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Left Exposed By Middle Eastern Upheaval, Christians Are Fleeing Region


The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity. But in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and other countries, that community is now vanishing. Christians are being driven out in a new wave of violent persecution tied to the region's decade and a half of upheaval. Janine di Giovanni tells this story in a new issue of Harper's Magazine. She joins us now.



JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Welcome. Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have been seeing this for a long time, Janine. I mean, you've been covering the Middle East for a very long time. But we are now at an inflection point for Christians in the Middle East, do you think?

DI GIOVANNI: Absolutely. I think that - first of all, we're basically four years since the invasion of ISIS and since they took over Mosul. Most of the Christians in Iraq live in villages that are outside of Mosul. And since Mosul was retaken, basically since ISIS was kicked out last year, they're slowly making their way back home. But what they're finding is that their livelihood was destroyed. And more importantly, economically, the future is not viable.

When ISIS came in June 2014, the first thing they did was basically alienate the Christians, take away their businesses, put the letter N on their doors - which stands for Nazarene Christian - charge them taxes - so that if they did not convert to Sunni Islam, they were charged a tax which basically was an extortion tax. In the countryside, it was even worse. People's factories were taken away, their farms, their cattle, their means of livelihood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For those of us who may not know listening to this, why is the loss of Christian communities in the Middle East so devastating? I mean, it's not only that they've been there for so long, but it's very - they bring a unique dimension to Christianity.


DI GIOVANNI: Absolutely, Lulu. I mean, I have Iraqi friends that say, if we lose all of our minorities - not just the Christians - the Yazidis, the Turkmen, so many of the ethnic minorities that make it what it is - it means we're caving in to the intolerance. We're caving in to people that don't want us to be here because we are different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You seem to see the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than 15 years ago as the trigger for this round of persecution of Christians.

DI GIOVANNI: Absolutely. Well, I mean, I see the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the cause of many, many woes and sorrows throughout the Middle East today. Christians have always been protected. This is a very strange concept, but Christians throughout the Middle East have tended to align themselves with dictators - so in Libya with Gadhafi, in Egypt with Mubarak. And once these dictators toppled, the Christians felt very vulnerable. Also, in Syria. In Syria, the Christian community has always aligned themselves with the Assads because not so much out of their political beliefs are that much stronger but just the fact that they fear - they fear, first of all, what would happen if they didn't have these protectors. And that was a very real phenomena for them when ISIS was in power. Their worst vision had come true. And in Egypt, it's particularly nasty because the attacks on them now are largely because they have supported the Sisi government. And antigovernment protesters take it out on the Christians, on the cops.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write this line in your article - quote, "It's hard to imagine any foreign policy strategy that could do much to change the widespread crisis facing Christians in the Middle East." What can be done, if anything?

DI GIOVANNI: Well, I think, first of all, we need to have long-term strategies. I mean, this isn't a short fix. In the very short term, of course, we can help them rebuild their villages. We can give them more of a political voice, which I think comes with training. I know some NGOs that are doing very specific things, which to me - I think pragmatic solutions need to come on board. So if we can give them very realistic skills, then we can encourage them to stay and to build up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Christmas is coming up, obviously. And it's an important time of the year in the Christian calendar. How are Christian communities, specifically in Iraq, celebrating? I mean, how do they view this holiday season?

DI GIOVANNI: I think a lot of them try to remain faithful. I mean, faithful in the sense that they do - their faith is very important to them. And their faith has allowed them for centuries to be able to cope with the purges that have taken place - the Assyrian genocide, the purges by Mongols, by Turks, by Persians. And they've managed to survive. And a great deal of this, I think, is that they are believers.

I remember going to a Christmas mass, and it was the most moving thing. It was a few weeks before Christmas. But it was in 2002 before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. And it was in Mosul, in a Syrian church, and they were praying in Aramaic, which is the language of Christ. So it was unbelievably moving in many levels - one, because I felt like I was in the presence of these very ancient people who were so rooted to their land and so determined that they were going to stay. But then on the other hand, they knew the invasion was coming. And they were terrified.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Her new Harper's article is "The Vanishing: The Plight Of Christians In An Age Of Intolerance." Thank you so much.

DI GIOVANNI: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.