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Kidnapped by ISIS, priest in Iraq recounts story of facing fear with faith

Archbishop Mazen Mattuka with Father Pius Affas at the Monastery of St. Banham and Sarah in Iraq. / Source: Facebook page of the Monastery of St. Banham and Sarah

Mosul, Iraq, Apr 14, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

The plight of Mosul’s Christian community has largely gone unnoticed for two decades. Since the city fell under the control of ISIS (also referred to as ISIL) in 2014, it has been a staging ground for bombings of churches. Armed groups have killed, blackmailed, and abducted numerous Christians there — both clergy and laypeople — since 2003.

Syriac Catholic priest Chorbishop Mazen Mattuka — along with Father Pius Affas (who at the time was pastor of Mar Thoma Syriac Catholic Church in Mosul and is now retired) — endured a nine-day abduction ordeal in 2007.

In Mattuka’s first press interview since being appointed superior of the historic Monastery of St. Banham and Sarah in Qaraqosh near Mosul in October 2023, he opened up to ACI Mena, CNA’s Arabic-language news partner, about his kidnapping. 

The kidnapping

“I had just been ordained a priest on Sept. 1, 2007, when I was assigned to serve at the Syriac Catholic Church of St. Thomas on the eastern coast of Mosul,” Mattuka recounted. “On the 40th day of my priesthood, Oct. 13, armed men ambushed Father Affas and me as we were leaving a condolence visit, heading to the Church of Our Lady of Fatima for me to celebrate my first Mass on her feast day.”

Describing the initial moments after his abduction as “a true testimony,” Mattuka explained, “every consecrated individual in Mosul knew at that time that they were subject to abduction and martyrdom. As a priest, I was persuaded that my fate would be similar to that of the two martyrs of Mosul — Father Raghid Kenni (2007) and Father Alexander (2006).”

“Our clothes and manner of responding during the interrogation revealed our identities to the abductors,” he continued. “We thanked God because all they wanted was a ransom; they didn’t plan to kill us. We were blindfolded in our makeshift prison.”

Mattuka said the first night was the most difficult. “I spent it in prayer and supplication: ‘Oh Lord, I am in deep sorrow because I did not have the opportunity to serve you for long. However, I am ready for martyrdom.’”

Prayer was the priests’ daily sustenance, Mattuka said. “We felt the Holy Spirit’s presence. We were at peace during our prayers. This gave me the wisdom to converse with our captors. The Holy Spirit guided my responses to convince them.”

He said the abductors were astonished to see him pray, bowing to the ground. He told them: “This is how Eastern Christians pray. Our Churches pioneered this posture of prayer that we’ve maintained for centuries.” He explained that “under the threat of death, the demand to renounce our faith never ceased. Our captors were surprised that we still rang the bells and celebrated Mass.”

After their release, Mattuka and Affas found no more sincere expression of joy and gratitude than ringing those same bells and celebrating Mass to give thanks. Masses of thanksgiving were held in many churches.

“We celebrated the holy Eucharist at the Church of St. Paul with Bishop Boulos Faraj Rahho, who later was martyred,” Mattuka said.

Mattuka said he felt pride in participating in World Youth Day with Pope Francis in Portugal last August, finally fulfilling his vow to thank Our Lady of Fatima, who watched over him after he was abducted on her feast. Many at her shrine had prayed for his safe return, as they told him, and their prayers were answered.

Remember your creator

Made a “Chorbishop” in December 2023 — a promotion given to a priest in Eastern Catholic Churches (though a lower rank than a bishop) — Mattuka spoke of his gratitude for serving in the church of his forefathers in Iraq. He said the words of believers never fail to warm his heart: “You seem more active and optimistic after the abduction. You give us hope by saying, ‘Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’” 

During his captivity, Mattuka said he lost the only vestment he owned since ordination. Nevertheless, he found himself reborn. 

“God granted me a new life, allowing me to serve in his vineyard,” he said. “Therefore, I lived my priestly maxim to the fullest: ‘Fear not, for I am with you.’”

This story was first published by ACI Mena, CNA’s Arabic-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

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St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. / Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Apr 13, 2024 / 14:41 pm (CNA).

The Holy See on Saturday confirmed that it had sent a diplomatic letter to the French embassy over a French court ruling involving a Canadian cardinal’s alleged wrongful dismissal of a nun.

A French court in Lorient, in Brittany, earlier this month had fined Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, along with several other parties, for the October 2020 wrongful dismissal of Sabine Baudin de la Valette, whose religious name was Mother Marie Ferréol.

Baudin de la Valette, 57, had reportedly lived in the French monastery since 1987 without any significant incidents, but in 2011 she denounced “serious abuses and facts” happening in the community. 

She was dismissed from the community after a visit from Ouellet. It was never made public what exactly the Vatican accused her of, though the former sister reportedly said the dismissal decree “accused her of having an evil spirit but gave no concrete reasons.”

On Saturday, meanwhile, Vatican News reported that Director of the Holy See Press Office Matteo Bruni confirmed to reporters the Vatican Secretariat of State’s transmission of a “Note Verbal,” or a diplomatic message, to the Embassy of France to the Holy See.

The letter addressed the “alleged decision of the Tribunal of Lorient in France in a civil dispute concerning the dismissal from a religious Institute of Ms. Sabine de la Valette (formerly Sister Marie Ferréol),” Bruni told reporters. 

“A potential ruling from the Lorient Tribunal,” Bruni told journalists, “could raise not only significant issues concerning immunity, but if it ruled on internal discipline and membership in a religious institute, it might have constituted a serious violation of the fundamental rights to religious freedom and freedom of association of Catholic faithful.”

Ouellet, who previously served as prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, “never received any summons from the Lorient Tribunal,” Bruni said. 

The Vatican learned of the tribunal’s decision “only from the press,” Bruni said on Saturday. 

The court also accused the religious community, among other things, of not correctly following the dismissal procedure. There was no prior warning and no reason for the dismissal from the community.

In addition, the court said, the community breached its duty of care when dismissing Baudin de la Valette, who was not offered any financial compensation that would have enabled her to “enjoy appropriate civil living conditions after 34 years of religious life and service to her community in the spirit of justice and charity as set out in canon law.”