Glendale Armenians Reach Out To Iraqi Christians

By Teresa Watanabe, Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Times, CA
Feb 25 2007

An Armenian church in Glendale is part of an effort to allow more
refugees persecuted in part for their faith into the U.S.

They were dressed as police officers, but Iraqi physician Nina Grigor
knew something was dreadfully wrong when they threw her into a car,
blindfolded her, tied her wrists – and ripped the cross from her neck.

For five days last March, the Iraqi Armenian Christian was held
somewhere in Baghdad. When she was finally freed after her family paid
$100,000 in ransom, she was immediately spirited away to Armenia for
safety and then, in July, to Glendale.

Now she is free – one of a growing number of Iraqi Armenians who have
found safety in Southern California amid spiraling sectarian violence
in their homeland. Grigor, 26, has received political asylum and is
studying for her U.S. medical licensing exam.

Grigor’s sleepless nights and frightening dreams have finally
stopped. But the widespread kidnappings, killings, rapes and church
bombings – atrocities that have become almost routine – continue
to terrorize hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians left behind,
she said.

"I have a safe life here," said Grigor, who asked that an alternative
first name be used to protect her and her relatives. "But the other
Iraqi Christians need our help."

Now, at last, more of them will get it. After months of mounting
violence, the U.S. government recently announced it would accept
7,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of September – a big increase from
the few hundred accepted so far since the war began in 2003.

Locally, St. Peter Armenian Church in Glendale kicked off the Lenten
season last week with a candlelight service and letter-writing
drive urging greater resettlement opportunities for Iraqi Armenian
refugees. The letter, which will be sent to elected officials, said
Armenians have lived peacefully in Iraq for centuries but that the
rise of Islamic fundamentalism since the war began has made them open
targets of killings, harassment and discrimination.

The Iraqi Armenian Relief Fund in Glendale is raising money to move
families from Iraq to Armenia, where it supports them for one year.

But so far the group has only managed to relocate nine families in the
last two years, according to vice-president Rafi Ohanes Garabedian. The
group is aiming for 15 families this year, he said.

Southern California is home to at least 300,000 Armenians, one-fifth
of whom may have ties to Iraq, community leaders say. They estimate
that a few hundred Iraqi Armenians have come here since the war began,
mostly on tourist or work visas, and may be seeking political asylum
or other ways to stay.

Despite those efforts, many people are calling for far greater measures
amid what experts say is the largest mass exodus of Iraqis from their
homeland in modern history. Earlier this month, Sen. Edward Kennedy
(D-Mass.) called on the United States to pledge at least half of
the $60 million requested by the United Nations for Iraqi refugee
resettlement. So far, the U.S. has pledged $18 million.

"Our invasion of Iraq led to this crisis, and we have a clear
responsibility to do more to ease it," Kennedy said this month on
the Senate floor.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants says $250 million is
needed for a more comprehensive resettlement effort.

For their part, Iraqi Christians say that a far larger quota for
refugees is needed.

The Chaldean Federation of America said Christians make up about
200,000 of the 2 million people who have fled Iraq since the war
began. Joseph Kassab, federation executive director, said Iraq’s
Christian population has dwindled from 1.1 million during Saddam
Hussein’s regime to 600,000.

Christians are routinely targeted for violence and accused of being
American collaborators, Kassab said. But unlike their Arab and Muslim
neighbors, Christians lack tribes or militias to protect them, he said.

State Department official Ellen Sauerbrey said the 7,000 quota was
not a ceiling but an initial number that could be adjusted annually.

She said priority would be given to Iraqis who worked with the U.S.
government, are members of persecuted religious or ethnic minorities
or are members of other vulnerable groups.

Ultimately, however, U.S. officials want to stabilize Iraq so people
who flee can return, Sauerbrey stressed.

However, Kassab said many Christians no longer regard Iraq as their
homeland and do not expect to return. For Chaldeans, who trace their
roots to the descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia and
who predate Muslims by centuries, the forced departure is particularly
appalling, he said.

Many Armenians, who represent a far smaller group of Iraqi Christians,
voice similar sentiments. Although they have lived in Iraq for
centuries, their numbers particularly grew after the Turkish genocide
against them in the early 20th century, community members say, and
came to total perhaps 60,000. (The government of Turkey disputes that
what occurred was genocide.)

Many say they are grateful to the Arabs of Iraq who welcomed and
sheltered them. Under Hussein’s secular regime, Grigor and others
said, most Christians were allowed to work, worship and socialize at
Armenian clubs largely without interference as long as they did not
challenge the political status quo.

Now, all of that has changed, they say.

Pamela Hartman, an Encino immigration attorney, has won political
asylum for a dozen Iraqi Armenian clients. Clients have reported
death threats, kidnappings, vandalized homes and letters telling them
"Christians, go home," she said.

The uncle of one client, she said, was told by his kidnappers that
"they will get all of the Christians out of their neighborhood or
kill them because they’re friendly with Americans." Another Christian
client in a Shiite Muslim neighborhood received a letter demanding
that all non-Shiite families leave immediately or face death.

Hartman and some refugee groups argue that Iraqi Christians have a
prima facie case for refugee and asylum status. The United Nations,
however, does not agree and reviews all claims individually.

For now, many Iraqi Armenians are relying on prayer and political
appeals to help their loved ones.

At St. Peter Armenian Church, pungent incense and chanted Armenian
prayers filled the sanctuary as more than 250 parishioners gathered
last week in support of the refugees.

One of them, Marine Abrahamyan Abdasho, wept as she held a candle in
prayer. The Glendale teacher is not of Iraqi descent, but she said
the long history of persecution against Armenians compelled her to
support all victims of violence.

"Our history as Armenian people has made us able to feel the pain of
anyone suffering now," she said.

After the service, parishioners gathered in the reception hall to
sign letters of appeal for Iraqi refugee aid and shared story after
story of families fleeing atrocities, of being scattered around the
world. Nearly 70% of the church’s 500-member Sunday congregation are
of Iraqi descent, according to Pastor Vazken Movsesian.

Noobar Zadoian, 32, trained as a computer programmer, said he arrived
in Glendale two months ago after too many bombings, murders and
kidnappings made him lose hope in his country’s future. His elderly
father remains alone in Jordan, where he had gone in late 2003 to
say goodbye to another son who was leaving for the U.S. The father
ended up staying in Jordan because the situation in Iraq had begun
to deteriorate too badly to risk returning.

Another parishioner said a relative was stoned as he walked down a
formerly peaceful neighborhood street because his sister had married
an American.

"You guys have to leave; this is not your country anymore," she said
he was told.

"Armenians have been caught right in the middle," Movsesian said. "We
were a respected class as a Christian minority in Iraq. Now, Armenians
are left without homes and nobody wants them."

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