Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the July 5, 2007 edition of The Catholic Sun. It’s republished today to mark the anniversary of death of Chaldean Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni, who died June 3, 2007.
Catholic hearts in the Diocese of Phoenix were filled with joy on June 2, 2007 as six men prostrated themselves before the altar at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral and became priests. It was the largest class to join the ranks of local Catholic clergy in 14 years and it was big news here in the Valley.
Far from Phoenix, however, a different story concerning Catholic clergy and the faithful was unfolding on another continent. Both compelling and tragic, it received scant attention from the media. A young priest and three subdeacons were gunned down in Iraq June 3 on their way home from Mass. Not many Valley residents were aware of the horrific event that robbed the world of a very holy priest.
Members of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Scottsdale, however, were deeply saddened when they learned of the devastating attack. Chances are, you’ve never even heard of these grief-stricken souls, although they too are fellow Catholics who reside in our Valley.
Chaldean Catholics, based mostly in Iraq and the United States, are under the authority of the pope. They, like the Byzantines, are members of a different rite, and it is one with which few Roman Catholics are familiar. Tucked away in a small church in Scottsdale, the Chaldeans are the only Catholics who celebrate their liturgy in Aramaic, the language that Jesus Christ spoke on earth.
Fr. Paulos Ghozairan, their pastor, has been a priest for 33 years and came to the U.S. in 2000. “We’re a big community of more than 600 families,” he says of his parish, explaining that there are over 130,000 Chaldeans in Michigan and more than 30,000 in California. One of his parishioners is related to the murdered priest, Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni.
Fr. Ganni was keenly aware of the danger he faced in continuing to serve Catholics in Mosul, yet he refused to abandon his flock. He, like three of the men who were ordained to the priesthood in Phoenix, had received his first college degree in engineering.
“Without the Eucharist, Christians in Iraq cannot survive,” he said shortly before he was killed.
Fr. Ghozairan places blame for the murders squarely on the shoulders of Islamic terrorists.
“We have many problems in Iraq because they take many priests and they beat them badly, they ask for ransom… they ask them to be Muslim and if they won’t, they kill them or ask them to pay too much to be free.” Ransom amounts are often an impossible $50,000 U.S. dollars. Three priests have been killed and others have been kidnapped.
“They want to kill any priest or deacon,” Fr. Ghozairan explains. Thousands of Chaldean Catholics have fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria. “If they could, they would come here to America to kill me.”
Fr. Ghozairan also tells of laity forced to flee their homes in Iraq because they do not have money to pay the “tax” for refusing to convert to Islam. “Please pray for us and for our community, for peace in Iraq.”
Threats against the martyred Fr. Ganni stretch back to 2004, yet he refused to be conquered by fear. Instead, he continued to minister to his people in spite of great suffering, which he viewed as redemptive.
It may appear as though evil triumphed the day heartless men took the earthly life of Fr. Ganni, but instead of destroying hope, they gave us an inspiring example of a gentle shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. Hatred cannot extinguish the fire of faith that burns in the hearts of Catholics, for the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.
Our newly ordained priests and Catholics of all rites have a new model of courageous service in the face of great danger and suffering. That’s a story worth repeating as often as possible to anyone who will listen.
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