Archbishop Louis Sako, leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Kirkuk, Iraq, held a news conference in Warsaw on November 10, 2010, in which he noted that although between 800,000 and one million Christians lived in Iraq before the beginning of the war in 2003, only an estimated 500,000 remain today. Archbishop Sako later granted an interview to Jens Mattern for Kath.net, an Austrian Catholic Internet news service.
Kath.net: During a hostage drama in a church in Baghdad [on October 31, 2010], dozens of Catholics were killed. [“The Islamic State of Iraq,”] an Iraqi group affiliated with the terrorist network al-Qaida, declared all Christians in the Near and Middle East “legitimate targets” of attacks. How are the Christians doing after these serious developments? Is there still hope for Christianity in Iraq?
Archbishop Louis Sako: There is a lot of fear after that attack on the Christians. It is a tragedy. Last Sunday [November 7] only a few came to Mass, since the people are frightened and intimidated. Given the threat that every Christian is a target, many want to leave the country. This is a genuine jihad, a “holy war” against Christians. Not only in Iraq, but in the Near East, too, governments should take action against this escalation of political Islam, against fundamentalism and the people who want to establish an Islamic state. The citizens of these states should be able to live in safety.
The attack took place in Baghdad, in the center of Iraq. Is the north safer?
Sako: Yes, because the government there has a stronger presence, it has an army, the Peshmerga [armed Kurdish fighters]. In central Iraq it is more difficult, since the Americans disbanded the armed forces and the police. Many Iraqi Christians therefore move to the north.
When you return to Iraq now, what can and will you do to influence the situation on the ground?
Sako: Before I traveled here to Poland, government representatives and imams from the nearby mosques called on me at the archbishop’s chancery to offer their condolences. I asked them to condemn the attacks, and they did so during the Friday prayers. Imams condemned the act with me at a press conference also.
After my trip to Poland I intend to organize a meeting with the leading imams and Christian religious leaders and the mayor of Kirkuk to see how we can prevent violence. The situation in Kirkuk is better, but in Mosul and Baghdad it is terrible.
Do you have good contact with the imams of Kirkuk?
Sako: Yes, we visit each other and respect one another. The fact that we are different is God’s plan.
Barack Obama would like to withdraw most of the US troops by the end of , and then 50,000 soldiers are supposed to stay until the end of 2011. What do you say about that plan, and can Iraq cope now with the problems in the country without foreign military aid?
Sako: I think that the American troops should stay. Who knows whether they really will withdraw? But what was their reason for coming? Just to topple the Saddam regime? They have destroyed the whole country. They have the responsibility of rebuilding and protecting it. Our borders are open. Who can patrol them? Our Iraqi Army is not well trained, and we have no air force; our neighbors are stronger. Who can protect us, then?
We also need a strong government, and if the Americans could help us form one, that would be a good solution. We need jobs, projects, investments, schools, training programs. Iraq must not be left alone in this serious situation.
What can Christians in Europe do now to help the Christians in Iraq?
Sako: This situation is a challenge not only for Christians, but for the whole world. After all, the fanatics want to make the whole world Islamic.
The West should help us so that we can stay and do not have to leave. Iraq is our land; we have our traditions and values there. When we are in Western Europe we feel lost. We live in a very closeknit family community, but among you Westerners individualism is the rule. We are very important for the Muslims in Iraq, too, thanks to our openness, our qualifications, and our Christian values.
We witness to something different. The world has the duty of reminding the government in Iraq to uphold human rights so that the religious minorities can live their faith.
Christians worldwide should show their solidarity with the Christians in Iraq by prayers and demonstrations. You should say that what is going on right now is barbarism.
Are you personally afraid?
Sako: I have given my life for others; I am not afraid of being killed. I care about my fellow men. I am there not only for the Christians, but for all my fellow men.
What does an archbishop from Iraq say about the “problems” of the rich churches in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, where there are often extensive, high-level discussions about structural reform (e.g., married priests) while really important faith topics are marginalized?
Sako: Our faith is very much alive; our tradition goes back to the early centuries of Christianity. The spirituality of the Eastern Churches is different. In Western Europe it is more about speculations and reason, but in the East we are centered more on the heart. “Faith” is not a theory but a relationship with someone, whom we meet in many ways.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!