13 January 2023, The Tablet

Chaldean patriarch: Middle East Christians need unity to survive

Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako warned that “future generations will be without faith” unless Churches address the reality of life.

Chaldean patriarch: Middle East Christians need unity to survive

Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako speaking in 2021 before that year's visit of Pope Francis to Iraq.

Church unity is essential to the survival of Christianity in the Middle East, the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church has said.

In a message titled “The Eastern Churches need a breath of fresh air”, published ahead of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Patriarch of Baghdad, Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, warned that “future generations will be without faith” unless Churches overcome their differences to address the reality of life in the region.

According to Agenzia Fides, the cardinal said that he found too many priests proposing outdated ideas – “what they said seemed to have no relation to the present reality” – and that many Church pronouncements “neither touch the feelings of the recipients, nor nourish their hope, nor give consolation and refreshment”.

He said that the Eastern Catholic Churches (the 23 independent Churches in full communion with Rome) had not garnered much benefit from the Second Vatican Council or from the Synod for the East convened by Benedict XVI in 2010.

Cardinal Sako added that the threats faced by Christian communities made ecumenical initiatives urgent.

“Our strength lies in our harmonious unity, which is a guarantee of our survival and our continuity in spreading our message,” he said.

The cardinal, a consistent advocate of Church unity, said last September that he saw “nothing to prevent the union of the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East”. His remark met with caution from scholars and the Assyrian patriarch.

In this week’s message, Cardinal Sako reasserted his case:

“The unity of the baptised does not mean wiping out the richness of the diverse theological, liturgical and spiritual traditions of the various ecclesial communities.

“Authentic communion consists in accepting differences and respecting them through mutual humility and fraternal encounter.”

Ecumenical measures and declarations were more than a “gesture of unity”, he said.

The Chaldean Church is based in Iraq, where it makes up 80 per cent of the rapidly-diminishing Christian population (estimated at 1.5 million in 2003, and 200,000 in 2021).

Cardinal Sako, who has been the Chaldean patriarch since 2013, has repeatedly condemned the treatment of Christians in Islamic societies across the Middle East. In 2021 he said that Iraqi Christians would only be safe under a secular government.

In an interview on Iraqi television on 30 December, he said that as a Christian he is treated as “a second-class citizen”.

“The constitution talks about freedom of conscience,” he said, “but it is just on paper.”

The cardinal’s message for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity emphasised the need to address these dangers rather than pursue internal quarrels.

He noted that “Byzantine theologians discussed the sex of angels” during the siege of Constantinople in 1453, which ended in the destruction of eastern Christendom.

“Church leaders must overcome petty differences, fanaticism and fear in order to safeguard the Christian presence in the Middle East,” he said.

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