ROME – Iraqi President Adul Latif Rashid’s recent decision to withdraw an official decree recognizing Cardinal Luis Raphael Sako as Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church has added an additional uncertainty to the country’s already fragile Christian community.
On July 3, Rashid, a Kurdish politician who has held office since last year, issued a new edict withdrawing government Decree 147, which was issued in 2013 and recognized Sako as Patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, ostensibly on the grounds that the decree held no constitutional or legal basis.
The move effectively ends the institutional recognition of Sako’s office, meaning, among other things, that soon he likely will be unable to administer the Church’s assets, competence for which will fall within the purview of the state.
In the wake of the decision, Sako has alleged that he is the victim of a smear campaign and has accused the government of seeking to gain control of the Chaldean Church’s money and property.
Sako pinned the blame for his ouster on tensions with the popular Babylon Movement, a Chaldean Catholic political party founded in 2014 in response to ISIS’s anti-Christian persecution.
In Iraq’s October 2021 elections, the Babylon Movement – the political wing of the Babylon Brigades, a Christian militia that was formed as part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces – secured four of the five quota seats reserved for Iraq’s Christians in the 329-seat parliament. The party is led by Iraqi politician Rayan al-Kildani.
Sako accused Rashid of bias and of catering to the Babylon Movement’s wishes by appointing al-Kildani, who serves as secretary-general for the Babylon Movement, as head of Iraqi Church endowments and placing several members of al-Kildani’s family in positions of power, including three of his siblings.
In recent years the Babylon Brigades have gained considerable economic and political influence. Yet in northern Iraq, especially in places such as Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, they have encountered resistance from bishops who have openly criticized the Iraqi parliament’s quota system.
In May, Sako suggested that he might engage international tribunals in a bid to ensure a just distribution of parliamentary seats, generating strong pushback from the Babylon Movement and those closely associated with it.
Amid the ongoing tensions, al-Kaldani has also publicly criticized Sako and other sympathetic Chaldean Church leaders.
Last Thursday, July 13, Christians living in Ankawa, the Christian suburb of Erbil, protested against Sako’s ouster, calling for the presidential decree to be canceled.
Amid the controversy, Rashid issued his own statement saying that withdrawal of Decree 147 designating Sako as head of the Chaldean Church “does not prejudice the religious or legal status” he holds, as he was appointed by Pope Francis.
The statement also said that Sako is “highly valued by the Presidency of the Republic” as Patriarch of the Chaldean Church “throughout the world.”
On Saturday, Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil reaffirmed that Sako is the rightful leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and called on the government to explain their decision to revoke the decree.
In a July 9 statement, the Chaldean patriarchate voiced surprise at Rashid’s decision, saying that historically, “this decision is unprecedented in Iraq.”
As far back as the Abbasid Caliphate, which dates to 750 BC, to the Ottoman empire and “through the period of Iraqi Royal and Republican Governments along history,” the Chaldean Patriarch of Iraq has always been granted official government recognition, as have the leaders of Christian denominations in other Arab countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, the statement said.
They called Rashid’s decision “political,” saying they could see no other motive for such an inflammatory move.
The patriarchate said Sako is “known nationally and internationally for his integrity and patriotic stances,” and voiced their conviction that the decision was made as a blow to the “very well-known Iraqi rooted Patriarchal position.”
Noting that there are similar decrees for 20 bishops and leaders of other Christian Churches in Iraq, the patriarchate said they do not want to see those decrees also withdrawn. They also said they are open to new decrees being issued for the leaders of other Christian denominations, provided that these decrees “reflect the government’s respect for this beautiful historical Iraqi fabric and provide assurance for Christians and all Iraqi components in such difficult circumstances that we are going through.”
They urged Rashid, who they said is known “for his kindness,” to deal with the situation appropriately, “before it turns to a crisis [with] unbearable consequences.”
In an open letter to Rashid dated July 10, Sako described the decision as an unprecedented “danger” against the Christian community in Iraq and warned that if Rashid did not withdraw his decision, he would file a formal legal complaint.
On July 15, Sako announced his decision to “withdraw from the patriarchal seat in Baghdad, and go from where I am currently in Istanbul, on a Church mission, to one of the monasteries in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
He said his decision to leave Baghdad was made as a result of “all the fateful events” that have unfolded and the “deliberate and humiliating” campaign against him, as well as the president’s decree, which he also called “unprecedented.”
Sako said the government’s silence on the matter was tantamount to their support for his leaving Baghdad, and he described Rashid’s decision as an act “against the Christian community, that suffered a lot.”
The decree comes two years after Pope Francis made an historic March 5-8 visit to Iraq in 2021, becoming the first pope to ever set foot in the country.
That visit was made while Iraqi politician Barham Salih, who served as president from 2018-2022, was still in office, and was hailed as a major step forward for an ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse Iraq in terms of tolerance and peaceful coexistence, as well as for minority rights.
In December 2020, in the lead up to the pope’s visit, Iraqi Parliament voted unanimously to declare Christmas an annual national holiday. Previously, Christians had been given the day of Dec. 25 off, but it was not considered a holiday for the rest of the population in the Muslim-majority nation.
During the pope’s visit, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi announced that March 6, the day on which Pope Francis’s historic meeting with top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani took place, would become a Day of Tolerance and Coexistence.
On the day Pope Francis departed Iraq, Salih ratified a new law benefitting Yazidi survivors of the 2014-2017 ISIS genocide, following years of delay.
However, while these were all seen as energizing and hopeful signs for Iraqi’s weary and frustrated Christian minority, which in recent years has dwindled due to violent persecution and low-level, daily discrimination, Rashid’s decision to cancel the decree recognizing Sako’s authority will undoubtably be seen by many as a step backwards.
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