The Wall Street Journal reports…
“The head of Iraq’s Catholic church has suspended nine American priests for leaving their posts in Iraq and is demanding they return to the battle-torn country, according to officials with the San Diego diocese that employs the priests.
The order to return from Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako last month comes as the Iraqi Catholic community, known as Chaldeans, faces an existential crisis in Iraq.
Tens of thousands of Christians have fled the country in the last decade and thousands more are being pushed out by Islamic militants. The Islamic State, or ISIL, has been murdering and persecuting minorities as it gains power in the region.
Priests can’t decide “where to serve, how to serve and those who to serve,” Patriarch Sako wrote in a Sept. 23 statement to Fides News Agency, the Vatican’s official missionary news agency. The patriarch said the priests didn’t have permission to leave their positions in Iraq. “We have to live and die in the place where God calls us,” the statement said.
The patriarch “recalls all the Chaldean priests…who left Iraq and moved to the Chaldean diaspora communities around the world, to return to their country and put themselves at the service of those who are most in need,” the statement said. The patriarch warned then that if the priests didn’t return to Iraq by Oct. 22, they would be disciplined.
The Chaldean patriarch and other Chaldean advocates have expressed fear that the region is being cleared of Christians, and will lose its ancient Christian heritage if more continue to flee.
But officials with the Chaldean diocese in San Diego have been actively working to help Christians escape Iraq and resettle in the U.S. or other countries, arguing the Chaldean community can’t survive at home.
The nine priests suspended for failing to return to Iraq are all part of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of St. Peter the Apostle based in San Diego County, which has 14 priests that serve around 140,000 Chaldeans in the western U.S., diocese officials said.
“I can’t lose my job. I’m a priest forever,” said Father Noel Gorgis, a 49-year-old priest who said he came to the U.S. two decades ago to escape continued service in Saddam Hussein ’s army. Father Gorgis, who served as a monk in Baghdad, said he received permission to leave from his monastery.
Father Gorgis, who performs prayer services twice a day at St. Peter’s Cathedral in San Diego, continues to work while his suspension is being appealed, he said. Learning of the suspension “was the hardest thing for a priest to imagine.”
He said he and other suspended priests won’t go back to Iraq. “I’m an American,” Father Gorgis said.
Father Gorgis and other diocese officials said they believe the patriarch is punishing the diocese for lobbying the U.S. government to more quickly get Chaldeans out of Iraq and refugee camps in the region.
Removing those priests would severely hamper the diocese’s ability to serve its growing population, officials there said. The diocese is appealing the suspensions directly to the pope. A spokesperson for the Vatican wasn’t immediately available for comment Friday.
“This is just revenge for helping people get out of Iraq,” said Mark Arabo, a Chaldean-American activist and spokesman for the diocese. Mr. Arabo and the San Diego Chaldean bishop, Sarhad Jammo, have been gathering names of tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who are trying to flee Iraq, and pressing U.S. officials in Congress and in the White House to allow more Iraqi minorities into the U.S.
“To say you have to come back and face death by the sword from ISIS or you are fired or suspended is inhumane,” Mr. Arabo said. “We won’t let these priests go back like sacrificial lambs.”
A representative for Patriarch Sako couldn’t be reached for comment.”