‘Media coverage is not about ratings, it is about lives,” Coptic Orthodox Bishop Angaelos said during a panel at the National Press Club this past week. He is based in London, and he had come to the United States, as he frequently has of late, raising alarms, making pleas, saying “thank you,” and serving as both a translator and a bit of leaven.
Much of what most Americans know of the Middle East is the violence and the impossible struggles. But His Grace Bishop Angaelos is here to caution the American press corps: Be human in your reporting. “The role of the media is huge,” he says, in telling the story of the persecuted. Don’t get caught up in ideology, and don’t make assumptions.
Bishop Angaelos understands that there is often a lack of resources, but he hopes that journalists will strive to avoid the misreporting that happens because of lack of knowledge or insight, particularly into religious convictions and differences. Misreporting and misquoting, however unintentionally, can feed violence, Angaelos warns, adding that many who enter journalism do so because they see it as serving a noble cause. He has come to aid that drive.
This particular event at the National Press Club, sponsored by a group called In Defense of Christians, was a panel discussion titled “Sensitivity Rather than Sensationalism: Western Media Coverage of Human Rights and Religious Issues in the Middle East.”
Asked to speak, I made a plea to Christians in the media. As members of the body of Christ, we have a particular responsibility to Christians who are persecuted. That does not mean that we don’t care about others. We are called to serve all. But for Christians, the persecution of Christians is a family affair, as Johnnie Moore puts it in a new book about them, Defying ISIS: Preserving Christianity in the Place of Its Birth and in Your Own Backyard. Moore, formerly campus pastor at Liberty University, felt the need to do something. In his book, he tells the stories of some of the Iraqi and Syrian Christians who now live in refugee camps, having fled their homes on account of ISIS. He works for Mark Burnett, the Hollywood producer, and is helping support these displaced Christians through The Cradle Fund, which Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, began. When I asked him what the average American can do to help, he advised: “1. Pray every day. 2. Give. 3. Educate yourself. 4. Keep unrelenting pressure on politicians. 5. Tell the stories of those in harm’s way. 6. Use #DEFYINGISIS to raise a storm on social media.”
As for the media, the three bits of advice, borrowed from Pope Francis, that I offered at the Press Club event were: “Prayer. Solidarity. Encounter.” Seek God’s guidance about what stories you should tell and how. Feel solidarity with the persecuted; be drawn to tell their stories. And encounter them; ask them for their stories; listen.
The truth of the matter is that the courage of these persecuted Christians is an incredible witness for Americans who have in many ways taken our religious freedom for granted and become lukewarm instead of steadfast servants and missionaries.
Bishop Angaelos is grateful that the stories of the 21 Coptic Egyptians martyred by ISIS in Libya last month were of interest to the Western media and were told with sensitivity. We heard mainstream media outlets tell of the faith and work of these men and the faith and forgiveness of their families, who were proud to know that their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers were willing to die rather than renounce their faith in Jesus Christ.
Speaking of forgiveness, although Angaelos is himself a Copt, and a bishop in the church to which these 21 martyrs belonged, he forgives, wanting all to know they can change their ways. He radiates something of why Christianity must remain alive in its birthplace. These people have hope, even as their past, present, and future are imperiled. And that radical witness, lived truly and courageously, can be very powerful.
So be careful about terminology and about generalizations, Angaelos says. The Middle East is not, for instance, “the Muslim world.” There are Chaldean Christians there. There are Maronite Christians there. There are Coptic Christians there. Robert Destro, a law professor at the Catholic University of America and the moderator of the discussion, adds that you don’t have to like a particular speaker to acknowledge that he is saying something true, good, or wise. Encouraging the true, the good, and the wise could just work to help promote understanding in a breeding ground for misunderstanding. Destro, who co-directs the Iraqi Kurdistan Religious Freedom Project, among other efforts, contends that people of good faith will make good efforts if they are well informed. He adds that there is an astounding amount of ignorance about Christianity in the Middle East.
I think of violence against Christians throughout the world. A friend who does work in Haiti just told me of the horrific violence that nuns, among others, are experiencing there — and yet they serve on. I think of a 71-year-old religious sister who was gang-raped recently in India; she forgave the men who attacked her. Justice, yes, but mercy, too. Undeserved love and forgiveness can be a powerful countercultural witness in an atmosphere of hatred, despair, exhaustion, and exasperation.
Some months ago, Pope Francis stated emphatically: We cannot allow a Middle East without Christians. I think of this as Katrina Lantos Swett, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, chillingly warns us during the Q&A to listen to what terrorists say; they will often tell us their mission. She adds, “‘Rome next’ was not a theoretical flourish,” referring to the day the video was released of the martyrdom of the 21 Egyptian Christian men. And she speaks of how evil thirsts for the eradication of good. As Holy Week and Easter approach, the Christians of the Middle East — Christians living under the threat of ISIS — walk the way of the cross in a particularly intimate way. As they do so, we should take the time to stop, look, listen, and support them. For their sakes, and our own.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.