The Vanishing: Are Arab Christians an Endangered Minority?

15 November, 2021
Father Emanuel Youkhana in a demol­ished church build­ing in Mosul, Iraq, cour­tesy World Coun­cil of Church­es, which argues on its web­site, “When every­body is build­ing walls, the church can build bridges.”


The Van­ish­ing:
 Faith, Loss, and the Twi­light of Chris­tian­i­ty in the Land of the Prophets

By Janine di Giovanni
Pub­lic Affairs Books
ISBN 9781541756687

 

Hadani Ditmars

 

So much of The Van­ish­ing treads on famil­iar stomp­ing grounds that read­ing it, for me, was an act of nos­tal­gia. Janine di Gio­van­ni’s evoca­tive por­traits of Chris­tians in the Mid­dle East, strug­gling to sur­vive in a region reel­ing from war, occu­pa­tion and dic­ta­tor­ships are close to my heart. From the descrip­tions of Sad­dam-era Iraq to an inter­lude at the ancient monastery of Mar Mat­tai and inter­views with the Ortho­dox Arch­bish­op of Mosul, who saved the relics of St Thomas from ISIS with min­utes to spare; to chats with the Tarazi clan in Gaza, and sto­ries of Syr­i­an and Egypt­ian believ­ers, the book took me back to old friends and places we’d both encoun­tered over the past three decades of report­ing in the region.

The Van­ish­ing is avail­able from Pub­lic Affairs Books.

But there are inher­ent dan­gers in sepia-toned nar­ra­tives. As the blurb notes:

“The book is a unique act of pre-arche­ol­o­gy: the last chance to vis­it the liv­ing reli­gion before all that will be left are the stones of the past.”

While di Gio­van­ni should be com­mend­ed for bring­ing to light the sto­ries of the region’s Chris­tians, so often caught between West­ern agen­das and Islam­ic extrem­ism (often sup­port­ed by those same agen­das), her depic­tion of Chris­tians as inevitably dis­ap­pear­ing from the region over­looks cur­rent on-the-ground real­i­ties for the “liv­ing stones” (as many Pales­tin­ian and Iraqi Chris­tians call themselves)

As I read The Van­ish­ing, divid­ed into  four chap­ters sim­ply called: Iraq, Gaza, Syr­ia, Egypt, I received a What­sAp call from a friend in Bartel­la, the ancient Assyr­i­an town in Iraq’s Nin­eveh Plain. He had escaped with his fam­i­ly in a hearse — lent by the local Ortho­dox church — min­utes before ISIS arrived in 2014, and after sev­er­al years of dis­place­ment, had returned in 2018 to rebuild his home. Today he works for a Chris­t­ian NGO and is cur­rent­ly spruc­ing up the local state-run kindergarten.

In the neigh­bor­ing Catholic town of Qaraqosh (like Bartel­la also men­tioned in the book), a young poet I know — who is still bask­ing in the warm glow of the Pope’s vis­it — wrote to tell me of his upcom­ing mar­riage and new teach­ing job. Mean­while, the Chris­t­ian pop­u­la­tion in Erbil has tripled since 2014 — as the Chaldean Catholic Arch­bish­op who host­ed the Pope last spring told me recent­ly, since that papal vis­it to Mosul, Chris­tians are begin­ning to return to Iraq’s belea­guered but resilient sec­ond city. Even the secu­ri­ty guard at the Al-Nuri Mosque, being restored by UNESCO after being blown up by ISIS, is a Christian.

 A recent chat with Souhaila Tarazi, the feisty direc­tor of the Al Ahli Angli­can Hos­pi­tal in Gaza bombed in last May’s IDF offen­sive,  whose sur­geon cousin di Gio­van­ni inter­views, was sur­pris­ing­ly hope­ful. More­over, Syr­i­an Chris­t­ian refugees are begin­ning to return to their vil­lages. Lebanon, which has the high­est per­cent­age of Chris­tians in the Arab world, was not includ­ed in The Van­ish­ing, nor was Jor­dan, where Chris­tians form almost six per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion and often hold pub­lic office (like my dis­tant Ortho­dox cousin, Asma Khad­er, a for­mer Min­is­ter of Culture).

This in no way under­mines the sober­ing sta­tis­tics of dwin­dling Chris­t­ian pop­u­la­tions in the region whose plight the book duti­ful­ly doc­u­ments, nor the ongo­ing pres­ence of var­i­ous extrem­ist groups. But the book might have ben­e­fit­ted from a few more exam­ples of the many tena­cious com­mu­ni­ties in the region who are turn­ing adver­si­ty into oppor­tu­ni­ty. We’ve seen some of this tone before, in books like William Dalrymple’s 1997 tome, From the Holy Moun­tain: A Jour­ney in the Shad­ow of Byzan­tium, billed as “a stir­ring ele­gy to the dying civ­i­liza­tion of East­ern Chris­tian­i­ty.” The Van­ish­ing bears some sim­i­lar­i­ties to The Holy Moun­tain, which, instead of di Giovanni’s jour­nal­is­tic mem­oirs, fol­lows the path of the monk John Moschos and his pupil Sophro­nius the Sophist, who trekked through the Byzan­tine Empire in the late sixth and ear­ly sev­enth cen­turies. Dal­rym­ple pre­dicts that his retrac­ing of the monks’ jour­ney that takes him through civ­il war in Turkey, post-war Beirut, a sim­mer­ing, occu­pied  West Bank and an Islamist insur­gency in Egypt, will allow him “‘to do what no future gen­er­a­tion of trav­el­ers would be able to do” — “wit­ness what was in effect the last ebbing twi­light of Byzantium.”

Dal­rym­ple over­stat­ed his case, though writ­ing with dark humor — a qual­i­ty often shared by the likes of Iraqis and Gazans — while di Gio­van­ni takes a more rev­er­ent approach in The Van­ish­ing. Her account is indebt­ed to pre­vi­ous women jour­nal­ists who made per­ilous treks across the region, like Freya Stark, whose 1937 Bagh­dad Sketch­es remains a com­pelling trav­el­ogue clas­sic, with its themes of sec­tar­i­an strife and women’s rights still rel­e­vant today. 

Janine Di Gio­van­ni is the win­ner of a 2019 Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship and in 2020 was award­ed the Blake Dodd Prize from the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Arts and Let­ters for her life­time achieve­ment in non-fic­tion. She has won a dozen oth­er inter­na­tion­al awards and is a Senior Fel­low at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, the Jack­son Insti­tute for Glob­al Affairs and the for­mer Edward R. Mur­row Fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Affairs in New York. Her acco­lades are well-deserved; she has writ­ten and report­ed from the Balka­ns, Africa and the Mid­dle East, where she wit­nessed the siege of Sara­je­vo, the fall of Grozny and the destruc­tion of Sre­breni­ca and Rwan­da in 1994, as well as more than a dozen active con­flicts. She divides her time between New York and Paris.

One wish­es the author had quot­ed a myr­i­ad of Arab poets and writ­ers, how­ev­er, rather than sum­mon­ing Euro­peans like Stark or Karen Blix­en (“All sor­rows can be borne if you put them into a sto­ry or tell a sto­ry about them”). Di Giovanni’s con­clu­sion that, “…their faith is more pow­er­ful than any of the armies I have seen try­ing to destroy them” could be the theme of Ben Hur or The Robe — Hol­ly­wood epics she cites as ear­ly child­hood influences.

While the sto­ries of the count­less refugees and dis­placed whom di Gio­van­ni has inter­viewed over the years are mov­ing, it’s her per­son­al rec­ol­lec­tions about her ear­ly career that are often the most poignant. In the Gaza chap­ter she recalls being young and scared and being fed sweets by a sym­pa­thet­ic hote­lier, whom she meets again decades lat­er, suc­cess­ful­ly link­ing her per­son­al sense of nos­tal­gia with the dashed dreams of the First Intifada:

“Years lat­er, back at Mar­na House for the first time since, my request for Rad­wan yield­ed an old man, small­er than I remem­bered but with the same tremen­dous shock of hair (though now gray). He remem­bered every­thing: friends of ours who had been killed or died, the old din­ing room—the hotel had been remod­eled entirely—and the ear­ly hopes of the first intifada.

“I sat in his gar­den for an hour, drink­ing a luke­warm Pep­si, remem­ber­ing, see­ing my younger self, try­ing to recall how I had first seen Gaza, through fresh eyes. When it came time to leave, I hugged Rad­wan good­bye. He stood in the gar­den wav­ing. My throat closed with emo­tion. So much time had passed.”

The Van­ish­ing fea­tures so many inter­views culled from dif­fer­ent peri­ods of di Giovanni’s report­ing that the parade of momen­tary per­son­al­i­ties can become a rather con­fus­ing blur. Just when one sub­ject seems inter­est­ing — like the Cop­tic man in rur­al Egypt who reveals he’s been banned from his own church for protest­ing his house being burned down by extrem­ists — he, well, van­ish­es, and we’re off on anoth­er snip­pet of reassem­bled reportage. If this book ever becomes a film, it might be described as Altmanesque.

The Syr­i­an chap­ter con­tains some com­pelling inter­views, includ­ing one with a Syr­i­an Armen­ian now liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, and some inter­est­ing his­to­ry about the Chris­t­ian con­nec­tion to Baathism. Di Gio­van­ni right­ly con­nects the recent exo­dus of Chris­tians to the dis­as­trous Anglo-Amer­i­can inva­sion of Iraq in 2003,  and via an Armen­ian refugee she talks to, notes that as Iraqi refugees poured into Syr­ia (before the sit­u­a­tion was reversed after 2011) Assad “him­self was rad­i­cal­iz­ing Mus­lims to send them to fight the Amer­i­cans in Iraq.”

She writes of “inter-gen­er­a­tional trau­ma” con­nect­ing the dots with the Ottoman era Armen­ian geno­cide but doesn’t men­tion the con­cur­rent one of Assyr­i­an and Arab Chris­tians (the very one that my ances­tors fled). Cer­tain­ly the entire Chris­t­ian nar­ra­tive of the Mid­dle East can­not be recount­ed in one vol­ume, but here the author down­plays dif­fer­ences between Catholic and Ortho­dox Chris­tians — doc­tri­nal­ly, polit­i­cal­ly, and his­tor­i­cal­ly dis­tinct through­out the region — and even con­flates them.

The final chap­ter on Egypt offers a more com­plex the­sis, pre­sent­ed via a blog­ger and per­former named Big Pharaoh and an inter­view with a young Chris­t­ian garbage col­lec­tor (though nev­er quite resolved), propos­ing that the per­se­cu­tion of Chris­tians is based more on class than faith. Here di Gio­van­ni makes some astute polit­i­cal obser­va­tions and offers inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal gems, includ­ing a men­tion that the Rev­o­lu­tion Flag of Egypt from 1919 bears a cres­cent and cross to demon­strate that both Mus­lims and Chris­tians sup­port­ed The Egypt­ian Nation­al­ist move­ment against the British. There is also a fas­ci­nat­ing account of Sadat’s ban­ish­ment of the Cop­tic pope and a sub­se­quent deal with Mubarak. On page 203, di Gio­van­ni notes that “The Broth­er­hood,  for all their grass­roots sup­port, were no match for the ancien regime, which sim­ply bid­ed its time.” She lat­er quotes an Egypt­ian she inter­viewed who says of Morsi’s short-lived regime, “They sold out the sec­u­lar oppo­si­tion and joined the mil­i­tary camp. But the mil­i­tary camp played them.” And via anoth­er inter­view she relates that ISIS wants to embar­rass SISI (Trump’s “favorite dic­ta­tor”) to show he is unable to pro­tect the Copts.

There’s some love­ly descrip­tion of church­es wrapped in the Egypt­ian flag at Christ­mas time, to show, says yet anoth­er Egypt­ian inter­view sub­ject, that wor­ship­pers are “Egypt­ian first and then Chris­t­ian.” And di Gio­van­ni, who in addi­tion to impec­ca­ble war zone cre­den­tials also stud­ied fic­tion at the Iowa Writ­ers Work­shop and grad­u­at­ed with a degree in com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don, offers some ele­gant phras­es in the two per­son­al essays about life under lock­down that book end The Van­ish­ing. Through­out she empha­sizes that the sit­u­a­tion for Chris­tians in the regions she doc­u­ments is inex­orably tied to the fate of Mus­lims and oth­er faith groups, para­phras­ing what the Iraqi Chaldean patri­arch Raphael I Bidaw­id once said: “When the bombs fall, they are not espe­cial­ly for Chris­tians or for Mus­lims. They’re for everyone.”

 

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