Islamic fundamentalist groups, in particular ISIS, have ravaged parts of Iraq and Syria and brought those countries’ already decimated Christian population to the verge of extinction. In Egypt, Christian Copts face legal and societal discrimination. In Gaza, which in the fourth century was entirely Christian, fewer than one thousand Christians remain.”
Sobering statistics like these set a grim backdrop for The Vanishing, war journalist Janine di Giovanni’s fearless account of what the book’s subtitle calls “Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets.” There can be few better suited or equipped to tell this story than di Giovanni, who has previously reported on the genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Syria and is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
The Vanishing is neither a chronological record of Christian withdrawal nor a geopolitical analysis of religious trends. Instead, di Giovanni offers a kind of requiem for a disappearing religious culture, a tale rendered all the more heart-wrenching for having been written during some of the worst months of the COVID-19 crisis. The book skillfully manages to combine an overview of the rise and precipitous fall of Christianity in its ancient homelands, moving accounts from believers sticking it out there, and a deeply personal grieving over the withdrawal of the faith from its birthplace.
Di Giovanni’s narrative begins and ends amid the lockdown in Paris: “I light a candle,” she writes. “I pray for those who are sick and for those who have died. Ordinarily, I am not a prayerful person. I am a proud sinner, in fact. But faith is coming back to me in these dark times.” For di Giovanni, faith means ritual and a sense of belonging: “Even in a war zone I could always find a church somewhere. Inside the church, there would be someone else kneeling in the gloomy light, trying to communicate with something higher. … When I entered the space, I would feel at peace and no longer lonely.”
In the book’s four main sections, di Giovanni traces the disappearance of Christians from Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and Egypt, places she knows well through extensive travels. Each has its distinctive story, but all share the same patterns of persecution, harassment, political estrangement, and economic distress, and all are set in landscapes familiar to Bible readers. For instance, Iraq: the land between the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates that supplies the setting for some of Scripture’s oldest stories, from the tempting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to Abram’s upbringing in Ur of the Chaldeans.
Di Giovanni sketches the long history of believers in this region, considered to be the oldest continuous Christian community on earth. In 1964, half a century before the city’s destruction in the second Iraq War, archaeologists reportedly discovered a relic of the apostle Thomas in present-day Mosul. In the years following the US invasion, Iraq’s ancient churches were aggressively targeted by suicide bombers and ISIS jihadists toting machine guns. Di Giovanni has witnessed multiple disappearances over the course of several return visits. Many of the people she had met on previous trips were not to be found: They had died, emigrated, or simply vanished. Other religious minorities have suffered the same fate.
Against all odds, some Christians do survive. Di Giovanni movingly describes a feast at an ancient monastery 20 miles from Mosul, where ISIS fighters had carried out systematic ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Christians. Extended families celebrated life in the simplest way, by sharing a meal. Yet the keynote was all too often despair: “I can’t even save myself,” a priest lamented to di Giovanni.
The Christian community most imperiled, according to di Giovanni, is the tiny band of believers—numbering less than a thousand—living in the besieged Gaza Strip. The first Christian recorded to have preached there was Philip the Evangelist. Yet today Palestinian Christians are prevented from visiting the historic sites of Jerusalem, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the presumed location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.
Syria, torn by civil war ever since the abortive uprising in 2011, presents another site of dreadful suffering. Almost six million refugees have fled the country, with six million displaced internally and some 12 million others in desperate need of support and assistance. Damascus—the city to which Paul was traveling when he met the risen Christ—now plays host to the murderous Assad regime. Before the civil war, Christians in Syria numbered about 1.1 million in a total population of 22 million; by 2015, 700,000 had gone.
Egypt—the birthplace of Moses and the refuge of the holy family fleeing the wrath of Herod—has the largest Christian population in the Middle East. Most—between six and ten million—belong to the ancient Coptic church, but many other churches and denominations are represented as well. Unlike Christians in Iraq and Syria, the Egyptian brothers and sisters do not stand in danger of being eliminated. Yet they are all too often discriminated against and harassed, if not persecuted.
Confronting this onslaught of tragedy—echoed by church bombings in Sri Lanka, concentration camps in North Korea, and persecution in Iran—di Giovanni quotes Thomas Aquinas’s paraphrase of Hebrews 11:1: “Faith has to do with things that are not seen and hope with things that are not at hand.” Searching for comfort amid her own personal feelings of loss, she leans on a remark from Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Tim Dowley is a poet, playwright, and historian living in London. His books include Defying the Holocaust: Ten Courageous Christians Who Supported Jews.