While the US government has approved the entry of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees fleeing war in their country, 27 Iraqi Chaldean Catholics, seeking to escape violence and anti-Christian persecution in their homeland, were denied entry into the United States last month. The Chaldeans were held at the Otay Detention Center near San Diego, California, and the majority had family in the area willing to take them in and provide for their needs.
Father Michael Bazzi is rector of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon, a city of San Diego County. The cathedral is the seat of the Chaldean eparchy (diocese) of Saint Peter the Apostle, which serves Chaldeans in the western United States. Father Bazzi is originally from Tel Keppe, a historically Chaldean town in northern Iraq near Mosul (which was captured by ISIS in 2014). He was ordained a priest in 1964, and has served as the cathedral’s pastor since 1985.
While few Chaldeans lived in the United States when he first arrived, their numbers have grown significantly since then, including 60,000 to the San Diego area, he said. In his role as rector he has worked to resettle many Chaldean Catholics. He recently spoke with CWR about the Chaldean Catholics denied entry to the US.
CWR: In the past, was the American government welcoming to Chaldean Catholics?
Father Michael Bazzi: Yes, very much so. Let me give you an example. Years ago, 165 Chaldeans fled Iraq and were staying in a hotel in Tijuana, hoping to immigrate the United States. Although today we have a committee to help such people, at the time we did not, and I was actively involved as an individual in helping them. I wanted to draw attention to their plight, so I held a press conference. Ten television stations came. I told the public that we Chaldeans are one big family, and we’re happy to welcome these 165 immigrants and take care of them. I also spoke with US immigration officials. They said to me, “Father Michael, in two days you will have them all.” And so it was.
Today, however, it is different. I don’t know why. We’re ready to take these 27 Chaldeans in and help them get back on their feet. We’ll support them financially; the taxpayers won’t have to. I don’t know why they won’t let us.
CWR: Do Chaldeans look to assimilate into the culture?
Father Bazzi: Oh, yes. Our people go to school, and get a good education. We integrate into the community, and have good jobs. You’ll find us in every profession. We have Chaldean teachers, doctors, dentists…you name it.
CWR: When you talk to recent immigrants, do you hear many stories of persecution back in Iraq?
Father Bazzi: Many. When I grew up in Iraq, it was in the aftermath of World Wars I and II. There was an understanding then between Christians and Muslims, and I was not actively persecuted. We were still second-class citizens; if you wanted to rise to a position of prominence, for example, you had to convert to Islam. But I did not experience the killing you see today.
Since I left, it has changed. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), many Christians had to flee or they would be killed. The war was between Muslims, but they’d still kill a Christian when they came across one. That killing continues today. Islam has destroyed Christianity in Iraq.
It is very sad, but as one of our martyrs wrote in a letter to the Muslims, you may cut down the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.
CWR: ISIS took control of your hometown, Tel Keppe, in 2014. What was your reaction?
Father Bazzi: It was a disaster. For me, it was the end of the world. I felt like the Jews must have felt after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Tel Keppe was such a pure Catholic village before those devils came. I know quite a bit about my hometown and its history; in fact, I once published a book about it.
CWR: Have you had any contact with friends in Tel Keppe since then?
Father Bazzi: No. All the Christians have fled to the north. You’d only find a few elderly Christian ladies who don’t know how to read or write remaining. Nobody is able to contact us to let us know what’s going on there.
It’s been heartbreaking for me to see what was once such a beautiful Christian place controlled by fanatics. It’s terrible. When I first heard, people here wanted to talk to me about it. I had to stop them because it’s such an emotional subject for me.
CWR: What do you think will happen to these 27 if they are returned to Iraq?
Father Bazzi: I can’t believe they’d send them back to Iraq, but to someplace else instead. If they were returned to Iraq, they’d be finished.
CWR: How did you become rector of St. Peter’s?
Father Bazzi: At the invitation of a bishop, I came to Wisconsin to teach Scripture in 1974. He was interested in having the perspective of a Catholic from the East. After teaching for five years, I went to Detroit, where there are many Chaldeans. Detroit and San Diego have the largest concentrations of [Chaldeans] in the country. I established two parishes. In 1985, I came to St. Peter’s. I was co-pastor with an elderly priest who died the following year.
Many Chaldeans settle in San Diego as the weather has something in common with Iraq: no winters. Our people frequently go into the family grocery business, as it gives them the chance to bring a family member from Iraq here and offer them a job.
I celebrate Mass in English, Chaldean, and Arabic; the Chaldean rite dates to the first century. Our community has been very generous with the parish, helping build it into what it is today. I tell them we want to build a church hall or a rectory, and they give me the money I need.
CWR: Having lived in a Muslim country and worked with Christian refugees, what are your thoughts about relocating thousands of Syrian Muslims into the United States?
Father Bazzi: On that I offer no opinion. I’ll leave it to the wisdom of our government.
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