A fleeting meeting between Pope Francis and a Iraqi militia leader was arranged outside of the usual diplomatic channels, according to a source close to the Vatican Secretariat of State.
The encounter at a Sept. 6 general audience puzzled Vatican observers because Rayan al-Kildani has engaged in a public war of words with Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, one of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome.
Sako has accused al-Kildani, the head of Iraq’s 50th Brigade militia and the Babylon Movement political party, of being partly responsible for his July decision to leave the Chaldean Church’s headquarters in Baghdad and relocate to Iraqi Kurdistan.
The source, who asked not to be identified as he isn’t authorized to talk about the matter, told The Pillar that he thought the Iraqi authorities had performed an end-around to enable al-Kildani — who is on a U.S. sanctions list for allegedly cutting off a handcuffed detainee’s ear — to secure a prominent seat at the general audience.
A select number of pilgrims at general audiences have what are known as baciamano tickets, from the Italian for “kiss the hand,” referring to the pope. The tickets enable them to sit near the pope during the audience and greet him briefly at the end.
Typically, an Iraqi political leader would need to ask for a baciamano ticket through the apostolic nunciature in Baghdad. The request would be evaluated by the Secretariat of State, the department responsible for the Vatican’s diplomatic affairs. The Secretariat of State would advise against granting a ticket if it believed that a papal meeting would send the wrong signals.
The source said he understood that Iraqi officials took a different route, directly approaching the Prefecture of the Papal Household for a baciamano ticket for al-Kildani. The prefecture oversees the preparations for all papal audiences.
Rahman Farhan Abdullah Al-Ameri, Iraq’s ambassador to the Holy See, did not respond to a Sept. 19 email from The Pillar asking whether he arranged with the Papal Household for the delegation from Iraq that included al-Kildani to receive general audience tickets.
The source said it was unclear whether the Papal Household was aware of al-Kildani’s background or simply accepted on trust that he was part of an official Iraqi delegation.
The Vatican confirmed in a Sept. 12 statement that al-Kildani had met with Francis at the previous Wednesday’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square and had a brief exchange of words with the pope.
Days before the Vatican statement, the Washington Institute, a think tank based in the U.S. capital, had accused al-Kildani of falsely portraying the encounter as a private audience.
It alleged that the militia leader had “photobombed” the pope to bolster his credentials among Iraqi Christians. It also said that an “amateurishly edited” photograph of the meeting, with background figures blurred out, was circulated online.
Al-Kildani publicized the papal meeting via social media networks and his media office, which noted that the Iraqi political figure had given the pope “a gift from the heritage of Mesopotamia” and in turn received a blessed rosary.
In a Sept. 19 interview with AsiaNews, Sako that he had written to the pope following the meeting with al-Kildani but had not yet received a reply.
He said: “I am disappointed by the position of the Holy See, which in almost five months has not intervened to disavow the actions of the President of the Republic, to reject the attacks against the person of the Patriarch [Sako], to distance itself from those who call themselves Christian leaders.”
“This gentleman’s visit to Rome and the meeting with Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square at the end of the Wednesday audience, which he then loudly reposted on his own social channels, seeking legitimacy by using an ecclesiastical authority but ending up showing profound ignorance because he spoke about the Angelus... on Wednesdays!”
“His words came as a real shock to Christians and Muslims in Iraq, because he presented himself once again as the true representative of Christians; he and not the patriarch whose resignation [according to al-Kildani] the pope allegedly accepted. To remain silent in the face of such statements is unacceptable.”
Al-Kildani posted a video montage of his trip to the Vatican on the social media network X, formerly known as Twitter. In a caption, he wrote: “We had a successful visit to Italy, and its conclusion was blessed to us by the meeting with His Holiness Pope Francis.”
The Washington Institute said: “The framing of the incident is deeply deceptive because it seeks to portray the incident as a substantive personal meeting at the invitation of the Vatican rather than what it was: an unplanned encounter at a weekly event open to the general public.”
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.”
Al-Kildani, who says that he represents the interests of the country’s Chaldean minority through the Babylon Movement, has accused Cardinal Sako of “establishing parties, engaging in electoral battles, and jeopardizing the security and future of Christians in Iraq.”
The cardinal, in turn, has said that al-Kildani is “self-aggrandizing and wants to become a leader.”
On July 3, Iraq’s President Abdul Latif Rashid rescinded 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.”
In a July 15 open letter, Sako announced that he was leaving Baghdad in response.
He explained that he was taking the step following a “deliberate and humiliating campaign” against him by the Babylon Brigades.
The cardinal suggested that his decision to leave the Iraqi capital would pave the way for al-Kildani to seize control of the Church’s assets and install his relatives in management positions.
He is facing legal action following his outspoken criticisms.