Islamic State

Bloodshed in the headlines: What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

Bloodshed in the headlines: What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

THE QUESTION:

What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The slaughter of 50 Muslims and wounding of dozens more at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, provoked horror in that pacific nation, and sorrow and disgust worldwide. Why would anyone violate the religious freedom, indeed the very lives, of innocent people who had simply gathered to worship God?

Unfortunately, murders at religious sanctuaries are not a rare occurrence. In the U.S., recall the murders of six Sikh worshipers at Oak Creek, Wisconsin (2012); nine African Methodists at a prayer meeting in Charleston, S.C. (2015); 26 Southern Baptists in a Sunday morning church rampage at Sutherland Springs, Texas (2017); and 11 Jews observing the Sabbath at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last October.

The Christchurch atrocity was unusual in that authorities identified a white nationalist as the assailant. Most mosque attacks are not carried out by a demented individual, but by radical Muslim movements that intend to kill fellow Muslims for sectarian political purposes. The most shocking example occurred in 1979. A well-armed force of messianic extremists assaulted the faith’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, during the annual pilgrimage (Hajj). The reported death toll was 117 attackers and 127 pilgrims and security guards, with 451 others wounded.

After Christchurch, The Associated Press culled its archives to list 879 deaths in mass murders at mosques during the past decade. (Data are lacking on sectarian attacks upon individual Muslims, also a serious problem for the faith). Such incidents get scant coverage in U.S. news media.

2010: Extremist Sunnis in the Jundallah sect bomb to death six people and themselves at a mosque in southeastern Iran. Then a second Jundallah suicide bombing at an Iranian Shiite mosque kills 27 and injures 270.

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Yes, gunman in Russia killed five after Forgiveness Vespers (which isn't a Mardi Gras thing)

Yes, gunman in Russia killed five after Forgiveness Vespers (which isn't a Mardi Gras thing)

This past Sunday, I received an interesting email just after I got home from one of the most symbolic rites of the Eastern Orthodox year -- Forgiveness Vespers.

For Orthodox Christians, this service is the door into the long and challenging season of Great Lent, which leads to the most important day in the Christian year -- Pascha (Easter in the West).

During these vespers, each member of the congregation -- one at a time -- faces each and every other person who is present. One at a time, we bow and ask the person to forgive us of anything we have done to hurt them in the previous year. The response: "I forgive, as God forgives," or similar words. Then the second person does the same thing. Many people do a full prostration to the floor, as they seek forgiveness.

Then we move to the left to face the next person in line. Doing this 100 times or so is quite an exercise, both spiritual and physical. Tears are common. So is sweat.

The email I received pointed me to stories coming out of the Dagestan region of Russia, near the border of Chechnya. As worshipers came out of an Orthodox church in Kizlyar, a gunman -- shouting "Allahu Akbar" -- attacked with a hunting rifle and knife, killing five.

An Associated Press report merely said the victims were leaving a church service and even stated that the "motive for the attack was not immediately known."

I was struck by the timing, coming in the wake of the Ash Wednesday school shootings in Parkland, Fla. I had the same question as the GetReligion reader who emailed me: Were these worshipers shot after the Forgiveness Vespers? 

It certainly appeared that this was the case, so I immediately wrote a post: "Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers." Needless to say, this was a topic of interest to Orthodox believers, and others.

Now, a reader who speaks Russia has found a link to a Russian website -- "Orthodoxy and the World" -- that confirms the poignant and painful timing of this attack. Here is his translation of that information, if you are into factual journalistic details of this kind:

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Attention Washington Post: ISIS forced women from several religious faiths into sexual slavery

Attention Washington Post: ISIS forced women from several religious faiths into sexual slavery

The Islamic State isn't making as much news as it once did, as the so-called caliphate continues to decline in size and, in some ways, power. However, it leaves behind a complex legacy of persecution, torture, slavery and, yes, genocide.

There are many victims with stories to tell and it's clear that some journalists and diplomats have not mastered all of the details of this tragedy.

Consider the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: "‘Somebody had to tell these stories’: An Iraqi woman’s ordeal as an ISIS sex slave." It's a horrifying and important story.

The Post international desk did a fine job of presenting the story of Yazidi survivor Nadia Murad. That's important, since the Yazidis remain an obscure religious minority for most American readers.

But there is a problem: The Post report never mentions that the Yazidis were not alone. Christians, Shia Muslims and others suffered the same fate, with mothers, fathers and sons slaughtered and girls sold as sexual slaves. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in 2016:

... (In) my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions -- in what it says, what it believes, and what it does. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.

Kerry went on to specifically say that "Daesh captured and enslaved thousands of Yezidi women and girls -- selling them at auction, raping them at will, and destroying the communities in which they had lived for countless generations." He added: "We know that in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and elsewhere, Daesh has executed Christians solely because of their faith ... and that it has also forced Christian women and girls into sexual slavery."

The problem isn't that the Post focused so tightly on the details of Murad's story, since her testimony is what this report is all about. The problem is in the summary paragraphs that failed to inform readers that women and girls in other religious minorities suffered the same faith.

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Terror in Lower Manhattan: Reporters started asking religion questions early and often

Terror in Lower Manhattan: Reporters started asking religion questions early and often

It's a tragic reality that, over the years, I've had many, many opportunities to spot patterns in the questions asked by news consumers in the hours right after an act of terrorism here in America or somewhere else in the world.

I used to notice a common theme in complaints found in reader comments (and in notes sent to your GetReligionistas): Lots of people complained, often with good cause, that journalists seemed to go out of their way to bury information about religion, and Islam in particular. This often meant ignoring the testimony of eyewitnesses (click here for some examples).

But somewhere along the line, things changed. If you scan the coverage of yesterday's truck-terror attack in Lower Manhattan, it's clear that many reporters jumped straight into questions that must be asked in each and every story of this kind. Who was the attacker (that includes the name)? Where did this attacker come from? Was there evidence of motive, in word or deed? Did the attacker act alone? Is there evidence of ties to radical religious or political groups?

Obviously, readers around the world headed straight to The New York Times after this attack. We are talking location, location, location and resources.

If you are looking for the basics, including details about religion, it's hard to complain about this early report. (So far, I have found one potentially significant detail in another report that is not in this Times story, and I'll come back to that.) Here is the Times overture:

A driver plowed a pickup truck down a crowded bike path along the Hudson River in Manhattan on Tuesday, killing eight people and injuring 11 before being shot by a police officer in what officials are calling the deadliest terrorist attack on New York City since Sept. 11, 2001.
The rampage ended when the motorist -- whom the police identified as Sayfullo Saipov, 29 -- smashed into a school bus, jumped out of his truck and ran up and down the highway waving a pellet gun and paintball gun and shouting “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” before he was shot in the abdomen by the officer. He remained in critical condition on Tuesday evening.

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New era of Coptic martyrs: RNS dives into big questions about a deadly serious subject

New era of Coptic martyrs: RNS dives into big questions about a deadly serious subject

Lots of news stories -- big ones and everyday ones -- are haunted by religious themes (and even factual material) that mainstream reporters skate right past. Here at GetReligion, we call these religion-shaped holes in stories "ghosts."

There are also news stories that, to be blunt, are haunted by questions and issues that can only be described in terms of theology, often requiring a willingness to dig into centuries of history and debates of a complex or even mysterious nature.

I sincerely appreciate attempts to write these theologically driven stories, because I know that they are (a) hard to get right, (b) hard to get approved by editors and (c) hard to write in words that work in a daily newspaper (think accuracy plus readability).

So I really want to cheer for a Religion News Service feature that came out with this headline: "Unrelenting killing of Coptic Christians intensifies debate over martyrdom."

This is a story about a very complex issue: Is there a point at which praising Christian believers who are killed by the Islamic State turns into a bad thing, when crying "martyrdom" begins to blur the lines between terrorism and the kinds of heroic witness honored by the church through the ages?

Before I mention my one question about this fine story, let's look at some crucial summary material near the top:

The 2,000-year-old Coptic Church of Egypt has a long tradition of hallowing those who died affirming their faith in the face of violence. But the group that calls itself the Islamic State has launched waves of attacks on the Coptic community in recent years -- claiming at least 70 lives and wounding scores of others -- an unrelenting assault that has opened a debate in the community about martyrdom.
The issue has been most recently punctuated by the deadly knifing of a Coptic priest in a poor Cairo neighborhood Thursday (Oct. 12). A suspect was arrested but his motive is still unknown.
Recently, another Coptic priest -- the well-known Rev. Boules George from the well-heeled Cairo suburb of Heliopolis -- took to the television airwaves to “thank” the Islamic State terrorists who launched the Palm Sunday church bombings that claimed 45 lives, saying they provided “a rocket” that delivered victims straight to heaven.

Here is the crucial question: Is being blown up by a bomb, or killed in random violence, truly an act of "witness" to the Christian faith delivered to the apostles?

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Still watching the Las Vegas dice: Did Stephen Paddock leave a note? Was he taking Valium?

Still watching the Las Vegas dice: Did Stephen Paddock leave a note? Was he taking Valium?

Still waiting. Still reading.

Still watching, every now and then. And I remain convinced that some kind of religion/beliefs shoe is going to drop in the Las Vegas massacre, no matter that Eric Paddock says about his brother Stephen's lack of political or religious ties that bind.

However, I will add this concern, even if it is only receiving attention on right-wing news sites and in a UK tabloid that is consistently NSW quality.

The question: Did the gunman leave a note behind in his suite at the Mandalay Bay? There is discussion, with a photo, at The Daily Star:

Images have leaked showing Paddock lying dead on the hotel room floor with blood pouring from his mouth. The gunman appears to be wearing a brown shirt, black slacks, loafers and a pair of gloves.
Chillingly, he appears to have left some kind of note on the side table.
Paddock’s motives remain a mystery, with the millionaire property developer having no criminal history. He appears to have checked into the high roller hotel days before in a meticulous plot to kill.
A note left by the gunman may offer clues to his reasons for slaughtering country music fans at the Route 91 Harvest Festival.

Readers cannot tell, of course, what kind of information is in the note seen in the photo. It could be Paddock's room-service form, for all journalists know. Still it will be interesting to see if and when this discussion is validated by investigators and, thus, breaks into mainstream media. (I have not visited the world of 24/7 cable news in several hours.)

In most discussions of the "Why?" factor in this story -- click here for a typical list -- it is also clear that reporters are taking seriously some kind of inherited mental illness, in light of the FBI most-wanted list history of Paddock's father.

Several GetReligion readers have asked if investigators are checking medical records, to see if the gunman suffered from a fatal illness or even a brain tumor that might steer him into madness. The Las Vegas Review-Journal has published a story in which sources say Paddock, in June, was given a prescription for Valium, which raises questions about anxiety attacks.

Then there is the Islamic State.

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Roll the 'why?' dice: Waiting, waiting to learn why the Las Vegas gunman did what he did

Roll the 'why?' dice: Waiting, waiting to learn why the Las Vegas gunman did what he did

Right now, I am doing what I assume many of you are doing, especially GetReligion readers who work in news media.

I am reading everything that I can about 64-year-old Stephen Paddock and the massacre in Las Vegas and I'm waiting for the shoe to drop. It's the "why?" shoe, as in "who, what, when, where, why and how?"

As is so often the case, in this sinful and fallen world, the next shoe could have something to do with religion. Islamic State leaders have already done what they do and, in this case, that statement looks even more cynical and senseless than usual. A CBS story noted:

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed ... that the man who opened fire on concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing at least 50 people, was acting on behalf of the group, but offered no evidence. ...
The statement offered no proof of a link with Paddock, nor did it identify him by name.

The next shoe to drop could be political, at which point the political content will take on cultural and perhaps even religious content. Why? Because that's the way things work in culture-wars America.

When you heard that the slaughter was in Vegas, that caused you to ponder one possible set of motives for a shooter. When you heard that the victims were at a country-music show, that triggered another set of assumptions, at least about the people being shot. That appears to have been the case for one lawyer linked to CBS -- Hayley Geftman-Gold (but not tied to the newsroom). In an update, CBS fired her.

“If they wouldn’t do anything when children were murdered I have no hope that Repugs will ever do the right thing,” wrote Geftman-Gold on Facebook. ... “I’m actually not even sympathetic bc country musica fans often are Republican gun toters.”

From his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, was Paddock shooting at conservatives? Republicans? He was a gambler, apparently. Had things gone wrong and he was simply shooting at human symbols of Las Vegas? People who stood for America, period? Why?

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Qatar: Making sense of the latest focus for news in the befuddling Middle East

Qatar: Making sense of the latest focus for news in the befuddling Middle East

Is there any region of the world more confounding and irritating, no matter what your worldview, than the Middle East -- ground zero for some of the world's nastiest, religion-steeped political conflicts?

Well, yeah. There's also Washington, D.C.

But let's put that latter mess aside for a moment -- though political decisions made there undoubtedly impact capitals from North Africa to the Persian/Arab Gulf, and beyond.

We should never minimize the tragic and ongoing death and destruction in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Israel-Palestine, Libya, Lebanon and now even Iran following the successful ISIS attack there. They're a terrible indictment of humanity's penchant for cruelty and the pain that unfortunate folks are forced to endure by others.

For now, however, let's focus on Qatar, the natural gas-rich Gulf monarchy that until recent days managed to steer a middle -- if duplicitous -- course between the United States and its Sunni Arab quasi-allies on the one-hand, and Shiite Muslim Iran and its proxy militias, such as the Palestinian terror group cum Gaza government Hamas.

(Let's not forget that Qatar is also a major international media player, thanks to its financial backing of Al-Jazeera.)

You're probably aware that Qatar burst anew into the American political conscious when several of its Sunni Arab neighbors cut diplomatic ties and closed their borders with Qatar in retribution for its ties to Islamist terrorist groups and their supporters.

The situation escalated when President Donald Trump -- there's the D.C. connection -- took credit for the action and piled additional opprobrium on Qatar, which is situated on a thumb-shaped peninsula protruding into the Gulf directly opposite Iran. This, despite efforts by his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson -- no doubt mindful that Qatar hosts America's largest Middle East military base -- to lessen the diplomatic confrontation.

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Location, location, location: What do Coptic leaders think, watching coverage of London attacks?

Location, location, location: What do Coptic leaders think, watching coverage of London attacks?

The journalism patterns are familiar by now when terrorists strike one of the important cities of Western Europe. At this point, I don't think the news protocols are as well established for attacks in North America -- because they have not become that "normal," yet.

Surely you have spotted some of the guidelines that have been in effect for some time now.

It's more "conservative" to put references to "Allah" -- in quotes from eyewitnesses -- in ledes or, especially, in headlines. In early coverage, the higher journalists play the religion card, the more "conservative" the publication. For example, it is more "conservative" to state that attackers attempted to cut the throats of victims (because it calls to mind hellish Islamic State videos) than it is to say that victims were merely stabbed. It's easy, for example, to guess which British newspaper used this headline online: 

Terrifying moment three Jihadis were shot dead after killing seven and hurting 48: Gang yell 'This is for Allah' after mowing down crowd on London Bridge then going on stabbing frenzy

That would be The Daily Mail. The overture in its early report punched all the usual buttons: 

Police are today seeking the identities of three Jihadi terrorists who were shot dead by armed police after killing seven people and injuring dozens of others in a horrific van and knife rampage through central London last night. 
The men, described as being 'of Mediterranean origin', mowed down up to 20 revellers as they careered across London Bridge in an 'S shape' at 50mph before they began 'randomly stabbing' people in nearby Borough Market.

We will come back to coverage of this latest attack on and near London Bridge. Before we do, however, I would like to acknowledge that I have received reader emails, in recent weeks, asking this familiar question: Why do attacks in Europe receive so much more attention in American media than terrorist attacks in, let's say, Egypt, Nigeria or Pakistan?

In other words, readers are asking a variation on that old journalism question: How many Coptic Christians have to die in Egypt to equal the death of one urbanite in London (or one tourist from the United States)?

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