Ghanem Fargo: Dialogue with an Adventist businessman in Iraq

Ghanem Fargo is 70 but doesn't look it. His boundless energy may be related to his earnest faith in God and to his commitment to service. Born in Iraq, Mr. Fargo's early education was in an Adventist school. After completing high school in a government institution, he obtained a bachelor's degree in theology and business from Middle East College in Beirut, and then completed a master's degree in business in the United States. Today he is a prominent business- man in Iraq and a leading citizen. In spite of his heavy business and social engagements, Mr. Fargo always finds time for his faith commitment. For years he has held leadership responsibilities in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Iraq and has served as a member of the Middle East Union committee.

Brother Fargo, were you always a Seventh-day Adventist?

Yes. My mother was an Adventist, but my father was not. In fact, my uncle, Mr. B. A. Hasso, was the first Adventist in Iraq. He was studying in Lebanon, where he became an Adventist. Upon his return to Iraq, within three to four years many members of his family accepted Adventism. They opened schools in several places and helped in establishing many churches. The name "Hasso" is part of Adventist history in Iraq.

Your bachelor's degree is in theology and business. That's an interesting combination.

Well, it has helped me to integrate business concerns with spiritual purposes. Good business and good ethics make a good combination. Is that not so?

I do agree. Was your family always in business?

No. I wasn't raised in a business family, although my father owned a farm and spent quite a lot of time directing a dairy.

How did you get into business?

When I finished college, I planned to work for the church. In fact for a while I was the director for the Mosul (Ninevah) Adventist school. While serving there, my uncles invited me to join the family business. They were leading businessmen in Baghdad. I worked with them for about six years and then went to the United States to complete a master's degree in business. Then I worked as dean of men at the Middle East College for three years and again went back to Baghdad to work for the family business.

What kind of business are you in now?

When I joined the family business of my uncles, I was the manager of a big department store. I managed that store with my brothers-in-law and brother for five years. Then we started a factory for making biscuits and chocolates. Just about that time the revolution came. We closed the department store and went over to manufacturing.

What is your position in the business establishment now?

We have two different factories. One manufactures biscuits and chocolates, the other juices and ice cream. My brother and I are partners and we operate the factories together. However, I am the manager of the juice and ice cream factory, and my brother is the manager of the biscuit and chocolate factory.

How many employees do you have?

At one time, our factories employed as many as 450 workers. Today, we have lot less.

Has the Gulf War and the embargo affected your business?

The war and the embargo have put the country in a very difficult economic situation. The embargo has affected the import of raw materials, and so at one time we had to stop production completely. Later we were allowed to import some of the raw materials, but even now we are quite limited in our production.

Has your business come down to operate with just a handful of employees?

Yes. The government has advised us not to go too far with importation because there is a shortage of international currency. Our business now is limited to about 70 employees. We are working only part time and producing only certain kinds of products because we can't get all the raw materials necessary.

In your experience, have you found it difficult to be a businessman in a fairly large industry and an Adventist at the same time?

Oh, not at all. It has always been encouraging for me to find myself doing my business and at the same time taking some responsibilities in the church.

You are an active member of the church, having many positions. How do you find time for all this?

I like keeping myself busy all the time. Perhaps too much of it, and it's likely my family feels that I am not spending enough time on home responsibilities. I spend a lot of time in the factory in the morning and in the afternoon. When I am busy with church activities, I come to the office every now and then to find out what needs to be done.

As a layperson you were for many years the leader of the work of the church in Iraq. You were also chairman of the field committee. In addition, you are active as legal representative of the church and member of the field and union committees. This must have brought you in touch with government people and national leaders. Can you comment on your association with prominent government people?

To begin with, I did not make the contacts with the government for our business. My brother did that. Later on I had to do some of the contacts, and I think that the government directors and whoever was in charge knew that I was a Seventh-day Adventist because every time they set appointments on the Sabbath I would apologize for being unable to attend and ask for another appointment. Almost all the government employees and directors know that we, as Adventists, do not work on the Sabbath. We have our meetings or appointments at other times.

Did you face similar difficulties with the labor unions?

At times we did. They objected to our closing the factories on the Sabbath. We told them that we would not open our factories. They said to us, in effect, "Well, you don't have to come, but keep your doors open just like every other factory in the country." We insisted that we would rather close down our company than to open our factories on the Sabbath. I think we have, with the help of the Lord, been able to bring them to accept our position, with one or two conditions, such as we give holidays that fall on the Sabbath on other days. That's no problem.

So you would say that you have been able to establish a cordial relationship with government officials when it comes to the interest of the Church?

Exactly. When they knew we are Seventh-day Adventists and they heard about the good reputation of our church, they gave us respect that is really, I would say, not even deserved.

What is the status of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Iraq today?

We have at present three churches with around 160 members. The Baghdad church is well known to all the people in the capital. We have another church in Mosul (Ninevah) and a smaller church in Kirkuk. We also have a large church building in Basra, but it is closed because we do not have a pastor to take care of it, and the members moved to Baghdad during the war.

It must be difficult at times to safeguard the interests and existence of the church, particularly during war.

Our firm commitment to our beliefs and principles has helped us to gain government respect. They know our stand, and they have been willing to accept us for our principles.

In the last couple of years it has been reported that the singers of the Baghdad Church have been featured on television, BBC and CNN, with worldwide coverage. How did that happen?

We have a small women's choir in the church, and during the Christmas season the government asked some of the churches to present some appropriate songs on television. Since we were almost the only church group ready to perform, our choir was invited by the leading hotels in Baghdad to sing during the Christmas and New Year season. Our young people prepared themselves for this, and now we have been doing it for about three years. We find it a great honor and a pleasure.

In your busy schedule how do you find time for study and personal devotion?

I am usually an early bird. In the morning my wife and I take time for our devotions. Quite often I stay up late at night reading our denominational journals and books. Adventists in Iraq want to stay in touch with God and with our fellow believers around the world.

How often do you preach in the churches here and other places?

On average, twice a month on Sabbath or Friday evenings. I also enjoy teaching Sabbath school classes.

Tell us about your family.

We have two boys and one girl. Our older son is working in the factory. He is married and has three boys. Our daughter is in the United States with her husband, working there. They have three boys. Our younger son, who is also in the States, has two sons. I am a happy grandfather of eight.

Do you have time for any hobbies?

When I was younger, I used to collect stamps. But business has swallowed that up. Now my main hobby is the business and the work of the church.

Why do you think you have been successful as a businessman?

I feel that the Lord is always faithful with those who are honest and want to serve Him faithfully. He has blessed me and my wife because of our readiness to serve Him and be faithful in doing our part.

What advice would you give to younger Adventists who might plan to go into personal business?

Be faithful to God. Be honest in all your dealings. And don't forget the responsibilities that you have toward your Lord and your fellow human beings.

Interview by Svein B. Johansen. Born in Norway, Svein B. Johansen has served as missionary in Africa and the Middle East. He is currently president of the Middle East Union, in Cyprus. Mr. Ghanem Fargo's address: c/o Middle East Union; P.O. Box 2043, Nicosia, Cyprus.