Iraq to summon US ambassador over remarks about Christian leader

Tensions escalated between sanctioned militia leader and Cardinal Sako

Matthew Miller, US State Department spokesman, described the treatment of Cardinal Louis Sako, pictured, as harassment. Reuters
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The US ambassador to Iraq will be summoned by Baghdad over remarks made by a US official about the removal of the head of the Christian Church in Iraq, the government said on Thursday.

Ambassador Alina Romanowski is to be called in after State Department spokesman Matthew Miller described the treatment of Cardinal Louis Sako as harassment.

He said he was troubled by Iraq’s President Abdul Latif Rashid's decision to revoke a decree recognising the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, as head of the country's Christian Church.

“I will say we are disturbed by the harassment of Cardinal Sako ... and troubled by the news that he has left Baghdad,” Mr Miller said on Tuesday.

“We look forward to his safe return. The Iraqi Christian community is a vital part of Iraq’s identity and a central part of Iraq’s history of diversity and tolerance.”

Mr Rashid's office said the president was "disappointed by accusations levelled against the Iraqi government" by Mr Miller and would summon the ambassador.

On Saturday, Cardinal Sako said he would leave Baghdad and settle in the northern autonomous Kurdistan Region after an increase of tensions with a powerful Christian militia leader.

The decision on Cardinal Sako was "aimed at correcting a constitutional anomaly as presidents had no business recognising heads of religious establishments", the presidential statement said.

It said the move was not intended to undermine Cardinal Sako, who Mr Rashid said he respects.

On Monday, the Vatican embassy in Baghdad said it "regrets the misunderstandings and inappropriate dealings concerning the role of ... Cardinal Sako as the custodian of the properties of the Chaldean Church".

Cardinal Sako was one of the people who pushed for Pope Francis's historic visit to Iraq in 2021.

He has strong backing from the US and other western governments, which see him as a peacemaker in the war-torn country.

But he has been embroiled in a dispute with an Iran-backed, partly Christian militia in Iraq, the Babylon Brigades, led by Rayan Al Kildani. He has accused the group of being out of control and called on the government to protect Christian communities from its actions.

The Babylon Brigades group has been accused of looting homes and setting up checkpoints to extort residents in rural parts of northern Iraq's Nineveh province, which includes the city of Mosul.

It has been at loggerheads with a rival Christian militia, which is not linked to Iran, the Nineveh Plains Protection Units, and clashed with it on at least one occasion.

The US government imposed sanctions on Mr Al Kildani in 2019 over alleged human rights abuse during Iraq's 2014-17 battle against ISIS, including accusations of mutilating a prisoner held by his forces.

Updated: July 20, 2023, 10:20 AM