Greece, the Pope and Western Media

BY AMER ZAHR
The Progressive Pen
Published April 29, 2001

So the Greek Orthodox Church is vehemently protesting the Pope"s planned visit to Greece this week. He is planning to pass through Greece for one day, then head to Syria, then finish his trip in Malta as he retraces the pilgrimage of St. Paul. The Greek Orthodox Church blames the Roman Catholic papacy for, in chronological order, the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (in 1204) the fall of Byzantium to the Turks (600 years ago) the Spanish Inquisition (500 years ago) the Bolshevik Revolution (in 1917) the Third Reich (the 1930s) and the Western bombing campaign against Orthodox Serb forces in Kosovo (in 1999).

Paul Wong
Amer Zahr: The Progressive Pen

Now, the Greek government, a socialist regime, officially invited the Pope but the Greek Orthodox Church has its beefs with them as well. In fact, they have recently protested the government"s moves to raise the minimum retirement age to 65 (a noble cause), while simultaneously protesting moves by the government to remove religious identification from state-issued identification cards (a not so noble cause). But before we go any further, let"s take a look at a few of the statements circulating out of the Greek Orthodox community.

First, we have a certain priest in Athens who has claimed that blood-red stains have appeared on the icon of the Virgin Mary in his church. According to him, this is a clear sign of her distress at the Pope"s upcoming visit. According to The Electronic Telegraph, an abbot of a monastery on the Corinthian Gulf said, "You don"t honor a criminal, you put him in jail." Another monk from Athens has warned the Guardian Unlimited that "the faithful will take to the streets blood could be shed." He also sported protest signs reading "Out with the two-horned beast, The Pope of Rome 666." Finally, the Associated Press reports that a priest leading a prayer at Mount Olympus told his vigil, "The worst enemy of Orthodoxy is coming, the arch-heretic of Rome. We pray for God to prevent this." But the quote that takes the cake is from a "liberal" Greek Orthodox priest in favor of the Pope"s visit who told The Electronic Telegraph, "Opposition within the Orthodox Church makes us look backward, suppressive and intolerant. It makes us look like Christian fanatics, the equivalent of Muslim fundamentalists." (Incidentally, CNN hasn"t even covered this story.)

Now, it is important to note that during the middle of the trip, while the Pope is in Syria, he will be visiting a mosque where he will participate in a joint invocation with Muslim clergy members. No such joint ceremonies are scheduled to take place in Greece. For me, this whole thing raises some interesting points, as it is a prototypical case of an ongoing double standard in the media.

Imagine this. The Muslim clergy in Syria begins to protest the Pope"s visit. They lead resistance on the streets, and go as far as to tell the media that the Pope is the symbol of global heresy. They congregate and lead prayers asking God to prevent the visit. Surely, these clerics would be quickly labeled as promoting, if not engaging in, terrorism. They would be quickly tagged as "fundamentalists," and they very well might be, although no journalist would probably take the time to find out. On the same token, if the Pope were visiting Russia or Bosnia, where the churches are also Orthodox, we would also see disparate treatment from the media were the same types of protests to occur. These Greek Orthodox priests, on the other hand, are given a free pass. In other words, the same actions from countries favorable to the Western world are treated in totally different ways than they are from other countries. In fact, it would probably take much less than the vitriol expressed by the Greek Orthodox priests to incriminate Muslim imams who might make similar comments. Of course, no Muslim clergy members have made any disparaging remarks in reference to the Pope"s visit. The only such debate is in Greece.

So the question for us is: why the double standard? Is it just because the Western world is Christian and we are expected to discriminately treat Muslims and Arabs in a different way? Are we not as afraid to call Muslims "fundamentalists" as we are to call Christians the same thing? This is not to say, of course, that the media should be calling the clergymen in Greece "terrorist" and "fundamentalist." The point is that if we are going to use certain journalistic tactics to describe those who are like us, then we should be just as responsible when we scrutinize those who are not.

Amer Zahr"s column runs every other Monday. He can be reached via e-mail at zahrag@umich.edu.