Although it has been five years since the Islamic State (ISIS) was defeated in Iraq, it appears that the danger to the Christians in the country remains, and is in fact escalating. In the past two decades, the Christian community has suffered persecution and instability and has not managed to fully rebuild from the destruction left by ISIS. Today it is struggling with economic, security, and religious troubles that have prompted many to emigrate. According to various reports, the community, which prior to the U.S. invasion in March 2003 numbered over 1.5 million, stands today at around 250,000.
In addition to this, the Chaldean Catholic Church, which is the largest church in Iraq, is experiencing internal disputes and divisions, mostly between the Patriarch of Baghdad, Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, who is the head of the Chaldean Church, and Rayan Al-Kildani, who heads the Babylon Brigades which belongs to Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Units, PMU), the umbrella organization of Iran-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militias. He also leads its political arm, the Babylon Movement. In 2019, Al-Kildani was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury as a “foreign person who is responsible for or complicit in, or who has directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.”
At the center of the tension is the struggle over leadership of Iran’s Christian community and control of its resources, and the struggle over the community’s identity, waged between the head of the church, Patriarch Sako, who leans towards the West, and elements considered close to Iran, headed by Al-Kildani. The bulk of Sako’s claims against Al-Kildani concern his role as head of an armed, ostensibly Christian militia (Sako claims that most of the militia’s members are actually Shi’ite Muslims from Iraq’s South and Baghdad). Additionally, Sako states that Al-Kildani is corrupt, controls the Christian representation in the political arena, and acts out of inappropriate motivations. Al-Kildani, on his part, claims that Sako is exceeding his authority and position, interfering in political matters, and embezzling endowments belonging to the Church and the Christians.
Since April 2023, the tension between the two has further escalated – this time spilling over from the Iraqi Christian community to the entire Iraqi and international arenas. This is because of the involvement of Iraqi President ‘Abdul Latif Rashid, and his decision to cancel a government directive recognizing Patriarch Sako as the head of the Chaldean Church and in charge of Christian endowments in Iraq. This move enraged the Chaldean Church, and was harshly criticized in the West, leading to the involvement of the U.S., Europe and other Western countries, as well as the Vatican, all of whom supported Patriarch Sako.
In protest against this unprecedented presidential order, and in an attempt to evade legal measures that have been initiated against him, Patriarch Sako left his offices in Baghdad and is currently at a monastery in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. His choice of this location is no accident; its Christian community has increased because of Christian migration to the region following ISIS’s takeover of the Nineveh region. Also, Sako found among the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) leaders of the region a sympathetic ear for his criticism of the Iraqi president (who is from the rival PUK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), due to the tensions between these leaders and the president and also between them and the central Iraqi government against the backdrop of the province’s aspirations for independence.
These internal conflicts over the identity of Iraq’s Christian community are likely to further weaken it and endanger the future of this historic group in the country.
This report focuses on the unfolding of events in the recent escalation of tensions between Patriarch Sako and the pro-Iranian Babylon Movement, which is headed by Al-Kildani, and between Sako and the Iraqi president.
As noted, the struggle over Church property and representation of the Chaldean Christians is playing out between two figures: Iran-backed Rayan Al-Kildani, who heads the Babylon Brigades and their political arm, the Babylon Movement, and Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, the Patriarch of the Chaldeans in Iraq and worldwide.
The Babylon Movement
The Babylon Brigades were founded by Rayan Al-Kildani in 2014, following ISIS’s takeover of large swaths of Iraq and in light of the danger it posed to the Iraqi Christian community. Al-Kildani, a Christian from Baghdad, has long had ties with Shi’ite militant elements. Before joining Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi he was part of the Shi’ite Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) militia. Like his Shi’ite colleagues, Al-Kildani is known for his ties to Iranian elements. The Babylon Brigades are part of Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi, the organization comprising largely of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, which was likewise established in 2014, after Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, ‘Ali Al-Sistani, called for acting against ISIS.
Like many Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi members, Al-Kildani openly cultivates close relations with Iran, and in interviews he frequently praises the role of the late IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2020. For example, during a February 2023 meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian in Baghdad, Al-Kildani said that the Iraqi Christian community “owes its security to the courage of [that] great Iranian commander.” The Babylon Brigades were repeatedly ordered by successive Iraqi Prime Ministers, in 2017, 2018, and 2019, to withdraw from the Nineveh Plains region where it ran illegal checkpoints, but, backed up by pro-Iranian militia support, refused to do so.
Additionally, like most of the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, the Babylon Brigades have a political arm, the Babylon Movement, likewise headed by Al-Kildani, which ran for the Iraqi parliament in 2014 but failed to gain a seat. In the 2018 elections, however, the Babylon Movement won two seats, and in the 2021 elections it won four out of the five seats designated for Christians, pushing out other Christian parties such as the Al-Rafidain Coalition. According to sources close to the church, Al-Kildani’s party won those Christian seats on the strength of Shi’ite Muslim votes swamping actual Christian representation elected by the Christian minority. In 2019, as noted, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Al-Kildani, the leader of the Babylon Brigades (which the Treasury refers to as the 50th Brigade of the PMU), as a “foreign person who is responsible for or complicit in, or who has directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.” The announcement stated that “[t]he 50th Brigade has systematically looted homes in Batnaya, which is struggling to recover from ISIS’s brutal rule” and has “reportedly illegally seized and sold agricultural land, and the local population has accused the group of intimidation, extortion, and harassment of women.”
The Patriarch Of The Chaldean Catholic Church
The Iraq-born Louis Raphaël Sako has been patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church since 2013. That year, then-Iraqi president Jalal Talabani issued a directive recognizing Sako as patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, confirming a decision already taken by the Vatican and the Chaldean bishops. The directive also put Sako in charge of the Christian Waqf – that is, Church property and community assets endowed by the Christians. While Iraqi Christians have departed the country in large numbers since 2003, much private and communal property remains that has considerable value, particularly in Baghdad.
Since his appointment, Sako has not hesitated to speak to media about the dangers he perceives are threatening the Iraqi Christian community and the discrimination it experiences. In a 2019 interview with Iraq’s Al-Sharqiya TV, he called for changes to school curricula so that children would learn tolerance and respect for other religions, and underlined that Christians are discriminated against in the country. In another interview three years later, he told the channel that the situation had not changed, and that Christians were still being treated like second-class citizens; he also expressed criticism of the U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iraq.
Earlier, in 2015, at a time when ISIS was expanding its occupation of the country and harming minority communities, Sako called, in an interview with a Catholic Church website, on the U.S. to fulfill its “moral obligation” to send military forces to combat ISIS. He said that the U.S. had left the country in “chaos” and added that the Americans “had no vision really… Where’s democracy in Iraq? Where is freedom, and human rights?”
The Struggle Between The Chaldean Church And The Babylon Movement
As noted, the struggle between the church, led by Sako, and the Babylon Movement, headed by Al-Kildani, began several years ago, and apparently stems from conflicts over the identity and leadership of the Iraqi Christian community and control of its resources.
One of Sako’s main arguments against the Babylon Movement is that it has an armed military branch. As early as 2016, the church, under Sako, had dissociated itself from the Babylon Brigades and other armed Christian factions. Sako also decided to strip “several individuals,” including Al-Kildani, of the title of Sheikh granted to them by his predecessor, Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly, claiming that these individuals had “taken advantage of [the former Patriarch’s] illness.” He stressed that the Christian community had no “sheikhs” representing it and that its official representatives were the Christian Members of Parliament.
Sako also claimed that, because of the electoral system that allows all voters to vote for any candidates, the Babylon faction does not represent the Christian voice even though it won a place in parliament thanks to the quota of seats reserved for Christians. In a June 2019 letter to the Iraqi parliamentary speaker, Sako asked the parliament to ratify an amendment to the regional council election law that would assure “real representation” of Christians.
Al-Kildani, for his part, claims that Sako is exceeding his authority and his position and interfering in politics. For example, in response to Sako’s 2019 letter to the parliamentary speaker, Al-Kildani published a six-page letter that he said he had sent to the Vatican, stating that Sako was personally attacking Al-Kildani and his party, “inciting against us, and refraining from praying for the souls of the Babylon Brigades’ dead.” The letter continued: “He is interfering in politics on behalf of people in power, has left the Christians without churches, and incites against anyone defending these churches.” The letter also called on Sako to “go back to being a patriarch and leave politics and worldly matters to those who have no spiritual title.”
In recent months, there has been an additional escalation in the Sako-Kildani tension. In late April, the Iraqi press reported that the Baghdad police had summoned Sako for questioning after a complaint was received concerning real-estate document forgery. The church released a statement saying that the incident had taken place three years previously and that the claims were false and harmed the reputation of the Patriarch and the church. The statement hinted that this matter had been revived and disseminated in media by “a political element,” hinting at Al-Kildani. It also said that Patriarch Sako does not sell lots or homes, that the church’s alleged titles to the property were forged, and that Christian elements were spreading lies that Sako was planning to step down. It stressed that Sako was not “one of the officials known for their corruption; [furthermore], he is not [an official] of the state and is not paid by it.” The falsification of documents and their use to seize property and persecute individuals in the legal system is a widespread tactic used by those, like Al-Kildani, with actual political power and connections to powerful patrons, such as Iran.
In a letter published by the Iraqi press, Sako criticized “Christian politicians” who, he said, are acting “completely against the Christian faith, rapidly becoming corrupt, excluding other Christians, and funding their associates. Rejecting Al-Kildani’s claim that he had visited Israel or sold church property, and that the Vatican banned clerics from becoming involved in politics, he revealed the disputes within the church itself when he said that Al-Kildani’s men had “bought some weak-willed clerics in order to cover up their activities.”
Following this, Al-Kildani challenged him to a public debate to discuss the claims and accusations, and said that while he and his men were fighting ISIS, Sako had remained “in hiding, and abandoned the church and people’s homes in Nineveh when ISIS attacked.” Sako rejected the invitation, saying that he, like top Iraqi Shi’ite cleric ‘Ali Al-Sistani, was a source of religious authority and could not allow himself to clash with someone like Al-Kildani “who is not knowledgeable about the foundations of discussion and conversation.” Claiming that Al-Kildani was taking advantage of the religion for political benefit, he criticized the armed Christian organizations, saying “we are not in a Crusader war.” He added that Al-Kildani was involved in looting Christian property in Nineveh – a charge confirmed by the abovementioned US Treasury designation of Al-Kildani – and reiterated his claim that he was trying to buy clerics.
In a June 2023 interview in London, Sako stepped up his claims, saying that the conflict is not an internal Christian issue but a conflict with an individual who “heads a militia that damages the authority of the church in Iraq” and who, moreover, is not a believing Christian. Sako also criticized Iraq’s entire government system. He was careful to say that Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shi’a Al-Sudani was “a good man who takes care of everything” but added that he was hobbled by the elements that elected him and that his government was monochromatic. Sako stated further that the political regime was oppressing the Iraqis, and noted that voter turnout for the last elections, in 2021, was only 20% – meaning that that the elected parliament does not truly represent the will of the people.
Sako also did not hold back in his criticism of Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi, stressing that it was the job of the army and the police to defend the homeland, and that Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi should be subjugated to the armed forces general command.