On a warm evening in early June, a procession filed quietly into the Basilica di S. Bartolomeo on Rome’s Tiber Island. Comprising Iraqi, Italian, Irish and other nationalities, the group had walked from the Pontifical Irish College in the city’s S. Giovanni district. With them they carried a relic of Fr Ragheed Aziz Ganni, a Chaldean Catholic priest who was killed in 2007 in his home city of Mosul in northern Iraq.
In 2000 the basilica on the island was designated by Pope John Paul II as the place to preserve the memory of witnesses of the Christian faith from the 20th century and the new millennium, and he entrusted this to the community of S. Egidio, a lay order formed in 1968 and based in Trastevere. Amid incense and Chaldean chants, the serene sight of Ganni’s elderly parents moving solemnly down the aisle with their son’s priestly stole was in stark contrast to the violent events of four years earlier.
On 3 June 2007, after celebrating mass in his parish, Ganni was murdered with three subdeacons outside the Church of the Holy Spirit in the centre of Mosul. The deacons, one of whom was his cousin, had taken to travelling everywhere with the 35-year-old priest in an attempt to protect him from frequent death threats and intimidation by armed gangs.
Seven months after Ganni’s death, the man he had served as secretary, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, was also murdered. It was Rahho’s successor, the incumbent archbishop of Mosul, Emil Shimoun Nona, who presided over the ceremony in Rome, some 2,700 km from the scene of Ganni’s death.
The following day in the Irish College’s newly-reordered Chapel of All the Saints of Ireland, the archbishop recalled Ganni as a uomo coraggioso. The chapel contains the work of Marko Rupnik SJ, the Rome-based Slovenian Jesuit artist whose dynamic mosaics adorn many important churches, including Pope Benedict’s Redemptoris Mater chapel. Next to Ireland’s St Brigid in the apse of the Irish College chapel is a mosaic image of Ganni, the palm of martyrdom in his hand.
Chaldean Catholics constitute the largest Christian community in Iraq and have been in communion with the Holy See since the 16th century, after parting from the Church of the East.
In 1996 the young engineering graduate Ganni arrived in Rome as a seminarian and began studying ecumenical theology at the Angelicum University. Over the next seven years his home was the Pontifical Irish College. This mutually happy association soon extended beyond the college gates and back to Ireland itself. Unable to return to his native city on the banks of the river Tigris, Ganni spent his summers working on an island of pilgrimage on a remote lake in the northwest county of Donegal.
Because of this he became known to a great many Irish people, not least the country’s first citizen. Speaking at a conference titled Religious Freedom East & West in Rome’s Irish College on the fourth anniversary of Ganni’s death, Irish president Mary McAleese recalled: “I met him first many years ago in the unlikely environs of Lough Derg, where I was not really expecting to meet up with a Catholic priest from Iraq. He enjoyed being the source of such a surprise. We wrote to each other and met up again here in the Irish College before he returned home to Iraq.” Incidentally, it was in the Irish College that news of his death was to reach the president.
Ordained in 2001, Ganni continued his studies in Rome before his return to Mosul two years later. The situation he found was bleak – relentless attacks, bombings and kidnappings of priests – but he refused to let it deter him from ministering to his people. The Irish College’s director of formation Fr Billy Swan remembers Ganni’s last visit to Rome in November 2006: “He never spoke of how the situation affected him in terms of himself: it was about ‘we’ and ‘us’ – the Christian community in Iraq.”
Throughout Ganni’s time in Rome he volunteered regularly with the S. Egidio community, delivering meals to the homeless in the area around Colle Oppio, where he met many of his displaced countrymen.
Amid increasing persecution of Christians internationally, particularly in north Africa and the Middle East, Christians continue to flee Ganni’s home city each day, sometimes in their hundreds. Prior to 2003 there were thought to be between 800,000 and 1.4 million Christians in Iraq; the archbishop of Mosul estimates their current number could be as low as 300,000, describing the situation an “unending Via Crucis.”
As the uncertain after effects of the so-called Spring Revolution continue to sweep across the Arab world, many commentators have expressed concerns that sectarian violence could escalate.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent bipartisan federal body, recently published its annual report which lists “countries of particular concern” over their systematic and serious violation of religious freedom. They are Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Egypt was a new addition, with the commission citing violence toward religious minorities such as Coptic Christians.
Among its recommendations to the Iraqi government, the USCIRF said it should make available greater security to religious minorities, take prompt action in investigating reports of human rights abuses resulting from sectarian or religiously-motivated violence, and issue new national identification cards that do not list religious or ethnic identity.
Ragheed Aziz Ganni is buried in the town of Karamles, a Chaldean stronghold near Mosul. Those in Rome who wish to reflect on his life can do so in the Chapel of the Martyrs of Asia, Oceania and the Middle East in the Basilica di S. Bartolomeo or visit the Pontifical Irish College and remember a man whose hope and courage inspired so many and whose legacy stretches from Iraq to Italy to Ireland, and beyond.