Is it true that Christians in the Middle East are persecuted? This is the question that brought photojournalist Linda Dorigo to nine countries in the region over a period of two years. From her new home in Beirut, she traveled to Iran first, then throughout Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Turkey and finally Syria. She approached this question with a secular mindset, exploring spirituality, ancient rituals and symbols, and meeting with diverse devout characters – from an Assyrian couple living in Tehran to a European Christian who fought with the Syriac Military Council to an Argentinian priest working in Gaza. Her project, “Rifugio,” is a reflection on the millennia that separate the secularized Christianity of Europe and the Levant, where everything is religion. She spoke to R&K from her home in Rome.
R&K: You started the journey in Iran. What was that experience like?
Linda Dorigo: Ever since Khomeini’s 1979 uprising, the lives of Christians in Iran have been unstable. They were forced to follow the Ayatollah’s rules, to move away from public jobs and institutions. Only 8,000 Armenian and Assyrian Christians remain in Iran today. Now that I’m at the end of the project, I can say that Iran was the best place that I saw for Christians. Yes, they have to live under this regime, but compared to other places we saw in the Middle East, their situation is better.
R&K: What is happening to the number of Christians across the region?
Dorigo: In Lebanon, the number of Christians is decreasing because they have less children than Muslims and because they have wider economic possibilities to join their relatives living around the world. Many of them have left the country because of the war in Syria. The Christians of Israel and the West Bank are living the tragedy of 60 years of war. They are a minority twice in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where about 200 Catholics have to defend their rights as Palestinians and as Christians. In the place where Jesus Christ was born, Christians are only 2% of the population. They are even less in Israel, where there are 700 Jews who have converted to Christianity. Just a few hundred thousand Christians are still living in Turkey, mostly in the main cities. Lately, President Erdogan’s government has pushed for an Islamization of the country. Fundamentalism is growing and tens of Christians have been killed.
R&K: What about Syria and Iraq?
Dorigo: These countries represent the most difficult situation in the whole area because of the growth of the Islamic State, a violent and well-equipped organization that is pushing Christians outside of their own land. ISIS was born in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Sectarian violence erupted and Christians fled to Kurdistan or abroad. Many of them lost relatives in car bombs, rapes and terrorist attacks. As a result, Christians formed militias to defend themselves. Last year, ISIS went to fight in Syria and quickly managed to control a big portion of the northern part of the country. Even in Syria, Christians have built an army to fight ISIS.
R&K: We are talking about a lot of countries, a lot of people, many of them in very different situations… Would you say there is something they all have in common? Something maybe that enables them to continue to practice their religion despite the hostile climate?
Dorigo: They are believers. They have a strong attachment to their roots, to their land. I mean, this is the land of Jesus Christ, and they were born there, and they will not move. Because of the violence, of course, there’s a big diaspora of Christians from the Middle East that live in Western countries. But many of them still can’t accept to move. We met an Assyrian couple in Tehran. All of their sons live in Los Angeles. When we asked them why they hadn’t moved there, they answered: “Why? We have our life here, we have our friends, maybe it’s not the best place in the world, but it’s our home. So why would we have to move?”
R&K: Some of these photos were taken in very small villages. How were you able to find these communities and connect with them?
Dorigo: That could be another book! Christians were our guides. We had our plan, our timetables, our places that we wanted to visit, but we were always open and ready for change because surprises are the most beautiful things. So we followed suggestions. We never went to a hotel, we were always hosted by locals, living in their houses, living with their families, sharing time and spaces really. I believe that’s the only possible way to document communities. Getting in touch with them, however, was not easy because a lot of these people are scared. And some Christians are quite racist, so they don’t want to share anything with their neighbors when they belong to a different confession. They are closed communities. And it was not easy to find them, especially because sometimes they really live in really remote villages, but it was wonderful.
They always made jokes and they asked how the Pope was doing
R&K: Do Christians in the Middle East have a common vision of the future?
Dorigo: It’s not easy to find a common view. But one of the things that all of them told us is that there’s a plan to rid the Middle East of Christians. There’s a plan to push them out of the Middle East. That’s one of their visions.
R&K: How did they respond to your Italian nationality?
Dorigo: Being Italian helped me a lot. They always made jokes and they asked how the Pope was doing, and what was happening in Rome, etc. Coming from a Catholic country helped me.
R&K: This is the birthplace of Jesus and Christianity, how do people talk about this history?
Dorigo: When we arrived in Iran, we were very lucky because we had the chance to go directly on a five-day pilgrimage in the mountains. We visited one of the most ancient churches in the world; we spent the night inside. That’s the way in which Christians of the Middle East talk about their history, about their land. It’s something they love to show, but they show it with intimacy. When you get their trust, they tell you their family stories, about what happened to their grandma, to their grandpa. And then little by little they will tell their history.
R&K: I’m sure the Holy Land was especially fascinating in that sense…
Dorigo: Personally I was really shocked to visit Turkey. I have no words to describe what I felt in Ani – perhaps only in Rome can you have similar sensations, but it would have to be Rome without people. In Ani, you have these ancient churches and everything around you speaks about a holy place, but you are in the middle of nowhere. It’s like a cinematographic stage, you are waiting for something to happen but nothing happens. You are just in this silence. But yes of course, Jerusalem is like no other city. History is such a heavy weight there. It makes you think about the meaning of coexistence, the meaning of religion.
R&K: Does the West have a part of responsibility for what is happening to Christians in the Middle East?
Dorigo: It’s clear that Western countries have a big responsibility in what is happening, not only to Christians but to the Middle East in general. We know what happened in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but remember also what happened to Kurdistan at the beginning of the century; we promised but never delivered a state to Kurdistan. Today we are paying the consequences of our colonial point of view, and we will pay a high price for what we did. And we cannot say “I’m sorry.” It’s too late. One of the most important things we can do now is to try to understand who is ISIS. Who are these people? Let’s take a step back and try to understand who created the sufferance of these people? Because ISIS is a consequence of personal suffering. It’s the consequence of a community suffering. We should make a example of what we did and try not to create more fascism.
R&K: Is there hope for Christians in the Middle East to live peacefully?
Dorigo: I hope that one day there will be peace for all the people of the Middle East, not only Christians. It’s a very complex and a very rich place. As long as they have oil and our economy needs it, I don’t think that the Middle East can be stable. Personally, what I can do as a photojournalist is to try and open small doors about this region, just to make people think. It’s important that we know each other. And if you don’t have the chance to know people directly because you live in a village in the mountains of Italy and you will never go to Tehran for example or to Cairo, you should train your heart and your mind to know better, to know who is the other, because he really is just your brother. That’s what I’m trying to do.