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Virginia Stem Owens

Forgotten Christians

Believers in the Middle East and Asia Minor

You'd think that Christians would have a head start in America's belated effort to get a handle on the geography and history of the Middle East and Asia Minor, the cradle of their faith. It's true that many have made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and even the stay-at-homes are likely to retain a vague familiarity with the pastel maps in the backs of their Bibles where the missionary journeys of Paul are marked with dotted lines. But for all that, most American Christians—excepting the Orthodox—are woefully ignorant of the history and present conditions of their fellow believers in the Eastern tradition.

Help is close at hand in William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East, a book that's partly travelogue, partly cultural history, partly eulogy, and totally absorbing. In 1994, Dalrymple, a Scots journalist and travel writer, made a pilgrimage to Mount Athos in order to find the original manuscript of "The Spiritual Meadow" by John Moschos, an Orthodox monk. With his sidekick Sophronius, John circumambulated the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century, visiting monasteries and hermitages, recording sermons, spiritual counsel, and miracle stories. The manuscript inspired Dalrymple to retrace the monk's route in order to observe how Christianity is faring in the lands where it first took root.

He begins the journey in the city known to John and his contemporaries as Constantinople, built by and named for the emperor who made Christianity the empire's official religion. Today we know it as Istanbul, a city in Turkey, our newest nato partner, 99 percent of whose people are Muslim although the state is emphatically secular.

Dalrymple finds Turkey alternately charming and terrifying. Military checkpoints frequently block the roads. Sometimes he and his driver are waved through; at other times they are detained for hours of questioning. Their interrogator may be either a bored officer educated at Oxford or a Turkish version of Dr. Strangelove, who suspects them of being Kurdish spies. When they finally make it through the checkpoints, they have to worry about being ambushed by the ppk, the Kurdish resistance movement. Dalrymple is never certain when showing his press credentials will improve his chances (he's received conflicting advice on this point) or when it could turn him and his driver into roadkill.

His first stop is Antioch, once a center of commerce for the great Silk Road to China and a city second only to Rome and Alexandria. The biblically literate will be familiar with Antioch as the city where Jesus' followers were first called Christians. Neither its grandeur nor its religious legacy survives today. After the massacres of 1915 at the hands of Turkish Muslims, thousands of Christians fled Antioch, most of them ending up in Brazil. Now the ancient city is a derelict ghost town. The only Christian clergy Dalrymple is able to rake up is Father Dominico, a Roman Catholic priest with scarcely 200 souls to guide. Orthodox families, living a low-profile life in the surrounding mountains, slip into town for the priest to baptize their babies surreptitiously. "Their official papers say Muslim," the priest tells Dalrymple, "but they know who they are."

Between Antioch and Aleppo, Simeon Stylites, that fourth-century trailblazer for the Desert Fathers, climbed up on his stone pillar in hopes of escaping the spiritual groupies who constantly hounded him, plucking out his body hair for relics. His flight had the unintended effect of drawing even more followers and imitators. Other cities in the region are still circled by stone pillars standing like limbless, ossified trees—an eerily apt metaphor for what Dalrymple finds as he pushes eastward.

Armenia was reputedly the first nation to officially embrace Christianity. But the country was soon divided between the Byzantine and Persian empires, and over the centuries its people have been subjected to Persian, Arab, Turkish, and Russian rule. Astonishingly, despite the periodic dissolution of their political identity, Armenians have maintained their language, literature, and religion.

The most devastating blow suffered by the Armenians came in 1915, in what they continue to mourn as a genocidal Turkish assault. Historians in Turkey, and other scholars partial to the Turkish view, dispute every aspect of the Armenian account, while many other scholars concur in describing the event as an act of genocide. What cannot be disputed is the intent of the present Turkish government, which has undertaken the systematic extinction of all traces of Armenians from Eastern Turkey. Dalrymple sees ancient churches and monasteries bulldozed to destroy any architectural evidence of Armenian—and thus Christian—historical presence. References to Armenia are eliminated from public documents. Foreign scholars and researchers find themselves harassed, and sometimes jailed, by officials.

In Diyarbaker, on the banks of the Tigris, only a handful of Christians remain. The region's Christian population has fallen from 200,000 in the nineteenth century to only 900 at the time of Dalrymple's visit. One village, once home to 17 churches, now has none, and only a single resident, the aging priest.

Moving west again into Syria, Dalrymple makes one of his more esoteric finds—10,000 Nestorian Christians living in poverty in a refugee camp on the Iraqi border. In the camp with them are 2,000 survivors of a bizarre heretical sect, the Yezidis of Iraq. They worship Lucifer, the fallen angel whom they believe God has since forgiven. Renamed the "Peacock Angel," he has been entrusted with the job of running earthly affairs.

Neither Syria nor Lebanon nor Israel provides Dalrymple with many signs of hope for the survival of Christianity in its own cradle. Consider these numbers:

  • A quarter of a million Christians have left Syria for other lands since the 1960s.

  • In 1922, Palestine was 10 percent Christian. In 1948, roughly 55,000 Palestinian Christians, 60 percent of the total, fled or were driven from the country. A second exodus followed in the years between 1967 and 1992. Today, perhaps 3 percent of Palestinians are Christians, while only 175,000 Christians remain in Israel and the West Bank, less than 0.25 percent of the total population.

  • In 1922 the population of the old city of Jerusalem was 52 percent Christian. That number has shrunk to 2.5 percent. Sydney, Australia, now has more Jerusalem-born Christians than Jerusalem itself.

In Beirut, Dalrymple sees what he fears will be the future of the entire Middle East, the city's glitzy westernization blown to rubble by its own inhabitants. Maronite Christians, once Lebanon's power class with about a quarter of the population, war with the Muslim majority, who turn on the Druze, whose religion is an amalgam of both Christianity and Islam.

By tradition, St. Mark is credited with having brought Christianity to Egypt. Yet since the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Coptic Church has struggled to survive, its only respite coming during the British occupation. Egypt's present government, anxious to appease Muslim fundamentalists, officially tolerates but only reluctantly protects its Christian citizens, despite the fact that they account for at least 10 percent of Egypt's population. Few Christians occupy any significant positions within the government, and during the last decade, a million Christians have left the country.

Leaving Cairo, and heading south toward the upper Nile, Dalrymple finally reaches the outer limits of Byzantine monasticism. Just beyond the great Kharga Oasis he finds the last Coptic monastery that John Moschos and Sophronius visited. Since the end of World War II it has rained only once in Kharga, and then only for ten minutes during the winter of 1959. The dunes are not made from sand but a fine white powder that boils up like choking fog. Human enemies here are equally harsh. Only weeks before Dalrymple's arrival, several monks had been hacked to death by the Islamic Brotherhood.

Yet strangely enough, only in this surreal landscape, among these beleaguered monks, does Dalrymple find a spark of hope. For the first time, he discovers a group of Christians actually adding to their numbers. The Coptic orders, despite violent persecution, have no dearth of applicants.

In summing up, Dalrymple says he had expected that "Islamic fundamentalism would be the Christians' main enemy in every country of the Middle East." But only in Egypt did he find explicit religious persecution. In southeastern Turkey, the civil war rages between the Turks and the Kurds, both Muslim. Christians there are simply caught in the crossfire.

In Lebanon, the Maronites' failure to compromise with the Muslim majority has led to civil war, which in turn resulted in the mass exodus of Christians from the area. And Palestinian Christians suffer not because of their religion but because they are Arabs, like their Muslim compatriots.

Very likely, life has changed for the Christians of the Middle East even more since September 11. While Christians of the West have never shown much interest in these faraway brothers and sisters, Dalrymple points out the great debt we owe them. The missionary Augustine returned to Rome from his first trip convinced that the savages he had encountered in Gaul could never be tamed. Eastern monks, on the other hand, carried the traditions of the Desert Fathers to Northern Europe and England, providing the original models for Celtic monks. The seventh Archbishop of Canterbury was himself a Byzantine priest from Tarsus who had studied at Antioch.

Yet the Western brethren abandoned their Eastern counterparts in their hour of need. In 1400, Stephanos, Syriac Archbishop, traveled to Rome to plead with the pope for help against the invading Turks. As a gift he brought with him an illuminated copy of the Diatessaron, a second-century compilation of the four gospels in a single continuous narrative, one of the earliest manuscripts of the Christian church. Stephanos was not even granted an audience.

Small wonder we still have so much to learn today.

Virginia Stem Owens is a novelist, essayist, and poet.

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