The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the ProphetsSeeds of hope in a barren wasteland – Catholic Herald
The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets
by Janine di Giovanni
PublicAffairs, £22.99, 272 pages
“This is a book about dying communities, but it is also about faith.” Janine di Giovanni has written a moving and insightful portrait of the Middle East’s shrinking Christian population, which also gives a succinct introduction to the febrile and complex politics of several Middle Eastern states. Through interviews and vignettes, it gives an honest portrait of these varied Christian communities.
Woven through Di Giovanni’s narrative is her own personal story, which is treated in tantalisingly brief detail: how she regained her faith during her own risky travels as a journalist in these war-torn places; how COVID isolation separated her from her loved ones and left her lonely and afraid. Her emergence from this loneliness and rediscovery of community provides a theme of hope at the end of the book. “There is something that will sustain us, and that is faith.” A faith, as she writes, which among the Christians of the Middle East has proved stronger than its armies.
This is true – and important. Christianity in the Middle East, its ancient homeland, is still a faith of martyrs and miracles. It is also bewilderingly complex and increasingly depressing. Every country where Christians have survived now offers pressing reasons why they should leave. Their share of the population of their ancient strongholds in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Egypt has declined sharply, sometimes from 20 percent to 2 percent. It is still falling.
When I lived in Jerusalem 20 years ago, I could go to a different church every Sunday; in fact, so many and varied were the Christian groups there, I could find a different Catholic denomination every week. I saw the Ethiopian monks dance on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, and went to crowded festivals dedicated to St George in Palestinian churches. I learnt Coptic and Aramaic.
But many of the Palestinian Christians I knew then have since left. Some traces of Christianity will always remain: the Ethiopian monks will probably dance forever, unless the neighbouring Copts displace them. But the broader community is shrinking, for reasons that Di Giovanni explains in a chapter about Gaza. Other chapters look at Syria, Egypt and Iraq.
Political Islam has taken a firm grasp of one Arab country after another over the past 100 years. Partly a reaction to western invasion, secular values and Communism, it pushed for a return to a more strictly Muslim society. Since it was a political movement, this was not just about prayer and private belief (though that was part of it) but also disempowering non-Muslims and liberal Muslims.
The Muslim Brotherhood from its earliest years attacked Christian politicians in its propaganda; its violent offshoots and splinter groups have massacred Christians in recent decades. Its ideology has been deeply influential among the parties which have ruled Iraq for the past 18 years, those who rule Iran, and those who form the biggest opposition movement in most Arab countries. Many Arab governments have not been prepared to stand up to them and are particularly not inclined to do so for a diminishing minority of Christians. Western governments have not cared much to intervene. The Foreign Office did turn itself red in 2019 to mark the persecution of Christians, but its embassies in the Middle East have failed to acknowledge the ill treatment.
Nonetheless, Di Giovanni is not quite right, in that quote above, to speak of these communities as dying. They are disappearing fast from Iraq and Palestine, but millions remain in Egypt, which Christians are certainly leaving but not at the same rate.
In any case they aren’t dying; we are, we Catholics in the West. They are moving, taking their faith with them. It is our western churches which are emptying, our communal events sparsely attended, our common rituals – if they have not already been voluntarily abandoned – handed on by decreasing numbers, with less commitment and more embarrassment as each generation goes by. You will not see that yet in the Middle East. You will not even see it if you visit a Coptic church in Earls Court or a Syriac one in Brook Green. A visit to Detroit, where there are as many Iraqi Christians as in Iraq, shows a Chaldean Catholic community that is still very much alive – retaining its language, community and strong faith. I remember a Copt in Egypt telling me, in horror and amazement, of a British person he had met who had never read the Bible. He now lives in America, so will know better; but in Egypt all people will be familiar with their own holy book, at least.
Should we not be doing more to firm up that faith? Maybe – as well as giving money for Christians in the Middle East – we should give over more Church housing and churches to these new communities, to help them to keep their identity in future generations. A substantial Christian presence in most parts of the Middle East is indeed a thing of the past. But its death, like that of the grain of wheat, could yet give us new life.
Gerard Russell is a former British diplomat. His book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East is published by Simon & Schuster.
This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.