Plight of Iraqi relatives on the mind of local Chaldeans this Christmas

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By Kurt Kuban • OBSERVER STAFF WRITER •

For millions of Christians around the world and all over America, today is a day to be celebrated. Many will gather with family and friends for Christmas parties and to rejoice over the birth of Christ.

Metropolitan Detroit’s large Chaldean community will also be celebrating the religious holiday, but they will do so with a fair amount of apprehension and fear for family and friends living in Iraq, where they have been persecuted and even killed because of their Christian beliefs.

The plight of Iraq’s Chaldeans has hit close to home in southeastern Michigan, which is home to approximately 125,000 Chaldean-Americans – the largest contingent outside of the Middle East. Most live in the communities of Sterling Heights, West Bloomfield, Farmington Hills, Southfield and Troy.

According to local Chaldean leaders, as many as 50 percent of Chaldeans living in Iraq have fled the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Because they are Christians (largely Catholic) living in a Muslim-led country, they have been driven out of their homes and even killed. In particular, many Chaldean religious leaders have been the targets of terrorist attacks.

Joseph Kassab, the executive director of the Southfield-based Chaldean Federation of America, said Chaldeans and other Christians made up about 5 percent of Iraq’s population before the war. Today, he says it’s likely less than 2 percent. Those that remain must try and conceal their Christian roots for fear of being targeted by terrorists.

“Christmas is not easy to celebrate in Iraq. Far too many of our people have fled their homes or have been killed. To survive, they must conceal their religion,” Kassab said.

Nick Bakko, a West Bloomfield resident who owns Neil’s Party Store in Westland, has many relatives living in Iraq. He was born in the village of Telkaif in northern Iraq, and came to America in 1983. Most of his relatives live in Telkaif, which is in the Kurdish-controlled north. He says Chaldeans in the northern part of the country are relatively safer than those in central and southern Iraq, areas of the country dominated by Muslim Arabs.

Bakko knows the devastating toll the war has had on Chaldeans. His aunt, who lived in Baghdad when the war began, received a note to leave her house in one week or she would be killed. Fearing for her life, she fled and is now a refugee in Syria. Another aunt, who was a pharmacist in Baghdad, was shot and killed while at work during the early days of the war.

Bakko and his wife Amy will gather with family today at his mother’s home in Commerce. He said they will be thinking of relatives in Iraq, and may even try to call.

“On Christmas we always get together. A lot of times we try and call family when we’re all together,” he said. “We keep them in our prayers. But we have to live our lives. What can you do? Life is not perfect.”

Haytham Yono, a 36-year-old Farmington Hills resident who owns the Wayne Liquor store in Wayne, fondly remembers Christmas celebrations while growing up in Telkaif.

“Our whole family would gather together, pray together, go to church together. It wasn’t like here where Christmas has become such a big business,” Yono said.

However, Yono says those days are a thing of the past. He has several aunts and other family members living in Iraq. He is able to talk to them on the phone occasionally, and the picture they paint of life there isn’t pretty. Churches have been bombed and religious leaders assassinated.

“Life for them is very difficult,” Yono said. “Over here, people are losing jobs and homes, but we live in a paradise compared to what is going on over there.

“Chaldeans were largely protected during the Saddam (Hussein) years because there was law and order. Yes there was no democracy, but there was peace. You could celebrate Christmas without fearing for your life.”

Kassab said local Chaldeans will definitely be thinking of their relatives and friends back in Iraq today as they celebrate Christmas.

“The greatest Christmas gift we could have would be to see our people come back to their homes. Before that happens, however, we need conditions to improve in Iraq. We need security for Christian minorities. We also need economic development policies that will allow our people find work and rebuild their lives,” Kassab said.

http://www.hometownlife.com/article/20081225/NEWS27/812250469