BAGHDAD (AP) -- The Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad -- recently named Iraq's first cardinal -- said Tuesday that rising violence has made life worse for Iraqi Christians since the U.S.-led invasion, but he was optimistic that "peace will prevail."
Emmanuel III Delly, who will go to Rome next month to collect his red hat, must balance the dangers facing Iraq's small Christian community with a mission to reach out to Muslims.
The 80-year-old head of the ancient Chaldean Church in Iraq, said the hopes of freedom in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003 had given way to widespread fear.
"We had hoped that the situation would be better," he told The Associated Press during an interview at his guarded compound in western Baghdad. "In fact it is worse."
"Car bombs, roadside bombs, killings, assassinations. All of these things were not happening in the past," he said. "There was stability and security."
But Delly, who was one of 23 new cardinals named by Pope Benedict XVI earlier this month, blamed the violence on extremists and said it was his job to reach out to Muslims and followers of other faiths in Iraq to promote unity.
I pray everyday to God to enlighten the minds of the officials and guide them to the road of peace and reconciliation," he said.
The Chaldean spiritual leader said he visits leaders from both Islamic sects during their holy days and they do the same on Christian holidays. He also received "hundreds of calls from Sunnis and Shiites" congratulating him on his promotion to cardinal.
"We all want peace," he said in an ornate reception room in a building off a courtyard lined with flower bushes and a statue of the Virgin Mary in the center. "We should accomplish this with actions and not only with words."
Delly has been outspoken in the past about the need to protect Christians, who comprise some 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million population, from the rampant violence in the country.
In May, he issued a joint statement with Patriarch Mar Dinka IV of the Catholic Assyrian Church of the East claiming that Christians in a number of Iraqi regions had faced "blackmail, kidnapping and displacement" at the hands of Sunni insurgents led by al-Qaida in Iraq and complaining that the government "has kept silent and not taken a firm stance to stop their expansion.
But he had only a message of unity on Tuesday, saying that Iraqis of all sects have suffered from the chaos and he was optimistic that the security situation was improving.
"We have been living with our Muslim brothers for 14 generations and we have common interests with each other," he said. "The danger is hitting everybody without exception. We pray to God that peace will prevail and every one of us should work for peace."
The toned down remarks came three days after the Chaldean spiritual leader received a promise from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to protect and support Iraq's Christian community, which is particularly vulnerable as it has little political or military clout to defend itself.
Delly, who speaks Arabic, French, Italian, Latin, English and Aramaic, said the Shiite prime minister congratulated him, saying his promotion to cardinal was "an honor for all Iraqis" and promising to send a governmental delegation to Rome for his ordination.
"He told me he is doing his best so that to make Iraqis feel comfortable and live in peace in Iraq. I told him it is our duty to work for peace," Delly said. "We are working for the sake of all Iraqis."
The country's estimated million-plus Christians, the majority of which are Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians, with small numbers of Roman Catholics, were generally left alone under Saddam's regime. Many, including former foreign minister and deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, reached the highest levels of power.
But the small community has been increasingly targeted in the Sunni-led insurgency, causing tens of thousands to flee, isolating many of those who remained in barricaded neighborhoods and forcing them to hide their religious affiliation when they ventured out.
Attacks peaked with a coordinated bombing campaign in the summer of 2004 against Baghdad churches and again last September after Pope Benedict XVI made comments perceived to be anti-Islam.
The German-born pope later said his words were misunderstood and he was sorry that Muslims were offended. The pontiff also has been calling for dialogue between Christianity and Islam.
More recently, two Catholic priests were kidnapped on their way home from a funeral in northern Iraq but were later freed after Benedict made a public appeal for their release in Rome.
Delly, who was born in Tel Kaif, north of the northern city of Mosul, said Benedict has asked him to reach out to Muslims.
"He wants the good of everybody and he asked me to open dialogues with our Muslim brothers here. This is his message to the Muslims and the whole world," Delly said of Benedict. "We should do our best to make them understand and to make them feel that we love them and they love us. This is the real dialogue."