A Martyr in Iraq
“A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom.” – T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
On an evening in March 2003, a dinner of Catholic priests, seminarians, and graduate theology students at the Irish College in Rome was interrupted with the announcement that the U.S. ground invasion of Iraq had begun. The few non-Irish present included Shena, an American woman, and Father Ragheed Ganni, a Chaldean priest from Mosul, ancient Nineveh. Both were students at the Angelicum, a Dominican institute founded in the thirteenth century. All eyes turned to the stunned Fr. Ragheed, who said simply, “I have to return home.”
“It was my country at war with his,” says Shena, “which was awful.” Now a mother of six in America, she recalls Father Ragheed as “a lovely, peaceful man.” He would explain with care and patience the complexity of the region to outsiders, especially Americans. “It would have been easy, and perhaps good politics, for him to have remained silent about the Iraq War,” she says nearly two decades later. She recalls how he gently defended the traditional culture of the Muslim-majority Middle East, of which Westerners were frequently critical. It wasn’t his way to debate with brusqueness but to simply hold the ground he had staked out on behalf of his beliefs.
It would also have been easy for him to remain in Rome or to join the exodus of his people from Iraq. Instead, Father Ragheed chose to return to his home, Mosul, which would soon become one of the most perilous places in the world to be a Christian.
Father Ragheed knew very well what most Americans, even policymakers, did not: that Christians in the Muslim-majority Middle East are often seen as sympathetic to the West, and therefore untrustworthy; in a war, they might be regarded as fellow travelers or spies. The American invasion immediately imperiled Iraq’s Christians, who numbered over a million people in 2003. In the years that followed, many Iraqi Christians and other minorities sought asylum in the United States, the country whose invasion had given rise to their persecution. The Bush administration, however, denied Christian claims of persecution as unfounded. Many were turned away as a result. Thus it is to incur at once the enmity of one’s neighbors and the indifference of one’s liberators.
As Iraq became the epicenter of Sunni-Shia violence, Christians, caught in the middle, fled urban centers for safer places in Iraq, like Erbil or the Nineveh Plain, or they simply left Iraq altogether. By 2007, the Sunni militants who were Al Qaeda Iraq (and would become ISIS) were flocking to Nineveh Province and its capital, Mosul. There, Father Ragheed served the city’s Christian remnant and many Muslims, while also acting as secretary to Archbishop Faraj Rahho. On Palm Sunday that April, terrorists fired shots through the windows at Father Ragheed’s parish, Holy Spirit Church. The following month, a bomb detonated in the church.
Father Ragheed had received numerous threats almost immediately after his return to Iraq, but the attacks were growing more frequent, as were killings and kidnappings; some Sunnis in Mosul even demanded that Christians pay the jizya tax. Through all this Father Ragheed remained in Mosul. In homilies he condemned terrorism—not a distant abstraction for him but a real, daily threat. His correspondence at the time reveals his awareness of the mortal danger in which he lived, and also his weariness. His last written prayer was penned at this time: “Lord, give me the strength to not humiliate your priesthood that I represent.”
On Sunday, June 3, 2007, Father Ragheed said Mass at Holy Spirit Church. When the liturgy finished, Father Ragheed departed with three subdeacons—Basman Yousef Daud, Wahid Hanna Isho, and Gassan Isam Bidawed, as well as Bidawed’s wife. They were then approached in the street outside the church by several gunmen, one of whom took Bidawed’s wife away. A brief dialogue followed between the defenseless men in their last moments on earth and their murderers.
“I told you to close the church,” the lead gunman said, “so why didn’t you? Why are you still here?” Fr. Ragheed replied, “How can I close the house of God?”
The four men were then shot to death and laid dead in the street.
The leader had apparently spoken with him before, making the terrible, impersonal act of murder somehow more intimate and incomprehensible. Father Ragheed’s murderers apparently asked of him what Henry Plantagenet had asked of Thomas Becket centuries before in England: will no one rid me of this troublesome priest? The identities of the gunmen and their fate is unknown; likely they died by the sword, but maybe they’ll die in their beds.
Nine months later, Archbishop Rahho was kidnapped and held for ransom. He managed to text from the trunk of his car to insist that no one pay for his release, for the money would only be used to perpetrate more evil. His captors demanded, among other things, that Iraqi Christians form militias to resist the U.S. occupation. He was tortured and murdered, and his body was found later in a shallow grave—one more murder among thousands, one more trauma among millions. And yet it was all prelude: the worst for Iraq’s Christians lay ahead.
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Father Ragheed was buried in Karemlesh, a village near Mosul. Seven years after his murder, in 2014, ISIS captured Mosul and overran much of the Nineveh Plain, the Christian heartland of Iraq. His grave was desecrated by ISIS during the occupation, as were Christian and Yazidi tombs across northern Iraq. In 2018, Father Ben Kiely visited the site of his tomb, then still stone rubble.
In 2021, a young Iraqi-American Catholic friend, whom we’ll call Josef, visited Father Ragheed’s grave as well, which by then had been rebuilt. He also visited the few Christians who returned to Mosul after ISIS was driven out. But, he adds, “That community doesn’t really exist anymore.”
Josef was a child in 2003 and has no memory of the debates, such as they were, among Catholics prior to the invasion. In 2017, I asked him to research the prewar and postwar writings of prominent Catholic supporters of the Iraq War, such as Father Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel, to see what if anything they had to say about Iraq’s Christian community. By the time he finished his research, he was angry. “I do wish they would feel an ounce of the pain we did,” he says today. “Maybe that would make them repent a bit or admit fault instead of doubling down. It’s disheartening to still meet Catholics in this day and age who are unrepentant or go through mental gymnastics to justify it. If that helps them sleep at night, great.” He concludes our exchange pointedly: “God will deal with them accordingly.” Many from his community share his frustration.
A Middle Eastern Christian American woman whose parents fled persecution recently told me that she came to understand civil society, faith in the public square, and American Catholicism through the writings of thinkers like Neuhaus and Weigel, whom she otherwise admired. Their apparent lack of empathy for Middle Eastern Christians, she said, “felt like a betrayal.” It has since come to feel like a betrayal to many American Catholics, who are today skeptical of Caesar—especially when it comes to war. Not everyone floated with the currents at the time, however.
Damon Linker, an associate editor for Neuhaus’ journal First Things in 2002, recounted a conversation with Neuhaus about an essay Linker hoped to publish in that journal’s pages making “a conservative case against” the invasion of Iraq. “Neuhaus responded to my proposal in a tone of grave seriousness. ‘Oh Damon, that’s really not a good idea. You don’t want to get a reputation for being unreliable.’” Perhaps foreseeably, a generation of angry (mostly Catholic) editors like Linker has followed.
What a contrast with Father Ragheed. Why was a Catholic priest using a journal of religion and public life as a propaganda vehicle for an administration bent on selling war to its base? The short answer is that, at the time, there was a modus vivendi of sorts between social and national security conservatives. One didn’t mention Iraqi Christians or Egypt’s Maadi Sisters or priests like Ragheed Ganni, and the hawks would in turn tolerate social conservatism; a hawk like Bill Kristol might even emcee a pro-life gala despite his apparently not being pro-life. This tenuous alliance wasn’t severed by Donald Trump; he merely exposed irreconcilable differences. The real cause of the rupture was the Iraq War.
It was into that hellish violence that Father Ragheed went, back to Nineveh. If the Catholic hawks used their place in the public square to advocate for policies to protect Christians and others imperiled by the U.S. invasion, let it be entered into the record in their defense. If their silence on the matter merely bespeaks an ignorance of that community’s existence, then this points to amateurism and suggests they shouldn’t have weighed in on this key foreign-policy matter. But if, as one might reasonably suspect, they knew of the existence of Christians and regarded them—as many did and do—as regime sympathizers who merited the suffering they endured, then let those still alive have the courage to say so, and deal with the consequences. (And for those who say, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, let them speak first of Father Ragheed.)
There was too often a mix of theology and politics among Catholics in those days. I still cringe when I recall a Catholic friend who echoed the words of the Gospel as he argued in support of democracy promotion: “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.” One hears none of that talk today, but there’s also too little acknowledgement of failure—the kind of general unaccountability that characterized other scandals that are certain to haunt Catholics for a long time. And yet many elites are bewildered at the rise of the very illiberalism on the Catholic right that their unapologetic failures helped bring about.
Linker concluded his 2015 reflection with that observation that, “When philosophical, theological, or historical ideas are blended with political passions and convictions, the result is very often a species of propaganda.… Reliability may well be a political virtue. It’s also a pretty serious intellectual vice.”
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The administration of George W. Bush refused to confer the status of persecution on Iraqi Christians who sought asylum. Subsequent events in Iraq would compel the Obama and Trump administrations to recognize not mere persecution but genocide of Christians at the hands of ISIS. Vice President Pence, Mick Mulvaney, and others spearheaded an effort to deliver aid to what remained of the Christians in Iraq. I witnessed some of these events, both inside and outside government. Though my opposition to the 2003 invasion hasn’t changed, I have grown sympathetic to those who were tasked with executing a war, many of whom were neoconservatives. It was they who had to marshal a resistant bureaucracy and provide civilian oversight (especially over certain insipid generals), and who’ve since been forgotten.
Those failures are often blamed on neoconservatives, though it wasn’t neoconservatives who decided to go to war; it was George Bush. Bush was not a neoconservative—nor was Condoleezza Rice, nor Colin Powell, nor Dick Cheney, nor Donald Rumsfeld, each of whom were cabinet officials. There were, in fact, anti-war neoconservatives, though these are rarely mentioned. There were also senior officials in the Bush administration, including Catholics, who did care about Iraqi Christians but whose focus was national security—neutralizing a threat, though one that was grossly exaggerated. Bush, once regarded as a war criminal by the American left and globalists at large, is now seen as an innocuous, avuncular statesman. The Iraq War is as forgotten by the American left as Iraq’s Christians were twenty years ago by the Catholic right.
Josef had occasion to live in Iraq and observe the good that came from the Pence initiative for ISIS victims. George W. Bush’s recent slip—in which he referred to “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq, I mean of Ukraine”—wasn’t amusing for millions of people in the Middle East, who suffered terribly in the years that followed the U.S. invasion. Of Bush’s gaffe, Josef said simply, “I was disgusted.” Josef remains very much engaged in the life of what remains of Iraq’s Christian community and sees hope among the hundred thousand or so Christians who survive there. Father Ragheed remains a beacon of courage for them to this day.
In 2018, the cause for Father Ragheed’s canonization began. It was alleged at the time that the gunmen gave Father Ragheed and his companions the opportunity to convert to Islam and that they refused. This claim will be scrutinized during the canonization process—a process far more rigorous than the banal proclamations of “shahid” (martyr) that invariably follow the death of an Islamist terrorist. Even Christians in the region refer to those killed fighting ISIS as shahid, though they would note that Father Ragheed’s was a proper martyrdom.
Father Ragheed and his companions were true shahid. His murderers, like centuries of murderers before them, doubtless regarded their victims as unmanly, unworthy, weak—as pagans and half-pagans have regarded Jewish and Christian martyrs for centuries. Neither the Iraqi nor the U.S. government could protect him or Iraq’s Christians, nor did they make any effort to do so. How absurd—how insane—the outside talk of “democracy” must have seemed to anyone living in Mosul in 2007.
The Christians of the Middle East speak often of the blood of the martyrs. That’s rare among American Christians, especially Catholics. We have little patience for the idea that evil must be endured; it ought rather to be countered or conquered, exclusively through politics. It’s this mindset that tempts Christians to seek—like everyone else—overarching political solutions, and so tempts them to power. When a political ideology is interwoven with the religious sense, it can give rise to a kind of liberation theology—a temptation of the right and left alike.
T.S. Eliot’s Thomas Becket in the play Murder in the Cathedral is confronted with variations of the three temptations of Christ in the desert. Eliot’s character and the historical Becket refused that temptation, just as Christ refused the third and greatest temptation: a messiahship over the powers and principalities. Few Christians, however, seem able to resist the allure of power, however fleeting or illusory, when they get close to it.
Father Ragheed went to say his last Mass fifteen years ago today with no earthly power to protect him or his companions. A year and a half later, his brother priest, Father Neuhaus, followed him in death. It’s a pity the two never met in this life. Fr. Ragheed is one of many Christians martyrs in the region this century. The magazine that is Father Neuhaus’ legacy has written much about Christian persecution in the Middle East for many years. And many Catholics—including some senior officials from the Bush administration—have done much to help persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the region in the years since, often unbeknownst to activists or media. The Iraq War’s lessons for statesmen are numerous and complex, and merit much study. But the lessons for prominent Catholics and Christians in civil society are much simpler, and the first may be this: The things of Caesar—powers and principalities—can’t be sanctified by your proximity to them.
Andrew Doran is a senior research fellow at the Philos Project. He previously served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State (2018-21).