Tensions between Iraq and the United States escalated on Wednesday as Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid announced he would summon the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad in response to critical remarks made by a U.S. State Department spokesperson regarding the treatment of a prominent Iraqi Christian leader.
The spokesperson, Matthew Miller, had voiced disapproval of President Rashid’s decision to revoke a decree recognizing Cardinal Louis Sako as the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and allowing him to manage its assets.
Cardinal Louis Sako played a significant role in organizing Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq in 2021 and enjoys strong support from the U.S. and European governments, who view him as a key figure in promoting peace in a nation ravaged by conflict. The Iraqi Christian leader condemned President Rashid’s decision, claiming it was influenced by an Iraqi Christian militia leader with close ties to Iran. In response, Sako announced his departure from Baghdad and relocated to the semi-autonomous northern Kurdistan region of Iraq.
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller expressed concern over Cardinal Sako’s treatment and his departure from Baghdad. He stated that the Iraqi Christian community holds vital importance in Iraq’s identity and history of diversity and tolerance. Miller expressed hope for Sako’s safe return to Baghdad, emphasizing the significance of his role in fostering peace and understanding.
President Rashid’s office responded to the accusations leveled against the Iraqi government by Miller, stating that the President was disappointed by the remarks. As a result, the decision was made to summon the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad to address the matter formally.
Defending his decision to revoke the decree, President Rashid clarified that it aimed to address a constitutional anomaly, asserting that presidents should not be involved in recognizing heads of religious establishments. Rashid emphasized that the move was not intended to undermine Cardinal Sako, as he has deep respect for the Christian leader.
The Vatican Embassy in Baghdad also issued a statement on Monday, expressing regret over the “misunderstandings and inappropriate dealings” concerning Cardinal Sako’s role as the custodian of the properties of the Chaldean Church.
Iraq’s Christian community has faced significant challenges over the past two decades. Once boasting a population of around 1.5 million, the minority community has dwindled to the low hundreds of thousands due to the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion and the ensuing sectarian violence. Al-Qaeda’s rise in the early 2000s, followed by the brutal persecution by the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017, has inflicted irreparable damage on the ancient Christian community.
Despite the defeat of the Islamic State in 2017, Iraq’s Christian community continues to struggle with high unemployment rates and the difficulty of returning to their historical areas, some of which remain under the control of various militias.
As the tensions persist between Iraq and the U.S. over the treatment of Cardinal Louis Sako and the broader challenges faced by Iraq’s Christian community, international attention remains focused on the need for peace, stability, and the protection of religious minorities in the war-torn nation.
The outcome of the meeting between the U.S. Ambassador and President Rashid could have significant implications for the relationship between the two countries and the welfare of Iraq’s Christian population.