Alawites

If major church leaders of Syria blast President Trump's missiles and tweets, is that news?

If major church leaders of Syria blast President Trump's missiles and tweets, is that news?

Please allow me just a moment here to speak as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, as well as a journalist and as, well, an American voter.

In the past several weeks, the crisis in Syria has jumped off the back burner of the mainstream press and into the headlines. There are lots of valid Google search terms linked to this, starting with "Donald Trump," "innocent civilians" and "Russia."

However, there is an angle to this story that means the world to me, yet it's one you rarely see covered in American media.

Believe it or not, religion does play a role in the Syria crisis. The most agonizing reality in all of this -- as I have mentioned before here at GetReligion -- is that several religious minorities in Syria, including the ancient Orthodox patriarchate in Damascus, depend on the current Syrian government for protection from radicalized forms of Islam.

Once again let me confess: My daily prayers include petitions for the protection of Christians, and all of those suffering, in Damascus, Aleppo and that region.

Do these religious believers recognize the evil that surrounds them, on both sides of the conflict? Of course they do. Please consider the message in a 2013 sermon by an Antiochian Orthodox leader here in America, Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kan. He states the obvious:

Anyone who prays for peace in Syria must acknowledge, at the beginning, that "vicious wrongs" have been done on both sides and that "there's really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None," concluded Bishop Basil.
"So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we've had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don't know about except what they've shown us in this awful civil war."

This brings me to an important story that ran at Crux, focusing on how leaders of ancient religious communities in Syria reacted to the Trump administration's decision to attack Syria (during the festive week following Orthodox Easter, I might add). Oh yeah, that Pope Francis guy is involved in this, as well.

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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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New York Times Magazine tells dramatic story of Aleppo, minus all that tricky religion stuff

New York Times Magazine tells dramatic story of Aleppo, minus all that tricky religion stuff

Please allow me to start this post with a personal note, so that readers will understand my point of view when I write about Aleppo and the wider conflict in Syria.

When I converted into Eastern Orthodoxy 19 years ago, I joined the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church -- which for centuries has been based in Damascus. For most of my 19 years in Orthodoxy I have been part of parishes that are largely made of American converts to the faith. But for four years (including Sept. 11, 2001) my family was active in a West Palm Beach, Fla., parish that was predominately made up of people from Syria and Lebanon.

Although I now am now active in a convert-oriented church with Russian roots, I still read Antiochian Orthodox publications. To be blunt: My daily prayers include petitions for the protection of Christians, and all of those suffering, in Damascus, Aleppo and that region.

However, Christians with ties to Syria have a very complex view of events there. I have often, here at GetReligion, quoted a 2013 sermon by an Antiochian leader here in America -- Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kan. -- stating the following:

Anyone who prays for peace in Syria must acknowledge, at the beginning, that "vicious wrongs" have been done on both sides and that "there's really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None," concluded Bishop Basil.
"So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we've had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don't know about except what they've shown us in this awful civil war."

This brings me to an amazing, but for me ultimately frustrating, New York Times Magazine piece that ran with this headline: "Aleppo After the Fall -- As the Syrian civil war turns in favor of the regime, a nation adjusts to a new reality -- and a complicated new picture of the conflict emerges."

Note that the defeat of the rebels holding half of Aleppo is referred to as "the fall" of the city. Needless to say, there are others -- and not just enthusiastic supporters of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad -- who see that development as its liberation.

This piece (written in first-person voice by Robert F. Worth) does an amazing job when it comes to letting readers hear from voices on two sides of this story. The problem is that there are three essential voices in this story, if one looks at it from a religious, as opposed to strictly political, point of view. Worth hints at this several times, as in this thesis paragraph:

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Immigration EO, round 2: Maybe Christians merely 'claim' to be persecuted by Islamic State?

Immigration EO, round 2: Maybe Christians merely 'claim' to be persecuted by Islamic State?

Does anyone out there in news-consumer land remember the 21 Coptic Christian martyrs of Libya who were slaughtered on a beach in that Islamic State video? As Pope Francis noted, many of them died with these words on their lips: "Jesus help me."

Remember the reports of Christians -- along with Yazidis and other religious minorities -- being raped, gunned down, hauled off into sexual servitude or in some cases crucified?

Surely you do. These hellish events did receive some coverage from major American newsrooms.

The persecution of religious minorities -- Christians, Yazidis, Alawites, Baha'is, Jews, Druze and Shia Muslims -- played a role, of course, in the #MuslimBan media blitz that followed the rushed release of President Donald Trump's first executive order creating a temporary ban on most refugees from lands racked by conflicts with radicalized forms of Islam.

So now journalists are dissecting the administration's second executive order on this topic, which tried to clean up some of the wreckage from that first train wreck. How did elite journalists deal with the religious persecution angle this time around?

Trigger warning: Readers who care about issues of religious persecution should sit down and take several deep breaths before reading this USA Today passage on changes in the second EO:

Nationals of the six countries with legal permanent residence in the U.S. (known as green card holders) are not affected. People with valid visas as of Monday also are exempt. And the order no longer gives immigration preference to "religious minorities," such as Christians who claim they are persecuted in mostly Muslim countries.

The key word there, of course, is "claim."

You see, we don't actually have any evidence -- in videos, photos or reports from religious organizations and human-rights groups -- that Christians and believers in other religious minorities are actually being persecuted. Christians simply "claim" that this is the case.

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A weekend of #MuslimBan: Did it help for press to ignore key contents of executive order?

A weekend of #MuslimBan: Did it help for press to ignore key contents of executive order?

What a train wreck. There is really no way to dig into the thousands, maybe millions, of words that the mainstream press poured out over the weekend in coverage of President Donald Trump's rushed, flawed executive order creating a temporary ban on most refugees from lands racked by conflicts with radicalized forms of Islam.

My main question, in this post, does not concern the merits of order or the process that created it. That's clearly part of the train wreck and, as someone who was openly #NeverTrump (and #NeverHillary), I think mainstream reporters should go after that mess that with the same fervor they dedicated to the humanitarian impact of the previous administration's policies in Syria, Iraq, etc. We need to know who decided to rollout such a important executive order in such a slapdash, incompetent fashion -- especially whatever it did or didn't say about people in transit or those with green cards.

Now, I would like to focus on one question in particular related to this journalistic blitz that I think will be of special interest to GetReligion readers.

The hashtag for the day was clearly #MuslimBan, even though the order contained language specifically trying to protect many oppressed Muslims. The media also focused on Trump's statements pledging to protect oppressed Christians (I know it's hard to #IgnoreTrump, even when it's wise to do so), even though the text of the order said something else.

My question: Did journalists make this tragic crisis worse by ignoring or mangling some key contents of this order? Following the action on Twitter, it seemed that there are two stances on that.

The first was from Trump critics on the left, which included almost all elite media. It said: The news coverage of the executive order was fine. We all know what Trump meant, no matter what the order's words said. So there.

The second -- with very few exceptions -- was among conservative Trump critics (click here for essential National Review essay by #NeverTrump stalwart David French). I said: The EO was messed up and flawed, but press didn't help by ignoring the order's content. This, along with Trump sloppiness and ego, helped add to the panic and added to the firestorm that hurt real people.

It certainly did appear that, in many cases, panicky police and immigration officials acted like they were enforcing what press reports said the executive order said, rather than the text of the order (which was rushed out in a crazed, flawed manner). I hope there is follow-up coverage on that issue.

So, when considering these questions, what is the key passage of the #MuslimBan order?

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Where are the essential facts about religion in news reports about fall of eastern Aleppo?

Where are the essential facts about religion in news reports about fall of eastern Aleppo?

American news consumers, as a rule, do not pay much attention to foreign news coverage. Here at GetReligion, we know that writing a post about mainstream media coverage of religion news on the other side of the planet is not the way to get lots of clicks and retweets.

That doesn't matter, because news is news and it's genuinely tragic that many Americans are in the dark about what is happening outside our borders. We will keep doing what we do.

This leads me to news coverage of the fall of the eastern half of Aleppo in Syria, a landmark event in that hellish civil war that is receiving -- as it should -- extensive coverage in American newspapers.

As you read the coverage in your own newspapers and favorite websites, please look for a crucial word -- "Alawites." President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is a member of the often persecuted Alawite sect of Islam. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

Let's start with the top of the Washington Post report, since this story is very typical of those found elsewhere, such as The New York Times and also Al Jazeera.

BEIRUT -- Syria’s government declared Thursday that it had regained full control of Aleppo after the last rebel fighters and civilians evacuated the key city as part of an agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey.
The Syrian military announced on state media that “security and stability” had been returned to eastern Aleppo, once the largest rebel stronghold. The “terrorists” -- a term used by the Syrian government to describe nearly all of its opponents -- had exited the city, the military said.
President Bashar al-Assad’s consolidation of Aleppo marks the end of the opposition presence in the city for the first time in more than four years and deals a major blow to the rebellion to unseat him.

Think about this as a matter of history, for a moment. Is there anything bloodier and more ruthless than a civil war, with fighting and acts of violence taking place inside a nation, pitting armies within its population against one another?

If that is the case, then it is crucial how one labels and defines these armies.

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I confess: I brought a basket of stereotypes with me to the religion beat. And you?

I confess: I brought a basket of stereotypes with me to the religion beat. And you?

I knew very little about the world of religion when I became the full-time religion-beat reporter at the Los Angeles Daily News back in 1985. I knew next to nothing about how religious organizations functioned and not much more about the myriad ways that religious beliefs play out in people's lives.

That included Judaism, the faith into which I was born but to which I was barely culturally connected at the time. I also possessed what I soon realized was a superficial understanding of the Eastern meditative traditions to which I had become attracted.

But Pope John Paul II was scheduled to visit LA in 1987 and I'd had enough of seeing bad movies at odd hours in small screening rooms and talking to self-important studio public relations hacks on the Hollywood film and TV beat. My way forward came when I realized that the paper would need someone to lead what would surely be saturation papal visit coverage, and that that someone (meaning me) would need a long lead time to get prepared.

My one great advantage was that my editors knew even less than I did about covering religion. That, and I volunteered for the beat before anyone else. And so began my on-the-job training.

I made many rookie mistakes, including mistaking titles for actual names (don't ask). Despite that, I quickly realized that I needed to rid myself of my stereotypical thinking about religion and religious believers.

An early lesson came at the 1985 Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas. It was there that I came to understand that not all Southern Baptists -- and by extension, not all evangelicals -- were alike in their theology and practice.

It was also in Dallas that I realized just how politically brutal religious organizations can behave.

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What is the X-factor in Syrian bloodshed? DUH! (updated)

It seems that many networkers in the online world remain fired up about that recent Washington Post explainer that ran under the headline “9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask.” That’s the one you may recall, in part because of this GetReligion post, that was the first of many similar mainstream media pieces that have tried to explain the rising violence in Syria without including information about its crucial religious divisions.

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