THE story of Fr Ragheed Ganni, the Iraqi Chaldean Catholic priest who was shot dead alongside three deacons in Mosul in 2007, having refused to close his church, was told by the Archbishop of Erbil, Mar Bashar Warda, in a sermon for All Saints’ Day in Westminster Abbey.
Preaching in a series of sermons on the “Noble Army of Martyrs” — marking 25 years since statues of ten 20th-century Christian martyrs were dedicated above the Abbey’s great west door — the Archbishop recalled a “beautiful light” and a “dear friend”. Rather than join the “mass exodus” after the fall of Saddam Hussein, in 2003, Fr Ganni had remained in Mosul, celebrating the liturgy. In a letter to his mentor in Rome, written the day before he died, he wrote: “The situation here is worse than hell.”
This was just one story of martyrdom in a land where more than 1200 Christians had been “brutally murdered” since 2003, the Archbishop said. He named Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, kidnapped and found in a shallow grave in 2008; the Syriac-Orthodox priest Fr Paulos Iskandar, kidnapped and beheaded in 2006 (News, 20 October 2006), and two Syrian Catholic priests murdered by Islamist militants in 2012, Fr Thaer Abdal and Fr Waseem Sabih.
“This was the example that motivated all of us to stay and fight the good fight, as Christ must be witnessed in Iraq,” he said. “The priest must be there to be the true shepherd.” In the Eastern Chaldean Church, the bishop spent the night before his consecration in the “martyrs’ house”, where relics were preserved, “reflecting on his service in which he must be prepared . . . to be a martyr”. During the marriage service, a “tiny portion” of dust from the martyrs’ house was mixed into the cup of wine presented to the couple.
As Archbishop of Erbil, Mar Bashar has been on the front line of caring for Christians and others fleeing persecution in Iraq (News, 19 December 2014). In 2015, he warned the General Synod that his country was facing the extinction of Christianity (News, 13 February 2015). Last week, he estimated that the Christian population in Iraq had fallen from 1.2 million (pre-2003), to about 150,000. The International Organisation for Migration reports that 1.2 million Iraqis are still displaced
Some families were returning, he said, and keen for their children to receive the “pastoral protection and care” offered by the Church. “They want the Church to be the central part of the family. They know how active the Church is in Iraq, especially in Erbil, where there are many activities for the young.”
The Archbishop has been outspoken on the need for political reform in Iraq. Addressing the UN Security Council in 2019, he said that the massive street protests then under way — non-violent, and led by young people — demonstrated “rejection of a sectarian-based Constitution, which has divided Iraq and prevented it from becoming a unified and functioning country” ((News, 8 November 2019). They had also illustrated “the true richness of the historical Iraq”.
He noted that Christians had “sided with the protesters openly”, and that they, alongside other minorities, including Yazidis, had been “welcomed into the protest movement by the Iraqi Muslims”.
Nearly 600 protesters were killed during the protests, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, resigned, and elections scheduled to take place in 2022 were brought forward to October 2021, with political in-fighting and deadlock over the formation of a new government ensuing. Eventually, in October last year, a Kurdish politican, Abdul Latif Rashid, was elected President, and appointed Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani — who spoke recently of a “corruption pandemic” — as his Prime Minister.
While reporting some gains in political stability, the head of the UN Mission in Iraq told the Security Council in September that corruption was still pervasive: “The intricate web of graft and vested interests, built up in Iraq over decades, will not be dismantled overnight.”
She also spoke of the country’s dependence on oil, a rapidly growing population, and the impact of climate change and water scarcity. The country experienced a temperature of 50°C this year, and it is estimated that, by 2035, Iraq will have the capacity to meet only 15 per cent of its water demands. Young people under 25 make up 60 per cent of the population.
Parliamentary elections in Kurdistan, scheduled for October last year, have been repeatedly postponed, and are now due to take place next February.
Asked about the situation since the protests, Mar Bashar said that the movement had “slowly died away because there was no response for the demands of the protesters A lot of these centred around ridding the country of corruption, which was not only impacting jobs and being able to live, but was also affecting the reputation of the country. We are seeing ad hoc cases of public prosecutions for misuse of funds.
“There is a huge need to actively adopt the strict practices countries have put in place to to tackle the dire and tragic consequences of corruption.”
On the Israel-Gaza conflict, he told Aid to the Church in Need that people in Iraq were “really afraid that the violence will spread beyond Gaza . . . The settling of old scores would endanger the social cohesion in the whole region. The situation in Syria is not settled, nor has it settled in Iraq.”
In July, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, announced his intention to retire from the patriarchal see in Baghdad and move to one of the monasteries of Iraqi Kurdistan (News, 21 July). This followed a decision by the President of Iraq to revoke a decree recognising him as Patriarch of the Chaldean Church. The Cardinal had received hostility on social media after criticising the “Babylonian Brigades”: a paramilitary organisation and political party that describes itself as Christian, despite being aligned with pro-Iranian Shia militias.
“No person should ever be humiliated,” Mar Bashar said. “It was undignified to the leader of the Chaldean Church, a very loyal Iraqi citizen, highly ecumenical and peaceful person, being the driving force for the historic papal visit (News, 3 May 2021). The hope is that it is privately settled.”