You speak about it a bit in the book, but could you tell us the impetus for The Last Supper?
For many years I’d been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the collapse of the peace negotiations in 2000 the Second Intifada began. I reported from the Palestinian side and it became clear from talking to Christian Palestinians that a shift had taken place in the struggle for Palestinian nationhood.
Palestinian Christians had always been a crucial part of the nationalist movement. The Palestinian cause was about culture, history, and language before religion, which meant the both Christians and Muslims could partake in this endeavor.
However, from 2000 the definition of being Palestinian shifted and Islam became more and more the main denominator. This meant the Palestinian Christians began to feel like strangers in their own land. On top of that the methods in combatting the Israelis also shifted to include suicide bombings, which Palestinian Christians did not want to be a part of. Hence, they where looked upon by many militant, Islamic Palestinians as traitors to the cause. Thousands of Palestinian Christians began to emigrate. They felt trapped between the Israeli military on the one side and the militant Palestinian Islamic fundamentalists on the other. Christians in Bethlehem told me that if the level of emigration continued at this pace, Bethlehem would be emptied of Christians within a few decades. I knew this had to be an enormous story in the West, that the birth place of Christ was being abandoned by Christians. However, the story never really got much attention. This puzzled me.
I also learned about Christians leaving other Arab countries. In 2006, for instance, it was mentioned that two thirds of the Christians in Iraq had fled the country following the Iraq War. Churches were being bombed, Christians kidnapped, priests killed and whole Christian neighborhoods in the two biggest cities, Mosul and Baghdad, ethnically cleansed. This too failed to create a big media story in the West, despite the fact that the Christian community in Iraq is one of the oldest in the world.
When Copts in Egypt became the target of persecution after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and began to leave by the thousands, I wrote an open letter in my newspaper, the Danish weekly Weekendavisen, calling upon the new Danish foreign minister to arrange a meeting with ambassadors from the Muslim countries and ask them how they were going to protect the Christian minorities in their countries. He never answered. I decided that it was time to pay the Christians a visit in the Arab countries and ask why so many were leaving.
What was the most difficult part about covering this story? Were you ever in danger?
I’m certainly not a reporter who would head for danger if I could avoid it, but there were a couple of dramatic situations. In Cairo for instance I went to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt, with a Christian, female journalist. In one of the backstreets we were accosted by thirty or forty teenage boys who looked as if they hadn’t slept for days and were on the verge of running amok.
Tahrir Square has become notorious for the mistreatment, harassment and raping of women–three women had been stripped nude by a major crowd the day before our encounter–which is why women at that time more or less stayed away from the square unless they were completely covered up. The boys that encircled us began to harass the woman who, being a Christian, refused to wear a headscarf. We were completely outmatched, but she managed to talk her way out of the crisis and we were able to get away shaken, but unharmed. After that she said: “Don’t ask me why Christians want to leave Egypt. Ask me why they want to stay.”
There are many moving and troubling passages in this book. But one of the strangest stories, by far, is that of Andrew White, the pastor of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad. We get to meet him, of course, but tell us a little more about your experience with him, what he is like as a person.
I had heard of him in Christian circles in Denmark where he was spoken of as an almost mythic figure, because he is among the only Westerners with the guts to stay in Baghdad outside of the Green Zone during the Iraq War despite having a prize on his head from Islamist groups. Churches had been bombed in the city, Christians had been kidnapped and most of the Christians had left. But he stayed on to help both Christians and Muslims get through the horrible war with a school and medical clinic.
When I went to Baghdad to meet him he me picked at the airport with a heavily armed military escort that drove me through town at 90 miles per hour to his church in the middle of Baghdad, probably the most fortified church in the world. The vicar is huge in every way—big feet, big body, big head, big ideas—but since he suffers from sclerosis, he walks with a cane and often has to be seated. As a friend of Denmark, he had erected a monument in the middle of the courtyard with the names of the nine Danish soldiers who had died during the Iraq War. The vicar had been in favor of the war (but not how it was being fought), he cherished living dangerously while helping the poor, there were books on Jewish mysticism on his night table, and he spoke with warmth about Israel. Not many with that mindset in that city at the time, I’m sure.
You visited four “lands” – Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, and Iraq. It seems as though in all of them Christians face a bleak future. However, did you see any chance for survival there, any reason to hope?
It differs from country to country. The Iraqi situation is the bleakest. I visited areas around Mosul to the northeast that were conquered by ISIS in the summer of 2014 and where all the Christians, over 100,000 of them, have had to flee. In Iraq they face ethnic cleansing. Outside the Kurdish areas there are only few Christians left. They are not likely to return any time soon, if ever.
In the West Bank, however, the situation for the Christians today is better than in many years. In 2007 the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Army drove Hamas underground and since then some Christians have returned. In Egypt, Christians are also doing better since the Muslim Brotherhood was evicted from power in the summer of 2013. However, it’s important to note that in every Arab country except Lebanon, Christians do not have equal rights. Just to give one example: A Muslim man can marry a Christian woman, and then their children will become Muslim. But a Christian man cannot marry Muslim woman. Discrimination like that—and there are many more examples—relegates the Christians to second-class citizens. In times of crisis the Christians are the group that is being scapegoated.
How long did it take you to write this book? When did you do the research?
A little less than a year, from the autumn of 2012 to the summer of 2013. I took one country at a time and wrote the chapter on each before travelling to a new country, except for the chapter on the Palestinian Christians, for which I returned to visit the Christians in Gaza.
Were you afraid that people would see your reporting as being mission-driven: in other words, that when you were writing, you already had an objective and an ulterior motive in mind? What do you say to critics who might ask, Why not write about every religious group that’s being persecuted?
I knew I would be accused of having an ulterior agenda. In Denmark and in Europe (and in the US, I guess) the debate on Islam and Muslims has been contentious for years and I knew I would be venturing into a minefield. Some told me before I began that I only was writing this book because I was Christian. This is why I make a point of saying that I’m not Christian. I was never baptized. I consider myself an atheist.
Others were certain that I wrote the book to put Muslims in a bad light. I guess the consequence of this line of thinking is that you shouldn’t write stories where Muslims appear as the perpetrators, not even when they clearly are. How this can be seen as a morally right thing to do escapes me.
Some would also criticize me for only focusing on the Christians when other minorities in the Middle East also are suffering. But despite my secularity I fail to see why being interested in the fate of the Christians in the Middle East, the origin of the dominant religion of the West, can be seen as dubious. Frankly, I have for years found it odd that it’s not more discussed than it is.
In a word: Anyone who reads the book will hopefully understand that this is a piece of journalistic work. I aim to convey that the situation for Christians in the countries I visit is so dire that we must shed light on it.
There was great controversy in Denmark after the book was published there in 2013. What were the different responses to your book? And how did you react? Were you surprised?
The book certainly received a lot of attention when it came out, mostly because most Danes were simply unaware of what was going on when it came to the Christians in the Middle East. But the book mostly got fine reviews on all sides of the political spectrum. I hope it shone through that I managed to be balanced and fair. But I’m critical in the book towards influential academics in the field of Middle East studies who in my view have completely neglected this topic and who have appeared apologetic towards the Islamic world. Naturally they were not too fond of this. However, after the ISIS attacks on Christians in Iraq and Syria, the gravity of the situation became evident to everybody. Last fall the new center-right Danish government included in its platform that it would show special attention to the persecution of Christians and other minorities around the world. I’m sure my book has played a role in this.
How would you respond to politicians and other persons of influence who might be reluctant to speak out about the persecution of Christians for fear of inflaming tensions between U.S./Europe and the Muslim world?
We cannot afford to abandon minorities facing extinction, and we are not doing the Muslim countries any favors by evading a forceful response. Christians in the Middle East have been great merchants, businessmen and artists for centuries, and many Muslims are well aware how much more impoverished and monolithic the area would become if the Christians left. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that for years Islamists have persecuted Christians all over the Middle East. As I write this, at the end of March 2016, an attack on Christians in Pakistan has just killed over 70 people. The question to those who fear “inflaming tensions” is: How has our silence helped this minority?
You wrote the book after the murder of Daniel Pearl but before the killings of several Westerners by ISIS. Are you planning to return to the region yourself to do further reporting of this kind? How do you see the outlook for similar reportage on human rights conditions in the societies you visited?
I would be thrilled to go back, but I was sent to New York to cover the US after the book came out, so the Middle East is not the topic I’ve been covering these past few years. That’s why I haven’t returned since I wrote the book.
For years there was too much focus on Israeli atrocities and way too little attention given to abuses in other Middle Eastern states. I don’t say this because I wish to shield Israel from bad press. On the contrary: I have a view that shouldn’t be very controversial—especially coming from a journalist—but in strange way it is. A critical press is good for any country. We take this for granted in the West. Although Israel dislikes the negative attention it receives from Western media (including its own) and generally doesn’t see it like this, media scrutiny is basically a service to the country; the same argument can be made for all countries. And on the flipside: the lack of scrutiny given to Arab regimes especially in the European press has been a betrayal of the Arab peoples living there. It treats them as if they were too fragile and immature to deal with the inquiry we expect the press to accord our own Western societies. Human rights groups have had the same fundamentally flawed approach to the Middle East.
Since the Arab Spring this has changed. At the moment I think we have many excellent and courageous journalists living in the Middle East doing important human rights stories.
Say something about the people who helped you on the ground.
Since Arab countries are more or less closed societies it’s crucial to have locals helping you. I’ve had help in all the countries, but in places like the Palestinian Territories and Egypt, some assisting me didn’t want me to publish their names for fear of retribution. Journalists often forget to state the obvious: that there is very little freedom of speech in some of these places. You can’t expect people to give you a truthful answer.
In Egypt and the Palestinian Territories dissidents are in fear of ending up in jail. This is one reason why it’s easier to work as a writer than as a TV journalist. People will—and this was specially the case in the Palestinian Territories—often say one thing when a camera is on, and another when it’s off. It was highly evident among the few thousands Christian who were still living in Gaza under Hamas rule. Christians—especially here, but in many other places—are in a way doubly oppressed. Not only by a government that allows little dissent from Muslims and Christians alike, but also from a dominant Muslim society where Christians are treated with contempt amid increasing radicalization. In such places you have to rely on anonymous sources.
What other stories have you covered? What have you been covering since you left the Middle East? You worked for a year as the New York correspondent for Weekendavisen. What was your favorite story here? The most interesting/strangest/most memorable place you visited?
I’ve been working as a journalist since 1998 so I’ve covered many stories and also allowed myself to do many different genres of writing, like interviews, reviews, essays, etc. I’ve also been editing for my paper over long stretches of time. A few months after writing the book on Christians in the Middle East, I helped to write the autobiography of one of Denmark’s most notorious and famous bike riders, Michael Rasmussen, the Danish version of Lance Armstrong. Of course, like everybody else he had been doping too, and he spilled the beans to me. Great story that caused a sensation in Denmark and abroad, but, well, quite different book from the one I’ve been talking about here.
I actually spent two years writing from New York: I came back to Copenhagen last summer. I’ve covered everything in the U.S. from the potter’s field at New York’s ghostly Hart Island where prisoners bury the unclaimed dead, to the water shortage in California, bull fighting in Texas, artists in Detroit, prison education inside Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, following the campaign trail in Colorado, and many interviews and book reviews. I also took the time to go to Chile to write about how former dictator Augusto Pinochet plagiarized his history professor in one of his books while serving as president, and to do a story about a soccer team in Chile, one of the country’s best, started by Palestinian, Christian immigrants. Of course, I wanted to know where they went and what they did when they left the Middle East. They played soccer, I guess.
I certainly wouldn’t mind spending many more years in the Americas.