Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets
by janine di giovanni
public affairs, 272 pages, $30
Damascus—or as the locals call it, Sham—is a magical place. The oldest capital city in the world, it exudes Eastern warmth and a cosmopolitan spirit. Culture, family, community, urban living, it had it all—and with class. My friend (let’s call her Mary) left her roots: She fled Sham, and left her parents in their home in the Wadi al-Nasara (Valley of the Christians). I look at Mary and her family while sipping tea. Even when they smile, the sorrow never leaves their eyes. Their youngest daughter died in a bus bombing during the war in Syria. She was seven years old. They decided to leave the country for “one year only,” they said at the time, “just until the bombings stop.” They had two viable options, Lebanon and the United States. They would have preferred Lebanon: Its culture was more familiar, and they wanted and needed that continuity for themselves and for their remaining daughter. But the political fragility of Lebanon made them hesitate, so they opted for the U.S., assuming it would be politically stable. They had one thought: “There are only three of us now, we don’t want to die.” They had lost their daughter, they had lost their country; to a certain extent they had lost their identity. Mary can’t sleep at night, she lies awake thinking, confused—Should we go back to Syria? Should we make a life in America?—but they can’t imagine making this country their home.
Mahmoud Darwish expresses this ache:
Time passes through us, or we pass through it
as guests to God’s wheat.
In a previous present, a subsequent present,
just like that, we are in need of myth
to bear the burden of the distance between two doors . . .
All of us, whether exiled by force or choice, live in that distance between two doors. We share a smell, Darwish writes, “the smell of longing for something else; a smell that remembers another smell . . . the smell of the original place.”
Mary’s story is bitter and beautiful. It’s like the stories Janine di Giovanni recounts in her new book The Vanishing.
Maybe Western people are weary of reports on Middle Eastern Christians. The stories can seem monotonous after a while, and besides there is no solution. But The Vanishing is unique because di Giovanni is not seeking a solution, and indeed knows there may not be one. As a war reporter for 30 years she knows the reality of man: There will always be another war, there will always be slaughter and destruction. She writes because this is the twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity, because just maybe we’ll remember their stories.
This book is also unique because it’s infused with di Giovanni’s own spiritual journey, her own (at least partial) return to the Catholic faith in which she was raised. Living alongside these Christians, whose faith does not waver even when they have no place to worship except bombed-out churches, she is inspired by the strength of their belief:
They are here on these pages, and therefore they live forever. But I also wrote it as a way of acknowledging that their faith, in many ways, is more powerful than any of the armies I have seen trying to destroy them.
I read this book as an Iraqi Christian immigrant, a writer who has interviewed people like di Giovanni’s subjects—from the same lands, in the same circumstances, with tears salted from the same soil. Di Giovanni talks to people in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and Egypt, before and after the wars. Many of those she interviewed before the wars were dead or gone when she returned to their communities. The Christian population in the Middle East is vanishing not only because of persecution and death, but also because of emigration by those who are fleeing these conditions. They don’t really want to leave their ancestral lands, but often it’s that or death. Priests from Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and Egypt all give the same “anguished response,” she writes: “How can I stop them from leaving?” Yet some Christians manage to stay, because of their connection to their lands and to family bonds that would be unthinkable to sever.
There are three strong convictions held by all the Christians from that region, whether they stayed or left; three unwavering thoughts that Westerners and Americans in particular often find incomprehensible. First, they really didn’t mind living under the secular dictators. Yes, there is some ubiquitous sense of being unwanted, as my friend Mary told me, but they had Muslim friends too. They didn’t mind it because they prospered and were protected.
Second, many of these people did not and do not want to leave. As my friend Mary told me, being in a minority can make you feel “unwanted and unwelcome. But we just lived with it: it was our country too. There may have been difficult times, but it’s our home, our land, our culture, our people.”
The third strong belief that all these Christians have in common is that they want foreign powers to stay the hell out of their countries. Di Giovanni’s Syrian interviewees said the same thing that Mary and other Syrian friends have told me: “As soon as we saw on television that America had invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam, we knew we were next.” An Iraqi friend once asked me: “When America invaded Iraq did the people here think they were coming to rescue us?” I said yes. “That’s not how we saw it,” she said, “we believed and still believe that America came to occupy us.” Di Giovanni’s interviewees say the same.
The West often condescends to the Middle East, treating its people as either terrorists or children who don’t know what’s good for them. Why otherwise would they tolerate living under oppressive dictators? But the accommodating nature of the Christians in the Middle East is not naiveté; rather it is obedience to the biblical instruction to live peaceably with their neighbors and obey the governing authorities. For example, when the authorities say Friday is a holy day, and therefore the day off of work, the Christians acquiesce. They do not find the current examples of Western democracy especially inspiring—certainly not the American model.
For Christians in the West this may be difficult to hear. Well, many of us Middle Eastern Christians hope it is heard loud and clear. Yes, we do have just war theory, but there's so much more to our faith than that—there is so much more we can offer the world. Recent popes, above all our beloved St. John Paul II, have exemplified a truly Catholic response to injustice and domination, in pleading for diplomacy rather than the sword, and asking all sides to respect human dignity.
American Christians have a different response to cultural exclusion: They resist and fight for their rights. When their influence in the culture wanes, they build institutions, start movements, form nonprofits, start magazines, align with political figures who might help them return to their former prominence, to free themselves from the soft persecution that they fear will one day harden. It’s not as selfish as it sounds: In doing so, they hope to give the society around them the love and goodness of God, to call as many as possible to friendship with Jesus, to work toward peace in the human family. But speaking the true, the good, and the beautiful to the world has its risks: It can turn into another form of adversarial identity politics, instead of an appeal to conscience.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once said: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” If that does represent the future, Middle Eastern bishops, not to mention priests, religious, and laypeople, will be able to say: “Welcome, brethren.” If we hold on to our faith as tightly as they hold on to theirs, then no “armies,” be they of the culture wars or any other kind, will be able to destroy us.
I like The Vanishing because it’s true, and people in the West need to read the truth, even if they don’t like it and can’t do anything about it.
Luma Simms is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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