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Terry Mattingly's weekly column on religion and the media.
Updated: 14 min 41 sec ago

Too strong for television: Tragic stories from the vicar of Baghdad

Monday, October 13, 2014

The 5-year-old boy was named Andrew, to honor the British priest who baptized him at St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad.

When Islamic State forces moved into Qaraqosh, the boy's parents faced an agonizing choice that has become all too common in the ancient Christian towns of the Nineveh Plain. The choice: Convert to Islam or suffer the consequences. 

Andrew was cut in half, his parents said, while they were forced to watch.

 The traumatized parents were later reunited with Canon Andrew White, long known as the "vicar of Baghdad." This is one of many stories he has been sharing with journalists -- for years he acted as special envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury -- in an attempt to raise awareness of the hellish details behind the now-familiar television images.

 A recent trip to Washington, D.C., brought him to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, a setting that raised agonizing questions about the massacres carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria -- which has claimed the power to establish a new Islamic caliphate in the region.

 White stressed that he would never compare this slaughter of Christians, Yazidis, Shi'a Muslims and believers in other religious minorities with the killing of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust or "Shoah."

{C} "The Shoah was the worst tragedy in history," he said. Nevertheless, the word "genocide" can be used to describe what is happening because the "fact is that an entire religious minority is being removed from a nation, they have been forced out.

{C} "We used to have one and a half million Christians in Iraq. Now, we may have 300,000. That's all. There are more Christian Iraqis in Chicago than there are in Iraq. When I want to go see my community, I go to Chicago. ... Now I am watching my people who have fled Baghdad being massacred."

{C} White arrived in Baghdad in 1998 and, in addition to years of pastoral work and diplomacy, he also created the interfaith Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. It's director, Dr. Sarah Ahmed, is a Muslim physician who was born and raised in Iraq.

{C} Events of the past few years have revealed what pure hatred looks like when it is given free reign, she said, at the Holocaust Museum. Tragically, local people and others on the fringes of the Islamic State organization are committing some of the worst violence -- perhaps attempting to win favor with their conquerors.

{C} As a rule, young male refugees who are captured are being killed or forced to become soldiers for jihad, while many girls are being raped and then sold as sex slaves "and no one is doing anything about it," she said.

There are at least three levels of violence. The first demonstrates mere power and greed, with mobs and soldiers driving people out of their homes and businesses and into the streams of refugees. According to United Nations estimates, at least one million Iraqis have been displaced during the past four months.

{C} The second level of everyday violence, she said bluntly, is "just shooting people."

{C} On the third level, people move beyond deadly violence into unbelievable acts of terror. A Muslim who fled the fighting, said Ahmed, told her one story about what happened to some Iraqi men who could not flee fast enough. The Islamic State soldiers "lay them on the ground, after shooting them," and then rolled over the bodies with a tractor in "front of their families, just to devastate them."

White said those who survive are left haunted by what they have seen and, in some cases, what they themselves have done.

{C} Recently, he said, one Christian father contacted him in despair, even though his children were still alive. In an all-too-familiar scene, ISIS leaders demanded that he convert to Islam, rather than see his children killed, or worse.

{C} "So this father said the words to convert into Islam," said White, referring to the familiar prayer, "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is the Messenger of God."

{C} The father was "crying on the phone ... I said those words, but I still love Yeshua (Jesus). I will never leave Yeshua. Will he stop loving me, now?' I said, 'No, of course not. You are still part of the Christian community as you ever have been. You are still one of us.' "

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A (liberal) church-growth strategy to save the Episcopal Church

Monday, October 6, 2014

Once upon a time, the Anglican bishops at the global Lambeth Conference boldly declared the 1990s the "Decade of Evangelism." 

 This effort was supposed to spur church growth and it did, in the already booming Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and across the "Global South." But in the lovely, historic sanctuaries of England and North America? Not so much.

 "There was some lip service given to evangelism at that time," said Ted Mollegen, a businessman with decades of national Episcopal Church leadership experience. Membership totals continued to spiral down and the Decade of Evangelism "basically faded away without much success ... because of a lack of effort and institutional commitment."

 The Episcopal Church then created a "20/20 Vision" task force committed to doubling baptized membership by 2020. The goal was a renewed evangelism emphasis, along with programs for spiritual development, emerging leaders, church planting and improved work with children, teens and college students. Mollegen was the task force's secretary and a founding member of the Episcopal Network for Evangelism.

Episcopalians, however, promptly entered yet another period of doctrinal warfare and schism, symbolized by the departure of many large evangelical parishes following the 2003 election of a noncelibate gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire. Mollegen served on the national church's executive council from 2003-2009.

 While legal battles roll on, and the hierarchy wrestles with tighter and tighter budgets, the 77-year-old Mollegen hasn't given up on starting more parishes dedicating to sharing his church's approach to faith. Thus, he recently released a 66-page church-growth manifesto (.pdf) to Episcopal bishops and lay leaders.

 At some point, he said, Episcopalians -- as well as members of other shrinking liberal flocks -- must create their own effective brand of evangelism, including modern ways of discussing sin and salvation, heaven and hell.

 Evangelicals have "traditionally placed more emphasis on making converts than those of us in mainstream churches and on the left," he stressed, reached by telephone. "They have a strong motivation, since they believe that if people don't convert to Christianity then they're going to hell. I don't believe that, of course, that and most Episcopalians don't believe it, either."

 The church-growth stakes are high, as Mollegen has noted for years. Episcopal Church membership peaked at 3.6 million in 1966 and is now at 1.9 million, with 650,000 in church on typical Sundays. More than half of U.S. parishes had an average Sunday attendance of 70 or less, according to 2009 statistics, and roughly a third of active Episcopalians are 65 or older.

 The bottom line: The Episcopal flock shrank 42 percent in an era in which the U.S. population grew 70 percent. Mollegen stressed that the news will get worse before it gets better, since "such a high percentage of our members are past their childbearing years" and Americans "under the age of 35 are less likely to join institutions of any kind these days, either secular or religious."

 What to do? In addition to stressing church-growth basics from the 20/20 task force, Mollegen has urged Episcopalians to defend their liberal beliefs, rather than simply teaching "people who theologically are still Baptists how to use Prayer Books. You haven't completed the job until you've taught them what the Bible really is, and how to react to it with intellectual integrity."

 Also, parish leaders in some parts of the country may -- with permission from their bishops -- try to court people who are "spiritual" rather than doctrinally minded by tweaking liturgies to say that worshippers merely "trust" ancient Christian creeds, as opposed to vowing that they "believe" them.

 In addition to seeking cultural progressives -- such as families of gays and lesbians -- Mollegen's manifesto argues that Episcopalians should increase marketing efforts to "disaffected Roman Catholics." After all, Episcopalians claim Catholic roots, yet "we have avoided such latter-day aberrations as Mariolatry; misogyny; forced and unpopular clerical celibacy; widespread, persistent and covertly-protected clergy ephebophilia; rejection of the most effective and convenient forms of birth control; and church leadership which both excludes and insultingly devalues lay leadership and women, and which is determinedly and unconsciously hostile to sexual minorities."

 Eventually, he argued, many Catholics will embrace a spiritual home that is "more rational, more historically-catholic, much more loving, and less hubris-encrusted." Outreach to disaffected Catholics, he added, may also "lead to improvements in how the RCC handles itself."

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Technology shapes content: High Holidays with the online flock

Monday, September 29, 2014

The idea was really simple, in terms of technology: Since many Jews could not attend High Holiday rites, why not put microphones in key locations and let them listen on their telephones? 

It wasn't as good as being there, but -- for shut-ins -- it was better than nothing.

Decades later, some Jewish leaders mounted cameras in their packed sanctuaries and let people watch High Holidays rites on video. Again, it wasn't the same as being there, but it was better than nothing and, certainly, better than listening on a telephone.

Jewish leaders who tiptoed into these technologies "didn't change what they were doing, they just put a telephone near it," said Rabbi Robert Barr, founder of Congregation Beth Adam, a 30-year-old independent congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio. "When cameras came along, they just aimed cameras at what they were already doing. They didn't change anything." 

That isn't what this self-proclaimed "humanistic" congregation is trying to do with it's global OurJewishCommunity.org congregation, which began with High Holidays services in 2008 and has been meeting in cyberspace ever since. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins at sundown tonight (Sept. 24) and the season ends 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews wrestle with the reality of their own sins and strive to renew their faith. 

Rabbi Laura Baum, who founded OurJewishCommunity.org, stressed that while interactive video is streamed live from the bricks-and-mortar Beth Adam sanctuary during the High Holidays, the project's regular work -- from weekly Shabbat services to pastoral care -- is unique and totally online. The weblogs, podcast collections, YouTube channel, digital libraries and chat rooms are always open, which means the digital doors are never locked. 

While the analog Beth Adam congregation has 300 members, Baum and Barr expect between 30,000 and 40,000 people to take part in one or more of the digital High Holidays services. Counting this kind of flock is "more of an art than a science," said Baum, since there is no way to know how many people are gathered around one computer or mobile device at any one time. 

"We thought we'd be reaching young people," she said. "That's a key demographic for many synagogues today. ... We know that many young people under the age of 30 or 40 may not join a congregation, but they are obviously very comfortable with technology." 

Surveys, however, have shown that many of the online participants are elderly, people in hospitals, soldiers or Jews who could not miss work. Others are "on the go," surfing in and out of services. Some people -- perhaps family members scattered around the world -- enjoy being able to "attend" the same rite at the same time, passing messages back and forth online. 

"We are rabbis who encourage people to chat during our services," said Baum. 

Truth is, she said, some people prefer to experience community at the level of face-to-face interaction, reverent silence in the pews, congregational singing and hugs from other members. However, many others prefer the anonymity found online, choosing to spend time in personal, solitary reflection in what they see as a safe environment in which they are allowed to share what they want, when they want and with whom they want to share it. 

Need to grab a sandwich or take a telephone call? Sure. Want to share an ironic wisecrack, photo or YouTube link with others in the flock? Sure. Disagree with what the rabbi just said or want to critique of a poetic twist in this week's liturgy produced by the community? Sure. Take it to Twitter, Facebook or live chat options in the software. 

This full embrace of technology would, of course, be totally unacceptable for those whose faith is rooted in the traditions of Orthodox Judaism, said Barr. However, the leaders of Congregation Beth Adam are -- at every level of doctrine and practice -- focusing on an evolving Judaism of the future, not the past. 

"We're trying to make sense out of what this online experience is, what makes it work," he said. Instead of using new technology to put the same old services online, "what we are doing is qualitatively different. We're right in the middle of these changes. We are living it. ... We're really trying to redefine what it means to be a community in the first place."

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Debating the U2 canon: How long must we sing this song?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

In the first song on U2's new album -- "Songs of Innocence" -- the singer once known as Bono Vox sings the praises of the punk prophet who led his teen-aged self out of confusion into stage-stomping confidence.

"The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" proclaims: "I was young, not dumb. Just wishing to be blinded, by you, brand new, and we were pilgrims on our way. I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred. Heard a song that made some sense out of the world. Everything I ever lost, now has been returned. The most beautiful sound I'd ever heard."

Actually, this could be a metaphor, noted Greg Clarke, leader of the Bible Society of Australia. What if Bono is actually describing another earthquake that rocked his life in those years -- his Christian conversion? What if God is the "you" in this song?

"We are not told what the miracle is, but there are plenty to choose from: the incarnation, the Gospel proclamation to an angry young man, or his encounter with a God
whose story makes some sense of the world," argued Clarke, in an online commentary. "Whatever it is, this miracle is the shaping concept for the album that unfolds. ...

"The line, 'Everything I ever lost, now has been returned' has definite echoes of not just Amazing Grace's "I once was lost," but more importantly, Luke 18:29. In this Gospel passage, Jesus talks about the way in which God will keep and restore the relationships of all who have prioritized the kingdom of God. The things and the people you have lost will be returned to you. It is a most moving idea, especially for pilgrim souls who take risks for their beliefs in the way Bono has always done."

Well, that's one way to hear the song.

"I don't know about that one. To me, 'Miracle' sounds like a song about Joey Ramone," said the Rev. Beth Maynard, laughing. She is an Episcopal priest in Champaign, Illinois, and nationally known as co-editor of the book "Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog" and as a key writer at the U2 Sermons weblog.

After decades of experts dissecting U2's music, it should be clear that Christian faith "is part of their native language. It's how they view the world. ... But sometimes the songs just say what they say. These guys are more Flannery O'Connor than the Newsboys," she said, contrasting a famous Catholic storyteller with a pop group in Contemporary Christian Music.

Critics agree that this album is packed with literal references to events and locations that shaped the band members during their years at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, Ireland. The first person thanked in the credits is the school's chaplain -- "Jack Heaslip, our north star."

But there are layers in the content. One song, "Cedarwood Road," describes life on Bono's home street: "If the door is open it isn't theft. You can't return to where you've never left. Blossoms falling from a tree, they cover you and cover me. Symbols clashing, bibles smashing, paint the world you need to see."

When the album was released -- given free to 500 million iTunes subscribers -- commentators noted that there was a blossoming cherry tree at the house where a Plymouth Brethren family held Bible studies attended by Bono, Larry Mullen, Jr. and Dave "The Edge" Evans. Bono wrote in the album's notes: "In their company I saw some great preachers who opened up these scary black Bibles and made the word of God dance for them, and us. … One minute you're reading it, next minute you're in it."

By now, its obvious that many people -- the band's fierce critics, as well as loyal fans -- will find faith content into everything U2 releases. However, many evangelical Christians will never embrace a quartet of smoking, drinking and often bawdy Irishmen.

What's next? With a nod to poet William Blake, "Songs of Innocence" could be followed by "Songs of Experience" -- creating an autobiographical U2 song cycle.

The bottom line: listeners will keep debating what it all means.

"It this point in their careers, they've pretty much earned the right to do whatever they want to do," said Maynard. "I'll be perfectly happy to go along for the ride, along with millions of other people."

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The new campus orthodoxy that forbids most old orthodoxies

Monday, September 15, 2014

At first, Vanderbilt University's new credo sounded like lofty academic lingo from the pluralistic world of higher education, not the stuff of nationwide debates about religious liberty.

Leaders of Vanderbilt student groups were told they must not discriminate on the basis of "race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, or genetic information. ... In addition, the University does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression."

The bottom line: this "all-comers policy" forbad campus-recognized student groups from requiring their leaders to affirm the very doctrines and policies that defined them as faith-based, voluntary associations in the first place.

This private university in Nashville -- which once had Methodist ties -- affirmed that creeds where acceptable, except when used as creeds. Orthodoxy was OK, except when it conflicted with the new campus orthodoxy that, in practice, banned selected orthodoxies.

Ultimately, 14 religious groups moved off campus, affecting 1,400 evangelical, Catholic and Mormon students. Stripped of the right to use the word "Vanderbilt," some religious leaders began wearing shirts proclaiming simply, "We are here."

In the furor, some conservatives called this struggle another war between faith and "secularism." In this case, that judgment was inaccurate and kept many outsiders from understanding what actually happened, according to the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican minister who worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt during the dispute.

"What Vanderbilt did affirmed the beliefs of some religious groups and rejected those of others. That isn't secularism. Vanderbilt established that there is an orthodoxy on the campus, which means that it has taken a sectarian stand," said Warren, who now works with InterVarsity at the University of Texas, in Austin.

"The university established some approved doctrines and now wants to discriminate in order to defend them. ... As a private school it has every right to do that," she added, reached by telephone. Meanwhile, conservative Christian schools "have their own doctrinal statements, but they're very upfront about that. Students who go to those schools know what they're getting into. The question is whether Vanderbilt will be just as candid and tell students about these new limitations on free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion" on campus.

The key is whether creeds are enforced, noted psychologist Richard McCarty, during a 2012 Vanderbilt forum. At that time he was vice chancellor for academic affairs. Vanderbilt leaders believe that it's wrong to require a student to "profess allegiance to Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior" in order to lead a Christian group, he said, according to a forum transcript.

"I'm Catholic. What if my faith beliefs guided all of the decisions I make from day to day?" Hearing objections from critics, he continued: "No they shouldn't! No they shouldn't! No they shouldn't! ... As a Catholic, if I held that life begins at conception, I'd have a very big problem with our hospital" at Vanderbilt.

"Would I not? ... I would, but I don't. ... We don't want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision-making on this campus."

Many other Catholics disagreed and had to leave the campus.

Now leaders in creedal groups face a growing challenge in state schools, where discrimination policies affect the equal access to student budgets. In the California State University system -- with 450,000 students on 23 campuses -- leaders are pressing toward a policy requiring student-group leaders to pledge, in writing, they will not "discriminate on the base of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, or disability."

Once again, said Warren, the issue is whether these campus policies promote pluralism or weaken it. Ironically, 70 percent of InterVarsity students in these affected regions are "persons of color," as academics now say.

Also, it's crucial to know that on some doctrinal issues -- especially linked to sexuality -- many evangelical students are eager to separate themselves from traditional, orthodox Christianity, she said. These tensions are real.

"It's great that we welcome progressives into our groups. I think it's great that we welcome students who don't believe the Gospel, at all," said Warren. "We need to be open and joyful and embrace as many people as we can. That said, we also need to know what we believe and what we must proclaim as the truth -- without shame."

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A golden age for Catholic architecture -- in the Bible belt?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Architect Michael Tamara's original goal was to study new Catholic churches built using classic designs and symbolism, as opposed to all of those modernist sanctuaries offering what some critics call the "Our Lady of Pizza Hut" style.

The first church that caught his eye, 15 years ago, was the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala., an ornate sanctuary rich in majestic marble and gold details that was becoming familiar to viewers of Eternal Word Television Network. This church, he thought, was built decades after the Second Vatican Council?

Tamara began gathering materials about other new churches in neo-Gothic, Romanesque or other classic styles. Eventually he spotted a surprising pattern.

That first church was in Alabama, and then he found others in Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Oklahoma, several in South Carolina and quite a few in Virginia. Oh, and there was a stunning new monastery -- in Alabama.

"Something is going on," said Tamara, who works at the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C. "The obvious question is this: Why is this happening in the South? Why not in the heavily Catholic Northeast, which is where I am from?"

While it's true that many Catholics are moving to the South for economic reasons, Tamara is convinced that other cultural factors are at play, including the fact that priests and parishes in the old Protestant South are often more evangelistic than those in declining Frost Belt cities.

To be blunt, Catholics in the North are being forced to close many old churches, while Sunbelt Catholics are building new ones. Catholic leaders have noticed.

Thus, noted Tamara, "Rome has been sending more traditionally minded bishops down South because, frankly, they're a better fit for the culture there. These bishops -- naturally -- tend to attract priests who take a more conservative approach to the faith. You put both of those factors together and this more traditional architecture is going to follow. ...

"Yes, people have been calling architecture 'theology in stone' for a long time."

Writing in Crisis, a conservative Catholic journal, Tamara conceded that it's far too early to see this turn toward traditional sacred architecture as a national trend. However, it's getting hard to ignore what is happening, especially in growing sectors of the American church.

"It is true that a certain indiscriminate preference for the contemporary remains firmly ensconced in the average American parish," he wrote. "Yet there has also quietly developed a parallel phenomenon: a deliberate and measured return to tradition, born of a deep desire to reestablish continuity and stability in Catholic life. ...

"Lest delusion set in, the ratio of new traditional churches to posh amphitheater spaces still being built is grossly disproportionate. Nevertheless, after the epic social and liturgical upheavals of the last century, it is a wonder that any sort of traditional resurgence is happening at all, and these projects seem to be only increasing in number and scale with each passing year."

There is another irony linked to these strikingly Catholic sanctuaries rising in the modern South, noted Tamara, in a telephone interview.

After Vatican II, many Catholic leaders thought it was important to present the Catholic faith in ways that were more neutral, modern and, frankly, less offensive to mainline Protestantism. The thinking was that "if we make ourselves look less Catholic, then we will look more ecumenical and we can fit in better with the Protestant culture that is all around us," he said.

The result in many older Catholic regions was a vast array of sanctuaries shaped like giant saucers, wedges, high-tech cubes or movie theaters. Today, some of these churches resemble smaller versions of the giant evangelical megachurches in Southern suburbs.

How ironic is that? Many modern Southern Protestants have stopped building old-fashioned churches, while some of the Catholics flocking into the region have started building ultra-traditional sanctuaries.

"The further South you get, the further you are from the whole New York City and West Coast world that leans toward progressive and secular approaches to just about everything, including faith and education and art," said Tamara. "Down South, you have growing urban areas, but you can still find a kind of rural, small community, traditional, mom-and-pop atmosphere that is friendly to faith and family.

"People still call it the Bible belt for a reason and lots of people down South still like churches that look like churches."

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Rosary prayers and the hellish death of journalist James Foley

Monday, September 1, 2014

When a believer is immersed in the rosary, the familiar phrases of the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Doxology find a soft rhythm, as clicking beads mix with steady breaths and the human heart. 

While meditating on each great mystery of the faith, the final words of the Hail Mary prayers are particularly sobering: "Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen." 

The prayers are "like a pulse that sinks deep inside and goes on and on as you meditate on how these mysteries are connected to your life," said writer Elizabeth Scalia, known as "The Anchoress" among Catholic bloggers. 

"I think all the mysteries would have offered inspiration and consolation to James Foley" while in captivity, she said, as he "faced the fact that his life was truly in danger." 

It's hard not to ask: Was Foley still praying the rosary as he knelt with an Islamic State guard's knife at his throat? 

During his earlier captivity, in a Libyan jail, Foley began praying in hope that his mother would "know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her," he wrote, in a 2011 letter to priests and students at Marquette University, his alma mater. 

"I began to pray the rosary," he added. "It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour, to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused." 

After his release, Foley watched a video from a Marquette vigil on his behalf, which included a speech that resembled a "best man speech and a eulogy in one." It was another link to a larger body, he said, evidence that "prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released. ... It didn't make sense, but faith did." 

After Foley's hellish death, beheaded on camera by an Islamic State guard, his parents faced reporters and said they were proud of his calling to "bear witness" to truth and thankful, once again, for their family's ties of faith. 

"Jim was very loved, very proud to be a journalist," Diane Foley told reporters, outside their New Hampshire home. She added, "How do you make sense out of someone as good as Jim meeting such a fate? There's so much evil in this world."

John Foley said he believed his son "was a martyr -- a martyr for freedom." 

In commentaries online, some Catholics have begun asking if the 40-year-old journalist may have been a martyr -- period. In an interview with NBC, his siblings Michael and Katie claimed that Pope Francis had called Foley "a martyr," during a telephone call to the family. 

A key fact in this discussion is that Islamic State fighters have consistently offered their victims a chance to save their own lives -- by converting to Islam. In an online essay, former L'Osservatore Romano staffer Pia de Solenni noted that it was also likely that Foley's social-media savvy guards were aware that he was a Catholic, as well as a U.S. citizen. 

"Martyrdom is not something that happened a long time ago in ancient Rome. ... It's something that's happening a lot, most -- if not all -- of the time," she wrote. "If it takes the death of James Foley for us to realize that people are dying because of their faith every day, then that makes him even more of a witness to the truth." 

It's almost impossible to believe, noted Scalia, that Foley was not pressed to convert during his captivity and, thus, to abandon his Christian faith. This may have happened, again, as he faced the immediate threat of execution.

"You know that they tried to get James Foley to do that," she said. "Clearly, he refused to do it."

If so, it's hard not to think about the rosary prayers, once again, she said. It's easy to see the relevance of meditating on the First Sorrowful Mystery, when Jesus knows that he is facing his own death. Thus, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus prays, "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done."

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Western elites still struggling to see the suffering Eastern Church

Monday, August 25, 2014

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."

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