S threats against Christians in Iraq increase, the country was always going to figure highly in Pope Benedict XVI's meeting with President Bush last week. The murder of Chaldean priest Fr Ragheed Aria Ganni in Mosul, together with the storming and vandalising of churches in Baghdad by Islamic militants and the kidnapping of Fr Haiti Abdel Ahad three days later, are being viewed here as evidence that Iraqi Christians are at more risk than ever.
In an interview with The Catholic Herald last week; Iraq's ambassador to the Holy See, Albert Yelda admitted what many have long suspected: that ethnic cleansing is taking place in the country.
The question everyone is now asking is what can be done to help Iraq's Christians. One of the government's plans is to create an Christian "ghetto" in Iraq, otherwise known as the "Nineveh Plain" project. Although some bishops support the idea, it is being met with resistance by many Assyrian and Chaldean Catholics who believe such a segregation would only intensify ethnic tensions in the country.
"It would damage the historic reality of Iraqi Christianity which has always collaborated with others across the country to build Iraq's culture," wrote Chaldean priest Fr Sand Hanna Sirop on the AsiaNews website.
For Ambassador Yelda, the better answer is for every ethnic group to be properly represented in the country's "national unity government". And, conscious of his own government's weakness, he is calling for much more support from the international community.
He is also making his own contribution to bringing peace to his country and admitted he is in contact with his counterparts from Iran and Syria countries accused of stirring up ethnic divisions and supporting the country's insurgency. As with Britain's embassy to the Holy See. which has been trying to forge good relations with the Iranian ambassador to the Vatican, Ambassador Yelda also sees dialogue with these countries as crucial.
"We have cultural and religious links which cannot be prevented by America's conflict and differences with Iran," he explains. "I'm trying my best as an ambassador to play my role, to open channels of communication between these two countries, and also making the Americans. the British and others to understand that Iran has, and continues to have, relations with the majority of the Iraqi people."
He has been pushing the Bush Administration to change its rhetoric against Iran and was pleased to hear President Bush refer last week to Iran not as part of an axis of evil, but as a "great people who deserve to chart their own future".
But those Yelda would most like to see making more of an effort in bringing peace to his war-torn country are Arabs and Muslims people who have been markedly silent in the face of the slaughter of their own people. "The Arab League and Islamic Conference must do its utmost for the Iraqi people and stop encouraging this sectarian Idlling," he says. "Otherwise I can assure you that the whole region not only the Middle Fast, but North Africa, South East Asia will be engulfed in a huge, tremendous fire."
Fr Ragheed was widely known, loved and respected in Rome. A student from 1996 to 2003 at the Pontifical University of Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), and a resident at the Pontifical Irish College, he made many friends here.
"He was extremely well liked," said Fr Paul Prior. director of formation at the Irish Colleee. "He was a very gentle person with a great smile I remember saying to him once that he was always smiling and he replied: 'Yes, I like to decorate my face with a smile every day even if one's hurting inside' ."
"He was always worried about Iraq, worried about the people there and what they suffered and never about himself,said Irish College rector, Mgr Liam Bergin. "He was a wonderful man, full of humour and a great sense of service."
He was also prophetic and predicted the current situation in 2003. But throughout his country's suffering. he found great hope and solace in the Eucharist. "He told me that if the terrorists wanted to take our life, the Eucharist will give it back to us," said Fr Amer, an Iraqi priest also from Mosul and studying at the Irish College.
"He told me this many times," Fr Amer added. "It's a bad situation for all Iraqis, but especially for Christians because we don't have anyone to protect us and we feel alone. Please, whoever has responsibility. help us."