Priest suspended for refusing Iraq trip

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By Roxana Popescu
His reply: “I am a priest forever”
Priests bless Louis Sako, 64, the new patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church at St. Joseph’s Church in central Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church enthroned a new patriarch during a ceremonial mass Wednesday that was held amid tight security in Baghdad. (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim) — AP
San Diego Chaldeans are pushing back against the suspension of a local priest by Chaldean patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako in Baghdad. The priest, Noel Gorgis, was reprimanded for not returning to Iraq as commanded by the patriarch, months after the majority of Iraq’s Christians fled because of the brutal religious persecution they faced by terror group Islamic State.

The patriarch reminded the priests and monks in his decree of their vow of “obedience to the superiors” without reservations.

To return to Iraq as a Chaldean-American would put his life in danger, Gorgis said in an interview Wednesday. It would also create problems for the Western United States Chaldean faith community, by reducing their ranks by one priest.

His diocese is appealing to the Vatican. Until he hears back, Gorgis said, he will continue his priestly duties. “I am a priest forever,” he said.

In his decree, Sako named a dozen monks and priests living outside Iraq who, he said, dishonorably left the country and abandoned their posts. “The objective of our decree is to end the illegal exit of the priests from their eparchies.” An eparchy is equivalent to a diocese.

In an interview published Wednesday in the Christian news outlet Aleteia, Sako condemned the departure of priests to the West. “A priest has given himself to the Lord and to service. He shouldn’t seek his freedom, his security. His future is found in fidelity to Christ and his people, not in America or Australia,” Sako said.

The decree follows the departure of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians. In the interview, Sako said the future of Iraq’s Christianity is on the line. “If all the families leave, and even the priests, the entire history and Chaldean Christian patrimony will vanish. There will be a break with 2,000 years of history,” he said.

A stateless group of terrorists who call themselves the Islamic State invaded Iraq and Syria this summer, carrying out a brutal extermination or displacement of Christians, Kurds, Muslims and minorities.

Chaldeans are a Christian community that was once large in Iraq. Many now live in San Diego, after an exodus in the last decade. They have spent the past several years, and especially this summer, watching as their people were driven from their ancestral homeland in northern Iraq.

In his decree, Sako praised martyr priests, saying, “We have bright examples of priests from our days that give us eloquent faith lessons like the priests who shed their blood for sake of the flock,” he wrote, and listed names and stories of kidnapped priests, “yet they have journeyed with their flock!”

Gorgis, identified as a monk in the decree, came to the United States in 1992, long before Chaldeans were persecuted by the Islamic State. A U.S. citizen, he now works in San Diego’s Chaldean Catholic diocese as a priest. He said he obtained the proper permission to leave his monastery and join the diocese.

In August, he celebrated a 25-year anniversary as a priest with a special mass, according to, a Chaldean news outlet.
He added that he is a Chaldean-American. “I was born in Iraq. I love my old country, but 100 percent, I am an American citizen, and American everything.”

Mark Arabo, a Chaldean community leader who has been a vocal activist for the plight of populations persecuted by the Islamic State, said Gorgis is serving God where he is.

“It pains me to think that martyrdom can be forced upon those seeking to do the work of God in the United States,” Arabo said, in an email. “We, as a community stand wholeheartedly against the statement made by Patriarch Sako. It reflects a growing disconnect between himself and our people. Our top priority is the safety and security of the Iraqi Christian people.”

Gorgis said the Bible backs up his decision to stay out of harm’s way: When Jesus was a baby, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, so their that son could be safe and grow strong, in temporary exile.