East County Chaldeans launch TV lifeline

John Hanna, left, works the controls as Ibtisam Alsanati, background center, interviews Father Awraha Mansoor during a taping of “The Word of Truth,” a weekly show on Kaldu.TV. — Howard Lipin
A squat, little building south of El Cajon — near a nursery and a nunnery — has been transformed into a lifeline for one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

Photo detail

Father Awraha Mansoor, left, talks with studio technician John Hanna, right, before a taping of “The Word of Truth.”

What was once a parsonage at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral is now the home of Kaldu.TV, an online media operation that was launched last year as a beacon for the far-flung Chaldean culture.

Its audience includes worshippers in Baghdad and other troubled areas of Iraq.

Today, roughly 40,000 of the Iraqi Christians live in the El Cajon area, the second-largest concentration of the group in the U.S. Many face challenges when they arrive, but are free to see who they want and worship as they wish.

The same is not true in Iraq, where the Christian population has been decimated by years of war and persecution. Last fall, terrorists stormed a Baghdad church and massacred nearly 60 people, including two priests.

So Kaldu.TV reaches out, streaming programming to the traumatized and the scattered.

Some viewers tune in for the Chaldean entertainment and educational shows, much of it in modern-day Aramaic.

Some tune in to watch Sunday mass at St. Peter, in Rancho San Diego, including Iraqis who fear going to church in their own country.

Fadi Alshammas moved to El Cajon a few weeks ago after briefly living in Turkey, where his refugee papers were processed. Before that, he was part of Baghdad’s dwindling Christian community.

Alshammas said his family discovered the East County media channel while they were still in Iraq. He said it filled a huge gap in their lives.

“We watched it especially on Sundays, during its live broadcast of the Sunday holy mass,” he said through a translator. “Due to worsening security conditions, we couldn’t attend church but were happy to watch Kaldu.TV.”

Located next door to the blue-domed St. Peter, the media outfit is the creation of the western U.S. diocese of the Chaldean church. The $100,000 facility includes a small studio, with seating for interviews, a green-screen curtain and sound-absorbing padding on the walls.

It streams three hours of video starting at 9 each morning and then repeats it through the day — an hour tied to religion (taped masses, other spiritual events); an hour of education (lectures on Middle East history, etc.); and an hour of entertainment (footage from the recent Chaldean Festival in East County is a current staple).

It even has its own anchorperson, Iraqi immigrant Ibtisam Alsanati.

Bishop Bawai Soro said the diocese plans to add more news and English-language programming to the schedule to better reach younger Chaldeans and others.

The church hopes to eventually turn it into a 24-hour, satellite TV operation.

“The mission is to make our Eastern Christianity known to a world that doesn’t know who are,” he said.

His comment reflects the widespread feeling among local Chaldeans that the persecution in Iraq has failed to get the globe’s attention. They say many non-Chaldeans are unaware there are native Christians in Iraq.

Kaldu.TV is believed to be the only church-based TV station for Chaldeans in the country. The Chaldean Voice, a Michigan-based radio station, also serves as a cultural hub. The Detroit area has the largest concentration of Chaldeans in the nation.

Curtis Marez, an associate professor of ethnic studies at UC San Diego, said radio, newspapers and other media have been used by immigrant groups for decades as a type of glue.

“They’ve really been a way to bind their culture,” he said. In addition, he said, “it’s partly a way to re-create a sense of homeland when that homeland is absent.”

Within weeks of last fall’s church massacre in Baghdad, more than 1,000 Christian families reportedly fled that city. By some estimates, the Christian population in Iraq has dropped to 500,000 from 1.4 million before the U.S.-led occupation.

Many eventually land in Europe, Canada and the U.S.

St. Peter church often hands out mattresses, food and other essentials to the newcomers. Many struggle to find jobs, given the tight economy.

Church leaders hope Kaldu.TV can help anchor those unsettled by the culture shock and haunted by what they may have witnessed in Iraq. The word “Kaldu” refers to the ancient home of the Chaldeans.

The online streaming of Sunday mass draws at least 1,500 viewers worldwide each week. While the number is small, station operators and others say they are heartened by the positive emails they get in response.

Solo said it’s important that the station also tackle sensitive subjects and not just those with a positive cast. The flood of refugees into East County amid a weak economy has raised tensions and fueled misunderstandings between newcomers and others, many say.

In August, diocese leaders said they received a handful of hateful emails and calls after law enforcement officials broke up a drug- and gun-trafficking ring based at a Chaldean social club in El Cajon. Of the more than 30 people prosecuted in the case, only a handful were Chaldean, according to authorities.

Kaldu.TV did not cover the issue, but the bishop said it’s critical to confront such issues going forward if his community is to stay true to its Christian beliefs and better itself.

The media outlet, he said, “can have a role in critiquing everything that happens. … It’s part of reforming ourselves.”