Declaring that the persecution of Catholics and other Christians in
Iraq and the Middle East is genocide must be followed by action, said
Bishop Francis Y. Kalabat of the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle,
based in the northern Detroit suburb of Southfield.
“We need to proclaim, ‘This is genocide,’ and then do something about
it,” Kalabat said. “When we do that, then we can set up courts and set
up programs to deal with the physical trauma, the emotional trauma and
the spiritual trauma.”
The bishop made his remarks during a November 17 talk at the Catholic
University of America and in an interview with the Catholic Standard,
newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese.
In March, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that atrocities
carried out by the Islamic State group against Yezidis, Christians,
Shiite Muslims and other minorities were genocide, the first U.S.
declaration of genocide since Sudanese actions in Darfur in 2004.
However, the genocide finding does not legally obligate the U.S. to take
any particular action.
Kalabat has headed the Michigan-based eparchy since 2014. Its
jurisdiction includes Chaldean Catholic parishes in the Detroit area, in
Illinois and several Eastern states. The Chaldean Catholic community in
the United States is one of the largest in the world.
The Chaldean Catholic Church - headed by Chaldean Patriarch Louis
Sako of Baghdad - is one of 22 Eastern Catholic churches. Its liturgies
are celebrated in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It is considered one
of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world. While only
about 6 percent of Iraqis are Christians, 80 percent of those Christians
are Chaldean Catholics.
Kalabat’s eparchy has 10 parishes in the Detroit metropolitan area.
Many immigrants from the Middle East have been drawn to Detroit to work
in the auto industry.
“We are trying to maintain who we are,” Kalabat said. “We want to
praise Jesus using the language and the customs with which we first
Kalabat noted that Chaldean Catholics “have a profound and rich
history and if that history does not connect to us today, then it is
nothing more than a memory.”
He said “Christianity in the Middle East has had so much life, but it
is now being destroyed in Iraq, Syria and the other countries of the
The Arab Spring - a 2011 series of protests and uprisings in several
Middle Eastern countries - resulted in political power being gained by
groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and the
Society of the Muslim Brothers, also known as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both groups have led a campaign against Christians, including murder,
beheadings and rapes and looting and destroying churches.
“If that is the spring, I’d hate to see the winter,” Kalabat said.
The Islamic State, he said, “did a lot of destruction. They not only
destroyed buildings, but they destroyed relations between neighbors.
Many (Iraqi Muslims intimidated by Islamic State) turned in their
Christian neighbors and that has built up a lot of mistrust.”
The systematic persecution of Christian communities in the Middle
East “is the purposeful destruction of a culture, a faith, a human
history and a human person,” the bishop said.
Kalabat said there are certain regions of Iraq “where you’re told you
have 24 hours or less to get out or you will die. Imagine - you build
up a life and in almost the blink of an eye you lose everything.”
Kalabat spent the month of September in Iraq and “had the real
opportunity to see Christians in Iraq - and not just Christians but all
Iraqis - alive and in pain and suffering.”
He said daily life in Iraq is marked by a lack of trust in the
government, bombings and other acts of terrorism that unsettle and
destabilize the population, lack of jobs and educational opportunities
and harsh living conditions such as limited electrical power.
“They (Iraqi Catholics) are survivors, but is it enough just to be in
survival mode all the time?” Kalabat asked. “Don’t you want to live?
Don’t you want to thrive? Don’t you want to be able to give?”
He also noted that some Catholic communities in Iraq have not had Mass said for them for as long as seven years.
“They (Iraqi Catholics) may ask, ‘Where is Jesus when we lost our
home? Where is Jesus when we are in pain, when we are targeted, when we
are in fear?'” Kalabat said. “The answer is he is here. He says, ‘I love
you. I am here to struggle with you.’ He is real and he wants to touch
them, to heal them, to love them.”
Kalabat said Sako “has met with officials and is working very hard to bring rights not just to Christians, but to all Iraqis.”
He noted that not all Muslims are persecuting Christians and that
there are many “who want a democratic, free and peaceful Iraq.” Those
Muslims “working hard to protect Christians,” he said, “are heroes. They
are our friends.”
“The people are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Kalabat
said. “There is a need to unite the country. To remind all Iraqis,
regardless of their religion, that their religion should make them
He said the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq “is very active and it
is active with all Iraqis. We respond with love and compassion. We do no
always get that in return, but when we do it is magnificent.”
Noting there is “a massive exodus of Christians from biblical lands
and profoundly historical lands,” the bishop said that for someone to
tell persecuted Christians to stay “is not real, is not fair and is not
“If - God forbid - every Christian left Iraq, what would happen?
Let’s pray and let’s work and let’s rebuild so that doesn’t happen,” he
He called on U.S. Catholics to become aware of the suffering of
Christians in the Middle East and to pray for them. He also urged them
to talk to members of Congress and the new Trump administration “and
tell them what we need and that we need it now.'”
Because the Islamic State has threatened to “humiliate Americans
everywhere and raise the flag of Allah in the White House,” Kalabat said
Americans must never forget that “ISIS isn’t just ‘their’ problem. It
is a problem for all of us.”
He said Catholics in the West also can “adopt parishes, adopt
dioceses and adopt people” and assist them “to let the people there know
that the people here are thinking of them and praying for them and
thanking them for keeping the faith alive.”