Homes of departed Christians in Baghdad that are now vacant. Their destroyed homes and businesses in Mosul. The land owned by Christians who left Iraq in recent years. These are some of the reasons behind a heated dispute that led to the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq leaving the capital Baghdad as he feared for his safety.
Cardinal Louis Sako is much loved among the members of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq. They turned out in force in the Christian suburb of Ainkawa, in the Kurdistan capital Erbil, to express their support for him. And to protest the decision of the Iraqi president Rashid to retract the 2013 decree confirming his status as the church’s patriarch.
That decree is against the constitution, the President claims. And unnecessary, since Sako has been affirmed in his position by the Pope. A state has no say in this. However, its withdrawal is the latest move in an ongoing dispute between the Cardinal and the Christian militia leader Rayan al-Kildani.
The motive behind the act is anyone’s guess: has the President been threatened by the latter, or has he been bribed? In an official letter of protest, the Chaldean Patriarchate points out to him that his decision is historically unprecedented. Since the Abbasid Caliphate, the patriarch has always received official confirmation from the State. Cardinal Sako has already announced that he is taking legal action to challenge the decision.
During the war against ISIS, Rayan al-Kildani established the Babylon Brigades that were placed under the umbrella of the PMF, or Hashed al-Shabi. This group unites dozens of Shiite militias, each of which typically has a political branch. This also applies to Kildani’s militia. His Babylon Movement has managed to capture four of the five minority seats in the Iraqi parliament intended for Christians.
This was through unfair competition, many Christians believe, as they did not vote for the movement. Those votes came from Kildani’s Shiite comrades, meaning the four parliament members do not really concern themselves with the wishes of Cardinal Sako’s supporters. They usually vote in line with the Shiite block that is in power.
Because of those four parliamentarians, however, Kildani believes that he, rather than the Cardinal, is the representative of the Chaldean Christians in Iraq. And therefore, he also claims that he, or the Babylon Movement, should manage the Christian funds. Each religious group in Iraq has its own commission to manage the so-called endowment; the Sunni and Shiite ones are quite wealthy due to the numerous mosques and lands under their control.
This is a sensitive issue because since ISIS left, there is a significant conflict over Christian land in the province of Nineveh near the towns of Qaraqosh and Bartella. In an unprecedented land grab, Kildani has already claimed parts of it for himself. However, the local Shabak minority is trying to do the same for several large construction projects. The Shabak are a Shiite minority, with its own militia that also resorts under the PMF umbrella.
There are unconfirmed reports that Kildani has already distributed the positions inside the Christian endowment among his brothers and sisters. This could mean that the partitioning of Christian land for personal gain has already begun, and that the Shabak will soon be able to start their projects as well.
Most Christians do not see Kildani as their representative at all. He is on a U.S. sanctions list for human rights violations he has committed as a militia leader. He is known to be corrupt, and he has enriched himself through his positions over the past few years. Nobody believes that the Christian funds are safe in his hands.
But there is more at stake. For there are often conflicts over Christian land and properties. Some of these occurred in the Kurdish region, often with the largest Kurdish party, the KDP, involved. Iraqi Christians consider the withdrawal of official recognition by the Iraqi State for the Chaldean Patriarch an attack on the church and on Christians in Iraq. And they feel even less safe than before, after years of attacks and kidnappings and the recent ISIS occupation of their cities and villages.
“Do you know, Mr. President, that your decision is depriving Iraq of its Christians and increasing the momentum of Christian migration from Iraq? Christianity is in danger in Iraq. And this time, thanks to you!” writes Ano Abdoka, the Christian Minister of Transport and Communication in the Kurdistan government. Over the past years, the number of Christians in Iraq has greatly decreased, from over one and a half million at the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign in 2003, to a maximum of 300,000 today.
Members of the Yezidi minority are also upset about what has happened. After all, their rights are poorly defended too in Iraq. The agreement that was supposed to allow Yezidis to return safely to their homes in the Sinjar province (after ISIS left) is not being implemented. The Shiite government in Baghdad prefers to work with the Shiite militias in the area and their Yezidi allies. Like the Christians, Yezidis have militia members who collaborate with the PMF.
The government is not listening to legitimate voices of Yezidis and Christians, says Yezidi activist Murad Ismael. It creates proxies and only works with them. He warns: “Iraq is not just for the ruling political parties who got 20 percent of Iraqi votes as a whole. Iraq is for all its citizens.”
It is a tactic also used elsewhere in the Middle East: To use false representatives to break down the power and independence of minorities.
In Iraq, the religious minorities remaining often look at what happened to the Jews in the previous century. Due to antisemitism and attacks, almost all of the approximately 150,000 Jews left the country within a few decades.
Usually, their houses and land were confiscated, and the Jewish endowment has effectively been in Shiite hands for a few years. That is also why Yezidis say: first, they drive us from our land, and then they take it from us.
Internally, in Iraq, Cardinal Sako has now received support from most of the other Christian denominations. He can also count on international support; he was the one who organized the Pope’s visit to Iraq. A few months ago, he was received with all honor in the UK. Due to the need for help in reconstructing Christian towns after ISIS left, there are good ties with churches and Christian aid organizations in Europe, especially in France.
The Cardinal has left the patriarchal seat in Baghdad, as he no longer feels safe in the Iraqi capital. He has taken refuge in a monastery in Kurdistan. The Patriarch is thereby trying to send a signal about the plight of religious minorities under the current government. After all, this government has close ties with Iran, where religious minorities have long been silenced.
Christians in Iraq are increasingly saying: we are the Iraqi Jews of this time. Their hope is now directed towards the Pope, who during his visit insisted on the multi-religious character of Iraq. He had a long conversation with Shiite Grand Ayatollah Sistani, which Patriarch Sako attended. The Ayatollah may now be the only one with sufficient influence to turn the tide.