Review: The Vanishing is an eye-opening primer on Christianity in the Middle East

The secondary title of this book is "The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East". It consists of a series of essays on the Christian communities in Iraq, Gaza, Egypt and Syria. The author is a Catholic, but deals with all versions of Christianity, especially the different varieties of Eastern practice. She spoke with locals in each country, nearly all requesting that their names not to be published, including those now living overseas.

She writes about visiting Iraq while Saddam and his Mukhabarat secret police were terrorising the country. Then came the invasion by the west and the death of Saddam, but afterwards, it was even worse. "I was no fan of Saddam's, but I sensed that a gigantic scab had been picked, leaving a raw and bloody wound with no ability to heal," she writes. When the Americans left, they were replaced by ISIS, "with no easing up of the sorrow that had dogged the Iraqi people since the invasion".

Even though Iraq is the home of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, they seem to have an uncertain, sometimes precarious existence. Before ISIS, they were able to satisfy the different political leadership groups that they were of benefit to the prosperity of the country. With ISIS came burning of churches, smashing of statues, destroying of icons, churches being used for target practice or for storing chemicals. When the author returned there in 2019, one local told her that although ISIS had gone, "the sentiment is not".

In Gaza, the author is conscious that she is in the place where Jesus lived and worked. The Christian population - Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical - gets smaller all the time and must manage relations with secular Fatah, militant Hamas and aggressive Israel. A UN representative in Gaza pointed out that "the level of education is extremely high, as are language skills". Literary levels are more than 96 per cent, well above the average in the region, yet the young people, Muslims and Christians, are caught between the political and military posturing of their elders. The chapter on Gaza makes distressing reading.

Syria is confusing, even to those who try to keep up with the war there. There are nearly a dozen versions of Christianity in the country, with a history that is "long, winding and often bloody" Christians in Egypt fare a little better, suffering discrimination rather than persecution. As with Assad in Syria and Saddam in Iraq, Egyptian Christians tend to support strong leaders like Mubarak in his time and now Sisi.

It is likely that any of the chapters here could be expanded into a book in its own right. As it is, the reader is left with small but memorable snippets like the fact that more than two-thirds of the population of Gaza are aged under 24, or shocking items like the fact that ISIS derived huge profits from selling the girls and young women they captured in their rampages.

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This story Absorbing primer on Middle-Eastern religion first appeared on The Canberra Times.