Baghdad welcomes new patriarch, Louis Sako, who appeals to the faithful “not to be afraid”

“Do not be afraid” to face and surmount “a difficult period” because suffering, tribulations and the blood shed by martyrs can “incorporate us into the mystery of Christ” and “help us recognise the presence of God among us,” said Mar Louis Raphael I Sako during the Mass that enthroned him today in Baghdad’s St Joseph Cathedral. The event marks the start of the new patriarchate of the Iraqi Chaldean Church.

High-ranking Christian and Muslim religious leaders as well as political and civic leaders, not to mention thousands of the faithful, took part in the ceremony. In addition to the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches and the Apostolic Nuncio to Jordan and Iraq, Mgr Giorgio Lingua, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and National Assembly Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi were also present.

The prime minister noted again that Christians are an important part of the country. He urged them “not to emigrate”, saying that “we are sad to see them leave because of threats from depraved people.”

Mar Louis Raphael I Sako was appointed patriarch of the Chaldean Church of Iraq on 31 January in replacement of Card Emmanuel Delly III who resigned because of age. This followed a mini-conclave held in Rome 28 January that brought together 15 Chaldean bishops, seven from Iraq, two from Iran, two from the United States, and one from Lebanon, Syria, Australia and Canada.

Born on 4 July 1948 in Zahko, northern Iraq, Mar Louis Raphael I Sako was ordained priest on 1 June 1974. He held the post of archbishop of Kirkuk for many years.

On several occasions, he bemoaned the exodus of Christians from the country, calling for steps to guarantee them a peaceful future. For his work, he received theDefensor Fidei Award in 2008 and the Pax Christi International Award in 2010.

In his maiden speech, Patriarch Sako looked back on his beginnings, talking about his years in Kirkuk, ‘the city of the eternal fire’, and his return to Baghdad, ‘the city of peace’.

In thanking his predecessor Patriarch Delly, “who served the Chaldean Church in difficult times and chose to remain in Iraq,” he spoke about the “last few years full of dangers, and the fear of death that still lives in our people.”

“Enough blood and destruction,” His Beatitude said. “True greatness is achieved not by domination but by service and sacrifice to consolidate what is good, righteous and honest.”

Difficulties, violence and persecution should not push a community to leave. Yet, half have done so since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. For this reason, during the homily the patriarch warned the faithful “not be afraid” as Jesus said “before and after his resurrection”.

“Suffering, tribulations and the blood shed by martyrs can incorporate us into the mystery of Christ” and “help us recognise the presence of God among us,” he added. For this, we need “authenticity connected to renewal” that will touch “our liturgy and teaching methods” in accordance with “the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and the apostolic exhortation ‘Ecclesia in Medio Oriente’. This way, the faithful will be able to understand, share and be closer to Christ and the Church.”

Speaking about the exodus of Christians from Iraq and relations with the Muslim majority, His Beatitude spoke about the problems associated with “security and freedom”. In spite of the situation, “I do not encourage anyone to leave the country.” On the contrary, people “should stay and continue on their path because it is a duty towards one’s faith and homeland.”

Thus, it is necessary “to work with everyone in the Chaldean Church,” especially “with my fellow bishops, priests, men and women religious, believers, men and women, for the good of the Church and the people.”

“With our Muslim brothers that God loves as he loves us, we shall stress what brings us closer whilst respecting what makes us different,” said the Chaldean patriarch.

Although “It is God’s will that we be different, we must work on finding grounds on which we can meet and share because, as Benedict XVI said in his first meeting with the new patriarch, the Iraqi Church must continue to be a bridge between Christians and Muslims.