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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

An Iraqi “Catch 22”

Christian Iraqis in America strive to maintain their Chaldean roots while embracing a new American culture.

Iraqi Christians are caught in a “Catch 22.” As a drop in a Muslim sea, Christians, according to Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid, have begun to feel the development among their countrymen of a “religious psychosis.” The Chaldean Catholic patriarch from Baghdad associates this psychosis as an attempt to identify “Christians with Westerners.” Meanwhile since Iraq’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait, Iraqi Christians in the West have periodically experienced anti-Arab discrimination. But while Iraqi Christians are not Western, neither are they Arab.

In the past Iraqi Christians indeed identified with the West. However, they have learned from the past’s broken promises. Just 75 years ago, Britain intimated that if these Christians joined the Allied effort against the Ottoman Empire, they would provide an autonomous Christian homeland. After World War I, Britian set up the Kingdom of Iraq, uniting diverse ethnic and religious groups that were previously separated by the Ottomans. Christians, however, suffered the consequences of their affiliations with the West.

“We identify ourselves as Iraqis,” said Mar Ibrahim N. Ibrahim, Bishop of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese in the United States, “but not as Arabs.”

Iraqi Christians are the heirs of the Assyrian and Chaldean (Babylonian) civilizations, which once ruled the Tigres and Euphrates river basin. The Assyrians were predominant in the north, Chaldeans in the South. Presently, most Iraqi Christians have moved to the cities, particularly Baghdad.

“We Assyrians and Chaldeans are of the same blood,” asserted Mar Ibrahim, “the same people.”

But for Iraqi Christians, this patrimony does not guarantee unity – even when threatened with potential prejudice and hostility by the Arab Muslim majority. Religious and political schisms have separated this once-powerful people and its remnants into a confusing number of churches and patriarchs.

Even among Iraqi Christians, the name “Chaldean” is disputed. Those who acknowledge the authority of the pope – approximately 75 percent of the Christian population – call themselves Chaldean. The rest style themselves surayi, meaning Assyrian or Syrian.

The 20th century has been particularly difficult for the Christians of Iraq. The horrors of World War I forced scores to flee their homeland. Between 1915 and 1918, more than 50,000 Christians were massacred by the Ottoman Turks. Herded into refugee camps, thousands died in the cholera epidemic of 1918.

The Assyrian Church of the East (Nestorian) suffered the heaviest losses. It is estimated that half of its congregation – including the catholicos, numerous bishops, priests, men, women and children – were murdered or died of disease.

Today there are nearly 150,000 Iraqi Christians in the United States. Most of them settled along denominational lines: Chaldean Catholics in California and Michigan; Nestorians in California and Illinois; and Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholics in New Jersey and New York.

The Chaldean Catholic community in Detroit, Mich., is one of the more substantial expatriate communities. More than 35,000 Chaldeans have settled in the metropolitan area.

The first Chaldean immigrants to Detroit arrived in the 1900s. They were men from the small town of Telkaif near Mosul in northern Iraq, several of whom bought and operated a small grocery store. After a few years, families and brides from the homeland followed.

By the 1930s and 40s, these first-generation Americans, by now more successful, moved from their original neighborhoods to better environs. Soon their concerns of being swallowed up by American culture induced them to establish distinctly Chaldean institutions. In 1948, the Church of the Mother of God was consecrated to serve their spiritual needs. Fraternal and political organizations, restaurants and clubs were also established to keep alive their heritage.

Chaldean immigration dramatically increased in the 1960s and 70s, when the group found itself caught in a civil war between the Arabic majority and the fiercely independent Kurdish Muslim minority. Forced to choose sides, many Chaldeans migrated.

The majority of these recent immigrants are professionals from Baghdad and other urban areas. Like other Christians in the Middle East, most Chaldeans have moved to cities to find jobs, finish their education and blend in with the general population. But these most recent immigrants still claim Telkaif as their ancestral home.

The church continues to be the focal point of the Detroit community. Chaldeans today have four parishes in metropolitan Detroit, a sign of the prosperity and growth of the community.

At the heart of the church is the Qurbana, the divine liturgy. To this day it is celebrated in Aramaic (the language of Jesus, also known as Syriac), the vernacular language of ancient Mesopotamia and Palestine. This forms a bond between modern Chaldean Catholics, their homeland and their forbears.

More than 70 percent of Chaldean youths in the United States attend Roman Catholic schools for lack of Chaldean ones. Like other Eastern Catholic youths, many are absorbed by the Catholic Church in the United States and frequently marry Roman Catholics.

Mar Ibrahim remarked that Chaldean youths, who after birth receive the sacraments of confirmation and eucharist together with baptism, have even been reconfirmed by Latin-rite priests who do not understand this Eastern concept of chrismation.

Recently however, several parishes have begun inviting Mar Ibrahim to confirmation liturgies where he gives a special blessing to those Chaldean students who desire to participate with their Latin-rite peers. Yet the reality of an aging, shrinking church haunts the bishop.

“I tell my people that this is the tax of being the minority,” he said.

Minorities often struggle with their sense of ethnic self-preservation. Often it leads to an isolationist mentality, which does not encourage evolution. Conversely, it can result in the extinction of old values. Although Mar Ibrahims pastoral work is exclusively Chaldean, he recognizes the need to adjust.

“We have to keep the best of both sides,” the Iraqi-born bishop said. “We must retain what is best of being Chaldean, and adapt to become American.”

According to the bishop, American Chaldeans are expecting a heavy influx of Christians from Iraq as soon as conditions allow emigration. The combination of passionate Islamic fundamentalism and chronic domestic crises in Lebanon, formerly the Middle Eastern Christians refuge, have left many Christians in the region wary of their future.

Meanwhile, as tensions mount between Iraq and the West, and Iraqi Christians and Muslims, the expatriate Chaldean community in Detroit prays for a peaceful settlement. “We are caught between two loves,” Mar Ibrahim said. “Families may fight families.”

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.

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