It never rains in California; except when it does.
Dark clouds spewed sheets of rain onto the parking lot beside Saint Peter’s Chaldean Catholic Cathedral. Water bouncing back from the pavement obscured the buildings in an odd way, as though one was looking through a portal into another world where only the power of believing kept it all there.
Chaldeans are proud of their history which goes back centuries before the birth of Christianity to Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers now known as Iraq. Once called the Fertile Crescent or The Cradle of Civilization, ancient Mesopotamia produced the prologue to western civil law under King Hammurabi, (1792-1750 B.C) called The Hammurabi Code. Every history student learns about the rose-colored city of Babylon with its magnificent Hanging Gardens, created by King Nebuchadnezzar II, (605-592 B.C.) The ancient Epic of Gilgamesh – the king who searched for immortality – is a legendary poem that originated in the Assyrian city of Uruk that once flourished in the northern part of Mesopotamia. Archeologists believe it was written 2500 years before the birth of Jesus.
In this age of advertiser-designed opinion, many in the world Christian flock appear to have lost faith in their dead saints as shown by dwindling numbers of church goers in the West.
However, in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq today, losing faith is the least of a Christian’s worry; there’s a daily threat of being slaughtered by fanatics for not being a Muslim. Aside from the murder of Christians as well as other minorities, Muslim extremists have resorted to burning churches and cathedrals, selling girls of all ages including babies into slavery, and killing anyone who disagrees with them. (2015 United Nations Report.)
(Photo of executed men reportedly from the Islamic State (IS) Media Department.)
Refugees, who survived the recent raping and killings in Iraq and Syria at the hands of the terrorists of IS, report that Christians and minorities in the Northern Iraqi towns of Mosul and Tikrit were given the choice of conversion to Islam or death. In the end, faith was all they had as they ran away from their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Civilians fled the carnage and travelled north across the desert to the Kurdish region where camps are now home to hundreds of thousands. Before the 2nd Gulf war and the fall of Dictator, Saddam Hussein, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Once Hussein was ousted, the tight lid that he’d held down on a pressure-cooker of religious and tribal discontent was thrown off. More than 30 years of fomenting hatred between Muslim tribes bubbled up and over the top in 2003. Since then, various factions have considered it a kind of perverted duty to kill Christians.
The result was a mass exodus which has pushed Christianity in Iraq to the brink of extinction. An estimated 300,000 Christians remain in all of the country. Of 60,000 Christians that lived in Mosul before the summer of 2014 and the IS occupation, there are reportedly less than 200 remaining – the ones who were too sick or too old to flee.
In spite of the ongoing terrorist campaign to wipe out Christianity in Iraq, the Patriarch of Chaldean Catholics worldwide, Louis Raphael Sako, has ordered at least six monks and 8 priests to return to Iraq, stating that they left without permission. One source reported that the Patriarch has persuaded Iraqi government officials not to issue visas to Christians who want to leave the country.
Patriarch Sako’s narrowly focused crusade to save Christianity in Iraq and Syria is evident in an interview with Aleteia, the worldwide Catholic network. He said,
“We have been there for 2000 years. We have a mission and a role, and if a future exists for the Chaldean Church it is not in the diaspora but in Iraq. If all the families leave and even the priests, the entire history and Chaldean patrimony will vanish.”
We in the West simply cannot comprehend the absolute horror of being a Christian or a minority in the parts of Iraq and Syria which are controlled by IS terrorists. The concept of a family member being shot in front of us, our priest being beheaded – as was reported from the city of Mosul in early February of this year – or a daughter being kidnapped for use as a sex slave is alien to our safe, self-contained lives. It’s a movie; they’re just images on a screen, not me, not you.
In stark contrast to the terrifying existence of Chaldeans in his home country, a cheerful serenity fills the rectory and the small office of Iraqi born Father Michael J. Bazzi, the residing Pastor Emeritus of St. Peter’s Chaldean Cathedral. His open door policy invites a never-ending stream of parishioners to speak with him about everything from upcoming marriages, to classes in Aramaic, the ancient language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.
Beneath his signature black beret, Father Michael’s inquisitive brown eyes seem to look right into your soul. He reads you like a book, but it’s okay because you instinctively trust the man; you feel a reassuring tolerance of human error and omission. He confronts each situation in a no-nonsense, right to the point approach with a practiced ability for smoothing human emotion and reaction that’s been honed over decades. Over 75 now, he has been awarded the title, Pastor Emeritus.
Born in 1938 in the small town of Tilkepe, about 8 miles northeast of Mosul in Iraq, the good Father exudes the vitality of a much younger man. He chuckles as he reminisces about his youth. In his sophomore year of high school, his religious upbringing collided with a book by Jean Paul Sartre that denied the existence of God.
When Michael Bazzi, precocious teenage student, was told by his Pastor to throw the book in the garbage and not ask questions, he left Tilkepe to study in a seminary in Mosul, which later move to Baghdad. He says that during the following decade of the education that he required to be ordained as a priest, he gave all his teachers a hard time. He questioned everything until he was wholly convinced of both the existence of God and his calling to the priesthood.
After his ordination in 1964, Father Michael returned to Tilkepe to teach. In the beginning there was no Catholic school, nowhere for anyone to learn the Catechism – the summary of the official teachings of the Catholic beliefs. Eight years later, when Father Michael received a scholarship to the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, there were eight hundred students from all walks of life.
It was indeed a lucky happenstance, because Saddam Hussein had just begun drafting clergy into his army. In 1974, with a Master’s Degree in pastoral theology, a benefactor of the church brought Father Michael to Wisconsin where he taught Scripture for five years. From there he taught in Michigan and then in Los Angeles. 1985 saw the good Father as an assistant pastor at Saint Peter’s in San Diego, and in 1987, he became the pastor.
He has been teaching Aramaic classes at Cuyamaca College since1989 and has authored several textbooks on modern and classical Aramaic.
As we speak, Sister Veronica, who appears to be the Pastor’s executive assistant, comes and goes almost invisibly, barely disturbing the air in the room. She is a slip of a girl with beautiful big gray eyes, a ready smile and a quietly important presence.
When the conversation turned toward the disobedience of his fellow priests who were ordered back to Iraq by their Patriarch, and the Pope’s countermand of the order subject to a Vatican investigation, Father Michael seemed to withdraw into himself for a moment. But then, as though he’d made a decision, he handed me a sheet of paper which contained several quotes from the Quran.
The infamous Quran 8:12, is taken literally by extremists: “When your Lord revealed to the angels: I am with you, therefore make firm those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.”
Father Michael’s eyes lost their shine and his rugged face fell. He looked down and explained, “Any IS member who kills a priest gets a free ticket to heaven;” and, “We love our Patriarch but we cannot understand his mind on this.” The pain in his voice as he speaks is reflected in saddened eyes.
He looked up and went on to say that one priest, Father Noel, who now works in the Media Center at St. Peters, escaped from Saddam Hussein’s army in the late 1980s, fleeing to Turkey with four others. He tells me that Father Noel has been in the U.S. for over 20 years and is an American citizen.
Because Chaldean priests are allowed to marry before they are ordained, Father Michael described one of the other priests who has been ordered back to Iraq as married with 2 kids and has been residing in America for 15 years.
Father Noel Gorgis appeared at that moment. With a wiry build, the slightly graying priest was dressed in a track suit and a smile that filled the small room with warmth. He was quoted by Fox News in San Diego last year as saying that returning to Iraq would mean that he and his fellow clergymen would face certain death.
The Vatican has requested that none of the priests involved speak with the media until the investigation is completed and so the conversation turned to religion.
When asked, “Where is God?” Father Michael said, pointing to his heart, “He is here and everywhere.”
Father Noel laughed and replied, “He is everywhere. He is omnipotent and omnipresent.”
To date, the idea of suicide in the Middle East has been relegated to Muslim suicide bombers. One doubts the sanity of those who volunteer for suicide, let alone their ability to conceptualize an omnipotent God. Priests who obey the Patriarch’s order to return to Iraq know that the chances are high that they’ll find themselves kneeling at the altar of savagery, an AK47 in their faces while a video camera records the blood flow.
Given the Catholic Church’s definition of sins, both suicide and disobedience fall into the category. Perhaps the Vatican has a ‘Hail Mary,’ ready for just such a dilemma as this choice of sins.