Paying the price of faith

  • March 25, 2008

{mosimage}For many Catholics around the world, including this one, the joy of this Easter season has been shadowed by the sadness and rage we feel at the kidnapping and death of Paulos Faraj Rahho, Chaldean Catholic archbishop of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Archbishop Rahho was taken by gunmen on Feb. 29 in a bloody raid that left his driver and two bodyguards dead. Following a tip-off from his kidnappers two weeks later, his body was found in a shallow grave.

It does not matter whether Archbishop Rahho’s life was shortened by mistreatment during captivity — as now appears likely — or by murder. It doesn’t matter whether his abductors were ideological militants or merely greedy men who hoped to net a fat ransom. The archbishop died because he was a prominent Christian leader of Iraq’s persecuted Christian minority, and his death underscores the misery of his people, and all Iraqis, in the sectarian violence that continues to wrack the country.

As fully as any Christian man and woman who died for the faith in the early centuries of the church, Archbishop Rahho is a witness who paid for his faithfulness to Christ with his blood, and he deserves the veneration due to a martyr.

Mosul has been hit hard by persecution since the American invasion and occupation of Iraq five years ago this month. The archbishop’s abduction in January was preceded by a wave of attacks on Christian churches. A priest and three companions were shot dead in the archbishop’s church last June. And in January 2005, Archbishop George Yasilious, pastor of another church in Mosul, was kidnapped. In October 2006, Boulos Iskander, an Orthodox priest, was beheaded after he was kidnapped and attempts to ransom him failed.

But this persecution is not limited to clerics. Last year, a Baghdad emir issued a convert-or-die decree against six Christian families, who immediately fled their homes. The United Nations has reported that armed groups with ties to extremist Islamic factions have claimed control over Christian neighbourhoods in Baghdad, threatening and abducting, looting and killing residents at will. According to Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Christians in Baghdad continue to be told to convert to Islam or be killed. Many of those unable to leave the country are living in churches without adequate food or water.

Many other Christians have opted to leave Iraq because of the ongoing violence, kidnappings, extortion and murder, and because, in the eyes of Islamic extremists, they are viewed as accomplices of the Western “crusaders” who invaded the country in 2003. Of the 2.2 million people who have become refugees abroad, mostly in Syria, an estimated 30 per cent are believed to be Christian. A third of Iraqi’s Christian people, many of them Catholic – around five per cent of the total population of Iraq – have fled the country, according to The Washington Times.

The death of Archbishop Rahho prompted expressions of outrage by world leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush. Yet neither Bush nor any other leader with troops in Iraq accepted responsibility for the failure of occupation forces to prevent this tragic death, or any of the suffering being endured by thousands of other Iraqi Christians. In the many reports I have read about the archbishop’s death, in fact, I have seen only one that puts the blame exactly where it belongs: the failed Iraq policies of the Bush administration.

In an interview with the Catholic News Service, Chaldean Catholic Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim, of Southfield, Michigan, said: “Somebody has to be responsible. Since the Americans are occupying Iraq, they have the responsibility of the security of every Iraqi, and in the first place minorities. I am not saying the Christians only – but they are doing nothing for them.”

As the Iraq war grinds on into its sixth year, Christians everywhere should echo the cry of Pope Benedict XVI on Palm Sunday: “Stop the massacres, the violence, the hatred in Iraq!” But Americans, especially, have a clear duty to stop the persecution of our Christian Iraqi brothers and sisters.

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