"Christians are Leaving Iraq, but..."

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Posted by Lilly from ? ( on Sunday, September 22, 2002 at 12:13PM :

In Reply to: I like the Mennonites posted by Lilly from ? ( on Sunday, September 22, 2002 at 12:05PM :

So, it appears that the disappearance of people espousing secular political desires is due to the hardship Iraq is facing, & that this hardship is exacerbating religious extremism. In other words, the extremism is something that is not an inherent characteristic of any religion (as those at AINA would have us believe - that Muslims are naturally fundamentalist), but something that is brought out in people who have nothing else to turn to (other than God).
Christians are Leaving Iraq, but the Churches are Still Full
August 18, 2002
Edward Miller

BAGHDAD, Iraq Spots of bright color are spreading over the pews as sunlight streams through the massive stained glass windows on my right. It is 9:15 on Sunday morning but the benches are generally empty; an old man sits quietly near the back, and at the pulpit a group of stocky old women with lace on their heads have commandeered the front row. My own vantage point is a corner seat in the last row.

I am back at the Armenian Apostolic Church of Baghdad (or the Armenian Orthodox Church), seeking to relive an experience I had here during my first visit to the church, when throngs of well-perfumed, well-dressed Iraqis crammed into the place for a Lenten service, and the amazing choir was in top form. This is my fourth visit, and it is so far more promising than the previous two. Then I encountered only a morning service for a handful of droning elderly women and just caught the last 45 seconds of choir practice on a Sunday afternoon.

Today there is more bustle; outside in the church yard I saw young people milling around. Priests and their helpers are engaged in various rituals up front, reading and singing in Armenian and preparing for use assorted instruments and incense burners. No one is paying much attention - it seems the main attraction is yet to come. Curiously, men and women are walking down the aisle carrying what appear to be bags of fresh grapes. They drop them over the wooden railing at the front, then backtrack down the aisle.

I gaze up at the choir balcony - nothing yet. I decide to sit tight and persevere. I study my surroundings. At the front is an ornate fixture bedecked with crosses and rich cloths. An altar boy flips a switch and a huge brown curtain decorated with an orthodox cross trundles into place, blocking the sanctum from view. To one side is an elaborately carved and delicately roofed wooden throne, facing forward. I seem to recall seeing the regal archbishop repose there during that first service. Up near the roof is a large mural depicting the baptism of Jesus.

This is an immense church. From Tahrir Square its dazzling white towers dominate otherwise dreary surroundings. Inside, natural light gently descends from on high, the church's soaring pinnacle. This is one of the oldest churches in Baghdad. Originally Nestorian (Assyrian Church of the East), it was later given to the Armenian Orthodox community. There are three other such Armenian Orthodox churches in Baghdad, as well as an Armenian Catholic church. The services here are in always in Armenian, and during a visit earlier this year, the head priest Reverend Father Nareg Ishkhanian told me that the language is taught in church schools.

Two to five percent of Iraqis are Christian. Orthodox Christians make up about 10 percent of Iraqi Christians; Catholics are 89 percent of the total. A minuscule number of Protestant churches form the remaining one percent. Mesopotamia has long lived with Christian and Jewish minorities, and modern Iraq under the Ba'ath Party has, like Syria and Lebanon, strongly emphasized secularism. Christian communities here receive free land on which to build churches and pastors can show off electric organs presented by President Saddam Hussein.

But agencies such as UNICEF claim this valued secularism is now under threat, pointing to recent Islamic-oriented decrees separating boys and girls in schools, and obliging all children registered to carry their names in the Arab form. With the emigration of middle to upper class people (one to two million over the last 15 years), "secularist" types are leaving. Growing poverty has meant parallel growth in religious activity, and mosques are filled to capacity. The authority of clerics increases, says UNICEF, as the government "seeks alliances with the majority or most influential part of the Iraqi society."

But though many Christians have emigrated, churches still filling up. As I've been gazing around me, the pews have become packed. People keep placing bags of grapes at the front and turning back to find seats. Incense is paraded through the aisles and up front Father Nareg is organizing boys in robes and loudly whispering orders.

Still the service is not in full swing. I observe the worshippers. All are dressed up, and the women and girls have placed pieces of white lace or colorful scarves on their heads. Their fashions are interesting - reminiscent, I think, of the late '70s or early '80s. Two rows in front of me a woman is wearing a black dress decorated with white dots and incandescent pink diamonds. Next to her sits a woman in a bright orange dress covered with orange-brown swirls. The scarf on her head is, if possible, brighter than her dress, though more yellow than orange. Combined with the slowly gyrating sun rays through the stained glass, the overall effect is certainly... merry.

But the archbishop will outdo them all. He materializes in a resplendent pink robe embellished with gold lining and white crosses. On his head is a tall pink creation, not unlike the hat the pope wears.

After some bustling about up front to get the archbishop settled, a lone female voice, perfectly clear, emerges from the choir balcony and the congregation quiets, mesmerized. Her long lilting solo is eventually joined by the mixed-voice choir and strong, ancient harmonies tinged with sorrow fill the church. It is the most beautiful sound I have heard since, well, my first visit here six months ago. I close my eyes and enjoy, breathing in fragrant incense smoke. But the service is now well underway and I have to follow the others in constantly standing, sitting, crossing myself or bowing.

I see Father Nareg beckon someone urgently from the back and gesture in my direction. Soon an old man squeezes in beside me and proceeds to fidget. I presume he has been allocated the job of translating and explaining the goings-on to this foreigner. He seems nervous and throughout the service does not initiate a conversation. I feel sorry for him, but am happy we are not disrupting the service with loud whispering.

Incense and bells make the rounds again, accompanied this time by the gorgeous choir music. The priests sing and read from the Bible, delicately clapping cymbals, and soon the archbishop is walking slowly through the aisles. The parishioners crowd forward to kiss the gold cross in his hand and receive a blessing.
A woman next to me has been muttering to herself and praying sobbingly with her hands covering her face. When she finally settles back to enjoy the proceedings, she commences humming along with the choir. I admire her spirit, but unfortunately am unable to endorse her singing skills. It is 11:00 and the service is winding down anyhow; I exit the pew and squeeze through those standing at the back.

Outside I join two men leaning against the church office wall. I ask about today's unique service, and the abundance of grapes members of the congregation have brought along. The younger man, Rafi, tells me it is a special day, but hard to explain. He sends for his father, who he says knows more about the traditions. As we wait, Rafi tells me he works for a Russian company in town. Life is difficult "during these times," he says. People are leaving. I comment that the church was quite full; no, no, says Rafi, today it was empty compared to other years.

His father is ensconced among the worshippers and is hard to locate. No problem. A warm breeze is ruffling the trees in the courtyard, and we relax in the shade watching worshippers traipse in and out of the church. Later I learn that this was indeed an important day, one of the better known Armenian Orthodox holidays. It is the celebration of the assumption of the Virgin Mary, and it is traditional on this occasion to bless the first grapes of the season.


2002 Mennonite Central Committee

-- Lilly
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