By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Popes rarely speak out loud their reasons for making a particular prelate a cardinal, but Pope Benedict XVI broke that informal taboo today with regard to Patriarch Emmanuel II Delly of the Chaldean church in Iraq.
“How can we not look with apprehension and affection, in this moment of joy, to the dear Christian community in Iraq?” the pope said during his homily at this morning’s consistory ceremony.
“These brothers and sisters of ours in the faith are experiencing in their own flesh the dramatic consequences of a long-lasting conflict, and are living today in an extremely fragile and delicate political situation,” the pope said.
“By calling the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church to enter into the College of Cardinals, I wanted to express in a concrete way my spiritual closeness and my affection for this population. We wish together, dear and venerable brothers, to reaffirm the solidarity of the entire church with the Christians of that beloved country. We invite and invoke the merciful God, for all the peoples involved, that the longed-for reconciliation and peace may come.”
The pope's references to Iraq brought three rounds of applause from those gathered in St. Peter's Basilica.
Twenty years ago, Iraq had an estimated Christian population of 1.4 million, one of the largest in the Muslim world. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, however, Iraqi Christians have been caught in a three-way squeeze created by political instability, economic collapse and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, with the result being what some analysts call a Christian “exodus” out of the country.
In 2005, estimates were that more than 40 percent of all refugees fleeing Iraq were Christian. Today, the conventional figure is that at least one-quarter, and perhaps as much as one-half, of Iraq’s Christians have left the country. Those figures do not take into account Iraqi Christians who are internally displaced.
As one example of the pressures facing Iraqi Christians, a Catholic priest and three subdeacons were gunned down in front of their church in Mosul, Iraq, last June. The priest, Ragheed Aziz Ganni, had studied at Rome’s Gregorian University, and two years earlier he had described the suffering of Chadlean Catholics in Iraq during a presentation at a Eucharistic Congress in Bari, Italy: “The terrorists hope to kill us physically, or at least spiritually, making us deny ourselves out of fear. Because of the violence of the fundamentalists against young Christians, many families have fled.”
(In a moving footnote, a Muslim professor at the Gregorian who had befriended Ganni, named Adnan Mokrani, wrote a letter to his murdered friend, expressing anguish: “In the name of which god did they kill you? In the name of what paganism did they crucify you?... Did they really know what they were doing?” he asked.)