Iraqi Christians: From One Genocide to Another

May 21, 2022
Cathedral of Our Lady of Qaraqosh

The exhumation of the remains of two priests murdered in hatred of the faith by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 is shedding light on the two genocides suffered by Christians in the plain of Nineveh in barely a century.

If the policy of the systematic extermination of Armenian Christians implemented by the Ottoman Empire during the Great War is now well known, what is less well known is the case for the crimes perpetrated at the same time by the Turks against Chaldean rite Catholics on what is now Iraqi soil.

However, between 1915 and 1918, an estimated 250,000 Christians were massacred by the Turks on the plains of Mesopotamia. Among them, about forty are part of the “Great Cause,” that is, that enough testimonies on their death have been received to form the conclusion that they were murdered in hatred of the Catholic faith.

Two new names have just been added to this list of “Chaldean martyrs” from the beginning of the 20th century: they are Fr. Yousouff Jabo Sakarya, a Syrian-Catholic priest from Mosul, and Benham Hana Mikho Khozymi, a religious belonging to the order of the Brothers of Saint-Ephrem.

The two priests were executed by Turkish gendarmes on June 28, 1915, just outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Qaraqosh, as they were returning from Mosul to celebrate the Mass of the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul.

The remains of the two clerics were not easy to identify: “There were a number of uncertainties as to the exact place of their burial; for example, we were only in possession of oral accounts concerning Fr. Benham,” explains Fr. Luis Escalante, an Argentine priest who is handling the cause of several Chaldean martyrs.

In order to dispel all doubts, a team of five forensic scientists was dispatched from Italy with the mission of recovering the remains and authenticating them using DNA from the descendants of the victims.

“We invite all the faithful to increase their devotion to these two worthy sons of Qaraqosh who received the crown of martyrdom more than a century ago, and who must be remembered as intercessors for the increase of the faith and the prosperity of the city and of the entire Catholic Church in Iraq,” declared Fr. Escalante who believes that “in this way the blood they have shed will not have been in vain.”

This discovery comes a few years after another policy of extermination of Christians: that implemented in the plain of Nineveh by the Islamic State (IS) organization between 2014 and 2017, barely a century after the Ottoman persecutions.

In this regard, Fr. Georges Bahnan Jiji Jahola, a priest in Qaraqosh, believes that the exhumation of the mortal remains of the two martyrs is “a spiritual encouragement, a breath of fresh air that comes from the Holy Spirit, which we greatly need in this country where we have suffered so much.”

Fr. Bahnan recognizes that “fear is always present” among Christians in Iraq, as well as the temptation to leave this ancestral land, which was Christian long before it was conquered by Islam.

But the Chaldean priest still dares to hope that his community will be “inspired by these witnesses to the faith, who remained firm at a time when it was neither easy nor comfortable to bear the name of Christian.”