Iraq: Chaldean patriarch becomes Catholic Cardinal

A fascinating story from the New York Times Nov. 5. The Vatican seems to be sending an explicit message here about the need to protect Christians in Muslim lands. But note that the situation for Iraq’s Christians has dramatically worsened under the US occupation. And it is very refreshing that Emmanuel III Delly refuses to cast collective guilt on his Muslim neighbors, and explicitly repudiates the logic of sectarian cleansing:

2,000-Year-Old Christian Community in Iraq Gains a Spiritual First in Baghdad
BAGHDAD — There is neither a cross nor a sign on the heavy metal gate to indicate that this is the official residence of one of the country’s most prominent Christians, the first in Iraq in modern times to be elevated to cardinal by the Roman Catholic Church.

The simple structure, in a dilapidated neighborhood of this capital, opposite empty former ministry buildings, is the home of Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, whom the pope named on Oct. 17 to the College of Cardinals along with 22 others from around the world.

The only outward sign that this compound is Christian is in the garden, where a lawn surrounded by roses and zinnias is watched over by a graceful white statue of the Virgin Mary.

Many of his fellow cardinals come from Latin America, Africa and the Far East, places where Catholic practice is only a few hundred years old. But Cardinal Delly, 81, the patriarch of the Baghdad-based Chaldean Church, comes from Mosul, in northern Iraq, a place where Christian rites have been practiced for nearly 2,000 years.

There, as in Baghdad and other places where members of Iraq’s shrinking Christian population still live, it is possible to attend a Sunday Mass sung in Aramaic, one of the Semitic languages spoken at the time of Jesus.

“Christians and Muslims have lived together here for 1,400 years,” Cardinal Delly said in an interview. “We have much in common; in Iraq, the Christian house is next to the Muslim house.”

Cardinal Delly has a message honed from his many decades living in two worlds: that of Western Europe, where he studied, and that of the largely Muslim Middle East, which is his home.

“I am not happy when people ask, ‘How is the situation for Christians?'” he said. “Those who kill don’t kill only Christians. They kill Muslims as well — the situation is the same for both.”

The Chaldean Church is an Eastern Rite church affiliated with the Roman Catholics but allowed to retain its customs and rites, even when they differ from the traditions of the Roman church. Most Chaldeans live in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, with scattered communities elsewhere in the Middle East. There are two Chaldean communities in the United States, one near Detroit and one near San Diego.

The Chaldeans are the most numerous of Iraq’s Christians, although their numbers have plunged since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Although there is no census, Christian priests estimate that fewer than 500,000 Chaldeans are left in the country, about one million fewer than when Mr. Hussein was in power, when the country had about 24 million people. Other Christian sects with small populations in Iraq include Assyrian Christians, Armenian Christians and Sabeans, an ancient sect.

A fluent speaker of Italian, French and his native Arabic as well as some English — he spoke in Italian in this interview — Cardinal Delly has spent his life thinking about the common ground between Muslims and Christians.

He indicates that he views his role in a broad sense as an Iraqi spiritual leader. But he also has spoken up on behalf of Iraq’s Christians. During the summer, he and the Assyrian patriarch issued a call for help for Iraq’s Christians after a Chaldean priest and three assistants were killed in Mosul.

Iraq’s Christians have fared poorly since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, whose government treated them well, needing their support. They have been persecuted primarily by Sunni Arab extremists, who brand them apostates and in some areas have bombed their churches and burned their homes.

And because the Christian population is relatively well off, Christians also have been the targets of kidnappings. Many of those who lived in Baghdad and surrounding areas have moved back to northern Iraq, which was traditionally where most Christians lived. Many more have fled to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon or — when they can manage it — Western Europe.

Cardinal Delly met recently with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to plead for protection for Christians. During the writing of the Iraqi Constitution, he met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite religious leader in Najaf, who shares his ecumenical views on faith.

The new cardinal was born in Mosul to a Christian family in which several close relatives also became priests. His maternal grandfather became a priest, as did several cousins. He went to school there until he was 19, when he left for Rome to study. He stayed 14 years, traveling through Europe to holy places and completing his studies. He obtained three degrees — a master’s in philosophy, a doctorate in theology and a doctorate in canon law — and his studies included the Koran.

In philosophy he chose to study Abu Nasr al-Farabi, an eminent early Islamic philosopher. For his doctorate in theology, he wrote on a debate about religion and virtue between a 10th-century Christian bishop and the Muslim minister of Morocco.

“The Christian house is next to the Muslim house,” he said. “Each has his own religion, each defends his own home, each defends his religion.

“But your faith is for God, the country is for everyone.” [Link added.]

The Oct. 30 AP account, online at the Assyrian International News Agency, actually dares to use the word “optimism”:

BAGHDAD — The Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad—recently named Iraq’s first cardinal —said Tuesday that rising violence has made life worse for Iraqi Christians since the U.S.-led invasion, but he was optimistic that “peace will prevail.”

Emmanuel III Delly, who will go to Rome next month to collect his red hat, must balance the dangers facing Iraq’s small Christian community with a mission to reach out to Muslims.

The 80-year-old head of the ancient Chaldean Church in Iraq, said the hopes of freedom in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003 had given way to widespread fear.

“We had hoped that the situation would be better,” he told The Associated Press during an interview at his guarded compound in western Baghdad. “In fact it is worse.”

“Car bombs, roadside bombs, killings, assassinations. All of these things were not happening in the past,” he said. “There was stability and security.”

But Delly, who was one of 23 new cardinals named by Pope Benedict XVI earlier this month, blamed the violence on extremists and said it was his job to reach out to Muslims and followers of other faiths in Iraq to promote unity.

I pray everyday to God to enlighten the minds of the officials and guide them to the road of peace and reconciliation,” he said.

The Chaldean spiritual leader said he visits leaders from both Islamic sects during their holy days and they do the same on Christian holidays. He also received “hundreds of calls from Sunnis and Shiites” congratulating him on his promotion to cardinal.

“We all want peace,” he said in an ornate reception room in a building off a courtyard lined with flower bushes and a statue of the Virgin Mary in the center. “We should accomplish this with actions and not only with words.”

Delly has been outspoken in the past about the need to protect Christians, who comprise some 3 percent of Iraq’s 26 million population, from the rampant violence in the country.

In May, he issued a joint statement with Patriarch Mar Dinka IV of the Catholic Assyrian Church of the East claiming that Christians in a number of Iraqi regions had faced “blackmail, kidnapping and displacement” at the hands of Sunni insurgents led by al-Qaida in Iraq and complaining that the government “has kept silent and not taken a firm stance to stop their expansion.

But he had only a message of unity on Tuesday, saying that Iraqis of all sects have suffered from the chaos and he was optimistic that the security situation was improving.

“We have been living with our Muslim brothers for 14 generations and we have common interests with each other,” he said. “The danger is hitting everybody without exception. We pray to God that peace will prevail and every one of us should work for peace.”

See our last posts on Iraq, and Iraq’s Christians and other threatened minorities. See also our last post on the politics of the Vatican.