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LondonMiddle Eastern Christianity’s Last Stand

From the Catholic Herald:

A woman prays for Egyptian ISIS victims. Islamism is growing in the country (AP)

The Last Supper
by Klaus Wivel
New Vessel Press, £11.99

Forsaken
by Daniel Williams
OR Books, £15

“Today we are still alive, but tomorrow is uncertain. Please pray for us.” Those are the words of a Syrian priest, written shortly before he was kidnapped by ISIS. They could also serve as a two-sentence summary of these two books, or as the motto of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who still live in Syria and Iraq.

Those hundreds of thousands represent a mere fraction of the Christian communities that existed in those countries just 30 years ago. The precipitous decline of Middle Eastern Christianity is one of the major global tragedies of our era. Aside from anything else, it marks the end of more than one great world civilisation.

No Christian liturgy celebrated today is older than the Chaldean Mass used in Iraq. Missionaries from Iraq and Iran were the first to bring Christianity to China. Once, the “Church of the East” spread across more of the globe than any other Christian Church. Now its remnants in the Middle East are embattled and desperately seeking refuge in the West.

The Arab world is changing, too. It was always a melting pot of religions. Even the 20th-century Arab nationalist movement had more than one Christian among its founders and early leaders. Governments in Egypt and Iraq regularly had non-Muslim ministers. The death of the Egyptian Christian politician Boutros Boutros-Ghali is a reminder of that more equal era.

Where, though, is the future Boutros-Ghali? His grandfather was prime minister of Egypt; under the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, the most senior Copt was minister for scientific research. This is symbolic of a wider trend. Christians are setting their faces ever more clearly Westward. History will record this tragic and momentous change, but it is not so easy to find contemporary journalists and politicians who want to focus on it. These two books are noble exceptions.

Of the two, Wivel’s loses somewhat from having been a couple of years in the translation (from the Danish), which means it was written before ISIS overran northern Iraq. It is an excellent book, though: insightful, adeptly presented and studded with occasional fine metaphors. The tall Canon Andrew White, an Anglican vicar who is interviewed by Wivel in bomb-strewn, chaos-ridden Baghdad, is “like a Gulliver in an evil version of Lilliput”.

Another great virtue of Wivel’s book is that he studies the growth of intolerant Islamism in Egypt, which houses the largest of the region’s Christian populations. A Copt he interviews says that their problem is “not so much persecution as suffocation”. Killings are rare. It is generally safer to be Christian than Islamist. But there is a feeling of constriction, of lack of freedom, underpinned by discrimination of multiple kinds. The sad truth is that it is in Egypt that Middle Eastern Christianity will make its last stand: Iraq and Syria are already lost.

Williams’s book, which is also very much worth reading, looks at Iraq and Syria after ISIS. It is, as a result, an elegy. Both writers are very critical of policy-makers in the West who dodge the topic of Christians in the Middle East. Westerners keen to experiment with political Islam haven’t helped, says Wivel. He derisively quotes human rights figurehead Ken Roth’s remark that “embracing political Islam need not mean rejecting human rights” – an oxymoron, Wivel says. Williams takes particular aim at those who say that ISIS’s actions “are not Islam”.

This criticism doesn’t come out of kneejerk religious solidarity. Wivel is an atheist, and Williams is careful to pepper his book with criticisms of the West. So why is there this reticence which they criticise? Why have Western governments hesitated to denounce ISIS’s atrocities as genocide?

In part, it is fear that a sense of Christian victimhood would express itself in hostility to Muslims. Few things are more dangerous than an ethnic or religious majority armed with a sense of victimhood. Radical Islamic groups very often present Muslims collectively as victims; it’s equally wrong to present them collectively as oppressors.

Then, finally, there is ignorance of Islam, and a resulting fear of making ill-informed criticisms. This is a fair concern. So these books, and especially Wivel’s subtle probing, should be welcomed. In my view, some of the excellent books written by Muslims on this topic should be promoted, too: SS Hasan’s Christians vs Muslims in Modern Egypt, for example.

What can readers do to help? Lobby government to do more for religious freedom and the protection of minorities; help charities such as Aid to the Church in Need; and, this Eastertide, heed the lines with which this review began: “Tomorrow is uncertain. Please pray for us.”

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