Damascus

If major church leaders of Syria blast President Trump's missiles and tweets, is that news?

If major church leaders of Syria blast President Trump's missiles and tweets, is that news?

Please allow me just a moment here to speak as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, as well as a journalist and as, well, an American voter.

In the past several weeks, the crisis in Syria has jumped off the back burner of the mainstream press and into the headlines. There are lots of valid Google search terms linked to this, starting with "Donald Trump," "innocent civilians" and "Russia."

However, there is an angle to this story that means the world to me, yet it's one you rarely see covered in American media.

Believe it or not, religion does play a role in the Syria crisis. The most agonizing reality in all of this -- as I have mentioned before here at GetReligion -- is that several religious minorities in Syria, including the ancient Orthodox patriarchate in Damascus, depend on the current Syrian government for protection from radicalized forms of Islam.

Once again let me confess: My daily prayers include petitions for the protection of Christians, and all of those suffering, in Damascus, Aleppo and that region.

Do these religious believers recognize the evil that surrounds them, on both sides of the conflict? Of course they do. Please consider the message in a 2013 sermon by an Antiochian Orthodox leader here in America, Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kan. He states the obvious:

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."

This brings me to an important story that ran at Crux, focusing on how leaders of ancient religious communities in Syria reacted to the Trump administration's decision to attack Syria (during the festive week following Orthodox Easter, I might add). Oh yeah, that Pope Francis guy is involved in this, as well.

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Will team Trump come through for Christians in Middle East? Will press cover this story?

Will team Trump come through for Christians in Middle East? Will press cover this story?

Two decades ago, my family converted to Eastern Orthodoxy -- becoming part of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church that is based on Damascus, located on the street called Straight (as in Acts 9:11).

From 2001-2004 we were members of a West Palm Beach, Fla., congregation in which most of the members had deep family roots into Syria, Lebanon or Palestine. Needless to say, they had stories to tell about the struggles of Christians in the Middle East.

Here in America, we tend to focus on the present. At the moment, that means talking about atrocities linked to the Islamic State. When you talk to Christians from the Middle East, the events of the present are always tied to centuries of oppression in the past. It's all one story.

Right now, the issue -- for many Christians, and members of other oppressed religious minorities -- is how to survive in refugee camps. After that they face the ultimate questions of whether to flee the region or attempt, once again, to return to their battered homes and churches and start over.

Thus, I noticed a story last week that received very little attention in the American mainstream press. Once again, we are dealing with a story that I first saw in an online analysis at The Atlantic. When I went looking for mainstream, hard-news coverage, I saw this short CNN report, and that was pretty much it. Here's the heart of that CNN story:

Washington (CNN) Vice President Mike Pence announced Wednesday night that the Trump administration will no longer fund "ineffective" programs run by the United Nations to help persecuted communities and will instead send money to such groups directly through the US Agency for International Development.
"President (Donald) Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations, ... and from this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID," Pence declared to extended applause while speaking in Washington to the group In Defense of Christians, which advocates for greater protection of Christians in the Middle East.
"While faith-based groups with proven track records and deep roots in the region are more than willing to assist, the United Nations continues to deny their funding requests," Pence said.
The vice president, who is deeply religious, urged his "fellow Christians" to support faith-based groups and private organizations.

    Note the strange, vague little phrase that Pence is "deeply religious," backed by the scare-quote "fellow Christians" reference. In other words, this move is just another attempt to play to the GOP base. Thus, this isn't really a story that matters.

     

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    What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq (updated)

    What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq (updated)

    It is certainly the most important story of the day for the world's Eastern Orthodox Christians. Yes, even bigger than the announcement -- with the lengthy fast (no meat, no dairy) of Great Lent approaching -- that Ben & Jerry's is poised to begin selling vegan ice cream.

    I am referring to the announcement of a meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

    Any meeting between the pope and the patriarch of all Russia would be historic, simply because the shepherds of Rome and Moscow have never met before. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

    The big question, of course, is: Why are they meeting? What finally pushed the button to ease the tensions enough between these two churches for their leaders to meet?

    In terms of the early news coverage, the answer depends on whether you are one of the few news consumers who will have a chance to read the Reuters report, being circulated by Religion News Service, or one of the many who see the Associated Press story that is, I believe, deeply flawed. Alas, the majority of news consumers will probably see a shortened version of the AP report and will be totally in the dark about the primary purpose of this historic meeting.

    So here is the top of the Reuters report:

    MOSCOW -- The patriarch of Russia’s Orthodox Church will take part in an historic first meeting with the Roman Catholic pontiff on Feb. 12 because of the need for a joint response to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the Orthodox Church said.
    Senior Orthodox cleric Metropolitan Hilarion said that long-standing differences between the two churches remain, most notably a row over the status of the Uniate Church, in Ukraine. But he said these differences were being put aside so that Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis could come together over persecution of Christians.

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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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    Baltimore Sun editors: All news is local and when covering Middle East think 'Orthodox'

    Baltimore Sun editors: All news is local and when covering Middle East think 'Orthodox'

    There is this old-school saying in journalism that I have, on occasion, been known to quote to the editors of The Baltimore Sun, the newspaper that currently lands in my front yard: "All news is local."

    In other words, when major news is happening somewhere in the world, it is perfectly normal for journalists to seek out ways in which this news is affecting people in the community and region covered by their newsroom. If a tsunami hits Southeast Asia, journalists in Baltimore need to find out if anyone from their city was killed or if anyone local is gearing up to take part in relief efforts for the survivors.

    All news is local. Thus, I was not surprised when the Sun team produced a story focusing on local relief agencies that are active in the regions being affected by the brutal rise of the Islamic State.

    Alas, I was also not surprised when the Sun newsroom -- as it has done in the past -- missed a major local angle in the story, and a very intense, emotional angle at that. Hold that thought.

    The story starts off with the giant relief agency that simply must be covered:

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    Good news: Generic nuns released in Syria!

    For three months now, members of my parish just south of Baltimore have been praying for the release of some of our sisters in the faith in Syria, along with two kidnapped bishops. Thus, I was thankful when the news spread recently that they had been released. I was also glad to see that their release was covered by The New York Times. It felt like a nod of respect for an oppressed minority religious group in a suffering land.

    However, as I read this report I noticed something rather strange. Here is the top of the story:

    BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian insurgents released 13 nuns and three attendants who disappeared three months ago from their monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, Lebanese and Syrian officials said …, ending a drama in which rebels said they were protecting the women from government shelling and Syrian officials said they were abducted in an act of intimidation against Christians.

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    Memory eternal: A giant of Orthodoxy has died

    Let me state right up front that, as a member of an Antiochian Orthodox parish, this post hits close to home. However, this is also a story that is linked to one of the most important news trends in our world today, which is the growing state of chaos in Syria and the plight of religious minorities in the wider Middle East.

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