It has all the elements of a Hollywood film money grabbing, flying accusations, a lurid sex scandal, questions over power and control.
But it's not a fictional movie; it's reality and it's happening at St. Mary's Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East here in Stanislaus County's smallest city.
The Assyrian denomination traces its roots through the first century to Thomas, one of Jesus Christ's original 12 disciples. It has a patriarch, similar to a pope, and is headquartered in Baghdad, Iraq. As with the Roman Catholic Church, the bishops, archbishops and patriarch are expected to lead celibate lives. Priests and deacons, however, can be married. The current patriarch is Mar Addai II, whose reign began in 1970.
The Hughson church was established in 1985. Most of its nearly 600 members were born in Iraq.
According to Hughson church leaders, the strife between the church and the patriarch began last year. About 22 years ago, the Hughson church loaned $250,000 to a parish in Canada for its building program. It was not an unusual practice; the church has made similar loans to other parishes over the years. Those other loans have been paid back.
But in 2011, the patriarch asserted that the money to the Canadian church had been a gift rather than a loan and asked the Hughson church to take its name off the deed. Church leaders took a vote and about 95 percent of the congregation opposed that request.
Adding fuel to the friction, a married Iraqi woman claimed that the patriarch sexually assaulted her and continued to phone her, demanding sexual favors. Her claims were made public on YouTube.
Last month, the Hughson church sent a petition to the patriarch, saying the congregation wanted to seek legal action against the woman and her relatives.
"If found guilty (of lying), they must be punished to the fullest extent of the law for all the destruction they have caused to the Ancient Church of the East," the petition reads.
"As a congregation, we want to make sure the name of our church is not stained, and that the patriarch is holy, representing Jesus Christ," explained David Narsi, a member of the church board. "We got tired of hearing all these rumors. We wanted to pay to defend the patriarch.
"To our surprise, the big guy said, 'This is none of your business. I'm going to come and sue you, and you're going to bark like dogs.' We're asking for the truth, and he's trying to oppress us."
The church's Modesto attorney, Jakrun "Jack" Sodhi, received a letter from a Canadian attorney on behalf of the patriarch, which charges church leaders with having ulterior motives and accuses them of spreading "slander and defamation."
It goes on to say that "in a spiritual fatherly manner," the patriarch would "forgive your clients" if they would immediately sign over the Canadian deed, turn over all board minutes, records of financial matters, and lists of all members and Sunday attendance records. If not, the patriarch would "immediately dissolve" the church's board of directors.
Replacing the board?
The patriarch sent his secretary, Mar Zaia, to the Hughson church July 15 for the weekly Mass. Instead of preaching a homily, church members said, he announced he was replacing the board and bringing in a new priest. An emotional outburst erupted, and county deputies responded twice to calls about a verbal altercation.
The patriarch himself was expected to arrive at the church this weekend.
The Rev. Edward Bakos, who was ordained at the church in 1992 and became its senior priest in 1998, said about 50 people have stopped attending the church in the past three months as the conflict has escalated.
"We're losing a lot of good people, good families," he said. "It's very hard to deal with these things."
He said that as a priest, he recognizes that the patriarch is the head of the church and should be obeyed. But, he added, "they want me to break the laws of God and Jesus first, and then the state laws. I can't do it."
Bakos sides with about 90 percent of the congregation in opposing having the patriarch replace the board and the priest, and take over the church's finances and property.
"He (the patriarch) is breaking all the rules," said Narsi. "This is not Iraq; this is America. These guys have not done anything according to state law."
And that's the point, according to attorney Sodhi.
"The way their church is set up, there's the ecclesiastical, which is run by the patriarch, and the secular, run by the board. The board oversees the day-to-day operations, the finances. It appears that the patriarch is trying to take over everything.
"This is not a religious issue. This is simply a legal issue. This is an attempt by the patriarch to usurp the authority of the board. It puts their status as a nonprofit corporation at risk."
The church's financial secretary, Raymond Jacobs, said people supporting the patriarch's side went to a branch of Bank of America on Tuesday and transferred about $90,000 of the church's money into another account. Before the end of the day, however, armed with its incorporation papers and other documents, the church's officials regained control of the money.
"It's all about power and money," said Jacobs, who has been a member since he was married in the church in 1988.
"We don't want to split (from the worldwide church)," said Kay Maksoud, the board's vice president.
Going to the source
She traveled to Canada to visit the church built with funds from her church and spoke to the woman who has accused the patriarch of sexual impropriety. She said Canadian parishioners told her they are willing to repay the money, if the patriarch allows them to, and that the woman assured her she has plenty of audio and video evidence to support her story.
"We want to stay, but now the patriarch is coming to punish us. We want him to leave."
Attempts to reach Mar Zaia for comment were unsuccessful.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.