>BAGHDAD (AP) – The worshippers were searched at the door and snipers stood guard on the roof, but Sunday’s Mass was a joyful one for more than 200 Iraqis who packed a church in eastern Baghdad to see the first Iraqi cardinal.
Under heavy guard and broadcast live on Iraqi state television, the service was capped by a handshake from a visiting Shiite imam – a symbolic show of unity between Iraq’s majority Muslim sect and its tiny Christian community.
Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the ancient Chaldean Church, celebrated the two-hour Mass three weeks after Pope Benedict XVI elevated him to the top ranks of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Delly presided over other services this week in Baghdad and the northern Kurdish city of Irbil, spreading his message of unity and forgiveness among Iraq’s Christians.
“We are of one family, everyone should work for the progress of this country,” he said during his sermon.
The frequent target of Islamic extremists, Iraq’s Christians have been forced to flee by the tens of thousands or to isolate themselves in barricaded neighborhoods if they choose to remain.
“We pray today for the sake of each other and to forgive each other, as well to be directed to do good deeds,” Delly said. “That is my demand for the Iraqis, moreover I urge the return home for displaced people and immigrants to their ancestral land.”
Delly, 80, has been outspoken in the past about the need to protect Christians, who comprise less than 3 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people.
Many people who filled the pews at the elegant brick Church of the Virgin Mary said they were taking advantage of a lull in violence to attend services and to congratulate Delly. The imam of a nearby Shiite mosque shook hands with him in the church’s courtyard after the service.
“I came here to show the unity of the Iraqi people,” said the black-turbaned imam, Jassim al-Jazairi. “We are happy with the cardinal. We are very proud of any person, whether Christian or Muslim, who raises the name of Iraq in the international arena.”
The high attendance at the church in mainly Shiite eastern Baghdad was among several recent signs of normalcy in Iraq. Still, the security situation remains fragile in the city, where many Iraqis are still afraid to venture outside the concrete barriers erected by the U.S. military to protect volatile communities.