Where is God today in Iraq?
A few weeks ago—while desperately trying to get some news about Mosul and my aunt Sister Utuur—I felt shell-shocked as I read the news I feared most: “Two nuns, two young orphan girls and a little boy held by ISIS.” Questions immediately flooded my mind: “Why were they risking their lives, for goodness sake?” “How can God allow this?” But the most urgent and pressing question was “Where is God?”
It was this question that haunted me for a few months after I visited the "House of Terror" in Budapest last February. The museum is housed in the former headquarters of the Nazi, and later the Communist, secret police. It was the scene of terror, torture and executions. Once the iron doors shut behind me, a wave of anguish and despair started to engulf me, much as it had engulfed the prisoners who walked up and down the stairs of that place of evil.
Our grim visit ended in the basement. The elevator’s descent to the basement was long enough for us to view a video of a guard dispassionately explaining the hanging “ceremony.” My young host, actually a student of mine, took me from one torture cell to another. In each one, he described in detail each method and tool of torture exhibited there. He then patiently told me the story of each victim whose pictures hung in one of the cells.
During this haunting visit, my mind and my heart were engaged in a fierce interior debate–arguments and counter arguments shot back and forth. This debate ended when I was shown a cell where prisoners were submerged in filthy water for days on end. It was then that I could no longer suppress the cry, “Where is God?’”
The question that I always tried to keep at the back of my mind—a question that will undoubtedly vex anyone who has been brought up to believe in the Good God—suddenly became a burning question. It was at that moment that I heard a gentle voice whispering a clear answer: “I was there! No one entered that cell without my accompanying them. I still bear the marks of the cross.”
I remember being filled then with so much peace and gratitude to my God—who is not only almighty, but who himself experienced the deepest pain and fear that can ever grip a human heart. What’s more, Jesus is not only the one who has suffered most, he also knows what it means to see the pain in the eyes of loved ones whose silent pain can sometimes be harder to bear than one’s own physical suffering. Only he could fathom the pain that was piercing his Mother’s heart while she watched her only and innocent child being crucified. Only he can fathom the pain of seeing his beloved Christian brothers and sisters tortured and executed today.
It would take more than ten pages to describe the school of suffering my family—like so many Iraqi families—have been through. My father died two decades ago, leaving behind a beautiful widow of 28 and four little girls. My paternal grandmother saw her house destroyed twice. On both the paternal and maternal sides, my grandmothers and two young uncles died shortly after each other. Thanks to my family’s great faith, however, which I could literally touch with my own hands, I could always trace the defaced and vague marks left behind by the Good God as a sign of his presence.
It was that beautiful and simple faith that was challenged in Hungary and again in the past few weeks. But my family was right again: God sends suffering only to those whom he trusts, because he needs people to help him carry his heavy cross.
My family has always felt privileged that God has chosen us and shown us his mercy and favor. It was thanks to my “unlettered” paternal grandmother that I came to learn that God never tempts or tests anyone beyond his ability. It was the same intelligent and courageous woman who, when she saw our home in rubbles, eulogized over it and shed tears for 15 minutes, after which she stood up and said, “All the material things are mere dirt of our hands, Blessed be God for ever!” I learned about this episode from my mother who had accompanied her and who was deeply impressed by her faith. My grandmother never mentioned a word about that house. She neither complained nor cursed anyone for its destruction.
Now I know, not only theoretically but with a conviction that fills my whole being, that what God told Satan about Job applies to each one of us: You can go thus far, but no further.
Yes, it is true that evil seems to have gained the upper hand, and yet no authority on earth, however brutal it may be, can inflict anything on us if it is not allowed by God for our greater good.
My family taught us to give God a chance before slamming the door in his face. Sister Utuur—the name means “fragrance” in Arabic—and the other nun did their annual retreat while in captivity, in spiritual union with their religious order which was holding its annual retreat at the same time. After their release, we came to know that Sister Utuur boldly challenged the Islamic governor who had interrogated them. She refused to give up her religious habit and, more importantly, her faith. She and her companions witnessed the unmistakable presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the middle of the screams of pain and anguish that surrounded them, screams that wrenched their hearts.
God allowed something like this to happen because he urgently needs prayer and acts of reparation for so much evil and senseless pain. My aunt and her companions were taken hostage for more than two weeks to bring the fragrance and light of Christ to illuminate the abyss of darkness into which so many people have plunged. The Sisters and children were like Christ, passing by in the midst of all that terror and horror. They were the channels of his gentle but unmistakable voice: “Don’t be afraid, I am with you!”
The question ‘Where is God?’ is, at best, an unfair question and begs another question: “Where is man?” When Jesus was fulfilling his way of the cross through a shameful and painful death, he did not ask that question. Instead, he asked a more pertinent question, one that each of us may utter at some point in our lives: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a sincere question that can be addressed to God and it is the one question that God will never leave unanswered. It is a question that reveals the depths of our dignity and humanity and the unfathomable mystery of God.
Our personal way of the cross is meant to teach us that in the midst of all the suffering, the glory of God the Father is shown and the splendor of the risen Son is manifested because where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Freedom, there is peace! Thanks are due to Auntie Utuur and her brave companions, especially the little boy, for proving to us yet again that God is still in charge because he is Good and his mercy endures for ever.
Amal Marogy, PhD, is Founder and Executive Director of Aradin Charitable Trust, which seeks to advance education in little used languages and the elated cultural heritage of the Middle East, in particular Aramaic. She is an Affiliated Researcher in Neo-Aramaic Studies at Cambridge University.