BACK in 2013, in an interview with the Church Times, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he was “very conscious of the pressures” on Christians in the Middle East, “but not frightened or worried”. A lot has changed since then, and this book by Janine di Giovanni explains clearly why, nearly ten years later, the Archbishop should have every reason to be worried. The “twilight” in the title of her book is definitely not the soft light before dawn. For Middle Eastern Christians, darkness approaches. They are vanishing from the region where Christianity was born.
Di Giovanni is not the first to say this. But, in my experience, she is the first to do so by immersing herself in the various Christian communities — rather than relying on statistics or official church statements. The author is a seasoned war correspondent at the peak of her career, and her descriptions and observations are riveting. The book is a distillation of vivid notes taken while covering the past two turbulent decades in the Middle East.
The author focuses on four separate locations: Iraq, Gaza, Syria, and Egypt, weaving into the narrative the history of the various Christian communities. What makes the book so engrossing is that Di Giovanni herself is a Christian with a degree of empathy that not all war correspondents share. She not only spends long periods of time with Christian families, but she shares their rituals and prayers.
“Regardless where I was in the world, I felt a sense of being part of a larger community, no matter how difficult, dark or dangerous the situation was,” she writes. “Even in a war zone, I could always find a church somewhere. . . When I entered the space, I would feel at peace and no longer lonely.”
Throughout the past two decades, Di Giovanni has found Middle Eastern Christians in a state of anxiety about the future for one reason or another. In Iraq, just before the US-led invasion of 2003, “the people we visited in those strange dark days were mostly in a panic. The Christian worshippers at the church in Mosul sat in tears on cold pews, begging God to spare them from another war.”
When the Islamic State group swept through Iraq in 2014, sending Christians fleeing for their lives, one Assyrian community leader agonised over his people’s fate. “‘How can I tell them not to go?’ he asked, his voice thick with emotion. ‘I know they have no future here. But if they go, we as Christians have no future here.’”
Many of the Christians who are leaving the region cite security fears and the absence of a future for their children. Some speak of economic hardship. Others point a finger at the Christian West. The chaos in Iraq and Syria after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the author says, “has compromised the safety of countless Christian communities” across the region. The already complicated and dangerous position of Christians has become even more precarious.
The Vanishing is a wake-up call for worldwide Christianity. We need to be worried.
Gerald Butt, a former Middle East Correspondent of the BBC and the Church Times, is Middle East Adviser to Oxford Analytica, a geopolitical analyst and advisory firm.
The Vanishing: The twilight of Christianity in the Middle East
Janine di Giovanni
Church Times Bookshop £18