Chaldeans in San Diego show support for Christians facing death in Iraq

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By Marisa Agha – Special to The Bee
Bishop Sarhad Yawsip Jammo leads Mass on Tuesday evening at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon. J. Katarzyna Woronowicz / Special to The Bee
The phone rang in the El Cajon home of Rageed Dawood’s family. His mother rushed to the receiver.

Finally, after more than two months of no contact, the voice came: Hanan Achmawi, his mother’s sister, said Dawood, 24.

Achmawi, her husband, Slewa, and their three children had fled Qaraqosh, Iraq, after Kurdish forces announced that Islamic State fighters were on their way to the town. The Islamic militants seized Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, in early August. The family of five spent three days in traffic heading north. They found refuge in a church patio on the Turkish border in northern Iraq. They wait, hoping to return to their house, jobs and school.

“They don’t even know what’s coming,” said Dawood, who came to the U.S. with his parents and two brothers from his native Baghdad in 2006.

The escalating violence in Iraq and Syria in recent months has galvanized Chaldean Christians who fled Iraq and settled in the San Diego area. They have held peace walks, rallies and prayer vigils to show support for Christians facing death at home.

A group of volunteers is monitoring social media for Islamic State’s efforts to recruit radicalized Muslims in the U.S., and some are pushing for state and federal legislation that would lift quotas and streamline the processing of visas for Iraqi refugees. Others oppose encouraging Iraqi Christians to leave their home, urging the creation of a safe haven in Iraq for Christians.

An estimated 70,000 Iraqis, mostly Chaldean Catholics, live in the San Diego region, the second-largest Iraqi population in the nation, after Detroit. The U.S. government has resettled several thousand Iraqis in San Diego since 2007. Many have settled about 15 miles east of the city in El Cajon, home to St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral.

Chaldeans first settled in ancient Mesopotamia, the country now called Iraq, in the first and second centuries. They still speak Aramaic, the language believed to have been spoken by Jesus. There are an estimated 600,000 Chaldean Catholics worldwide – a number that has dwindled considerably in the last decade since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of attacks by groups like Islamic State, said Rico G. Monge, an assistant professor of comparative theology at the University of San Diego.

The tumult of the last decade makes estimates on the current number of Chaldeans in Iraq difficult, but “the fear is Christianity in Iraq will cease to exist,” Monge said.

Persecution of Chaldean Christians in Iraq is not new, but today’s violence is approaching genocide, said Chaldean Catholic Bishop Sarhad Yawsip Jammo, whose diocese covers the nation’s western region. He is based in San Diego.

“This latest wave is the most brutal,” the bishop said. “They are diminishing every week.”

Many of the diocese’s parishioners in the San Diego region are worried about family still in Iraq, the bishop said. They regularly ask for his prayers and help in obtaining visas for their relatives.

Dawood wants his aunt and her family to come to the U.S., even though she does not want to leave Iraq. He believes the family’s home and the bank his aunt managed are gone and that they are risking their safety by choosing to stay in Iraq for a life that no longer exists.

The bishop met with members of Congress, the State Department and White House officials in Washington, D.C., in September to lobby for passage of House Bill 5430, by U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego. The bill calls for allowing those fleeing Iraq to receive refugee status in the U.S. and to expedite the processing of visas that would allow them to remain in the U.S.

“There is an urgent need,” Vargas said. “We have to help these people.”

Similarly, the California Assembly in August passed a resolution by state Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, urging President Barack Obama and Congress to expedite visas and lift quotas allowing for more Iraqi Christians to come to the U.S.

The bishop and Mark Arabo, a 31-year-old Chaldean American activist in San Diego, delivered to administration officials the names of about 70,000 family members still in Iraq, Turkey or Lebanon, and the names of their sponsors.

“The number one concern is how can we save them? How can we get them over here?” Arabo said.

But not everyone agrees with encouraging Christians to leave Iraq.

The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, based in Baghdad, on Oct. 22 suspended several Iraqi priests in America for leaving Iraq and is demanding they return. Bishop Jammo has appealed the order to Pope Francis in Rome.

Ben Kalasho, who came to San Diego from his native Iraq when he was 8 years old, disagrees with legislative efforts to bring Iraqi Chaldeans to America. Poverty awaits many war refugees in the U.S., he said. Kalasho believes the ultimate goal should be to allow Chaldeans to stay in Iraq by creating a safe haven. Otherwise, an ancient culture and its history will die, he said.

“(Islamic State) wins,” Kalasho said. “That’s the problem.”

After reports that a former San Diego man died in Syria while fighting for Islamic State, Kalasho wanted to help stop the terrorists’ online recruiting efforts in the U.S. Kalasho and volunteers began monitoring sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for clues, such as a Facebook profile promoting Islamic State’s black flag. Then through email blasts and social media, the volunteers alert people in their network about what they have found. The purpose is to get the accounts, which appear to be Islamic State recruitment tools, shut down.

“We have … thousands of people we can reach in a few seconds,” Kalasho said.

Kalasho reports discoveries to Facebook and other companies and informs the FBI and local law enforcement of any local online activity.

Some Chaldean Americans, like 21-year-old Allen Theweny, who was born and raised in the U.S., are angry that they may never see the place where their parents grew up – cities now ravaged by war.

Nonetheless, Theweny, whose parents emigrated from Baghdad to El Cajon in 1991, says he does not see people fleeing Iraq as the death of Chaldean heritage and identity.

“Just because something is gone doesn’t mean the culture is gone,” said Theweny, who helped organize a recent peace walk in El Cajon. “America is our new Babylon.”

Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California

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