As Iraqi Christians in U.S. Watch ISIS Advance, They See ‘Slow-Motion Genocide’

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Early on Wednesday morning, the sonorous sound of Aramaic rose from the pews of Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church here. More than a hundred worshipers had gathered well before the 10 a.m. Mass, and they were already chanting morning prayers in the language of their Lord.

Above the altar and crucifix, light flooded through a stained-glass window that depicted Mary and the baby Jesus standing on fertile fields threaded by two rivers. As everyone present surely knew, these were the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq, the nation from which these Chaldean Catholics had begun coming to Detroit more than a century ago.

As it happened, one day earlier, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had released a video of the beheading of Steven Sotloff, an American journalist. Two weeks earlier, the Islamist militants of ISIS had reported a similar murder of another American reporter, James Foley.

So when Bishop Francis Y. Kalabat walked quietly from a side door into Mother of God’s sanctuary, it was with a grim sense that maybe now, finally, he and his flock would no longer be howling into the abyss. As he had written last month in an open letter that was posted in the church’s lobby, “We wish to scream, but there are no ears that wish to hear.”

For the last decade, in fact, the Chaldean Catholics of Iraq — members of an Eastern Rite church that is affiliated with Roman Catholicism while retaining its own customs and rites — have been suffering at the hands of the same kind of terrorists who killed Mr. Sotloff and Mr. Foley. During that period, the total Christian population of Iraq, the largest share of which is composed of Chaldean Catholics, has dropped to about 400,000 while as many as a million, by some estimates, have fled.

Churches have been destroyed, monasteries attacked, entire cities purged. Congregations have been bombed during worship. The bishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was abducted and executed by Al Qaeda in Iraq six years ago. So the recent atrocities visited upon Iraqi Christians by ISIS are nothing remotely new. All that is new is an awareness of them outside the Chaldean-American enclaves of San Diego and metropolitan Detroit.

“It’s almost like waking up to a burning house,” said Bishop Kalabat, 44. “The first thing I think about is, ‘How do I get my family out?’ You don’t have time to say, ‘I’ve been working on this house for 30 years, this is the house I was going to retire to.’ You have some neighbors taking out a hose to help. But we need the Fire Department.”

Putting it another way, Bishop Kalabat turned from metaphor to recent history. “The bad things we look back at now — the Iran-Iraq War, the first Gulf War, the embargo, even six months ago,” he said. “We’d take all of that over today.”

His intensity is not merely the product of Chaldean self-interest, of special pleading. Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, has been tracking the persecution of Iraq’s religious minorities, who include members of Syriac and Armenian Catholic and Orthodox denominations, as well as such non-Christian groups as Yazidis and Mandaeans.

Thus, though Mr. Marshall’s résumé would not state it quite this way, he is an expert in comparative calamity. And in his well-informed view, there is a very real possibility that, except for the relative refuge of Iraqi Kurdistan, Christianity may essentially cease to exist in a country to which the apostles brought the Gospel in the first century. Of the present situation, he wrote in an email, “It is the worst in modern history, and probably in history period.”

The vast tragedy of Chaldean Catholics in Iraq today stands in painful contrast to the success story of their coreligionists in the United States. First drawn by assembly-line jobs in Henry Ford’s auto factories, and after World War II compelled to leave Iraq by a succession of coups, Chaldean immigrants scaled the educational and occupational ladders into the upper middle class. By now, many of the Detroit area’s approximately 175,000 Chaldeans live in the prosperous Oakland County suburbs.

Since the recent round of persecution began in 2004, and especially after this year’s lightning advance of ISIS fighters across the Nineveh Plain, the Chaldeans here have sought to leverage their material comfort and political savvy on behalf of their endangered brethren.

Both clergy and lay leaders have met with officials in the White House, Congress and the United Nations. Congregants have donated several hundred thousand dollars for humanitarian aid. There have been prayer vigils, rallies, the announcement of scholarship funds and an “Adopt a Refugee” program.

The Chaldeans here have been pushing for practical, realistic forms of American involvement: creation of a protected zone and safe-passage corridors for Christians still in Iraq; an increased number of refugee visas and streamlined approval by State Department and Homeland Security screeners for Christians trying to reach America. Yet it seems to have taken the videos of two journalists being decapitated for much of the nation to finally heed the warning cries from places like the Mother of God Church.

“We call this a slow-motion genocide,” said Auday P. Arabo, the lay spokesman for the St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Diocese. “It’s unfortunate people don’t feel it until it hits home. But I guess it’s human nature that you only see what’s happening in the mirror.”

Bishop Kalabat was appointed by Pope Francis to his position — making him one of two Chaldean Catholic bishops for the United States — in early May. Soon after, he traveled to Iraq to meet with Christian refugees in the Kurdish town of Ankawa. More than 10,000 of them, soon to exceed 40,000, had taken shelter in schools and churches.

“What’s happening to us?” Bishop Kalabat said he recalls being asked. “Where’s our government? Where’s the U.S.? Where’s the world? Where’s the church? Where’s God?”

As he recounted those questions in his office the other day, Bishop Kalabat reached into his shirt pocket and extracted a crucifix.

“We are called the Church of Martyrs,” he said. “That’s our pain and our saving grace. Our faith isn’t a theory. It’s not a set of teachings. It’s a person and we’re called to be like him. When I look at this evil, I want to be Rambo. But that won’t do any good. We carry the cross for a reason.”