Brother Andreas Knapp is a German monk, poet, and prolific author. When he joined the Little Brothers of the Gospel, a religious order inspired by Charles de Foucauld, he traded a promising career as a theologian for a humble life at the margins of society. He is currently involved in prison pastoral care and refugee work. He is the author of various books, including the award-winning The Last Christians: Stories of Persecution, Flight, and Resilience in the Middle East, which is based on his experiences with the persecuted Christians in the region.
In a thought-provoking interview with Zaher Alajlani of Agape Review, Brother Knapp deeply reflects on his vocation, faith, writing career, and sheds light on the dire situation of the persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
Tell us about your journey into ministry. When did you find your calling in life?
I grew up in a Catholic family. Through my engagement in the youth groups of our parish, I came into contact with the Bible and was fascinated by the Gospel and the persona of Jesus Christ. Some priests were very good role models, and so, after high school, I decided to study and to prepare me for the service of a priest.
You share your name with quite a few notable saints and theologians, including Saint Andrew, Andreas of Alexandria, and also, Andreas Karlstadt, who is from your home country. What made your parents choose that particular first name?
My father had a good childhood friend named Andreas. And that’s how I got this beautiful name.
In a Plough article, Christoph Strack describes you as a “monk, an unskilled laborer, [and] a poet… [who] traded a promising career as a theologian for a humble life at the margins of society.” How do you maintain a sense of hope amid all the suffering you witness daily?
During my life, I have met many people in difficult situations: homeless people, prisoners, refugees. I was even able to form deep friendships with some of them. I have always marveled that people who have lost so much continue to live on an unbreakable hope. Despite many failures, they find the strength to start again and again. Their hope and trust in life encourages me to believe in a deeper sense of life.
Do you sometimes regret your decision to immerse yourself in the suffering of others instead of choosing an easy life as a theologian?
I have never regretted my decision to live more in the milieu of the poor and discriminated people. There I learned a “basic theology”: Not to speak about God, but to concretely live the wisdom of the Gospel. Contact with the poor is, according to the testimony of the Gospel, a privileged place to encounter God.
Helping those in need is certainly rewarding. Could you please tell us about the satisfaction you get from your work?
In my relationship with the poor, I was not primarily the giver and the others the receivers. It’s always been mutual and I’m sure I received more than I gave. For example, the materially poor have shown their feelings very openly: they no longer have to hide behind a status in order to be considered something in society. They have shared their need, their hunger for justice, and their hope with me, and have enriched me greatly.
Your book, The Last Christians: Stories of Persecution, Flight, and Resilience in the Middle East, is an excellent read that beautifully blends poeticism with nonfiction. Was that a deliberate attempt? Or was it just the unconscious influence of your background as a poet?
I wrote the book “The Last Christians” because I wanted to share the stories that the refugees told me. Their stories, which shook me deeply, should not be forgotten. My enjoyment of poetry probably helped me in writing.
Was writing the book emotionally tasking, especially because it features heartbreaking stories of war victims?
When Christians who had been expelled from Iraq or Syria told me their stories, I was often very shocked. Sometimes, I could hardly sleep afterwards. I wrote down their experiences and stories to share them with others as well.
Many feel that the United States government is not doing enough for the persecuted Christians in the Middle East. What is your take on this?
The political situation in the Middle East is very complex. And often, the Christians were forgotten because they were only a small minority. And their interests have been sacrificed to other geopolitical aims. This has been the case for a long time: the various genocides against the Armenians or Arameans by the Ottoman Empire and later by Islamist groups were often ignored in the West.
You had traveled to the war-torn regions in the Middle East, some of which were literal valleys of the shadow of death. How challenging was the experience?
During my visit to Iraq at a time when “Islamic State” (ISIS) still ruled many areas, it became clear to me that old cultures are being destroyed here, to which Western culture also owes its existence. Especially, the visit to the small Christian communities that are still living made me very sad: I have touched the origins of Christianity, and I have to realize that Christianity is being violently extinguished in its countries of origin.
Earlier this year, you had written about “the power of love” in the publication Christ in der Gergenwart. In your opinion, how should we, as Christians, utilize the power of love to transform the world?
In our world, the power of money, the market, and the military counts. But peace can only grow through trust, sharing, and friendship. I believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ who believed in founding another world built on solidarity and love.
Do you think those refugees had some closure after witnessing their stories being told?
I think it is important for the refugees that someone listens to them when they tell about their terrible experiences. Attention and compassion can help in healing what has been suffered. But that’s a long way. And many wounds will remain. Therefore, it’s important to enable the refugees to find a new homeland, in which they can continue to live their traditions while being faithful to their identity.
Germany was one of the first European countries to open up its doors to the fleeing refugees from the Middle East during the refugee crisis. This move was done by the Christian Democratic Union-led government of Angela Merkel. The Bible says in Exodus 22:21, “Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.” Do you believe that, as Christians, we all have a greater responsibility to be engaged in embracing refugees with open arms?
The commitment to welcome refugees is a general imperative of humanity and applies regardless of nation or religion. For us Christians, however, there is also the fact that we encounter Christ himself in every stranger (cf. Matthew 25:35). Therefore, hospitality and commitment to strangers and displaced persons are a service for God, a religious service.
Since Christians in the West live cocooned and convenient lives, most of them are indifferent toward their faith and take it for granted. This is in stark contrast to their Middle Eastern coreligionists, who steadfastly hold on to their faith despite all odds. How do you see this?
In Western society, religious belief is no longer important to many. They shape their lives without being tied to God. The modern world, with its offers of consumption and the fixation on material wealth, makes religion apparently superfluous. For Christians in the Orient, their belief in Christ is an essential feature of their identity. This belief sets them apart from the Muslim majority. And out of loyalty to that belief, they have endured much disadvantage and discrimination. Because of this story, their belief in God is very important to them and they are faithful to it.
Once your returned from Iraq and began reflecting on your journey, what was the most challenging part to digest?
After my return from Iraq, I felt sadness above all: I met Christians and monks who kept a great tradition alive, and I had to see that this story is now coming to an end. Islamic State fighters have destroyed churches and monasteries and expelled the “last Christians.” It has struck me that the origins of Christianity are being destroyed. And that at the same time, the Christians of the Western countries often ignore this.
Your book won many awards, including the Gold Medal in the 2018 IPPY Book of the Year Awards and the Silver Medal in the 2018 Benjamin Franklin Awards. Seeing your work garner praise is certainly an exhilarating experience. Tell us about it.
I was happy about the awards for my book. But much more important to me than the personal award was that it might make more people aware of the book’s topic. Because I didn’t write the book for a literary competition, but to draw attention to the tragic history of Christians in the Orient.
You have been involved visiting Christian communities in remote regions around the globes. Tell us more about the experience.
As a member of the community of the “Little Brothers of the Gospel,” I was able to visit some of our brothers and get to know the church situation. These vary greatly depending on the country and cultural context. In Tanzania, I experienced a lively, young church in which a lot of joy can be felt. In Bolivia, I met a church that fights for more justice alongside the poor.
One questions his faith during hard times. What advice do you have for those in such a situation?
For me personally, it is important to remain faithful to prayer in difficult times. Job, in his greatest desperation, still turned to God and wrestled with him. The Bible also helps me, because there I find, for example, in the Psalms, the voices of people who doubt, wrestle, and complain. All human feelings have their place in the relationship with God. Every spiritual path also leads through darkness and crises. And just like in a human relationship, a difficult time can help to mature and deepen love.
Where do you see yourself in God’s greater plan for you and the lives He wishes to transform through you?
I usually only discover afterwards what God’s plan is for my life. It seems important to me that I’m awake at the moment and asking: who’s knocking on my door now? Which encounter challenges me? What is my mission today? This is how I “accidentally” met the Christians from the Orient, and today, I feel that this was part of God’s plan. So, I’m not trying to guess God’s plan in advance, but to ask here and now what my task is in the very concrete encounters and inquiries.
As a man of the cloth, which saints do you particularly look up to?
For me, Saint Francis of Assisi is a shining example. Because he allowed himself to be touched by the word of the Gospel, and, as a result, changed his whole lifestyle. What was important to him before (the money) becomes irrelevant to him. And what previously seemed difficult to him (such as being close to lepers) becomes fulfillment and joy for him. Francis learned to see God as the creator of all people and living beings, and, therefore, respected everyone. He can rejoice in the little things and praise God for them. And he can also accept the pain and even the death as a path, which brings him nearer to Jesus.
Do you have a favorite Bible passage you often read for solace?
I keep reading John 21:15-19. Jesus’ question about love keeps making me uneasy: Am I living out of love? How much egoism is hidden in my actions? Can I still grow in love?
Sharon Howe, The Last Christians’ translator, did an undoubtedly excellent job. But do you think there is something special about the original German text that the English-speaking reader is somehow missing?
As far as I see, the translation is very well done and I am sure that the message I want to pass on is also expressed in the English version.
Could you please tell us about your writing process?
Something often comes to mind when I’m out and about, on the train or on my bike. For example, a thought on a word from the Bible or a picture of nature. And then I write it down in a small notebook that I always carry with me. Later, I can work it out to a poem. For other projects, I first collect information or read books that help me to delve deeper into the topic. And then, I prepare an outline to write systematically chapter by chapter. The first draft is then often revised, also with the help of criticism, which I ask from friends.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
At this moment, I am very busy mentoring a newly formed church of Syrian Christians. They were expelled from Iraq or Syria and some of them founded a community in Leipzig to remain true to their faith. They celebrate their services in the Aramaic language. We are converting an old factory building so that there can be a space for services and a small community center. I help the church to find financial support for this project, so that the next generation can also grow into the Christian faith.