U.S. State Department

Will the Pope’s Arabian adventure affect the turbulence within global Islam?

Will the Pope’s Arabian adventure affect the turbulence within global Islam?

Despite the non-stop hubbub in U.S. politics that dominates the news, and the sexual molesting crisis that consumes Catholic media outlets, history’s first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula achieved some spot coverage. But journalists now need to offer richer analysis of the longer-term significance of the February events in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

You want pertinent news angles? You want some valid follow-up stories?

Islam and Catholicism each claim the allegiance of more than one billion souls. Terrorists claiming inspiration from Islam vex the entire region, with fellow Muslims frequently among the victims of carnage, while targeted Christians have been pushed out of their faith’s ancestral heartland. In the U.S. State Department’s latest religious freedom report, six of the 10 worst nations “of particular concern” are majority Muslim (Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan), with others on State’s “special watch” listing.

There was substance alongside the pageantry and photo ops in the UAE, a joint declaration issued by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, who leads venerable Al-Azhar University in Cairo. This is generally considered the chief intellectual center in Islam’s dominant Sunni branch (though long tainted by links with Egypt’s authoritarian regimes). Tayyeb is no pope but as authoritative as any figure in Sunnism. The joint statement results from years of intricate diplomacy between the Vatican and Al-Azhar.

Among the many moral evils addressed, the pope and imam called upon the world’s leaders “to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression,” adding that “God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want His name to be used to terrorize people. … Terrorism must be condemned in all its forms and expressions”

The declaration also proclaimed that “each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action” and opposed forcing people “to adhere to a certain religion.” It stated that “protection of places of worship — synagogues, churches and mosques — is a duty” under both religious teachings and international law. It upheld women’s rights to education, employment and political action. And so forth, including some interesting theological commentary on God creating the various world religions.

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Why is Foreign Policy magazine grumpy about U.S. aid going to Christians in Iraq?

Why is Foreign Policy magazine grumpy about U.S. aid going to Christians in Iraq?

With ISIS more-or-less cleared out of Iraq and Syria, money for rebuilding efforts is coming into the region amidst some debate as to where that money should land.

Why anyone would oppose money going to the Christians, Yazidis and others is a mystery, as it’s clear they suffered the brunt of the brutal ISIS occupation of broad swaths of eastern Syria and western Iraq. In the previous administration, Secretary of State John Kerry used the term "genocide" to describe what happened to Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims and other religious minorities. Christians were so decimated, their religion has been said to be going “extinct” in Iraq.

But Foreign Policy magazine sees any U.S. aid going to Christians and others as a bad thing. Here, it says:

The Trump administration has decided to steer humanitarian aid funding to Christian and other minority communities in Iraq, against the advice of some officials at the State Department and others at the United Nations, who initially feared the move could backfire.
The administration, prompted in part by Vice President Mike Pence’s strong links to Christian advocacy groups, recently clashed with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) over how to spend aid funds in Iraq, insisting more resources be channeled to Christian communities and other minority groups in the Nineveh Plains. The administration rejected UNDP’s assessment -- and that of some officials at the State Department -- that the aid should be focused on more populated areas around the war-damaged city of Mosul. …
Since Donald Trump entered office a year ago, the issue has gotten high-level attention. Vice President Pence has spoken frequently about the importance of direct U.S. support for religious minorities in the Middle East, and current USAID Administrator Mark Green -- long an advocate for minority communities -- has made these efforts a centerpiece of his tenure.

What it comes down to, the article adds, is about $55 million in funds. But Washington’s preference toward Christians, it argues, could undercut other diplomatic efforts.

The move raised eyebrows throughout the aid community. “Taking $55 million and putting it into an area where there’s no chance that the Islamic State is going to come back doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” the Western official said. With stabilization funding -- designed to address the potential resurgence of the Islamic State -- “what you want to do is focus on the areas where they might come back,” the official told FP.

But who says ISIS couldn’t return to the Christian and Yezidi areas? Are there no voices on the other side to debate some of these conclusions?

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The absolute, very last word on Trump and Jerusalem -- for the moment, at least

The absolute, very last word on Trump and Jerusalem -- for the moment, at least

The copy keeps coming, the pundits keep pontificating and the repercussions -- both serious and superficial, real and imaginary -- continue to pile up since President Donald Trump’s pronouncement that the United States was shifting course and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s political capital.

None of that is surprising, of course. That’s how media and politics work.

Here’s something I do find surprising, however.

Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson -- is that still his job? -- said it would be at least three years before the American embassy in Israel actually moves from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Get that? At least three years. Thats’s an eternity, given the whirlwind pace of political change these days both in the United States and the Middle East. And yet Tillerson’s statement, delivered during a speech to State Department employees and reported in The New York Times and elsewhere, went decidedly under appreciated.

(To be fair, Tillerson and others in the Trump White House, plus some outside political defenders, noted previously that an embassy move would take some time. But I believe  this was Tillerson’s, and the administration’s, clearest statement to date concerning the time frame.)

Here’s the top of the Times story.

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said Tuesday that it is unlikely that the American Embassy will be moved to Jerusalem before 2020.
“It’s not going to be anything that happens right away,” Mr. Tillerson said, adding, “Probably no earlier than three years out, and that’s pretty ambitious.”
President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem last week as the Israeli capital, but he nevertheless signed a national security waiver, which will allow him to delay the movement of the embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv for an additional six months. Administration officials have said there are functional and logistical reasons the United States cannot open a new embassy any time in the near future.

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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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    Brownback has critics and supporters: All these voices matter when covering religious freedom debates

    Brownback has critics and supporters: All these voices matter when covering religious freedom debates

    If you have followed news about the many, many clashes between the emerging doctrines of sexual liberty and the First Amendment's "free exercise" of religion clause, you know this isn't a tidy, simple story with two sides and that's that.

    Coverage of Sam Brownback's nomination to a key global religious freedom post is the latest fight.

    Yes, there are LGBTQ activists in these debates and there are cultural conservatives. But there are also economic and libertarian conservatives who embrace gay-rights arguments and old-style liberals (Andrew Sullivan leaps to mind) who back gay rights and the defense of religious liberty, free speech and the freedom of association. There are Catholics on both sides. There are self-identified evangelicals on both sides.

    In the mainstream press, this conflict has put extra pressure on journalists, with some striving to accurately and fairly cover voices on all sides, while others have thrown in the editorial towel and embraced open advocacy in their coverage. BuzzFeed remains the most candid newsroom on this front, with its "News Standards and Ethics Guide" that states:

    We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.

    Leaders at the New York Times have not been that candid, at least while in power. There was, of course, that 2011 talk by former editor Bill Keller (days after he retired) in which he said America's most powerful newsroom never slants its news coverage "aside from" issues -- such as gay rights -- that were part of the "liberal values, sort of social values thing" that went with the Times being a "tolerant, urban" institution.

    Is this "Kellerism" ethic, or doctrine, still being used? Let's take a look at a key chunk of a recent Times news story that ran with this headline: "In One Day, Trump Administration Lands 3 Punches Against Gay Rights." The overture paints the big picture:

    WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration abruptly waded into the culture wars over gay rights this week, signaling in three separate actions that it will use the powers of the federal government to roll back civil rights for gay and transgender people.

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    Did a familiar religion-news 'Blind Spot' shape coverage of ISIS genocide declaration?

    Did a familiar religion-news 'Blind Spot' shape coverage of ISIS genocide declaration?

    Back in 2008, I was part of the editorial team that produced a book called "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion" for Oxford University Press. The whole idea was to look at a number of big national and international news stories and demonstrate that journalists could not do an accurate, informed, balanced job covering them without taking religion seriously.

    I know. That wasn't a shocking thesis for a project linked to this website. What is shocking, nearly a decade later, is that most of the book's case studies remain amazingly relevant.

    Hang in there with me on this. I'm providing background on the discussion that host Todd Wilken and I had during this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in). This was recorded soon after the declaration by Secretary of State John Kerry that, yes, the Islamic State was committing "genocide" in its slaughter of Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims and other religious minority groups. This followed a 393-0 vote on a U.S. House of Representatives resolution on this topic.

    As you would expect, mainstream news coverage focused on the politics that framed this issue. This story was all about Republicans trying to hurt Democrats in an election year, "conservative" religious groups trying to embarrass the White House, etc., etc.

    Same old, same old. Politics is real, while religion is not all that important. For example, why not talk to the leaders -- here in America -- of churches that are directly linked to the flocks being massacred in Iraq and Syria? For Christians from the Middle East, there is more to this tragedy than election-year politics.

    As I noted in a GetReligion post on this topic -- " 'Aides said' is the key: Why it was so hard to say ISIS is guilty of 'genocide' against Christians" -- the Kerry announcement received very low-key coverage, which is probably what the U.S. State Department wanted. The story then vanished from the mainstream press, while coverage in religious-market outlets continued.

    This is, you see, a "conservative" news story that gets covered at places like Fox News. But why is that? Human rights used to be a liberal cause. Correct?

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    House says (393-0) that Christians are victims of ISIS genocide, but key voices are missing

    House says (393-0) that Christians are victims of ISIS genocide, but key voices are missing

    Clearly, "bipartisan" has to be the last adjective any journalist would use to describe the current political climate in the United States.

    Thus, a 393-0 vote on a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives is an eyebrow-raising moment, no matter what issue is involved. In this case, it's crucial that the issue is linked to the Islamic State and its hellish massacres of religious minorities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere -- including Orthodox and Catholic flocks that have lived and worshiped in these lands since New Testament times.

    ISIS has destroyed ancient monasteries and churches, has razed or looted irreplaceable ancient libraries and sacred art. It has become rational to consider that Christianity may be wiped out in the region in which it was born.

    So here is my question: Yes, this is a political story. But, for most readers, is this JUST a political story? Here is the top of the Associated Press "Big Story" report:

    WASHINGTON (AP) -- Ratcheting up the pressure on the Obama administration, the House has overwhelmingly approved a resolution that condemns as genocide the atrocities committed by the Islamic State group against Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria.
    The non-binding measure, passed Monday by a vote of 393-0, illustrated the heavy bipartisan support for action on Capitol Hill. Secretary of State John Kerry is leaning toward making a genocide determination against the Islamic State and could do so as early as this week, when a congressional deadline for a decision has been set.
    But the Obama administration officials have cautioned that a legal review is still under way and said it is likely Kerry will not meet Thursday's deadline.

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    ISIS silver lining: Can our elites (journalists included) still deny persecution of Christians?

    ISIS silver lining: Can our elites (journalists included) still deny persecution of Christians?

    If you follow issues of human rights and religious freedom abroad, you will surely recall the recent incident in which the Islamic State released that video showing the execution of 20 Egyptian Coptic believers and one Ghanian man whose identity is harder to pin down. All have been declared martyrs for the faith.

    Readers may also recall that there was a bit of controversy when the public statement about this tragedy released by the White House, speaking for President Barack Obama, merely condemned the "despicable and cowardly murder of twenty-one Egyptian citizens in Libya by ISIL-affiliated terrorists. We offer our condolences to the families of the victims and our support to the Egyptian government and people as they grieve for their fellow citizens."

    Citizens? The Islamic State executions had been very specific in saying that their victims were chosen because of their connection to "crusaders," the "hostile Egyptian church" and the "Nation of the Cross."

    Citizens?

    Now there is this new vision of martyrdom, as noted in quite a few mainstream reports today. This material comes from the veteran correspondent David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times foreign staff, who is known for "getting religion" in the world around him:

    The Islamic State released a video on Sunday that appears to show fighters from affiliates in southern and eastern Libya executing dozens of Ethiopian Christians, some by beheading and others by shooting.

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