By Barouyr Hagopian
BAGHDAD–Although the Iraq war has ended–it nevertheless continues on various fronts and in different forms. Lack of security is apparent in everyday life. Rampant pillaging takes place day and night–as well as public killings. Since March 19–work has ceased. And since that day–no one has received wages. Only produce and foodstuffs are sold–with all other shops closed–except in very secure areas. Schools and universities–likewise–operate sporadically; certain schools and universities have been totally ransacked. US troops stroll throughout the streets with their guns. A government has yet to be formed. Tens of political parties have taken to the streets with slogans.
And in what is the condition of Armenia’s in this confusion and disorder? How are they subsisting; what has become of our national institutions?
First–thank God that the heavy shelling and US operations to invade the country–left only a handful of Armenian fatalities. The damage is minimal compared to the massive disaster that took place. To this day–four deaths are registered among Armenia’s who fell during US entry into Iraq. A few Armenian households have been robbed and an Armenian youth was killed by thieves. All this took place only in the city of Baghdad where the largest concentration of Iraqi-Armenia’s live.
In Kirkuk–the Armenian athletic center and the Armenian priest’s residence were robbed. In Basra–only the Armenian center was burglarized. Mosul remains unharmed. Armenian villages situated in Kurdish populated areas of Iraq are unharmed.
Armenia’s in Iraq are recognized as a religious community with distinct by-laws formulated and governed by its national constitution–and ratified during the government in 1932. In 1963–however–this constitution was considered invalid; the government enforced law number 87 that is in effect until today–and does not correspond to our national interests. During the present transitional phase in Iraq–during the drafting of a new constitution–Christian communities have untied to establish–in Iraq’s constitution–the rights of Christian minorities. The Prelate of the Iraq’s Armenian community–along with members of the Armenian Religious Executive Council–has been working with the leadership of other groups and communities to advance this effort. On this front–they have met with retired American general in charge of running Iraq’s interim government Jay Garner–the heads of the two Kurdish political parties–and prominent figures and political parties that have emerged lately in Iraq.
The Prelate–Executive Council members–as well as Armenian leaders of various regions continue these efforts. Situated in the heart of Baghdad–and in an insecure area–the main Armenian church–St. Gregory the Illuminator remains closed. All religious services are being conducted in the St. Garabed Church located in a secure zone. Also situated in an insecure area of Baghdad–St. Mary’s Armenian Church remains closed.
Centers housing Armenian organizations in Baghdad are open–though not frequented often.
The economic crisis prevalent in Baghdad has naturally affected its Armenian residents who are skilled laborers or office workers. In the past–a handful of needy Armenia’s received monthly monetary and food assistance by way of the Armenian Prelacy of Baghdad. Unfortunately–during the past 20 months–the number of registered indigent Armenian families has increased ten-fold to 320. Recently received food assistance from the World Council of Churches–the Middle East Council of Churches–and food purchased by Armenian Religious Executive Council was distributed to all registered families. Foreseeing the looming crisis–the Executive Council had paid out a two month advance to needy families registered at that time. Today–however–we witness a crisis. Not only do the 320 registered families require assistance–but a large portion of the Armenian population–does as well.
National charitable organizations are almost nonexistent in Baghdad. The Armenian Red Cross (ARS) which provided extensive support and assistance to the Armenian population–stopped operating here in 1958. The Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) does operate in Iraq–but focuses more on cultural and athletic activities; it does–however–provide very limited assistance to families. Other organizations such as Iraq’s Armenian Youth Federation and the Iraq’s Armenian Women’s Cultural Association–though their guidelines do not include assistance to the needy–have nevertheless begun to undertake charitable work. The burden–therefore–lies on the Executive Council. For years on end–the Council’s charitable work was funded by way of income from property rent paymen’s. These days–however–collection of rent is not a possibility. It’s worth mentioning–though–that no Armenian has resorted to begging yet.
Now that new order is being established in Iraq–the opportunity arises to reevaluate our situation. Of foremost importance is the condition of our Armenian schools which were nationalized beginning in 1972-1973–and subsequently began to lose its Armenian profile as a result of forced acceptance of non-Armenian students. Few Armenian teachers remain; religion is taught a few times a week. We must undertake efforts to return the schools to our people to re-institute our national educational program. Though a difficult task–the Armenian Executive Council must nevertheless strive to make it a reality.
On the other hand–our original national by-laws must be reestablished; this too will take time.
In order to come out of their forced stagnation and fettered state–Armenian organizations must be overhauled in order to develop.
We are positive. In a few years–Iraq’s economy will take its natural course–so too will our people and establishmen’s–to see progress and improvement.
For the time being–however–we are in dire need of assistance in order to reach out to our indigent–to reestablish the national identity of our educational institutions–to succeed in the essential undertaking of revitalizing our Armenian schools.
These are difficult times; the future–however–will surely be fulfilling.