and marriage are not usually two concepts spoken in the
same breath, in fact they are opposites: marriage
betokens life and renewal, while death the end of hope.
Nevertheless, for Catholics, both are in fact related as
only theological hope could accomplish – death in life
and life found in death – discovered in the beauty of
the Sacred Heart on Calvary. All the baptized are called
to imitate Christ both in His Life and, perhaps
especially, in His Death. To a wonderful degree this
perennial reality is being played out before the world,
blind for the most part, but within which we Catholics
would do well to attend. We have much to learn.
events of September 11, 2001, the United States
government promised its citizens that the 'evildoers'
would be brought to justice. There was, understandably,
public rage and the desire to right this wrong. The US
was attacked in the center of its greatest city. There
were 2,976 causalities. Grief and shock covered the mood
of the country from the trauma of the individual and
collective violation felt from the attack.
In less than a
month, Operation Enduring Freedom
began and US troops were carrying out military
operations in Afghanistan. By year's end a new
government was installed and the Taliban was out of
power. Despite success in Afghanistan, the country's
attention was drawn to Iraq. The President's father
warred against this nation during his term as president.
Another war seemed to be on the horizon.
weapons of mass destruction
became part of the lexicon. The Vatican and the US
Conference of Catholic Bishops intervened, attempting to
avoid another war. Cardinal Ratzinger said
would not be moral for the United States to attack Iraq
before another UN inspection of Iraq's arsenal. The US
Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 2002 made the
statement: "We pray for all those most likely to be
affected by this potential conflict, especially the
suffering people of Iraq and the men and women who serve
in our armed forces.... We pray for President Bush and
other world leaders that they will find the will and the
ways to step back from the brink of war with Iraq and
work for a peace that is just and enduring."
Even the Holy Father spoke out hoping to
stop the upcoming conflict. On Ash Wednesday 2003, Pope
John Paul II referring to the impeding war said at the
General Audience, "As
we enter the Lenten season, we need to be aware of
today's international situation, troubled by the
tensions and threats of war. It is necessary that
everyone consciously assume responsibility and engage in
a common effort to spare humanity another tragic
conflict. This is why I wanted this Ash Wednesday to be
Day of Prayer and Fasting
to implore peace for the world. We must ask God, first
of all, for conversion of heart, for it is in the heart
that every form of evil, every impulse to sin is rooted;
we must pray and fast for the peaceful coexistence of
peoples and nations."
Two weeks later on St Joseph’s Day,
March 19, 2003, CNN broadcast live “The Battle of
Baghdad”. Over the explosions of 'smart bombs' were
scrolled the words across the screen "Shock and Awe."
Perversely, modern warfare itself is used as a prop for
advertizing and we are entertained by broadcasts while
men in Florida shoot people on the other side of the
earth; it all really has the flavor of a video game,
except that, tragically, real people bleed and die. When
you have the chance to meet some of the people affected
by this “video game”, the ghastly reality takes on a
whole different cast. The Iraqi military was quickly
defeated. And after a time, Saddam Hussein was captured
and eventually hanged by the neck.
the quick victory, Cardinal Ratzinger commented in a
press conference, "There were not sufficient reasons to
unleash a war against Iraq."
Due to years of UN sanctions and war, over a million
Iraqis, mostly children, had died.
But the killing did not end when the US President
declared that the mission was accomplished.
Iraq was to go through the process of
Iraq is a
country that is comprised of several ethic and religious
groups. The population of 31.2 million people is
historically more sectarian than unified. Ethnic Kurds,
tribal warlords, adherers to Shiite or Sunni Islam
compete for power. Before the 1991 Gulf war, there were
approximately 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Christians
have been living in the area for 2,000 years. From the
earliest days of Christianity, right up to our time,
Christians have witnessed to the Gospel there, in many
churches even praying in the very language of Our Lord.
They live primarily in Baghdad, center of the country
and close to ancient Babylon, and also in the northern
cities of Kirkuk, Irbil; and, in Mosul, the area once
known in the Old Testament as Nineveh.
population became a target in Iraq after the US
invasion. There were many Nationalists who were angry
about the foreign occupation of their country, and many
others who identified the resident Christians with these
invading troops of “Crusaders”. The Sunni and Shiite
Muslim populations in the country were engaged in a duel
for power in the vacuum left by the removal the
Socialist Ba'ath Party. The Christian population was
simply caught in the middle of crushing forces.
Churches, the clergy, and even Christian-owned
businesses were systematically persecuted.
Christians began in earnest with a series of church
bombings in 2004. In one day, in January 2006, there
were four churches in Baghdad and Kirkuk bombed, killing
three people. By this time, 2006, over two dozen
churches had been bombed in the country.
It had become a situation in which a Catholic risked his
life just to go to Sunday Mass. Holy Days, especially
Christmas and the Feast of the Assumption, were choice
days to target Christians. Faithful and clergy could be
rifled down as they came out from the Divine Liturgy;
but the persecutions, of course, were especially
directed against the clergy. After celebrating Mass in
Mosul’s Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in June of 2007,
Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni along with three sub-deacons were
shot to death.
In the spring
of 2007, the Mujahedeen, so-called Islamic
warriors, attacked the police authorities in Mosul
attempting to take control of the city. The battle
damaged the Dominican Priory in that city. Now, the
Dominican Fathers had been in Iraq since the thirteenth
century, almost from the beginning of the Order. The
Dominican presence has been continuous in Mosul since
the time of Pope Benedict XIV, who had sent them back
after their expulsion (along with the whole of the Latin
Christians) at the end of the Crusades. Their apostolate
in Iraq involves the study of history and language. They
publish a periodical in Arabic, Christian Thought.
They have a house of formation for the novices. Due to
the war and political instability, what once had been a
continuous Catholic presence, withstanding invasions of
Mongols and the Ottoman Empire over the centuries, has
largely had to stop.
There are also
two Congregations of Dominican Sisters in Iraq.
Attracting local vocations, there are over 120 sisters
who are native to Iraq. The sisters’ ministry involves
education, teaching Catechism, and health care. In 2007,
a car bomb exploded next to their convent in Telskouf.
The convent, located alongside a kindergarten also
operated by the sisters, meant that several people were
killed including children.
Most of the Dominicans in Mosul have had to flee to a
village near Irbil, more than 50 miles away. The threats
and violence against the sisters continues to this day.
frequently kidnapped; it is a wonderful source of
revenue. The ransom depends on the victim's rank. A
layman has a market value of $100,000; a priest
$500,000; and a bishop over $ 1 million.
Christian children are not exempt from the persecution.
Recently, fanatics attacked a Chaldean Catholic home
outside of Mosul. While shouting that they had come to
exterminate the family, they killed a ten-year-old boy.
They shouted, "This is the end for you Christians!"
Paul Rahho, leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church in
northern Iraq, was born on November 20, 1942.
In the evening
of February 29, 2008, the archbishop visited a church in
the Mosul neighborhood of al-Nour. It was a Friday in
Lent and he had come to lead the Stations of the Cross
for the faithful. As he left, his automobile was
attacked. Gunmen shot his bodyguard and driver. The
Chaldean bishop was shoved into the trunk of his car.
Able to access his mobile phone, and despite having been
shot in the leg and the darkness of the trunk, he was
able to telephone his church, instructing them to refuse
to pay any ransom. Archbishop Rahho did not want the
church's money to be spent on more killings and evil
actions. He did not want the cost for his release to
take away from the diocese’s charitable good works.
Good works that had been in large part his doing. Among
these works of mercy, he had founded an orphanage for
handicapped children, especially needed due to the years
of war and U.N. sanctions.
of Archbishop Rahho did make several demands in return
for his release; these were not made known to the press.
Pope Benedict XVI asked the entire Catholic Church "to
unite in fervent prayer so that reason and humanity
prevail among the authors of the kidnapping, and that
Monsignor Rahho be returned quickly to the care of his
The faithful offered continuous prayer for weeks. But it
was on March 11th
that the abductors called to say Bishop Rahho was very
ill. They called back later and stated that he was dead.
On the morning of March 12th
another call was received instructing where the
Christians could find the buried corpse. Some young men,
on March 13, 2008, retrieved the body to the tremendous
grief of the Catholic community. The Pope asked the Lord
for mercy, "that this tragic event may serve to build a
future of peace in the martyred land of Iraq".
Archbishops Rahho's Testament were published later.
Continuing to instruct his flock beyond his death, it
would seem that he knew the way he would die:
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for
oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we
die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or
die, we are the Lord’s,” (Romans, 14:7-8).
Death is a dreadful reality, more dreadful than any
other reality, and each one of us must deal with it.
People who give their lives, themselves, their being and
all they possess to God and to others express this way
the profound faith they have in God and their trust in
Him. The Eternal Father takes care of everyone and harms
no one because his love is infinite. He is Love as well
as fatherhood at its fullest. This way we understand
death. Death means a stop to this giving to God and
others (i.e. in this life) in order to open up and give
oneself again, without end or flaw. Life means fully
placing oneself in the hands of God. In death giving
becomes infinite in eternal life.
August 31, 2010, President Obama announced from the Oval
Office the end of the US combat mission in Iraq. But
referring to the US efforts in Iraq, Bishop Shlemon
Chaldean Auxiliary of Baghdad, said that his country was
“an Iraq worse off than the one they found seven years
ago.” He added, "After toppling the regime of Saddam
Hussein, the United States never achieved what they had
promised to the world. Now there’s only rubble. We have
become targets, we are afraid to even leave the house.
The situation is worse for everyone, but especially for
us Christians." To summarize the military intervention
he stated, "Economic profit was put at the center of
everything, the protection of foreign interests, and not
the defense of values, of conscience, and of the common
good. Thus in the streets of our cities there is no
trace of democracy, only fear and violence. We are
paying an extremely high price in blood and terror."
Iraq has lost
half of its Christian population. There are 90,000
refugees in Kurdistan, relatively the quietest part of
the country, while another 180,000 have fled to Syria,
Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
Many others have been killed. May the martyrs of today
intercede for us. But for our part, it is up to us to
assist the suffering members still stranding in this
martyred church. Numbers, statistics, and foreign names
can leave us with a sense of irrelevance, but our
brothers and sisters still need the corporal and
spiritual support of us in the West. This is the
Communion of the Saints and our faith in the Church
found in our creed.
always been martyrs in the Middle East, the cradle of
Christianity. Her martyrology is a splendid read. At an
enterprise called, Corpus Christi Watershed, Eric
Hinojosa is working on the film titled, Fire in
Damascus. It is the story of a few of these Oriental
martyrs: the Damascene martyrdom of the Blessed Massabki
Brothers and the events surrounding their martyrdom in
July1860. This project has taken him on location to the
Middle East, giving him the opportunity to meet the
Christians in the region. He has written about the Iraqi
refugees that he met in Syria:
Maybe an hour outside of Damascus, there is another
church that the Chaldeans of that region are borrowing
for Masses. Every week the Chaldean priest takes a bus
to say Mass. I asked him if I could come along and he
I began chatting with an Iraqi man. He said 'where are
you from?' Not sure if I should tell the truth, I said
'I’m American.' He smiled and said 'I worked for an
American company in Iraq. One day I received a note that
said, ‘You have to leave. Now. You don’t have time to
pack. Take your family and go. If you don’t you will
die.’ He began to cry. He continued, 'I left behind
everything. My job, home, all my possessions are gone.
In Iraq I had a life. Here I have nothing. You know what
they did? They kidnapped my son and I had to spend all
of my money to get him back.' He composed himself,
smiled and signaled for his son to come over. 'Come meet
this nice American man!' He told him. The boy looked
like he was 13 years old. I shook his hand and said
'nice to meet you.’
opportunity presented itself to visit Damascus once
again in 2010. There, in the old city, beyond Bab
Touma, “The Gate of St. Thomas”, there are several
Christian communities: Maronite, Chaldean, Melkite,
Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic,
Latin Catholic, Byzantine, Syriac, etc. There is a
Chaldean church dedicated to St. George located near the
Franciscan and Maronite churches, just around the corner
in fact. The Chaldean Church is historically connected
to the country of Iraq. At present, it is headed by
Emmanuel III Cardinal Delly, Patriarch of Babylon of the
Chaldeans, and Primate of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
The Chaldeans are in full communion with the Roman
Church and compose a sui juris Eastern Church,
one of the twenty-rites in the Catholic Church.
Many of the
refugees from Iraq have flocked to this church in
Damascus; but with only one priest, the influx of
pastoral work has overwhelmed its sole minister. The
Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, Samir Nassar, known to
one of the authors since 2007, has assigned one of his
priests to help out this church. This priest, young and
eager, zealous for orthodoxy and liturgical practices,
is called Fr. Gibril, Fr. Gabriel. So devoted has
he been to this apostolate among the refugees that he
has learned the Chaldean rite in order to assist.
Commenting on the situation, Archbishop Nassar pointed
out that Fr. Gabriel is especially suited for such a
pastoral assignment. And energetic enthusiasm it will
take – there are over three hundred marriages a year in
this church. In this church, the priests must often
witness and bless two marriages per day; one is often at
6:30 PM with a second at 9:00 PM. Syria being a Muslim
country, the faithful have only Friday free from labor,
hence the unusual times.
Time is fluid
in Arabia and the ceremonies begin rarely on time, but
the enthusiasm, cheers and ululations are extraordinary.
There has never been a Eucharistic Sacrifice with the
blessing of marriage in the Eastern Rites, and although
this is the case it is still modeled on a Mass, and,
nevertheless, takes forty-five minutes to be celebrated.
With great devotion, the priest presents the couples,
during the wedding, books of family prayers and icons of
the Mother of God. The devotion to “Holy Mary”, the
Theotokos, is palpable among our Eastern brethren.
They may be refugees, but love is still possible and
hope is never seen to be beyond their grasp. This
enthusiasm for life, and in such circumstances, should
put to shame those of us who live in a world, perhaps
materially prosperous, but shallow beyond banality.
number of marriages in this lone church indicates the
vast influx of those fleeing from their Iraqi homes. The
refugees marry before heading off to lands beyond the
seas as emigrants, ever farther removed from their
homeland by invasion and war: Europe, America,
Australia, etc. Life, it would seem, will always take
precedence over death and destruction, in the long run
Nassar, Fr. Gabriel has long served in the ministry, if
not always in the same capacity. This mutual service and
affection goes back many years between both men. Already
back in Beirut, the young priest began as altar boy and
assistant to a younger Fr. Nassar, at that time parish
priest in Bouj Hammoud. They lived through the Lebanese
civil war together.
death, it seems, truly is ever triumphant.
Please pray for your persecuted Christian brethren in
the Middle East.