“The Last Supper: The Plight of Christians in Arab Lands,” by Klaus Wivel (translated by Mark Kline), New Vessel Press, 250 pp., $16.95
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For a conflict so often compared to a crusade, the Iraq War has been devastating for Christians in the Middle East. Throughout the region, not only in Iraq, the violence, instability and Islamism that have arisen in its wake have driven Christians from their homes and communities to seek refuge abroad. If current trends continue, experts say the next several decades could witness the death of Christianity in the very lands where it was born.
Given the Western media’s incessant coverage of the Middle East, it is surprising that the plight of the region’s Christian minority – a million of whom have fled Iraq alone since Saddam’s fall – receives so little attention. Especially for European and American liberals, focusing on the suffering of Christians as Christians seems somehow distasteful or partisan. Many recoil from the ideologically driven conservative and religious groups who advocate for the cause of Middle Eastern Christians, as if the destruction of churches and murder of parishioners were a ploy to advance these groups’ agendas. Even more fundamentally, many liberals adhere to the belief, borne out of a desire to correct historical injustice and widespread racism and Islamophobia today, that Muslims – colonized, Orientalized and demonized by the West – are the Middle East’s sole victims.
In his new book “The Last Supper: The Plight of Christians in Arab Lands,” Danish journalist Klaus Wivel delves into these thorny issues. Wivel, who has decades of experience covering the region for the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen, has written a deeply reported, nuanced and compelling account of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq.
“The Last Supper” refers to Christianity’s long and ancient history in the Middle East, but focuses more on the tumultuous decades since the Second World War and, in particular, Christians’ lives and struggles today.
Sad, even gruesome tales
In the best journalistic tradition, Wivel builds his narrative from the stories Christians and Muslims – he met many who stand up for Christian rights – tell about their own lives. These are, on the whole, sad, even gruesome, narratives of systematic persecution, pogroms and governments too dysfunctional or ideologically disinclined to protect their own Christian citizens.
However, “The Last Supper” is no lachrymose martyrology. Wivel highlights the contrasting perspectives and experiences of Christians of different denominations and in different countries, even when these accounts deviate from accepted wisdom, or expose his interviewees’ own prejudices and short-sightedness; for instance, in visiting a ruined synagogue in Alqosh, Iraq, which stands as evidence of the country’s once thriving Jewish community, Wivel candidly discusses Christians’ own anti-Semitism.
This dogged insistence on revealing the dangers and complexities of being Christian in the region today, the resistance to pat narratives and advocacy, makes “The Last Supper” one of the best recent books on the Middle East. Through the lens of Christian experience and history, the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, the rise of the Islamic State and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict take on new shades of meaning.
Wivel begins his story in Bethlehem. It is hard to imagine a more Christian place. Jesus, after all, was born there, and the massive Church of the Nativity marks that spot on Manger Square. But there, too, as elsewhere in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, the Christian population is rapidly declining. According to the 1922 British census, 10 percent of those living in Mandatory Palestine were Christian; today that figure stands at only 2 percent, with most of that loss stemming from emigration to Latin America, Europe and elsewhere. Beginning with the 1948 war that secured Israel’s independence and left hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as refugees, Christians have continued to flee the ongoing conflict and seek better opportunities abroad.
The Israeli occupation certainly takes part of the blame for this Christian exodus. Bethlehem was besieged during the second intifada, and the Israeli army killed Christians, as well as Muslims. “The Israelis are after us because we are Palestinians, not because we are Christians,” Wivel quotes Mitri Raheb, an internationally recognized Lutheran pastor based in the city, as saying.
Rise of a less tolerant Islam
But this familiar story hides a more complicated reality. Wivel’s conversations with other Palestinian Christians show that anti-Christian discrimination and violence, which have worsened over past decades with the rise of less tolerant forms of Islam, are as much a part of the problem. His interviewees describe the closing of Nablus’ last wine store after it was sprayed with bullets by angry Muslims; a mob attack in Taybeh, the Christian village that is home to the famous brewery, to avenge an alleged relationship between a Muslim woman and a Christian man; and a Salafi group’s kidnapping and forced conversion of Christians in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority is not only not doing enough to promote religious equality, end harassment and protect Christian Palestinians, PA officials have also illegally seized Christian land and taken it for themselves, Wivel reports. The Hamas government in Gaza, while not openly encouraging persecution of the few Christians remaining there, allows far worse hate and violence.
What makes “The Last Supper” unique and so compelling is that the second story does not simply replace the first. Christian suffering is not used to justify Israeli rule; it is not evidence of how much worse things would be for Christians if Palestinians were left to govern themselves. Because Wivel does not have an ideological ax to grind, he succeeds not only in showing how Christians often feel caught in the middle of an apocalyptic battle between Muslims and Jews, but also how other factors play into the Christian experience. A Western-educated, modern woman in Ramallah, a Nablus retiree, a born-again weight lifter and a traditional Greek Orthodox businesswoman all see the situation from different perspectives. Class, gender, denomination and individual character matter just as much as the overarching label “Christian.”
“The Last Supper” brings the same nuanced storytelling to bear on its chapters on Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. While the ongoing crises there affect each country’s Christians differently, “The Last Supper” points to several common themes.
Foremost among these is the devastating impact that intolerant Islamic ideologies, inspired by the Wahhabi movement of Saudi Arabia, have had on Christians throughout the region. For instance, many of Egypt’s teachers worked in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, and brought back Wahhabi ideologies with them; by the 1990s these same teachers had filled the ranks of the education system, which the state had all but abandoned to Islamists. The result is a generation of Egyptians who were taught that Christians (and Jews) are inferior to Muslims, that the state should be based on Islamic law and that even though the country was Christian long before Islam, Christians have no history in Egypt.
“The Last Supper” does not shy away from showing how Middle Eastern church leaders also bear responsibility for the current situation. Maikel Nabil Sanad, an Egyptian blogger and activist who was a leading figure in the 2011 revolution, tells Wivel how Coptic leaders sided with nationalist president Gamal Abdel Nasser when Jews, Armenians, Greeks and others were thrown out of Egypt in the 1950s, and strongly opposed Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel. “The Copts never thought about them being the next in line,” Sanad said. “What happened to the Jews is happening to the Christians, only more slowly, because there are so many of them.”
Trauma of Lebanon War
In addition, Wivel shows how interreligious tensions in one country ricochet against communities elsewhere. This is most clearly seen in the case of Lebanon, which has the largest and most stable Christian population in the region, thanks, in part, to its constitution, which guarantees Christian representation in the government. Still, Lebanese Christians are leaving for better lives abroad. The country has been wracked by perpetual crises in recent years, including the 2006 war with Israel, a flood of refugees and the government’s inability to provide basic services, which led to the “You Stink!” protest campaign last year.
The shadow of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which saw sectarian militias and foreign powers, including Israel, nearly destroy the country, hangs over all. Many of those Wivel spoke with expressed the fear that the sectarian civil war in neighboring Syria, which has decimated the Syrian Christian community, and in which Hezbollah and other Lebanese groups are taking an active role, could ignite the conflict again.
So why doesn’t the West seem to care about the Middle East’s Christians? Wivel poses the question to those he meets, and, not surprisingly, his interviewees provide different, sometimes contrasting answers. Some accuse Europeans and Americans of what one of them calls “a racism of lowered expectations” – in other words, explaining away human rights abuses and discrimination in Middle Eastern countries that would be unacceptable at home. Others say that Western liberals are afraid of inciting Islamophobia at home by focusing on Muslims’ religiously motivated attacks on Christians. Still others blame Western secularism and, specifically, the West’s Enlightenment heritage of hostility toward the Christian faith.
What all these theories have in common is that European and American disregard for the plight of Christians in the Middle East has as much to do with how Westerners view their own societies as it does with foreign policy and realpolitik. Wivel points to the decline of liberal ideas of universal human rights, freedom and democracy, now the subject of debate rather than common consent, both in intellectual discourse and in practical politics.
More than just great journalism, at its heart, “The Last Supper” is an intervention in this debate, providing a powerful argument for liberalism. Wivel writes that the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians is a human rights issue – people have the right to practice their religion freely, to change religions and to marry whom they wish, regardless of whether Muslims, Jews, Christians or others are the persecutors or the persecuted. On those grounds, Western governments should advocate for Christians’ rights in the Middle East, and citizens of those governments should be concerned with Christians’ fate before it’s too late.