During a four-year journey throughout the Middle East – one that placed photographer Linda Dorigo and journalist Andrea Milluzzi on the trail of Christian minorities in countries where Christianity originated and took root – the two reporters, often against their will, adopted what might be considered a theatrical disguise: they were welcomed as academic researchers in Iran, confused for a newlywed couple in Syria, and even referred to as a priest and nun in Gaza.
This speaks for only a fraction of the adventures that marked their extensive “pilgrimage” on the trail of secluded Christian minorities, as the reporters sought them out in the capital cities of Muslim countries such as Damascus, or in remote Assyrian towns like Qaraqosh, Iraq.
Their interest in this subject was sparked by a dramatic event – a suicide bomb attack that shocked a Coptic Christian Mass in Alexandria, Egypt, on New Year's Eve 2011. After the news made headlines, it quickly faded from broader media attention, prompting Dorigo and Milluzzi to start their project.
The result is Rifugio - Christians of the Middle East, a black-and-white photobook and journalistic reportage that documents their project chronicling the life of Christian communities in nine countries – Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Milluzzi’s essays and Dorigo’s photographs complement each other seamlessly, grouped into six chapters, describing what they say is the burdensome and often heart-rending plight that these minorities endure. Dorigo’s subtle but eloquent photographs – often blurry, elusive, at time dramatic – capture both joyful moments and oppressions encountered, illustrating a reality suspended between the cultural heritage that these communities embody and their minority nature.
“It has been a discovery, a never-ending discovery really, because surely we began our journey with an idea in mind of what we were going to look for,” Dorigo says. “But it is [only] when you travel that you realize that, comparing the reality of each country, that you can’t equate Christians in Egypt with Christians in Iran,” she adds.
As they toured the area, their research brought them to some of the most remote places in the region, covering events so extraordinary that they seem part of a different era: In the Old City of Jerusalem, they watched the enactment of the Via Crucis staged by Capuchin monks in the streets of the Christian Quarter. In Rojava, in the Syrian Kurdistan, Dorigo photographed the ruins of the last church in Gharduka, which ISIS jihadists bombed. In Iran’s west Azerbaijan province, they witnessed the annual Armenian pilgrimage to Saint Thaddeus monastery, a custom dating back to 68 AD. On that occasion, the ancient church became their dwelling.
Planning their trip, Dorigo and Milluzzi avoided hotels and opted for local lodging. “The more you share, the more you are actually able to go deep in what you're documenting,” Dorigo says. “We sought the real stories, inside the houses, inside the families.”
Some destinations, however, proved difficult to explore. To reach Syria's far east region from its capital, they bypassed ISIS-controlled territories only by returning to Lebanon, flying to Turkey, taking a bus to Iraq and finally entering Syria’s east border all in the same day. On another occasion, as Iranian authorities were after them, they left the country in a couple of days (but returned after a few months.)
They gained access to Christian minorities through religious gatherings, local priests or through the encounters in cosmopolitan Beirut. Surprisingly to them, more than once the Muslims themselves introduced the reporters to their Christian neighbors. “That was a beautiful thing,” Dorigo says, “and it really testifies that a spirit of friendship and brotherhood does exist, despite being often flattened and even obstructed by a series of propagandistic efforts in the name of a religious conflict.”
Linda Dorigo is an independent documentary photojournalist and Andrea Milluzzi is a freelance journalist. They are based both in Italy and in the Middle East. Their latest work, Rifugio - Christians of the Middle East, is published by Schilt Publishing.