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by Columbia staff

An interview with Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean Catholic priest from Iraq, about the future of the Church in his country

Iraqi Christians, who fled the violence in threatened areas

Iraqi Christians, who fled the violence in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains region after Islamic State militants overran the area, carry a wooden cross during a weekly prayer held at a refugee center in Erbil on March 4. (Photo by Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the past two years, Father Douglas Bazi, pastor of Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq, has sheltered hundreds of families displaced after fleeing attacks by militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh.

Born in Baghdad in 1972, Father Bazi is no stranger to religious persecution. In 2005, he survived two bomb attacks and was shot in the leg with an AK-47. The next year, he was kidnapped and tortured for nine days by Islamic extremists before the Chaldean Catholic community raised $80,000 as a ransom for his release. Because of the overwhelming danger, Father Bazi was reassigned to Kurdish-controlled Erbil in 2013.

In recent months, Father Bazi partnered with the Knights of Columbus to press Western nations, especially the United States, to recognize ISIS’ actions as genocide. On March 10, he spoke at the public release of the Knights’ extensive genocide report in Washington, D.C., and he also addressed the topic at a congress held at the United Nations in New York on April 28. In May, Father Bazi went on a month-long speaking tour throughout the country to raise awareness of the genocide.

Columbia recently spoke with Father Bazi about his ordeal as a captive, the suffering of his people and the future of religious freedom in his country.

COLUMBIA: A decade ago, you were kidnapped and tortured by Islamic extremists in Baghdad, where you served as a parish priest. Could you tell us what happened to you?

FATHER BAZI: It was just a normal Sunday. I celebrated Mass in my parish and then drove to visit a family. As soon as I got on the highway, two cars blocked me. One was full of armed men with masked faces, and they threw me in their trunk and drove off.

When I was taken out, one of them immediately hit me in the face with his knee and broke my nose. Covered in blood, I was then blindfolded and chained for the next nine horrible days in a utility room outside a house. For the first four days, they left me without water.

During the day, I was like a spiritual father to them. One asked about his marriage,“Father, how should I treat my wife?” I answered,“You have to respect her and tell her every day that you love her.”

At night, these same people would call me“infidel” and would beat me and torture me. In the morning, they would say they were sorry because they were being paid to do this.

On the sixth day, they told me,“Your people don’t want you anymore, so you are going to die.”

“For you, death means the end, but to us it is the beginning,” I replied.“So I don’t mind if you kill me, but I know that you are cowards and won’t do it.”

Then they got angry and hit me with their pistols. And they also put an empty pistol to my head a lot, pulling the trigger: “click, click, click.”

They used a hammer, too. They beat my shoulder and broke a disc in my back. One night I was hit with the hammer and found one of my teeth and blood in my mouth. They said, “Don’t worry, we have all night and you have many teeth.”

They also used bad words, and those were sometimes more powerful than the beatings. They cursed my family, my beliefs and the Church, trying to break my soul.

COLUMBIA: What role did your faith play during this time?

FATHER BAZI: When they chained me, I discovered that the chain had 10 rings. So I prayed the rosary with it, using the lock for the Our Father. I would finish and just start over again. I prayed hundreds and hundreds of rosaries.

That changed me a lot. We sometimes forget that more than anything else, prayer makes people strong. Even today, when I pray the Hail Mary, I say,“Holy Mary, Mother of God, I’m still alive.’

COLUMBIA: And it was because of your faith that you were taken away and tortured?

FATHER BAZI: was kidnapped just for one reason: because I was a Christian. This is the cost of being Christian.

Believe me, when any Christian child is born in my country, the mothers always say, “I want my child to grow and show his Christianity, and I hope and pray that he will not be killed.” Because we know that we could be killed any day.

COLUMBIA: Do you forgive your captors?

FATHER BAZI: One of them asked me, “If we meet again, what will you do? Because according to our Muslim tradition, one has a right to revenge within 40 years.”

I replied, “Look, maybe we’ll have lunch, or maybe we’ll drink chai together and talk about those days. If you have the blood of others on your hands you must go to court, but as for me, I will completely forgive you.”

As a Christian, I truly feel sorry for them, because they could not understand this. When we Christians are silent, it is not because we are weak, but because we believe in forgiveness.

COLUMBIA: Could you talk a bit about the history of the Chaldean Catholic Church and the persecution it has endured?

FATHER BAZI: We have been here since the first century. St. Thomas the Apostle proclaimed the Gospel here, and my church spread it to Asia. In India and China they still use our ancient liturgy today.

We were named the Chaldean Catholic Church after union with Rome, but we are also called the “Church of Martyrs” or “Church of Blood.” Though my country has a lot of oil, believe me we have much more martyrs’ blood than oil.

Nobody knows that 700,000 of my people were killed with the Armenians in 1915. No one talks about what happened to my people in 1933, 1956, 1961, 1970 and 2010.

So genocide is a polite word to use today, as if what happened to us in 2014 was just a one-time accident of history. I’m talking about systematic genocide that has gone on for centuries.

COLUMBIA: On March 17, the U.S. State Department declared that Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East face genocide at the hands of Daesh. Now that we’ve called this genocide, what do your people need next?

FATHER BAZI: The next step after saying the truth is to act. My people are looking for two solutions: one short-term, the other long-term.

First, my people want to live with dignity. After fleeing for their lives in 2014, they arrived with nothing. For almost two years now, they have been living in containers and tents. We must find places for them to live at least with dignity.

Second, we have to change the Iraqi Constitution. Why? Because though its first words talk about democracy, it next states that nothing can go against Sharia law and the Quran. It means Christians and other minorities are second-class citizens. What that says about democracy is: Forget it. How can people live if they are not equal under the law?

So the constitution needs to recognize that we are Iraqi citizens according to our equal human dignity.

COLUMBIA: What is the mood among refugees in your center today? Do your people have hope?

FATHER BAZI: My people are struggling. We were already disappointed when Iraq rejected us, making us feel like we don’t belong to Iraq. But as Christians we never thought that we would have to wait almost two years for Western counties to take action.

My people wake up with little hope, asking the same questions: “What am I going to do for work?” “Are my kids going to have an education?” They feel there is no future.

COLUMBIA: What would you say to those outside of Iraq about your people’s needs?

FATHER BAZI: I would first like to say, “Pray for my people, help my people, and save my people.”

Pray for my people, because through your prayers and support we know that we are not alone and forgotten. Prayer then moves from words to actions and love. Find out what they need, and help. For some, life is too hard and it’s better to leave. Let’s help them leave. For others, it’s better to stay. Let’s help them stay.

From the very beginning of this crisis, the Catholic Church has been a constant support. Without the Church, my people would not have survived. You can contact those who have been our partners from the start and know the situation on the ground, such as the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need and all the bishops’ conferences.

COLUMBIA: What is your message to the Knights of Columbus?

FATHER BAZI: My people will tell you simply: “All we need is a small house with dignity.” To the Knights, I say that when you build a house for my people, you give them a future with dignity and hope. To you, maybe it’s just help, but to us it’s life. My people will not forget the Knights of Columbus who have stood with us.

COLUMBIA: You have said that Christians are the key to reconciliation in Iraq. Can you tell us more about why forgiveness is so important?

FATHER BAZI: could count all the empires and governments that have attacked and persecuted Christians, but we still exist in Iraq, and they are gone. Why? Because we still forgive. Forgiveness allows the grace of God to transfer from generation to generation. It is the only way communities can sit down together and become brothers again.

One day, Daesh will be gone, and then the community will come together again. Yet people will begin to blame each other, “Who did that?” and “Why did that happen?” because it’s not easy to forgive. But without Christians, without this example of forgiveness, violence will continue.