Update, 2 p.m.: The regional Chaldean Catholic diocese now says canon law does allow Rev. Gorgis and the other priests to continue working until word comes down from the Vatican. Gorgis has resumed his ministry work.
Just 14 priests serve the tens of thousands of Chaldean Catholics who have emigrated from Iraq to the western United States. A church leader in Iraq has suspended seven of those priests, including the Rev. Noel Gorgis in El Cajon.
Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, the head of the church, wants the Iraqi-American priests who fled violence in Iraq to return home or leave the church. San Diego County Chaldeans oppose that and say they will appeal to the Vatican to stop it.
A memo issued last month by Sako lists 10 priests who fled violence in Iraq and started churches in their new homes. The memo said they were to return to Iraq by Oct. 22, 2014, or face suspension. The reason: The church never officially approved their moves, which were mostly to escape the Gulf War in the 1990s.
The regional Chaldean Catholic diocese in San Diego has sent several appeals to Sako but learned Wednesday that Father Noel, as he is called in the community, and several other priests in California must cease ministry work as they await a response from Pope Francis.
Mark Arabo is a spokesman for the Chaldean community and says parishioners are dumbfounded by Sako’s actions. In recent months, ISIS militants have displaced thousands of Catholics and other religious minorities in a bloody offensive across Iraq and Syria.
“These 10 priests are not sacrificial lambs. We’re not going to let them be sent back like cattle to a slaughter,” Arabo said. “Because in Iraq right now, they’re slaughtering priests, they’re slaughtering people, they’re bombing churches.”
San Diego County Chaldeans are invited to an emergency mass Wednesday evening at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon. In accordance with canon law, Gorgis will have to hand the service off to two other priests at the church.
Arabo said the suspension will force the church to cut some services and could affect prayer groups, confession and baptisms.
Chaldean churches in Orange and Riverside counties and the Central Valley are also affected by Sako’s decree.
Arabo speculated that Sako recalling the priests shows the “growing disconnect between himself and our people.” About 80,000 Iraqi immigrants, many of them Chaldeans, live in eastern San Diego County. About 250,000 live in the United States.