Photo: Father Noel and Congressman Juan Vargas, at Chaldean-American Association banquet Oct. 30
By Miriam Raftery
November 2, 2014 (El Cajon)—Father Noel at St. Peter’s Cathedral in El Cajon is among nine Chaldean Catholic priests ordered to return to Iraq, a situation that likely amounts to a death sentence, or be suspended from the priesthood.
Louis Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, ordered nine priests from the local diocese suspended on October 22 for refusing to return to Iraq, where priests are being tortured and murdered by ISIS terrorists and mass is no longer being held due to the danger. Now the Eparchy of St. Peter has appealed these suspensions to Pope Francis.
Under church canons, the suspensions are on hold until the Pope issues his decision.
“It pains me to think that martyrdom can be forced upon those seeking to do the work of God in the United States,” said Mark Arabo, a national spokesman for the Iraqi Christian community. “We as a community stand wholeheartedly against the statement made by Patriarch Sako. It reflects a growing disconnect between himself and our people. Our top priority is the safety and security of the Iraqi Christian people. The antics of our Patriarch Sako show that some even within our own church opt to politicize the cruelty of a genocide occurring in our midst.”
The priests do not want to return, believing they will be killed and that they can better serve the faithful by remaining in the U.S. Bishop Sarhad Jammo also opposes the order to send U.S. priests back to Iraq. The priests have been in the United States since the 1990s and minister to a growing flock of Chaldean-American immigrants and American-born Chaldeans.
Father Noel, now a U.S. citizen, serves an estimated 50,000 Chaldeans at his parish in El Cajon. The parish will likely see the number of its faithful swell further due to hundreds of thousands of Chaldean refugees seeking safe passage to the U.S.
A bill introduced by Congressman Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) with bipartisan support of the San Diego Congressional delegation seeks to lift the immigration cap to allow more Chaldeans and other persecuted Iraqi minorities to enter the U.S., with many expected to come to the San Diego region due to the established Chaldean community here.
“If this transfer of priests is implemented, it will lead to closing five parishes and three missions in the Eparchy of Saint Peter in the western U.S.,” writes Lincoln E. Malik, Ph.D., an engineer and member of Saint Mary’s Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church in Campbell, California and a prominent figure in the Assyrian Chaldean community in America.
Dr. Malik observes that the Patriarch’s objective may be not simply to reestablish the Chaldean church in Iraq, but to challenge the authority of the Pope over the church outside the territorial boundaries of the Patriarchal Church. “Patriarch Sako’s attempt to transfer authority from the Holy Father to himself affects more than the Catholic Chaldean Church,” Dr. Malik states. “Any such modification of the Eastern Canons will establish precedence applicable to all Eastern Churches, including those in the Middle East such as the Lebanese Maronite church and several Oriental Catholic churches.”
He concludes, “I fear a transfer of Power from the Bishop of Rome to Eastern Patriarchs will be an absolute disaster for the Eastern Churches and more so for their faithful, spread around the world…Fragmenting the church’s governance and establishing a multitude of centers lacking the necessary capabilities is a dangerous gamble that the Church cannot afford.”