Iraq’s Christians Living Out the Passion this Easter

Peter Lamprecht | Compass Direct News | Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Iraq’s Christians Living Out the Passion this Easter

March 21, 2008

Attacks on the minority community continue after archbishop’s death.

ISTANBUL – Days after the body of a kidnapped archbishop was found buried in northern Iraq, fresh kidnappings and murders continue to haunt the country’s Christians this Passion Week.

“We have people threatened, people kidnapped, people killed – this is Holy Week,” Kirkuk’s Chaldean Archbishop Luis Sako said.

Danger in Mosul may be great enough to effectively cancel Easter in the city this year, one clergyman said.

“We could close our churches in Mosul to protect ourselves and say to everyone that we don’t accept the situation,” Dominican Father Najeeb Mikhail said. “Or we can hold all the celebrations, and maybe we will receive some bombs or attacks.”

Fr. Mikhail affirmed that Mosul’s Christian denominations planned to remain in the city despite the attacks.

His comments came yesterday, only hours before meeting with Mosul’s Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic bishops to decide how to help the city’s now leaderless Chaldean flock. Chaldean Archbishop Paulus Faraj Rahho, kidnapped last month while leaving a Mosul church, was found dead last Thursday (March 13), buried in a shallow grave.

The specifics of Rahho’s death remain uncertain, but Mikhail said that, according to an autopsy, he had died five to seven days prior to his discovery. The archbishop had been in poor health and on several medications, none of which were with him when he was kidnapped on February 29.

Rahho’s funeral was held last Friday (March 14) at the Mar Addai church in the town of Karamlis, 20 miles east of Mosul.

Following a mass celebrated by Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly and heavily attended by church leaders as well as by Muslim religious leaders and government officials, Rahho’s body was laid to rest next to that of his former diocesan priest, Ragheed Ghanni.

Last May, Rahho had celebrated Ghanni’s funeral mass at Mar Addai church after gunmen murdered Ghanni and three deacons for refusing to convert to Islam while leaving Mosul’s Holy Spirit Church.

Rahho’s two bodyguards and driver, shot during his abduction, were mourned there only two weeks ago.

“Christians in Mosul have made so many sacrifices for the freedom of the Iraqi people, and this kidnapping, God willing, will be the last disaster,” a representative of Mosul’s mayor said at the funeral mass, according to Iraqi Christian website Ankawa.com.

Lenten Attacks

But since Rahho’s death, attacks on Christians have continued.

The day of the archbishop’s funeral, a young Assyrian was gunned down in the same area of Mosul where the Christian leader was kidnapped, Fr. Mikhail said.

Unidentified men attempted to kidnap Rani Youssef Hanna, 25, as he was leaving the Mar Toma church on March 14, Iraqi Christian website Ankawa.com reported. The men shot the Christian after he escaped their grasp.

Hanna had moved to Syria, where he taught religion classes, two years prior with his family. He was back in Iraq on a two-week visit at the time of his murder.

On Saturday (March 15), Ankawa.com reported that a Christian woman from the predominantly Syrian Orthodox village of Bartalla, 15 miles east of Mosul, had been kidnapped. The website said that captors had asked for money in exchange for releasing the mother of five.

According to Fr. Mikhail, a third kidnapping attempt occurred on a young Christian man in Mosul this week. The young man has been hospitalized after his would-be kidnappers shot him when he escaped.

The attacks are part of larger violence and lawlessness that has affected all of Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups. Approximately 4.5 million Iraqis have been uprooted by the war, BBC reported yesterday.

But Rahho’s kidnapping, with ransom demands that the Christian community support jihad against U.S. troops and pay $3 million, was a clear attempt to drive Christians out of Mosul, church leaders said. More than half of Iraq’s Christians, who trace their roots back to Christ’s disciples, are estimated to have fled the country since 2003.

In the last two months several Christian families have left Mosul after armed groups dropped notes by their homes telling them to pay a religious tax or be killed, the Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday (March 15).

Mikhail said that he and other priests in the Mosul area constantly changed their locations to avoid being targeted.

“They detect us by phone and by car, and we don’t know…” the priest said indicating constant uncertainty.

Christians in the towns around Mosul say they pay large sums of money to Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the provincial capital in exchange for protection, The Christian Science Monitor reported on March 6.

This “tax” supposedly insures the safety of 2,000 university students, daily bused to classes in Mosul, the article said. But last year seven students and a teacher from this group were kidnapped and held for ransom, released only after their families allegedly paid $250,000.

At a mass celebrated in Archbishop Rahho’s memory Monday, Pope Benedict XVI drew parallels between the danger facing Iraq’s Christians and the suffering experienced by Christ’s disciples during his passion.

“These are the days in which we re-live the last moments in Jesus’ earthly life: tragic hours, full of love and fear, especially in the disciples’ souls,” the Pope said, again condemning the violence in Iraq.

But many of Iraq’s faithful are tired of official condemnations, including those by Western leaders and the Iraqi government, that seemingly have no effect on their daily lives.

“Of what importance is it that the Pope condemns kidnapping?” asked one frustrated Assyrian, in a March 14 article written by Assyrian journalist Nuri Kino. “The murderers don’t give a damn what the Christian leader in the west says or believes.”

Members of the minority say they have little faith in promises by Iraqi police and politicians that Rahho’s murderers will be discovered.

“Mosul is a cradle of fundamentalists, and the government cannot control the whole quarter,” Archbishop Sako said.

Yet despite their uncertain position, church leaders said they were encouraged by the large number of Muslim religious leaders who called on the Christians to offer their condolences for Rahho’s death.

“We try to stay here and love like Jesus Christ,” Father Mikhail said. “We try to give this meaning of our Christianity, that love and life are better than death and killing.”

Sidebar: Archbishop Rahho - A Full Life Cut Short

The body of Archbishop Paulus Faraj Rahho, 65, was found buried in a shallow grave in Mosul on March 13, two weeks after he was kidnapped and held for ransom.

Rahho was leaving his Holy Spirit parish in the city’s al-Nur district when his car was cut off by several vehicles containing armed men. The attackers shot and killed the archbishop’s driver and two bodyguards before driving off with the clergyman.

A leader with a shepherd’s heart for his flock, Rahho spent most of his life working to serve Christians in Mosul, the biblical city of Nineveh and traditional home of Iraq’s Christians.

At a commemoration mass in Rome held on March 14, Father Amer Najman Youkhanna of Mosul’s Chaldean archdiocese testified to the witness of the archbishop, who refused to abandon the city of his birth even as it descended into chaos following the 2003 U.S. invasion.

“His example was one of the main points that made me discover my vocation to the priesthood,” Youkhanna said in a homily published by Baghdad Hope website.

Born in Mosul on December 20, 1942, Rahho was the youngest of eight children. Studying first in Mosul and then in Baghdad, Rahho completed his theological studies in Baghdad at the Chaldean Patriarchate’s minor seminary and was ordained on January 10, 1965.

After earning a license in pastoral theology in Rome in 1976, he returned to Mosul where he would live out the rest of his days. He built St. Paul’s church in Majmoaa Thakaifya, a new residential area of Mosul, and it was there that he applied his passion for the disabled, founding several organizations to care for the handicapped.

Ordained archbishop of Mosul on February 16, 2001, Rahho took leadership of the archdiocese just before his flock entered a time of intense persecution. Following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Mosul became a hotbed of Sunni extremism, prompting many Christians to flee the city.

On December 7, 2004, Rahho was forced out of his archbishop’s home by armed men and watched as the structure was set ablaze. After his right-hand priest, Father Ragheed Ghanni, was murdered near the Holy Spirit church on May 3, 2007, Rahho spoke out more strongly about the persecution of Christians in his country.

Despite numerous threats from anonymous groups calling themselves “Mujahedin,” the archbishop refused to leave Mosul and encouraged his flock to stay.

Speaking to the deceased Rahho at the end of his homily in Rome, Fr. Youkhanna recalled words the archbishop had spoken.

“You always said, ‘I was born in Mosul, and I want to die in Mosul,’ and so, now you get the crown of martyrdom,” the priest said. “You have been a true example of the good shepherd who gives his life for his flock.”

Copyright 2008 Compass Direct News

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