K.V. Turley writes from London.
Recently, a ceremony took place in the English university town of Cambridge: the official opening and blessing of the offices of a new charity, Aradin. The charity aims at helping Christians in the Middle East, and, in particular, in Iraq.
The founder and guiding light behind Aradin is Dr. Amal Marogy. She crystallizes the charity’s aim as follows: ‘Aradin helps historic minority communities in the Middle East to preserve their language and heritage, and to educate their young people and stabilise endangered communities by giving them the tools to promote a culture of peace.’
For now, at least, Marogy has left the world of Cambridge academia. Instead, she has embarked upon a different mission for and to the displaced and persecuted Christians of the Middle East — a cause that is natural to her as she is a Middle-Eastern Christian, born and brought up in Iraq.
Marogy is determined to make a difference to the lives of her fellow Middle-Eastern Christians. A forceful character, a combination of fierce intellect and resourcefulness, she has been readied for the challenges ahead by two wars. Now, she is entering into the ongoing battle that has engulfed the whole world. As she points out, ‘Unfortunately, the problems that we always thought were limited to the Middle East have started popping up in the West. There are great advantages for the world to becoming a village but also many disadvantages.’
Amal Marogy was born in northern Iraq, in Kirkuk, a Kurdish city in a predominantly Arab country. Her childhood was lived under and dominated by the regime of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party then in power. Their Pan-Arabic political philosophy had brought about a largely peaceful and, from the 1970s onwards, because of the boom in oil prices, relatively prosperous Iraq. There was, of course, another side to this: Iraq was a police state. That said Christians and other religious minorities were generally left alone during this period.
In the early 1970s, Marogy and her family moved to Baghdad on account of her father’s work. He held an important position at an international oil refinery. Within the family, their Chaldean Catholic faith was lived fully. At all times, however, there was a need for discretion in its outward witness and practice. Iraq may have had a secular government but it was still a Muslim country with varying degrees of tolerance and hostility toward its Christian minority. That said, Marogy remembers her early childhood as one of security both within the home and outside it. That was all to change, however, when in 1980 Iraq invaded Iran.
The resulting war shattered Marogy’s home life. An aerial bombardment of the oil refinery caused a massive explosion. It killed her father. He was not yet 40 years old and left behind a grieving wife and four daughters, the eldest of whom was 10 years old. Looking back now, conscious of what has happened since, Marogy is able to point to the death of her father as the event that changed everything but also made her the woman she is today.
After the tragic loss of Marogy’s father, relatives offered the family the chance to emigrate to Europe or North America; her mother refused. Looking back, Marogy sees her time in Baghdad, with her mother and sisters, as invaluable in helping her understand her mission with Aradin today. Unlike so many in the international aid world, she has lived in the country she is trying to help; she knows the people there, Christian and Muslim, their strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, Marogy is under no illusion about what the Islamic world really thinks of the Christians in their midst and indeed beyond in the wider world.
She is equally clear sighted about her Christian faith. There is no discontinuity between Marogy’s Catholic upbringing in Iraq and the Catholic Christianity she experienced in some quarters in the Christian West. She says, ‘When I heard the voice of Pope Benedict, I heard again the voice of my grandmother.’ Nevertheless, when she did come to Europe her initial reaction was one of shock. This was not just a cultural experience but also an emotional one, especially as that relocation happened as a result of yet another war.
The 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait provoked a backlash from the West. Soon after, the Desert Storm military campaign was unleashed upon Kuwait’s Iraqi occupiers. When this happened, Marogy was in Jordan; her mother was visiting family in Canada. In fact, at that time none of the family were then in Baghdad. Soon it became evident that none of them could return to their home either. Eventually, after many adventures, they were to be reunited but with relatives in Belgium.
It was in Brussels that, eventually, the family was to settle. Upon moving to Belgium, Marogy expected to find “Christian Europe.” Instead, as she says, “not everything ‘Catholic’ in Europe is Catholic.” Even then, as a teenager she sensed that much of what passed for Catholicism in Belgium was not in accordance with the mind of the Church. Europe’s Christian heritage was either ignored or simply forgotten by many contemporary Europeans.
Marogy’s education was to be continued as a war refugee and a displaced person in her adopted country. Nevertheless, by 2006, she had obtained a doctorate in Oriental Languages and Cultures from the University of Ghent (Belgium). Soon after she was teaching at Cambridge University. It is right to say that all looked fair for the settled life of an Oxbridge academic. Today, however, all of that is on hold. Now Marogy has set out on a different path, and one that is perilously uncertain.
From afar, as a child and teenager, Marogy had watched as Chaldean Christians were persecuted and then forcibly removed from their ancestral lands. Many were killed; most fled. Marogy knew she had to do something about this, but what? One thing was clear, however, she could not stand idly by as an ancient Christian people and the cultural and religious heritage they embodied were wiped from the face of the earth.
So like a modern-day phoenix, out of the burning ruins of the Nineveh plain and elsewhere, Aradin was born. Its future interventions were to be neither political nor religious but cultural. As Marogy says, ‘There were too many parties talking of politics and religion but no one was talking of culture.’ She set about changing that. She pointed to the fact that groups such as ISIS did not just kill and displace Christians, they also set about obliterating evidence that Christians had ever existed. Such groups wanted to destroy the historical context within which the Christian religion had thrived for centuries. This is a key point often overlooked by the West. The history of a people, Marogy is convinced, is to be found in and through culture. Preserving and then learning from these cultural histories is therefore, she says, crucial, adding, ‘Aradin will serve as a hub to offer those seeking answers, an oasis where truth and love for culture stand at the heart of every discussion, debate, solution.’
Marogy does not see her mission as simply historical conservation though. She considers the preservation of a Christian Middle Eastern culture in all its aspects crucial to any future discussion on the nature of coexistence between adherents of different religions, a debate that is today no longer confined to any one particular region of the world. For Amal Marogy, therefore, the need to engage the displaced Christian peoples of that region is not simply about international aid to meet their basic needs. For her, it is about helping them to return to their lands to rebuild their culture once more. ‘Aradin will be the one place where people won’t only talk of politics or religion but, also, of culture which reflects the beauty of who we really are.’