Catholic News Outlet Misinforms Readers on the Middle East
by Dexter Van Zile
Since when do Hezbollah fighters armed with machine guns and rocket launchers trying to intimidate Christians in Beirut qualify as “Shiite demonstrators?”
Apparently, since October 27, 2021.
That’s when Fides News Agency described a group of Hezbollah gunmen who entered the Christian neighborhood of Tayyouneh-Ain al Remmaneh in Beirut — and beat up a few Christians — as “Shiite demonstrators.” The outlet used this innocent moniker in an article highlighting the efforts of Cardinal Béchara Boutros Raï, Patriarch of the Maronite Church, to calm tensions in Lebanon.
Yes, it’s absolutely necessary to highlight the work of the Patriarch to promote peace in Lebanon, especially after Christian gunmen killed seven of these so-called protesters. But it’s also absolutely necessary to give an honest description of what happened before these “protesters” were fired upon in the first place.
The Fides News Agency left two important facts out of its summary of the incident. First, the protesters it discusses were actually armed gunmen from Hezbollah. Second, the gunmen entered Tayyouneh-Ain al Remmaneh as part of a larger effort to stymie the investigation into the 2020 blast in Beirut that killed more than 200 people, injuring another 7,000. This explosion caused more than $10 billion in damages, according to Zvi Mazel writing for Geopolitical Intelligence Services in July. It’s pretty clear that Hezbollah does not want an honest and independent investigation into the blast, telling the judge in charge of the inquiry, “we will remove you,” as Reuters reported in September.
Fides News Agency, the news arm of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith headquartered in the Vatican, reported that Patriarch Rai was promoting an institutional compromise to “overcome the crisis following the tragic events of Thursday October 14th, when seven Shiite demonstrators in Beirut were killed by snipers on the roofs of the Christian neighborhood of Tayyouneh-Ain al Remmaneh.” [emphasis added]
In its coverage of the October 14 firefight, The Jerusalem Post reported that both Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army declared that the first round of shooting targeted the “protesters,” but that when “the shooting began, Hezbollah and Amal supporters could be seen firing toward buildings in the areas with automatic weapons and RPGs, raising questions whether the supporters who had claimed to be peaceful had come to the protest armed.”
So, yes, The Jerusalem Post did initially use the word “protesters” to describe the gunmen, but then, unlike the Fides News Agency, revealed that these protesters were “armed.”
The Jerusalem Post also reported that sources told the newspaper that “Hezbollah operatives were clearly seen in many videos entering safe neighborhoods with automatic weapons, and stated that the shooting was an attempt to use violence and intimidation to overthrow the investigation into the port explosion.” The same article reports that eyewitnesses “questioned why, if the protest was meant to be peaceful, the protesters had hundreds of weapons on hand, including RPGs. The eyewitnesses also claimed that the Hezbollah supporters deliberately entered the Ain El Remmaneh area to cause a provocation, comparing the incident to the May 7 violence that nearly sparked a civil war in 2008.”
Interestingly enough, the Fides News Agency got it right on October 25, when it reported that a homily given by Patriarch Rai “was interpreted by observers as the support of the Lebanese cardinal for the positions of those who view the bloody events in Tayyouneh as a fatal accident in an attempt to ‘defend oneself’ in the face of raids by Shiite militants who arrived from outside with weapons intent on intimidating.”
On October 25, Fides described Hezbollah gunmen as “militants,” (when in fact “terrorists” or “jihadists” would be better descriptors). But then on October 27, the same outlet portrayed these “militants” as “protesters.” Is the news agency submitting to Hezbollah intimidation?
It’s a sad thing when a Catholic news outlet misinforms its supporters about events in the Middle East, particularly by downplaying the role that jihadists play in causing conflict and death in the region. Maybe it’s done to promote “peace,” or maybe it’s done out of fear of offending moderate and reform-minded Muslims in the region and the rest of the world, but in the long run, it helps no one.
Ignoring or downplaying jihadist violence in places like Lebanon and Israel puts Christians and Jews at risk, and sends a message of abandonment and indifference to peaceful and anti-jihadist Muslims who are intent on sidelining the extremists in their societies.
It is possible to address the issue of jihadism without defaming all Muslims; but ignoring the issue altogether just makes it worse.
Dexter Van Zile is Shillman Research Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).