DOHUK, IRAQ - The U.S. State Department is hosting its second Religious Freedom Ministerial Roundtable in Washington, gathering international organizations, religious and government leaders, and social activists to tackle the challenges facing religious freedom.
Ahead of the meeting, Iraq’s top Catholic cleric, Patriarch Cardinal Louis Sako, said he is concerned about the future of Iraq’s Christians. He says they are struggling after the destruction of their ancestral lands by Islamic State militants and the growing encroachment by Shi'ite militias linked to Iran, on their towns.
Patriarch Louis Sako’s Chaldean Catholic Church represents about two-thirds of Iraq’s Christian community. The once-thriving community was found throughout the country and numbered around 2 million before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But it has dwindled dramatically over the past decade to about 200,000, decimated by sectarian violence and driven out of its ancestral homeland of the past 14 centuries by Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Louis Sako is not optimistic about the future.
“The ideology of ISIS is so strong, even among simple people because of the speech in the mosques," he said. "This is bad, it’s against human nature and religion. Fundamentalism is the biggest challenge today. The Iraqi government is not so strong, maybe another edition of ISIS will come out.”
The U.S. government, the Catholic Church and aid groups have helped rebuild portions of Christian and Yazidi towns overrun and destroyed by IS militants in the Ninevah Plain and Sinjar, but Louis Sako says much more reconstruction is needed to encourage former occupants to return.
“Many houses have been restored but many houses have been burnt, destroyed totally. We need money to rebuild them, and churches. We have as Chaldeans more than 15 churches in Mosul destroyed totally. All churches from the 5th up to the 10th century are no more. Who will rebuild them?”
Another challenge is the Shi'ite militias, linked to Iran, which helped to liberate Christian and Yazidi areas once under IS control. Louis Sako pointed to the growth of Shi'ite militia influence and presence in towns that were predominately, if not entirely, Christian before the IS invasion in 2014 as another worrying problem.
“There is a strategy for changing the demography of the Ninevah Plain. Now the militias are looking to have a headquarters in Bartella, which was totally Christian," he said. "Also, on the border of Syria, Yazidi Sinjar, many Christians and Yazidis were forced to leave their houses, and are now living in Europe, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. They need money to survive, so they are selling their houses. The militias have money because they are supported by their parties, and certain countries, so they are buying [up property].”
Patriarch Louis Sako says the only way forward for Iraq is to stop discrimination against religious minorities and provide all of the country’s citizens protection under the rule of law.
“A country should be based on citizenship and laws without putting barriers between people: Sunni and Shia, Muslim and Christian, Kurds and Arabs. We are all Iraqis. This is our identity. We don’t need another identity.”
Louis Sako says he is fearful that Iraq could get caught up in any potential conflict between the U.S. and Iran, putting more pressure on the country’s already-fractured diverse ethnic and religious mosaic. It also makes next year’s proposed visit by Pope Francis to the country uncertain.