Newly ordained, the Rev. David Stephan receives a kiss from his aunt during a reception at St. Peter Chaldean Cathedral in El Cajon. A Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Siena, she traveled from Iraq to be with the family for his ordination. (photo: Nancy Wiechec)
People mingle outside St. Peter Chaldean Cathedral in El Cajon. (photo: Nancy Wiechec)
Bishop Sarhad Jammo heads the Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle of the Chaldeans. (photo: Nancy Wiechec)
Parishioners attend the liturgy at Holy Family Chaldean Mission in Phoenix. (photo: Nancy Wiechec)
Chaldean Catholics Zinah Marzana and her mother, Victoria, live in Gilbert, Arizona. (photo: Nancy Wiechec)
An altar server waits for the liturgy to begin at Holy Family Chaldean Catholic Mission in Phoenix. (photo: Nancy Wiechec)
Zinah Marzana’s blue-green eyes fill with tears as she recalls the moment her life changed forever. It was December, and she was holding her infant son as her husband, Zergo, drove along the road outside Tel Kaif in northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plain. Her brother sat in the front seat beside her husband. Somehow, they’d lost their way.
“My husband asked for directions from another driver,” Ms. Marzana says. At that point, the family discovered the men in the other car were armed. “They asked where we came from and if we were Christian. We told them yes. My husband — he stepped on the gas to try to get away.”
But it was too late. The other car sped after them. Bullets ripped through the air, striking and killing her husband. Ms. Marzana was also badly injured by a bullet that lodged in her spine. Paralyzed for six months, she was unable to care for her son, Fadi. Her voice breaks as she describes the helplessness she felt.
“I was nursing my son at the time and I heard him crying. I heard some ladies at the hospital asking, ‘Who will feed him?’”
It was an agonizing two years before the soft-spoken, petite woman could walk normally. At that time, in 2009, she and her family decided to leave Iraq.
“I couldn’t stay there — it was too hard,” Ms. Marzana says quietly.
Her younger sisters nod, relieved to be far from a place where mortal danger is an everyday fact of life. Vian, 19, sums up their feelings: “Our religion — it means everything to us. We were so scared there.”
Aunts, uncles and cousins of the family number among the tens of thousands of Christians, as well as Yazidi and other Iraqi minorities, forced from their homes by ISIS in August 2014, who now live in makeshift housing or in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, or further afield. Ms. Marzana and her sisters hope to be reunited one day with their displaced family in their new home: a quiet suburb outside Phoenix, Arizona, a world away from the violence that drove them from their native Iraq.
Before finding their way to Arizona, Ms. Marzana and her family first settled in El Cajon, California, home to some 60,000 Chaldean Catholics, most of whom hail from Iraq.
For decades, Chaldeans have been building communities in the southwestern region of the United States. Now, as ISIS drives Christians from their homes in Iraq, these communities have grown into a base of support and hope across the globe.
Over the years, El Cajon, which lies east of San Diego, has taken on the shape of its growing community of Iraqi Christians. Signs in many of the city’s shops and restaurants are in Chaldean or Arabic, leading some to dub East Main Street, “Little Baghdad.” A stroll through the grounds of St. Peter Chaldean Cathedral is more reminiscent of the ancient city of Babylon, with sculptured lions of Ishtar guarding the entrance to the hall.
From this city, Bishop Sarhad Jammo, a native of Baghdad, leads the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle, a jurisdiction spanning 19 states in the west of the country. Second only to Michigan — the cradle of the nation’s other Chaldean eparchy — California has grown into a major Chaldean hub, with ten parishes and two missions. El Cajon alone also boasts two convents, a monastery and a seminary alongside a catechetical program serving 1,000 children, who learn to pray and celebrate the Qurbana, the eucharistic liturgy of the Chaldean Church, in a modern form of the Aramaic language.
On a warm Friday morning in mid-August, a red-haired altar server sweeps the floor in the hall at St. Michael Chaldean Church, where some 70 or so parishioners had just finished a morning game of bingo. Born in Baghdad, Domunik Shamoun, 11, came to the United States in 2008 with his two older brothers and parents. He expresses pride in his heritage.
“I think it’s cool that Jesus spoke Chaldean when he was alive. I speak the same language,” he says during a pause from his work. At home he speaks Chaldean to his parents and English to his brothers.
El Cajon’s Mar Abba the Great Seminary — the only Chaldean seminary outside of Iraq — reflects the vibrancy of the Chaldean community in the western United States. In 2015, Bishop Sarhad ordained four priests; three were born in the United States, and a fourth arrived with his parents when he was 3.
“I don’t think Chaldeans are just one nation among nations,” Bishop Sarhad says. “They have a major role in the redemptive plan of God.” That great destiny, he says, is not his own invention, but rather foreshadowed in the Bible when God called Abraham from the land of Chaldea.
“He’s the one who said there is one spiritual God, the creator of humanity. I am the heir of that heritage. I cannot escape it,” Bishop Sarhad adds.
The Chaldean heritage is evident from the moment the blue dome of St. Peter Cathedral appears along the highway that snakes through this sleepy town in Southern California. For Chaldeans, the church is the center of their lives.
Standing inside the cathedral on a late summer afternoon, Mark Arabo, a San Diego businessman and community leader, translates for Romey Saed, an Iraqi immigrant still learning English who arrived in El Cajon two years ago. His brother, who is now displaced in northern Iraq, hopes one day to join him.
Mr. Saed works in a store, just as he did back home, but with one major difference. “Here, I don’t worry about my kids. I don’t worry about my wife. It’s nice. I do what I want.”
Mr. Arabo is well known in the Chaldean community and beyond for his efforts to assist those displaced by violence.
“They’re just so happy to be in America,” Mr. Arabo says. “A lot of them do have posttraumatic stress. Some of them still think that ISIS will come get them.”
Noori Barka, a local businessman, works with many of the refugees. His company employs 35 people, 30 of whom are Chaldean.
“The church is number one in our lives,” Mr. Barka says. “We are a small community. Everybody knows everybody.”
Mr. Barka has worked to build a strong relationship with city leaders and help bridge the cultural divide. At first, residents were uneasy when they saw signs in Arabic; by 2014, they had grown comfortable enough to declare September “Chaldean-American Month” in El Cajon. He has spoken at events throughout the area, sharing the message that Chaldeans are descendants of some of the earliest Christian communities in the Middle East — something he says surprises audiences. He serves on the board of the Boys and Girls Club, where many Chaldean children participate in after-school programs.
Mr. Barka is also in the process of creating a program to help Chaldeans establish businesses, something he says is in their blood. The idea sprang from his experience helping many of his relatives set up shop.
“Here they have opportunity. This is the place in the world that you can have nothing — no degree, no money — but you still can make it,” Mr. Barka says.
Deacon Martin Banni, 24, a student at Mar Abba the Great Seminary, has only been in El Cajon two months. He and his pastor were the last two people to leave the village of Karamlish, near Mosul, when ISIS swept through the area last year, threatening Christians with death or the jizya tax if they would not convert.
“Father called the bishop and he said, ‘It is finished. You have to go,’” Deacon Martin recounts. “So we rang the church bell. It was 11 p.m. Our people, they knew something bad was happening.”
After helping carloads of villagers pack up, Deacon Banni and his pastor took the Bible and the Eucharist and left St. Barbara Church, built on the site where local tradition believes the third-century martyr gave her life.
“My body is here, but my heart is there,” Deacon Banni notes wistfully. Though he has found safety in North America, along with his parents and older brothers, he longs to return to his native Iraq, to serve his brothers and sisters who are suffering for the faith.
Chorbishop Felix Shabi, a native of Karamlish who leads the Chaldean vicariate of Arizona, says his brother priests share similar sentiments.
“I want to be with my people in their time of suffering,” he says, though he acknowledges the Chaldean community in Arizona needs its leader.
Chorbishop Shabi, known throughout the eparchy as “Father Felix,” came to the United States in 2002. He served seven years in El Cajon and erected St. Barbara Church in Las Vegas before relocating to Phoenix in 2009.
“Here we are spread out. Our people are in Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, Glendale, Surprise,” the priest says, ticking off a list of some of the suburbs that comprise the Phoenix metropolitan area. Once a month, he travels two hours to Tucson to celebrate the Qurbana and attend to the Chaldean families who live there.
“Many of them, their family has only one car, so if one is working, the rest of the family cannot get to church.” Chorbishop Shabi dreams of the day he can unite the Chaldeans of Phoenix in one church building. For now, the community rents two churches — one on Phoenix’s northwest side and the other on the southeast side.
Mar Abraham Chaldean Church, the community’s headquarters in Arizona, was founded in 1995 by 70 Chaldean families who settled in the state. Raad Delly was among them. His uncle, Mar Emanuel III, led the Chaldean Church as patriarch and cardinal, and died in San Diego in 2014.
Mr. Delly doesn’t have any grandchildren yet, but says that when he does, he will teach them their Chaldean heritage.
Maha George, who sings in the choir at the Chaldean mission in Gilbert, outside Phoenix, says the same. Mrs. George left Baghdad years ago after being shot by one of Saddam Hussein’s men while she was eight months pregnant. Her husband, Luay, worked three jobs to help establish their family, which now co-owns two car washes.
“It’s our roots. It’s a great history to belong to,” Mrs. George says. “America took us in, thank God, but we don’t want that history to get lost. Somebody has to keep it.”
The eparchy’s four new priests have all pledged to help preserve this legacy. Although only in their early 20’s, the men are steeped in their heritage.
The Rev. David Stephan, 23, spoke before a packed cathedral at his ordination, sharing the tale of his journey in faith. Reared close to the church, he first felt called to the priesthood when he was 8 years old, and for a time he briefly considered entering the Jesuit novitiate after high school. Then Bishop Sarhad stepped in for what would prove an intense encounter.
“He said, ‘If you are at your friend’s house and you hear that your house is on fire, and another house in your neighborhood is on fire, where would you go to first?’ I said, ‘My house, of course,’ like ‘what’s he talking about? Of course it’s logical that I would go to my house first.’ And then he just stared at me for about two minutes until finally it clicked, what he was trying to get through. This is my home. This is my house,” Father Stephan said to thunderous applause.
The Rev. Simon Esshaki, 24, ordained in July, said new priests are key to preserving their identity.
“Bishop Sarhad taught us that worshiping God is the most important thing you can do on this earth and that the Chaldean liturgy has treasures that are centuries old,” Father Esshaki said.
At a celebration after the ordinations of two new priests, seminarian Rami Georgis reflects on the Chaldean identity, forged in the crucible of martyrdom.
“Our faith is in our blood. We are not scared of carrying our faith. Our fathers, they shed their blood for the faith, for the community and their families.”
In this, he says, the Chaldean Catholic community grounds itself. “When there is no church, they don’t feel alive,” he says. “So they start from square one, ask for a priest and establish a church.”
Looking ahead, he sees hope. “God is going to be with us to defend us. He will carry us and renew us and make us strong.”
Joyce Coronel’s work appears regularly in the Catholic press, including The Catholic Sun in Phoenix, Our Sunday Visitor and The Tidings in Los Angeles.