Disappearance. By Janine di Giovanni. Bloomsbury; Â£ 20
AAFTER A STRICT conventual education, Janine di Giovanni, an American war correspondent, moved away from religion. Yet, as she traveled the world, reporting from Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, her faith returned. Wherever she went, she writes in “The Vanishing”, she would find a church, seeking “a ritual and a sense of belonging.” His book is the culmination of two decades of fieldwork in the Middle East, its four sections reflecting his stays in Egypt, Gaza, Iraq and Syria. As the title suggests, this is a portrait of an endangered people.
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Christians are a besieged minority in many countries, including North Korea, where tens of thousands are believed to be held in concentration camps, and Sri Lanka, where around 250 people died in the 2019 Easter attacks. In the Middle East, Islamist extremists describe Christians as Westernized intruders, yet the region was the cradle of religion, which flourished until the Arab Muslim conquest of the 7th century. Christians have since faced discrimination to varying degrees, precipitating waves of emigration. Today 93% of the population of the Middle East and North Africa is Muslim.
Ms. di Giovanni brings a compassionate perspective to her narrative, interweaving a complex, at times dense, story with evocative vignettes and interviews. His interlocutors range from nuns to imams, from the last vestiges of the Christian elite of Gaza to the poor of Cairo. Zabbaleen, who sort the garbage in “Garbage City”. These âdying communitiesâ of various Christian denominations, some claiming to be directly disciples of Jesus, share a difficult choice: to abandon ancestral roots in search of a better life elsewhere, or to cling to a precarious future. Most keep their heads down, but the allegiance of some to dictators – seen as bulwarks against extremism – has upset Islamists.
In Iraq and Syria (pictured), minorities were once protected by the Baathist regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Assads, whose Alawite offshoot of Shia Islam had itself suffered persecution. After the American invasion of Iraq that overthrew Hussein in 2003, a cleansing of Christians by the Islamic State (IS), who burned down churches and destroyed homes, caused an exodus. Most Syrian Christians, on the other hand, believed that only Bashar Assad could maintain interfaith harmony. After the outbreak of war in 2011, IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, another jihadist group, has razed more than 80 churches, kidnapped clerics and sold Christian and Yazidi women into sexual slavery. In Aleppo, home to more Christians than any other Syrian city, many have been affected by indiscriminate government bombing. The economic difficulties left little incentive to stay.
In the fourth century, Gaza was entirely Christian. By the 21st century, the community had fallen to less than 1,000, and the aftermath of Hamas’ election in 2006 put its members further at risk. They endure the same hardships and lack of opportunities as other Gazans and receive little protection from the government; unemployment among young Christians is 70%. Egypt’s predominantly Coptic Christian population is the largest in the region, but still suffers from legal and social discrimination, even though some families are isolated by privilege. âThe underlying feeling of inferiority is our greatest persecution,â said one woman. âI have seen Muslim men grab me by the hair and try to drag me because I don’t have a headscarf.
“The Vanishing” patina on past abuses by Christians, such as the Crusades. Nonetheless, it is both a heartfelt lament for the Middle East and a poignant tribute to hope and tolerance in the face of adversity – stubborn worshipers in bombed-out churches, the openness of the victims. of Yazidi rape. Whatever your beliefs, his evocation of fractured lives supported by faith is deeply touching. â
This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the title “Stations of the Cross”