The head of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church has been pushed out of Baghdad. What’s next for Christians there?
The last time the Chaldean leadership fled Baghdad, according to the Iraqi Christian Foundation, a Mongol army was solidifying its control of the city in 1259 A.D. On July 15, Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, announced his plan to “retire from the Patriarchal See in Baghdad and move to…one of the monasteries of Iraqi Kurdistan.” The cardinal apparently no longer feels politically or personally secure in the Iraqi capital.
The patriarch’s announcement follows Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid’s surprise decision to revoke a decree issued in 2013 by a previous head of state, Jalal Talabani, recognizing Cardinal Sako as patriarch of the Chaldean Church.
Cardinal Sako has become locked in an acrimonious struggle with the Babylon Movement, a purportedly Chaldean political entity that has emerged out of the struggle for control of Nineveh Province.
In a statement sent to the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need, Cardinal Sako said that Mr. Rashid’s move was part of a “deliberate and humiliating campaign” against him.
In recent months, Cardinal Sako has become locked in an increasingly acrimonious struggle with the Babylon Movement, a purportedly Chaldean Catholic political entity that has emerged out of the struggle for control of Nineveh Province. The movement is the political wing of the Babylon Brigades, a militia that was formed as part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces in the fight against ISIS.
The Babylon Movement is led by Rayan al-Kildani, the former military leader of the infamous 50th Brigade. Mr. al-Kildani has never been trusted by Christians in northern Iraq; in 2016, the Chaldean Church officially disavowed his movement. Mr. al-Kildani has been targeted for sanctions by the U.S. State Department because of alleged human rights offenses, including an incident in which he was filmed cutting off the ear of a handcuffed prisoner.
In Nineveh, Mr. al-Kildani is perceived as a pawn of the Iranians and his organization has been accused of primarily serving Shiite Muslim interests or the criminal enterprises of its leadership. Locally raised militias from the Shabak Shiite community helped defeat ISIS, the Sunni Islamist terrorist group that rampaged across the Christian heartland in Nineveh in 2014. But long after the large-scale fighting in Nineveh ended in 2017, Shiite militia units remained.
Now they have become an unwelcome, even menacing presence around Christian cities like Bartella and Qaraqosh. Christians allege mistreatment at the hands of Shabak militia members and complain that Christian property is being seized through dubious legalisms or outright squatting. Thousands of Christian families did not return to Nineveh after ISIS was driven out of their cities.
Mr. al-Kildani’s 50th Brigade is even less welcome among Nineveh’s Christians. Though purportedly a Christian militia, according to many assessments most of its fighters are non-Christians recruited from Baghdad’s Sadr City. The brigade has been associated with the looting of Christian sites and mafia-like criminal behavior.
What obligation does the United States still owe these Christians and other Iraqi religious minorities? What is it willing to do to assist and protect them?
Cardinal Sako has attempted to counter the rising prominence of the Babylon Movement at the national level. In his statement on July 15, he described the revocation of the government’s recognition of his leadership of the Chaldean people “unprecedented in Iraq’s history” and called out the government’s silence on the rhetorical attacks on him by the Babylon Movement and Mr. al-Kildani. Is that silence a signal that Mr. al-Kildani has the central government’s support in his efforts to diminish the cardinal’s authority?
According to Iraq’s electoral system, five legislative seats are reserved for Christians, but any voter, including non-Christians, can help choose which Christians will get to sit in them. Critics say the system allows majority parties to manage the outcomes in Parliament for seats supposedly reserved for minority groups.
In the last election, four of the five Christian seats were awarded to members of the Babylon Movement. Now Chaldean church leaders fear that a self-serving Christian bloc in Parliament will rubber-stamp initiatives emerging from pro-Iranian parties and worry that control of church assets in Iraq could be compromised.
Cardinal Sako directly accused Mr. al-Kildani and his family members and associates of seeking to control church assets while misappropriating government disbursements and allocations for the Chaldean Catholic minority, a reflection of layer upon layer of corrupt and competing interests in contemporary Iraq now amplified by Iran for its own purposes.
“It is unfortunate,” Cardinal Sako wrote, “that we in Iraq live in a wide network of self-interest, narrow factionalism and hypocrisy that has produced an unprecedented political, national, and moral chaos.
“May God help the helpless Chrisitans and Iraqis,” he added.
Chaldean leaders fear that a self-serving Christian bloc in Parliament will rubber-stamp initiatives emerging from pro-Iranian parties and worry that control of church assets in Iraq could be compromised.
Americans may be tempted to ignore current events in Iraq now that most U.S. troops have been pulled out. But for folks with long memories—and mature geopolitical consciences—the “Pottery Barn rule,” misattributed to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, remains in effect: “You break it; you bought it.” In 2003, Mr. Powell had been attempting to warn then-president George W. Bush away from what would prove an epic misadventure by reminding him that the American people would be responsible for years to come for whatever transpired after “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. That account remains open.
More than 20 years later, the U.S. army has managed to extricate itself from Iraq—although about 2,500 troops remain and are “performing advise-and-assist missions,” according to the State Department. But the fractured nation the Americans left behind still bedevils Iraq’s religious minorities, among them particularly Iraq’s long-suffering Chaldean Catholics and Yazidis of the Sinjar region (many of whom, a half-decade after ISIS, remain unable to return to their homes).
While the United States squandered trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of military and civilian lives in its various misadventures in Iraq, it appears that Iran has emerged as the final victor in the struggle to control the region. Now Iranian-aligned militia and political entities are applying even more pressure on the remnant population in the Christian heartland of Nineveh. Is anyone in Washington paying attention to what is happening to Cardinal Sako and the Chaldean people? Plenty of people in Tehran appear to be.
Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, more than 1.5 million Christians held on in Iraq, a population that had already been deeply diminished by years of U.S. sanctions and waves of emigration that resulted from them. After years of invasion, ISIS and indifference from the central government, today a mere 150,000 or so Christians remain. The 2,000-year presence of Christianity in Iraq is now diminished to the status of an imperiled missionary church.
What obligation does the United States still owe these Christians and other Iraqi religious minorities? What is it willing to do to assist and protect them? Those are questions worth putting to the Biden administration as the latest drama in Baghdad sets a course for even deeper co-opting and harassment of the Chaldean community.
One can only hope that at some point the Biden administration will offer a persuasive response to such questions. But asked on July 17 for a statement detailing the U.S. position on Cardinal Sako’s predicament and the potential loss of Christian assets to the Babylon Movement, the State Department “declined to comment at this time.”
It is true that after years of disengagement the United States has limited influence on policy and conditions in Baghdad. But the U.S. military remains critical in efforts to suppress the continuing threat from ISIS and other Islamist extremist groups, and millions in humanitarian and development monies are still funneled each year into Iraq by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Those diplomatic and economic tools left to the Biden administration should be applied to the maximum to see to it that the surviving Christian communities of Iraq are not squeezed out of existence even as the United States attempts to put the Iraq debacle behind it.