US sanctions on a Christian militiaman reignite conflict among Iraqi Christians

As the United States imposes sanctions on a Christian militiaman, conflict among Iraqi Christians flares up.

al-monitor A member of the Iraqi Christian forces Kataeb Babylon (Babylon Brigades) stands guard beneath a cross at the Mar Benham Syriac Catholic monastery in the town of Khidr Ilyas, Iraq, Nov. 22, 2016.  Photo by SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images.

Aug 9, 2019

BAGHDAD — The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced July 18 new sanctions on four Iraqi citizens, including Rayan al-Kildani, head of the Christian minority's Babylonian Brigades, and Waad Qado, head of the Shabak minority's Brigade 30 — two influential armed factions in the Ninevah Plains. They were sanctioned after being implicated in human rights violations, according to the US Treasury statement.

In related context, the Chaldean Catholic Church announced its refusal of the presence of any armed Christian faction and voiced support for the Iraqi government’s decision to restructure the work of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and reorganize them. On July 1, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued the decision, which consisted of 10 points underlining the need to end the armed presence and link the PMU directly to the general commander of armed forces.

Al-Monitor received a copy of Catholic Chaldean Church Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako's statement in which he voiced his support for the Iraqi government's decision. The patriarch said, “It is an important step in the right direction, and it will restrict arms in the hands of the state and strengthen its institutions. The decision will also cement Iraqis’ national awareness of a united national identity.”

The statement continued, “We encourage Christians to join official security institutions in the Iraqi army and federal police, and Iraqi Kurdistan Region citizens to join the peshmerga forces,” he said, noting that the church respects individuals’ personal decisions to be affiliated with the PMU or political work. However, forming a Christian faction is not acceptable because armed factions in the name of Christianity conflict with the spirituality of Christianity, which calls for love, forgiveness, tolerance and peace.

Since the statement was released at the same time as the US Treasury Department’s announcement to impose sanctions on Christian Babylon Brigades leader Kildani, the latter had a violent response. He brought up accusations against Sako.

One of the leaders in the Christian Babylon Brigades, Zafer Louis, said in a statement July 24 that a Christian cleric has become a toy in the hands of the United States and Israel (referring to Sako), and Louis threatened to protest in front of the Papal Embassy.

Sako dismissed the accusations as “cheap” and told Al-Monitor, “I did not visit Israel my whole life. In 2014, when Pope Francis visited Jordan, then Palestine and Israel, I did not accompany him out of respect for the Palestinian people. Regarding my relations with the United States, I did not even participate in the Religious Freedom Conference that was held in Washington a few days ago, although I was invited.”

The US Department of State held the Religious Freedom Conference July 16-18 to promote religious freedom. Over 1,000 figures from around the world participated, including Christian priests and clerics. But Sako was not among them.

Kildani’s statement obviously aimed at portraying Sako’s stance as a campaign against the PMU. As per the statement, “Patriarch Sako is standing with frantic parties who are trying to undermine Iraqi willpower to defend the country.” The statement aimed at dragging the Christian leader through the mud and placing him in the middle of the US-Iranian conflict over the presence of pro-Iran armed factions that are facing clear US opposition and sanctions.

The Babylon Brigades leaked to the Iraqi media a message allegedly from Sako to US Vice President Mike Pence in which he thanked the US government for supporting the displaced and helping them return home. The Babylon Brigades were trying to validate their allegations about the ties between Sako and US parties.

In a prompt response to the leaked message, the Catholic Chaldean Patriarchate posted on its website a message stating that “Patriarch Sako did not send any message to Pence, and this news is false. The Babylon Brigades are fabricating lies and attacking Patriarch Sako, and these actions do not reflect the slightest sense of ethics, responsibility and respect for the religious institution.”

The patriarchate's statement said that “if the Patriarch wanted to address a foreign party or international official, he would have used English rather than Arabic,” since the leaked document was in Arabic.

Kildani wrote a six-page letter including an angry nine-point dialogue to Sako.

The letter — headlined “Open Letter to Patriarch Sako, Father of the Chaldean Parish and Distinguished Patron” and of which Al-Monitor received a copy — revealed the tensions in relations between Kildani and Sako. The letter mentioned the different aspects of the conflict, with a focus on the political aspect. Kildani criticized Sako’s support for one Christian political party at the expense of another. He called for “a moderate church leader” and asked the patriarch to remove his church clothes if he wants to work in politics. Notably, the Babylon Brigades are the largest Christian bloc in parliament.

Kildani underlined the importance of restricting Christian representation in parliament and government to parliament members only. He was referring to the Babylon Brigades’ control of two seats of the Christian quota in Iraqi parliament and their desire to curb Sako’s influence and activities that compete with Christian political blocs in representing Christians before official parties.

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