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 the murder of parishioners were a ploy to advance these groups’ agendas. Even more fundamentally, many liberals adhere to the belief, borne out of the 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 this thorny issue. 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. While The Last Supper refers to Christianity’s long and ancient history in the Middle East, the book focuses on the tumultuous decades since the Second World War and, in particular, Christians’ lives and struggles today.
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, evidence of the country’s once thriving Jewish community, Wivel candidly discusses Christains’ 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.
Read the whole review from 2016 in Haaretz.