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A Local Congregation Unites in Wake of Iraqi Church Attacks

Many fear for loved ones -- and the state of religious freedom in the Middle East.

August 02, 2004|Jia-Rui Chong and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

Some parishioners who crowded the pews of St. Paul Assyrian Chaldean Church wept. Others moaned and hummed in grief and worry over the fate of relatives in Iraq, where car bombs exploded Sunday outside five Christian churches.

At the North Hollywood church, a quiet hub for the Iraqi Christian community in Los Angeles County, Father Noel Gorgis led the congregation in prayers for the victims. Even as he prayed in Aramaic, he did not know the fate of his older sister who attends one of the churches that was attacked, St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral in Baghdad.

The well-coordinated attacks killed at least 11 people and injured dozens in explosions that took place in Baghdad and Mosul within 90 minutes of one another.

After the service, a family member reached Gorgis' sister by telephone.

"Now I know at least my sister is safe," Gorgis said. "But I am worried about my Christian brothers. There is no happiness in knowing one person is safe."

Faith has united this small church community since it began in a North Hollywood home in 1980 -- bringing together Iraqi and Iranian families the same year their countries went to war. Today the congregation remains split nearly equally between the two nationalities.

Almost every Iraqi parishioner has relatives in Baghdad, Gorgis said.

Before fleeing Iraq more than two decades ago, Eva Khoshaba, 52, used to attend Mass at some of the churches that were bombed.

On Sunday, she recalled friendly congregations and well-kept cathedrals. When she thought of the multiple attacks, she got tense and spoke loudly.

"What did the church do to them? Just tell me. What did they do?" she asked. "It is a house of God and prayer."

An estimated 800,000 Christians live in Iraq, about 3% of the population. Historically, Christians and Muslims have enjoyed relatively peaceful relations in Iraq, although more recently many Iraqi Christians said they have faced discrimination.

The wide-ranging attacks Sunday were seen by them as an escalation in hostility.

"I was very sad," said Gorgis, who grew up in a northern village in Iraq. To attack churches on a Sunday, she continued, "this is a crime."

Like many in the congregation, Gorgis maintains close ties with his native land. Sunday morning, after learning of the attacks from one of his parishioners, Gorgis telephoned the head of the Chaldean order in Baghdad.

The man told him that he didn't know how many people were killed, but that there was "big damage."

As armed conflict and attacks continue in Iraq, St. Paul has continued to grow. The church's secretary, Bianca Golpashin, 35, said concerned teenagers and young adults have joined the congregation in recent months.

"The church is what unites us," said Golpashin, who is a native Iranian. "That is the center of our culture."

Although Iran and Iraq have a recent history of conflict, congregants at this church said they are not divided by national rivalries, but united by this latest tragedy, as well as cultural ties that date to the 7th century BC.

St. Paul has grown over the years from 10 families to more than 500 people who attend services at the brick-walled church -- where light filtered through a stained-glass mosaic Sunday -- purchased by the congregation in the early 1980s.

Many at the church continue to support family members still in Iraq and Iran, and parishioners who travel to the Middle East often are asked by others to distribute cash to family members or churches there, church officials said.

For many in the congregation the church community here has provided peace of mind they could not find in Iraq.

Khoshaba's story is typical among parishioners. Her family fled Iraq in 1980 because they felt the government was persecuting Christians. Now, she said, she believed that two of her Christian cousins were killed last month because of their faith and their employment with an American company.

She said she is terrified for her other relatives and friends.

"It's very dangerous for Christians, more dangerous than before," she said.

Francis Daoud, 46, said he had not yet heard from his relatives who attend a church attacked in the Doura neighborhood of Baghdad.

"Until now, I don't know about my relatives," the North Hollywood resident said. "But they go to church every Sunday."

Daoud said he was angry when he heard on the television about the explosions Sunday morning and planned to call Baghdad as soon as he got home from service.

Muslim fundamentalists "think [Christians in Iraq] are helping the U.S.," he said. "They want to make everybody rise up. They want to make a mess."

Bretil Khosrowabadi, who is Iranian, said any attacks against Christians worry church members, regardless of where they take place. In Iran and Iraq, "Christians are a minority and they have no rights," said Khosrowabadi, 40, of Granada Hills.

She said she worries that such violence will continue.

The insurgents "are fanatics," she said. "They think they have to kill people to get what they want."

Gorgis, the pastor, said he planned to collect donations to aid the victims of Sunday's bombings. News of the attacks, he said, depressed many in the congregation who hoped that American intervention would make it easier for Christians to live in Iraq.

"We had hope for new peace and freedom and ability to practice religion," he said. "I believe people want to go back. We're still waiting."

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