Head of Catholic Church in Iraq leaves Baghdad amid heightened tension with militia leader

For months, Patriarch Louis Sako and Christian militia leader Rayan Al Kildani have been exchanging accusations of illegally seizing Christian-owned properties

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - JUNE 28:  Newly appointed Cardinal, His Beatitude Louis Raphael I Sako, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, attends the Consistory for the creation of new Cardinals at the St. Peter's Basilica on June 28, 2018 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pope Francis named fourteen new cardinal from 11 countries during the Ordinary Public Consistory in RomeÕs St. PeterÕs Basilica Thursday evening.  (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
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The Iraq-based leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Louis Sako, will leave Baghdad and settle in the northern autonomous Kurdish region, he said on Saturday, amid heightened tension with a powerful Christian militia leader.

For months, Mr Sako, has been embroiled in a war of words with a Christian lawmaker and militia leader, Rayan Al Kildani. Both accused each other of exploiting their clout to illegally seizing Christian-owned properties.

Mr Al Kildani is the leader of the Babylon Movement, whose militia fought ISIS within the state-linked Popular Mobilisation Forces, a network of largely pro-Iran paramilitaries. Since then, he forged strong alliances with powerful Tehran-allied Shiite militias.

In his statement on Saturday, the cardinal condemned the government's "silence" over what he described as a campaign against him by the Babylon Movement.

He has "decided to withdraw from the seat of the patriarchate in Baghdad", the statement said, and would instead settle at one of the monasteries in Kurdistan in the country’s north.

Tensions have intensified since early July, drawing in President Abdul Latif Rashid who cited constitutional grounds in his decision to revoke a 2013 presidential decree that recognised Mr Sako as head of the Chaldean Church, allowing him to administer the community's endowment.

The presidency justified its decision, saying the decree had no "constitutional or legal basis" as the president "only issues appointment decrees for employees of government institutions".

Mr Sako considered the decision was an attack against him. But Mr Rashid rejected the claims, saying the decision "is not intended to undermine the religious or legal stature of the cardinal".

In his statement, Mr Sako dubbed the tensions a "dirty game", sarcastically suggesting the "protector of the constitution" – President Rashid – entrust the administration of the church's assets to Mr Al Kildani and his brothers.

Mr Sako is a key interlocutor between the Iraqi government and its Christian minority and is outspoken about the grievances the Christian community has faced since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.

He was the architect of Pope Francis' historic visit to the country in 2021.

In 2019, the US imposed sanctions on Mr Al Kildani and another Shiite militia leader, calling them "perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption".

Mr Al Kildani is the leader of the 50th Brigade Babylon militia and the US has accused him of "serious human rights abuses", including cutting the ear off of a handcuffed prisoner.

Christians in Iraq trace their roots back to the beginning of the faith nearly 2,000 years ago, but with the rise of extremism after the 2003 invasion, targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom against the community forced many to flee the country.

The houses and businesses of those who fled have since been taken over illegally, mainly by gangs using forged property documents.

Community leaders estimate that the number of Christians in Iraq has dropped to about a third of the estimated 1.5 million who lived in the country before 2003.

Many have fled the violence that has plagued the country over the past 20 years.

In northern Iraq, where much of its Christian population lives, entire villages were forced to flee as ISIS took over large swathes of land in 2014. The terror group has now been almost entirely defeated, but many displaced Christians do not wish to return.

Updated: July 16, 2023, 1:03 PM