Law & Liberty
At an academic conference a few years ago, I met a bishop from a Catholic diocese in the Middle East. The bishop reflected on meeting local Muslim leaders just after his appointment. They were polite, he said, but not especially warm, as they suspected Christianity as a foreign influence. Still, they allowed that they were pleased the Church had sent them an actual Arab. “At least they managed to find us one of our own,” they said.
The bishop laughed as he told this story. The Church had “managed to find” an Arab Christian? It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Christianity was born in the Middle East, and the bishop’s ancestors, all Christians, had lived there for centuries. He himself had been born and raised in the country to which the Church had assigned him. But, in the last 100 years, the Christian population of the Middle East has shrunk dramatically, a consequence of genocide and mass emigration. Increasingly, people find it hard to remember that sizable Christian communities ever existed in the region.
In his valuable new book, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, Gerard Russell describes some of these Christian communities, along with several other religious minorities that somehow have managed to endure in the Middle East. The book is part history and part travelogue. Russell worked for a decade in the region as a British and U.N. diplomat and speaks fluent Arabic and Afghan Persian. He spent four years researching the book. As a result, he speaks with an authority that outsiders often lack. And he does so in an engaging manner, with insight, humor, sympathy, and admiration for the groups he describes.