Steve Morris

Is Christianity about to end in the place it began?

Christians in the Middle East are threatened as never before — partly owing to recent American involvement, says Janine di Giovanni

Part of the 4th-century Syriac Catholic monastery of Mar Behnam in Nineveh after it was vandalised by Isis. [Getty Images]

Janine di Giovanni’s book begins in a Paris apartment during the first lockdown. She’s at a friend’s home, which she leaves for the odd shopping trip wearing a homemade mask and rubber kitchen gloves. Covid has made her anxious and she worries that we may lose things about our way of life forever. They need to be written down so we don’t forget. As she thinks about how her faith has comforted her during the pandemic she decides to tell the story of Christians in the Middle East who have experienced troubles of a different kind. She feels that Christianity is vanishing there, and if we don’t make a record of it, it will be lost.

It is springtime in Paris; the trees ‘blossom and the buds scatter on the sidewalks like stars’; but elsewhere the world isn’t so peaceful. Di Giovanni is a journalist who specialises in war zones, so she knows the score; and she keeps being drawn back to what’s happening in Iraq.

When the Americans deposed Saddam, they removed the protection the Christian minority had enjoyed

She describes her first trip there in 2002 when she toured the country with her trusty driver, Munzer, and her translator, Reem. The American invasion was imminent and Saddam Hussein’s administration was nearing its end. Everyone knew, it seemed, that the arrival of the Americans would do more harm than good, and that minorities would be at great risk in the aftermath.

At the time, things were bad, but reasonably stable. Age-old communities, some speaking Aramaic, the language of Jesus, lived in relative peace and security. These are the lands of the biblical prophets and the stories of the Old Testament, and much of what was, was still there. It was this connection to ritual, shared history and storytelling that gave the Middle East what was most precious — a diversity of peoples.

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