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Christians in the Muslim World

The diaspora of the Christians /1 That Corner of Iraq in Detroit

Julet Yousif looks at her three daughters play and joke in the kitchen of her home. For some time 'home' for them means a flat in a residential block amidst the greenery of Sterling Heights, a suburb of Detroit which is very far from Baghdad, where they were born, and the Christian area of Beirut, where they grew up and where for years they waited for the opportunity to go to Michigan.

Julet Yousif looks at her three daughters play and joke in the kitchen of her home. For some time 'home' for them means a flat in a residential block amidst the greenery of Sterling Heights, a suburb of Detroit which is very far from Baghdad, where they were born, and the Christian area of Beirut, where they grew up and where for years they waited for the opportunity to go to Michigan. The promised land of the Chaldeans. 'Here we are discovering what freedom means', says Julet, with her gaze directed towards the little girls who are dressed in brightly coloured American gym suits. 'The most important thing is that we do not have to live in fear. Here we are not afraid that the police, as happens in the Lebanon, after a routine control will send you back to Iraq. I want them to go to school, to study and to grow up without the fear that they will be kidnapped because they are Christians, as happens today in Iraq. This is what happened recently to my sister-in-law: they took her from the boarding school where she was studying in Baghdad and she was held hostage for two weeks until we found the five thousand dollars to free her. Now she goes around wearing a veil because they told her that if they found her with her head uncovered they would cut her throat'.

 

Julet Yousif and her daughters Vyane, Bane and Ivane arrived in the United States of America last autumn, together with another 1,604 Iraqi refugees -in large part members of the Chaldean or Assyrian Churches, or other religious minorities threatened by Islamic extremism - which America welcomed in 2007 after putting up resistance for years to bestowing the status of persecuted persons on the citizens of a country where the Bush administration says that it has brought democracy. A wave that is destined to grow larger in the wake of the decision of the American government to receive another twelve thousand refugees with Iraqi nationality during the course of the year 2008.

 

 

The new arrivals follow a pathway that has been followed for some time by their predecessors. The refugees will enlarge the community of American Chaldean Christians which already has about 170,000 people in Michigan, 50,000 in California in the San Diego area and another 30-40,000 between Arizona and Nevada. An entire people of very ancient roots which for almost a century has been reconstructing itself, in an extraordinary way, in an unusual Mesopotamia which has arisen not between the Tigris and the Euphrates, as at the time of their ancestors, but which is concentrated for the most part in the region of the Great Lakes, The metropolitan area of Detroit, the world capital for motorcars, has become a modern Babylon in the suburbs between Springfield, Farmington Hills and Oak Park, which today takes responsibility, in so much as it can, for all the rest of the Chaldeans of ancient Babylon, those in Iraq where the escalation in violence against Christians, their forced exodus, the attempts at conversion, the murder of priests and the faithful, led Pope Benedict XVI to launch strong appeals throughout the year 2007. The attention paid by the Holy Father was also attested to by his decision to award a Cardinal's hat to the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chal-deans, Emmanuel III Delly, who since December 2003 has been the leader of the diocese of Baghdad. About two hundred American Chaldeans celebrated the event in St. Peter's last November at what was a new opportunity for the Holy See to sound the alarm once again. 'How can one not direct one's gaze with apprehension and affection at this moment of joy', declared the Pope during the Consistory of 24 November, 'to our dear Christian communities in Iraq? These brothers and sisters of ours in the faith experience in their own flesh the dramatic consequences of a lasting conflict and live at the present time in a more fragile and delicate political situation than ever before'. 'There are concrete signs of a risk that the Chaldeans and the other Christians in Iraq will meet extinction, and we are doing what we can to try to prevent this', declares Joseph T. Kassab, the executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America (CFA), the umbrella organisation that brings together all the major Chaldean groups in the United States of America. This is certainly not the first time that this ancient Christian Church has had to deal with dramatic historical epochs, but in the past there was never the risk of an uprooting from the Mesopotamia of their ancestors. Father Manuel Boji, one of the points of reference for the Chaldean community of Michigan, attempts a historical parallel in order to give us an idea of what is taking place: 'this is an era of persecution for us that can be compared to the epoch of Gengis Khan'.

 

 

A history that goes back thousands of years

 

 

The people that is now forced to face a humanitarian emergency provoked by religious persecution has its roots in the cradle of the most ancient of all civilisations. The Chal¬deans see themselves as the heirs of the Sumerian and Assyrian-Babylonian civilisation, the descendants of Hammurabi, the grandsons of Nebuchadnezzar, the king who gave the world the splendour of the hanging gardens. Aramaic, the lingua franca of the ancient world, the language in which Jesus also expressed himself, is still used today by the Chaldeans, a testimony to a profound link with antiquity and tradition. At home, in the Middle East as in Michigan, Chaldean Aramaic is spoken, whereas Holy Mass is celebrated in classical Aramaic. The Chaldean Church is an apostolic Church. The populations of contemporary Iraq were converted to Christianity during the first century after Christ by St. Thomas the Apostle and by St. Addai (Thaddeus of Edessa, to whom are also attributed the prayers of the Chaldean missal). During the fifth century, Nestorianism triumphed amongst the Christians of Mesopo¬ta¬mia, a movement which, in clearly separating the human and divine natures of Christ, diminished the figure of Mary, who was no longer the 'Mother of God' but only the 'Mother of Christ'. This separation from the Catholic Church continued for centuries until in 1553 Pope Julian III accepted that the Bishop of Mossul was in communion with Rome and gave him the title 'Patriarch of the Chaldeans'. In this way was born the Chaldean rite of the Catholic Church but a number of centuries were needed before the wounds of the past were healed - and they have not completely healed to this day. A minority part of the Chaldeas (the Assyrian Church of the East) is still not in full communion with Rome even though the principal dogmatic problem was resolved by the joint declaration of 1994; since July 2001 inter-communion has been possible.

 

 

A decisive date in the history of the Chaldeans who now live between the Middle East and the region of Detroit is 1830 when another Bishop of Mossul, John IX Hormizd, returned to submission to Rome and received the title of 'Patriarch of Mossul'. Within his community, one of the most lively localities, was a village that the Chaldeans call Telkeppe (which means 'rocky hill') and which on the local maps is known in Arabic as Telkaif. Here begun the journey that led from the valley of the Tigris to Michigan.

 

 

The exiled people of Telkaif

 

 

In 1889 there arrived in the United States of America the man who according to the research of Mary C. Sengstock, Professor of Sociology at the Wayne State University, appears to have been the first Chaldean of America. His name was Zia Attalla. He was employed to work in a hotel in Philadelphia and afterwards he returned to the Middle East in order to open his own hotel in Baghdad. Attalla opened up the road which at the beginning of the twentieth century began to be followed by other Chaldeans. The migration was slow and according to the records of 1923, in Michigan there were at that time only twenty-three Chaldeans. But soon that stream became a river until the vast current community was created. One of the most significant aspects of this phenomenon is the fact almost all of the current Chaldeans of America can trace back their roots in some way or other to the village of Telkaif. Amongst them there is also Father Boji, who arrived in the USA in 1987 to study and then stayed on in Southfield. 'I was forty-one when I left, Telkaif remains my 'home', but it is sad to think today what our village has been reduced to', this priest tells us, sitting in an office full of books in Arabic and French in a one-storey building next to Our Lady of the Chaldeans, the cathedral of the American Chaldeans in Southfield and the principal church of the Chaldean Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle, the diocese of the Chaldean Catholics of the Detroit area. Another office in the same building belongs to Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim, the spiritual leader of a community that has six Chaldean parishes in the Detroit area with churches that are always filled to bursting during Sunday Mass and are always on the look our for further space in order to deal with the expansion of a people that will grow further with the opening of the USA to thousands of new Iraqi refugees. 'The Chal¬deans that have remained in Telkaif are probably 2% of the number of people who once lived there but then left', explains Father Boji. 'It was a place where one lived in peace, in harmony with other religions, and with a simple style of life that has since been cancelled. Now acute poverty and fear reign'.

 

 

When the first inhabitants of Telkaif began to move towards the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century, the echoes of the disputes with Rome had still not died down: in the testimony left by some them were memories of the tales of their grandparents about the religious controversies of the nineteenth century which required time to abate even after the Pope recognised the Patriarch of Mossul in 1830. But today, a century later, the community that revolves around the cathedral of Southfield is profoundly linked to the Holy Father, and grateful, in the words of Father Boji (who also flew to Rome last November), 'to the gesture of a good pastor who supports the Christians of Iraq and appointed our Patriarch a Cardinal'. What led the emigrants from Telkeif to choose the Detroit area after landing at Ellis Island amidst the waves of newly-arrived Europeans during the first decades of the twentieth century remains a small mystery. Professor Sengstock, like the director of the Chaldean Community Cultural Center, Josephine M. Saroki Sarafa, agrees in identifying three principal reasons. The first was that at the time, thanks above all to Henry Ford, the automobile industry of Detroit was exploding and the supply of jobs attracted many of the new arrivals to the United States. The second reason was linked to the presence in Michigan, before the Chaldeans, of a sizeable community of Le¬ba¬nese Maronite Catholics: the opportunity to attend an Eastern church, to speak Arabic, and to find traditional dishes of Middle Eastern cuisine was a point of attraction for the immigrants from former Mesopotamia. Lastly, Detroit is on the border with Canada and this facilitated communications with those Chaldeans who had landed north of the border and were waiting to enter the USA.

 

 

Today, ten minutes car drive from Southfield and from the area inhabited by the Chaldeans, without leaving the suburbs of Detroit, one comes to Dearborn, another place that is a symbol that tells the story of the transformation of America. This city, which has 90,000 inhabitants, at one times was known above all as the birthplace of Henry Ford and as the world headquarters of the giant car company that still bears his name. Today Dearborn is, instead, known above all because it has the largest community of Muslim Arabs in the USA [cf. Jeneive Abdo, 'That Yemenite Minaret Planted in the Heart of America', Oasis, 4, pp. 101-104]. Yemenites, Lebanese and Palestinians fill the streets, where you can smell Middle Eastern spices. In Friday the shops are closed and the mosques fill up with people as though the community was on the Persian Gulf rather two steps from the border with Canada. With time whereas immigrants from various parts of the Middle East came to Dearborn, in Southfield and its surrounding areas the Chaldeans created a lively and prosperous community based upon three pillars: the family, the church and grocery stores, which became their speciality.

 

 

A successful community

 

 

A traditional attachment to the family unit has led the Chaldeans for decades, and still today, to try to being as many members of their families as possible from Iraq to the USA. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, grandchildren, nephews and nieces remain today the first and principal point of reference for the new generations of Chaldeans, young people born in America who have heard Telkeif spoken about only in the tales of 'the old'. The Church remains an integral part of the DNA of the community. This is also borne witness to by the speed with which the parishes developed in the West immediately after the arrival of the first Chaldeans in San Diego (a group of young people educated by Jesuits and called to teach Arabic to the military personnel of the Army Language School who would later be sent to the Middle East). Four parishes were created in California and others in Arizona, thereby creating the conditions for the recent birth of the second Chaldean diocese of the United States. As for grocery stores, these were at the origins of the development of the community of Chaldean immigrants. The first arrivals bought a grocery shop from a Syrian. Very soon the work ethic of the former inhabitants of Telkeif and the family structure by which they organised their business made them prosper and the minimarkets flourished. Today, however, only a few Chaldean families make their living from grocery stores. The children of the immigrants have taken major steps forward, they have studied at university, and they have brought with them new ideas and started up businesses of all kinds, especially in the technological sector.

 

A significant case is that of Jospeh Kassab, aged fifty-five, the director of the CFR and the brother of the former Chaldean Bishop of Bassora, Monsignor Djibrail Kassab who in 2006 was appointed by the Pope Archbishop of the newly-created diocese of the Chaldeans in Australia and New Zealand, the Chaldean Eparchy of Oceania. In 1979 Joseph Kassab left Baghdad, where he had taken a degree in science, and fled from the political pressures of the Ba'ath party of Saddam Hussein. Given that he did not want to join the party, the only alternative was exile. Kassab took refuge for a few months in Italy with a community of Iraqi exiles in Ostia. Then he took the great leap to America. Today in the Detroit area he directs an advanced company in the nanotechnology sector which he is about to leave to his son, Pierre. 'Today the Chaldeans are doctors, businessmen, figures in the world of finance', explains Kassab. 'When the Chaldean Iraqis arrive in a country they become an asset, not a burden'. Kassab's days are divided between his technology company and the office of the executive director of the CFA, which is located in the block that hosts the various activities of a Chaldean businessman, Michael J. George, who is also the president of the CFA. Everywhere in Southfield and Farmington Hills there are business ventures and companies that have names with Iraqi roots and there are many signs of the prosperity that has been achieved by the grandchildren of the immigrants of the first half of the twentieth century. The most evident sign is the exclusive Shenandoah Country Club, in West Bloomfield, with its immaculate golf course, rooms reserved to the members and the elegant halls where most of the marriages of the community are held. 'This country that has welcomed is, America, has been undoubtedly very generous with us' says the proud Kassab, as he acts as our guide in the great internal spaces of the club, which is full of decorations and statues that conserve the signs of the civilisation of Babylon, which goes back thousands of years.

 

 

In a vast area of the Shenandoah Country Club a team of scholars is at work led by Jose¬phine M. Saroki Sarafa. She is preparing to inaugurate an interactive exhibition centre intended to reconstruct and hand down the Chaldean tradition. This will be opened during the second half of 2008. Funded almost entirely by donations from the local community and by companies run by Chaldeans, the Chaldean Cultural Center will allow people to travel in time and go back to the epoch of ancient Babylon and enter the world of the first Christian Churches. With original treasures, copies of masterpieces, multimedia reconstructions and accurate scenes, the museum (although here the term is reductive) will allow visitors to discover how people lived in the old Telkaif and know about the lives of the first immigrants to arrive in America. 'It is not simple to capture 10,000 years of history in a few rooms but we are trying', says Avita Bacall, a researcher who is working on the project. At the centre of the hall, which contains the heart of the exhibition, at the time of the Oasis visit there was a large two and a half metre wooden chest which had come directly from the Louvre Musuem in Paris. Within it is an exact copy of the Hammurabi Code, the tall basalt slate of the eighteenth century BC which is to a certain extent the very emblem of the civilisation of Meso¬pota¬mia. This Code will be one of the strong features of the permanent exhibition, together with a throne of Nebuchadnezzar and many original works, such as a Sumerian small table from the third UR dynasty. And special effects will also be present: Kaya Sanan, a photographer and director who worked, amongst other things, on the cinematographic reconstruction of the odyssey of the Titanic, as the artistic director of the project has created a virtual Jesus who speaks in Aramaic to the visitors in the section of the cultural centre dedicated to the birth of the Chaldean Church.

 

 

The drama of the refugees

 

 

The success of the Chaldeans in integrating into American society and the prosperity that has accompanied this have not cancelled their links with the land of their ancestors or decreased their anxiety about what Iraq has become today or their worry about so many family relatives and friends who still live there. The over two million Iraqi refugees, who are spread between about thirty countries, and the dramatic events that have marked the lives of the Christians who stayed behind in Iraq over recent years, provoked a large-scale mobilisation by the Chaldeans of America. This has been accompanied, among other things, by a major flow of financial donations. For the community of Detroit the events of this historic stage have taken on particular meaning. 'We live in a country and we are citizens of a country that invaded the country we come from', explains Father Boji. 'Our community, in general, was in favour of the removal from power of Suddam Hussein, but our expectations were of something else, a different reality. In recent years we have certainly not failed to express the whole of our frustration to politicians, here in the United States, about what has been happening in Iraq. For a long time they refused to accept that Christians who were persecuted should have the status of refugees. Now, fortunately, at least from that point of view, things have changed. But it remains very difficult to imagine what Iraq will be in ten years'. For that matter, this Chaldean priest emphasises, making Christians flee from the Middle East is certainly not the most welcome solution for the whole region. 'For two thousand years Christians have been important stewards of the civilisation of the Middle East; they have conserved the riches of the human expressiveness of which the Middle East has always been a bearer. They have proposed a different way of approaching life in countries which have Muslim majorities'. The risk that the Christians of the Middle East will become extinct is taken very seriously by American Chaldeans, who have recognised the need to use instruments of pressure within the political system of the USA to make people understand the importance of the phenomenon and to mobilise Washington to oppose such extinction as well. In America, lobbying is a practice that forms a part of the genetic inheritance of political life and it can obtain surprising results - by ethnic and religious communities as well. Americans with Armenian origins demonstrated this during the course of the year 2007. They managed to push a large number of members of Congress to support a resolution that would have made the systematic massacre of which the Armenian population was the victim at the beginning of the twentieth century officially seen as 'genocide'. Opposing the equally powerful Turkish lobby, the Christian Armenians were invited to testify and also to pray inside the halls of Capitol Hill, the location of the Congress of the United States of America, and the resolution was soon accepted with broad support. To stop it, while asking for a postponement until a 'more suitable moment', President George W. Bush, the Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and the head of the Pentagon Robert Gates, who were worried about its repercussions for the war in Iraq, intervened. Indeed, were the resolution to have been approved, Turkey threatened to cancel its indispensable logistical support for American military operations in Iraq.

 

 

The episode of the Armenian resolution confirmed that politics, when it wants to, can listen to minorities, and the Chaldeans found confirmation of this not only by finally convincing the Bush administration to open the door to refugees from Iraq but also by making themselves heard in Congress on the broader subject of the future of Christians in Iraq. In January 2007, Kassab was one of the leading figures in the birth of the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Council of America (CASCA), an organisation that brings together Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac Christians so that they may speak with one voice on the drama that is now underway in Iraq. On 25 July, in Congress, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) listened to the evidence of witnesses marshalled by the CASCA in a climate of very strong feeling. Pascale Warda, an Assyrian Christian who in the past had been the Minister for Migrations of Baghdad, narrated various episodes involving the persecution of Christians, including the story of 'a one-year-old child who was roasted and placed on a dish of rice in front of the gardens in front of the house of his mother' in order to convince her to abandon the Christian faith or leave. 'The Christians', said Warda to the members of Congress, 'have three options: to convert to Islam, to pay the protection tax imposed on non-Muslims, or to leave their homes without taking with them any of their possessions'.

 

 

Donny George, an Assyrian archaeologist and the former director of the Iraqi National Museum, on the same occasion described a scenario of kidnappings, rape and massacres of which Christians have been the victims in recent years in Iraq. Two members of Congress also gave evidence to their colleagues. One of them, Anna Eshoo, a representative from California of Armenian and Assyrian origins, explained to the commission that although Christians made up only 3% of the population of Iraq, in 2007 they constituted 40% of all refugees. This is because in the eyes of Islamic fanatics they are perceived as allies of the Americans. After the hearing of 25 July, the USCIRF held other hearings on the question of the Iraqi Christians, and asked Kassab, amongst others, to give evidence. He described the results of his many trips over recent years to the exiles in Jordan, Syria or the Lebanon and the activity of the CFA in favour of bringing many of them to America. In his office in Farmington Hills, Kassab keeps dramatic photographic evidence on what Iraqi Christians have had to endure in the first person because of the injuries imposed upon them solely because they are not Muslims. One photograph in an album shows two Chaldan Christians, Linda and Rita, photographed together with friends and a pair of smiling American soldiers. 'Both of them were later killed', says Kassab. Despite the improvement in the situation in Iraq that took place during the second half of 2007, accompanied by the return of many refugees to Baghdad and other areas of Iraq, the diaspora of Chaldeans towards America has not stopped because of many of them in recent years have lost everything and are now trying to rejoin their families in the United States of America.

 

 

A life in a folder

 

 

The Chaldean Federation of America has established a humanitarian network to enable refugees to be helped in the countries of the Middle East which host them at every stage of the complex journey that will bring them one day to Detroit. At the headquarters of the CFA, twenty-thousand folders each contain a personal or family drama, the documentation of lives that have often been devastated by the irruption of extremists, men forced to abandon everything and destined to remain homeless and without a homeland. The volunteers that follow the applications for asylum note down everything: the shameless abuses that have been experienced, rape, violence, and mutilation. For each of the twenty-thousand members of Iraqi religious minorities that are looking for a future, forty-five different items of information are listed in order to help the work of the organisations that look after refugees, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC). Kassab and those helping him also distribute authentic handbooks on the behaviour to be adopted during the interviews carried out by the authorities (including advice such as 'be calm and relaxed, always look at the eyes of the interviewer, do not volunteer comments on your own initiative…' and so forth. 'The problem, in the post-11 September climate', explains Kassab, 'is security. The authorities in practice ask us 'who are these people?'.

 

 

We have ongoing contacts with the Department of Homeland Security which is responsible for controlling aspirant refugees. I receive telephone calls from the Middle East from American civil servants who ask me to speak directly with the person who is asking for asylum. And thus I ask him what village he comes from, his parish, and the people he knows. I try to gather as much information as possible to help him. A certificate of baptism, for example, can be a valuable instrument to speed up his case. The people in Iraq who are seeking to come here are peaceful people but on the part of the authorities there is always the fear that somebody will try to infiltrate the USA in order to engage in an act of terrorism. We are a humanitarian organisation, our aim is certainly not to empty Iraq. When we can we help by sending financial help to the Chaldeans who live there. But if they throw them out, if they try to convert them to Islam, and if they leave them without hope, we want to help them'.

 

 

A frustrating wait

 

 

Amongst those who have reached America thanks to Kassab's network are Julet Yousif and her three daughters. Julet's brother, Jawher 'Joe' Yousif, has lived in the Detroit area since the early 1980s. 'I fled Iraq because I did not want to be forced to do military service', says Joe, in front of a cup of chai which is steaming on the green flowered tablecloth in the kitchen of his sister's new home. 'Two of our brothers had ended up in the army, one of them died in the war, and I did not want to be the third member of the family forced to go and fight. For this reason, I ran away and found refuge in Italy for three years and in the end I arrived here, where other relatives of mine already were, and today I am the owner of a wine and beer shop'.

 

A large part of the Yousif family now lives in Michigan, including the parents of Julet and Joe. But getting Julet and her three daughters to America was difficult. The wait in the Lebanon lasted more than nine years and it was often frustrating. 'The first time that I gave in my application for refugee status to the authorities of the UN', says Julet in Arabic (only her children have learnt English), 'it was rejected because my husband was a veteran of the Iraqi war. He is an educated man, an architect with two degrees, but he lost half a leg during the Iran-Iraq war and his status as a war veteran and invalid makes any application for refugee status difficult'. Julet's husband was forced to leave the Lebanon and to return to Baghdad, where he still lives. His wife and daughters visited him last in 2005, they speak to him when they can on the telephone, but they have no idea when the family will be reunited. For the moment, having the mother and her three girls in the USA is a great success, marked by interviews with the authorities of the UN and the American authorities in Beirut which took place with an exasperating slowness: between one appointment and another, to discuss their application, at least three to four months passed, and in one case two and a half years. In the end, however, for them began a new life in the Babylon of Michigan. Vyane, Bane and Ivane, Julet's three daughters, who are between twelve and fifteen years of age, have faced up to their first year in a normal American school, together with boys and girls from various ethnic groups - a reflection of the increasingly diversified society that characterises the United States of America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. 'My greatest wish now is for them to go to university', their mother confesses, expressing the same aspiration that millions of mothers like her had during the last century after landing in America.

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