Turlock residents Mervat and Matius Shlimoun were recently able to meet one of the most famed names in Hollywood while sharing their own story of persecution and relocation to the United States, as the National Geographic Channel show “The Story of God” featured their church in its most recent episode.
The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Addai Parish of Turlock was featured in the show, which follows actor Morgan Freeman in his quest around the world to uncover how religion has evolved and shaped society. In the show’s Jan. 23 episode titled “Heaven and Hell,” Freeman interviewed the Shlimouns, who escaped persecution in Iraq and Syria by fleeing to the U.S. in 2011.
“It meant a lot, because we’re getting our story and our experience out to other people so they understand what’s going on with the Christians who are suffering right now in the Middle East because of their religion,” said Matius.
Matius and Mervat, his mother, were able to complete their journey to the U.S. thanks to help from the Mar Addai Parish of Turlock, and the pair shared their complete tale with Freeman in the episode, from having no gas or electricity at their home in Syria to the religious persecution they faced if they remained in the country. As the show focused on heaven and hell, Matius revealed to Freeman that in their eyes, hell is represented by the war in Iraq, while heaven has made itself known through the help they received from the Assyrian church.
“They helped us by supporting us and in Syria, they passed out visas to those looking to come to the U.S.,” said Matius.
Matius, Mervat and Mar Awa Royel, Bishop of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, Diocese of California, were flown out by the show to meet with Freeman and be interviewed. On Oct. 30, 2016, the “The Story of God” crew filmed at the Mar Addai Parish of Turlock, with some shots featuring Mervat and Matius praying in the church. Although Royel was interviewed by Freeman as well, his segment did not make it into the show.
“It was an honor to speak with Mr. Freeman about our church and educate him and the viewing public concerning the atrocities that are happening to our people in Iraq and Syria,” said Royel. “The persecution of the Assyrian Christians in the Middle East is practically unknown in the U.S. and other western countries, and I believe this episode with Mr. Freeman will open the eyes and minds of many to what our people are suffering in the Mid-East.”
For Matius, the show was a way to help those still suffering in Syria and Iraq.
“I’m very honored to represent the Assyrian people in the show,” he said. “I hope it helps those who watch understand what the Assyrian community has been through in the Middle East and the challenges that they’re facing because of what they believe in.”
Also in the hour-long episode, Freeman explores other unseen places of religion, descending into the ancient Native American underworld, investigating the phenomena of exorcisms and the gift of tongues and meeting a woman who believes she has seen heaven.
The full episode of “The Story of God” which features Matius and Mervat can be viewed online at www.channel.nationalgeographic.com/the-story-of-god-with-morgan-freeman. To see when the National Geographic Channel will air the episode again, check your local cable schedule.