National Catholic Register


Easter In the Land of Martyrs

BY The Editors

March 23-29, 2008 Issue | Posted 3/18/08 at 2:46 PM


Cardinal John Henry Newman, while still an Anglican priest, suggested two ways to renew the horror of the Crucifixion in your mind if you have grown cold to it. First, he suggested imagining a child in the place of Christ, being tortured and killed. We would feel the horror of it because children are innocent. “And was not Our Lord gentler, sweeter, meeker, more tender, more loving than any little child?” asked Newman.

Then he suggested, in one of his remarkable, and remarkably long, sentences:

“Let us suppose that some aged and venerable person whom we have known as long as we could recollect any thing, and loved and reverenced, suppose such a one, who had often done us kindnesses, who had taught us, who had given us good advice, who had encouraged us, smiled on us, comforted us in trouble, whom we knew to be very good and religious, very holy, full of wisdom, full of heaven, with gray hairs and awe-filled countenance, waiting for Almighty God’s summons to leave this world for a better place; suppose, I say, such a one whom we have ourselves known and whose memory is dear to us, rudely seized by fierce men, stripped naked in public, insulted, driven about here and there, made a laughingstock, struck, spit on, dressed up in other clothes in ridicule, then severely scourged on the back, then laden with some heavy load till he could carry it no longer, pulled and dragged about, and at last exposed with all his wounds to the gaze of a rude multitude who came and jeered him, what would be our feelings?”

It’s a shocking and disgusting image — and a version of it played out in Iraq in the final days of Lent.

The “venerable old man” that Cardinal Newman describes could easily be Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose body was found in Mosul March 13, nearly two weeks after he was kidnapped.

He was a smiling, gentle man who stayed in harm’s way to minister to his flock even while Iraqi Christians fled their homeland by the thousands. He was also a 65-year-old man whose ailing health made his friends fear for his life as soon as they heard he was in the hands of kidnappers.

When his body was found, there were no signs of torture — and it wasn’t clear whether he had been killed or if he simply died in custody. But we know he went through an ordeal.

Register correspondent James Brandon was blindfolded and shirtless in the photos his Basra, Iraq, kidnappers sent to the media. He was captured in Basra on Aug. 13, 2004, by Islamic militants who threatened to kill him.

His first assignment appeared in the Register while he was in custody — it was called “Flee or Fight? After Bombs, Iraq Catholics Face Stark Choice.”

Brandon found amazing faith when he talked to the pastor of a Baghdad church a few days after it had been bombed.

“This morning, we were afraid that no one would come to Mass,” Father Bashar Warda told him. “But, in the end more than a hundred people came. Now we are expecting an even bigger turnout for this evening’s Mass. Even if the Christians are few in number, we can still set an example of hope and forgiveness for all Iraqis to follow.”

Before filing his next assignment, Brandon himself was captured. After he was released, Brandon told reporters, “Initially, I was treated roughly, but once they knew I was a journalist, I was treated very well.” The harrowing ordeal left him with a black eye. He was lucky.

Some radical Muslims want to “cleanse” Iraq of Christians. Others associate Christians with the West, and therefore with the enemy, and feel justified in attacking them.

Especially in Archbishop Rahho’s Mosul.

After radical Muslims misrepresented Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks in Regensburg, Germany, to anger their followers, it was in Mosul that an Orthodox priest was kidnapped and then beheaded.

Archbishop Rahho’s secretary, Father Ragheed Ganni, described modern life in the ancient town that was known as a rough place even in Old Testament times, when it was called Nineveh.

His 19-year-old sister Raghad was helping clean the Church of St. Paul there when two men drove up. They threw a grenade that exploded only a few yards from her.

“She was wounded but miraculously survived,” said the priest. “And on that Sunday we still celebrated the Eucharist. My shaken parents were also there. For me and my community, my sister’s wounds were a source of strength so that we, too, may bear our cross.”

In August 2003 a car bomb exploded outside the same church after the 6 p.m. Mass. The blast killed two Massgoers and wounded many others. “But that, too, was another miracle,” said the priest. “The car was full of bombs but only one exploded. Had they all gone off together, the dead would have been in the hundreds since 400 faithful had come on that day.”

Archbishop Rahho was the one celebrating Mass. He wasn’t cowed.

“The church is much better today than before the attack,” the archbishop said about it. “That violence tested our faith, and in a year we have learned to put into practice values like forgiveness and love, even for those who persecute us.”

His flock got the archbishop’s message.

“Mosul Christians are not theologians; some are even illiterate. And yet, inside of us for many generations, one truth has become embedded: Without the Sunday Eucharist we cannot live,” said Father Ganni. “The terrorists might think they can kill our bodies or our spirit by frightening us, but, on Sundays, churches are always full. They may try to take our life, but the Eucharist gives it back.”

“There are days when I feel frail and full of fear,” said the priest. “But when, holding the Eucharist, I say ‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold, who takes away the sin of the world,’ I feel his strength in me. When I hold the Host in my hands, it is really he who is holding me and all of us, challenging the terrorists and keeping us united in his boundless love.”

Father Ganni was shot dead in Mosul last year.

Now, the bishop he served has joined him.

There’s another passage from Newman that describes what becomes of people who die with their spirit:

“We have his own history to show us how Christ within us is stronger than the world around us, and will prevail. We have the history of all his fellow-sufferers, of all the confessors and martyrs of early times and since, to show us that Christ’s arm can save, that faith and love have a real abiding place on earth; that, come what will, his grace is sufficient for his Church, and his strength made perfect in weakness; that, ‘even to old age and to white hairs, he will carry and deliver’ her; that, in whatever time the powers of evil give challenge, martyrs and saints will start forth again; and rise from the dead, as plentiful as though they had never been before, even ‘the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the Word of God.’”

It’s a passage about Easter, and it could be written of Iraq, a land of martyrs where teenage women and 65-year-old archbishops alike are targets of violence because they refuse to stop worshipping the risen Christ.