IRAQ: Chaldean Catholic Church head urges Iraqi government to ensure justice for Christians

Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako reminds authorities that when Muslims arrived in the mid-7th Century, local Christians welcomed them and built their schools, cultural centers and hospitals 

La Croix Int’l (22.01.2024) – The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church has called on the government in Iraq to ensure justice for Christians in the Muslim-majority country.

The government in Baghdad must “assume its national and legal responsibilities by adopting practical and clear measures to ensure justice for Christians”, said Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church in a recent speech offering “observations” that enhance the “understanding” of the numerous factors adversely impacting the Christian communities in Iraq.


Christians “are an essential part of the diverse cultural, social, national and religious fabric of Iraq”, Cardinal Sako said. In Iraq, “the Muslims arrived there from the Arabian Peninsula in the mid-7th Century” and Christians “welcomed the Muslims and opened their schools, cultural centers and hospitals,” he said. There were Christian builders “who built many mosques, especially in Mosul,” he added.


Nonetheless, “Iraqi Christians have paid a heavy price in the historic period following the second Gulf War and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the wake of the US-led military intervention in the last two decades,” Cardinal Sako said


He recalled the 120,000 Christians who fled from Mosul and the cities of the Nineveh Plain between June and August 2014 following the occupation of the region by militias of the so-called Islamic State. Starting from 2017, after the defeat of the jihadists, the government has “offered nothing” to Christians but giving them the choice “to emigrate or face their fate as if they were strangers in the country”, the Chaldean patriarch said.

There are fewer than one million Christians in Iraq, and they have been targeted by Muslim terrorists and criminal groups. Islamic State that ruled Mosul from 2014 to 2016, damaged or destroyed every church in the city. Islamic State also drove out local Christians from the area.


On the eve of the second Gulf War, Christians in Iraq were estimated between 1 and 1.4 million, approximately 6% of the population. Since then, their numbers have plunged to barely 300-400,000.


Beleaguered Christian community in Iraq  


Chaldean Catholics in Iraq are presently living under possible oppression and confiscation of ecclesiastical property after the country’s president revoked the State’s resignation that Cardinal Sako, is head of their Church and sole administrator of its goods. This Eastern Catholic community, which numbers about 400,000 members, represents two-thirds of all Christians in the Middle Eastern country.


Cardinal Sako, who has been the Chaldean patriarch since 2013, is also the target of a warrant issued by the country’s police, after Ryan al-Kildani, leader of the “Babylon Brigade”, an armed militia group claiming to be Christian but in reality affiliated to pro-Iran Shia groups, filed a complaint against him for “defamation”. Faced with this threat, the 75-year-old cardinal said he would not return to the patriarchate’s headquarters in Baghdad but will seek refuge in a monastery in autonomous Kurdistan.


In his address, the Chaldean patriarch also advocates for the removal of militias, including those affiliated to the Babylon Brigade, from the Nineveh Plain. He proposes their substitution with the forces of the army and the federal police.


Cardinal Sako has been vilified on social media ever since he criticized Al-Kildani, popularly called “Ryan the Chaldean,” and the Babylonian Brigade political party that in the October 2021 Iraqi parliamentary elections controversially won four of the five seats reserved for Christian candidates. Christian politicians from other parties allege that votes from Shia Muslims had been diverted in favor of the Babylonian Movement to win those seats.


Representatives from 11 different European nations have already declared their support for Cardinal Sako amid a social media campaign against the primate of the Chaldean Church for his criticism of the political party that claims to represent Iraq’s Christian minority.


Their European governments expressed “solidarity” with the Iraqi cardinal and for his “efforts to protect the rights of Christians on the soil that they have inhabited for two millennia.”


In the past Cardinal Sako has criticized the so-called “Christian parties”, the small group of Iraqi leaders who aspire to present themselves as political projections of local Christian communities. “These parties serve only to foment regional nationalisms,” he said.


Iraqi Christians are not “infidels” 


The Chaldean Catholic patriarch has often made a strong case to show that Iraqi Christians are not a “minority” or “infidels” in their country but who have been present in the region well before Islam and contributed much to the original civilization.


Iraqi Christians represent an indigenous community, present in the lands of Mesopotamia and with their dedication and creativity have contributed in a decisive way to the original civilization that developed in the region, Cardinal Sako had earlier said, the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church.


Labeling Christians as “infidels” and “polytheists” is an offense to humanity and also to intelligence, said Cardinal Sako, commenting on content over digital platforms of the national education system.


The primate of the Chaldean Church has also criticized the fact that the Constitution cites only Islam as the source of legislation, offering that religion as the legal basis for political and social practices that inevitably end up discriminating against Christians and members of other faith communities as “second-class citizens”.


“Christians are indigenous Iraqis and are not a community from another country. They are people of this land, so it is not acceptable to label them as a ‘minority’.”


People of this land 

Christianity has been in Iraq from its earliest times, as the Acts of the Apostles testify. Its origins go back to the preaching of St Thomas the Apostle and his disciples Addai and Mari in the first century A.D.


Iraq is biblically and historically, an important land for all Christians who have played an important role in its history. The Iraqi Christian community is composed today of Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, Latins, Melkites, Orthodox and Protestants.

Photo: Cardinal Sako. Credit: Nail Beth Kinné, Human Rights Without Frontiers.

Further reading about FORB in Iraq on HRWF website