Perhaps the most authoritative Catholic voice in Iraq has argued that survival of Christianity in the country depends on creation of a secular state where all forms of sectarianism are eradicated, allowing the nation to become an example of respectful coexistence for the Middle East.

As the leader of a Christian community in the Middle East, “My concern is for peace, stability, and especially citizenship for all … to end this mentality of sectarianism, and this bad mentality of a lack of respect for non-Muslims,” said Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans.

Sako, who leads Iraq’s largest Catholic community, said gestures promoting brotherhood among Christians and Muslims, such as the Document on Human Fraternity signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed el-Tayeb, in Abu Dhabi in 2019, are important, but more needs to be done in the trenches.

“What we need,” he said, “are not only official statements, but concrete steps in people’s lives, programs in schools, etc., to bring this spirit of fraternity (and) to end this mentality that Christians are infidels.”

“I think the only future for countries in the Middle East is to set up a secular regime, and to respect religion,” he said, insisting that “a secular regime doesn’t mean the opposite of religion,” but it would give equal standing to all Iraqis, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation.

Sako spoke during an April 24 panel titled, “Future of Christianity in the Middle East,” which was organized by the Fellowship and Aid to the Christians of the East (FACE) charity organization. Also participating was British Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, Prefect emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, where he was the Vatican’s point man on Christian/Muslim relations, and who also spent six years as the Vatican’s ambassador to Egypt.

Alluding to the fact that Christians in Iraq and in many other countries throughout the Middle East have long complained about being treated as “second-class citizens” whose full rights are not always guaranteed or protected by law, Sako said this is the reason a secular state is necessary.

“We are one nation, and we are not divided,” he said, adding, “If I have some particularism, that doesn’t mean I am not Iraqi or that I am someone [from the] outside.”

In Sako’s view, when it comes to the interaction between religion and the government, the state is one thing, but “religion has its own principles which are stable in Islam, and also in Christianity,” and these principles ought to be recognized equally, which can’t happen without a secular state.

Recalling Pope Francis’s March 5-8 visit to Iraq, Sako pointed to the pope’s private meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the most authoritative leaders in Shia Islam, saying Al-Sistani is known for his moderate stance, supporting a complete “church-state” separation.

As Christians living in a region known for its cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, “We are here to bridge others, and to feel that we are also responsible for what they are living,” Sako said. “We have to help them to be much more open-minded and to see things with another vision.”

Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq has already helped move things in this direction, he said, saying the pope through his visit to Iraq “changed the mentality of people.”

“The mentality has changed,” he said, noting that this is due in part to the publicity the Catholic Church received thanks to the papal visit, which gave local Catholic communities both the opportunity and the platform to explain Christianity in a way most of the population had not been exposed to before.

“After the pope’s visit, something is moving in Iraqi society,” he said. “There is a respect for non-Muslims, especially Christians.”

The problem that still remains, he said, is how to rebuild trust between Christian and Muslim communities, as Christians for decades have been the victims of discrimination and violent persecution. Hundreds of thousands of Christians are still living outside of their homes and villages following ISIS’s 2014 conquest of the Nineveh Plain.

“They’ve suffered a lot from sectarian ideology,” Sako said. “As Christians we have to forgive, but we have to ask others to change their mentality, their culture. This is very basic to encourage people to go back home.”

Insisting that the ideology embraced by extremist groups such as ISIS still has not been eradicated, despite the group’s defeat in 2017, Sako said rebuilding trust is essential, and much of it depends on younger generations.

“I don’t have the power to change the mentality of the congregation,” he said, and urged the Iraqi government to revamp educational curricula and encouraged imams to revise their preaching so that any reference to Christians or other minorities as “infidels” or lesser citizens are removed.

Both Sako and Fitzgerald voiced hope that Iraq will one day become an example of interreligious harmony in the Middle East that other countries can emulate.

I want unity. When the Iraqi community is united and they are working as one team to build their country, then others will learn from them,” Sako said, adding that this could have an important impact in neighboring countries such as Syria and Lebanon.

“Lebanon was a message, but now no more,” he said, referring to the country’s ongoing civil and economic woes. “When you have a message, you have to achieve it in the concrete life, because something speculative or in theory is good, but it doesn’t touch people,” he said.

Recalling his time in Egypt, Fitzgerald in his remarks cautioned that each country in the Middle East is different, “so what happens in one doesn’t necessarily happen in the other, but it can be an example.”

However, “much of the solution is out of the hands of the religious leaders,” he said, insisting that a large part of the outcome “is also dependent on the West, because sanctions don’t help.”

Sanctions imposed in certain Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria, aimed at pressuring their leaders into ceding to certain demands in reality often “prevent people from having a prosperous life. They often inflict harm on those who are not responsible,” he said.

In terms of building a society of interreligious harmony and dialogue, “each country has its own tradition and its own makeup,” so each will have to find their own way, Fitzgerald said, adding, “Each country of the Middle East has to cooperate, and they do cooperate, and I think it can help together, and the West also needs to be ready to help.”