09/19/2023, 12.29
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Iraq, Card. Sako: if Rome remains silent the future of Iraqi Christians at risk

by Dario Salvi

The cardinal relects on the the tumultuous weeks since the withdrawal of the presidential decree under pressure from self-styled leaders (in the pay of Tehran). A  "more subtle" threat hangs over the community, but with the same logic as Isis: drive out Christians. The bitterness at the Pope's meeting (at the end of a general audience) with Rayan the Chaldean, who has been proclaimin in Iraq that Sako is no longer the patriarch. Forced to give up his presence at the meeting of the Mediterranean bishops in Marseilles because of the complaints in the courts, part of this campaign against him.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Concerned for the future of Christians who today face a "different threat", but one that is no "less serious" than the Islamic State. Embittered by the Holy See's silence in the face of the mystifications of Rayan the Chaldean, the leader of a local militia calling itself Christian (but in the pay of Tehran) who openly disputes his legitimacy. But also aware of the support of a community, the Iraqi Christian community, and of the closeness of the Muslim world, for a struggle that embraces the very future of the country and its inhabitants.

This is the state of mind that the Patriarch of Baghdad of the Chaldeans, Card. Louis Raphael Sako, confides in this interview with AsiaNews in which he recounts the last few tumultuous weeks marked by calumnies, personal attacks, threats, court cases and the head-on clash with the President of the Republic. It was precisely because of the court hearings that are part of this campaign that he was unable to leave to take part in the meeting of the Mediterranean bishops in Marseilles, where Pope Francis will arrive Friday for a two day visit.

As will be recalled, in mid-July, the cardinal had temporarily transferred the patriarchal see from the capital to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in protest against the head of state's annulment of the decree - which concerns "only the Chaldean Church, and this is the basic issue," the patriarch explained - recognising its role and authority.

It was a surprising decision: Abdul Latif Rashid, in fact, has disavowed a centuries-old tradition by striking down the highest local Catholic authority, which is also responsible for managing the Church's assets and property.

This is where the issue revolves: the control of the properties that are targeted by the self-styled Christian leader 'Rayan the Chaldean' and the pro-Iranian militias that support him (a variegated galaxy that includes Shiites, Christians, Sunnis...), a threat to peace and coexistence for the nation. In response, the cardinal has not ruled out boycotting the upcoming elections.

Below is the interview with the Chaldean Patriarch:

Your Beatitude, for weeks now you have been waging a personal battle, and on behalf of the entire Christian community - for your very survival - against the highest Iraqi institutions and self-styled Christian leaders. How do you explain this?

At the root is a project that aims to silence the voice of the Church and my person. In these 10 years as patriarch [the appointment dates back to January 2013, ed] I have always defended human rights, without distinction of faith or ethnic-religious affiliation, I have tried to protect Christians and I have never wanted to justify the formation of a so-called 'Christian' militia. I rejected all this, hence the purpose of revenge on the part of a faction [Rayan al-Kildani's Babylon Brigades] that has an ulterior motive: to push Christians to leave, to make them emigrate in order to take possession of their homes, goods, property. This is also why they want to create an unstable environment, why the idea of citizenship, which I have always claimed as the basis for belonging to the nation, is opposed. However, a sectarian mentality prevails in the country where people fight to have more power, visibility and earn more money. There is no will to build a state based on law and justice, but confusion and anarchy prevail.

A confusion that also emerges in the roles and powers of the highest institutions? 

This is one of the basic elements: the President of the Republic does not have the power to withdraw decrees issued in the past, he can issue them but he certainly cannot cancel them arbitrarily. Moreover, he goes against a centuries-old tradition, dating back to the time of the Abbasid caliphate, then the Ottoman Empire, and finally the Republic. In one second, the head of state wanted to erase 14 centuries of history and tradition, but I am not afraid and I have nothing to lose... maybe my life, but I am ready for that too. All this is being done to intimidate the Christians, to make them leave the country, and that is why I encourage them again, and more strongly, to stay and hope!

So your battle is based on the rule of law for the whole country, not just for Christians...

Of course! I am not just fighting for them, but for all Iraqis. And I must recognise that, as a people, the Christian community is at my side and supports me in this fight. Not only that, recently a group of 13 Muslim lawyers also filed a petition with the Supreme Court against the withdrawal of the presidential decree decided by the President of the Republic. At this stage, we experience cohesion, strong support and unity at the level of the people and the Christian community, while there are divisions between the Churches. One example among many, the words of a Patriarch who called the President of the Republic 'wise and with a clear vision', or others [bishops and priests] who profit from the sale of houses and property.

After the US invasion, the many attacks and violence and the rise of the Islamic State, with its logic of terror and death, does a new threat loom over the future?

This is another style, another method perhaps more hidden and subtle but with the same objective: to push Christians to leave. A different approach from ISIS, but with the same underlying logic.

Are there realities, institutions, even within the Church, from which you expected more solidarity and closeness?

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, to distance itself from those who call themselves Christian leaders. This gentleman's visit to Rome [the reference is to Rayan the Chaldean's "brief greeting of circumstance" at the end of a general audience at the beginning of September, as described later in a brief Vatican clarification note ed] 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 Rayan the Chaldean] the pope allegedly accepted. To remain silent in the face of such statements is unacceptable.

Does silence end up legitimising the attacks against you and the entire Chaldean Church?

Exactly! The Holy See could have taken the floor, could have said that this gentleman's propaganda is not true, could have tried to calm the people, the many Christians and Muslims in Iraq who are suffering from these new attacks, from these lies that hurt our community first of all. The apostolic nuncio invites me to dialogue, not to humiliate the president... but here it is the president who is humiliating the Church and its people. He says we must leave the decree and accept a court ruling. But he must understand the local mentality and support the Church: he could deny the instrumentalisation and lies of Rayan, ask the bishops who receive money from him to stop, find a solution that is not against the Chaldean Church.

Complaints are filed against me on an almost weekly basis in the courts, and in the coming days I will have to appear in court and will not be able to attend the Rencontres Méditerranéennes in Marseilles. I wrote to Pope Francis after Rayan's visit to the Vatican, he has still not replied. We are a persecuted Church, for a long time... fighting to survive but to do this we also need support, closeness, solidarity.

In light of this can the Synod scheduled to take place in Rome in October be of help? 

Ours is a special issue, but the Synod can still be of help in finding a solution. The Church must show its presence, its closeness, it must find the word that has been sorely lacking until now. The Church is its believers.


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