Newly-arrived Chaldean Catholic priest Fr Douglas Al-Bazi still feels a little guilty for leaving Iraq for New Zealand.
There is so much work to do in his parish church, Mar-Elia, in Erbil, northern Iraq with so many people to take care of.
“When ISIS attacked Mosul (in 2014), we received overnight people from four dioceses. Four dioceses were destroyed in Mosul,” Fr Al-Bazi said.
“My day is about taking care of 11,000 families, over 75,000 people individuals. Till now, it’s two years, we (the Catholic Church and organisations) are providing everything,” he added.
Born and ordained in Baghdad, Fr Al-Bazi has seen and experienced it all.
“We were 1.7 million Christians in Iraq. Now, we are less than 200,000. After 2003 and the invasion of Americans in my country, a lot of things changed,” he said.
A sectarian war was marked by extreme violence between two Muslim groups: the Shias and the Sunnis. The Christians were caught in the middle.
“They started attacking and targeting Christian churches and clergy. They blew up my church in front of me. Twice, I survived explosions close to my car. And I got shot by AK-47. After that, I had been kidnapped for nine days,” Fr Al-Bazi said, matter-of-factly.
That happened in 2006.
“They were not called ISIS then,” he said. For years, he never talked about his experiences at the hands of his captors.
“I was silent for many, many years. I started talking about my story when the Islamic State destroyed Mosul and when they forced my people to leave,” he said.
Up to now, Fr Al-Bazi said, he is still traumatised by the experience.
The new parish priest of St Addai Chaldean Catholic Church, Papatoetoe first came to New Zealand in July and stayed at his sister’s home, and she left a bottle of water at his bedside table. That made him smile.
“I never go to my bed without making sure there is a bottle of water. Why? Because when I was kidnapped, they left me without water for four days,” he said.
He still has nightmares as well as “day-mares”.
“When I hear the Quran,” he said, shaking his head softly, ”I remember when they were torturing me, beating me as they read the Quran aloud. I may hear someone loading the gun, loading pistol and put it in my head. I hear click, click, click.”
“They were really tough. They used the hammer (on me). They broke my teeth, my nose and they broke also one of my back discs,” he recalled.
He kept calm by praying the rosary. He noticed that between his chained hands, there were ten chain links hanging. He used this to pray Hail Mary’s.
On the wall of the room in which he was kept, the priest also used the chain links to mark the days he was held captive.
He was released after the Church paid a ransom. He remained in Baghdad until 2013 when he was moved to Erbil.
Blood of martyrs
These days, he tells people not to stop with his story but to look further to the story of his people.
“In Baghdad, we’ve been obliged to write our last will because we never know when we go out from the church if we are coming back,” he said.
It is not tragic, he said, it is just life. Bishops and priests, close friends and former students have been persecuted for their faith.
“This is the cost of being a Christian in Iraq,” he said.
Christianity, he said, was preached in Iraq in the first century. Their history has been one of persecution.
“The blood of our Christian martyrs in Iraq believe me, is more than the oil in Iraq. But no one cares about our martyrs’ blood. They care more about the oil. So, my church has experienced how to survive,” he said.
When babies are born, they pray, “God keep this child. If he is going to be die, let him die normally, naturally, not to be killed because of faith”, he said.
No one blames God, he said, because they know their sufferings are made by men.
“Christianity is not a supermarket: I get in and shop what I like and leave what I don’t like. Christianity is one package: take it or leave it. As Christians in Iraq, we decided for many, many centuries ago to love it,” he said.
Even as he embarks on his new assignment in New Zealand, Fr Al-Bazi said Iraqi Christians will remain in the front and centre of his prayers.
“I believe that Catholic Church has a big heart. But we have to take action. Your brothers and sisters in Christ, there they are facing persecution and genocide.
We have to think seriously to help them,” he said.
Fr Al-Bazi said the people who fled from Mosul to Erbil are not recognised as refugees, but as internally displaced persons (IDP’s).
“As IDP’s, no one is looking after them,” he said, except for the Catholic Church and Christian agencies such as Caritas, Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need and World Vision.
Fr Al-Bazi also travels in Europe and the United States drumming up support for Iraqi Christians.
“I will keep talking and talking. What happened to my people is genocide. And we have to give emergency help to the last group of Christians in Iraq who speaks the language of Jesus,” he said.
“If we don’t give help now, please don’t blame my people if they are finished with Iraq. Blame yourself because you were watching while my people are dying.”