At first glance, there was a bizarre gap in the proclamation Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued as his forces rolled to victory after victory in their rush to rebuild a caliphate in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
The modern world, he said, in a July 1 statement circulated on Twitter, has "been divided into two camps and two trenches, with no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy -- the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere, and the camp of the Jews, the crusaders, their allies and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews."
Missing from this list were key groups immediately impacted by the rise of the Islamic State -- the region's ancient churches. In one stunning blow, ISIS forces seized Mosul and other Nineveh Plain communities that have sheltered Christians since soon after the faith's birth. Jihadi militiamen burned churches, or turned them into mosques, and marked Christian homes with "n," for "Nisrani" or "Nazarene."
Thus, believers with 2,000 years worth of local roots were declared foreigners -- Nazarenes. They were ordered to convert to Islam, to flee as refugees or face execution, perhaps by crucifixion. Baghdadi called them "crusaders," with other Western infidels.
The exiled leader of Mosul's Chaldean Catholics has warned believers in foreign lands not to feel secure.
"Our sufferings today are the prelude of those you, Europeans and Western Christians, will also suffer," said Archbishop Amel Nona, in an interview with Corriere della Sera in Italy. "I lost my diocese. The physical setting of my apostolate has been occupied by Islamic radicals who want us converted or dead. But my community is still alive."
The tragedies in Iraq and Syria -- affecting Christians and other religious minorities, such as members of the Yazidi sect -- have inspired fervent pleas for help from religious leaders around the world, including Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
Nevertheless, it has taken time for Western leaders to be shaken into the realization that -- after at decades of rising persecution -- the futures of the Middle Eastern churches are literally hanging in the balance. Part of the problem is that Americans and Europeans have long misunderstood the pivotal role of Eastern Christianity, according to historian Philip Jenkins, author of "The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died" and numerous other acclaimed books.
When thinking about Christian history, the "movie that plays in the minds" of most Western believers says that the church was born in Jerusalem, moved to Rome, then on to Europe, the Americas and the rest of the world, he said. This is simply wrong, since the faith immediately spread east and to the south, into Africa.
"The great churches of the East were just as important, if not more so, for many ages," said Jenkins, reached by telephone. One famous monastery near Mosul contained, for centuries, thousands of monks and scholars. "This was the heart of Christianity. ... But that isn't in the movie in Western Christian minds."
Meanwhile, many Western leaders fail to grasp that there are Arab Christians and, thus, equate Arab identity with Islam -- a stance similar to that of many Muslims. For decades, he said, Western elites in politics, journalism and academia have viewed conflict in the Middle East as clashes between Islam and Judaism, period.
"Americans are open to seeing religion's role in the politics of the region, but they just cannot seem to see the Christians there," said Jenkins. "Europeans have had a tendency to ignore the role of religion altogether. ... The idea that these Christians have been there for 2,000 years just doesn't register."
Is there hope? Surrounded by the storm, the bishops of the Damascus-based Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch have, in a public epistle, refused to surrender.
"We reconfirm that we were and are still committed to the message of our Gospel, which has arrived to us from our ancestors 2000 years ago. Our forefathers carried and transferred this message to us enduring numerous afflictions. And we will keep this seed which we have received here in the East, growing it and being loyal to it."
For centuries, religious believers in many cultures have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that were often called "wakes."
The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people rarely confused their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted blogger Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known as a poet and hymn composer.
But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: Someone decided that it was a good idea to have fun funerals.
"Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems that the goal is to keep your head in the sand and not have to face what has happened to your loved one and to your family," said Bird, in a telephone interview.
Thus, when it comes time to plan funerals the results frequently suggest that people in the modern age -- including many religious believers -- have "lost that sense of the reality, the gravity of death itself," he added. "The problem is that death is denied, then it's hard to understand the meaning of life and our hope for the life to come."
On one level, it's easy to blame this on the Baby Boomers, that giant cohort of 76 million or so Americans that came of age during the cultural revolutions of the late 1960s and early '70s. This was also an era, noted Bird, when people increasingly began to define their lives in terms of consumerism and entertainment.
Throw in a strong trend toward "navel gazing," he said, and what do you have? Fewer traditional funeral rites and a rising number of events defined by the comfortable label, "A Celebration of Life." These services tend to focus on good times in the past, rather than on faith, grief and loss in the present. The result, argues Bird, is an " egocentrism that extends beyond this life into a kind of necro-narcissism."
To demonstrate what this trend looks like in practice, Bird recently wrote an online meditation in which -- speaking as a traditional Christian -- he listed some phrases that he wants banned from the eulogy at his own funeral. For example:
* "He was a good man." That's out of line, he said, because "even if I were the moral equivalent of Mother Teresa" funerals are not supposed to celebrate someone's "moral resume." In Christian theology, the goal is to remember God's love for sinners -- including the one in the coffin.
* "God now has another angel." It's important to understand that "people don't become angels in heaven any more than they become gods or trees or puppies. The creature we are now, we shall be forever," he wrote. This is a sobering statement about the importance of decisions made during this life.
* "We are not here to mourn Chad's death, but to celebrate his life." This is a false note, argued Bird, because the "gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause."
* "What's in that coffin is just the shell of Chad." Actually, he said, "My body is God's creation, an essential part of my identity as a human being. It is not a shell. It is God's gift to me."
Bird said religious leaders shouldn't be surprised that secular consumers are planning -- encouraged by funeral-industry experts -- upbeat end-of-life celebrations filled with references to their favorite movies, music, hobbies and sports franchises.
Want to end a "Celebration of Life" with your college fight song? The spirit of the age says, "Just do it."
The bigger question, said Bird, is why clergy and believers who say they take their faith traditions quite seriously would want to join in this trend.
"The funeral is one of the best opportunities that pastors have to preach on the central doctrines of the Christian faith," he noted. "If you pass up the chance to do that, then you really haven't honored anyone, including the person who has died or the people who are mourning the loss. ...
"This is serious, because liturgical scholars say that when our liturgies -- like funerals -- have changed to fit the culture, then that change is real. I don't see this as a passing fad."
From day one in the Pope Francis era, the so-called insiders who do so much to shape public opinion have said "conservatives" -- inside the Vatican and outside -- were grumbling about this shepherd's unorthodox style.
That is certainly true in some corners of the church, noted Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a prominent voice on matters of doctrine and public life. However there is a bright side to all the jarring news reports about Pope Francis.
The famous Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once noted that "every age gets the saint it needs. Not the saint people want, but the saint they need -- the saint who's the medicine for their illness. The same may be true of popes," said Chaput, in a July 26 speech at the Napa Institute in California.
"John Paul II revived the spirit of a church that felt fractured, and even irrelevant. ... Benedict revived the mind of a church that felt, even after John Paul II's intellectual leadership, outgunned by the world in the public square. Francis has already started to revive the witness of a church that, even after John Paul II's and Benedict's example, feels as if we can't get a hearing and that we're telling a story no one will believe."
But there's the rub. In many cases, this down-to-earth pope's words are being edited and warped in public reports, said Chaput.
Take, for example, these striking lines on wealth and poverty in the pope's apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)."
"The great danger in today's world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience," wrote Francis. "Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. ...
"Today's economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric."
That was simply too much for talk-radio superstar Rush Limbaugh, who said the pope was "dramatically, embarrassingly, puzzlingly wrong" in these "socialist" attacks on capitalism.
"This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope," said Limbaugh. "Unfettered capitalism? That doesn't exist anywhere. Unfettered capitalism is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States. ... To hear the pope regurgitating this stuff, I was profoundly disappointed."
Speaking to the La Stampa newspaper, Pope Francis noted that merely defending the "social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church" doesn't make him a Marxist. "Marxist ideology is wrong," he added, but "I have known many Marxists who are good people, so I don't feel offended."
What is happening? Anyone who wants to understand this pope must grasp why he took the name "Francis," and thus embraced St. Francis of Assisi, stressed Chaput, who is a Capuchin Franciscan. Pope Francis has repeatedly said he wants to lead a church that "is poor and for the poor."
Because of his pastoral experience in Argentina, this pope also "knows poverty and violence. He knows the plague of corrupt politics and oppressive governments. He's seen the cruelty of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. He's seen elites who rig the political system in their favor and keep the poor in poverty," said Chaput.
"When we Americans think about economics, we think in terms of efficiency and production. When Francis thinks about economics, he thinks in terms of human suffering. We're blessed to live in a rich, free, stable country. We can't always see what Francis sees."
Also, it's crucial for news consumers -- Catholics included -- to understand that it's hard to accurately discuss centuries of doctrine and faith while using political terms like "conservative" and "liberal." Chaput stressed that people should read the pope's writings and sermons and hear what he is saying, unfiltered.
They will find that political language of this kind tends to "divide what shouldn't be divided," said the archbishop. "Service to the oppressed and service to the family; defense of the weak and defense of the unborn child; belief in the value of business and belief in restraints on predatory business practices -- all these things spring from the same Catholic commitment to human dignity. ...
"There's nothing 'conservative' about ignoring the cries of the poor."
It's a hypothetical case, but one priests frequently face in an American culture transformed by the Sexual Revolution.
On the other side of the desk is a couple seeking marriage-preparation sessions before a church wedding. At least one of these young people is from a parish family and, thus, has been receiving Holy Communion. Neither has been to Confession in years.
The pastor has every reason to suspect that, like millions of Americans, this couple is already "shacking up."
A Catholic priest knows that the catechism teaches that sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman is "gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses." He knows that it teaches that anyone "conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion."
So a painful question looms over these encounters: Don't ask, don't tell?
"What I have heard priests say is that if people come to us to get married, then we don't feel like we can refuse them," said Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. The thinking seems to be that "getting these people married will solve the big problem that, from the church's point of view, exists in their lives."
But when it comes to addressing doctrinal issues linked to cohabitation, "you get the feeling that priests just don't know what to do right now," he said.
Meanwhile, cohabitation has turned into one of the dominant forces shaping new marriages and homes, with a majority of Americans in their 30s saying they have lived with someone outside of marriage. And new studies, argued Stanley, show that the practice of cohabitation has for many become "de-linked from marriage" altogether, with more and more people moving from one cohabitation relationship to another -- a practice with serious implications for the stability of future unions.
While most couples used to think of cohabitation as a "trial marriage," there is evidence this is no longer true. The key is that living together before marriage has become "fundamentally ambiguous" as a sign of faithfulness and commitment. Instead, it's a practice "with no implications about the odds of marrying," one that Stanley has called "CohabiDating."
This reality, for clergy, raises big questions as they deal with couples preparing for marriage, especially in churches that view marriage as a sacrament.
At the end of the 20th Century, the U.S. Catholic bishops were already circulating materials noting that nearly half of all couples seeking Catholic marriage-preparation sessions were already cohabitating. A set of 1988 guidelines, entitled "Faithful to Each Other Forever," warned priests to avoid two extremes: "(1) Immediately confronting the couple and condemning their behavior and (2) Ignoring the cohabitation aspect of their relationship."
Ever since, priests have been asked to view marriage-preparation sessions as chances to welcome couples back into the life of the church. However, they are also supposed to communicate that sex outside of marriage is grave sin.
Thus, some Catholic dioceses -- but not all -- urge those who are cohabiting people to live separately and cease premarital sex while preparing for the Sacrament of Marriage. The catechism also teaches that it is "appropriate for the bride and groom to prepare themselves for the celebration of their marriage by receiving the sacrament of penance."
While cohabitation remains a scandal for many traditional believers, guidelines from the U.S. bishops note that more and more young people -- along with their parents -- will be scandalized by clergy attempts to require cohabiting couples to repent and quit "living in sin" before a church wedding.
Rather than hiding from evolving trends linked to cohabitation, said Stanley, clergy must address these issues more often so that young people will know the faith's teachings long before couples face complications of this kind.
Clergy must be willing, he said, to "stand up and tell people that there is good evidence and good research indicating that God had your best intentions in mind when he came up with this whole marriage thing and set some standards for how you prepare for it. …
"Cohabitation isn't teaching people how to be committed to each other for a lifetime. Instead, it's teaching them how to pack up and move on."
It was one of those symbolic questions that pollsters toss into the mix when probing fault lines inside political coalitions.
The Pew Research Center recently asked, as part of its "Beyond Red vs. Blue" political typology project, whether voters agreed or disagreed that it is "necessary to believe in God to be moral."
Among the voters called "Solid Liberals," one of three major Democratic Party camps, only 11 percent of those polled said "yes." People in the emerging "Next Generation Left" felt the same way, with only 7 percent affirming that statement.
However, things were radically different among the voters that Pew researchers labeled the "Faith and Family Left." In this crowd -- the survey's most racially and ethnically diverse camp -- an stunning 91 percent of those polled saw a connection between morality and belief in God.
"That number, the size of that gap, jumped out at me" in the results, said Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center.
Faith and Family Left voters are "pretty loyal Democrats, the kind that supported Bill Clinton and Al Gore. They voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and most of them voted for him again in 2012," he added. "But when it comes to moral and cultural and religious issues, they take a very different approach" from the Solid Liberals and those in the Next Generation Left.
Asked if American society is "better off if people prioritize marriage and having children," 64 percent of Faith and Family Left voters agreed. However, 77 percent of Solid Liberals and 72 percent of the Next Generation Left disagreed with that statement.
These faith-friendly Democrats were twice as likely to self-identify as "religious" than other liberals. Just over half of them said they attend worship services "weekly or more," compared with 19 percent of Solid Liberals and 21 percent of the Next Generation Left. A slim majority of Faith and Family Left voters opposed gay marriage, compared with only 7 percent of the Solid Liberals. The same sharp divide existed on abortion.
The Pew team noted that "fully 85 percent of the Faith and Family Left say religion is very important and 51 percent want the government to do more to protect morality -- the highest percentage of any typology group" described in this survey.
This division among progressives jumped into the news recently when the Obama White House announced plans for an executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those identifying as transgender.
A coalition of religious leaders friendly to the president, including the 2012 Obama campaign staffer in charge of outreach to faith groups, immediately pleaded for a religious exemption. Its letter focused on an Obama statement that "our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry" and help others.
"We could not agree with you more. Our identity as individuals is based first and foremost in our faith. ... The hiring policies of these organizations -- Christians, Jewish, Muslim and others -- extend from their religious beliefs and values: the same values that motivate them to serve their neighbors in the first place," said the letter to Obama.
"While the nation has undergone incredible social and legal change over the last decade, we still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality. We must find a way to respect diversity of opinion on this issue in a way that respects the dignity of all parties to the best of our ability."
This religious divide on the political left is not new, but these distinctions are "getting sharper," said John C. Green of the University of Akron, a specialist in faith-and-politics research. However, Faith and Family Left voters -- whether they are African-American Protestants, Latino Catholics or white Evangelicals -- still retain a positive, "populist" view of government, especially when it comes to helping others.
"They are pro-government and pro-safety net," said Green. "But they are also pro-life, they are pro-religion, they are pro-family, they are pro-morality. ...
"There are a lot of things that unite people in the Democratic coalition right now, but there is a values divide there. On one side are people who are very modern and their values are highly individualistic. On the other side are these people who have an older set of values based on community and tradition and, yes, on religion."
When leaders of traditional faith groups think about reaching out to Millennials, religious seekers, unaffiliated "Nones" and other postmodern young Americans, this is the voice that many keep hearing in their heads.
"Morality is how I feel too, because in my heart, I could feel it," said one person interviewed in the National Study of Youth and Religion. "You could feel what's right and wrong in your heart as well as your mind. Most of the time, I always felt, I feel it in my heart and it makes it easier for me to morally decide what's right and wrong. Because if I feel about doing something, I'm going to feel it in my heart, and if it feels good, I'm going to do it."
Seconds later, young people caught up in what experts now call "emerging adulthood" may stress that they are open to attending multigenerational congregations that offer roots, tradition and mentors. But how will they know when they have found the right spiritual home?
Right. When they feel it.
That's a hard target to hit, said Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of "Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back." Many religious leaders are struggling to find a "sweet spot between deep religious messages that sound cool" and faith that "seems like it comes from a sappy self-help book," she noted.
In light of current trends, it's also hard for clergy to take comfort in the trend seen in previous generations, which is that young people who abandon the pews usually return when they are married and have children. Trouble is, increasing numbers of Americans between 20 and 40 are delaying marriage, family and any community ties that bind. Some are opting out of marriage altogether.
This creates strong moral tensions.
"This is the metaphor you keep hearing," said Riley, in a telephone interview. For an increasing number of young adults "religion is like a jacket. You have to take it off whenever you are doing something that you know violates the teachings of your church.
"So you throw that jacket in the corner. ... Then you drift further and further away until there is some part of you that just doesn't fit anymore. In your head, you're saying, 'I haven't been behaving the way that I should, so I shouldn't go to church, or to Shabbat, or to the mosque.' Then you say that week after week. ... You lose your religious habits."
Rather than offering fake fixes, Riley said the goal of her book was to show examples of Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Mormon and Muslim attempts to address these issues. The result is a guided tour through crucial paradoxes in the lives of many young Americans, especially the Millennials born between 1981 and 1996. For example:
* Many young adults say that they don't want to be seen as mere "religious consumers," yet it's clear they are seeking congregations with worship, music, sermons and special events that click for them.
* Young people are tired of being pursued through a barrage of social media, yet these online connections are obviously at the heart of the networks that shape their lives. Religious leaders must be careful when crossing digital lines.
* On the marriage issue, young Americans are not seeking congregations that feel like holy singles clubs. Nevertheless, they do want to see lots of young people in the pews around them -- members of their own urban tribes -- to help them feel at home.
* Many young people say they are seeking a faith with beauty, depth and history, yet probably not one with firm doctrines -- especially on sexuality -- that make them feel uncomfortable or judged.
During this "emerging adulthood" stage, stressed Riley, most young people are living in a state of flux, moving to new places, making new friends, adjusting to new jobs, living with new roommates, dating new people and trying to accept new financial responsibilities. Meanwhile, religious leaders are asking them to make commitments and to keep them.
"Religious leaders are really caught in a bind here," she said. "You want these young people to step forward and maybe even to become leaders." At the same time, she added, it's crucial that "the church or the temple or the mosque doesn't become like almost everything else in their lives -- something else that's just temporary."
Anglicans seem to be hopeful about their flocks in the United States, even if the warring factions in their Communion keep moving further and further apart.
That was a common theme in two upbeat recent sermons preached by leaders in the progressive and orthodox Anglican bodies now competing in the marketplace of American religion.
In the first sermon, Father Cameron Partridge became the first openly transgender priest to preach at Washington National Cathedral. The June 22 liturgy was part of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride month.
"To dream that one day this Episcopal Church family, in which I grew up, might join other traditions, and inspire still others, by embracing our gifts and leadership at all levels of its life. I am so grateful and proud to be in a church that is now living into this charge," said Partridge, who was born a woman, but now identifies as a "trans" man.
"As we behold one another in these days of celebration, may ... we give thanks for the unfolding mystery of our humanity and may we revel in our participation in God's ongoing project of revelation."
"Revelation" was the word for the day, said Partridge, a Harvard Divinity School faculty member and the Episcopal chaplain at Boston University. Modern churches must embrace the "project of revelation" that shapes an evolving faith, he said.
Partridge recalled a "circle of oppression" rite during an Episcopal retreat he attended 13 years ago, when the leader asked oppressed women to step forward.
"I began to panic. At this point, I was known as an openly gay, partnered woman and I was just coming to terms with being trans," recalled Partridge. "I also knew that people are punished every day, in various ways, for transgressing the male-female binary -- including in church, perhaps especially in church."
But process is being made, he said, in churches committed to reshaping families and transforming American society while "uncovering of God's work in the world."
Two days later, an archbishop on the other side of this doctrinal divide spoke for the American Anglicans who believe they have been punished for their defense of 2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy on matters of marriage, family and sexuality.
Church statistics reveal the pain. At the start of the 1960s, the Episcopal Church had 3.4 million members and that number today has slipped below 2 million. In the past decade, average Sunday morning attendance has declined nearly 25 percent.
Longstanding tensions worsened in 1989 when Newark Bishop John Spong ordained a non-celibate homosexual priest. Then in 1998 the global Lambeth Conference of bishops -- led by growing African and Asian churches -- passed a resolution defending traditional doctrines on sex, against strong opposition from Americans and others Western bishops.
Splits began forming, a fracturing process that worsened with the 2003 ordination of an openly gay bishop in the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire.
"We sowed in tears. We reap in joy," said Archbishop Robert Duncan, at the end of his five-year term as the first leader of the breakaway Anglican Church in North America. The meeting to elect his successor was attended by a cluster of prelates from major mainstream Anglican churches, but was not formally recognized by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
In 2009, "Many of us had lost -- or were in the process of losing -- buildings and friends, resources and relationships that were precious to us," said Duncan, who was formerly the Bishop of Pittsburgh and will now return to full-time work in that role in this new Anglican body. "Others just knew that where they were in their Christian journey was not yet where they needed to be and were prepared to risk what they had, trusting God for something better, though not yet realized."
The Anglican Church in North America is small, but claims 983 parishes compared with 700 in 2009, and roughly 110,000 members. Legal battles with the Episcopal Church continue over properties held by many parishes, and in a half-dozen dioceses. Leaders ambitiously pledged to start 1000 new congregations, but settled for about half that number.
"Well, 488 is not 1000, but it sure is an awesome harvest," said Duncan. "Almost immediately, we changed the subject in the church. We threw away the rear-view mirror."
Several times the archbishop repeated a slogan many would claim in these long Anglican wars: "We sowed in tears. We reap in joy."