As pontiff, Benedict XVI was “prophetic” in his relationship with Islam; he was also a “great theologian” with “clear and understandable" expressions, not to mention a pastor "close to Iraq and the Middle East,” said Card Louis Raphael Sako, speaking to AsiaNews.
It was during the pontificate of the late pope emeritus that the cardinal was chosen to be the patriarch of Baghdad of the Chaldeans in January 2013, shortly before Benedict XVI resigned.
“I have great esteem for Benedict XVI," Card Sako noted. “He is a man of God, with a luminous face. Perhaps one day in the history of the Church he will be proclaimed a doctor, for all that he has left in the field of theology. We don't have a scholar of his weight today!”
“For us Christians of the Middle East, he was an element of profound closeness and attention,” Card Sako explained, reached by phone in Baghdad.
“One of the most vivid memories was the ad limina visit (in 2010), when as archbishop of Kirkuk I proposed to him to hold a synod for the Middle East. He readily accepted right away, saying that ‘it is a good idea and I give you my support’. He was also a very humble man, although it is not nice to say saint right away, he was really a saint for what he did” for the Church.
For the prelate, the pope was “deeply close” to Iraq and “very attentive” in terms of human relations. “I remember that when I was chosen as patriarch we went to him in audience. He could not make long speeches because he was very tired, but he wished me well. Seeing my sister, he said to me that he too had one to whom he was very close but unfortunately she had passed away.”
His resignation shortly after that meeting “affected the whole world”, a sign of human limits. “When you see that you cannot carry this responsibility, you pull back and give room to someone else. This is a great example; this is a man of God.”
Finally, we must remember the relationship with Islam and the controversy that followed the famous Regensburg speech in 2006, sparking protests in Europe and the Middle East.
“Muslims did not understand it, and strong tensions were generated,” Card Sako said. “I was bishop of Kirkuk at the time and I suffered a lot; we also suffered a major attack – a car bomb exploded in front of a church and killed a Chaldean altar boy. Only later did they understand that he was right and, today, with Pope Francis great progress is being made" with both Sunnis and Shias as evinced by the meetings with the imam of al-Azhar and Ayatollah al-Sistani.
"This closeness has greatly helped the Christians of the East to continue our lives and strengthen peaceful coexistence".
For the Chaldean patriarch, Benedict XVI was "a man of value, faith, and prayer, with a deep human relationship and not at all superficial, cold and detached.”
Over the past few days, the Iraqi Church has been praying for Benedict XVI, and services will continue in memory of the pope emeritus in Masses and prayers.