Local Chaldeans overjoyed at pope’s visit to war-torn Iraq: ‘It was beautiful to see’

Chaldean Catholics celebrate Mass at Mother of God Chaldean Church in Southfield in 2019. Metro Detroit is home to more than 100,000 Chaldean Catholics, many of whom were overcome with emotion at seeing Pope Francis visit their long-suffering ancestral homeland in Iraq, where friends and family have suffered persecution for decades. (Jonathan Francis | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Iraqi expats in Metro Detroit pleased to see churches of their youth, hope for a brighter future for ancient Christian community 

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Metro Detroit’s Chaldean Catholic community hopes Pope Francis’ recently completed pastoral visit to Iraq strengthens and restores some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. 

The pontiff visited the war-torn Middle Eastern country March 5-8, including the capital city, Baghdad, as well as Mosul and the Nineveh Plains region in the country’s north. 

Pope Francis met with religious and government leaders, but expressed a sense of solidarity with the much-aggrieved Chaldean and Syriac communities — who trace their faith to St. Thomas the Apostle bringing the Gospel to Mesopotamia in the first century — calling for religious toleration and a sense of fraternity in a nation beset by wars, violence and political upheaval.  

In Metro Detroit, home of the largest Chaldean community in the world outside of Iraq, locals see the trip as a way for the world to acknowledge the pain endured, and resilience shown, by the Iraqi Christian population who look to rebuild after decades of oppression. 

A woman holds a sign depicting a battered child during a demonstration in downtown Detroit in 2014. Iraq’s Christians have long been a persecuted minority with few rights and a long history of oppression. (Detroit Catholic file photo)

“As a Chaldean Catholic, it’s more than just a statement, it’s more than a church. It’s a connection to the early disciples, the early Apostles,” Fr. Fawaz Kako, pastor of St. George Chaldean Church in Shelby Township, told Detroit Catholic. Fr. Kako also serves as vicar general of the Eparchy of St. Thomas, the Chaldean diocese based in Southfield that covers the eastern half of the United States. 

Fr. Kako himself was born in Baghdad and left the country in 2003. 

“I’m a Christian today, a follower of Jesus Christ because of my ancestors, and it didn’t come easy,” Fr. Kako said. “A lot of people shed their blood so I could call myself Christian today. This is the honor we carry today as Chaldean Catholics.” 

A major highlight of Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq was his March 6 visit to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, the site of a 2010 terrorist attack that resulted in the massacre of 47 people, including two priests, Fr. Taher Saadallah Boutros and Fr. Wassim Sabih, who were seminary classmates of Fr. Kako when he was studying in Iraq. 

Pope Francis participates in a memorial prayer for the victims of the war at Hosh al-Bieaa (church square) in Mosul, Iraq, March 7, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“Pope Francis visited that church, spoke to the clergy and the Iraqi people and gave a beautiful meaning of Christ’s mission, the mission of the clergy, the mission of the followers of Jesus Christ,” Fr. Kako said. “Two priests and 45 other people were murdered in that church during Sunday Mass, and to see the pope visiting that church and praying there, giving a message of hope, that was beautiful to see.” 

Images of Pope Francis greeting the local Christian populations in Iraq, coupled with media coverage of the often-forgotten Christian communities there, bring a sense of pride and hope to the Chaldean community in Detroit, particularly to those who remember what Iraq was like before it was torn asunder with sectarian violence and terrorism. 

“Chaldeans are so excited our pope is in Iraq, visiting our Christian brothers and sisters, many of whom continue to suffer and be persecuted,” said Vanessa Denha-Garmo, a prominent member of the local Chaldean community, founder of Denha Media Group and a leader at the Eastern Catholic Re-Evangelization Center in Bloomfield Hills.

Fr. Perrin Atisha hugs family members after being ordained to the priesthood in August 2019 at Mother of God Chaldean Cathedral in Southfield. (Jonathan Francis | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“Many of them went through things that are unfathomable,” Denha-Garmo said. “That the head of our Church is thinking of those who are suffering the most in the Catholic community is a reminder that these people are not forgotten.” 

After visiting Baghdad, Pope Francis traveled north to the Ninevah Plains and Mosul, historic Chaldean lands where many martyrs were killed under the brutal oppression of the so-called Islamic State. The pope visited the site of desecrated churches that the now-shrunken Chaldean and Syriac communities are trying to rebuild. 

Denha-Garmo said Metro Detroit’s Chaldeans have stepped up over the years to assist their brothers in sisters in Iraq, donating much-needed supplies as Chaldeans who chose to stay on their ancestral lands struggle to rebuild with little help from the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. 

Chaldean Bishop Francis Y. Kalabat of the Southfield-based Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle places his episcopal seal on the causes of three Chaldean martyrs killed in Iraq who are up for canonization in 2019. Bishop Kalabat, the spiritual leader of Chaldean Catholics in the eastern half of the United States, was in Iraq for the pope’s visit. (Jonathan Francis | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“The Chaldean community in southeast Michigan has done a tremendous amount of work trying to help the Chaldeans and Christians in Iraq with all kinds of efforts since the invasion,” Denha-Garmo said. “Under the leadership of Bishop (Francis) Kalabat, we’ve established the Help Iraq fund and the Adopt a Refugee fund, giving them medicine, food and money. COVID-19 threw everyone for a loop, and people had to pivot, traveling to Iraq less, but they are still doing diaper drives and medical supply drives to help people in need.” 

The Chaldean community in Iraq, now estimated to be less than 300,000 — far fewer than the million-plus who lived there before the 2003 invasion — rely on the charity of others outside their country, as their own provides little support, Fr. Kako said. 

“Christians are second-class citizens in Iraq; everything is sectarian and divided,” Fr. Kako said. “They don’t have a lot of rights, and their lands have been taken away from them. So for the pope to be there, to shed light on their suffering, on what is really going on in that country, hopefully it really motives the government to protect them, to give them their human rights.” 

Children are seen near an image of Pope Francis during the pope's visit with the community at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, Iraq, on March 7. (Paul Haring | CNS photo)

For Iraqi expats, seeing prominent Christian locations in Iraq highlighted internationally brings back memories of a time when the faith flourished in the area.  

Jeff Kassab, a subdeacon at St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Troy who’s studying at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, reports many of his friends have expressed joy at the pope’s visit. Kassab saw many posts on social media of people pointing out churches of their youth that Pope Francis visited, some severely damaged by terrorist attacks

“Pope Francis going to Iraq shows how much he believes Iraq is in desperate need of his presence and his peace and joy,” Kassab said. “After the 2003 invasion, the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, the subsequent civil war with sectarian violence, followed by the desecration by ISIS, the Chaldean community in Iraq really isn’t too worried about the coronavirus. They know the virus is there; it’s still a problem in Iraq, and the government has issued a lockdown, but they’re just glad the pope was in their country.”