Keeping Christianity alive in Iraq

artpatriarch1.jpgBy Frederik Pleitgen and Saad Abedine
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — “Peace for all believers,” the congregation at the Sacred Heart church in Eastern Baghdad sings, as the Patriarch, Emmanuel III Delly, holds a heavy cross in his hands, his eyes closed.

He seems focused on the hard work that lies ahead.

Pope Benedict XVI recently appointed the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church for Babylon, an ancient denomination with roots in the age of Jesus Christ, a cardinal.

Emmanuel III is the first Iraqi to be elevated to that status and will receive his ordination on November 24 in Rome.

That means somewhere down the line, Emmanuel III could become Pope.

But the task at hand now is more pressing. The Vatican has charged Emmanuel III with nothing less than keeping Christianity alive in war-torn Iraq, where thousands of Christians, most of them Chaldeans and Assyrians, have fled the country and hundreds have been killed.

Iraq’s Christian Community is shrinking fast and the bloodletting becomes clear even at the Cardinal’s service at the Sacred Heart Church.

The room is only half full with those who have braved the danger of an early morning Baghdad commute to pray for peace for their fellow Christians, for Iraq, and for the entire world.

Some of them were in tears as they sang songs of hope in this time of despair.

“In the last few years there was an increase in the number of the cases of kidnapping, robbery, theft, killing, car bombs and explosive devices, and that scared so many,” the cardinal told reporters at an interview at the Chaldean Church’s headquarters in western Baghdad.

The cardinal’s residence is a simple bungalow structure and the visitors’ room is almost bare — a wall carpet depicting Jesus Christ on the cross is practically the only decoration.

“A gift from Iran,” the Cardinal’s assistant says with a smile as we wait for Emmanuel III to arrive.

The 80-year-old cardinal is only about 1.6 meters (5ft 3in) tall, and his body seems frail as he moves slowly across the room, but his eyes are wide-awake and penetrating as he gleams through his large gold-framed glasses.

Right from the start he makes it clear, this won’t be an interview about Christian hardship in Iraq alone.

“In reality this is a question I don’t like very much and I know journalists always ask me that question,” he says, a little uneasy.

“What’s happening to the Christian is happening to the Muslims as well.”

Emmanuel III was born in 1927 in the tiny village Talkif near Mosul in Northern Iraq, where Christians have been practicing their religion for around 2,000 years and some still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

“The Christians are natives to this country,” the Cardinal says. “Our civilization has been deeply rooted in this country for thousands of years.”

In 1946, he went to Rome to study religion. The Italian capital lay in ruins and Delly recalls seeing the destruction caused by World War II, and the human suffering, first hand.

It was during his time in Italy that two of his life’s guiding principles evolved: His distaste for war and his deep commitment to dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Delly wrote his PhD thesis on the relationship between Catholicism and Islam, discussing, “the existence of God according to Abu Nasr Al-Farabi,” a Muslim philosopher.

“We are brothers and we have been living together for 14 centuries, all of us need to work together to advance the Iraqi family,” Cardinal Delly says, but he realizes things aren’t that simple in today’s Iraq.

“Even an earthworm, if touched, will cringe fearing it will get hurt,” he says in a serious voice as he talks about the thousands of Christians who have fled their homes since Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in 2003.

At least some of the violence in Iraq today is directed at the country’s Christians. Churches have been bombed, priests kidnapped and killed.

Christianity in Iraq is in a fight for survival and Emmanuel III is trying to use his clout to make a difference.

He has lobbied Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to do more to protect Christians and has held talks with influential Muslim leaders, like the powerful Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani.

“We will do all we can so they can live a good life and enjoy freedom and we hope they will return to the motherland, but if we want them to return, we must carry out giant steps starting now,” the cardinal says, moving forward in his chair to emphasize his point.

The “giant steps” the cardinal talks about do not only involve better security for the country’s Christians. “We must build factories, small factories, small projects in our villages,” he says, emphasizing his belief that not just faith, but prosperity will lead the country out of its current crisis.

“We need to start with a few projects in our villages in the north and south so the youth will stay, and the youth will work so they can earn their living and only then will they come back to the country.”

And Cardinal Emmanuel III says he is confident Christianity in Iraq will make a comeback and flourish again.

His message is a message of hope and reconciliation, which he preaches to those at the service at the Sacred Heart Church in Eastern Baghdad. Many of those singing along have little more than hope left in their lives.