By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
One of the most moving speeches in the Synod of Bishops so far came on Tuesday from Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, the Chaldean Patriarch of Iraq, who described daily life as “a Calvary” in his “tortured and bloodied country.”
Without pointing a direct finger of blame at any party, or advancing any particular political solution, Delly spoke in dramatic terms about the country’s suffering, including that of its Christian community.
“We have tried everything to obtain peace and serenity for the country,” Delly said, and yet “the situation in some parts of Iraq is disastrous and tragic.”
“Peace and security are lacking, [as are] the fundamental elements in daily life,” Delly said. “Electricity, water, fuel continue to be lacking; telephone communication is always more difficult, whole roads are blocked, schools either closed or in a continuous danger, hospitals function with a reduced staff, the people fear for their own safety. … Not to mention the ever growing number of deaths caused by car bombs and kamikazes wearing explosive belts.”
Delly also described the growing phenomenon of kidnappings-for-ransom in essentially lawless parts of the country.
“What to say about all these unjustified kidnappings that occur every day, ruining entire families and depriving them of their dear ones, despite having paid over thousands of dollars for a freedom never given?” he asked rhetorically.
In this connection, Delly referred to the steep price paid by those Iraqi Christians who have stayed in the country.
“Sixteen of our priests and two bishops have been kidnapped and were released after paying a very high ransom,” he said.
Others have not been so lucky. Several have died, thereby joining, Delly said, “a line of new martyrs that today pray for us from the Heavens: the Archbishop of Mosul, Faraj Rahho, Father Raghid Ganni, other two priests and other six young persons.”
Delly begged the bishops gathered in Rome to pray for the church and the people of Iraq, and “to share our concern, our hopes and the suffering of our wounded, so that the Word of God made flesh [may] stay in His Church, and with us, as good news and support.”
According to population numbers from the U.S. Department of State, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq twenty years ago. Today, the United Nations estimates the number is down to 700,000, meaning that the community has been cut roughly in half. Many analysts have referred to a Christian “exodus” out of Iraq, driven by the war, ongoing instability, and the growing pressures created by Islamic radicalism.
According to some reports, the situation for Iraqi Christians began to deteriorate most seriously in 2006. Over the last two years, attacks against Christian targets in the country have escalated:
•tA Catholic and a Syrian Orthodox church in Kirkuk, as well as an Anglican church and the Apostolic Nuncio’s residence in Baghdad, were bombed in January 2006, killing three people.
•tIn September 2006, two other churches were attacked, in Kirkuk and Baghdad, killing two persons, one a child.
•tFr. Boulos Iskandar Behnam was kidnapped and murdered. His head had been sliced from his body and placed upon his lifeless chest.
•tIn December 2006, a high ranking member of the Presbyterian Church in Mosul was murdered.
•tIn May 2007, St. George’s Church Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood was bombed for a second time.
•tIn June 2007, a Catholic priest and three deacons were murdered outside of their church after saying Mass in Mosul.
Radical groups have also adapted the tactic of demanding payment of to jizya, or protection money, from Christian families. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army recently issued a letter to Christians in Baghdad ordering Christian women to veil themselves.
Delly, 81, has been then Patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq since December 2003. He was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2007, in what was widely seen as a gesture of solidarity with the Christian community in Iraq.