The Vanishing - The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East by Janine di Giovanni
Powerful study of Christian communities in Iraq, Gaza, Syria, and Egypt which goes far beyond mere statistics
The Vanishing - The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East
By Janine di Giovanni
Reviewed by Alec Gilmore
Janine di Giovanni, a distinguished Roman Catholic journalist, grew up in the Middle East, left in 2003 and 15 years later wondered how Christians in ‘the cradle of Christianity’ had survived through years of international turmoil. To find out, she visited four countries.
In Iraq (Abraham’s birth place) the decline in numbers from 1.4m in 2003 to less than 300,000 today was shattering, due mainly to persecution, the economy and emigration. Twenty first century Abrahams! (Gen. 12:1).
In Gaza, down to 1,000 (from 46,000 in 1950) and the mood among the older generation one of despair. Asked how he felt about the displacement of the Palestinians from their ancestral home a senior, much respected Baptist leader could only say, ‘Israel was born and we lost Palestine’, leaving a remnant finding consolation in seeing themselves as Living Stones,‘ artefacts from the days of Jesus’. (1 Peter 2:5).
In the High Street one day, however, having difficulty finding what she came to see, she spots a sign on a building: #wearenotnumbers. She goes in and finds Omar, a young journalist with a commitment to telling human stories behind the statistics, describing the daily lives of Palestinians on the streets and in the refugee camps, their struggles and triumphs, tears and laughter. Omar too has his own story of tragedy and triumph, but reflects a generation where despair gives way to hope and commitment. What matters is not what you see but what you feel, and that can be infectious.
Looking back as she leaves Gaza, Janine realises that in spite of everything the word she most frequently heard there was not freedom, wealth or poverty, but ‘dignity’. Numbers may be down but the Spirit lives on. Omar’s people are not Living Stones, but Building Bricks . . . without straw! (Exodus 5:1-14).
Appropriately, she moves on to Egypt where the key word is not dignity, persecution or emigration but ‘discrimination’: the nods and winks, slurs and side glances, proclaiming, ‘You are not welcome here’, mainly from small-minded village people who dislike change, or any who are ‘different’, while in rural areas interfaith relationships are taboo, as is marriage outside the faith for women.
So off she goes to Garbage City on the outskirts of Cairo, where 8,000 tons of Cairo’s stinking rot all finishes up, and meets Adham (Egypt’s Omar), a 20-year old Christian born and bred in the community, who welcomes her, invites her to coffee in the local coffee shop and gives her a guided tour explaining how it is all collected, separated, cleaned, dried and sorted. Unable to use his considerable skills to rise in the world (‘because I am a Christian’) he sees his job in Garbage City as his Christian calling. ‘ Without us’, he said, ‘Cairo wouldn’t be clean’, and as for the stench he never notices it.
On the way home she may have recalled a brief conversation with a young novice monk shortly before she set out. She had asked him casually why the Orthodox kept the sacrament behind a curtain, and he replied, ‘Because we feel . . . you see.'
Janine had set out to see. She returned knowing what it was to feel. The Vanishing is her story. Whether readers see it as a book of numbers and statistics or people of faith and hope will depend on whether they ‘see’ or ‘feel’.
Alec Gilmore is a Baptist minister