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By Miriam Raftery, East County News Service

July 10, 2016 (El Cajon)—In January 2015, Pope Francis issued a ruling to protect Father Noel Gorgis, a popular, zealous priest at St. Peter’s Chaldean Cathedral in El Cajon, as ECM reported. The Pope invalidated a decree issued by Patriarch Mar Louis Raphael Sako, which would have required Father Noel and several other U.S. priests to return to Iraq, where the Islamic State has been slaughtering Christian religious leaders. The Pope’s action was applauded by local Chaldean leaders. Father Noel has been a leading voice locally and nationally, on behalf of Chaldean-Americans and Chaldean immigrants.

But now the new interim Bishop for the St. Peter Chaldean Catholic diocese of San Diego, Shlemun Warduni, has issued an order for Father Noel to leave St. Peter’s effective Friday, July 15, 2016, multiple church sources have confirmed.  Bishop Warduni is a temporary replacement for Bishop Sarhad Jammo, who recently retired and had been a defender of Father Noel, as ECM reported.

Bishop Warduni has agreed to an interview with ECM on Monday to discuss his vision for the parish before departing Tuesday for Iraq, where Patriarch Sako will call for a Synod of Chaldean Bishops to elect three clergy who will travel to Rome, where one will be chosen by the Vatican to serve as the new Bishop of the St. Peter Chaldean Diocese in the western United States.

A source within the church, who asked not to be named, told ECM that Bishop Warduni wrote a “letter of termination to Father Noel Gorgis to leave the St. Peter Chaldean Diocese and find him another Catholic diocese.” The source added that the letter further informs Father Gorgis that “all his communications with his dear diocese to be terminated as of July 15, 2016.”

ECM contacted Father Noel, as he is known to parishioners. He confirmed, “Bishop Warduni wrote to me to leave the Chaldean diocese and look for a new one.”  He also confirmed the July 15 deadline to leave.

Warduni’s letter to Father Noel cited a letter from Patriarch Sako and states the order is “because of your personal actions in the diocese since I came.” 

Father Noel believes he is being punished for defying the Patriarch’s order to return to Iraq—the order that was blocked by Pope Francis. “Where is the forgiveness Jesus talked about?” he asks.

 He said he is proud of being”a priest and a free man with clear conscience before God: " I am faithful to the teachings of my Holy Catholic Church, and faithful to the Lord’s commandment that we must `Love your God with all your heart and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ That’s why I obey God, but not any person even if he is a patriarch who may use his authority to control others and to abuse the love of God and thy neighbor, as what Patriarch Sako has done to me unjustly by dishonoring me publicly and damaging my name and causing doubts toward my priesthood which I have dedicated all of my life to, dearly with honor. That damage also affected my family/siblings and is hurting my elderly father very much.”

Father Noel has lived the U.S. for 25 years.”I am an American. I am a citizen,” he told ECM.  I am serving my country here, my people here…That is why I left Iraq, free to do my job according to the Bible. God called Abraham to leave the country to find a place to serve Him better.  I cannot serve Iraqis there,” he said of his homeland.

Before the war, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq and 32 churches in Baghdad.  Now fewer than 300,000 Christians and a dozen churches are left in Baghdad. Father Noel said priests, bishops and others have asked help to leave Iraq and 70,000 people signed a petition to the White House.

El Cajon is home to some 50,000 or more Iraqi Chaldean Christians; the San Diego region has over 70,000.  “We have a very successful community,” Father Noel says, noting that local Chaldeans at St. Peter have been aiding Christians fleeing Iraq, including some 50,000 who are currently living in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Greece.  He noted that in El Cajon, community leaders including Mayor Bill Wells have voiced support for welcoming persecuted Christian refugees from Iraq, as ECM has reported. “Here there is a Chaldean culture more than in Baghdad. It would not be a good thing to send me back.” 

Father Noel reflects, “I went to the White House. We did something. I worked with Congressman Juan Vargas, Senator Joel Anderson…Congressman Duncan Hunter.”The ambassador for refugees has said he would help 30,000 Christian refugees come here though thus far, the Obama administration has admitted primarily Muslims, he added.(Photo, left: Father Noel in Washington D.C. with Congressman Vargas and Mark Arabo)

With a new president to be elected in November, taking office in January, Father Noel believes it’s important for him to remain here and use his contacts to continue advocating for Christians trying to come to the U.S. and hopefully enable more to come here.

“Why now?” he asks, suggesting that any decision on sending him away should wait at least until after he has had opportunities to meet with the new administration and work to help refugees seeking to come to America. “Our Bishop should hear the voices of tens of thousands who want to get out,” he says. “What is his plan to serve and save those people who left Iraq, or those who are there, to bring them here to the U.S?  We need Chaldean unity.”

Father Noel has also been a leading voice for Christians seeking asylum in the U.S., leading a prayer vigil outside the immigration detention center in Otay, as ECM reported.

Ordering the popular priest banished from the local Chaldean diocese carries risks of its own.  Some sources have hinted it could lead to a rift that could divide Iraqi and American Chaldean churches, as has happened when the Anglican and Methodist churches formed after splitting off from the Catholic Church.

It is unclear whether local Chaldeans may once again ask the Pope to intercede on Father Noel’s behalf. But he has enjoyed broad support in the past.

After the Pope’s earlier action, Mark Arabo, a national spokesman for Chaldean-Americans and Chaldean immigrants, now a diocese spokesman and advocate for Chaldean Christians in San Diego, stated in 2015, "We applaud the Pope's decision with solemn hearts. Our community can once again sleep soundly, knowing that our priest, and spiritual leader is safe within the United States.”

Now he has issued a statement in support of Father Noel.  "Father. Noel is a good man and a good priest.” Arabo said. “I stand by him because I know what he means to our community and to our Church. Father Noel has been a constant advocate for peace and refuge. We cannot sit idly as he is punished simply for advocating on behalf of humanity.”

While the Patriarch has sought to bring priests back to Iraq in hopes of keeping the Chaldean Church alive in the birthplace of Christianity, Mesopotamia, Father Noel has a different view.

“Let’s leave Iraq now. There is no place for us there,” due to the violence and genocide occurring at the hands of ISIS, the Islamic State, he believes. He likened the situation to Albert Einstein leaving Europe during World War II, when Jews faced persecution and death, accomplishing great things here in America.

Someday, Father Noel hopes, “When the time is right, we can reclaim it. But bring the people together here, protect the future. If I could save a thousand families and keep them together, teach them American culture side by side with Chaldean culture, then I would be doing something great for the future - and send them back to Iraq in the future, when and if it is safe, for the survival of our liturgy & identity.”

In a message to parishioners on Sunday, Bishop Warduni expressed “joy and appreciation” for his time here. “I will keep working, and no one can stop me, to fulfill the program I set up that is serving with sacrifice and spread love, unity and peace,” he stated, adding that he will be inviting Patriarch Sako to visit the St. Peter diocese in the first week of August “to the good of the diocese and the good of all faithful.”

He also attended a rally and offered “prayers for the intention of peace and for the martyrs who died in the recent explosion in Iraq” along with condolences to their loved ones.