What Christians in the Middle East Want | Luma simms
Faith, loss and 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, False– is a magical place. The oldest capital in the world, it breathes oriental warmth and a cosmopolitan spirit. Culture, family, community, city life, it was all there – and in style. My friend (let’s call her Marie) left her roots: she fled Sham and left her parents in their house in Wadi al Nasara (Valley of the Christians). I watch Mary and her family sipping tea. Even when they smile, grief never leaves their eyes. Their youngest daughter died in a bomb attack during the war in Syria. She was seven years old. They decided to leave the country for “only one year”, they said at the time, “until the shelling stops”. 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 this continuity for themselves and for their remaining daughter. But Lebanon’s political fragility made them hesitate, so they opted for the United States, assuming they would be politically stable. They had only 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 some extent, they had lost their identity. Mary can’t sleep at night, she stays awake thinking, confused—Should we go back to Syria? Should we make a living in America?-but they cannot imagine making this country their home.
Mahmoud Darwish expresses this pain:
Time passes through us, or we pass through it
as invited to the wheat of God.
In an earlier present, a later present,
just like that we need myth
bear the weight of the distance between two doors. . .
All of us, exiled by force or by choice, live in this distance between two doors. We share a scent, writes Darwish, “the scent of longing for something else; a scent that remembers another scent. . . the smell of the original place.
Marie’s story is bitter and beautiful. It’s like the stories Janine di Giovanni tells in her new book Disappearance.
Perhaps Westerners are tired of reporting on Christians in the Middle East. Stories can seem monotonous after a while, and besides there is no solution. Corn Disappearance is unique because di Giovanni is not looking for a solution and knows that 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 massacres and destruction. She writes because it’s the twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity, because maybe their stories will be remembered.
This book is also unique because it is imbued with di Giovanni’s own spiritual journey, of her own (at least partial) return to the Catholic faith in which she was brought up. Living alongside these Christians whose faith does not waver even when they only have a place of worship in bombed-out churches, she draws inspiration from the strength of their belief:
They are here on these pages, and therefore they live forever. But I also wrote it down as a way to recognize that their faith, in many ways, is more powerful than any armies I have seen trying to destroy them.
I read this book as an Iraqi Christian immigrant, a writer who interviewed people like the subjects of di Giovanni – from the same lands, under the same circumstances, with salty tears 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 disappeared when she returned to their communities. The Christian population of the Middle East is disappearing not only because of persecution and death, but also because of the emigration of those fleeing these conditions. They don’t really want to leave their ancestral lands, but often it’s either that or death. Priests from Iraq, Syria, Gaza and Egypt all give the same “anguished response,” she wrote: “How can I stop them from leaving? Yet some Christians manage to stay, because of their connection to their land and family ties that would be unthinkable to sever.
There are three strong convictions held by all Christians in this region, whether they have stayed or gone; three steadfast thoughts that Westerners and Americans in particular often find incomprehensible. First, they really didn’t mind living under secular dictators. Yes, there is a pervasive feeling of being unwanted, as my friend Mary told me, but they also had Muslim friends. They didn’t mind because they thrived and were protected.
Second, many of these people did not and do not want to leave. As my friend Mary told me, being in the minority can make you feel “unwanted and unwelcome.” But we just lived with it: it was also our country. There may have been difficult times, but this is our home, our land, our culture, our people.
The third strong belief that all of these Christians have in common is that they want foreign powers to stay out of their countries. Di Giovanni’s Syrian interviewees said the same thing Mary and other Syrian friends told me: “As soon as we saw on television that America had invaded Iraq and overthrown Saddam, we knew that we were were next. An Iraqi friend once asked me, “When America invaded Iraq, did the people here think they were coming to save us?” I said yes. “That’s not how we saw it,” she said, “we believed and still believe America came to occupy us.” The people interviewed by Di Giovanni say the same thing.
The West often condescends in the Middle East, treating its people like terrorists or kids who don’t know what’s good for them. Otherwise, why would they tolerate living under oppressive dictators? But the accommodating nature of Christians in the Middle East is not naivety; it is rather obedience to the biblical instruction to live in peace with one’s neighbors and to obey the governing authorities. For example, when the authorities say that Friday is a holy day, and therefore a day off, Christians agree. They don’t find the current examples of Western democracy particularly inspiring – certainly not the American model.
For Western Christians, this can be hard to hear. Well, many of us Christians in the Middle East are hoping that this will be heard loud and clear. Yes, we only have the theory of war, but there is so much more to our faith than that – there is so much more that we can offer the world. Recent popes, especially our beloved Saint John Paul II, have exemplified a truly Catholic response to injustice and domination, arguing for diplomacy over the sword, and asking all parties to respect human dignity.
American Christians have a different response to cultural exclusion: they resist and fight for their rights. When their influence in culture wanes, they build institutions, launch movements, form nonprofits, launch magazines, align with political figures who could help them regain their old notoriety, to break free from the sweet persecution which they fear will one day harden. It is not as selfish as it seems: in doing so, they hope to give the society around them the love and goodness of God, to call as many people as possible to friendship with Jesus, to work for peace. in the human family. But talking about the truth, the good and the beautiful in the world has its risks: it can turn into another form of contradictory identity politics, instead of a call to conscience.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once noted: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” If this represents the future, the bishops of the Middle East, not to mention priests, religious and lay people, will be able to say: “Welcome, brothers. If we cling to our faith as tightly as they cling to theirs, then no “army”, be it culture warfare or any other kind, can destroy us.
I appreciate Disappearance because it’s true, and Westerners need to read the truth, even if they don’t like it and can’t do anything about it.
Luma Simms is a member of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy.
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