When our son was born he did not breathe. It is quite common for newborns to need encouragement to respire by the nurses rubbing them manually, or via the warning equipment in the birthing room, which is what happened with our second child. This time was different, and our boy didn’t respond to anything when the midwife took him out of my wife’s arms. Then someone in the room pressed the emergency button and within seconds about a dozen medical professionals rushed in. But he was not responding. Then I thought I heard someone say: “He’s gone into cardiac arrest.”
It was then that everything turned hyper-real, as they do during moments of intense stress and panic. One cannot believe something so awful is actually happening for real. It was at that point that I got down on my knees by the bed, and for some reason the man I prayed to was Fr Ragheed Ganni, an Iraqi priest who was killed in Mosul in June 2007.
Later the medical staff told us that our son James had taken two minutes before screaming at the top of his lungs, a sound that brought such overwhelming relief and fearless joy that I could not contain my tears and (my uncharacteristically un-English) hugs for the doctors. You can imagine how long those two minutes had felt.
James’s first breaths, and the life they signified, were not a miracle by any means; because his water birth had occurred with such speed his lungs were filled with liquid, and he survived because of perfectly explicable medical technology, and the very competent and compassionate staff at the Whittington Birth Centre (it was their third such emergency that morning). But I thank Fr Ragheed anyway, and still think of his life of sacrifice, during a period of intense persecution for Christians, as a model to follow.
Fr Ragheed was one of 1,000 Iraqi Christians murdered during the pogrom that began after the Coalition invasion of 2003. The persecution culminated in October 31 2010, with the massacre of 52 worshippers at a Catholic church in Baghdad. In the words of one Chaldean bishop, this is a “Calvary” that has largely been ignored in the western media, outside of the Christian press. More recently, with increasing anti-Christian violence in Egypt and within the appalling civil war in Syria, the subject of Christian persecution has become more widely discussed. The topic has been raised in Parliament and addressed publicly by a (Muslim) Government minister.
It has been a shocking and 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 a million is now somewhere in the region of 150,000, many of them elderly, and more than 60 churches have been bombed. Despite this, Fr Ragheed’s story is inspiring. It is marked by perfect sacrifice and devotion, forgiveness and friendship.
Fr Ragheed came from Mosul, in the north of Iraq, which for centuries was the heart of Syriac Christianity, a bustling cosmopolitan city of Assyrians, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Jews and Persians as well as smaller groups, such as the Sabaeans, Shabeks, Mandaeans and Yezidi. Close to the Aramaic-speaking villages of the Nineveh Plains, Mosul was also home to a large Chaldean Catholic community, although numbers had been in decline throughout the 20th century because of persecution, discrimination and emigration.
Ragheed was 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, specialising in ecumenical theology, and 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, Fr Ragheed explained about the persecution of his people, who since Iraq’s independence in 1932 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 Hussein’s downfall.
Fr Ragheed had been devastated by the outbreak of war, having been separated from his family for seven years, and now unsure of their safety. He said he had to return to Iraq to serve as a priest, despite the risks, because “that is where I belong, that is my place”. But he had written optimistically of rebuilding a “free society” and said: “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 ministered to the poor and the sick, including a small child who had to undergo eye surgery in Rome.
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 Blessed John Paul II’s desperate attempts to prevent it.
The atmosphere in Ragheed’s home town 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 AsiaNews: “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 Benedict XVI’s Regensberg 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.”
Friends later recalled that he had become increasingly weary and broken by the demands of the priesthood amid 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.”
As 2006 turned to 2007 the bombings multiplied, the kidnappings 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 Fr Ragheed 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.”
A bomb exploded in the Holy Spirit church in on May 27, the feast of Pentecost, injuring two security guards, and the following day, in his last ever email to AsiaNews, he 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, after Mass had ended, Fr Ragheed was leaving the Holy Spirit Church along with three sub-deacons, Basman Yousef Daud, Gassan Isam Bidawed and Wahid Hanna Isho, when gunmen approached. Bidawed’s wife was also in the car, but they separated her from the men. 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.”
The terrorists booby-trapped the bodies so that it took hours before they could be collected. Despite the threat of violence, 2,000 people attended the funerals of the four men, and the Mass was celebrated by Fr Ragheed’s bishop, Mar Paulos Rahho, 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 on his life. In March 2008 he was murdered. The kidnappers had demanded $3 million for his return, but the bishop had told his impoverished diocese not to pay the ransom, as they were struggling to support too many families.
In October 2008, 13,000 people, more than half of Mosul’s remaining Christians, fled after 13 people were murdered over two days, including a father and son and a disabled man; most of them were shop owners, suggesting that al-Qaeda in Iraq were seeking to destroy the economic power of the community.
Despite the violence inflicted on the Christians, Fr Ragheed’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, Prof Mokrani 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.”
Prof 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, has always struck me as supremely powerful. No one wants to die to self, and I can imagine how much he must have wanted to do the easier thing, to leave Mosul, and yet he chose the hard thing.
Friends recalled that as the war and violence intensified he would appear more drained and tired, as if carrying a cross. But when he spoke at an Italian Eucharistic congress in 2005, he said: “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.”
“His boundless love”: I remember reading that and the phrase rather stuck with me, which is why I suppose that when I felt at my most scared
I thought of Fr Ragheed and prayed to him.
A week or so after the birth, and with a healthy boy whose screams by now were rather less welcome than that first magical outburst, I took a bundle of documents and hospital notes to Islington Town Hall to register the birth. We had decided on the name James, after my mother’s brother, and had already chosen a couple of middle names. But I wanted another, despite my wife’s protests.
“You know I have to do this,” I told her as I left. And so our son bears the name Ragheed on his passport, possibly becoming the first Englishman to do so. I just hope he won’t hold it against me, for it will serve him as an example and guide on life’s journey.