Richard Szczepanowski, Catholic Standard
U.S. Chaldean Bishop Frank Kalabat listens to a speaker Nov. 10 during the annual fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. Bishop Kalabat heads the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle based in Southfield, Mich. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
Catholics and other Christians in Iraq and the Middle East are being persecuted to such an extent that their suffering must be considered genocide, said Bishop Francis Kalabat, head of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy for Detroit and the East Coast.
“We need to proclaim, ‘This is genocide,’ and then do something about it,” Bishop Kalabat said. “When we do that, then we can set up courts and set up programs to deal with the physical trauma, the emotional trauma and the spiritual trauma.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in March determined that the atrocities were indeed genocide. It was the first U.S. declaration of genocide since Sudanese actions in Darfur in 2004.
Bishop Kalabat made his remarks during a Nov. 17 talk at The Catholic University of America and in an interview with the Catholic Standard newspaper.
The Chaldean Catholic Church – headed by His Holiness Louis Sako, the patriarch based in Baghdad – is in complete union with Rome and celebrates its liturgies in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It is considered one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world. While only about 6 percent of Iraqis are Christians, 80 percent of those Christians are Chaldean Catholics.
Bishop Kalabat has served as bishop of the Chaldean Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle of Detroit since 2014. Detroit is home to many from the Middle East who were attracted to the area by the automobile industry. The Chaldean Catholic community in the United States is one of the largest in the world.
Bishop Kalabat’s eparchy has 10 parishes in the Detroit metropolitan area. “We are trying to maintain who we are,” Bishop Kalabat said. “We want to praise Jesus using the language and the customs with which we first encountered Him.”
Bishop Kalabat noted that Chaldean Catholics “have a profound and rich history and if that history does not connect to us today, then it is nothing more than a memory.”
He said “Christianity in the Middle East has had so much life, but it is now being destroyed in Iraq, Syria and the other countries of the ‘Arab Spring.’”
The Arab Spring – a 2011 series of protests and uprisings in several Middle Eastern countries – resulted in political power being gained by groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Society of the Muslim Brothers (Muslim Brotherhood). Both groups have led a campaign against Christians, including murder, beheadings and rapes and looting and destroying churches.
“If that is the spring, I’d hate to see the winter,” Bishop Kalabat said.
ISIS, he said, “did a lot of destruction. They not only destroyed buildings, but they destroyed relations between neighbors. Many (Iraqi Muslims intimidated by ISIS) turned in their Christian neighbors and that has built up a lot of mistrust.”
The systematic persecution of Christian communities in the Middle East “is the purposeful destruction of a culture, a faith, a human history and a human person,” the bishop said.
He called what is happening in Iraq “a purposeful genocide… I can speak on behalf of Iraqi Christians and say we are being targeted.”
Bishop Kalabat said there are certain regions of Iraq “where you’re told you have 24 hours or less to get out or you will die. Imagine – you build up a life and in almost the blink of an eye you lose everything.”
He said Iraqi Christians also suffer “a very strong pain from being unsettled.” He pointed to recent laws that were enacted in Iraq: one banning alcohol in the country and the other legislating that if there are two Christian parents and one of them converts to Islam, then all children under the age of 12 automatically become Muslim.
“When they passed those laws, they (Iraqi lawmakers) said, ‘It is because we are a Muslim country.’ Imagine how the Christians feel. They feel they are not being represented,” the bishop said.
Bishop Kalabat spent the month of September in Iraq and “had the real opportunity to see Christians in Iraq – and not just Christians but all Iraqis – alive and in pain and suffering.”
He said daily life in Iraq is marked by a lack of trust in the government, bombings and other acts of terrorism that unsettle and destabilize the population, lack of jobs and educational opportunities and harsh living conditions such as limited electrical power.
“They (Iraqi Catholics) are survivors, but is it enough just to be in survival mode all the time?” Bishop Kalabat asked. “Don’t you want to live? Don’t you want to thrive? Don’t you want to be able to give?”
He also noted that some Catholic communities in Iraq have not had Mass said for them for as long as seven years.
“They (Iraqi Catholics) may ask, ‘where is Jesus when we lost our home? Where is Jesus when we are in pain, when we are targeted, when we are in fear?’ ” Bishop Kalabat said. “The answer is He is here. He says, ‘I love you. I am here to struggle with you.’ He is real and He wants to touch them, to heal them, to love them.”
Bishop Kalabat said Patriarch Louis Sako “has met with officials and is working very hard to bring rights not just to Christians, but to all Iraqis.”
He noted that not all Muslims are persecuting Christians and that there are many “who want a democratic, free and peaceful Iraq.” He also pointed out that there are Muslims “working hard to protect Christians. These people are heroes. They are our friends.”
“The people are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said. “There is a need to unite the country. To remind all Iraqis, regardless of their religion, that their religion should make them better Iraqis.”
He said the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq “is very active and it is active with all Iraqis. We respond with love and compassion. We do no always get that in return, but when we do it is magnificent.”
“Christianity has always been the face of God’s mercy to the rest of humanity,” he said, while pointing out that in Iraq Christian social services and Catholic outreach such as the St. Vincent DePaul Society “feed children and help the elderly without asking what religion they are.”
“These are Christians – the Church alive – risking their lives to serve others,” Bishop Kalabat said. “Can you imagine an Iraq, a Middle East, without these Christians?”
Noting there is “a massive exodus of Christians from Biblical lands and profoundly historical lands,” the bishop said that for someone to tell persecuted Christians to stay “is not real, is not fair and is not practical.”
“If – God forbid – every Christian left Iraq, what would happen? Let’s pray and let’s work and let’s rebuild so that doesn’t happen,” he said. But, because of the suffering and persecution they endure, “how do I tell those who want to leave that they should stay?” he asked.
Bishop Kalabat said that he sees a paradox in that “the worst thing that could happen is for Iraq to be left without Christians and along with that, the worst thing we can do is tell Christians who are suffering and want to leave Iraq to stay.”
He called on American Catholics to become aware of the suffering of Christians in the Middle East and to pray for them. He also urged American Catholics to “talk about it, don’t forget it, call your senators about it. Talk to the new administration and tell them what we need and that we need it now.’”
Because ISIS has threatened to “humiliate Americans everywhere and raise the flag of Allah in the White House,” Bishop Kalabat said Americans must never forget that “ISIS isn’t just ‘their’ problem. It is a problem for all of us.”
He said Catholics in the West can also “adopt parishes, adopt dioceses and adopt people” and assist them “to let the people there know that the people here are thinking of them and praying for them and thanking them for keeping the faith alive.”