Cardinal Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, announced Saturday that he is withdrawing from his seat in Baghdad after Iraqi President Abdul Rashid revoked a decree recognizing him as head of the Christian Church in Iraq.

Sako said he will be taking up residence in a monastery in Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq, where he will continue to lead the Chaldean Church.  

In a statement issued July 15, Sako called the president’s action — which calls into question his ability to control Church assets in the country — “unprecedented” and “unfair.”

“It is unfortunate that we in Iraq live in the midst of a wide network of self-interest, narrow factionalism, and hypocrisy that has produced an unprecedented political, national, and moral chaos, which is rooted by now more and more,” Sako wrote. “Therefore, I have decided to withdraw from the patriarchal headquarters in Baghdad.”

“I call on Christians to remain in their faith, which is their consolation, strength, light, and life, and on their national identity until the storm passes with the help of God,” Sako added. “May God help the helpless Christians and Iraqis.”

Sako, 75, is a member of the College of Cardinals, patriarch of Baghdad, and head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, which has hundreds of thousands of members across the world. 

The Chaldean Catholic Church is an Eastern rite church in full communion with the Holy See.

There are an estimated 300,000 Chaldean Catholics in Iraq, and, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report, they make up 80% of the Christian population in the country. 

When ISIS invaded Iraq, many Chaldeans left their homes to seek safety elsewhere in Iraq or abroad. 

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“Martyrdom is the charisma/charm of the Chaldean Church because since its founding it has been through persecution by Persians, Muslim Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans, and today by extremists like al-Qaeda and ISIS,” Sako said in 2021.

“In one night in 2014, 120,000 people left their homes without anything, with only their clothes. And we admire that no one left his faith. No one was converted to Islam just to stay at home and be protected. All of them they left their houses to go to other cities in Kurdistan.”

The pronouncement recognizing Sako as head of the Church in Iraq is known as “Republican Decree No. 147.” It was issued in 2013 by former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

According to the press office of the Chaldean Patriarchate, such proclamations have been issued since the Middle Ages and are still very common ways of recognizing the legitimacy of minority religions in the region today.

Rashid claimed that the decision to revoke the decree was made to correct a constitutional error since he says as president, he has no right to appoint or recognize religious leaders. Rashid claims that his revocation does not change Sako’s status as patriarch since he was duly elected and confirmed by Pope Francis.

Sako, however, claims he is being targeted by the president and that the decision was part of Christian minority leader Rayan al-Kildani’s effort to usurp his authority and gain control of Church offices and assets.

In a July 10 letter to the president, Sako said that he is appealing the decree’s revocation to Iraq’s judiciary. Sako told Rashid: “I believe the legal advice that was given to Your Excellency is incorrect and it wanted to undermine your stature and the Christian component.”

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The Chaldean bishops in the U.S., Europe, and Asia issued a letter of their own on Monday urging Rashid to reverse his decision.

“Enough of this injustice against us and the injustice against this afflicted people and the plundered Iraq,” the bishops said. “We insistently demand that you cancel the decision to withdraw the Republican Decree from His Beatitude Patriarch Cardinal Louis Sako, who is well known in Iraq and internationally for his integrity and patriotism, around whom we all gather like a strong wall, and we do not back down from defending his rights and the rights of the sons of our suffering Church and its plundered endowments no matter what. It cost us. We consider this decision of yours to be ill-considered and irresponsible, and it has proven to be disgraceful to our dignity.” 

The letter was signed by American Chaldean Bishops Francis Qalabat of Detroit and Emmanuel Shalita of California.

This is the latest development in an ongoing conflict between Sako and Kildani, who is known as “Rayan the Chaldean.” Kildani is a Christian Iraqi lawmaker and leader of the paramilitary group the “Babylon Brigades.”

In his letter, Sako accused Kildani of extorting Christians in the Nineveh Plains.

“We have been suffering tremendously from the absence of any deterrent force against Babylon, as well as the government’s silence, followed by the unfair decision of the president’s in withdrawing the Republican Decree (147), an unprecedented [move] in Iraqi history,” Sako wrote.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned Kildani because he was engaged in “serious human rights abuses” in his capacity as head of a paramilitary group. 

According to the Treasury Department, Kildani’s group “illegally seized and sold agricultural land” and “the local population has accused the group of intimidation, extortion, and harassment of women.” A video was circulated among human rights groups showing Kildani cutting off the ear of a handcuffed detainee, the Treasury Department’s report said.

According to reporting by ACI Mena, CNA’s Middle East and North Africa news partner, Sako has also accused Kildani of seizing Christian seats in the Iraqi Parliament without real representation for Christians.

Kildani has taken Sako to court for slander. The proceedings are ongoing.