the anti-Assad Sunni Muslim insurgent forces, some of which are receiving U.S funds and help, but the insurgents are pretty good at killing infidels, as well. Deep down, you wonder if the insurgents -- most allied with Saudi Arabia -- will end up trying to divide Syria with the Islamic State. The main thing you fear is complete and total chaos, since the one thing the insurgents and ISIS leaders agree on is that they want the current government gone and those who supported it dead, in slavery or driven away in the river of refugees.

So, what do you think of the following news from -- pick an elite U.S. news source -- The New York Times

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Will U.S. journalists spot the religion ghost in Putin's mixed motives in Syria?

Will U.S. journalists spot the religion ghost in Putin's mixed motives in Syria?

It's hard to write a post about news stories that do not yet exist. However, based on the emails I'm getting, I expect to see major newsrooms writing about "this story" sooner rather than later. Do we really have to talk about religion "ghosts" in Syria?

So what is "this story"? 

Look for up-front use of the term "Holy War" in connection with Russia's involvement in Syria, where President Vladimir Putin is doing everything he can to save the territory most crucial to President Bashar al-Assad -- which certainly starts with Damascus. I expect prominent play to be given to the supporting role of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill, for reasons that our own Ira Rifkin mentioned in one of his "Global Wire" pieces the other day.

At the moment, your typical religion-haunted story on Russia's push into the Syria war focuses on politics, airplanes and hardware and the assumption that Putin is acting purely out of motives to maintain a power base in the Middle East and embarrass the United States and President Barack Obama. Please hear me say that there obviously truth in that assumption. In a current New York Times story, this is what that sounds like:

Although in its early stages, the coordinated attack has revealed the outline of a newly deepened and operationally coordinated alliance among Syria, Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to an official with the alliance, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military strategy. ...
For Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents alike, regionally and internationally, Russia’s increasing willingness to throw its full military power behind him is a game-changer.

But might there be religious logic to Putin's bold move, even if -- thinking cynically -- it is at the level of rationalization?

Just the other day, a Times story -- "Russian Soldiers Join Syria Fight" -- added a very brief reference to another layer of the conflict, well down into that text. Spot the ghost?

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News hooks: Religion, politics and war and joining the home team's cheering squad

News hooks: Religion, politics and war and joining the home team's cheering squad

Organized religion can support personal piety very nicely. Ditto when it comes to performing good works. But then there's the flip side. Religion can also serve as a fig leaf for nationalism, political schemes and militarism. 

We see this last dynamic at work today primarily within the Islamic world. However, it's certainly not confined to Islam. And its certainly not just a contemporary phenomenon. (Check your Bible, Qur'an or any number of history books about Europe, Asia and the Americas for ample examples.)

Moreover, we know the damage done by these dark-side impulses can linger in religious memories for decades and even centuries. And not just in connection with today's headline grabbers, such as when Islamists refer to Christians as crusaders. They're also there behind the scenes, providing the heat for simmering historical conflicts that can flare up without clear warning.

Take Japan's refusal to fully face up to it's shameful treatment of the so-called "comfort women," a euphemism for the women from occupied nations that World War II-era Japan forced into sexual slavery. (I'll get back to this below.)

What I view as the downside of organized religion is, I'm sure, no surprise to anyone who reads GetReligion.

However, it's always worthwhile to remember how easy it is for organized religions -- as well as the journalists who cover them -- to become part of the the home team cheering squad.

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Yo, Washington Post editors: Spot the religion ghost in that Syrian refugee crisis

Yo, Washington Post editors: Spot the religion ghost in that Syrian refugee crisis

Of the many agonizing news stories linked to the rise of the Islamic State, I have -- as an Eastern Orthodox Christian -- been paying quite a bit of attention to those focusing on the Jihadist persecution of a number of different groups of "infidels" and "crusaders." Click here, if you wish, for my Universal syndicate column on that topic.

This renewed persecution, especially the crushing of religious minorities in the Nineveh Plain region, has led to yet another wave of refugees fleeing ahead of the judges, swords and tanks of the Islamic State. In the case of the faithful in Christian flocks, it is logical to ask if these believers will ever be able to return to their destroyed homes, businesses and irreplaceable ancient sanctuaries.

In other words, will these refugees eventually need to seek asylum in new lands, perhaps noting that their lives are at risk because of their minority-faith status?

As you would imagine, I read with great interest the recent Washington Post report that ran under the headline, "U.S. to greatly expand resettlement for Syrian refugees.

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Assad's Easter and mysterious attacks on Syrian Christians

Why are Syrian Christians being targeted by Islamist rebels? The Western press cannot agree on a reason, a review of recent reports from Syria reveals.

Can we credit the explanation given by the Wall Street Journal — that the rebels do not trust Christians — as a sufficient explanation? And if so, what does that mean? Are the reports of murders, kidnappings, rapes and overt persecution of Christians in Syria by Islamist rebels motivated by religion, politics, ethnicity, nationalism or is it a lack of trust?

Is the narrative put forward by ITAR-TASS, the Russian wire service and successor to the Soviet TASS News Agency — that the rebels are fanatics bent on turning Syria into a Sunni Muslim state governed by Sharia law — the truth?

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