“Faith is not to believe in an ideology. ISIS also has an ideology, but to believe means to love and to love means to live. This touches my heart. I think that today we are in need of an experience of faith as love rather than a speculative faith.” This was one of the central points said by the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Louis Raphael Sako.
Patriarch Sako, who underwent minor surgery at Padre Pio’s Hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo, spoke with ZENIT on topics ranging from veneration to Padre Pio in Baghdad to the difficulties faced by the Church in Iraq.
The first reflection is a personal feedback of the Patriarch, and it concerns his experience as a bedridden patient in Padre Pio’s Hospital. The Chaldean Patriarch was struck by the atmosphere in the Hospital, which Padre Pio called a “House of Relief from Suffering.” “A spirit of service, of availability, an epiphany of the smile. In my opinion, Padre Pio’s miracle was not that of the stigmata but this Hospital, which has incarnated the love of God,” Patriarch Sako said.
The conversation turned to the topic of suffering, which he said was a “wall of suffering.” “A human and Christian bond” is the only way to climb over it. He has experienced something like this these years in Iraq. A time of trial for all the Iraqi people and, particularly, for Christians, which includes an attempt to renew the significance of one’s faith. To centralize one’s faith in Christ, he noted, is what has to be done, even when one is unable to understand.
“If a Christian doesn’t have a mystical experience, he isn’t really a Christian. Faith is not a theoretical, speculative awareness; it is a mystery, a journey of love, of fidelity. And, little by little, one advances, one grows. We can’t understand everything. If one understands everything, then there is no more effort or progress. People often have difficulty in understanding all this. We must form them.”
Patriarch Sako went on to say that it is a reflection that makes us enter a field that calls for answers to the meaning of life, a hermeneutic of reference, which also inspires to proceed through more direct questions.
ZENIT: What you say can also be applied as a key to read what Christians are living at this time. We can’t understand everything; there is a plane that transcends us. However, how can we understand this time? What does this new season of persecutions say to the Christian experience?
Patriarch Sako: There is meaning — the priority of faith. These people sacrifice themselves for love of what lives. This blood has a very great and profound meaning. As Jesus said: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus is the model for them. The blood of the martyrs is a great strength and a source of hope for us. As Tertullian said: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of new Christians.” So we can say that it’s death, but it’s also life. As the Lord also said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). In my opinion, the West must see in the model of these martyrs a call, an appeal to conversion, to religiosity and to faith. If there are problems here today it’s because there is a void. Western society is losing its religious values; there is a culture of individualism, of pleasure, of money that does not satisfy man who has a tendency to the absolute.
ZENIT: A void of meaning in a society that has rendered uncertain the path of recognition of its own identity. In this connection, how can we interpret the phenomenon of foreign fighters. Perhaps at a time of weakness of identity, do identities arouse fascinations that manifest themselves in strong ways?
Patriarch Sako: I understand why these Western jihadists go to engage in a holy war, because they seek an ideal. ISIS shows force on the communicative plane but also on the religious. They have the ideal of creating a religious State. There is a sense of martyrdom. For them it is about a holy war. No war is ever just. They have an ideal of Paradise that stems from a literal interpretation of the Koran. There are so many militias in Baghdad. In Islam, religion is also politicized. Instead, religion must be separated from the State. They don’t understand pluralism, and they think that the others have falsified religion. The movement of Islamization corresponds to a mission that they believe they have had. Otherwise they think they’ll go to hell.
ZENIT: We could say that there is a problem in the approach to the Koran. We must remember that for the Muslim faithful, the Koran is recited because it is the direct word of God. The Jewish and Christian Scriptures, instead, present a mediated word. First there is the human cipher and then the divine (ex. from the Gospel according to Mark and then it is concluded proclaiming: the Word of God). Can this be one of the problems of fundamentalism?
Patriarch Sako: Yes, certainly. Let me give an example. In the Koran, there are the so-called “verses of the sword,” which in a certain way motivate the use of violence. Let us recall that Mohammed himself turned to the conquest of Mecca with an army. And the same dimension of the jihad goes from a mere spiritual, interior struggle – we think in the Christian realm of the Desert Fathers –, to a struggle that singles out the enemy outside. Muslims must read these texts in a symbolic way. They must be able to engage in exegesis. They don’t have a hermeneutic. When ISIS decapitates someone, it does so according to an interpretation of the Islamic law. For them, God has said this. Everything is divine and somewhat magical. They do it in keeping with their faith.
ZENIT: What areas exist in the diocese of Baghdad and in the Iraqi Church in general for dialogue between Christians and Muslims?
Patriarch Sako: The dimension of suffering, on the purely human plane, brings the two religions close. For instance, in Baghdad there is a Hospital, “Saint Raphael’s,” where Muslims and Christians are received. And in every room of the hospital there is a cross and also an image of Our Lady. Padre Pio is also a reason for encounter between Muslims and Christians. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Baghdad, in the Parish of the Blessed Virgin Mary — where Auxiliary Bishop Warduni is the parish priest –, there is a statue of Padre Pio. People know him. Both Christians and Muslims pause to pray there. These are small examples that show us that dialogue is possible. It is up to us Christians to take the initiative. The Christian presence in Iraq is important. We help Muslims to open themselves.
ZENIT: What would you advise the world and the men of our time?
Patriarch Sako: For a better world there must be: a reform of religions, in the sense that they are called to re-propose, to “update,” to re-evangelize and hence to render their message accessible. Secondly, it is necessary to give meaning and new hope to human life. A more just and open international policy that respects everyone’s human rights is needed. Every man is made in the image and likeness of God. Finally, there is an urgent need for economic reform. There must be more justice between the rich and the poor.
ZENIT: What is your opinion on the Libyan crisis, on the advance of the so-called ‘Caliphate’ and the strategy of the strong communicative impact of the Islamic State’s reference to Rome?
Patriarch Sako: It’s a trap. Italy must be careful not to engage in war. One can choose to control the border but, perhaps, it’s more important to monitor those who are there. The sleeper fundamentalist groups are more dangerous. It’s better not to start a war, which then has no end as the Americans did in Iraq. And now we also have the war in Syria of four years.
ZENIT: Your Excellency, a question that calls on your experience as a Patrologist. The Fathers of the Church tell us that ire, anger, is always born from a wound. How should this be read in regard to what is happening?
Patriarch Sako: Today we find ourselves before a wounded man. We have nine spiritual pathologies. It is no accident that Pope Francis speaks of a Church as a field hospital after a battle. The intervention of Western military forces in Iraq entailed the destruction of everything, thinking that it would be possible to begin something new. But how? Perhaps the question wasn’t studied well. There was the change of regime, but the people expected something more. Where is the security? There is no life without security. It is necessary to educate people to freedom and to responsibility, to democracy. A war is always something evil and it opens new wounds, many of which are not yet healed.
ZENIT: How does the Iraqi Church come close to the sufferings of her people?
Patriarch Sako: We can summarize it in three points: service to the poor and the least among us; protection and preservation of the Christian identity and then dialogue with the Muslim religion.
Then we must give priority to displaced families. We have close to 120,000 Christians and more than 2 million Muslims. We ask ourselves how we can be close and present in the midst of the suffering people. We give them to eat, to drink, we give them medicines, we do what we can. The Church alone does this. The CEI [Italian Episcopal Conference] has helped us, also the Vatican and Caritas. The people are very struck when the Church is close. In the same way, however, we are called to defend and protect the Christian presence, the rights of Christians. On this point, an effort is being made with the Iraqi central government, because the Christian presence is important historically. Then we seek dialogue with the representatives of the Muslim religious authority.
ZENIT: Do you feel that Pope Francis has been close to the Iraqi people?
Patriarch Sako: Yes, certainly. I have met with him three times. He has always encouraged me and given me strength. He also sent two messages, a video message and a letter. The letter was read in the presence of Cardinal Barbarin; there was a procession and more than 5,000 Christians gathered in church. He is very close; he prays for us. Recently he also sent Cardinal Filoni as his Special Envoy.