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.

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