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Chaldean patriarchate cancels Easter events amid government stand-off

The Chaldean Catholic Church has announced the cancellation of major events and public festivities for Easter, in protest of the Iraqi government’s ongoing refusal to recognize Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako as the legal head of the Church and the  holder of its endowments and traditional legal privileges. 

In a statement from the patriarchate issued March 25, the Chaldean Church announced the cancellation of virtually all non-liturgical public events over the Easter Triduum, in solidarity with the patriarch, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Kurdistan since July last year. 

Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, pictured during a June 2023 visit to London, England. © Mazur/

“We are approaching the blessed Easter, which crowns the Lenten Journey, a time of sacrifice and sharing in Christ's pain,” said the statement on Monday. 

“Because this occasion is a spiritual and heartfelt one lived by the believers with the spirit of hope amidst all the pains, sorrows, and challenges surrounding them,” it said, “the Chaldean Patriarchate announces the cancellation of all festivities, media coverage, and receptions of government officials on the occasion of Easter, opting instead for prayers, in solidarity with our Father, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, who has been staying away from his historical headquarters in Baghdad for six months now.”


The cardinal, who has led the ancient Eastern Catholic Church since 2013, departed the traditional patriarchal residence and headquarters in Baghdad last year after Iraqi president Abdul Latif Rashid issued a decree revoking civil recognition of Sako as head of the Chaldean Church, one of the 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the pope, with more half a million members in more than a dozen countries.

Sako launched a legal appeal against the presidential move, but in November last year the Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court upheld Rashid’s decision. 

The president has previously said that his act “does not prejudice the religious or legal status of Cardinal Louis Sako, as he is appointed by the Apostolic See as Patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq and the world.” But the decree does remove civil recognition of the cardinal as the rightful administrator of Church assets.

According to the patriarchate, the presidential move is linked to an ongoing dispute between Sako and Rayan al-Kildani, the leader of the Babylon Brigades’ militia and its political wing, the Babylon Movement.

Al-Kildani, who claims to represent the interests of the country’s Chaldean minority, accused Sako of “establishing parties, engaging in electoral battles, and jeopardizing the security and future of Christians in Iraq.” 

The cardinal has called al-Kildani “self-aggrandizing” and accused the militia leader of playing a “game” with the president to seize control of the Church’s assets and install relatives in management positions. 

In Monday’s Holy Week statement announcing the cancellation of public events and celebrations, the patriarchate said that Sako “did not kill or steal public funds, did not form an outlaw militia, and did not incite sectarian strife,” in an apparent reference to Al-Kildani.

“On the contrary, [the cardinal] defended the rights of citizens and full citizenship, contributed to interfaith dialogue, and helped hundreds of Iraqi families across Iraq through the Patriarchate and the Brotherhood of Love.”

The cardinal “will never compromise on his dignity, the dignity of the Church, and the dignity of Christians,” the statement said.

Rayan al-Kildani (Rayan the Chaldean) is the leader of the Babylon Brigades, a militia originally founded by Iraqi Christians to fight Islamic State forces.

In 2017, the organization was integrated into the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), an umbrella body representing more than 60 armed groups backed by the Iraqi state, where it became known as the 50th Brigade. The PMU is dominated by Shia Muslim groups. 

In 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department said it had added al-Kildani to its sanctions list after a video circulated in May 2018 reportedly showing the militia leader cutting off a handcuffed detainee’s ear. It also claimed that the 50th Brigade had “systematically looted” homes in Batnaya, a village in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, reportedly seized and sold agricultural land illegally, and faced allegations of “intimidation, extortion, and harassment of women.”

Since his decision to go into self-imposed exile in July last year, Sako has received messages of solidarity from many Western Catholic leaders. Mar Awa III, the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, and Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church, have also expressed their support.

However, the Vatican has not commented publicly on Sako’s departure from Baghdad and the cardinal expressed disappointment at a perceived lack of support from Rome. Al-Kildani met briefly with Pope Francis at a Sept. 6 general audience. 

A source close to the Vatican Secretariat of State told The Pillar at the time that the encounter was arranged outside of the usual diplomatic channels and that it was unclear whether the Papal Household was aware of al-Kildani’s background or had simply accepted on trust that he was part of an official Iraqi government delegation.

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