Here, of course, I’m referring to the misconception that all Middle-Eastern people are Arabic, and all of them are Muslim. Father Andrew Seba, one of the priests at St. Thomas, explained to us that Chaldeans not only are a different ethnic group than Arabs, they are Catholic.
Chaldeans did not originate as Arabs or Persians—they are Semitic. Prophet Abraham, the forefather that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all trace back to, was from “Ur of the Chaldees—Chaldees means he was Chaldean,” as Father Seba pointed out. When the Chaldean nation of Mesopotamia was conquered by Islam several hundred years ago, it became the Arab nation now known as Iraq. Another interesting fact is that Chaldean is a sister language of both Aramaic and Hebrew. While these different types of people are related, they are not the same.
Chaldeans in Iraq currently face the same kind of tyranny, marginalization, and violence from the larger community that Jews experienced all over the world prior to the founding of Israel. I also couldn’t help but see the similarities between how Chaldeans are treated in Iraq and how Bahá’ís are being treated in Iran.
Chaldean Catholicism differs in some ways from, and has other religious influences than, Roman Catholicism. The differences in practice arose because, while Roman Catholicism was developing under the Roman Empire, the Chaldeans were the only Christian denomination in the Persian Empire. The two faith groups maintained ties, and Chaldeans do answer to the Roman Catholic pope, but in a sort of roundabout way, through their own dioceses and a religious leader called the Patriarch, whom Father Seba described as a sort of “sub-pope” (or pope with a lowercase p).
The members of St. Thomas parish have adopted some aspects of mainstream Catholicism that weren’t traditionally part of their faith, such as praying the rosary. To people who say “That’s not our prayer,” Father Seba says, “It is now.” As he showed us St. Thomas’s sanctuary, in which several hundred people worship every week, Father Seba described an upcoming prayer service in which it is St. Thomas’s custom to say prayers in several different languages, not just Chaldean and English.
Chaldeans are in asylum all over the United States and Europe, with the largest concentration outside of Iraq being right here in Michigan—with a population of close to 200,000. The draw to this area was originally the automotive industry; Chaldeans have since branched out into other business, and a gradually increasing percentage of their young people are graduating from college and getting into various professions.
Something I found particularly interesting was that many Chaldean refugees, Father Seba explained, actually had no interest in leaving their homeland—they did so because they had to, and are waiting to see if the situation for their people improves enough for them to return home.
Understanding this about immigrants and refugees can go a long way toward helping us develop compassion for them, rather than see them as an imposition or a threat to our ways of life. Many of them truly have no other choice—They came here to survive destruction in their homeland, only to be treated like invaders and discriminated against when they try to re-settle.
The heartbreaking truth is, a lot of immigrants and refugees would go home if they had a home they could survive going back to. Regardless of the hardships they take on by coming to the U.S., where they are unwanted by a large percentage of the population, considering their alternatives, I think they made the best choice they could for themselves and their families, and they deserve credit for that.
Image: “Sanctuary Window” (at the Detroit Baha'i Center) by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, white colored pencil, silver Sharpie