BAGHDAD There is neither a cross nor a sign on the heavy metal gate to indicate that this is the official residence of one of the country’s most prominent Christians, the first in Iraq in modern times to be elevated to cardinal by the Roman Catholic Church.
The simple structure, in a dilapidated neighborhood of this capital, opposite empty former ministry buildings, is the home of Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, whom the pope named on Oct. 17 to the College of Cardinals along with 22 others from around the world.
The only outward sign that this compound is Christian is in the garden, where a lawn surrounded by roses and zinnias is watched over by a graceful white statue of the Virgin Mary.
Many of his fellow cardinals come from Latin America, Africa and the Far East, places where Catholic practice is only a few hundred years old. But Cardinal Delly, 81, the patriarch of the Baghdad-based Chaldean Church, comes from Mosul, in northern Iraq, a place where Christian rites have been practiced for nearly 2,000 years.
There, as in Baghdad and other places where members of Iraq’s shrinking Christian population still live, it is possible to attend a Sunday Mass sung in Aramaic, one of the Semitic languages spoken at the time of Jesus.
“Christians and Muslims have lived together here for 1,400 years,” Cardinal Delly said in an interview. “We have much in common; in Iraq, the Christian house is next to the Muslim house.”
Cardinal Delly has a message honed from his many decades living in two worlds: that of Western Europe, where he studied, and that of the largely Muslim Middle East, which is his home.
“I am not happy when people ask, ‘How is the situation for Christians?'” he said. “Those who kill don’t kill only Christians. They kill Muslims as well the situation is the same for both.”
The Chaldean Church is an Eastern Rite church affiliated with the Roman Catholics but allowed to retain its customs and rites, even when they differ from the traditions of the Roman church. Most Chaldeans live in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, with scattered communities elsewhere in the Middle East. There are two Chaldean communities in the United States, one near Detroit and one near San Diego.
The Chaldeans are the most numerous of Iraq’s Christians, although their numbers have plunged since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Although there is no census, Christian priests estimate that fewer than 500,000 Chaldeans are left in the country, about one million fewer than when Mr. Hussein was in power, when the country had about 24 million people. Other Christian sects with small populations in Iraq include Assyrian Christians, Armenian Christians and Sabeans, an ancient sect.
A fluent speaker of Italian, French and his native Arabic as well as some English he spoke in Italian in this interview Cardinal Delly has spent his life thinking about the common ground between Muslims and Christians.
He indicates that he views his role in a broad sense as an Iraqi spiritual leader. But he also has spoken up on behalf of Iraq’s Christians. During the summer, he and the Assyrian patriarch issued a call for help for Iraq’s Christians after a Chaldean priest and three assistants were killed in Mosul.
Iraq’s Christians have fared poorly since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, whose government treated them well, needing their support. They have been persecuted primarily by Sunni Arab extremists, who brand them apostates and in some areas have bombed their churches and burned their homes.
And because the Christian population is relatively well off, Christians also have been the targets of kidnappings. Many of those who lived in Baghdad and surrounding areas have moved back to northern Iraq, which was traditionally where most Christians lived. Many more have fled to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon or when they can manage it Western Europe.
Cardinal Delly met recently with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to plead for protection for Christians. During the writing of the Iraqi Constitution, he met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shi’i religious leader in Najaf, who shares his ecumenical views on faith.
The new cardinal was born in Mosul to a Christian family in which several close relatives also became priests. His maternal grandfather became a priest, as did several cousins. He went to school there until he was 19, when he left for Rome to study. He stayed 14 years, traveling through Europe to holy places and completing his studies. He obtained three degrees a master’s in philosophy, a doctorate in theology and a doctorate in canon law – and his studies included the Qur’an.
In philosophy he chose to study Abu Nasr al-Farabi, an eminent early Islamic philosopher. For his doctorate in theology, he wrote on a debate about religion and virtue between a 10th-century Christian bishop and the Muslim minister of Morocco.
“The Christian house is next to the Muslim house,” he said. “Each has his own religion, each defends his own home, each defends his religion.
“But your faith is for God, the country is for everyone.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company