Special to the Mirror-Spectator
NEW YORK — He takes care of his flock in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, where dozens are killed daily. Archbishop Avak Asadourian who has been the Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Iraq for the past 33 years, during some of its most traumatic periods, is considered a hero among his people. He is currently visiting the United States for a special celebration to be accorded him by the large Iraqi-Armenian community in Glendale on September 16, in honor of his 35 years as a clerical leader. On this trip, the Primate also visited the St. Vladimir’s and St. Nersess’ Seminaries in New York from which he graduated in 1976.
During an exclusive interview, the Primate spoke about the insecure condition of the Armenian and Christian communities since the time of the Iran-Iran war, which started in 1980, and the “ill-conceived war perpetrated by the NATO coalition against Iraq” in 2003, “reportedly for the purposes of bringing democracy. I have seen this kind of democracy,” he stated, “which has caused the demise of Christianity in its Eastern manifestations. This is very sad, and I don’t think it can be revived. Now Christians are leaving and going mainly to the West. Iraq which had been a country very tolerant to Christianity and whose people were highly educated with doctors, engineers, educators, craftsmen, is now suffering from a Brain Drain. And Arab countries are in an upheaval called a ‘Spring.’ This is part and parcel of the Game of Nations,” he said with irony, referring to the best-selling book of that title which was published in 1970.
The once-vibrant Armenian community in Iraq numbered at around 35,000, but has now been reduced to 10,000. Due to the absence of security, Christians are targeted, and are migrating both outside and inside Iraq. Many have relocated to the Kurdish autonomous region and its capital, Erbil, which is safer, and where an Armenian church is now being built. There are 13 other Armenian churches in Iraq, four in Baghdad, two in both Basra and Mosul, one in Kirkuk and four in other areas.
Armenians have a very deep history in Iraq. Since 1222, there has been an Armenian church in Basra, one in Mosul since 1375, and another in Baghdad established in 1639. The Primate noted that in 1639, one of the important generals of the Ottoman army, Kevork Nazaretian, who demolished the gates of Baghdad to allow the Ottoman army to capture Baghdad, was granted his wish by the Sultan — two pieces of land, one for a church and another for a cemetery. Into this church named St. Asdevadzadzin (St. Mary) were brought the bones of the Forty Martyrs of Sebastia. In 1968, this church was demolished due to its dilapidated condition and rebuilt along the same dimensions and in the same location by a benefactor.
“It is called a church of miracles for granting wishes, and is visited by many people, especially Muslims,” he noted.
The Iraqi government, after 2003, communicated to Asadourian, “to make sure that your people do not leave Iraq. We need the Christians, because they are peace-loving people, with a head on their shoulders, and always serving Iraq. However, that is easier said than done. We need job opportunities and there are virtually none. There is also a high level of corruption and no peace or security. Iraq has always been a very comfortable country to live in, but even the Muslims who also are very educated, are leaving. Maybe some will return if there is peace and security.” The Armenian Diocese in Iraq has always led in helping the community. During the archbishop’s tenure, 16 priests have been ordained, including the bishops of England and Romania, who recently were consecrated in Echmiadzin by Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II. There is a museum in the Diocese for which he has collected numerous manuscripts, encyclicals, holy objects, icons and vestments, recording and cataloging them. There is also a Sunday school which started in 1985 with 25 students, and by 2003 had grown to more than 450 students, as well as a youth group created in 1986 with 12, and which peaked at 400 young people.
“These numbers have dwindled considerably due to the utter absence of security,” he added.
Besides its churches, there are five community centers and a senior citizens’ home. The Diocese has also set up a strong social services program where they deliver food, medicine and money to indigent families, and aids those who need hospitalization, X-rays and dental care. And soon a full-time clinic will be functional, but doctors are needed. “We take care of our flock,” declared the Primate with emphasis.
Born in Baghdad, Vazken Asadourian (his baptismal name) started life as an active young man, pursuing acting, singing in a chorus and having friends from both the Christian and Muslim communities. As a child, he was privileged to be tutored by his mother’s aunt. “She was a great kindergarten teacher proficient in Armenian and music, and who demanded that the room look like a classroom. My brother and I had to dress like students, even though the class was in our home.”
He pays great tribute to both his parents. “I learned patriotism and love for the Armenian culture from my father and proper manners with good behavior from my mother, who spoke six languages. She basically brought us up since my father, Nishan, was working in Kuwait as the general manager of a successful department store. Everyone who knew my mother commented what a lady she was,” he related with obvious pride. When she died in 2010, the Iraqi government gave her a state funeral out of respect for the Primate.
Receiving his early education in Iraq, the Primate first pursued engineering in Baghdad, then won a five-year scholarship from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, studying philosophy at Benedictine University in Illinois. He continued philosophy studies at Tulane University in New Orleans, earning a master’s degree in 1973, and his doctorate in 1998 from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross at the Vatican, while serving as Primate.
Though he had always been close to the church, wearing a shabig and singing in the choir, it was not until age 34 that he became a priest. “God came after me and when he does, you cannot escape,” he said with a wide smile.
He came to St. Vladimir’s and St. Nersess Seminaries “to give it a try.” Invited to Echmiadzin in 1976 by the Catholicos of All Armenians Vasken I, he was ordained a celibate priest by Bishop Housik Santourian and served as a parish priest in Elberon’s Holy Mother of Christ church (now St. Stephen’s).
The previous Primate of Iraq, Asoghig Archbishop Ghazarian, had whispered to Vasken that the young priest was a “vibrant young man” and should replace him some day. Returning to Iraq, he was appointed as locum tenens in 1979, elected Primate of the Iraqi Armenian Diocese in 1980 and consecrated as a bishop in 1982 by Vasken. In 1993, Vasken elevated him to the rank of archbishop.
Asadourian commended the Iraqi-Armenian community “which prevailed in the face of numerous adversities and even prospered.”
Most important for him are his teaching duties, which he calls a “pleasure, so that our boys are kept under my wings, and in the fold of the church. Since people are leaving, and cutting themselves off from their roots, there will come a time when some of these boys will save the church.”
And how does Asadourian see himself? “I am a humble servant of the Armenian Church.”