Cardinal Louis Sako, the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, greets U.S. Cardinal J. Francis Stafford at the Vatican (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

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.

This is not the first time that such rivalries have resulted in a personal attack against a high-ranking church leader.

The standoff between the patriarch and the Brigade underscores the complex rivalries playing out among Christian warlords in places like Iraq and Lebanon. This is not the first time that such rivalries have resulted in a personal attack against a high-ranking church leader. In 1989, Lebanese Maronites, including the heads of several monastic orders, challenged the authority of then Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir for his opposition to General Michel Aoun, a popular Christian warlord and militia leader. Aoun’s supporters broke into the patriarchal residence, forced the patriarch from his bed, and made him kiss a picture of Aoun. The following day, the patriarch moved to the safety of Syrian-held territory in northern Lebanon. The Vatican responded by dispatching Archbishop Pablo Puente, a heavy-hitter in Vatican diplomatic circles, who castigated the heads of Maronite religious orders for engaging in politics without permission from the Church’s hierarchy. Despite the reprimand, Aoun’s supporters catapulted him to the presidency of Lebanon in 2016. He was president on August 4, 2020, when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate illegally stored at the port of Beirut exploded, gutting buildings, killing hundreds, and sinking the country even further into chaos.

The Iraqi government’s unprecedented reversal has only enhanced Patriarch Sako’s considerable symbolic authority among Iraqi Christian denominations. A coalition of Iraq’s Chaldean, Syriac, and Assyrian churches has issued a joint statement deploring what it calls a land-grab in the ancestral Christian region of the Nineveh Plain by the Iraqi government. The group claims that this land is now being sold to individuals who are not from the region and who are not Christian.

Upon his arrival in Erbil, Patriarch Sako was welcomed by members of the Kurdish government as well as by Muslim religious officials. The patriarch thanked all present before noting, “Religious symbols are respected in the Kurdistan Region. The evidence is this warm welcome and respect.” His remarks signaled a clear challenge to the Iraqi government’s official position regarding the legal status of religious minorities.

Published in the September 2023 issue: View Contents

Joseph Amar is emeritus professor of Christianity in the Middle East at the University of Notre Dame and a priest of the Syriac Maronite Church.

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