At issue is a demand by Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako that Father Noel Gorgis and several other Chaldean priests in the U.S. return to Iraq or face, in effect, excommunication.
In an interview with Aleteia, a Rome-based Catholic news agency, Sako said that the survival of the church was at stake during the onslaught by Islamic radicals.
"We have been there for 2,000 years," he said. "We have a mission and a role, and if a future exists for the Chaldean Church, it is not in the diaspora but in Iraq. If all the families leave, and even the priests, the entire history and Chaldean Christian patrimony will vanish."
Gorgis, 49, known as Father Noel, is pastor at St. Peter Chaldean Church in El Cajon. Along with the Detroit area, eastern San Diego County has been a major resettling spot for Iraqi immigrants.
Chaldean leaders insist that sending Gorgis and the others back to Iraq would mark them for death by the Islamic forces that have swept through much of Iraq, destroying churches, killing Christians and forcing many to flee.
"Father Noel isn't cattle for the slaughter — he's our priest," said Chaldean community leader Mark Arabo. "He needs to stay here for the Christians of our Chaldean diocese."
Aleteia estimates that of 14 Chaldean priests in 19 Western states in the U.S., 10 would be required to return to Iraq under Sako's order. "Chaldean priests forced to choose between disobedience and martyrdom," said a headline on the news agency's website.
Covered by the order are priests who purportedly did not seek the church's approval to leave Iraq. Gorgis was born in Iraq but is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. In August, he celebrated his 25th anniversary as a priest.
In hopes of overturning Sako's order, supporters of Gorgis and the other priests appealed to the pope. Though not strictly part of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, the Chaldean Church reveres the pope as "the father of all Christians," Sako said in the interview with Aleteia.
Last week, Pope Francis appeared to have settled the issue. A letter written with the authority of the pope by a church official asserted that Gorgis and the others need not accede to Sako's demand.
But on Friday, Sako issued a statement that, in effect, said he did not acknowledge the pope's authority to overturn his order that the priests return to Iraq. He did not say what steps he might take to enforce his order.
Returning to Iraq, Gorgis said in October, when Sako's order was given, would be the equivalent of deciding to commit suicide.