The Last Christians:
Stories of Persecution, Flight, and Resilience in the Middle East
Paperback: Plough Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Peggy Faw Gish
What has the violence in Iraq and Syria meant for the Christians there? Why have so many fled their countries and are among the over a million refugees who’ve flooded into Europe? As minorities in their societies, these Christians have quietly endured threat and injustice, and some of the oldest Christian cultures are in danger of extinction.
Andreas Knapp’s book, The Last Christians: Stories of Persecution, Flight, and Resilience in the Middle East, translated into English and published in the US in 2917, by Plough Publishing House, alerts us to the struggle and suffering of refugees, Christians, as well as those of other faiths, who have fled violent, chaotic situations and deserve our compassion. The stories in this book are tragic, but also inspiring, telling about Christians who have given up so much for their faith, remained faithful when facing threat, and have resisted bitterness, hate, or revenge. Instead they seek the path of forgiveness, loving one’s enemy, and nonviolence.
Along with the important contributions of this book, however, several things are problematic.
Knapp acknowledges in the preface, that these Christian refugees “may not be entirely politically correct, but they are correct in the sense that they are authentic.” After listening to many Iraqis who had suffered violence, I understand this distinction. Their suffering is very real, even if their social or political analysis is not correct. I believe, however, that in light of Western society’s exaggerated stereotyping of Muslims and equating them with terrorism, while minimizing non-Muslim terrorist acts, it’s important for us to place these stories in as correct a historical context as we can.
Without this, such stories can unnecessarily foster more fear of Muslims. They also feed into support for the US anti-terrorism campaign, which has been a front and justification for military and economic aggression (as was the US Communist scare in the later 20th century). Many countries use “anti-terrorism” to label programs and actions that suppress human rights, oppress minority or opposition groups, or take land from indigenous peoples.
After working with the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq since the fall of 2002, I differ with some of the generalizations Knapp draws from these stories. He gives the impression that, since the US 2003 invasion, all or most Muslim religious leaders have been inciting violence against Christians and that threats and violence, based on anti-Christian hostility, and that it has been an almost daily occurrence for Christians all over Iraq. He does say briefly that Iraqis of other religions and ethnic groups have been also hurt by the violence, but the preponderance of the stories about Christians gives the message that it is predominantly Christians.
What I witnessed there was that, for three to four years following the 2003 invasion, the violence, other than that of US soldiers, was mostly carried out by local resistance to the occupation, and criminal gangs. Proportionately more Muslims were killed or kidnapped for money than Christians, and mosques destroyed than churches. It was a terrifying situation for all Iraqis. Gradually al-Qaeda got a foothold and increased their terrorizing activity. With the Islamic State branching off from al-Qaeda in 2006, their violence increased.
Our team had already moved to northern Iraq, when IS began capturing territories in north-central and northwestern areas of the country in 2014. During the first months of IS takeover, their fighters publicly killed many Christians, mostly in Mosul. Overall, however, IS committed more violence against the Yezidi people (to the degree that it could be called genocide) than any other ethnic or religious group. Shia Muslims and other minority religious groups were also targeted. This in no way denies the suffering of the Christians. Knapp does mention the horrible violence against the Yezidi people and that other Muslim Iraqis were victims of violence, but so briefly and without the detailed stories he gives to Christians, that the magnitude and horror of it does not register or remain with readers the same way the violent stories of Christians does, and may be quickly forgotten.
Another message woven through The Last Christians, is that religion has been the main factor in the radicalization of Muslims and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and throughout history. Whereas, people have been targeted because of their faith, such as al—Qaeda targeting Shia Muslims, believing their faith isn’t pure, there are other reasons for the development of radicalism and fanaticism, such as power seeking, cloaked in religious rhetoric. Another is the grabbing of scarce resources for economic gain (true of his reference to the Kurds oppressing Christians). Religion, is then used as a rational or justification for the violence. Backlash or revenge from past colonialism and ongoing corruption are also common factors, such as with “Boko Haram” in Nigeria. Members of oppressed groups channel their anger and helplessness into violence, control, and power over others.
The historical overview of Islam, presented in the book, focuses mostly on its violent movements. It is true that earlier Islam was more open and tolerant of other religious groups and later gave way to less tolerant stances and to times of horrific genocidal waves against Christians. Knapp acknowledges that there are currently some progressive and tolerant movements in Islam and that not all Islamic nations have taken their faith to its more violent extreme. Out of his examples and generalizations, however, most readers will conclude that Islam is essentially violent, intolerant, and wanting to rid their society of Christians.
The “Islamic State,” which most Muslims decry as not representing Islam, wasn’t just the culmination of historically violent Islam, detached from their perceived threat of war waged by the West to wipe out Islam and of political, military, and economic domination of Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. Add to this, the historical context of US aggression In Central and South America, as well as its violence and enslavement of Africans and indigenous people. And, because of this history, many Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere connect US behavior with Christianity and view Christianity as a violent, aggressive, and immoral religion.
In Iraq, the precipitating event was the 2003 invasion and occupation, which broke apart the fabric of society and bonds of trust, gutted the economy and imposed an abusive and harsh system of security. Then the new Iraqi government continued a security system involving torture and formed “death-squad” type militias that targeted mostly Sunni Muslims as well as members of resistance groups, reawakening strife and violence between Sunni and Shia. Fanatical groups arose as part of a larger resistance to US aggression.
In Syria, the civil war evolved out of a 2011 nonviolent people’s anti-corruption, anti-oppression movement. The government responded with harsh violence against the protesters, and the resistance to the government was soon co-opted and dominated by violent groups, including Islamic jihadist militias, and given military support by the US and other Middle Eastern governments. IS took advantage of the chaos to seize territory, and has been brutal with Christians and non-Christians who wouldn’t follow their extremist version of Islam.
Knapp acknowledges violence in Christian history, but slides over it quickly, is gentle about giving historic or sociological reasons to explain it (in a way he isn’t with Islamic violence), and doesn’t give comparable stories of the suffering of its victims. I think of the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys, and mass rape of Muslim women by Bosnian Serbs in 1995. Certainly, we shouldn’t dismiss violence of Islamic extremists by just bringing up the Crusades, but we should take seriously how the Crusades and other violence perpetrated by “Christians” throughout history have produced Muslims’ negative view of Christianity. I hope we, as Christians, can unhesitatingly acknowledge the sins of our own faith and to call on our own people to repent.
That’s why it’s helpful for Knapp to connect, in the epilogue, the tragedies of wars with the injustices in our societies and the policies of governments. I hope we take seriously his challenge to do the things that foster peace, justice, and preserve creation, such as giving up our complacency, nationalistic egoism, consumerism, arms industry, and support of totalitarian regimes, as well as being willing to sacrifice our wealth and comforts to see this happen.
Knapp’s most important challenges in this book are for us, as readers, to be touched with compassion as we hear the stories of Christians and non-Christians being abused or terrorized, to help and welcome refugees into our hearts and communities, and to live with the same kind of faithfulness as the Middle Eastern Christians he has met. I hope we can retell these painful stories without stirring up and spreading more hatred or fear of any certain group.
Peggy Faw Gish was born in northern Nigeria to American missionaries. She grew up in Chicago and has been active in peace and justice work all of her adult life. She volunteered in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams before, during, and after the March 2003 US invasion. Her most recent book is Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation.