Two years ago today a priest and three deacons were driving home from the Holy Spirit Chaldean Catholic church in Mosul, northern Iraq, where they had celebrated Mass, when their cars were stopped by masked gunmen.
In the first car was Fr Ragheed Ganni, a 35-year-old locally born engineering graduate who had returned to Iraq after the American invasion four years earlier, despite being warned of the risks. He was also secretary to Archbishop Paulos Rahho, who would be murdered by persons unknown the following February.
Fr Ganni had studied at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, and was so popular with the Irishmen there that he spent his summers with his new friends by Lough Neagh. A fellow seminarian, Fr Don Kettle, told me how one night during marching season there had been somewhat scary sectarian disturbances, shouting and gunfire outside the seminary there. "I really feel at home," Ragheed quipped. Eventually he acquired the nicknamed "Paddy the Iraqi" and fitted in so well that the hierarchy asked him to take up a parish in Ireland after he was ordained in 2001. He refused, because he had to help his people, and Iraq needed its educated exiles back if it was to rebuild. "That is where I belong, that is my place," he said.
Fr Kettle, who now lives in Western Australia, recalls what Fr Ganni endured after he slipped back into Iraq: "His church was blown up. Their house was blown up. He was saying Mass in the basement. He continued on. He had a lot on his plate, he was also teaching a seminary. You’d get emails from him saying please 'pray for us'." In one touching scene Fr Ragheed gave a group of terrified children their First Communion in the church's basement as gunfire raged outside, a scared but calm Fr Ragheed telling the children the sound was just fireworks in their honour.
He returned to Italy a couple of times, where he had many friends, Christian and Muslim, but friends recall he looked under pressure. Invited to speak at an Italian Eucharistic Congress in 2005, he told them: "There are days when I feel frail and full of fear. But when, holding the Eucharist, I say ‘Behold the Lamb of God Behold, who takes away the sin of the world’, I feel His strength in me. When I hold the Host in my hands, it is really He who is holding me and all of us, challenging the terrorists and keeping us united in His boundless love."
Finally his day came. On July 3, 2007, Fr Ragheed left his church with his cousin, Basman Yousef Daud. In the car following them were the other two deacons, Gassan Isam Bidawed and Wahid Hanna Isho, and Isho's wife Bayan Adam Bella.
The gunmen stopped the cars. They led the woman away, and then one of them turned to Fr Ragheed and screamed: "I told you to close the church, why didn't you do it? Why are you still here?."
Fr Ragheed replied: "How can I close the house of God?"
They ordered them to convert to Islam. They refused. The gunmen pushed the four men to the ground, and murdered them.
Iraq's Christian population has been devastated by the US-led invasion. Half the population have fled; countless priests have been murdered, women kidnapped and churches bombed. Fr Ragheed might have been just one more victim of the 21st century's worst war, but in his inspirational life and sense of sacrifice he seems more like something from The Lives of the Saints.