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Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, has suspended ten Iraqi-American priests who fled Iraq to escape the Gulf War in the 1990s and established parishes and ministries here in the United States.The Patriarch demanded that the priests return to Iraq before October 22, 2014, or face suspension from priestly ministry.
The head of Chaldean Catholics around the world is concerned that there is a need for priestly ministry and spiritual leadership in Iraq, where any remaining Catholic Christians must live in fear for their lives. Aleteia interviewed Patriarch Sako during the recent Synod, and His Beatitude explained his decree:
“The priests who escaped without any canonical documents encourage others to leave, including their own families. They have asked for exile in Western countries, while others have remained in fidelity to their people. There is no justice in this. If we do not put a limit on this, others will also leave and the Church and the country will be without Christians.
We have a vocation. A priest has given himself to the Lord and to service: he shouldn’t seek his freedom, his security. His future is found in fidelity to Christ and his people, not in America or Australia. One might say that he has citizenship in these countries, but what does that have to do with the priesthood?
There are also six monks: a monk has chosen community life. How can he leave and go establish a parish in the United States without the permission of his Superior?”
At issue, though, is the safety of any priests who accept the Patriarch’s request to return. Chaldeans and other Christians are under attack by the militant Islamic State, which has ruthlessly bombed Chaldean churches, destroyed monasteries, and driven Chaldeans from their ancestral land. Incidents such as theshooting deaths of a priest and three deacons in Mosul and the 2010 invasion of Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Church, in which three priests and 50 worshippers were murdered by terrorists, demonstrate a sad reality: Muslim extremists will no longer permit the Catholic Church to minister openly in many regions of the country. Any priests who return to the country are likely to be summarily executed.
In August 2014,Catholic News Agency quoted Fr. Nawar, a priest originally from Nineveh who has been living and studying in Rome. “Today the story of Christianity is finished in Iraq,” Father Nawar said. “People can’t stay in Iraq because there is death for whoever stays.”
Here in the United States, tens of thousands of Chaldean Catholics have relocated from Iraq to escape persecution. In the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of St. Peter The Apostle, which covers 19 western states, there are only 14 Chaldean priests to serve an estimated 50,000 Chaldean Christians. Patriarch Sako’s decree would remove ten of them from ministry, effective immediately.
The Eparchy of St. Peter The Apostle, based in San Diego, has sent several appeals to Patriarch Sako. but has received no response. On October 22, when the priests named in last month’s decree were ordered to return or cease their priestly work, an emergency appeal was filed with the Vatican. The priests are now permitted to exercise their ministry, as they await a response from Pope Francis.
Southern California Public Radio 89.33 KPCC reports that Southern California is home to an estimated 50,000 Chaldeans, mostly in San Diego County. Community leaders and a Chaldean bishop have been lobbying Congress, the State Department, even the United Nations to open the door to more Chaldean refugees.
Mark Arabo is National Spokesperson for the Chaldean Church in the United States, which includes about 250,000 Chaldeans, and is also a member of the church in El Cajon led by Fr. Noel Gorgis, one of the suspended priests. Arabo disagreed with Patriarch Sako—calling His Beatitude’s decree “a complete tragedy.” Many of the priests, he explained, have been in this country for 20 years and have American citizenship. “What the Patriarch is doing is inhumane, it is not even Christian,” Arabo insisted. “We are going to do everything in our power to make sure these ten priests do not return like cattle to the slaughter in Iraq.”
Arabo worried that a suspension of these priests would force the church to cut some services and could affect prayer groups, confession and baptisms. He added that Sako’s recalling of the priests shows the "growing disconnect between himself and our people."
Despite Patriarch Sako’s decree, it appears that at least for now it may be impossible for clergy to return to Iraq and to resume priestly ministry. They could return and become martyrs for the faith, inspiring others by their fearless example in the face of adversity. But is this the mission to which they are called? Or are they needed to serve the many thousands here in the U.S. who also want spiritual direction and leadership?
Kathy Schifferis a freelance writer and speaker, and her blog Seasons of Grace can be found on the Catholic Portal at Patheos.