In the meantime, Heleen Murre-van den Berg has become a globally-recognized specialist in the field of Christianity in the Middle East. In the laudation at the award ceremony at the Dies academicus, it was said that: "She makes use of and combines philological, literary, historical, theological, and cultural science-based methods in an outstanding way." Her methods of approach are as diverse as the topics which Murre-van den Berg publishes in connection with Christians in the Middle East. For example, she deals with Syriac Christianity, which has its roots in 2nd and 3rd century Syria and Mesopotamia, especially in areas where Aramaic was spoken, rather than Greek. Today, Syriac Christians live in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, and in diaspora in Europe and the U.S.A. In her research, Murre-van den Berg particularly deals with language, writing practices, literature, identity and nationalism, as well as ritual and religious practices. She is also interested in the exchange between Christians in the Western World and Christians in the Middle East, as well as in the diaspora of Syriac Christians.
"Facts are always just one half of the story"
Murre-van den Berg does a lot of travelling in the region. She says: "I am interested in the relationship between historical research and the current situation. In my research, there is always reflection on what is currently happening." She thinks that having contact with the local people is indispensable; that a purely academic perspective is not enough. "Even as a student I had the opportunity to go to these communities with my doctoral supervisor, who had close contacts there," she says, adding: "You have to see the places and listen to how the people talk about their history. You have to understand how people position themselves within their own history." You also always have to be aware of what you yourself bring to the situation, and that there are always many different ways of seeing and interpreting the world: "Facts are always just one half of the story that gets told. It is also important to point out where these sources come from and how you have come to your conclusions."
She is concerned about the current situation in Syria. Naturally, religion has a big impact upon the borders along which society is organized. However, she is also convinced that it is often war which first creates and consolidates this structure. She describes how, before the war, communities in many areas lived intermixed. "I find it particularly tragic that, roughly 100 years after the genocide of Syriac Christians, these people are being cast out yet again." She explains that it was going really well for the Christians in the Middle East from the 1950’s, and that they were a valued part of many communities, but that they became increasingly marginalized nonetheless and were forced to the fringes of society until the culmination of the destruction and atrocities of IS. She is happy to be able to contribute to the preservation of cultural heritage with her research.
Distinction at exactly the right time