Iraq elections are ‘step forward’ for Christians, says Archbishop

by John Pontifex, Aid to the Church in Need
A leading Iraqi bishop has described the country’s provincial elections as “a step forward” for beleaguered Christians, despite a number of recent setbacks.

Stressing how the vote on 31 January was largely trouble-free, Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk said the elections, the biggest test for the new state of Iraq post Saddam, was an important landmark in the emergence of a democratic system.

Speaking from Iraq in an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Sako said the priority for the new provincial governments should not only be security but social cohesion and the development of health care and education.

With reports of Sunnis taking part in the vote, unlike in the 2005 provincial elections, Archbishop Sako said that Iraqi citizens would now at last “take full responsibility” for the development of their country.

But he said that when the results came through it would be difficult for Christians to make their voice heard in government and in the wider political debate.

He underlined the divisions between the Christian politicians, which he said weakened their position.

The Archbishop also stressed that with only three seats instead of the much hoped for 15, the Christians ran the risk of being largely ignored.

But he remained hopeful: “These elections are positive – they are a definite step forward. This is a totally new experience for us.”

He went on: “Nothing is perfect – we Christians may have only a few seats but it is just a beginning. There are many changes needed.”

Back in November, the Iraqi Parliament finally approved article 50 of the provincial election law, allocating six seats for religious minorities on provincial councils including three for Christians in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.

It followed protests from Christian leaders still reeling from the attacks in Mosul in which 15 or more Christians died and up to 10,000 fled before returning a few weeks later.

In Archbishop Sako’s own province of Kirkuk, provincial elections are not expected until later this year.

The vote is highly controversial because of the conflicting Arab/Kurdish claims over the oil-rich region.

A referendum is due on whether Kirkuk should be under the direct authority of Baghdad or contained within the regional government of Kurdistan.

Archbishop Sako has tried to raise the Christians’ political profile in Kirkuk by establishing a ‘Council for Christians’ made up of 30 members, a plan backed almost a year ago by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.