Cardinal Sako Stands Against Conquest and Confiscation
By Adhid Miri, PhD
In geography books, there are references to historical events which have changed the borders of certain countries. In history books, there are chapters in which reference is made to geographical conditions at a particular time. History and geography are not independent. In fact, one could say that history is written on the pages of geography, and those who control the geography of an area write their own history.
The Iraq of the past, heralded for the coexistence of its people within their geographic and ethnic components and classifications, no longer exists. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the nation was transformed into armed groups in the form of militias that stripped the country of their attachment to ancestral geography and planned to change history.
Iran-backed Shiite militias have taken steps to shrink the size of the Christian, Mandean, and Yazidi communities in Iraq by seizing their properties, homes, and businesses, gradually pushing them out of the country. Numerous abductions, killings, kidnappings, extortion, robbery, and sexual assaults have occurred against the minority population in recent years.
Militias have also seized large areas of land belonging to Christians, especially in the Nineveh Plain. At least 20,000 acres of farmland have been burned and the militias have carried out 75 attacks on places of worship, with no fewer than nine instances of them using a church as a military base.
Since 2014, confiscating and seizing of property has become increasingly prevalent in Iraq, with thousands of homes and properties being sold without their owners’ knowledge. Armed militias have undertaken these land-grabs, seizing property in Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, the Nineveh Province, and Kurdistan Region, supported by Islamist parties that have been at the helm of power since 2003, in coordination with several public land registry officials.
They have basically stolen agricultural land and manufacturing facilities, taken over homes, buildings, commercial properties, small businesses, restaurants, and stores. Several culprits and forces are involved. The Sunni-backed Islamic State and Shiite-backed Iran are competing for control in a politically unstable region. Moreover, Turkey is also fighting a proxy war in northern Iraq and has bombed several towns on the Nineveh Plain to clear the border areas.
To suggest that only ISIS Sunni Jihadists have contributed to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East is simplistic and ignores the influence of Iran-backed militias in countries like Iraq. These militias are especially prevalent in northern Iraq and Nineveh Province. They are squeezing non-Muslims out of the country, taking advantage of local political instability to gain a foothold in war-torn regions and control the geography of the region.
This is a classic Iranian scheme of deception designed to confiscate and control the land that stretches from the western Iranian border near Diyallah to Damascus, Syria, and beyond to Hizballah, Lebanon via the Christian Nineveh Plain. Iran’s plans are to build railway systems and highways to connect to the Mediterranean. The Christian and Yazidi towns are in their way.
Iranian interferences cast a dark shadow over Iraq today. After taking control of all aspects of life including the sUpreme control of the Shia and Sunni endowments offices, Iran turned its attention to subjugate the Christian religious authorities, confiscate, and control their properties using pro-Iranian agents and parties.
After experiencing violence, persecution, displacement, confiscation of their properties in the recent past, new clouds are gathering over the future of Christians in Iraq, with the government decree revocation that threatens the highest Christian authority in the land, the Chaldean Patriarch, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako.
Forgery and Fraud
Forgery, theft, confiscation of homes, properties, assets, extortion, and intimidation of minorities by the militia’s secret arms has become widespread in Iraq to the extent that the judicial authorities are unable to stop it. Corruption is rampant and concealing capital is a common practice. Buying and selling real estate, converting cash to real estate, establishing fake companies, and putting money in foreign banks are all ways for owners of illicit money to hide their primary sources of ill-gotten income.
Recently, the most dangerous forgery operation in Iraq is the selling of private property without the knowledge of its owners—Iraqis residing abroad who left the country years ago. The value of some of these properties exceeds a million dollars.
Once sold through forgery, the retrieval of properties is difficult, requiring strong government and an impartial judiciary. This is far from what we have, which is authoritarian and partisan influences and the dominance of the militias associated with the ruling parties.
Religion and Politics
Tensions between the Chaldean Catholic hierarchy and figures in the Babylon Movement date back several years. The dispute between Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the head of Iraq’s Chaldean Church, and al-Kildani, the leader of the Babylon Movement, has become increasingly tense, ranging from corruption charges to demonstrations and taking each other to court.
In 2016, the Chaldean Patriarchate made it known there was no relationship between the Church and the Babylon Brigade (50th Brigade), the military wing of the Babylon Movement. The Patriarch threatened to sue the Iran-backed militia leader Rayan al-Kildani in international court if the Iraqi government failed to take necessary measures against the U.S. blacklisted military figure.
In recent weeks, the clash between Cardinal Sako and al-Kildani has escalated. In July, the Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid ended the institutional recognition of the Cardinal’s office by repealing Decree 147, signed by Rashid’s predecessor, the late Jalal Talabani, in 2013. Decree 147 recognized the Patriarch’s appointment by the Holy See as head of the Chaldean Church, “in Iraq and the world,” and thus, “responsible for the assets of the Church.”
The latter aspect is what matters. The president’s decision strips the Chaldean leader of the right to administer Church assets, which are the targets of Rayan and his Babylon Brigade.
Following the decision, President Rashid tried to clarify his decision. His office issued a statement 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.”
With the revocation of the presidential decree, the cardinal will likely lose control over the church’s assets and properties.
In response to the president’s decision, his Beatitude Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako sent an open letter to the President of the Iraqi Republic, Dr. Abdul Latif Rashid. It was his third such letter in the past weeks, and his third letter that went without response.
The Chaldean primate highlighted the grave consequences of the presidential decree and suggested that he might turn to international tribunals to protect Church rights. The harsh attacks against Sako and the Church have pushed hundreds of Christians—priests as well as congregants—to take to the streets in solidarity with the cardinal.
Cardinal Louis Sako cautions that, “The day will come when Iraq will be void of Christians in light of the continuous discrimination against Christians by various parties including armed militias, corrupt politicians, and the absence of the rule of law, job opportunities, and clear vision for the future of Iraq.”
Christian leaders condemned and denounced the Presidency’s decision to revoke the decree. Protests came from civil society organizations, the Syriac Catholic bishop of Mosul, Syriac Orthodox bishops, National parties, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, Chaldean Syriac Assyrian People’s Council, Beth Nahrin National Federation, Sons of the Two Rivers Party, Assyrian National Party, the Chaldean league in the USA, and the Iraqi Society for Human Rights in the United States of America.
On July 13, 2023, Christians gathered before the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Ankawa in solidarity with Cardinal Sako. Residents of the town of Al-Qosh joined a stand in solidarity, carrying banners demanding justice for the head of the church and raising large pictures of Patriarch Sako.
It’s not just Christians supporting the cardinal. The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq and the office of the supreme religious authority, Sayyid Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, expressed solidarity with Sako after the recent public attacks. An official in the office communicated with the patriarch and expressed his regret for the manner in which His Eminence was dealt with recently and his hope that the appropriate conditions would be available for his return to his headquarters in Baghdad as soon as possible.
Bishop Basilio Yaldo was another strong voice who issued a statement, along with the Syriac Catholic bishop of Mosul, Orthodox bishops, 11 ambassadors of the European Union, and other Chaldean Catholic leaders..
Statements from the Chaldean Community Foundation were sent to U.S. State and Congressional members, initiating a response from the State Department. Mathew Miller, the official spokesperson for the U.S. State Department held a press conference in which he stated, “We are disturbed by the harassment of Cardinal Sako, the patriarch of the Chaldean Church, and troubled by the news that he has left Baghdad. We look forward to his safe return. The Iraqi Christian community is a vital part of Iraq’s identity and a central part of Iraq’s history of diversity and tolerance.
“I will say we are in continuous contact with Iraqi leaders on this matter. We are concerned that the cardinal’s position as a respected leader of the church is under attack from a number of quarters, in particular a militia leader who is sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act.”
Ano Abdoka, Minister of Transportation and Communications in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), criticized President Rashid’s decision as “unjustifiable” and said that “for the first time since 2003, we are witnessing a dangerous precedent represented by the behavior of the head of a state’s hierarchy.”
“Why is one of the most important Christian symbols being unjustly targeted, namely the institution of the Chaldean Patriarchate and the moral highness of the Chaldean Patriarch?” Abdoka said in an open letter.
Baghdad without a Patriarch
Patriarch Louis Sako announced on July 15, 2023, in an open letter the decision to withdraw from the patriarchal headquarters located in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and settle in one of the monasteries of the Kurdistan region. The cardinal apparently no longer feels politically or personally secure in the Iraqi capital.
The last time the Chaldean leadership fled Baghdad, according to the Iraqi Christian Foundation, a Mongol army was solidifying its control of the city in 1259 A.D.
The clash between Cardinal Sako and Rayan is nothing new. The sharp divisions between the Chaldean Church in Iraq and the Babylon Movement are expected to continue. Christian interests hang in the balance in a country where fewer than 200,000 remain today, a staggering fall from over 1.5 million who used to call Iraq home before the infamous 2003 American invasion.
In conclusion, Iraq’s future and the fate of Christianity in Iraq are lights we cannot see. What is done in the dark must come into the light. This may well be the last chapter in the ‘turn the other cheek’ concept. The future will tell if Christianity in our homeland survives this calamity.
Sources: Articles by Keely Jahns, Al-Monitor, Al-Ain News, Rudaw News, Asia News, Shafaq News Agency, Ankawa.com, Ishtar TV, Kurdistan24 News, Vatican News, America -The Jesuit Review, and Patriarchal News.