ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jordanian immigrants take Communion at an Arabic-language Mass in Albuquerque. Lebanese-Americans help raise nearly $2 million for major improvements to a West Virginia church. Iraqi refugees who practice an ancient religion that views John the Baptist as their teacher hold baptisms in a Massachusetts pond popular for rowing regattas.
As war, the economy and persecution by Muslim extremists push Arab Christians and religious minorities out of the Middle East, the refugees and immigrants are quietly settling in small pockets across the U.S. They are reviving old, dormant churches, bringing together families torn apart by war and praying collectively in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Religious experts say their growing presence in the U.S. is all about survival as Christians and religious minorities continue to get pushed out of the Holy Land.
And religious leaders said if violence continues, more can be expected to seek safety in the U.S. while disappearing in lands where they're lived for 2,000 years.
"For every plus in the U.S., there's a minus back there," said the Rev. Bakhos Chidiac, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Church of Lakewood, Colo. "It's very sad."
According the U.S. State Department's 2011 reports on International Religious Freedom, for example, Iraq had an estimated Christian population of around 1.4 million before the U.S.-led invasion. The report says only around 400,000 to 600,000 remain and face increasing violence.
No one knows exactly how many Christians and religious minorities have fled persecution or come willingly for economic reasons into the U.S. But from Michigan to Louisiana, observers have noticed an increase in services like those from Maronite Catholics — an Eastern Rite branch of Catholicism with roots in Lebanon and Syria. Maronites are part of the Catholic church, are recognized by the Pope and hold the same core beliefs as Roman Catholics. Mass is often held in Arabic and Aramaic.
Residents in Worcester, Mass., also have looked with curiosity as hundreds of recently resettled Iraqi refugees, who practice the pre-Christian Mandaean religion, hold early morning baptisms in Lake Quisigamond. Mandaeans have seen their population decrease in Iraq from 70,000 in the 1990s to just 3,000 today. In addition, more than 1,000 Iranian Mandaeans have fled to the U.S. after Iran passed laws prohibiting Mandaeans in civil life.
"When I left my village in Jordan in 1969, there were about 15,000 Christians there," said Sharif Rabadi, 60, an Albuquerque developer and businessman. "I think now there are less than 3,000 of us left."
Joseph Amar, director of programs in Arabic and Syriac at the University of Notre Dame, said that while the exodus is bad for Christianity in the Middle East, the move to the U.S. and other parts of the world is allowing followers to continue practicing their religion without fear of death or forced conversions. "Many come to cities with no familiar church and will just attend Roman Catholic services," Amar said.
But as the populations from Arab countries grow in U.S. cities and towns, Amar said the immigrants and refugees tend to come together to organize separate services at churches that allow them to use their facilities.
That's what happened recently at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Byzantine Catholic Church in Albuquerque, N.M. For more than a year, the Ruthenian Catholic Church has allowed immigrants from Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Iraq to use its facilities once a month for Maronite services. The Rev. Chidiac is flown in from Colorado to give English services in line according to the Maronite rite.
This week, however, Rev. Chidiac performed Maronite Catholic services in Arabic to about 60 Albuquerque attendees. Officials with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe believe the Catholic Mass in Arabic was a first for New Mexico — a state with the longest continuous Catholic presence in the present-day United States
During the service, attendees clutched Arabic Bibles, responded to prayers in Arabic and sang hymns some say they hadn't heard in 20 years.
George Saade, a member of the church who just moved in Albuquerque from Alabama, helped organize the Arabic Mass via Facebook and through other Catholic church bulletins. "It's been 15 years since I've attended a Mass in Arabic," said Saade, 39, who is originally from Lebanon. "I've been waiting for this for a long time."
Reham Haddad, 40, wanted her two youngest children to attend so they could experience a Mass as she did more than 18 years ago. "They understand Arabic but it's different when you pray," she said. "I think they liked it."
Chidiac said he was pleased with the turnout and thinks Arabic services could grow if the Albuquerque population wanted it. "This is how it starts ... in a small church room," he said. "Then, maybe later, they can get their own church."