Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid

Leader of Iraq's Chaldean Catholics
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Raphael Bidawid, priest: born Mosul, Iraq 17 April 1922; ordained priest 1944; Patriarchal Vicar of Kirkuk 1956-57; Bishop of Amadya 1957-66; Bishop of Beirut 1966-89; Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans 1989-2003; died Beirut 7 July 2003.

Calling Saddam Hussein a "real gentleman" was hardly likely to endear a clergyman to the outside world. But as head of Iraq's largest Christian church for 14 years - all but the last few months under Saddam's rule - Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid had to tread carefully to protect his 600,000-strong flock.

It was not just the United States that believed he had overstepped the mark. The Vatican was highly concerned by his defence of Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait - the action that triggered the first Gulf war - and diplomatically distanced itself from his remarks, insisting that the invasion was a breach of international law and the UN Charter.

The Chaldean Church - an offshoot of the Assyrian Church of the East - accepted the authority of the Pope in the 16th century and is the only Eastern-rite Catholic church to have grown larger than the church from which it sprang. Iraq's Chaldeans take pride in continuing to use Aramaic - the language Jesus spoke - among themselves and during the liturgy.

While relations between the Assyrians and the Chaldeans are close, Patriarch Raphael failed to bring about the unity between the two he so desired. At the same time there were some Chaldeans who criticised his Latin style, believing he was drawing his church away from its Oriental roots.

Born in British Mandate Iraq soon after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, Bidawid attended a Dominican-run primary school in Mosul (the Biblical Nineveh) and at the age of 11 entered the Chaldean junior seminary in the town. Identified as a promising student, he was sent to Rome three years later to study theology and philosophy. He remained in the city during the Second World War.

Ordained a priest in October 1944, he obtained a doctorate in philosophy with a thesis on the Islamic theologian Al-Ghazali and a doctorate in theology on Patriarch Timothaos the Great. In 1947 he left Rome and returned to Mosul as vice-rector of the seminary, where he also taught French and moral theology.

From 1950 he served as chaplain to Chaldeans working in the field for the Iraq Petroleum Company. In 1956 he was appointed patriarchal vicar for the diocese of Kirkuk and a year later, at the age of just 35, was appointed Bishop of Amadya in northern Iraq, at the time the youngest Catholic bishop in the world. He attended sessions of the Second Vatican Council in Rome (1962-65). In 1966 he was transferred to the diocese of Beirut, where he stayed for 23 years, having the difficult task of leading his church through the bitter Lebanese civil war.

A synod of the Chaldean Church elected Bidawid Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans in May 1989, following the death of Mar Pulus II Chekho the previous month. His installation in Baghdad's Chaldean cathedral was attended by 10,000 faithful.

As economic and political conditions worsened in Iraq and across the Middle East, Chaldeans emigrated in droves, leaving a dwindling flock at home but a vibrant diaspora, with 170,000 in the United States (with two dioceses of their own) and communities in Europe, Canada, Australia and the Caucasus. Patriarch Raphael was a regular visitor to his scattered flock.

But he is most likely to be remembered for his public endorsement of Saddam's regime. He attacked the Western coalition for launching the first Gulf war (though he was criticised for spending the war outside Iraq). "These nations should feel pretty guilty. It was a vendetta, a shame for humanity," he said.

He also bitterly criticised the subsequent United Nations embargo:

It is a tragedy, not to say a genocide, inadmissible in our times considered civilised. If this is the new world order that is talked about, then we rebel.

On his trips abroad he campaigned vigorously for sanctions to be halted:

You Westerners do not realise that an Arab can do without everything except his dignity. If you touch his dignity he will be as ferocious as a lion.

Raphael had hoped to be able to welcome Pope John Paul to Iraq on his much-desired papal Millennium pilgrimage to Ur of the Chaldees and other Biblical sites. But the Vatican abandoned the visit as the Iraqi regime set too many unacceptable conditions.

Patriarch Raphael faced a dilemma as leader of a Church that straddled the divide between its Oriental homeland and the diaspora in the West. It had to work with the Saddam regime, which initially followed a secularist model that kept Islamists at bay, while suffering in silence such encroachments on its rights as the confiscation of church-run schools.

With its most prominent layman, Tariq Aziz, as deputy prime minister, the Chaldean Church had some state protection. "Christians here are privileged. Saddam gives us what we want, listens to us and protects us," he claimed, perhaps sincerely. But, as an educated man, Raphael was aware of the precarious state of his flock, divided between Saddam's regime, a self-ruled Kurdish zone and a Western diaspora.

Felix Corley