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Bethlehem Broom Brawl: Get Religion, December 30, 2011 December 31, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Armenian Apostolic, Get Religion, Greek Orthodox, Press criticism.
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Wednesday’s broom fight between Greek and Armenian clergy at the Church of the Nativity has come as a god-send to the editors manning the desks of news rooms this Christmas. With the year-in-review pieces done and the boss away until Tuesday, the junior editors ruling the roost have been handed a fun item with which to play.

The general outline of the story as reported by the wire services was that fist fight erupted between Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic clergy at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. A six century church built on the purported site of Christ’s birth, the Church of the Nativity is jointly administered by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church and the Franciscan Order of the Roman Catholic Church. Each has their own portion of the building under their administration, the newspapers report, with the turf jealously guarded against encroachment.

While cleaning the building following the Catholic Christmas services on Dec 25 in preparation for the Orthodox (Jan 7) and Armenian (Jan 6) Christmas services, the dividing line between territories was breached.  This led to a shoving, swinging of brooms and fisticuffs. Palestinian Authority Police, evidently prepared for just such an outbreak of violence, quickly broke up the fight — which took place before a tourist group and was recorded on video. No injuries were reported or arrests made, the news services reported.

Several of the longer news pieces noted that brawls between rival churches over their rights and responsibilities at the Church of the Nativity had taken place for centuries. Last year the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran a story about a dispute that led to tourists being trapped in the grotto under the church — the traditional place of Jesus’ birth — a priest took a shortcut and trespassed on Armenian space.

In 2002 Palestinian terrorists damaged the building when they seized the building, holding a number of monks and nuns hostage.

The best report on the incident I’ve seen was in the Daily Mail. It provided the facts, context and an overview of what was behind the dispute.

The Sun has had the best — meaning worst — headline so far. “Affray in a Manger”.  The New York Post comes a close second with “Brawl is mano amen-o” with the Mirror coming third with “Rival Monks in Broomstick Brawl in Bethlehem Church”.

Not given the freehand of their tabloid brethren, many of the “quality” press turned to alliteration with some form of “Clerics Clash” (Reuters, The Independent, USA Today; “Clergymen  Clash” (CBS, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Time); or “Brawl in Bethlehem” (Irish Independent, BBC).

Other outlets mined phrases from popular culture for headlines: “Monks gone wild at the Church of the Nativity” Global Post, or “Bethlehem Rings in Christmas With Annual Priestly Broom Fight” in The Atlantic.

Commentary about the fight was all over the place. One European news agency (MINA) quipped:

Nothing says Christmas as the annual fight between Armenian and Greek priests in Bethlehem. Just like in previous years, both groups continued their tradition and fought over “territory” and who has the right to be at the church which in Christianity is believed was the birthplace of Jesus.

Both groups attempted to clean the Church, to signify the birth of Jesus when a scuffle erupted. Although the place was crawling with police, they still didn’t manage to prevent the annual priest fight, which hopefully Spike TV will air later tonight.

This is perhaps what’s wrong with priests in general, unlike shaolin monks who can actually fight. Our hats off to Greek and Armenian priests… true believers should always fight each other … in Church.

The National Review and the Guardian drew very different lessons from the fracas (imagine that!)

David Pryce-Jones notes that:

Rivalry between Christians was one reason why the Holy Land of the Crusaders was lost to Islam. The bigotry remains as primitive and destructive as the Sunni–Shia divide is to Islam, and when there are no more Christians in any Muslim country it will be too late for regrets.

The fealty given by Christian Arabs to their Muslim rulers will do them no good, Pryce-Jones argues.

Bethlehem used to be at least three-quarters Christian, but that figure is down to about a quarter as its inhabitants emigrate to escape the PLO. Christmas is of course the high point of the town’s calendar. Victor Batarseh, the mayor, is a distinguished medical specialist, aged 76, and Roman Catholic.  He marked this Christmas with a speech calling for a complete boycott of Israel. This would be suicide. The day the Christians are at the exclusive mercy of the PLO, and never mind their Hamas compatriots, is when this church would become a mosque. An omen: Ayia Sofia, once the Byzantine cathedral of Istanbul, was converted into a mosque, then a museum, and under rising Islamism is now a mosque again.

Giles Fraser — the Church of England clergyman whose invitation to the Occupy LSX movement led to the on-going mess at St Paul’s Cathedral — noted that the Nativity brawl was a sign for some people that the church had lost its way.

Church buildings have become a fetish, admired by secular aesthetes and those who want an impressive stage set in which to celebrate life’s big events, but a drain on the resources and moral imagination of the church. What we need is another dose of healthy iconoclasm to remind us that the message of the gospel is not to be confused with bricks and mortar.

While he had sympathy with this view, he believed that:

Christianity is not some esoteric philosophy. It is rooted in time and place. It begins on the streets before it points to the stars. And church buildings are an expression of the rootedness of the incarnation. Where it all goes wrong is when those who are so caught up in the running of church buildings forget about the purpose for which the place was built, and come to believe that the stones matter in and of themselves. When that happens Christianity becomes petty and narrow, all about who cleans a few metres of floor, rather than a means of imagining human life from the context of all eternity.

A few news outlets managed to mangle the story. CNN appeared not to have read TMatt’s recent post and referred to the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches as “sects”. Wrong word, of course. TMatt explains why.

And the Washington Post has over egged the pudding.

At one of oldest churches in the world, built over the cave that tradition marks as the place Jesus was born, Franciscan, Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests have brawled annually around Christmas Day for more than a century.

This year was no different.

This year was different in that they did brawl. They do not brawl every year.

They have, of course brawled frequently. Karl Marx, writing in the New York Herald-Tribune on 15 April 1854 took the churches to task for their unedifying conduct.

… the common worship of the Christians at the Holy Places resolves itself into a continuance of desperate Irish rows between the diverse sections of the faithful; [however] these sacred rows merely conceal a profane battle, not only of nations but of races …

Marx did note the appointment of an Anglican bishop in Jerusalem was “the first and only cause of a union between all the religions at Jerusalem” who were united in their common dislike of the Church of England. Reading Israeli press  reports shows that little has changed.

First published in GetReligion.


Armenian Genocide and modern memory: Get Religion Sept 14, 2011 September 14, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Armenian Apostolic, Get Religion.
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First printed in Get Religion

The Daily Beast, a news and opinion website published by Tina Brown in conjunction with Newsweek magazine, has weighed in on the diplomatic spat between Israel and Turkey. In a piece entitled “The Erdogan Doctrine”, columnist Owen Matthews argues President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party have been unfairly characterized as villainous Islamist thugs. They have actually sought to build bridges with Turkey’s minority faiths, Matthews argues.

Yet the notion of Erdogan as a Jew-hating jihadi doesn’t really fit. Just before the current standoff, Erdogan sat down to dinner with the leaders of Turkey’s religious minorities, including the Chief Rabbi of Istanbul, and promised to return thousands of properties the Turkish state had confiscated from Christians and Jews in the past century. He also made a point of praising the “vast diversity of the people that have peacefully coexisted” in Istanbul. “In this city the [Muslim] call to prayer and church bells sound together,” said Erdogan. “Mosques, churches, and synagogues have stood side by side on the same street for centuries.”

The Daily Beast is also somewhat overgenerous in describing what Erdogan has offered: only the properties of Christian and Jewish institutions seized since 1936 are under discussion. Neither the property of individual Christians and Jews confiscated by the state nor the wholesale expropriations of the 1920’s are being reviewed.

The Daily Beast also uncritically relates Erdogan’s words of religious peace and harmony .. queue the video .. without offering context. The prime minister is able to speak of religious harmony because Turkey’s religious minorities are all but extinct. In the home city of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople it would have been just as easy for Erdogan to sit down to dine with all of the city’s remaining Orthodox Christians as with its minority religious leaders. An op-ed in The Hill, “Religious Freedom for Turkey?” penned by members of US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is less sanguine about the prospects for Christians, Jews, and members of minority Muslim sects, especially the Alawites than The Daily Beast.

Turkey’s Christian minority has dwindled to just 0.15 percent of the country.  In the words of one church leader, it is an “endangered species.”  In past centuries, violence exacted a horrific toll on Turkey’s Christians and their churches.  This provides a frightening context and familiar continuity to a number of recent high-profile murders by ultranationalists.

Turkey’s Jewish community also fears a reprise of past violence, such as the 2003 al Qaeda-linked Istanbul synagogue bombings.   Societal anti-Semitism has been fueled in recent years by Erdogan’s rhetoric against Israel’s activity in the Middle East and by negative portrayals in Turkey’s state-run media.

Today, however, it is the state’s dense web of regulations that most threatens Turkey’s religious minorities.

And this brings me to the articles under examination.  The English-language editions of Turkey’s two major daily newspapers, the Hürriyet Daily News and Today’s Zaman, offer stories on the re-opening an ancient Armenian church located on an island on Lake Van in Eastern Turkey. The Hürriyet Daily News has “Historical Armenian church hosts service” from the Anatolia News Agency, the Turkish state wire service, while Today’s Zaman prepared an in-house version entitled “Armenians hold second religious ceremony at Akdamar church.”

Both pieces present a straight forward if slight account of the festivities. The Church of the Holy Cross, a tenth century Armenian Apostolic Church located on Akdamar Island in Lake Van, hosted its second religious service since it was renovated in 2007.  Between 2000-3000 attended the service and the reports note the island drew 30,000 tourists in 2010 (or are they pilgrims?) after the Turkish government reopened the building as a museum.

Where things go wrong is when the Turkish correspondents attempt to give some historical context to the story. The Hürriyet Daily News states:

The church remained as part of a monastic complex until the beginning of the 20th century. It was abandoned during World War I due to fighting along the Russian border and was left in a bad condition for many years.

While Today’s Zaman notes:

The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross was a monastic complex until 1920s, but deteriorated in condition after being abandoned during World War I. Upon a proposal by the Governor’s Office of Van and approval of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the church is expected to now host annual religious services.

Armenians who lived in this province, located on the eastern shore of Lake Van and in eastern Anatolia, were deported by Ottoman forces in 1915. Armenians say 1.5 million Armenians were killed during a systematic campaign in eastern Anatolia, while Turkey strongly rejects the claims of genocide, saying the killings came as the Ottoman Empire was trying to quell civil strife and that Muslim Turks were also killed in the conflict. There are only around 60,000 Armenians left living in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul.

Yes, the Church of the Holy Cross was abandoned during World War I. The reason why it was abandoned was because the Turkish Army sacked the monastery, killed the monks and drove off, or murdered, the Armenian population in the region.  Today’s Zaman makes note of the Armenian genocide, but states it is a contested point in history.

I very much doubt the heavy hand of the censor massaged these passages. The Daily Hurriet is the principle opposition newspaper, while Today’s Zaman backs the Islamist government. What we see here is a loss of memory. The genocide is not mentioned because its memory has not been preserved in Turkey.

Journalism is a craft, a learned trade that has a pragmatic and moral end. It informs while also educates. If the press does not speak the truth about the past, no matter how unpalatable this past may be to nationalistic or religious sensibilities, it fails in its mission.

The bottom line: The absence of the Armenian Genocide from this story, whether through ignorance, accident or design, means that these articles fail the test of good journalism.

In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel wrote: “That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”

Buildings may survive, but memory of peoples fades away. A free press should not be an accomplice.

Nota bene: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Yerevan bureau filed a report that fills in the blanks. “Thousands Attend Armenian Church Mass In Turkey

Armenia moves to end isolation: CEN 5.13.08 May 13, 2008

Posted by geoconger in Armenian Apostolic, Church of England Newspaper, Diplomatic & Foreign Affairs, Roman Catholic Church, Turkey.
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Armenia’s Church and State have begun a new round of diplomatic overtures designed to end the nation’s diplomatic and economic isolation in the Caucasus.

Last week the country’s Foreign Minister signaled its willingness to move on from the memory of the 1915 Genocide while on May 7 the head of the Armenian Church called for an end to “intolerance and confrontation” across the region.

The Patriarch of the Armenia Apostolic Church sounded the chord of reconciliation during his visit to Rome last week. In an address on May 7 in St Peter’s Square to a congregation of 20,000, His Holiness Karekin II (pictured) spoke of Armenia’s attempts to gain international recognition of the country’s sufferings at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. “Today, many countries of the world recognize and condemn the genocide committed against the Armenian people by Ottoman Turkey,” the patriarch said.

Read it all in The Church of England Newspaper Religious Intelligence section.

Armenia moves to end isolation