Pope appeals for Iraqi Church to be a “bridge” in encounter with Muslims

Patriarch Sako : Pope appeals for Iraqi Church to be a “bridge” in encounter with Muslims

by Dario Salvi
Mar Louis Raphael I speaks to AsiaNews about the guidelines of the new mission, based on unity and dialogue beginning with a “common and reformed liturgy.” Renewed cooperation among the bishops, an element of strength in discussions with political and religious leaders. The hope that the “message” of Islam will prevail and not “rules and systems.”

Rome (AsiaNews) – The Chaldean Church must remain a “bridge” to promote and strengthen the dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Iraq, between citizens of different ethnic groups as well as between institutions and politics. This is Benedict XVI’s invitation to the new Chaldean Patriarch, as told in a lengthy interview with AsiaNews.  Mar Louis Raphael I Sako was appointed on 31 January to succeed Card. Emmanuel Delly III, who resigned for reasons of age. The Chaldean “mini Conclave” which started on 28 January in Rome, was attended by Chaldean 15 bishops, including seven from Iraq, two from Iran, two from the U.S., and one each from Lebanon, Syria, Australia and Canada . The Archbishop of Kirkuk – who will soon leave the north bound for Baghdad – confirms that his goals will be “unity and cooperation” between the Chaldean bishops, the necessary condition to find a point of contact and dialogue with Iraqi leaders, both religious and political. Among the first objectives to be achieved, says His Beatitude, is the reform of the liturgy, which he considers “a mess.”

At the same time the newly elected Patriarch, who returns to Iraq today, has not forgotten the plight of Iraqi Christian refugees, who should be ensured “the conditions” for their return home: housing, jobs, schools, infrastructure and security. A long-time advocate and promoter of interfaith dialogue, Mar Louis Raphael I says he is “very determined” to open a round table with the leadership of the capital, after receiving the “best wishes” from religious leaders and leaders of the main political and highest institutional offices. And hope that, even in the Islamic world, “the message” brought by Muhammad and “the sense that gives our lives” will prevail over systems or laws that “ultimately suffocate freedom.

Here, below, the new Chaldean Patriarch’s interview with AsiaNews:

Your Beatitude, what did Pope Benedict XVI have to say to you when you met after your election?

The Pope’s concern for the Iraqi church deeply impressed me. He spent time speaking with each of us bishops. I wanted to thank him for his closeness and prayer and, jokingly, I said that “I feel uncomfortable” wearing these red vestments (in the photo), I’m not used to them. Benedict XVI reiterated that he will continue to pray for us and said he was “very happy” for the unity that emerged within the Chaldean episcopate, a unity of purpose that emerged in the vote for the election of the Patriarch. So, this is very positive and important for a Church which, until recently, was divided. We had a two-day meeting just among ourselves, all the bishops together: we discussed the situation in Iraq, peace and security. The Pope appealed to me so that we remain, as in the past, a bridge for all, between Christians and Muslims and between Iraqi citizens. Among other things, I brought the greetings of two imams, a Shiite and a Sunni, and he was pleasantly surprised and thanked them. I would say that there were no great speeches, but he spoke with his heart, what he said, came from the heart and not from the pen.

In your new post of Patriarch will you work – as you did before as bishop – for the unity of Chaldean Christians?

Unity is a much needed value for Christians and for the whole country, because you can not promote the unity of a group if all others are divided. What is certain is that a common vision among the Christians can help the unity of the nation function. If we are one body with one voice, we can also become a bridge to help others through unity and dialogue. The recent attacks in the country, the bombings in Kirkuk, Mosul and Baghdad are politically motivated, which is why I have always wanted to strongly condemn them. Also because, as has happened in recent days in the north (in Kirkuk attack against a police headquarters with dozens of victims, ed) in all the massacres, the innocent people are always the first to die.

Another long-standing problem, the exodus of Christians: what is the situation and what will you do to contain it?
The situation is critical, and even today, it remains very difficult. In recent days I have received many telegrams from the head of state, the government, the ministers, the President of Parliament, Muslim religious leaders (Sunni and Shiite) and all agree that something must be done to stop or at least slow down the exodus of Christians. In these days in Rome we had two meetings with all the bishops present, speaking of viable ways to concretely curb this exodus.

First of all we must visit and help the refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. At the same time, we must seek a meeting with the leaders of the government of Kurdistan and establish conditions under which Christians will be able to return to their land. The preconditions are that we can provide them with a home, work, schools, and infrastructure, all of this necessary. And then restore their confidence in the country, because that is what people have lost: hope and confidence.

As Patriarch what directives will you be giving to the Iraqi Church: what reforms are urgently needed?

First of all, the liturgy, which is a state of chaos in the Chaldean Church. Take, for example, the Mass, each diocese has its own missal, every priest celebrates in a different way. Having a common and reformed liturgy single to the entire Church … this is a project that I really care about. This is not to say that there will be no freedom for the individual dioceses, but one point can not be ignored: there must be the same mass in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Kurdistan and also throughout the Chaldean Diaspora in the world. Even if it is translated into the national or local language, that is not a problem, as long as the liturgical norms to be respected remain, even this can become an element of unity.
In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “the liturgy is for the man” and the man should not remain subject to the liturgy. There is a movement among us who want the liturgy is rigid, as if it were the “Word of God”, but it is not so! So, reform or, better said, the updating of it is absolutely necessary for people to understand what happens during the celebration, which remains a celebration, and the faithful must be able to understand it fully.

On the subject of relations with Islam, would you like to continue the process of dialogue initiated in Kirkuk?

In the north we have launched an intense dialogue, I will not forget the years spent in Kirkuk and the work done, although now my new assignment will take me to Baghdad. From the capital I will try to talk with the government, bring together Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. I am very determined to open a dialogue with the authorities and the leaders of Baghdad, who have a greater weight than the leaders of Kirkuk. The ground is prepared: they sent me greetings via television and email, I think disinterested, honest and sincere dialogue is possible. Because there is also love and respect on their side. In addition to the awareness that we Christians are in Iraq also for our Muslim brothers. Religion is one thing, while citizenship is another and different from faith.

Do you think we will ever see the concept of “secular states” even in Muslim countries?

I think it will be very difficult, because they have a negative and pejorative concept of the secular state, with respect to the meaning that is given in the West. It is somehow perceived as a cancelling out of differences and amounts, in essence, to an atheist State which is neither conceivable nor acceptable. Perhaps a civil society that respects religion, without mixing with politics, could be a strong point.

Your Beatitude, in this “Arab Winter” as you recently termed it, what prospects are there for the Middle East and the Arab countries?

At the beginning the possibility of an Arab Spring was envisaged for all, made of freedom, progress, happiness and a net change in the politics. However, it was not an organized movement and others have taken advantage of this. Now the goal is to create nations and states based on Sharia, or Islamic law, but it is an anti-historical idea: it is not possible to live in a religious state, which considers all the same in the observance of the one faith in an era of pluralism and affirmation of different souls. You can not annihilate diversity under one mantle dictated by religion. The fact remains that this spring dreamed up by promoters is increasingly becoming a “terrible winter.”

So the real challenge is to create a dialogue in diversity …

I think that those who want an Islamic state like in the seventh century are wrong, because it is not possible. If they are sincere to the spirit of Islam, they must be distinguished the message, – as the Christians did over time – the essentials for people today, from the canons, from law. The message is one thing, the rules dictated by Sharia are anything but. These laws that were good for the people of the seventh century, now no longer work and can not be applied in the same way. Instead, it must be the message, the sense that it gives our lives and not the systems that ultimately stifle freedom.

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