Iraq

Stay tuned: Mosul is being set up by media as a world Islamic capital

Stay tuned: Mosul is being set up by media as a world Islamic capital

For anyone interested in seeing how a devastated city with a history stretching back several thousand years can rebuild itself, look no further than some of the stories coming out about Mosul, the newly liberated north central Iraqi city.

Even before ISIS took over the place in 2014, Mosul had always been very dangerous and considered quite suspect. Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, had lived there for years and even after they died in a gun battle in 2003, the place was rife with suicide bombers who killed whatever American military they found there plus many hapless Iraqis.

I was in the area in 2004, visiting the Kurdish areas north and east of Mosul and my guides only dared take me to a place within 30 miles of the city. They didn’t want me to risk getting any closer. Which is why I’ve been interested in international efforts to rebuild Mosul after two years of war have made it a ghost town in many places. This recent New York Times piece sets the stage:

BAGHDAD — The scars of battle remain deeply etched into the geography of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, with thousands of homes, buildings and places of worship destroyed during the nine-month fight to oust the Islamic State.

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Latest Bible battle: Three evangelical experts carefully go revisionist on Noah's flood

Latest Bible battle: Three evangelical experts carefully go revisionist on Noah's flood

For Protestants who interpret the early chapters of the biblical Book of Genesis literally, Noah’s flood is a major test of faith.

Witness Kentucky’s Ark Encounter with its 170-yard-long watercraft on display. Witness Hollywood explorations of the topic that fold in bizarre non-biblical myths or multiplex-level humor. Such popular interest commends news coverage when something flood-wise erupts.

Something just has.

Journalists will find story potential in reactions to the eyebrow-raising book “The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate” (InterVarsity Press). The co-authors are evangelical Old Testament Professors Tremper Longman III of Westmont College and John H. Walton of Wheaton College (Illinois).

They contend that the narrative in Genesis: Chapters 6–9 is not a fable or “myth” but stems from some actual catastrophe during primeval human history. However, they dismantle the literal interpretation.

That's interesting, in terms of academics. Note that Wheaton faculty members affirm that all the Bible’s books “are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing.” Moody Bible Institute, where Walton previously taught for two decades, believes the biblical texts “were verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Longman’s Westmont proclaims the Bible to be “God-breathed and true, without error in all that it teaches.”

In the book, Longman and Walton say “the Bible is indeed inerrant in all that it intends to teach,” but analysis of intent allows room for their flood revisionism.

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Children of ISIS returned to Chechnya: Fine New York Times story haunted by faith questions

Children of ISIS returned to Chechnya: Fine New York Times story haunted by faith questions

In a New York Times photo, 4-year-old Bilal looks like any other kid sitting in bed, lost in a video game on a smartphone.

But there is a back-story. Bilal grew up in Mosul, Iraq, living on the run with his father, who was a fighter for the Islamic State. And right there is the question facing officials in Russia -- Chechnya, to be specific -- and in several European states: What should leaders in these nations do with children, especially boys, who grew up witnessing people beheaded, stoned and gunned down?

What about boys who were actually forced to take part in some of these rituals, as part of ISIS efforts to turn them into ultimate warriors? Are they, as one German official puts it, "living time bombs?"

That's the question at the heart of this fine Times story, which ran with the headline: "Raised by ISIS, Returned to Chechnya: ‘These Children Saw Terrible Things’." Here is a crucial summary passage near the top of this international-desk story:

As the American-led coalition and Syrian government forces captured cities that had been held by the Islamic State, they found among the ruins a grim human wreckage of the organization’s once successful recruitment drive: hundreds and perhaps thousands of children born to or brought with the men and women who had flocked to Syria in support of the Islamic State.
While Russia, which has so far returned 71 children and 26 women since August, may seem surprisingly lenient in its policy, its actions reflect a hardheaded security calculus: better to bring children back to their grandparents now than have them grow up in camps and possibly return as radicalized adults.
“What should we do, leave them there so somebody will recruit them?” said Ziyad Sabsabi, the Russian senator who runs the government-backed program. “Yes, these children saw terrible things, but when we put them in a different environment, with their grandparents, they change quickly.”

Now, as you would expect, I do have questions about the role of religious faith in all of this. I would have liked to have seen a bit more information about the role of Islam in this process.

After all, these children witnessed horrors that are hard to imagine. At the same time, they were raised to think of these acts as an essential part of a twisted, radicalized version of Islam.

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Yazidis and their faith: There's more to it than just a quick paragraph

Yazidis and their faith: There's more to it than just a quick paragraph

One often hears how one person can make a world of difference. In a recent New Yorker piece,  “The Daring Plan to Save a Religious Minority from ISIS,” a writer who specializes in greater Kurdistan --  an area that overlaps into four countries -- talks about the Yazidis. (Some spell their name as “Yezidi;” either are correct).

We are not talking about just any Yazidis: Three men who took it upon themselves to try to save their countrymen in Iraq from genocide. With so many Christians fleeing Iraq, that leaves the Yazidis as the largest non-Muslim minority in the country. (This policy brief from the Middle East Institute explains their history and religion, which is based on the worship of a peacock angel, pictured with this piece).

The New Yorker article began with three Yazidis: Hadi Pir, Murad Ismael and Haider Elias, who became interpreters for the American military in Iraq. All received visas to move to themselves and their families to United States (to escape reprisal in Iraq) and were leading more or less ordinary lives until Aug. 2, 2014, when ISIS moved against Yazidis about 6,700 miles away.

At three in the morning, when they pulled into the parking lot of their apartment complex, dozens of their Yazidi neighbors were outside on the lawn, talking on their cell phones and crying.
“Isis has taken over Sinjar,” a neighbor said. “Everyone is running to the mountain.”
Isis came into Sinjar at dawn, with the intention of wiping out Yazidism in Iraq. The group’s Research and Fatwa Department had declared that, unlike Christians or Shia Muslims, Yazidis were a “pagan minority.” The Kurdish soldiers retreated without warning, after determining that their position was untenable. Yazidis ran from their homes and scrambled up the rocky slopes of Mt. Sinjar. Trucks jammed with people overturned on narrow roads. Homes north of the mountain quickly emptied; with the roads controlled by Isis, thousands of Yazidis were trapped in the southern villages.

Back in the States, the horrified Yazidis could follow the fighting via cell phone as their relatives called them whenever they could to relate the increasing horrors they were facing. About 100 former interpreters formed a crisis management team to try to bring media attention to the coming genocide.

By Aug. 7, they were in Washington, D.C., demonstrating in front of the White House, then showing up at the State Department to plead their case. Notice the details of this meeting.

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One story to watch: Will 2018 see notable decline in the Middle East's hardline Islam?

One story to watch: Will 2018 see notable decline in the Middle East's hardline Islam?

Looking at Muslim culture in the Mideast apart from ongoing terrorism problems, The Economist’s fat “The World in 2018” special includes two articles that anticipate secularization and decline for religious hardliners in Sunni lands. You can click here to read, "Roll Over Religion."

The key factor is a “disenchanted” younger generation that no longer accepts claims that “Islam is the solution” to socio-economic woe.  Such unrest is obvious, but The Religion Guy is hesitant about claims of sweeping decline. Nonetheless, U.S.-based reporters should pay heed, since correspondents Roger McShane and Nicolas Pelham are on the ground and we’re not.

“Arab leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates will seek to capitalize on popular sentiment to pursue their Islamist foes,” the venerable Brit newsmagazine predicts. Regimes will talk about “reform and modernization” but in actuality will maneuver “to clip the powers of religious institutions and increase their own sway.” As part of it they’ll “roll back the presence of religion in public spaces.”

Already, with the ISIS collapse, women in Mosul, Iraq, are removing their full-face coverings and returning to school and college classrooms. Tunisia is letting Muslim women marry Christians. In Egypt, symbolic beards and veils are starting to disappear as weekly mosque attendance slides. “In some cities sex before marriage is becoming a norm,” and we should “expect more videos of Saudi women in risqué dress.”

Much of the intrigue centers on straitlaced Saudi Arabia and its busy young Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS, lately in the news for paying a record $450 million for a Leonardo da Vinci portrait of Jesus Christ). All but taking command from his father King Salman, the prince has begun circumscribing powers of the dreaded mutaween (religious police).

As the regime “chips away at restrictions imposed under the kingdom’s strict Islamic social code,” the “conservative clerics are perturbed,” the magazine says. A permanent shift in religion policy would have major impact because the Saudis have funded Salafi and Wahhabi zealotry worldwide.

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News media, and The Religion Guy, catch up with yet another Mideast religious minority

News media, and The Religion Guy, catch up with yet another Mideast religious minority

Last year the Knights of Columbus sent Secretary of State John Kerry a 278-page report portraying in detail what the title called “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East (.pdf here).”

The media should be paying continual attention to this minority’s disastrous decline in its historic heartland under pressure from Muslim extremists and chaos otherwise.

The largest targeted group is the Copts, the original ethnic Egyptians with a heritage that dates to Christ’s apostles, making up perhaps 10 percent of the national population. In Syria, where “Christians” were first given that name, believers constituted a solid and generally respected 12 percent of the population before the ruinous civil war erupted. Numbers have plummeted there and in Iraq, where Christians constituted 7 percent until recent times. Conditions are also harsh in neighboring countries.

Western media coverage of the Christians’ plight should acknowledge that extremists also visit death and devastation upon legions of their fellow Muslims, including groups regarded as heterodox. Oddly, Syria has been ruled largely by members of one such off-brand minority, the Assad clan’s Alawites.  

Given the complexity of world religions, even a seasoned reporter can miss an important group. And The Religion Guy confesses he was essentially unaware of one, the Alevis, until they were treated July 23 in a comprehensive New York Times report by Turkey correspondent Patrick Kingsley. Foreign Affairs magazine says this religio-ethnic group claims up to one-fifth of Turkey’s 80 million citizens.

Syria’s Alawites and the Alevis are not to be confused, though both are offshoots of Shi’a Islam that developed into new, heterodox forms of Islam if not new religions altogether,  drawing elements from non-Muslim faiths.

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The second storytelling rule: Get the name of the church (click the link to learn the first)

The second storytelling rule: Get the name of the church (click the link to learn the first)

"The first storytelling rule: Get the name of the dog."

That terrific advice for journalists comes courtesy of Roy Peter Clark, the longtime writing coach best known for his work with the Poynter Institute.

The gist of Clark's idea: If the reporter remembers to ask the dog's name, then "he or she will be curious enough and attentive enough to gather all the relevant details in their epiphanic particularity."

To move that thought into the GetReligion realm, let's consider a second rule: Get the name of the church.

Adherence to that rule would have improved The Associated Press' recent coverage of an Iraqi man who helped the U.S. military but is now facing deportation:

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An Iraqi man who fled to the U.S. during the Gulf War and trained tens of thousands of American soldiers is facing deportation orders that could lead to his death in his homeland, his supporters say.
Kadhim Al-bumohammed, 64, decided to seek refuge Thursday inside a New Mexico church. He announced through his attorney that he would defy a federal immigration order to appear for a hearing where he was expected to be detained for deportation over a domestic-violence conviction in California.
"After consulting with his family, and with other members of the faith community, (Al-bumohammed) has chosen to seek sanctuary with the faith community," Rebecca Kitson, his lawyer, said to a cheering crowd outside Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Albuquerque.
Immigration officials typically don't make deportation arrests in churches and other "sensitive areas" such as schools and churches.

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Were artifacts forfeited by Hobby Lobby headed to Museum of the Bible? It's complicated (maybe)

Were artifacts forfeited by Hobby Lobby headed to Museum of the Bible? It's complicated (maybe)

Big fine. Bad publicity. That pretty much describes Hobby Lobby's week.

"I'm sure the media just salivate over stories like this," complained a Facebook user who commented on a link posted by a friend of mine. 

Maybe so. But in this case, can anyone really deny that this is news? The basics from the Wall Street Journal:

In 2010, the president of Hobby Lobby spent $1.6 million on thousands of ancient artifacts that he hoped would help build a collection of antiquities related to the Bible.
There was one problem: The items appeared to have been stolen from Iraq, federal authorities alleged, then smuggled into the U.S. from the United Arab Emirates and Israel, bearing labels identifying them as “ceramic tiles” and “Tiles (Sample).”
The Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts retailer settled the claims with the government on Wednesday, according to a civil complaint and settlement filed by the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s office. Hobby Lobby will surrender the artifacts, pay a $3 million fine and adopt new procedures for buying cultural property.
In a statement posted on its website, the privately held company said its lack of familiarity with the “complexities of the acquisitions process” led to some “regrettable mistakes,” including relying on dealers and shippers who, “in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items.”
The aim of the company, which is owned by an evangelical Christian family, was to develop “a collection of historically and religiously important books and artifacts about the Bible,” to preserve and share with the public, the statement said.

Overall, the WSJ story was pretty tame compared to some other major news organizations' reports. 

Religion News Service (a national wire service for which I occasionally freelance) quoted experts who said Hobby Lobby "must have known it was illegally importing artifacts":

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A powerful, important read: Wall Street Journal on the 'epochal shift' of Christians from the Middle East

A powerful, important read: Wall Street Journal on the 'epochal shift' of Christians from the Middle East

I'm no expert on Christians in the Middle East, but this strikes me as a powerful, important read.

It's an in-depth report from the Wall Street Journal on the "epochal shift" of Christians from the Middle East.

TANTA, Egypt — Like the Jews before them, Christians are fleeing the Middle East, emptying what was once one of the world’s most-diverse regions of its ancient religions.
They’re being driven away not only by Islamic State, but by governments the U.S. counts as allies in the fight against extremism.
When suicide bomb attacks ripped through two separate Palm Sunday services in Egypt last month, parishioners responded with rage at Islamic State, which claimed the blasts, and at Egyptian state security.
Government forces assigned to the Mar Girgis church in Tanta, north of Cairo, neglected to fix a faulty metal detector at the entrance after church guards found a bomb on the grounds just a week before. The double bombing killed at least 45 people, and came despite promises from the Egyptian government to protect its Christian minority.

This story is packed with hard data and gripping detail such as this:

In northern Iraq, blue and white charter buses crisscross neighborhoods of recently liberated Mosul, returning Muslim families displaced by Islamic State. They drive through Christian areas without stopping. For the first time in nearly two millennia, Iraq’s second-largest city, once a melting pot of ancient religions, lacks a Christian population to speak of.
The Al-Aswad family, a clan of masons who built the city’s houses, churches and mosques and trace their lineage back to the 19th century, vow never to return. They’ve opted to live in the rat-infested refugee camps of Erbil in northern Iraq, where they await updates on their asylum application to Australia.
A Christian charity has given them a small apartment until June, at which point they will have to return to the refugee camps to live in a converted cargo shipping container.
“We call it the cemetery,” said Raghd Al-Aswad, describing how the cargo containers are covered with dark blue tarps to protect against the rain. “It looks like dead bodies stacked side by side with a giant hospital sheet on top of them.”

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