EL CAJON, Calif. – A decision by Pope Francis last week apparently has not resolved a dispute between a prominent Chaldean priest in El Cajon and the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq.
Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, is calling on Chaldean priests residing in the U.S. to return to Iraq to help maintain the church’s presence in the country. Bishop Sako said that the survival of the church is at stake during the onslaught by Islamic radicals.
Last week, Pope Francis decided St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Church of El Cajon priest Father Noel Gorgis and his fellow Chaldean priests do not need to comply with Bishop Sako’s demand to return to Iraq and face possible death by ISIS.
Despite the pope’s decision, Bishop Sako said his order for the Chaldean clergy stands and they will be excommunicated.
In an interview with Fox 5 late last year, Father Noel, who escaped Iraq more than 25 years ago, said returning would mean certain death at the hands of ISIS.
“It’s not safe. I’m an American citizen now and going back its suicide,” said Father Gorgis.
Chaldean leaders like Mark Arabo insist that sending Father Gorgis and the others back to Iraq would mark them for death by the Islamic forces that have swept through much of Iraq, destroying churches, killing Christians and forcing many to flee.
“There is a Christian genocide going on. People are being slaughtered, raped, murdered because they’re Christian, or Catholic. Churches are being bombed, people are being beheaded. He can’t go back, he won’t go back and Pope Francis solidified it,” said Arabo. “Father Noel isn’t cattle for the slaughter, he’s our priest and he needs to stay here for the Christians of our Chaldean diocese.”
There are 14 Chaldean priests in 19 western states of the U.S., 10 would be required to return to Iraq under Sako’s order.
Covered by the order are priests who allegedly did not seek the church’s approval to leave Iraq. Gorgis was born in Iraq, but is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. In August, he celebrated his 25th anniversary as a priest.
“Chaldean priests are being forced to choose between disobedience and martyrdom,” said Gorgis.
In hopes of overturning Sako’s order, supporters of Gorgis and the other priests appealed to the pope. While not strictly part of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, the Chaldean church reveres the pope as the father of all Christians.
“The pope decides nobody else, so regardless of this denomination, that denomination if you’re part of the Catholic Church, which Chaldeans are, the pope is our holy father. He decides,” said Mark Arabo.
For now Father Noel Gorgis and his fellow clergy will remain in the U.S. Bishop Sako has not said what steps he might take to enforce his order.