GA News: Iraqi church leader describes survival struggle, One-third of Christians have fled country, archbishop says

More than 800 people used to attend the Baghdad church served by His Eminence, Avak Asadourian, Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Iraq.

That was before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Attendance now at Archbishop Asadourian’s church misfortunate to reach 150. “You can imagine the impact,” Asadourian said in a June 21 interview while attending the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

as an Ecumenical Advisory Delegate.

“Our choir has been reduced from 60 to about 10. Our deacons have declined from 15 to about three,” Asadourian said. “Whatever you worked for for many years has evaporated.”

In 29 years as leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Iraq, Asadourian says he has seen, “three wars and a 13-year occupation.” Since 2003, he estimates that one-third of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country, most to neighboring countries such as Jordan and Syria.

Lack of security is the primary reason. “Christians are identified with the West, which in the minds of Iraqis is Christian. This gives hooligans and radicals the excuse to attack Christians,” Asadourian said. “People of good will

don‚t want Christians to leave the country because they are a stabilizing force.”

“Hostility toward Christians is a recent phenomenon. “Muslim-Christian relations have always been amicable in Iraq,” Asadourian said. “Christians were here first so there has always been respect and easy coexistence.”

He said “restoring security is of paramount importance” in Iraq. “Whoever took over didn’t do their homework,” he said. “It’s one thing to take over a country. It‚s another to run it. To do that you should have a sense of the culture and faith of the people.”

Asadourian said three steps must be taken to restore security in Iraq. “Coalition forces going after the radical groups that are trying to destabilize the country are helping. Coalition forces must also express their clear intent to leave as soon as things are set straight. And there must be a sustained effort to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure.”

The bottom line, he added, is: “Whatever promises were made at the time of the invasion must be honored.”

The role of Iraqi churches, Asadourian said, “is to maintain good relations with the clerical leaders of Islam” and we have done so ˜and to approach humanitarian organizations to extend a helping hand as we take care of the basic needs of the most needy Iraqis.”

During his time in the U.S. Asadourian is talking with many of the Armenian church’s partners here, seeking such support. “There have been some good responses, but some partners are hesitant. There is so much uncertainty,” he said.

It’s “not clear-cut” whether Iraq is better off as a result of the 2003 invasion, Asadourian said. „Some things are good, but most things are bad,” he said. “For instance, in the defunct regime schools were nationalized,” he

explained. “Now we have our schools back ˜ a good thing,  “but the lack of security and infrastructure makes it very hard [to operate the schools].”

The same with the churches. “Members can come to church, ˜we have complete freedom of worship,” Asadourian said. “But church members must take into account conditions on the streets and the cost of transportation to get to church. And worship, education. and youth ministry all take money, which is very difficult.”

Asadourian said he is “always hopeful as a Christian,” but Iraq’s churches, including the five Presbyterian churches in the country, “need a helping hand from our partners on top of their prayers.

Calvin was a man of hard work,” Asadourian said of the Reformed “founder” of Presbyterianism. “So prayer is not enough, ˜it must be substantiated by good works.”