Azad-Hye, Dubai, 30 January 2006: Iraq is not a safe country and civilian life is threatened there by various groups carrying heavy weaponry. Churches in Iraq have been the target of bombings in the past. In August and October 2004 attacks on churches left more than 10 fatalities with scores of injured people in Baghdad and Mosul. In one of the most recent attacks, on the 29th January 2006, car bombs exploded outside the Vatican embassy and near two churches in Baghdad (with no human casualties), whilst three people were killed in blasts targeting two other churches in the northern city of Kirkuk.
On the 7th January 2006, the Iraqi News Network (INN) posted an extensive coverage on the Iraqi Armenians, titled “Iraqi Armenians celebrate Christmas”, in which an attempt was made to portray the present day situation of the Armenian Community in Baghdad.
INN quoted Archbishop Avak Asadourian, Head of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Iraq saying: “We, the Christians of Mesopotamia, celebrate the joyous birth of Christ, but we are overwhelmed with sorrow and grief as so many Iraqis of different religious and ethnic backgrounds are loosing their lives”.
The pastor of the Armenian Apostolic Church Reverend Nareg Ishkanian said that Christmas celebrations this year had only ritual character.
INN described the Armenians of Iraq as being an isolated group of people, who usually avoid intermingling with others, due to the desire of preserving their identity. Father Narek Ishkanian ascribes this trait to the fact that “continuous persecutions and emigrations have endowed the Armenians with the experience, immunity and capability of dealing with the hosting populations and co-existing with them”.
Father Narek argues that there were Armenians living in old Babylon, during the era of Nebuchadnezzar, some four thousand years ago. At a later stage, the Armenians of Babylon migrated to present-day Armenia in what is described as their first immigration. Father Narek referred to what sometimes is said “Armenians are not Iraqis” insisting that this saying is wrong and is not backed by historical evidence, as many books on history witness the presence of the Armenians in Mesopotamia.
On the other hand, Iraqi historian and researcher Behnam Abu As-Souf says that the origin of the Armenians is from Urartu (around Lake Van), just on the northern borders of Mesopotamia. He adds that Armenians were the contemporaries of the Assyrians as back as the seventh century B.C., but they did not live in Babylon except as captured prisoners or slaves during the numerous wars with the Assyrians.
INN classifies the Armenians into two categories based on the time of their advent to Iraq:
1- The Armenians of Baghdad who came to the city through Basra, during the time of the Safavid Shah Abbas. They settled in Baghdad during the 17th century and helped in developing the Iranian cities as they were excellent artists, craftsmen and traders.
2- The second group of Armenians is consisted of those who escaped the atrocities committed against them in the beginning of the past century. They settled down in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra.
Resuming the narrative INN confirms that “the Armenians have suffered many massacres during their history, from the 19th century to the 20th century, all of them took place in Turkey, but the most famous one is the Genocide of 1915, during which one and half million people were slaughtered and deported. This is why Turkey faces the dilemma of recognizing the Genocide, as it is still officially refusing to recognize it, least the admittance will lead the way to the payment of compensations or to the return of land belonging to Armenians.
After this briefing on the Armenian Cause, INN gives some details about the Armenian language, its alphabet and literature. It mentions what the Armenians believe that Saint Mesrob Mashdots witnessed God’s divine hand writing the characters of the Armenian alphabet on a piece of board, which soon was generalized in all Armenian schools and marked the beginning of the golden era of the old Armenian literature.
The Armenian language is an Indo-European one. We can easily recognize the Armenian individuals’ names as they are different than the rest of the population.
During the ousted Iraqi regime the Armenians were given the opportunity to be taught two subjects in Armenian language in their own schools, besides having the right to be taught the Christian religion in Armenian language in certain public schools, which originally belonged to the Armenians, but were naturalized in 1974, as a consequence of a decree issued by the then ruling Al Baath authorities.
INN mentions that Armenians used to have 13 churches in Iraq, two of them were demolished due to their old structure. The most famous of these churches is the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Maidan suburb in Baghdad (dated 1639), which is a place for pilgrimage for all Iraqis, irrespective of their religion. Visitors to the shrine believe that Virgin Mary will grant them offspring.
One of the newest Armenian churches was the target of an August 2004 attack on churches in Baghdad. It was looted completely. At this moment a new Armenian school is being constructed in Baghdad.
After the fall of Saddam in 2003 a lot of political parties came into existence in Iraq, some representing religious or ethnic groups, such as the Assyrians, Yezidis, etc. The Armenians did not form any new political party and they did not have representatives during the transitional period, after the invasion of Iraq, up to this moment.
Father Narek Ishkanian did not give any explanation for this behavior, but he commented by saying: “staying away from politics is better for us the Armenians. It is sufficient for us to have our cultural, social and athletic organizations and unions”.
Archbishop Asadourian believes that forming a new party needs time to turn it out into an effective one. He admits that Armenians are considering the establishment of a new party, but he prefers that they take part in public life by proving to be useful to all Iraqis without discrimination.
“We did not have our own candidate during the recent parliamentary elections, due to the fact that our votes are not enough to support such a candidate”, Archbishop Avak Asadourian said and added that the Armenians have reservations on the draft constitution, since (in article 2 of chapter 1) it did not mention them by name. “We are satisfied that there is a Constitution after all, but it should be amended and after the formation of the permanent government we will work to add items in the Constitution, including mentioning of the Armenian nation”, he added.
Vaghinag Ohanian, a community member, said that the situation of the Armenians in Iraq does not differ than the overall situation of the Iraqis. “Financial and security factors are behind the immigration of large number of young persons outside the country, but the churches and social clubs oppose this trend”, he says.
The number of the Armenians in Iraq is estimated 20-22 thousand, based in the cities of Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk and in the northern town of Zakho (in the District of Dehouk). Some 200 families have emigrated during the last 2-3 years from the southern city of Basra and to Baghdad or outside Iraq. It is worth mentioning that the number of Armenians immigrating outside Iraq is not as high compared to other Christian minorities in Iraq.
Generally speaking, the number of the Christians in Iraq amounts to 800.000 (3% of Iraq’s 26 million population).
Source in Arabic: