By Dennis Gruending
I travelled with my family in India in 2008 and my most useful guide was the writing of a Scot named William Dalrymple. This past spring we travelled in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan and found that Dalrymple has done it again in his book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium, which was first published in 1997. Dalrymple searched out and described Christian communities in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel (including the occupied West Bank), and Egypt. While the book is a bit dated, it remains a compelling and useful resource describing the disturbing reality that Christians are either being forced out or are leaving the countries that he profiles. The most accommodating nation in the region is Syria and even there Christians fear for their future.
Dalrymple says that the great flowering of Christianity in the Middle East began after the Roman emperor Constantine declared in the 4th century that Christianity would be the official religion of the empire. The golden age, embodied in the Byzantine Christianity, lasted for about 300 years, until the rise of Islam in the 7th century. During that time, Dalrymple writes, “the Levant was the heartland of Christianity and the centre of Christian civilization.” But he writes that Christianity is suffering “a devastating decline in the land of its birth.”
Dalrymple certainly is not anti-Muslim. He says that for centuries the predominantly Muslim countries of the Ottoman Empire practiced a far greater tolerance for Christians and Jews in their midst than Christian countries of Europe did for either Jews or Muslims. “Only in the 20th century has that tolerance been replaced by new hardening in Islamic attitudes,” Dalrymple says, adding that this is in great part due to a series of humiliations visited upon Muslim countries by the West. “Almost everywhere . . . the Christians are leaving,” he says.