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Religion and Culture: Refugees of different faiths seek LA Armenian church help

In a vestment of distinction, a stole draped across his left shoulder and a loose cassock secured with a cincture in front, Father David Bedrossian holds the gaze of a crowd of Armenian Catholic devotees. 

It’s Sunday mass at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, which is tucked inside a leafy neighborhood off Pleasant Avenue near downtown Los Angeles. A Middle Eastern chant rents the air as the pastor reads verses from the Holy Gospel.

Bedrossian’s parish is not only a sanctuary for Armenians in Los Angeles, but also for scores of Syrian refugees who are Christian and Muslim escaping war and persecution. They land up on the church steps asking for “abouna” (Arabic for father) — their last hope in the treacherous journey crisscrossing the globe.

“I get about 15-20 calls from Syrians a day asking for financial, moral and logistical support. They’re desperate for asylum. I don’t discriminate on the basis of faith,” said Bedrossian.

To all the refugees, abouna is their teacher, translator, job consultant, marriage counselor, legal advisor, priest and father. They rely on him for sustenance in a foreign country.

With President Donald Trump’s recent hardline stance on immigration barring Syrian refugees from entering the United States, the plight of the displaced has become a vital issue. 

Even though the U.S. government moved quickly to comply with a federal judge’s order halting Trump’s travel ban, things are still on the edge. “I don’t want to get into the politics of the decision, but we need to find a place to house the persecuted. The onus should also be on the Muslim countries,” said Bedrossian.

Before their civil war, Syrians rarely received refugee status. “Virtually none were here before, though there are some caveats for those who sought asylum prior to the war,” said Martin Zogg, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s Los Angeles office.

He estimates that the eight Los Angeles-based resettlement agencies have settled perhaps as many as 25 cases since the summer of 2015, or about 125 people, comparatively few given that the U.S. has admitted about 15,000.

The needs of Syrian refugees is Bedrossian's top priority. An Armenian himself, Bedrossian was born in 1968 in Qamishli, northeast Syria, into a devout Catholic family. In 1999, he was ordained as a priest and became the lead parish pastor at the Holy Family Church in Hasakah in northeast Syria. There were about 100,000 Armenians at the time, with the majority concentrated in Aleppo; and Christians constituted 30 percent of the population in Syria as late as the 1920s.

Most Christians lived in Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, Hasakah and Qamishli. “Before the war, our relationship with Muslims was very cordial. They was peace on our land. But now, thousands have been forced to flee due to threats from hardline Islamist rebels and jihadist militants,” said Bedrossian.

According to ADF International, which advocates for religious freedom globally, the number of Christians in Syria declined from 1,250,000 in 2011 to fewer than 500,000 in 2016. 

Fifteen years ago, the pastor had to flee Qamishli, leaving behind his house, family and parishioners. Since fleeing, six of his family members and friends have been killed in ISIS attacks. “My mother died in 2013 due to the paucity of doctors in Syria, and my younger brother died a year later because he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

The parish has had a long history of protecting displaced people. In the years following World War II, several Armenians immigrated to California escaping the German war effort and communism. In 1951, Gregorio Pietro Agagianian, patriarch of the Armenian Catholics, was invited to visit Los Angeles by James Francis Aloysius McIntyre, the archbishop of L.A.

To the delight of Armenians living in California, Agagianian celebrated the Armenian Liturgy in the cathedrals of Fresno, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The following year, the community received an underutilized church to breathe fresh life into it. It was named Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, and became the first Armenian Catholic Church in California.

Bedrossian’s appointment in 2012 led to a second renewal. “In the current political and social climate, our strength lies in uniting a community of broken people. An unflinching faith in God made the persecuted leave home and come all this way to seek help. There’s a revival of spirituality among the youth,” he said.

After taking over as pastor in Los Angeles, however, Bedrossian has focused on refugees. “Earlier, we would get a few refugees per year, but now I get enquiries every week. It’s not possible to help everyone, so I focus on the neediest,” he said. He provides psychological counseling, organizes garage sales of household items, takes them to lawyers and welfare officers, and helps them sharpen their English language skills.

Most refugees are not aware of what lies ahead in the places they are tentatively going, but want to keep moving forward.

“Faith is the source of hope, of moving forward for everyone," said Dania Ayah Alkhouli, co-founder of A Country Called Syria, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization. "It gives refugees a greater sense of purpose and drive to do things, and one of the underlying themes of a majority of religions is faith through service to others.”

Karoun Baroussalian, a member of the congregation, came to Los Angeles in 2013 after continuous threats and bombings near her house and office in Damascus. “Electricity and water lines were being bombed by rebels, women’s safety was at risk, people were burning paper and furniture to keep themselves warm. Overall, the atmosphere became stifling,” she says.

Baroussalian has applied for asylum, but says she is worried about President Trump’s anti-Syria rhetoric. “My family is stranded in Syria. I’m praying that Trump softens his stand toward refugees so that I can be reunited with my parents,” she said.

Back in Syria, Baroussalian abstained from all religious services at church. “I thought it’s impossible for God to exist since children were being killed; adults were being butchered. War was ravaging our homes, lives, country,” she said. But life has taken another turn for her in the United States. “I started coming to church every Sunday, and realized only faith can bind people together,” said Baroussalian.

Father Bedrossian and his parishioners work together to get the Syrian refugees back on their feet. Collection baskets finance a family’s month of rent or even a week’s worth of groceries.

These philanthropic measures helped Khalid Kasibi, his wife Lama Almasri and their three sons. Fleeing sniper attacks, they bribed smugglers and ducked checkpoints to take the long road to safety from Hama in west-central Syria to Damascus; and then through Jordan to Los Angeles. “Even though we’re Muslim, Father Bedrossian has given us financial and emotional support. There’s no missionary zeal in his endeavors,” said Kasibi.

In a parish open to devotees of all faiths, Bedrossian said he will continue to embrace refugees fleeing war and persecution.

Kasibi said despite Donald Trump’s attitude toward refugees, Kasibi feels safe within the confines of the church. “The rich become richer during war and ordinary people die due to hunger and depression,” he said. “Faith is the only bridge to survival. We’ve found it here.”

Priyadarshini Sen, a USC Annenberg student, is special correspondent at Outlook Magazine in New Delhi and has written for national dailies and weeklies in India.

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past several years. This spring, students will report and write on Southern California's Greek Orthodox community and Syrian refugees and will be visiting Greece.