Hey NPR: ISIS threats to St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai are not just about tourist dollars

Hey NPR: ISIS threats to St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai are not just about tourist dollars

It is my sincere hope that there were no Eastern Orthodox Christians hurt in automobile accidents last week if they went into shock and swerved off the road after hearing the following National Public Radio mini-story on the radio. My fellow Orthodox believers: If you have hot coffee in hand as you read this post -- Put. It. Down.

The headline captures the tone: "Gunmen Attack Popular Religious Tourism Site In Sinai." What's the problem with that?

Well, we're talking about St. Catherine's Monastery, which is way, way, way more important -- in terms of history, art and significance to world Christianity -- than its role as a "tourism site."

Imagine the reaction among religious Jews if NPR had referred, after a similar attack, to the Western "wailing" Wall of the temple in Jerusalem as a "popular tourism site." I mean, it is a place visited by tourists, but that does not even hint at the site's significance to those who consider it a holy place. This is pushing things, but is Mecca a "popular tourism site"?

OK, forget religion for a moment. There are solid reasons that St. Catherine's has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We are talking about what many believe is the world's oldest library.

What about the monastery's priceless, irreplaceable sacred art? Click here to check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art tribute to St, Catherine's and the icons venerated there by the monks. And here is the excellent guide to the collection maintained by Princeton University. For starters, we are talking about the home of Christ of Sinai, which is the oldest known icon of the image known as Christ Pantocrator. You can make a case that this is the world's most important, the most beloved, Christian icon.

So what did NPR say in this mini-report? Here's the top of what is stored online:

There's been an attack by gunmen near a prominent religious tourism site in southern Sinai but Egyptian authorities say no tourists were involved. One security officer was killed and four others injured.

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Has the United Nations become a tool for advancing Muslim nations' religious agenda?

Has the United Nations become a tool for advancing Muslim nations' religious agenda?

It's a journalistic truism that mixing biblical archeology and religious claims with contemporary Middle East politics generally condemns a story to a tar pit of irreconcilability. But of course it's done all the time by all involved parties, with deadly consequences. It's standard fare in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some Palestinians argue that they're indigenous -- and hence the rightful political heirs -- to what today is Israel/Palestine. Their claim -- dubious, I'dsay, given the scarcity of provable evidence -- is that they descend directly from the ancient Canaanite tribes that once roamed the area. That, despite the region's thousands of years of history involving marauding armies and cultural upheaval -- not the least of which was the 7th Century C.E. Arab Muslim conquest of the Levant.

Most traditional Jews (supported by some Christians but not by some anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects) point to the biblical Book of Genesis that says God promised Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) to the patriarch Abraham, making Israel the rightful political power.

This takes us into the realm of theology; either you believe it or or you don't.

Islam, of course, has its own narrative about the land -- and in particular Jerusalem -- further complicating the picture.

Get the United Nations involved and it becomes even more of a briar patch -- which is what's happened of late with the UN's chief cultural agency, the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organizational (UNESCO).

I'm referring to the recent series of votes by UNESCO and its World Heritage Committee that referred to what Jews -- and, hence, Israel -- call (in English) the Temple Mount, and what Muslims -- and, therefore, the Palestinians -- call the Noble Sanctuary. In addition to criticizing Israeli actions there, the resolutions referred to the sites using only their Muslim names.

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Mirror-image news, again: Concerning those Ramadan prayers inside Hagia Sophia

Mirror-image news, again: Concerning those Ramadan prayers inside Hagia Sophia

It's time, once again, to take a mirror-image look at a story (click here for some earlier examples) that is in the news right now.

Well, it's sort of in the news. That's the whole point of this post.

Let's imagine that during a symbolic moment on the calendar -- perhaps a papal visit to Turkey, or the days leading up to a historic Pan-Orthodox Council -- a Christian leader entered the great Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and took out a prayer book and began chanting the ancient prayers of Great Vespers in Greek or even Arabic.

Turkish officials would be infuriated. Muslim leaders would be outraged. After all, this would violate agreements surrounding the status of this massive building -- once the greatest cathedral in Christendom, then a mosque after the fall of Constantinople -- as neutral territory, as a secular museum and a UNESCO world heritage site.

This would, in short, be a major news story and a threat to shatter Muslim-majority Turkey's status -- in the eyes of Europe, especially -- as a secular state that is dedicated to some protection for religious minorities.

Would this draw mainstream media coverage?

Now the mirror-image story, care of The Turkish Sun:

An angry war of words has broken out between Turkey and Greece after Athens protested a decision to allow a daily Quranic reading in İstanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia during Ramadan. The museum was for almost 1,000 years the biggest Greek Orthodox Christian church in the world.
The sahur, or pre-dawn meal, is to be broadcast each morning from the Hagia Sophia by Turkish national broadcaster TRT Diyanet along with daily readings from the Quran during the Islamic holy month, which began on Monday (June 6).
In one of the toughest diplomatic rebukes from Athens to Ankara in recent years, the Greek foreign ministry called the decision to allow the religious readings at the world heritage site, which is officially designated as a museum, “regressive”, “verging on bigotry” and “not compatible with modern, democratic and secular societies”.

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Future story watch: Should a Muslim state gain a permanent UN Security Council seat?

Future story watch: Should a Muslim state gain a permanent UN Security Council seat?

Let's' play with some hypotheticals, courtesy of an idea floated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But first some necessary background. A columnist for Turkey's English-language Hurriyet Daily News, wrote recently that Erdogan thinks the makeup of the United Nations Security Council's permanent members should be revamped along religious lines. His reason?

To end the Christian world's UN dominance over the globe's non-Christian nations.

Never mind, for now, as columnist Burak Bekdil, a prominent and frequent Erdogan critic, pointed out with more than a hint of sarcasm, that China, one of the Security Council's five permanent members, is hardly a Christian nation. That, is, unless you stretch the meaning of "Christian nation" to mean any nation in which Christians live, no matter how tightly controlled they are by a repressive government, such as the one in Beijing.

Still, Erdogan makes a point. The Security Council has no permanent member whose dominant religion is Islam, the world's second largest after ChrIstianity.

Journalists take note: This issue is likely to become an active debate, sooner or later. And when it does, it will not be easily resolved.

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