One of the oldest existing Christian communities in the world is that of the Chaldean Catholics, with roots that trace back to the apostles. The early Eastern Rite communities in Iraq and Iran split into distinct factions in the 5th century, when the Church of the East embraced Nestorianism, a heresy that declared Christ to be man, and God the son to be his divine counterpart, but not two aspects of a single being. The Nestorian Church expanded into China, the steppes of Mongol Asia and the Malabar Coast of India until the 14th century, when the Mongol leader Timur largely destroyed the Nestorian Church east of Iraq. The Chaldean church leaders recanted the Nestorian heresy and officially united with the Roman Catholic Church in 1551; since that time, members of the church have been referred to as Chaldeans.
The Chaldeans have preserved the ancient East Syrian liturgy, which they celebrate in Syriac, an important branch of Semitic language known as Aramaic. At the time of Alexander the Great, Aramaic was the official language from Asia Minor to Persia, from Armenia to the Arabian Peninsula; Chaldeans claim the Syriac dialect they use is similar to that spoken by Christ and the Apostles. The Chaldeans lived in relative peace under the Ottoman Empire, but its collapse at the turn of the last century, and the dislocations resulting from World War I, led to ongoing assertions of nationalism, violent efforts at ethnic cleansing, and a diaspora that spread Chaldeans across the globe.
The Chaldeans — like other Christian groups — have been targeted for persecution by Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist groups. Last year, then-US secretary of state John Kerry said a genocide was occurring against Chaldeans in Iraq, though international courts have not officially given the violence there that designation. Chaldeans are now being swept up in immigration raids across the US and targeted for deportation by the Trump administration. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers recently seized more than 200 Iraqi nationals who have been the subject of deportation orders following criminal convictions or pending criminal charges.
The families of arrested persons have complained that the planned deportations amount to a death sentence for the deportees, many of whom have spent decades in the US and speak little or no Arabic. The Minority Humanitarian Foundation, a non-profit organization which provides aid to Iraqi minorities, plans to file a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union to stop the deportation of Chaldeans to Iraq.
An ICE spokesperson claimed an “overwhelming majority” of those arrested were convicted for crimes including “homicide, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking, robbery, sex assault, weapons violations and other offenses,” and that the deportation operation “was specifically conducted to address the very real public safety threat represented by the criminal aliens arrested”.
In contrast, Chaldean family members and others in the community disputed that pretense, and noted many of the charges were handed down decades ago, and those convicted had served their sentences for the crimes. Iraq had previously not cooperated with US deportation efforts, but the two countries negotiated a new policy in March after Trump issued a travel ban for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq. The initial ban was revised after it was struck down in a federal court; the new ban, also currently being challenged, no longer includes Iraq and removes a preference for religious minorities, including Christians, from these countries.
Trump’s executive order for the revised ban said the rules for Iraq had changed because “the Iraqi government has expressly undertaken steps to enhance travel documentation, information sharing, and the return of Iraqi nationals subject to final orders of removal.” Whether inadvertently or not, the revised travel ban opened the door for Chaldeans to be “returned” to Iraq, even in instances where Iraq had not actively sought their return. Even worse, these Chaldeans were being sent to a country that was hostile, and perhaps even fatal, to this Christian minority. “Shame on Donald Trump,” a Chaldean spokesman said. “He campaigned on helping Christians, helping the under-served, on fighting ISIS when actually his actions are emboldening ISIS.”
The Chaldean community in the US mostly supported Trump in the presidential election. In large part, that support was based on a belief that Trump would keep his promise to protect persecuted Christian minorities in the Middle East. In Chaldean communities that were dislocated and decimated by a series of leaders promising peace and protection, the term “seyfo” has become more common. Seyfo, both in Arabic and Syriac, means “sword,” but more pointedly is vernacular for “genocide.” What side of history will our leaders — and by extension, will we — be on in protecting our Chaldean brethren? The paranoid response to politically expedient rhetoric is indeed a double-edged sword, and we must take care that is not brandished in support of the “seyfo” Chaldeans justly fear.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.