03/23/2005, 00.00
IRAQ

Christians of Mosul, the light of the Resurrection in the Calvary of war

by Marta Allevato
Mosul Archbishop's Easter message: "Let us learn from Jesus; let us work so that the last word is not left to terrorism and death." Local priest tells of Easter preparations: packed churches, youth attending Mass despite parents' orders.  Liturgy shortened during Holy Week to limit the risk of attacks.

Mosul (AsiaNews) – In Mosul, theatre of kidnappings, slaughters and violence perpetuated by Sunni rebels and criminal gangs, Christians live under constant threat.  But if the passage from life to death is the meaning of Easter around the world, the certainty of Resurrection is what distinguishes the life of Iraqi Christians in what amounts in a way to retracing Jesus' footsteps.  "We have gone through 2004, our Calvary, with its pain and destruction, but we have not lost our vitality, we have not fled, we are still here, because we are certain of Resurrection."   Father Ragheed Ganni, secretary to the Bishop of Mosul, in northern Iraq, tells AsiaNews of the meaning of Christ's sacrifice in a city martyred by war, where the Cross of daily violence does not prevent Christians from continuing the heroic witness of their faith.

Father Ragheed explains that, today more than ever, following Jesus' example is a necessity not only for Christians but for all Iraqis.  The same holds for Mosul's Chaldean Archbishop, Monsignor Paulos Faraj Rahho who, in his current Easter message, encourages Iraqis to draw from the hatred, the fear and the bombs around them the real meaning of the Resurrection: "Assassinations, terrorism and fear must not have the last word in Iraq.  Just as Christ overcame the tomb and death, what must triumph at the end is Life and Love."

For the 33-year-old priest, the people of Iraq at this moment are like those of Israel who "crossed the Red Sea of war, leaving slavery behind them, and are setting out towards a new life, full of hope."  This thought has been confirmed by strong church attendance during Lent.  Fr Ragheed says that, each Friday, the Church of Saint Paul, located near the bishop's residence which was destroyed by 2 bombs on December 7, 2004, has been "full of people taking part in the Via Crucis."  "The fact that attendance is the same as last year is already a positive sign."  The priest does not deny, however, that fear exists among people.  "We ourselves are trying to keep Mass short to limit the risk of attacks and liturgies will be shortened also during the Holy Week."

Fr. Ragheed explains that Palm Sunday had been an exception: "In my parish, the Church of the Holy Spirit, we celebrated a Mass that went on for hours.  Encouraged by the large number of people in attendance, everyone gave in to their great need for prayer."

However, Holy Week is being lived under the banner of caution and care.  "We make our plans day by day on the basis of daily events.  In the case of evening functions, we try to finish them before dusk while morning functions always begin after 8:30 a.m."  Fr Ragheed added also that, in various parishes of the city, some baptisms will be celebrated prior to the Saturday Vigil.

Kidnappings, death threats, ransom payments have become a veritable industry in Mosul.  "As Christians are one of the richer categories," Fr Ragheed explains, "they are the target of groups intent on kidnapping them for copious ransoms."

It seems however that all these problems are not frightening the community of the faithful.  The strongest sign of hope comes for the "courage of youth."  "Young people continue to come to Church despite orders of their parents, who worry for their safety."  "The braver ones," he says, "try to encourage the others.  They have organized themselves to meet twice a week at the Church of Saint Paul, where they pray together and ponder topics that they choose themselves, such as fasting and prayer.

Volunteer work is also a heroic effort in Mosul.  "Young men," Fr Ragheed said, "spontaneously offer their services to keep watch outside the church during Mass which, following the bombings, we are still celebrating in the hall under the bishop's residence."  He explains that, by taking part in parish life, young people "feel integrated into the world" and not isolated in their own suffering.  "Many of them," he adds, "would like to go World Youth Day in Cologne."

Young couples are another sign of hope among Christians for a better future. "Lately, I have been celebrating 2 or 3 marriages a month and these couples are proof that life goes on, that there is hope of building something good."

After studying for 7 years in Italy, Fr Ragheed returned voluntarily to Iraq last year, to be close to his congregation during the war. On December 7, 2004, he experienced the bomb attacks against the bishop's residence in Mosul, yet he continues to bear witness to a fearless faith.  "The strength that comes from God," he said, "cannot be explained" and so he entrusts himself to the words of Saint Paul: "Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor. 12, 10).

The Catholic Chaldean diocese of Mosul, lead by Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, is made up of 12 parishes serving a community of 35,000 people.  There are 22 diocesan priests, 8 monks and 20 nuns. Saint Paul Parish has 750 families, Holy Spirit Parish about 900.

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