Christians are fleeing Iraq and Christianity risks disappearing from the country, says a senior Baghdad archbishop, reiterating appeals made recently to Western churches to intercede with their governments about the plight of the Iraqis.
"We do have the courage of faith, the outpouring of love, but because of the war, you see death and destruction, the manifestation of evil. Our people are lacking hope, and so they are leaving," said Archbishop Avak V. Asadourian of the Armenian Church of Iraq in an interview with Ecumenical News International this week.
He was interviewed in Geneva following a service at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches, at which he said the four years since the US-led invasion had been "the most difficult by far" of his 28-year ministry in Iraq. Asadourian was attending a WCC meeting centred on accompanying churches in conflict situations.
Young people "are faced each day with death and destruction, they are faced each day with being kidnapped or facing the agony of having a loved one who is kidnapped", the prelate told worshippers at the service.
Despite the hardships, Asadourian, who leads the Council of the Heads of the Churches in Baghdad, said the faith of the Christians in Iraq, who are estimated to account for less than 3 per cent of the country's 27.5 million people, has not wavered, although many reports have said their numbers have dwindled.
"On the contrary, we have been steadfast in our faith," said the archbishop. He recounted how a Syrian Orthodox priest had been decapitated in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, apparently for refusing to "adopt another religion". In the same city, a Chaldean priest and his three assistants were shot dead in June this year a few metres from their church.
"We have new martyrs in the church in Iraq," said Asadourian. "I know of no one incident in the last four years where priests have converted to another religion because they have been threatened," the archbishop stated, adding the same was true for lay people. "So in Iraq the faith of your brothers and sisters in Christ is strong enough to face martyrdom."
Nevertheless, "we are faced with the problem of the lack of hope," the archbishop said in his sermon. "Unless the churches in Iraq can open small windows if hope then I am afraid that Christianity will face a slow demise not only in Iraq but in the entire region where Jesus Christ lived and worked," he said
"I pray that the churches in the West will be strong enough to have a say in the corridors of power to remind those in power what they promised for Iraq and that it is high time that the promise is fulfilled," the archbishop told ENI. "We ask for peace, not only for Christians, but for the entire Iraqi people, be they Muslim, Christian or adherents of other religions."
In his interview, Asadourian noted that the churches in Iraq had faced a conflict situation since 1980, with the outbreak of the war between Iran and Iraq, in which many young Christian men enlisted in the army had been killed.
"After that came the Kuwait war - and what ensued after that was the 13 year long embargo, which in itself was a war," said Asadourian. "Then we had the 2003 war - and after the cessation of hostilities, we have this, the war against terrorism taking place in the entire country."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]