European ambassadors to Iraq expressed solidarity Sunday with Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako after what they called “recent public attacks against his person.”
The Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, one of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion in Rome, faced intense criticism on social media after he threatened to launch an international lawsuit against the leader of a political party claiming to represent the country’s ancient Christian community.
Ambassadors and diplomats said in a May 14 statement that they had visited Sako to express their support “and our concern for the Christians and other religious communities of Iraq.”
The statement, backed by representatives of 11 European countries, praised efforts by Sako and Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, the apostolic nuncio to Iraq, “to protect the rights of Christians on the soil that they inhabit for two millennia.”
But the representatives lamented divisions among Iraqi Christians, whose numbers may have fallen to as low as 250,000 from around 1.5 million at the start of the 21st century.
They said that “the existing contrasts among Christians do not help their role in the Iraqi society, and expressed the wish that problems be overcome and ever greater cooperation among the Churches be achieved.”
“We also ensured our support to that aim and emphasized our attachment to creating an understanding and a peaceful dialogue among the different components of the Iraqi people and to the preservation of the country’s diversity, which is one of its main assets,” they said.
Sako was subject to attacks on social media following a May 8 interview with Kurdistan 24, a news station based in Erbil, in which he criticized Rayan al-Kildani, the leader of the Babylon Movement, a party holding four of the five seats reserved for Christians in Iraq’s parliament.
Al-Kildani, a Chaldean Christian, is subject to U.S. Treasury sanctions related to his role as head of the 50th Brigade of the Popular Mobilization Forces, based in Iraq’s strategic Nineveh Plains region.
In the interview, Sako said that al-Kildani, whose militia is described as Iran-backed, was “self-aggrandizing and wants to become a leader,”
The 74-year-old churchman also expressed frustration at the current distribution of parliamentary seats reserved for Christians.
“If the Iraqi government does not put an end [to this], we will sue him in international courts,” said the cardinal, referring to al-Kildani.
In response to social media attacks on the cardinal, more than 200 Christians gathered in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square May 12 in a “solidarity demonstration.”
Videos shared on social media showed that Sako’s supporters in the square included religious sisters holding Iraqi flags.
Agenzia Fides reported that the gathering was “disrupted by the arrival of an organized group of people who came to shout offensive slogans against Patriarch Sako.”
A video showed the cardinal’s supporters moving to one side of the square while another group carrying banners appearing to display crossed-out portraits of Sako stood behind a security cordon.
Tensions between the Chaldean Catholic hierarchy and figures in the Babylon Movement date back several years.
In 2016, the Chaldean Patriarchate underlined that it had no relationship with the Babylon Brigade (50th Brigade), the military wing of the Babylon Movement.
In a 2019 declaration, the U.S. Treasury accused Rayan al-Kildani of involvement in human rights abuses. It said that in May 2018, a video circulated “in which al-Kildani cut off the ear of a handcuffed detainee.”
It also accused the brigade of preventing internally displaced people from returning to the Nineveh Plains, systematically looting homes in the village of Batnaya, and illegally seizing and selling farmland, as well as intimidation, extortion, and harassment of women.
In March this year, the brigade was accused of kidnapping members of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian military organization formed in 2014 to defend the local population against the Islamic State.
The Babylon Movement won four seats of the reserved Christian seats in the 2021 Iraqi parliamentary election. Rivals reportedly claimed that votes from Shia Muslims were diverted to help the Babylon Movement clinch the seats.
Months before the elections, the Chaldean Patriarchate announced that it had removed the word “Babylon” from its official title, which was previously the “Patriarchate of Babylon of the Chaldeans.” It said that the term had no historical basis.
The Chaldean Catholic Church is said to be the largest Christian community in Iraq. Other notable Christian communities include the ancient Assyrian Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church.
The majority of Iraqi Christians belong to the Eastern Aramaic-speaking Assyrian people, an indigenous ethnic group.
It said that all of the country’s diverse Christian communities “are seriously affected by intolerance, discrimination, and persecution from local leaders, government authorities, and Islamic extremist groups.”