Christian communities in the Middle East have to rediscover their mission as mediators and messengers of peace.
This was a statement made by Iraq native, Dr. Amal Marogy, a bilingual Aramaic-Arabic speaker from Iraq, prolific writer and renowned scholar, who hopes that her rich cultural background will help her become an active contributor to the intercultural dialogue between East and West.
In this exclusive interview with ZENIT, the affiliated researcher in Neo-Aramaic Studies at the University of Cambridge and founder and executive director of Aradin Charitable Trust, spoke on the situation in the Middle East, especially facing its Christian communities and women.
Aradin Charitable Trust is a UK registered charity that advances education in minority and little used languages and related historical heritage around the world, especially in the Middle East. It offers grants and expertise to encourage education and raise public awareness of the problem of the loss of language and heritage endangering ancient Aramaic-speaking communities in the Middle East, heirs and guardians of treasured ancient languages and civilizations.
The researcher also discussed what is needed in the war-torn region, the efforts of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI to help, and what must be done.
Holding a PhD in Oriental Languages and Cultures from the University of Ghent, Belgium, the professor taught Arabic at the University of Cambridge and was Director of Studies in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College.
Moreover, Dr. Marogy launched and organized the first and second Foundations of Arabic Linguistic Conference series in Cambridge and has launched a new series of conferences under the title New Horizons in Intercultural Dialogue. The inaugural conference ‘Cultural Heritage of the Christian Communities in the Middle East: challenges and opportunities’ was held at Trinity Hall (Cambridge) on 14 and 15 November.
Part II will be published on Tuesday, February 17th.
ZENIT: As an expert on the Middle East, being from Iraq, could you describe the situation (what’s most important to understand, that most don’t understand or aren’t aware of) —especially regarding the situations facing women there?
Dr. Marogy: As far as Iraq is concerned, we have to accept the fact that it is de facto a divided country. Iraq can only survive as a loose federal state where the three main groups in Iraq, Shiite, Sunnis and Kurds go their own way and try while engineering a new way of coexistence and collaboration provided that the rights of other ethnic and religious communities are safeguarded.
The short history of Iraq has been dominated by violence, bloodshed and brutality with spells of relative peace and prosperity. In spite of it being a great country with a huge potential, the mentality of ‘one man or one group rules it all’ has turned what could have been a true success story into a horror film.
The diverse cultural and religious mosaic of Iraq has been damaged over a long period of time and it is a fallacy to present the ferocious and inhumane attacks on peaceful people that have been taking place recently as an isolated event. The erosion began with the ancient Jewish community being uprooted in the 1950s, only to be followed by attempts to uproot Christians from their ancestral homes. Christians in the North of Iraq, among whom my own family, have been internally displaced at least twice in less than 30 years and their final displacement was with the decision to leave Iraq for good.
I do believe that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been a great mistake and we are all still paying the price for that unjust act. However if we continue to believe in the myth that the situation of Iraqi Christians under Saddam was better, then we are doing greater injustice to thousands of people who lost their homes, properties and identity. If we think that eating, drinking and surviving are all that matters in life, then those holding to this myth are right! Admittedly, Christians were allowed to pray within the confines of their churches, they were left alone by Saddam because he knew too well that Christians never betray and do not constitute any danger to him.
Let me try to explain: after the genocide of Halabja in 1988 where thousands of innocent Kurds were gassed, Saddam started visiting Kurdistan and among the public and private properties he decided to appropriate as his own was my ancestral village Aradin (Aramaic for Garden of Eden) which boasts two old churches: one dating back to the 4th century and another whose nave dates back to the sixth century. As a consequence of his decision, all the houses were destroyed and the foundations of his palace and those of his close family were laid down. However, the invasion of Kuwait brought his vicious plans to a halt. It is true that extremism was not a major problem in Iraq during Saddam Hussein but it is only because that suffering country had enough with a bloodthirsty, albeit secular, dictator.
ZENIT: Can you speak on the Christian (or Catholic) community, in general?
Dr. Marogy: Christian communities in the Middle East have to rediscover their mission as mediators and messengers of peace. We are not against anyone and we even love our enemies and forgive those who persecute us. The main challenge is how to dissociate the Church from politics and shed the millet system introduced by the Ottomans where communities are not recognized are civil societies but as religious groups lead by a religious leader who organise the life of their communities. This system is very much alive and if things are to change in the Middle East, we have to start with identifying how we see ourselves as Christian and/or Catholic communities. This insular theocracy at every level is paralysing and it has to come to an end.
Our shepherds have the role and the duty to look after their sheep and guarantee the unity among their faithful but it is not up to them to shape the political agenda of the Church. The Church has no agenda and no enemies. The sterile discourse about the corrupt and godless West has to stop and the Church has to have the courage to stay above and beyond any political ideology or system.
ZENIT: Could you speak on the role women play and are to play in the region, based on your experiences?
Dr. Marogy: This is where women can play an important part, I have been lucky to have inspirational women in my life, wise women of faith in the biblical sense of the word, women are able to forgive and encourage and inspire: my grandmothers, my mother and aunts have been a source of knowledge and wisdom for me. When I was little I remember myself commenting on a funeral of a solider ‘thank goodness he is not a Christian’. My Grandmother got so upset and was quick to rebuke never to say something awful like that about a child of God. My mum, who became a widow at the age of 29, has been a constant inspiration to me with her spirit of sacrifice, prayer and courage. I was so touched when I learnt that she entrusted us to St Joseph with these words ‘They do not have a father now and you will be their father.’
My visit to Iraq helped to meet more inspirational people like my aunt, Sr Utoor, who was taken hostage by ISIS with another nun and three orphans, two young girls and a boy. All the other women I met there and whose stories I hope to publish in a book sometime next year, are the hope of the our communities and the Church.
It is about time that our women and young people are trusted and recognised in deed and not only in words. It is high time the ministry of domination sustained by prevailing social and religious realities give way to a deeper spiritual ministry. It is about time our shepherds break the fetters that chain them to the present paralysing and hostile political or ideological agenda, adherence to which they see as the only way of surviving. I believe women have a vital role to play in this and in Aradin we are committed to empower women because they are the hope of the Church and the formers of our religious and civil leaders.
Superficially, the crisis in Iraq is a political and sectarian crisis, but in actual fact, the problem in Iraq and in the Middle East as whole is a crisis of virtues and absence of a culture of openness and trust. The Middle East has been ruled by fear and as long as that culture of fear and exclusion continues to exist, peace will be a mirage. We are still living in a society that still believes in one dominating figurehead that should subject the unruly masses who will go astray by default unless kept in check. It is a culture where one cannot make a mistake and where mercy does not feature anywhere.”
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On the Web:
Aradin Charitable Trust: http://www.aradin.org.uk/