The candidates of the Chaldean “conclave”

Chaldean bishops
As the Synod of the Chaldean Church meets to elect Emmanuel III Delby’s successor, bishops of the diaspora gain influence
Andrea Tornielli
vatican city

Today, the Synod of Chaldean Bishops, which is in Rome to elect a new Patriarch,met to discuss the conditions and problems experienced by Chaldean communities in the Patriarchal territory and wider diaspora. To be elected, the new Patriarch will have to obtain two thirds of the fifteen available votes. But during the meeting, the Chaldean episcopate appeared divided. The blows and the decline experienced after the “Iraqi Freedom” operation by what had been one of the most well-established independent Catholic communities in the Middle East. But new disagreements have sprung up in the run-up to the election of the new Patriarch, over how to deal with the emergency and guarantee continuity for this Catholic Church sui iuris.

In recent years, the identity option has gained a lot of ground in the Iraqi context which has been seriously tested by ethnic and political revanchism, even within the Chaldean Church. If under the Baathist regime, Chaldean leaders theorised about the cultural and political assimilation of Christians into the Arab milieu, in the chaos of the post-war period, some of them put themselves forward as leaders of an ethnic-national minority fighting to safeguard their own social, political and cultural rights. The Chaldean diaspora which settled in the United States, with its galaxy of circles, movements and political logos, is the ideal context for this new sensitivity to identity to thrive.

On an ecclesial level, the standard bearers of the rediscovered ethnic identity and its liturgical and ritualistic links are the two bishops of the United States-based Chaldean Church: the 75-year old Ibrahim Ibrahim, resident in Southfield (Michigan) and 71-year old Sahrad Jammo, resident in San Diego (California). The former, in particular, despite his age (bishops are required to renounce their Episcopal role once they reach the age of 75) is a potential candidate for the papacy in the electoral Synod that is currently underway. Before coming to Rome, Ibrahim, who was born in the village of Telkaif, – as was Emmanuel III Delly who resigned and at least two other electing bishops – was interviewed by The Michigan Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Detroit. In the interview, he praised the great progress made in the last 5 years by the Chaldean diaspora in the U.S., which went from having 20 thousand faithful 30 years ago, to 220 thousand today.

The election of a bishop who served in the West as Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, would confirm the Church’s American influence. A Church which is losing ground in areas where its strength has traditionally lain (and where, according to the most pessimistic of estimates, there are only a few hundred thousand faithful left)and entrusts the Church’s unique liturgical, theological and cultural rituals up to the sensitivity of the Chaldean community in the U.S. There has recently been talk of the Chaldean Patriarchate being transferred to America, as happened with the Assyrian Church of the East, whose Patriarch moved to the U.S. in the 1930’s after the attacks that started taking place against Assyrians in Iraqi territory at the time.

A number of bishops who head dioceses in Iraqi Kurdistan and other regions of the Middle East have distanced themselves from the delocalised identity-focused perspective that is dominant in the various circles of the diaspora. Five of them – including Rabban Al-Quas, Louis Sako and Mikha Pola Maqdassi, who are attending the electoral Synod in Rome – scandalously boycotted a Synod assembly in June 2007, to communicate their disagreement with the line taken by Patriarch Delly and speak out against the “insane condition” and state of pastoral abandonment they believed the Chaldean Church was being left in. The five bishops representing northern Iraq, also rejected ongoing plans to create an autonomous administrative area for the protection of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, in the Nineveh plain, north of Mosul.

In a recent appeal launched through Fides news agency the Archbishop of Kirkuk, Louis Sako, warned against the “trap of nationalism” that threatens the ancient apostolic Churches of the East, especially at a time when they are haemorrhaging faithful who are migrating to the West. The Syrian Bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo SJ, continues to be a point of reference for those bishops who will not tolerate the lack (according to them) of ecclesial sensitivity shown by Chaldean Church leaders in recent years. The Syrian Jesuit’s critics continue to oppose his lack of familiarity with the Chaldean language used in traditional liturgical rituals. Meanwhile, the old and unfounded accusations against his alleged sympathy for Assad’s Ba’athist regime now seem to have disappeared.