Opinion by Salam al-Marayati, special to CNN
(CNN) – This week, Barak Barfi, the spokesman for slain American journalist Steven Sotloff’s family, joined many Muslims in exposing the hypocrisy and hollowness of groups like ISIS.
He challenged ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to a debate that pits Islam’s theology of life against ISIS’ cult of death.
In doing so, Barfi cited verses in the Quran that shun murder even a 6-year-old could understand: "Fight in the cause of God those who fight you and do not transgress, God loves not the aggressors" (2:190).
This verse is about self-defense. It allows one to protect civilians by fighting combatants who attack first. It forbids aggression, which is a grave sin in Islam.
By citing this verse, Barfi challenged all extremists to a debate that would expose their bankrupt cult of death for the forgery it is.
Barfi also talked about mercy in Islam. Mercy is an essential attribute for Muslims. God delivered Prophet Mohammed to humanity to make us more merciful to one another.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor
(CNN) – The challenge was directed at the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the impassioned message, laced with Islamic phrases, sought a much wider audience.
The statement came from Barak Barfi, a spokesman for the family of slain American journalist Steve Sotloff. Sotloff, who reported for Time and other publications, was beheaded in a video ISIS released on Tuesday.
Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, where he specializes in Arab and Islamic affairs. On behalf of Steven Sotloff's family, he had tried to secure the journalist's release.
On Wednesday, Barfi stood outside the Sotloff family's Miami home, with dozens of microphones and cameras thrust before him, and stepped into a fierce war of words between ISIS and the rest of the Muslim world.
"I am ready to debate you with calm preachings," Barfi told al-Baghdadi, directly addressing him in Arabic. "I have no sword in my hand and I am ready for your answer.”
Speaking briefly to CNN on Thursday, Barfi said he doesn't expect the reclusive ISIS leader to accept the invitation. But his challenge had other aims, the young scholar said.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog editor
(CNN) – We don’t know if James Foley, the American journalist beheaded by Islamic extremists, prayed in the hours and days before his death. We probably never will.
But Foley said faith sustained him during another ordeal in 2011, when he was held captive for 44 days by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
In a gut-wrenching article he wrote for Marquette University’s alumni magazine, Foley said he prayed while imprisoned that his family, many miles away, would somehow know that he was safe.
“Haven’t you felt my prayers?” Foley asked his mother, Diane, when he was finally allowed to call home.
Diane Foley told her son that his friends and family had been praying, too, holding vigils filled with former professors, priests and Marquette students. She echoed his question back: Have you felt ours?
He had, the journalist said. “Maybe it was others’ prayers strengthening me, keeping me afloat,” Foley wrote.
The 40-year-old Catholic, who reported for the GlobalPost among other publications, was abducted again in 2012, captured this time by the extremist group ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State.
On Tuesday, ISIS released a video showing a Muslim militant clad in black beheading Foley, who was wearing an orange jumpsuit and kneeling in the sand.
(CNN) – Nearly everyone agrees that the militant Muslim group rampaging through northern Iraq must be stopped. The question is, how?
Asked if he approved of the American airstrikes against ISIS, Pope Francis withheld his moral imprimatur on Monday, refusing to fully support or denounce the military campaign.
"I can only say this: It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor," the pontiff said during a press conference on the plane back to Rome from South Korea. "I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means."
In an apparent reference to the United States, Francis said "one nation alone cannot judge" the best means of stopping groups like ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State.
Those decisions should be made collectively by the United Nations, the pontiff said.
"It is there that this should be discussed. Is there an unjust aggressor? It would seem there is. How do we stop him?" the Pope asked, without answering his own question.
Already, Francis' cautious comments about American airstrikes and the use of force have fostered a welter of interpretations, from "tacit approval" to a "yellow light" to outright endorsement.
The Pope who was returning to Rome after a five day trip to South Korea, may soon have the chance to clarify his moral argument personally to U.S. and UN officials.
By Joshua Berlinger, CNN
(CNN) – In a church in Irbil, 40-day-old Yeshua lies asleep in a crib, his sister playfully rocking him. It's a peaceful scene. Their mother watches over them, but her face shows the fear and despair many Iraqi minorities have felt over the past few days.
The Sunni militant group ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State, has steamrolled into Iraq's north, forcing hundreds of thousands of minorities from their homes. The militants have beheaded some who won't bend to their will and are "putting people's heads on spikes" to terrorize others, a senior U.S. administration official said.
Nearly 40,000 Yazidis are trapped on the top of Mount Sinjar with few resources; many with just the clothes on their back, U.S. President Barack Obama said in an address late Thursday evening.
"These innocent families are faced with a horrible choice," Obama said. "Descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger."
So who are these people being threatened by the Islamic State? And why do the militant Islamists have them in their cross hairs?
Opinion by Jeremy Courtney, special to CNN
(CNN) –We had no idea what we were doing, so we helped everyone.
My wife and I moved to Iraq in 2007 to assist in relief and development. We have since made friends on all sides, deep behind “enemy lines.”
Since the fall of Mosul to Sunni militants in June, the world has struggled to accept the failure of the American project in Iraq, the rise of “political Islam” and the marking of Iraqi Christians and other minorities for death or expropriation.
The world may watch from afar and denounce all Iraqi Muslims as militants bent on conquest. But up close, the reality is very different.
It was a Muslim cleric who may have saved this Christian's life. And I'm not the only one.
Even as jihadists justify their atrocities in the name of Islam, millions of Muslims are standing in solidarity with Christians who have been expelled from their homes.
Opinion by Joel S. Baden and Candida Moss, Special to CNN
(CNN) – The destructive force of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the militant Sunni movement, is epitomized in a video released Thursday of ISIS members smashing a tomb in Mosul, Iraq.
The tomb is traditionally thought to be the burial place of the prophet Jonah, a holy site for Christians and many Muslims.
Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, is built on and adjacent to the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, the setting for the biblical book of Jonah and once the most powerful capital of the ancient world.
Indeed, for most people familiar with the Bible, Nineveh is inseparable from the figure of Jonah.
In Christian tradition, the story of Jonah is an important one. Jonah’s descent into the depths in the belly of the great fish and subsequent triumphant prophetic mission to Nineveh is seen as a reference to and prototype of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The destruction of his tomb in Mosul is therefore a direct assault on Christian faith, and on one of the few physical traces of that faith remaining in Iraq.
Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) - Just days after the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria said they killed hundreds of Syrians, dozens of Iraqi Christian families are now fleeing the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul, hoping to avoid a similar fate.
On Friday, the al Qaeda splinter group issued an ultimatum to Iraqi Christians living in Mosul - by Saturday they must convert to Islam, pay a fine or face "death by the sword."
A total of 52 Christian families left the city of Mosul early Saturday morning, with an armed group prohibiting some of them from taking anything but the clothes on their backs.
"They told us, 'You to leave all of your money, gold, jewelry and go out with only the clothes on you,'" Wadie Salim told CNN.
Images obtained exclusively by CNN show that the phrase "property of ISIS" scrawled in black paint on a number of the homes that were abandoned.
Some of the families headed for Irbil - which is currently controlled by Kurdish forces - and others toward the Dohuk province. The majority went to Dohuk, which is 140 kilometers (87 miles) north of Mosul.
"We did not know how to act," said another Mosul resident, Um Nazik. "Are we going to get killed?"
ISIS was able to take over large swaths of land due to the lack of centralized authority in both Iraq and war-torn Syria. The Sunni militants hope to establish an Islamic state throughout the region it currently controls.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog co-editor
Washington (CNN) – As terrorism increasingly becomes a tactic of warfare, the number of attacks and fatalities soared to a record high in 2012, according to a new report obtained exclusively by CNN.
More than 8,500 terrorist attacks killed nearly 15,500 people last year as violence tore through Africa, Asia and the Middle East, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
That’s a 69% rise in attacks and an 89% jump in fatalities from 2011, said START, one of the world’s leading terrorism-trackers.
Six of the seven most deadly groups are affiliated with al Qaeda, according to START, and most of the violence was committed in Muslim-majority countries.
The previous record for attacks was set in 2011 with more than 5,000 incidents; for fatalities the previous high was 2007 with more than 12,800 deaths.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) - How did Syria go from an internal uprising to a wider clash drawing funding and fighters from across the region?
In a word, Middle East experts say, religion.
Shiite Muslims from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran have flooded into Syria to defend sacred sites and President Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime. Sunni Muslims, some affiliated with al Qaeda, have rushed in to join rebels, most of whom are Sunni.
Both sides use religious rhetoric as a rallying cry, calling each other "infidels" and "Satan's army."
"That is why it has become so muddy," said professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "The theological question has returned to the center."
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.