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Assad’s Easter and mysterious attacks on Syrian Christians: GetReligion, April 24, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Antiochian Orthodox, Get Religion, Greek Orthodox, Islam, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Why are Syrian Christians being targeted by Islamist rebels?

The Western press cannot agree on a reason, a review of recent reports from Syria reveals.

Can we credit the explanation given by the Wall Street Journal — that the rebels do not trust Christians — as a sufficient explanation? And if so, what does that mean? Are the reports of murders, kidnappings, rapes and overt persecution of Christians in Syria by Islamist rebels motivated by religion, politics, ethnicity, nationalism or is it a lack of trust?

Is the narrative put forward byITAR-TASS, the Russian wire service and successor to the Soviet TASS News Agency — that the rebels are fanatics bent on turning Syria into a Sunni Muslim state governed by Sharia law — the truth?

On this past Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on its front page under this headline:

Christians of Homs Grieve as Battle for City Intensifies

That story examined the plight of Syria’s Christians. The Journal entered into the report by looking at the death of Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, who had been murdered by members of an Islamist militia in the town of Homs.

The well-written article offers extensive quotes from a second Syrian Roman Catholic priest on this tragedy and notes the late priest’s attempt to bridge the divide between Christians and Muslims. In the 10th paragraph, the story opens up into a wider discussion of the plight of Syria’s Christians and recounts Assad’s Easter visit to a monastery — whether Catholic or some variety of Orthodox, that detail is left out.

While the fighting raged in Homs, President Bashar al-Assad showed up unexpectedly on Sunday in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, about 30 miles northeast of the capital Damascus. The town was overrun by Islamist rebels in September and reclaimed by the Syrian army a week ago.

State media released video footage of Mr. Assad surveying smashed icons at the town’s damaged monasteries and quoted him as saying that “no amount of terror can ever erase our history and civilization.”

The fight over Maaloula, like the killing of Father Frans, both reflect the quandary of Syria’s Christians. Many feel an affinity for Mr. Assad. His Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominates the regime while the majority of Syrians—and opposition supporters—are Sunni Muslims.

Most Christians have become all the more convinced that only the regime can protect them after some rebels came under the sway of Islamic extremists who have attacked and pillaged their communities and churches and targeted priests and nuns.

Some Christians still seek to build bridges with both sides of the civil war, as Father Frans did. But in a landscape where religious and sectarian affiliations often define and shape the struggle, they find themselves under fire from both sides.

Many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians, while regime supporters see those who reach out to the opposition as naive or traitors. Father Frans found himself in that position, say some close to him

What are we to make of these assertions — “some rebels” are Islamists, or that “many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians?” Is that a fair, suffient or accurate statement of affairs?

A look at the Financial Times report on President al-Assad’s visit to Maaloula on Easter Sunday makes the argument that the Assad regime is playing up the Islamist angle for his political benefit. But it assumes the persecution is real.

President Bashar al-Assad made an Easter visit on Sunday to a historic Christian town recaptured by the army, in a rare appearance outside the capital that shows his growing confidence in state control around Damascus.

The visit also aims to portray him as the protector of Syrian minorities against a rebel movement led by Islamist forces.

The wire service stories also connect Christian fear of the rebels with support for Assad. AFP’s account closes with the explanation:

Syria’s large Christian minority has sought neutrality throughout the three-year war, and has viewed the Sunni-led rebels with growing concern as jihadists have flocked to their ranks.

The Los Angeles Times opens its story on the Maaloula visit noting that both Assad and the rebel leadership are courting Syria’s Christians.

But Assad appears to be winning.

DAMASCUS, Syria — President Bashar  Assad made a symbolic Easter visit Sunday to the heavily damaged town of Maaloula, a Christian landmark  enclave recaptured from Islamist rebels last week by government forces. The president’s visit, broadcast on state television, underscored his efforts  to portray himself as a defender of Christians and other minorities as he  prepares for an expected reelection bid in the midst of a devastating war now in  its fourth year.

Maaloula and several of its historic churches sustained significant damage  during heavy fighting and bombardment. Church leaders say priceless icons were  looted or destroyed during the rebel occupation of Maaloula, famous for its  preservation of Aramaic, a version of the language spoken by Jesus Christ.

“No one, no matter the extent of their terrorism, is able to erase our human  and cultural history,” Assad declared in Maaloula while in the company of senior  Christian clerics. “Maaloula will remain steadfast … in the face of the  barbarity and darkness of all who target the homeland.”

Opposition groups seeking Assad’s ouster generally dismissed the trip as a  stunt or faked. The exile-based Syrian National Coalition sent Easter greetings  to Syria’s Christians “at a time when Assad destroyed the country because of a  people who are demanding freedom.”

Comparing the reporting by Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph on the plight of Syria’s Christians to the the Wall Street Journal reveals the shallowness of the WSJ’spiece. Reporting on his visit to Maaloula shortly after it was recapture by government forces, Oborne writes:

Below, the village itself appeared practically deserted; most of its 5,000-strong, mainly Christian, population have fled since it first came under rebel attack, on Sept 4 last year.

According to Samir, a soldier who said he had been born in Maaloula, and joined up to defend his village, the ancient religious centre “will not change hands again because most of the young men in the village have joined the military”.

His friend, Imad, said there had been 32 churches in Maaloula and claimed that “all of them have been destroyed” – although it was clear from the vantage point near the monastery that in fact churches were still standing, albeit with signs of damage and some burning.

Anger among regime supporters at what they claim are the excesses of the rebels – who include radical Islamist insurgent groups – was palpable. “I can’t describe my feelings because the terrorists are destroying the Christian religion,” said Imad, who said he had been an electrician in Maaloula before he joined the military and the rest of his family moved to Damsacus two years ago. Samir claimed that the rebels had behaved brutally to young men of the town when they first arrived, killing many.

However, there have been no documented massacres of Christian inhabitants under the rebels’ rule of Maaloula and a group of nuns who were released last month after being kidnapped by the Islamist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, said they had been treated well.

Oborne’s article allows both sides to speak, while offering facts that put the claims in context. The complexity of the war in Syria is better served by the balanced but nuanced approach taken by the Daily Telegraph, I believe, than the shy style adopted by the WSJ. While I have no firsthand knowledge of the events unfolding in Syria, Oborne’s story just feels right — it is a first-class example of the craft of reporting.

Where does the truth lay in all of this? The WSJ piece doesn’t feel right to me. I am not saying it is incorrect, but it is incomplete.

As a stand-alone piece on the murder of Father van der Lugt, the WSJ article is great. It seems to get into trouble, however, when it moves into a wider discussion of the causes and political-religious currents of Syria’s civil war. Frankly, I am not convinced it is telling the full story. It leaves me wonder why the WSJ is being shy in examining the persecution of Christians by Muslims?

Reporters: beware of Greeks bearing gay gifts: Get Religion, December 5, 2013 December 5, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Greek Orthodox.
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The essence of life, its meanings, symbols and motives, can be found in television; reporting on the condition of man is reducible to vignettes from Seinfeld and Yes Minister.

This profundity came to me late last night as I perused The Guardian‘s report on the political and civil debate over same-sex unions in Greece. As my colleagues at Get Religion have shown, balance is not a requirement for many mainstream media outlets when reporting on gay marriage. The article “Bishop threatens to excommunicate Greek MPs who vote for gay unions” is unbalanced with only one side of the debate presented.

That is a commonplace of European-style advocacy reporting and The Guardian is not shy in proclaiming its leftist credentials. However in this instance the reporter’s desire to preach overcame her news gathering skills. Presented with a golden opportunity of promoting the rightness of the cause of gay marriage in the face of intolerance, The Guardian neglected to do its home work. It did not ask basic questions that would have provided essential context.

But first, let us turn to the canon of journalistic scripture. Reading from episode 19, series 3 number 5, of Yes Minister, “The Bed of Nails” recounts Jim Hacker’s acceptance of the gift of “Transport Supremo” from the prime minister. Hacker is delighted to be offered the job of developing an “Integrated Transport”‘ policy for Britain. The episode recounts his discovery the Supremo post is fraught with peril and might end his career. Sir Humphrey and Bernard urge the minister to think through the implications of what he has been offered as danger lies ahead.

Hacker: Furthermore, Sir Mark thinks there may be votes in it, and if so, I don’t intend to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Sir Humphrey: I put it to you, Minister that you are looking a Trojan Horse in the mouth.

Hacker: You mean, if I look closely at this gift horse, I would find it’s full of Trojans?

Bernard: If you had looked the Trojan Horse in the mouth, Minister, you would have found Greeks inside.

Odd look from Hacker… Bernard: Well, the point is it was the Greeks who gave the Trojan Horse to the Trojans, so technically, it wasn’t a Trojan Horse at all, it was a Greek Horse. Hence the tag timeo Danaos et dona ferentes which you will recall, is usually and somewhat inaccurately translated as Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Or doubtless, you would have recalled, had you not attended the LSE.

Hacker: Yes well I’m sure Greek tags are all right in their way, but can we stick to the point, please?

Bernard: Sorry. Sorry, Greek tags?

Hacker: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. I suppose the EEC equivalent would be Beware of Greeks bearing an olive oil surplus!

Sir Humphrey: Excellent, Minister!

Bernard: Ah. Oh. Well, the point is minister, that just as the Trojan Horse was in fact Greek, what you describe as a Greek tag is in fact Latin. It’s obvious, really: the Greeks would never suggest bewaring of themselves, if one could use such a participle, ‘bewaring’, that is. And it’s clearly Latin, not because timeo ends in -o, because the Greek first person also ends in -o. Though actually, there is a Greek word ?????, meaning ‘I honour’. But the -os ending is a nominative singular termination of the second declension in Greek, and an accusative plural in Latin, of course. Though actually ‘Danaos’ is not only the Greek for Greek, its also the Latin for Greek, it’s very interesting really.

The moral of the story is that sometimes something that is too good to be true, is too good to be true. This can be seen in The Guardian story about Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus.

The Guardian reports:

A leading Greek bishop has warned lawmakers that they risk incurring the wrath of God – and will be excommunicated – if they vote in favour of legalising same-sex partnerships. In a letter lambasting homosexuality as “an insult to God and man”, the Metropolitan of Piraeus, Seraphim, pleaded with the country’s deputy prime minister, Evangelos Venizelos, not to condone gay unions.

The article discusses the content of a public letter released by Seraphim, whom The Guardian describes as a “57-year-old former monk, a prominent personality in Greece’s powerful Orthodox church” and offers a response from liberal critics. True to form, the article is one-sided. We hear from a spokesman for the Socialist Party, who likens the bishop to the Taliban, and from a gay activist. The Church of Greece is offered a chance to say they are against same-sex unions, but no argument is proffered against gay unions — save for Metropolitan Seraphim’s jeremiad.

The article then closes out with references to European court rulings endorsing gay unions and a slam at the country’s backward stance on gay issues. All rather predictable from The Guardian and pretty much as one would expect. But there is more to this story that The Guardian did not report, or did not know.

Who exactly is Seraphim? How influential is he? How should we weight his words? These questions are not asked nor answered — leaving the impression that Greece is a priest ridden small-minded country. A little research, or knowledge of the Greek religious scene, would reveal that Seraphim has form. In 2011 I reported:

Jews are to blame for a host of the world’s ills, from homosexuality to the Holocaust, a Greek Orthodox Church leader told an Athens television programme last month.

In a Dec 20 interview broadcast on the MEGA television network, Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus laid the blame for Greece’s financial meltdown on an international Zionist conspiracy and a cabal of Jewish bankers who sought to “enslave Greece and Christian Orthodoxy.”

I grant you The Church of England Newspaper is not a must read for journalists. Sadly the paper’s circulation has not changed in recent years. When it started in 1828 it numbered around 12,000 subscribers and I think its current numbers are about the same –perhaps we should prune the circulation list. Nonetheless Seraphim’s views on Jews, (he believes Hitler was a tool of a Zionist conspiracy), have been reported in the New York Times and other English-language outlets.

Would it have put Seraphim’s letter in context if readers knew of his fantasies about a Jewish world conspiracy? Would his views on Freemasons and the nefarious influence of secret societies seeking to create a new world order provide context to his views on civil unions?

Presented with a golden opportunity of a crazed cleric denouncing politicians who would support same-sex unions, The Guardian ran an advocacy story that boiled down to its essence said: “See how opponents of gay marriage think. You can dismiss all objections to gay marriage because the argument does not rise above Seraphim’s silliness.”

I am not seeking to address the question of the rights or wrongs of gay marriage in this post. What I am discussing is journalism. What a good newspaper should have done in this case it to note Seraphim’s other controversial views in its description of the cleric. Context is key and the omission of important information, whether through ignorance or editorial design, colors a story.

In short, readers you cannot trust The Guardian‘s account to give you a full and balanced picture. If you are looking to reinforce preexisting prejudices, you have something here that will do quite nicely. But it is not journalism.

Reporters — a story that is too good to be true, should be investigated — as it may well be too good to be true.

First printed in Get Religion.

Prayers for the release of kidnapped Syrian bishops: The Church of England Newspaper, May 5, 2013 p 6. May 5, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.
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The Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster have issued a call to prayer for peace in Syria.

On 25 April 2013 Archbishop Justin Welby and Vincent Nichols issued a joint statement in response to the kidnapping of Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox bishop of Aleppo and Boulos Yaziji, the Greek Orthodox archbishop of the city. The two clerics were abducted on 22 April in Kafr Dael near the Turkish border. Their driver, a Syriac Orthodox deacon, was killed.

Mgr. Jean-Clement Jeanbart, Greek Melkite bishop of Aleppo, told AsiaNews. “The Catholic and Orthodox Churches are doing their best to mediate with the kidnappers,” but “at present no one understands the reasons for this act and who is behind these criminals.”

The English Archbishop said their prayers “go with the ancient communities of our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria. The kidnapping” was “another telling sign of the terrible circumstances that continue to engulf all Syrians.”

“We both continue to pray for a political solution to this tragic conflict that would stem the terrible violence and also empower all Syrians with their fundamental and inalienable freedoms,” The Anglican and Catholic archbishops said. “We also call for urgent humanitarian aid to reach all who are suffering. We pray that Syria can recapture its tradition of tolerance, rooted in faith and respect for faiths living side by side.”

Orthodox lay presidency at the Eucharist?: Get Religion, April 21, 2012 April 21, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic Church.
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Reuters has a dispatch from Athens on the difficulties the Greek financial collapse is causing the Orthodox Church. The article entitled “Crisis proves a curse for Greece’s Orthodox Church” will appear in various forms in newspapers and websites this weekend and I encourage you to read it, as it provides a strong account of the hardships facing the Church.

However, a GetReligion reader, Dominic Foo, was struck by one section of the article. He wrote:

I find it incredibly hard to believe that an Eastern Orthodox Church would permit lay celebration of the Eucharist, unless of course, this is merely sloppy journalistic reporting and what is permitted is not “mass” but a prayer service.

He was questioning this section of the story:

To cover the shortage of priests, some bishops are permitting laymen to take services. These volunteers receive no state wages and don’t wear the characteristic vestments.

For instance, a retired army officer recently started holding mass at Avantas, a village close to the eastern border with Turkey, said Father Irinaios. “Priests in small villages retire or pass away and there is nobody to replace them,” he said. “We are going to have a huge problem.”

If Reuters is correct in its reporting, this is highly significant development. In the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions it is inconceivable that a lay person would be permitted by a bishop to celebrate the Eucharist as the administration and celebration of the sacraments is the essence of the priesthood. For Roman Catholics this teaching is set down in a number of formal statements and encyclicals: Lumen Gentium 28; De ordinatione episcopi, presbyterorum et diaconorum 2; 6; 12.

For the Orthodox lay presidency is a non-starter. The doctrinal confessions most accepted in the Orthodox world, The Confession written by Dosietheus, Patriarch of Jerusalem (1672) and The Orthodox Confession written by Peter Mogilas, Metropolitan of Kiev (1643) state the Eucharist may be celebrated only by a “lawful” priest.

In my corner of the church world, the issue of lay celebration of the Eucharist has the potential to supplant the fights over homosexuality. The Diocese of Sydney — the most influential evangelical diocese in the Anglican Communion — supports  allowing lay people licensed by the bishop to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The diocese has debated this issue for almost a generation and prepared a number of theological papers in support of its views.

One clue to the debate is the use of the phrase “Lord’s Supper” rather than Mass by Sydney Anglicans. Their understanding of what takes place in Holy Communion is very different than that of High Church Anglicans, not to mention the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. However, the Archbishop of Sydney Dr. Peter Jensen, has so far declined to implement the diocesan synod’s request as the wider Australian church — and Anglican Communion does not agree with this innovation.

If the Greek Orthodox Church is allowing lay celebration of the Eucharist this would be a break with tradition. For a religion reporter this would be great news — I have visions of a pan-Orthodox council being called (allowing me a trip to Greece on my editor’s dime.)

Perhaps something less dramatic, but still highly significant is taking place. Has some form of Liberation theology arisen in Greece? That would be news! In marginalized or deprived communities where a priest is not present to preside at the Eucharist, such as in Latin American base communities, Leonardo Boff and other radical theologians have proposed holding a eucharist-like fellowship meal as an admittedly less than adequate substitute for the Eucharist.

Or, as is most likely, the Reuters reporter was confused or his article was mistranslated. I’m afraid I won’t be jetting off to Greece this summer as I suspect the liturgy being used at services where no priest is present is the Typica or Reader’s Service.

While the Typica may not be common in areas where there is a settled Orthodox presence, it can be found in places like the American South or Africa where there are new Orthodox congregations but no resident clergy. Here is a link to a Greenville, NC Orthodox Church that explains the value of Lay-led Services.

While this Reuters story focuses on the effects of Greece’s economic implosion on the Orthodox Church, the statement about lay led masses should be addressed. If wrong, I would hope it would be corrected. If right, then there is a major story here that has so far gone unreported.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

Arrest of abbot is an attack on Orthodoxy, Moscow Patriachate declares: The Church of England Newspaper, January 13, 2012, p 7. January 16, 2012

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Archimandrite Ephraim, Abbot of the Vatopedi Monastery at Mt Athos

First published in The Church of England Newspaper.

The Russian Orthodox Church has denounced the arrest by Greek police of Archimandrite Ephraim, the abbot of the Vatopedi Monastery on Mt. Athos, calling it an attack on the Orthodox Church.

On 28 December 2011, Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, told the Interfax news agency that it was unconscionable for Greece to refuse bail for the head of the thousand year old monastery in Northern Greece.

He said he had no knowledge of the charges brought against the abbot and added that “whether these charges are just, the Greek court will decide; we cannot interfere.”

“However, it is quite obvious that detention under remand of Archimandrite Ephraim, who does not pose any danger, without considering the case on its merits and before a court ruling, is an extraordinary action that surprises us deeply. The authorities arrested nobody but the elderly and ailing priest. This ruling arouses grave concern of believers of the Russian Orthodox Church, puts her hierarchs on guard, and makes us ponder over its true reasons,” Hilarion said.

On 24 December 2011 Greek police arrested the abbot and are holding him in cell at a maximum security prison in Athens.  A Greek appellate court subsequently ruled the elderly monk was a danger to society and should not be granted bail.

Ephraim is accused of being involved in a €100 million land swap deal with the Greek government that prosecutors say defrauded the government.  The monastery is alleged to have exchanged low value rural land for high value Athens real estate in a deal made with the New Democracy party government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis in 2008.  After news of the swap became public the government cancelled the deal and two ministers resigned after a public outcry.  The Greek Parliament voted to investigate the transaction.

The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement via Twitter that said Moscow was concerned by Greece’s decision to arrest Ephraim and objected to Greece’s rejection of standards set by the European Court of Human Rights on arrest and bail.

Last month Ephraim escorted a relic from the monastery, the Belt of the Mother of God, to Moscow.  “Russians are deeply grateful to the brothers at Vatopedi Monastery for the opportunity to venerate the Belt of the Holy Mother of God,” the foreign ministry statement said.

Supporters of the abbot claim the arrest is politically motivated.  According to the Voice of Russia and Interfax, Sergey Rudov, head of The Society of Friends of the Vatopedi monastery said police bullied the abbot.

“Staying in cold Russia was a serious trial for [Ephraim]. And when he visited Patriarch Ilia in Georgia, he wasn’t far from dying. Father [Ephraim] needs constant medical attention. He was questioned for 30 hours in Greece. And they told him during questioning: you’ve been to Russia, you talked to Putin, Medvedev, but they won’t help you,” he said.

Rudov claimed there could be two reasons behind the arrest.  “One is that the EU has now been insisting for a long time that the Athos monasteries should be stripped of their special status and subordinated to the Greek government to a greater extent, because the EU is unhappy about the fact that currently, one needs a special visas to be able to visit the monasteries on Mount Athos.”

“The second reason is that some people in Europe are unhappy about the growing influence of Russians in Greece – mainly because of the close ties between the Greek and the Russian Churches.”

Hilarion said Ephraim was “widely known not only in Greece, but also in the entire Orthodox world as a spiritual leader” and was “near and dear to many in the Russian Orthodox Church.”

The Russian church and state were distressed by the arrest and as was the Greek Church which believes “that the ruling on Archimandrite Ephraim is a hostile attack against the [Athos] monks and the entire Orthodox Church,” Hilarion said.

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.

Zionism is Satanic, Greek bishop declares: The Church of England Newspaper, Jan 7, 2011 p 5 January 10, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Greek Orthodox, Judaism.
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Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus

published in The Church of England Newspaper.

Jews are to blame for a host of the world’s ills, from homosexuality to the Holocaust, a Greek Orthodox Church leader told an Athens television programme last month.

In a Dec 20 interview broadcast on the MEGA television network, Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus laid the blame for Greece’s financial meltdown on an international Zionist conspiracy and a cabal of Jewish bankers who sought to “enslave Greece and Christian Orthodoxy.”

International Zionism was also behind the push for same-sex marriage and one-parent families the bishop revealed.  Asked how he would distinguish his views from those of Adolf Hitler, Metropolitan Seraphim stated that Hitler was actually an agent of the Jewish conspiracy.

“Adolf Hitler was an instrument of world Zionism and was financed from the renowned Rothschild family with the sole purpose of convincing the Jews to leave the shores of Europe and go to Israel to establish the new Empire,” the bishop said according to a translation of his comments reported by the JTA.

Jewish bankers like “Rockefeller, Rothschild and Soros control the international banking system that controls globalization,” the bishop added.

Church and state leaders in Greece were quick to condemn Seraphim’s remarks.  On Dec 23, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America condemned the “anti-Semitic rhetoric” of Metropolitan Seraphim, and “expresses its sadness that these hurtful words should have been spoken at all.”

It added that it “considers the remarks to be gravely offensive and totally unacceptable.”

A Greek government spokesman stated his government was “obliged to condemn the language of hatred, regardless of who uses it. We are obliged to characterize language denying the holocaust – the greatest crime against humanity – as unacceptable.”

In response to the controversy, on Dec 23, Metropolitan Seraphim posted a statement on his website saying the views he expressed on the programme were his personal opinions and not those of the Greek Orthodox Church.  The bishop said he loved the Jews, but disliked Zionists.

“My public vehement opposition against International Zionism refers to the organ that is the successor of the ‘Sanhedrin’ which altered the faith of the Patriarchs, the Prophets and the Righteous of the Jewish nation through the Talmud, the Rabbinical writings and the Kabbalah into Satanism, and always strives vigorously toward an economic empire set up throughout the world with headquarters in the great land beyond the Atlantic for the prevalence of world government and pan-religion,” the bishop explained.

In addition to Jews, Metropolitan Seraphim does not care for Elton John.  In March 2010, the Kathimerini newspaper of Athens reported that Seraphim had written to the Queen, asking her to rescind Elton John’s knighthood following the pop-singer’s comments to Parade Magazine that Jesus was a “compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems.”

The bishop called upon the members of his diocese to write to Buckingham Palace and to the British ambassador in Athens to make their views known concerning the performer’s “unacceptable and absurd” comments.

Dr. Williams’ Roman holiday: The Church of England Newspaper, Dec 8, 2010 December 8, 2010

Posted by geoconger in Archbishop of Canterbury, Church of England Newspaper, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic Church.
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The Archbishop of Athens, His Beatitude Hieronymus II and Dr. Williams on tour

First published in The Church of England Newspaper.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has travelled to Rome and Athens, holding private meetings with Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop Hieronymus II, the primate of the Church of Greece.

On Nov 17, Dr. Rowan Williams delivered a lecture commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.  He joined Cardinal Walter Kasper, Cardinal-designate Kurt Koch and Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon in addressing the evening service at the Sala San Pio V in Rome.

The lectures were part of the council’s Nov 15-19 plenary session focusing on the theme: “Towards a new stage of ecumenical dialogue.”  The speakers noted the weakening spirit of ecumenism, but underscored the importance of continued church relations.

The division of Christendom was an “anomaly” Metropolitan John observed, while the former president of the council, Cardinal Kasper, called it sin.

“The great danger is that we get used to this situation of division, taking it simply as a fact,” Cardinal Kasper said. “The existence of confessional churches, one alongside the other, is a reality that contradicts the will of the Lord and is the fruit of sin.”

In his address, Dr. Williams warned of the dangers, of “reconciled diversity;” of believing the differences among Christians were of such magnitude that it was more profitable and easier to ignore them, and accept the status quo.

The Archbishop of Canterbury called for a renewed effort to develop an ecumenical theology of the Eucharist as a key step towards visible church union, for it was around the altar that Christians stood in unity with Christ, because it was “the place where the prayer of Christ becomes our prayer.”

The following day, Dr. Williams held a private meeting with the Pope, the day before a pre-consistory retreat of the College of Cardinals, which heard a presentation on the Anglican Ordinariate.

On Nov 25, Dr. Williams met with His Beatitude Hieronymus II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece and Primate of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece, to discuss church relations.  The archbishops described their meeting as a success.  Hieronymus told reporters Dr. Williams was “a sincere friend of Orthodoxy and a student of the teachings of Orthodox dogma.”

Cyprus cemetery spat: The Church of England Newspaper, April 1, 2010 p 7. April 11, 2010

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East, Greek Orthodox.
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The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew inspecting vandalized Orthodox tombs outside the Valukli Monastery in Turkey

First published in The Church of England Newspaper.

Claims the Church of England has been desecrating Greek Orthodox tombs to bury British ex-pats are patently untrue, the Anglican Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, the Rt. Rev. Michael Lewis declared last week.

While the claims of British colonizing of graveyards in Cyprus are false, concerns that British ex-pats are buying up property illegally confiscated from Greek Cypriots by the Turkish government following the 1974 invasion of the island appear well founded. Cypriot government leaders claim British buyers comprise over 90 per cent of the foreign buyers of property in the Turkish occupied North.

Buying land confiscated from Greek Cypriots by the Turks is a criminal offence in Cyprus and the Foreign Office has warned that British ex-pats buyers in Northern Cyprus may lose their investments once the island’s political divisions are resolved.

On March 23 the English-language Cyprus Mail reported that Dr. Charalambous Chotzakoglou, Professor of Byzantine Art and Archeology at the Hellenic Open University and director of the Kykkos Monastery Museum in Cyprus had accused the Anglican Church of desecrating Orthodox graves in a cemetery in the Turkish occupied zone.

The British had exhumed Greek bodies from the cemetery in the popular holiday resort of Kyrenia, smashing tombstones and religious monuments to bury British ex-pats “who no longer fit in the nearby British cemetery.”

“This is an unacceptable insult to the memory of the dead and an intolerable act of the Anglican Church in Cyprus, which in the free areas enjoys the full freedom and benefit of the Church of Cyprus and the Cyprus Republic,” Prof. Chotzakoglou said.

Bishop Lewis responded that “at no time, past or present, has there been any act of the Anglican Church in Cyprus that has affected the graves or bodies of faithful departed Orthodox in Kyrenia or anywhere else, by moving existing graves to bury British residents.”

“As Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, I am absolutely committed to promoting respect for the remains and memorials of the dead. They are of utmost sanctity,” he said in a written statement.

An aide to the bishop stated that in 1979 the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Kyrenia had given permission to the Church of England to bury British ex-pats in an unused portion of the cemetery. The destroyed funeral monuments cited by the professor, the aide said, were victims of the Turkish invasion of 1974. In 2005, the rubble of broken headstones was picked up and piled in a corner of the graveyard.

The aide noted that the British Cemeteries Commission, not the Anglican Church, is responsible for burying British dead in the Kyrenia cemetery.

In 2007 Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis told British MPs that 95 per cent of the sales of property illegally confiscated from Greek Cypriots in the North were to British buyers. The Foreign Office has subsequently warned British buyers to take care when investing in land in North Cyprus.

Purchase of confiscated properties “could have serious financial and legal implications,” the Foreign Office warned as the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in a number of cases that owners of property in northern Cyprus before 1974 continue to be regarded as the legal owners of that property.

The Foreign Office noted that a 2006 Cypriot law made the “buying, selling, renting, promoting or mortgaging a property without the permission of the owner,” including property confiscated from Greek Cypriots, a criminal offence.

Turkey sued over access to churches on Cyprus: CEN 11.27.09 p 4. December 7, 2009

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Greek Orthodox, Property Litigation, Turkey.
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The Church of Cyprus has filed suit against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights, charging the Turkish government has violated international human rights treaties by preventing Greek Orthodox worship at religious sites in the Turkish controlled northern third of the island.

On Nov 23, a lawyer for the church said the lawsuit would seek the return of 522 churches, monasteries, chapels and cemeteries in the Turkish occupied zone. Greek Orthodox Christians have been forbidden access to the sites since the Turkish invasion of 1974 and many of the sites are now derelict or used for secular purposes.

A speedy resolution of the dispute is unlikely, as negotiations between the Greek Cypriot south and Turkish Cypriot north over unification are at a standstill.

On Nov 18 the European Court of Human Rights held a Grand Chamber hearing before a 20-judge panel to review the case of Emopolous v Turkey and seven related cases arising from the 1974 occupation.

In the Emopolous case, the applicants are Greek-Cypriots who claim to be owners of property located in Northern Cyprus. They have alleged that the Turkish authorities are preventing them from having access to their property and disposing of it as they wish, violating Articles 1 of Protocol No. 1, 8 (right to respect for private and family life), 13 (right to an effective remedy), 14 (prohibition of discrimination), and 18 (limitation on use of restrictions on rights) of the European Convention on Human Rights

The Emopolous case was lodged with the Court in 1999, and in May 2009 the case was assigned to the Grand Chamber for a hearing. A decision is expected next year.

Churches unite in secular fight: CEN 5.28.09 p 8. June 2, 2009

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Church of England Newspaper, Greek Orthodox.
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The Churches of England and Greece must stand together as bulwarks against the forces of secularism and social decline in Europe, the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece said last week at the start of a May 8-12 meeting between leaders of the two churches in Athens.

“The Church of Greece and the Anglican Communion constitute two of the main sources of Christian faith in the old Continent,” Archbishop Ieronymos said in a statement of greetings given to the delegation led by the Bishop of London, the Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres, along with the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt. Rev. David Urquhart, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ecumenical advisor the Rev. Jonathan Goodall, and the Anglican Chaplain in Athens, Canon Malcolm Bradshaw.

Both churches faced the “same challenges, the same problems, the same quests” Archbishop Ieronymos said, as the modern world was “marked by the search for a definition which will adequately determine the value of the human model, true image of Jesus Christ.”

The churches of Europe must reach out to those “those in pain, the lonely, those suffering undeservingly, the immigrants, our brothers and sisters of every race, language and religion,” he said, noting that ecumenical cooperation was both “necessary and imperative.”

During their four day visit the English church leaders toured Greek church schools and institutions and discussed common concerns “spanning educational and social responsibility and international development,” a statement from the Diocese of London said.

Greece cancels land deal after Orthodox financial questions: CEN 10.17.08 p 8. October 19, 2008

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Corruption, Greek Orthodox, Politics.
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The government of Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has cancelled a land swap with the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos, after state prosecutors reported the Orthodox monastery had profited to the tune of £70 million from the deal.

A series of financial and ethics scandals has hurt the conservative New Democracy (ND) Party government of Prime Minister Karamanlis, dropping his support in the polls below the opposition Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) for the first time since taking office in 2004.

Opposition deputies have charged the government with incompetence and corruption. On Oct 3 Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis said the government had issued an executive order annulling three land transactions, and backed the state prosecutor’s investigation of the land deal.

Beginning in 1999, the government recognized a claim to state land by the monastery. To compensate the 1000 year old skete, or hermit community, the government offered public land in other parts of Greece to the monastery—which it then sold for a profit.

Vatopedi is located on the north-eastern part of the Athos peninsula and ranks second in the hierarchy of the Mount Athos monasteries. It is coenobitic (communal) and is inhabited by 100 Greek and Russian monks.

Since the state prosecutor’s probe began, the government has frozen the monastery’s bank accounts and repossessed the land.

The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens said he was shocked by the allegations of corrupt practices. He told the Greek press “I am astounded by everything that has been published and I have total faith in the justice system.” However, he could not intervene in the affair as Mount Athos was under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul.

The 20 monasteries on Mount Athos, a mountain on a peninsula land in Greek Macedonia on the Aegean accessible only by boat, is a self-governing monastic state within Greece. Women are not permitted entrance to Mount Athos and only Orthodox men, 18 years of age or older are permitted to live on the “Holy Mountain.”

Greece rebuffs Church over cremations: CEN 10.01.08 October 1, 2008

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Greek Orthodox.
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Greece’s highest administrative court has turned back objections from the Orthodox Church and approved a 2006 law permitting cremation of the dead.

On Sept 26 the Council of State ratified the Greek parliament’s March 3, 2006, vote overturning the ban on cremation. The Church of Greece has historically objected to cremation, saying it violated Orthodox Christian beliefs.

Greek law had codified the Greek Orthodox ban into the nation’s civil law. Those who wished to be cremated had to be embalmed and their body shipped to neighbouring countries for cremation. Civil libertarians had argued the ban discriminated against the non-Orthodox minority, and also placed a burden on municipal cemeteries, which were running out of room to bury the dead.

Read it all in The Church of England Newspaper.

Greece rebuffs Church over cremations

Greek religious oaths under threat: CEN 5.01.08 May 1, 2008

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Civil Rights, EU, Free Speech, Greek Orthodox, Persecution, Politics.
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Religious oaths administered by the state in legal or civil proceedings may violate Article 9 (Freedom of Religion) of the European Convention of Human Rights, an EU court has held.

In a Feb 21 ruling, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg held that a Greek law requiring a lawyer to swear an oath to conform to the law before he was admitted to practice, or to make a statement of conscience if he were an atheist or if his principles forbad him to make an oath, was unlawful.

“The fact that the applicant had to reveal to the court that he was not an Orthodox Christian interfered with his freedom not to have to manifest his religious beliefs,” the court ruled in the case of Alexandridis vs. Greece (application number 19516/2006).

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

Greek religious oaths under threat

Greek Church opposes civil parternships law: CEN 3.19.08 March 21, 2008

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Greek Orthodox.
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The Church of Greece has denounced government plans to introduce a civil partnerships law, saying government support for common law marriage would amount to state-sanctioned “prostitution.”

The 13 bishops of the Greek Orthodox Church’s standing committee on Monday said the proposed civil union law would be “catastrophic bomb” lodged in the foundations of Greek society by undermining marriage and family life.

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


‘Religion must not be used to justify violence’ says Archbishop: CEN 10.26.07 p 5. October 25, 2007

Posted by geoconger in Archbishop of Canterbury, Church of England Newspaper, Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East, Greek Orthodox, Interfaith, Roman Catholic Church.
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williams-and-benedict.jpg(AP photo)

Religion must not be used to justify violence, the Archbishop of Canterbury said at a meeting of world faith leaders in Naples on Oct 21.

Dr. Williams, the Pope, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Zoroastrian leaders from around the world were in Naples as guests of the Sant’Egidio Community in a meeting desired to foster peace amongst the world’s religious communities.

At the start of an open air mass in the Piazza del Plebiscito Dr. Williams and the Pope embraced, and issued public calls for faith leaders to use their influence to build a better world.

Read it all in The Church of England Newspaper.

Legal ruling against Patriarch attacked by Church leaders: CEN 9.07.07 p 9. September 7, 2007

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Greek Orthodox.
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A Turkish Court ruling that stripped the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew II of his title of “Ecumenical” has been condemned by the leaders of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC).

“It is a cause of great sadness to us that Your All Holiness’ entitlement to use the word ‘Ecumenical’ in your title is in question”, stated CEC secretary general Archdeacon Colin Williams in an Aug 27 letter to the Patriarch.

CEC “could think of no other church leader in Europe who is so naturally recognised as a key figure in the ecumenical aspirations of the churches of Europe,” he said.

On June 26, the Turkish Supreme Court of Appeals ruled the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a religious body regulated by Turkish law and was only permitted to perform religious functions for Turkey’s Greek Orthodox minority. The Patriarch may not use the title “ecumenical” the court held, and the Patriarchate had no greater standing under law.

Turkish prosecutors acted upon the ruling on Aug 21, summoning Bartholomew for questioning following his use of the title at an Orthodox youth conference held earlier that month in Istanbul.

On Aug 27 Archdeacon Williams offered his support to Bartholomew, writing the “Title ‘Ecumenical Patriarch’ is one which goes back more than 1000 years and that throughout that time it has not simply been an empty form of words, but has symbolised a real commitment on the part of your predecessors to engage with churches of other traditions across Europe.”

WCC general secretary Dr. Samuel Kobia followed suit on Aug 29 giving the WCC’s “firm support” for his place within Christendom.

Writing in the English-language Turkish Daily News, Cengiz Aktar, a professor of European studies at Bahcesehir University, called the Court decision “absurd”, and noted the current Islamist-leaning government had “much to learn” from the Ottoman’s in working with the country’s Christian minority.

The Patriarch of Constantinople is considered “first among equals” among Orthodox Christian leaders and holds the title “Ecumenical” in recognition of his spiritual role.