“The morning of the day of his martyrdom he came to us and, before leaving, he showed us a photo (…) and he said to his mother: ‘This is for my funeral, so you do not have to worry. I prepared it and I zoomed it for the graveyard'”. This is how, Aziz Ganni tells the moment in which he saw for the last time his son, Father Ragheed Ganni, killed at the age of thirty-five by Islamic fanatics together with three sub deacons at his parish church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul, in Iraq.
This is an excerpt of the book “A Catholic priest in the Islamic State – The story of Father Ragheed Ganni“, written by his friend and confrere Father Rebwar Audish Basa and presented after ten years from his murder (it was the 3rd June 2007) at the headquarters of Aid to the Church in Need, that published the book.
The testimony of the father of this priest and martyr, gives the measure of the condition lived by Christians in Iraq already before the affirmation of the Isis. Target of violence on the part of Islamic individuals or groups, harassed by the institutions accomplices of evildoers, they always wake up in the morning knowing that the price to pay for their presence in a country with a Muslim majority could be the blood.
Wisam A. Khalil lived on his own skin this condition of proscribed, unwanted person. Chaldean Catholic, friend of father Ganni since childhood, who also celebrated his marriage, now lives with his family near Rome and he works as a journalist for AdnKronos International. InTerris interviewed him.
What remembrance do you have about the martyr of your friend?
“Every corner of the centre of Rome contains memories of the years in which Father Ragheed and I lived here as neighbours. He was a very active person – he collaborated with Aid to the Church in Need and with the Community of Sant’Egidio – and he was also very witty, he had the habit of telling jokes. Therefore, I and other friends we made a plan, every time we meet together to remember Father Ragheed, we tell one of his jokes. It is a way to keep alive the joy that he used to give us”.
What value do they have the many martyrs, for you Christians of the Middle East?
“I must say that they assume a negative value. Every Christian who is killed increases the awareness of our desperation. Christians in Iraq must withstand the idea that their pastor, their brother of faith or of a member of their family is periodically kidnapped and killed. What kind of hope one can have in a so dramatic context? It is difficult to persuade a person with a warm faith when the prospect that you can offer him is only the one of suffering. Unfortunately, the seeds of diaspora are born by the blood of the martyrs”.
Are the Iraqi authorities doing something today to curb the persecution?
“We perceive the most total indifference. But it is not a novelty. Before the Islamic State, already in 2004, there were a series of coordinated attacks in Baghdad and Mosul, that caused dozens of deaths and hundreds of injured and the destruction of some ancient churches. The persecution of Christians has always existed in Iraq, but it has inflamed from 2005. Before the repeated complaints of threats and in front of the violence, the government only stood and watched. I remember that in 2008, there was an attack on the church of Our Lady of Good Help, which is located near the headquarter of the government in Baghdad, but nobody did anything. Many people are convinced that the authorities were accomplices of the bombers”.
And do you perceive some kind of support from western governments?
“Western governments have never exercised an effective pressure against Baghdad to put an end to the persecution. I can only explain this neglect with opportunism: in Iraq there is oil and the desire to get their hands on the oil wells is bigger than the one of protecting persecuted minorities”.
How difficult is it for a Christian to be born and grow up in Iraq?
“We are forced to study only the Islamic religion right from the nursery schools and it is normal to be insulted and provoked on the content of our faith. Christian women, without a veil, are mocked. For this reason, they often feel forced to wear it in order to be able to work. I tell you an aspect which makes us understand how difficult it is to be Christians in Iraq”.
“In the most famous marketplace of Mosul, already before the occupation of the Islamic State, people sell DVDs with amateur films showing executions of Christians abducted by Islamic extremists. These are terrible executions: people who are tortured, to whom the arts are cut off for them to suffer before death. One of these movies also concerns a cousin of mine, who was beheaded in front of the camera”.
And this kind of movies have a market?
“Yes, absolutely. The purchasers of these DVDs can also be our neighbours, not only persons who are part of organized groups”.
We can understand mistrust and fear in the Christian community. Will it be possible a national peace in this climate?
“Impossible. Now Mosul has almost entirely been liberated by the Iraqi forces. But even when the last bag of resistance of the Isis will be deleted, I doubt that the situation will ever improve. The only Christians who will return to Mosul will be those few who do not have a place where to be hosted by relatives abroad and that have no money to emigrate. Indeed, fear is justified: even the most moderate Muslims have always remained inert before our persecution, or because complicit with fanaticism or for fear of retaliation”.
Do you have relatives that are refugees?
“Yes. They are in Iraqi Kurdistan, in refugee camps. The situation for them is disastrous. The most fortunate live in caravans provided by Aid to the Church in Need, while the others are crammed for more than three years inside the tents”.
In the West, the news talks more about the attacks that now with a certain frequency occur here, rather than those, although often very bloody, in the Middle East. What perception do you have about this among the Iraqi Christians?
“It is inevitable. Yesterday (31 May, editor’s note) there was an attack in Afghanistan which has caused 90 deaths: it caused a sensation yes, but less than the one of a few weeks ago in Manchester, because the public is still not very accustomed with the fact that the terrorists hit western countries. In the Middle East, among Christians, we do not care about this different way of working of the media in the West”.
In the past, there was a talk about the possibility, on the part of the Parliament of Baghdad, to change the art. 26 of the Constitution, which forces the children of Muslim families to embrace the religion of their parents. It was said that a possible modification would have been a step forward towards religious freedom. Is it still a viable route?
“No, it is a closed road “.
What future do you see for your country?
“A gloomy future. In 2002 Christians in Iraq were one million three hundred thousand, today they are only three hundred thousand. I believe that the day will come when there will be none. I remember an eloquent historical anecdote. When the Jews of Mosul were expelled by the government in the 1940s, after the Second World War, they said: “Today is Saturday (day of the feast of the Jews, editor’s note), tomorrow is Sunday (feast day of Christians, editor’s note)”. They were prophetic: the forced exile of the Jews has only anticipated today’s exile of Christians. Unfortunately, Sunday arrived, …”