Fr. Douglas Bazi is a Chaldean Catholic priest in his native Iraq, where he served as pastor of a parish in Baghdad during the American-led invasion. He suffered several acts of violence during the unrest that followed, including a kidnapping by Shiite militiamen who held and tortured him for nine days. Currently, he ministers to Iraqi Christians who have fled regions controlled by ISIS.
On a recent trip to America, where he sought charitable support for his work with displaced Christians, he was interviewed by Jonathan Coppage. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
What has it been like to pastor in Baghdad since 1998?
Fr. Douglas Bazi
The war started in 2003. My church was a shelter for around one hundred people. The people just came to sleep at the church during the night, but during the day they would go to their homes. The problems with Islamist violence started after. It was in the beginning of 2004, 2005. Early in 2006, they blew up my church in front of me. I survived.
Another time, I was celebrating Mass. Normal Sunday. We sing all the Mass. I was singing Mass, and I realized … I know that noise. The noise of rockets. It’s a small noise. Rocket. I just hear that rocket, that noise. It’s really close, all the windows and doors were shaking. The second one comes. The people there were just scared. They were just saying, “Oh Mary, oh Jesus. Mary, Jesus.” I made my voice louder. I was singing normally, but I made my voice louder. I heard the third one and that one was louder. By the fourth one I was shouting. I was not praying. Of course, two people near the church were killed. They were attacking the church but it missed the church.
Another time, I’m just standing at the front gate and the militia were passing. They opened fire. They shot me, they hit the door, the wall, the church wall. I thought, Are you serious? Why are they doing that? Just after a couple seconds I realized that I had been shot.
Another time, I was kidnapped by the militia. It was after the Sunday Mass, when I was going to visit friends and I was by myself. They put me in my car trunk. I don’t know why they took me.
When we arrived where they held their captives, they told me, “We are giving you a blindfold and you have to tie it on your eyes. If you open your eyes, we will shoot you. We will put a bullet in your head.” One of them had hit me with his knee, in my face. When I woke, I realized that it was blood on my face. They took me inside the house and they were going, “Think you got him? Did you bring him? The infidel?” They brought chains. They tied my hands. I spent nine days in this situation. Tied. Blind.
During the day, I was a spiritual father to my captors. They used to ask me for advice. One of them was always asking me about his wife. She’s always demanding. At that point, I was still like, “Okay, well show her you care, text her, tell her things like good morning. From time to time take care to message.” The same people, during the night, they called me “infidel” and they beat me and they tortured me.
Did you have prayers that you were relying on?
My prayer was on the chain itself. How much I hated that chain, because they tied me. I used to pray by that chain, pray the rosary. With much praying I became calm. I really became stronger, sometimes I was aggressive with them. When they asked me questions, sometimes I was laughing, I asked them, “What kind of stupid question was that?” Sometimes I felt that they were captured by me, I was not captured by them.
But after six days they started negotiating. After six days, they let me talk with another priest who was a captive, in Arabic. They said, “Don’t talk in your language,” Aramaic. I was able to pass on one word to him in Aramaic. I told him, “’ela,” which means, “that's it” or “it’s over.” He understood, because at that time, every day they were torturing me in the night.
They used to ask me all these questions about politics. Also about religion. For example, “What is the relationship between church and America, America and the church?” As a Catholic priest, of course I don’t have that information. They beat me a lot and they tortured me a lot. The priest understood me, and he told me after, “We were sure they were not going to release you.”
One day, they used a hammer. They brought me to the clean room, the bathroom. They turned on the Islamic channel named al-Quran. That one was just for Quran, twenty-four-seven. They turned up the volume, for two reasons. If I’m going to shout, no one will hear my voice. Also to show the neighbors how spiritual, what believers they are, because they are set to Quran, twenty-four-seven. Of course they stopped that because I never shouted. They used cigars, bad words, beatings. One of them said, “Bring the hammer.” Suddenly I felt something hit me in my face, my mouth. They found one of my teeth inside.
I spat a lot of blood. One of them said, “Don’t worry. You have a lot of teeth and we have all the night.” They began again and again, on my shoulder, and they broke one of the discs in my back. After nine days there, they released me when the church paid.
After all that, how did your experience affect your understanding of the Church’s martyrs?
One important thing to understand is the life there in Iraq. For Christians, we know what it is to live among others. This is not the first time. We grow up with persecution. So if you look to our history, I’m not talking about a couple hundred years ago, I’m talking even today, just yesterday. For priests, when they ordain us, we know that we are not going to die normally. We know that we are going to be killed.
Usually in Baghdad, we keep our last wills with each other. I gave mine to this priest, he kept my last will. Because we have no idea what is going to happen. It is normal to us. This has changed me positively. We have to prove ourselves. We cannot just live with giving the excuse that, okay, it’s a terrible time. No. We are unique, we have to be unique.
I’m always telling people, “If you want to complain about your life, just leave. If you want to stay, you have to be quiet and accept the reality.” I’m not saying that I am a hero. The hero is here. My people are heroes and they deserve to be able to stay and to serve there.
Fr. Bazi moved north to his hometown, Erbil, shortly before the rise of ISIS. At his parish in Erbil, Fr. Bazi has established a “center”—he dislikes the word “camp”—for displaced Christians from nearby Mosul, which was captured by ISIS insurgents in June of 2014.
When did you leave Baghdad?
It was July 2013. I moved from Baghdad to Erbil, in Kurdistan, as an agreement with the bishop. I found that when the people came from Mosul, my church became a shelter, became a center. Since August of 2014, there have been people living in my center. Now we have four hundred people.
What were people coming to you with, what was on their mind?
The people were not ready. They had to leave Mosul in a couple hours. I remember in the first days, people were completely lost. Completely confused. I saw with my eyes not the nightmares of people, but the daymares of people. Especially kids. They were just crying. They were just shouting, but they didn’t know why. I saw the parents, they were angry, they were shouting at the kids but they didn’t know why. Just in my town, in one night, we received 75,000 people. We were not ready.
They were among 125,000 people fleeing Mosul, but the other 50,000, they went to another city. I’m talking about four dioceses disappearing in Mosul in one day. Four dioceses. Our diocese—we are doing everything. Humanitarian aid, shelter, medicine, food.
One of the good things I find with our people is that no one actually blames God for what has happened. No one is saying, “It is because of God.” What happened to them is by men, not by God. Day by day they realize, they’re always saying, “God, we lost our home. God, we lost, but thank you. You saved us. Thank you for saving us.”
What do you need, from Christians elsewhere?
When I talk with a Christian, I’m always saying, “Look, I’m not here begging for help. Because this is your duty. We are the same body. If one part of the body gets hurt, the whole body gets hurt. We belong to each other.” My people, we need hope, we need a future. I put this in three words: Pray for us, help us, and save us.
My people, we are full of dignity. When you offer help, we look to your face. Because it's important to us to say, “When I was in need, you helped me, so I don’t want to forget your face.” We never forget who stood with us. We are going to forget and forgive who persecuted us, who abandoned us. Those we are going to forget, but we are not going to forget who stands with us.
First, we have to work on the case of genocide, because what happened to us at the hands of ISIS is very much genocide. Second, if people want to stay in Iraq, let’s help them to stay in Iraq. I want to thank those who are starting to help, such as the Knights of Columbus. We are trying to build at least a small house for people, because still people are living in containers, sharing the same restroom, the same showers. Imagine four hundred people, they are sharing seven showers. Help people to stay.
If people want to leave, let’s help them to leave. For example, in the United States, they receive a couple hundred refugees from Syria and among those couple hundred was just one Yazidi, one Christian. My people inside Iraq are called I.D.P.s, “internally displaced peoples.” They are not “refugees.” Why? Because they are in their own country. If they were outside, they could look nice for the U.N. Because my people are I.D.P.s, they are not recognized by the U.N. Who is actually helping us? Of course the Catholic Church has a big heart, as always.
There is private help, from the Knights of Columbus and A.C.N. (Aid to the Church in Need). We have a program named HelpIraq.org. Also Caritas. If they cannot fund us, if they cannot help us, believe me, my people will die. They will die.
What did it mean to you, when John Kerry officially recognized the genocide taking place?
In my church, in my center, the kids sent an appreciative video message to United States, the State Department, and in that video we say thank you because without recognizing it as a genocide, we would be giving a green light to attack my people again and again. Of course I appreciate it, and that declaration as genocide is a first right step. From a word to an action.
Short-term, we are talking about daily life. People have to move from those containers. After eighteen months, my people are still living in the same situation. Just imagine if you were eating the same food, the same color, the same. Eighteen months. You will go crazy.
For the long term, we have yet to discuss, for example, doing something about human rights and freedom of religion. The constitution of Iraq should be changed, so as not to be based on sharia. Why do I have to be a second- or third-class citizen in my country?
For the long term also, we have to build a community. Yes. For permanent residents, they need schools, to find jobs. Give us houses, dignity with shelter, hospitals with healthcare, and we can actually survive. That’s what we are looking for.
How do you see these areas, these groups, evolving going forward? Existing as concentrated communities of Christians, or will you eventually go back and see this as fifty years of a horrible aberration?
My last parish in Baghdad was for 2,600 families. When I left, we were just a couple hundred. In Erbil, I believe it's going to be the last stand of Christians in Iraq. Can the Christians be integrated? I can’t tell. After a couple of months, we were able to find jobs for the people in my center. We were able as a diocese to build four schools, one Catholic university, two clinics, one aid clinic, and one trauma healing center. We are going to open a hospital in the future, maybe in June or maybe July. It’s going to open.
So we can build. It’s easy to build villages and cities, but it’s hard to build people. My people don’t want to go back again to Mosul. I’m not saying that Erbil is promising us that we can stay. But we can make any land work.
Is there anything that we missed that you wanted to talk about?
I would just say again, my people, they need help and they need your voice here in the United States. There are many people that say, “How we can help?” I’d say this is the last chance to help us. Go to HelpIraq.org. To the Knights of Columbus. Your brothers and sisters, they really need help. Thank you very much.
Jonathan Coppage is senior staff editor at The American Conservative.