August 20th, 2014
08:31 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog editorFollow @BurkeCNN
(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 him that his friends and family had been praying, too, holding vigils filled with former professors, priests and Marquette students. She echoed her son's 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, 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.
The ISIS militant, a man with an apparent British accent, said that Foley’s murder was payback for U.S. airstrikes against the group in Iraq. On Monday, President Barack Obama said the American operation has helped drive ISIS from strategic cities and infrastructure in northern Iraq, which apparently angered the Muslim militants.
“Any attempt by you, Obama, to deny Muslims liberty and safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people,” the ISIS militant said in the video.
The man in orange, kneeling. The man in black, wielding a knife. One asked God to cross the “cosmic reach of the universe” and soothe his family. The other claimed to kill in the "name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful."
Admittedly, we know relatively little about Foley's personal beliefs and even less about the ISIS militant in black. But the contrast between the two religious paths - one led a journalist to cover conflicts, the other a jihadist to create them - is jarring.
"It's story versus story," said Martin Marty, an emeritus professor of religious history at the University of Chicago, "and the more you are threatened, the more dramatic and deep the story is going to be."
It should be said, and repeated often, that the contrast is not between Christianity and Islam.
“ISIL speaks for no religion,” Obama said on Monday, using an alternate name for ISIS. “Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”
Muslims were among the first to lament Foley’s killing and have repeatedly condemned ISIS’ reign of terror in Iraq and Syria. They are victims, too, of the crimes committed in the name of Islam. Many have worked tirelessly to combat them.
But even as most Muslims reject ISIS, it cannot be denied that the extremists use faith to justify their brutal acts of war.
“Do jihad in the cause of God, incite the believers and be patient in the face of this hardship,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, said in a video released in June.
“If you knew about the reward and dignity in this world and the hereafter through jihad, then none of you would delay in doing it.”
Under that call to arms, ISIS militants have rampaged through Iraq, forcing Muslims, Christians and Yazidis to convert to their brand of Islam, pay a protection tax or be killed.
ISIS has bombed revered religious sites, murdered hundreds and tortured and enslaved many others - all in the name of building an Islamic state.
Foley's friends and family say his faith inspired a very different moral course.
He organized fundraisers for slain journalists, taught convicts in Chicago to read and write and risked his life to tell the stories of people living under the iron fist of dictators in Syria and Iraq.
He was the kind of guy who always offered half his sandwich or cigarette, one friend recalled. He was mensch, if such can be said of a Catholic from New Hampshire.
The source of his unselfishness was clear, said Foley’s friends.
"Jim's faith was something we all agreed not to discuss publicly while he was held in Syria,” said Max Fisher, a journalist at Vox.com, “but it was the wellspring of his generosity."
It’s a paradox of modern life - most of human history, actually – that saints and sinners alike draw from the same religious waters. Christian crusaders, Sufi pacifists. Sharp knives, soft prayers.
Religion isn’t ever quite black and white, of course. Most of us live in the vast gray space between. But at moments like this, it's hard to miss the contrast.
"It's story versus story," as Marty put it, "and you get rid of the bad ones by telling good ones."
August 18th, 2014
01:35 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog EditorFollow @BurkeCNN
(CNN) – Nearly everyone agrees that the militant Muslim group marauding 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.
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.
August 8th, 2014
05:36 PM ET
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?
August 5th, 2014
12:13 PM ET
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.
July 25th, 2014
10:39 AM ET
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.
July 21st, 2014
08:14 AM ET
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.FULL STORY
October 28th, 2013
03:56 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog co-editorFollow @BurkeCNN
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.
September 4th, 2013
01:10 PM ET
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."
January 9th, 2013
05:34 AM ET
By Mohammed Tawfeeq, CNN
(CNN) - Thousands of government supporters demonstrated in at least five Shiite provinces in southern Iraq on Tuesday, opposing protests by thousands of people in mainly Sunni provinces that have gone on for more than two weeks.
The demonstrations highlight the country's sectarian tensions.FULL STORY
March 19th, 2012
10:31 AM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
We now know the name of the man accused of leaving his combat unit in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province on March 11, walking into two Afghan villages and murdering 16 innocent people, including 9 children.
The narratives we are supposed to follow here are clear, and each absolves the rest of us of any sin. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was mentally unstable and went off the deep end. Or perhaps he was a cold-blooded killer all along. Either way, he deserves to be separated from the rest of us by life in prison, or worse.
But why is this 38-year-old husband and father of two sitting today in solitary confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas?
I do not know. I suspect, however, that the answer is more complicated than the simple stories we tell ourselves in these circumstances.
About this blog
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.