“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”


Margaret Hassan (Fitzsimons)
Margaret Hassan (Fitzsimons)

Around about this time twelve years ago, you may just remember, the whole country was talking about Margaret Hassan, a middle aged woman from Dublin who worked most of her life as an aid worker in Iraq and, that winter, was tortured and killed on television. Her horrific death brought her fifteen minutes of fame and subsequent oblivion. I want to briefly to remind you of the story of her life, because I believe it is the best expression I know in action of the words of this Gospel.

She was born Margaret Fitzsimons in Dublin.
When she was a teenager, her family moved to England and settled in London.
She didn’t do well at school, left early and became a youth and community worker. She also worked with the Catholic Youth Service Council. It was through doing this work that she met her future husband Tahsum Ali Hassan when he was studying in London. At the end of his period of study, they married in a Catholic Church and moved back to Iraq.

There, she worked first for the British Council, teaching English. In 1992, she began working for Care International, co-ordinating the supply of water, food, blankets and schooling to Iraqi communities devastated by violence and sanctions after the first Gulf War. And she was promoted to be Care International’s country director.

Busy as she was, she still found time every Sunday to attend a Catholic church in Baghdad. In November 2003, during the war, Care International evacuated all their expatriate staff from Iraq. Margaret Hassan chose to remain with her husband, her family and her adopted people. She was a well known and well-loved figure on the streets of Baghdad. On October 19th, 2004, she was kidnapped, tortured and subsequently killed – all displayed on video for the political purposes of her killers.

It is not known when exactly she was killed, or where she now lies. Her body has never been found and given a Christian burial.
Our then Cardinal Cormac, who was in constant contact with her family in London throughout her final days described her as a “martyr for goodness, truth and hope”.

I think he was absolutely right. She was a martyr – not just in the modern sense that she died for her Faith – but also in a more ancient sense – that she witnessed to the Faith in her life of service. Long before she was ever kidnapped and murdered, she had given her life for the people of Iraq.

In the ancient Catholic tradition, martyrs are not just people who witness to Christ in their deaths, but more in their lives. Unlike suicide bombers and other so-called modern martyrs, she did not seek death – neither for herself and certainly not for anyone else. She was no fanatic. She felt the pain of her torture and the fear of her impending death. Anyone who watched her on her killers’ videos could know her fear and suffering. But her death was a part of her life – as a true servant of Christ the King. In her death, she gave witness of her faith in Christ, but throughout her life she gave witness to the Presence of Christ in the World. For us, her life is an example of what it is to live as God’s person, God’s Presence, in the World.

Let us pray that we too may give our lives to the best service of Christ our King, whatever it may cost us. And let us stand and profess our Faith in the only King who is worthy of our lives.

Paul O'Reilly SJ