Sako to Leave Erbil for Baghdad?

Protest by tens of Christians against the accusation of Cardinal Louis Sako of confiscating Christian property, by Rayan Kildani, leader of Babylonyan Movement. Baghdad, May 12, 2023. Ahmad Musalaha

By Ammar Aziz

Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako returned to Baghdad on the second day of Ramadan Eid, April 11, to meet with the prime minister, nine months after leaving Baghdad and choosing Erbil as his residence.

In July 2023, Iraqi President Latif Rashid decided to revoke the republican decree appointing Cardinal Louis Sako as Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and the world, 10 years after the decree was issued.

The decision generated protests by Christians in various Iraqi provinces, including Baghdad and Nineveh, and Louis Sako decided to leave the capital and choose Erbil as his home. But nine months later, on April 11, Sako flew back to Baghdad for the first time since his decision and met with the Iraqi Prime Minister.

"I feel comfortable today," Cardinal Louis Sako told a news conference in Baghdad a day after meeting with Mohammed Shia Sudani on Friday, April 12, a meeting seen as an attempt to resolve the issue.

  "I have been presiding over the world's churches outside the capital for nine months," he said.

The Christians in Nineveh protest against the cancellation of the republican decree appointing Cardinal Louis Sako, as Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and the world, Nineveh, July 13, 2023. Ahmad Bala

Khalid Jamal, Director General of Christian Affairs at the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs of the Kurdistan Regional Government KRG, told KirkukNow, "This step by Prime Minister Sudani is a positive and encouraging thing.”

He pointed to the Iraqi prime minister's "some promises" to Louis Sako, above all working to reverse the president's decision to cancel the decree appointing Cardinal Louis Sako, as Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and the world.

"There is one thing I want to clarify here, that Patriarch Sako has not returned to Baghdad permanently, what is now was just a visit, but they appreciate Sudani’s initiative," Jamal added.

The Iraqi prime minister posted a photo of himself, Louis Sako and an accompanying delegation, said they discussed the general situation in Iraq and praised the role of the Christian community in state building in Iraq between sections of Iraqi society.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Sudani meets with Cardinal Louis Sako and an accompanying delegation, Baghdad, April 11, 2024. Media of Council of Ministers

"The prime minister is trying with the Iraqi president and the relevant parties to withdraw from the cancellation of last July's decree ... It is not within the authority of the prime minister, but he has taken the initiative and will play a role," Jamal said.

"If that happens, Cardinal Louis Sako will remain in Baghdad again," he added.

The decree is not only specific to Louis Sako, but also relates to a number of other bishops of the same religion, except for two bishops whose republican decree dates back to the Saddam Hussein, Iraqi President (1979-2003).

Chardinal Sako was born in 1948 in Zakho district, Duhok province. He was ordained a priest in 1974 in the Chaldean Abbey in Mosul, elected bishop of the Abbey in Kirkuk in 2002, patriarch of the Chaldean Church in 2013 and promoted to cardinal in 2018.

Iraqi President Latif Rashid's decision to cancel the decree appointing Sako in July 2023, which the latter called "unconstitutional", came in response to a request by Rayan Kaldani, leader of the Babylon Movement.

The two figures' feud reached a climax last year, accusing each other of "corruption" and "seizure of Christian property" and threatening to take each other to court.

Kildani was born in 1983 in al-Qush, Nineveh province, and later moved to Baghdad. In 2014, after the capture of Nineveh by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), he formed the Babylonian brigade and became part of the pro-Iran paramilitary of the Popular Mobilization Forces PMF, known as Hashd al-Shaabi.

sako & raian
Cardinal Louis Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, and Rayan Chaldean, leader of the Babylon Movement

“Our problem is much bigger than the return of Louis Sako to Baghdad... Our two main problems are the mentality of Iraqi officials towards Christians and how they treat this community,” Ninus Odisho, head of the Rafidain faction in the Duhok provincial council, told KirkukNow.

“Secondly, it is not giving them the authority to exercise their power.” He cited the decision of the Iraqi Federal Court on February 21, 2024, which declared 11 seats of ethnic communities in the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament illegal, five of the seats were reserved for the Assyrian-Chaldeans.

"The problem of Christians must be completely temporarily sorted out," Odisho said.

Cardinal Louis Sako's meeting with the Iraqi prime minister came two days before Sudani's official visit to the United States on Saturday.

"This attempt by PM Sudani may be related to the visit, because we have already learned that the US State Department and their officials in Iraq have intensively discussed the president's decision and the issues of Louis Sako and Rayan Kildani. US officials and PM were discussing it."

Two decades ago, Iraq was home for over 1.5 million Christians, 3% of Iraq's population falling to 800,000 in 2003 following gulf war. They are mainly living in the provinces of Baghdad, Nineveh, Duhok, Kirkuk and Erbil.

Latest figures say currently only 250,000 to 500,000 Christians are living in Iraq. The number of Christians in Iraq has fallen to 250,000, mostly in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region IKR, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights said in March 2023.

The Iraqi constitution recognized Christianity, second religion in Iraq following Islam, and their Syriac language. Figures by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government KRG shows that out of 700,000 IDPs in 26 camps for Internally Displaced Persons IDPs, over 7% were Christians.

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