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David Zenian

KUWAIT — Civil strife and political unrest often have devastating effects on Armenian communities in the Middle East, and Kuwait was about to become its latest casualty if not for Operation Desert Storm which liberated the oil-rich state from Iraqi occupation.

But the memory of war lingers on. Father Barouyr Sarkissian, the long-time pastor of the local Armenian church, still keeps extra food, fuel and a small generator at home more than three years after the invasion — just in case something goes wrong again.

“Kuwait is not the same, and probably the Armenian community here will not be the same again too,” Father Sarkissian says reminiscing about the “good old days” of the mid-1980’s when nearly 12,000 Armenians lived in Kuwait.

The same it may not be again, but the Armenian community in Kuwait is slowly getting back on track. Among the encouraging signs are generally relaxed employment laws regarding newcomers from such Arab states as Syria — the birthplace of the majority of Armenians who have made Kuwait their second home. At last count in early January 1994, an estimated 500 “single Armenian men” had found employment with various companies in Kuwait in the past 12 months alone.

“Hopefully, these people will settle down, and eventually get married and bring their new brides to Kuwait. This was how the community started in the late l950’s and maybe the same will happen again,” Father Sarkissian said.

Meanwhile, enrollment at the Armenian school is rising as families join the heads of their households after a few years away from Kuwait.

“We are lucky,” Father Sarkissian says. “We were down to a mere 500 Armenians during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990. After the liberation, we opened our school with only 90 students. Today the Armenian community numbers about 2,500 — and slowly growing. The Armenian school this year has 298 students.” Father Sarkissian was one of the 500 who stayed behind to look after those who could not leave and to take care of community property.

When the first Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait city in August 1990, the majority of Armenian families were away vacationing in their native Syria or Lebanon. “Thank God it all started in the middle of summer. The school was closed and the children safe. Maybe only a few thousand Armenians were in Kuwait, and most of them were working men. With the occupation in place, most of them left by road to Baghdad and then on to their home countries,” Father Sarkissian added.

While stores, warehouses, factories and other facilities were “loaded up in trucks and carted off to Iraq by the invading army”, the Armenian school and church were unscathed. “A dozen or so Armenian youths maintained a round the clock vigil in both of these institutions to keep the looters away. They were not armed except with our prayers,” he said. “We have invested so much into what we have as a community, and we just could not let go.”

Armenians “discovered Kuwait” immediately after the first wave of Arab nationalism hit Syria and Egypt with the formation in 1958 of the ill-fated United Arab Republic, the brainchild of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The UAR, as it was known, brought wide scale nationalization and compulsory military service — measures which did not sit well with the large Armenian communities in Syria and Egypt. The establishment of the UAR also triggered a mass exodus of Armenians to Lebanon from Syria and to Canada and the United States from Egypt.

Few made it to Kuwait, which was then nothing but a desert British mandate about the size of New Jersey. There, they discovered the taste of wealth, and with their home countries in turmoil, dropped anchor despite the harsh living conditions. They knew that foreigners were nothing but glorified migrant workers whose residence permits depended on the goodwill of their Kuwaiti sponsors. But that was immaterial.

Within a few years, more young Armenians flocked into Kuwait. They were mainly skilled craftsmen who soon cut a lucrative niche for themselves in Kuwait’s thriving light industry, auto repair, auto body, plumbing, electrical and service sector. “In no time at all, auto repair in Kuwait was synonymous to Armenian. All the good mechanics were Armenians,” a long-time Armenian resident of Kuwait city said.

“News traveled fast, and more and more skilled workers started pouring in. Soon, Kuwait became a little Aleppo, Kessab, Latakia and Damascus,” Hagop Kouyoumjian, one of the early pioneers said.

With each influx of young Armenians, new brides followed. This meant children, and the need for an Armenian education and a place of worship. “You cannot deprive the Armenians from church and school. Have a look at all the Armenian communities in the world. You get a couple of hundred Armenians together, and the first thing they do is start a school and get a priest to conduct Sunday Mass,” Father Sarkisian said.

It was only a few years after the first wave of Armenians arrived in Kuwait that a small group got together and started the Armenian school. “The community was primarily composed of newlyweds, and once their kids got to the age of four or five, these people opened a kindergarten. That was in 1960. I came to Kuwait in 1961, and in the years that followed both our school and church grew into full-fledged and self-sustaining institutions,” Father Sarkissian said.

“We used to hold Mass in an apartment, then one year we pitched a tent in the courtyard of the Armenian school to commemorate St. Vartan. We have come a long way since then,” Father Sarkissian says.

More classes were added to the school every year to accommodate the growing population, and today, there is room for Armenian children from kindergarten to 12 grade. The school, the only foreign institution which is allowed to incorporate religion into its curriculum, now has nearly 300 students, and a staff of 25 full time teachers, including 17 Armenians.

That’s a far cry from the days when enrollment topped 700, and the community was more than 12,000-strong.

But automatic transmission repair shop owner Hagop Kouyoumjian is optimistic. “Armenians have a great reputation in Kuwait, and I am confident we will once again prosper and grow. There are opportunities in Kuwait, and we will make good use of that,” he said.


Arab Times, Kuwait Nov 21, 2005

KUWAIT CITY: His Holiness Catholicos Aram Keshishian, the Head of the Armenian Church, is visiting Kuwait Wednesday on a week-long trip to mark the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Theological seminary in Antelias, Lebanon. The event also coincides with the 10th anniversary of Catholicos Aram's enthronement. The Armenian church has lined up a variety of cultural programmes to celebrate both occasions on Thursday from 8.30 pm to 10.30 pm at the church hall in Salmiya. A lecture centering on the role of Armenian Catholicos of Cilicia will also be part of the programme. Catholicos Aram is visiting Kuwait from Nov 23-30, according to Dr Goriun Babian, Archbishop Armenian Prelacy of Kuwait and Arabian Gulf Countries.

Ordained as a celibate priest in 1968, His Holiness Catholicos Aram later obtained the title of Vartabed (Doctor of the Armenian Church) in 1970. Apart from his numerous articles and reviews in Armenian, English and French, Catholicos Aram has authored a number of books. As a strong supporter of inter-religious relations, dialogue and cooperation, His Holiness Aram has played a significant role in promoting common values, mutual understanding and peaceful co-existence among religions. Archbishop Goriun said His Holiness Catholicos Aram is a great champion of dialogue between Christians and Muslims, adding he is striving hard to promote better understanding and solidarity among people of various faiths in order to bring about peace and justice in the world.

Archbishop Dr Babian said the Armenian church on Monday will hold an ecumenical service at the Roman Catholic Church, 7.30 pm in which clergies from all churches in Kuwait will take part.

Catholicos Keshishian's major areas of specialization include philosophy, systematic theology and Near Eastern Church history.

His Holiness Catholicos Aram played an instrumental role in reorganizing the Christian-Muslim Committee of the Middle East Council of Churches, and in preparing the International Inter-religious Conference organized by the World Council of Churches in June 2005.

During his visit, Catholicos Aram will call on prominent Kuwaiti leaders, including the Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Al-Sabah, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohmmad Al-Sabah and the Speaker of the Parliament Jassem Al-Khorafi among other diplomats.

Archbishop Dr Gorium observed that Catholicos Aram recently returned from a tour of Canada and US where he met with a large number of Armenians in addition to well-known political figures.

Describing Catholicos Aram as a leader both religious and political, the Archbishop said, "Armenian community in Kuwait is very excited and looking forward to his visit and hopes that his visit will be able to promote closer cooperation among various Christian churches."

Catholicos Aram's visit is being coordinated by the Lebanese embassy and "I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Kuwaiti authorities for all their cooperation."

Archbishop Dr Goriun observed that Catholicos Aram on a number of occasions has spoken out against poverty, suppression, genocide and human rights violations.

"We hope that the Armenian community and the Christian churches in Kuwait will benefit from his presence. His Holiness will address a press conference on Thursday at the Crowne Plaza at 11 am," he added.

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Kuwaiti Press Delves Deeper into Catholicos, Turkey Statements on Genocide
ASBAREZ Online [11-30-2005]

KUWAIT--Following comments made by His Holiness Aram I during a press conference in Kuwait, the media there is focusing on the Armenian genocide for the first time. The Turkish Embassy's reaction has prompted even more interviews with the Catholicos for additional comments.

During his Pontifical visit to Kuwait, His Holiness Aram I demanded that

Turkey recognize the Armenian genocide, pointing to abundant historical documentation on the issue and increased international pressure on Turkey to come to terms with its past.

In a swift response to these comments, the Turkish Embassy in Kuwait denied

that a genocide ever happened, claiming that its archives are open for all.

His Holiness said such a response is not a new phenomenon. "Instead of having

the bravery of recognizing the crime committed by its forefathers against Armenians, Turkey reverts to a denialist policy."

"No matter how much efforts are exerted in this direction, light can't be

covered by darkness, the truth can't be distorted and the historic fact can't be denied," said His Holiness.

His Holiness spoke in detail about the Armenian genocide and answered

questions related to the Palestinian issue during his interviews. The Catholicos expressed his gratitude for the love, respect, and friendship shown by the Arab World towards the Armenian people.

"The Turks massacred Armenians, while Arabs shared their homeland and their

bread with Armenians," said His Holiness.

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