One of the books I read over the summer was a travel memoir by William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain. In it, Dalrymple follows the footsteps of a Byzantine monk, John Moschos and his pupil Sophronius the Sophist, who traveled through the Empire from Mt. Athos down to the Egyptian desert oasis Al Kharga. The book is a totally fascinating and engaging description of the very complex situation Christians are finding themselves in in the Middle East. Mostly it is a tale of the degeneration of Christianity in her historic home — an often tragic and brutal tale. Eerily, the book, written in 1997, already seems out of date. The situation is almost certainly more grim now.
The second part of From the Holy Mountain takes place in Turkey. After a brief respite in Syria, being at the time the most stable and safe home for Christians, Dalrymple moves onto Lebanon. The book to this point was unrelentingly strange to my world. Turkey, though officially a secular state, has systematically suppressed Christians there, including especially a physical and historic genocide of the Armenian Christians. By ‘historic’ I mean that the authorities literally travel around to towns and destroy any physical proof of Armenians: their churches, their homes, their graveyards, their monasteries. I found it very difficult to hear described. One thing I wasn’t expecting was for this memoir to challenge my pacifism. It doesn’t take any sacrifice on my part to say that I affirm a non-violent Kingdom here. Upon hearing these stories, perhaps for the first time in years, I became quite sympathetic to the felt need to defend oneself, one’s family, church, and home. Some monasteries that were taken over or destroyed had been there for well over a thousand years. A thousand. years.
In Lebanon, Dalrymple gives a brief history of the the Maronite eastern Rite Catholics. A shockingly bloodthirsty and cruel band of Maronite gangs had waged a long ‘civil war’ with other ethnic and religious groups in what is now Lebanon in an effort to defend what was seen as their own country — aided in no small part to a close relationship to the French. There is one particularly dark incident where Dalrymple is having a conversation with a certain Christian about the Maronite leader Samir Geagea. This man was comparing two towns, one Christian the other not:
“You can eat in Ehden, but make sure you sleep in Bsharre. Sleep in Ehden, and they will shoot you while you are asleep.’ [Bsharre was a town under the authority of Geagea. Dalrymple proceeds to question this man, listing many of the more gruesome crimes of Geagea, including the night murder of a Christian rival, the killing of women and children, a church bombing, and others.] “Geagea is a very honourable and very holy man,’ he said. ‘We are very proud of him in Bsharre…You must not believe what people say about Samir Geagea,’ said Ch’baat. ‘But you can hardly call him holy,’ [Dal.]
‘Certainly yes,’ he said, quite serious. ‘He went to mass every day and prayed by his bed every night. He had a church built wherever he was, where he fought. Every Christmas his troops expected money as a present, but instead he gave them prayer books and rosaries. Of course he went to confession ever week. He never went into battle without his cros. In his office, he always had a picture of the Virgin and a cross: never any picture of Che Guevara or anything like that.”
Another strange phenomenon was reported on multiple occasions. In some places in the Middle East there was a strange fusion of Christianity, Islam, and paganism that I found, to be perfectly honest, curious but repugnant. Apparently there are several churches, monasteries, and Mosques, where people of both faiths will come and pray to saints for healing, or for a job, to get pregnant, or for good weather. This is itself not too disconcerting, though it seems like it has potential problems. Far more troubling is that if the prayer is answered, that person will return with a goat or a sheep and the (Orthodox!) priest or Imam will sacrifice the animal in thanks to the saint! How strange! How utterly foreign to me, and foreign to the strong anti-sacrificial polemics of the Church fathers and New Testament.
I kept going over these sections in my mind. In the end, I found them impossible to understand. I couldn’t wrap my head around this man who praised Geagea, or this, well, gang leader, who could shoot a woman and child over 24 times one day, and go to Mass the next; or the animal sacrifice for saints. I was beginning to question myself strongly. In what ways has my Christian life been truly normative, and in what ways has it been exceptional? According to how I’ve been taught to understand the Gospels and the witness of the persecuted Church, even under severe pressure, the Church shouldn’t be reacting by taking up arms, but caring not about the risks, they should be testifying to another kingdom. Is that simply a position that one in my position can take? Or can it truly occur? Luckily for my sanity, I found several stories that filled me with joy and relief. Perhaps these Christians are not so strange after all?