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IRAQ, Cardinal Sako flees from Baghdad to Kurdistan

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On Friday 21 July, Patriarch Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church arrived in Erbil after the recent revocation of a crucial decree guaranteeing his official status and his immunity as a religious leader. In search of a safe haven, he was warmly welcome by Kurdish authorities.

On 3 July, Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid revoked a special presidential decree issued in 2013 by former president Jalal Talabani that granted Cardinal Sako powers to administer Chaldean endowment affairs and officially recognized him as the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church.

In an official statement, the Iraqi presidency defended the decision to revoke the presidential decree, saying it had no basis in the constitution since presidential decrees are issued only for those who work in governmental institutions, ministries, or governmental committees. 

“Certainly, a religious institution is not considered a governmental one, the cleric in charge is not considered an employee of the state, in order to issue a decree for his appointment,” read the presidential statement. 

According to Kurdish media outlet Rudaw, the Iraqi president’s decision came after he met with Rayan al-Kaldani, the head of the Babylon Movement, a political party with a militia called the “Babylon Brigades”, claiming to be Christian but actually affiliated to the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Al-Kaldani’s aim is to sideline the Chaldean Patriarchate and assume the role of representative of Christians in the country.

The decision of the Iraqi president is in addition to other negative developments which clearly lead to the planned disappearance of the Christian community from its historical lands in Iraq.

Of particular concern are

  • the illegal land acquisitions in the historically Christian Nineveh Plain;
  • the new electoral rules affecting the distribution of seats reserved for Christian candidates;
  • the data collection by the Iraqi government to create a “database” on Christian communities;
  • the media and social campaign to destroy the reputation of Cardinal Sako;
  • the implementation of a law banning the import and sale of alcohol, including the wine necessary for the worship activities of the Christian communities.

Cardinal Sako and the Babylon Movement

Cardinal Sako, who organized the historic visit of Pope Francis to Iraq in 2021, was appointed Cardinal of the Chaldean Catholic Church by the pope in the Vatican in 2018.

Sako and the Babylon Movement led by Kildani, who is accused of being the driving force behind the revocation of the presidential decree, have long been involved in a war of words.

On the one hand, the patriarch has regularly condemned the militia leader for claiming to represent the interests of Christians despite his party winning four of the five quota seats assigned for Christians in the 2021 Iraqi parliamentary election. His candidates were extensively and openly backed by Shiite political forces affiliated with Iran in that unnatural coalition.

On the other hand, Kildani has accused Sako of getting involved in politics and damaging the reputation of the Chaldean Church.

Kildani released a statement accusing Sako of moving to the Kurdistan Region “to escape facing the Iraqi judiciary in cases brought against him.” 

Kildani also rejected Sako’s labeling his movement as a brigade. “We are a political movement and not brigades. We are a political party participating in the political process and we are a part of the Running the State Coalition,” read the statement. 

Cardinal Sako fleeing from Baghdad

Deprived of any official recognition, Cardinal Sako announced his departure from Baghdad to Kurdistan in a press release issued on 15 July. The reason he gave the campaign targeting him and the persecution of his community.

In early May, the head of the Chaldean Church found himself at the center of a fierce media campaign, following his critical statements on the political representation of Iraq’s Christian minority. Patriarch Sako had criticized the fact that majority political parties occupied seats in parliament reserved by law for minority components of the population, including Christians.

Just over a year ago, at the opening of the Chaldean bishops’ annual synod in Baghdad on 21 August, Cardinal Sako pointed to the need for a change in mentality and the “national system” of his country, where “the Islamic heritage has made Christians second-class citizens and allows usurpation of their property”. A change that Pope Francis had already called for in March 2021, during his trip to the country.

The recent events since May in Iraq show just how dangerously threatened some 400,000 faithful of the Chaldean Catholic community are.

Some say Patriarch Sako should have followed the example of Ukrainian President Zelensky, who refused to flee in a taxi and chose to stay with his people and to fight by its side against the Russian invaders but in general, there was a nation-wide outcry in the Christian community and beyond about the presidential decree.

A nation-wide and international outcry

The decision sparked a nationwide outcry from Christian community members and leaders, who condemned the Iraqi president’s maneuver and described it as a direct attack on Cardinal Sako, a highly respected figure in his community and worldwide. 

Residents of Ainkawa, a Christian-majority district situated at the northern edge of Erbil city, filled the street in front of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph several days ago to protest against what they called the “clear and utter violation” against their community.

“This is a political maneuver to seize the remainder of what Christians have left in Iraq and Baghdad and to expel them. Unfortunately, this is a blatant targeting of the Christians and a threat to their rights,” Diya Butrus Slewa, a leading human and minority rights activist from Ainkawa, told Rudaw English. 

Some Muslim communities also voiced their support to Patriarch Sako. The Committee of Muslim Scholars of Iraq, the country’s highest Sunni authority, expressed its solidarity with him and denounced the attitude of the President of the Republic. Iraq’s highest Shiite authority, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, has also declared his support for the Chaldean patriarch and hopes he will return to his Baghdad headquarters as soon as possible.

L’Œuvre d’Orient, one of the Catholic Church’s leading aid organizations assisting Eastern Christians, has voiced grave concern over the Iraqi government’s decision to revoke state recognition of Cardinal Sako’s authority to administer the Chaldean Church and its assets.

In a statement issued on 17 July, L’Œuvre d’Orient urged Iraq’s President Abdel Latif Rashid to reverse the decision.

“Nine years after the (ISIS) invasion, Iraq’s Christians are threatened by internal political games,” lamented L’Œuvre d’Orient, which has been assisting the Eastern Churches in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, Eastern Europe and India for some 160 years.

The EU to keep silent?

On 19 March, the Cooperation Council between the European Union and Iraq held its third meeting, after a pause of seven years due to the so-called then complex situation in Iraq and the impact of COVID-19.

The meeting was chaired by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fuad Mohammed Hussein, led the Iraqi delegation.

Josep Borrell, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, was quoted as saying in an official statement: “The Iraqi government can count on our help – for the benefit of the Iraqi people, but also for the sake of regional stability. Because yes, we appreciate a lot the constructive role of Iraq in this region.

The Cooperation Council discussed developments in Iraq and in the EU, regional affairs and security, and topics such as migration, democracy and human rights, trade and energy. The words “human rights” disappeared from the final EU-Iraq Joint Statement but were replaced by “non-discrimination”, “rule of law” and “good governance.”

This however remains a solid ground for the EU institutions to call upon the President of Iraq about the increasing marginalization and fragilization of the Christian community, the most recent development being the deprivation of the national and social status of Cardinal Sako. This is the last nail in the coffin of the Christian community after the social media campaign against the Chaldean Patriarch, illegal acquisitions of Christian lands, a suspicious database of Christians and the feared upcoming ban on wine for the mass. An emergency plan similar to the one concerning the survival of the Yezidi minority is needed.

What will the EU do to avoid the slow death of another ethno-religious minority?

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