A Church in Exile (The Chaldean Catholics)

Father Denis and I walked from the Jesuit House in the neighborhood next to mine to the make-shift church that the Iraqi Christians had set up in a small apartment.

I had called him on the phone earlier today to ask if I could go to the Chaldean mass with him, and he was cautious. “The bishops just released a letter to the Iraqi Christians telling them to be careful with evangelicals. This is their community: their language, the people they dance with, they worship with, and when you take one person out of the community it is like tearing the fabric of who they are.” I assured him that I wanted to learn only and had no plans of recruiting the Chaldean Christians for my church. He recalled that the Anglican churches had a good history of respecting other traditions so he would talk to the priest there and see if it was OK for me to come. He called back later to let me know it would be fine.

I would have never known we had arrived at the church had it not been for the sign reading “Chaldean Church in XXXXXXX” in front of the apartment building. We walked downstairs to the bottom level and people greeted Denis with the customary “abouna” which is Syriac for “father.”

The church was basically a living room and dining room with the doors dividing them removed. Plastic garden chairs were set up in rows and about 15 people were inside saying the rosary in Arabic. Denis checked to see if the priest there was available, he was not. “He is in the office, which is also his bedroom, counseling a married couple.” Checking in another room revealed a small group of young women learning Syriac, or as it is called here “Suriani,” a Semitic language closely related to the Aramaic that Jesus spoke on a daily basis. It only survives as the liturgical language of the Chaldean church.

There are a massive number of Iraqis here—something that makes the local population quite bitter as prices for everything from apartments to bread to gas has gone up because of this large influx of people in a country with a population of about five million. At this Monday evening mass there were over thirty people, including some teenagers. Many of the women cover their heads during prayer or when they take communion, a common practice here among all Christians.

The church was very simple, aside from the chairs everything could have been packed into a suburban in an hour. There were inexpensive portraits of the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Family, and the baptism of our Lord hanging from walls. The mass was mostly in Suriani. I did not understand much, but I gathered that the Gospel reading was from John 6.

The Chaldean Catholic Church of Babylon (its full name) is the church of the great majority of Christians in Iraq. It is one of the many churches in communion with the Holy See and the bishop of Rome (the Pope). But they are not Roman Catholics: they have their own bishops, their own liturgy, their own church laws, and so on. The senior bishop in the church is the Patriarch of Babylon (Baghdad).

There is tension between the evangelicals here, who view the Catholic and Orthodox as unsaved people who need to know the Lord, and therefore it is necessary for them to join an evangelical church. The Chaldeans are hostile to the evangelicals, viewing them as thieves and poachers who take advantage of a church that is already in a very difficult situation.

Let us pray that our Chaldean brethren would be zealous for the Gospel and filled with the power of the Spirit. Let us pray for our evangelical brethren, that they would be humble before a church that has perdured for centuries in a hostile, Islamic culture. Both communities have much to learn from each other.

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