Union Tribune Features Mar Bawai in Article

Chaldeans Celebrate Pope's Acceptance

About 1,000 people packed into a church hall in El Cajon on Tuesday night to celebrate Pope Francis’ historic assignment of a former Assyrian bishop to the Chaldean Catholic Church.

“The grace really overwhelms,” Bishop Bawai Soro said shortly before the reception at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral. “I’m still processing what it means for me to be joining the colleagues in the church. It’s a unique experience.”

The appointment was the culmination of about eight years of effort, and it was not without controversy. Soro joined the Roman Catholic fold — which includes the Chaldean church — after breaking from the Assyrian Church of the East, for which he served as a bishop in San Jose. Religious leaders of the Assyrian community there sued Soro, claiming that he had illegally taken over a church building and other property while trying to convert the congregation to Catholicism.

Soro lost the three-year-long suit and moved to San Diego, where he was taken in by the Most Rev. Sarhad Yawsip Jammo, head of the western U.S. Diocese for Chaldean Catholics.

While Soro said he was following his faith, others in San Jose accused him of embezzlement and misconduct. At least one person continued the accusations this week on a religious blog following the announcement of his papal appointment.

But on Tuesday, Soro’s new status was cause for celebration in El Cajon, where a large number of Iraqi immigrants of Chaldean Catholic faith live. From 40,000 to more than 50,000 Chaldeans live in the city and surrounding communities.

A well-dressed crowd of men, women and children squeezed into the church hall to hear Jammo speak about the appointment during a three-hour reception. For them, the message was about religious unity.

“From the Chaldean community, we are completely rejoicing and so thankful,” said Mark Arabo, a leader of the Iraqi community in El Cajon and president and CEO of the Neighborhood Market Association.

“Catholic means universal, and the Catholic church is for everybody,” he added.

The Assyrian Church — also called the Nestorian Church, the Syrian Church and the Persian Church — is an ancient form of Christianity that dates back to around the 5th century in what is today Iraq.

In the 16th century, part of the Assyrian Church broke away, formed the Chaldean Catholic Church and pledged allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church.

Soro, 59, said years of reflection led him to believe the Assyrian Church should unite with the Chaldean Catholic Church.

“I came to understand Christ founded one church, and that sense of one church is found only in the Catholic Church,” said Soro, who immigrated to the United States from Iraq 38 years ago.

Soro said resistance from other leaders of the Assyrian Church arose because many Assyrian believers had survived centuries of persecution and isolation. Leaving their church to join the Roman Catholic family threatened their sense of independence, he said.

The Assyrian Church of the East’s diocese in California couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

After losing the lawsuit in San Jose, Soro was invited to stay in the rectory at St. Peter cathedral. He has been assisting in church duties there ever since — although without a direct designation from the Vatican.

With the appointment from Pope Francis, which was announced Saturday, Soro is officially recognized by the Catholic church. His future duties remain uncertain because Jammo already represents this region as a bishop.

Soro said he may learn what his next assignment will be later this year when the Chaldean church’s senate, made up of other bishops, convenes.

Arabo said the pope’s declaration was historic because it’s rare for a leader from another religious group to be appointed as a Catholic bishop.

“It affects Chaldeans throughout the world,” he added. “It directly affects 80,000 Chaldeans.”

Arabo said Soro was in line to become a top leader of the Assyrian Church, making his conversion that much more significant.

“It was like we drafted the Michael Jordan of the Assyrians,” he said.