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.
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 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.
Still, the Armenians continue to press forward, with a new Armenian Church being built in Erbil, a city in the northern Kurdistan region. Archbishop Aykazian said the beautiful church is a sign of hope and perseverance.
At a Christian refugee camp in Erbil, Archbishop Aykazian said he was reminded of the history of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. “The camp’s inhabitants are homeless,” he said. “Their homes have been destroyed, their business have been taken, they have no place to go. And overwhelmingly they kept telling us that the one thing they wish for is safety and security.”
WCC director of international affairs Peter Prove added that the country needs “not just physical security, but also legal and constitutional security, as well as security in the communities’ social and economic life.”
Archbishop Aykazian recalled an encounter with a young Christian woman at the refugee camp, who told him, “I feel that my identity has been taken from me.”
“The suffering we witnessed is immense,” Archbishop 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. The church leaders shared the findings of a study conducted by the World Council of Churches and Norwegian Church Aid on the needs of displaced people in the region.
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.