In a move that has sent shockwaves throughout Christian communities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Cardinal Louis Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, announced that he was leaving his headquarters in Baghdad and relocating to the city of Erbil, in the Kurdish-held region of Iraq. The announcement, which was posted on the Patriarchate’s Arabic website on Saturday, July 15, came in the wake of the Iraqi government’s abrupt withdrawal of official recognition of the patriarch five days earlier. A governmental decree issued in 2013 had previously recognized the patriarch’s appointment by Rome as head of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
Iraqi Christian-rights activist Diya Butrus Slewa called this latest move by the government “a cynical political maneuver to seize the remainder of what Christians have left in Iraq and Baghdad and to expel them.” Patriarch Sako gained international attention in 2021 when he hosted Pope Francis on his pastoral visit to Iraq.
The withdrawal of official recognition came as a result of pressure from a group known in Arabic as Harakat Babilyun, “the Babylonian Brigade,” which claims to be a Christian militia but which recruits its members from radical Shiite communities in places like Baghdad’s infamous Sadr City. The group’s leader, Rayan al-Kildani, aims to control the strategic Nineveh region of the country. To that end, he is seeking control of the assets of the Chaldean Church, which Patriarch Sako oversees. The Brigade, which holds four seats in the Iraqi parliament, was sanctioned in 2019 by the U.S. Treasury Department for alleged human-rights abuses.