Disappearing Religions Charted In 'Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms' When Gerard Russell was a diplomat in the Middle East, he met followers of ancient religions facing extinction. His new book includes the origins of the Yazidis, who are fleeing the Islamic State.
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Disappearing Religions Charted In 'Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms'

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Disappearing Religions Charted In 'Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms'

Disappearing Religions Charted In 'Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Several ancient religions that have survived as small minority groups in the Middle East are now facing the possibility of extinction as a result of the threats posed by ISIS, other Islamist groups and the Syrian Civil War. These disappearing religions, including the Yazidis who are being slaughtered by ISIS, are the subject of the new book "Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms" by my guest, Gerard Russell. The groups he writes about, including the Yazidis, Druze, Zoroastrians, Coptic Christians and Samaritans, offer insights into the origins of the world's major religions.

Russell met followers of these religions and attended religious ceremonies during the 15 years he spent as a British and UN diplomat while living in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem. He dedicated four years to researching this book. In August, he was in Sinjar interviewing Yazidis who had just fled from ISIS. Russell is now a senior associate at the Foreign Policy Center in London and a senior fellow with the New America Foundation.

Gerard Russell, welcome to FRESH AIR. ISIS is slaughtering and driving out these minority religions. Are some of them on the verge of extinction even though they've lasted so many centuries?

GERARD RUSSELL: They are. It is a terrible thing to see. Leonard Woolley, who was an archaeologist who excavated the ancient city of Uruk in southern Iraq, talks about discovering a most beautiful piece of wooden sculpture, and it's survived for thousands of years in the sand of the desert. And as he excavates it, it begins to rain, and he sees this fabulous ancient relic disintegrate in the sudden moisture, and it's suddenly gone, having survived all that time.

And looking at the religions of the Middle East, sometimes I feel similarly - that here we are - the Mandaeans, for example, who have survived since at least the second century AD but who actually keep much more ancient forms of Babylonian magic and beliefs are - 90 percent of them have now left Iraq - 90 percent, that is, of those who were there in 2003. So we've only in 11 years seen the almost total disappearance of that way of life. They, of course, live. I mean, they've moved to other countries, but when they're scattered around the world, what's yet to be seen is how much they can keep of their culture alive.

GROSS: Well, one of the things that protected these religions over the centuries is that many of the followers would live in remote regions and mountains where they were protected by the geography itself. And now that ISIS is making inroads in places in Syria and Iraq, those places are under attack, too, and there's no place to go.

RUSSELL: Basically, you're right. I mean there are, you know, strictly speaking, a few little places left. And so what, in a way, we see - one of the instruments that has destroyed these religions is unfortunately the motorcar because for as long as they were really, really hard to reach, they could - you know, didn't necessarily destroy them. If there was a government that wished them harm, they could always hide. But now, it's so much harder. It's partly that modernity which has made life so tough for them.

But I'm afraid it's also, you know, changes in the social climate which have really in the last few decades made things so much more threatening for minorities in the Muslim world than it was before.

GROSS: Let's talk about the Yazidis. We've been hearing so much about them because they are so directly under attack from ISIS. Many of the Yazidis were slaughtered. Many other survivors fled to Sinjar Mountain where many of them had to be rescued because there was no food - there was no way of surviving there. So let's talk about the Yazidis and what their religion represents. First of all, when does it date back to?

RUSSELL: They trace it to a founder who was called Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir who was essentially a 12th-century Muslim preacher. But it's a very peculiar thing because, of course, they aren't Muslim. So how they can be founded by a Muslim preacher is one of the great mysteries of the religion.

However, their rituals - their traditions and customs and ideas have a lot in common with much, much more ancient religions, you know, dating back thousands of years - uncounted thousands of years because when they appeared to...

GROSS: Predating Christianity.

RUSSELL: Oh, yes. And early Christian reports do mention people that they tend to call Magians in that region of the world, and they talk a bit about their beliefs. But I would suggest that if we go back even further in time to Babylon and to Syria, we'll find that people then practiced traditions and customs which the Yazidi people have inherited. So they go back a long, long time.

GROSS: Are they monotheistic?

RUSSELL: Well, they do - they believe in an unknowable God. So in a sense, of course, so do Christians and Jews and others. And in fact, Maimonides, the Jewish scholar, was very keen on, you know, stressing unknowability of God - that you could only say what God is not, and not what God is.

The Yazidis kind of take that a bit further, really. I mean for them, God is almost so remote that you don't really focus your attention on God. They focus their attention on a figure they call Melek Taus, who is an angel - the archangel, if you like - in the form of a peacock. And to make it even more complicated, this archangel is - they would call him Azazel. In other words, he is the same as Lucifer - as, if you like, Satan. Now, that's a word they never use and regard it as very insulting - the archangel who rebelled against God, but in their view was then forgiven and restored to favor.

So it's quite a sort of esoteric idea. But for them, the Peacock Angel is a figure of good and a figure that they speak of and revere a little bit as Western religions regard God, although, as I say, it's not exactly that way.

GROSS: So the Peacock Angel is a fallen angel that we might compare to Lucifer, but the angel was redeemed. The angel reformed and then put out the fires of hell with his tears.

RUSSELL: That's right. And this connects to a very old debate which happened in Iraq, or what we now call Iraq a thousand - 600 - 700 years ago. In Iran, traditionally there was a religion called Zoroastrianism which taught that there was - the world is a battleground between good and evil. So if Christians and Muslims and others explain evil by saying - you know, by - essentially wrestle with that somewhat and say, you know, God created the best world there could be, but evil comes as a result of imperfect mankind's decision and so forth. The Zoroastrians had a simpler idea which was that evil is the creation of an evil god, in effect. Now, modern Zoroastrianism doesn't quite correspond to this, but at the time, that's what people believed in Iran.

So the Zoroastrians and Christians used to argue. And the Zoroastrians would say to the Christians, well, if you've got an omnipotent God - that you believe in an omnipotent God, how come there's devil who's allowed to tempt people, who seems to have all this power? And some Christians at the time responded to that by saying that even the devil could repent, and that at the end of time, even the demons of hell would enter heaven. This isn't, of course, conventional Christian thinking, but it was a feature of some Christian thinking in that region at that time.

And it may be that this has influenced the Yazidis who certainly have had a lot of interaction with Christians over the centuries. And it looks as if this idea of the redemption of all things - that there is no such thing as hell anymore - that there's no devil, there's no such thing as evil in that Zoroastrian sense, if you like - that's a strong part of their thinking.

GROSS: Which is interesting because they have been persecuted through the centuries. I mean, you say that they list 72 different massive persecutions. And of course, now they're being nearly eradicated by ISIS.

RUSSELL: It's ironic that these people who were denounced as Satan worshipers - it seems to me there's no clearer act of Satan than the way that they have been treated by ISIS.

GROSS: Yeah, so they're denounced as Satan worshippers because they believe in this redeemed Lucifer-type angel.

RUSSELL: That's right.

GROSS: But, you know, are they really being misunderstood or, like, what...

RUSSELL: Well, for sure.

GROSS: Why are they accused of being devil worshippers?

RUSSELL: Well, for one thing, it's traditional. You know, it was traditional Christian polemic in the Middle East long, long ago, and it's traditional Muslim polemic today to sort of have a label for every other religion in essence. And in the Muslim view, the Christians and Jews get off relatively lightly. But there tends to be a sort of slightly more negative connotation to the names that are given to other religions. And the Mandaeans, for example, are called star worshippers. The Yazidis are called devil worshippers.

I wouldn't wish anyone to think that this is devil worship in the sense that we often talk about it in the West today. It's nothing like that. What it is is something so deeply esoteric that you begin to understand why these religions keep their beliefs secret from their followers because they're so hard to get to the bottom of and so complicated in the way they've been interpreted. But really, this is about a belief that even the devil can be redeemed.

GROSS: Yazidis are forbidden from wearing blue. Did you get an explanation for that?

RUSSELL: (Laughter) No. No, this remained puzzling. I mean, most of them, these days, are not quite so strict anymore. And I was told that the wearing of mustaches used to be absolutely obligatory in Sinjar 30 years ago, but today it's no longer so. The eating of lettuce is also taboo. There are, you know, hints about it. Blue is a sinister color for other groups in Iraq.

And, you know, we don't know very much. We don't know everything about ancient Mesopotamia. I mean, it's had civilization for 7,000 years, which is an extraordinary length of time. We don't know everything about it partly because unlike the ancient Egyptians who carved a lot of things in stone - the Mesopotamians did have cuneiform tablets, but a lot of their buildings were made of mud brick and have disintegrated because it's a much less dry climate than Egypt. And therefore, we do have some gaps in our knowledge, and for all I know, the color blue may have had great significance in ancient Iraq.

The eating of lettuce is a bit more peculiar, but in ancient pagan times, some religions did have these sort of food taboos. And it was important to them, perhaps a little bit as we have diets today - and, you know, you have the Atkins diet, you've got the diets where you don't eat meat and so forth or you do eat meat and nothing else. Pythagoras, who was an ancient philosopher - Greek philosopher, used to teach his followers not to beans, and nobody understood why. And it was a great mystery. And the Pythagoreans, if they were ever put to the question, they would refuse to say why they couldn't eat beans. And no one still knows the answer. And it may be similar with the Yazidis and lettuce. It's something forbidden and even, in a way, you know, so esoteric that whoever knew what the reason was may have died and not passed it on.

GROSS: So you mentioned Pythagoras's bean prohibition. Maybe he foreshadowed the famous Mel Brooks scene in "Blazing Saddles" where everybody's eating beans, and they're sitting around the campfire and (Laughter) releasing a lot of air, shall we say?

RUSSELL: (Laughter) That might be it. This was one of the theories that people came up with, you know? That might be the reason, but Pythagoras refused to say, so no one knows.

GROSS: Right.

RUSSELL: And no one knows about the lettuce, which - sometimes it was for and even odder reason which is that the Yazidis do believe in reincarnation but not, I think, in vegetable form. But there are actually religions in the Middle East - the Alawites in Syria who do believe that you can be reincarnated as a plant. And, therefore, particular plants are not eaten because they're viewed as being potentially possessing human souls, odd as that may sound.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gerard Russell, and he's the author of the new book "Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into The Disappearing Religions Of The Middle East." And he worked as a diplomat in the Middle East for about 15 years. He is now a senior associate at the Foreign Policy Center in London and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about disappearing religions in the Middle East, including religions that are under attack now because of ISIS and because of the civil war in Syria. My guest, Gerard Russell, is the author of the new book "Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into The Disappearing Religions Of The Middle East." He spent 15 years as a British diplomat in the Middle East. He's now a senior associate at the Foreign Policy Centre in London and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

You write it made you - that encountering these ancient religions made you think of how the world might have looked different. For instance, what if Constantine, who ruled the Roman Empire, hadn't become a Christian in 312? His conversion led to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, and it spread Christianity around the world. Have you thought about alternate scenarios, things that nearly happened but didn't?

RUSSELL: There were a number of other candidates. In the second century AD, the Romans were very taken with a religion called Mithraism, the worship of Mithras, which is the closest relation that we know of to the Yazidis of Iraq, who've recently come under persecution and attack from the Islamic State. So that's one candidate. Another was the Manichaeans, another Iraqi religion by the way, in origin, who swept the world - I mean, reached as far as Africa, where Saint Augustine was a convert. In the East they reached China. They actually persisted in China for centuries. And almost, almost an Emperor of Rome was a Manichaean. And had that happened, who knows whether history would have turned out very, very differently? And we'd have, I suspect, a much more austere, actually - much more austere religion than Christianity or Islam or Judaism, all of whom, at some level, are much more life-affirming than the Manichaeans were. Again, they too do have a surviving relation in Iraq, the Mandaeans, who once more have become subject to the most terrible persecution.

GROSS: And it sounds like secrecy was very important to these religions, in part because they were always being persecuted. So to protect themselves and to protect their rituals, they kept things secret, even secret from some of their own followers.

RUSSELL: Yes, that's right. It's a curious thing. And when first encountering the Yazidis, who aren't the most secretive group - the Alawites probably are the most secretive. But when encountering the Yazidis and finding that they gave different versions of everything, basically, there was no consensus among them, it really came home to me how we see religion in the West as being a set of ideas. So one can convert from one religion to another. And essentially, the idea is one's looking for the solution to certain questions. In the Middle East, that isn't necessarily what people are looking for. They're looking for their community. And it's about belonging. And one meets Yazidis who either don't know what the religion teaches - some of them are atheists. I met one who explicitly rejects, you know - to what extent he knows the religion, he doesn't agree with it intellectually. But he's passionately committed to his identity as a Yazidi. So they have a different concept of what it means to be religious. And I would say that the secrecy, therefore, is a surprise when you come across it. But it is partly to protect themselves. And a lot of them will adopt - essentially, these days, adopt Islam outwardly. And it can be very hard to tell whether this is genuine or not because their ideas, when you look deep into their religion, are so far from Orthodox Islam. It's hard to know whether they are an interpretation of Islam or, frankly, another religion that has taken on the mantle of Islam and the name. Another thing, though, that they have in mind when they practice secrecy is that a lot of them go back to very, very ancient traditions in which religion is really a sort of almost a magical property. Your priests, your elders have the - an ability to communicate with the divine power. And you wish to benefit from that. But you don't need to sort of have it yourself. You don't need to sort of have a dialogue with God or indeed, God's angels. You leave that to the holy man or indeed, the holy woman - because some of these religions do have holy women. And in that sense, it's perhaps less surprising that the religious faithful, if you like, don't necessarily know what the religion teaches.

GROSS: You mention in your book that historically, a lot of these ancient religions, which are on the verge of extinction now, did better in the Islamic world than in the Christian world, although right now they're under attack by ISIS. Why is that?

RUSSELL: Well, I'd say if we go back in time, and obviously one has to say I'm not judging now by the standards of today. One has to sort of realize that historically, people behaved in a fairly awful way to each other. And it was normal to treat people who were seen as being disloyal to the state, essentially, with ruthlessness and without any mercy. So in that context, when the Muslim Arabs captured land off the Byzantines, there is some evidence that even some Christian groups welcomed this. There is a prayer from a Jacobite monastery, the Jacobites being a sort of version of Christianity that the Byzantines didn't like, which says, you know, God, lead the sons of Ishmael to us out of the South to liberate us from the Byzantines.

GROSS: So when the prayer refers to sounds of Ishmael, that means Muslims?

RUSSELL: Yeah, Muslim Arabs would regard themselves, traditionally, as descended from Ishmael, in the biblical story. And this isn't uncommon, too, among other religions, which, of course, hadn't really done so well under Christianity. The Byzantines were not utterly repressive, but they certainly weren't particularly nice to religious minorities. And a lot of them ended up doing somewhat better under Islam for about the first 300 years. But after that time, you do find much greater instances of persecution, of suppression of other religions and of suppression of different versions of Islam. Ibn Taymiyyah, who is this famous, very conservative cleric, came up in the later Middle Ages with formulas condemning not only the Druze and other religions like them, but also women preachers and a whole series of things which it's very interesting to know existed in Islam, but which stopped from then on until you reach the 19th century, when you come back into an age, really, of enlightenment and enfranchisement in the Middle East very slowly. It begins in Egypt, really, in the 1860s and proceeds, you know, until, I would say, the latter part of the 20th century, when things began to go backwards.

GROSS: Gerard Russell will be back in the second half of the show. His new book about disappearing religions of the Middle East is called, "Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about disappearing ancient religions of the Middle East, including the Yazidis, Coptic Christians, Zoroastrians, Samaritans and Druze, religions that have dwindled to small sects. Their very existence is being threatened by Islamist militants and the Syrian Civil War. My guest Gerard Russell is the author of the new book of "Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms." Russell lived in the Middle East for 15 years serving as a British and U.N. diplomat.

So you went to a Yazidi refugee camp in August after they were driven out by ISIS - driven out of the town of Sinjar. Tell us one of the stories you heard from one of the refugees.

RUSSELL: Well, I mean some of them were incapable of speech. It was a great sort of crowded room and in the corner of it, a woman sitting with her child, saying nothing. What the men told me very often, it was that they had been - in the middle of the night - attacked by ISIS. ISIS tends to move around with Humvees which it's captured from armed forces in Iraq and Syria. And the local Yazidis often have served in the Iraqi army. They can fight and they had a bit of ammunition and they fought off ISIS for a while alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga. But the ISIS began to use mortars and the Kurdish Peshmerga retreated and at that point the Yazidis started to run, as well. And what they told me - I mean there was one old man who I think had been carried a large part of the way - that they'd had to run for 25 miles, let's say, up and down hills until they'd reached safety. And ISIS came after them, you know, shooting at them. Not necessarily wanting to kill them all. What they wanted to do was drive them out, which they succeeded in doing, of course, but seizing the women. And one man I met - a policeman, as it happens - had been engaged in the battle against ISIS. He then came back towards his home when the ranks broke, if you like. And what he found was ISIS had just got there before him and were bundling his wife into a car. And he never saw her again.

GROSS: That's so horrible. Obviously, it was really important to you to visit Yazidis who had fled from ISIS. It was probably a dangerous trip for you. Tell us a little bit about going and why you were willing to take the risks.

RUSSELL: I obviously feel quite passionately about what's happening there and I very much want to understand what's going on there so that - to be able to advise people better back here. And you know, a sense of debt. I learned much from them. I like and enjoyed learning about their religion and I felt such a sense of tragedy that these people whom I had befriended had undergone this terrible suffering. So I went back to northern Iraq and you know, it's never good to go to a place where all the airlines are basically refusing to fly. But it was - it's a rather eerie place because the front line is so undefined. It is not clear. You look out at a place, it looks very peaceful. We were taken to the front line. We were shown a car on the other side of the river which was perhaps an ISIS car, it certainly was on their side of the river. And you feel - here is a very tranquil place. It doesn't look like there's anything going on. But actually, of course, at any moment it may happen or it may not. They come quite suddenly and they attack very suddenly. A lot of people are so afraid of them that because of their atrocities, which are actually quite calculated, everyone runs away when they approach. And so what they can do is, they don't need to deploy great numbers. They can create a huge sensation just by sending a few cars and everyone runs because they know the story of what happened to the Yazidis. And that, I'm afraid is - you know, I was somewhat baffled by why they'd done what they'd done to the Yazidis because it didn't seem strategically useful. But when you think of it in those terms, I'm afraid that's why they did it - in order, quite simply, to terrorize. And it has made them - it's been effective, in those terms.

So I did have that experience on the front line and I did meet the Yazidis in their refugee camp where they told me what a sense of insecurity they still had. Many of them had actually been - not just once, but twice - they had been attacked because they fled first to a refugee camp where ISIS actually caught up with them and then they fled again. And this was their second refugee camp and they were very nervous that ISIS would come again. I'm very glad to say that the air strikes came in time and that, you know, I don't think that's a likely prospect now. But they are without much medical care. They're without much food. They're without much water and facing the winter, which will be cold. And they've had the hot, dry summer but now they're going to have the cold, wet winter.

GROSS: What are the odds, do you think, that this religion will survive?

RUSSELL: Well, it is - I mean, they've had a terrible time for hundreds of years. And they've always managed to pull through. What I think they face is more existential. When I talked to them, so many of them said, you know, we're giving up on Iraq. We don't want to live here anymore.

And I think a lot of them in the coming years will try to emigrate. This has already happened to the Mandaeans and it's largely happened to the Christians, to whom I also talked when I was in northern Iraq. And again, overwhelmingly what they feel is just this sense of, you know, we've had it. We don't want to be here. We're not wanted here.

And when you have that sense of not being wanted, it's more destructive in a way than - even than the sort of physical damage because psychologically that makes them all want to go. And eventually they will, if they all want to. They eventually will. I think it's tragic for the Middle East because actually it was at its best when it was most diverse. And when it's been able to make use of these different communities, it has really prospered from doing so. And it's a terrible omen to see these little communities evaporate. Furthermore, I worry how will they hold their religion together? You know, mystery religion, only a few people understand the secrets of it. Not all of them are very good at teaching it. They don't wish to. How will that survive?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gerard Russell. He's the author of the new book "Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into The Disappearing Religions Of The Middle East." He was a British diplomat in the Middle East for 15 years. One of those years he was with the U.N.

He's now a senior associate at the Foreign Policy Center in London and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Gerard Russell. He's the author of the new book "Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into The Disappearing Religions Of The Middle East." He spent a lot of time in the Middle East - 15 years as a British diplomat, one year with the U.N. He's now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior associate at the Foreign Policy Center in London.

Coptic Christians in Egypt are being discriminated against. Many of them are afraid. Many Coptic churches have been attacked by extremist Muslims in the past few years. Can you give us a sense of what makes the Coptic Christians unique?

RUSSELL: First off, they are the largest of all of the minorities of the Middle East. That's, you know, people disagree so much about the numbers, but let's imagine it maybe 5, 6 million people. Certainly larger than any other group in the Arab world. Second, you know, hugely committed. I mean, very, very religious. And I lived there for year and went to a Coptic church every week. And you know, there are more people I would reckon at church in Egypt than there are in England because they - almost all of them - very, very devout. And actually they would constantly reproach me about Western Christians and say, you know, why are you so lax? The thing that is interesting about them historically is that they preserve elements of ancient Egypt.

So for those who are aficionados of the pharaohs, there are still things you can see, living traditions that have survived. Particularly the names of the months which are still - the Egyptian Coptic church still uses the Egyptian pharaonic months and even some of the songs and music. And for a time actually, the Coptic priests used to shave their heads just as the ancient temple priests used to. And they still do sing, on Good Friday for example, Easter Sunday. They sing hymns like "Golgotha" which is a sort of coptic hymn but it's music. Its tune is presumed to have survived from pharaonic times to have been the sound to which the pharaohs were mummified. So that was what was sung, that was chanted during the mummification. And it's been adopted by the Christian church and used still in ceremonies today. So you can hear, you know, what Tutankhamen might've heard, had he been alive at the time of his mummifying ceremony in churches today in Egypt.

GROSS: And why are Coptic churches under attack now in parts of Egypt?

RUSSELL: Unfortunately it is because there is so much less understanding, I think, in Egypt today of the importance and value of the Christian community there. And it is something which really needs to be addressed. The Copts did pretty well in Egypt from about 1860 'til 1930, 1940. But what you've had in the last 50, 60 years is the rise of Islamic politics - people who say, let's define ourselves by religion and we are Muslim first and Egyptian second. And what that means is that a Christian Egyptian is automatically diminished because if you are a group like the Muslim brotherhood, then you're going to regard Christians as people you might protect perhaps, but you're not going to say they're equals because what you have in mind is an Islamic state. I don't wish to confuse it with the ISIS, but you know, this is a thing which all Islamist movements aim towards. And therefore it makes it harder and harder for people to regard themselves as equals in that society and then they slowly detach themselves and migrate elsewhere. The discrimination can be quite subtle. It can be in the workplace. It can be pretty overt, as well. And although it may not seem like a big thing to say that the head of state cannot be a non-Muslim and you may say, well, that's understandable, if you like. But it filters down to society and becomes the case then that heads of department, heads of universities, it's generally assumed that they cannot be Christians, either. And it becomes a systematic pattern of discrimination, which I really think is to Egypt's detriment.

GROSS: Are there ancient forms of Judaism that are left in the Middle East?

RUSSELL: Well, in Nablus - on a small mountain above Nablus - there is a group called the Samaritans. And the Samaritans are descendants of those very people whom Jesus met, talks about in the gospels. But also descended - as they see it, certainly - from the ancient tribes of Israel, particularly the tribe of Joseph, which it was thought - in Scripture we think of those 10 lost tribes - but actually, in the Samaritans' view they weren't all lost. Some of them remained behind and the Samaritans of today are their descendants. And because they haven't changed in the way that Jews changed after the destruction of the temple by the Romans, they've kept a lot of the ceremonies that Jews have not kept, which include the Passover sacrifice, which they still do, literally on top of the mountain. They slaughter lambs. And they still have the priests. I mean, the Jews have priests too, but the Samaritan priests really are still in charge, religiously, of the community. So they do their best in every way to live exactly according to the letter of the Torah of the first five books of the Old Testament. They don't accept anything that comes after that time. And although you may see them and they look absolutely like everybody else - they don't dress outwardly any different - they are rigorous in their observance. They are rigorous in their prayer and their observance of Shabbat. Very, very strict, indeed.

GROSS: And according to your book there are 750 - approximately - Samaritans left in the world.

RUSSELL: Yes. They went down even further than that. They went down to below 150 in 1917. A real - I mean, just extraordinary that a people could be reduced to that number and then resurrect themselves, essentially, to come back to life. And now, you know, now a number five times that that number. So a remarkable story, actually, a reverse story of extinction. They have come back from the brink.

GROSS: Most of the Jews living in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, have been forced out. In Baghdad you went to the last vestige of the Jewish culture there. It was a Jewish community center. What did you find there?

RUSSELL: I went there in 2003. It was shortly after the war and a friendly journalist gave me a lift. And I noticed first off entering the place what a, kind of, bit of suspicion there was from the neighbors who were watching us through the windows, which made me feel nervous about going in and what might happen while I was there. But I discovered there in the upper room a pile of typewriters and old books. Books printed in the 1950s. Hebrew school books for the Iraqi Jews who lived - some of them stayed in Baghdad until the '70s.

GROSS: I think we all have some understanding of how religion can be a force for good and a force for evil. And, you know, being in the Middle East for 15 years you witnessed both up close. You were on Sinjar Mountain speaking with Yazidis who were driven out, Yazidis who had relatives slaughtered by ISIS. But in the Middle East you also went to, you know, the prayer services of these ancient and disappearing religions and found much beauty there. And I'm wondering what kind of a feeling all this has left you, about religion as a force for good and a force for evil.

RUSSELL: I actually came out of it feeling better about religion. And that may sound strange because of all the things that you described that have happened in the Middle East. When I go to communities in America - and one of the things in the book that I've done is to go to some of these communities in Chicago and Michigan and so forth - I find that...

GROSS: The communities of the ancient Middle Eastern religions?

RUSSELL: ...Exactly. The Chaldeans, the Druze and others. And I actually find that when they come to America they become more religious. It becomes more important to them. It's part of their identity and it's a way for them to keep a sense of who they are. And that, seems to me, is indicative of the fact that actually it brings people more than it takes away. Because it isn't the case that people come to a peaceful environment and then want to throw off their religion and go off and become atheists. Not at all, actually. They become very proud of who they are and very proud of their beliefs and it gives them strength. It gives them strength as a community and it enables them to help each other.

So what it is, is essentially a kind of bond where you can trust someone because of the community to which they belong. And it straddles social groups. It straddles economic groups. It straddles races in a way that no other force can do in modern society, even politics doesn't necessarily unite people from all these different communities and groups. So to me to be able - for myself as a Catholic - to go to places like Iraq and to find there are communities of people there very, very different from me but they have actually the same community, ultimately, to which we belong, is a very remarkable thing. And a powerful way to step across cultures and still feel that you're bonded with your people back home, but also with people far, far away.

GROSS: Well, Gerard Russell, I thank you so much for talking with us.

RUSSELL: Thank you very much, indeed.

GROSS: Gerard Russell is the author of the new book "Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into The Disappearing Religions Of The Middle East."

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