Chaldean Patriarch Fears Iraqi Christian Exodus

Michael J. Miller
Left: A member of Iraqi security forces stands guard in Baghdad June 17 in front of volunteers who have joined the Iraqi army to fight militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant who have taken over Mosul and other cities. (CNS photo/Ahmed Saad, Reuters). Right; Archbishop Louis Sako of Baghdad, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, blesses with a crucifix as he concludes a liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in this Feb. 2013 file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako remarks on ISIS, the future of Iraq, and the responsibility of the West

Ankawa ( The emigration of Christians from Iraq will greatly accelerate. The Head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, expressed this opinion in an interview with the international Catholic relief organization Aid to the Church in Need on Saturday, June 28, 2014, in Ankawa near Erbil.

Aid to the Church in Need: Do you have any hope that Iraq will survive as a federal state?

Patriarch Louis Rafael I Sako: No. Maybe a symbolic unity and the name Iraq will continue to exist. But de facto there will be three independent zones with their own economies and armies.

ACN: What are the consequences of this collapse of the state for the Christians of Iraq?

Patriarch Sako: That is the question. To be honest, at the present moment we bishops are somewhat at a loss. Possibly the future lies in Kurdistan. Many Christians already live there, after all. But there are also many who live in Baghdad, and many in Basra, too, in the Shiite South. We must wait for further developments.

ACN: On Friday the Synod of the Chaldean Church in Erbil concluded. Did you decide on measures to be taken with regard to the Christian refugee crisis from territories occupied or threatened by the ISIS?

Patriarch Sako: We dealt with it thoroughly. We also established a commission of five bishops from the affected territories, who are to organize initial relief efforts for the refugees. The American consul and his French counterpart were here to help us develop a vision. But things are still in flux. Along with other bishops, I am of the opinion that the situation will get worse. At present there are three fragments of Iraq, a Sunni, a Kurdish and a Shiite part. The Kurds, anyway, already have their autonomy. The Shiites too, more or less. Now the Sunnis are following. Therefore Iraq will be divided. If that is the case, then it is better to sit down together and to find a consensus, so as to avoid further battles and the loss of human lives.

ACN: Is this the darkest hour of Christendom in Iraq?

Patriarch Sako: It is the darkest hour for everyone. After all, there is no persecution of Christians. Many more Muslims have fled from Mosul and the surrounding area. But what worries us most is that the emigration of Christians from Iraq will increase. When I was in Turkey recently, ten Christian families from Mosul arrived. And in just one week twenty families left Alkosh, an entirely Christian village not far from Mosul. This is very serious. We are losing our congregations. If Christian life in Iraq ends, then our history is interrupted. Our identity is threatened.

ACN: Should Western countries give visas to Iraqi Christians or not?

Patriarch Sako: The tragedy is that families are divided. Many are already in the West. The children constantly ask their parents why they are still staying there and do not come after them. This trend cannot be stopped. It is impossible.

ACN: There is no hope, then?

Patriarch Sako: Maybe the older ones will come back, when the situation stabilizes. But the young ones will remain abroad. In ten years there may be 50,000 Christians left in Iraq. Before 2003 there were around 1.2 million of us. Within ten years we have shrunk to maybe four to five hundred thousand faithful. But we have no exact figures.

ACN: What can we Christians in the West do?

Patriarch Sako: The Christians in the West are very weak. There are good Christians there, who support us with their prayers, and materially too. But their influence is minimal. As a whole the West does nothing at all. We are very disappointed. They are indifferent onlookers. People there are more interested in soccer than in the situation here or in Syria. Western politics responds only to economic interests. The international community should put pressure on Iraqi politicians to find a political solution and to form a national unity government.

ACN: What can Aid to the Church in Need do for the Christians of Iraq?

Patriarch Sako: Pray for us. In the future we will also need help to create a Christian infrastructure, when the situation has stabilized. We will need new houses and factories, and we will have to rebuild our agriculture. The remaining Christian villages must be modernized. For all that we rely on foreign aid.

ACN: As a disinterested party can you play a mediating role in the present situation? When you were still Archbishop of the city Kirkuk, which was disputed between Arabs and Kurds, your house was open to all parties.

Patriarch Sako: I continued that in Baghdad. That is where all the important decision-makers are. For example, I visited the president of parliament. But now the time for that is past. The division has become much worse. How am I supposed to travel to Fallujah in the Sunni province of Anbar? The problem is that the Sunnis have no real leader in Baghdad who can speak for them.

ACN: Do you think that the majority of the Arabic Sunnis support ISIS?

Patriarch Sako: Yes. Definitely. They do not necessarily share their ideology. But they support the political goal of changing the regime and founding their own state. ISIS wants to found an Islamic state with oil wells, in order to Islamize the world.

ACN: Is that a danger for the West too?

Patriarch Sako: I think that it is a danger for everyone.

ACN: There are calls for American intervention, in order to stop the advance of ISIS. What do you think?

Patriarch Sako: No. I do not see it that way. The Americans were here and made many mistakes. The present situation is their fault. Why replace a regime with a situation that is worse? That happened after 2003. The Americans deposed a dictator. But at least back then under Saddam Hussein we had security and work. And what do we have now? Confusion, anarchy and chaos. The same thing happened in Libya and Syria. If you want a change in the situation here, you have to educate the people in the schools, the media and the mosques in democracy and the development of their own country. It is impossible to establish here a democracy on the Western model. Under the old regime before 2003 we had no confessional [interdenominational] problems. We were all Iraqis. Now we talk about Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Arabs and Kurds.

ACN: But wasn’t that so only because Saddam held the different groups together with an iron fist?

Patriarch Sako: Maybe in the Near East in the present circumstances we need a strong leader, but one who is just at the same time and does not look after his family or his clan exclusively.

ACN: At present this strong leader does not exist. Do you see any chance, nevertheless, of stopping the collapse of Iraq and finding a political solution?

Patriarch Sako: That possibility still exists, if the West and our neighbors, such as Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, want it.

(Translated from German by Michael J. Miller)

AID TO THE CHURCH IN NEED is an international Catholic relief organization of pontifical right, which was founded more than 65 years ago by Father Werenfried van Straaten (the “Bacon Priest”) to aid priests in Eastern Europe. By relief projects, information services and prayer it assists oppressed and needy Christians in around 140 countries. Its projects are financed exclusively by private donations. Contact: