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Conflict in the Christian Community in Iraq

by Lucas Lamberty

Internal conflicts of a millennial community

The number of Christians in the Middle East has declined rapidly in recent decades. For example, while around 1.5 million Christians still lived in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, there are no more than 250,000 today. The reasons for this vary. In particular, armed conflicts and the reign of terror of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in parts of Iraq have intensified the exodus of Iraqi Christians. Even after the end of IS rule, the situation of the Christian community in Iraq, which is one of the oldest in the entire region, is difficult. But in addition to external factors, internal ones are increasingly playing a role: Iraqi Christians are threatened with a split that could lead to the breakup of the community.

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On 3 July 2023, Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid revoked a decree from the year 2013 recognising Patriarch Louis Sako as head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq. The consequences of this unprecedented withdrawal are not yet assessable: on the one hand, President Rashid argues that the revoke of the decree does not affect Cardinal Sako‘s religious and legal status since the degree applies only to civil servants and not to religious leaders. On the other hand, the Chaldean patriarchy still fears the loss of far-reaching powers to administer the community’s endowment, which are regulated by the decree. The lifting of the decree through the Iraqi president must be seen in the context of an intensifying conflict within the Christian camp between patriarch Sako and the leader of the Christian Babylon Movement, Rayan al-Kildani. Al-Kildani, himself a Chaldean Christian, is both leader of the Babylon Movement and the Babylon Brigade, a militia of the Popular Mobilization Forces which has claimed to serve Christian interests in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS). This claim has led to a controversial relationship with the Chaldean Church which opposes any military engagement outside the regular Iraqi military forces. At its core, however, the conflict between Cardinal Sako and al-Kildani has a strong political dimension and revolves around the question of who the legitimate representative of the Christian community in Iraq is. In the 2021 parliamentary elections, the Babylon Movement won four of the five seats in the Iraqi parliament reserved for Christians. For Patriarch Sako the election result is not an expression of political legitimacy, but the result of unfair competition: like the militia's base, the electorate of the Babylon Movement also consists of a considerable proportion of Shiite Muslims. On the contrary, al-Kildani is convinced that the election result legitimates him as the leader of the Christian community in Iraq and thereby challenges Sako’s position. Both Cardinal Sako and al-Kildani are not without controversy within the Christian community. Against this background, the cancellation of the decree can be seen as a shift of power within the community, with the potential for a break-up of the already weakened minority.

The full-length publication is only available in German.

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Lucas Lamberty

Lucas Lamberty bild

Head of the KAS office in Baghdad


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