The Vanishing

That’s the title of a new book by American journalist Janine di Giovanni that I read a few days ago. If the title itself doesn’t reveal much, the essence is in the subtitle, “The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East”.

Years ago I read William Dalrymple’s (1999) book From the Holy Mountain, in which the author retraced the journey made by two 6th century monks from Mt Athos to Egypt. When they’d made that first journey, these had been predominantly Christian lands. That was long ago, but even by 1999 Dalrymple could paint a picture of a seriously embattled faith in the lands from which the gospel first sprang, the land of some of the earliest missionary endeavours. Of course, it isn’t a new story – think of the churches of North Africa (land of St Augustine and Tertullian, of saints and martyrs like Felicity and Perpetua). And yet the decline has been sharp over the last 100 years – as just one example, at the end of World War One Constantinople, a Christian city for 1000 years, was still about half Christian, and now has hardly any native Christian population at all.

But even when Dalrymple wrote, the invasion of Iraq was still several years in the future and the Syrian civil war not even on the horizon. One might reasonably have regarded both the Hussein and Assad regimes as odious, and yet the long-established Christian populations were still somewhat stable. As Giovanni notes, in both countries there had been something of an implicit bargain, in which minorities had protection so long as they kept quiet about the politics (both Hussein and Assad themselves came from minority communities within their respective countries).

The picture is much bleaker today, perhaps best reflected in this quote from the dust jacket:

The book is a unique act of pre-archeology: the last chance to visit the living religion before all that will be left are the stones of the past.

One hopes, and one prays, not.

In some respects The Vanishing is a curious book. The author, who has long experience in the region, writes from as a Christian herself – a faith recovered as her adult years advanced – although it is not clear how much difference that faith makes to the book, which seems targeted at a wider secular Western audience (as just one small indicator of that, the one quote on the front cover of the British edition in front of me is from Salman Rushdie (“a tragic portrait of a disappearing world, created with passion and literary grace”). Adding to the oddness is a framing within the context of Covid: the book opens as Paris locks down in March 2020 (she has family connections in France) and ends with an Epilogue around Easter 2020, spent for her in a remote village in rural France. Well-written, even evocative, as both bits might be, I wasn’t quite sure the connection to the main content of the book: the relentless decline of the Christian church, and Christian communities across the Middle East.

Quite possibly, the author’s politics won’t be to everyone’s taste – and arguably it intrudes more than is strictly necessary to treat the topic of the twilight of Christianity. She is not at all keen on Israel – and perhaps a more balanced book might look more at the state of the church in Israel – she (understandably) has no time for Trump, but can’t seem to decide what her view is of moves that administration took to prioritise protection of Christians in some of these countries.

But probably most readers will come for the vivid reportage, across various trips to the region. Her focus is on Christian communities in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and Egypt. In Gaza, once home to numerically-strong Christian communities, there are now estimated to be only perhaps 1000 Christians left, down by 75 per cent from already low numbers in just the last decade. In Iraq the exodus of Christians since the 2003 invasion is probably well known. Less appreciated, at least by me, is the scale of the exodus of Christians from Syria – of course, there has been a huge outflows of a wide range of peoples but di Giovanni suggests the Christian numbers have been particularly severely depleted.

In Eygpt, by contrast, there is still critical mass in the Christian communities – she visits one rural province which is apparently about 30 per cent Christian – and perhaps 10 per cent of the population (on average probably more educated and economically advanced shares of the population) identifies as Christian. But even there one gets the sense it might not take much to see a dramatic collapse in the size of the Christian communities.

She could, no doubt, have continued her story with visits to the West Bank – Bethlehem majority Christian just a few decades ago but a small minority now – and Lebanon.

Through a series of interviews with individuals and families, clerical and lay, Di Giovanni captures well some of the tensions – factors that pull and push people towards leaving (economic opportunity on the one hand, persecution and threats on the other), and yet the sense that to leave is not to walk away from a life of a few decades (these weren’t new missionary churches) but centuries upon centuries of faith and witness. A recognition that as the exodus continues, very soon there could be next to no Christian presence in many of these ancient lands, and the deep sadness of that.

Of course, what is striking about the decline of Christian communities in the Middle East is that, with rare exceptions, it isn’t the result of conversion (forced or otherwise) to Islam, or even the extreme secularisation that ails the West, but of emigration. Most people don’t change country even if they can just because the economic opportunities are better elsewhere (or many more New Zealanders would have gone to Australia over the last 50 years). That is probably especially true of people who are relatively economically successful in their own countries (as many of the Middle Eastern Christian communities had been over the last couple of hundred years). It usually takes push factors too – fear will be a powerful one, chaos all around one is another (something akin to genocide of the Armenian Christians 100 years ago a specific and horrifying example of the push). Perhaps too – and di Giovanni touches on this – the role of the West in the Middle East over the last 150 years may have been a factor – providing status and opportunity for local Christian communities in the first half of the 20th century in particular, but that tide has receded now.

It would take a more careful and systematic study, but looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century it is a little puzzling that the really sharp decline in Christian populations has happened only now. It isn’t as if the Muslim conquest is a recent development. Perhaps it is some combination of the creation of nation states (tending towards confessional conformity), starker differences in material living standards (the West vs the countries she focuses on), perhaps even the technology that makes these differences more visible and lowers the transport costs of relocating?

But whatever the cause(s), what a tragedy. Christians generally should pray for the revival of the gospel in these ancient lands – both because we should work for, and long for, the spread of the gospel everywhere, but also because to do otherwise is to dishonour and ignore our own heritage. Of the four great eastern patriarchates – Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem – not one is any longer a predominantly Christian city, and soon few of their hinterlands may be either. Things can change, and I’ve long prayed that Constantinople might one day again declare the rule of Christ.

But it is hard not to lean towards discouragement and even the temptation of despair. Over 1500 years where the church has been snuffed out by Islam, it has never successfully been revitalised in those lands on any scale. We are taught that the gates of Hell will not prevail against God’s kingdom, and yet as we look at the lands where the gospel took root in the first 1000 years it is hard to be optimistic about the situation in any of them – be it the Middle East, or Western Europe and its offshoots where if the outward forms – art, music, great cathedrals – linger, faith and discipleship are at a very low ebb, Christian communities are often nothing like what they were even a few decades ago, and new ideologies sweep across our lands (even our churches). Of course, there is encouragement in sub-Saharan Africa and east Asia, and yet one wonders how many decades or centuries those encouragements will last.

In the West of course, the main issue is not emigration. It really is a case of people walking away from faith, and in a way thus in some ways more alarming. In the Christian tradition in which I was raised we were (rightly in many respects) taught that no one inherited Christianity, that there were no second generation Christians. It is an important observation, about the need for each generation to commit afresh, and yet most people who follow Christ today – in the West, in the Middle East, anywhere, do so because God used their parents to help form them in the faith. Once those chains on continuity are broken they are (have been proved over centuries to be) hard to recreate. God in his mercy and power may move and spark revival – and in the current embattled state of the church we must pray for it, but those interventions seem to have been rare throughout history. Instead we Christians in the West – and much more so those in the Middle East – look on the tattered remnants of a world now passing. One sees it one’s own neighbourhood – the consolation and heartbreak of living to a certain age – and how one longs for a fresh work of God, a renewal and revitalisation of faith, the powerful proclamation of God’s message of salvation, here and abroad.

Weighed low by discouragement, this morning scrolling through Twitter I came across this, apparently a quote from Tim Keller.


He’s right of course. May we see that new thing God has for this – His – world.

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