Slain Iraqi Priest’s Heroic Witness

ROME — A priest who was shot dead in Iraq June 3 had spoken out about the dangers for Christians in Iraq after the invasion.

Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni, who was killed by Iraqi insurgents in the city of Mosul June 3, was widely known, loved and respected in Rome — and was known worldwide through his journalism.

In one of his last reports to the AsiaNews agency May 28, he spoke of the worsening situation in the country, particularly for Christians.

“We are on the verge of collapse,” Father Ragheed wrote. “In a sectarian and confessional Iraq, will there be any space for Christians? We have no support, no group who fights for our cause; we are abandoned in the midst of this disaster. Iraq has already been divided; it will never be the same. What is the future for our Church? Today it can barely be traced.”

Only his faith gave him hope. In May 2005, at the 24th Italian Eucharistic Congress in Bari, he spoke about the Eucharist, and his comments at that event are remembered to this day.

“There are days when I feel frail and full of fear,” he said at the event, later attended by the Holy Father. “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.”

A student from 1996 to 2003 at the Pontifical University of Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum, and as a resident at the Pontifical Irish College, the 35-year-old Chaldean priest made many friends.

“He was extremely well liked,” said Father Paul Prior, director of formation at the Irish College. “He was a very gentle person with a great smile — I remember saying  to him once that he was always smiling and he replied: ‘Yes, I like to decorate my face with a smile every day, even if one’s hurting inside.’”

Father Prior knew Ragheed for five years, during which time he was responsible for his formation. “He had this amazing ability to transform difficult situations into positive ones,” he recalled.

Father Ragheed and subdeacons Basman Yousef Daoud, Wadid Hanna and Ghasan Bida Wid were gunned down while leaving the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul, Iraq, after having celebrated Sunday Mass.

In a June 4 telegram sent through Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Pope Benedict XVI said he was praying “that their costly sacrifice will inspire in the hearts of all men and women of good will a renewed resolve to reject the ways of hatred and violence, to conquer evil with good and to cooperate in hastening the dawn of reconciliation, justice and peace in Iraq.”

To honor his life, staff and students of the Irish College held a Requiem Mass for Father Ragheed June 7. The Mass drew over a hundred people, and senior Church figures included Cardinal Bernard Law and Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud, prefect of the Oriental Churches.

Ireland’s President Mary McAleese sent a letter of condolence, read out during the Mass.

No one who knew Father Ragheed has any doubt he was a man of holiness and a priest who died a martyr.

Father Joe Gormley, a priest in the parish of Derry, Northern Ireland, became acquainted with Father Ragheed in 1997 when the Iraqi seminarian used to make regular pilgrimages to the shrine of Lough Derg in Ireland’s County Donegal. They subsequently became good friends, and Father Ragheed would stay with the Irish priest whenever he came to Northern Ireland.

“Everyone who met him would have remembered him,” said Father Gormley. “You couldn’t fail to remember him.”

“Prayer was very, very important in his life,” said Father Gormley. “He was a very spiritual man … very intelligent and someone who could easily have chosen a life away from Iraq, but he was intent on being a priest where he was.”

Before entering the priesthood, Father Ganni trained to be an engineer. As a student in Rome, he studied philosophy and ecumenism, and was planning on returning to Rome in September to begin a doctorate in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.

Serving Others

Father Ragheed came close to death a number of times and was constantly harassed.

“Many times before he was killed, they [the insurgents] sent him many letters telling him to leave, to go away, but he stayed put,” said an Iraqi priest also from Mosul who is studying at the Irish College who would only identify himself as Father Amer. “He told me that if the terrorists wanted to take our life, the Eucharist will give it back to us — he told me this many times over the phone and in emails.”

“He was always worried about Iraq, worried about the people there and what they suffered and never about himself,” said the rector of the Irish College, Msgr. Liam Bergin. “He was a wonderful man, full of humor and a great sense of service.”

Father Ragheed opposed the war in Iraq but, according to Father Gormley, his “great graciousness” allowed him to respect those who supported it.

Father Gormley once asked him before the invasion of Iraq what would happen to the country.

“He said the place would implode,” the Irish priest remembers. “He knew it would happen, that the factions would fight one another, Christians would be targeted, and he probably knew there was a good possibility he could die.”

Father Amer highlighted how serious the problem is becoming for Christians in his country.

“It’s a bad situation for all Iraqis,” he said, “but especially for Christians because we don’t have anyone to protect us and we feel alone. Please, whoever has responsibility, help us.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.