Among the world’s oldest Christian communities, Syriac Christians have been an indelible part of Mesopotamian society for nearly 2000 years.
In modern-day Iraq, Chaldean Catholics (Syriac Christians who in the 16th century entered into communion with Rome) comprise approximately 80 percent of Iraq’s Christian Population. For centuries, the Chaldean Church has actively promoted inclusive dialogue within Iraqi society and has represented sister Christian communities in its relations with the Iraqi Government.
However, a recent move by Iraqi President Abd al-Latif Rashid threatens the critical role of the Chaldean Church in Iraq.
On July 3, President Rashid issued Republican Degree 31, effectively rescinding the decade-old Republican Decree 147, issued in 2013 by then-President Jalal Talibani. Republican Decree 147 officially recognized Chaldean Cardinal-Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako as the head of the Chaldean Church, with the title of Patriarch of Babylon, responsible for the assets of the church.
Sako has described President Rashid’s act of revocation as being “unprecedented in Iraqi History.”
When President Rashid announced this decision, he was quoted as saying “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.”
In his response to the Embassy of the Holy See in Baghdad on July 17, Rashid stated “The withdrawal of the decree corrected a constitutional situation, as Decree 147 of 2013 was without a constitutional or legal basis.”
The timing of this presidential action is suspect at best. The Patriarch is in the midst of a dispute with Rayan al-Kildani (Rayan the Chaldean). Kildani is the head of a Christian in-name-only militia, the Babylon Brigades, which operates in the Nineveh Plain in close coordination with the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Sha’bi), a coalition of militias under the direct control of Iran. Such Iranian proxies, including Kildani, have become major power brokers in Iraq. The Chaldean Church formally ended its association with the Babylon Brigades in 2016. Patriarch Sako states that Kildani has targeted him in a “deliberate and humiliating campaign” to discredit him. Kildani has been sanctioned by the United States under the Global Magnitsky Act for egregious human rights abuses.
Perceiving a threat of danger in Baghdad, Patriarch Sako fled to a Chaldean monastery in Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where he was warmly welcomed by Kurdish authorities.
While in Erbil, the Patriarch addressed the dispute with Kildani.
“I have stood up to this militia and others who have wanted to take over what belonged to the Christians,” Sako stated. “Of course, no one defends Christians other than the Church.”
That statement could be seen as an indictment of the current political climate in Iraq. Sako also stated that he would not return to Baghdad until he is reinstated to his position.
In its most recent report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Iraq be placed on the U.S. State Department’s Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). USCIRF cited the “corrosive presence” of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units as an impediment to religious freedom in Iraq.
Indeed, Iraq has serious internal political challenges to overcome, including Iranian influence. The Christian community and other religious minorities are caught in the middle of these power struggles.
Sadly, a direct consequence of this state of affairs is the perpetual exclusion of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq’s post-2003 political system. This situation highlights the important role of the Chaldean Patriarch as the social and political representative of the Chaldean Church and an unofficial voice for Christians in Iraq.
The rescinding of Decree 147 and the removal of Cardinal Sako’s officially recognized designation as head of the Chaldean Church will accelerate an already dire situation for Christians in Iraq.