Large-scale disasters tend to breed scores of smaller related calamities, and that dynamic is currently playing out in the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the rise of the Islamic State and the ongoing decimation of Iraq’s Christian presence.

A rift has emerged between the head of Iraq’s Catholic community, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako, and the leadership of the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Peter in the United States, which is based in the San Diego area and ministers to the roughly 140,000 Chaldeans who have taken refuge across the Western United States.

In a nutshell, Sako has decided the time has come for priests who have fled Iraq to return, on the grounds that he needs all hands on deck. He recently suspended nine Chaldean priests currently serving in the Eparchy of St. Peter unless and until they go back.

Sako defended the order in an interview during the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome.

“The priests who fled without any canonical permission encourage others to leave, including their families,” Sako said. “If we don’t put a stop to this, others will go and the Church and the country won’t have any Christians left.”

The American eparchy has appealed the edict to Pope Francis, arguing that they’d be decimated if the priests leave. They currently have 14 clergy, meaning they’d be left with just five to serve 140,000 people spread all over the Western United States, at a time when they’re ramping up to serve an additional influx of Iraqi refugees seeking to settle in the country.

Understandably, the priests in question don’t seem eager to go back. The Rev. Noel Gourgis told a local ABC affiliate in San Diego in late October that returning to Iraq right now as a Catholic priest would be “suicide.”

Gourgis said that if Pope Francis orders him to do so he’ll comply, but “I don’t believe he’ll say go kill yourself.”

As is often the case with ecclesiastical disputes, some suspect a hidden agenda. Members of the Chaldean community in the States have accused Sako of exploiting Iraq’s tragedy to execute a fairly naked power grab.

“The antics of Patriarch Sako show that some even within our own Church opt to politicize the cruelty of a genocide occurring in our midst,” said Mark Arabo, a national spokesman for the Iraqi Christian community.

That case has been laid out in detail by Lincoln Malik, a prominent California engineer and a member of the Chaldean Catholic community who’s circulating an essay against Sako’s order.

The Eastern code of Church law, Malik argues, gives Eastern patriarchs authority only over liturgical matters outside their territorial boundaries, while everything else is under the local bishop and ultimately the pope. His suggestion is that Sako is unilaterally rewriting Church law and usurping power that belongs only to the pope.

Aside from voicing skepticism that Church leaders in the Middle East have the infrastructure to effectively govern diaspora communities, Malik also offers a political basis for caution about giving Sako what he wants. Since Catholic prelates in the Middle East often feel compelled to prove their Arab credentials by backing Muslim leaders and causes, Malik asks if expanding their reach would mean allowing them to muzzle other voices.

Malik offers this hypothetical: “Will Patriarch Sako be able to defend US bishops under his control if such bishops support their government in a possible conflict with Iran? Or, will he be obliged to instruct his bishops in the US to show solidarity with ‘our Muslim brothers in Iran’?”

His bottom line is that greater powers for Eastern patriarchs over communities in other parts of the world would be “an absolute disaster” and a “dangerous gamble that the Church cannot afford.”

In the short term, Pope Francis probably will have to make a decision about whether to uphold or overturn Sako’s ruling. (I say “probably” because under Church law, an appeal means that the order is temporarily suspended, so in theory the pope could simply do nothing and thus allow the priests to remain where they are without delivering any formal rebuke to Sako.)

Going forward, Francis may want to bring together Sako and the leadership of the Chaldean Catholic Church around the world to try to iron out their differences. If ever there were a moment in which solidarity is a matter of life or death for Iraq’s Christian community, no matter where they presently find themselves, this would seem to be it.