By: John Newton
Archbishop Louis Sako
The new leader of Iraq’s largest Christian community has been hailed as ‘a man of courage’ who will give new hope to a people who have suffered a decade of bloody persecution – according to a leading Catholic charity.
Pope Benedict XVI confirmed the appointment of Archbishop Louis Sako, 64, as Patriarch Raphael I of Baghdad of the Chaldeans on Saturday (2 February), two days after an election held in Rome for the post of leader of the largest Catholic community in Iraq.
Describing Aid to the Church in Need’s long and fruitful relationship with the new patriarch, especially during his nearly 10 years as Archbishop of Kirkuk, Fr Andrzej Halemba, the charity’s Head of Middle East Projects, described him as “the right man for the job”.
He said: “Louis Sako is a messenger of peace and dialogue. He is most definitely a man of courage. Problems only seem to make him work harder.”
Fr Halemba added: “Christians are continuing to leave the country. There must be some personality who can give them back their hope. Louis Sako is the right man for the job.”
Aid to the Church in Need staff spoke of the new patriarch’s “unwavering determination”, referring to how as a young priest he took his petition to teach Christianity in his parish all the way to President Saddam Hussein who met him to discuss the matter.
John Pontifex, Aid to the Church in Need’s UK Head of Press and Information, who has known the new patriarch for nearly 10 years, meeting him in Kirkuk, Rome and the UK, said: “Archbishop Sako is a man who encompasses so many different qualities – on the one hand rigorous scholarship and on the other abiding pastoral concern.
“He is passionate in his defence of the truth and the needs of the people – these are the hallmarks of this man who is always so humble. But above all, the new patriarch is a man of faith, who is committed to the way of the Lord. For these reasons, his election will I am sure give the people great hope. The story of his meeting with Saddam Hussein for me illustrates Patriarch Sako’s courage and determination, qualities that will be needed as he acts as shepherd to his scattered flock.”
The then Fr Sako’s encounter with Saddam came when he demanded to see the President following government refusal to allow him to teach religion. Saddam refused his request but the then Fr Sako responded by doing a separate doctorate and, because it had little religious content, the government gave him the all-important teaching licence.
As patriarch, he will need similar determination to deal with the challenges of today.
Christians in Iraq are less than 300,000, down from below 800,000 a decade ago and 1.4 million at the last census in 1987. Reports released last year showed that since 2003 more than 70 churches in Iraq have been attacked, most of them bombed – 44 in Baghdad and 19 in the northern city of Mosul.
In interviews given since his election, Patriarch Raphael I has pledged to work for unity – not just within the Chaldean Churchbut also with Orthodox communities. Stressing the Chaldean Church’s many difficulties in times of huge upheaval and oppression, he told AsiaNews: “Together with the bishops of the Chaldean Church, we shall work for unity and renewal.”
Patriarch Raphael I Sako replaces Patriarch Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, 85, who resigned for reasons of age.