Interview: Prominent Iraqi Church Head on ‘Tragic’ Middle East

Interview: Prominent Iraqi Church Head on ‘Tragic’ Middle East
Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Iraq: ”They have stolen
the nights of Baghdad from us”

by Juan Michel, WCC
Posted: Saturday, August 18, 2007, 9:40 (BST)Font Scale:A A A

Archbishop Avak Asadourian.
(The Armenian Church) "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
peace conference on the Middle East.

"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 was Baghdad’s Armenian Archbishop Avak Asadourian, primate of
the Armenian Apostolic Church (See of Etchmiadzin) in Iraq, who was
addressing the World Council of Churches (WCC) international conference
in Amman, Jordan, earlier this summer.

Asadourian was in Amman representing the Council of Christian Church
Leaders in Baghdad. Created in June 2006, 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.

In an interview with Juan Michel, WCC’s media relations officer, the
prominent Iraqi Christian shared his views on the situation in the
violence-plagued country. The following are excerpts taken from the

Why did Baghdad’s church leaders establish this council?

Asadourian: 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

What is the situation of Iraqi Christians today?

Asadourian: 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?

Asadourian: 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.

Recently, 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, some
1.2 million people have fled Iraq since the start of last year. What
about the Iraqi Christians?

Asadourian: Before the war, Christians made up some 7-8% of the
population. Today, they are 3-4%. 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 kilometers long – or they might have moved out of Baghdad.

What were Muslim-Christian relations like before the war and what are
they like today?

Asadourian: 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

Are you experiencing the impact of clashing civilizations?

Asadourian: 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?

Asadourian: 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, 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?

Asadourian: 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 US churches have been asking for a timetable for the withdrawal of
US troops from Iraq. What do you think about this?

Asadourian: 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, specially 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 endeavor.
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Juan Michel, WCC media relations officer, is a member of the
Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina.