On April 1 -- Palm Sunday -- after bullets were fired into the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul, Iraq, during mass, the pastor, Father Ragheed Ganni, a Chaldean Catholic, e-mailed friends at the Asia Times:
"We empathize 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 our suffering as a sign of love for Christ."
The attacks continued. Father Ragheed wrote again: "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."
As the bombings in Mosul and Baghdad rose during April and May, and priests were kidnapped, Father Ragheed grew weary. In his last e-mail, May 28, he wrote, "We are on the verge of collapse."
A day before, Pentecost Sunday, a bomb exploded in his church, and Father Ragheed seemed dispirited: "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 the disaster. Iraq has already been divided. It will never be the same. What is the future of our church?"
Though tempted by despair, Father Ragheed did not give up hope.
"I may be wrong, but I am certain about one thing -- one single fact that is always true: that the Holy Spirit will enlighten people so that they will work for the good of humanity, in this world so full of evil."
Following mass on Trinity Sunday, a week after Pentecost Sunday, Father Ragheed and three sub-deacons were seized, taken away and murdered. Their killers placed vehicles loaded with explosives around the bodies so no one would dare approach them.
The story of "The Last Mass of Father Ragheed, a Martyr of the Chaldean Church," is related by Sandro Magister of www.Chiesa.com.
Father Ragheed had completed his studies in Rome in 2003, Magister writes, and returned full of hope. "That is where I belong, that is my place," he said of Iraq. "Saddam has fallen, we have elected a government, we have voted for a constitution."
Since 2003, an immense tragedy has befallen the Iraqi Christians. In 2000, Chaldeans, Syro-Catholics, Syro-Orthodox, Assyrians from the East, Catholic and Orthodox Armenians, and Greek-Melkites together numbered 1.5 million. Today, perhaps 500,000 remain. Hundreds of thousands have found sanctuary in Syria and Jordan, tens of thousands in Egypt and Lebanon. Among the refugees are many of Iraq's professionals -- doctors and teachers who could have helped build a better future for all in Iraq.
The region around Mosul and Nineveh, writes Magister, is the "cradle of Christianity in Iraq. There are churches and monasteries that go back to the earliest centuries. ... Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is used in the liturgies."
As the war has dragged on, life has become hellish for the remaining Christians. Yet they have never resorted to bombings or assassinations.
Father Ragheed is neither the first nor last of the Iraqi martyrs.
After Pope Benedict gave his speech in Regensburg, Germany, touching on Islam, Father Paulos Iskander was kidnapped and beheaded in retaliation by the "Lions of Islam." Father Joseph Petros was murdered. A Catholic nun told the Vatican news agency: "The imams preach in the mosques that it is not a crime to kill Christians. It is a hunting of men."
In May, St. George's Assyrian Church in the Dora neighborhood, a Christian enclave of Baghdad, was burned down, destroying what had survived a firebombing in 2004. The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) reports it was the 27th church destroyed by Muslim gangs since the liberation of Iraq. Now the ancient practice of the jizya -- the "head tax" Muslims have traditionally imposed on Christians, Jews and religious minorities -- is being reinstituted. According to AINA, "Al-Qaida is demanding that Christians pay 250,000 dinars (around $200) for the right to remain in their own homes, a sum equivalent to an average month's salary in Iraq." All this, and the news of Father Ragheed's murder, moved Benedict XVI to raise the issue with President Bush. For when Bush left the Vatican, he told reporters: "He (the pope) is worrisome about the Christians inside Iraq being mistreated by the Muslim majority. ... He was concerned that the society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religion." For the martyrdom of Christianity in its birth cradle, blame must fall heavily upon the men who conceived this misbegotten war.
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