A Chaldean Catholic priest who was kidnapped and tortured by Islamic militants a decade ago in Iraq said Tuesday in Washington that while the American invasion of his country in 2003 was a “big mistake,” President Obama’s decision to withdraw American troops in 2011 was “a bigger mistake.”
After Obama ignored his generals’ recommendations and pulled the last U.S. troops out of Iraq, the president boasted that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq… This is an extraordinary achievement, nearly nine years in the making.”
But Fr. Douglas Bazi, a priest at the Mar Elias Catholic Church in the Chaldean Diocese of Erbil, pointed out that the U.S. troop withdrawal was a catastrophe for the indigenous Christian population of Iraq, which numbered 2 million before 2003.
“Now there are less than 200,000,” he said.
Fr. Bazi ministers to 400 Christian families who were forced to flee to Kurdistan to escape genocide by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which took advantage of the power vacuum left by the U.S. troop withdrawal to take over large sections of Iraq.
“If you were able to talk to President Obama today, what would you tell him?” CNSNews.com asked Fr. Bazi.
“I know you are going to le[ave] the White House, so let my people remember you in a good way. You give [the] order when the soldier[s] pull out. That was big mistake, that one. I don’t blame you, of course, because your soldiers, they were [sent] there, that was really also a big mistake. But the bigger mistake is when they pull out.
“So if you want to save the Christian [people in Iraq], please open the doors and help the Christian[s] to stand there. Because all of my people there are just [saying] that America is just watching what’s happened to us.”
Fr. Bazi also said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent declaration that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims is a step in the right direction, but that words alone are not enough.
“America took the right first step in calling it genocide,” Fr. Bazi told a group of writers and reporters in Washington in response to a question about what the U.S. can do to help the victims of ISIS.
“The second step is to act, both short term and long term” to help the 11,000 displaced Christian families now living in 26 temporary “centers” in Erbil. The Catholic Church in Erbil is also taking care of 400 Yazidi and 120 Sunni Muslim families targeted for annihilation by ISIS, he said.
Two years ago, 125,000 Christians living in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, were forced to flee for their lives in just one day, he pointed out. “They are like you. They had houses, cars, jobs. Now they have nothing.”
Living in cramped quarters, unable to find work in Kurdistan, Fr. Bazi said that “my people cannot survive without donations of food and medicine.”
“People ask, , how is life there?” Fr. Bazi said. “There is no life there.”
The vast majority of aid has come from private groups such as the Knights of Columbus (KofC) and Aid to the Church in Need, not the United Nations or the U.S. government, he said. In the past 18 months, Fr. Bazi told CNSNews that he saw a UN shipment of food “once”.
In contrast, KofC has raised over $10.5 million for food, clothing, shelter and medical aid for the displaced Christians. “A lot of it has gone to Erbil, which is ground zero for the refugee situation,” KofC vice president Andrew Walther said.
Iraqi Christians who were internally displaced when ISIS began its genocidal assault on religious minority groups do not qualify as refugees under international law.
Forced from their homes, they remain in emergency “centers” in Kurdistan, Turkey, and Lebanon, where they face an uncertain future. In January, Slovakia accepted 149 displaced Iraqi Christians, part of private efforts to resettle them.
But thousands more still need to find a safe, permanent place to live – inside or outside Iraq, Fr. Bazi said.
“After 18 months, the 400 people in my church, no one is talking about going home. As a church, our job is to help people find the right path for them,” he said, if that means staying in Kurdistan, emigrating to another country, or returning to Iraq when ISIS is eventually defeated.
“My people are starting to lose hope. My people are starting to feel they do not belong to Iraq. And no one from the outside world is telling us welcome.”
Despite their suffering, Iraqi Christians’ faith is strong, and they do not blame God for their plight, Fr. Bazi told CNSNews.
“After 2,000 years of Christianity lived under persecution, so we are just transferring the stories from [one] generation to [an]other how God saved us, you know, from the persecution of the last period…So what happened two years ago, what happened to the Mosul people, they were not blaming God. They were saying, thanks God, because you saved us from the Islamic State. We were able to escape before they got us. So my people, no one actually blames God for what’s happened. No one. No one is angry at God. They are always say[ing], Thanks God, for always saving us.”
However, Iraqi Christians do blame the United States for leaving them virtually defenseless after the 2011 troop withdrawal.
“My people blame America for what has happened. [Declaring] genocide was the first time the Americans said we care. But caring means more than words. It means taking action for my people, now, because I’m afraid if America does not take action, there will be no more Christians left” in Iraq.
“The last message we got two weeks ago was that they had blown up the Dominican church in Mosul. The sheikh said we blew up that church as a message to Christians not to return to the city.”
Although there has been a Christian presence in Iraq for 2,000 years, Christians there have often been the target of persecution. The Armenian Genocide of 1915 also claimed the lives of 700,000 Chaldeans.
“In the last 100 years, my people have been attacked eight times. Nobody knows,” Fr. Bazi said.
“As Christians in Iraq, we are always between two fires,” he explained. “We are just trying to choose between bad and worse. This is the cost to be a Christian in Iraq. We know this as priests, as Christians. We are used to persecution. They tell us about it in the seminary. Who am I to complain?
Even under Saddam Hussein, Christians’ official identification cards identified them as “non-Muslim” and they were forbidden to give their children Christian names at birth. “It had to be a Muslim or Arabic name.”
Fr. Bazi called the Iraqi Constitution, which was ratified in 2005 while the country was still under U.S. occupation, “part two of the Koran” because it forbids any laws that are in conflict with Sharia, making Christians and other religious minorities “not equal, but second- or third-class citizens”.
“We were happy when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. We looked forward to a new Iraq,” he said. But their hopes were dashed in August 2004 when the first Christian church in Baghdad was attacked. Christians could not understand why they were a target in the growing sectarian battle between Sunni and Shia Muslims, he said.
“In 2004, after the attack on the first church in Baghdad, suddenly after that our churches are full of people, even people who were not used to come to church,” Fr. Bazi recalled. Soon afterwards, Muslim groups started targeting members of the clergy.
In 2006, Fr. Bazi’s church was hit with rocket fire while he was saying Mass and he was shot in the legs with an AK-47. “After that, I went to visit some friends, and I found myself in the trunk of my car. The people who kidnapped me were completely masked, and I had no idea where they took me. One of them told me: ‘If you open your eyes, we will put a bullet in your head’.”
One of the captors broke the priest’s nose with his knee.
When Fr. Bazi asked them why he had been kidnapped, they told him: “‘It’s not personal. We have your name on a list and how much money they [the church] are going to give us…. We use police cars and ambulances… and are known at all the checkpoints. Just imagine who we are’.”
When the kidnappers told him they were going to demand $1 million for his release, “I started laughing,” the priest recalled. “I told them, when you kidnap the prime minister, you can ask for $1 million. Don’t ask for $1 million for a priest.”
Using four cell phones so that the number could not be traced, the kidnappers called a fellow priest who asked Fr. Bazi the date of his ordination to verify his identity. Ordered to speak in Arabic, Bazi slipped in the Aramaic word for “that’s it,” believing he was not going to make it out alive.
“We don’t want him,” his fellow priest told the kidnappers. “We are going to consider him one of our martyrs.”
Then began nine days of torture during which Fr. Bazi was denied water for four days and suffered a broken tooth and a ruptured disc after he was hit in the face and back with a hammer. His kidnappers also held an unloaded pistol to his head and repeatedly pulled the trigger.
“I saw Islamic hospitality - in a bad way,” he said. “During the night, they tortured me a lot….They called me ‘infidel’, ‘dirty man’, ‘American spy’.”
“During the day, I was the spiritual father. They would ask me many questions, such as ‘What do I do with my wife, she is always demanding?’ I would tell them, ‘You have to show how much you love her. Wives like that.’ During the day, I would advise them. At night, they hit me.”
During his ordeal, Fr. Bazi said he used 10 links of the chain around his wrists to pray the Rosary. He also defied his captors, telling them: “I know Islam better than you.”
After the church paid an undisclosed ransom, the priest was dressed in women’s clothing, smuggled through the checkpoints and finally released in Baghdad. He made his way to a Catholic church, where his fellow priests embraced him. “That time I started crying,” he recalls.
He moved to Erbil in 2013. “There is no such thing as moderate Islam...ISIS represents Islam one hundred percent,” he reportedly said in 2015.
“I am a lucky guy,” he says now. “I have a chance to talk about what happened to me.”