Amman, Jordan - Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Cardinal, Louis Sako, is asking for more Vatican support to regain his title of patriarch, stripped from him in July by the Iraqi president. Analysts and others say the move was likely instigated by a Chaldean Catholic militia leader with ties to Iran seeking a land grab.
Sako and observers accuse Rayan al-Kildani, a leader of a nominally Chaldean Catholic militia in Iraq, the Babylon Brigades, and closely tied to Iran, of getting him stripped of his title as patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic church, one of the world's oldest Christian churches in communion with Rome.
The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned al-Kildani in 2019 for alleged human rights abuses, while critics accuse him of seeking control of Chaldean Church assets, including properties that Sako oversees. Sako is appealing for more help from the Vatican to restore his position.
"I want the Vatican also to take a strong position," Sako told reporters through an interpreter in an online forum this week. "We need to resolve this problem and defend this very old church. We've paid a heavy price for our faith and to remain here (in Iraq) and to continue to speak up about the Christian faith very bravely."
Sako helped organize Pope Francis' historic visit to Iraq in 2021, meant to reconcile various religious and ethnic communities. But analyst Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told VOA that Iran is using militia leader al-Kilani to grab church and other Christian property in Iraq.
"Only in the Christian community has there been an organized peaceful resistance against the use of an Iran-backed militia to basically take over that minority community," Knights said. "That's partly because the Christian community in Iraq has more of an external force from the global diaspora and the Vatican than any other of the Iraqi micro-minorities. It's the only thing that is holding Rayan al-Kildani back."
Joseph Amar, an emeritus professor of Christianity in the Middle East at the University of Notre Dame, told VOA that while other Christian denominations in Iraq also recognize Cardinal Sako as their advocate and spokesman and stand with him, there are concerns for the community's future, as numbers have dwindled to some 150,000 following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, while Iran's influence grows in government. Sako's own leverage is a concern.
"But with his actual authority diminished the way it is, that rallying point is going to diminish also," Amar said. "Because he won't be able to deliver the way he has in the past. He had all of the contacts in the West behind him. Other Christian minorities recognized that, so they made common cause, which gave them all strength. Now with the degree of the exodus, there's just very few people left to rally behind him. Iran knows this.'
Amar said that the "Vatican is being super careful here because it doesn't know who to talk to in Iraq right now because of the chaos in the government."