Pope Benedict XVI meets in a private audience with Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, the new patriarch of the Iraq-based Chaldean Catholic Church, Feb. 4 at the Vatican. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
Pope Benedict XVI meets in a private audience with Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, the new patriarch of the Iraq-based Chaldean Catholic Church, Feb. 4 at the Vatican. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The new head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad, told his fellow Chaldean bishops and Vatican officials, “We want to follow the example of our martyrs who gave their lives for Christ.”

The new patriarch, elected head of the Iraq-based church late Jan. 31, celebrated the Qurbana — the Chaldean eucharistic liturgy — in St. Peter’s Basilica Feb. 4 and then made a formal profession of faith in front of St. Peter’s tomb.

Just before the liturgy, he and the 14 other Chaldean Catholic bishops met Pope Benedict XVI, who formally recognized the election of the new patriarch Feb. 1.

As is customary for the patriarchs of the Eastern churches in union with Rome, newly elected Patriarch Sako formally requested communion, or unity, with the pope. The pope extended “ecclesial communion” to him and asked Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, to co-preside in his name over the Feb. 4 Qurbana as a public sign of their full unity.

At the liturgy, Patriarch Sako said that despite the suffering of Chaldean Catholics in Iraq over the past decade, “our faith encourages us to continue to hope and to love.”

In Iraq and throughout the Middle East, he said, Christians have and continue to make important contributions to the culture and development of their countries.

“Despite the wave of violence that seems to dominate the region today,” he said, Christians “want to live in their lands and in their churches in peace, freedom and dignity, working with their fellow citizens to establish peaceful coexistence and an open and pluralistic society.”

The new patriarch also publicly thanked his predecessor, 85-year-old Cardinal Emmanuel-Karim Delly, for his service and sacrifices “during a difficult and critical period” in the history of Iraq and its Christian communities.

Patriarch Sako was elected after four full days of prayer and discussion at the Passionist convent in Rome. He took Louis Raphael I as his patriarchal name.

The new patriarch chose “authenticity, unity, renewal” as his patriarchal motto and told the Vatican’s Fides news agency, “We find ourselves facing so many difficulties, inside and outside the country, but with Christ’s help and with the collaboration of the bishops, we will find a way to live a unity that will enable us to rebuild.”

As Iraq continues to struggle with the aftermath of war, “the Chaldean church must be a sign of hope, witness and communion, despite the difficulties,” he told Fides.

Patriarch Sako said he and his fellow Iraqis must work together “to defend human dignity and peaceful coexistence based on equal rights and obligations for all citizens.”

Iraq’s Christian population, believed to number up to 1.4 million in the late 1990s, now is believed to be significantly fewer than 500,000. Almost two-thirds of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church.

Due to a large and steady stream of refugees since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Chaldean Catholics have become the largest Eastern Catholic community in the United States. The two U.S. Chaldean dioceses, one based in Detroit and the other in San Diego, count more than 165,000 faithful. About 38,000 Chaldean Catholics are served by a Toronto-based eparchy and another 35,000 belong to an eparchy in Sydney.

Cardinal Sandri presided over the election in Rome. He told Vatican Radio that Patriarch Sako was well-equipped for his new position, especially because “he lived close to the blood of the martyrs, of all those who suffered from the violence,” whether they were Christian or Muslim.

In January 2012, gunmen shooting at guards keeping watch over Archbishop Sako’s residence in Kirkuk in northern Iraq triggered a firefight, leaving two of the gunmen dead and five policemen wounded. At the time, the archbishop said he believed the gunmen had the wrong target and police said they thought the intended victim was a member of parliament who lived next door to the archbishop.

As archbishop, he repeatedly pleaded to the government and the international community to do more to re-establish peace and security in the country, and he urged all Christians and Muslims to renounce violence.

In a 2010 statement marking the beginning of his Muslim neighbors’ Ramadan fast, he said the annual fast was “an occasion to find the courage for forgiveness and to realize reconciliation and justice, to heal the wounds of Iraqis and to once again find peace, security and stability.”

In the same message, he also asked “Christians to respect the feelings of their Muslim brothers and sisters, to not eat in public and to wear modest clothing, joining them in their prayers for peace and stability.”

The new patriarch was born July 4, 1948, in Zakho and studied at the Dominican-run St. John Seminary in Mosul. Ordained to the priesthood in 1974, he served at the Mosul cathedral for five years before being sent to Rome for studies. He earned a doctorate from Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute and then a doctorate in history from the Sorbonne in Paris.

Returning to Mosul in 1986, he served as pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish and, during the U.S.-led embargo of Iraq, he and several physicians and pharmacists opened a dispensary for the poor.

In 1997, he was named to a five-year term as rector of the patriarchal seminary in Baghdad. In 2002, the Chaldean bishops’ synod elected him archbishop of Kirkuk, an election approved by Blessed John Paul II in 2003Chaldean Catholic bishops elect Kirkuk archbishop as new patriarch

 — By Cindy Wooden Catholic News Service