Father Simon Esshaki, a Chaldean Catholic priest, is set to speak at this year’s March for the Martyrs.
We spoke to Fr. Simon about his heart for serving Chaldean Christians, an ancient people from Iraq.
Chaldean Christians are some of the very first Christians. Descendant from ancient Mesopotamians, Chaldeans were evangelized by Thomas the Apostle, and two other disciples, Addai and Mari, as they traveled east through modern-day Iraq. Modern Chaldean Christians are the descendants of the first-century Chaldeans who abandoned paganism to accept and follow Christ. Today, they speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Fr. Simon was born in the United States and is a first-generation Chaldean-American. His parents fled Iraq because of war and persecution.
Chaldean Christians have withstood persecution over the past 2,000 years from the Zoroastrian Persian Empire and, later, the Mongols. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Chaldean Christians experienced more persecution from revolutionary groups and Islamic extremists like Al-Qaeda. Then in 2014, ISIS descended upon Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. ISIS gave Christians (both Chaldean and others) a choice between leaving, paying an incredibly high tax, or death.
“They took over the whole city of Mosul: they destroyed churches, they destroyed monasteries and they targeted Christian homes,” Fr. Simon said. “It was a very devastating time for every single Christian in the region who felt as if they could not live a free life in their worship of God and their faith.”
Many Christians elected to flee their homes, grabbing the essentials and leaving behind many precious belongings.
“I had the opportunity to go and see [the Nineveh Plain’s] villages,” Fr. Simon recounted. “A lot of them were completely almost destroyed. We saw a lot of churches that were demolished in both Mosul and certain villages. We got to talk to a lot of people there who had left the villages, had lived there their whole lives, and were hoping that they could either get established in their new life in another city they were living in or that their village could be rebuilt and they could have a new life there.”
“Now more than ever in our history are our people dispersed throughout the whole entire world,” he said.
Fr. Simon attended the first Chaldean Catholic seminary outside Iraq, and for the past seven years, he has served the Chaldean Catholic community at his parish in San Deigo, California.
Fr. Simon marched and prayed at the first March for the Martyrs in 2020. He reflected on what “a beautiful thing” it was to see Christians across all denominations and backgrounds gather to pray and support other members of Christ’s Body who are suffering for their faith.
“There are so many members of the Body of Christ, who are our brothers and sisters, who are being persecuted throughout this world and don’t have the opportunity to worship like a lot of people do in the West,” Fr. Simon said. “I hope that [Christians in the West] don’t take their faith for granted. I hope they learn from the example of those who are persecuted and try to strengthen their own faith so that they can be good examples for others and spread the message and love of Jesus Christ [while also helping] their brothers and sisters who are being persecuted.”