The Christians of the Middle EastFrom Syria to Iran, Palestine to Egypt, stories from the region's Christian minority.

words by andrea milluzzi   |   photos by linda dorigo   |   design by alaa batayneh

Between turning the other cheek and living for revenge

As a child, Milojad Vaghinagh wanted to avenge the murder of his father, brother and two sisters. As an adult, he became a priest who reflects on Christianity’s teachings on revenge.

Father Milojad Vaghinagh is the guardian of the Armenian parish of Tabriz, in northern Iran. Armenian-Syrian by birth, he has been in Tabriz for a little more than 50 days when we meet him. He serves 800 Armenians, four churches and many schools in this city of 1.5 million inhabitants.

With a gait somewhere between priest and soldier, Vaghinagh shakes the long blue robe that hides his slender hands and breaks the silence. "If foreigners come, my first task is to understand whether they are spies or not. I walked past you twice, I watched you carefully. You are not spies. Come in,” he says.

The parish wall is two metres high and the front door opens only from the inside. "My predecessor had a gun,” he says. “It was given to him by the Iranian government after the Turks tried to enter by force. Now I have that gun and I'm not ashamed to say that I am ready to use it if we were to be attacked. 'Turn the other cheek' is not written anywhere in the Bible. It does say we have to defend ourselves."

"We are a minority and this is a city with many Turks who have not forgotten the vengeance of the Armenians after the genocide of 1915,” Vaghinagh continues, referring to the deaths of up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians during a campaign of mass expulsion as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing during World War I, which Turkey does not accept was genocide. In the decade that followed, there was a series of revenge killings.

Tens of thousands of Armenians come every year from across Iran to the St. Thaddeus Church, at the border with Turkey [Linda Dorigo/Al Jazeera]

The wiry, slender body beneath Vaghinagh’s tunic hints at an athletic past. He is about 40 years old and hasn’t always been a priest.

Born in al-Qamishlo, a Kurdish majority village in the northeast of Syria, Milojad Vaghinagh was the fourth of eight children – four sons and four daughters.

"We had land, we were quite well-off,” he remembers. “But one day criminals came to rob us. My father and my older brother fought back and were killed. Even two of my sisters died then. My life changed that day."

Vaghinagh was just a child at the time. Along with his two brothers, he harboured a desire for revenge. "When I was 10 my brothers and I started to learn martial arts and use guns and knives. Every time we trained, we thought of the moment of revenge,” he says.

Father Vaghinagh is the guardian of the Armenian parish of Tabriz [Linda Dorigo/Al Jazeera]

Their 'training' continued for months, despite the opposition of their mother and aunt who feared that they would also be killed in a spiral of revenge attacks.

"At one point my mother suggested that my younger brother and I go to the seminary, in Beirut [the capital of neighbouring Lebanon]. We accepted only after being promised that we would be able to continue studying martial arts there as well.” He smiles: “Obviously, this never happened."

Once at the seminary, Vaghinagh found his vocation and embarked on the road to becoming a priest.

"I felt a great energy within me and an irresistible urge to abandon the path of vengeance that we had undertaken. I managed to convince my brothers to give up our plans,” he says, expressing gratitude to his mother for persuading him to go to the seminary.

When we meet Father Vaghinagh again, it is in Beirut. He has returned there, 30 years after the city first changed his destiny, as he waits for his next placement. He is living in the Armenian Orthodox Archeparchy and pursuing his Bible studies – work that has already led to four publications that stress that while the Bible may not, according to his study of it, mention turning the other cheek, neither does it encourage people to pursue revenge.

A martyr for the poor

Mina Daniel was an Egyptian Copt who was killed as he participated in a peaceful protest in Cairo.

For the Copts of Egypt – and many other Egyptians - Mina Daniel is a martyr.

The 20-year-old student from the country’s Coptic Christian minority had a been a regular participant in the anti-government protests that led to the overthrow of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. But he had lived through those, albeit with some bullet wounds to show for his activism.

Mina Daniel was a member of Egypt Coptic Christian minority [Linda Dorigo/Al Jazeera]

On October 9, 2011, eight months after Mubarak’s downfall, Mina joined other Coptic – and some Muslim – demonstrators who were protesting in Cairo against the destruction of a church in the south of the country.

Yacoub, a close friend of Mina’s, describes the peaceful demonstration. “There were families with strollers, children with balloons,” he says.

“It had nothing to do with the fights to oust Mubarak.”

The protestors made their way to the Egyptian state media headquarters, Maspero.

That was where, Yacoub says, “the army shot at us and attacked us with tanks”. Tear gas and live ammunition were fired. Army personnel carriers ran over protesters. Between 24 and 27 people were killed that day. Mina was among them. He was shot. Three-hundred others were injured.

At the Daniel family home in the run-down Cairo suburb of Ezzbet El-Nakhl, two of his sisters live on one floor and his brother’s family live upstairs. There are photographs of Mina on the walls and even in his sister’s lockets.

They talk about a young man who was passionate about the plight of Egypt’s poor and not remotely sectarian in outlook.

"Once Mina called me from a demonstration organised by the telephone operators to tell me to get there,” Yacoub remembers. “I asked him what we had to do with the switchboard women and he told me that they were poor like us.”

"Mina could love people and fought for the unity of Christians and Muslims. I envied his energy,” his friend continues.

His sister Sarah prefers not to talk about what happened to Mina. “She is unable to accept the fact that Mina was killed,” Yacoub explains. “When he was alive, she worried because he would go to demonstrations and put himself in dangerous situations.”

Mina Daniel's family continue to remember him [Linda Dorigo/Al Jazeera]

“Now,” he says, “it’s Sarah that never misses one. She wants to avenge Mina’s death and honour his memory.”

Yacoub has been left to reflect on his faith in the wake of his friend’s death. "They taught us to be peaceful, to have faith in God because God gives according to need,” he says. "The Church wants us harmless, silent. But where was God when those soldiers killed my brother Mina?

The last Christian in the village

When Israel’s separation barrier reached their village, Abu Samir and Sara had to part. He stayed in the West Bank to care for the land his father had handed down to him and she moved to Israel to care for their children.

"I miss my home, the Palestinian simplicity I cannot find here, and my husband. It's hard to live without him, not being able to ask his advice, not to know how he is .... For me, family is important," says 52-year-old Sara, unable to hold back her tears.

“I miss my home, the Palestinian simplicity I cannot find here, and my husband. It’s hard to live without him,” says Sara [Linda Dorigo/Al Jazeera]

She has been living in Muqeible, an Arab town in Israel, for nearly a year. It is a few thousand metres from Jalame, in the West Bank, where she used to live with her husband, Abu Samir.

He still lives there, but Israel’s seperation barrier keeps them apart.

Their children had moved to the Israeli side of the wall – for work and study – and Sara felt that they needed their mother with them.

But Abu Samir didn’t want to abandon the land he had inherited from his father. So he stayed in his village – becoming the last Christian on that side of the wall in Jalame.

In order to visit Abu Samir, we had to seek the help of the sisters of the Latin parish of Nablus. Estimates vary over the number of Christians remaining in this West Bank city, the ancient Shechem, where, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus quenched the thirst of a Samaritan woman with water from Jacob’s well, but some suggest it could be as few as 200.

Political and economic instability have seen this once prosperous community diminish over recent decades. The sisters and Abuna Marc, the community priest, cater to the few remaining families.

Sister Mary and Sister Rita greet us with a smile. They know Abu Samir well and care for him as much as they can.

"He is a sick man. And very proud,” says Mary. “He would never abandon his father’s land, nor would he ever want to be remembered as the last Christian to leave Jalame.”

In Jalame, the pace of life follows the rhythm of nature. There are a few houses, a few paved roads and the three metre high separation barrier.

"In 2007, the wall arrived here, and in a few years’ time I found myself living alone," says Abu Samir after welcoming us into his large two-storey home.

The rooms that were once occupied by his wife and children are now empty.

"My youngest daughter, Rose, went to school in Muqeible. The checkpoint that separates it from Jalame often had different rules and hours and the soldiers did not always allow her to go through,” explains Abu Samir.

Every morning, Rose would leave the house with her school bag on her back, but Abu Samir and Sara could never be sure if she would make it to class. “So she started to sleep at her grandparents’ house in Muqeible instead,” Abu Samir says.

Israel’s separation barrier has divided this family, just as it has divided many others [Linda Dorigo/Al Jazeera]

Before the separation barrier was erected, the villages of Jalame and Muqeible were close in more than just physical terms and people moved freely from one to the other.

Abu Samir's parents were born in Muqeible, but his father bought land in nearby Jalame.

"We were always a united family. Even when I moved here there were no problems as we could move freely,” says Abu Samir. “Now everything is different."

Sara and Abu Samir’s oldest daughter, Abeer, became the second to leave Jalame.

"Abeer studied English literature at the University of Haifa, on the coast, where we rented a room for her in a student apartment,” says Abu Samir. “She could visit us every weekend, until the Israeli government asked her to take on Israeli citizenship to be able to continue her studies. Since then crossing the checkpoint has become increasingly difficult and the frequency of her visits has been halved."

After Israel’s separation barrier came to their village, Sara followed her children across the wall and into Israel [Linda Dorigo/Al Jazeera]

Sitting on a sofa in the living room, where portraits of family members sit alongside those of the Virgin Mary and various saints, Abu Samir oscillates between the pride of somebody who is determined to remain in his home and the sadness of somebody who feels lonely and misses his family.

He is physically weak. He suffers from diabetes and has had two heart bypass operations.

“I am a sick man, but I won’t leave,” he says. “This is my land and it was the land of my father. I am the last Christian in Jalame, may God make of me what he wants."

Sara is also pained by their separation. "If I could go back in time I would do anything to convince my husband to follow us,” she says. “Now, even if he wanted to, the Israeli government would not give him the documents.”

“We are in this situation because governments never think about the consequences of what they decide,” she adds from the two room home she shares with three of her children.

“When the wall reached Jalame even work disappeared,” Sara says. “Over time, I increased my visits to Muqeible to be closer to my children. Abu Samir and I were sure it would be easy to see each other. After a few months, the Israeli government forced me to get an Israeli identity card, otherwise I would not be allowed back in Jalame. It was then I had to make my choice.”

Now the family has its roots in the West Bank but its branches in Israel. They meet every second weekend and try to talk by phone whenever they can. But it isn’t enough.

As Abu Samir says goodbye, thanking the two nuns for bringing us, he looks at his tractor and then at the crucifix he holds in his hand. “These are the last two things that I’m still fighting for,” he says proudly.

The Bible in the cooking pot

What does it mean to change your faith in a country where apostasy is a crime?

“When I was a child, I saw images of Ashura [one of the holiest days in Shia Islam, when some self-flagelate to commemorate the killing of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet] on TV and I asked myself: ‘What’s the relationship between all that blood and religion?’”

The middle-aged man speaking to us from his home in Iran continues: “My grandfather was originally from Azerbaijan and he was a communist. Religion was not acknowledged in our house; [our talk] was all about politics. So I had to find the answer to my question elsewhere.”

That question marked the beginning of a journey that would eventually lead him to a church far from home, where he converted to Christianity.

But in a country where apostasy, which in the case of Iran means the abandonment or renunciation of Islam, is a crime, it was a journey he had to undertake alone.

"When I started questioning faith, I was really young. I was not even 10 and the main themes that were discussed at school were Islam and the Quran. I was growing curious to know more about it,” he says, his words spoken softly but with conviction.

Roughly 90-95 percent of Iranians are Shia, about five to 10 are Sunni and less than one percent adhere to a different religion. Aside from the persecuted Baha’i, who are viewed as heretics by some Muslims and not considered a religious minority under the Iranian constitution, the country recognises other religions and ensures freedom of worship, as well as the opportunity for parliamentary representation. But for a Muslim to convert to another religion is illegal.

“I did not want nor could I share my doubts with my family. When I became an adult I started to attend a church. Then I started to read the Bible and to wear a chain with a cross around my neck,” he explains.

It was only a few years after he converted to Christianity that he felt able to tell his wife about it. Although she is Muslim, she shows an interest in his faith and sometimes asks him to read the Bible to her [Linda Dorigo]

It meant living a double life. "When I was 46, I went to Sweden and I converted to Christianity. Initially, not even my family knew about it.” His wife smiles at these words.

Holding a black and white photograph of the moment he converted, he explains: "Every time I look at it I get the same feeling of warmth.” Now his house has become his private place of worship; his bedroom the alter at which he speaks to God.

For this Iranian convert to Christianity, his bedroom has become his private place of worship [Linda Dorigo]

But, even at home, he must guard his secret carefully.

His house is in a complex with several other residences. There is a caretaker and a common carpark. Each window threatens to expose him. He lives with the fear that a nosey neighbour or a moment’s indiscretion could be his downfall. So he hides his Bible and rosary among the pots in his kitchen and ensures that no other sign of his faith is left visible.

Because he must keep his religion a secret, he hides his Bibles in his kitchen cupboards [Linda Dorigo]

But if this sounds like a hardship, he doesn’t feel it to be so. "My faith is a source of energy and my God is a guide who knows how to direct me. I do not need anything else,” he says.

And while he believes that the Ayatollahs have “betrayed the ideals behind the revolution [of 1979], and also the principles of Islam,” he is determined to stay in his country.

Iran “has become a police state and many people have left,” he says. “But I never wanted to leave, so I decided to continue to live my double life.”

"In Iran, everything is forbidden. I believe that every religion should be a beacon, not an obstacle. But this regime has taken advantage of Islam, ” he states.

The theocratic government is supported by a dense control network, featuring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp as the ideological custodians of the Republic and occassionally ordinary citizens as spies and informers.

"I had to be careful not to leave any clue leading to my new religion, because it would have been lethal for me and those around me,” he says. “No one knew that I had become a Christian, except my priest here.”

But while his new life has brought with it a host of difficulties, he believes it has also offered him a fresh perspective.

“Violence is incomprehensible to me,” he reflects. “What pushed me towards Christianity the most is the peace it gives me. I firmly believe that Jesus was a messenger of love and that if I follow his teachings I cannot do anything wrong.”

And while the Iranian authorities are forceful in cracking down on any perceived efforts to spread alternative faiths, this gently-spoken man insists they have nothing to worry about on his account.

Iran recognises most other religions and ensures freedom of worship, but it is illegal for a Muslim to convert to another religion [Linda Dorigo]

"I'm not going to engage in proselytism,” he explains. “I am not interested in convincing others about the positivity of my choices. I never forced my daughters to pray, I never changed my relations with Muslim friends, nor have I ever denied my former life and religion."

In fact, it was several years before his family even learnt of his conversion.

“To my family I said that I was going to Sweden to visit relatives,” he remembers. “I was afraid that my little daughters wouldn’t understand my choice. I was afraid that they would think that their father was different from the others.”

“A few years later, I told my wife I had converted. Initially she was scared. She was worried about the problems we would have to face. But soon enough she supported me and stayed by my side, as she has always done.”

Although his wife is Muslim, he says she is curious about other faiths and sometimes asks him to read the Bible to her.

His children are now grown and have been told of the family’s secret. His second daughter occasionally accompanies him to church, where she sits quietly beside her father as he engages in his private dialogue with God.

“In the past I could go to church more often and more easily,” he says, referring to the time during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami when the tight mesh of social control seemed to have been loosened. But all of that changed during the more conservative rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Now there are spies everywhere and I have to be careful not to get myself and the priest into trouble,” he says.

He says he was able to go to church more easily in the past, but remains hopeful that Iran will become more tolerant of diffent faiths in the future [Linda Dorigo]

He’s hopeful that the election in 2013 of reformist cleric Hassan Rouhani will again lead to greater levels of acceptance, but he is yet to see that materialise.

"My daughters know that one day if they want to leave Iran or change religion they will have all the answers and support they need from me,” he says looking lovingly at his daughters, before adding with a tone of fatherly concern: “However, only beyond these borders.”

“I would like to get married in church,” one of them responds. “For the music, I think, and for the atmosphere.”

But, for now, they must help guard their father’s secret, aware that a mispoken word could bring the peace and calm of this simple family home crashing down around them.