Skip to content

Iraqi cardinal returns to Baghdad after 9-month absence

Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako returned to Baghdad Wednesday at the personal invitation of the country’s prime minister, nine months after leaving the Iraqi capital.

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

The leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church left Baghdad in July 2023, in protest at a decision by Iraq’s president to rescind a 2013 civil decree recognizing him as the head of Chaldean Catholics and the person responsible for its assets.


The Chaldean Catholic Church is one of the 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the pope. It has over half a million members in more than a dozen countries.

The Chaldean Patriarchate’s website said that Sako arrived in the capital on the evening of April 10, on a flight from Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, where he had relocated. He was greeted at the airport by a representative of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

The cardinal was driven to the Chaldean Patriarchate’s headquarters in a convoy of cars. Photos showed him greeting well-wishers, including clergy, outside of the building. 

Sako’s return to Baghdad appears to mark the end of a painful episode for the 74-year-old who has led the Chaldean Catholic Church since 2013.

Speaking at a press conference in Baghdad April 12, the cardinal described the period of self-imposed exile as “nine months of suffering, somewhat resembling the condition of a pregnant woman enduring in hopes of having a child.”

Sako celebrated a thanksgiving Mass Friday at Baghdad’s Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph.

In an address, he said: “I particularly thank the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mr. Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, for his encouraging invitation to me to return, and for his reception and determination to resolve the issues appropriately and restore dignity to the Chaldean Church.”

The cardinal added that he would return briefly to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to address Church matters and collect luggage, before settling at his residence in Baghdad.

Leave a comment

Sako’s exile began after Iraq’s President Abdul Latif Rashid rescinded a decree issued 10 years earlier by the late President Jalal Talabani.

The move came amid a war of words 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, in turn, said that al-Kildani was “self-aggrandizing and wants to become a leader.”

Sako announced in a open letter that he would “withdraw” from the Patriarchal Headquarters in Baghdad and settle in a monastery in the Kurdistan Region.

He said he was taking the step following a “deliberate and humiliating campaign” against him by the Babylon Brigades.

The cardinal described the decree’s revocation — which reportedly came days after a meeting between Rashid and al-Kildani — as “unprecedented in Iraqi history.”

Sako suggested that his decision to leave the capital would allow for what he called the completion of the “game” played by al-Kildani to seize control of the Church’s assets and install his relatives in management positions. Al-Kildani and his associates rejected the cardinal’s claims.

Despite clashing with Sako, al-Kildani met briefly with Pope Francis at a Sept. 6, 2023, general audience. A source close to the Vatican Secretariat of State told The Pillar that the encounter was arranged outside of the usual diplomatic channels.

In November 2023, Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court upheld Rashid’s decision to withdraw the decree.

Days after the ruling, Rashid met with Pope Francis. The Vatican said that during talks between Rashid, the pope, and senior curial officials, “the need was reiterated for the Catholic Church in Iraq to be able to continue to carry out its valued mission and for all Iraqi Christians to be a vibrant and active part of society and the territory.”

This month’s breakthrough came weeks after the Chaldean Patriarchate announced the cancellation of Easter festivities in protest at the Iraqi authorities’ treatment of the cardinal.

Sako had previously indicated that he would not come back to Baghdad until the presidential decree was restored. But the prime minister’s personal invitation appears to have persuaded him to return. 

Sako visited al-Sudani April 11, the day after his return to Baghdad. 

The prime minister’s media office said: “Al-Sudani expressed his pleasure at the Patriarch’s return to Baghdad and emphasized the importance of his presence and role, affirming the government's commitment to fostering coexistence among all segments of Iraqi society.”

Sako has said repeatedly that he would tender his resignation as head of the Chaldean Catholic Church upon turning 75. He will reach the typical retirement age for bishops July 4. Pope Francis can decide to accept his resignation or ask him to remain in the post.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani is due to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington April 15. Sako said in March that he hoped the meeting would help the cause of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority.

Subscribe now