BAGHDAD (AP) — As Iraq emerges from more than three years of war with the Islamic State group, battling an extremist "mentality" will be the key to peaceful coexistence among the country's religious and ethnic groups, the top Chaldean Catholic Church official tells The Associated Press.
Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, leader of the Iraq-based church, also appealed for an end to discrimination against Christians in Iraq and the reconstruction of Christian areas in the country's north left in ruins by the war to enable Christian families to return.
Once a vibrant community that enjoyed protection and near equal rights with the Muslim majority under the rule of Saddam Hussein, the number of Iraq's Christians has steadily dwindled since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion as they have been targeted by Islamic militants, forcing the majority to flee the country.
During the Islamic State group's onslaught across northern and western Iraq in 2014, thousands of Christians in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, fled as the extremists forced them to convert to Islam or pay a special tax, and often confiscated their property.
"They have this feeling that Islam is the completion of religion, is the only true religion and the others have been falsified," Sako told the AP on Monday at the headquarters of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate of Babylon, based in Baghdad.
"This is very bad, this mentality," he said.
Since 2003, the number of Christians in Iraq has decreased to around half a million from an estimated 1.5 million, Sako lamented. Among the more than 3 million people who have been displaced inside the country since 2014 are 120,000 Christians, all of them aided by the Church as "the government gave nothing," he said.
"We feel that we are marginalized ... this is our land, we were here before the arrival of Islam and here the majority was Christian," Sako said.
Some Christians managed to return to villages and towns in Nineveh Plain outside Mosul, but none have yet returned to the city itself, where 25 churches suffered damage and were ransacked, he said.
"Now, what we are expecting as Christians, but also as Iraqis, from the government and also the international community is security and stability, also the construction of the villages, infrastructure, houses, but the priority is for security and stability otherwise people are not going back home," he said.
"This is the responsibility of the Iraqi government, but it is also the (responsibility of the) international community and especially it is the moral responsibility of America for they are also the reason behind what we lived out during 15 years after 2003," the patriarch said, referring to the year of the U.S.-led invasion.
The Iraqi government has declared the war against ISIS over after driving the extremists from all territory they controlled in 2014, but discrimination against Christians by Muslims has not ended, Sako said.
During a Friday sermon in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, which was never under Islamic State control, a Sunni cleric described Christians as "infidels" and called on Muslims not to take part in Christmas celebrations and not to congratulate the Christians on the occasion. The same statements are also coming out from some mosques in the northern Kurdish self-ruled region, Sako said.
"This is bad, they are spreading hatred, this is not religion," he said.
Asked whether such mentality is a major obstacle toward reconciliation in the country, Sako said: "Yeah, sure."
"Daesh is done geographically, but it is not done yet ideologically," he warned, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. "So all efforts must come together to change the concept of Daesh or Daesh interpretations, change the mentality, change the culture."
Sako called on Muslim leaders to "update" their religious messages and interpretations.
"We are not as it was in the middle ages," he said. "I think we are all brothers and sisters, we have to respect each other beyond our religion or ethnicity."
Sako called for reconsidering the "unjust" laws and constitution articles that deal with minorities in Iraq as well as the education curriculums that should give a space for the history and heritage of Christianity as "it never mentions our history and heritage, which goes back 700 years before Islam."
"This is a kind of genocide," he said. "Genocide does not necessarily mean we kill each other but it can also be achieved by erasing the memory."
"I think we need today to change the mentality of the culture, the education at the schools, media and look for a roadmap for the future of Iraq, but for all together not only for a group against other group," he added.