In recent years writers like William Dalrymple (From the Holy Mountain) and Diarmid MacCulloch (A History of Christianity) have made us aware of the vibrancy through the ages of Middle Eastern Christianity. Now Robert Ewan adds to our knowledge by showing us the courage and steadfastness of Iraqi Christians through the centuries in the face of terrible persecution. One factor that emerges repeatedly is that Christians are made to suffer because of their association with foreign powers, despite the fact that Christianity in Iraq traces its origins to the first Christian century. This paranoia about Christians began as early as 315, when Emperor Constantine in an ill-judged letter asked the Sassanian Emperor Shapour II to respect Christians. Instead, Shapour launched a decades-long massacre. It was a pattern that was to repeat itself. Despite these waves of persecutions, Christians often found a place in national life and were respected for their knowledge and skills in areas like medicine, administration and translation.
Many of the stories given here by Robert Ewan are of those who were martyred during the reign of Shahpour, such as the brothers Jonah and Brikhisho (328 AD) who were horribly tortured. Patheon, a convert from Zorastrianism, endured five days of being slowly butchered. Women martyrs were as courageous as the men, for example Tarbow (341 AD) who was sawn in two.
Recently there has been a trend to portray the late Ottoman empire as benevolent towards the Christians. However, Doves in Crimson Fields reminds us of the ruthless massacre of thousands of Assyrian Christians in the 1840s. The culprit was a Kurdish leader, Bader Khan Berg. It is consoling for us to note that in this respect, at least, things have changed, because it is in the Kurdish area today that Christians are protected and worship freely.
The terrible sufferings of Christians at the hands of Daesh (ISIS) and As Quaeda have led some Iraqi Christian leaders to call for Christians to be given their own autonomous area, where they can be protected by their own forces. It is interesting to note from this book that in 1932 the leader of the Assyrian Church of the East made the same request. The Iraqi authorities responded with the Semele massacre in which over 3000 Assyrian Christians died. Just as with Constantine 1600 years earlier, Christians were associated with external powers. Part of the problem here was that many Assyrians had worked with and for the British, especially the RAF, as Britain had mandatory power over Iraq until 1932. Pages 150-156 quotes extensively from the account of a British inspector who witnessed the slaughter - and rape - of Assyrian Christians.
The book brings us up to date with more recent victims such as Father Ragheed Azziz Ganni (2007) who was well known in Ireland. President Mary McAleese paid elegant tribute to his courage and faith and referred to Iraq as 'a lacerated country'.
Although clearly and compellingly written there is some unevenness in this book. Ancient accounts of Christian martyrdom often accrue legendary elements. In giving us the story of the first martyrs the author could have distinguished these from the more factual elements. Secondly, the author belongs to the Chaldean Catholic tradition and gives a favourable account of its origins.
A book about suffering and martyrdom might sound rather grim. In fact, Doves in Crimson Fields is an uplifting account of courage, steadfastness, and faithfulness to Christ. It leaves us, though, with the awkward question, of why the rest of the Christian world is so indifferent to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East (and, I might add, Pakistan).
Doves in Crimson Fields: Iraqi Christian Martyrs by Robert Ewan, published by Leominster: Gracewing, 2017 213 pp £11.99 ISBN 9780852449127