Iraqi cardinal urges global unity in Walsingham visit

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His Beatitude, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldeans, made a private pilgrimage to Walsingham on Saturday June 17, as part of the Patriarch’s official visit to the UK at the invitation of the British Government, organised by Catholic charity, Fellowship and Aid to the Christians of the East (FACE). 

The Patriarch was accompanied in Walsingham by Bishop Basil Yaldo, Curial Bishop of Bagdad, Father Andrawis Toma, Head of the Chaldean Mission in the UK, and John Adam Fox, Chairman of the Catholic Charity, FACE.

The Patriarch’s pilgrimage began with a private Mass in the Chaldean rite at the Chapel in Dowry House where His Beatitude and entourage of Iraqi priests were heard singing heartily and joyfully in Aramaic – the language of Jesus.  After the novelty of a traditional English breakfast, the Iraqi party proceeded to the Anglican Shrine where they were greeted by Fr Ben Bradshaw for a guided tour of the church and gardens. His Beatitude was then formally welcomed by Bishop Peter Collins, Bishop of East Anglia, and Fr James Mary McInerney, Rector of the Catholic National Shrine, who guided the Patriarch and his entourage on a tour of the Orthodox chapel of St Seraphim, followed by a visit to the site of the original Holy House in the Abbey grounds, where Fr Michael Rear gave a comprehensive talk on the history of Walsingham.

After a lunch in honour of the Patriarch, hosted by Bishop Peter, His Beatitude Cardinal Sako and his entourage, visited the Slipper Chapel where, following Afternoon Prayer for the pilgrims, they sang a Syriac hymn to the Virgin Mary – in Aramaic.

A notable moment during the visit was the Patriarch’s in-depth interview with EWTN GB, when he addressed the challenges faced by Christians in Iraq and their hopes for the future.  The Patriarch expressed his delight at being able to enjoy a day of pilgrimage to Walsingham for a moment of quiet reflection and prayer during his intensive 14-day visit to the UK, which had been full of back-to-back meetings with church leaders, politicians, parliamentarians, representatives of the British and foreign diplomatic corps, and the Chaldean diaspora in the UK.

The Patriarch went on to say: “I have been deeply moved over the past week by the devotion of our Chaldean people in the diaspora in the UK.” And he said that his visit was essentially a pastoral one to them. “As head of the Chaldean Church, it is my duty to visit them, to confirm them in their faith, to remind them of their roots, and to help them remain faithful to our liturgy, so that they bear witness to the faith and help others to find their faith.”

But the Patriarch stated that the other main purpose of his visit was to highlight the current challenges facing Christians in his country.  Since the US-UK led invasion of Iraq in 2003, his country has seen its Christian population plummet from 2 million to around 200,000 today. Moreover, insecurity, political instability, intercommunal conflict, but also corruption and economic crisis, continue to discourage Christians from returning to, or staying in, Iraq.

Currently the official state religion and primary source of legislation in that country is Islam, in which there is no conception of equal citizenship for non-Muslims, meaning that Christians receive little protection from the state and are left vulnerable to hostile militias. “Religion is for individuals”, said the Patriarch, “the state should be secular; the state should have no religion”. Thus, to ensure the future of the Christian minority in a united and free Iraq, the Patriarch calls for a secular constitution where Christians may enjoy the rights of equal citizenship and play a more active role in Iraqi political and social life.

To that end, the Patriarch had been meeting British politicians and Church leaders during the past week, urging them to find ways and means of demonstrating to the Iraqi Government that there is nothing to fear in embracing a secular Constitution. But the Patriarch went on to say: “Shiite politicians fear secularism because they identify it with the worst aspects of Western secularism, such as consumerism, agnosticism, materialism, promiscuity, pornography, drugs, etc; whereas, of course, a secular state is perfectly capable of embracing and defending basic rights and freedoms, and promoting good moral values, such as we see in the UK.” Pointing out how the fabric of Iraqi society has a past history of pluralism embracing many religious and ethnic groups, the Patriarch added: “whatever our origins, we Iraqis all belong to the same nation; whatever our faith, we are children of God; we are all brothers and sisters.” 

Alluding to Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq, the Patriarch said: “Pope Francis won the respect of our whole nation because he focussed on the message of brotherhood, and as a result of his visit, Shiites in Iraq now show more respect to Christians.” In fact, the senior Shiite cleric in iraq, Ayatollah Al-Sistany, after meeting the Pope, issued a formal statement commending the Shiite community to respect and protect the Christians in Iraq. The Patriarch added: “however, Muslims must understand that Islam is not the only true religion; that all religions belong to God and that God is the source of all religions.  The state should respect this diversity and uphold freedom of religion.  God created mankind to be diverse.  That is the plan of God. The only thing that matters to God is that we all learn to love one another.” The Patriarch said that the survival of Christianity in Iraq was essential to maintaining its plurality for all citizens. The Patriarch has always insisted on the importance of open dialogue between all parties to build a strong and pluralist state which respects all citizens, regardless of religion and ethnicity, and offers them full citizenship and security. Indeed, earlier this year, the Synod of the Chaldean Church called for a state based on equality, justice and law, which offers fair representation to Christians in government institutions.

Regarding the current situation, the Patriarch said: “All my bishops are with me, trying to keep our people busy and employed, and trying to inspire hope, so that our faithful people can look forward to a better future, and remain in their homeland” … “But what we really need now is the solidarity of our Christian brothers and sisters in the West” … “their support, moral and spiritual, means everything to us; it comforts us and raises our spirits” … “because otherwise we are alone; we are alone because in Iraq the societal system is tribal.  But Christians are not tribal; Christians belong to the Church; Christians have only the Church; Christians rely on the Church; their force is the Church.” And he pointed out that there was no better expression of solidarity than Western Christians visiting them in Iraq and sharing their witness to Christ. “We want more Western Christians to visit us in our homeland. That is what we need”, he said.

Turning to the role of Britain in Iraq, the Patriarch said: “First of all, the British have a responsibility towards Iraq, because Iraq was a British colony for years, and the British were a part of the coalition that changed the constitution; so, the British must help us in changing our constitution”. He spoke of the duty of Britain and other Western states to encourage and demonstrate ways of embracing basic human rights. “All Iraqis – be they Muslim or Christian – should have the right to live in freedom and dignity,” he said. “This kind of conviviality and fraternity cannot be achieved without the right of full citizenship to all and a state of equality and justice.”

The Patriarch suggested the idea of dialogue between British and Iraqi politicians: “There are ways to influence the political and religious leaders in Iraq. Maybe at first the British can invite the Iraqi Prime Minister and Speaker and religious leaders to Britain for a conference on how to develop Iraq as a pluralistic state with its own sovereignty and to show them how multi-faith communities in the UK co-exist under a secular Constitution and secular legal system”. The Patriarch added that it would be advantageous if a delegation of British politicians and religious leaders could visit Iraq on a fact-finding mission, “to meet Iraqi politicians, religious leaders, and the Iraqi people of all faiths, and find out what they really want, what they fear and what they hope for”.  Alluding to the way the Catholic Church is embracing synodality and listening to its people, the Patriarch suggested that “our politicians need to start working together and listening to the people, for the benefit of the whole nation and for the common good”.

Reflecting on the contribution of Eastern Churches to Western Christianity, the Patriarch said: “The Chaldean Church has much to offer the Catholic Church through its spirituality, liturgy and theology.  Our tradition is a richness for the whole Church”.  He highlighted the importance of family to Chaldeans saying that “our people live to serve their family and to care for their extended family, and families coexist in community… Westerners who espouse individualism could learn something from our family values and learn how our Christians serve the community and live for others”.

Regarding the future of Christianity in Iraq, the Patriarch remains optimistic: “I am hopeful not only for the Church, but also for the Iraqi people. Overcoming the current corruption and inequality is not an impossibility. Progress is slow, but the will to improve things persists, especially in our young people who want change. Clearly, Christians need to keep campaigning and struggling for a secular state with equality and freedom of religion.” 

As part of that struggle, the Patriarch emphasised the need for Christian unity, saying: “if we stand united, we are a stronger voice”.  And he cautioned that “only through ecumenism will Christianity survive in the biblical lands”.  Expanding on the need of ecumenism, he said: “Eastern churches are Apostolic churches: they share the same faith, the same creed, the same sacraments, the same liturgies” … “they are small churches and have no future if they are divided” … “We must give up our personal interests,” he said, “and seek unity and the common good… Unity will enable us to be one body and as one body we will be stronger and more able to help the younger generation to discover their faith, to help Muslims to understand better Christianity, and to command the respect of the Muslim community.”

Explaining why the Chaldeans are a joyful people, the Patriarch commented: “Our joy comes from our faith in Christ and the Resurrection. The meaning of Resurrection is very strong in our Chaldean theology and liturgy and gives us hope. We have always been a persecuted people but when we celebrate the liturgy, we become free and joyful, and everyone sings prayerfully and joyfully” … “Our joy also comes from the assurance and encouragement of our families.  We know we are not alone, that we belong to each other; and that, when downtrodden and rejected, we still have each other.”

The Patriarch concluded by speaking of his devotion to the Virgin Mary and his joy at being at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. He said, “I feel the Virgin Mary always present in my life; she is never far away; she is always helping me; she is always inspiring me and my people,” and he ended his interview by saying, “I beseech the help of Our Lord Jesus Christ and Our Lady of Walsingham to bring peace to the world and to inspire all leaders to seek peace.”

Throughout his pastoral visit over the past fortnight, the Patriarch’s recurring message has focused on the vulnerable situation of Christians in Iraq and brought to the fore the pressing need for the solidarity and support of Western Christians towards their Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East, as well as the vital need for unity between the Eastern Churches if Christianity is to survive in the Middle East.  His message also highlighted how the Christian presence in Iraq is a powerful force for good which promotes a culture of plurality and mitigates against the negative forces of intercommunal and religious conflict, and how it enables that society to facilitate reconciliation, peaceful co-existence, mutual respect, and cultural and religious exchange.