Chaldean Catholics Forge Friendships with
Roman Catholics in Phoenix Diocese
CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters
Cardinal Emmanuel-Karim Delly of Baghdad,
Iraq, leaves the consistory Nov. 24, 2007 at the Vatican. The
Chaldean patriarch said Pope Benedict XVI hoped that naming him
a cardinal might promote dialogue and reconciliation between
Christians and Muslims in Iraq.
By Joyce Coronel The Catholic Sun
As more and more refugees from Iraq are relocated to Arizona,
Msgr. Felix Shabi has a happy problem: his community of Chaldean
Catholics continues to grow steadily.
About 600 families belong to Mar Abraham Parish in Scottsdale
and Holy Family Mission in Phoenix. Msgr. Shabi said many others
live in the East Valley and Tucson.
Last November, after a brutal attack on the Syriac Catholic
Cathedral in Baghdad left 58 dead, local Roman Catholics began
reaching out to their Eastern-rite brothers and sisters here in
That’s something Fr. Mike Straley wholeheartedly supports. As a
longtime member of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, an
organization that supports Christians in the Holy Land, he
understands the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
“The Diocese of Phoenix is getting big enough to where we need
to talk more about what it means to be Catholic,” Fr. Straley
said. The word “Catholic,” he explained, means universal and
refers to the universality of the Church.
Julie Nackard, area councilor of the Western Lieutenancy for the
Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Phoenix, met with Msgr. Shabi
in March at the request of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted. The bishop
urged the Knights to broaden their definition of the Holy Land
to include Iraq.
After hearing about the needs of the Chaldean community, Nackard
spoke with fellow members about reaching out to local Iraqi
Catholics. In April, the group gathered at Mar Abraham to pray
the rosary and listen to a short presentation by Msgr. Shabi.
On May 17, Fr. Straley, Nackard and other members of the Knights
of the Holy Sepulchre enjoyed a dinner with Emmanuel III
Cardinal Delly, patriarch of Babylon, who was visiting from
Representatives from the local Byzantine Catholic Church,
including Bishop Gerald Dino, the Right Reverend Archimandrite
Wes Izer and Fr. Stephen Washko, as well as representatives of
the Knights of Columbus from nearby St. Patrick Parish were also
On May 18, Msgr. Shabi concelebrated a Mass for members of the
Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and spoke at the group’s annual
dinner and business meeting at the Diocesan Pastoral Center.
“We are a Church of martyrs,” Msgr. Shabi said. “We trace our
roots to the apostle Thomas, the one who evangelized our
Explaining that tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been
forced to flee their homeland in the face of ongoing
persecution, he spoke of the traumatized, orphaned children who
belong to his Phoenix mission.
“One girl, she was in her mother’s arms when a bomb went off,”
Msgr. Shabbi said. The child’s father was killed in a separate
attack a year later. The girl and her two siblings now reside
with their grandmother in Phoenix.
“Martyrdom is a gift, but not everyone is meant to receive it,”
Msgr. Shabi said. “Our patriarch has begged people to stay, but
young families are leaving because they fear for their
Experts say more than half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the
violence plaguing the country since the ouster of Sadaam
Hussein. Msgr. Shabi said his homeland’s instability has allowed
terrorists from neighboring countries to enter and target
“One Christian was decapitated last week,” he told the crowd,
describing horrifying photos of the dismembered body circulated
on the Internet. He also told of another incident in which the
Chaldean bishop of Mosul was killed.
“They collected his blood in a glass vase, saying that an
infidel’s blood should not desecrate what they claim is Islamic
soil,” Msgr. Shabi said.
For years, many in the Phoenix Diocese were unaware of the
presence of Eastern-rite Catholics. After a series of articles
in The Catholic Sun spotlighted the hardships endured by
Chaldean Catholics, readers responded.
Brian C. McNeil, an Iraq War veteran who served two tours, was
one of those inspired to help. He contacted Msgr. Shabi and set
up a meeting.
“After serving in Iraq, it bothers me to know that many people,
including many Christians, had to abandon their homes and flee
to other places because of extremists committed to driving them
away. While the Kurdish region of Iraq has become a refuge for
some, many have sought homes in the United States and around the
world as an answer to the persecution in places like Baghdad and
Mosul, which has become all too common,” McNeil said.
McNeil came up with a plan to help the Chaldean community in the
Valley after he and his son Ezekiel visited Msgr. Shabi on a
Saturday during religious education activities at the Holy
Family Mission. Soon after, the McNeil family, who are
parishioners at Ss. Simon and Jude and whose children attend the
parish school, organized a raffle to raise money for the
religious education program at the Chaldean church.
“With the support of Fr. Lankeit, Sr. Raphael [Quinn, IBVM], a
good friend Don Cardon, and many others, the raffle and other
activities will have raised more than $1,000 to help the faith
formation of these children in our diocese,” McNeil said. “More
importantly, it has helped raised the awareness of the needs of
these brothers and sisters in Christ, both here and in Iraq.”
On May 19, in a first-ever for the Phoenix Diocese, Bishop
Olmsted met with the Chaldean patriarch.
Emmanuel III Cardinal Delly, 84, named patriarch of Babylon in
2003, has steadfastly endured as the Christian population of
Iraq dwindles. Once estimated at 1.4 million, today there are
fewer than 500,000. When the Oct. 31 massacre took place in
Baghdad, for example, a church that in previous years might have
held 500 worshippers, just 60 faithful were in attendance.
Bishop Olmsted and Cardinal Delly discussed their years in Rome
as they sampled homemade Iraqi pastries and sipped tea. Both men
had spent more than a dozen years each living and working in the
Bishop Olmsted paid tribute to the patriarch’s unflinching
courage in the face of ongoing persecution of Christians in his
homeland. He told Cardinal Delly he hoped to visit Iraq one day.
As a member of the USCCB’s committee on ecumenical and
interfaith relations for the United States, Bishop Olmsted said
the commission wanted to visit a region characterized by
interfaith and ecumenical cooperation.
“One of the things we proposed to do was to go to Syria and
Iraq,” the bishop said. “In those countries, because of
persecution, they’ve had to stick together and overcome
sometimes some longstanding differences or misunderstandings. We
felt we could learn a lot from them.”