The death of Oscar Romero, officially declared a true martyrdom, compels us to consider the stories of other modern day martyrs who, even in our generation, have shed their blood for Christ. Commenting on the death of John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel, Pope Francis said in his homily of 6 January 2015 (The Feast of Paolo Miki):
penso ai nostri martiri, ai martiri dei nostri giorni, quegli uomini, donne, bambini che sono perseguitati, odiati, cacciati via dalle case, torturati, massacrati. E questa non è una cosa del passato; oggi succede questo. I nostri martiri, che finiscono la loro vita sotto l’autorità corrotta di gente che odia Gesù Cristo. Ci farà bene pensare ai nostri martiri. Oggi pensiamo a Paolo Miki, ma quello è successo nel 1600. Pensiamo a quelli di oggi–del 2015.
I think of our martyrs, the martyrs of our days, those men, women, and children who are persecuted, hated, banished from their homes, tortured, and massacred. And this is not something of the past; this happens even today. Our martyrs, who end their lives under the corrupt authority of people who hate Jesus Christ. It is good that we should think of our own martyrs. Today, we think of Paolo Miki, but this happened around 1600. Let us think of the martyrs of today–of 2015.
The Chaldeans and Syriacs, who in their liturgies still use the language of Christ, have lived continuously in the area around Mosul since the 1st century AD, for as tradition tells us, the Apostle Thomas evangelized them on his way to India. Ever since the rise of Islam, they have lived as minorities. The current predicament of Iraq’s Christians is, however, more dire than in any other point of their 2,000 year existence. One of the oldest continuously-inhabited Christian towns in the world, Qaraqosh, is completely empty. In Mosul, no organized Church remains– some have fled south to the safety of Baghdad, while most have sought refuge among the Kurds. In an age when the President of the United States– at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast, no less– can dare to draw a moral equivalence between the Crusades and the Inquisition on one hand, and continuing expansion of certain militant Islamists on the other (despite the fact that deaths associated with the Inquisition are dwarfed by Boko Haram’s murders in the last month alone), the Western world needs to realize the veracity of the claim which Pope Francis has repeated so many times: that there are far more Christian martyrs in our day than in those precarious first centuries of the Church. Pensiamo ai martiri di oggi– del 2015!
One such martyr of our generation, whose story is ever more relevant today given the rise of the so-called “Islamic State“, is Paulos Faraj Rahho, Chaldean Catholic Archeparch (archbishop) of Mosul in Iraq. Born in 1942, he felt a religious calling early in life and entered St. Peter’s Seminary in Baghdad at the age of 12 in 1954. Ordained in 1965 for the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate, he worked as a priest both in Baghdad and in Mosul, before being transferred to the newly-created Archeparchy of Mosul in 1967. In 1976, he completed a Licentiate in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, then returned to his hometown of Mosul where he would minister tirelessly to its people until his death.
Rahho founded several parishes and and even an orphanage for handicapped children during his time as a parish priest. His unwavering service to the people of Mosul made him beloved and admired by Christian and non-Christian alike, and accordingly, the Synod of Chaldean Bishops elected him as Archeparch of Mosul on 12 January 2001. Mar Raphael I Bidawid, Patriarch of the Chaldeans, consecrated Rahho to the episcopacy on 16 February 2001.
Rahho’s election to the see of Mosul came at a time of increasing tumult in Iraq. Only two years after his consecration, the US-led invasion of Iraq had toppled Saddam Hussein’s government, unleashing the unrest which unfortunately continues to this day. Although many Christians, including Rahho expressed hope in the future of a democratic Iraq, the reality on the ground became much more dire. The secular Ba’athist insurgency, coupled with the rise of the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, plunged Iraq into chaos as Coalition forces struggled to contain the multifaceted opposition to Western intervention. Mosul, for centuries northern Iraq’s metropolitan hub, became a rallying point for foreign Sunni fighters pouring through the Syrian border to join al-Qaeda in Iraq. As al-Qaeda’s influence in Mosul increased, the persecution of non-Muslims grew exponentially.
In the fall of 2004, attacks on Christian (mostly Chaldean and Syriac Catholic) churches in Mosul reached horrifying heights, compelling them to flee Iraq by the tens of thousands. (To date, over one million Christians have left Iraq.) Although Christians in 2003 made up only 3% of Iraq’s population, they represented a whopping 20% of refugees who fled Iraq. Suicide bombings and shootings in churches, kidnappings of Christian clerics, and robberies of Christian stores became common. Al-Qaeda imposed the jizya— the religious tax imposed on non-Muslims– on the Christians under pain of death, and thus successfully extorted untold sums from them. In addition to the persecution perpetrated by terrorists, Christians endured suspicion and harassment from their Muslim neighbors. By 2008, following the pacification of al-Anbar province, Mosul became the last stronghold of Sunni militias and remained the most dangerous city in Iraq. In spite of all this, Archbishop Rahho refused to leave and remained in Mosul, publicly celebrating liturgies, ministering to his flock, and openly calling for peace and reconciliation.
On 29 February 2008, after celebrating the Way of the Cross, gunmen ambushed the Archbishop’s vehicle, killing his driver and two bodyguards. The attackers captured Rahho, who was shot in the leg, and threw him into the trunk of a car. Despite the confusion of this terrifying experience, Rahho had the presence of mind to find his cellphone and call his diocesan offices. The message he left for Church officials was not a plea for help– instead, he ordered them not to pay any ransom, because he believed “that this money would not be paid for good works and would be used for killing and more evil actions”. As far as we can tell, the Archbishop remained courageous to the end.
After two weeks later, an anonymous caller informed the Chaldean Patriarchate on 13 March 2008 that Rahho was dead, buried in a shallow grave outside Mosul. Initially, there were conflicting reports about the proximate cause of death. It was known that the Archbishop was reliant on daily medication for diabetes and high blood pressure, raising the possibility– however improbable and remote– that he may have died of more natural causes. The Iraqi government attempted to settle doubts, however, when Ahmad Ali Ahmad, a known al-Qaeda leader in Mosul, was convicted and sentenced to death for his involvement in Rahho’s kidnapping and death. The proximate cause of death and the date of death both remain uncertain.
Despite the motives of the person(s) who killed, and despite any uncertainty about the proximate cause of death, this much is certain: Paulos Faraj Rahho was a Catholic bishop who died because he was a Catholic bishop. Whether or not a bullet ended his life is ultimately far less important than the fact that he died in the captivity of his kidnappers. He was but another victim, like too many Iraqi Christians, of the fanatical terrorists who in 2008 (as again in 2015) held Mosul under their iron grip of fear. This too, we must admit, is indeed a death in odium fidei.
Let us pray that Pope Francis will soon recognize the martyrdom of Paulos Faraj Rahho and thus strengthen the suffering Chaldean Catholic Church. We might even dare compose for him an entry in the Roman Martyrology for 13 March, the date his body was recovered.
Inventio corporis Pauli Faraj Rahho, Archiepiscopi Mausilensis Chaldaeorum, qui in civitate ejusdem captum a Saracenis, et in captivitate martyrio coronatur.
And since we, as Christians have done since the birth of the Church, recognize martyrdom as the ultimate sanctification, we might also with confidence say: “Paulos Faraj Rahho, pray for us!”