Interview with Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Iraq, who was appointed Cardinal by Pope Francis in May 2018. He was in Brussels to attend a conference of COMECE (Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU) and to meet European Union leaders in order to stress the difficult situation of Christians in Iraq, who are still suffering discrimination and persecution.
- What’s life like for Christians in Iraq? Is there anything like a return to normality?
Compared to one year ago the situation has improved, particularly in the Nineveh Plains. About half the original population in ten Christian villages has returned. Others, waiting for the reconstruction of their houses, are still living in Erbil in the care of the Chaldean Catholic Church and with the help of international charities such as Aid to the Church in Need and Caritas. Very few governments have given us any help, and what we need now is to create jobs for the young, otherwise we fear they will leave the country.
In Christian villages like Teleskof and Qaraqosh, restaurants are open and there is some life in the streets but the infrastructure is still lacking. Government should rebuild streets and organise public lighting and distribution of water. It should also give property titles for land, because there is a great deal of illegal land-grabbing. For the rest, families work, send their children to school and everything looks increasingly normal. But we need a solid economic base to develop this.
Concerning the security situation, there is a big difference between Iraq proper and the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Inside the Kurdish Region there is a strong government that can control clans and tribes, because that is the mentality in Iraq, as it is for Bedouins. But in Iraq proper, and the Nineveh Plains, there are many militias imposing their own rules and the EU could do us a big favour if it helped the Iraqi government to control them.
Christians consistently suffer from discrimination. Europe has taken a long time to realize that it is in their own interest that Christians do not disappear from Iraq. We have been there for millennia and we know how to speak to and live with Muslims. We too are citizens of Iraq and we need the EU to put pressure on the Iraqi government to delete religious affiliation from all identity cards. We want to see a separation of Religion and State, marriage with under-age girls made illegal and equality of the sexes in property inheritance.
- What can the EU and European nations do to help Christians in Iraq?
There is a lot the EU can do using political pressure, for universal Human Rights and in security matters. Education programmes are the biggest hope, the EU should persuade Iraq and all Muslim governments to remove all discriminatory texts against non-Muslims from school textbooks.
Some European countries assist us financially. When we arrived, in 2014, we told everyone that we needed help giving hope to Christians to encourage them to stay in their country. Hungary was first to respond: together with its conference of bishops they funded the restoration of an entire village and some schools in Erbil. Now Austria will be sending some help, the Prime Minister promised me personally.
But the European Union as such is not helping Christians. They give aid through the United Nations, and the United Nations are not present where there are Christian communities. When we came to Brussels we were told that our projects for technical schools, dispensaries, centres for women’s education and for orphanages all depended on the Development and Cooperation section, but that they only work via the government in Baghdad. We emphasized that if aid was only channelled through government it would never reach the people in need. We can work very well ourselves and manage the money that Christian charities give our projects; we do not understand why the EU does not consider us capable of handling their money.
What is particularly needed now is for European companies and banks to come to Iraq with micro-credits to fund the restarting of the economy in the villages. Iraq is a very rich country, but disorganized. We have to do our part.
- How did you manage to defeat radical Islamism? Education? Government measures?
The form of political Islam that was introduced to Iraq from abroad is very pernicious. It promotes an extremely literal reading of their Book, instead of an exegesis, an interpretation relevant to modern times. This political Islam is that one that favors radicalism and the elimination of all those whose beliefs are different, even moderate Muslims. I tell Imams everywhere I go that they have to review their teaching to match it to this century, not to the seventh century.
Fundamentalists are fighting for money and power, not for their faith. Religion is about principles, politics is about power. After all, in Baghdad there are well over one million atheists, who do not subscribe to fatwahs and other religious commands.
During the dictatorship we lived in relative security but without freedom. Now we have all the freedom we want but we live at the mercy of militias and tribes. Freedom has come at a high price: anyone can go into a Christian’s house and demand money or kill them; there is no protection. 1225 Christians have been killed at point-blank range this way. There is no strong government to control these militias. The new President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the House are very open men but they need support around them. Europe should help them, too.
The EU understands that trying to solve differences among other countries in the region by war has not succeeded, and it should help us by talking to other regional powers, showing them they do not have to destroy the country in order to gain economic advantages but can have peace and trade at the same time. The Bedouin mentality I mentioned earlier also means that the Iraqi tribes always need to see who the commander is; Iraq needs a strong central government.
- You mention the risk of Islamist fundamentalism spreading in Europe? Why do you think there is a risk? What’s the main cause?
Europe fell prey to relativism a long time ago. I understand that there are no longer Christian religious classes in Belgian schools, only classes about Islam. There has been much talk about “Islamophobia” but clearly “Christianophobia” should be discussed too.
Christians are afraid of Muslims in Europe but they are not helping Christians in Iraq, a situation which is very dangerous. Throughout the Middle East Christians are ready to die rather than deny their faith, while many Muslims in Europe are ready to die rather than continue living in a continent where “infidels” make the law. Europe should not be ashamed of Christian values that we in Iraq defended for centuries and this contributed to making a plural society which survived until a relatively short time ago.
- What should be done with captured DAESH jihadists? an international tribunal? In Iraq, Syria or Europe?
Every country should be responsible for its own citizens, so in my opinion they should be brought back to Europe and judged in their own country. What we in Iraq would not understand would be if they were permitted to go back home without being held responsible for the suffering and devastation they have caused.
Cover pic @ COMECE