20 June 2023, The Tablet

Head of Chaldean Catholic Church makes first pastoral visit to UK

Cardinal Sako is a prominent figure in Iraq’s public life.

Head of Chaldean Catholic Church makes first pastoral visit to UK

Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Church.
AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed

The Patriarch of Babylon, Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, celebrated Mass in Ealing Abbey on Sunday as he made his first pastoral visit to the UK.

The patriarch, who heads the Chaldean Catholic Church, was making a ten-day visit at the invitation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, with an itinerary coordinated by the Iraqi embassy and the charity Fellowship and Aid to the Christians of the East (FACE).

He celebrated the liturgy in his Church’s East Syriac rite, with FACE patron Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald M.Afr, the curial Bishop of Baghdad Basil Yaldo, and the head of the Chaldean mission in the UK, Fr Andrew Toma, as concelebrants.

The large congregation from the Iraqi diaspora across England and Wales applauded and cheered the patriarch at the end of the liturgy. He made slow progress processing out of the church, stopping for blessings and photographs as he went.

Cardinal Sako is a prominent figure in Iraq’s public life and an advocate of political reforms to protect the Christian minority.  He has regularly appealed for stronger ecumenical efforts among the various Christian denominations.

Speaking to The Tablet before the Mass, he said that a secular constitution was essential to securing the “dignity” of Iraqi Christians and halting their exodus from the country. “The future of the Chaldean Church is in Iraq,” he said.

Iraq’s Christian population collapsed from 1.5 million in 2003 to around 200,000 in 2021, roughly 80 per cent of whom are Chaldean Catholics.  The Chaldean Church originated in members of the ancient Church of the East, who entered full communion with Rome in the sixteenth century.

Cardinal Sako told The Tablet that Iraq had “no conception of citizenship” and was dominated by Islamic sectarian divisions, meaning that Christians received little protection from the state and were left vulnerable to hostile militias.

He said that the survival of Christianity in Iraq was essential to maintaining its plurality for all citizens. “We are responsible for Muslims too,” he said, explaining that the Chaldean Church had adapted its liturgies to be more comprehensible to the Muslim population.

He continued: “We must encourage Christians to stay and to hope, to keep busy and to hope.”

The patriarch’s visit included meetings with ministers and parliamentarians, besides Church leaders and members of the Iraqi diaspora. 

John Fox, chairman of FACE, said that Western diplomatic policy was essential to protect Christians in the Middle East, and the patriarch’s visit reflected this priority.

Cardinal Sako’s itinerary also featured visits to England’s national shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and to the shrine of St John Henry Newman at the Birmingham Oratory.

The patriarch was scheduled to meet seminarians in Oscott and students in Oxford and Cambridge, addressing the Newman Society in Oxford and the Fisher Dinner at the Cambridge University chaplaincy.

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