Today marks the 5th celebration of the International Day of Non-Violence, celebrated annually on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. As we take the time to celebrate the power of peace and tolerance as a tool of social change, we must also, however, remember those whose lives are still affected by conflict and violence daily.
Archbishop Avak Asadourian, Primate of the Armenian Diocese in Iraq, spoke last week at a luncheon sponsored by NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby based in Washington, DC. Archbishop Asadourian summarized some of the history of Christian-Muslim relations in Iraq, as well as what life has been like for Christians there since the U.S. military conflict began.
At one time, says Asadourian, Christian and Muslim Iraqis coexisted peacefully. The Jesuits in Iraq were well-known for their high-quality educational institutions, and many Muslim Iraqis sent their children to study at Jesuit schools. However, this coexistence ceased when Saddam Hussein came to power. Hussein, Asadourian says, associated Christianity with the West, and believed that the Jesuits were spying on Iraq for the West. They were expelled, and Christians who remained in Iraq (Jesuit or otherwise) became victims of persecution as their land was seized and their families and places of worship were targeted. Where there were once over 1 million Christians of all denominations, there are now fewer than 500,000.
Much of the discussion at this event focused on how the United States could be most helpful in Iraq. Asadourian pointed out that Iraq is an inherently wealthy country but lacks infrastructure and now needs foreign aid. He also stated that the United States should place more pressure on the Iraqi government, which currently bars its non-supporters from employment. Finally, what Iraq needs most, he said, is security. Without increased security, sectarian violence and persecution of Christians will continue, and efforts to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure will be hindered.
Prioritizing refugee protection and resettlement can be a vital security tool in Iraq and other conflict-ridden zones around the world. LIRS works to ensure that U.S. policy towards refugees overseas and in the United States, including Iraqi families like Iraqis like Grace and her siblings, have access to basic needs and prospects for integration.
Image credit: Luvleslye