A decade has gone by since the Rev. Douglas al-Bazi was kidnapped and had his teeth knocked out by Islamic jihadis in Baghdad, a nightmare that still haunts the Chaldean Catholic priest and one that fuels his quest to have the horror endured by his fellow Iraqi Christians be recognized for what it is: “genocide.”
“I am here to tell the world, ‘Do you realize what is happening or not? Are you going to help or not?’” Father al-Bazi said in Washington this week.
His visit is aimed at highlighting the resistance by the Obama administration to officially recognize that an organized genocide targeting ancient Christian communities is underway in Iraq and Syria.
By some estimates, there were as many as 2 million Christians of various denominations in Iraq in 2003. Today, there are fewer than 300,000, said Father al-Bazi, who fled Baghdad three years ago for the Kurdish city of Irbil, where tens of thousands of displaced Christians are living in 17 makeshift refugee camps.
“My ex-parish in Baghdad was 2,600 families. When I left, we were less than 300 families,” said the 43-year-old priest, who tried for years to hold the parish together after surviving the kidnapping in 2006. “I know [their] pain. So I don’t blame people when they decide to leave.”
He spoke in a quiet, humble tone during an interview with The Washington Times that the Knights of Columbus — the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization — arranged ahead of its release Thursday of a searing survey on the treatment of Christians in Iraq.The report outlines how 1,100 Christians have been killed in the nation since 2003, while hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring states as their churches and homes were targeted, first by al Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite militia groups and more recently by the Islamic State.
The report also lays out an explicit legal argument for why U.S. officials should declare that Christians in Iraq and Syria are the victims of a genocide perpetrated by the terrorist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL. “The scope of the report is this is clearly genocide and must be called such,” said Andrew T. Walther, vice president of communications and strategic planning for the Knights of Columbus.
Pope Francis and some presidential candidates, including Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, have already called what is happening to Christians and other minorities in the Middle East a genocide.March 17 deadline
U.S. administrations have long been reluctant to adopt the genocide tag, which brings with it formal obligations under international law and, in some cases, can make a negotiated settlement to an international crisis harder to achieve.
When pressed in early February on why the Obama administration has steered away from using the word in relation to Christians in the Middle East, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “My understanding is that the use of that specific term has legal ramifications, and so there are lawyers that are considering whether or not that term can be properly applied in this scenario.”
Still, the European Union parliament last month approved a resolution declaring the Islamic State’s campaign against Christian and other religious minorities a genocide, and lawmakers from both parties in Washington are pressuring Mr. Obama to follow suit.
Lawmakers quietly included a provision in the omnibus spending bill passed late last year to force Secretary of State John F. Kerry to publicly declare by March 17 whether a genocide has occurred.
The House Committee on Foreign Affairs last week unanimously approved a resolution declaring that the Islamic State has committed genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East.
Debate on the matter has swirled since June 2014, when the Islamic State surprised the world by capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul, a move that resulted in the rapid expulsion of some 60,000 Christians.
Mr. Kerry weighed in two months later, after the Islamic State surrounded tens of thousands of Yazidis, an ethno-religious group whose Persian-influenced traditions pre-date Islam, on nearby Mount Sinjar.
“ISIL’s campaign of terror against the innocent, including Yazidi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide,” the secretary of state said at the time. “For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it.”
Merriam-Webster’s defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.”
While there have been instances and arguments over genocide throughout history, the most cited example was the persecution and killing of millions of Jews by the Nazis from 1941 to 1945.
A report published in December with the backing of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum stopped short of calling the Islamic State’s treatment of Christians a genocide.
The report concluded that the terrorist group had “committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing against” Christians and others. But it also concluded that the Islamic State had perpetrated genocide only against the Yazidis.
Pro-Christian groups like the Knights of Columbus are outraged at the Obama administration’s reluctance to embrace the “genocide” label.
“The question really is, does the State Department want to stand alone on the world stage as a genocide denier?” said the Knights of Columbus’ Mr. Walther. “Is that the legacy that it’s looking for?
“By naming this what it is, it focuses world attention and has the impact of putting people on notice that the moral authority of the United States insists that what you are doing is the ultimate crime,” he said. “The United States has an opportunity, having not done so in Rwanda, having a poor record with respect to those fleeing the Holocaust, having had a really checkered past on the issue of genocide — we have the opportunity to get it right while it’s happening, while there’s still time to do something about it.”
But time is running out, Father al-Bazi said.
“When we talk about genocide, it is systematic. We’re going to disappear within five years,” he said. “We believe America has a big role to play in recognizing it first as a genocide and then to take action. The time of words is past.
“In the short term now, what’s needed is to do something to stabilize the people who are left,” the priest said, adding that Washington should then push Arab governments across the Middle East to change their constitutions to recognize “Christians as equals.”
“We are not looking for revenge. We forgive,” he said.
He noted that, as a citizen of Iraq, he has lived his whole life “during a time of war.”
“I was in primary school when the war started with Iran,” the priest said. “When I was in secondary school, the war started with Kuwait. After that, 13 years of blockade and embargo and then the war of 2003.
“I was one of the ones who was looking forward to having a new Iraq, with democracy,” he said. “But I can tell you now that it was a mistake to get in and a bigger mistake when they pulled out.
“My people are suffering,” the priest said. “Considering what my people have gone through, I guess I am the lucky one. I am still alive.”