Iraq Christians cancel Easter celebrations to protest against removal of leader

President Abdul Latif Rashid revoked a 2013 decree that recognised Cardinal Louis Sako as Chaldean Patriarch

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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Christians in Iraq will not celebrate Easter this year as they protest against President Abdul Latif Rashid's removal of the Chaldean Patriarch, Cardinal Louis Sako, the Iraq-based church announced on Monday.

The row is at the heart of a dispute between different factions in Iraqi politics, divided between pro-Iran groups close to Tehran-allied militias, and those who oppose them amid fears about their growing dominance in everyday life.

Most Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church. Every year, they hold Easter Mass ceremonies and processions, flocking to churches from the Plain of Nineveh, in the northern part of the country, to Baghdad.

Last July, Mr Rashid revoked a 2013 presidential decree that recognised Cardinal Sako as leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church. The decree had allowed Cardinal Sako to administer the community's endowment.

Mr Rashid's office said the decree had no "constitutional or legal basis" as the president "only issues appointment decrees for employees of government institutions".

He said the decision was "not intended to undermine the religious or legal stature of the cardinal".

But Cardinal Sako considered the decision an attack against him, accusing the President of siding with Christian MP and militia leader Rayan Al Kildani.

Both Mr Sako and Mr Kildani have accused each other of exploiting their position to illegally seize Christian-owned properties.

Mr Sako decided to withdraw from the seat of the patriarchate in Baghdad and has moved to a monastery in Iraq's Kurdish region.

“The Chaldean Patriarchate announces the cancelation of all festivities, media coverage and reception of government officials on the occasion of Easter,” the church said.

The aim of the decision, it said, was to show solidarity with Cardinal Sako. Instead, Easter Sunday will only be observed through prayers, it added.

The Patriarchate renewed its position against the President’s decree, saying it was taken “without legal justification, but rather to appease a known political party”.

“The Patriarch has neither killed nor stolen public funds, nor founded an outlawed militia, nor incited sectarian strife,” it added, accusing Mr Rashid of “targeting peaceful Christians” instead of “fighting corruption and retrieving stolen funds to state coffers”.

Mr Al Kildani is leader of the Babylon Movement, whose militia fought ISIS alongside the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a state-linked network of largely pro-Iran paramilitaries.

Since the defeat of ISIS in 2017, he has forged strong alliances with powerful Tehran-allied Shiite militias.

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

The "serious human rights abuses" the US has accused him of include cutting the ear off of a handcuffed prisoner, an act recorded by a nearby fighter.

Before the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Christians had lived in peace among the country’s Muslim majority population and enjoyed protection from both the government and society.

But with the rise of extremism after 2003, the community had to endure targeted killings and kidnappings, forcing many to flee the country and leave behind houses and businesses seized illegally, mainly by gangs that forged ownership papers.

In October 2010, Iraqi Christians suffered their worst attack when an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Iraq stormed the Our Lady of Salvation Catholic church in Baghdad during Sunday night Mass and killed at least 58 people.

Updated: March 26, 2024, 9:40 AM