The leader of Iraq’s largest Christian community has condemned a presidential order overturning a decree which recognizes him as patriarch, calling the move “offensive” and the climax of a campaign to seize control of the Church’s assets.
Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako said Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid’s decision to revoke his predecessor’s pronouncement acknowledging him as patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church means that, in the eyes of the state, he lacks the authority to lead his people and administer ecclesiastical properties.
In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the patriarch said that reversing the decree was part of a political campaign to silence him, render him powerless, as well as seize control of churches and other Chaldean buildings.
The Chaldean leader, who says his faithful represent 80 percent of Christians in Iraq, said: “Withdrawing the decree is very bad. For 15 centuries, there were decrees recognizing the Patriarch as head of the Church and administrator of the properties of the Church.”
“Revoking it is a humiliation for the Church. Those behind this move want to put their hands on the properties of the Church and administer them separately from the ecclesiastical authorities. We cannot accept that.”
The patriarch, who left his Patriarchal See in Baghdad for Erbil in Kurdish northern Iraq in July, said that he had lodged a complaint with the supreme court about the reversal of the decree.
He added: “If I do not have the decree, I have no rights so far as the state is concerned. It is like killing me off in terms of my moral authority. It is offensive.”
Patriarch Sako accused politicians and militia groups of being implicated in a campaign of intimidation against him, seizing the homes of Christians and conspiring to take control of Church properties. He said: “These politicians want to silence me and stop me from speaking up for human rights and the dignity of human beings.”
The prelate is calling for a new decree to be put in place using slightly different wording, but in effect re-instating the terms of the old one and giving official recognition both to him and other patriarchs. He called on Church leaders, governments, politicians, and other influencers around the world to back calls in favor of a new decree.
The patriarch said: “I have had many, many statements of solidarity from Muslims as well as Christians.” The patriarch said he was heartened by the show of support from the faithful in Iraq who both in Erbil and on the Nineveh Plain held demonstrations against the cancellation of the decree.
Massive emigration over the last 20 years has decimated the Christian population in Iraq, especially since the ISIS insurgency of 2014-16. But the patriarch said that although the faithful were alarmed by the withdrawal of the decree they were encouraged by the strength of support from so many people, including Muslim leaders.
He said: “Christians in Iraq know they cannot be bought. They have their own dignity, their rights, just like anyone else.”
Iraqi cardinal sets out conditions for return to Baghdad
On the other hand, he has set out the conditions for his return to Baghdad in a strongly worded letter to the country’s president.
Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako said in the August 1 letter that he would only consider returning to the Iraqi capital if President Abdul Latif Rashid formally recognized him as the leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church and the holder of all its endowments
“Without this decree, I will remain in Erbil [the capital of Kurdistan Region] until your term ends, and work with the new president to issue an official decree that continues with a tradition that dates back 14 centuries,” Sako told Rashid, whose four-year term ends in October 2026.
In the letter titled, “A final message to His Excellency the President of the Republic, Dr. Abdul Latif Rashid,” Sako said he had learned that the president was in the process of issuing identity papers to Iraqi Church leaders.
“We are not employees of the state, we are heads of ancient Churches,” wrote the cardinal, who said that he represented 80 per cent of Iraq’s Christians.
Sako told the president: “I will not cease to defend the truth until it is fulfilled, although you said surprisingly to another visitor: ‘I do not understand why Cardinal Sako protests, while Christ was crucified while he was silent.’ Your Excellency, Jesus spoke harsh words against injustice.”
The number of Iraqi Christians is believed to have fallen from 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to perhaps as low as 150,000.
By John Pontifex/ churchinneed.org/ and Luke Coppen | pillarcatholic.com