A Syriac Christian militiaman stands guard on top of the Saint John's church in Iraq during an easter procession, on April 16, 2017. Picture Credit: CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty Images

Unholy politics and a Christian exodus

Middle Eastern Christians are facing the threat of extinction


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In Baghdad, shortly after the 2003 war, I visited the place which the city’s Jews had used as their community centre and school. All was quiet in the street as we approached; only a slight movement in a window opposite showed that the neighbours were watching. Inside, dust awaited us and the feel of a place hurriedly abandoned. From a great pile of books I tried to extract one. The others slid and crashed into an antique typewriter. The book, a schoolbook introduction to Hebrew for Arabic speakers, had been printed in the 1950s.

The Vanishing: The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East. Janine di Giovanni (Bloomsbury, £20)

It was in 1941 that a pogrom in Baghdad sparked a first major wave of Jewish emigration. In 1951 Israel airlifted thousands of Jews in an operation named after Ezra and Nehemiah, who famously returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. Those few who remained in Baghdad, and studied from that little schoolbook, were probably preparing to follow in subsequent years. By 2003, only a few dozen Jews remained. 

Their population was once in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions — even, by one surprising estimate, the majority of the population — before the arrival of Christianity and Islam. They wrote the Babylonian Talmud; they converted a queen and her whole kingdom to their faith. Now they had one dusty house in a back street and were afraid even to be seen there. That is what extinction looks like.

Despite all the headlines, that is not the situation of Christians in the Middle East — not yet, at least. But some of its ancient communities are certainly much reduced. In 1991 one in 20 Iraqis was Christian; now they are at most one in 80. Christians in pre-mandatory Palestine were 10 per cent of its population; now they are around 2 per cent. 

As Egyptian Christian (“Coptic”) churches proliferate around the world, their population at home must be dwindling even if reliable figures are not available. All this has been helped along by massacres, terrorism and officially-sanctioned discrimination. It is an indictment on Arab societies and, in turn, it deprives those societies of cultural diversity, global networks and a reminder of their own past.

Christians often suffer discrimination and bigotry because of their religion

This book sheds some light on the causes of that mass emigration and some context for the violence those communities suffer. It is a beautifully and clearly written book, which gives a very broad picture of Christian communities in Iraq, Gaza, Syria and Egypt. Di Giovanni has a sure hand in illustrating personalities and capturing mood, she knows the politics of the region well and she has talked to a lot of people. Having written a book on a similar topic, and knowing the difficulties it presented me, I read it with an eye for how she tackled those same dilemmas.

The first: how and why to write about the Christians of a country, rather than that country as a whole? Christians often suffer discrimination and bigotry because of their religion. Sometimes they face persecution. But this itself is often a symptom of a wider malaise. In Iraq, Muslims have been the main targets of religious violence — from other Muslims — with Christians usually somewhat less targeted, because they have less access to political power. In Egypt, there is systematic discrimination but this affects not only Christians (admittedly, they are probably the most numerous victims) but also atheists and liberals.

For the most part, Christians want to emigrate to the West because of the general miseries that also afflict Muslims: unemployment, declining economies, poor governance. Di Giovanni is strong on this — this is a book highly informed by political and social understanding. In fact, it cannot stand alone as a guide to these Christian communities precisely because it takes such a wide lens, and has little time to look at the Christian communities’ traditions, history or beliefs.

She vanishes from the story, reappearing at the end

Then: which countries to include? There are tiny, intriguing communities of Christians in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, partly made up of converts from Islam. Over in Iran, there are both some convert communities and some Assyrian and Armenian Christians. In the Arab Gulf, there are new populations of migrant workers, most from outside the Arab world, but also a number of Iraqi and Egyptian Christians. 

Finally, the oddest omission from the book in some ways, the Middle Eastern country with the highest proportion of Christians: Lebanon. Di Giovanni’s choice, I think, is of those places where the Christian communities have suffered recently from violence and war. That makes sense, but it makes the book somewhat apocalyptic.

Then, two related challenges: how to include yourself in the story, and give it any kind of narrative arc? The material is gathered over many years; it necessarily involves a great many different characters, none of whose stories we can really follow for long, since the book must move on to another topic and another place. I wrestled for months with my own material. 

I would guess, too, that Di Giovanni gathered some of her material before she had the concept for this book, and so she had an even harder task selecting what story would best set the scene, and how to give a broad and accurate portrayal of a community from a few well-chosen interviews. She is an expert at it, and the narrative flows easily, but I suspect a lot of thought and effort went into its construction. It gives us breadth, but not depth. There is no single character that stands out, except Di Giovanni herself.

Di Giovanni’s introduction is full of self-revelation and introspection, about her own religious faith, her childhood, her anxiety about Covid and other things. But then in subsequent chapters she vanishes from the story, reappearing at the end. I missed her along the way. I felt enormous distaste at the idea of inserting myself into my own book, and yet, as a reader, I found myself wanting to know how these encounters with deeply religious people, from a distinctive but often very conservative tradition, affected Di Giovanni. 

Did she find herself embarrassed, as I was, to witness the Copts’ devotion to prayer and old-style fasting (no meat or meat products in Lent, liturgies lasting the whole day long, prayer six times a day) and think what wimps we are in the West that we think it a sacrifice to give up chocolates and go to Mass once a week? Did she wonder, as I did for a time, amid the unholy politics of the Holy Land, whether religion wasn’t just the worst thing in the world and the cause of most of its problems? I would have liked to know.

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