Iraqi Catholic leader warns against extremists exploiting religion

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Iraq’s top Catholic leader hopes the new year will help  the citizens of this violence-torn country overcome divisions and tensions, and lead to the much needed reform of the country.

“Peace is achieved when it becomes part of personal behavior,” wrote Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church. “This requires the ability to practice tolerance, forgiveness, solidarity and cooperation.” 

“In Iraq, we have gone through very difficult circumstances, not only after the fall of the regime, but throughout our history,” he wrote, referring to the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. “We have faced challenges and struggles that have overwhelmed people and the country. Now it is time for us to seriously review our thinking and our positions to get out of this deadly situation.” 

Sako, writing in his New Years message, said that it is necessary for each faith tradition and minority in the country, known for its multicultural social fabric, to preserve its unique identities while working to strengthen values such as “love, tolerance, forgiveness.”

Sako also wrote that extremists “exploit” faith for political and economic purposes, and that through family and education it is possible to counter fragmentation and dispersion of society, fertile ground for extremism.

To go beyond “the divisions and tensions” that run through Iraq and the Middle East region, Sako wrote, it is necessary to “change reality with confidence” by working hard to “reform education, health and the infrastructure network.”

Sako’s message was addressed not only to the Christians currently living in Iraq, but also to the hundreds of thousands Chaldeans living in diaspora. Before the Gulf War in 1991, Christians numbered between one and one and a half million. By the time of the US-led invasion in 2003 that figure fell to about 800,000. Today, it is estimated to be bellow 300,000.

Pope Francis visited Iraq in March 2021, and one of the reasons for the trip was to actively support the endangered community that was the victim of a genocide during the three years ISIS terrorized the country.

Though much has to improve in the country’s infrastructure, Sako pointed out that the change Iraq needs has to start “from education in the home, in schools, churches and mosques, and in the media.”

To initiate change and for good to prevail, according to the patriarch, “we must stand up against evil, without surrendering and play, each, our role as best as required. Peace is a human, religious and national need. Let us plant in our hearts the great values such as peace, tolerance, forgiveness and love. Let us be peacemakers, as Christ wanted us to be, as well as being faithful to our Homeland, which represents our identity and our history.” 

In his New Year’s appeal, he called on his people to “be responsible for one another. We must not stop at divisions and tensions, but rather change our situation with confidence. Let us work to reform education, health care and infrastructure.”

Pointing out that Jan. 1 is dedicated by the Catholic Church to pray for peace, Sako wrote that in this moment of Iraqi history, after a troubled period characterized by “conflict, tension and disease [the COVID-19 pandemic]” that have exacerbated “hunger and thirst” and pushed people towards a “slow death,” peace is all the more needed.

“The goal of peace is achieved when it is part of personal behavior,” he wrote. “This requires the ability to practice tolerance, forgiveness, solidarity and collaboration.” 

The patriarch’s message comes as Iraq is living, once again, a time of uncertainty. In fact, on Dec. 21 the Chaldean Church observed a special day of fasting and prayer for “a new balance” and a future of “development and security.” 

On Dec. 29, Sako took part in an online symposium organized by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture dedicated to the promotion of cultural diversity in Iraq, in which he said that in Iraq, there “cannot be pluralism” without the “presence of Christians, Muslims, Mandeans, Yazidis and others. This diversity contributes to community cohesion and loving communication.”

The belief among these religions is rooted on the common ground of the existence of one God in essence, but the way each expresses this presence is different and this is “normal, because God created us different. That is why we need dialogue, to get to know each other closely and truly.”

“It is sad that violence and killings continue even today under the cloak of God and religion,” warned Sako, who once warned Christianity is on the verge of extinction in the region where it was born. “There is a need for enlightened religious leaders to find a religious vision and a new approach to achieve community peace, justice and the good of all people. The voice of religions should not be silenced because it gives people hope. Silence reinforces frustration, extremism and violence.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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