Chaldean bishop’s stance favoring Christian refugees sparks response

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By Samer Hijazi
Bishop Francis Kalabat.
DETROIT — Last month, Bishop Francis Kalabat, the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church for Michigan, testified in front of a U.S. House subcommittee, where he panned the Obama administration for ignoring the suffering of Christian refugees displaced by war in Syria and Iraq, proclaiming that the U.S. should prioritize its refugee programs by focusing on resettling Christians.

The remarks have left some local Muslim leaders unsettled, causing another road bump in what some perceive to be a shaky relationship between the Muslim and Chaldean community in metro Detroit over the last year.

Since the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shootings, talks of halting the U.S. refugee programs have ensued due to worries that terrorists might infiltrate the country.

According to Kalabat, the U.S. should do more to protect and resettle Christian refugees.

“There are countless Christian villages in Syria that have been taken over by ISIS and have encountered genocide,” Kalabat said. “And the Obama administration refuses to recognize their plight. … I say, shame on you.”

He went on to argue that Christians in the Middle East have not been involved in any of the terrorist activities, thus warranting them the right to easy access to the U.S.

“Christians have not been part of any terrorist activity, but instead have been the targets of terrorist activities,” he said. “And now they are being looked at as possible terrorists. This is simply unfair.”

As for what to do with innocent Muslim refugees, Kalabat suggested that perhaps they should just resettle in other Middle Eastern countries.

“Here’s my point, where is the best place for a Muslim-Syrian refugee to settle?” he asked. “Kuwait or Germany? Saudi Arabia or Canada? Qatar or America? My point (is) it is much easier for an Arab refugee to start over in a country where the language is the same, the culture is similar and the official religion of that country is the same.”

Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, shared sentiments similar to Kalabat’s when he appeared on a WJBK FOX 2 News program in December.

The refugee stance the Chaldean leaders have taken have ruffled some local Muslim leaders, who argue that Muslims have been the biggest victims of ISIS.

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), said Kalabat’s stance is intolerant and offensive, adding that he is not surprised by the remarks.

“There has been unfortunate tension between the Chaldean and Muslim community in our region,” Walid said. “It’s highly disappointing that a Chaldean leader, a man of God, is capitalizing off of what he knows is the flavor-of-the-month rhetoric.”

Walid noted that prioritizing refugees based on religion is a discriminatory practice and one that already occurred during the administration of George W. Bush.

Walid said that following the Iraq war, the U.S. accepted far fewer Muslim refugees than it did Christians.

“During the Bush administration, Muslims were held up and viewed as potential national security threats,” Walid said. “The majority who were resettled in Syria and Jordan were Muslims. The ones who resettled in America and Michigan were Christian Iraqis. This type of discrimination already took place from our government.”

Nabil Romayah, a Chaldean American local leader and president of the Iraqi Democratic Union, said the refugee crisis and the genocide targeting Christians in the Middle East are two separate issues that should not be associated with each other by the U.S. government.

“Regardless of their country or religion, these refugees are humans,” Romayah said. “They have families and they are trying to escape from deaths and bad situations. I am a Chaldean and I understand the issue of the Christians; it’s a huge problem. They are being persecuted because of their religion and identity and this is something that needs to be addressed by the international community. Looking at the refugee issue and deciding what groups need to be saved is wrong.”

Nathan Kalasho, founder of Keys Grace Academy Charter School and president of I.N.V.E.S.T. (International Network for Vocational Educational Skills Training), said he would support measures that protect all vulnerable refugees, regardless of religion.

Kalasho and his family operate multiple schools in metro Detroit that cater to immigrant families and preserve the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac cultures through education. He noted that his students are a diverse group from various backgrounds.

“This diversity is important, as it serves as a microcosm of this country’s wonderful society, especially in Southeast Michigan,” Kalasho said. ” In fact, we recently received and enrolled a beautiful refugee family from Syria. We make no distinction of race, religion or nationality; and neither do these wonderful children and teenagers.”

He added that many Western leaders are emphasizing the Christian refugees because they are often overlooked in Muslim regions.

“This issue is very delicate and it’s important to have a broader perspective on why His Excellency Bishop Francis feels that way,” Kalasho said. “The Chaldean/Assyrian community is beginning to think that the region simply no longer accepts us. And since Christians only account for 4 percent of the Middle East population, western leaders surmise that the community members wishing to flee should have equal or greater access to a country like the US. Many point to the idea that Muslim communities would fare better in other Muslim-dominated states. That is not to say such an idea is true, but it lends credence to Bishop Francis’s suggestion. I support measures that protect all vulnerable communities.”

By Samer Hijaz