The Vanishing: the Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East
Janine di Giovanni
<Buying via this Amazon Link will donate 5% of the price to JMECA>
Mini Review by: Revd Canon Dr William Taylor
Janine di Giovanni, an investigative reporter and former winner of the Courage in Journalism prize, tells the important story of the situation for Christians in the Middle East in four chapters, focusing on Iraq, Gaza, Syria and Egypt. All four have completely different demographies and histories but share the situation of being minorities in majority Muslim environments. Despite the fact that it is difficult to create a coherent narrative out of four such diverse scenarios, di Giovanni achieves this by her elegant journalistic and compelling style, backed up by accurate historical research. She also has the advantage of being a practicing Catholic who describes Christians with empathy, not looking at the communities as ‘them’.
Her chapter on Iraq traces her experiences there from 2002 to more recent times but has an overconcentration on the bleak and helpless, especially after the invasion of Da’esh in 2014. My own visits to Erbil in the KRG (most recently in January of this year) tell another equally important story. In Erbil, the Christian community (led by the Chaldean Catholics) is building universities, hospitals, schools churches and community centres with astonishing vigour and hope, supported by large international donors. It would have been good to have heard more of this.
Gaza 2019 is a much more challenging story of a very small community under siege internationally. It is difficult to separate the demography of Christians in Gaza from the overwhelming odds against the thriving of any community in Gaza. This is the bleakest of the four chapters. The author writes, ‘in Gaza, when you say goodbye to someone, you cannot know if you will ever see them again’ (p.114).
Syria 2011-2019 is largely the story of the war in that country and how Christians have tried to survive it. Di Giovanni writes with insight of the Tanzimat period in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1800s. These ‘reforms’ were largely forced on the Ottoman Empire by European colonial powers and created a divide between Christians and Muslims which had not been the case before. European power had therefore directly contributed to the decline of the Christian population in Syria. Lazy western journalism has contributed to this and the author comments that, ‘the widely held Western narrative of modernday Syria is built off of reductive, insulting tropes’ (p.161).
Egypt 2019-2020 changes gear – ‘I don’t think this is the end of the story’ is the oft quoted remark. The picture is not uniformly bleak in Egypt or throughout the region, and there are many who believe that di Giovanni’s title The Vanishing is to write the epilogue for Middle Eastern Christianity too early. She identifies faith and hope as great sustainers for those who are persecuted for their faith, and the significance of Easter for Christians. A wider picture would also have been produced had she included Lebanon and Jordan, though emigration of Christians from the region is also a uniting story. More importantly, di Giovanni alludes several times throughout the narrative to the key, unanswered question – is the diaspora life in the secular west a greater threat to the Christians of the Middle East than the situation in the countries from which they come? Only time will tell.
About the Author
Janine di Giovanni is an American journalist and writer who lectures at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. She has been the Foreign Correspondent for The Times (London) and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Blake Dodd Prize among many other awards. She has received the National Magazine Award, the Courage in Journalism Prize, and awards from Amnesty International. She is the author of several other books including The Quick and the Dead, Under Siege in Sarajevo (1994), Madness Visible, A Memoir of War (2015, on Yugoslavia and the Balkans), The Morning They Came for Us, and Dispatches From Syria (2016). She has been a consultant for the UN Refugee Agency, the UN Democracy Fund and the Shattuck Centre on Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery, as well as for the International Refugee Commission.
Featured in Bible Lands, Summer 2022