Documenting the Middle East’s Christians
Elisabetta Valgiusti is a documentary producer and filmmaker as well as president of Salva i Monasteri (Save the Monasteries). Salva i Monasteri is an Italian association of academics, scholars, artists and media experts who want to safeguard Christian religious sites in areas of crisis. They do this through cultural and media projects.
Valgiusti has two documentaries about Pakistan and India which will be aired on EWTN this November and December. She spoke with Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi.
Given your interest in the rights of Christians and preserving monasteries, did you grow up in a strongly Catholic family?
I was born in South America, in Caracas, from an Italian family, and grew up in central Rome. I received the sacrament of confirmation at St. Peter’s Basilica. For my Christian education, the example of my parents was the most important. My father, Orlando, was a doctor and my mother, Falaride, a teacher. They were always involved in caring for the needs of other people. I keep clear in my eyes their generous behavior towards everybody, as well as their uprightness and honesty.
How did you become interested in making films?
I went and studied film in New York when I was 20 years old. It was there where I made my first short films. I feel that New York is the place where I became an adult, and I always feel at home there. I used to live in a building next to the Twin Towers, and it was a deep shock when 9/11 happened. I visited Ground Zero afterwards, and it was unreal.
How did you develop this interest in creating documentaries about Christians in lands where they are a minority?
I visited the Holy Land in 2001 out of personal devotion. I was there several times in that year and did some film work. It was the most difficult year of the Intifada. No tourists were around. It was an incredible spiritual and cultural experience. I understood how fundamental to our faith is the existence and culture of Christians in the Middle East.
Has your life ever been in danger while filming?
Of course I went through dangers. I always try to keep behaving normally. I dress my way. I do not hide. I just go ahead. But a few times I went through real panic.
Have your documentaries ever been a catalyst for positive change?
Well, about Iraq, it was a very long and hard work. I am extremely grateful to EWTN, which has been supportive since 2007. It took years before seeing some results, before being able to attract the attention of the mainstream media to the Iraqi Christians. But when that happened it was already 2009, and it was too late. I witnessed the terrible change in the bi-millennial history of the Iraqi Christians: the fleeing of most of them from Iraq because of fear, persecution and attacks. Of course, all the Iraqis have suffered a lot in the last decades, but Christians were, in particular, under siege — and still are.
It’s hard to see positive changes for them. I would like to report a case that I find extremely touching, and this is an example of positive change: When EWTN aired my first Iraqi documentary, I received a letter from Richard and Vickie Pinion, an American couple from Tennessee. Richard wanted to know how to help the Iraqi Christians. He took it so seriously and was so good that in a few months he managed to help an Iraqi displaced family come to the U.S.A.
Another positive example regards the Salva i Monasteri’s petition to the United Nations for the right of Christian students to study in Iraq and for the safeguarding of Iraqi Christian heritage. I started this after a horrible attack on the buses carrying Christian students to Mosul University on May 2, 2010: bombs directed against teenagers going to study.
And it was not the first time. Some died, some lost their legs, their eyes. Some were horribly hurt. The petition was signed by people all over the world. Many Americans have signed it. If you read their comments on our website, it is clear that people have begun to care about the problems of Christianity in a new global way.
Tell me about Save the Monasteries.
After the 2001 experience in the Holy Land, I started Salva i Monasteri, my association, with a campaign for the monasteries in Kosovo that underwent heavy attacks and destruction. I made a film there called Enclave Kosovo. Then, in 2004, I went to Iraq, to Nineveh, where very ancient Christian communities have been living continuously since the first century. I kept working in Iraq, making the films Christians of Nineveh, Iraq’s Christians, Iraq SOS Refugees. I also traveled extensively through Syria, Jordan and Lebanon and made another documentary, Christian Witnesses in the Middle East. I love Iraq and the Middle East.
In 2010 I traveled through Pakistan and India and made the new documentaries that EWTN will air from November onwards: India’s Christians and Pakistan’s Christians. It’s very hard to keep working on these issues. It is very difficult to find the financial means to produce them. Some of the members of Salva i Monasteri
What did you learn while filming the documentary on Pakistan’s Christians? Specifically, explain the blasphemy laws — and how they affect Christians.
Pakistan’s Christians are having a very difficult time. All of the country suffers a complex political situation. But the Pakistani government must intervene and stop the sufferings of the Christians.
The blasphemy law is a tool in the hands of extremists against the Christians. It is a law that prescribes the death penalty to those accused of having insulted or offended the Quran in some way. Usually the accusations are false, but the debate of these cases in the tribunal is highly dramatic, and many are executed. Pakistan’s Catholic Church through its Commission of Justice and Peace is strongly committed to fight discriminations and is extremely active in defending and protecting those falsely accused by the blasphemy law. The Catholic Church is now extremely active in helping all the Pakistanis as a consequence of the flood. The country needs a lot of help to recover.
What is the situation of Christians in India?
It is a much better situation compared to Pakistan. India is a tolerant country and a religious country. Of course, it is going through significant social and cultural changes as a result of its modernization. This provokes the reaction of fundamentalists. There was a terrible episode in 2008: the attack of Christians in the Orissa region. The Catholic Church reacted very well and managed to have the central government intervene.
In your years of travel and filmmaking, how have you grown in your spiritual life? What have you come to appreciate the most about the Catholic faith?
It was a great journey. I consider it a special grace. I have seen and met hundreds of people and places. I have prayed and participated in Masses in many different languages. I feel indebted with all these people I have met. I think very highly of them and of their courageous witness. Anyway, I always feel like the useless servant.
When will your documentaries be shown to the American public?
EWTN will air Pakistan’s Christians starting on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 10pm. India’s Christians will follow on Dec. 15 at 10pm (Eastern Standard Time). It’s really a grace that EWTN is watched by millions of Christians throughout the world. I love Mother Angelica.
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from New York.