At the consistory that Pope Francis wished to dedicate to the tragic situation in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq, Aleteia had the opportunity to interview the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Louis Raphael I Sako. His Beatitude took part in the meeting together with 86 other representatives from the Eastern Catholic Churches.
During the Consistory, what requests did you make for support for your community?
First I addressed Pope Francis: he is the father of all Christians. The ones who need him most are the “little flock” in Iraq and Syria. Our people need his word and consolation and encouragement. I asked him to write a personal message, a brief pastoral letter, as Paul had done for the first Christian communities, exhorting the Christians to persevere.
And you didn’t ask him to come in person?
Of course. Even for a day, for a brief visit. His presence will support us in facing the government, in facing the Muslim authorities. The people will also say: “Voilà, the Christians are not forgotten or isolated.”
How did the Pope respond?
He said: “I’m ready.” In any case, he will write a letter in the coming days.
At the Consistory, how did you describe the situation of Christians in Iraq and the Middle East?
The Christian presence is under threat: we are in danger of disappearing. We are being oppressed and forced into exodus. This form of ISIS terrorism eliminates everyone, especially Christians. It is a closed ideology that expresses itself through violence. The people live in panic. Therefore the Church, but also the international community—I asked the Episcopal Conferences throughout the world to intervene with their own governments in this regard—must protect minorities and a historical Christian presence which plays a role in dialogue and mediation between the various communities.
In today’s meeting, there was talk about the difficulty bishops are having in such a difficult and even life-threatening situation, in advising Christians to emigrate or to stay: What do you say?
We have been there for two thousand years. We have a mission and a role, and if a future exists for the Chaldean Church it is not in the diaspora but in Iraq. If all the families leave, and even the priests, the entire history and Chaldean Christian patrimony will vanish. There will be a break with two thousand years of history. There is a future; there is a future for Christians if they remain united. They must have the courage to say things clearly and to reclaim their rights. Not all Muslims are ISIS! I continually meet religious leaders and civilians and they want to help us. It’s a very bad situation, but it will not last. You have to have patience and persevere. What does Christian hope mean concretely if we do not see it? We must help Christians to remain. This “Passion” will pass.
Is that why you have sent a letter of reprimand to the priests and religious who left Iraq without having asked the consent of their superiors, ordering them to return by 22 October?
The priests who escaped without any canonical documents encourage others to leave, including their own families. They have asked for exile in Western countries, while others have remained in fidelity to their people. There is no justice in this. If we do not put a limit on this, others will also leave and the Church and the country will be without Christians. We have a vocation. A priest has given himself to the Lord and to service: he shouldn’t seek his freedom, his security. His future is found in fidelity to Christ and his people, not in America or Australia. One might say that he has citizenship in these countries, but what does that have to do with the priesthood? There are also six monks: a monk has chosen community life. How can he leave and go establish a parish in the United States without the permission of his Superior?
What will happen at the deadline if they have not returned?
They will be suspended. We are pastors and we have to give a good example to our people. We have to serve the flock.
Today, Turkey decided to intervene more directly by authorizing the passage of peshmerga Kurds, and an international coalition is on the field: Do you believe this is the way to resolve the problem with ISIS?
I don’t think so. Bombing doesn’t resolve the problem. There are somewhat discouraging talks going on about the continuation of military operations: It’s said that they will last two to five years. It means saying to the refugee families that they won’t be able to return to their homes and that they have to leave. And it’s like saying to ISIS: You still have time. Ground operations are needed. But what is also needed is a strategy to dismantle this ideology and change educational programs in religion and history, to speak more openly and moderately about Islam. This is up to Muslims: to arrive at a new reading of Islam and to look for a message for people today and meaning for their lives. However, we need to work together on a project for citizenship that lets religion be a personal choice. Why put religion on an identity card? Today we are valued according to religion, and some people are first class and others are second class. It’s not right. We have already begun to discuss this with the Muslim authorities. Fundamentalism is a danger for Muslims just as much as for Christians. It is a challenge for everyone.
Chiara Santomiero is an editor at Aleteia. This article first appeared in Aleteia’s Italian edition. It was translated by Diane Montagna.