Chaldeans Convene to Form United Voice
Hundreds at international gathering in East County address Christian group’s challenges
A historic gathering they called it. The first of its kind -- at least in modern memory, they said.
Chaldean leaders from across the globe recently met in Rancho San Diego to launch an organization to address challenges facing their dispersed brethren and press for changes in their ancestral homeland of Iraq.
Participants said the three-day conference underscored the prominent role that East County Chaldeans play in their Christian-based culture worldwide.
More than 35,000 Chaldeans, many of them refugees from war-torn Iraq, call the El Cajon area home. The region has the second-largest concentration of the group in the United States, behind Detroit.
San Diego attorney Steven Yonan, who helped organize the gathering, said it included Chaldeans from at least 15 countries including Australia, Canada and Norway.
“This is the first time the community has united in a single place to form an organization that can speak for Chaldeans worldwide,” he said this week.
During the event, centered at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral, participants voted to create the Chaldean International Congress.
The 15-member body will represent Chaldean interests and lobby the U.S. government and other entities worldwide.
Noori Barka, who runs a biotech company in Spring Valley, said it will allow his people to present a united front as they deal with refugee settlement issues and the ongoing tumult in Iraq.
Once a thriving minority in the capital of Baghdad, where they were part of the merchant class, Chaldeans and other Iraqi Christians were persecuted during the rule of President Saddam Hussein. Today, they’re targeted by terrorists in the Muslim-dominated nation.
A band of militants last fall shot and killed at least 58 people, including two priests, at a Baghdad church that is well known among many Chaldeans in the El Cajon area.
The massacre prompted calls on the Iraqi government to crack down on anti-Christian violence. Barka said the new congress would press the issue with Baghdad authorities.
Ambassador Peter Bodde, assistant chief with the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, spoke at the Rancho San Diego conference.
Bodde told the gathering that the U.S. government is working to safeguard Chaldeans and other minority communities in Iraq.
A U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state also attended, telling the group that the Obama administration has requested funds from Congress to promote the safety of Christians in Iraq.
Iraq’s Chaldean community goes back centuries. As of two decades ago, an estimated 1.8 million Chaldeans lived in that country. That number has dropped to less than 500,000.
Barka said many have fled Iraq for Syria, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries.
Most of them end up in the United States, Europe and Australia.
“Today the number of Chaldeans living outside Iraq outnumber those living inside Iraq,” Yonan said.
Barka said more than 300 people attended the local conference, which took place March 30 and April 1.
The group also celebrated the Chaldean New Year. Under their calendar, it’s the year 7311.