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
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
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
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
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."
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 "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
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.
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
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
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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".
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".
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
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
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."
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.
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
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.’
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.