One month after Pope Francis’s historic visit to Iraq, one of the country’s top Catholic prelates has outlined his vision for the country going forward, making the bold suggestion of enforcing a stricter separation between religion and the state.
In a written reflection on Pope Francis’s historic March 5-8 visit, Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako called the papal trip “an ideal opportunity that all Iraqis must take advantage of to return, with all their confessions and religions, to themselves and their patriotism.”
This, he said, involves “turning the page from the past and opening a new page for reconciliation,” strengthening a sense of national fraternity, respecting differences, fighting for peace, rebuilding the country’s crumbling institutions and allowing displaced people to return to their homes.
Speaking on the importance of human fraternity as the basis of a peaceful coexistence, Sako insisted that “Iraqis, in principle and by constitution, are citizens with equal rights and duties, and citizenship cannot be limited to religion, creed, region, race, or number.”
“Citizenship is a universal right for everyone,” he said, adding, “We must discover new horizons for our fellow citizens, so that everyone feels that Iraq is their home.”
In this regard, Sako suggested that perhaps now is the time “to separate religion from the state and build a civil state, as the Christians West has done for a long time, and as the state of Sudan is doing in these days!”
On March 25 the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), a powerful rebel group from the country’s southern Nuba Mountains, signed a document paving the way for a final peace agreement by guaranteeing freedom of worship to all, while ensuring the separation of religion and the state in a country long ruled by sharia law.
Iraq, though not formally an Islamic state, is a predominantly Shiite Muslim country which for decades has been plagued by sectarianism, including at the national level. These sectarian divisions are not enshrined in Iraq’s constitution; however, they are rooted in practice.
Christians in the country are a small minority, and they, like other minorities, have often faced discrimination, prejudice, and violent persecution, often describing their status as being one of “second-class citizens.”
In his statement, Sako stressed that creating a civil or secular state “is not hostile to religion, but rather respects all religions, and does not include religion in politics.”
“I think this is the guarantee of coexistence, ‘religion is about God and the nation is about everyone,’” he said, adding that it would be “A civil status which guarantees freedom of religion and worship for all Iraqis equally and protects the human rights contained in all international treaties.”
Focusing on Pope Francis’s call to human fraternity, Sako said this sense of brotherhood amid diversity is “the goal of all societies and religions, and it should be a key point to reject extremism and hatred.”
Adopting an attitude of fraternity, he said, will allow Iraq “to build trust amongst us so that we can move forward together as brothers and sisters with tolerance, love, and respect for diversity, and build a more peaceful, fairer, and more dignified world.”
Sako recalled the gestures Pope Francis made during his trip to reach out to different religious communities, including his March 6 meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the most influential authorities in Shia Islam, and his meeting with interreligious leaders on the Plain of Ur.
By meeting with representatives from different religious communities, the pope demonstrated that “human beings are children of God, brothers and sisters, with one another,” Sako said, adding, “Faith is a guarantee of their diversity, their freedom, and their rights.”
“There is no problem in for every individual following their religion and traditions, as long as they respect the religion of the other brother; not treating him as an unbeliever, or betraying him, or excluding him, or eliminating him,” he said. “This diversity comes from God’s will.”
Sako said some in the country misinterpreted Pope Francis’s remarks as calling for individual faith traditions to be dissolved in order to establish one single religion.
“That’s not true at all,” he said, insisting that “Fraternity does not mean dissolving religions identity into a single religion, but it is an invitation to each person to persevere in their own religion and their own convictions, while opening up and respecting the religion of their brother.”
“Brotherhood and diversity are the strength of our survival and our progress, we must live them in concrete daily practice,” he said, and offered several examples, including decision by Iraqi Prime Minister to declare March 6 – the day on which Pope Francis met with al-Sistani – as a national day of tolerance.
“We must not despair in the face of some obstacles, extremist currents or misconceptions, or give up in the face of division, but we must persevere in strengthening brotherhood and respect for diversity and work so that all can enjoy good and justice and live with joy and happiness as God wills,” Sako said.
He then offered four concrete proposals going forward, the first of which was to establish education and teaching programs aimed at building fraternal ties and strengthening their national identity of Iraqis.
Sako also proposed organizing awareness events and campaigns through seminars, conferences, and television programs which illustrate Iraq’s diverse culture while showing what different communities have in common.
The goal of this would be to foster respect for differences, he said, adding, “what unites us is much more than what divides us.”
Another suggestion Sako made was to build a national center including various classrooms and a library specialized in interreligious dialogue, which he said can help in “dismantling the phenomenon of fanaticism and preventing young people from adhering to it.”
He also asked that the Iraqi penal code obliging holy places to be protected and punishing offenses against religions and their symbols be implemented.
“We are sure that humanity will advance thanks to the many people of goodwill who give themselves without restrictions, even in a time of difficulty and uncertainty, to spread the culture of brotherhood and respect for the common good,” he said. “Let’s stick to the signs of hope.”