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Shock and Awe:

Marriage and Martyrdom for Iraqi Catholics

Rev. Fr. James H. Doran, FSSPX

Mr. Nicholas A. Chapello

POSTED: December 31, 20110

( Death 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.

After the 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.

The term 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 it 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."1

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 a 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."2

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.

Regardless of the quick victory, Cardinal Ratzinger commented in a press conference, "There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq."3 Due to years of UN sanctions and war, over a million Iraqis, mostly children, had died.4 But the killing did not end when the US President declared that the mission was accomplished. Iraq was to go through the process of "regime change."

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.5

The Christian 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.

Attacks on 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.6 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.7

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.8 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.

Christians are 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.9 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!"10

Archbishop 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.11 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.12

The kidnappers 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 flock".13 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".14

Excerpts from 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.15

On 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 Warduni, the 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." 16

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.17 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.

There have 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 agreed ….

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.’

The 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.

The great 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 that is.

With Monsignor 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.

Life through death, it seems, truly is ever triumphant.

Please pray for your persecuted Christian brethren in the Middle East.

3 Griffin, Michael, New Pope Benedict XVI a Strong Critic of War, Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXV, No. 4, Special Edition 2005

4 Woods, Richard O.P., Iraq Perspectives, Catholics and Dominicans in Iraq. Jan 2006

6 Horan, Deborah, Dominican Sister's First Visit Home, Chicago Tribune February 10, 2006

7 Archbishop Paul Faraj Rahho: The Times obituary. 14 March 2008 Accessed Aug 28, 2010

8 Lythgoe, Anne O.P. Explosions in Mosul Reach Dominican Friars.

9 De Charentenay, Pierre The Forgotten; Is there a future for Christianity in Iraq? America Magazine. June 2008

10 Shea, Nina, Obliterating' Iraq's Christians The Washington Post, MAY 14, 2010

11  Goode, Erica  "Kidnapped Iraqi Archbishop Is Dead". The New York Times. Mar 14, 2010 Retrieved Aug 28, 2010

12 Archbishop Paul Faraj Rahho: The Times obituary. 14 March 2008 Accessed Aug 28, 2010

13 Archbishop of Mosul kidnapped, Pope condemns act as “despicable”, Catholic News Agency, Feb 29, 2010 Accessed Aug 28, 2010

14 "Kidnapped Archbishop of Mosul Dies in Captivity”, Catholic News Agency, Mar 13, 2010 Accessed Aug 28, 2010

16 Allen, John, Iraqi bishop says U.S. betrayed country, Christians suffer most, National Catholic Register 21 Aug 10

17 De Charentenay, Pierre, The Forgotten; Is there a future for Christianity in Iraq? America Magazine. June 2008

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