Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad stands with his crosier after being installed as the new head of the Chaldean Catholic Church at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baghdad March 6. (CNS photo/Saad Shalash, Reuters)
Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad stands with his crosier after being installed as the new head of the Chaldean Catholic Church at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baghdad March 6. (CNS photo/Saad Shalash, Reuters)

BAGHDAD (CNS) — The new patriarch of Chaldean Catholics pledged to foster coexistence and dialogue and urged Christian Iraqis not to leave their homeland, warning that if emigration continues, “there will be no more Christians in the Middle East.”

Ululating and applause nearly drowned out the choir as Patriarch Louis Sako approached the altar at St. Joseph Cathedral for his installation March 6 amid tight security.

The 64-year-old patriarch, who had served as archbishop of Kirkuk, Iraq, since 2003, replaces Cardinal Emmanuel-Karim Delly, 85.

“I open my heart and mind to you all carrying my motto: ‘Authenticity, Unity and Renewal,'” Patriarch Sako told church officials, religious, laypeople, imans and senior Iraqi officials gathered in the cathedral. Eastern Catholic leaders, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Sunni parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi were among those who attended the installation.

Of the challenges and risks facing him in his new mission, the patriarch said, “I refuse to put a black cloth over my eyes.

“My responsibility is huge, and the inheritance is very heavy, but I have a great hope … to face the reality objectively and clearly.”

The new patriarch pledged to work toward coexistence and dialogue, as he did in his previous assignments in Mosul and Kirkuk.

“I want to stimulate dialogue with my brothers, the Muslim imams, both Shiite and Sunni,” he said, thanking God that “I was always close to them in Mosul and Kirkuk.”

“We have a common message and we have to spread a culture of peace, harmony, brotherhood and mutual respect and make our churches and mosques luminous centers of spiritual and humane values,” Patriarch Sako said. “In this way, we can glorify God and become what Jesus called ‘blessed peacemakers.'”

“In the name of humanity and nationality, I urge everyone, governors and politicians, to dialogue calmly and to find consensus and appropriate solutions and to avoid all forms of intolerance, fanaticism, hatred and violence,” the patriarch said.

More than 72 churches have been attacked or bombed in Iraq since June 2004.

“These past years have been full of events and dangers, and still the shadow of fear, anxiety and death is hanging over our people. This can only end when we love each other and work together for the benefit of our homeland. Enough blood and destruction,” he said.

“True greatness is achieved not by domination, but by service and sacrifice to consolidate what is good, righteous and honest,” he added.

“Our prayer and hope is that peace, security and stability may soon return to our homeland so that it advances and prospers spiritually, scientifically, economically, and socially.”

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.

Addressing Iraqi Christians in particular, the Chaldean patriarch said: “I know your concern and fears. Overcome your fears, and face the reality with faith and hope.”

“You are not a minority in this country,” he said, reminding them that Christians have been there for more than 2,000 years, an important presence and witness.

“If emigration continues, God forbid, there will be no more Christians in the Middle East,” he warned. “It will be no more than a distant memory.”

Patriarch Sako thanked God and his brother bishops of the Chaldean Catholic Church, an Eastern rite, for choosing him as patriarch, a title that he stressed means “father of all.”

Patriarch Sako was chosen patriarch Jan. 31 in Rome in an election presided by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, and attended by 15 Chaldean bishops: seven from Iraq, two from Iran, two from the United, and one each from Lebanon, Syria, Australia and Canada. Pope Benedict XVI confirmed the election Feb. 1.

Noting that “the world around us has changed and we must change,” the new patriarch said “the church should change.”

Patriarch Sako was instrumental in calling for the special Synod of Bishops on the Middle East, which was held at the Vatican in October 2010 to address the plight of Christians in the region.

During his installation, Patriarch Sako said the Chaldean Catholic Church would renew its liturgy, its method of religious instruction and update its ecclesiastical structures.

“This renewal is aimed at helping the faithful’s understanding and participation in the Christian way of life and their attachment to Christ and his church,” he said.

Noting that the Chaldean Church is the largest Christian church in Iraq, Patriarch Sako also pledged to work toward the unity of Christians so that they can “stand together, witnessing to the love of God, his forgiveness and salvation.”