Speaking in Aramaic, Father Noel Gorgis is preaching to parishioners of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Church at a Saturday night Mass.
Older parishioners are pleased that Gorgis celebrates Mass — and hears confessions — in Arabic and Aramaic, the ancient language of the Chaldean people. Younger parishioners appreciate Gorgis' use of websites and live-streaming.
FOR THE RECORD
10:42 a.m.: The headline on an earlier version of this article said Father Noel Gorgis was an L.A. Chaldean priest. Gorgis is based in El Cajon, about 16 miles northeast of San Diego.
In his four years at St. Peter, the soft-spoken Gorgis, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has become a popular figure among the faithful, many of whom, like their priest, are immigrants from Iraq.
But the 48-year-old priest's days at St. Peter may be dwindling. The violence that once forced him to flee his native land may now force him to return, to the dismay of parishioners.
The Chaldean patriarch, the Iraq-based church's top official, has ordered Gorgis and several other priests to return to Iraq to stand beside the church in its hour of maximum peril. Islamic radicals are ravaging much of the country, destroying churches and killing Christians.
Since October, Patriarch Louis Sako repeatedly said that Chaldean priests who did not seek church permission to leave must return to Iraq. To remain abroad is to put personal safety above the needs of the church and violate the sacred oath of a priest, Sako has told Aleteia, a Rome-based Catholic news agency.
Fareed Saka, 39, a church deacon who came to El Cajon in 2010 after serving as a translator in Iraq for the U.S. Army, has no doubt what awaits Gorgis in Iraq: "He'll be killed in a day or two, kidnapped maybe."
The dispute has led to a rift between the patriarch and Bishop Sarhad Yawsip Jammo of the San Diego-based Chaldean diocese, and between the patriarch and the Vatican. The bishop wants Gorgis to stay in El Cajon and has endorsed his defiance of the patriarch.
"The patriarch talks about keeping Chaldean culture alive in Iraq," said church member Allen Theweny, 22, a UC San Diego student. "But what about here? This is our Babylon."
The Chaldean Catholic Church shares the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and considers itself "in full communion" with the Vatican. But for complex historical reasons, the governance of the Chaldean church is largely separate from Rome, and the relationship between the two is dotted with disputes over authority.
As Iraqis — Christians and Muslims — have fled their homeland to escape Saddam Hussein and then the sectarian war that followed his overthrow, El Cajon has been one of the most popular locations for the immigrants.
Like many immigrant Iraqis, Gorgis' life has been shaped by war and tyranny. He was born in a village in northern Iraq, the son of a farmer. His religious studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army during the Iran-Iraq war.
After serving in the army, he fled Iraq for Turkey at the time of the Gulf War. In 1992, he was admitted into the U.S. as a refugee and came to El Cajon. The Chaldean church helped support him.
The church sent to him to parishes in Chicago and Arizona and in 2002, to St. Paul Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church in North Hollywood. In 2011, he was assigned to El Cajon, where two Chaldean churches, St. Peter and St. Michael, minister to about 3,000 families.
When the U.S. moved in 2003 to depose Hussein, Gorgis was quick to call the move not an invasion but a liberation. "I am an American, 100%," he said recently.
At St. Peter, Gorgis assists in the English-language Masses and is a frequent choice of young couples to perform marriage ceremonies. He co-signs for immigrants who need housing but lack credit. "The community needs him," said Saka, the deacon.
A Vatican official, responding to a plea from parishioners at St. Peter, attempted early last month to quash the patriarch's order that Gorgis must return or face excommunication.
The patriarch responded in a written statement that although the Chaldean church reveres the pope as the father of all Christians, issues of Chaldean personnel management are not in the Vatican's province.
In 2010, Pope Benedict called a gathering of Middle Eastern bishops to discuss, among other issues, the inherent tension in the relationship between the Vatican and other Catholic churches. Two years later he issued what was called an "exhortation." But the 90-page document did not sufficiently clarify the authority issue, scholars say.
"In principle, the pope is not in a position to dictate to the Chaldean church," said Edward Watts, history professor at UC San Diego, an expert in late antiquity and early Christianity.
Sako has sought to have Pope Francis come to Iraq and bring worldwide attention to the plight of Christians. "The whole world must rebel against these abominable acts," Sako said.
Islamic radicals have taken control of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, where Sako was the bishop before becoming patriarch in 2013. Churches are being desecrated and Christian homes and businesses destroyed.
Iraq once had an estimated 1.3 million Christians. That number is down to several hundred thousand, perhaps half of whom live in the relative safety of Baghdad. The patriarch and other Chaldean leaders are in Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan, which is protected by Kurdish forces and U.S. and coalition air power.
Conflicting rumors suggest different resolutions to the issue of the priests: One says the patriarch will up the ante and remove the San Diego bishop; another says the pope will use his moral authority to persuade the patriarch to back off. Each side seems to expect a resolution soon, perhaps this month.
Bishop Jammo declined to be interviewed or to allow Gorgis or other priests at St. Peter to be interviewed.
Pope Francis has not made his views known. The letter attempting to overturn Sako's order was written by a cardinal.
In a trip to Iraq, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) talked to Chaldean leaders in Irbil about Gorgis, although not to the patriarch. "A returning priest from the United States would be a very high-value target for the radicals," Vargas said.
Mark Arabo, a leader in San Diego County's Chaldean business community, has made several trips to Washington to urge the White House to help Christians in Iraq. He hopes that Gorgis can remain in El Cajon and that the dispute will not cause a permanent split with the patriarch.
"If we are to continue any efforts at saving people in Iraq, we must have the support and collaborative input of our patriarch," he said.
The dispute between El Cajon and Irbil involves a question of what it means to be a Catholic, said Rebecca Moore, professor of religious studies at San Diego State.
"The issue is: Where is your loyalty? Is it to your own self or to the church of Jesus Christ?" Moore said. From that perspective, Sako may someday be seen as a Catholic hero for fighting the Islamic State radicals, she said.
But to the parishioners of St. Peter, the issue of Father Noel is practical, not theological.
"We are praying every day for him," said Beth Younan, 54, who was born in Kirkuk, Iraq, and is now a member of the parish council at St. Peter. "We know that prayer can do miracles."