By Suzanne Presto /Irbil
Iraq’s Central Criminal Court has sentenced an al-Qaida in Iraq militant to death for his role in the killing of Chaldean Christian Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho earlier this year. VOA’s Suzanne Presto visited a Christian community in the northern city of Irbil and spoke to people about their reactions to the verdict.
Sitting in the back garden of the St. Joseph Chaldean Church in the Ankawa neighborhood after evening mass, Father Sabri Almagdaci speaks first about the life of the slain archbishop, rather than the man who has been sentenced to death for killing him.
“Faraj Rahho was one of the bishops involved in many organizations of peace and dialogue between denominations and religions,” said Father Sabri Almagdaci. “The one who commits this incident, or this crime, we as Christians, we forgive, but we do not forget.”
The Iraqi government announced Sunday that Ahmed Ali Ahmed, an al-Qaida leader also known as Abu Omar, was sentenced to death for his role in Father Rahho’s murder. The priest’s body was found is a shallow grave in March, days after he was kidnapped in the northern city of Mosul as he left Mass.
Father Almagdaci says he does not believe that Ahmed acted alone in the bishop’s killing.
“There was an organization behind that person,” he said. “Maybe they are going to kill one person, probably he is in the front, but there are many people behind him. I am hoping that people will cleanse their minds, their hearts, feel good about each other and try to do their best to rebuild this country instead of killing each other.”
Members of Iraq’s Christian minority were reticent to speak about the sentencing as they left church, streaming into the evening light from the sandy colored building that resembles a step pyramid. Many said privately that they did not want to discuss the past, while others chose not to speak publicly about a government verdict that violated their faith.
But, on the streets of Ankawa, people were more forthcoming.
Jalal took a break from cleaning the tiles in front of a shop to say that, as a Christian, he does not believe in killing anyone, even a convicted criminal.
He says he would prefer to see Ahmed in prison for the rest of his life.
That statement was echoed by university student Shadam Aziz, who says he too wants to see Ahmed serve a life sentence.
“That man who killed the religious person, he should be in a jail forever,” said Shadam Aziz. “But if there is a slaughter, if there is killing as a kind of punishment in this country, means that in the future what happened during Saddam’s regime will repeat. Who knows that a judge will not punish somebody for political ideas? Who knows?”
Father Rahho was the second archbishop abducted in Mosul in the past three years.
The U.S. Embassy Baghdad issued a statement welcoming the conviction and sentencing of the man involved in Father Rahho’s murder.
There are fewer than one million Christians in Iraq, and they have been targeted by Muslim terrorists and criminal groups. Thousands of Christians have fled the nation since sectarian violence broke out following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.