Syria

2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

End of the year lists of best-of or most-important stories have several major deficiencies.

The first is that they are wholly subjective. While the top choice may be obvious to all, ranking the stories that round out such a list in order of importance is far less so. It’s here where personal preferences, and even guesses, take over.

Not too mention that such lists often do not distinguish between single headline-grabbing event stories and the trend, or ongoing story line, that the event underscores.

The second is that such lists tend to be completed before December ends because editors and readers have come to expect such lists to be published prior to the actual start of the new year. This means the mid- to late-December stories tend not to be included to meet deadlines.

Then there is another truth that journalists need to recognize: Often we miss some of the most important stories when they happen, but recognize their magnitude later.

All of this, in fact, is what has happened to one of the more reliable top-10 story lists — the one done annually by Rabbi A. James Rudin, the long-time Religion News Service columnist, former American Jewish Committee senior interreligious director and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author.

Rudin’s list pertains to the Jewish world, which includes the global Jewish diaspora and Israel and the Middle East. It's because Rudin’s list is confined to the relatively small Jewish world that he knows so well, that I consider his list one of the “more reliable” year-end features of this sort. 

This year — just as the top story in the Catholic world is obviously the ongoing priestly sex abuse scandal and hierarchical cover up — Rudin’s top Jewish story is also obvious.

It’s the increasing displays of anti-Semitism, including, of course, the shooting in Pittsburgh that ended with the deaths of 11 Jewish Sabbath worshippers, slain by a lone gunman with a  beef against Jews and, in particular, a Jewish community agency that helps settle immigrants in the U.S.

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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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Generic evangelicals working hard to build bridges between Israel and Syrians

Generic evangelicals working hard to build bridges between Israel and Syrians

As I have mentioned before, it was 20 years ago -- last weekend was Pascha, the anniversary -- that my family converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.

In terms of the complex map of Orthodoxy, we became part of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, with its historic ties to Damascus. It's still based on the street called Straight (as in Acts 9:11). From 2001-2004 we were members of a West Palm Beach, Fla., congregation in which most of the families came -- one or two generations ago -- from Syria, Lebanon or Palestine. I pray every day for the protection of the church of Damascus.

Suffice it to say, the wider Mattingly family includes other people who know a whole lot about life in the modern Middle East. We will leave it at that.

If I have learned anything about that region it is this: When it comes to the Middle East, religious ties are very specific. It matters what kind of "Christians" you are talking about. It matters what branch or movement within Islam you're talking about. Secular or religious or Orthodox Jews? That matters. There's very little generic religion in the Middle East.

I bring this up because of an interesting, but in the end frustrating, USA Today report about American evangelicals -- they are not called missionaries -- who are doing some tricky work in Israel, while cooperating fully with the Israelis. The headline: "These evangelicals in Israel are on a mission to win the hearts and minds of Syrians." The overture says:

ALONG THE GOLAN HEIGHTS -- In the no-man’s land between Israel and Syria, an unlikely group of Americans toil at a makeshift clinic to care for ill and injured Syrians trapped in their country’s seven-year civil war.
For Don Tipton of Beverly Hills and his group of evangelical Christian do-gooders, their border perch is a divine mission. For the Israelis, Tipton and his group are part of a deliberate defense mission to win the hearts and minds of Syrian civilians.

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Struggling to keep olive-wood traditions alive in Bethlehem (But why the big crisis?)

Struggling to keep olive-wood traditions alive in Bethlehem (But why the big crisis?)

At two very different points in my life, I had a chance to talk with Christians in Bethlehem, while looking over some of the wood-carvings and other gifts in their shops.

That first visit was at Christmas in 1972, when I was a Baylor University freshman in a touring choir. The second was in 2000, when I was in Israel and Jordan at a conference on religion-news trends -- linked to Pope John Paul II and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

There were major changes between those visits. There have been more changes since then. But the olive trees remain and artists still turn the wood into crosses, Nativity sets, rosaries and other gifts that pilgrims and tourists take home as symbols of their visits. There's an olive-wood cross (simple and Protestant) from 1972 hanging next to my computer as I write this. My other olive-wood Jerusalem cross? It's in my family's Orthodox altar corner. Turn, turn, turn.

All of this is to say that I appreciated the Religion News Service feature focusing on the many current issues and challenges that swirl around the Christians of the West Bank. The headline: "In Christ’s birthplace, olive wood artisans carry on a Holy Land tradition."

Yes, the Christians (and some Muslim artists) carry on. But trends in the Middle East keep making the lives of Christians more difficult and even dangerous. What is causing so much pain and stress? Hold that thought. There is much to praise in this RNS piece, but there is one crucial passage that I found rather stunning.

Let's start with the overture and the family at the heart of the story:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (RNS) -- Thirty years ago Bassem Giacaman, whose large extended family has lived in this town for generations, immigrated to New Zealand with his parents and siblings in search of a life far away from the turmoil of the Middle East.
They left behind a small shop and olive wood factory, one of a few dozen olive wood enterprises in and around Bethlehem, which Christians around the world revere as the birthplace of Jesus.
Most of these businesses are owned by Christian families that have been carving religious items such as crosses, rosaries and Nativity scenes for nearly two millennia.

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Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Trust me when I say that I understand why so many Christians in the ancient churches of the Middle East are frustrated with America, and American evangelicals in particular, when it comes to the complex and painful status of Jerusalem.

As I have mentioned several times here at GetReligion, when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy two decades ago my family became part of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese -- which is closely tied to the ancient Orthodox flock based in Damascus. Then, from 2001-2005 (including 9/11), we were active in a West Palm Beach, Fla., parish that was primarily made up of families with ties to Syria, Lebanon and, yes, Israel and the West Bank.

I will not try to sum up their lives and viewpoints in a few lines. Suffice it to say, they struggled to understand why so many American Christians have little or no interest in the daily lives and realities of Christians whose Holy Land roots go back to Pentecost.

Thus, I am thankful that the Washington Post international desk has updated a familiar, yet still urgent, news topic as we get closer to the Christmas season. The hook, of course, is the announcement by President Donald Trump about the status of the U.S. embassy in Israel. The headline: "Trump plan to move U.S. embassy to Jerusalem angers Middle East Christians."

The overture is familiar, yet sadly newsy:

JERUSALEM -- Some of the festive cheer was missing this weekend at a public Christmas tree lighting near the site where Christians believe an angel proclaimed Christ’s birth to local shepherds. 
“Our oppressors have decided to deprive us from the joy of Christmas,” Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the former archbishop and Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told the crowd in the town of Beit Sahour in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “Mr. Trump told us clearly Jerusalem is not yours.”
The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there has provoked widespread opposition among Christians across the Middle East. When Vice President Pence arrives next week on a trip touted as a chance to check on the region’s persecuted Christians, he will be facing an awkward backlash.

Right there, you see, is the story that has loomed in the background for decades.

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Crux reports from Lebanon-Syria border, where Western ideals clash with deadly local realities

Crux reports from Lebanon-Syria border, where Western ideals clash with deadly local realities

One of the greatest gifts I’ve derived from being a journalist has been to repeatedly face situations in which what seemed obvious to me made no sense to someone else. This helped me understand that's it's an enormously complicated world that requires empathy toward others to comprehend it at any depth.

This can happen when you're fortunate enough to mix with people who have a world view that’s quite different than you're own. You learn that preconceived notions about “the facts” of a story can be a barrier to grokking the heart of the story.

Crux, the online Roman Catholic journal, reminded me of this last week via a series of stories it published about besieged Christian villages in the Lebanese-Syrian border region.

That's a pretty tough neighborhood. In such places, simple survival -- particularly for religious and ethnic minorities -- can mean assuming positions that seem morally unthinkable for those of us fortunate enough to live in far gentler environs.

Take the case of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for example. Who of us thinks him to be anything less than a brutal murderer with little -- “none” might be the better word -- regard for anything but his own survival? Who of us would be willing to live under his leadership?

As part of the series, Crux editor John L. Allen, Jr., in a piece labeled analysis, wrote that what seems apparent about Assad to most of us in the West holds little sway for Christians living in Lebanon and Syrian. His piece ran under the following headline: “Meeting Middle East Christians is where Western stereotypes go to die.”

 

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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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Rare reverse New York Times 'Kellerism' as ex-jihadi tells why he converted to Christianity

Rare reverse New York Times 'Kellerism' as ex-jihadi tells why he converted to Christianity

Media hounds -- if you're reading GetReligion that probably means you -- will likely recall the recent dust up involving television news icon Ted Koppel and Fox's Sean Hannity. They went after each other over the impact on the body politic of the often confusing mix of "news" and "opinion" that now dominates American journalism.

It started, you'll remember, when Koppel criticized Hannity in an interview Koppel did with him for CBS. Koppel, a network news traditionalist, labeled Hannity's unabashed advocacy style as "bad" for America.

That followed Hannity's statement -- and Koppel's expressing the opposite opinion -- that Americans were media savvy enough to discern the difference between reported facts and individual opinions. Said Hannity:

We have to give some credit to the American people that they are somewhat intelligent and that they know the difference between an opinion show and a news show.

Koppel and Hannity were talking, in the main, about contemporary cable TV. But as GetReligion writers repeatedly note, the same may be said these days of any news platform -- print, web and broadcast.

I happen to believe that what we were sure was hard news just a couple of decades ago was not entirely free of opinion. Journalism has never been pure (and nobody at this weblog has ever argued that it was). News media have too much influence on political and social issues for the power elite to always resist the temptation to manipulate information for its own ends.

But that's another post. Suffice it to say that I agree that the mixing of fact and opinion today is greater than I've ever witnessed in my 50-plus years in and around the news business. This piece from The Washington Post strikes me as a solid summation of the situation.

Ironically, it's also a clear example of the trend it explains, in that it ran without any label alerting readers that it was loaded with opinion, which it clearly is.

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