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Chaldeans Feel Caught Between Old, New World : Gulf crisis: Members of the county’s Iraqi-American community pray for peace as they worry about war in the Middle East and reprisals at home.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In most ways, Sunday’s Mass at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Church in El Cajon was like any other. The incense burned and the cymbals smashed and the prayers, delivered in Aramaic instead of English, rose and fell with the vowel-heavy syllables common to Middle Eastern speech.

But as Chaldean Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim addressed the more than 600 Iraqi-American worshipers, it was clear that this was no ordinary sermon. Two days before the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait or face a U.S.-led offensive, the possibility of conflict filled Ibrahim and his followers with worry--for their relatives living in Iraq, for their American neighbors and for themselves.

Now more than ever, the white-robed Bishop told the East County congregation, Iraqi-Americans need to pray for their native homeland and their adopted country to make peace.

“We are Americans of Iraqi descent, so we have a double concern,” Ibrahim said before the Mass, explaining why he is urging parishioners to keep a “low profile” as they pray for the tensions to subside. If war is declared, he said, “we would be hurt by the circumstances here--some individuals will tell us to ‘get out of here, you Iraqi dirt.’ And we would be hurt by the loss of relatives. We will be the big loser here from both sides.”

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Ibrahim’s words struck a solemn chord in El Cajon, one of a handful of inland San Diego County cities where 8,000 Christian Iraqi natives have settled over the past 30 years, forming the largest Chaldean community in the United States aside from Detroit.

Chaldeans know their loyalties are being questioned. Ibrahim said that among the 3,500 families that make up the El Cajon congregation, some had been interviewed recently by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In the face of such challenges, many are eager to express their love for their new country, where their hard work has often yielded financial gain and where their right to worship freely is protected.

But particularly since Congress authorized troops to attack Iraq as early as Wednesday, that patriotic desire has been tempered by fear. The vast majority of Iraqi immigrants have relatives still living in Iraq. Ibrahim said he knows of a few families who have members serving in both the Iraqi and the U.S. armed forces. For them, he said, war will be a lose-lose proposition.

Yacoub Toma, a 28-year-old neon worker who moved to the United States five years ago from Iraq, knows that feeling. Toma’s whole family--his parents and seven brothers and sisters--still live in Baghdad. Two of his brothers are soldiers in the Iraqi army.

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“We are in the middle--in the toughest spot,” Toma, a Chula Vista resident, said of Iraqi immigrants. “Our two homes are fighting. We’re going to lose on both sides, either way. Nobody will win, actually. All we can do is pray that the governments will understand that.”

For those fearing an anti-Iraqi backlash on American soil, those prayers are all the more fervent. Toma, for example, says that while his job does not put him in regular contact with the public, he worries for the many Chaldeans who run convenience markets and liquor stores.

“They’re a little endangered,” he said.

Chaldean leaders stress that their people are not Arabs. They are Aramaic-speaking Christians who fled Iraq to America, most in the 1950s, in search of political freedom and economic opportunity. But Bishop Ibrahim said he worries that some people will judge first by appearances, perhaps lashing out at those who resemble Arabs.

So in his sermon Sunday, Ibrahim urged Chaldeans to turn the other cheek.

“He said you shouldn’t argue with other people,” Toma said. “If they ask you, tell them we’re praying for peace. Try to stay away from bad people who try to hurt you.”

One of the ushers in the church, 24-year-old Sipe Kalasho, paraphrased Ibrahim this way: “He was not saying not to talk (about the war). He was just trying to say don’t make a big deal of it.”

Kalasho said if he could send a message to President Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, he would urge each leader to “to sit by himself and think: ‘Is it worth it?’ They’re both hard-headed. That’s the problem.”

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Outside the modern church, Joandark Kassab, a La Mesa housewife, held her 1-year-old daughter, Christina--the family’s first American-born member--in her arms.

“We don’t want war,” she said. “All the night we are praying.”

Kassab’s 15-year-old daughter, Dalia, who moved to the United States when she was 3, said her high school classmates are curious about her foreign birthplace, but are not hostile.

“I just tell them I’m from Iraq. They ask me, ‘Are you scared?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” she said. “This is my home.”


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