For the repose of the soul of the hand maid of God, Cecelia.On August 15, 2002 three armed assailants entered the Sacred Heart of Jesus Monastery in Baghdad Iraq and found a solitary Assyrian nun preparing to quietly retire to her room. Seventy-one year old Sister Cecilia Moshi Hanna was brutally attacked by the dagger wielding assailants and repeatedly stabbed to death. Sr. Cecilia’s neck was slit and her head severed from her body.
According to an August 24 press release by an Iraqi-based women’s organization, the Assyrian Women’s Union, Sr. Cecilia had belonged to the Order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and had devoted her life to ministering to the poor and ill. Earlier on the evening of the attack, Sr. Cecilia had been at her family home in Baghdad until 9 p.m. Sr. Cecilia’s family had suggested that she stay at the family home rather than venture out into the night. However, Sr. Cecilia insisted on returning to the convent so as not to leave it unattended. Ordinarily, three nuns would have resided in the convent, but on that night none of the others were present.
It is widely believed that the three assailants had broken into the convent with the intention of murdering all three nuns normally living there. When only Sr. Cecilia was found, all three attackers apparently turned their assault upon the defenseless seventy-one year old woman. Sr. Cecilia succumbed to the flurry of knife stabbings, alone, in her room. On the following day, normally a special day of retreat for nuns throughout Iraq, Sr. Cecilia’s fellow nuns gathered for their annual event. Noting Sr. Cecilia’s atypical absence, the nuns searched only to discover Sr. Cecilia’s blood soaked and beheaded corpse lying in her room.
The very nature of the slitting and beheading is believed to be a prototypical signature of Islamic extremist putting of “infidels” to the sword. By killing Sr. Cecilia the day before a nationwide Christian spiritual retreat, the killers apparently hoped to maximally terrorize and horrify the Iraqi Christian community.
The murder of Sr. Cecilia is only the most recent in a series of Islamist attacks against Assyrian Christian civilians1, places of worship, and clergy. In the northern UN “Safe Haven,” attacks against Assyrian Christian villages (AINA, 10-16-1999), leaders (AINA, 02-19-2001, 08-19-1997) as well as Christmas-time bombings of convents (AINA, 12-25-1999) have been previously reported. In the government controlled area, widespread harassment of Christians as a backlash against US military threats against Iraq has been reported by visitors from the region. Assyrian Christians are often conveniently associated with their co-religionists in the West as enemies of Iraq. The Iraqi government has done nothing to quell the rising anti-Christian sentiment in Iraq. In fact, some have suggested complicity in fomenting Islamic fury by the regime as evidenced by the stricter enforcement of regulations on Christian religious institutions as well as the recent banning of certain Christian names.
Suspicion has been growing on Iraqi complicity in Sr. Cecilia’s murder as well since no official outcry or condemnation has been seen from the government, even following an unusually strongly worded letter by the Chaldean Patriarch Mar Raphael BeDaweed I, wherein he stated “I condemn strongly this criminal and inhumane act on one of our Chaldean nuns in Baghdad, and demand from the officials to work seriously in tracking down and punishing those criminal thugs…”. The government reportedly has one assailant in custody, but has made no further investigation or public statement of support for the Assyrian Christian community. One observer noted that the government’s motivation may have been to warn the West of the threat facing Christians in Iraq by Islamists in the event war was perpetrated upon Iraq. Referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the same observer also noted, though, that “such scheming would only be sensical in the insanely convoluted musings of a madman.”
Sr. Cecilia’s own family history is concurrently a testament of a family’s sacrifice and hardship as well as a metaphor for the Assyrian community’s grim history of persecution and displacement within Iraq and the region as a whole. Sr. Cecilia was born in Aradin in the historically Assyrian heartland of northern Iraq. During the Kurdish tribal insurrection of the 1960’s, Aradin as well as dozens of Assyrian villages caught in the crossfire between Iraqi governmental and Kurdish rebel gunfire were severely devastated. Sr. Cecilia’s family as well as thousands of others were forced to move to Mosul (ancient Nineveh). The family later moved to Baghdad where Sr. Cecilia continued to serve the Chaldean Church community.
The tragic irony in the murder of Sr. Cecilia remains, though, her service to the Christian communities in the parishes of St. Shmooni and St. Sultamahdukh in Iraq. St. Shmooni along with her seven children and St. Sultamahdukh were themselves martyrs of the Church of the East. Cecilia sadly continues in the seemingly endless line of holy woman martyrs in the Church of the East. The martyred and beloved Sr. Cecilia will herself likewise be remembered for her tireless and unending dedication to the service of all humanity in the name of Jesus Christ.
1 Click here for information on the persecution of Assyrians: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. See also the following human rights reports: AINA Report on Assyrian Human Rights, Amnesty International report on Assyrian Human Rights.