Local priests attest to ongoing struggle, explosion of faith

By Joyce Coronel, The Catholic Sun

“Without the Eucharist, Christians in Iraq cannot survive.”

These were the words uttered by Fr. Ragheed Ganni, a young Chaldean Catholic priest martyred in Mosul, Iraq, alongside three subdeacons in 2007. With his cause for beatification open, Fr. Ganni may soon be among those the Church calls “blessed.”

Across the globe, the persecution of Christians has ramped up, and it is their plight and powerful faith that inspired the organizers of this year’s Arizona Rosary Celebration to honor the Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady, Help of Persecuted Christians.

The annual event takes place at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16, at the Phoenix Convention Center, 33 S. 3rd Street.

Among those attending the celebration will be Fr. Peter Patros, pastor of Mar Abraham Chaldean Catholic Church in Scottsdale and parochial administrator of Holy Cross Mission in Gilbert.

The Diocese of Phoenix is home to thousands of Chaldean Catholics all belonging to the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Peter based in El Cajon, Calif. The Chaldeans belong to one of 23 Eastern Rite Catholic Churches in communion with Rome, many of them with members living in the Phoenix Diocese.

They are well-acquainted with the attempts, bloody but unsuccessful, to crush Christianity. For Christians in the Middle East, persecution has been an ongoing reality. Though born in the U.S., Fr. Patros carries within him the legacy of martyrdom.

“We have witnessed, not just hundreds of years ago, not just centuries ago, but here and today we have witnessed persecution, the death of our own neighbors and our own friends and our own families because we bear the name Christian, because we have been stamped by the blood of the Lamb,” Fr. Patros said.

“Because we carry this with us — what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard — we carry the traumas, but we also carry the great healing that Christ offers.”

The former pastor of Mar Abraham, Bishop Felix Shabi, was related to the martyred Fr. Ganni. “We have the blood of martyrs running in our veins,” Bishop Shabi told The Catholic Sun in a previous interview.

Even after receiving repeated death threats, Fr. Ganni was determined to continue offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for his parishioners. On June 3, 2007, as he and the three subdeacons walked away from Holy Spirit Parish, they were approached by gunmen. One of them demanded to know why Fr. Ganni, after being warned earlier, hadn’t closed the church.

“How can I close the house of God?” Fr. Ganni replied. The armed men demanded that Fr. Ganni and his companions convert to Islam. For their refusal, they were fatally shot.

47th Annual Arizona Rosary Celebration

2 p.m. – 4:15 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16

Phoenix Convention Center

33 S. Third Street

Halls F and G

Confession, Adoration, exhibits, procession and Rosary

Featured speaker: Rev. James Phalan, C.S.C. of Holy Cross Family Ministries

Sponsored by the Knights of Columbus

info@azrosary.net or (602) 677-2029

Fr. Patros said he visited Iraq in 2018 and 2019. His parents and five older siblings left their homeland when it was embroiled in war.

“My family fled war-torn Iraq in the early 90s — fled on foot in the middle of the night from Zakho to Turkey to live in refugee camps for a few years until they found asylum in 2003 in America,” Fr. Patros said.

Thousands of miles away in the safety of parishes in the Diocese of Phoenix, scenes like this seem surreal. Tragically, they are not so uncommon. From Afghanistan to North Korea and Nicaragua to Nigeria, around the world followers of Christ are undergoing brutal — often state-sanctioned — persecution.

In Nigeria, for example, thousands of Christians have been killed by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Others have died at the hands of Fulani herdsmen. There’s been no government crackdown on the expanding genocide.  According to Catholic News Agency, more than 3,400 Christians were killed in Nigeria in the first 200 days of 2021.

Fifteen priests from Nigeria currently serve in the Diocese of Phoenix, including Fr. Fidelis Igwenwanne. He serves as a chaplain at the Carl T. Hayden Veterans’ Administration Medical Center in Phoenix, and said he knew some of the priests who were kidnapped and/or killed in his homeland.

“In Nigeria, Christians witness to their faith every day through shedding their blood,” Fr. Igwenwanne said. “Some people think it is like a fantasy, or a remote story of something that happened many, many years ago and is out of reach. No. It still is happening.”

In fact, so many priests have been kidnapped in Nigeria, he said, that the country’s bishops’ conference refuses to pay ransoms or engage in negotiations to secure the release of clergy. According to The Pillar, in Kafanchan Diocese alone, six priests have been kidnapped in eight months.

“What the abductors or kidnappers are asking for is money, money, money and negotiations with the Church. The bishops are saying, ‘You can’t negotiate with the Devil,’” Fr. Igwenwanne said.

Private individuals, often family members of the victims, have paid ransoms and negotiated for the release of victims, but these were not sponsored by the Church, Fr. Igwenwanne said.

What is happening in Nigeria is a constant reminder of the famous adage that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” Fr. Igwenwanne noted. He hasn’t traveled to Nigeria since 2015 when his father died.

“I don’t like going home because of that trouble. Each time I go home, I hide.”

It’s a perspective that few Americans can fathom and yet one that urges solidarity with the persecuted Church and prayers for its protection, prayers like those which will take place at Arizona Rosary Celebration.

“Continue praying. Put it in your daily prayers, to pray for persecuted Christians,” Fr. Igwenwanne said.

Visit azrosary.net for more information on Arizona Rosary Celebration.