Middle East

Spot the news here: First openly gay presidential candidate in 'Arab' or 'Muslim' world?

Spot the news here: First openly gay presidential candidate in 'Arab' or 'Muslim' world?

To answer a question I hear every now and then: Yes, we do hear from Ira “Global Wire” Rifkin from time to time. If you follow him in social-media circles you know that he is doing well, especially when hanging out with his lively family.

Also, he sends us URLs and cryptic hints when he bumps into GetReligion-ish stories linked to international news. Take this Washington Post story, for example: “An openly gay candidate is running for president in Tunisia, a milestone for the Arab world.”

How important is this story? Rifkin had this to say: “This is not nothing, though I think his chances of ending up in exile in Paris (or dead or in jail) are greater than his winning.”

There are several interesting angles in this story, as far as I am concerned. All of them are directly or indirectly linked to religion. However, I’m not sure that the Post foreign-desk squad wants to face that reality head on. Here is the overture:

Lawyer Mounir Baatour officially announced his candidacy for the Tunisian presidency …, becoming the first known openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world and heralding a major step forward for LGBT rights in a country that still criminalizes gay sex.

Baatour, the president of Tunisia’s Liberal Party, presented his candidacy to the country’s election commission a day ahead of a Friday deadline to qualify for the Sept. 15 election. He received nearly 20,000 signatures in support of his candidacy — double the required number — according to a statement posted to his Facebook page.

“This enthusiasm already testifies to the immense will of the Tunisian people, and especially its youth, to see new a political wind blowing on the country and to concretely nourish its democracy,” the statement said, calling Baatour’s candidacy “historic.”

OK, is the newsworthy hook here that we are talking about political “first” in the “Arab” world or in the “Muslim” world? Yes, I realize that the answer could be “both-and.” But that is a different answer than simply saying “Arab” and leaving it at that.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Deportation of a Chaldean Christian to Iraq, and where he died, gets some decent coverage

Deportation of a Chaldean Christian to Iraq, and where he died, gets some decent coverage

This is a news story about religion, mental illness, the U.S. government, deportation and Iraq.

Perhaps you’ve already heard about the heartbreaking story of Jimmy Aldaoud, the diabetic Chaldean Iraqi man who was deported to a homeland he never knew, only to die there a short time later because he couldn’t get enough insulin.

The story publicizes the plight of Chaldeans, an ancient branch of Catholicism that’s been in Iraq almost since the beginning of Christianity. They used to number 1 million, but 80 to 90 percent have emigrated over the years, especially after the death of Saddam Hussein, who for years protected the Chaldeans.

America’s Chaldean refugee community, many of whose members have long been threatened with deportation, have been warning that to send any of them to Iraq would be a death sentence. They, plus several members of Congress, are especially angry over Aldaoud’s death. If things don’t change soon, his fate will be their own.

The Intercept has the most complete story on Aldaoud,

BEFORE HE WAS deported, Jimmy Aldaoud had never stepped foot in Iraq. Born in Greece to Iraqi refugee parents, he immigrated to the United States with his family via a refugee resettlement program 40 years ago, when he was just 15 months old. He considered himself American and knew hardly anything of Iraqi society. Still, on the afternoon of June 4, he found himself wandering the arrivals terminal of Al Najaf International Airport, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, with around $50, some insulin for his diabetes, and the clothes on his back.

Najaf, by the way, is a Shi’ite stronghold and not the safest place for Christians of any stripe.

Aldaoud was used to getting by with little. For most of his adult life, he had experienced homelessness, working odd jobs, and stealing loose change from cars as he grappled with mental illness. But that was in the relative comfort of his hometown — for decades, he rarely strayed more than a few miles from his parents’ house in Hazel Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He had no idea how to survive in Iraq, and he was unprepared to make a run at it; he hadn’t known his deportation would come so soon, and officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement wouldn’t let him call his family before they sent him off.

Aldaoud spoke no Arabic, had no known family in Iraq, and nobody knew he was there. Disembarking in Najaf, he was “scared,” “confused,” and acting panicked, according to an Iraqi immigration officer he encountered.

And 63 days later — this past Tuesday — he was dead.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Turkish invasion of Syria would mow down Kurdish Christians. Are media tracking this?

Turkish invasion of Syria would mow down Kurdish Christians. Are media tracking this?

Just when the heat is at its most insufferable in the Middle East, Turkey is planning to attack Syrian Kurds. What secular media reports aren’t saying is that thousands of Christians are in the way.

With America’s attention riveted on recent shootings in Texas, California and Ohio, few people realize that we could be at the brink of war with Turkey. Turkey, to its credit, has taken in millions of Syrian refugees in recent years. But Turkish leaders have vowed to destroy the Kurds, made up of more than 30 million people scattered over four nations and the world’s largest people group without a country.

Was it Turks, ISIS or someone else who set off the the car bomb next to a church in Qamishli, Syria, a few weeks ago?

Foreign news wonks are the main folks following this, but it could be a big deal very soon. I’ll let Foreign Policy set the stage for the upcoming conflict:

Tensions between Washington and Ankara spiked on Monday as Turkey began amassing large numbers of troops and military equipment on the border with northeast Syria in preparation for an attack against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds who helped defeat the Islamic State.

While he did not explicitly threaten a military response, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper strongly implied that the United States would take action if Turkey attacks the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mostly Kurdish group that Turkey argues has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party militant group, known as the PKK, which both the United States and Turkey have designated a terrorist group. Such an incursion would be a significant escalation of ongoing friction between the two NATO allies and would threaten not just the Kurds, but also U.S. troops in the region.

There are lots of reporters tromping around the area.

David Ignatius’ July 25 Washington Post editorial tells Donald Trump for once to get it right, in terms of defending the Kurds against their mortal enemies, the Turks. The Kurds, he says, are “one of the extraordinary survival stories of the Middle East.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Daily Beast shocker: The Rev. Mariano Rivera is (#EndOfTheWorld) a Pentecostal minister

Daily Beast shocker: The Rev. Mariano Rivera is (#EndOfTheWorld) a Pentecostal minister

There are few people in the sports world who are universally acknowledged as the Greatest Of All Time at what they do. However, the pros who cast Baseball Hall of Fame ballots made it clear — with a first-ever unanimous vote — who is the GOAT when it comes to cutting down opposing batters in the ninth inning.

That, of course, would be Mariano Rivera, the legendary closer for the New York Yankees.

That would also be the man known as the Rev. Mariano Rivera, the Pentecostal minister who renovated a 107-year-old church sanctuary in New Rochelle, N.Y., to become Refugio de Esperanza, or Refuge of Hope Church. While his wife — the Rev. Clara Rivera — serves as pastor, the former Yankee great is also ordained.

If you know anything about Rivera, you know that he has never been shy about discussing his faith (see this New York Daily News piece in 2011). His Hall of Fame acceptance speech was not a sermon, but it was full of references to Christian faith.

This is where things get tricky. Truth be told, Pentecostal Christians believe many things that would turn a lot of elite-market journalists into pillars of salt (it’s a biblical thing). Quite a few Pentecostal beliefs are considered unusual, even strange, by middle of the road Christians. And some forms of Pentecostalism are seen as more extreme than others. Oh, and “Pentecostalism” and “Evangelicalism” are not the same things.

Are you ready for the shocking part of this equation? Some Pentecostal beliefs have political implications. For example, a high percentage of Pentecostal people can accurately be called “Christian Zionists,” as that term is now defined. Many people think Christian Zionists back Israel for all of the wrong reasons.

By all means, there are valid news stories to report about these topics — if the goal is to understand the life and work of Mariano Rivera. The question, today, is whether an advocacy publication like The Daily Beast can handle this kind of nuanced religion-beat work, especially in the Donald Trump era.

You see, for editors at the Beast, Rivera’s religious faith is only important to the degree that it is political. That belief led to this headline: “Inside Baseball Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera’s Far-Right Politics.” Here is the crucial thesis material near the top of this advocacy piece:

For countless fans, Rivera is baseball royalty — an idol, worshipped for his on-field dominance, deadly mastery of a cut fastball, and pinpoint control.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

egular GetReligion readers are probably aware that I am a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Readers who have been paying close attention (including a few in Russia) know that I attend an Orthodox Church in America parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that — while largely made up of converts — has Russian roots and members who are from Russia and Romania. When our senior priest (from the American South) does some of the Divine Liturgy in Old Church Slavonic, you can hear people reciting the rite by memory.

When I talk to Russians about subjects linked to Russia and the church, I hear all kinds of things — ranging from realistic concerns about life in Russia to worries and frustrations about how Americans often forget that there is more to Russia and the Russian worldview than Vladimir Putin.

However, when you read U.S. news reports about Russian Orthodoxy the assumption is always that the Orthodox Church and the Putin regime are one and the same. However, many Orthodox believers reject much of what Putin does and are concerned about the church being tied too closely to the state. Russians also see tensions between church and state that are rarely mentioned in news reports, tensions linked to political and moral issues, such as abortion. In other words, they see a more complex puzzle.

Every now and then I see a U.S. media report that — for a second — seems aware of complexities inside Russia and inside the Russian Orthodox Church. The Religion News Service recently ran this kind of feature under the headline: “Russian Orthodox Church considers a ban on blessing weapons of mass destruction.” Here is the overture:

MOSCOW (RNS) — Early one evening in May 2018, days before the annual parade celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II, a convoy of military trucks carrying long-range nuclear weapons trundled to a halt on the Russian capital’s ring road.

As police officers stood guard, two Russian Orthodox priests wearing cassocks and holding Bibles climbed out of a vehicle and began sprinkling holy water on the stationary Topol and Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Wake up, reporters: Some Muslims are calling for a boycott of their faith’s holiest festival

Wake up, reporters: Some Muslims are calling for a boycott of their faith’s holiest festival

Each adult believer in Islam is required to make the Hajj (pilgrimage) to the Prophet Muhammad’s holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime, unless unable physically or financially.

Some believers repeat this unique experience. The media usually relegate the annual ritual to news features, but this year’s event August 9- 14 is laden with spot news significance.

That’s because ongoing tensions in the Muslim world have produced a campaign to boycott the current Hajj — a nearly unimaginable break with tradition that has received scant coverage in the West. Western reporters should pursue reactions to this in their regions with Muslim sources and agencies that cater to pilgrims. How many believers have postponed Hajj visits till future years after things calm down?

The boycotters are protesting the devoutly Sunni host nation of Saudi Arabia and its ruler since 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (“MBS”). The particular grievances are the Saudis’ prosecution of Yemen’s vicious civil war, ongoing hostilities with Iran and toward Islam’s minority Shia branch, and human rights violations, including the murder of a regime critic, The Washington Post ‘s Jamal Khashoggi.

An anti-Saudi analysis at foreignpolicy.com by Ahmed Twaij of Iraq’s Sanad for Peacebuilding notes that in April Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani, Libya’s chief Sunni authority, declared that making a repeat Hajj visit or the Umrah (voluntary pilgrimage to Mecca at other times of the year) is “an act of sin rather than a good deed.”

In June, a senior official with Tunisia’s Union of Imams joined boycott calls, saying Saudi income from Hajj visits “is used to kill and displace people,” as in Yemen, instead of helping the world’s impoverished Muslims. Twaij reports that “Sunni clerics around the world have also called for a boycott,” whereas past enmity toward the Saudi regime has come largely from Shia Muslims.

Most remarkable of all was a fatwa last August from Qatar’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is very influential among Mideast Sunnis through his Al Jazeera TV appearances and Internet postings. His words could be interpreted as undercutting even the obligatory once-in-a-lifetime Hajj: “Seeing Muslims feeding the hungry, treating the sick and sheltering the homeless are better viewed by Allah than spending money on the Hajj and Umrah every year.”

Some of this campaign could be payback for the recent years when Saudi Arabia barred believers from Qatar and Iran from joining the pilgrimage, or helped repress a Shia uprising in Bahrain.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Is the Crown of Thorns rescued from the Notre Dame Cathedral fire authentic?

Is the Crown of Thorns rescued from the Notre Dame Cathedral fire authentic?

THE QUESTIONS:

About the Crown of Thorns rescued from the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris: Is this the actual crown that Jesus Christ wore at the Crucifixion? Does authenticity matter? What’s the role of such relics?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Before Jesus Christ was crucified, the New Testament records, Roman soldiers “stripped him, and put a scarlet robe upon him, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on his head, and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” (Matthew 27:28-9, similarly in Mark 15:17 and John 19:2-3).

More than 19 centuries later, a relic believed to be that humiliating crown was rescued from the disastrous fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It is the most revered item in the cathedral’s collection, which also contains what are identified as one of the nails that pinned Jesus to the cross, and a wooden fragment from the cross itself.

In today’s supposedly secularized France, only 41.6 percent of citizens are baptized Catholics and a mere 12 percent tell pollsters they regularly attend Mass, well below numbers elsewhere in Europe. Yet the damage and substantial survival of the venerable cathedral, and the valiant effort that saved its treasured relics, roused fervent sentiment nationwide.

Is the celebrated Crown of Thorns, which goes on public display each Good Friday, authentic? There’s no way to prove it is, nor do the Bible or early Christian annals say the artifact was preserved. Here’s what we do know, courtesy of British historian Emily Guerry, writing for theconversation.com.

The earliest record dates from four centuries after the Crucifixion, when St. Paulinus instructed Christians to venerate a “holy thorns” relic at the Mount Zion basilica in Jerusalem.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The long good-bye: The Atlantic describes the inevitable loss of Christian life in Iraq

The long good-bye: The Atlantic describes the inevitable loss of Christian life in Iraq

I remember the Nineveh Plain well. I was being driven from the Kurdish city of Dohuk in far northern Iraq to the regional capital of Erbil further south and around me in all directions stretched a flat plain. To the west were low-slung hills and in my mind I could hear the footsteps of conquering Babylonian armies as they sought to overrun the city of Nineveh in 612 BC.

Irrigated by the Tigris River, it’s actually a fertile place with crops everywhere — assuming that they’re allowed to grow.

Several millennia later, it was the ISIS armies whose footsteps were heard on this plain back in 2014 when the events at the heart of this story take place.

I must say I envy The Atlantic’s Emma Green for getting sent to Iraq to do this fascinating piece along with a photographer or two. (My 2004 trip there was entirely self-funded).

The call came in 2014, shortly after Easter. Four years earlier, Catrin Almako’s family had applied for special visas to the United States. Catrin’s husband, Evan, had cut hair for the U.S. military during the early years of its occupation of Iraq. Now a staffer from the International Organization for Migration was on the phone. “Are you ready?” he asked. The family had been assigned a departure date just a few weeks away.

“I was so confused,” Catrin told me recently. During the years they had waited for their visas, Catrin and Evan had debated whether they actually wanted to leave Iraq. Both of them had grown up in Karamles, a small town in the historic heart of Iraqi Christianity, the Nineveh Plain.

But the 2003 invasion of Iraq had changed everything, including the impression that Christians had had it easy under Saddam Hussein. Once he was gone, it was payback time.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Is the (refreshingly) modest Aladdin movie a marketing tool for the Muslim world?

Is the  (refreshingly) modest Aladdin movie a marketing tool for the Muslim world?

I took my daughter to see the new “Aladdin” film on Wednesday. I know it’s been panned by some reviewers, but we enjoyed it.

The costumes were gorgeous but hard to place. They were an Indo-Persian mix with actresses in sari-like bodices and petticoats but also wearing head scarves that drape but don’t conceal their hair.

Turns out there may be a religion story in all that costuming but if so, reporters missed it. Folks did notice that the female heroine Jasmine was more covered up than in previous incarnations.

USA Today suggested that was no accident.

Jasmine's signature outfit from the animated "Aladdin" is iconic. You know the look: low-riding turquoise harem pants paired with a tiny off-the-shoulder top that leaves the princess' belly button out in the open.

That is not an outfit that exists in the new world of Disney's live-action "Aladdin."

"The (animated) movie was done in 1992. We wanted to modernize the movie, and some things are inappropriate these days for families," says "Aladdin" producer Dan Lin.

So there was a rule on the "Aladdin" set to make sure the movie achieved that goal: "No midriff," Lin says.

And … why? Since when has Hollywood embraced modesty? Oh, yes, when money is involved. And since the movie has that Middle Eastern setting and might appeal to audiences in that neck of the world, we can’t have anything too racy, can we?

I’m only guessing, but this is a good time to ask if Hollywood has actually gotten serious about marketing realities in the Muslim world.

Fans of elaborate costume design will likely support the filmmakers' decision to keep the famous princess more covered up. Instead of wearing monochrome bra tops and baggy pants, Jasmine is dripping in sumptuous gowns with gold detailing, elaborate trains and vibrant jewels that highlight her regality over her sexuality.

Again, huh. I’ve just finished watching the final episodes of “Game of Thrones” and “regality over sexuality” was not emphasized there. Hollywood doesn’t embrace restraint unless forced to.

Please respect our Commenting Policy