Bishop Bawai Soro (photo credit: Khari Johnson)
mural at St. Peter’s Chaldean church in El Cajon (photo credit: Miriam Raftery)

By Miriam Raftery

January 22, 2010 (El Cajon) – “We look forward to establishing a New Babylon. This is something many of us have dreamed of,” Bishop Bawai Soro, a Chaldean Christian from Iraq, told East County Magazine in an exclusive interview.

ref-mural-sm1.jpgSoro is among an estimated 65,000 to 70,000 Iraqi Christians now living in the western U.S., of whom most are in East County. He provided insights into the plight of persecuted Christians in Iraq, the struggles faced by thousands of local Iraq War refugees, the rich heritage of their ancient culture, and his hopes for the future of his people.

He spoke with us at the Catholic Diocese of St. Peter the Apostle in El Cajon, where Chaldean and Assyrian bishops led a symposium January 7-9 to commemorate the 1600th anniversary of the Synod of Mar Isaac in 401 AD.

refugees-chaldean-church-sm1.jpgSt. Peter’s Cathedral, El Cajon (photo credit: Khari Johnson)
“This synod was born out of persecution,” explained Soro, formerly with the Assyrian church and now a Chaldean Bishop. “1600 years ago by the edict of the King himself, we were allowed to have religious freedom. Today, there is so much similarity in Iraq…Basically our Christianity is near annihilation in Iraq.”

Twenty years ago, an official census showed 1.2 million Christians in Iraq, though Soro believes there were even more. “Now there are less than half of that.” If current trends continue, there may soon be no Chaldeans left in their homeland—Mesopotamia, the ancient cradle of civilization. Yet Soro clings to his faith, and has hope for the future of his people. “Just like God’s grace helped and saved us 1600 years ago, so too, today can we be saved,” he resolved.

refugees-vivian-shabilla1.jpgVivian Shabilla (photo credit: Miriam Raftery)
Today’s Chaldeans are descendents of the ancient Babylonians. “Babylonians created the first calendar,” said Vivian Shabilla, who came here from Iraq when she was ten years old. Babylonians also became known as the first law-givers. Babylon is where the Jewish Talmud was written. The region has historical significant for Christian, Muslim and Jewish religions.

Three disciples of Jesus brought Christianity to the Middle East. Aramaic, the language of the Bible, the language spoken by Jesus, is today spoken by Chaldeans in East County, who are striving to keep their ancient language and culture alive here.

“My passion is my people,” said Shabilla. “We are blessed to be in the United States.”

But for many of the newest arrivals coming from war-torn Iraq to the U.S. amid an economic recession, life has been difficult. “The majority of the refugees are struggling,” Aziz Razoky, chairman of the Diocese Advisory Board and senior advisor to Bishop Sarhad Yawsip Jammo revealed.

refugees-choir-sm1.jpgChaldean choir
San Diego has the second largest Iraqi population in the U.S. (after Detroit, which has 150,000 to 200,000). But Detroit has closed its doors to new refugees, except those with family to sponsor them. So the new waves of refugees are coming to San Diego County—which is expected to take in 15,000 refugees in 2010. The vast majority of those are Chaldeans, joining an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 already in San Diego’s East County.

“The government only provides assistance for eight months,” Razoky noted. That’s for individual refugees. For families, the federal government in late 2009 slashed the benefit period to just one month. After that, there is state aid—provided budget cuts don’t cut down those as well. “The economy is so terrible now, it is difficult to find a job,” Razoky said, adding that language barriers add to the difficulties faced by refugees. “We are doing our best to help as a diocese, but there is pressure on healthcare, pressure on schools.”

ref9-sm1.jpgWinged griffin (photo credit: Miriam Raftery)
Chaldeans aren’t relying on government hand-outs. Over eight months, the diocese collected almost a quarter of a million dollars in donations from its petitioners to help resettle new refugees from Iraq. Besides money, they collect goods such as mattresses and furnishings.

Local church leaders and parishioners also work to keep friends and family safe inside Iraq.

“They just bombed another church last week,” Razoky said in a January 10th interview. “Father Bazzi had us to call everyone in Iraq and tell them don’t go to church—stay home and watch sermons on NORSAT (satellite broadcast).”

refugee-lion-sm1.jpgLion of Babylon – in El Cajon (photo credit: Khari Johnson)
Bishop Soro described the tragedy faced by Christians in Iraq today. “We are being pushed outside—persecuted, killed. Over 50 churches have been burned or bombed in Iraq.” But he added, “Just like 1600 years ago, Persian kings looked at us as if we were collaborators …now the hard-line fundamentalists believe our heart is here in the west.”

He mused, “It’s really a dilemma that the whole world is having…It’s a clash of cultures, of faiths….I believe we are paying the price for mistakes we did not make.”

Christians now account for less than 1% of Iraq’s population, he said. The Nineveh Plain, ancestral home of the Chaldeans, has been long contested by Arabs and Kurds. “So there’s little left for us,” said Soro, who believes a fair division of the land should be legislated.

Iraqis here have also suffered disillusionment with American foreign policy.

“We love America,” Soro emphasized, but added that is has been difficult to see his homeland torn apart by both the U.S.-led war and by Muslim extremist insurgents. “In the beginning we supported it,” he said of the U.S. invasion. “But later on we saw what happened. We saw destruction of artifacts, of culture…those artifacts that were destroyed belonged to all of humanity.” He added, “Imagine New York City without a police force for one day,” then added that Iraq had no police force for an entire year.

ref4-sm_01.jpgBishop Jammos (photo credit: Khari Johnson)
He and the other bishops gathered here for the symposium have all traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with legislators and other faith leaders, to little avail. “American foreign policy does not easily change with administrations,” he observed. “It is established more by king makers than by policy makers.”

Asked if he believes the Iraqi Chaldeans will someday return to their homeland, he replied, “History shows that those who leave do not go back…Our roots are being ripped out.”

Here in El Cajon, the Chaldeans have put down new roots. The architecture of St. Peter’s cathedral is richly appointed with symbols of a nearly-lost culture, such as the lion of Babylon statue out front. The three-day symposium included prayers, hymns and lectures ranging from “Christianity in Mesopotamia before 410 AD” to “Being the Church of the East in the 21st Century.”

refugees-project-chaldean-synod-015.jpgGates of Ishtar stageset (photo credit: Miriam Raftery)
Festivities also included a Bishops’ dinner, feasting on traditional Iraq foods, performances by two local Chaldean choirs and a Chaldean drama group, and Iraqi line dancing. (View a video.) A stage set backdrop recreated the Gates of Ishtar, one of the original seven wonders of the world.

“We carry so many genetic features with us,” Bishop Soro said. He believes fervently that the 4,000-year-old Babylonian heritage must be protected and preserved–both in Iraq and here in East County. “Maybe we would like to call it New Babylon,” he concluded, “because the world respects Babylon.”