A cardinal announced Saturday that he was leaving Baghdad and relocating to Iraq’s Kurdistan Region after the country’s president withdrew a civil decree officially recognizing him as the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako said in a July 15 open letter that he had decided to “withdraw” from the Patriarchal Headquarters in Baghdad and intended to settle in a monastery in the Kurdistan Region, an autonomous region of Iraq that has served as a haven for Christian refugees. He added that he would travel directly to the region from the Turkish city of Istanbul, where he was on a Church mission.
The cardinal, who has led the roughly 630,000-strong Chaldean Catholic Church since 2013, said that he was taking the step following a “deliberate and humiliating campaign” against him by the Babylon Brigades, a pro-Iranian Christian militia.
He noted that the Iraqi government had responded to the campaign with “silence,” which was then followed by President Abdul Latif Rashid’s July 3 decision to rescind a 2013 decree recognizing Sako as the head of the Chaldean Church “in Iraq and the world” and “responsible for the assets of the Church.”
The cardinal described the decree’s revocation as “unprecedented in Iraqi history.” The move came days after the president met with the Babylon Brigades’ leader Rayan al-Kildani (Rayan the Chaldean).
Sako suggested that his decision to leave the Iraqi capital would pave the way 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.
“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, so may God help the helpless Christians and Iraqis,” the cardinal wrote.
“I call on Christians to remain on 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 confirmed last year that he intended to present his resignation as the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad when he reached his 75th birthday, which fell July 4. The Vatican has so far made no announcements relating to a possible resignation letter.
A translation of Sako’s open letter — originally issued in Arabic — on the Chaldean Patriarchate’s website said that the cardinal had “decided to withdraw from the Patriarchal Headquarters in Baghdad” to the Kurdistan Region. But a Vatican News translation said that Sako intended to “retire from the Patriarchal See in Baghdad and move to a church, a mission, in one of the monasteries of Iraqi Kurdistan.”
The different translations raised the question of whether Sako’s move was related to his desire to retire from his post. But an Arabic-speaking priest told The Pillar that the original letter referred only to a change of location.
In recent months, tensions have soared between the cardinal and Rayan al-Kildani, who in addition to heading the Babylon Brigades, a militia originally founded by Iraqi Christians to fight Iraq’s Islamic State occupiers, is the leader of the Babylon Movement, the organization’s political wing.
The Chaldean Catholic Church disassociated itself from the Babylon Brigades and other armed Christian groups in 2016.
In 2017, the organization was integrated into the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella body representing more than 67 armed factions backed by the Iraqi state, where it became known as the 50th Brigade.
The U.S. Treasury Department announced in 2019 that it was imposing sanctions on al-Kildani, accusing him of involvement in human rights abuses, including allegedly cutting off a handcuffed detainee’s ear in 2018.
It also accused the 50th 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.
Rivals claimed that votes from Shia Muslims were diverted to help the Babylon Movement clinch the seats. Critics have similarly accused the 50th Brigade of recruiting largely from the Shia Muslim community while presenting itself as a local Christian militia.
Months before the 2021 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.
Relations between the Church and the Babylon Movement deteriorated further in April this year when a court issued a summons for Sako to address accusations concerning a Church property lodged by a businessman linked to the group.
In an April 29 statement, al-Kildani accused Sako of “establishing parties, engaging in electoral battles, and jeopardizing the security and future of Christians in Iraq.”
In a May 8 interview with Kurdistan 24, a news station based in the region’s capital, Erbil, the cardinal criticized al-Kildani, saying that he was “self-aggrandizing and wants to become a leader.”
Sako also expressed frustration at the present 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.
The interview prompted a barrage of social media attacks on the cardinal. Christians responded by gathering 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.
A group of European ambassadors and diplomats posted in Iraq visited Sako May 14 to express their solidarity after what they called “recent public attacks against his person.”
In a statement, they 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 they 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 hope “that problems be overcome and ever greater cooperation among the Churches be achieved.”
Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid defended his decision to rescind the decree concerning Sako at a July 17 meeting with Fr. Charles Lawanga Sona, the chargé d’affaires at the apostolic nunciature to Iraq.
“The president reviewed the reasons for withdrawing Republican Decree No. (147) of 2013, as he affirmed that withdrawing the republican decree would not prejudice the religious or legal status of Cardinal Louis Sako, as he was appointed by the Apostolic See as Patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq and the world,” reported the Iraqi News Agency.
President Rashid said: “The withdrawal of the decree came to correct a constitutional situation, as the aforementioned decree was issued without a constitutional or legal basis, in addition to the request of heads of churches and other sects to issue similar republican decrees.”
He added: “Patriarch Louis Sako is respected and appreciated by the Presidency of the Republic as the patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq and the world.”
Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that the president’s approach to revoking the decree was “flawed.”
“The President of the Republic could have convened a meeting with all the Church leaders to explain the history of these decrees and his decision to retract them,” he said.
“Instead, the matter was played out in the media, leading the Patriarch to interpret this action as punitive.”
Demonstrators took to the streets of Ankawa, a Christian-majority district of Erbil, July 13 in protest at the government’s treatment of Sako.
The Iraqi Christian Foundation, an advocacy group, suggested that Sako’s departure from Baghdad was historic.
Writing on its Twitter account July 16, it said: “[The] Chaldean Church has been based in central Iraq since 37 A.D. In 1259 A.D. it was forced to move north after Genghis Khan invaded Baghdad but it later returned.”
“Now, due to targeting by the Government of Iraq, [the] Chaldean Patriarch is forced to leave Baghdad to go north. Iraq must stop their attacks.”
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.
The advocacy group Open Doors ranked Iraq as the 18th-worst place in the world in which to be a Christian in its 2023 World Watch List.
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.”
Francis became the first pope to visit Iraq in March 2021.