As Iraqi Christians await deportation, bishop points to suffering Body of Christ

Deportation refugees Credit MIA Studio Shutterstock CNA MIA Studio/Shutterstock.

Advocates for Chaldean Christians detained by federal immigration enforcement are in a race against time to halt their deportation back to war-torn Iraq.

"Today is also the feast of the Body of Christ. And this is where the Body of Christ is in pain, and it turns to the Body of Christ for healing," Bishop Francis Kalabat of the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Detroit told CNA on Thursday, the feast of Corpus Christi.

"Today we are carrying our crosses, and those crosses are real," he continued June 15. "And with every cross we have our Good Friday, but trusting in God we will also have our Easter Sunday."

Beginning last Sunday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested dozens of Chaldean Christians in the Detroit metropolitan area, and most were quickly sent to detention at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio. Some were taken from their homes in front of their families, and others were reportedly arrested in public places like restaurants.

An estimated 106 Iraqis have been arrested so far, Bishop Kalabat said, "the vast majority of them Chaldean Christian," though there are reportedly Muslims among the detained.

ICE explained in a statement that the Chaldeans had previous criminal records including convictions for homicide, rape, and aggravated assault, had been ordered for removal by a federal judge, and were being deported to Iraq as part of an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq.

They entered the U.S. legally, some of them decades ago, with an eventual path to citizenship, but since then those who committed felonies would not have a legal path to citizenship.

Many of the crimes were committed decades ago, in the 1980s and '90s, Bishop Kalabat said, with one case "literally 30 years ago." That man "did his time [in prison], paid the price, has cleared his name," and is now married with four children.

Some of the detainees may have recent criminal records and be a threat to public safety, the bishop noted, and if that is the case they should be detained.

He maintained, however, that many of those detained have long been responsible, law-abiding residents.

Chaldeans are native to Iraq and the population has been Christian almost since Christianity began. Detroit is one of the largest Chaldean diaspora communities in the U.S., where an apostolic exarchate was created in 1982. An estimated 30,000 Iraqi refugees have been settled in Michigan since 2003.

The church and the community have been working feverishly to halt the deportation of the Iraqis. Prayer vigils have been taking place this past week in the community, Bishop Kalabat said.

Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation, told CNA on Wednesday that advocacy for the plight of the detainees has reached the highest levels of government. The U.S. bishops have written a letter to the Vice President asking for a halt to the deportations, he added.

"Hardened criminals" make up a "very small percentage" of the detainees, he insisted.

The Knights of Columbus have written Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly on the matter, and several members of Congress – Reps. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), and John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) -- wrote Secretary Kelly as well.

The detainees "will be placed in great danger if deported to Iraq," they insisted, noting that the State Department declared in 2016 that Christians in Iraq and Syria faced genocide at the hands of the Islamic State. They continue to be threatened by the Islamic State and other terror groups.

"Because of the horrors perpetrated against the Catholic Chaldean population in Iraq, these individuals could be stranded in a country in which they are subject to extreme jeopardy," the letter said.

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Furthermore, many of the detainees may have no families or connections in Iraq given how long they have lived in the U.S., the members wrote.

"Until we in Congress can review all aspects of the agreement reached with Iraq, and the referenced safety measures, we urge you to hold off removal of these individuals to Iraq," the members stated.

Detainees must not be deported without due process, Manna insisted, saying that sending them back to a country with an active war zone like Iraq is inhumane.

"The law is really on their side," he said of the detainees, who have had clean records for at least ten years. They served their time in prison and "paid their debt" to society, he said, and should not be deported without due process as federal judges had ruled long ago they could be removed.

Furthermore, sending these detainees back to Iraq while it is an active war zone could violate the International Convention Against Torture, he added.

"The U.S. also bears responsibility" to rectify the problem, he told CNA, as the American-led 2003 invasion of Iraq precipitated a massive exodus in Christians from the country, from a population of 1.5 million in 2003 to under 300,000 now.

"The administration has committed itself to helping Christians," Bishop Kalabat said, but if Christians who committed crimes decades ago and have "turned the corner" are being deported, "it doesn't make sense."

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Yet God suffers with his people, he continued.

"This, to me, is the greater tragedy, when we forget about giving of our lives to God and allowing God to be with us, and allowing God to speak to us, to be hurt with us."

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