Iraqi Christians: Long History, Precarious Future

Documentary Sends Cry for Help to the World

By Genevieve Pollock

ARBIL, Iraq, NOV. 6, 2009 ( A new video documentary produced by Catholics in Iraq invites people to experience the history, culture, martyrs and struggles of one of the oldest Christian communities.

Hank and Diane McCormick, a missionary couple working in Northern Iraq, told ZENIT that the first episode of this five-part documentary can be viewed online by people worldwide who want to “meet” the Middle Eastern Catholics.

The video exposes stories about Christian martyrs of that region as well as Catholics — bishops, priests and laypeople — who are currently living there and working in schools, hospitals and other services. It incorporates scenes from the area’s holy places, footage of ancient artifacts, glimpses of liturgical celebrations and local music.

Diane, who worked on the project as an assistant editor, explained that it was a joint effort of the Chaldean, Syrian, Maronite and Latin Churches, produced as a cry for help.

The message from the Catholics to the world, she said, is: “Help, help now while there is still large enough numbers for the rites to survive.”

Diane continued: “They can clearly see the end to their existence within the next 10 years.

“Their departure is a loss, even for Muslims; an East without Christians would not be the same. They cannot cry out any louder for help from the universal Church.”


The video introduction reports that the situation of that region’s Christian community, which dates its origin back to St. Thomas the Apostle, is presently “precarious.”

“These Catholics cannot remain in their homeland of 2,000 years without assistance from their Catholic brothers and sisters” on other continents, it states.

The video, titled “An Open Door,” offers “insight into the minds and hearts of Catholics living in Iraq.”

It explains that their “peaceful nature and status as a minority too small to defend themselves have caused Iraqi Catholics to be targeted and made victims of war after war.”

Thus, the number of Christians in the region has dropped from 1.5 million to some 350,000, and it is continuing to fall.

Hank, who served as cameraman and translator for the video, explained to ZENIT that the Church leaders are hoping that people will see this video and “come and help.”

He stated that aid is needed in order to “build industry, build Catholic schools, minor seminaries, and hospitals, and adopt parishes inside Iraq, thus opening up communication between Iraqis inside and the world beyond.”

“Catholics in the Middle East are neither terrorists nor refugees,” the video explains. “They are people, individuals with a deep faith, rich heritage and courage.”

Modern martyr

The first episode tells the story of Father Ragheed Ganni, a 34-year-old pastor in Mosul who was shot four times through the heart in front of his church in 2007.

On the video, a fellow priest shows the icon, with a bullet hole through it, that was in Father Ganni’s pocket when he was killed.

“The situation here is worse than hell,” the pastor had written in an e-mail to a former professor the day before he died.

In his honor, some 37 miles from where he died, Catholics established the Father Ragheed Ganni Medical Center, where volunteers work to distribute medicine free of charge to Christians and Muslims alike.

Doctor Ranna Enwyia, who works at the clinic, was a close friend of Father Ganni. She affirmed that the priest was constantly aware that his life could be taken at any time, and yet he was always working, “always happy.”

“He taught us how to be happy,” she affirmed.

The doctor recalled that the priest used to pray to God: “Even if I lose my life, it’s okay, because it will be with you and for you.”

She stated: “He taught me that I will live just once. So I have to make every moment of my life to be useful to the other. And if it is useful to the other, it will make me happy.”

Enwyia works alongside Doctor Basman Gilal Marcos, a Catholic who, through the medical center ministry, came back to practice his faith after being away for 20 years. They serve hundreds of people that come each Friday and Sunday for medicine.

Hank explained that the impact of Catholics in that area comes from the schools, hospitals and services they provide. “Even in the midst of war they are succeeding,” he added.

Father Rayan Atto, a diocesan priest who directs the medical center, tells stories on the video of how Father Ganni has been interceding for the project and aiding with “many miracles.”

Compelling stories

As the documentary continues into other episodes, Bishop Jack Ishaak, dean of Babel College in Arbil-Ankowa, explains the rich heritage of the community’s 2,000 years of history and the current role of religion in daily life. He and other prelates explore the Chaldean liturgy and its ancient roots in the Jewish rites from Jerusalem.

Episode three reveals how success in Catholic education is being translated into “security” for the future of Christians “living among 25 million Muslims.”

The final episode presents testimonies of the Catholics who have been kidnapped or have been victims of crime and religious persecution, and their own explanations of “why they want to stay in their homeland of 2,000 years.”

It calls on the global community to help provide opportunities to “enable Christians to shed their refugee status.”

Hank noted that this project is “a response to the Church’s call for ecumenism and the Holy Father’s call to help Christians in the Middle East.”

“Because of the wars and the civil violence,” he said, “which is constantly shown on the news, people — Catholics especially — need to see the picture of Northern Iraq, and to see and hear the stories of Catholics in action.”

Father Jean Abou Khalife, founder and director of TV Charity, an apostolate of the Lebanese Maronite Missionaries, took responsibility for producing the video.

The Chaldean Catholic Church, through St. Peter Chaldean Seminary in Arbil, took charge of the content and the directing.

The agenda

Diane explained that the video was “a cooperative effort among the Churches” that they hope will “promote the agenda” of the 2010 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East “through lay means.”

She told ZENIT that the documentary’s message, as presented by Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, “mirrors the main points to be discussed in the Synod.”

The Chaldean archbishop emphasizes the local Church’s need to move from focusing on the past to preparation for the future, to center on identifying its vocation and mission in Northern Iraq today.

This is not something that the Iraqis can do alone, he noted, but it will be possible in communion with the universal Church.

Hank affirmed: “Our job is to raise awareness in the West of the dimensions of the problem, and then generate support for the building of schools, hospitals, clinics and more.

“Iraqi Catholics form a professional class. They have initiative, skills, and the desire to succeed. But the war has left them displaced and unemployed in an economy that cannot absorb their numbers.

“There has to be investment from the outside. The Church will use the Synod to do her part. And we lay need to do ours, which is to cooperate, donate, and sacrifice to help the Catholic community to survive in Iraq.”

The first part of the video is currently available for online viewing, but with the completion of the other episodes, expected by the end of the month, a DVD will be produced for distribution.