Chaldeans’ order for priest to return to Iraq prompts rift in church

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By Tony Perry contact the reporter
Father Noel Gorgis at St. Paul Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church in North Hollywood in 2005. (Brian Vander Brug, Los Angeles Times)
A priest is ordered back to Iraq, but some fear he’ll be one of those Christians slaughtered
Speaking in Aramaic, Father Noel Gorgis is preaching to parishioners of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Church at a Saturday night Mass.
Older parishioners are pleased that Gorgis celebrates Mass — and hears confessions — in Arabic and Aramaic, the ancient language of the Chaldean people. Younger parishioners appreciate Gorgis’ use of websites and live-streaming.

In his four years at St. Peter, the soft-spoken Gorgis, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has become a popular figure among the faithful, many of whom, like their priest, are immigrants from Iraq.

But the 48-year-old priest’s days at St. Peter may be dwindling. The violence that once forced him to flee his native land may now force him to return, to the dismay of parishioners.

The Chaldean patriarch, the Iraq-based church’s top official, has ordered Gorgis and several other priests to return to Iraq to stand beside the church in its hour of maximum peril. Islamic radicals are ravaging much of the country, destroying churches and killing Christians.

Since October, Patriarch Louis Sako has repeatedly said that Chaldean priests who did not seek church permission to leave must return to Iraq. To remain abroad is to put personal safety above the needs of the church and violate the sacred oath of a priest, Sako has told Aleteia, a Rome-based Catholic news agency.

Fareed Saka, 39, a church deacon who came to El Cajon in 2010 after serving as a translator in Iraq for the U.S. Army, has no doubt what awaits Gorgis in Iraq: “He’ll be killed in a day or two, kidnapped maybe.”

The dispute has led to a rift between the patriarch and Bishop Sarhad Yawsip Jammo of the San Diego-based Chaldean diocese, and between the patriarch and the Vatican. The bishop wants Gorgis to stay in El Cajon and has endorsed his defiance of the patriarch.

“The patriarch talks about keeping Chaldean culture alive in Iraq,” said church member Allen Theweny, 22, a UC San Diego student. “But what about here? This is our Babylon.”

The Chaldean Catholic Church shares the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and considers itself “in full communion” with the Vatican. But for complex historical reasons, the governance of the Chaldean church is largely separate from Rome, and the relationship between the two is dotted with disputes over authority.

As Iraqis — Christians and Muslims — have fled their homeland to escape Saddam Hussein and then the sectarian war that followed his overthrow, El Cajon has been one of the most popular locations for the immigrants.

Like many immigrant Iraqis, Gorgis’ life has been shaped by war and tyranny. He was born in a village in northern Iraq, the son of a farmer. His religious studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army during the Iran-Iraq war.

After serving in the army, he fled Iraq for Turkey at the time of the Gulf War. In 1992, he was admitted into the U.S. as a refugee and came to El Cajon. The Chaldean church helped support him.

The church sent to him to parishes in Chicago and Arizona and in 2002, to St. Paul Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church in North Hollywood. In 2011, he was assigned to El Cajon, where two Chaldean churches, St. Peter and St. Michael, minister to about 3,000 families.

When the U.S. moved in 2003 to depose Hussein, Gorgis was quick to call the move not an invasion but a liberation. “I am an American, 100%,” he said recently.

At St. Peter, Gorgis assists in the English-language Masses and is a frequent choice of young couples to perform marriage ceremonies. He co-signs for immigrants who need housing but lack credit. “The community needs him,” said Saka, the deacon.