Detroit -- Dozens of Chaldean Christians were arrested by federal immigration officials over the weekend in the Detroit metropolitan area, leaving the local Church community with sadness and frustration.
"Yesterday was a very strange and painful day for our community in America," Bishop Francis Kalabat of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Detroit stated Monday in a Facebook post. "With the many Chaldeans that were awakened by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and consequently picked up for deportation, there is a lot of confusion and anger," he added.
Fr. Anthony Kathawa of St. Thomas Chaldean Church in West Bloomfield, Mich., told CNA June 12 that "As a community, we're all suffering seeing the loss of our loved ones."
On Sunday, the Detroit Free Press reported that ICE made around 40 arrests of Chaldeans in the Detroit area, according to community leaders. ICE explained in a statement that Iraq, in negotiations with the U.S., had "agreed to accept" the individuals, who had criminal records. "As a result of recent negotiations between the U.S. and Iraq, Iraq has recently agreed to accept a number of Iraqi nationals subject to orders of removal," ICE stated.
A federal judge had also "ordered them removed," ICE said, noting that their previous criminal offenses included homicide, rape, sexual assault, kidnapping, and "weapons violations."
A "majority" of those detained are now at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio. Many of those with criminal records have served their time in prison and have since become good citizens and members of the community, local Church leaders insisted.
"We understand that maybe there was a problem in the past, but there've been a lot of people moving forward," Fr. Kathawa told CNA. "They've changed, become better, made families in this great country of opportunity and peace." "And now with them leaving, it's causing chaos within our community, within our families, within our Church," he added.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who is a Chaldean Catholic of Assyrian and Armenian heritage, called the reported arrests "deeply troubling." "Chaldeans have been targeted by ISIS and subjected to genocide, as have other religious minorities. Their deportation represents a death sentence should they be deported to Iraq or Syria," Eshoo said in an email statement to CNA. "It has also been reported that the individuals have criminal records. If the offenses they committed have already been 'paid for' by serving an appropriate sentence, facing a death sentence via deportation is disproportionate and unjust," she added.
Bishop Kalabat wrote that "The Church does not oppose justice, all hardened criminals that are a danger to society should be picked up. Many who were picked up are not hardened criminals but for the last decades have been great citizens."
Regarding Sunday's arrests, the local Church has been in touch with the State Department, members of Congress, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the matter, the bishop added. Chaldeans are an Iraqi indigenous community and speak Aramaic. The Chaldean Catholic Church is an Eastern Catholic Church which uses the East Syrian rite.
The Chaldean Catholic community in Detroit dates back to the early 20th century, and an apostolic exarchate was established in 1982. There are around 150,000 Chaldeans in the Detroit area, which is the largest Chaldean diaspora community living outside the Middle East, according to the Chaldean Community Foundation. Around 30,000 refugees were re-settled in Michigan since the Iraq War began in 2003, and more Syrian refugees are expected to be re-settled there in the coming years, the foundation noted.
Martin Manna, president of the locally-based Chaldean Community Foundation, told the Detroit Free Press that deporting the Chaldeans to Iraq "is like a death sentence." The U.S. State Department declared in March of 2016 that the Islamic State had committed genocide against Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria.
The fight to dislodge the Islamic State from Iraq is ongoing as parts of Mosul are still under the group's control. Although the villages of many Christians in northern Iraq have been liberated, many are still not yet able to return to their homes. Many families are still dependent on aid groups for their livelihood. There have been efforts in Congress to designate groups targeted for genocide, like Christians in Iraq and Syria, as P-2 refugees, which would expedite their resettlement process in the U.S. as refugees.
Contrary to rumors, the local Church had not signed off on any of the deportations, Bishop Kalabat insisted in a Facebook post on Monday. "It has been rumored that our Church signed documents regarding the deportation issue. To my capacity, as a permanent member of the church synod, I would like to formally state that this is NOT true, and that was no signed document or any type of agreement made with the Iraqi government or anyone else, that would allow the deportation of Chaldeans to Iraq," he stated. "There was no such thing discussed, signed, or issued."
The arrests follow a spike in ICE immigration arrests that began with President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration at the beginning of his presidential term. In the first 100 days after that order was signed, ICE reported in May that immigration arrests were up 40 percent in comparison with that same time period in 2016.