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Christian faith in Iraq

30 November, 1999

‘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.’ These words of Fr Ragheed Ganni were spoken as his testimony at the Italian Eucharistic Congress at Bari. The theme of the congress was: “Sine dominico nihil possumus”, that is, “Without the Sunday Eucharist we cannot live”. – Fr Ragheed Ganni

I knew Ragheed for the seven years that he lived here as a seminarian and newly-ordained priest. He had visited us on several occasions since returning to Iraq in 2003 and I had spoken with him by telephone just ten days before his death. He was precisely as you described him: warm, good-natured, humorous, a fine student (previously he had graduated as an engineer) with a grounded spirituality. News of his murder has shocked us greatly.

His family came to Rome for his ordination and for his first Mass celebrated in our chapel in the presence of the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Cardinal Connell and Archbishop Brady. He had a great capacity for friendship, and many mourn his death. What a tragic loss it is for his parents and his siblings.

Ragheed’s Irish friends gathered for Mass on 1 July at the Shrine of St. Oliver Plunkett in Drogheda. In his words of welcome, Archbishop Brady noted how fitting it was that we should gather on the feast day of a seventeenth-century martyr past-pupil of the Irish College to pray for – and with – our new martyr of the twenty-first century.

Ragheed gave a wonderful testimony about the Eucharist at the Italian Eucharistic Conference at Bari in May 2004. Many people have signed the book of condolences on our website: www.irishcollege.org
To ensure that Ragheed’s sacrifice is not in vain, may I encourage you to keep the suffering Christians in Iraq before your readership.

With every good wish,
Liam Bergin,
Irish Rector of Pontifical College in Rome.

Testimony about the Eucharist given by  at the Italian Eucharistic Conference:
Mosul Christians are not theologians; some are even illiterate. And yet inside of us for many generations one truth has become embedded: without the Sunday Eucharist we cannot live.

This is true today when evil has reached the point of destroying churches and killing Christians, something unheard of in Iraq till now. In June 2004, a group of young women were cleaning the church to get it ready for Sunday service. My sister Raghad, who is nineteen, was among them. As she was carrying a pale of water to wash the floor, two men drove up and threw a grenade that blew up just a few yards away from her.

She was wounded but miraculously, survived. And on that Sunday, we still celebrated the Eucharist. My shaken parents were also there. For me and my community, my sister’s wounds were a source of strength so that we, too, may bear our cross.

Last August in St. Paul’s Church, a car bomb exploded after the 6 pm Mass. The blast killed two Christians and wounded many others. But that, too, was another miracle – the car was full of bombs but only one exploded. Had they all gone off together, the dead would have been in the hundreds since 400 faithful had come on that day.

People could not believe what had happened. The terrorists might think they can kill our bodies or our
spirit by frightening us, but, on Sundays, churches are always full. They may try to take our life, but the Eucharist gives it back.

On 7 December, the eve of the Immaculate Conception, a group of terrorists tried to destroy the Chaldean Bishop’s Residence, which is near Our Lady of the Tigris Shrine, a place venerated by both Christians and Muslims. They placed explosives everywhere, and a few minutes later blew the place up. This and fundamentalist violence against young Christians has forced many families to flee. Yet the churches have remained open and people continue to go to Mass, even among the ruins.

It is among such difficulties that we understand the real value of Sunday, the day when we meet the Risen Christ, the day of our unity and love, of our (mutual) support and help. There are days when I feel frail and full of fear. But when, holding the Eucharist, I say ‘Behold the Lamb of God, 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.

In normal times, everything is taken for granted and we forget the greatest gift that is made to us. Ironically, it is thanks to terrorist violence that we have truly learnt that it is the Eucharist, the Christ who died and risen, that gives us life. And this allows us to resist and hope. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (April 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

Dear Fr John,
A friend passed on to me the October edition of the Messenger and your editorial about the brutal murder of Fr. Ragheed Ganni. Thank you for highlighting his particular case and for calling for prayers for the persecuted Christians of Iraq.