Iraqi government must support Christians, Chaldean Catholic patriarch says

Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako | ACI MENA

ACI MENA, the Arabic-language new service based in Erbil, Iraq, conducted an exclusive interview Nov. 21 with Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Louis Sako at the patriarchal residence in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. 

During the discussion, the cardinal touched on new challenges facing Christians and the Church and talked about what he expects to come out of the synodal way within the Chaldean Church. 

Over the course of the interview, Sako addressed emerging threats facing Christians in Iraq, including their exclusion from the political process.

The Iraqi government’s refusal to shelter displaced Christians

When Christians were forced to leave their homes in the Nineveh Plain after the 2014 Islamic State invaded Iraq, they exhibited great heroism, Sako said. 

He added that when the Iraqi government failed to help the displaced find new homes on the pretext of not having the necessary funding, the Church, he said, assisted in providing housing to thousands of displaced Christians and non-Christians alike.

He expressed his concern that in Iraq, a country that was once home to more than one and a half million Christians, approximately 20 Christian families leave each month. He warned that if the government and the Muslim majority don’t change their policies soon to support Christians, an unthinkable disaster will occur. A country that has housed the Church for hundreds of years will soon be without the Christian faith, he said.

Property of the Church and Christians not safe

The patriarch cardinal also spoke out against the government’s decision to evict displaced people from a housing project in Baghdad. The Virgin Mary complex, which is located on government-owned property, has hosted 120 families, or approximately 400 individuals — including displaced Christians and poor families — after their areas were destroyed during the period of ISIS control.

The complex will be evacuated by the end of this year according to an order from the Iraqi government.

Reflecting on the situation, Sako shared that “the Iraqi government overlooked the most important issue — that being the Chaldean Church provided apartments for those dislocated and abandoned by the government.”

No real representation of Christians in Iraq

Cardinal Sako explained that, in effect, Christians lack representation in Iraq, citing the influence of those who are doing the will of the political parties in power. He expressed his regret that some Christian politicians have aligned themselves with “Hashd al-Shaabi,” a Shiite militia organization.

“There is a Christian politician who considers that the ‘Hashd al-Shaabi’ is from God; how can a military faction be from God? This is a defect and distorts Christianity,” Sako told ACI MENA.

Sako also discussed a need to reform the way political seats are allocated and how government jobs are distributed so that Christians are not unfairly treated.

The Iraqi government and parties in power, he added, do not listen to the opinions of the Church regarding problems faced by Christians in Iraq.

The synodal way and renewal

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The patriarch spoke about the synodal process taking place within the Chaldean Church and noted that he has already seen a “renewal” in the fields of theology, liturgy, and legal work, describing these changes as necessary to meet the needs of the times. 

The Chaldean patriarch also called on Muslim leaders to work on a “synodal way in Islam” to renew Islam and religious discourse just as the Catholic Church has. His hope, he said, is that this renewal on the part of the religions will pave the way to a future where Christians and Muslims in Iraq and countries where Muslims are the majority can coexist.

Role of women and same-sex marriage

Cardinal Sako touched on the ultimate goal of the listening sessions: how to increase the role believers have in the Catholic Church in Iraq. 

He referred in particular to the importance of ensuring that women have an active role and presence in the life of the Church. 

Sako made clear that renewal does not, however, mean accepting what is contrary to Church teaching, such as same-sex marriage.

“The Church respects the human being, but it does not accept marriage that comes outside the concept of man and woman,” he said.

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Sako explained that the Church plays the role of a mother, embracing all her sons and daughters who are believers and taking care of them. Her role, he observed, is represented in accompanying and helping them to stay within the correct faith, and guiding them, reminding them that God is “mercy and love.”

At the end of the interview, Sako spoke of his desire to unify the position of the Churches of Iraq so that its members can be united in their demands before a state that deals with Christians as though they are second-class citizens. He also called for the establishment of a civil Iraqi state based on the principle of citizenship and not religious affiliation, and the abolition of any reference to religion in the country’s official documents.