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Christians in the Muslim World

Iraq it is time to move from tolerance to citizenship

Interview with Mons. L. Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, by Maria Laura Conte

“I am convinced that dialogue is the only solution. It is the necessary tool to find a peaceful solution. The alternative is a war that causes isolation and barriers among religious groups or politicians. But dialogue does not mean acceptance of everything: it implies the courage to objectively give one’s opinion, even on sensible topics such as tolerance and citizenship”.



Mons. Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldeans in Bagdad, is convinced. In a meeting with Oasis at Amman he did not hesitate to critically express his opinion on the world “tolerance”. Much is said of the need to tolerate Christians. But what does it mean to tolerate an Iraqi? We were there before Islam, we are in Iraq today, we are citizens. We do not ask for “permission” to live in our own country. But as we talked about these issues, we went deeper into the question. They talk of human rights, but there aren’t Christian or Muslim human rights, because the base is always human. Therefore if Muslims manage to recognize this, we can live together. Because religion remain a personal experience between me, my God and other believers, and will not be politically exploited. I am really sure that this type of dialogue is possible. If Christians understand Islam, they can help Muslims to open to others, to go deeper into the question for example, seeing it in an historical context as we do for the Bible.



Therefore the key point of the question lies in the space between tolerance and citizenship?



The only criterion for living together is citizenship: I am a citizen independent of the fact that I am Christian or Muslim. That is why it is necessary to separate religion from politics. For example, if Muslims were to accept to eliminate all religious references to the constitution in politics and in the organization of relationships among citizens they would no longer be any problems. The words Christian or Muslim should not even be on passports or documents because this creates problems. Among Christians, today a minority, there is a psychological barrier. They believe they are not accepted, that they are just tolerated, that they are category B. There are also rules limiting their political and social roles, etc. This occurs when you no longer follow the criteria of equal citizenship for all, but priority is given to one’s religion.



What is your relationship with your Muslim neighbors?



With the fall of the Christian and Muslim regimes churches and mosques had to be protected. At Kirkuk some imam spoke favorably of Christians during a Friday sermon and it helps a great deal if an imam in a crowded mosque says that Christians are good and sincere citizens. I heard this and I have often asked about it. Sometimes there seems to be signs that the mentality is changing, on television for example, when there is an interview between an imam and a Christian leader it helps if there is talk or dialogue and Christianity is presented in a comprehensible and non ambiguous way. I think that we can change the mentality if we are united and we have prepared people.



And after the attacks on the Church how is the relationship with the institutions?



At the moment Christians are not being attacked. I am now living in Bagdad, I always go to church and Mass is celebrated, and I encourage people not to be afraid. “Do not fear”, the words of Jesus I often repeat. But we don’t just use words. We help Christians to find a house, work, and we have good relationship with the government and Sunnite and Shiite religious authorities. We are in good terms with the Prime Minister who came to our meeting. I organized a dinner for the whole government, and we called it “The agape dinner”, we used St Paul’s’ Canticle on Charity which we were listening to for the first time. Also we have a good relationship also with the ministers in Parliament, but a lot depends on us. We have a rich heritage of history and culture, we have had schools, hospitals and monasteries for centuries and we can offer a lot to this country. We must not hold back.



What is the present situation between Christians and different rites?



We are united, i.e. the ecumenism is not a formal type but real. We all work together even when I visit the Prime Minister or the President of the Republic, the leaders in Bagdad come with me to prove to the authorities that we are really united. As a priority we held a Synod and chose strong and educated new bishops. Together we must face the problem of emigration and how to help people to remain here. I visited forty villages and cities in the last few months. These were empty five or six months ago but now they are full and the people are happy. They had left for Turkey or other areas in the country but now they have returned and life is dynamic but they need help and we try to give it to them.



How do you see Syria from your country?



It is all in ruins. There’s confusion, corruption, and no security, the country is moving towards a division. If the international diplomacy is sincere and wants the best for Syria and Iraq, it must seek a political solution together with the Iraqis and the Syrians. They talk of democracy and freedom, but these are only words, slogans. You cannot apply or bring about a democracy through magic.


The Syrians can manage by themselves and they do not want help because there is too much internal influence. There are Americans, Russians, Iraqis, Turks, Saudi Arabians, and Qatar. I believe that it’s possible to bring the opposite sides together, to carry out reforms and find a solution to integrate all sides in the political game. It’s possible to do so if the group is neutral, with maybe a religious group, Christian or Muslim which is not self-interested but truly tries to reach a reconciliation.


This is true also for Iraq where death and violence continue to coexist. When I met the Prime Minister of Iraq and I said to him: “we should try to reach a reconciliation”, he accepted and replied “I encourage you because we are independent and disinterested”.