A Modern Day Martyr
One of the many wonderful things about living in an international city is the wide variety of people that you encounter. Meeting people from contrasting backgrounds helps broaden our horizons and expand our understanding of our world.
When I lived in the Irish College, Rome I got to know Ragheed Ganni. He was a seminarian from Mosul in northern Iraq. Mosul is mentioned in the Bible under its ancient name of Ninevah and is described as ‘a city great beyond compare’. It is believed to have been the largest city in the world for a period. Today, Mosul is largely a ruin with much of its population displaced as a result of decades of war and violence. Ragheed was able to study in Rome due to the financial support provided by three Irish dioceses.
Ragheed was first person from Iraq that I had met. I recall asking him when the Christian faith first came to his part of the world and he responding that it is believed to go back to St Thomas, the apostle, on whose feast day I am writing these words. The language spoken by the Christians of northern Iraq is close to that which Jesus spoke. The minority Christian community belongs to the Chaldean tradition and have survived numerous persecutions and remained faithful. Ragheed knew Ireland well. He had spend several summers helping on the pilgrimage island of Lough Derg. He had met my sister there and also knew a family in Ennis.
September 11th, 2001 was a day that changed the world. As the twin towers crashed to the ground Ragheed, who was then a deacon, and I were in the Irish College chapel celebrating the wedding liturgy of Elizabeth and Aidan from Galway. Later that evening we joined the couple and their friends at their celebratory meal. Much of our attention was directed to the TV news as the full horror of what had happened in New York became apparent. Clashing symbols – celebrating the sacrament of love as much of our world was consumed by hatred.
Little did we realise that the tragic events of that September day would lead to the death of Ragheed and so many others. During the following years, events unfolded like dominoes falling– 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the fall of Saddam Hussein, the rise of ISIS, the persecution of Christians, the destruction of Mosul. These events were reported by the media, but they seemed far away from us.
Not so for Ragheed. He was ordained a priest on 13 October 2001 in a Church dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels and the Martyrs of Rome. I recall his parents and family travelling to Rome for his ordination. It was a wonderful celebration of the Chaldean liturgy prayed in the same language in which Jesus spoke to us. I recall Ragheed’s sisters and the other Iraqi women present rhythmically clicking their fingers in their traditional expression of joy. Sadly, the joy was short-lived.
The emergence of the ISIS changed everything. Christians were now regarded as suspect. Loyalty had to be total. Ragheed’s nineteen-year-old sister, Raghad was injured in an attack on her parish Church. His archbishop died while being held hostage. Numerous Christians families were driven from their homes and many died. Ragheed returned home during autumn 2003. Ragheed’s Church was attacked several times. The level of anxiety among Christians grew. People feared for Ragheed and members of the parish began to accompany him. On 3 June 2007 Ragheed celebrated Sunday Mass and afterwards together with four people from the parish left in his car. A group of gunmen stopped the car. One of them asked Ragheed why he had not closed his church. Ragheed responded that he could not close the house of God. The gunmen allowed the only woman in the group to escape and killed Ragheed and his three companions. They booby-trapped the bodies hoping to kill other Christians. In Rome, Ragheed had lived on a street dedicated to four crowned martyrs, now there were four new martyrs.
I don’t know if I suspected Ragheed was capable of witnessing to the faith onto death during the years when we lived together in the Irish College. Do we ever truly see the greatness in each other? Ragheed’s life and death has inspired many. He is commemorated in a mosaic in the Irish College chapel where he prayed during his years in Rome. His aging parents, Kurjiya and Aziz, were presented to Pope Francis during the world meeting of families in Dublin. Pope Benedict described him as a martyr and the cause for his recognition as a saint has been opened by Pope Francis.
Even in the most brutal of times, love can flourish.
Lord, remove our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.
Albert McDonnell, chancellor of the diocese of Killaloe, based in Kildysart is a co-parish priest in the Radharc na nOileán pastoral area.