CHRISTIANS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
45 imagesCopts in Egypt constitute the largest and strongest Christian community in the Middle East. 10 % of Egyptian population are Christians. A huge minority at risk: the Christian Copts are terrified about their fate in Egypt. In their history, copts have always suffered and keep suffering discrimination, persecution and violence. What future is possible for them? What future can be seen in the present uncertain and unstable situation of Egypt nowadays?
17 imagesNowadays, the image of Iraq media gives us, is war and devastation, car bomb attacks and terrorism. Is there peace in Iraq? Will there ever be peace in Iraq? Unfortunately it is pretty much impossible to answer those questions for the moment. But there is one place in this tormented country where people still live safely and in peace, far away from all these problems. Twenty kilometres north - eastern of Mosul, overlooking the Nineveh plateau, lies a peaceful village surrounded by olive trees. Its name is Bahzani, which means the land of panorama in Syriac language. This small village is inhabited only by Syriac-Orthodox Christians. Since the beginning of the post Saddam Hussein era in 2003, the Christian Assyrians have been persecuted and murdered by Islamic extremists. Most of them were therefore forced to move to Europe and America, Sweden and Germany in particular. Those who could not afford to move to Europe have found a safe refuge in Bahzani. The safety in the village and in the villages around is guaranteed by the Kurdish military force, which is operating in this area since the American invasion. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is actually reclaiming this area wanting it to be part of Kurdistan. Bahzani is a mere 20 km from the dangerous Mosul. It seems so near but at the same time so far from the peace and the serenity of this village. Here all the problems of Iraq and Christians in this country seem not to exist. The religious authority of Bahzani is Abouna Ephraim (Abouna in Arabic means priest), a generous priest who comes from a priests dynasty and he has dedicated all his life to this village. He lives protected by his bodyguards armed with Kalashnikov. These kind of bodyguards are just simple Christian youths from the village. They dont know anything about weapons and most of them have seen only one war, which is nothing compared to all the other Iraqis. "I did not want them to protect me but the Kurdish military force obliged me to accept their protection, just in case, nothing has ever happened but you never know". Abouna Ephraim explains to me while we are heading towards the Church of Bahzani. People here are simple, they still have ancient traditions and live as it was once, maybe 50-60 years ago in Europe, but with the addition of TV satellites, mobile phones and internet. After all it seems that technology has come even here in this remote village. Abouna is a wise politician as well. He knows how to behave in this difficult context. He knows how to keep the peace, how to keep the fragile balances of stability that he has created in Bahzani. "When I am not here, when I am travelling to Europe the situation here is really bad, he said; the central government of Baghdad cuts the electricity and the water, and we are cut out of the world. Once we will not have the Kurdish protection anymore, we will all have to migrate to Europe and abandon this place"
29 imagesAs Syria plunges deeper into the fifth year of civil war, Christians have now become the main target of ISIL, being forced to flee the country. Uprisings against al-Assad, who became president in 2000 after the death of his father, began in March 2011, following the toppling of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The Syrian uprising may have held promise for many citizens, but for Syria's fragile Christian community, the prospect of Assad's fall triggers fear of a dangerous and uncertain future. Images of a country and a reality that doesn't exist anymore.
20 imagesClimbing up the dusty and arid roads towards the Monastery of Mor Gabriel, an important spiritual centre in the Syriac Orthadox tradition, the car crosses wide landscapes of rocks, with few snatches of cultivated land. In Tur Abdin, the toughness of the lands reflects the harshness of life here. But the view from the Monastery is stunning: the entire plateau is in front of me: from one side the Syrian desert, from another the Iraqi region of Kurdistan. Located between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Tur Abdin is one of the most important Syriac Christian regions in the Middle East. These desolated lands are inhabited by the Assyrians — the most ancient Christian community still alive — whose Syriac Orthodox people speak an ancient Aramaic dialect called Turoyo, the dialect of Jesus. Along the road, we pass a continuous flow of “Christian” villages with houses made of clay and stones: Hah, Salah, Sawro. Horses and cows cross the roads, paying no attention to us. But farmers stop working and kids stop playing and every smile from us is returned with hundreds from them. This land and these people have been persecuted for centuries, from the end of the Ottoman Empire, until now, by all sides, political and religious, from the so-called lay government of Ankara to the Kurdish nationalists in the 1990s. Always in the middle of political more than religious “matters”, these poor but proud people have faced terrible abuses from the Turkish government, assisted by the Kurds, which, particularly during the First World War, has tried to eradicate the Christian presence in this area. Moreover, the Turks are now accusing the Assyrians of supporting the “illegal” Kurdish movement, which is claiming independence over the region for the so-called “Kurdistan State”. In this complicated international context, the Christian minority find that they are still paying the consequences, primarily because they are the only ethnic group without political power or support. As a result Tur Abdin is facing a painful process of emigration of its native population, forced to escape from persecution to Syria, Europe and the USA. More than 90 per cent of the Christian population has fled. In the past few years a few brave families have begun to return to Tur Abdin, however, despite the situation remaining dangerous for them. “Only less than 2000 people are still living here,” our driver informs us, proudly underlining that he is one of them. While taking pictures among the villages of Tur Abdin, among these amazing and genuine people, I am told time and time again that they have managed to survive centuries of persecution because of their strong and unwavering Christian faith. It must be a sign that in the Syriac language, the name “Tur Abdin” means “Mountain of the servants of God”; for sure they are the strongest and most faithful of servants.