Middle East

Kurdish evangelicals: Amidst the current war, here's one angle the media isn't getting

Kurdish evangelicals: Amidst the current war, here's one angle the media isn't getting

Thanks to President Donald Trump’s stunning decision last week to allow the Turks to overrun northern Syria, my Facebook page is starting to fill up with photos of Kurdish “martyrs” and tearful notes in Arabic. The most prominent is Hevrin Khalaf, a female politician somewhere in her 30s, her dark hair pulled back, a half-smile on her face, framed by the dark, expressive eyebrows I’ve seen on so many Kurds.

The Turks blocked her car, pulled her out and executed Khalaf and her driver. I’ve attached a photo of her to this post. Reports indicate that Khalaf was raped and then stoned to death.

Things are changing pretty quickly on the ground. As of Sunday night, here’s what the New York Times said was going on, namely that the Kurds asked the Syrian government (with the Russians) to intervene.

Some of the biggest protesters of Trump’s decision have been evangelical Christian leaders, who are telling Trump that he’s basically sanctioned genocide of an entire people, while threatening the safety of other religious minorities in that region, including Christians in churches ancient and modern. I wrote about this possibility in August.

Trump had held off on allowing Turkey access to the region before but every time he gets on the phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he is bewitched into granting whatever Erdogan wants. Sadly, in his three years in office, Trump has basically given away every valuable American asset to everyone from the Chinese to the Turks, while avoiding any insistence that these nations toe the line on religious freedom.

Anyway, there is one huge point that reporters are missing when it comes to explaining why evangelical Christians care so deeply about northern Iraq. It goes way beyond the historic Assyrian Christian communities being allowed to function there.

Which is: The Kurds are the most open people group in the Middle East to Christianity and a number of these now-former Muslims are newly minted evangelicals.

Christianity Today is closest to pointing out this truth.

Christian voices are also keen to preserve the unique peace achieved between Kurds, Arabs, and Christians. Since 2014 a social charter has ensured democratic governance, women’s rights, and freedom of worship.

The town of Kobani, on the Turkish border, hosts a Brethren church composed of converts from Islam. Around 20 families worship there, and the church’s pastor, Zani Bakr, arrived last year from Afrin, displaced by an earlier Turkish incursion.

There were a bunch of news stories back in February about this new church.

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New York Times covers Lebanon, where people actually marry to conceive kids (#ImagineThat)

New York Times covers Lebanon, where people actually marry to conceive kids (#ImagineThat)

We’ve run bunches and bunches of stories about the slowly creeping demographics crisis in America’s blue states, where the aging population is not replacing itself fast enough. Not long ago, tmatt linked high fertility rates to religious belief and low rates to lack of belief.

Where in the world, then, is the opposite happening? Where civic leaders seem to be aware that this is happening?

Lebanon, it turns out, which is where people can’t get married fast enough so they can procreate more. Children are considered an asset, not a liability. For one thing, this complex land’s many religious groups know that they need children to retain their clout — and their military options — in the future.

But there’s a problem. The expense of weddings keeps many people from marrying.

The New York Times’ recent story on this phenomenon told how several religious communities have come up with an answer: Mass weddings.

BKERKE, Lebanon — Classical music swelled as the bride stepped from a white sedan onto a red carpet, took the arm of her tuxedoed groom and walked down the aisle, both grinning as their relatives cheered nearby.

The next bride did the same. And the next. And the next. And the next.

Once the couples — 34 that day — reached their seats, the patriarch of the Maronite Church, dressed in crimson robes and gripping a scepter topped with a golden cross, led Mass and declared the whole lot husbands and wives.

No, this was not the Unification Church, which pioneered mass weddings. This is now the new normal for the Middle East.

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How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

Religion writers are buzzing about Prof. Charles Camosy’s Sept. 6 commentary on religion’s sagging cultural and journalistic status.

Decades ago, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly, who analyzed Camosy in this post surveyed this same terrain in a classic 1983 article for Quill magazine, drawn from his research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This is a journalism issue with legs.

There’s a little-known third such article, not available online. While cleaning out basement files, The Religion Guy unearthed a 1994 piece in the unfortunately short-lived Forbes Media Critic titled “Separation of Church & Press?” Writer Stephen Bates, then a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies, now teaches media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Both of these older articles were pretty glum.

Religion coverage suffers today as part a print industry on life support, in large part because of a digital advertising crisis. Radio and TV coverage of religion, then and now, is thin to non-existent and the Internet is a zoo of reporting, opinion and advocacy — often at the same time.

Those earlier times could fairly be looked back upon as the golden age of religion reporting. (Side comment: What a pleasure to read quotes in both articles from The Guy’s talented competitors and pals in that era.

Former Newsweek senior editor Edward Diamond (by then teaching journalism at New York University) told Bates that back in the 1960s the newsmagazine’s honchos had considered dropping the religion section entirely. If true, they were open to journalistic malparactice. In those years, competitors at Time, The New Yorker, the wires and newspapers were chock full of coverage from Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council and its tumultuous aftermath.

By the 1980s, Mattingly hoped for possible change in religion coverage’s “low-priority” status as journalism’s “best-kept secret.”

You want news? Let’s look back at that era.

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Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Looking back at the events on Sept. 11 and its aftermath requires looking back into time and also looking within, deep into the mind, the heart and the soul.

If it’s true that time heals all wounds, 9/11 could be the exception to that adage. As a reporter for the New York Post that day, I was a witness to the deadliest terror attack on American soil.

How did I feel? What did 9/11 do to me? How did it affect the way I did my job? These are all questions I get from students each time I do a talk about the attacks.

Looking back on 18 years ago, I remember feeling angry at God. Had He allowed for this to happen? I yearned for the answer to that question. I looked to my church (I am a Roman Catholic) for adequate ways to quell my inner frustrations. I recall saying a prayer the morning after the attacks on my way to work. It was my way of trying to find some inner peace.

So I am looking back on that stunning day as a journalist and as a Christian.

The entire time, I had a job to do. I had to divide the personal from the professional. Never in my life has that been so hard to do. It wasn’t until three days later, after hearing Billy Graham speak, did I feel more at ease with what had happened. It helped me make sense of the brokenness.

Indeed, one of my first reactions had been, “God, how could you let this happen?” Of course, God didn’t let this happen. What happened that day was pure evil, the work of Islamic militants who had perverted their religion to justify death. It was the good that would later come out of the tragedy, the stories of heroism and sacrifice, that reflected God’s love.

In the weeks that followed, I covered dozens of funerals, primarily those of firefighters. I found those funeral masses both extremely sad and comforting. I participated in them. When I wasn’t taking down notes and interviewing grieving family members, I remember praying along within everyone else at each one of those services. I was grieving along with everyone else.

There was, you see, no way around the faith elements in this event and this story. That was part of the pain, as well as the basic facts.

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Christian Zionism: Theology shmology. We're talking about another culture war punching bag

Christian Zionism: Theology shmology. We're talking about another culture war punching bag

I’m back — for which I apologize to those readers who hoped to be rid of me. What I will not apologize for is my good fortune to have, so far, outwitted the health-care industry. This despite what I consider some lamebrain screw ups by a few of its practitioners.

Not that I’m totally ungrateful. Medical surgeons possess extraordinary mechanical skills. Just like the best computer technicians and car mechanics. The problem is that health care has become way too specialized, leaving some practitioners unable to consider the patient as a unified field. Drug “A” may be great for gout, but how does it interact with statins? Can beta blockers negatively impact kidney function? You get the idea. Think holistically because your doctor may not. Ask questions. Do your own research.

But enough. Last I checked Get Religion was still about the business of journalism about religion. So consider this our segue.

The occasion for my return is a review of a new book on Christian Zionism that ran in the liberal American Jewish publication The Forward. For reasons beyond all sound judgement, some of the more anarchistic voices at GR thought I might want to offer an opinion. Clearly a setup, but how could I refuse?

The review in question ran under a challenging headline: “Why Everything You Think You Know About Christian Zionism Is Wrong,” and was penned by Rafael Magarik, an English professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The book was produced by religion and foreign policy maven Daniel G. Hummel, who is associated with Upper House, which for lack of a better term I’ll call a sort of a Christian think tank at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hummel titled his book, “Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, And U.S.-Israeli Relations.”

I have not read Hummel’s book, and I probably won’t (over the years I’ve read my fill on the subject, both pro and con). Nor, I’d wager, will most of those who already have a firm opinion about the intent, value or theological underpinnings of contemporary Christian Zionism.

Which is entirely the point of Magarik’s review — a verbal dart aimed at the vast majority of liberal Jews (in Israel and elsewhere), and equally liberal Christians, not to mention Muslims of all ideological stratums, who look upon Christian Zionists with utter political disdain.

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Israel faces a possible turning point on 17th of September, with religion at the heart of it

Israel faces a possible turning point on 17th of September, with religion at the heart of it

While rehashing the Miftah-inspired — www.miftah.org — feud between U.S. Muslim Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and Israel, U.S. and international media should also be focusing on Israel’s September 17 elections. Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel (in 2014-16), sees a dangerous internal split perhaps unmatched since modern Israel was founded in 1948 – or even since the 1st Century.

Media without bureaus in Israel (and that’s most of them) should be planning coverage by in-house staffers or freelance experts before and/or after the vote. They will benefit from Bercovici’s opinion piece in the summer issue of Commentary magazine and Marcy Oster’s objective roundup on the tangled parties and pols for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Israel, of course, faces endless conflict with Palestinians. But there’s an increasingly troublesome internal struggle involving a minority of “ultra-Orthodox” Haredim (a term meaning those who “tremble” before God), currently 12 percent of the population and growing steadily. (They are distinct from the equally devout Hasidim and the less rigorist modern Orthodox.)

The conflict centers on exemption from the military draft for 130,000 Haredi men who study Torah and Talmud full-time. Bercovici, an attorney living in Tel Aviv, contends that the resulting burden on the national population is divisive, unfair and has become ‘financially and ethically unsustainable.”

Journalists must note: There is no way to escape the religious issues linked to these conflicts.

The system dates from a compromise by the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who exempted the tiny band of 400 such students to soften resistance by the Orthodox who believed modern Israel should not be founded before the Messiah appeared (as depicted in Chaim Potok’s classic 1967 novel “The Chosen”).

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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