Iraqi Church Head Pressing for Peace

akrawi.jpgThe head of Iraq’s largest Christian group said violence is worse in the country for Iraqi Christians than before the U.S.-led offense, but he is praying and making efforts so that “peace will prevail.”

Emmanuel III Delly, who was recently named Iraq’s first Catholic cardinal, said that the situation after Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003 is worse than expected, according to The Associated Press.

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

He blamed the violence on extremists and has made it his mission to reach out to Muslims and followers of other faiths to promote unity.

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

The 80-year-old Chaldean priest visits Shiite and Sunni leaders during their holy days and they return the visits on Christian holidays. Delly said he received “hundreds of calls” from Sunni and Shiites congratulating him on his new cardinal status.

“We all want peace,” he said. “We should accomplish this with actions and not only with words.”

Delly has championed the need to protect Christians, who make up less than three percent of Iraq’s 26-million population.

He has complained that the government “has kept silent and not taken a firm stance,” in response to Christian persecution by Islamic extremists, according to AP.

The Christian population in Iraq, composed mostly of Chaldeans, is only about 600,000 – down from 1.2 million before the 2003 U.S.-led offensive. And while Christians now account for less than three percent of Iraq’s population, they make up nearly half of all the refugees fleeing the country, according to estimates by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nearly 2.2 million Iraqis have left the country.

Delly also noted Tuesday that Iraqis have all suffered from the instability and violence and said he is optimistic security is improving.

“We have been living with our Muslim brothers for 14 generations and we have common interests with each other,” the patriarch 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.”

Last weekend, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to protect and support Iraq’s Christian community – which is especially vulnerable without political or military defense.

“He told me he is doing his best to make Iraqis feel comfortable and live in peace in Iraq. I told him it is our duty to work for peace,” Delly said. “We are working for the sake of all Iraqis.”

Delly is one of the 23 new cardinals named by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 17. He will go to the Vatican this month to receive his cardinal’s red hat.