As more and more refugees from Iraq are relocated to Arizona, Msgr. Felix Shabi has a happy problem: his community of Chaldean Catholics continues to grow steadily.
About 600 families belong to Mar Abraham Parish in Scottsdale and Holy Family Mission in Phoenix. Msgr. Shabi said many others live in the East Valley and Tucson.
Last November, after a brutal attack on the Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad left 58 dead, local Roman Catholics began reaching out to their Eastern-rite brothers and sisters here in the Valley.
That’s something Fr. Mike Straley wholeheartedly supports. As a longtime member of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, an organization that supports Christians in the Holy Land, he understands the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
“The Diocese of Phoenix is getting big enough to where we need to talk more about what it means to be Catholic,” Fr. Straley said. The word “Catholic,” he explained, means universal and refers to the universality of the Church.
Julie Nackard, area councilor of the Western Lieutenancy for the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Phoenix, met with Msgr. Shabi in March at the request of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted. The bishop urged the Knights to broaden their definition of the Holy Land to include Iraq.
After hearing about the needs of the Chaldean community, Nackard spoke with fellow members about reaching out to local Iraqi Catholics. In April, the group gathered at Mar Abraham to pray the rosary and listen to a short presentation by Msgr. Shabi.
On May 17, Fr. Straley, Nackard and other members of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre enjoyed a dinner with Emmanuel III Cardinal Delly, patriarch of Babylon, who was visiting from Baghdad.
Representatives from the local Byzantine Catholic Church, including Bishop Gerald Dino, the Right Reverend Archimandrite Wes Izer and Fr. Stephen Washko, as well as representatives of the Knights of Columbus from nearby St. Patrick Parish were also in attendance.
On May 18, Msgr. Shabi concelebrated a Mass for members of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and spoke at the group’s annual dinner and business meeting at the Diocesan Pastoral Center.
“We are a Church of martyrs,” Msgr. Shabi said. “We trace our roots to the apostle Thomas, the one who evangelized our country.”
Explaining that tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homeland in the face of ongoing persecution, he spoke of the traumatized, orphaned children who belong to his Phoenix mission.
“One girl, she was in her mother’s arms when a bomb went off,” Msgr. Shabi said. The child’s father was killed in a separate attack a year later. The girl and her two siblings now reside with their grandmother in Phoenix.
“Martyrdom is a gift, but not everyone is meant to receive it,” Msgr. Shabi said. “Our patriarch has begged people to stay, but young families are leaving because they fear for their children’s lives.”
Experts say more than half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the violence plaguing the country since the ouster of Sadaam Hussein. Msgr. Shabi said his homeland’s instability has allowed terrorists from neighboring countries to enter and target Christians.
“One Christian was decapitated last week,” he told the crowd, describing horrifying photos of the dismembered body circulated on the Internet. He also told of another incident in which the Chaldean bishop of Mosul was killed.
“They collected his blood in a glass vase, saying that an infidel’s blood should not desecrate what they claim is Islamic soil,” Msgr. Shabi said.
For years, many in the Phoenix Diocese were unaware of the presence of Eastern-rite Catholics. After a series of articles in The Catholic Sun spotlighted the hardships endured by Chaldean Catholics, readers responded.
Brian C. McNeil, an Iraq War veteran who served two tours, was one of those inspired to help. He contacted Msgr. Shabi and set up a meeting.
“After serving in Iraq, it bothers me to know that many people, including many Christians, had to abandon their homes and flee to other places because of extremists committed to driving them away. While the Kurdish region of Iraq has become a refuge for some, many have sought homes in the United States and around the world as an answer to the persecution in places like Baghdad and Mosul, which has become all too common,” McNeil said.
McNeil came up with a plan to help the Chaldean community in the Valley after he and his son Ezekiel visited Msgr. Shabi on a Saturday during religious education activities at the Holy Family Mission. Soon after, the McNeil family, who are parishioners at Ss. Simon and Jude and whose children attend the parish school, organized a raffle to raise money for the religious education program at the Chaldean church.
“With the support of Fr. Lankeit, Sr. Raphael [Quinn, IBVM], a good friend Don Cardon, and many others, the raffle and other activities will have raised more than $1,000 to help the faith formation of these children in our diocese,” McNeil said. “More importantly, it has helped raised the awareness of the needs of these brothers and sisters in Christ, both here and in Iraq.”
On May 19, in a first-ever for the Phoenix Diocese, Bishop Olmsted met with the Chaldean patriarch.
Emmanuel III Cardinal Delly, 84, named patriarch of Babylon in 2003, has steadfastly endured as the Christian population of Iraq dwindles. Once estimated at 1.4 million, today there are fewer than 500,000. When the Oct. 31 massacre took place in Baghdad, for example, a church that in previous years might have held 500 worshippers, just 60 faithful were in attendance.
Bishop Olmsted and Cardinal Delly discussed their years in Rome as they sampled homemade Iraqi pastries and sipped tea. Both men had spent more than a dozen years each living and working in the Eternal City.
Bishop Olmsted paid tribute to the patriarch’s unflinching courage in the face of ongoing persecution of Christians in his homeland. He told Cardinal Delly he hoped to visit Iraq one day.
As a member of the USCCB’s committee on ecumenical and interfaith relations for the United States, Bishop Olmsted said the commission wanted to visit a region characterized by interfaith and ecumenical cooperation.
“One of the things we proposed to do was to go to Syria and Iraq,” the bishop said. “In those countries, because of persecution, they’ve had to stick together and overcome sometimes some longstanding differences or misunderstandings. We felt we could learn a lot from them.”
Printed with permission from the Catholic Sun, newspaper for the Diocese of Phoenix, Ariz.