“Vatican Insider” has interviewed Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon and the Head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, on his visit to the villages that have welcomed the displaced people of Mosul and Qarqosh.
“So far there has been no targeted violence against Christians,” he said.
“People fled because they were afraid of the war. But so far Christians have not suffered oppression because of their faith. Christians and Muslims alike have fled their homes.” The words uttered by His Beatitude are crystal clear and credible, partly because they come directly from the epicentre of Iraq’s freshly erupted chaos. The Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Raphael I Sako and his bishops have not kept a safe distance from the new upheavals the Iraqi people have been subject to. They have just concluded their annual Synod in Ankawa, a predominantly Christian suburb of the city of Erbil, which was invaded in recent days by thousands of refugees coming from Mosul and cities in the Niniveh Plain who fled an offensive by Sunni rebels led by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Today, straight after the synodal meeting, Sako together with the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Amel Shimon Nona, wanted to visit other villages affected by the mass exodus. A quick ride through terror and hardship, hunger and heat. In a country that seems to be on the brink of a definitive collapse.
Following is the text of interview:
Your Beatitude, what was the situation you witnessed first hand in the Nineveh Plain?
“There were 5,000 families in Qaraqosh. Practically all of them have fled. Many have sought shelter in Kramles, in Tilkif and also in faraway villages near the mountains. We have been in contact with the government of the autonomous region of Kurdistan which has guaranteed these villages protection. Now some people are starting to return to Qaraqosh. But the situation is still dramatic. People are scared and no one knows how things are going to turn out.”
Are Christians being targeted?
“Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Mosul, most of them Muslims. The entire population has been forced to leave their homes behind but so far, there has been no targeted violence against Christians because of their faith. No one is treated differently in the assistance centres either. I went to Alqosh today and there are eight hundred refugee families there, most of them Muslims. In Tilkif we have opened all Church buildings up to everyone. There are women giving birth in these circumstances and they are in need of assistance. Obviously, all this is pushing Christians to flee the country. Last Sunday, ten families who had just fled Mosul turned up just as I was celebrating a wedding in Istanbul. It is unlikely they will return.”
What specific actions have the Churches been taking?
“We have put together a team of five bishops – three Chaldeans, plus the Syro-Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Petros Moshe and the Syro-Orthodox bishop of Mosul--to deal with the most critical emergencies. We have allocated $160,000 for the first batches of aid sent out to everyone, Christians and Muslims alike, in light of the new emergency. Most politicians are adamant the situation is going to get worse and that the country is moving towards a split.” The Synod also sent out warnings to political powers.
“We have asked political leaders to form a national unity government quickly. We have also asked Muslims to pray for peace during Ramadan and to issue fatwas against sectarian violence.”
Should the UN and the West intervene? and how?
“The UN and Western countries must help Iraqi politicians sit down and engage in dialogue to find a political, rather than a military, solution. In the past, external military interventions have helped trigger the disastrous process that is turning our present upside down. Letting more weapons into Iraq is making those who are selling them rich whilst everyone else is left to suffer death and pain as a result.”
What is your opinion about what is going on?
“The situation is complicated and in some ways mysterious. ISIL says it wants to establish a Muslim caliphate but in the meantime is focusing on occupying oil-rich areas. There is frustration on the part of some marginalised Sunni Muslims who saw the ISIL offensive as an opportunity for revenge so they backed it. Then there are the plans to involve Iraq in the Syrian conflict. But we don’t know where all this is going to lead.”