Hearing their stories, we can't help but thank God for their witness, and beg their intercession for their homeland.
Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq this week (with its attendant crowds) has drawn renewed attention to the Christian people of Iraq. Though they are a minority of the Iraqi people, Christians have lived in Iraq for nearly two millennia. And while most Iraqi saints lived in the first millennium, that may soon change. Among the many Christians killed in Iraq in the third millennium are 48 Syriac Catholic Servants of God and six Chaldean Catholic Servants of God.
Learn about the different Christian groups in Iraq here:
On Friday, Pope Francis visited the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, where 48 Catholics were martyred on All Hallows’ Eve in 2010. Their priest (Fr. Thayr Saidalla Abdal) was proclaiming the Gospel when terrorists burst into the church and began shooting. Fr. Thayr held the book of the Gospels above his head and cried out, “In the name of the Gospel, leave them and take me. Me for them!” Fr. Wasim Sabih Al-Qas Boutros was hearing confessions. He managed to shepherd two families to safety before going back. The families he had saved urged him to flee with them. “I won’t leave them like this,” he replied, and went to his death.
Both young priests have been declared Servants of God, along with the other 46 Christians killed that day. The list of martyrs shows a web of relations—parents killed with their children, cousins killed together, husbands and wives dying alongside one another. They include Sandru Yan Yu-nan Al-saur, a 3-month-old baby who was killed with his parents and his grandfather; Raghda Wafi Bishara, a 22-year-old married woman, and her unborn child; and Adam Adi Zuhayr Marzina Arab, a 3-year-old who kept shouting for the terrorists to stop shooting while trying to rouse his father, Adi Zuhayr Marzina Arab, who had been shot. After killing the little boy, the terrorists told his mother they would leave her and her younger son alive because they wanted her to suffer.
Servant of God Cecilia Moshe Hanna (1931-2002) was an elderly Sister beheaded by terrorists in her own monastery. Orphaned at five, Cecilia was raised at the Monastery of the Sacred Heart in Araden and later joined that order. Unrest in Northern Iraq led them to build a new monastery in Mosul, then Baghdad. A humble woman known for her smile, Sr. Cecilia’s love for her Sisters spilled over even to their families, making them love her as one of their own. On August 15, the 71-year-old Sr. Cecilia was staying alone at her monastery when armed men broke in, robbed her, and (despite her insistence that she forgave them and would beg the Lord to forgive them as well) stabbed her and then hacked off her head with a dull kitchen knife.
Servant of God Ragheed Aziz Ganni (1972-2007) was a popular young priest who played soccer and gave talks at youth rallies. With a bachelor’s in civil engineering and some military service before entering the seminary, he was eminently relatable. In the four years he spent as a parish priest in Mosul (the second-most dangerous city in Iraq), Fr. Ragheed’s parish was attacked at least 10 times, but the people continued to return. It was clear to him why: “Without the Eucharist, the Christians in Iraq cannot survive.”
It was in the Eucharist that Fr. Ragheed found the strength to resist and to hope. And it was for the Eucharist that he died. Terrorists had demanded that he close his church. He refused. And so he was martyred along with his cousin, Servant of God Basman Yousef Daud, and friends Servant of God Wahid Hanna Isho and Servant of God Gassan Isam.
Servant of God Paulos Faraj Rahho (1942-2008) was the Chaldean Catholic Archeparch of Mosul. Paulos was ordained at 22 and spent most of his priesthood in his hometown of Mosul, where he founded a community that serves disabled people and supports their families. Once consecrated archbishop, he led his people through increasing persecution. Archbishop Rahho had an excellent sense of humor and unmatched courage. A target because of his willingness to speak out against Sharia law, he was forced from his home in 2004 and made to watch as it was set on fire. Even when his secretary (Servant of God Ragheed Ganni) was killed, Rahho stayed with his people.
In February 2008 (eight months after Ganni’s death), Archbishop Rahho was ambushed. His driver and two bodyguards were killed and the archbishop thrown in the trunk of a car, but he was able to use his cell phone to call the church. “Do not pay a ransom for me,” he said, concerned that the money would be used to fund violence. The kidnappers contacted Church authorities several times asking for money, weapons, and the release of prisoners. But two weeks later, his body was found in a shallow grave.