The Tale of Two Chaldean Priests: On the Nineveh Plains in Northern Iraq
By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer
This is a story of two priests in two different communities in the Plains of Nineveh in northern Iraq. Both communities were affected by the ISIS incursion in 2014, though the recovery has been more difficult for one community due to remnants of ISIS in the area. Both priests are coping with the rebuilding of their communities in their own ways.
A Brief Note on the History of the Chaldean Christians
First, a note on the Chaldean Catholics, since their identity is a bit blurred by history and terminology, even including how they identify themselves. They are known simply as Chaldeans, sometimes as Assyro-Chaldeans, though there is some internal dispute over the Assyrian or Syrian label.
They identify as belonging to the Chaldean Catholic Church. Following the schism of the Eastern Church in the 16th century, the Chaldeans joined with the Holy See or the Holy Roman Catholic Church in Rome. They have lived in Iraq for centuries and the Iraqi Constitution recognizes both Chaldean and Assyrian as distinct nationalities who belong, respectively, to the Chaldean Catholic Church of Rome and the Assyrian Church of the East.
The Chaldean branch was formed in what was formerly known as Mesopotamia, now known as northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, and northeast Syria. As of 2016, there were an estimated total of 640,828 members of the Chaldean Catholic Church worldwide.
The largest diaspora community outside of Iraq resides in southeast Michigan, where 113,000 members are Arabic and Aramaic speaking. (Politically, the Chaldeans have supported the election of Mr. Trump, at least in part because of his outward support of such Catholic issues as pro-life and anti-gay marriage.)
While many Iraqi Chaldeans have tried to emigrate because of religious and ethnic persecution, poor economic conditions due to sanctions against Iraq, and difficult security conditions, they have been turned down by most countries. Rather than move to United Nations refugee camps, where they fear anti-Christian discrimination, which would enhance their chances of emigrating to western countries, many Chaldeans have scattered to nearby countries.
Christian and Muslim Youth Join Father Paul in Rebuilding Churches, Even in the Time of COVID
Many of Iraq’s Chaldeans live in the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq in and near the city of Mosul. This city has been devastated due to conflict in various recent times between the federal government of Iraq and the government of Northern Iraq, controlled by the Kurds, then later by ISIS. Following a partial withdrawal of ISIS from the region of Mosul, according to the website heraldmalaysia.com, Chaldean priest Father Paul Thabit Mekko believes Mosul is seeing a rebirth, one due to the efforts of young Christians and Muslims.
That same website reported, “A collaborative esprit de corps prevails in the city, with Muslims trying to get Christians to come back. For Fr Paul, people are helping each through dialogue and exchange.”
Mosul and the Nineveh Plain are returning to a slow path of recovery “after years of sectarian violence and jihadist rule through initiatives that bring together Christians and Muslims, especially young people.”
Muslims are helping the Chaldeans in refurbishing and restoring churches, according to Father Paul, “because they think they will bring Christians back to the region.” It is mostly the young, in small groups, who because of their good will, are joining in these undertakings. Perhaps this is a partial payback to Father Paul, who cared for purportedly thousands of families who in 2014 fled the incursion of the Islamic State.
These same young people are also cooperating on the coordination of resources dealing with the coronavirus. Together, Muslim and Christian groups are “doing their utmost to set up sites for isolation and quarantine, bringing food, medicine, and essential items.”
Father Paul further noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has posed many challenges, slowing down the work of rebuilding, but not ending this important bi-religious cooperation.
Father Karam, Also in the Nineveh Plains, Still Fighting the Remnants of ISIS
About 20 miles north of Mosul, in a town named Telskuf, is another Catholic priest, Father Karam Shamasha. He faces a much different environment than Father Paul in Mosul.
Father Karam, having returned from six years of study in Rome, found Telskuf still at risk from ISIS. The website Cruxnow reported Father Karam’s disappointment on his return:
“What I found on my return was shocking, because most of the people have left, gone abroad, and most of those who remain have many difficulties, including related to COVID-19, as in much of the world, added to great economic challenges and political instability. Upon my arrival, I ran into problems that I had never encountered when I was the parish priest of my town before heading to Rome. It must be said, however, that despite the many challenges we face, there’s much work to be done: from a religious point of view, there’s a lot to do to help the faithful, as they have the psychological scars caused by the violence, horrors and challenges posed by ISIS. Trust that was broken needs to be rebuilt, along with many material things.”
The imprint of ISIS was still present, two years after its alleged defeat. Father Karam noted that remnants of ISIS were still prevalent, the most damaging of which is the mentality that rejects any religion other than a radical, heretical version of Islam.
Father Karam noted that in his village, ISIS was defeated a few weeks after the occupation in 2014. Unfortunately, the Chaldean residents of Telskuf were blocked from returning home for over two years. That was because the town was considered a ‘red zone,’ since ISIS was still stirring up trouble within seven miles if the town.
Those Chaldeans who left could not emigrate easily to the U.S. or Australia, for example, because, noted earlier, they had refused to go into U.N. refugee camps, which would have provided them with the necessary legal status. So, they ended up fleeing Iraq to stay temporarily in Lebanon, Turkey, or Jordan. There they have difficulty finding work, since they lack documents certifying their status of refugees. Furthermore, many of these Chaldean Christians do not speak the language of the countries where they end up.
Father Karam still bemoans that though a Christian-Muslim dialogue has been going on between the Papacy in Rome and Al-Azhar in Cairo, the results on the ground have not worked so well. Christians in Shia-dominated Iraq suffer discrimination under the law. An example offered by Father Karam is that a recent law was issued, stipulating that when a father converts to Islam, all his children automatically become Muslims, with no choice in the matter.
What the priest wants is equity in religious worship, such that Christians have the same rights in Iraq as Muslims. The priest says that Christians want to stay in Iraq because they believe they have been there since the very beginning of Christianity, when the Apostle Thomas brought ”the Good News” to the region in the first century.
In conclusion, we see that one Chaldean community in the Plains of Nineveh, Mosul, has had better luck in cooperating with Muslims than the other, Telskuf, which has continued to suffer even today form the remnants of the ISIS incursion. In time, the latter town will have a chance to rebuild its Christian community. Whether the state of Iraq will help all Christian communities in the country gain similar rights as Muslims remains to be seen.
“Chaldean priest sees Mosul reborn thanks to young Christians and Muslims,” HeraldMalaysia.com. 11/13/2020
“Iraqi Priest Doubles Down On Christianity’s Survival In The Middle East.” Cruxnow.com, 11/10/2020
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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