Poor St Thomas is the only Apostle remembered not for his faith, but for his doubt. And yet, having placed his hands in Christ’s wounds, he took up Our Lord’s call to “make disciples of all nations” with particular zeal. According to tradition, Thomas carried the faith as far as India – a community still known today as Saint Thomas Christians. And many other Eastern Christians also trace their lineage back to “Doubting Thomas”, including the Chaldean Catholics of Iraq.
The Chaldeans aren’t strangers to persecution. In fact, the word “genocide” was coined in part to describe the Ottoman Empire’s butchering more than half of its Chaldean population during the First World War. Still, the community endured. Then came the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, the country was engulfed by sectarian violence. ISIS quickly established a stronghold in Mosul, the nearest city to the Chaldeans’ heartland, the Nineveh Plains. It was open season on Iraqi Christians.
In the 16 years since the US-led coalition launched its first strike, Iraq’s Christian population has fallen by a shocking 80 per cent. That means four out of every five Iraqi Christians have fled or been killed.
Fr Benedict Kiely, a British priest and advocate for Middle Eastern Christians, recently explained in these pages that, in spite of “territorial defeat”, ISIS militants continue to pose a threat to Chaldeans.
Presumably, Americans should assume some of the responsibility for relieving Chaldeans of their persecution. Indeed, President Donald Trump (pictured with Chaldean Archbishop Warda) promised to do just that during his 2016 campaign. He won it, in part, by pledging to end America’s “democracy-building” efforts, instead focusing on protecting Middle Eastern religious minorities. American Chaldeans, who are concentrated in Detroit, strongly supported his bid for the White House. Signs reading “Chaldeans for Trump” could be seen at some of his Michigan rallies.
But now the Trump administration is threatening to deport more than 1,400 Iraqi refugees, most of whom are Chaldean. Many were brought to America as children; they speak no Arabic and have no family in their country of birth. They would be helpless in a land where their crucifix tattoos would make them obvious targets for Islamist assassins. The Guardian reported last week that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is keeping tabs on the 130 Iraqis who have already been deported under the Trump administration. According to the ACLU, “some have been beaten, shot, have disappeared, or are ‘holed up in homes with machine guns’ on self-imposed house arrest.”
The Guardian also alleges that the federal government is subverting its own immigration laws in order to deport these Chaldeans. A majority of those facing deportation have criminal records and, according to federal law, “those who commit certain crimes can be deported”. However, “the law also prohibits ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] from deporting individuals to countries where they will be tortured or killed”. If that exemption applies to anyone, it’s the Chaldeans.
Moreover, the ACLU claims it has leaked emails circulated by ICE officials which explain that it will begin by deporting lawbreakers in order to “grease the skids”. According to the ACLU, ICE ’s ultimate goal is to deport those Chaldeans with no criminal record.
ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman, who is representing a group of Chaldeans in a class action lawsuit, alleges that ICE is refusing to allow those facing deportation to appear before immigration courts. Most judges agree that these thoroughly Americanised Christians would be doomed to persecution by Islamists if forced to return to Iraq. In other words, if they got a fair hearing, the Chaldeans would win; hence, ICE is refusing them that hearing. Or so Aukerman claims.
Why would ICE be trying so vigorously to deport innocent refugees, who will surely face persecution – even death – in their country of origin? Why would it allegedly subvert immigration law in order to rid Detroit of this tiny, affluent, conservative community? And, even if President Trump feels no sense of moral duty to American Chaldeans, why would he risk the political repercussions of allowing their deportation en masse?
That will be an important question for voters in Michigan: one of the blue-collar, Midwestern states crucial to Trump’s re-election bid. While Chaldeans can hardly swing the election themselves, many of their fellow Michiganders will no doubt be outraged at the community’s plight.
This also feeds into larger concerns about America’s immigration system. The US bishops have loudly condemned the Trump Administration’s policy of separating children from their families when caught attempting to cross the border illegally. Moreover, 60 per cent of Americans believe that migrants from South America should be allowed to claim refugee status, and be entitled to legal protections by the US government. Why, then, shouldn’t Iraqi Christians?