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Pope: El Cajon Priest Does Not Have To Return To Iraq

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.
Pope: El Cajon Priest Does Not Have To Return To Iraq
In a rare decision, Pope Francis had sided with a local bishop in his appeal against a church patriarch.

Pope Francis has sided with a local bishop in his appeal against a decree that would have forced local Iraqi religious leaders to return to Iraq or leave the church.

The Rev. Noel Gorgis learned in a letter from the Vatican he can continue his ministry in El Cajon.

In October, Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, the head of the Chaldean Catholic church ordered Gorgis and several other priests who fled Iraq during the Gulf War to return to their homeland despite a bloody offensive by Islamic militants against Catholics and other religious minorities in Iraq. Sako said they had left without permission from the church.

Gorgis announced he could stay at a packed New Year's Day mass, said church spokesman Mark Arabo.

"It was tears of joy and applause, and really hope and happiness for Father Noel, for the people of this diocese and for the entire Chaldean Catholic church," Arabo said Thursday.

Gorgis is one of just 14 priests serving the tens of thousands of Chaldean Catholics who emigrated from Iraq to the Western United States. Sako's order would have forced half to leave their congregations, some of which share priests across hundreds of miles.

Arabo said the pope's decision applies to all priests named in Sako's decree, including one who travels between Orange and Riverside counties and two others who travel throughout the Sacramento Valley.

Arabo said the decision was unexpected. He said it is rare for a pope to side with a bishop over a patriarch.

Sako oversees the entire Chaldean Catholic church while Bishop Sarhad Jammo, who sent the appeal to Pope Francis, leads the regional diocese.

"It shows the extraordinary man that Pope Francis is," Arabo said. "It shows how he's a uniter (sic) and it shows that at the core of the church, it's about peace, humanity and what's just and fair."

Catholics have called Pope Francis the "People's Pope" because of his focus on humanitarian issues over ceremonious tradition.

Gorgis was not available to comment. In October he told 10News, a KPBS media partner, returning to Iraq would be like committing suicide.

In 2014, the militant group ISIS displaced thousands of Catholics and other Iraqi minorities, and destroyed important religious sites. Pentagon officials said airstrikes have slowed the group's momentum, but they may have also taken civilian lives. The military is investigating 18 claims of civilian casualties, according to The New York Times.

About 80,000 Iraqi immigrants, many of them Chaldeans, live in San Diego County. About 250,000 live in the United States.