So says new Chaldean Bishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, in an interview in this month’s issue of the Italian magazine Mondo e Missione.
Bishop Sako, named at the end of September and interviewed while in Italy as a guest of Pax Christi, is a top figure of the local Chaldean Church. A former rector of the seminary of Baghdad, he served as parish priest in the northern city of Mosul.
In recent months, he was elected by the population as the vice president of the interim Council of Mosul. But, being a priest, he refused the post in favor of another Chaldean representative. Here are some passages of the interview.
Q: How is life today in Iraq?
Bishop Sako: Saddam had transformed Iraq into an enormous military barracks. Two wars and 12 years of embargo resulted in a mass exodus of Iraqis abroad and a million deaths.
Today the people are happy about the change, the renewed possibility of freedom. In a few months, 80 new parties were formed, five of which are Christian. Freedom of press made possible the opening of dozens of new newspapers. Of these, six are Christian. There are also some Christian TV broadcasts originating in Mosul.
All this was not possible under Saddam!
Q: But the price of all this was a war.
Bishop Sako: Yes, but the target was not the civilians.
Q: You defend what the Americans did.
Bishop Sako: I am not trying to say that they are angels! They have their interests; they came to Iraq for that reason, not to free the Iraqis. But the fruit is, in fact, liberation.
Q: It is feared that Saddam’s men are still in circulation.
Bishop Sako: There are no longer any people tied to the dictator. There are instead Arab combatants that entered Iraq, paid by the fundamentalist movements of neighboring nations or even by their respective governments.
There are those who do not want an open and free Iraq. The authors of the continuing clashes are random splinters, without any popular support.
Q: Iraq is moving slowly toward democracy. Are you satisfied with the “experiments” under way, for example, in Mosul and Kirkuk?
Bishop Sako: Yes. The people appreciate freedom. At times they criticize the choices of the Americans, but the process under way is efficient. The population personally elected me as vice president of the interim Council of Mosul. I refused the post, but am still part of the council.
We are working with the Americans since last May and I am optimistic. Undoubtedly the U.S. made some mistakes.
Q: Such as?
Bishop Sako: Their reactions are slow and they above all have not understood the Iraqi mentality and habits, the story of the nation. But they have also done some good things. The problem is of not knowing who they can trust. They live in a constant state of mistrust; the soldiers tend to shoot on a slight hint of threat.
Q: Why do you say that the Americans do not understand the Iraqis?
Bishop Sako: We are moderates by nature; the extremisms taking place are fomented from outside. It is very evident that democracy in Iraq would preoccupy the surrounding nations.
Q: Should we hope for a domino effect, i.e. that a democratic solution in Iraq will bring positive consequences to the entire region?
Bishop Sako: I don’t know. The Iraqi population is among the most educated of the area. The embargo also largely affected education, but the Iraqi cultural and academic tradition is at a good level, even the Americans recognized this.
There is not the same level of education everywhere. What is certain is that your help is needed: Europe must pressure Iraq’s bordering nations. While we need to learn, American democracy is not the only model — Europe has a precious patrimony. The point today is to create an Iraqi-style democracy.
Q: You are in the process of writing your Constitution.
Bishop Sako: The national committee is at work and among its 200 members there are also five Christians [one of which is Bishop Sako]. But it takes time. The future will unfold with many small steps, the people must be formed to a new mentality.
Q: What role do you see for the Christians in this phase?
Bishop Sako: They have an important duty, despite their being relatively few. But ours is not a strength of numbers, but of culture, values, fraternity, and openness to friendly criticism.
Q: How much weight did the intervention of the Pope have in avoiding the conflict being seen as a religious war?
Bishop Sako: Extensive. The Muslims attempted to depict the war as a crusade against Islam. But they soon realized that the bombings touched everyone, Christians included, and understood that the U.S. was intervening in Iraq for economic and political reasons, not religious.
Q: What do you expect of the international community and churches abroad?
Bishop Sako: To not forget us! There are 700,000 Christians in Iraq. When in a year Iraq is out of the limelight, who will remember us? It already occurred with the Gulf War and embargo.
I launch an appeal to all the religious congregations: Come to Iraq to lend a hand, especially for formation and not only of Christians. We need to rebuild the actual Iraqi man, and we are not able to do it alone. Iraq has enormous economic potential, but spiritual resources are also needed.
Q: What future do you see for Iraq? What role do you see for the U.N.?
Bishop Sako: Europe must have a crucial role. There was extensive support before the war, while today we do not have any political support. A mistake: Europe must not leave the U.S. alone in the reconstruction of the nation.