By Alin K. Gregorian
WASHINGTON — Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate and ecumenical director, took part in a delegation of church leaders visiting Iraq from January 20 to 24. The visit was organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and included meetings with political leaders, United Nations representatives, humanitarian aid workers, refugees and local Christian leaders in Baghdad and the northern Kurdistan region.
The delegation stressed the importance of preserving Iraq’s cultural and religious diversity and called on the international community to stabilize and rebuild communities affected by war.
Aykazian was pessimistic about what he saw in Iraq. The humanitarian crisis in Iraq escalated when the Islamic State captured Sinjar, Mosul, and the Nineveh Plain in 2014. Millions of people have been displaced, and the country’s Christian population continues to decline as families seek ways to relocate abroad.
He predicted with a heavy heart that there won’t be any more Christians in the country in the next 10 years.
“People are hopeless,” he lamented.
WCC general secretary Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit called the trip “an important opportunity for us to listen, but also a moment to show the solidarity and support of churches around the world to the people of Iraq, particularly those who are suffering from the extreme violence of terrorist activity.”
The numbers are staggering. There were around 1.7 million Christians in Iraq in 2003 while now there are no more than 250,000. While there, he said, he and his delegation met with members of the 13 different denominations that call Iraq home, including Shiite, Sunni, Baha’i and Zoroastrian.
After meeting with Christian leaders, it is my conclusion that there is no future there. “When you see them suffering, how can you go against them,” he asked.
There are 7,000 Armenians left in Iraq, down from a peak of 40,000, he said.
The delegation made a visit to the Armenian Church in Baghdad, where Archbishop Avak Asadourian, Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Iraq, organized an interfaith dinner and discussion on the daily threats facing people in Iraq.
Archbishop Aykazian praised Archbishop Asadourian’s work to keep the local Armenian community organized and to provide outreach and assistance where possible. As Christians leave Iraq in the face of rising violence, it has become more difficult to maintain the normal functions of community life.
“This was the most difficult trip I have ever had in my life,” Aykazian said. “The most difficult,” he repeated with emphasis.
“I was asked by close friends and family not to go there, but I am a Christian leader. I have the moral responsibility to go and support the Armenian minority there,” he said.
He singled out Iraq Archbishop Artak Asadourian for praise. “He is very, very good,” he said.
“He was the organizer of our trip to Baghdad. The team members from very important churches said this was their most powerful trip. We owe that to Archbishop Asadourian,” he said.
Asadourian is a graduate of St. Nersess Seminary in New York.
Baghdad, he said, was “an extremely difficult situation,” one in which institutions are surrounded by concrete walls, checkpoints are everywhere and security is very high.
While in Iraq, he and his delegation visited a refugee camp.
“I thought I was in 1915 and walking in an Armenian refugee camp in Syria, Beirut, Greece or Cyprus,” he stated. “It was the same people only 100 years ahead.”
Aykazian recalled an encounter with a young Christian woman at the refugee camp. He recalled he asked here “what do you want us to do for you, help you financially, build hospitals, a church,” and her reply chilled him. “I am a dead person but just walking. You see my body but it is empty. I have lost my identity. I want you to give back my identity.”
“The suffering we witnessed is immense,” Aykazian said, adding that the church leaders underlined the importance of advocating for the rebuilding of Iraq upon their return to their home countries.
The delegation met with several government leaders, including Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and President Fuad Masum, and Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region Qubad Talabani.
In the autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq is faring better. “Erbil is much better,” he said.
Currently the community is building a church there for the growing Armenian population, which is arriving there from Baghdad.
The Christians have much to fear from ISIS, whose members blew up the new church built in Mosul. Also faring very badly are the Yezidis there. Their fate is even more complicated than the Armenians.
“They have nowhere to go historically. The same for the Chaldeans, Assyrians. They have been there for thousands of years. Where do they go?”