Monsignor Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Bagdad, is convinced. In a meeting with the interreligious group Oasis at Amman, he did not hesitate to critically express his opinion on the word “tolerance”. Much is said of the need to tolerate Christians, but what does it mean to tolerate an Iraqi? Christianity was in the region before Islam; Christians are in Iraq today; Christians are citizens and do not ask for “permission” to live in their own country.
But as I talked with the Patriarch 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. If Muslims manage to recognize this, we can live together, because religion remains a personal experience between me, my God and other believers, and will not be politically exploited.
Oasis: Therefore the key to living together lies in the space between tolerance and citizenship?
Monsignor Sako: 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 in the constitution and in politics, in the organization of relationships among citizens, there 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. This occurs when you no longer follow the criterion of equal citizenship for all, but priority is given to one’s religion.
What is your relationship with your Muslim neighbours?
With the fall of the Christian and Muslim regimes churches and mosques had to be protected. At Kirkuk some imam spoke favourably 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 seem 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 real 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 Sunni and Shiite religious authorities.
We are on 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 as though 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 of different rites?
We are united, 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 international 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 mediating 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.”
Maria Laura Conte is the Director of OASIS International Foundation Newsletter, from which this interview is reproduced with permission.