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Pope Benedict XVI last October erected the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Sydney of the Chaldeans, sending the Archbishop of Basra, Mar Djibrail Kassab, as its first bishop. Today, some 29,000 Chaldeans call Australia home, with most families living in either Sydney or Melbourne.

Over a sumptuous Iraqi meal marking the feast of St. Stephen, two Australian Chaldean women — Tamala Ibrahim, 79, and Rakheel Odishou, 52 — spoke about their arduous path to Australia.

Mrs. Ibrahim left Iraq in 1999 with her son, Dhiia, then 34, who had suffered severe injuries in a car accident in Baghdad, leaving him permanently disabled. They rely on a small stipend from the Australian government. She recalled fondly life in Iraq, where her husband worked for an oil company and she taught English. Noting the current sectarian violence in Iraq, she insisted that there was a time when Sunni, Shiites and Christians coexisted in relative harmony.

“We all mixed and got on well and often couldn’t even tell what a person’s religion was,” she said. “In the school where I taught, the Muslims thought I was Muslim and the Christians thought I was Christian.”

Ms. Odishou, who lives with her 80-year-old mother, also relies on a government stipend. She has been in Australia for six years and has not given up hope of finding a husband in her new country. During the meal, Ms. Odishou showed me a photo of her citizenship ceremony and said she was proud to be Australian. But often, she said, her thoughts turned to Iraq, where she had left behind many family members.

For Ms. Odishou, as for much of the Chaldean Australian community, the church was a place not only to practice her faith, but also to retain her Iraqi identity.

This is no accident. Mr. Dawood explained that Australia’s Chaldean parishes sponsor a number of activities to attract Chaldean youth — Aramaic, Bible study, chant, dance, sport and social activities — all to foster and deepen their commitment to their Christian faith, their Chaldean traditions and their Iraqi identity.

All together, Australia’s Eastern Christians represent a tiny proportion of Australians: no more than 800,000 people in a nation of some 20 million. And yet, they have further enlivened a once relatively homogenous nation, drawing on the freedoms and opportunities in Australia while remaining faithful to their cultural and religious identities.

Navigating these different cultural draws is never easy, nor a static process. But it is smoothed by the increasing vitality of the Eastern churches in Australia.

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Based in Wales, photojournalist Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to ONE.

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