Nearly 2,000 years ago, when what is now the northeastern United States was a cold, sparsely inhabited wasteland, St. Thomas the Apostle founded the ancient Church of the East in modern-day Iraq. St. Peter's blessing of the Christian community at Babylon is recorded in Scripture, among the earliest clearly established facts of ecclesiastical history.
One of the many successors of this ancient body is the Chaldean Catholic Church, which arose in the 16th century after more than a millennium of slumbering acquiescence to the Nestorian heresy (explaining this very confusing error would require an entire column full of words like "dyophysite") as a particular Church, in full communion with the pope and Latin Christianity, but autonomous, with her own patriarch and a distinct liturgy and calendar.
In 2003, there were something like 800,000 Christians in Iraq; it is impossible to give anything like an accurate figure now, but it is safe to say that in Mosul there are virtually none. In Baghdad, beheading, torture, bombing, rape, and desecration of their houses of worship await the hundreds of thousands who have fled should they choose to return. If Immigration and Customs Enforcement has its way, it is possible that at least 40 will be headed back to Iraq soon.
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In metro Detroit on Sunday, dozens of immigrants were arrested and detained by ICE, many of them Chaldeans. Mothers and daughters screamed and wept at the gates of the agency's office. According to Wisam Naoum, an area lawyer seeking the immigrants' release, "in some cases final orders have been issued to send people back to Mosul," where, on the day of the arrests, Iraqi forces had killed 23 ISIS fighters, the latest salvo in a seven-month-long battle with no end in sight. "There's a reason why we fled our country," Zeinab al-Badry, whose husband was among those taken, told a reporter. "It's not to have fun in America. We fled to have a safe life for us and our kids." Moayad Barash, born decades ago in Baghdad but a resident in this country for more than three decades, was arrested while visiting a beach with his family, ostensibly because he had once been caught with marijuana before this correspondent was born. Apparently this is a very serious crime in the Great Lakes State.
Asked about the purpose of the arrests, ICE responded to one Detroit news outlet by saying, "The focus of these targeted enforcement operations is consistent with the routine, targeted arrests carried out by ICE's Fugitive Operations Teams on a daily basis." I invite the reader to savor the special flavor of this sentence. With its meaningless jargon (what exactly is a "targeted enforcement operation"? Are there non-targeted ones that scoop up people at random, including ones with the last name Smith, like a giant claw machine controlled by a man in a blindfold?), its tautology, its almost insistent purposelessness, it is an almost perfect example of bureaucratic prose. Translated into English it means, "Shut up, we don't know, and neither should you."
Last month Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians. In his lengthy remarks, he offered "the prayers of the American people" and those of his family and President Trump not only to Iraq's Chaldeans but to Christians of all rites throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world, which are of course welcome. "America," he said, "will stand by followers of Christ in this hour of need."
It is a lovely sentiment, no doubt sincerely voiced, if a little vague. Could he possibly mean "stand by" as in "stand by and watch"? Short of sending more troops to free Mosul and convincing Senate Republicans and President Trump to follow the House in approving more aid for those living outside the "official" U.N. camps where they often find their lives endangered, there is little else that can be done on behalf of persecuted Christians that is not explicitly at odds with the administration's immigration policy. But it is hard to imagine that ICE's recent actions in Detroit are what Pence had in mind.
This is not, one would think, a complicated question. Even those who oppose an expansion of America's refugee program because they see in the faces of bereaved mothers and starving children only potential terrorists or welfare recipients surely appreciate the fact that for those Iraqi Christians already living in this country, deportation is simply unfeasible. Anyone suggesting otherwise has not thought through the issue. What are the prospective logistics here? Is it possible to purchase bus fare from Baghdad International Airport to the pleasant avenues and refreshing air of Mosul?
To send Christians back to the hellhole of ISIS-controlled Iraq, a state that has never been far from the verge of collapse since the fall of Saddam Hussein, would be nothing short of a state-sponsored execution, albeit a needlessly complicated one. They could always just shoot them here.
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