Tiny Christian community stays put in Iraq

aleqm5hw.jpgBAGHDAD (AFP) — Armenians have long been one of its smallest communities with little political influence, even with the wealthiest woman in Iraq and associates of “Mr Five Percent” of Iraqi oil once among its ranks.

The low profile has allowed the tiny Christian community in predominantly Muslim Iraq to thrive ever since the first traders ventured to Mesopotamia — the land between the rivers — and settled in the 17th century.

Unlike the Chaldeans, who account for the bulk of the war-battered country’s Christians and have emigrated in droves, the remaining Armenians at least plan to stay put, Archpriest Nareg Ishkhanian said.

“This is our land too. We are here to stay” despite having “problems sometimes with the (Islamist) fanatics,” said 63-year-old Ishkhanian.

The community now numbers around 12,000, including 7,000-8,000 in Baghdad, out of an Iraqi population of about 29 million.


The number peaked at 35,000-40,000 during the 1950s, made up mostly of survivors and descendants of what the Armenians term the 1915 genocide in Ottoman Turkey. Ankara to this day denies any charge of genocide.

But the Armenian presence in Iraq dates back to the 1600s when traders resettled in an arc that stretched through Iran and India down to the Gulf port of Basra in present-day southern Iraq and back north up to Baghdad.

Their main church in central Baghdad’s Tehran Square holds documents as old as 1636.

At least 45 Armenians have been killed in the post-Saddam years of rampant insurgency, sectarian warfare and often unbridled crime, while another 32 people have been kidnapped for ransom, two of whom are still missing.

On December 7, 2004, night-time assailants firebombed a new church in the northern city of Mosul, an Al-Qaeda bastion, just days before it was to be inaugurated.

Like all Iraqis, Armenians have also been caught up in car bombings, killed during robberies or in cases of mistaken shootings by the US military and private security firm Blackwater.


Historically, Armenians in Iraq have never challenged the ruling regime. They were close to the pashas during Ottoman rule and to the British during their subsequent colonial regime.

Dictator Saddam Hussein saw no threat from the Armenians, who accounted for most of his domestic staff from nannies and personal tailor or carpenter to official photographer.

Ishkhanian insisted on paying tribute to the host homeland despite its turbulent history which has led to waves of emigration, during which the better-off in particular have launched new lives in the West.

“We are indebted to the Arabs,” he said. “They did everything to welcome us. They allowed us to live and to rise in society, after Armenian survivors, many of them orphans, had arrived bare-footed from death marches across the desert.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the Iskenderian family — long-established in Iraq — claims part of the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad that houses one of Saddam’s palaces and is now home to Iraq’s government and a massive US embassy.

The Kouyoumdjians, another prominent family, trace their roots in Iraq from even before their business and family connections to Calouste Gulbenkian, the famed Mr Five Percent of Iraqi oil rights a century ago.

Vast tracts of land in Fallujah, once epicentre of the anti-US revolt, still belong to the family. Iraq’s first king, Faisal, used to stop over for tea in their now destroyed “kasr” (castle) on the Euphrates.

Meanwhile, Dikran Ekmekjian, who was awarded an MBE for his service to the British Empire, helped form and held posts in Iraq’s first governing administration after independence from Britain in 1932.

And Iraqi satellite television has run a series on the riches-to-rags tale of Sara al-Zangina (Wealthy Sarah), an Armenian heiress and benefactor of the massacre survivors whose riches were frittered away by an unscrupulous executor.

Stories abound of her beauty as a girl, of how she was smuggled away in a Persian carpet to escape the attentions of a much older pasha, of how she threw the most glamorous parties in the Orient after he was recalled to Istanbul.

Today, the main church in Baghdad is part of a compound which includes an elementary school, an archbishopric and cemetery. The cemetery alone covers 5,000 square metres (54,000 sq feet) of prime real estate.

Headmaster Karnik Avakian said the school reopened in 2004, after remaining closed through most of the period of Saddam’s Baath party rule under which all Iraqis had to go to state school.

But even in Saddam’s Iraq, special classes were allowed in Armenian language and religious studies, said Avakian, whose elementary school has 150 pupils from 70 families.

The church’s stained glass windows were blown out on one side by the many bomb blasts in nearby Tehran Square. But its crystal chandeliers still bear witness to the former wealth of the Armenian community.

In a show of faith in the new Iraq, the church itself stands freshly-repainted.

At the end of another day of minor renovations, Ishkhanian reflected on the community’s history as the curtains on the altar were being closed for the pre-Easter Lent fasting period.

“The rich have all gone. Now, we are the rich because we serve the church and the community,” he said.

The US-led invasion of March 2003 sent thousands of Armenians fleeing to Armenia, Syria and Lebanon. Others have resettled in the United States, Sweden and Holland.

“Many of them are coming back now, thanks to the improved security in the country,” says Ishkhanian, while Avakian said families are planning to return from their refuge in safe Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.