A few years ago I got a phone call from a priest friend of mine in the Irish College in Rome, where I had studied for three years, to tell me the sad news that a mutual priest friend of ours had been shot dead in Iraq after celebrating mass. He was my next-door neighbor in Rome for a year and a half. He had just celebrated Sunday mass and was with three other sub-deacons and one of their wives. Their car was ambushed, the woman was taken out of the car and the three deacons and Ragheed were shot. The three deacons had given their time to try and protect Fr. Ragheed, as they knew he was in danger. One year later the woman and only survivor, Bayan Adam Bella, has 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.
The killers then left the bodies booby-trapped in the hope of killing others as well. Ragheed was just 34. He is now a martyr of the church. He had studied to be a priest in Rome and spent several summers working in Ireland because it was too dangerous to go back to Iraq, but eventually he decided that it was time for him to go back to his home country as the people needed him. He knew that it would be extremely dangerous and to be honest I wasn’t that surprised when I heard this terrible news. About a year before, he had sent me an email telling me that armed men had come into his house and brought him out at gunpoint and then blown up the church. He sent me a photo of himself standing outside the church and it in flames. On Pentecost Sunday, just two weeks before he was shot, there had been another bomb attack on the church. His own bishop was kidnapped and murdered and his sister had a grenade thrown at her when she was going to prepare the church for mass.
|Fr. Ragheed Ganni (1972-2007)|
He also told me that over half of his parish had already left, because it was too dangerous. Anyone who could afford it had gone, but the poorer people were still there and the thing that will probably stick with me the most is this: he said that without the Eucharist, the people have nothing. That is why he was prepared to stay, because he believed that the Eucharist was everything, and the people needed this hope and so he was prepared to stay there and risk his life.
Sometimes it is when all our material comforts are taken away, that we suddenly realise the importance of having spiritual hope. It is not as obvious to us because we are fairly comfortable and thankfully we can practice our faith freely, but it is not so easy for many people in the world right now. However, often when people are suffering for their faith they are much more tuned in to their need for God, their need for the Eucharist.
Just before the war started in Iraq, I asked Ragheed what his fears for his country were. He told me that the problem wasn’t when the US forces moved in, but rather when they would leave again, because then there would be civil war and the Christians would be wiped out. That is exactly what happened. He was from Mosul, which is the biblical city of Nineveh. Remember the prophet Jonah was sent to Nineveh?
I am not telling you this story about Ragheed’s death to just paint a depressing picture of the terrible things going on in the world, but rather because it reminds me of the enormous treasure that God has given us in the Eucharist and the priesthood and what people will endure because of their hope in God’s promise of life after death. That gives people great inner strength to go through difficulties. We also need to hold onto that hope, the hope of the world to come. Hopefully we won’t have to experience that kind of persecution, but even for the ordinary difficulties that we continually face, it makes all the difference if we have the inner strength and hope that our faith gives us. What is that hope? It is the hope that something wonderful awaits us in the world to come if we choose for God. That helps us to keep going, to be faithful, especially when things are difficult.
|Mosaic from the Irish College, Rome, with Fr. Ragheed depicted on the right.|
Today’s readings are about this: religious persecution. In the first reading we hear about a family who are prepared to face torture and death rather than deny God and in the Gospel Jesus is reminding us that the life after this one is real and worth struggling to reach. People are prepared to die for the mass and for their faith because it is the greatest thing that God has given us. It is what makes sense of why we are here.
Just this past week a priest in Ireland spoke strongly about gay marriage and transgender ideology being pushed on young people. He said they were sinful, which is Church teaching. He has been removed from the parish by his bishop and not allowed to say mass in public.
A few years ago a young priest here in the States was preaching at the funeral of someone who had committed suicide. He said that suicide was a moral evil, which is Church teaching. I think it was insensitive to say it at that time, but he was removed from ministry by his bishop and told he needed to go for counselling.
Persecution is never far away. There is persecution from within the Church because people are afraid of offending others. ‘We mustn’t upset people.’ Jesus was crucified for what He said. The Apostles were killed for what they said and thousands more throughout the centuries. People won’t lay down their lives for a nice idea, but they will lay down their lives for the truth, because if we deny the truth what are we left with?
|A 'mass rock' where masses were celebrated in secret during times of persecution in Ireland|
As it happened I was in Rome shortly after Ragheed’s death and I was there for a special mass that was celebrated in the Irish College where I studied for three years. It was celebrated by several Iraqi priests, mostly in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, which Ragheed also spoke at home. It was very moving to see several other young priests there from Iraq who could easily face the same fate as my friend Fr. Ragheed.
During the mass, the words that kept going through my mind were the words of the consecration: ‘This is my body, which will be given up for you.’ Those words reminded me of Ragheed’s life. He was prepared to sacrifice himself for his people so that they could have the Eucharist, the greatest treasure that God has given us. In the same way the Lord Jesus sacrificed himself for us as well, so that we might have life. Ragheed was just 34. May we also have the grace to be faithful and persevere as he did.
Ragheed Ganni, priest and martyr, pray for us.