A cross to bear: The vanishing Christians of the Middle East in pictures

With religious tolerance giving way to the savagery of Islamic State, communities that have existed since the first century are now facing extinction. Linda Dorigo and Andrea Milluzzi’s book of photographs documents the people who, through poverty or defiance, refuse to leave, reports.

The new book by photographer Linda Dorigo and journalist Andrea Milluzzi, Italians working in the Middle East– titled Rifugio (“refuge” or “shelter”) – is a visual record of those who have, through poverty or defiance, refused to become a part of the Christian diaspora and now struggle to live out their faith in an increasingly inhospitable land.

When the US launched its invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were 1.5 million Christians living in the country. Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, was a Christian – demonstrating the relative religious tolerance under that regime. But, by igniting sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias, the US invasion was a disaster for indigenous Christians, who Muslims associated with the hated crusaders.

Now Christians are being slaughtered by Islamic State. Between 2003 and now, three quarters of Iraq’s Christians have been driven from their homes or killed. It’s a story that has repeated itself throughout the Middle East, although, to be fair, it long pre-dates the US invasion.

When, a century ago, the Ottomans drove Armenian Christians from Turkey into the Syrian desert to die of starvation, there was a 13% Christian presence in Turkey. Now, they have been all but wiped out. In Egypt, some 600,000 Christians have left during the past 30 years.

Scouts at the anniversary of the Armenian genocide in 1915. Beirut, Lebanon (April 2012).
Photograph: Linda Dorigo

The yearly Armenian pilgrimage, Saint Taddeus monastery, Iran (July 2011).
Photograph: Linda Dorigo

Ani,the ancient capital of the Armenian empire, now in ruins (August 2013).
Photograph: Linda Dorigo