Remains of two Iraqi martyr priests found in chapel in Nineveh Plain

ROME – After several days of searching, the remains of two Syrian Chaldean martyrs, killed for their faith by the Ottoman Empire, were found last week in a chapel outside the Christian village of Qaraqosh in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain.

Syrian Catholic Father Yusuf Jabo Sakarya of Mosul, and Father Behnam Hanam Mikho Khozymi, a monk belonging to the order of the Brothers of Saint Ephrem, were murdered by Turkish gendarmes on June 28, 1915, just outside of Qaraqosh while they were returning from Mosul to celebrate the feast of Peter and Paul the following day.

Their names were recently added to what is known as the “Great Cause” of Chaldean Catholics murdered in odium fidei (in hatred of the faith) during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, which was attempting to stop a bubbling revolution at the beginning of World War I.

More than 250,000 Assyrians-Chaldeans are believed to have been massacred between 1915 and 1918. Close to 40 of them are included in the martyrdom cause currently at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

The Cathedral of Our Lady, in Qaraqosh, in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains. ISIS used this property for target practice between 2014 and 2017. (Credit: Courtesy Father Luis Escalante.)

Sakarya and Khozymi’s remains are among the few the church has been able to track down, since most were buried in unmarked – and often hidden – graves.

When the Vatican determines that a person has been martyred, a miracle is not needed for their beatification. However, a miracle is required for canonization.

According to Argentine Father Luis Escalante, the postulator of the martyrdom cause of four Chaldean bishops, numerous priests, seven Dominican nuns of St. Catherine of Siena, and numerous lay people, the cause is set to be concluded this summer, after being started in April of 2018.

For this reason, he said, it was necessary to ascertain the exact location and condition of the bodies of the two priests said to be buried in the Chapel of St. Dominic, next to the Cathedral of Our Lady, in Qaraqosh.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about the true burial place of Father Behnam, having only oral accounts,” he told Crux.

A team of five forensic physicians, who traveled from Italy, began working on recovering the remains May 3. On the second day a first set of remains was found; the second set of remains was found on the fourth day. They will be tested against the DNA from direct family members to make a positive identification.

“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 faith and prosperity of the city and of the whole Catholic Church in Iraq,” Escalante said. “In this way, their spilled blood will not be in vain.”

Father Georges Bahnan Jiji Jahola of Qaraqosh told Crux that seeing the situation Christians live in in this “martyred land,” the finding of the remains is a “reason for hope.”

“It’s a spiritual encouragement, a breath of air from the Holy Spirit, much needed in this land where we have suffered much,” he said via phone. “This strength is necessary if as Christians we are to remain in this land where our faith was born.”

The Christian population is still trying to recover from the attempted genocide by the Islamic State Group, which occupied Iraq’s Nineveh Plains between 2014 and 2017.

The priest acknowledged that the situation for Christians in Iraq is still complicated, due in part to the political, economic, and cultural crises currently being experienced in the country.

“Fear is always present, and I believe will aways be,” he said. “There is always fear of the unknown, including possible fighting between the government and extremists. But there is also a strong will on our side to remain despite the countless challenges.”

“Christians in Iraq need peace and unity, and are inspired by these witnesses of the faith, who stayed strong despite the fact that it wasn’t comfortable nor easy to remain Christians,” he said. “This brings us together as a church that walks united, guided by the Risen Christ.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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