Under mounting pressure from a pro-Iran militia group, the Iraqi president earlier this month revoked a decade-old decree that formally recognized Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako and granted him powers over Christian endowment affairs. Christians angry over the decision protested in Ainkawa on Thursday morning, in the scorching heat.
Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid on July 3 revoked special presidential decree 147 of 2013 issued by late president Jalal Talabani that granted Sako powers to administer Chaldean endowment affairs and officially recognized him as the head of the Chaldean Church. Rashid's decision came after he met with Rayan al-Kildani, leader of the nominally Christian Babylon Movement, a party and militia affiliated with the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The decision sparked a nationwide outcry from Christian community members and leaders, who condemned the president's maneuver and described it as a direct attack on Cardinal Sako, a highly respected figure in his community and the head of the Chaldean Church in Iraq and worldwide.
Residents of Ainkawa, a Christian-majority district situated at the northern edge of Erbil city, filled the street in front of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph on Thursday morning as the hot July sun scorched the earth, to protest what they called the "clear and utter violation" against their community.
"This is a political maneuver to seize the remainder of what Christians have left in Iraq and Baghdad and to expel them. Unfortunately, this is a blatant targeting of the Christians and a threat to their rights," Diya Butrus Slewa, a leading human and minority rights activist from Ainkawa, told Rudaw English outside the church.
"From the beginning of the Church, Christian affairs are administered by the Church. The Church has its own laws, courts, and committees," Slewa added. "We hope the Iraqi presidency hears our people and revokes this [decision] as soon as possible, otherwise it will become an international matter and the Vatican will get involved."
Protesters shouted out messages of support for Cardinal Sako and held up placards telling the Iraqi government that they had committed "enough injustice" against the long-suffering Christian community.
"Mr. President, the protector of the constitution should not violate the constitution. The Iraqi president orders the displacement of Christians, and opens the way for violating the property of the Chaldean Church which represents nearly 80 percent of Christians in Iraq and Kurdistan," read one of the signs.
"What else can I say? This is a clear violation and there is no doubt about that. What the president of the republic has done is clearly under political pressure from a militia group who it is a disgrace to even call Christian and say that they represent our peaceful community," Emad Hanna, an elderly man, told Rudaw English, referring to Kildani's militia.
"I feel ashamed that I have to waste my breath talking about them. The fact that this has happened is a complete disgrace," he added.
In a statement defending his decision, President Rashid clarified that the decree had been revoked because it was "illegal and unconstitutional," but that the status of Sako is not affected as he was appointed cardinal and head of the Chaldean Church by the pope in the Vatican.
"Also, there are requests made by the heads of churches and other religious communities for presidential decrees that lack any constitutional or legal backing," Rashid said in the statement.
In reply, Sako published an open letter, saying the decision poses a "danger" to the Christian community in Iraq and warning that he would turn to the judiciary and file a legal complaint if the president does not revoke his decision.
"Did President Jalal Talabani issue this decree without referring to legal advisors or without his knowledge and awareness of religious shrines and the rights of their entities in accordance with the constitution that affirms their protection and respect for their rights?" Sako said in his letter, describing Rashid's move as "unprecedented" and "political."
The cardinal added that he does not see an issue with issuing special decrees for church leaders in Iraq as they "would reflect the government's respect for the beautiful historical Iraqi fabric and provide assurance for Christians and all Iraqi components in the difficult circumstances" that the country is experiencing.
Rashid's decision strips Sako's authority to administer the Church's assets and carry out decisions such as renovating and building churches across Iraq, according to Slewa.
Sako and Kildani have long been involved in a war of words, with the patriarch condemning the militia leader as an individual who does not represent the interests of Christians despite his party winning four of the five quota seats assigned for Christians in the 2021 Iraqi parliamentary election. His candidates were extensively and openly backed by Shiite political forces affiliated with Iran.
Kildani has accused Sako of getting involved in politics and damaging the reputation of the Chaldean Church.
Sako has not shied away from commenting on Iraq's politics, particularly those that impact Christians, including criticizing the minority quota system and state corruption.
Several protests have taken place in Baghdad over the past few months against Kildani's remarks on Sako, and were met by larger counter-protests by PMF and Shiite groups backing the militia leader.
In a video conference in May, Sako threatened to escalate the matter internationally if the Iraqi government did not act against Kildani.
The Babylon Brigades, the paramilitary wing of the Babylon Movement, "is presented as a local Christian force but has been recruited largely from Shia Muslim communities in Baghdad's Sadr City, al-Muthanna, and Dhi Qar," and its objective is domination of the Nineveh Plains, a March profile of the brigade by the Washington Institute concluded.
The brigades have been accused of illegally seizing historic Christian land in Nineveh province after the Islamic State (ISIS) group was driven out of the area. Human rights abuses committed by the group ultimately led to the United States Treasury sanctioning Kildani in 2019 for the abuses as well as corruption.
Faruq Hanna Atto, an Ainkawa native and the only independent Christian lawmaker in the Iraqi parliament, told the Iraqi presidency in a letter that the decision to remove Sako's special presidential decree "reflects negatively on your position towards the followers of this church."
According to Atto, canceling the decree "encourages discrimination and deepening conflicts." He demanded the presidency "correct its position in order to increase the spirit of fraternity and social peace among the Iraqi people ... and granting the religious components confidence in coexistence and not leaving their homeland, emptying Iraq of Christians, and preserving the original Iraqi components."
Ano Abdoka, Minister of Transportation and Communications in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and a Christian, criticized President Rashid's decision as "unjustifiable" and said that "for the first time since 2003, we are witnessing a dangerous precedent represented by the behavior of the head of a state's hierarchy."
"Why is one of the most important Christian symbols being unjustly targeted, namely the institution of the Chaldean Patriarchate and the moral highness of the Chaldean Patriarch?" Abdoka said in an open letter.
Lashing out at Kildani, Abdoka called the Babylon Movement's actions "the desperate attempts of some MPs who are arbitrarily, unjustly, and clearly against the Christians after they kidnapped the quota seats," and said that Kildani does not represent Christians and is involved in illegally seizing "a large part of the Nineveh Plains by force."
The decision to revoke Cardinal Sako's authority to administer properties and finances of the Chaldean Church could render these assets vulnerable to Kildani's alleged land grabs, especially in the Nineveh Plains of northern Mosul province, where historic Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac Christian villages lie and an area where the Babylon Brigades is active.
With the sharp divisions between the Chaldean Church in Iraq and the Babylon Movement expected to continue, Christian interests hang in the balance in a country where fewer than 300,000 remain today, a staggering fall from over 1.5 million who used to call Iraq home before the 2003 American invasion.