Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets
By Janine di Giovanni
PublicAffairs, pp. 272, $30
Review by Paul Feheley
Books written about the Middle East are often either political explorations of various regimes and factions, or stories of faith. The award-winning author Janine de Giovanni has managed to combine both, and in a most thought-provoking way.
The Vanishing is a well-researched account that includes many poignant stories about loss, pain, frustration, and despair. Di Giovanni writes that she sought “monasteries, universities, libraries, archaeological sites, and hospitals, in search of documents and books, but mostly I spent my time talking to people.” It was time well-spent.
She strives to describe “a way of understanding how Christians in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, have survived in the most turbulent of times.” She focuses on Christian communities in Iraq, Gaza, Syria, and Egypt, where numbers of Christians have dramatically dwindled. As a veteran war correspondent, her writing reflects areas that she has traveled in often, gaining firsthand experience.
The people di Giovanni interviews provide a compelling portrait of their homes and families, and of the communities they inhabit. She evokes compassion in the reader as she speaks with an older woman “bent over her rosary” in Mosul, who reminded di Giovanni of her mother’s devotion and courage. The woman would not flee Iraq when war started.
“Where will we go?” she said in broken English and French. “The archbishop has begged the Christians not to leave. This is our home, our ancient land. If we go, we are deserting what is also ours.”
Other stories emerge from monasteries and convents, from those who have left and those who have stayed, with almost all asking that their true name not be used for fear of prison and torture.
The timing of this book was remarkably close to a statement by the Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches of Jerusalem (Dec. 13, 2021) about the current threat to the Christian presence in the Holy Land. That document speaks to “an ongoing intimidation of local Christians” and “a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”
Di Giovanni notes another factor: economic uncertainly drives Christians away.
The opening and closing chapters of the book are personal testaments of faith, and of faith rediscovered. Di Giovanni shares intimately about her Christian upbringing and how faith has played a role in her dealing with COVID-19. The inspired way she shares her faith journey helps us understand her doubts, questions, and searching for God’s presence. One cannot experience Easter without Good Friday.
It is very fair to ask if the vanishing will become the vanished. Di Giovanni writes that she wanted “to try to record for history people whose villages, cultures, and ethos would perhaps not be standing in one hundred years’ time.”
This very profound book ends on a word of hope as it acknowledges that the people Janine di Giovanni encountered had an inextinguishable belief in God and continued to pray without any assurance of peace, deliverance, or redemption. She writes that “their faith is more powerful than any of the armies I have seen trying to destroy them.”
The Ven. Paul Feheley is the Episcopal Church’s Middle East partnership officer.