ROME – On Sunday, June 3, 2007, Bayan Adam Balah really wanted to avoid going to another Mass. She, together with her husband, Subdeacon Waheed Hanna Isho’a had already fulfilled their Sunday obligations, and “female intuition” – or survival mode – told her if they left the town of Qaraqosh towards neighboring Mosul with Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni, something bad would happen.
She was right.
Aziz Ganni, Hanna Isho’a, and two other subdeacons, Bassman Yousef and Gassan Issam Bidawid, were murdered by four gunmen, self-identified as Ansar Al-suna, an Islamic fundamentalist group that would later become the Islamic State group. All four were Chaldean Catholics.
“We were stopped by four gunmen with masked black suits and Kalashnikov rifles,” Balah said, recalling the day.
“Two of them pointed the guns at Father Ragheed’s car, and the other two pointed their guns at our car. They shouted at Father Ragheed to get out of the car. Father Ragheed asked them who they were, they replied that they were Ansar Al-suna. I heard them clearly.”
“‘How many times did we tell you to close the church? How many times did we tell you not to pray in the church?’ the masked men shouted,” she continued. “‘How could we possibly close the house of prayer, and the place that helps poor people?’ the priest replied.”
The gunmen who attacked them killed Ganni and Yousef. When the other two men went to their aid, “as they fell in a pool of their own blood,” shots were fired again. Balah and her husband ducked down, but the gunmen opened fired on them, all the time shouting ‘Allah Akbar!’ (God is Great).
She’s the lone survivor, and the lone witness to the massacre. Today she lives as a refugee in Australia.
It is from there that Adam Balah gave testimony for her husband’s martyrdom cause, to be presented in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints in early September. In addition, the cause of Sister Cecilia Moshi Hanna, stabbed to death in 2002, will also be presented at the same time. These could become Iraq’s first modern-day martyrs officially recognized by the Catholic Church.
The small yet resilient Catholic community has survived decades of persecution in Iraq, and the people hope the recognition will come soon. They also want it to be a gift that is “hand delivered” by Pope Francis, who they hope will visit the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq next year.
(On the papal plane to Panama on Jan. 23, Crux asked Francis about the possibility of visiting Iraq, and he said the trip is not completely out of the question, and it’s one he’d like to make.)
Crux has learned that the investigation into the cause of the four martyrs will be handed to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the first week of September. Once there, the speed of the case depends on the Vatican bureaucracy.
The man tapped to lead the cause of the five candidates through that bureaucracy is Father Luis Escalante, a Rome-based Argentine priest. He has already handled their cases at the diocesan level, so he knows the details intimately.
In the official document sent to Archbishop Francis Yohana Kalabat of the Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle of Detroit requesting the cause to be opened, Escalante noted that Ganni spent seven years studying in Rome, and looked forward to going back home to serve his people.
“Fr. Ragheed was finishing his degree in Rome when Iraq war broke out,” Escalante wrote. “In a prewar interview he expressed his opposition to the  invasion of Iraq fearing that Iraqi Christians would be targeted and persecuted. He looked forward to returning to his native land to serve the Church and people there.”
The priest returned home after Saddam Hussein was ousted from power in 2003.
When the priest and his three companions were martyred, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then the Vatican’s Secretary of State, sent a telegram to Ganni’s bishop on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI.
“Ragheed’s sacrifice will inspire in the hearts of all men and women of good will a renewed resolve to reject the ways of hatred and violence, to conquer evil with good and to cooperate in hastening the dawn of reconciliation, justice and peace in Iraq.”
Killed to sow fear among Christians
The cause of Ganni and his three companions has been tied to that of Hanna.
The nun, a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was murdered at the age of 71 on Aug. 15, 2002.
Escalante said the motive was to “maximally terrorize and horrify the Iraqi Christian community.”
The Iraqi-born religious sister was brutally attacked by three dagger-wielding assailants and repeatedly stabbed. Her throat was slit, and her head severed from her body.
Ordinarily, three sisters lived in the convent, but that night Hanna was on her own.
She was in her room, getting ready to go to bed when she was attacked. The following day, when her fellow sisters gathered for prayer and saw she was missing, they went to her room, where they found her body in a pool of blood.
Three days later, three Muslim men were arrested, and at least one of them is reportedly in custody, but no official investigation has been launched into the killing in 17 years.
According to Escalante’s finding, at least one observer noted that the Hussein government might have been involved in the brutal slaying, to warn the West of the threat Christians in Iraq would encounter from Islamists in the event of war.
These five people are about to be a step closer to being officially recognized as martyrs, killed in odium fidei – in hatred of the faith.
Martyrs, unlike others on the path to sainthood, do not need a miracle to be beatified (although one is needed for canonization, the final step.)
Their cause won’t face one potential roadblock: None of them had extensive writings, which would usually need to be examined for soundness of doctrine.
This could help speed up the process. The decision will be in the hands of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who heads the congregation, the first week of September.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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