Fr Ragheed Ganni, 1972-2007

Fr Ragheed Ganni, 1972-2007

Ten years ago today four men and a woman were leaving the Holy Spirit Church in Mosul after Sunday evening Divine Liturgy when they were approached by a group armed with guns. Fr Ragheed Ganni, a 35-year-old Chaldean Catholic priest  who had just celebrated Mass, had recently been warned by Islamists to close the church or face the consequence, and the atmosphere in Iraq’s second city had become intense that year as the country’s sectarian violence escalated.

Fr Ganni was accompanied by three sub-deacons, Basman Yousef Daud, Gassan Isam Bidawed and Wahid Hanna Isho; Bidawed’s wife was also in the car, but was separated by the gunmen, who told the four Christians to convert to Islam or die. She later recalled: “Then one of the killers screamed at Ragheed, ‘I told you to close the church, why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?’ And he simply responded, ‘How can I close the house of God?’ They immediately pushed him to the ground, and Ragheed had only enough time to gesture to me with his head that I should run away. Then they opened fire and killed all four of them.”

Even before the expansion of ISIS the collapse of Iraq following the US-led invasion was a horrific ordeal for one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, which has been all but driven out of its homeland; a pre-war population of one million is now somewhere in the region of 150,000, many of them elderly, and over 60 churches were bombed between 2003 and 2008, and 1,000 Christians murdered. Despite this Fr Ganni’s story is an inspiring one, of perfect sacrifice and devotion, forgiveness and friendship.

Ragheed Ganni came from Mosul, in the north of the country, which for centuries was the heart of Syriac Christianity, a bustling cosmopolitan city of Assyrians, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Yezidi, Jews and Persians as well as smaller groups such as the Sabaeans, Shabeks and Mandaeans. Close to the Aramaic-speaking villages of the Nineveh Plains, Mosul was also home to a large Chaldean Catholic community – who are in communion with the Holy See – although numbers had been in constant decline throughout the 20th century because of persecution, discrimination and emigration.

Ragheed had been born in the city in 1972, and graduated with an engineering degree in 1993. Three years later he went to study theology in Rome at the Angelicum – the Pontifical Saint Thomas Aquinas University – studying ecumenical theology, and he was fluent in Arabic, Italian, French and English. He was at seminary when the September 11 attacks took place in New York and the subsequent build-up to war in his home country began. Lodging at the Irish college, he was known as Paddy the Iraqi, and would spend summers by Loch Derg in County Donegal. Fr Don Kettle, now a priest in Western Australia, recalled that while staying with him at St Malachy’s Seminary in Belfast around the time of the marching season, with riots taking place outside, Ragheed explained about the persecution of his people, who since Iraq’s independence had suffered various attacks and indignities first under the kings and then the Ba’athists. Nothing, though, could have prepared them for what followed Saddam’s downfall.

Fr Ragheed had been “devastated” by the outbreak of the war, having been separated from his family for seven years, and now unsure of their safety. He said that he must return to Iraq to serve as a priest, despite the risks, because “that is where I belong, that is my place”. He had written optimistically of rebuilding a “free society” and said that “Saddam has fallen, we have elected a government, we have voted for a Constitution!” He organised theology courses for people in Mosul, he worked with the young and the poor and the sick, including a small child having eye surgery in Rome – all the things a pastor must do.

But the violence against Iraq’s Christians escalated in January 2006 with a number of bomb attacks on churches in Baghdad and Mosul. Both Sunni and Shia militia began to target Christians in “revenge” for the American invasion, some even blaming the pope for starting the war, despite John Paul II’s desperate attempts to prevent it.

The atmosphere in Ragheed’s hometown had become terrifying. On August 4 2006, when 80 children of his parish of the Holy Spirit received their first holy communion, battles broke out in the street outside, and the children cowered from the sounds of guns and rockets. The good shepherd helped them through. He told Asia News at the time: “Although people are used to it and remained reasonably calm, they started to wonder whether they were going to make it back to their homes or not. I was aware of the immense joy of the 80 children receiving their first Communion so I turned the subject into a joke and said to them: ‘Do not panic, these are fireworks. The city is celebrating with us.’ And at the same time I gave them instructions to leave the church quietly and quickly.”

The following month Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture was used as an excuse to attack Christians, including one Mosul priest who was beheaded. In October Fr Ragheed wrote to a friend, saying: “Ramadan was a disaster for us in Mosul. Hundreds of Christian families fled outside the city including my family and uncles. About 30 people left all their properties and fled, having been threatened. It is not easy but the grace of the Lord gives support and strength. We face death every day here.”

As 2006 turned to 2007 the bombings multiplied, the kidnappings of priests in Baghdad and Mosul became more frequent, and Sunni militia in the northern city began to demand taxes from Christians, while water and electricity grew scarce. In one of his last emails he wrote: “Each day we wait for the decisive attack, but we will not stop celebrating mass; we will do it underground, where we are safer. I am encouraged in this decision by the strength of my parishioners. This is war, real war, but we hope to carry our cross to the very end with the help of Divine Grace.”

Friends later recalled that he had become increasingly weary and broken by the demands of the priesthood in such terror. After an attack on his parish, on Palm Sunday 2007, he wrote: “We empathise with Christ, who entered Jerusalem in full knowledge that the consequence of His love for mankind was the cross. Thus while bullets smashed our church windows, we offered up our suffering as a sign of love for Christ”.

A bomb exploded in the Holy Spirit church in on May 27, the feast of Pentecost, injuring two security guards, and the following day, on his last ever email to AsiaNews, May 28 last, Fr Ragheed wrote: “We are on the verge of collapse… In a sectarian and confessional Iraq, will there be any space for Christians? We have no support, no group who fights for our cause; we are abandoned in the midst of this disaster. Iraq has already been divided; it will never be the same. What is the future of our Church?”

A week later, on Sunday June 3, 2007, Fr Ganni was martyred – the terrorists even booby-trapped the bodies so that it was hours before they could be collected. Despite the threat of violence 2,000 people attended the funerals of the four men, the Mass celebrated by Fr Ragheed’s bishop Mar Paulos Rahho, the Archbishop of Mosul. Mar Rahho had been critical of the incorporation of Sharia into Iraq’s recent constitution and in a final trip to Rome that year had mentioned threats to himself. In March 2008 he was murdered. Then in October that year 13,000 people, more than half of Mosul’s remaining Christians, fled after a pogrom in which 13 people were murdered, including a father and son and a disabled man, most of them shop-owners, suggesting that al-Qaeda in Iraq were seeking to destroy the economic power of the community.

Despite the violence inflicted on the community, Fr Ganni’s life offers a great message of reconciliation and forgiveness. One of his Muslim friends, Adnam Mokrani, Professor of Islamic Studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University, wrote the day after his death: “The bullets that have gone through your pure and innocent body have also gone through my heart and soul. I always picture you smiling, joyful and full of zest for life. Ragheed is to me innocence personified; a wise innocence that carries in its heart the sorrows of his unhappy people.”

As a Muslim he said prayers for Fr Ragheed’s soul, and asked: “In the name of what god of death have they killed you? In the name of which paganism have they crucified you? Did they truly know what they were doing? Brother, your blood hasn’t been shed in vain, and your church’s altar wasn’t a masquerade … You assumed your role with deep seriousness until the end, with a smile that would never be extinguished … ever.” Professor Mokrani recalled that on the date of Fr Ganni’s ordination, October 13, 2001, less than a month into the new age of conflict, he had said  “Today, I have died to self.”

The suffering of Christians in the Middle East is on a scale that makes it hard for us to see past statistics, but this one story, of a man who chose the path of sacrifice is supremely powerful; one can imagine how much he must have wanted to do the easier thing, to leave Mosul, and yet still did the hard thing.

Friends recalled that as the war and violence intensified Fr Ganni would appear more drained and tired, as if carrying a cross, but invited to speak at an Italian Eucharistic Congress in 2005, he told them: “There are days when I feel frail and full of fear. But when, holding the Eucharist, I say ‘Behold the Lamb of God Behold, who takes away the sin of the world’, I feel His strength in me. When I hold the Host in my hands, it is really He who is holding me and all of us, challenging the terrorists and keeping us united in His boundless love.”

 

This was written in 2013, before ISIS captured Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, and things have got much worse since. If you want to help in some way I’d recommend Aid to the Church in Need’s Iraq appeal.  The undated picture of Fr Ragheed comes from http://www.asianews.it/en.html

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