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Suspended Chaldean Priest Continues To Work, Awaits Word From Pope

A woman holds her rosary beads during an emergency Mass at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon on Oct. 22, 2014.
10News
A woman holds her rosary beads during an emergency Mass at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon on Oct. 22, 2014.
The Rev. Noel Gorgis talks to reporters on Oct. 22, 2014, at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon.
10News
The Rev. Noel Gorgis talks to reporters on Oct. 22, 2014, at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon.

A San Diego Chaldean Catholic priest suspended from the ministry Wednesday will continue holding services and performing baptisms until Pope Francis weighs in on his case.

The Rev. Noel Gorgis is one of several Iraqi-Chaldean priests working outside of Iraq whom a church leader called on last month to return to their home country or lose their positions in the church. If the decision holds, the decree would recall half of the 14 priests serving the tens of thousands of Chaldean Catholics in the western United States.

Bishop Sarhad Jammo, who oversees Chaldean Catholic churches in the Southwest from St. Peter Cathedral in El Cajon, has sent an appeal to Rome on behalf of the priests. Leaders of the local diocese have said canon law allows the priests to continue their work until the pope responds.

Gorgis' parishioners say they "will not let our priest be a sacrificial lamb," said Mark Arabo, a spokesman for the Chaldean community.

Militants waging a violent offensive to establish an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria are targeting Catholics and other religious minorities in Iraq. Arabo said asking the priests to return to the bloodshed would be like calling "cattle to slaughter."

Gorgis told 10News, a KPBS media partner, that returning to Iraq would be the same as committing suicide. He made his comments at an emergency Mass Wednesday in honor of the suspended priests.

The Rev. Andraws Gorgis Toma of St. George Chaldean Catholic Church in Santa Ana told KPBS he'll also continue to practice ministry until word comes from the Vatican. He is the only priest serving Chaldean churchgoers in Orange and Riverside counties. Two priests who travel between Sacramento and Turlock were also called back to Iraq. Gorgis is one of three Chaldean Catholic priests in San Diego County.

Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, the church leader who ordered the priests home, wrote in his decree that the men did not get the Chaldean church's permission to flee Iraq during the Gulf War in the 1990s and must return home to correct their standing. Arabo said the priests are now American citizens or have green cards.

Arabo said Friday that Sako has said the appeal should go through the Catholic Church's canon law courts, which Arabo said would interpret the law without regard to the circumstances and come down against the priests.

Bishop Jammo stands by his decision to appeal the order to Pope Francis and is calling on other San Diego County Catholic leaders to do the same, Arabo said.

"I will consider I will go back to Iraq (if the pope agrees with the patriarch)," Gorgis told 10News. "But really, he will not tell me to go kill yourself."

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