The backyard gathering was part Catholic Mass, part rebellion.
priest, an Iraqi immigrant, had been kicked out of the local church.
Parishioners had been warned by local church leaders not to worship with
Yet 50 people sat in makeshift pews behind a home east of San
Diego in a show of opposition to church officials urging Christians to
stay in Iraq, where their numbers are dwindling.
“There is no
future for Christians in Iraq,” said Bahaa Gandor, a 31-year-old who
fled the country in 2010. “We have to bring them here.”
Chaldean Catholic Church, a nearly 2,000-year-old branch of
Christianity based in Iraq, is at war with itself over how to ensure its
survival. And the dispute is threatening to fracture this ancient
Some Chaldeans in the U.S. have been scrambling to help
Christians escape Iraq, where they are being targeted and killed by
But that work has put them in conflict with top church
officials in Baghdad who say Chaldeans must stay and help preserve Christianity in the Middle East.
Tensions between Baghdad and the Chaldean diaspora have reached a breaking point in El Cajon, where many Chaldeans have settled.
Noel Gorgis, a priest who has spent much of the past two years lobbying
the U.S. to accept more Iraqi Christian refugees, was expelled from his
post at the church here in July.
A longtime bishop, another advocate
for Iraqi refugees, has also been forced to retire.
have rocked the large Chaldean community in El Cajon, and some here have
entered a quiet revolt against church hierarchy.
They have begun holding what they call “underground Masses” with
Father Gorgis at homes in the area. Some are even floating the
possibility of starting their own church, based in the U.S., where they
say they are better able to preserve their language and their culture
than in Iraq.
“What’s our relationship with Iraq? We’re
American,” said Father Gorgis, who fled Iraq in the early 1990s during
the Gulf War. “We can have our own church here.”
He quickly added: “That’s not our goal. We want to keep our heritage.”
the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the Chaldean population has been
steadily shifting away from its homeland. There are now around
400,000 Christians in Iraq, down from 1.4 million in before the
invasion, according to church officials. Secretary of State John Kerry has called the attacks on Christians in Iraq genocide.
Meanwhile, the Chaldean population in the U.S. has ballooned to more than 250,000, mostly around Detroit and San Diego.
The exodus has been a growing concern for Patriarch Louis Raphaël I
Sako, the leader of the Chaldean church, an Eastern Rite Catholic Church
that answers to the pope in Rome.
“This is our land,” he said in
an email to The Wall Street Journal from Iraq. “If we leave, everything
will leave with us, and little by little will be dissolved [by]
assimilation in new societies.”
a letter to bishops in May, which was obtained by the Journal,
Patriarch Sako wrote, “Priests should not be allowed to give any
official statements encouraging other priests to immigrate.”
“We must sacrifice a few priests in order to maintain the rest,” he wrote. “We are already running short on priests.”
He said via email that Father Gorgis has been removed because he criticized his superiors and the church itself.
Father Gorgis’s supporters said the real reason he was dismissed from the church is clear.
was about the refugees,” said Mark Arabo, an activist in the Chaldean
community here who worked with Father Gorgis on obtaining visas for
Iraqi Christians, through their organization Minority Humanitarian
Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group for Christian refugees. “It was
because of his help for the most vulnerable in Iraq.”
months, Masses at the St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral here are
still mostly full, but frustration is widespread, said Father Michael J.
Bazzi, who remains at the church.
Father Gorgis has become a
symbol of that frustration with Baghdad, which also has imposed changes
to the liturgy at the church here.
The recent service in Father
Gorgis’s backyard largely resembled a traditional Chaldean Mass: He
spoke in a dialect of Aramaic, a language that Chaldeans have used for
two millennia, and offered communion using wafers that someone had
pilfered from the church.
Wasan Jarbo, who left Iraq 40 years
ago, said she didn’t want to break with the Chaldean church in Iraq—and
has continued to also attend Mass at the cathedral—but wouldn’t rule out
“Here is where we have to preserve our identity, our
liturgy, our language,” Ms. Jarbo, 56, said, adding that the Chaldean
community had started a language school, seminary and monastery here. “I
love my country, but we cannot practice our faith freely there. There’s
Still, pieces of Americana were apparent at Father
Gorgis’s Mass. The younger attendees chatted in English before the
service—not all of the second-generation immigrants could speak Aramaic.
Bible verses were read in English, as well. A refrigerator was stocked
with cans of Budweiser that had “America” emblazoned across them.
O. Emerson, a sociology professor at Rice University who studies
religion and ethnicity, said distinctive religious practice can be
maintained in diaspora. But the traditions shift—and language fades—in a
“Religion and culture are so impacted by the
surroundings,” he said. “By the third generation, it’s just so hard to
preserve what it was like it in a different environment.”
Ibrahim N. Ibrahim, a retired Chaldean bishop based in the Detroit
area, has sometimes acted as a spokesman for Patriarch Sako in the U.S.,
including on the importance of maintaining Christendom in Iraq. But
Bishop Ibrahim now believes Chaldeans can survive only in the U.S.
“Even the Chaldeans in Iraq feel it,” he said. “If we’re saying it, it’s because we hear it from them.”