Iraqi Cardinal: Secular State Is ‘Only Future’ for Mideast Christians

New Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako of Iraq (C) poses with bishops as he attends the courtesy visit of relatives following a consistory for the creation of new cardinals in the Apostolic Palace at St Peter's Basilica in The Vatican on June 28, 2018. (Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP) …
TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

ROME — Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako has reiterated his call for the creation of non-confessional states in the Middle East that give equal standing to all citizens, regardless of their religion.

“I think the only future for countries in the Middle East is to set up a secular regime, and to respect religion,” Cardinal Sako said this weekend, during a virtual panel discussion titled, “The Future of Christianity in the Middle East,” organized by Fellowship and Aid to the Christians of the East (FACE).

Sako, who is the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, was elevated to the rank of cardinal by Pope Francis in 2018, a move viewed by many as recognition of his leadership during the years of harsh persecution of Christians under the Islamic State terror group.

What we need is an end to “this mentality that Christians are infidels,” Sako said Saturday, “this mentality of sectarianism, and this bad mentality of a lack of respect for non-Muslims.”

“We are one nation, and we are not divided,” he said, adding, “If I have some particularism, that doesn’t mean I am not Iraqi or that I am someone outside.”

The cardinal said Pope Francis’s recent visit to Iraq seemed to have an impact on Iraqi’s sympathy toward Christians.

“He changed the mentality of people,” Sako said.

“Christians are accustomed to the pope,” he said, but this was “the first time that Muslims can see the pope, hear the pope.”

“After the pope’s visit, something is moving in Iraqi society,” he said. “There is a respect for non-Muslims, especially Christians.”

In early April, Cardinal Sako issued his proposal for the first time, urging Iraq to separate religion from government “as the Christian West has done for a long time.”

“A civil or secular state is not hostile to religion and respects all faiths, but does not include it in politics,” Sako said, proposing that Iraq adopt a model “that guarantees freedom of religion and worship for all Iraqis equally and protects the human rights contained in all international treaties.”

All Iraqis, “by principle and by constitution, are fully citizens with the same rights and duties,” he said. “Citizenship cannot be limited to religion, creed, region, race, or number. Citizenship is a universal right for all.”

“Every individual can follow his own religion and traditions,” he continued, “provided that he respects the religion of his brother, not treating him as a non-believer, or betraying him, or excluding or eliminating him. Such diversity flows from the will of God.”

The Iraqi constitution formally provides for freedom of religion, but also specifies that no law may conflict with Islam, which in practice often leads to discrimination against minorities, leading Christians and other religious minorities to describe their situation as that of “second-class citizens.”

Upwards of 98 percent of Iraq’s population are Muslims, split between about two-thirds of Shiites living in the south and another third of Sunni Muslims in the center and north.

Among Christians, the largest group are Chaldean Catholics, but there are also Assyrians, Syrian Orthodox, and Syrian Catholic, as well as Armenian Apostolic and Armenian Catholic.

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