Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church, is pushing back after the government recently withdrew its recognition of the office of the patriarch. Cardinal Sako, who has retreated to a monastery in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, has stated that he will not return to Baghdad until the government has formally recognized his authority once more.
Cardinal Sako published an open letter to the administration on the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate website, in which he noted that he will remain in Erbil if no decree is issued. He has vowed to remain in the monastery until the end of the presidential term of Dr. Abdul Latif Rashid in late 2026. The prelate also lamented the end of a traditional understanding between the government and the Chaldean Catholic Church that has spanned 14 centuries.
According to Pillar Catholic, Rashid withdrew a 2013 decree that formalized the traditional understanding after arguments arose between Cardinal Sako and Rayan al-Kildani, the leader of the Babylon Brigade, an Iraqi militia that accumulated strong political power under the Babylon Movement. Of the decision to revoke the decree, Rashid has stated:
“The withdrawal of the decree came to correct a constitutional situation, as the aforementioned decree was issued without a constitutional or legal basis, in addition to the request of heads of churches and other sects to issue similar republican decrees.”
Al-Kildani has further accused the prelate of playing politics to the detriment of the safety of Christians in Iraq, while Cardinal Sako has called these claims lies and has said al-Kildani is “self-aggrandizing and wants to become a leader.”
Cardinal Sako is also rejecting accusations that he has called Baghdad “unsafe” and that he has called out the president for incompetence, and calls rumors that he is facing dismissal by the Vatican preposterous. In his letter the prelate wrote:
“I will not cease to defend the truth until it is fulfilled, although you said surprisingly to another visitor: ‘I do not understand why Cardinal Sako protests, while Christ was crucified while he was silent.’ Your Excellency, Jesus spoke harsh words against injustice.”
It is unclear whether the situation will be resolved while Cardinal Sako remains the leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church. The prelate has expressed his intention to resign his post when he reaches the age of 75, which comes in July 2024. The Chaldean Catholic Church is the largest Christian community in Iraqi, which has seen its Christian population dwindle from 1.5 million before 2003 to as low as 150,000 in 2023.
The Vatican has made no public comment on the predicament, but The Pillar speculates that it is possible the Holy See is working behind the scenes to resolve this conflict.