The spiritual leader of Iraq’s Catholics today made a Christmas appeal for refugees who have fled the country to return.
Christians have often been targeted by Islamic extremists, forcing tens of thousands to flee and isolating many of those who remained in areas protected by barricades and checkpoints.
Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the ancient Chaldean Church and Iraq’s first cardinal, said: “My message is always the message of our Lord Jesus Christ, who taught us to love one another, to have charity towards everyone. And for the emigrants to return home, to work for the good of their country and their homeland despite the situation which their country is in,” he said. “That is my hope.”
Less than 3% of Iraq’s 26 million people are Christians, most of which are Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians, with small numbers of Roman Catholics.
The cardinal, who has been outspoken in the past about the need to protect Christians, called for unity among Iraqis of all faiths.
“These days call us especially for love. Christmas is the celebration of peace,” he said.
“My message to (Iraqis), all of them, is a message of peace and brotherhood and mutual cooperation because we are all the sons of one family,” he said. “Yes, every person in this family has his own name, and his name is dear to him, but all of us, we must all work to make this family flourish, by fearing God and doing good.”
Christians, he said, were as much a part of Iraq as anyone else.
“For 14 generations we’ve lived in brotherhood and equality with our Muslim brothers. We are sons of this country, we are not foreigners, we are not a minority,” he said.
“We are a small number, but not a minority. We love this country and work together with one hand for Iraq to flourish, now and in the future.”
Iraq’s Christian community were generally left alone under Saddam Hussein. One of them, Tariq Aziz, served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister. He surrendered to US forces in Baghdad shortly after Saddam’s regime was toppled in 2003, and has remained imprisoned ever since, despite appeals for his release.
Cardinal Delly said he had tried repeatedly to visit the ailing Aziz for religious reason, but was denied access.
“I pray for his sake and for the sake of all people imprisoned and who remain in prison until this day,” he said. “I ask from God that all of them return to their homes, safely and in health.”
Sectarian violence in Iraq has declined in recent months due largely to a surge by thousands of US troops, the help of Sunni Arab irregulars who have turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and are now on the US payroll, and a cease-fire by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army.
The US military has said there has been a 60 per cent reduction in violence since June.
But security is still poor and many Iraqis fear to venture far from home. Armed gangs and militias roam city streets, car bombs and suicide bombers attack markets, police patrols and shops, and the dead bodies of tortured kidnap victims turn up almost daily along river banks or dumped on the streets.
“Let’s hope that it’s getting better, but I think that it’s the same,” Cardinal Delly said.
“Because everyone is still afraid to go out. … Because of the car bombs etcetera, and other things. Even small animals are afraid of the danger.”
As he spoke, a bomb hidden inside a minivan bus exploded a couple of miles away near the Baghdad governor’s office, killing two people and injuring six.