15 April 2024, The Tablet

Sako returns to Baghdad after ‘painful’ nine-month exile

The Chaldean patriarchate reported that Cardinal Sako had returned to Baghdad on “a personal invitation” from the prime minister.

Sako returns to Baghdad after ‘painful’ nine-month exile

Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako said Iraqi Christians could now feel “the joy of rebirth” for the Church.
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales / Mazur

The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church celebrated Mass in Baghdad on Friday for the first time in nine months, following a period of self-imposed exile from the Iraqi capital which he compared to “a painful pregnancy”.

Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, returned to Baghdad on Wednesday where he was received by a representative of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani before travelling to the patriarchate headquarters.

He has not been resident there since last July, when he announced that he would not return to Baghdad following a dispute over the government’s recognition of his authority.

The patriarchate reported that Cardinal Sako had returned on “a personal invitation” from the prime minister, whom he met on Thursday. They discussed “the general conditions in Iraq and the prevailing atmosphere of stability throughout the country”, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.

The statement said the talks “helped the government to continue implementing the priorities of its programmes” and that al-Sudani emphasised “the government’s eagerness to consolidate the principle of co-existence and brotherhood across the spectrum of Iraqi society” – including “the historical role of the Iraqi Christian component”.

Most of Iraq’s Christian population belongs to the Chaldean Church, one of the 23 sui iuris Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome. However, the Christian population has declined dramatically in the past two decades, from 1.5 million at the time of the US-led invasion in 2003 to an estimated 200,000 today.

Cardinal Sako has emerged as a leading advocate of Christians’ rights as Iraqi citizens, but has clashed with other leaders – notably the nominally-Christian militias backed by Iran, such as the Babylon Movement led by Rayan al-Kaldani.

Last July, when President Abdul Latif Rashid revoked a 2013 decree granting government recognition to Sako’s authority over the Chaldean Church and its assets, the patriarch accused the government of succumbing to the influence of al-Kaldani and the militias, which he accused of seizing Church property in the Nineveh Plain.

Following the withdrawal of the decree, Sako moved to the patriarchal residence in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. From there, he issued a series of stinging criticisms of the government, accusing it of corruption.

Speaking in Baghdad on Friday, Cardinal Sako said he had endured “suffering, pain and anxiety” during his absence. “Nine months of suffering, somewhat resembling the condition of a pregnant woman enduring in hope of having a child,” he said.

Pursuing this theme in his homily at Mass in the Cathedral of St Joseph the same day, he said Iraqi Christians could now feel “the joy of rebirth” for the Church. He also encouraged them to support the government, emphasising the importance of unity.

Preaching at a Mass in Erbil on Sunday, Sako asked for prayers “for the success of the prime minister’s mission in his visit to the United States of America for the good of Iraq”. Al-Sudani was due to visit the US this week for talks with the State Department on trade and the US military presence in Iraq.

The State Department voiced support for Sako last July, saying it was “troubled by the news he has left Baghdad”. Victoria Taylor, its Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran, visited him in Erbil last month.

John Adam Fox, chairman of the charity Fellowship and Aid to the Christians of the East (FACE), has been in regular dialogue with the patriarch throughout his exile. He told The Tablet: “I sincerely trust, given the US State Department’s expressed support to Cardinal Sako, that the protection of Christians and other minority groups in Iraq will be a sine qua non on the part of the US government in the upcoming bilateral trade talks between President Biden and Prime Minister Al-Sudani, in which Iraq is seeking US investment for the road and rail link from the Persian Gulf to Turkey.”

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