Vancouver a safe haven for Christian refugees

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Iraqi Chaldean Catholics flee wars in Iraq and Syria
Many Iraqi refugees fled to Syria only to be additionally displaced by the subsequent war there. Thousands of Iraqi Christians have resettled in Vancouver in the past decade, finally finding stability and religious acceptance.
Because Canada is a multicultural immigrant magnet, happenings halfway around the world can have direct impacts right here. Events in the Middle East are driving a unique group of newcomers to our shores, fleeing years of repression, violence and fear.

Several thousand Chaldean Catholics from Iraq have arrived in the Vancouver area in the past few years. Their path here has been chaotic, buffeted by the tragedies of life first in their country of origin, then in Syria, where they originally took refuge.

Father Sarmad Biloues is the spiritual leader of Chaldean Catholics in B.C., about 85 per cent of whom have arrived in the last decade. A few arrived earlier, resettled by the UN in the 1990s, after the first Gulf War.

Like the refugees themselves, the priest fled Iraq, then pastored to those in refugee camps in Syria.

“I had 17,000 people [and] I was the only priest there responsible for them in the refugee camp,” he says. Not all of these refugees were Christians, he says.

“When you help refugees, you don’t ask who you are, what you’re doing, where are you from?” he explains. “Same as a doctor. When you take somebody who’s injured to the doctor, you’re not going to ask them where are you from?”

The upheaval that has spread across the region in recent decades had a particularly brutal effect on the Chaldean Christians. As recently as 2003, there were an estimated 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Now there are around 200,000. Many died in the ongoing civil strife that followed the Iraq War, while hundreds of thousands fled to neighbouring countries, including Syria. With the Islamist extremist group ISIL now in control of regions of Iraq and Syria, and a civil war engulfing Syria, the Christian refugees — like many others — were forced to flee a second time.

“We left Iraq because of the war,” says Father Sarmad. “Syria was good. It was a good place if you compare it with Iraq. That’s the very tragic thing that we never expected: that the refugees in Syria would have to leave.”

Ten years ago, the priest came to Vancouver, where he both settles new arrivals and works with the Catholic archdiocese to ensure the safe migration of more refugees.

Pastoring to the Iraqi Christians at Saints Peter and Paul Chaldean Mission in Surrey, Father Sarmad oversees a growing community. How many precisely? He can only guess at around 15,000.

“We don’t know exactly,” he says. “They keep coming. The number just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

The term Chaldean is a bit of a misnomer, a result of a misinterpretation hundreds of years ago, and these adherents are also known by other names. There are other Iraqi Christian groups as well, but the Chaldeans have traditionally been the largest. Regardless of terminology and denomination, Iraqi Christians hold a special place in the history of Christianity.

“We are the oldest church in all the world,” says the priest. Christianity was brought to the region in the first century and has sustained itself through millennia as a minority religion. The liturgical language, he says, is Aramaic, the same tongue spoken by Jesus.

“We keep the language of our Lord Jesus Christ,” says the Baghdad-born priest.

Current events, though, threaten the continuation of this unbroken ancient tradition. As Iraq’s Christians flee, diaspora communities emerge in places like blessedly peaceful Canada. But Father Sarmad remains fearful for those still not resettled.

“They need a lot of prayer and a lot of help,” he says, and he gratefully acknowledges the role Canada is taking in fighting ISIL as well as accepting refugees from the war-torn region.

Though Vancouver’s nascent Chaldean community continues to grow, Toronto is home to a still larger number and more have found homes in the United States. Once safe in North America, they are welcomed into the arms of those who have come before.

“We take care of refugees and we give them a new opportunity in life,” says the priest. As for his own future, he says it is not up to him.

“As priests, we don’t believe we choose something,” he says. “Nothing happens but by God. So we feel that God needs us here, we are here. If there is another sign to go another place, we’ll go.”

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