Iraqi Archbishop Speaks to the Faithful

By Alberto Carosa
The Catholic Herald (UK) (

“Do not lose your memory of being Christians, because this vacuum is going to be filled up by others, and so now we are facing moral chaos in family values, the person and communion.”

LONDON (Catholic Herald, UK) – A recent editorial in the International Herald Tribune reported on the deplorable plight of Iraqi refugees, pointing out that they are “a problem that almost everybody wants to hide”.

According to the paper, “everybody” means: Syria and Jordan, which are worried that if the refugees get assistance they will stay indefinitely; the Americans, who are not inclined to talk about a crisis created by their war; and Iraq’s Shia leaders, who don’t really care about Sunnis or Christians displaced by Shia militias. Christians are in a way the hardest- hit because they have to face the hostility of the most radical Muslim factions.

Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk was recently in Orena di Vimercate, a picturesque suburb of Milan, as a special guest of honour at the Timone Day. Il Timone (the rudder) is a leading Italian Catholic monthly that has been arranging there for some years a series of events with the participation of the most significant Catholic groups. As part of these events Archbishop Sako was conferred the Defensor Fidei (Defender of the Faith) prize for his upholding of the faith under such difficult circumstances.

“The situation is in general tragic, though there is an improvement,” he says at the event. “In Baghdad and Mosul it is still dangerous to a certain extent, but in the north it’s good and also in the south the situation is quite calm.”

But the overall situation is far from reassuring. The main problem is that people are not confident. “They do not trust the situation is stable,” the archbishop says. “It is true the south has been pacified in the sense that it’s fully Shia and therefore peaceful.”

How does he see the situation for Iraqi Christians? He does not mince his words, acknowledging that “we are having problems, and especially with fundamentalists”. Obviously fundamentalists do not accept anyone else, he points out, and this cannot but result in persecution of the Christians.

But Christians are persecuted also by other groups, he contends. Criminals are looking for money, and Christians are easy prey. Iraqi insurgents also inquire about the position of Christians, asking them whom they support.

No surprise, then, Archbishop Sako argues, that “it’s an extremely complicated situation”. Regarding the possibility that President Bush might not have told the truth about the presence of weapons of mass destruction, he claims that these weapons are not the problem.

“The Americans wanted to come to the Middle East since they had already spoken about a new Middle East, and Iraq was the most suitable country for their new strategy,” he says. “They have their own planning. I am sure. And to find an excuse to come over here is not that hard.”

This strategy is based on a vision for democracy to be put in place in those countries ruled by theocratic regimes. “In the area there are three main factors: money, Islamists and Israel,” he says. “These three facts are posing challenges to the whole world.”

Is it a strategy at odds with the Church’s teaching? “That’s right,” Archbishop Sako replies passionately. “I think nobody is listening to Church teaching. The regimes in the West are secular and they have nothing to do with religion. They forgot their Christian memory. It is a pity. War, violence, and other morals-related aspects of this agenda, as we all know, are linked to their interests.”

But despite this, he insists: “We must say that now there is change. There is so much freedom in Iraq. There was nothing before.”

But in turn this is also not an easy situation. It’s not a matter of passing from no freedom to perhaps too much freedom. “The problem with Arab Muslim countries is that they are not accustomed to freedom and democracy,” he says. “People need to be educated as to how to live one’s freedom in a responsible way.”

It was also because of this lack of security that Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul was abducted in late February and found dead on March 13. Archbishop Sako is already on record in L’Osservatore Romano speaking out against the death sentence for those responsible for Archbishop Rahho’s death. He believes that capital punishment should be eliminated, everywhere.

“Life is such a great thing that nobody can decide to erase it like this, and if they [the culprits] have made mistakes, you may not make another mistake,” he argues. “Justice must take its course, obviously, but not up to sentencing somebody to death. This is grave and we, as Christians, are against the death penalty for any person.”

In the wider context of the Middle East, and also with regard to Israel, his opinion is there is no other answer but dialogue. “There is but one option: to sit together at the negotiating table to discuss together the future. With arms, there is no solution,” he says.

Does this include Lebanon? “By all means,” Archbishop Sako replies, “Every country. This applies not only to political leaders, but also religious leaders, Christians, Muslims and Jews. The future depends on them.”

Asked whether a lack of forgiveness in the Middle East might be a barrier to peace, he agrees, but says that it’s an obstacle which is up to us to overcome through education: the one who pardons is stronger that the one who seeks revenge.

“I know it’s a tribal thing. It’s something sacred for them, but today the world has changed. There are tribunals if there is the need to right a wrong. There is the justice system. Therefore it’s better to forgive,” he says. “As Jesus himself said, violence is the harbinger of more violence. Therefore it’s better to pardon. In the Koran we find nice verses about reconciliation. Muslims should follow the positive verses and understand the others in their historical context.

In the case of Iraq Archbishop Sako does not hesitate to speak of the “scandal” of Christians waging war on another country. “And this is especially when you think that people are still unable to peacefully resolve their disputes and have once again to resort to arms, with all the ensuing havoc and destruction, in terms of human lives and all the rest.”

What is his message to Christians in general and Catholics in particular? “Just one thing: do not lose your memory of being Christians, because this vacuum is going to be filled up by others, and so now we are facing moral chaos in family values, the person and communion.”