Encounter with Eastern Christian

TRANSLATED BY NOEMIE BASTIDE AND THOMAS SHACKLOCK

The challenge of Pascal Maguesyan is « on the one hand to write about the Middle East for its cruelty and on the other for its goodness ». This old-established journalist and amateur photographer has been travelling the Middle East for more than 10 years and has decided to give his point of view in Chrétiens d’Orient, ombres et lumières (original title in French) published in 2013 (“Eastern Christians, out of the shadows at last” in English). In this book, he discusses his travels and encounters. Le Journal International arranged an interview with him.

All the people I have encountered in these countries made me want to write about them […], to allow them a place in history.” For years, Pascal Maguesyan has been travelling the Middle East and has been in contact with its populations. Amongst others, his work covers the minefields in Palestine and Israel, the Papyrus Revolution in Egypt, the troubles in Syria, the efforts to recognise the genocide in Armenia and Turkey and the diversity of Iran. Through his work he reveals the problems of security of ethnic and religious communities have to face.

His travels are short and regular and, as he defines them, “intense and valuable”. Before each journey, he has to find local contacts and know where to stay. He has to find a safe place, which can allow him “to have the pleasure of discovering, the pleasure of the unexpected”. But to him, “Once you are there, you are plunged in it. Fear is no more part of the equation”.

“In the Middle East, everything is a matter of religion”

In this dark ocean, Pascal Maguesyan talks about “islands of life” led by peace-keepers. At the maternity hospital of Bethlehem in Palestine, the medical staff is mainly composed of Eastern Christians who take care of predominantly Muslim patients. In the territory of Anaphora, on the road of Alexandria in Egypt, “a Coptic Christian priest named Anba Thomas tries to promote civic education […] in this country shared between Coptic and Muslims”. The monastery of Mar Moussa is located in the Syrian Desert. It was restored by Paolo Dall’Oglio, a man dedicated to the “inter-religious dialogue between Muslims and Christians”. He defines himself as a “believer in Jesus and a lover of Islam”.

But people calling for peace and for dialogue in the Middle East live under a constant threat. “These people want to talk to the world, to be part of an open, pluralist, and brotherly process”. ‘’We have to give them more opportunities to express themselves […], to breathe.” Social Media was essential, in particular during the Arab Spring. Now, we have to “go from a virtual scale to a physical one”.

Let us travel

Israel – Palestine: “a vast open-air prison”

Travelling throughout the Holy Land, Pascal Maguesyan noticed the state of survival of the peoples living there, bogged down in a millennial conflict. He accuses the Israeli government to be the head of a “colonial system” which is toxic for Palestinians who are territorially contained and that prevents them from opening up themselves to international trade in a globalised context.

It is the story of an endless conflict ignored by the rest of the international community. “You can involve mediators such as the United States, France, Germany or the United-Kingdom […], but if there is no trust between both parts, you can do nothing about it […]. When you face such actors, which hate themselves and call for the death of the other one, you cannot establish a good climate for dialogue.”

Stops in Armenia and Turkey

Pascal Maguesyan has Armenian roots. His grandparents survived the genocide of the beginning of the 20th century. He goes to these lands with “a heavy load in mind linked with his personal background but also with the scale of destructive events”. He walks on paths where the local population faced deportation, starvation and massacres committed by The Young Turks administration between 1915 and 1917. A ‘’Final Solution’’ perpetrated in the Middle East.

“Ayse Gunaysu is a Turkish woman involved in the fight for civil rights in Turkey. The first time I went to Turkey, I met this woman in Istanbul. She took my hands and asked me for forgiveness [… ]for what Turkish people had done to Armenians. Gradually, I freed myself.” (Pascal Maguesyan)

 « Mass graves »

Denying the Armenian genocide remains a state policy in Turkey. The anti-Armenian hatred is still strong in certain backgrounds. But there are also citizens who want to end this social amnesia. Turks, Kurds or Armenians gather to establish the historical reality. “Recognising the Armenian genocide only represents a small part of the overall problem. But to recognise it would open the door to a change.” The Armenian philosopher and journalist Hrant Dink who was shot in Istanbul was an example of these people who want to break a taboo between both peoples.

Pascal Maguesyan in front of the church Holy Cross of Aghmatar (western Armenia, Turkey) in September 2010. Photo credit: Pascal Maguesyan

“Turkey is a country full of paradoxes. We can talk about the genocide and, at the same time, it is impossible to talk about it. We just have to sow the seeds and a lot of people try to do so, even if it is common to deny the genocide and even if Turkey carries on destroying the Armenian cultural heritage“. Around 2.500 churches and 500 monasteries in western Armenia were turned into “mass graves made out of stones”. Only the church Holy Cross in Aghtamar and the cathedral Sourp Guirados were rebuilt. The Turkish government has contributed to this destruction process by ignoring the looting of the ruins and the vandalism of the graveyards.

In July 2015, Pascal Maguesyan set himself a new challenge: walking from Ani until Diyarbakir. Like this, he followed the road where Armenians, Syriacs and Chaldeans were sent to death in the middle of the Mesopotamian desert. His motive was to make people remember this tragedy and to “open up the way”. He walked 560 miles in 30 days. He wrote about the experience in his last book published in French “Sur les chemins de Guirados” (“On the roads to Guirados” in English) published in 2017.

Egypt: the awakening of the civilian society

July 2011, Pascal Maguesyan described the Egyptian revolution from the inside.

The civilian society, «who was the main actor of the revolution » was quickly overwhelmed by the Islamist organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. They “behaved like other civilians taking part of the mass gatherings” and appeared like the protectors of the civil rights against the failure of the state.  The society “does not see itself’’ in this new government with an Islamist ideology and rises again. These days Egypt is suffering, without any perspective of individual or collective development. “The potential of violence is very serious there, particularly through political Islam, and the radical Islam”, even if ISIS has a very limited presence there.

To my beloved Middle East

We can embrace the Middle East through the intellectual output […]. Everything is possible there”. Regarding what is happening to the people in Syria, which he often writes about, Pascal Maguesyan calls for empathy. “We can say we are like ants. We organise ourselves in societies, […] and sometimes this is for the worse because we do not get along with each other and we make war, and sometimes society brings us happiness. We have to find a balance between the two”.

To conclude this article: “The Middle East is very diverse and impossible to define”. Pascal Maguesyan’s objective is to keep walking, writing and sharing his point of view on the Middle East. He concludes by declaring “I hope these societies will find a way to live altogether, and that Islamism and fundamentalism from all sides are going to end”.

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