July 20th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Reza Aslan: Why I write about Jesus

Opinion by Reza Aslan, special to CNN

(CNN) - When I was 15 years old, I found Jesus.

I spent the summer of my sophomore year at an evangelical youth camp in Northern California, a place of timbered fields and boundless blue skies, where, given enough time and stillness and soft-spoken encouragement, one could not help but hear the voice of God.

Amid the man-made lakes and majestic pines my friends and I sang songs, played games and swapped secrets, rollicking in our freedom from the pressures of home and school.

In the evenings, we gathered in a fire-lit assembly hall at the center of the camp. It was there that I heard a remarkable story that would change my life forever.

Two thousand years ago, I was told, in an ancient land called Galilee, the God of heaven and Earth was born in the form of a helpless child. The child grew into a blameless man. The man became the Christ, the savior of humanity.

Through his words and miraculous deeds, he challenged the Jews who thought they were the chosen of God, and in return he was nailed to a cross. Though Jesus could have saved himself from that gruesome death, he freely chose to die.

Indeed, his death was the point of it all, for his sacrifice freed us all from the burden of our sins.

But the story did not end there, because three days later, he rose again, exalted and divine, so that now, all who believe in him and accept him into their hearts will also never die, but have eternal life.

For a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists, this was truly the greatest story ever told. Never before had I felt so intimately the pull of God.

In Iran, the place of my birth, I was Muslim in much the way I was Persian. My religion and my ethnicity were mutual and linked. Like most people born into a religious tradition, my faith was as familiar to me as my skin, and just as disregardable.

After the Iranian revolution forced my family to flee our home, religion in general, and Islam in particular, became taboo in our household. Islam was shorthand for everything we had lost to the mullahs who now ruled Iran.

My mother still prayed when no one was looking, and you could still find a stray Quran or two hidden in a closet or a drawer somewhere. But, for the most part, our lives were scrubbed of all trace of God.

That was just fine with me. After all, in the America of the 1980s, being Muslim was like being from Mars. My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American.

I do not mean to say that mine was a conversion of convenience. On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith.

I was presented with a Jesus who was less “Lord and Savior” than he was a best friend, someone with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship. As a teenager trying to make sense of an indeterminate world I had only just become aware of, this was an invitation I could not refuse.

The moment I returned home from camp, I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ with my friends and family, my neighbors and classmates, with people I’d just met and with strangers on the street: those who heard it gladly, and those who threw it back in my face.

Yet something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world.

The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.

In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts.

The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant.

The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions — just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of different hands across thousands of years — left me confused and spiritually unmoored.

And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying.

I began to rethink the faith and culture of my forefathers, finding in them a deeper, more intimate familiarity than I ever had as a child, the kind that comes from reconnecting with an old friend after many years apart.

Meanwhile, I continued my academic work in religious studies, delving back into the Bible not as an unquestioning believer but as an inquisitive scholar. No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text.

Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him.

The Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church.

Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.

I have modeled my life not after the celestial spirit whom many Christians believe sacrificed himself for our sins, but rather after the illiterate, marginal Jew who gave his life fighting an unwinnable battle against the religious and political powers of his day on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed – those his society deemed unworthy of saving.

I wrote my newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" in order to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.

Because I am convinced that one can be a devoted follower of Jesus without being a Christian, just as I know that one can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus.

Reza Aslan is a bestselling author and a scholar of religion. This article was adapted from his newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." The views expressed in this column are Aslan's alone.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Church • Jesus • Opinion

soundoff (4,311 Responses)
  1. Michael

    Blind men will be blind and fools will be fools – but you brother and you sister hear not –but only the words of God. Many will say and many will come but only one will know– who is who. But you brother and you sister guard your hearts and hear only his voice - his voice you will know when you hear it.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      "Blind men will be blind"? That raises the point: if Jesus could cure some blind people, why not ALL blind people? Why are there blind people in the world? Same for the lame. And sick.
      If Jesus could perform such miracles, but doesn't, knowing that there are millions of people in the world who need to be healed, then he's the biggest azzzhole imaginable.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
      • alchemon

        First, you are viewing Jesus as someone who owes "us" something. Jesus owes you nor me anything.

        July 21, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
        • G to the T

          I believe he was referring to the idea of "with great power comes great responsibility".

          July 24, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  2. West Coast Conservative

    Hi Reza.....Amazing!! You just proved God's Word to be correct. Even the enemy 'knows' Jesus (Acts 19:15)...but the question remains, do you BELIEVE in JESUS?

    July 21, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
  3. Journey


    I want to see CNN running a few articles on controversies within Judaism. Better yet Islam. How is that funding?

    Running a few articles a month on the "turn the other cheek crowd" is starting smell of straw-man tactics.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
  4. reyootie

    Pretty hard to only see Jesus as only man when He talks about Himself over and over again as God, if you see Him you see the Father... plus there are hundreds witnessing his death, resurrection, transfiguration, ascendence into heaven, his miracles. You really have to throw away a lot of the Bible and make up your own pocket Jesus the way you are writing so that he conveniently fits into how you want him to be.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Hundreds of witnesses? BS

      July 21, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
  5. Jim

    Love Belief Blog by CNN for the laugh factor. There is no Jesus without the Christ. As always, someone writes a CNN article that makes the claim about contradictions and blah, blah but offers no evidence whatsoever.....normal stuff round here.

    Then, we are treated to such scholarly non-sequitur like this one, "Because I am convinced that one can be a devoted follower of Jesus without being a Christian, just as I know that one can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus.." Christian means a follower of Christ (Jesus) or "little Christ." One cannot be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus – it is not possible by the very definition of the word.

    No wonder kids come out of college with no education......

    July 21, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      You know, listening to you Christians arguing about which brand of Christianity is "true" sounds a lot like kids in kindergarten arguing about whether Superman could beat up the Incredible Hulk.

      You're fighting over imaginary friends. Grow up.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
      • G to the T

        Besides – no matter what the cross-overs said – Hulk could TOTALLY beat up Superman...

        July 24, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  6. lazarus00000

    You problem is universal for all "True believers". Your faith makes you blind to all except waht is written in "Your bible". I am curious, is your bible the King James version? Google the king James and the Bible to read the real truty of how it came to be and why?
    I bet you will not go there out of fear that yuor faith is not strong enough to handle the truth.
    The Bible is not history. It is a record that has been edited, rewritten, and the vision of Jesus has been changed so many times that he himself would not recognize waht is written about him.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
  7. historygeek6

    No Mr. Azlan.
    The conceptual Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth do, in fact, mesh with one another quite profoundly, thank you. Jesus the Christ offered the promise of eternal life. While Jesus of Nazareth offered up an example of how to live a REAL life, while we're still on Earth. The thread that ties them together is found in one single endlessly repeated (yet astronomically overlooked) Biblical phrase: "Be not afraid." It is an inability to accept this one single pronouncement (and the One who said it) that is at the heart of all "seeming" Biblical contradictions. Likewise, it is this very same issue at the heart of 2,000-plus years of inter and intra-religious conflict. The Word is not flawed. It is our unwillingness to surrender our Earthly fears to it that creates these contradictions and disagreements. And the inevitable accompanying conflicts. Because of our deep-seated fears, we cling to our desire to "make up our own minds, and control our own destinies". And the more we achieve, the more we believe we can do just that. Even when it's "religious" achievement. But we never can. It's the one thing in life we can never overcome. Our FEAR. But the crux of Christianity is "supposed to be": Do you believe he is the heavenly Christ? And do you believe, if you surrender to his Earthly guidance, you can finally "be not afraid"? On Earth AND after you die! Quite simply, as long as you believe you can "get there" in your "own way", the offer will not ever make "logical" sense. Whether you're a billionaire, or Biblical scholar, or an agnostic, or whatever. It's about admitting "this is not working"! I'm afraid! And for most people, they would rather die than admit that!

    Pretty cruel and unfair huh???

    July 21, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      No, pretty delusional and wacky.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
      • historygeek6

        You appear to be responding to as many posts as possible.
        This one is somewhat about people masking their fears (sometimes with false bravado even).
        Are you sure about this one?

        July 21, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
        • G to the T

          Your argument is basically that you have to believe before you can believe. You don't see any issue with that? It also doesn't seem to speak to those of us who were devote christians for years/decades and then fell away (for whatever reason). WE did believe and now we don't....

          July 24, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • lazarus00000

      My dear Mr. History,
      You do not appear to really be a student of history, since you are trying validate the biblical version of Jesus which is flawed in so many ways that a true historian has written many books on the subject. His name is Geza Vermes and he worked on the translation of the dead sea scrolls.
      I recommend his books about Jesus and the Early christians because he does not seem have a preordained agenda to influence people in any way other than to speak of Historical facts.
      I have read every source of Biblical related history I could because the Bible just left too much unanswered and in order to have true faith these holes need to be ignored.
      I am a Christian in the sense that I believe in Jesus but not in any interpretations of religion. That is not to say that all religion is bad...it is not. But for most peopel who claime to have faith, whatever the spiritual leader says is to be taken in faith.
      That is why the so called christians after the 4th century were murd-eri-ng so much of humanity for the next 1500 years. Today we see the muslims also using their faith to commit crimes against humanity as the followers stand and shout their faith in god.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
      • historygeek6

        What do you genuinely fear? Real faith resolves fear.

        July 21, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
        • G to the T

          Carnies.... wew! Give me the heebie-jeebies...

          July 24, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  8. Just Call Me Lucifer

    I found Jesus when I was 12. He was between the cushions on my parents couch, next to some old cheese doodles.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Welcome seeker.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:31 pm |
    • Ned Flanders

      God speed, little doodle

      July 21, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
  9. Neo Atheist

    (Nyarl)athotep, Great Messenger, bringer of strange joy to Yuggoth through the void, Father of the Million Favoured Ones

    July 21, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
  10. Neo Atheist

    go out among men and find the ways thereof, that He in the Gulf may know. To Nyarlathotep, Mighty Messenger, must all things be told. And He shall put on the semblance of men, the waxen mask and the robe that hides, and come down from the world of Seven Suns to mock

    July 21, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
  11. SmartLawyer

    Why does CNN have a belief blog and only publish articles by people who attack belief? And the author's conclusory comment that "the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions" is unsupported by any further reasoning or examples. And that's because there are no examples of errors or contradictions, which means the author's entire premise fails.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      Yeah... not so smart.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
      • Neo Atheist

        There are entire websites dedicated to errors and contradictions in the bible.

        July 21, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
      • Just call me Jagger


        July 21, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
  12. Tom

    It does not have to be one or the other. This is a false dichotomy that has troubled the church from the beginning–Jesus vs. Christ. The books of N.T. Wright do as well as any I know to present the real Jesus of history who also showed himself ultimately to be the Christ, the Son of God. And C.S. Lewis was one who believed the Bible was God's revealed and reliable word to be taken with full seriousness, without seeing it as inerrant in the most simplistic and objectionable way. The Alpha Course is another example of thinking Christians who are not simplistic or naïve in the Christian faith.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:23 pm |
  13. SusanB

    Gotta love what C.S. Lewis has to say about this: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

    July 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      No, no you don't gotta love what Lewis said. Simplistic drivel.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
  14. Neo Atheist

    Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn

    Translation:In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming

    July 21, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
  15. Neo Atheist

    Eternal is the Pow'r of Evil, and Infinite in its contagion! The Great Cthulhu yet hath sway o'er the minds and spirits of Men, yea, even tho' He lieth chained and ensorcelled, bound in the fetters of The Elder Sign, His malignant and loathly Mind spreadeth the dark seeds of Madness and Corruption into dreams and Nightmares of sleeping men.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      I understand your problem now.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
    • SDCinNS

      This guy's picture will definitely be in the post-office one day. Can you say "Manson family"?

      July 21, 2013 at 9:23 pm |
      • Neo Atheist

        Not really. Just quoting my scripture. That of the Necronomicon. You know, that book of evilness that people seem to think is an actual book but was just a literary device used by Lovecraft in his writings.

        July 21, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
        • Johnson

          You really need a hobby.

          July 21, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
        • Neo Atheist

          Actually, reading Lovecraft and collecting weird fiction is a hobby of mine. I have an extensive collection of his works, and the works of his contemporaries. As well as stuff by authors who were inspired by Lovecrafts works and writers who also inspired Lovecraft himself. So, yes. I do have a hobby. TYVM

          July 22, 2013 at 5:53 am |
        • G to the T

          Hey! Me too! LOVE The mythos and Lovecraft was a genius of letting your imagination fill in the blanks (always worse than if you were told).

          Got a copy fo the Necronomicon (not original of course) right next to the Gita and the Bible on my bookshelf 🙂

          July 24, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
  16. ttwp

    "The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions"

    I don't see how Mr. Azlan says that he follows Jesus, but then pretty much calls Him a liar. Jesus himself said that, "Thy Word is truth." John 17:17

    July 21, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
    • Neo Atheist

      Quoting a book to prove itself and its message doesn't make it true.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
      • kmonkmon

        Read the comment again, Neo Atheist. You are reading in claims that do not exist.

        July 21, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
        • Gh0st

          You're confused.

          July 21, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
    • Neo Atheist

      "That which is not dead can eternal lie and with strange eons, even death may die." The Necronomicon

      Hey! I quoted a book as well, so it must be true!

      July 21, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
    • JR

      But I said my word is truth. It says so in the book I wrote so how can any sane person refute it?

      July 21, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
      • kmonkmon

        I have honestly never in my life met anyone who has claimed the Bible is true because it says it is.

        July 21, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
        • SDCinNS

          Of course.. it's true that the Bible makes this claim for itself. This, as you say, doesn't make it so – because many religious books do the same. It does however, make worth investigating?

          July 21, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
        • patherick

          That claim – that the bible is true because it says it is – has been made to me explicitly by religious zealots of various kinds, ranging from Baptists here in the good old southern USA to Jehovah's Witnesses in the UK and even a Catholic friend. It seems to be a fairly common move in arguing with atheists, amusingly enough.

          July 21, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
        • JR

          Honestly? Your pastor says it every Sunday. What other source besides the bible do you rely on to prove Christianity is the truth?

          July 21, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Once again Word is Logos the spell of creation. When John means word in a book he writes word.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
      • kmonkmon

        Yes! And I would like to add that nowhere is the original commenter using circular logic, as some have mistakenly inferred.

        July 21, 2013 at 9:23 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          It is the mis statements by the NIV lovers that have corrupted the meaning of Word.

          July 21, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
        • G to the T

          "You say jesus is a liar but that can't be true because in this book he says he's not." Sounds pretty circular to me...

          July 24, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
  17. Neo Atheist

    Ugh, more religious nonsense.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Welcome seeker.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
      • JR


        July 21, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          You can use it.

          July 21, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
    • kmonkmon

      I second that. Welcome.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
    • Peter Alexander

      It's not religious nonsense, it's Greek as John wrote it.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:23 pm |
      • G to the T

        And where would a Galilean fisherman learn to read/write Greek and Greek rhetorical styles?

        July 24, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Salero21

      Oh yeah another atheist barking like a dog, bleating like a goat, squealing like a swine and howling like a wolf. How stupid! Did you read the name of the Blog?

      July 21, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
      • Neo Atheist

        And another Christian doing the exact same thing that he accuses me of doing.

        July 22, 2013 at 5:54 am |
  18. BillnAtlanta

    I am a follower of Christ, He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. He is the creator of everything that exists, nothing exists without Him. His wisdom is far beyond what we can ever imagine. All things are held together by the Will of God, there is nothing He cannot do. God gives power to his people and he gives them the holy spirit to help them. When we are weak in ourselves, we are strong in the Lord, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Father, I pray that you will write my name down in the Book of Life to live with you forever.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • JR

      You are suffering from a delusion. I hope you get well soon.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
      • Jeff H.

        You are suffering from "oppression" and then pretty much cluelessness and some pretty obvious simple stupidity 🙂

        July 22, 2013 at 1:28 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      I thought Christ was the Alpha and the Bits. No – wait: the Cap'n and the Crunch? The Sugar and the Crisp?

      July 21, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
      • Doobs

        The kibbles and the bits.

        July 22, 2013 at 12:56 am |
    • Julie

      Got news for you, you'll die like the rest of us. Since there is absolutely nothing that can prove that there's life after death, I suggest you try and live this one and only life to its fullest extent. Spending a lifetime fearing death, is a life lived in vain.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
      • Mark

        Julie you don' t get it Christians don't fear death they welcome it which gives us freedom to truly live. To die is gain.

        July 21, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
      • Mark

        "A life lived in vain?" Your vanity is evident, and your time on this earth is but a blip. Stop smoking!

        July 21, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
      • tallulah13

        There isn't a single shred of irrefutable evidence that any sort of afterlife exists. So basically, Mark, you eagerly await the absolute end of your existence because of the rumor that there would be prizes. Pretty sad, that.

        July 21, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
        • G to the T

          That's why the Catholic chruch made suicide a sin – can't have your whole congregation running to heaven too early!

          July 24, 2013 at 11:54 am |
  19. pooper

    This is some breaking news right here.

    July 21, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
  20. Thomas

    the writers conclusion sounds pretty close to what the early Gnostics taught and who's teachings crept into the church. They tried making Christ more human and causing Paul to warn against false teachers. Which is why the book of Thomas and others were rejected as scripture.

    Also early Christians didn't convert from Judaism. They were a sect of Judaism known as "the way". What changed everything was when Jesus's teachings began to spread to synagogues throughout the roman empire, Paul began to spread the Gospel to none Jews, and the Jewish leaders began to drive believers of "the way" out of Jerusalem.

    It's interesting to note that immediately after Pentecost approximately 25-30% of those in Jerusalem became believers. This of course threatened the Jewish leadership which is why believers were eventually driven out. Christianity began to spread more through the Roman empire as a result.

    July 21, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      The Jewish Temple and the sect of the Temple priests were destroyed in 69 AD. It was not until 135 AD that Jerusalem was burned and the Christians driven out. Carthage was burned the next year.

      July 21, 2013 at 9:12 pm |
      • Thomas

        Both the Roman historians and Bible talk about Jewish persecution of Christian believers prior to the destruction of the temple. Does that mean all Christians were driven out of Jerusalem? of course not in the book of Acts it say:

        "1 At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. 3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. Christ Is Preached in Samaria 4 Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. "

        The latter date you mention is when the Romans scattered everyone because of the Jewish rebellion.

        July 22, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • kingdomthings

      One God, apostolic are we? Amen!

      July 21, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
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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.