One June 3, 2007, a Chaldean Catholic priest, Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni, had just finished celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at his parish Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul, Iraq. There had long been trouble in the city, with violence directed against Christians, including a bomb detonated at the Church a week before

As Fr. Ganni left the church with three subdeacons, Basman Daoud, Ghasan Bidawid and Waheed Isho'a, they were confronted by Islamic militant gunman

The men demanded to know why he hadn't closed the church as they had ordered. Fr. Ganni responded "How can I close the house of God?"n

The gunmen then opened fire, murdering Fr. Ganni and his three friends

The story of Fr. Ganni, a true martyr of the faith, is only one of hundreds of thousands of stories about the suffering of Christians in the Middle East at the hands of Islamic extremists. Particularly since the so-called Islamic State began its rampage in 2013, Christians in the region have been murdered or forced from their homes under threat of death, their homes have been stolen or destroyed in combat, and their churches desecrated. Our State Department has rightly called it a "genocide". Sadly, the United Nations still hasn't done so, and there has been much criticism of their relief efforts

We Americans are scandalously ill-informed about the Christian churches of the Middle East and how they have been persecuted. This is why the Bishops of the United States set aside this week as a Week of Awareness and Education in solidarity with persecuted Christians

In addition to our Roman Catholic Church, there are six other Eastern Rite Churches in the Middle East that are in communion with us — Maronites, Melkites, Armenians, Chaldeans, Coptics, and Syrians. In the region there are also Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and various Protestant communities

In the West, we easily forget that these are the most ancient Christian communities in the world, dating back to Pentecost. We read in the Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul's letters about the founding of some of these Churches. Our Christian brethren can trace their roots back to the earliest centuries of the Church, and many of them still celebrate the Eucharist in the ancient languages and rites — including the Aramaic language, which Our Lord and the Blessed Mother spoke every day

There is an old saying from the early centuries of the Church, that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. There have been many seeds planted in the bloody soil of the Middle East. Faced with brutal persecution, hundreds of thousands of Middle East Christians have migrated either to refugee camps, nearby cities, or abroad. According to some sources, the population decline has been precipitous. There were nearly 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003, and this number has dropped to as few as 250,000 today. Sharp drops in Christian population have occurred in Syria and Egypt as well. Some of these historic Churches are in danger of extinction in their ancestral homelands

But many Christians want to return to their homes and rebuild their lives. I recently had the honor of meeting Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Iraq. Christians have been there since as early as the first century, and the city is home to a wide variety of religious believers, including Sunni, Sufi and Shia Muslims and Yezidis. It has been on or near the front lines of battle for several years now, and many thousands of its Christian and Yezidi inhabitants have fled. Many of them wound up in nearby Mosul, a strategically important city that was captured by Islamic State and was the site of brutal combat as Iraqi forces liberated it last year. But the Christians who then sought to return to their homes and churches found them to have been destroyed

Archbishop Warda has been one of the leading advocates for peace and he has been laboring mightily to help his people return to their homes. He is a leader of an ecumenical coalition, the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, that is seeking to rebuild the region. He gave his testimony at a UN conference this week, emphasizing the importance of the continued Christian presence for stability in the region. There has been a great deal of support from the international community, particularly from the Knights of Columbus. Archbishop Warda is grateful for the financial help, and recognizes that much more is needed

But when asked what more the Church in America can do, the Archbishop asked for prayers, first and foremost. But he then asked for greater awareness in America about the Churches in the Middle East. Knowing more about our suffering brethren can only increase our sense of solidarity and empathy for them, and can encourage them that they will not be alone and forgotten once the world's attention turns elsewhere

There are a number of great organizations that are helping the Christians in the Middle East on the ground, like the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Aid to the Church in Need, and the Knights of Columbus. The USCCB has a huge amount of information on the situation there, and we should all make use of that to better educate ourselves

USCCB also has a beautiful prayer for our persecuted brethren:n

O God of all the nations,
the One God who is and was
and always will be,
in your providence
you willed that your Church
be united to the suffering of your Son.
Look with mercy on your servants
who are persecuted for their faith in you.
Grant them perseverance and courage
to be worthy imitators of Christ.
Bring your wisdom upon leaders of nations
to work for peace among all peoples.
May your Spirit open conversion
for those who contradict your will,
that we may live in harmony.
Give us the grace to be united
in truth and freedom,
and to always seek your will in our lives.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Our Lady, Queen of Peace, pray for us.

And perhaps we could add a prayer to Fr. Ganni, who died as a courageous witness to his Faith, and ask for his intercession for peace in his homeland and for all persecuted Christians around the world.