Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chaldean Christians in Iraq and the U.S.

“Write about us, write about the Chaldeans.” I don’t normally get requests for my blog, but I owe something to my Chaldean friend, S, who asked me to write about them, and his family. It is from this gracious man and his family that I have learned a little about Iraq, the country my country has invaded and occupied.

Chaldeans are Eastern-rite Christians who have lived in the Middle East for about two thousand years. They live mainly in northern Iraq and Baghdad; the area in northern Iraq they occupy is called the Nineveh Plain. Some Chaldeans live in Iran and Syria, but most are Iraqi. The origins of the Chaldeans are disputed. They claim descent from the Assyrians, and believe they are the direct descendants of Babylon. Some historians and ethnographers disagree. Chaldeans do not consider themselves to be Arab, but Arabs, by contrast, claim them as a sub-group. They speak a distinct language, Syriac or Aramaic. This is an ancient Semitic language that predates Arabic, Hebrew and Ethiopian. Chaldean is spoken by some Jews who previously lived in Iraq, and is similar to biblical Aramaic. In Mel Gibson’s Jew-hating sadistic movie about the crucifixion, the actors spoke Chaldean.

The Chaldeans are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, but they have their own patriarch, who is considered to be a cardinal by the Vatican. Chaldean priests can marry, but if they aspire to be bishops or rise higher in the ranks they must remain celibate. Chaldean Catholics separated from the Eastern Orthodox Church in the remote past; their affiliation with Rome has been historically inconsistent.

Chaldeans who lived in Iraq before the U.S. invasion numbered about one and a half million; now there are probably fewer than 400,000. Since the 2003 invasion, Chaldeans have been targeted by extremists in Iraq. The two worst massacres occurred in 2008 and 2010, but they have been victims of violence since 2003. In 2008 in Mosul, once a city with a large number of Chaldean Christians, 14 were murdered, and two thousand families were forced to flee in 10 days. On October 31st of this year, terrorists stormed Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad. During a ten hour siege, 60 people were killed, including two priests, one of whom was slain on the altar. More than 80 were wounded.

Extremists who murder Chaldean Christians claim it is retribution for the alleged kidnapping of a young Muslim girl by the Coptic Church in Egypt. That is a specious claim; Chaldeans aren’t Coptic, and have no control over what happens in another country. The real reason Iraqi Christians are murdered seems to be this: America is perceived as a Christian country, and Iraqi Christians are presumed to be in collaboration with the U.S. Frustrated Iraqis can’t come to America and kill their invaders, so Chaldeans serve as proxy Americans, no matter what their politics are.

This recent massacre provoked outrage in expat communities throughout the world. In Oakland and San Diego, Chaldean protesters marched, and urged the United States government to do something to protect the rights of minorities in Iraq. In Oakland, one marcher carried a sign that said “We miss Saddam.” Under Saddam, Chaldeans were not persecuted; in fact, Tarek Aziz was Chaldean, as was a famous Iraqui soccer player. Chaldeans faced some political discrimination in Saddam’s Iraq, and perhaps social isolation. They were not, however, murdered, or massacred in their churches.

Please understand, I’m not saying Saddam was a great guy. He wasn’t. But by cavalierly invading Iraq, a country that was no threat to our national security, we have opened up a hornet’s nest. African countries still haven’t recovered from a century of imperialism; civil war and genocide are rampant there. It looks like this will be Iraq’s fate as well. Our imperial adventure has caused the collapse of a country and an entire culture.

In 2003, the U.S. government apparently foresaw the problems they were creating for Iraqi Christians, and proposed the creation of the Nineveh Plan Administration, a semi-autonomous, self-governing area for Chaldeans, somewhat like the structure that exists for the Kurds in the north. As of yet, this remains a vague idea on someone’s desk. Prime Minister al Maliki says he is committed to protecting Chaldeans, but he has so many other problems. Iraq’s government is unstable.

Chaldean Christians are left in an untenable position: stay behind in Iraq and risk violence, or try to come to the country that has wrecked their homeland. If you come to America, good luck finding a job. Credentials don’t easily transfer; Iraqi doctors cannot practice medicine in the U.S. Those who have fled were forced to leave their homes and personal property behind, so they arrive poor.

San Diego currently has the largest population of ex-patriate Chaldeans outside of Michigan. How, I wonder, do Iraqi refugees like my friend S cope? What must it be like to have to immigrate to the country that has caused all his problems? What will happen to the thousands of Chaldeans who can’t leave? For every refugee that makes it out alive, tens of thousands are left behind, or remain in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Thousands live as undocumented workers all over the world.

It would be nice to end this posting on an upbeat note. For Chaldeans, and for most other Iraqis, there is no happy ending in sight.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Popes Against the Jews

David Kertzer’s 2001 book, The Popes Against the Jews is well-researched and readable. It’s not for the faint-hearted; it reminds me of Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 blockbuster, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which I was never able to finish. Kertzer, the author of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, took advantage of the access he was granted to the Vatican’s secret archives in 1999. The Pope had just finished an internal investigation of the Vatican’s role in the Holocaust, and--- surprise, surprise--- concluded the Catholic church had no guilt or complicity in the slaughter of the Jews. The Vatican insisted its objections to Judaism were based on religious principle, and not on racial anti-Semitism. As Kertzer points out, this is a distinction that is hard to sustain. It’s the “hate the sin, love the sinner argument” that always rings hollow. Yes, the Vatican concluded, it approved and promoted articles in Catholic newspapers opposing the Jewish religion, but they never incited violence. When a thousand years of insisting that Jews remain locked in the ghetto, and that Jews regularly murder Christian children at Passover, a climate of genocide is created.

The Pope, historically, was a political as well as a religious ruler. By the mid-19th century, the land the Pope ruled was greatly diminished, consisting chiefly of Rome and central Italy. The Vatican opposed Italian unification because it had to cede political authority. Italian unification was complete by the end of the 1860’s, but the Pope refused to recognize the fact until 60 years later. The Vatican had its own police force, spies, and soldiers. The Pope controlled the Jewish community with an iron fist. Jews were forced to wear special clothing, including a gold star. They were locked into the ghetto, or Jewish quarter, at night. The Roman ghetto was small and impoverished. Jews were forbidden from employing Christians, and the Vatican discouraged Christians from any contact with Jews. Jewish children who were secretly baptized without their parents’ knowledge were forcibly removed from their Jewish parents, and raised by priests. Kertzer’s previous book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara details just such a case.

Like all superannuated entities, the Vatican resented its loss of power. It found a convenient scapegoat for its ire, the Jews. The Popes, by and large, were incensed by the liberation of the Jews that occurred when Italy was unified. Through its network of newspapers and periodicals, the Vatican waged war on the Jews. Apparently most priests and Popes actually believed the Talmud commanded Jews to murder Christians. Papal-approved newspapers regularly printed incendiary articles accusing the liberated Jews of murdering Christian children at Passover. In fact, the eastern European folktale of the vampire was blended with a heavy dose of anti-Semitism, since it was believed Jews drained the blood of Christians to put in matzo.

The history of European Jews doesn’t have a happy ending. The two Popes who reigned during the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, Pius XI and Pius XII, had no objection to the harsh anti-Jewish laws imposed by the new political order. Few are aware that Italy enacted the same racial purity laws as Germany; Italian Jews weren’t deported for execution, though, until Mussolini died and Hitler took over northern Italy. The only real complaint the Vatican had with fascism was that new political bodies had co-opted its pet project of anti-Semitism.

There were, of course, Catholics of good will who opposed the Vatican’s relentless persecution of Jews. Archbishops in England and America refused to print some of the Vatican’s most scurrilous anti-Jewish polemics, and urged the Popes to moderate their anti-Jewish attitude.

In California, the Catholic church has recently joined forces with the Mormon church to fight the political liberation of gays. The language used by the church is exactly the same as its anti-Semitic rhetoric. The church hates the sin of homosexuality, but doesn’t condone violence against the gay community. Of course, when there is anti-gay violence, the church resorts to the same old “blame the victim” meme. When pogroms occurred in eastern Europe, the Vatican refused to condemn them, insisting that Jews shouldn’t be surprised when their behavior resulted in murder. Gays shouldn’t be surprised at anti-gay violence, they provoke it by being so open.

As America, and the world, enters a period of what may be prolonged economic hardship, xenophobia and racism have again surfaced. Gays, who have some political liberation, could easily be the next target. Currently it’s Latinos and Muslims who are the victimized; there’s no reason to believe that gays and even Jews could be next. Kertzer’s work is invaluable, reminding us of the human tendency to scapegoat the minorities. The old line of “hate the sin but love the sinner” never ends well.