SEEKING A BETTER FUTURE FOR IRAQ
By Juan Michel
Aug 3 2007
In an interview with Juan Michel of the World Council of Churches,
a prominent Iraqi Christian shares his views on the situation in the
violence-plagued country. He assesses the situation with realism,
but also with hope for peace with justice.
"I come from a wounded Iraq and a severely wounded Baghdad," said
the man in black habit standing in front of some 130 silent church
representatives from six continents gathered for a recent peace
conference on the Middle East.
He continued: "The situation in my country is tragic," the man
continued. "We were promised freedom, but what we need today is freedom
to have electricity, clean water, to satisfy the basic needs of life,
to live without fear of being abducted."
The man addressing the World Council of Churches (WCC) international
conference ‘Churches together for peace and justice in the Middle East’
in Amman, Jordan, was Baghdad’s Armenian Archbishop Avak Asadourian,
primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church (See of Etchmiadzin) in Iraq.
Asadourian was in Amman back in June 2007 representing the Council of
Christian Church Leaders in Baghdad. Created in June last year, it is
a body made up of 17 church leaders, including two patriarchs, from
four Christian families: Catholic, Oriental and Eastern Orthodox and
mainline Protestants. The Armenian primate is its general secretary.
Why did Baghdad’s church leaders establish this council?
To take care of our faithful in these difficult times and to keep in
touch with other Christian bodies. The Council presents the needs of
our people to humanitarian organizations and channels their help.
What is the situation of Iraqi Christians today?
The situation is the same for all Iraqis, Christians or Muslims,
and it is a tragic one. Bullets do not discriminate between religions.
Every day terrorist attacks are targeting people who could be the
cornerstone of a new Iraq: professionals, physicians, and engineers.
And this is resulting in an across-the-board brain drain, which is
a shame since it takes decades to train qualified people.
Are Christians being targeted because of their religion?
Not as such, except lately when Christians living in a certain area
of Baghdad have been ordered to leave or be killed. The violence is
targeting everyone in the same way. Of course, in a context of complete
lawlessness, some thugs do whatever they want. They can threaten you,
kidnap or kill you.
Not so long ago, two Christian priests, one Orthodox and the other
Chaldean, were killed. In my church, 27 members have died because
of the violence since 2003. Although not personally targeted, they
were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another 23 members
have been kidnapped. Since many Christians are relatively well off,
they become targets for possible ransom, just like well-off Muslims do.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,
over 1.2 million people have fled Iraq since the start of last year
(2006). What about the Iraqi Christians?
Before the war, Christians made up some 7-8 per cent of the
population. Today, they are 3-4 per cent. Christians are also moving
north within the country, to relatively safer areas. The churches are
emptying. In my own church, we used to have some 600-700 faithful
worshipping every Sunday. Today, they are 100-150. The reasons are
several: they might be afraid of going out, but they also might simply
not have petrol in their cars – queues at gas stations are three to
five kilometres long – or they might have moved out of Baghdad.
What were Muslim-Christian relations like before the war and what
are they like today?
We Christians were in the country before Islam arrived, especially in
the northern part. But faith-based distinctions were never an issue:
Sunni, Shia, Christian. Our relationships were very amicable. These
differences only became an issue after the war started.
However, we work to maintain bridges. We have twice visited the
country’s most prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,
as well as the Sunni leadership. And I want to give credit where
credit is due. High-ranking Muslim clerics deserve credit for their
efforts in trying to prevent the present conflict from evolving into
a full-blown civil war.
Are you experiencing the impact of clashing civilizations?
I don’t see a clash of civilizations but a bungled war with tragic
results for both sides. It seems to me that the occupying powers did
not do their homework well. It is one thing to take over a country,
and another thing to run it properly in order to allow people to be
able to exercise freedom. Security is needed to make democracy viable.
Democracy is not only a concept, but also a way of life. Today in
Iraq, we need basic freedoms, like freedom from fear, freedom to work,
to travel in order to satisfy basic needs. One of the tragic features
of the current situation is the fact that they have stolen the nights
of Baghdad from us.
What do you think would be a possible way out?
The occupying powers have to enforce the Geneva conventions and
guarantee the security of the country. If they were able to bring
about security, a lot of problems would be solved. Ours is a rich
country. We have land, water, brainpower, and the second largest oil
reserves in the world – which ultimately instead of being a blessing
has become a curse.
My message to my flock is: do not be afraid, but be careful. Confront
this dire situation with optimism, and pray and work for a better
How could churches outside Iraq help you?
I wonder whether churches outside Iraq are speaking about this issue
boldly enough to be heard. If they were able to advocate effectively
with their governments, they should tell the occupying powers to
fulfill their promises of a better life for Iraq. Promises of a bright
future should now be substantiated. One key point in the story of
the Good Samaritan is that he not only extended help, but his help
was complete and effective.
Some churches have been asking for a timetable for the withdrawal of
US troops from Iraq. What do you think about this?
At this point in time, I don’t know… It’s a two-edged sword. Is it
going to bring about peace or play into the hands of terrorists? But
an occupation is never acceptable and is always something temporary
that should eventually come to an end.
My message to churches outside Iraq, especially to those in the
occupying countries, is: Help us to make life better for the Iraqi
people, to alleviate its suffering, to keep their governments’ promises
for a better future in all walks of life, and ask for God’s help in
this humanitarian endeavour.
Juan Michel is the World Council of Churches’ media relations
officer. He is a member of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate
in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
WCC, 2007. Reproduced with grateful acknowledgment.