As a Catholic living in Egypt, back in 1997 when I was a fledgling diplomat learning Arabic in the British Council by the sides of the Nile, I used to go to a Coptic church every Sunday. Praying in Arabic was a good way to learn the language, and gave me a special sense of fellowship with its Egyptian congregation. The church where I went is dedicated to St Thérèse of Lisieux, and sat on the main street of a dusty Cairo suburb called Shubra. The saint is famous locally for her miracles: the church’s porch is full of dedications to her, put up by people of all religions including many Muslims.
This was my first encounter with a side of the Middle East that many foreigners don’t see, or look for – the region’s minority faiths. Despite the Middle East’s reputation as a hotbed of intolerance and religious violence, the fact is that it is a diverse place and home to many different faith communities. Those communities co-existed best when they had enlightened governments which encouraged them to forge nations together. Sadly these enlightened attitudes have been less and less easy to find over the past fifty years. When I went back to the church of Saint Thérèse in 2012 I found it much changed, as my book describes.
Nonetheless, the region is still a rich tapestry of historic communities, some of which have survived for thousands of years and preserve into the modern day the customs and traditions of the Middle East’s distant past. That past can sometimes be very distant indeed, because of course that region of the world is where people built the first cities and wrote the first books. It is well known as the birthplace of the world’s three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – and (what is less well known) it was also the birthplace of other, less successful faiths such as Mithraism and Manicheism.
Cloaked in secrecy for reasons of theology and pragmatism – the Middle East is increasingly a place to conceal one’s religion, and I have attended my share of underground church services – versions of these older forgotten faiths survive, as I discovered when I met in subsequent years the high priest of the Mandaeans, and the spiritual council of the Yazidis. The Mandaeans are the closest living relatives of the Manichees, and the Yazidis have several similarities to the cult of Mithras. Both communities preserve traditions from ancient Babylon and Nineveh. The four years that I spent researching my book widened my knowledge – and gave me a glimpse of just how many extraordinary religions survive, hough often cloaked in secrecy for reasons of theology and pragmatism.
Here then, put briefly, are the communities most in danger from the Islamic State. First: other Muslims of any kind that the Islamic State dislikes, including other Sunni Arabs who do not toe their line. Among their first victims when they seized Mosul were several of the local imams.
Second: the Yazidis. These Kurdish speakers who believe that God Himself is unknowable, but is manifested on earth in the form of seven angels, the chief of whom is Malak Tawus, a figure whom they equate with Lucifer. In Jewish tradition too, Lucifer was once a great angel – “How art thou fallen from heaven, Lucifer, son of the morning!” as Isaiah says. The Yazidis say that he repented and was restored to favour, and they kiss reverently the bronze image of the peacock in whose form he appears on earth. Unsurprisingly the Islamic State, who believe that even Shi’a Muslims are apostates who deserve death, have shown no mercy to the Yazidis.
Geography used to keep the Yazidis safe, but no longer. Sinjar, where most live, was once remote from any human settlement. It took at least a day’s walk to reach them from the nearest city. The Yazidis were tough fighters, too, capable of defending themselves. That however was before the arrival of tanks and armoured personnel carriers. Saddam uprooted the Yazidis from their villages and cooped them up in government-designed housing settlements. In 2007 they were already the victims of the world’s second worst terrorist attack, when up to 700 of them were killed. Now the Islamic State wants to finish the job.
The third set of victims of the Islamic State are Iraq’s Christians. These are a remarkable people, mostly descended from one of the world’s greatest but least-known churches, the Church of the East. This church emerged under the rule of the Persian Empire, so unlike its counterparts in the West, it was never an official state religion. Sometimes its followers were called Nestorians, because they shared some of the thinking of the Christian theologian Nestorius – who was so angered when he heard people on Good Friday chanting “God is dead”, that he tried to distinguish clearly between Jesus’s human and divine natures. The Church of the East refused, because of this, to call the Virgin Mary “Mother of God”. I once met a nun, a wonderful woman called Mother Olga, who was a member of this church but became a Catholic because she was attracted to the greater veneration that the Catholic Church gave to Mary. And indeed over the centuries the majority of the Church of the East have become Catholics by joining the Chaldean Catholic Church. The Chaldean Catholics have kept their ancient Aramaic rite – which is the oldest rite existing in the Catholic Church today, dating back at least to the seventh century.
Many Iraqi Christians still speak Aramaic, which is itself a proof of how they lived for centuries without much interference from outside. That is no longer possible now, though: for over a century the Christian communities of Iraq and southern Turkey have been harried and sometimes massacred, but now their very existence as a community hangs in the balance. Many of their villages have been captured by the Islamic State, and it is reinforcing a trend towards emigration that has been growing among Iraqi Christians for decades. Offers from the West of asylum, though kindly meant, reinforce this trend.
As a Catholic brought up in Britain, I felt an instant affinity for these elusive, marginalised groups. Even as I saw their ancient traditions teetering on the edge of oblivion, and when I visited libraries of millennium-old books written in their soon-to-be-forgotten languages, I felt them to be kindred spirits: I had seen Latin books just like that, left over from the post-Vatican II clearout, sitting neglected in old storerooms or forlornly for sale in second-hand shops. And perhaps all this abandonment of old traditions is simply an inescapable consequence of modernity. This whirlwind of viciousness, this group of despicable thugs who call themselves the “Islamic State” – a parody of what the Caliphate really was like – are perhaps simply though deplorably accelerating an inevitable process in which the minorities of the Islamic world will leave it, come to the West and gradually be assimilated, here and lose their distinctive identity.
I for one hope not. I hope indeed that the West will help the Iraqis fight the Islamic State. I hope too that the religions of the Middle East will survive. They have enriched my life for four years; they have enriched the societies of the Middle East; they can, I hope, enrich my readers’ lives as well through their inspiring examples of faith lived in the face of persecution.
Gerard Russell is an Arabic-speaking former diplomat whose book on Middle Eastern religions, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, is available to pre-order on Amazon
This article was first published in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (15/8/14)
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