Just a few miles from the U.S.-Mexican border, the descendants of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world wait to be delivered from purgatory -- and live in fear of being returned to hell.
Just a few miles from the U.S.-Mexican border, the descendants of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world wait to be delivered from purgatory.
They came from Iraq and say they only want to practice their faith, free from the threat of ISIS. But for several months, 28 Chaldean Christians have had to pray behind the barbed wire fences of San Diego’s Otay Detention Facility, captives of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and facing deportation. A dozen have already been ticketed for removal.
“In Iraq, they only had three choices: convert to Islam, death by the sword or leave the country,” said Mark Arabo, head of the Minority Humanitarian Foundation. “They’ve refused to convert, escaped slavery and death – only to be imprisoned by our broken immigration system.
“These aren’t people who woke up one day and said, ‘Let me walk to America.’ They were forced out of their homes because of our inaction in the region. Because of our troop withdrawal. These are people who were sentenced to death because of our involvement in the country.”
They escaped near-certain death, but not the U.S. court system.
“The disheartening thing is it seems that our border is open to anyone unless you’re a Christian fleeing genocide"
- Mark Arabo
Of the 28 Chaldeans currently in custody, 12 have been ordered removed by an immigration judge, according to ICE. The deportations have not yet occurred and the countries that would receive the 12 have not been publicly identified.
One of the 28 has been criminally charged in federal court with providing false information on an immigration application, ICE said. Reta Marrogi, also known as Zina Hornes Oraha Delli, was allegedly granted asylum in Germany, according to the criminal complaint, but said she had not received lawful status in any country on her official Application for Asylum.
“The disheartening thing is it seems that our border is open to anyone unless you’re a Christian fleeing genocide,” said Arabo, a self-described Democrat whose parents came to the U.S. from Iraq in 1979.
The message is even stronger from Frank Wolf, a former Republican congressman who represented Virginia in the House of Representatives for more than three decades. He’s also a Senior Distinguished Fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, which works to protect religious freedom.
“This administration is fundamentally anti-Christian,” Wolf said.
He recounted that one of the last bills he championed in Congress was to set up a special envoy to advocate for persecuted religious minorities, including Christians in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Pakistan. It was signed by President Obama on Aug. 8, 2014.
“He even sent me a signing pen,” Wolf said. “That was one year ago and he has not appointed anyone to fill that role.”
The journey to potential freedom for a Chaldean trying to escape Iraq is a lengthy and often treacherous trip. A typical route takes the refugee from Baghdad to Turkey to Jordan to a country in Europe to Mexico. Once that nearly 8,000 mile trek is complete, asylum seekers must make it to the U.S. border, where many of them willingly turn themselves into immigration officials before being ultimately released to the San Diego Chaldean community, Arabo said.
The 28 at Otay are still hoping to complete that final step.
Arabo said he’s met with President Obama and multiple officials in his administration, pleading for large-scale evacuations of the Christians that remain in Iraq. At the outset of the Iraq War in 2003, there were nearly 1.4 million Christians in the country. Estimates today peg the total at fewer than 250,000.
“There’s been a genocide in slow motion since 2003, but since the troop withdrawal there’s been a systematic ethnic cleansing,” Arabo said. “We’ve tried all these diplomatic approaches, but in the absence of Washington’s leadership we’ve created an ‘underground railroad.’”
That ‘underground railroad,’ which takes its name from the way Harriet Tubman used to guide slaves to freedom during the 1800s, is a somewhat extra-legal mechanism to aid Christians on the dangerous journey from Iraq, Arabo said.
Arabo is able to gain insight into the 28 through some of their family members, who already reside in San Diego. He said the 28 are verbally abused and the conditions are “not pleasant.”
“They are the oldest Christians in the world. For centuries they’ve survived everything,” Arabo said.
“They’ve given up everything except their faith.”