I raq

Iraq Catholic Leader Begs World Powers Not To Escalate Tensions In Region

A top Iraqi Christian cleric is pleading with world leaders to avoid escalating violence in his region, warning that “innocent people will be the fuel for such fire.” 

Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, who heads Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic community, cautioned leaders to think about the human costs of “emotional and impulsive decisions” in the wake of a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that killed an Iranian general.

Sako asked Christians and Muslims to pray for decision-makers to act wisely, according to Catholic News Service

“Wisdom is required to avoid the ‘volcanic eruption’ we are about to face,” he said during an Epiphany Mass at Baghdad’s Cathedral of St. Joseph on Monday.

Sako’s pleas come during a period of heightened tension between the U.S. and Iran following a U.S. drone attack that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, near the Baghdad airport last week. The U.S. claims that Soleimani has orchestrated multiple attacks against American troops in Iraq in the past and that he had developed a new scheme to kill a significant number of U.S. diplomats and soldiers.

Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako is the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq.

The airstrike has contributed to rapidly escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top Iranian leaders have called for a direct attack on American interests in retaliation for Soleimani’s death. The Pentagon reported Tuesday that U.S. military facilities in Iraq were struck by Iranian missiles. Earlier Tuesday, at least 56 people were killed and dozens more were injured in a stampede during a funeral procession for Soleimani, according to The Associated Press.

In response to the general’s death, Iraq’s parliament has been pushing for the removal of American troops from the country. American forces have been stationed in Iraq to help fight Islamic State militants. Iraq’s outgoing prime minister said Tuesday that since the Islamic State’s territory has largely been recaptured, the U.S. is now using Iraqi soil to fight a proxy war with Iran.

Sako said in a statement on Saturday that Iraqis were “shocked” by the events of the last week. 

“It is deplorable that our country should be transformed into a place where scores are settled rather than being a sovereign nation, capable of protecting its own land, its own wealth, its own citizens,” Sako said, according to Vatican News. “In the face of this delicate and dangerous situation, we implore all the parties involved to exercise moderation, to demonstrate wisdom, to act reasonably and to sit down at the negotiating table to dialogue and seek understanding so that this country might be spared unimaginable consequences.”

Iraqi Christians attend a mass at St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad on July 20, 2014.

Iraqi Christians attend a mass at St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad on July 20, 2014.

The Chaldean Catholic Church is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church but maintains its own Eastern liturgy and traditions. Chaldean Catholics are the most prominent Christian denomination in Iraq, according to the AP.

As minorities in Shiite-majority Iraq, the country’s Christians have long been concerned about the sectarian, quota-based political system introduced after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Last year, Sako spoke up in solidarity with a protest movement sweeping Iraq that called for a complete overhaul of that political system and the end of Iran’s influence in Iraqi affairs. Massive anti-government protests broke out in Iraq in October, just as the country was beginning to recover from its years-long fight against the Islamic State. Sako called on Iraqi politicians to listen to protesters’ demands and find solutions through talks instead of military action, the AP reported.

Iraq’s Christian community has dwindled significantly over the years. As the Islamic State grew in power, Christians fled or were forcibly displaced from their homes after being targeted by the extremists. 

Before the U.S. invaded Iraq 16 years ago, Christians were about 6% of the population. Today, the Christian population is estimated to be less than a third of that, the AP reported. 

On Saturday, Sako said he was praying for stability.

“We lift our prayer to Almighty God so that He might grant Iraq and the region that peaceful, stable, safe ‘normal life’ that we desire,” the cardinal said in his statement.

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