A Christian priest who had been ordered by his patriarch to return to his native Iraq has been granted permission by the Vatican to remain in the United States.
Noel Gorgis, 49, a priest at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon, was among several priests told by Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad to return to Iraq.
Iraq’s Christian population has fallen sharply in recent months. Christians and other groups have fled ruthless militants from the Islamic State, who have invaded and occupied parts of Iraq and Syria. Many people, including other religious minorities and Muslims, have been tortured, forced into slavery or executed.
Many Chaldeans now live in San Diego, after an exodus in the last decade. They have spent the past several years, and especially this summer, watching as their people were driven from their ancestral homeland in northern Iraq.
Months ago, Sako expressed dismay that, as a consequence of the flight of so many Christians, Iraq’s Christian heritage is in jeopardy. Christians have been in what is now Iraq for almost as long as there’s been a Christian religion.
Fearing that a return to Iraq would mean certain death, Gorgis, who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, balked and then appealed to the Vatican. Shortly before Christmas, he received word, in letters sent in English and Italian, that the patriarch’s order has been reversed by Pope Francis and that he does not need to return.
Gorgis declined an interview Thursday, and information about Vatican’s letter came through Mark Arabo, a Chaldean-American community activist who is in contact with Gorgis.
In an October interview, Gorgis said that he is a Chaldean-American. “I was born in Iraq. I love my old country, but 100 percent, I am an American citizen, and American everything.”
In August, he celebrated a 25-year anniversary as a priest with a special mass, according to Kaldu.org, a Chaldean news outlet.
Arabo said he believes it is significant that the Vatican would intervene and go against the order of the Chaldean patriarch, who is the Chaldean church’s leader in Iraq. However, the Chaldean church is an eastern rite Catholic church, and the pope is its highest authority.