RIFUGIO – Christians of the Middle East

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I’ve been working on Rifugio from 2011 to 2014 with the journalist Andrea Milluzzi and the book has been published by Schilt Publishing in 2015.

An extract from the book’s introduction:

During New Year’s evening mass 2011, an explosion destroyed the Saints Church in Alexandria. Twenty-one people died. The story appeared in Western newspapers and television, but after a few days the media’s attention faded. We felt the need to know more. We wanted to know these millennial communities and give witness to their experience after the media exit. So we left, to discover stories, families and villages in their everyday life. We were looking for the heirs of the evangelists and the first pilgrims. In some cases we have retraced and followed their steps, crossing the borderlands that divided Paganism from Christianity. Maku in Iran, Deir Abu Hennis in Egypt, and the Turkish Antakya are tiny points on the atlas, but they are the vestiges of a journey that has reached us after two millennia. We never left the house, we have only explored other rooms.

We arrived at Gare Chelise, Iran, thanks to a book we found by chance in Rome a few weeks before departure, in a library that is now gone. We read about the Armenian pilgrimage to a particular church lost in the mountains between Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan. We left at night, aboard a bus loaded with people and luggage. On the lawn in front of the church they gave us a tent which was stolen by a storm soon after. So they welcomed us in a room inside the monastery, but the regime’s local officials didn’t want foreigners and Iranians sharing the same accommodation. So we slept in the church that dates back to 60 AD. We laid out some blankets and moved a bench to the side to avoid disturbing the devotees who took turns all night to pray. We spent three nights like this. It was possibly the most truthful beginning for our trip. (…) Month after month the places we travelled to underwent change. We came across the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in Iraq no longer with US marines, in the Syria of Bashar al-Asad and Isis. The story unfolded before our eyes, right in front of us while we were looking for normality. Wars, old and new, made things difficult for us. Once the umpteenth war between Israel and Hamas was over, we entered the Gaza Strip as “Monk” and “Sister”. It was the only expedient that the priest of Gaza could devise to induce Hamas to grant us a Visa. Because of the war, we waited three years before we could get to Damascus. The heart of what was Greater Syria, a religious and spiritual country, was dripping blood beneath the bombs and fighting. We moved to Syrian Kurdistan, where a Muslim woman had opened the doors of a church for us, showing us the value of co-existence. (…)

An estimated 12 million Christians live in Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. They are the narrators of this book. They have entrusted us tragic, romantic, and comic stories. Refuge gave us examples of co-existence and exclusions, of relationships based on people and of ghettoization. We reported the version of the Christians, without concealing any hostile attitude towards Islam and Muslims. We have repeatedly faced sectarian viewpoints but we did not surrender to those who sought to foment a clash of civilizations. (…)

Links: Verve Photo, Doc!, FK magazine, CNN, RadioRaiFvg, Witness Journal, Radio24, Radio3MondoRoads and KingdomsFeature shootFirecrackers, HiperallergicL’Oeil de La Photographie, The Guardian, Public Radio of ArmeniaTIME, Radio Svizzera Italiana RSI, Radio Popolare, L’Osservatore Romano, PhomRadiobase, PDN