Iraq’s President Abdul Latif Rashid met with Pope Francis Saturday, days after a cardinal lost an Iraqi legal challenge over the withdrawal of a presidential decree.
The Vatican said that during Nov. 18 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.”
The Vatican meeting followed a Nov. 14 ruling by Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court upholding Rashid’s July decision to withdraw a 2013 civil decree recognizing Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako as the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church and the holder of its endowments.
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.
After Rashid withdrew the decree, Sako left his residence in Baghdad in protest and relocated to Iraqi Kurdistan. The cardinal also filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the procedures for the decree’s withdrawal.
In a statement issued on the day of the Federal Supreme Court ruling, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of Sako’s episcopal ordination, the Chaldean Patriarchate said that the cardinal “still deems the revocation of the decree from him as an unjust decision without justification and will not remain silent in demanding his rights.”
“When the President was in Italy, he assured certain individuals that the court would rule in his favor regarding the withdrawal decision,” the statement said. “Can we then consider the judiciary in this case an emblem of justice and equality?”
When Rashid — Iraq’s president since October 2022 — revoked the decree, he said that he did so because it had no “constitutional or legal basis.”
“Withdrawing the republican decree 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,” the president commented.
Rashid rescinded the decree issued by the late President Jalal Talabani amid a war of words between Sako and Rayan al-Kildani, the leader of the Babylon Brigades’ militia and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.”
The cardinal, who has led the Chaldean Catholic Church since 2013, first announced in a July 15 open letter that he would “withdraw” from the Patriarchal Headquarters in Baghdad and settle in a monastery in the Kurdistan Region.
Sako explained that 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 reject the cardinal’s claims.
Despite clashing with Sako, 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 that the encounter was arranged outside of the usual diplomatic channels.
The Vatican has not commented publicly on Sako’s departure from Baghdad but may be working behind the scenes to resolve the impasse. In September, the cardinal expressed disappointment at a perceived lack of support from Rome.
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.
But sources close to Chaldean Catholic Church have told The Pillar that some Iraqi churchmen believe that Sako’s approach has been too confrontational and brought unnecessary complications to an already embattled community.
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.
Sako has said repeatedly that he would tender his resignation as head of the Chaldean Catholic Church upon reaching the age of 75.
According to his official Vatican biography, he was born in 1948. But in a July interview, Sako clarified: “I was born in 1949. But I had an older brother of the same name who died. My parents gave me his birth certificate. So I won’t be 75 until next year on July 4.”
He has indicated that he will not return to Baghdad until the presidential decree is restored.