Church of martyrs

Chaldeans endure despite 2,000 years of persecution

By Joyce Coronel
The Catholic Sun

Msgr. Felix Shabi has a heartfelt plea for his fellow Catholics. The Iraqi-born priest is pastor of two burgeoning communities of Chaldeans in the Valley — communities most Arizonans aren’t aware exist.
“It’s important for people to understand who we are and the persecution that our people are going through,” Msgr. Shabi said, “because still today, the world media — including Catholic media — they don’t realize the huge massacre and the huge persecution that we are going through.”
On Oct. 31, terrorists linked to al-Qaida stormed into Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad during Mass and killed 70 people, including two priests and several children and babies. More than 75 others were wounded in the brutal attack.
And that, said Msgr. Shabi, is just the latest example of the relentless persecution Chaldeans have suffered for their Catholic faith during the last 2,000 years.
First, they were put to death by the Persians. Then came the Mongols, Ottomans, Turks and finally terrorists, all determined to eliminate Chaldean Catholics from the face of the earth. Yet against all odds, they endure — and flourish.
Msgr. Shabi grew up in a village of 300 that has produced nine priests — this in spite of the fact that Christians in general and Catholic priests in particular are routinely victims of violence and persecution.
Christians comprise a dwindling fraction of Iraq’s population. During Saddam Hussein’s regime, they numbered 1.4 million; today it is estimated that only 400,000 remain. Many have been killed or have fled the violence.
The Oct. 31 slaughter hit the Chaldean community in Arizona hard. Members of the church are related to some of those killed in the attack. The Scottsdale congregation held a procession and prayer vigil days later, reaching out across the miles with their faith, uniting their broken hearts with those of their brethren across the sea.
Msgr. Shabi understands all too well the pain of such loss. His cousin, Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni, was martyred in Mosul in 2007, gunned down along with three sub-deacons as they made their way home from Mass. A beloved archbishop was kidnapped, killed and left in a shallow grave in 2008.
Growing up in Iraq, Msgr. Shabi said he learned early on that violence and death were part of everyday life. He began school on the first day of the Iran-Iraq war.
“Every two weeks, once a month, you have a killed person from your village,” he said. He remembers seeing the funeral processions and people firing their guns into the air.
“We grow up with this culture — every day you have to face death. Every day you have to face martyrdom,” Msgr. Shabi said.
It’s a hard life, filled with pressure, but one that gives birth to a steadfast spirit. “That made us just be so stubborn that we can stay in our land — we can stay in our home and consider that peanuts.”
Nevertheless, many Iraqi Christians are fleeing the violence in their homeland. In the United States, they tend to gather in three states: Michigan, California and Arizona.

Welcoming refugees
Msgr. Shabi’s bishop resides in San Diego, home to 10,000 such Chaldean refugees. At Mar Abraham and Holy Family, those who have been stateside a while help welcome the new arrivals.
Sam Toma, refugee coordinator for the Chaldean Federation of America in Arizona, said the committee works hard to try and meet the needs of the families. They show them around the city, explain American culture and tell them where the Chaldean church is.
“We visit them and bring them to church until they find a job and get a car and a license,” Toma said. “We try to help them with everything.”
It’s a daunting task. Some of the refugees are children who have witnessed unspeakable horrors. They’re in Msgr. Shabi’s first Communion class.
“They tell me, ‘Father, when we used to open the door of our house to go to school, we used to see one leg thrown there, one head thrown there and one arm over there. And we used to close our eyes and just pass by,’” Msgr. Shabi said. “This is torture — this is inhuman. And this is just normal for them, unfortunately, because it became normal.”
He knows the refugees’ material and spiritual needs are many, but he also worries about their psychological well-being. “They need a lot of fraternal attention from the rest of our brothers in Christ,” Msgr. Shabi said.

Challenges
Chaldeans who have found a safe haven in Arizona face ongoing challenges in their new land. At a Thanksgiving party for refugees sponsored by the church Nov. 21, they spoke about some of their difficulties.
Rima Potres belongs to the church’s refugee committee. She translated for Adana Orarh, who arrived from Baghdad in August and, like many newcomers, doesn’t speak English. Orarh said he lost cousins and friends in the violence waged against Christians in his homeland.
Potres said the committee has tried to help Orarh, who suffers from heart trouble and is the father of four young children. Back home in Baghdad, he was a construction worker but he hasn’t been able to find a job in Phoenix.
Meanwhile, Arabic-speaking Jehovah’s Witnesses and Evangelicals have been vigorously proselytizing the refugees, Msgr. Shabi said. They plan fun activities for them, building relationships and giving them rides to these other churches.
“I give them credit because they are doing the job of the Good Samaritan,” Msgr. Shabi conceded. But it worries him. He’s trying to hold the struggling Catholic community together.
The garage at his rectory is so full of furniture he’s collected for the refugees that he can’t even park his car inside. Each new family receives a picture of Jesus and Mary, tea tables and a vacuum.
He also gives them two copies of a booklet, “Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth,” one in English and the other in Arabic. He translated the book himself, convinced his flock must be armed with the essentials of the faith.
And while those who make it to America face steep challenges, Chaldeans here fret about their fellow Christians still in Iraq.

Ongoing persecution
Nidal Shabilla said many can’t get visas or don’t have the means to escape. She came to the United States as a teenager when her father realized Iraq’s future was grim.
Shabilla said that after the Oct. 31 attack, terrorists issued a memo stating that all Christians were in immediate danger. They then blew up 35 homes, killing many. The media, she said, continues to ignore the plight of the Iraqi Christians.
Two Christian brothers, 40 and 43, were killed Nov. 23 at their shop and an elderly Christian woman was strangled in her home in Mosul, Shabilla added.
“The conditions in Iraq that our Christian brothers and sisters are living in are just horrible,” Shabilla said. “People just knock on your door in the middle of the night and say, ‘Get the hell out.’ And you’d better get out because they either want you to convert your religion to Muslim or suffer death. There is no way out.”
Matthew Shabilla, her husband, holds out hope for peace.
“Evangelizing — that’s the only solution. None of the other things will work,” Matthew said. “That is the message — win them for Christ.”
At Mar Abraham in Scottsdale, Msgr. Shabi pointed out a Gospel verse painted in Aramaic over the church’s altar. The verse sums up the Christian response to terror and persecution: “Love one another.” ✴

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