Reviewed by Richard Tutin
It was either fortuitous or a coincidence that, when Janine di Giovanni’s book The Vanishing -The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East arrived on my desk, a statement from the Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches of Jerusalem was published concerning the current threat to the Christian presence in the Holy Land. This is not a new concern but one that has been discussed and disseminated for a number of years. The numbers of Christians in countries such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq as well as in Palestine and Gaza have been steadily declining for many reasons that di Giovanni explores and deplores on an interesting and powerful journey.
Janine di Giovanni has spent many years travelling through the Middle East reporting on Christian communities. This book offers us her latest observations and thoughts as she tries to make contact with people whom she has met and interviewed in the past as well as trying, and in many cases succeeding, to visit different areas that have been affected by war as in Syria and Iraq or sectarian violence often caused by Muslim extremists that have come into prominence over the past twenty years.
Her interviews have chronicled the both the destruction of Christian churches and monasteries along with the scattering of Christians who have been displaced from their communities and have had to seek asylum in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. The real tragedy is that these are the areas along with North Africa where Christianity began. Their churches have been places of worship for centuries. They are filled with many precious artefacts that have been handed down from these earliest times. The destruction of these buildings and the treasures they contain is a great tragedy not only to the local communities but also to Christians around the world.
That though is not the real treasure as di Giovanni reminds us of many times during this book. Her main aim is to seek out the people who persist in maintaining their life and religious traditions despite the pressures to leave or face being removed forcibly from the places where their families have lived and worked for centuries.
Those who have sought asylum have established themselves in their new countries to the point where in Australia the Coptic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church are among the Christian churches that are growing rather than declining.
Those left behind in the Middle East prefer to stay rather than move. As di Giovanni shows many times, they have a resilience and persistence that have defied the pressures that have been heaped upon them. They put up with and work around the restrictions placed on them. Things though are not always straightforward such as the relationship between the leadership of the Coptic Church and the government of Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The Vanishing is compelling reading and is not just for those who have an interest in Christianity or inter faith relations. She clearly shows the pressures and sufferings being faced by people of faith who live in the areas where Christianity took root and grew to take its place on the world stage. As she introduces us to the people of this troubled part of the world, she asks questions that need urgent answers. Are we seeing the twilight of Christianity in the Middle East? If so, how long will it be before there will be no Christians living and worshipping in these historic places or is their faith more powerful than any of the armies that are seeking to destroy them?
Janine di Giovanni is a multi-award-winning journalist and author, a Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. She has won more than a dozen prizes including a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Amnesty International Prizes and the prestigious Courage in Journalism Prize. She is the author of nine books; the most recent, The Morning They Came for Us, was translated into thirty languages.
The Vanishing – The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East
Janine di Giovanni
ISBN: 978 1 5266 2581 6