The spiritual leader of Iraq's Catholics, elevated to the rank of cardinal last month, called on U.S. forces to free Saddam Hussein's ailing former deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz if there was no evidence against him.
Aziz is a Chaldean Christian, Iraq's biggest Christian group, and his presence in Saddam's government was often held up as evidence of the former Iraqi leader's religious tolerance.
In an interview with Reuters on the eve of Christmas, Emmanuel III Delly, the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, also called for religious freedom in Muslim Iraq, where many Christians have been kidnapped, killed or forced to flee.
"We have no freedom of religion in Iraq but hopefully that will become the case one day because the Lord created us free and everyone should have freedom of religion," he said.
Aziz is now in U.S. custody and is reported to be in poor health, suffering from diabetes. He is being held without charge and his family has repeatedly called for his release.
"In terms of Tareq Aziz, who has worked so long for Iraq and I am sure still wants good things for Iraq, we have to demand the release of all those who were captured and which have no evidence against them ... as soon as possible," Delly said.
Delly, a critic of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, said he had tried to visit Aziz, but his request had been turned down.
Iraqi prosecutors say Aziz could face charges in connection with the crushing of the Shi'ite Muslim uprising after the 1991 Gulf War in which tens of thousands died.
WORKING FOR PEACE
At the Nov. 25 ceremony at the Vatican creating Delly, 80, a cardinal, Pope Benedict said the Iraqi's elevation was intended to express the Catholic Church's solidarity with Christians in Iraq. In June the pontiff said he was concerned about the exodus of Christians from the troubled country.
Christians make up about 3 percent of Iraq's 27 million people, according to the U.S. State Department's latest report on international religious freedom. According to a 1987 census there were 1.4 million Christians living in Iraq, but now there may be fewer than 1 million.
A number of Christian clergy have been kidnapped or killed in Iraq, churches bombed or forced to take down their crosses and Christians forced to flee their homes.
At his guarded compound in western Baghdad, Delly, wearing his cardinal's red robes and a black hat, preached brotherly love in a land where sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims has killed tens of thousands.
"Love between all brothers is present, but they must love each other more and more, they need to work together in one mind and one heart for the prosperity of Iraq," he said, sitting next to a colourfully decorated Christmas tree.
Delly said all Iraqis had suffered equally in the sectarian violence that has ravaged the country, toning down previous criticism of Iraq's Shi'ite Islamist leaders, whom he accused in May of staying silent while Christians were persecuted.
"There are absolutely no violations against Christians because they are Christians. This is something that is against Iraq and Iraqis. There are many Christians who were forced to flee Iraq but an even greater number of our Muslim brothers too."
He said five Christian churches in the southern Baghdad district of Doura, a Sunni militant stronghold, were still closed. Christians there were told to convert, flee or be killed, the U.S. State Department report said.
"God willing, (the Christians) will return," Delly said.
Mussab Al-Khairalla, Reuters