Patriarch Delly resigns: The good and bad news about the Chaldeans’ future

Emmanuel III Delly
The resignation of Cardinal Emmanuel Delly as Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, opens up new possibilities for the Eastern Catholic Church, which has suffered the most from the Middle Eastern upheavals that have rocked the region in recent years
Gianni Valente

In December 2003, in Rome, the then 76 year old Emmanuel Delly – who was ordained to the priesthood in the Pontifical Urban College of “Propaganda Fide”, in 1952 – had been appointed “transitional” Patriarch after a previous electoral assembly of the Chaldean synod in Baghdad failed to choose a candidate. The Jesuit Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo and the Bishop of San Diego, California, Sarhad Jammo, a strong figure among the rich Iraqi diaspora in the U.S. failed to reach the required two thirds majorities after coming head to head in the assembly. The electoral dispute was not lacking in cheap shots, such as the uncalled for accusations made against Bishop Audo who had apparently connived with the Baathist party. At the electoral synod in Rome, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches – then led by the former Syro-Catholic Patriarch, Cardinal Ignace Moussa I Daoud – had expressed the hope that the new Patriarch would be resident in Iraq and not abroad. This implied that in the case of another deadlock, the Pope would choose the Patriarch himself. As an interim solution, the Auxiliary Emeritus Bishop of Baghdad, Emmanuel Delly was called back to fill the position. He had resigned from his 30 year role as Patriarch a year before this, as he had reached retirement age.

Delly’s Patriarchate coincided with one of the most difficult periods in recent Iraqi Christian history. They became easy victims in the settling of scores between the Sunnis and Shiite extremists. These were the years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, of attacks on churches, of kidnappings, “religious cleansing” operations against Christian neighbourhoods in Baghdad and Mossul and mass escapes to Syria, Lebanon and Western countries. In some cases, the famous “al-jezia” tax was reintroduced. Criminal groups imposed this tax on Christian families as a sort of payment to avoid being massacred or chased from their homes. The Baghdad-based seminary was moved up north for security reasons, as was Babel College, the Pontifical Faculty of Philosophy and Theology, which the U.S. had turned into barracks without the Patriarchate’s consent. Iraqi Christian groups have defined the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq a “malicious conspiracy”. It is likely that this malice will lead to the extinction of one of the world’s most ancient Christian nation on its own soil, American political scientist and analyst, Glen Clancy, stated.

The Chaldean Church is not extinct. But according to some Iraqi bishops, the Patriarch was not up to the task as leader in the face of such a painful and complex situation. In June 2007, the five Chaldean bishops of northern Iraq boycotted an assembly held by the synod and proceeded to publish a communiqué explaining their reasons for this. In the statement, they also complained about the insane conditions the pastoral life and apostolic action of Chaldean communities had been reduced to. Finally, they opposed repeated plans to concentrate Iraqi Christian communities in the “safe haven” of the Niniveh plains “because the whole of Iraq is our homeland and we must be allowed to live alongside our fellow citizens in peace and harmony.”

Although plans for a systematic ghettoisation of Christians in the Niniveh plains have not yet materialised, there have in recent years been regular transferrals of communities and Chaldean pastoral centres which had previously been spread across urban centres like Baghdad and Basra, to the northern areas of Iraqi Kurdistan which are relatively calmer. So now, the Chaldean Church also has to deal with the political-military tug of war going on between the central government and Kurdistan’s autonomous regional administration. Despite all this, the Chaldean community has managed to stay active and maintain its traditions. For example, work has started on a new Catholic university in Ankawa and the community has rejected proposals for the creation of armed religious militias that would defend their respective ethnic and religious communities. The various political leaders at war have issued official statements, recognising the constructive and stabilising contribution Christian communities bring to the country’s rocky and uncertain social and political landscape. The Shiite leader, Al Maliki, has urged the European Union not to encourage the emigration of Iraqi Christians and claimed he asked Benedict XVI to send out a message to autonomous Iraqi Churches to remain rooted in their land of birth.

Whoever is chosen as the new Chaldean Patriarch will have to bear all this in mind in his new role. He will need to combine a renewed sense of pastoral sensitivity with a meticulous attention to all the factors that make up the region’s uncertain and ever-changing landscape. A number of factors will influence the choice of a new Chaldean Patriarch: the role played by those bishops who are closest to Delly, by Bishop Jammo and by the communities of the diaspora (many of their members proclaim themselves as champions of Chaldean cultural and liturgical identity); the initiatives of the hyperactive Archbishop of Kirkuk, Louis Sako and of younger bishops such as Bashar Warda, head of the rising archdiocese of Erbil and finally, the consensus that can be gained from Syrian Bishop Audo, who, as President of Caritas Syria, shares in the daily tragedies experienced by his people.