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Martyrdom and the Christian future in Iraq

In early June, I received a forwarded e-mail from a correspondent who’s done several tours in Iraq. He, in turn, had just heard from an Iraqi fellow-Catholic, a former translator for U.S. forces there, of the death of Father Raheed Ganni. The broken English of the Iraqi’s e-mail conveys the force of the scene better than I ever could:

“Today 3 June, Sunday morning and after he did Sunday service in his church (The Holy Spirit) in Al-Nour neighborhood in Mosul, and while he and three of the [deacons] of his church were leaving the church, stooped them a group of criminals of the Jehadists of Muslims extremist who call themselves members of Iraqi Islamic State and very close to the church, because they were waiting them outside the church and asked them to get out of the car and at the wall of the church they shooted them and kill all them, in the same time they planted some IEDs close to their dead bodies to make more hurt and damage happen when peoples come to evacuate them. Their dead bodies stayed out side the church many hours in the street…Actually I know this priest since 2 years ago. He is a very nice guy, respectable man, kind, love the others, always like visit and help the poor peoples. After his graduation from Rome, he was able to find him a church outside Iraq and stay there to do service for the expatriate of Iraqis, but he preferred to come back to Iraq to serve his own peoples. He was always praying to stop this violence in Iraq. I ask God the mercy for him and for the other martyrs.”

Subsequent traffic on the Catholic Internet circuit revealed a remarkable man. At his ordination in 2004, Father Raheed had evidently told a friend that he didn’t expect to live more than two more years; God gave him three. Father Raheed was martyred soon after receiving word that he had been accepted for doctoral studies in Rome, and as suggested above, his death had a biblical aura to it: like great Christian witnesses in the Book of Revelation, Father Raheed Ganni’s body and the bodies of his three deacon-companions were left in the street, unattended, until the IEDs could be disarmed and the remains of the saints taken into Father Raheed’s church.

I say “saints” with confidence, for there is no doubt that Father Raheed Ganni and his deacons are martyrs, killed “in hatred of the faith” by the haters who have created the current chaos in parts of long-suffering Iraq. We may, rightly, rejoice at the triumph of the martyrs. But we must also ask, now what?

The Holy See’s opposition to the use of force in Iraq in March 2003 is well known. Perhaps less well known is the widespread conviction in the Vatican today that a precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq would be the worst possible option from every point of view, including that of morality. Senior officials of the Holy See with whom I discussed the issue in May share the view of American analysts who are convinced that a premature American disengagement from Iraq would lead to genocidal violence, Iraq’s collapse into a failed state, chaos throughout the Middle East, and a new haven for international terrorists. That all of this would make life intolerable for Iraq’s remaining Christians is pluperfectly obvious.

The question of Iraq’s Christians was discussed during June 9 meetings involving President Bush, Pope Benedict, and senior Vatican diplomatic officials. U.S. Catholics and all those committed to religious liberty must urge the U.S. government to bring every possible lever into play to ensure that the Maliki government in Iraq takes seriously the religious freedom provisions of Iraq’s democratically ratified constitution, and moves to redress the plight of Chaldean Catholics and other Iraqi Christians who, too often, are being given three unacceptable choices: convert to Islam; face sometimes-lethal pressures to convert; or emigrate.

May the intercession of Father Raheed Ganni and his Companions hasten the day of peace with freedom and justice in Iraq.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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