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Monday, July 28, 2008

"Portrait: Iraqi Christian's path to the priesthood"

When Baghdad fell to American troops five years ago, Yusuf Rabat was studying at a seminary in the city.

From the Telegraph
by Damien McElroy

He could never have anticipated how his cloistered path to the priesthood would be thrown into turmoil by the new era after Saddam Hussein's downfall.

Babel College, which housed an ancient library, was a treasure of the eastern Christian Church and narrowly escaped the looters who pillaged Baghdad from the day Saddam was toppled.

"I never thought when I left for Baghdad that such terrible things would happen. We were on own from the first day of war," said Mr Rabat, 32.

When the looting subsided, Baghdad's suburb of Dora, where the college was located, steadily fell under the sway of Islamic insurgents. Mr Rabat left to study in Rome in 2005, shortly before the seminary evacuated its entire staff, who moved en masse to Irbil in northern Iraq in 2006.

Some 500 Christian families also fled Dora after they were threatened by Islamist radicals. Letters delivered by night had demanded forced conversions and the marriage of Christian girls to Islamist fighters.

The tragedy of Iraq's Christians overshadowed Mr Rabat's time in Rome. He would regularly attend vigils where prayers were offered for brethren under threat.

Mr Rabat's former neighbours were kidnapped and held to ransom. Bombs exploded at Christian churches in Baghdad and women were forced to wear the veil in public.

Then extremists killed his cousin, Ragheed Ganni, a prominent priest who was shot as he celebrated mass last year.

Catholic dioceses in Ireland, where Fr Ragheed had studied, invited Mr Rabat to visit last summer.

"They asked for mementos of him and erected an altar in his honour at a place of pilgrimage," he said. "It was amazing to see the impact he had and sad that he was no longer here."

The trip inspired a determination that he would return to Iraq after his ordination.

The ordeal of Iraq's Christians is far from over but Mr Rabat, now Fr Paulos, is adamant that an ancient community will survive.

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