Several years ago I had the privilege of being able to study in Rome for three years. While I was there I lived in the Pontifical Irish College, which is both a seminary and post-graduate college. As there are not enough Irish students to fill the college, it is now an international college. For one of my years there we had students from 23 different countries. This makes for a great cultural experience and it gave me a great sense of the universal Church. I found myself studying and living with other young men from all parts of the world. We came from many very different cultures, but we all shared the same faith and the same enthusiasm to make Jesus Christ known to other people. It was very inspiring to live in such an environment, although of course it also had its moments as we had very different ways of doing things.
One man who was my next door neighbour for a year and a half, was Fr. Ragheed Ganni from Iraq. I didn’t even know there were Catholics in Iraq until I met him. He was a young, highly talented and very likable priest. He was from the city of Nineveh in northern Iraq, which is the modern day city of Nineveh (Remember the prophet Jonah was sent to the people of Nineveh). Ragheed completed all his studies for priesthood in Rome, since if he returned to Iraq during his studies he may not have been able to leave again to complete them. So he studied in Rome, living in the Irish College and spent many summers in Ireland.
During our time there the American invasion of Iraq took place and the over-throwing of Sadam Hussein. This was a very difficult and stressful time for Ragheed as he watched his country being torn apart, while daily wondering if his family were safe or not. Having someone in the room next to me who was going through this made the war very real. Just before the war started I asked him as an Iraqi what were his fears about what would happen. He said that the problem was not so much when the Americans took over, as when they later pulled out. He said that then there would be civil war between the different Muslim factions and the Christians would be wiped out. That is exactly what happened.
In 2003 Ragheed returned to Iraq. It was now a very different country to the one he had left. To get into the country he told me that he had to fly into Syria and then take a bus across the border. I received a few emails from him after he returned. He said that there was a curfew almost every night and that it was becoming more and more difficult for the Christian community there. One day he sent me an email with photos of his church on fire. He said that gunmen had come in and taken him out at gunpoint. He thought he was going to be shot, but instead they blew up the church. Ragheed was able to return to Rome at least twice over the next three years, and I met him on one of those visits. He had put on some weight, and he said that this was because he could not go outside to exercise, as it was too dangerous. As time passed more and more of his parishioners began to leave and those of us who knew him worried for his safety. Whoever could afford to leave the parish got out.
Ragheed knew that staying on in Iraq was becoming increasingly dangerous, but he believed that that was where God was asking him to be. In spite of death threats and the obvious danger, he continued to minister to his people and they continued to come to pray and celebrate Mass. One of the neighbouring churches was hit by a car bomb killing two people and injuring many. The bishop’s house was blown up and Ragheed’s sister was injured by a grenade which was thrown at her while she was going to clean the church in preparation for Sunday mass. In spite of this Ragheed and the other priests continued to minister to their people.
On 3rd June, 2007 I received a phone call from a friend to tell me the terrible news that Ragheed along with three others, had been shot dead the day before. He had just finished celebrating the Mass and was leaving the church with another sub-deacon. Two other sub-deacons and the wife of one of them were in the car behind. One year later the woman and only survivor, Bayan Adam Bella, had the courage to speak out. Here are some excerpts from an interview she gave to Ankawa.com.
‘At a certain point the car was stopped by armed men. Fr. Ragheed could have fled but he did not want to, because he knew they were looking for him. They forced us to get out of the car and led me away. Then one of the killers screamed at Ragheed,
“I told you to close the church. Why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?” And he simply responded,
“How can I close the house of God?”
They immediately pushed him to the ground, and Ragheed had only enough time to gesture to me with his head that I should run away. Then they opened fire and killed all four of them.’ At this point Bayan fainted.
Ragheed Ganni was 35 when he was shot dead and had been a priest for just 6 years.
In the second reading from this Sunday’s mass (Apocalypse 7:9, 14-17) we hear of the great numbers of people who stand before the Lamb holding palms in their hands. When the writer asks who they are he is told,
‘These are the people who have been through the great persecution and because they have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb, they now stand in front of God’s throne and serve him day and night in his sanctuary; and the One who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.’
A few years after Ragheed’s death the chapel in the Irish College in Rome was redecorated by the artist Fr. Marko Rupnik (see the photo above). Behind the altar there is a breath-taking mosaic with Christ the Good Shepherd at the centre with several saints on either side including Fr. Ragheed Ganni to the far right holding the martyr’s palm. I always find it very moving to see this image having known Ragheed myself.
In different parts of the world many people continue to put their lives at risk in order to pass on the teachings of Christ as he asked us to. Many, including Ragheed, have payed with their lives. Although it is painful for me to think of Ragheed’s death, it is also a great source of strength and encouragement. ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians’ -Tertullian. Jesus told us we would be persecuted for following him, but he also told us that he is the Good Shepherd who continues to guide and look after us. That doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer, but it does mean that he is always with us. Even though none of us want to have to suffer for our faith, what could be more important than to be faithful to Jesus? He is the one who makes sense of why we are here. Without him we are nothing.
‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me.’