IRAQ: Cardinal Sako back to Baghdad after a nine-month self-imposed exile

He was warmly welcomed by a church packed with members of the country’s Christian minority on his first mass in Baghdad

HRWF (15.04.2024) – On Wednesday 10 April, Cardinal Sako returned to Baghdad after a nine-month self-imposed exile in the Kurdistan Region. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani issued the order for his return, marking a crucial step towards reconciliation and religious unity in the country.

Sako arrived in Baghdad from Erbil, accompanied by retired Bishop Thomas Miram of the Diocese of Urmia, Iran. At the airport, they were welcomed by a delegation that included a representative of the prime minister.

Subsequently, at the Chaldean Patriarchate, Sako and Miram received a warm welcome from the Chaldean Patriarchal Vicar Bishop Basilius Yaldo and the Auxiliary Bishop of the Patriarchate of Babylon Bishop Shlemon Warduni. Clergy members from Baghdad and Patriarchate staff were also present.

On 11 April, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani officially welcomed Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako referring to him as “leader of the Chaldeans in Iraq and the world” and pledged to address issues concerning the Christian community and other minority groups within Iraq.

In response, Patriarch Sako conveyed Eid Al-Fitr greetings to the prime minister and emphasized the government’s ongoing responsibility to improve living conditions and safeguard the rights of all Iraqis, including minorities.

About a controversial decree

On Sunday 3 July 2023, the controversial Presidential Decree No. 31 of President Abdul Latif Rasheed published in the Iraqi Gazette No. 4727 deprived Cardinal Sako of the rank of Patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq and the world.

Last year’s decree revoked the presidential decree No 147 signed in 2013 by then-President Jalal Talabani, which had recognized Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako as the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church and custodian of the church’s assets, saying that the earlier decision was not “legally based.”

The new decision in 2023 withdrew widespread condemnations from Christians in Iraq and abroad, fearing the revocation could be part of a long-standing campaign against the dwindling community.

About the departure of Cardinal Sako

Sako’s departure from Baghdad in 2023 stemmed from the decree issued by President Abdul Latif Rashid revoking a 2013 decision by then-President Jalal Talabani.

The Federal Supreme Court of Iraq upheld Rashid’s decision in November 2023, citing ‘constitutional’ concerns. The Chaldean Patriarchate expressed bewilderment, asserting that the withdrawal lacked a legal basis.

Observers noted that the presidential decree potentially allowed the Babylon Movement, the political arm of a Christian militia under US sanctions, to gain more control over the community’s institutions in Iraq. It followed a public spat between the leader of the Babylon Movement, Rayan Al-Kildani, and Cardinal Sako, each of whom accusing the other of political control over the Christian community.

Last year, Cardinal Sako listed conditions for any return to Baghdad, including President Rashid formally recognising him as leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church and holder of its property.

In a further display of protest, the Chaldean Patriarchate canceled Easter celebrations on March 25, standing in solidarity with Cardinal Sako.

The decrease of the Christian community

The Christian community in Iraq has dwindled significantly in recent years, largely due to ongoing conflict, persecution, and economic challenges. This trend has raised concerns about the future presence and influence of Christianity in a region where it has historical roots dating back nearly two thousand years. The community in Iraq, which numbered around 1.5 million before 2003, has significantly decreased to an estimated 250,000 by recent reports up to 2023. The population of Iraq is more than 40 million.

Further reading about FORB in Iraq on HRWF website