Gerard Russell’s new book poses the question, what can we learn from the variety of religious beliefs found in the Middle East?
We in the West are largely insulated from the turbulence of the Middle East: the civil war in Syria, the regular violent eruptions in Iraq or sporadic persecutions elsewhere, such as in Egypt. Ancient Christian communities in these regions have suffered hugely, without much Western protest or interest on their behalf. For instance, as Michael Coren points out in his article in last week’s Herald, “The war that no-one wants to talk about”, Christians in Iraq have become “a besieged people. Two thirds of the 1.5 million population have disappeared, through death or exile.” He adds that “the numbers are similar for Syria.”
If we rarely show fellow-feeling for beleaguered Christians, even less do we give a passing thought to more obscure religious minorities who have also been persecuted in recent years in the Middle East. This ignorance has been addressed by Gerard Russell, a former diplomat, in his book, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms; Journeys, into the disappearing religions of the Middle East. Russell, who has worked and travelled in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Israel and who is fluent in Arabic and Farsi, has written a thoughtful and sympathetic study of religious communities whose names only briefly and occasionally figure in the news, such as the Yazidis of north west Iraq, the Druze of Lebanon or the Copts of Egypt.
His book reminds one that the most significant way in which small communities keep their identity alive is through their ancient traditions and beliefs. He has travelled widely by bus, jalopy and occasionally on foot to places that have been sacred for generations and has spoken to a wide variety of adherents of faiths that are an exotic mixture of Islam and Christianity, sometimes with Greek or Indian accretions, with the single purpose of “giving them a voice.” As he comments, these “forgotten kingdoms” remind us of our own ignorance about them and also provide their own eloquent witness in a religious debate mainly “dominated by atheists and literalists”.
There are the Samaritans of the West Bank, caught between the Israelis and the Palestinians; the Yazidis of Northern Iraq, uneasily surviving between the Arabs and the Kurds; the Copts in Egypt, negotiating their lives between military or Islamic rule. Implicit to the book is Russell’s question: what can we learn from the religious beliefs of the Middle East? He passionately believes that a “knowledge of history can help us all … to see that any civilisation, whether Roman or Arab or British or American, is at its most successful when it is most open to others and the ideas of others.”
Respect for the customs and traditions of other faiths (as long as they are not flouting our laws) is vital. The secularised West, while clamping down on the violence of Islamism, needs to recognise that truly civilised behaviour requires courtesy towards those whose beliefs and customs might seem bizarre or outlandish in our eyes, rather than mockery and scorn. As Pope Francis emphasised to journalists on the flight to Manila during his visit to the Philippines, “Each religion has dignity.” And as Russell, himself a Catholic and who attended a Coptic Catholic church, dedicated to St Thérèse of Lisieux, while working in Egypt, argues in his book, “Western governments should take religious belief seriously…[able] to tell the difference between a fervent believer and a preacher of hate.”
He writes with sympathy of the Yazidis, who believe in reincarnation, revere an angel who takes the form of a peacock and who are forbidden to wear blue or eat lettuce; adult males are obliged to wear a moustache. Then there are the Mandaeans, who lived for centuries in the southern Iraqi marshes, and who have links with the ancient Manichean heresy. Ninety per cent of their population has now emigrated or been killed. The Zoroastrians of ancient Persia – apparently CS Lewis’s favourite “pagan” religion – who believe in the endless struggle between good and evil, number fewer than 100,000 in the world today. There are now more Iraqi Chaldean Aramaic speakers in Detroit than in Baghdad.
The pressing question for all these exiles and immigrants is how to retain their communities, their religious traditions and their young people when there is no prospect of ever going “home” again. We are constantly badgered by environmentalists drawing attention to disappearing species of flora and fauna. Just as important, if not so conspicuous on the radar of the secularised West, are these ancient, dignified and now disappearing communities.