Middle East

Middle East images: Week in Israel gives correspondent a different perspective on news (updated)

Middle East images: Week in Israel gives correspondent a different perspective on news (updated)

The New York Times had a front-page story this week on the strong partnership between Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The Times described Trump as Netanyahu’s secret weapon in his “increasingly uphill re-election battle.”

The Associated Press, meanwhile, reported that Trump sees advantages in the current American debate over Israel and anti-Semitism.

I read both stories with a different perspective — and a heightened interest — after spending the past several days in Israel, my first visit ever to the Middle East.

I’m typing this post from my hotel room in Jerusalem. I’m here with a group of about a dozen U.S. religion journalists as part of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. The project aims to give participants an enhanced understanding of issues in this part of the world and make them think about tough questions. For me, it certainly has done that!

Rather than do a normal post while I am traveling, Terry Mattingly invited me to share a bit about the trip. Honestly, I’m still processing much of what I have seen. But I’ve learned so much as we’ve traveled via helicopter and bus to visit key sites all over Israel and heard from speakers representing a variety of perspectives.

We’re still in the middle of our itinerary — with a trip to Ramallah on today’s agenda — but here, via Twitter, are a few virtual postcards:

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A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

Onions and garlic, slowly simmered with tomatoes and olive oil.

Does that make you hungry? It leaves me salivating. Pour it -- generously, if you don't mind -- over a heaping plate of pasta and I'm your best friend.

Perhaps that’s why I found this story out of India (first sent my way by a friend, N.K.) so interesting. It's about Hindus who reject eating onions and garlic for religiously ascribed health and spiritual reasons.

Moreover, given that it’s the end of the year, I’m also inclined to offer up this story as a metaphor for the world of religion, and its concurrent global political and social machinations, as 2019 prepares to dawn.

But first, here’s a bit of the gastronomical Hindu brouhaha story, courtesy of the liberal-leaning, India-focused news site Scroll.in.

(So you understand: In the Indian numerical system, a lakh equals 100,000; Karnataka is a state in southwest India, and ISKCON is the official name for what Westerners tend to call Hare Krishnas, a modern iteration of an ancient Hindu school of religious thought. Additionally, Ayurveda is an Indian dietary and health care system rooted in early Hindu scripture.)

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

But why onions and garlic? What do members of this Hindus sub-group know that the cooks of so many other global cuisines don’t or don’t care about? Even Western and natural medicine practitioners say that onions and garlic are particularly good for our health.

So what’s up?

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The Donald meets Pope Francis: What did your news sources tell you about common ground?

The Donald meets Pope Francis: What did your news sources tell you about common ground?

Several weeks after the stunning election of Donald Trump, I was in New York City (I teach at The King's College two-plus months a year) and attended an event that drew a large flock of urbane Catholics.

There was, of course, lots of talk about the election. But many people were already thinking about the inevitable moment when Pope Francis would meet President Donald Trump.

Several people said something like this: Everybody already knows about their disagreements. It will be interesting to learn what they agree on.

With that in mind, let's turn to several examples of the press coverage of their Vatican meeting. From a journalism point of view, the key is that their actual talk was behind closed doors -- with only an interpreter present. So other than comments on facial expressions, fashion and symbolic gifts, what is the key material here for journalists?

There was, of course, a Vatican statement released afterwards, which can be seen as a short, dry summary of what official voices want outsiders to know was on the agenda.

So how much attention did that statement receive in the Associated Press report that will be buried somewhere inside most newspapers (since there were no public fireworks)? This is all that readers got, down in the story text:

When Trump departed, he told the pope: "Thank you, I won't forget what you said." ...
Hours later, Trump tweeted the meeting was the "honor of a lifetime." A statement released by the Vatican later said "satisfaction was expressed" at their "joint commitment in favor of life" and that there was hoped-for collaboration on health care and assistance to immigrants and protection of Christian communities in the Middle East.

Needless to say, the AP team played quite a bit of attention to the two men's past disagreements. That's valid. But why not focus similar attention on the joint statement?

I would ask the same question about the main New York Times report.

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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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Coptic lives matter: New York Times examines dangers to Egyptian Christians

Coptic lives matter: New York Times examines dangers to Egyptian Christians

I've met Coptic Christians. I've heard stories of their suffering before fleeing their native Egypt. Like a man with a scar down the left side of his face, including his eyelid -- which he said was split open by in an attack by young men shouting "Allahu Akbar!" 

So the New York Times' account of Copts in Egypt at a "breaking point" is all too believable, and a vital account to keep in the public eye. This is why its few reporting flaws need attention.

The fair-minded article starts with Imam Mahmoud Gomaa's appointment to keep the peace between Copts and Muslims in the upper Nile region. The newspaper also reports the support from Copts for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who seized the governmental reins in 2013.

Then it reports the widespread persecution of the Copts:

Yet the limits of that support have became evident in Minya, where Christians continue to suffer violence and humiliation. Houses have been burned, Copts attacked on the streets and hate graffiti written on the walls of some churches. In all, Coptic officials have counted 37 attacks in the past three years, not including some 300 others right after Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were ousted from power in 2013.
The turning point for local Copts came in May when an older Christian woman was stripped naked by a mob, which had been incited by reports that the woman’s son was having an affair with a Muslim.
“After that woman was stripped, we couldn’t be quiet, not after that,” Bishop Makarios said. What especially angered Copts, he added, “is that officials came out denying the incident.”

The Times places itself well with a dateline out of the Minya district, in the upper Nile Valley. That's where some of the worst attacks have happened, according to the Copts I know in South Florida. The further one gets from the major urban areas, where there are international media and other observers, the more trouble there is for religious minorities, such as the Copts.

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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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Attacks in Lebanon: The New York Times gets it right -- the targets were Christians

Attacks in Lebanon: The New York Times gets it right -- the targets were Christians

The recent multiple suicide attacks on a Christian town in Lebanon -- including a crowd that preparing for a funeral -- have gotten well-deserved attention from mainstream media like the New York Times and the Associated Press. But the Times' eye is sharper than AP's.

On a single day, eight men fired shots and blew themselves up in Al Qaa for no apparent reason than the faith of most of the residents. The Times' report on the attack aptly conveys the dismay and desperation of the townspeople.

The story also spells out two dilemmas -- questions that also plague people in Europe, Turkey and the United States:

In many ways, the questions in Al Qaa echo those that followed attacks in Orlando, Fla.; Paris; and Istanbul: How can a community protect itself from a lone assailant or a small team of attackers with guns or bombs? And local leaders are struggling with the same issue facing Europe as it deals with its own influx of migrants: How to balance the desire to help with fears that the newcomers could harbor a threat?
"It is not easy for people, when their sons have died or are in critical condition, to differentiate between terrorists and refugees," the Rev. Elian Nasrallah, the Roman Catholic priest who oversees Al Qaa’s churches, said during an interview in his home. He had coordinated aid for refugees and would help lead the funeral for the town’s dead.

Although the shooting war is in Syria, across the border from Al Qaa's home in the Bekaa Valley, the fight has severely impacted the residents. As the Times reports, 20,000 refugees from the war have flooded into the area, overwhelming the local populace of 3,000.

The newspaper gives a taut, brutal narrative of the violence. It began early June 27 -- first striking one of the few Muslim resident families in Al Qaa, the paper notes.  A father and son saw a man in their garden; "When they confronted him, he blew himself up, wounding them both."

From there, it gets much worse:

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

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.

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Mangling the message: Papal Easter talk gets a warped reflection in The Mirror

Mangling the message: Papal Easter talk gets a warped reflection in The Mirror

How many gaffes can you pack into the start of a story? In its coverage of Pope Francis' Easter message yesterday, the UK-based Mirror seemed to be trying to find out.

And what a time for sloppy reporting -- the most important holiday on the calendar of the world's largest religion.

Check this out:

Pope Francis says defeat Islamic State 'with weapons of love' during Easter message
Pope Francis has urged the world in his Easter message to use the "weapons of love" to combat the evil of "blind and brutal violence" following the tragic attacks in Brussels.
The Roman Catholic church leader said an Easter Sunday Mass under tight security for tens of thousands of people in St Peter's Square.
After the service, he gave a traditional speech in which he addressed violence, injustice and threats to peace in many parts of the world.
He said: "May he [the risen Jesus] draw us closer on this Easter feast to the victims of terrorism, that blind and brutal form of violence which continues to shed blood in different parts of the world."

Francis did decry multiple social ills: armed conflicts, "brutal crimes," ethnic and religious persecution, climate change caused by exploiting natural resources, fears of the young and the elderly alike. And yes, he denounced terrorism, "that blind and brutal form of violence which continues to shed blood in different parts of the world."

But he said nothing about the Islamic State -- or, for that matter, the acronyms of ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. Nor did he tell anyone to use the "weapons of love" in the Middle East conflict.

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