The Saints of Iraq
Since Old Testament times, this ancient land of faith has continued to provide numerous prophets and saints.
As one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world, the Christians of Iraq — whom Pope Francis plans to visit March 5-8 — have not only given the world a culturally rich ecclesiastical heritage, but also accorded the Church innumerable great saints, many of whom are martyrs for the faith.
Apostles St. Thomas and St. Jude (Thaddeus) brought the faith to the country in the first century, in what was then the region of Mesopotamia. St. Thomas established the Church of the East there, and St. Jude soon followed, becoming the Church’s leader and traveling through Mesopotamia, Libya, Turkey and Persia where, with the apostle St. Simon the Zealot, he preached and brought souls to Christ.
But even before the apostles’ arrival, ancient Iraq was holy ground: It was the birthplace of great Old Testament prophets venerated as saints in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Along with Abraham, whose birthplace of Ur will be visited by the Holy Father on March 6, these include St. Ezekiel, the prophet son of Buzi, born in Iraq in the sixth century B.C. St. Ezekiel prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the restoration of the land of Israel. Another was St. Ezra, the prophet, priest, scribe and so-called “father of Judaism” or “second Moses,” who left Babylon in the fifth century B.C. and reconstituted the Jewish community on the basis of the Torah.
Then there is St. Jonah, the prophet called upon by God to travel to Nineveh and warn its residents of impending divine wrath but who instead boards a ship to Tarshish, is caught in a storm, and swallowed by a whale. Jonah eventually agrees to go to Nineveh, the fish vomits him onto the shore, and he successfully convinces Nineveh to repent.
After the Resurrection and the Gospel began to be preached in ancient Iraq, other well-known saints began to emerge.
These include the martyr St. Polychronius, bishop of Babylon, who was arrested during the persecution of Emperor Decius in the third century. Along with three priests (Parmenius, Helimenas, Chrysotelus) and two deacons (Luke and Mocius), St. Polychronius was arrested and commanded to offer sacrifice to idols — which he firmly refused. St. Polychronius remained silent during interrogation, leading Decius to have him struck in the mouth with stones until he died. The priests and deacons were also martyred.
Living soon after St. Polychronius was St. Julian Saba (Saba meaning “old man” in Aramaic), a Syriac-speaking hermit in Mesopotamia from the banks of the Euphrates River who entered monastic life at the age of 8. St. Julian is known to have given succor to Christians in the Eastern Empire during the period of renewed persecution by Emperor Julian the Apostate. He practiced asceticism and founded several monasteries. He died of natural causes in 367.
Another Iraqi saint living at that time was St. Marolus of Milan, born near Babylon on the banks of the Tigris. Probably due to persecution, St. Marolus was raised in Syria and then moved to Rome where he became friends with Pope Innocent I. He finally moved to Milan, where he was made bishop in 408. St. Marolus was bishop there during the Visigoth invasion, when he helped victims and refugees. He died in 423 of natural causes and was buried in Milan.
Prince Benham, son of King Sinharib of Assur, visited St. Matthew and, aware of his gifts as a miracle-worker, asked him to return with him to Assur and heal his sister, Sarah. He traveled back with him and healed his sister of her affliction, and Behnam, Sarah and 40 slaves subsequently converted to Christianity. The saint baptized them. Mar Matta returned to Mount Alfaf, but King Sinharib discovered the group’s conversion, and all suffered martyrdom as they tried to escape to join Mar Matta at Mount Alfaf. The king was driven mad, the queen brought him to the place of the martyrs’ death, they met Mar Matta, who healed King Sinharib of his madness, and the saint baptized both the king and queen. Mar Matta requested a monastery be constructed on Mount Alfaf, which the king agreed to, and it later became the Monastery of St. Matthew, where the saint lived, died and was buried.
A slightly later and also well-known saint in Iraq is Isaac of Nineveh, known to Iraqis as “Ishaq of Nineveh.” Born in the region of Beth Qatraye in southeast Mesopotamia near modern-day Qatar around 613, the seventh-century saint became Syriac bishop of Nineveh and was known for his writings on Christian asceticism and theology. As bishop, administrative duties did not suit his academic and retiring nature, and he asked to abdicate after only five months. He subsequently lived an ascetic life in solitude for many years, leaving a rich corpus of work on the spiritual life.
Some other much-loved saints in Iraq are known as Mar Miskinta, Mar Eilya, Mar Pythion, Mar Ahodymmi, Mar Attqen, Mar Bena, and Mar Boya (Mar being the word for “saint,” “holy” or “respected” in Arabic).
Among the modern martyrs, who gave their lives in the name of Christ in the face of Islamism, are the 48 worshippers massacred by Islamists at the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad in 2010 (their beatification cause is underway); Sister Cecilia Moshi Hanna, killed in Baghdad in 2002; Chaldean priest Father Ragheed Ganni, who studied in Rome in the 2000s, and his three deacons, all gunned down by Islamist terrorists in Mosul in 2007; and Archbishop Faraj Raho, Archbishop Najeeb’s predecessor in Mosul, who was kidnapped and killed in 2008.
Although the Vatican has yet to formally declare them saints, Archbishop Najeeb, who was a friend of Father Ganni and Archbishop Raho, doesn’t doubt their sanctity because they were “killed in the name of Jesus” — repeating, he said, what happened to the Church in Iraq 2,000 years ago.
“I saw many, many Christians killed without reason just because they’re Christians,” Archbishop Najeeb told the Register, recalling attacks by al-Qaida militants and then later members of the Islamic State. “They are all ipso facto saints.”
“It would be something very good and give us a lot of strength,” he said. “I dream for that.”