Chaldean Catholics

Deportation of a Chaldean Christian to Iraq, and where he died, gets some decent coverage

Deportation of a Chaldean Christian to Iraq, and where he died, gets some decent coverage

This is a news story about religion, mental illness, the U.S. government, deportation and Iraq.

Perhaps you’ve already heard about the heartbreaking story of Jimmy Aldaoud, the diabetic Chaldean Iraqi man who was deported to a homeland he never knew, only to die there a short time later because he couldn’t get enough insulin.

The story publicizes the plight of Chaldeans, an ancient branch of Catholicism that’s been in Iraq almost since the beginning of Christianity. They used to number 1 million, but 80 to 90 percent have emigrated over the years, especially after the death of Saddam Hussein, who for years protected the Chaldeans.

America’s Chaldean refugee community, many of whose members have long been threatened with deportation, have been warning that to send any of them to Iraq would be a death sentence. They, plus several members of Congress, are especially angry over Aldaoud’s death. If things don’t change soon, his fate will be their own.

The Intercept has the most complete story on Aldaoud,

BEFORE HE WAS deported, Jimmy Aldaoud had never stepped foot in Iraq. Born in Greece to Iraqi refugee parents, he immigrated to the United States with his family via a refugee resettlement program 40 years ago, when he was just 15 months old. He considered himself American and knew hardly anything of Iraqi society. Still, on the afternoon of June 4, he found himself wandering the arrivals terminal of Al Najaf International Airport, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, with around $50, some insulin for his diabetes, and the clothes on his back.

Najaf, by the way, is a Shi’ite stronghold and not the safest place for Christians of any stripe.

Aldaoud was used to getting by with little. For most of his adult life, he had experienced homelessness, working odd jobs, and stealing loose change from cars as he grappled with mental illness. But that was in the relative comfort of his hometown — for decades, he rarely strayed more than a few miles from his parents’ house in Hazel Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He had no idea how to survive in Iraq, and he was unprepared to make a run at it; he hadn’t known his deportation would come so soon, and officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement wouldn’t let him call his family before they sent him off.

Aldaoud spoke no Arabic, had no known family in Iraq, and nobody knew he was there. Disembarking in Najaf, he was “scared,” “confused,” and acting panicked, according to an Iraqi immigration officer he encountered.

And 63 days later — this past Tuesday — he was dead.

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The long good-bye: The Atlantic describes the inevitable loss of Christian life in Iraq

The long good-bye: The Atlantic describes the inevitable loss of Christian life in Iraq

I remember the Nineveh Plain well. I was being driven from the Kurdish city of Dohuk in far northern Iraq to the regional capital of Erbil further south and around me in all directions stretched a flat plain. To the west were low-slung hills and in my mind I could hear the footsteps of conquering Babylonian armies as they sought to overrun the city of Nineveh in 612 BC.

Irrigated by the Tigris River, it’s actually a fertile place with crops everywhere — assuming that they’re allowed to grow.

Several millennia later, it was the ISIS armies whose footsteps were heard on this plain back in 2014 when the events at the heart of this story take place.

I must say I envy The Atlantic’s Emma Green for getting sent to Iraq to do this fascinating piece along with a photographer or two. (My 2004 trip there was entirely self-funded).

The call came in 2014, shortly after Easter. Four years earlier, Catrin Almako’s family had applied for special visas to the United States. Catrin’s husband, Evan, had cut hair for the U.S. military during the early years of its occupation of Iraq. Now a staffer from the International Organization for Migration was on the phone. “Are you ready?” he asked. The family had been assigned a departure date just a few weeks away.

“I was so confused,” Catrin told me recently. During the years they had waited for their visas, Catrin and Evan had debated whether they actually wanted to leave Iraq. Both of them had grown up in Karamles, a small town in the historic heart of Iraqi Christianity, the Nineveh Plain.

But the 2003 invasion of Iraq had changed everything, including the impression that Christians had had it easy under Saddam Hussein. Once he was gone, it was payback time.

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Persecuted Chaldeans: San Diego Union-Tribune delivers an Easter story with content

Persecuted Chaldeans: San Diego Union-Tribune delivers an Easter story with content

At the newspapers I used to work on, I was responsible for coming up with a splashy feature each year for Easter day. At one point, I used this opportunity to hit up my employers for business trips, such as a trip to New Mexico in 1998 for the country’s largest pilgrimage at Chimayo, just north of Santa Fe. But it never occurred to me to not have a story, as the big religious holidays were my chance to get above the fold on A1.

So this year, I surveyed a bunch of California newspapers to see which ones had made any effort to provide decent Easter coverage. The Orange County Register covered a cowboy service and a sunrise service; in other words, the minimum. 

The San Bernardino Sun covered how the local Catholic bishop did not preach on the previous week’s shootings that left a student and teacher dead and a student wounded. A story about the Easter Bunny got better play. The Sacramento Bee had an opinion column on the difficulties of explaining the Easter Bunny to foreigners. Chances are those foreigners, like the Chaldeans, knew more about Christ and the Resurrection than the Easter rabbit. 

The San Francisco Chronicle barely gave lip service to two sunrise services while devoting much of its Easter wrap-up to a Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence event featuring a contest for the best Hunky Jesus and Foxy Mary. 

I could find nothing in the Los Angeles Times other than a San Diego Union Tribune story that I’ll get to in a minute. The Ventura County Star had nothing. But the Redding Record-Searchlight had several over the weekend: An account of Easter at two local churches and the recreation of Christ’s walk to the cross by several Hispanic churches. Redding is the site of the enormous Bethel Church so religion is important to much of the local populace.

Back to the Tribune’s story on the local Chaldeans, 60,000 of whom live in their circulation area.

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Harper's produces a masterful longread on Iraqi rescuer of Christian hostages

Harper's produces a masterful longread on Iraqi rescuer of Christian hostages

There’s no lack of reporters running about Iraq these days getting some very gripping stories. Most are tracking the purported last gasps of revived Islamic caliphate in the country’s northwest quadrant as the battle for Mosul grinds on.

The story that your GetReligionistas passed around this week was something a bit different: A story in Harper's magazine of a Christian Iraqi who wheels and deals in Christian hostages held by those within ISIS who are willing to sell them back for the right price.

The man’s name is Matti, he is based in the mixed Arab-Kurdish city of Kirkuk and he’s part fixer, part Mafioso-style godfather and star of a lengthy article titled “Escape from the Caliphate.”

Emad Matti had not received a photograph of the hostages. Two months had passed, and several Iraqi Christian families that had been detained by the Islamic State in an old folks’ home in Mosul were still imprisoned. From Kirkuk, Matti had been transferring $500 each month to a bank to feed the families, and he was afraid that they were dead, or that his informant in Mosul, one of their captors, was planning to prolong their imprisonment and collect even more money before demanding an impossible sum to drop them at the Kurdish border. For now, though, Matti just wanted photographic proof that they were still alive.
He checked his watch, a gold Breitling made from the weapons of martyrs in the Iran–Iraq War. The phone rang. He put a finger to his lips.

What follows is a fascinating read about the ordinary world of Iraqis who deal with ISIS (or what they call ‘Daesh’) like the next-door neighbors they are.

Everyone knows each other in this tribal society of Sunnis, Shi’a, various groups of Christians, Yezedis and Kurds whose lives have been linked for centuries.  Everyone has their informants, friends and family members, just in the same way as long-time residents in any American state have reams of contacts, old school buddies and family members scattered about.

Matti is like a 21st –century Oskar Schindler, trying to save as many Christians as possible before the deluge.

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60 Minutes shows the faces and the tears of Iraqi Christians beseiged by ISIS

60 Minutes shows the faces and the tears of Iraqi Christians beseiged by ISIS

Every so often there’s a piece on TV that surprises you with its grace and pathos. Last Sunday’s 60 Minutes program on the persecution of Iraqi Christians by ISIS was one such program.

To do the show, Lara Logan -- the same correspondent who got so badly attacked in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 -- goes to the Nineveh plains, a vast area east of Mosul including villages that have been there some 2,000 years. I was in the area in 2004 and it truly does feel like ancient Mesopotamia there. One almost expects to hear the boots of Sennacherib’s troops.

The filming is done in Erbil (a regional Kurdish city) and in some of the Christian towns only a few miles from ISIS lines.  One was Al Qosh, the burial place of the Old Testament prophet Nahum and one of the more pristine examples of two millennia of Christian habitation.  If ISIS ever got up there, it’d be a catastrophe, as there’s an orphanage there within a new, elegant monastery. The show commences thus:

There are few places on earth where Christianity is as old as it is in Iraq. Christians there trace their history to the first century apostles. But today, their existence has been threatened by the terrorist group that calls itself Islamic State. More than 125,000 Christians -- men, women and children -- have been forced from their homes over the last 10 months.
The Islamic State -- or ISIS -- stormed into Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, last summer and took control. From there, it pushed into the neighboring villages and towns across this region, known as the Nineveh Plains, a vast area that's been home to Christians since the first century after Christ. Much of what took almost 2,000 years to build has been lost in a matter of months.
On the side of a mountain, overlooking the Nineveh Plains of ancient Mesopotamia, is the Monastery of St. Matthew. It's one of the oldest on earth.

The type of Christians in this place are Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean Catholics; species of Christian whom those in the West rarely get to meet. We get video of real people with names and faces and sorrows even if they belong to Christian denominations we’ve never heard of. And then there is an American Christian -- Brett Felton, an Iraq war veteran from Detroit -- who gets a segment to himself as to why some western Christians are coming back to Iraq to help Christians there.

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