ROME – In a lengthy, searing letter published amid Iraq’s ongoing political standstill, Chaldean Patriarch Luis Raphael Sako criticized leaders’ inability to root out corruption and rid the country of discrimination against minorities, who are still treated like “second-class citizens.”
“Since the fall of the former regime in April 2003, Iraq has not realized a normal political life due to the failure of successive governments in achieving what the people of this country are looking for,” Sako said in his letter, published June 3.
What Iraqis want, he said, is progress in terms of fostering peace and stability; restructuring the state; implementing needed reforms; establishing a genuine democracy; and attaining justice, equality, and prosperity for all citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
However, according to Sako, none of this has happened, and “on the contrary, we are witnessing an escalation in political corruption; conflicting agendas, challenges and crises have been accumulated in the absence of a clear and effective strategy.”
“The current political blockage is nothing but a natural result for such a deteriorated situation imposed on this society by a sectarian and quota system,” he said.
Ever since Iraq’s parliamentary elections last October, the country’s political leaders have been unable to form a government.
Iraq’s Sadrist Movement, the largest grouping in parliament, has been blocked repeatedly by opposing parties, with many refusing to renounce their own candidates for president, and several voting sessions have been boycotted, preventing any candidate from reaching the needed two-thirds majority to secure a win.
In his letter, Sako said that he wanted to provide a current “political map” of Iraq and the reality of Christians within that context, with an eye to potential future opportunities for the country and its citizens.
He noted that Christians have an ancient historic presence in the region, and throughout the centuries have contributed to the growth and progress of Iraqi culture and society “by all means,” including economically, intellectually, and socially.
“While the charter of Human Rights signed by Iraq indicates that Christians have the right of ‘full’ citizenship in terms of rights and duties, they are considered, unfortunately, as second-class citizens in their homeland because of their religion,” he said.
The ongoing violation of rights and freedoms “hurts Christians’ feelings,” he said, noting that Christians are often still referred to as infidels and polytheists in numerous religious and educational settings.
“This is a short-sighted, confused, and clearly ignorant way of looking at Christianity, which believes in one God,” he said, saying this sort of discrimination has contributed to the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq.
Prior to 2003, Christians numbered at 1.5 million, whereas now they are fewer than 500,000, he said.
Faced with this situation, “the mentality and social culture must change to preserve the present diversity and pluralism in Iraq for the future,” Sako said, saying other minorities must also be maintained and respected in Iraqi society.
“People from religions other than Islam have the right to be treated equally in terms of their full rights and duties at all levels,” he said, insisting that Muslims themselves ought to bear responsibility for the survival of minorities by “enhancing their presence” through education, the defense of their rights, and the recognition of their linguistic and social diversity.
Calling Christians in Iraq and throughout the East “the salt of the earth and the mirror of their country,” Sako said their marginalization “must be addressed legally and socially by endorsing new legislation” that is respectful of all religions, ensures equal citizenship, and criminalizes speeches “provoking discrimination and hatred.”
Sako then listed a series of problems that Christians still face in Iraqi society, despite the apparent strides made in honor of Pope Francis’s historic visit to the country last year, during which he met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of Shia Islam’s most authoritative figures.
Prior to Pope Francis’s visit, the Iraqi government formally declared Christmas a permanent national holiday, and they also established March 6, the day on which the pope and al-Sistani met, as a National Day of Tolerance.
Despite these steps and the apparent success of Francis’s trip, the biggest problem Christians in Iraq face is still ongoing discrimination and hatred, Sako said, calling extremism, from Al-Qaeda to ISIS, “as aggressive as cancer in demolishing the body of the society.”
Linked to extremism is the enforcement of a state religion, he said, insisting that religion is generally a matter of individual choice, “but not a system for managing the state or society because state should be a sovereign social creature free from doctrinal and religious belief.”
In Iraq, Islam is the official state religion, which is something Sako said is in direct contradiction to the country’s constitution.
“This creates discrimination and discrepancy in legislation and in dealing with people of other religions, especially with regard to belief,” he said, noting that a Christian woman who marries a Muslim man is not permitted to inherit any of his possessions.
“Islam is a religion of mercy and tolerance, just as Christianity is a religion of love,” he said. “Therefore, the mentality of imposing one religion is not helpful in tolerance, respect and coexistence.”
Discrimination on the basis of religious belief dates back to the Middle Ages, and “Christianity paid the price for that,” Sako said, saying the logic of a state ought to be “that religion is for God and the homeland is for the nation.”
In this sense, Sako said all forms of inflammatory language, as well as the language of exclusion, discrimination, and hatred among citizens based on religion ought to be “condemned legally.” He also called for the revision of national religious and educational curricula so that the interpretation of certain texts is based on objective science, rather than traditional interpretations.
Christians also still face problems in terms of citizenship, which ensures “equality and that the law protects everyone equally and promotes mutual respect, coexistence, and harmony among all citizens,” he said.
He called the concept of tribal and sectarian identity a “heresy” and said this can never aid in the establishment of “a strong and modern national state,” but rather facilitates a culture of special interests and exclusion.
Widespread misconceptions about Christian beliefs also routinely cause problems, Sako said, calling for better education and arguing that “Christians’ rights should be as sacred as the rights of others, and they cannot be considered second-class citizens because of their religion.”
Sako said employment and the processing of paperwork can also be problematic for Christians, who are at times unable to find jobs due to ineffective “quota” laws, which require employers to replace a Christian employee who has retired or immigrated with another Christian, but which Sako said have never been applied.
He also touched on the problem of bribes, saying Christians who need paperwork processed, especially in reclaiming seized properties, are often compelled to use bribes for the process to move forward, making the cost twice as expensive.
Immigration itself is a major problem for Christians, who for the past two decades have left in droves due to violent persecution and political instability.
Sako specifically highlighted the “loss of confidence and future uncertainty; unemployment; poverty; deterioration of basic services; desertification; and the failure of governments to build a real democratic and civil state” as major contributing factors.
A lack of unity among Christian communities and political parties is also problematic, he said, insisting that “Christians’ current situation should lead them to realize that the future depends on their unity…being divided is nothing but surrender to keep Christians marginalized, ineffective and displaced.”
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