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Iraqi division intensifies between church, Christian Babylon Movement

The institutional Iraqi church and the Christian political party of Babylon are feuding over the leadership of Christian affairs in Iraq.
Iraq Sako

Following a series of confrontations, it seems an open war has broken out between the Catholic Caledonian Church and the Christian political party and militia of Babylon Movement.

In mid-April, an Iraqi court issued a summons for Cardinal Louis Sako, patriarch and archbishop of Baghdad, in response to an accusation by an Iraqi businessman affiliated with the Babylon Movement over a property belonging to the church.

On April 29, Rayan al-Kaldani, secretary-general of the Babylon Movement, accused Sako of interfering in politics and damaging the reputation of the church.

In response, Sako held a lengthy video conference May 7, threatening to internationalize the Christian issue if the Iraqi government failed to take action against Kaldani. 

Babylon's domination of Christian politics

The Babylon Movement was founded in 2014 as a paramilitary group of Christians who fought against the Islamic State (IS). It was later integrated into the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) under the name of the 50th Brigade.

The movement has been implicated in illegal land seizures in Ninevah province and Baghdad, as well as several other corruption cases, particularly in the Ministry of Immigration that has been under their control since 2020.

Babylon was accused of multiple human rights violations during its fight against IS, which eventually led the United States to impose sanctions on Kaldani in 2019.

The movement gradually expanded into politics and participated in the 2018 and 2021 elections. It won two out of five Christian seats in the Iraqi parliament in 2018 and all five seats in the 2021 elections. In both governments, Babylon received the Ministry of Immigration as its share in the government and appointed Ivan Faiq to the position.

This provided an opportunity for the movement to advocate for Iraqi Christians. The church, however, saw it as a dangerous move that could further endanger an already vulnerable minority.

The movement has accused Sako of involvement in politics, “establishing parties, engaging in electoral battles, and jeopardizing the security and future of Christians in Iraq,” according to Kaldani’s April 29 statement.

An official source at the Ministry of Immigration, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor that Faiq has been facing constant political pressure from Sako. The church denied the allegation.

The church has voiced concerns about the following:

∗ Involving Christians in risky movements, such as a paramilitary group under the PMU, whose activities have raised concerns among Sunnis and Kurds. Sako slammed Kaldani for organizing multiple parades in disputed areas of northern Iraq, bringing Christian fighters with religious symbols to the streets, which could lead to tensions with other groups. “The Babylon Movement under Kaldani’s direction carry pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the cross in the street, bringing religion into politics, which is inappropriate. We are not in a crusade,” Sako said in his recent statement.

∗ Illegal seizure of Christian properties. During the IS occupation of Mosul and Ninevah Plains, many Christians were forced to flee to other parts of Iraq or to other countries, leaving their properties behind. Several reports indicate that Babylon has been illegally acquiring these properties.

∗ By securing all five seats reserved for Christians in the parliament, Kaldani has become their official political representative in Iraq, which undermines the church's position. In the past, the government often sought advice from the church when nominating candidates for positions allocated to Christians, but now Babylon is the only party receiving them. Sako also accused Kaldani of trying to buy Christian clerics to expand his influence within the church as well.

The Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, Youssef Toma, expressed support for Sako, calling the Babylonian movement a dangerous move. “We are here facing a new Christian fascism that empowers opponents, antagonizes family and relatives, and demolishes everything that was built in the past decades in our church,” Toma said.

Kaldani invited Sako to a public debate, but Sako declined, stating, “We are a religious institution, and we do not interfere in political matters. The current politics divided Christians as it divided Shiites and Sunnis.” 

To garner backing from his Shiite allies in the PMU and their affiliated political parties under the umbrella of the Coordination Framework, Kaldani accused Sako of being sympathetic toward Israel and having previously visited the country. 

Sako, however, denied the charges. He has warned the Iraqi government that if no action is taken to prevent Kaldani’s control over Christian affairs in Iraq and his involvement in illegal activities and corruption, he will seek assistance from the international community.

The sharp division between the church and Babylon is expected to continue. This could eventually have adverse consequences for the Christen community in Iraq, trapping them in a precarious situation between competing parties.

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