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A war correspondent’s intimate portrait of an embattled minority

The Vanishing. By Janine di Giovanni. Bloomsbury; £20

AFTER A STRICT convent education, Janine di Giovanni, an American war correspondent, drifted from religion. Yet as she travelled the world, reporting from Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, her faith returned. Wherever she went, she writes in “The Vanishing”, she would find a church, seeking “ritual and a sense of belonging”. Her book is the culmination of two decades of fieldwork in the Middle East, its four sections reflecting her stints in Egypt, Gaza, Iraq and Syria. As the title suggests, it is a portrait of a disappearing people.

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Christians are an embattled minority in many countries, including North Korea, where tens of thousands are believed to be held in concentration camps, and Sri Lanka, where around 250 people died in the Easter bombings of 2019. In the Middle East, Islamic extremists depict Christians as Westernised interlopers, yet the region was the birthplace of the religion, which flourished until the Muslim Arab conquest of the seventh century. Christians have since faced discrimination in varying degrees, precipitating waves of emigration. Today 93% of the population of the Middle East and north Africa are Muslim.

Ms di Giovanni brings a compassionate perspective to her narrative, interweaving complex, sometimes dense history with evocative vignettes and interviews. Her interlocutors range from nuns to imams, from the last vestiges of Gaza’s Christian elite to Cairo’s impoverished Zabbaleen, who sort rubbish in “Garbage City”. These “dying communities” of various Christian denominations, some claiming direct descent from Jesus’s disciples, share a stark choice: to abandon ancestral roots in search of a better life elsewhere, or cling on for a precarious future. Most keep their heads down, but the allegiance of some to dictators—seen as bulwarks against extremism—has antagonised Islamists.

In Iraq and Syria (pictured), minorities were once protected by the Baathist regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Assads, whose Alawite offshoot of Shia Islam had itself experienced persecution. After the American-led invasion of Iraq overthrew Hussein in 2003, a cleansing of Christians by Islamic State (IS), who burned churches and destroyed homes, prompted an exodus. Most Syrian Christians, meanwhile, believed Bashar Assad alone could maintain interfaith harmony. After war broke out in 2011, IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, another jihadist group, razed over 80 churches, kidnapped clerics and sold Christian and Yazidi women into sex slavery. In Aleppo, home to more Christians than any other Syrian city, many were affected by indiscriminate government bombing. Economic woe has left little incentive to stay.

In the fourth century Gaza was wholly Christian. By the 21st century the community had shrunk to under 1,000, and the consequences of the election of Hamas in 2006 imperilled its members further. They endure the same hardships and dearth of opportunity as other Gazans and receive scant government protection; unemployment among young Christians stands at 70%. Egypt’s Christian population, chiefly Copts, is the region’s largest, but still suffers legal and social discrimination, even if some families are insulated by privilege. “The underlying sense of inferiority is our greatest persecution,” says one woman. “I’ve had Muslim men grab me by the hair and try to drag me because I don’t have a headscarf on.”

“The Vanishing” skates over past abuses by Christians, such as the Crusades. Nonetheless, it is both a heartfelt lament for the Middle East and a poignant tribute to hope and tolerance in the face of adversity—tenacious worshippers in bombed-out churches, the openness of Yazidi rape victims. Whatever your beliefs, its evocation of fractured lives sustained by faith is deeply affecting.


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