Iraq patriarch leaves Baghdad as tensions with president soar

Iraq patriarch leaves Baghdad as tensions with president soar
Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako said he is going to leave for the Kurdistan region after rising tensions with President Abdul Latif Rashid.
3 min read
(Photo credit should read ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images)

A prominent Iraqi Christian leader announced Saturday he would leave Baghdad for the autonomous Kurdistan region, denouncing the president's role in a "disgusting" campaign against him.

Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the patriarch of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Church and architect of Pope Francis' historic visit to the country in 2021, is a key interlocutor between the Iraqi government and its Christian minority.

For several months, Sako has been embroiled in a war of words with a Christian lawmaker, Rayan al-Kildani.

Kildani is the leader of the Babylon Movement, whose armed wing is part of Hashed al-Shaabi -- a network of largely pro-Iran paramilitaries that were integrated into Iraqi security forces in recent years.

Tensions have intensified since early July, drawing in President Abdul Latif Rashid who cited constitutional grounds in a decision to revoke a presidential decree Sako deems pivotal for his official status and for the administration of church property.

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In a statement on Saturday, the cardinal condemned the government's "silence" over what he described as a campaign against him by the Babylon Movement.

He has "decided to withdraw from the seat of the patriarchate in Baghdad", the statement said, and would instead settle at one of the monasteries in Kurdistan, in Iraq's north.

In early July, the president cancelled the 2013 decree recognising Sako as head of the Chaldean Church and allowing him to administer the community's endowment.

The presidency justified the move at the time in a number of statements arguing the decree had no "constitutional or legal basis" as the president "only issues appointment decrees for employees of government institutions".

Rashid has rejected claims this was an attack on the Christian leader.

The decision "is not intended to undermine the religious or legal stature of the cardinal," the president said.

Sako on Saturday dubbed the tensions a "disgusting game", sarcastically suggesting the "protector of the constitution" -- President Rashid -- entrust the administration of the church's assets to Kildani and his brothers.

In a country ravaged by repeated conflicts and plagued by endemic corruption, Sako and Kildani have both accused each other of illegally seizing Christian-owned properties.

Kildani, who has been under US sanctions since 2019, accuses the cardinal of assuming a political role beyond his religious mandate.

Sako, in turn, says the parliamentarian aims to gain legitimacy as the sole representative of the Christian community.

Iraq's Christian population has drastically declined since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled strongman Saddam Hussein, dropping from more than 1.5 million people to around 400,000 today.

Many have fled the violence that has plagued the country over the past 20 years.

In northern Iraq, where much of its Christian population lives, entire villages were forced to flee as the Islamic State group took over large swathes of land since 2014.