Would you leave the land where your faith was born, but where your church and your home had been destroyed and your life threatened?

The Vanishing by Janine di Giovanni is an account of the history and faith and likely demise of the original Christians in four ancient lands.

It raises questions of faith, place and ritual, not only for those in the places this book explores – Egypt, Syria, Gaza and the place for whose fate America bears some responsibility, Iraq – but also for the writer and her readers.

A noted wartime reporter and professor at Yale University’s Jackson School for Global Affairs, di Giovanni covered the events that have diminished the number of Christians in these nations but have not weakened their connection to the land.

Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, there were around 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, mostly Chaldean Catholics who worship in Jesus’ language, Aramaic. Until Saddam Hussein’s fall, they prospered and, in return for staying out of partisan politics, a token number were appointed to parliament.

When U.S. forces toppled Hussein and ISIS took over, their choice was to leave or face persecution or death. Thousands fled to Erbil, a city with a sizable Christian population, or other parts of the Nineveh Plain. By 2018, only 250,000 remained in Iraq.

Di Giovanni’s account is part history and part listening tour, with a cacophony of voices. At every stop she speaks, through her interpreter, with shopkeepers, families, educators, clergy.

The archbishop of the minority Syriac Orthodox church had left Mosul, along with most of his congregation, to seek safety in Erbil. He managed to carry with him a single relic, a 500-year-old manuscript. The remaining artifacts were destroyed, along with the building where they had been stored.

The stories di Giovanni hears in the other locations are much the same. The lives of Christians in Gaza were targeted by the Palestinian government as well as by restrictions imposed by Israel.

In Syria, home to a dozen faith traditions, a complicated war that defies understanding has pushed thousands to leave. And in Egypt, attacks on churches and individuals in the area with the largest number of Christians are viewed as warnings to those throughout the country.

Immigration laws enable threatened Christians to come to the U.S. or elsewhere, but it is a painful choice. An Orthodox priest compared leaving his country to losing his “root,” an exchange that would require fighting for his culture to survive.

Those who have made the decision to immigrate have formed communities. In San Diego County’s El Cajon, known as “Little Baghdad,” there are more than 50,000 Chaldean Catholics, and 1,000 families are members of St. Peter Catholic Chaldean Cathedral.

Father Michael Bazzi, retired pastor of St. Peter’s, emphasizes that there are no changes to the liturgy and, in accordance with tradition, the altar faces east. Services are offered in Chaldean, the first language of many worshipers, as well as in Arabic and English. He and his congregants send substantial financial support to those remaining behind.

For the Shlama Foundation, located in Detroit, another center of Chaldean immigration, the focus is on helping Christians who choose to stay in Nineveh while also rebuilding communities and preserving culture for all the region’s residents.

As for where faith and belonging can best come together, a Shlama board member who has made her life in the U.S. says her goal is to help those who remain in the homeland “to raise their rights and privileges up” to the same level as those who choose to leave.

Di Giovanni does not offer a solution to this problem; that is not her mission. Still, we journey with her as she attends mass in crumbling churches and then records the voices of those whose faith is unshaken.

In the dark times of the pandemic, she lived in isolation with her family in the French Alps where, she says, “My faith [came] back to me.”

For her, as for those she writes about, faith is connected to a sense of belonging and to rituals practiced with others – prayer before meals and before sleep, special foods and celebrations.

The Vanishing may well do the same for those of us who have assumed there is only one way for Christians to demonstrate their faith.

Perhaps we have believed that words like “ritual” and “place” somehow render others’ beliefs suspect and do not apply to our way of worship. And perhaps we have not recognized the importance of deciding whether to join a new church or to worship where generations of our family attended.

If we are beginning to appreciate how fortunate we are to have this choice, then we can say a prayer in our own words, or those offered by Christians before us, sitting or kneeling, in front of ancient icons or a bare table, for those who are forced to choose.

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