Nineveh Plain

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.

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Flashback 2015: New Religion News Service editor goes global (PBS looks to 2016)

Flashback 2015: New Religion News Service editor goes global (PBS looks to 2016)

So we know how the Religion Newswriters Association poll viewed the Top 10 news stories of the year (commentary here and "Crossroads" podcast here). The original RNA press release is right here. So what did other mainstream religion-news outlets have to say?

I will let veteran reporter Kim Lawton and a panel of experts at the PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly broadcast speak for themselves. The video is up top and the transcript is here.

So how does the broadcast open? Well, it's about 2015, so I'm afraid that we are talking ISIS, terrorism, refugees and Donald Trump. And then Pope Francis.

Over at Religion News Service, Jerome Socolovsky -- the wire service's the new editor -- offered a list of what he billed as the "most consequential religion stories of the past year."

I think that is "consequential" in the sense of "important or significant," as opposed to "self-important; conceited." All I know is that this is a very thoughtful and well-developed list and I recommend it highly, especially if you are interested in the global angle on religion news over the past year. In particular, I thought the wording on the No. 1 item is especially strong:

ISIS and the lure of the apocalypse

We had already been introduced to the unspeakable cruelty of this group called the Islamic State, or Daesh in Arabic. And it continued this year: Coptic Christians were slaughtered on a Libyan beach in an act shown to the world in high-definition video.

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Their blood still cries out: Crux opens series investigating global presecution of Christians

Their blood still cries out: Crux opens series investigating global presecution of Christians

If you follow religion news carefully, and you have been on Twitter over the weekend, you are probably aware that John L. Allen, Jr., and the team at Crux -- a Catholic-oriented news site operated by The Boston Globe -- have published the first in what will be a series of occasional stories about the persecution of Christians around the world.

This is not surprising, in light of the fact that Allen (surely one of the most productive reporters working on the religion-beat these days) has produced a book entitled "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution."

It is also significant that a recent Pew Research Center study found, as Allen noted in his opening report in this series, that Christians were harassed either by the government or social groups (think militias or mobs) in 102 of 198 countries -- more than any other religious group. Under normal circumstances, Pew surveys on this kind of news topic tend to lead to bumps in mainstream coverage.

However, talking about the persecution of Christians is not your normal subject, for a variety of reasons. There are people on the cultural left who simply cannot see Christians as anything other than oppressors. For two decades, powerful forces in Washington, D.C., have fought attempts to promote religious liberty at the global level.

Meanwhile, there are also people on the cultural right who -- when looking at the Middle East in particular -- struggle to identify with the groups being persecuted and slaughtered because these ancient flocks are not the right kinds of Christians. (For more information on that topic, see this "On Religion" column that I wrote nearly two decades ago.) Focusing on human rights can also be bad for business, you know.

In light of this deep and diverse skepticism, it's crucial that Allen's main story -- The New Christian Martyrs: Globally, religious persecution is Christian persecution -- includes the following:

Christians are, of course, hardly the only community facing savagery and oppression.

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From the good old days to the hellish ISIS days for Christians in Middle East? Really?

From the good old days to the hellish ISIS days for Christians in Middle East? Really?

At the time of 9/11, I was living in South Florida and attending an Eastern Orthodox parish in which the majority of the members were, by heritage, either Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of time hearing the details of their family stories -- about life in the old country and the forces that pushed them to America.

The key detail: It was never easy living in the Middle East during the Ottoman Empire era, even when times were relatively peaceful. While it was easy to focus on the horrible details of the times of intense persecution, it was important to realize that Christians and those in other religious minorities had learned to accept a second-class status in which they were safe, most of the time, but not truly free.

In other words, the Good Old Days were difficult, but not as difficult as the times of fierce persecution, suffering and death.

Clearly, the rise of the Islamic State has created a new crisis, one that is truly historic in scope -- especially in the Nineveh Plain. The drive to eliminate Christian populations in a region that has been their home since the apostolic era raises all kinds of questions about religious freedom, as well as questions for the USA and other Western states to which these new martyrs will appeal for help.

In recent years, human-rights activists have asked when this phenomenon would receive major attention in elite American newsrooms. The coverage has, in recent years, been on the rise. That said, a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine feature on this topic must be seen as a landmark.
The epic double-decker headline proclaimed:

Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?
ISIS and other extremist movements across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight.

There is much that I want to praise in this piece. It's a must-read piece for everyone who cares about religion news in the mainstream press.

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