A Cardinal for Iraq

Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, Chaldean archbishop of Baghdad, was one of 23 new cardinals Nov. 24. He sat down with Register correspondent Fady Noun to discuss the situation in Iraq.

Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly, head of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, is one of 23 cardinals created in the Nov. 24 consistory. The decision has been understood to be a way to attract the attention of the world as well as to Christians of the fate of the Chaldean Church, which is undergoing terrible suffering in Iraq, plunged in political and religious turmoil after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Born in Mosul in northern Iraq, the 80-year-old cardinal is familiar with Rome and the Vatican, where he studied for 14 years, obtaining degrees in philosophy, theology and canon law.

Based in Baghdad, where the Patriarch’s See is found, Emmanuel III recently visited Lebanon, where he participated in the annual meeting of the Catholic Eastern Patriarchs. He spoke with Register correspondent Fady Noun at the Chaldean bishop’s residence in Lebanon, in a suburb of Beirut.

Your Beatitude, how many Christians are there in Iraq today, knowing that since 2003, it is said that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled their country?

All in all, there were more than one million Christians in Iraq, of a total population of about 20 million. Today, almost five years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, this number has decreased and has reached 700,000 to 750,000 Christians. In the last four years, four million Iraqis have fled their country, 200,000 to 250,000 of them Christians.

That amounts to 25% of the Christians, and 80% of the Christians in Iraq belong to the Chaldean Church. What drives them out of Iraq?

Today, what drives Chaldeans out of Iraq is fear, assassinations and the chaos that came after the American troops entered the land. Of course, I do not want to judge anybody, but one has to bear responsibility for one’s acts. Who bears the responsibility for the chaos and anarchy in Iraq for the past four years? I don’t know … the leaders? Fanatics?

As a matter of principle, we Church leaders always side with the civil authorities in place, in a particular country, faithful to our homeland and compatriots, to which we are bound by common interests.

Was Iraq a better place to live, for Christians, under Saddam Hussein?

War is always undesirable, it has never solved anything. It didn’t in the past; it won’t in the present or the future. God hates war, the shedding of blood. His commandment is a commandment of life. God doesn’t want a country to invade another country. We’re all one family, whatever way you look at it. We have to act for the good of the family.

Pope John Paul II warned against the war, calling it a defeat for humanity. Do you agree with that?

Before John Paul II, God himself has commanded not to kill. Besides, the whole world stood against the war on Iraq. God crowned us with this supreme gift of reason so that we may, by reason and dialogue, come to love one another, rejecting hate and the shedding of blood. Unfortunately, we ask God for everything but never abide by his will when it’s his turn to ask. War is a woe but we forget that it is self-inflicted and go around blaming God for it.

What about the Christians in Iraq?

You journalists always ask how Christians are doing in Iraq. Ask me instead how Iraqis are doing in Iraq! When a booby-trapped car blows up, does it kill only Christians? Christians’ fate in Iraq is exactly the same as that of Muslims, with whom we’ve been coexisting for 14 generations, until a few years ago, until men threw seeds of jealousy, hatred and division among us.

But aren’t Christians persecuted in Iraq?

Well, let me answer frankly. Since modern Iraq existed, no Iraqi government has taken hostile measures against Christians simply because they are Christians. On the other hand, yes, Christians in Iraq have suffered from the consequences of measures taken by the Iraqi authorities. Under Saddam Hussein, the selling of alcohol, as well as its consumption, was declared illegal. But the decision was not made to harm Christians. It was a way of saying to neighboring countries, “We are more Muslim than you.”

Another example was the nationalization of schools in 1974-1975. It wasn’t done to harm Christians, although Christian schools were most harmed by that decision. Nationalization of schools, particularly Muslim schools, was meant to prevent Muslims from escaping military service. I protested then, explaining that Christians were more hurt by these laws than Muslims, but one should talk about it in all fairness.

Aren’t you negating evidence? What about all those Christians forced to leave their houses or convert to Islam? All those priests and deacons abducted, tortured or killed?

Priests are not the only victims of these things. Just before coming here, I was told that, to this day, 143 imams in mosques were not only abducted, but cold-bloodedly killed. Sometimes, the abduction would be solely to get the ransom. You see, Islam is innocent of many a hateful thing done in its name. Thousands of Iraqis are fleeing Iraq out of fear of fanatics. But who is responsible for the terror that has swept and is sweeping Iraq?

Do you fear being assassinated?

Everybody fears for his life. See how the worm shrinks when it is threatened.

Have you paid any ransoms?

I have paid ransoms, high ransoms.

Is the Chaldean seminary in Baghdad still occupied by the American army?

Yes, it is. It was occupied first without our asking, but now, what’s the use of asking people to leave? It would only be occupied by others, who would degrade it even more. When the war is over, the building will be returned. Now the seminary is located in Erbil (northern Iraq), where it is safer. You can easily understand that parents won’t let their children go to an unsafe place.

Is the religious identity of Chaldeans threatened abroad?

It depends. There are about 200,000 Chaldeans in the United States, mostly in Michigan and in Chicago, as well as in California. The Chaldeans in the U.S. are more attached to their Church than those who are living in Iraq.

But we are told that the U.S. authorities hardly give any entry visa to Chaldeans flying out of Iraq.

Yes, unfortunately so. Visas are granted very scarcely, mainly from fear that terrorists will infiltrate into the U.S.: an easy excuse ... 

Does the Holy See help out? 

They’re doing their best, but let’s not throw everything on the Holy See.

Do you have friendly ties with the Americans in Iraq? Do you meet any of their officials? 

I personally don’t. I model my attitude on that of the Iraqi government. On the other hand, those who want the departure of all foreigners will kill anyone they see cooperating with Americans. Why get exposed to any danger?

Do you wish the departure of the American army? 

The desire to be independent is only natural. Sometimes, in a home, the presence of a stranger is necessary. But if this presence starts being heavy to bear, it goes without saying that you wish things would end.

You have said you were hostile to the division of Iraq, but why not accept federalism? 

Iraq is one, from Zakho to Basra. I am against the partition of Iraq. We are one people, one family, one Iraq. As for federalism, it has to be defined. We want federalism, not anarchy.

What is the situation of Chaldeans in the world? 

I do my best so that Iraqis who have fled Iraq be treated well. Some are living in sheer misery. The patriarch has a duty to visit all his community at least once every five years. But I don’t think I will travel to the United States, as long as the situation remains what it is.

What is your message to those Chaldeans who have left Iraq?

God has loved the East. He chose to be born and to die here. We should love it also. And stay here.

I simply ask those who have left to think about those who stayed behind, and help them by creating little factories or businesses. Our children should not become beggars or forced to leave. This is what will happen if no one creates jobs. No one will remain.

Fady Noun is based

in Beirut, Lebanon.