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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni - an Iraqi Christian Martyr

Haitham Beno (right) and his wife, Almas Shankol, stand with their four sons in front of their newly renovated home in Karamles, a town in the Nineveh Plain area of northern Iraq. The family began rebuilding efforts last year with support from the Knights of Columbus’ $2 million initiative to help residents return to their liberated hometown. Photo by Claire Thomas

Return to the Land of Modern-Day Martyrs
Reporting by Inés San Martín*
The Knights of Columbus continues to support efforts to rebuild and resettle a Christian Iraqi town ravaged by the terrorists ISIS

After leaving Holy Spirit Chaldean Catholic Church in Mosul, Iraq, on June 3, 2007, Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni and three subdeacons were shot and killed by Islamist gunmen.

Despite being threatened with violence if he did not close the church, Father Ganni had just celebrated Mass for Trinity Sunday. Facing his attackers that day, the 35-year-old native of Karamles, Iraq, responded, “How can I close the house of God?”

The four men’s bodies were recovered and then buried at St. Addai Church, which served a thriving Chaldean Catholic community in the town of Karamles, 20 miles to the east of Mosul. When ISIS later seized Karamles in August 2014, homes were torched, the church was largely destroyed and Father Ganni’s tombstone was smashed.

ISIS was finally driven out in late 2016, and last spring, the Vatican officially opened the cause for canonization of Father Ganni and his companions — a decision welcomed with “great joy and pride” by Najat Sleman, Father Ganni’s aunt, who returned to Karamles after reconstruction efforts began last year.

Sleman’s family now lives in one of more than 350 homes rebuilt thus far through a $2 million initiative by the Knights of Columbus. Announced at the 135th Supreme Convention in St. Louis in August 2017, the project is overseen by the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, a coalition of local churches working together to resettle predominantly Christian towns in the region.

Father Thabet Habib Yousif, a Chaldean Catholic priest and relative of Father Ganni, is serving at St. Addai and coordinating efforts to rebuild in Karamles. He initially returned just two days after the town was liberated, and he has witnessed the slow but steady transformation as hundreds of families — some 1,000 Christians — have now returned to reclaim their ancestral homeland.

“People are very happy to be back,” Father Thabet said. “Their identity is in this town.”

From Shock to Hope

Ghanim Shaba Hanna and his family are among the many who have benefited from the rebuilding in Karamles. 

Repairs to their home were completed in February.

Until 2014, Hanna, his wife and their son lived off Hanna’s salary as a driver, together with income from a mini-store attached to their home. When ISIS arrived, they had three hours to vacate, leaving their possessions behind. They fled to the Kurdish-controlled city of Erbil, where most of the Christians forced out of the Nineveh Plains ended up.

“My home was charcoal when we came back,” Hanna recalled. “The shock of seeing it put me in the hospital for three days. I couldn’t believe what they had done.”

Though still standing, the entire home was blackened by fire. In addition, a bomb that destroyed a neighboring house had left a large hole in the walls of a room on their second floor.

“This is my place, where my roots are,” Hanna said, adding that he didn’t “doubt for a second” he would return when he learned that Father Thabet was helping people come home.

In all, more than 750 houses in Karamles were damaged by ISIS, either totally or partially. Father Thabet has been working against the clock to have as many homes ready as possible before summer ends. Some 40 houses are being repaired simultaneously, in the hope that new families can arrive before the start of the school year.

The work itself is being done by a team of some 50 people, including masons, electricians and plumbers. All are locals, so efforts to rebuild are also a source of employment.

“Whenever new help comes and we reconstruct a house, hope grows and increases,” said Father Thabet.


Father Thabet has also been working on finding a temporary home for two Chaldean religious sisters moving to Karamles to teach children at a primary school the committee recently finished rebuilding.

A convent in the town was hit during one of many aerial strikes by the government in an effort to drive ISIS out, and there is a hole in the ground where a three-story building used to be.

“A lot of work still remains, since many houses are still burned and run-down,” said Father Thabet. “If people decide to come back home and nothing has changed from when they left, they will leave Iraq. We can’t afford for this to happen.”

Long term, Father Thabet has his mind set on opening a university, a playground and a meeting center, and on using some of the land owned by the Church to create small farms for young people to grow crops.

Other efforts are already beginning to pay off. For example, a new factory, where dozens will find employment, is being built between the historic St. Barbara Church and the skeleton of a university that never was.

“Karamles is not what it was before the war, but things are changing for the better,” said Almas Shankol, who returned to Karamles in August 2017, with her husband and their six children. “For instance, the town is clean again. We are very grateful for what Father Thabet and the reconstruction team has done for us.”

When visiting the United States recently to speak about their experience, Shankol’s 14-year-old son, Noah, was often asked if he wanted to stay in the United States. His response was always “No.”

“Karamles is my mother,” he said. “We have deep roots there.”

In 2006, less than a year before his martyrdom, Father Ganni wrote what he called “My last prayer”, after attending the funeral of a priest who had been decapitated by terrorists. 

In the prayer, Father Ganni did not ask God to protect him from suffering. Instead, he wrote: “Lord, give me the strength not to humiliate your priesthood, which I represent.”

A decade later, when Father Thabet first returned to Karamles in October 2016, he entered St. Addai Church and wept at the sight of Father Ganni’s grave.

“Today, when I pass in front of his grave, I greet him as a living person, recalling the memories of an active and joyful man,” Father Thabet said. “Parishioners also stand in front of his grave, speaking to him and asking for his intercession.”

Rami Sadeeq, 26, remembers the day the people of Karamles learned of Father Ganni’s martyrdom. A girl came screaming in tears to share the tragic news with a small crowd.

“It was a very sad moment. Everyone knew him, and he was a very kind person,” said Sadeeq, who now assists Father Thabet in his spare time. “But today we’re very proud. It’s very precious to have a saint from Karamles!”

Many Christians forced out of the region have emigrated. However, those who have decided to remain in a land with a Christian presence since the earliest days of the Church, are steadfast in their conviction, counting on those helping from abroad and those interceding from above.

*INÉS SAN MARTÍN is an Argentinean journalist who covers the Vatican in Rome for Crux. Visit

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