The Christian presence in the Middle East is ebbing away

The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets
by Janine di Giovanni. PublicAffairs. 2021. 272 pages.

Janine di Giovanni’s The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets was published late last year. 

An Italian-American Catholic journalist with vast experience covering the Middle East, Di Giovanni began this work while trying to understand how Christians had survived for so long.

Seeing how their struggle had intensified recently, and how whole communities were vanishing after a 2,000-year presence, her work took on a new meaning as she sought “to record for history people whose villages, cultures, and ethos would perhaps not be standing in one hundred years’ time.”

The fruits of this labour have helped to form a highly accessible introduction to a tragedy which has been unfolding for decades.

The Vanishing focuses on four places where Christians are under extreme pressure: Iraq, Gaza, Syria and Egypt.

In both Iraq and Syria, Christians (usually Eastern Rite Catholics or Orthodox, along with smaller denominations) have come under assault as the regimes of authoritarian rulers have collapsed.

Though a Sunni Muslim, the dictator Saddam Hussein protected Iraq’s Christians. While the 80s and 90s brought challenges due to the military conflicts Hussein embroiled his nation in, nothing compared to the violence following the US-led invasion in 2003.

Seeing the beleaguered Christian minority as an easy target, Al-Qaeda affiliates waged war against them with regular attacks on churches, including the killing of 58 people at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad in 2010.

After this initial devastation, in 2014, the Islamic State group captured much of Iraq’s ancient Christian heartland - murdering, enslaving and deporting thousands of Christians before leaving their homes and churches in ruins. 

As di Giovanni points out, Iraq’s Christian population has fallen from nearly 1.4 million before the war to between 250,000 and 300,000 today.

The devastation which has been inflicted on Syria’s Christians dates from the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.

As in Iraq, the Assad family’s secular dictatorship provided stability. Christians enjoyed a high level of religious freedom and could feel that they were a vital component of a religiously and ethnically diverse society, whatever its flaws were. 

Just as occurred in Iraq, the explosion of jihadi violence from 2011 onwards has wrought devastation. Targeted mercilessly by the opposition and faced with having to look to the brutal Assad regime for protection, many Christians have been killed or have chosen emigration.

Precise estimates of the community’s decline are difficult to establish, but the author suggests that about 700,000 Christians had left their homes by 2015, out of a pre-war population of 1.1 million.

It is a similar story in the Palestinian-controlled area of Gaza, where a Catholic priest told di Giovanni that there are just over 100 Roman Catholics left in his parish, down from a combined Christian community of 4,000 members 15 years earlier.

Here, it is not civil war which is causing the decline, even allowing for the massive damage which has been done to Gaza as a result of the conflict with Israel.

Low-level anti-Christian violence has convinced most Christians there that they have no future.

Instead of having a secular government to shield them from extreme Islamists, the election of the terrorist group Hamas as Gaza’s government in 2006 has made matters worse, not least by ensuring that a needless military conflict with Israel is continued. 

In Egypt, Christians make up around 10 percent of the population, with the Coptic Church being the main group. Although Islamic terrorist groups are a serious problem, el-Sisi’s military-led government is firmly in control.

As in Iraq and Syria, Egypt’s Christians often look to governments representing a relatively moderate form of Islam as being the lesser of two evils compared to the militant opposition. In recent decades, this has become more difficult as the secular Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser was replaced by the creeping Islamisation pursued by Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat.

As the imams exercised more and more control, relations between Muslims and Christians deteriorated, and restrictions on the minority - including measures to prevent them from building churches - increased.

Those locals with whom Di Giovanni speaks make it clear that the key issue is the everyday bigotry which Christians experience from their neighbours, rather than from government officials.

This includes attacks on both property and people alike, coupled with a pervasive inequality within the justice system which ensures that Christians have no legal recourse when they are set upon. For poorer Christians - like the Christian ‘Zabbaleen’ rubbish collectors who live and work within Cairo’s refuse dumps - this imposes a particularly high burden. In spite of the strong Christian presence and the country’s high standing, Open Doors ranks Egypt’s religious persecutions as being worse than North Korea’s.

The author does a good job of tying together the different stories from across the region and laying out the key facts.

Clearly, the rise of militant Islam has accelerated the decline of Christianity in its historical cradle, and the destabilisation of states through foreign intervention has exacerbated the problem. All of this needs to be made known to the broader Church which is doing far too little to help the remaining Christian communities to survive.

Some serious flaws mar her work, unfortunately. Like any assemblage of recent reporting, there are major gaps which prevent this from being a definitive account.

The omission of Lebanon is hard to understand. This was the only majority Christian country in the region when the last official census was taken in 1932, and was an example of a successful and pluralist society before demographic instability and the arrival of Palestinian militants increased tensions and led to the Lebanese Civil War. Since then, the Christian population has plummeted.

Di Giovanni’s decision to focus on the tiny Gaza strip rather than the West Bank is also perplexing, and it prevents the reader from considering the factors which have contributed to the sharp numerical decline of the Christians of Bethlehem and elsewhere in the region: a problem which has worsened under the Palestinian Authority’s rule.

Indeed, rather than directing such sharp criticism at Israel, the author should have considered why the Christian community is growing in the only non-Muslim state in the region and declining almost everywhere else.

Expanding the geographical focus slightly would also have allowed for a proper reflection on what occurred in Turkey in the last century or more.

Early on, di Giovanni refers to the Armenian Genocide in passing. She does not however, acknowledge that this was part of a broader genocide perpetrated against all of Turkey’s Christians, including the Armenians, the Greeks and the Assyrians (a group who had no separatist ambitions and no connection to any hostile external power, but who were annihilated anyway).

As painstakingly described by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi in The Thirty-Year Genocide, successive Turkish governments chose to exterminate or deport their Christian population, with the effect that a country which was 20 percent Christian in the late 19th century was just 2 percent Christian in 1924.

Today’s genocidal actors have a similar endgame in mind: removing Christians from the present, the past and the future.

Interestingly, di Giovanni quotes an Egyptian publisher who describes how references to the Christian era before the Islamic conquest were removed from Egypt’s school curriculum in recent decades. Those directing this onslaught understand fully that without living Christians, absolute control over societies can be assured and an entire history can be erased forever.

Without Christians, people can forget that the Hagia Sophia was constructed as a church or that generations of Christians worshiped within its walls.

This deserved a more comprehensive analysis, but di Giovanni is to be commended nonetheless for the uplifting depiction of those Christians who refuse to go quietly into the night.

As di Giovanni writes, “their faith, in many ways, is more powerful than any of the armies I have seen trying to destroy them.”


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