Iraqi Christians’ Dilemma: Stay or Go?With ISIS Threat, Thousands of Chaldeans Face an Agonizing Decision

Sept. 29, 2014 8:48 p.m. ET
Fadwa Rabban stayed in Baghdad after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and after her husband died in 2005. She stayed after a nearby blast blew out the windows of her home, and after friends and relatives left as Christians like herself increasingly became the target of Islamic militants. One Sunday in 2010, she went to church for a morning service with her son and daughter. That evening, the church was attacked by Islamic militants, leaving 58 dead.
“After that, I couldn’t stay,” said Ms. Rabban, 49 years old. In late 2012, she finally moved to Michigan with her children, joining a growing contingent of Iraqi Christians, known as Chaldeans or Assyrians, fleeing an intensifying campaign against religious minorities in Iraq.
As America again gears up for deeper military involvement in the Middle East, many Chaldeans are engaged in a fateful debate: Either get as many people out of Iraq as possible to safe havens, such as the United States, or stay and fight, possibly with U.S. help.
Iraq’s minority groups, including Christians, are more vocally pressing the Iraqi central government to set up militias to protect from Islamic militants. The militias would be part of a U.S.-backed plan for a national guard, but has met with resistance from Iraq’s government which fears militias may further destabilize the fragile country.
The Chaldeans, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, number in the hundreds of thousands in Iraq. They survived more than a century of intermittent persecution and a decade of often-brutal fighting since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Now, Iraq’s Chaldeans and other Christian communities face an existential threat in the form of the group known as Islamic State, or ISIL, which vows to kill anyone who doesn’t share its radical view of Islam.
While the White House and Congress haven’t specifically addressed what to do with the Iraqi Christian community, President Obama has made it clear that religious minorities in the region must be protected. “We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands,” Mr. Obama said in an early September speech.
The next day, Mr. Obama and National Security Advisor Susan Rice met with Christian leaders from the Middle East, including a representative of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, who supports an armed international force to protect Christians in Iraq.
Mr. Obama told them the U.S. “recognizes the importance of the historic role of Christian communities in the region,” according to the White House.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said officials there are “aware of different proposals for how to best respond to the security needs of members of Iraq’s religious and ethnic minority groups.” He added that U.S. officials expect Iraq’s newly formed government to play an active part in that effort. Meanwhile, thousands of Iraqi Christians face a wrenching personal dilemma.
“The priests and bishops told us, ‘Please don’t leave, this is our country.’ They are right we should be there,” said Ms. Rabban, who now lives in western Michigan. “But what can we do when someone comes to threaten you? When someone comes to kill you?”
Ms. Rabban and many other Iraqis are turning to Mark Arabo, an Chaldean-American activist in San Diego, for help getting relatives out of Iraq.
Mr. Arabo, the 31-year-old head of a local grocers’ association in the area’s Iraqi immigrant hub, is working with the Chaldean Catholic Bishop in San Diego to collect names of Iraqis trying to flee. So far, the list has 70,000 names, he says. Ms. Rabban’s brother, Luay, is number 1,271. But Mr. Arabo and others say they are dismayed by the lack of support for emigration from religious leaders back home.
“My biggest obstacle is our Patriarch in Iraq,” Mr. Arabo said.
The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, Louis Raphael Sako, “does not think emigration is the solution,” said Bishop Emeritus Ibrahim N. Ibrahim, the Patriarch’s representative in the U.S. “We don’t want to empty the Middle East of Christians.”
Instead, the Patriarch and some Iraqi Christians in the U.S. support sending or creating an armed security force to forge a safe haven for religious minorities within Iraq.
In a letter to Chaldeans last month, the Chaldean Patriarch, who is based in Baghdad, wrote that the church “more than any time in the past…finds itself alone in the battlefield.”
“We are very much opposed to having our people uprooted, whether they’re driven out [by extremists] or whether it’s a one-step-at-time effort by groups in the U.S.,” said Robert DeKelaita, an immigration lawyer in Chicago and co-founder of The Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Council of America.
Mr. DeKelaita and others, including Martin Manna, a Chaldean-American and president of the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce in Detroit, are pushing for the creation of a protected region for religious and ethnic minorities that would also have a form of self-governance within Iraq.
Both men support the Nineveh Council of America, an advocacy group asking the U.S. to “legitimize and support” an international armed force and a local security force made up of Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities to protect such a province, Mr. Manna said.
Mr. Manna and others tell the Obama administration that a Christian presence in the Middle East is important not only to maintain Chaldean heritage, but to help stabilize the region, he said. “A Middle East without Christians will become a more radicalized Middle East,” he said.
Officials with the State Department and White House say they meet regularly with Iraqi Christian groups in the U.S., and note that the U.S. already provides significant humanitarian assistance, including the resettlement of tens of thousands of refugees.
Those who support emigration say most have already made the decision to leave: The Christian population of Iraq stood at around 1.4 million before 2003, but a million Christians have fled in the decade since Saddam Hussein was deposed, according to Iraqi church officials, leaving the number at around 400,000.
Church officials estimate there are around 250,000 Iraqi Christians now in the U.S., concentrated around Detroit and San Diego. Since 2007, more than 45,000 Iraqis from religious minorities, mostly Christians, have come to the U.S. as refugees, according to the U.S. Department of State.
Nearly half of those remaining in Iraq have been displaced, said Chaldean Catholic Bishop Sarhad Jammo, who is based in San Diego and oversees the Chaldean church in the western U.S. “We are watching an unfolding genocide. There is no hope of return to their villages,” he said.
“We’re trying to respect the wishes of the people,” said Father Manuel Boji, vicar general for the St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Diocese of the U.S., based in Detroit and covering the midwest and eastern states. Christians who flee face an uncertain future, he said. “Who will accept them? No country has opened its doors to such numbers.”
Mr. Arabo is lobbying Congress in support of a bill introduced earlier this month by U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas, a California Democrat, that would exempt Iraqi Christians from the limit on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S., and streamline the process for their entry.
“This is a human rights issue, not an immigration issue,” said Mr. Vargas.
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