Pope Francis elevates Iraqi patriarch to cardinal

Louis Raphael Sako will join the College of Cardinals, tasked with electing the Bishop of Rome

FILE -- In this Monday, Dec. 18, 2017 photo, Louis Raphael Sako, Chaldean Patriarch speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq. In a surprise announcement to pilgrims and tourists, Pope Francis has announced that he will make 14 new cardinals next June 29, among which is Chaldean Pathriach Sako. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
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An Iraqi priest has been named among Pope Francis's choices for new cardinals in a move aimed at showing support for the country's declining Christian population.

At his weekly address at the Vatican in Rome on Sunday, Pope Francis told gathered pilgrims and tourists that he will elevate 14 clergymen from five continents to the rank of cardinal, picking candidates who work with the poor or come from countries where Catholics are a minority.

Among them is the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Raphael Sako, who is the head of the Eastern Syriac Rite Chaldean Catholic Church. The 69-year-old was born in Zakho in northern Iraq and has played a central role in interfaith dialogue in the country.

The College of Cardinals forms the senior ecclesiastical leadership of the Catholic Church, offering counsel to the pontiff and electing his successor.

Patriarch Sako and 11 of the newly named cardinals are under 80, which is the age limit for entering the secret conclave that will name Pope Francis's successor upon his death or retirement. Their appointment will raise the number of these elector cardinals to 125. There are currently 213 cardinals in total.

The new cardinals will be given their traditional red hats at a ceremony known as a consistory on June 29.

The Iraqi Christian population has faced significant persecution since the US invasion of 2003, declining from over one million to a few hundred thousand, a process that accelerated following the rise of ISIS in 2014.

The appointment of an Iraqi cardinal is seen as a strong message of support to Iraq's beleaguered Christian minority.