Living as a Christian in many parts of Iraq or Syria has become impossible – a one-way ticket to martyrdom at the hands of ISIS – yet it remains a near-impossible feat for these persecuted religious minorities to find refuge in America.
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But if you can get to America and get your case in the hands of Robert DeKelaita, your chances are greatly improved.
As it turns out, this high-powered Chicago attorney may have been a little too successful. He's gained asylum for thousands of persecuted Christian from Iraq, Syria and Egypt, and that caught the attention of the Obama Justice Department, which is known to be no friend of Middle Eastern Christians.
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DeKelaita, 52, grew up in Kirkuk in the heart of Assyria, a portion of northern Iraq that is home to one of the world's most ancient Christian communities. Legend has it that the Apostle Thomas evangelized the long-pagan area shortly after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The Christians there still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
After Saddam Hussein took power, DeKelaita's family emigrated to the U.S. in 1973 and settled in the Chicago area. He was just shy of 11 years old at the time. He excelled in school, became a lawyer and vowed to use his legal skills to help his people escape religious persecution by the majority Muslims.
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He's helped reunite hundreds of families in the U.S., most of them since 2003 when the U.S. invasion and overthrow of Saddam unleashed a wave of Islamic terror against Christians that far exceeded anything that was seen under the secular Baathist regime.
The Obama administration moved against DeKelaita in September 2014, raiding his office and scooping up whatever "evidence" they could find against him. He was indicted on charges of falsifying the asylum applications of 12 clients over a 10-year period, allegedly concocting "phony claims" of religious persecution. The government has delayed his trial twice while it seeks to firm up witnesses who will testify against him.
Each count of immigration fraud carries a maximum of 10 years prison and a $250,000 fine.
DeKelaita has been a pillar in the Assyrian Christian community in Chicago, founding the Ashurbanipal Library and donating to projects that celebrate Assyrian art and culture.
"Robert has been a very successful immigration lawyer for our people," said Ramon Michael, a fellow Assyrian Christian whose family came to the U.S. about the same time as DeKelaita's.
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"I've known him since high school," Michael said. "He has a passion for what he does."
Some find it ironic that the Obama administration is going after a lawyer who helps persecuted Iraqi Christians gain asylum while it welcomed and granted cart blanch asylum for more than 68,000 unaccompanied alien children from Central America last summer.
At the same time Central Americans are being greeted with a "catch and release" policy at the border, a group of 27 Assyrian Christians who made it to the border earlier this year are being detained indefinitely.
"The way that some of our federal judges view the plight of Christians in Iraq and the way some of the adjudicators view them, you would honestly think 'what is wrong with these people?'" DeKelaita, who lives in a suburb of Chicago with his wife of 25 years, Ester, and two sons, told WND. "Why can't they see what the rest of the world sees?"
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He said one judge told him: "To argue that Christians in Iraq are being targeted for their religious beliefs is to appeal to either ignorance or emotion."
"That is absurd," DeKelaita said.
Though he's had his share of wins, it's the losses that stick with him.
Like the case in Detroit a few years ago.
"It was very disappointing to hear that judge, on Christmas Eve, deny your client asylum after his brother had just been killed in Baghdad," DeKelaita said. "He'd owned a CD store and the Muslims felt, you know, that's a sin, so they blew up his store and they killed several others with him."
But the judge ruled that because one Muslim had also died in the attack that there was no targeting of Christians. It didn't matter that seven Christians died and the owner of the store was a Christian selling Western-style music, which Muslims detest.
"I didn't know what to say to my client," he said. "We wished the judge a merry Christmas and just walked out of the courtroom."
Meanwhile, the slaughter continues in Iraq and Syria. Another 220 Assyrian families were kidnapped just last week in Syria and fears are growing that the men will face beheading, the women a life of servitude as sex slaves. Bishops in Syria and Iraq have put out desperate pleas for help, saying they feel abandoned by the West.
'Robert is our hero'
More than a few of the "lucky ones" say they owe their lives to Robert DeKelaita.
"My sister and her three young children are among the Assyrian hostages in Syria. We don't even know if they're still alive," said Mimi Odicho of Chicago. "Instead of trying to help save them – save these innocent people – the U.S. government is trying to take down a man who has been our people's only hope for years. Robert is our hero. I don't think anyone could possibly understand what he means to us."
"I think our community finds hope in Robert," added Narsai Oshana, also of Chicago, "because he is an attorney that is not foreign to our part of the world, to our plight and our history. He knows exactly what we have endured, because he's lived it himself. He represented me in my asylum claim when I didn't have any way to pay him except with thanks. That was enough for him. I will never forget that. To me, like many, Robert was light at the end of a very long, horrid tunnel. His name is known everywhere. I am forever indebted to him."
While it detains Iraq Christian asylum seekers, the Obama administration has been welcoming thousands of Muslim refugees from jihadist hotbeds in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, despite warnings from House Homeland Security Chair Michael McCaul, R-Texas, that some of these refugee programs may become a "jihadist pipeline" into the U.S.
DeKelaita, after his indictment, learned that the FBI had been investigating him since 2008, soon after Obama took office.
"It seems like they have more leeway and power to do what they want and so they can," his old high school friend, Michael, said.
He points to the Obama administration's attempt earlier this year to block an Iraqi nun from entering the country to testify before Congress on the issue of Christian persecution in the Middle East. After coverage by WND and dozens of other news outlets created a public outcry, Obama relented and issued the visa to Sister Diana Momeka.
WND also reported on Aug. 3 that the Obama-led Department of Homeland Security has detained 27 Iraqi Christian asylum seekers in California for six months, despite the fact that most of them have family who are U.S. citizens living in San Diego.
"Dangerous people are allowed to come in across our borders and these people, I'd let these people babysit my kids, that's how much I fear these people," Michael said. "Something is up. I don't know what, but it seems to be very anti-Christian to me."
One of DeKelaita's biggest successes was in getting a judge to strike down an outdated and inaccurate report out of Europe that insisted there was no persecution of Christians in Iraq.
"This report was saying there is no persecution of Christians in Iraq and for many years they were using that to deny asylum and Robert was able to get that stopped, and that was when things started going bad for him," Michael said. "He was able to make a pretty substantial impact if judges were no longer able to cite that report."
DeKelaita said his business has suffered since the indictment was brought against him almost a year ago, but he has no plans to quit fighting.
"I think it's disturbing to me that a people so persecuted as the Assyrian Christians have come under such scrutiny, and especially when our involvement in Iraq bolstered the environment in which these people came under persecution from Islamic extremists," he said.
There were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq in 2003. Little more than 200,000 remain.
"Then they come here to escape the slaughter and we have to track them down and harass them, when they aren't any threat to anyone," DeKelaita said. "These are often old men, old ladies who are escaping persecution. Its' terrible. As an American I want my government to be involved in actions that protect the security of the United States, and there are priorities, as opposed to tracking down old ladies and decent hard-working people."
He said there are thousands of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in the U.S. with cases pending before immigration courts.
A few days after his indictment, thousands turned out for a rally to show their support. An online petition at StandWithRobert.com has accumulated 1,874 signatures.
"These are decent hard-working people," he said. "In Detroit our community is a model of wealth and prosperity, in Chicago they're very hard working people and uphold Christian values and uphold their churches and their communities and are proud Americans, and I'm proud of that. And no matter how my case turns out I will also be proud of my work. I think it can be vouched for by my clients."
DeKelaita doesn't make any assumptions about why he was charged or why he hasn't been granted a speedy trial, or why after one interpreter who did work for his office pleaded guilty, another interpreter was charged.
"The politics of charging people and the strategy of charging is a whole other game," he said. "Why do you charge a person, then circle back and charge his friend, one might say it was on purpose but I can't say that for sure. I just know I am very much looking forward to getting my trial on and I believe I will be vindicated and people will see the DOJ is not acting properly and I want this thing finished as quickly as possible."
His Grace Bishop Mar Gewargis Younan of the diocese of Chicago Ancient Church of the East, said DeKelaita represents the very best of the American dream.
"He escaped persecution as a child, and resettled in the United States. He had every reason to fail, but instead he went on to graduate from the prestigious University of Chicago and ultimately was considered the best attorney for Middle Eastern Christians," the Bishop said.
"His entire career has been aimed at giving back – to his church, to his heritage, to his people," the bishop continued. "He is a role model for members of our community, both American-born and immigrants. I can say with confidence that every parishioner in our church has either themselves been represented by Mr. DeKelaita, or has a relative that was represented by him. When the charges were filed, the community was in outrage and disbelief, and rightfully so. There is not a single Assyrian family anywhere in Iraq or Syria that has not been directly impacted by religious persecution. The manner in which Mr. DeKelaita's case has been approached seemingly moves to challenge this truth. We are proud of Mr. DeKelaita's achievements, and will continue to support him during this time."