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.

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.