By Susan Korah, The Catholic Register
[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid’s recent decision to revoke the official status of Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako as the head of the Chaldean (Eastern-rite Catholic) Church of Iraq has left the country’s dwindling Christian community and the entire worldwide diaspora deeply hurt, said Bishop Robert Saeed Jarjis.
The move came earlier this month and has seen Jarjis, Bishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Canada, plead with Canadian and Iraqi officials to help reinstate Sako.
“We ask all Catholics to unite in prayer with one heart and one spirit to resolve the issue,” the head of the Canadian eparchy told The Catholic Register while in Ottawa to brief Global Affairs Canada and Iraqi embassy officials while seeking their assistance in rescinding Rashid’s decree.
The decree, he explained, has serious consequences for the Church in Iraq and worldwide, including the more than 46,000 people in Canada who identify as Chaldeans, according to the latest (2016) census figures available.
“I was personally shocked and saddened,” said Rabea Allos, an Iraqi Christian activist from Richmond Hill, Ont., of Rashid’s decision to revoke the decree that had secured Sako’s position. “Things are going deeper into the gutter in Iraq. The patriarch was vocal about encouraging Christians to remain in Iraq, but now they are going after His Beatitude. This sends another message to Christians that they are not wanted in Iraq.”
The move has far-reaching consequences for the Chaldean Church, he said.
“This revocation undermines not only Patriarch Sako’s official position as leader of the Church, but also his authority to administer Church properties and endowments, subject to the approval of the Vatican,” explained Allos, adding that when Sako was installed in 2013, a presidential decree, signed by Rashid’s predecessor Jalal Talabani, had recognized Sako as the official leader of the Chaldean community in Iraq.
Following the revocation of the original decree, Sako left his patriarchal residence in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, and has relocated to a monastery in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), an autonomous region in northern Iraq.
Asserting that he had been unjustly treated, and that the rescinding of his official status was an attempt to transfer his administrative authority over Church properties to others, Sako appealed to all Christians to remain steadfast in their faith “until the storm passes with the help of God.”
Jarjis echoed this sentiment with an appeal to Canadian politicians.
“Canadian values are based on Christian principles,” he said. “Canadian political leaders should make every effort to ensure that Iraq remains a beautiful garden with many different flowers.”
Jarjis said it’s a central Christian value to accept “the other” and that Canada must encourage Iraq to respect the beautiful fabric of religious diversity which is part of the country’s historical heritage.
Although Iraqi Christians have suffered immensely from persecution, and their population has been depleted from 1.5 million before the fall of Saddam Hussein to a mere 150,000 in 2022, conditions had started to improve slightly, according to the Aid in the Church in Need (ACN) 2023 religious freedom report.
The visit of Pope Francis to Iraq in 2021 had kindled Iraqi Christians’ hopes for a better future in their own ancestral homeland where they were among the first in the world to embrace Christianity.
“Despite deep divisions, the recent election of Prime Minister al-Sudani gives cautious reason for hope,” stated the ACN report’s Iraq section.
Which made Rashid’s latest move so puzzling.
“The news of Patriarch Sako’s treatment came as a surprise,” Jarjis said.
Allos sees it as another blow to the Christian community, already beleaguered by discrimination, economic woes and the volatile security situation which leaves them caught in the crossfire between competing militias.
Jarjis is holding out hopes Sako’s relocation to KRI — which basically makes him a displaced person in his own country — is not permanent, and that Rashid can be persuaded to reverse his decision.
“The first thing I did when I came to Ottawa was to present a letter to the Embassy of Iraq. We were received well there, and they promised to send the letter to the President of Iraq,” he said.
He said he was preparing letters to the leaders of all Canadian political parties asking them to help the Christian minority in Iraq.
The bishop also dedicated a special Sunday of prayer “for the Church, for Christians in Iraq and especially for His Beatitude Mar Louis Raphael Sako.”
“We hope the situation will be resolved and His Beatitude can go back to Baghdad. He is the spiritual father of our community.”