ROME, JULY 8, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The most representative Catholic and Christian leader in Iraq, His Beatitude Raphael I Bidawid, patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, died in Beirut on Monday. He was 81.
Sources of the Baghdad patriarchate said he had been in a Lebanese hospital for months due to an illness.
Upon learning the news, John Paul II sent a telegram to the patriarchate to express his sympathy and to manifest his closeness to all the superiors and faithful of the Chaldean rite.
Born in Mosul, in northern Iraq, in 1922, the future patriarch entered the minor seminary of Mosul at age 11. Later, he was sent to study philosophy and theology in Rome, where he was ordained a priest.
He returned to Mosul in 1947 to carry out his ministry with Chaldean Catholics, the community to which his family belonged. In particular, he was appointed rector of the seminary where he was professor of French and moral theology.
He was appointed patriarchal vicar for the Diocese of Kirkuk in 1956, and the next year was elected bishop of Amadya, becoming at 35 the youngest bishop in the world at that time.
He was transferred to the Beirut Diocese in 1966. On May 5, 1989, the Chaldean bishops elected him patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, to succeed the late Mar Pulus II Chekho. More than 10,000 faithful attended the enthronement ceremony on May 29, 1989, in Baghdad. He received the pallium from John Paul II the following Nov. 9.
There are about 1 million faithful of the Chaldean Church in the world, including 500,000 in Iraq. The Chaldean rite is one of the five principal rites of Eastern Christianity, together with the Alexandrian rite (Coptic and Ethiopian), Antiochian (Syrian and Maronite), Armenian, and Constantinopolitan, or Byzantine.
The Chaldean Church, which dates back to the preaching of St. Thomas the Apostle, has 170,000 faithful in the United States (with sees in Detroit and California), 20,000 in Canada, 15,000 in Australia and New Zealand, 60,000 in Europe, 4,000 in Georgia, and several other thousand in the Russian Federation and the former Soviet republics.
Before the second Gulf war, Auxiliary Bishop Shelmon Warduni of the Patriarchate of Babylon of the Chaldeans had already noted that the first Gulf conflict and postwar period were triggering an exodus of Chaldean Catholics from their country.
Marie Angel Siebrecht of Aid to the Church in Need told ZENIT recently that the country’s Christians “in a certain sense are being forced to emigrate. They feel they have no role to play in the new Iraq.” In the south especially, they are threatened by Muslim fundamentalists.