Iraqi prelate says secular state is only survival strategy for Christians in Middle East
By Elise Ann Allen
ROME (Crux) – Perhaps the most authoritative Catholic voice in Iraq has argued that the survival of Christianity in the country depends on the establishment of a secular state where all forms of sectarianism are eradicated, allowing the nation to become an example of respectful coexistence for the Middle East.
As the leader of a Christian community in the Middle East, “My concern is peace, stability and above all citizenship for all … to put an end to this sectarian mentality and this bad mentality of disrespecting non-citizens. -Muslims, ”said Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Babylonian Patriarch of the Chaldeans.
[Related: Iraqi Cardinal Calls for Religion, State Separation One Month After Papal Visit]
Cardinal Sako, who heads Iraq’s largest Catholic community, said gestures promoting brotherhood between Christians and Muslims – such as the Document on Human Brotherhood signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt , Ahmed el-Tayeb, in Abu Dhabi in 2019 – are important, but there is still a lot to do in the trenches.
“What we need,” he said, “are not just official statements, but concrete steps in people’s lives, programs in schools, etc., to bring about this spirit of brotherhood. (and) end this mentality that Christians are infidels. “
“I think the only future for the countries of the Middle East is to establish a secular regime and to respect religion,” he said, insisting that “a secular regime does not mean the contrary to religion ”, but that would give equal status to all Iraqis, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
Cardinal Sako spoke at an April 24 panel titled “The Future of Christianity in the Middle East,” organized by the charity Fellowship and Aid to the Christians of the East (FACE). British Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, Prefect Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue, where he was the Vatican’s point of reference on Christian-Muslim relations, also participated. Cardinal Fitzgerald also spent six years as Vatican Ambassador to Egypt.
Referring to the fact that Christians in Iraq and many other countries in the Middle East have long complained of being treated as “second-class citizens” whose full rights are not always guaranteed or protected by law, Cardinal Sako said this is the reason why a secular state is needed.
“We are one nation and we are not divided,” he said, adding: “If I have a certain particularism, it does not mean that I am not Iraqi or that I am somebody. . [from the] outside.”
For Cardinal Sako, when it comes to the interaction between religion and government, the state is one thing, but “religion has its own principles which are stable in Islam, and also in Christianity”, and these principles must be recognized in the same way. , which cannot happen without a secular state.
Recalling the visit of Pope Francis from March 5 to 8 in Iraq, Cardinal Sako referred to the pontiff’s private meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the most influential leaders of Shia Islam, claiming that Al-Sistani was known for his moderate stance, supporting a complete “Church-State” separation.
As Christians living in an area known for its cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, “we are here to connect others and to feel that we are also responsible for what they experience,” said Cardinal Sako. “We need to help them be a lot more open-minded and see things with a different perspective.”
Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq has already helped move things in this direction, he said, saying that the Pope, thanks to his visit to Iraq, “had changed the mentality of the people”.
“The mentality has changed,” he said, noting that this is in part due to the publicity the Catholic Church received through the papal visit, which gave local Catholic communities both the opportunity and the platform for explaining Christianity in a way most of the population had not been exposed before.
“After the Pope’s visit, something is moving in Iraqi society,” he said. “There is a respect for non-Muslims, especially Christians.”
The problem that remains, he said, is how to restore trust between Christian and Muslim communities, as Christians have been victims of discrimination and violent persecution for decades. Hundreds of thousands of Christians still live outside their homes and villages after ISIS conquered the Nineveh Plain in 2014.
“They have suffered a lot from sectarian ideology,” Cardinal Sako said. “As Christians we have to forgive, but we have to ask others to change their mindset, their culture. It’s very basic to encourage people to go home. “
Insisting that the ideology adopted by extremist groups such as ISIS has still not been eradicated, despite the group’s defeat in 2017, Cardinal Sako said rebuilding trust was essential and that ‘it largely depended on the younger generations.
“I do not have the power to change the mindset of the congregation,” he said, and urged the Iraqi government to revamp the teaching programs and encouraged imams to revise their preaching so that any reference Christians or other minorities such as “infidels” or minor citizens are expelled.
Cardinal Sako and Cardinal Fitzgerald both expressed hope that Iraq would one day become an example of interfaith harmony in the Middle East that other countries could emulate.
“I want unity. When the Iraqi community is united and they work as a team to build their country, others will learn from them, ”Cardinal Sako said, adding that this could have a big impact in neighboring countries like Syria and the United States. Lebanon.
“Lebanon was a message, but now more,” he said, referring to the country’s continuing civil and economic woes. “When you have a message, you have to realize it in concrete life, because something speculative or in theory is good, but it doesn’t affect people,” he said.
Recalling his stay in Egypt, Cardinal Fitzgerald, in his remarks, warned that every country in the Middle East is different, “so what happens in one does not necessarily happen in the other, but it can be. an example”.
However, “much of the solution is out of the hands of religious leaders,” he said, insisting that much of the outcome “also depends on the West as sanctions do not help. . “
Sanctions imposed in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria, aimed at putting pressure on their leaders to actually give in to certain demands, “often prevent people from having a prosperous life.” They often inflict harm on those who are not responsible, ”he said.
In terms of building a society of harmony and interfaith dialogue, “each country has its own tradition and its own composition”, so each will have to find its own way, said Cardinal Fitzgerald, adding: “Each country in the Middle -East must cooperate, and they cooperate, and I think it can help together, and the West must also be ready to help.