Time for an era of respect and openness in Iraq: Cardinal Sako

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By Hiwa Jamal
It’s time for a new era in Iraqi politics, one where Iraqis count on each other and not outsiders, says Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, head of the Chaldean church who was elevated to cardinal by Pope Francis at the Vatican in June.
After 15 years of sectarianism, corruption, and accumulation of disasters that led to the rise of terrorism, “Today we need a will that could bring an end to all that,” Sako told Rudaw’s Hiwa Jamal in Baghdad.


Sako was born in 1948 in Zakho, Kurdistan Region. He was ordained a priest in Mosul in 1974 and also served in Kirkuk where he worked for peace and reconciliation between peoples. He was elected patriarch in 2013.

He leads a church whose existence is under threat in Iraq. In the 1987 Iraqi census, the most recent, 1.5 million Christians were counted – 1.2 million of whom were Chaldeans. After the ISIS conflict, an estimated half a million remain.

Sako warned that if “aggressive policies” in traditional Christian homelands continues, the minority could disappear entirely.Though he believes “there isn’t really any safe place in Iraq,” including the Kurdistan Region where Christians are “marginalized,” he dismissed the idea of creating a safe zone for Christian in Nineveh, fearing that would make them targets.

“The best solution is to build a state of institutions that will respect and protect everyone and keep the guns in the hands of the army and federal police here and in the hands of the Peshmerga in the north.”

The problems are internal so the solution to restore freedom and democracy in Iraq must come from within the country, he concluded.

“We Iraqis must protect one another and count on each other. We must have civilized dialogue, be open with each other and respect each other. That’s the solution.”

Rudaw: We’re meeting with Cardinal Louis Rafael Sako, the cardinal of the Chaldeans of Iraq and the whole world. He has in recent says released a message to all politicians of Iraq to turn a new page and move forward with true democracy and freedom for all.

Cardinal Sako: Thank you very much. This is certainly a crucial question for a sovereign Iraq to be on a strong and healthy foundation. In the last 15 years all the successive Iraqi governments have failed in creating a civil state based on citizenship. The notion of sectarian quotas was something completely foreign to us. These governments created big barriers between people. This kind of mindset cannot create a state that would serve the society equally and become a state of the rule of law and rights of all. These were the reasons for the spread of corruption in all institutions and the death of public services. What one calls public serves disappeared. On the contrary all things collapsed and rivalries replaced them with very negative consequences.

The disasters added up so much that it created the ground for terrorist organizations. Before ISIS there was the al-Qaeda. It beheaded people, carried out bombings and ISIS destroyed Iraq’s civilization. It beheaded people and forcefully displaced people. All

  Politicians are constantly fighting for power not for the people of Iraq  

based on identity. It didn’t matter Sunni, Christian or Shiites whom they called Rafidha. It didn’t matter to them if you were a Christian or any other identity. And I sent out a message for turning a new page and forming a government based on true partnership for the new stage. 15 years have passed and it’s for a change.

In one of your messages you say “Our Father has taught us to always tell the truth” even if it means losing our lives saying it. But in today’s Iraq where you say it’s been failing for fifteen years, is it easy to say the truth. Is there truth?

The truth is bitter and painful. The slogans the Americans brought with them glittered but not all that glitters is gold. They spoke of freedom, democracy, economic prosperity and reconstruction. But fifteen years went by and we’re still here. No project was done. Services of water and electricity. I don’t understand why there should be no electricity. Unemployment has reached a dangerous rate of more than 22 percent. The health services is shameful. In a week alone I went to the Yarmouk hospital several times and you cannot call it hospital. The same with the schools. How could students sit on the ground and study? The curriculum is also bad and old and need change. Education here has fallen victim to political rivalries.

Politicians are constantly fighting for power not for the people of Iraq. All their efforts are for power and money and the best proof is the past fifteen years. We’ve seen every kind of suffering and disaster. Today we need a will that could bring an end to all that. Germany was completely destroyed but when the Germans got together they built the strong Germany we see today and advanced socially and economically. Iraq could do the same if forgets about the past and quit the notion of revenge and conspiracy against one

  If we speak from reality there isn’t really any safe place in Iraq  

another and put join hands instead. If people are given their rights and duties they’ll certainly meet the expectations, and I hope that’s what’s going to happen.

All agree especially the Christians themselves that Iraq is not a safe place for them. But a few days ago you said in a statement that you don’t want a safe region for the Christians in the Nineveh plains. Why not?

If we speak from reality there isn’t really any safe place in Iraq. There are killings, abductions and bombings in Baghdad. The same is happening in other cities. Where could you find safety and stability? Even the military institutions are weak and divided across sectarian lines.

More dangerous still is that militia groups are running this country and that shouldn’t be acceptable. There are all kinds of militia groups who occupy people’s homes and properties and become their new owners. That’s why it makes no sense to ask for a safe zone for the Christians because it will become a de facto region.

I think it is some kind of suicide too because that safe region automatically becomes a target and the Christians will be massacred. The best solution is to build a state of institutions that will respect and protect everyone and keep the guns in the hands of the army and federal police here and in the hands of the Peshmerga in the north. But if we keep having militia groups under Christians, Yezidi, Shaba and Mandeans then there’ll only be chaos.

Is Kurdistan not a safe haven for Christians?

Kurdistan changed after the referendum and faced some serious challenges. There is no guarantee for safety and stability. I hope the Kurds become a positive voice for change and become a factor to coordinate with other Iraqi parties for building a strong Iraq. In the Kurdistan Region there is no sectarian divisions. But there is generally no safe haven for the Kurds or Christians. If there isn’t a

  I hope the Kurds become a positive voice for change  

constitution that would encompass everyone’s rights and human values there will be no stability and peace. How could you be optimistic? Kirkuk is a good example. We all saw what happened there.

But why is the main congregation of Christians in the Kurdistan Region?

The Christians faced forceful displacement under ISIS. They fled their homes and their land in Mosul and the Nineveh plains. And a decision from the federal court of Iraq decrees that the Nineveh plains aren’t part of Article 140, meaning it is not a disputed territory. When the Christians were displaced from the plains they went to the Kurdistan Region, Sulaimani, Erbil and Duhok. They also threw themselves into the embrace of our Christian brothers there. We thank the Kurdistan Region. They protected us and welcomed us. But this is not a solution. These people must return to their homes, cities and villages. The situation isn’t ideal at the moment, but may be better in the future.

Is this the decision of the Chaldean Church that you do not want a safe region for the Christians?

We’ve our own central authority and we’re the authority for all the Christians of Iraq and Chaldeans abroad. This is the standpoint of all the Chaldean church. We’re for dialogue and respecting the rights of all peoples no matter what religious or ethnic group they may be. That’s our motto. Also, the reality of the region plays its own role. Living here in Baghdad I know that the situation of a Christian here is different from that of someone living in Erbil. And therefore the opinions may differ, too.

Most of the Chaldeans are in the Kurdistan Region now and mainly in Ainkawa. The chair of the Assyrians was transferred from the US to Kurdistan. How come the Chaldean chair hasn’t come to the Kurdistan Region?

The Chaldeans live mainly in the Nineveh plains and their numbers were considerably large in the Kurdistan Region until 1973. Then

  We cannot all gather under one name and erase the other names and identities  

we migrated. My family were from a village near Zakho then we moved to Mosul. Before the fall of the regime (Saddam Hussein’s) out of a million Christians two thirds were Chaldean and they lived in Baghdad. That’s why the main congregation of Christians was in Baghdad. They still fled from there too due to the security situation and the disasters that befell them in the Nineveh plains, the worsening economic situation, disintegration of families and Christians abroad encouraging the Christians at home to go abroad too and that played a role in the decline of the number of Christians in Iraq. Despite that the majority of Christians are in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Ammara, Basra and Nasiryah.

Do you have numbers and data on how many Christians live where in Iraq?

Before the fall of the regime our numbers were 1.5 million. Out of this number around 1.2 million were Chaldeans. Today only a quarter of the Christians are Chaldean. And around half a million Christians are left in Iraq. I believe they’re the majority in Baghdad. If we speak of the majority then most Christians are in Baghdad. And perhaps there are around 200,000 Christians in the Nineveh plains and the Kurdistan Region. There are also political problems. The Chaldeans didn’t have a chance to partake in the political process. It was not taken into account that they have skilled and talented people who should be given roles and put in high positions. We’re marginalized, in the Kurdistan Region, too. The Chaldeans do not have representatives. There may be one here or there, but it’s all to do with politics.

I hope the Chaldeans are given their due rights in the Kurdistan Region and become true partners. I want to reemphasize that Chaldeans make up the majority of Christians in the Kurdistan Region, then comes the Assyrians and an Armenian minority. In the Nineveh plains there are mainly Chaldeans and Assyrians.

Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syrianis speak three different languages and yet all Christians. Are you all one nation and

  There are efforts to drift the Christians apart  

speak these languages?

If we take the Kurds as an example, there are Badini Kurds who speak Badini and Kurds in Sulaimani who speak Sorani and we have Faili Kurds, too. But they all together make up the Kurdish nation. Each one with its own specifications. Here with us it’s the same. The Chaldeans have their own qualities and the Assyrians and others the same. But in essence we’re all one people and these identities have taken shape in the last 500-600 years.

We cannot all gather under one name and erase the other names and identities. Doesn’t matter what name we have or what identity, what’s important is to be given our freedom and let us decide what we want and what we do. But when they insult you and give you a name long like a train as Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriani, then it’s unacceptable. I’m telling you I’m Chaldean, but I won’t allow you to call me Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriani the same way you say you’re a Kurd and won’t accept to be called Badini-Sorani-Faili. You’re a people with three names and we’re the same way as one people and we’ve tried hard to unite but politicians don’t let us.

What has been the role of the Kurdistan Region in protecting the Christians?

To this day no serious effort has been made to grant the Christians their rights. In fact there are efforts to break them apart so that they cannot unite and form an entity. But in reality the Christians can play a crucial role political and social progress. As I said, there are efforts to drift the Christians apart. When we look at the Christian political parties we see disintegration and divisions and the cause is politics. For instance, the people’s assembly was in the beginning a social organization but now it’s become political.

Is it the Christian parties themselves that are divided or others are dividing them?

No, I’m talking about political affiliations. We’ve understandings between us as three churches the same way the Muslims as Shias and Sunnis have their own higher authority but in the end are all Muslims. We too have Catholic, Assyrian and Orthodox churches, but as higher authority we have one and that’s the Catholic Church. It is the culture, language and geography but has no effect on our

  If this situation continues Christianity will be no more in Iraq  

identity as Christians.

But generally there is a division be it in the Kurdistan Region or here and the cause is always political. Each side tries to use the situation in their own interest and they’ve formed political parties that can’t even be independent.

It is said that there are serious efforts to change the demography of the Nineveh plains and Shiites and others are settled there. Are you aware of this and is this a threat?

Yes, I’m certainly aware of that and it’s a serious challenge and a threat to our very existence. Historically that entire region has been Christian. I suggested to the government to form administrative units for the Shabaks and let them have their own entities and in turn leave Alqosh, Bartella, Qaraqosh and Hamdaniyah alone because these are Christian areas. Unless the do that the Christians are going to disappear as they’re in danger of disappearance politically already.

If this situation continues Christianity will be no more in Iraq. Due to aggressive politics and religious mottos we’ve become second-class citizens. This is our land and we’ve been here since before the advent of Islam. It’s important that that mentality is changed.

  These wars and suffering are transient and will one end as history has proven it  

Also, it’s vital that the laws are changed and people are allowed to criticize and speak up when they face trouble. Everything must happen as people will it. I dress like this and you’re free to dress as you wish.

Do you want to have an administrative region of your own run by Christians?

No, No, we’re aware, and we see the demographic change. If there is true freedom, peace, stability and democracy then it’s okay for any Iraqi citizen to buy a house wherever they want and live in it. But this is not true now and this freedom and democracy do not exist. This is all political rivalry. Rivalry over land, over power and money and we Christians have become victims of these rivalries and divided over two fronts.

Why can’t the Christian countries of the world whose leaders are Christian too protect and help the Christians of Iraq?

The real solution is here inside the country. Where are those countries who claimed that they would recognize an independent Kurdistan after the referendum? Where are they now? They didn’t do anything. They only had their own interests in mind. We do not

  We Iraqis must protect one another and count on each other  

rely on other countries. We count on those at home and work with them. We work with the Kurds in the Kurdistan Region and with the central government here. Our issue is with these people which means our problems are internal and not external. We do not count on anyone. The Americans, Europeans or Russians haven’t come here to protect us or others. They’ve come to protect their own interests only. That’s very clear.

We Iraqis must protect one another and count on each other. We must have civilized dialogue, be open with each other and respect each other. That’s the solution. The outside forces only mean trouble for us. World Christians protecting Christians here or the Muslims of Indonesia protecting the Muslims here, so on and so forth, it makes absolutely no sense. If that’s the case then there’ll be a world war.

Is the Pope aware of the situation of the Christians here?

The Pope is fully aware of the situation. And there is the Iraqi ambassador in the Vatican so is the KRG representative. The Pope has all the information and we talk to him about our situation. But the Pope does in the meantime respect Iraq’s sovereignty and believes these problems could be resolved inside Iraq because Iraq is the common home of all of us.

What’s the Pope’s message for the Christians here?

The Pope encourages all Christians to stay in Iraq and keep communication and dialogue with everybody. This is our land and where our civilization is. These wars and suffering are transient and will one end as history has proven it. God willing the future will be better and I hope a bright future awaits all Iraqis whoever they are and wherever they may be.