It’s 1998 and a young Iraqi, Douglas Al-Bazi, is being ordained to the priesthood in a joyous ceremony. Fast-forward nine years: the priest is chained to a chair, lathered in sweat and blood, lost in an abyss of pain.
The allied invasion of Iraq began in April 2003 and Saddam Hussein was soon ousted. But the intervention unleashed an unprecedented wave of sectarian violence, with Sunni and Shia groups seeking to exterminate each other. Militants on both sides viewed the invasion as a Christian crusade and Iraqi Christians as collaborators.
As Iraq lost all semblance of order, anti-Christian persecution increased in ferocity. Fr Al-Bazi, a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church, worked assiduously to help his people deal with bomb attacks on churches, kidnappings and indiscriminate killing. He cycled the narrow, deserted streets of Baghdad, delivering medicine to residents of his neighbourhood. He also set up a pre-school for Christian and Muslim children.
“I used to visit mosques and meet their imams and I enjoyed a healthy relationship with them,” Fr Al-Bazi told me recently. “Some Muslim houses in my area had a picture of me handing out graduation certificates to their children and their parents used to say that ‘our children got their certificates from the Pope’.”
Daily life was extremely dangerous. Fr Al-Bazi survived a gunshot to his legs and three explosions – one of them at his church. “As a priest living in Baghdad, sometimes we had the feeling that when we go out we won’t be going back again,” he recalls. “A kind of one-way ticket.”
His parish in the working-class area of New Baghdad dwindled from 2,500 families in the 1990s to fewer than 300. After celebrating Mass on Sunday, November 17, 2007, Fr Al-Bazi set off to meet some friends. Suddenly two cars surrounded his vehicle and forced him to pull over. Masked men rushed towards him, dragged him out and bundled him inside the boot of his car.
“After a drive, the car came to a stop and they pulled me out of the boot, tied and blindfolded,” he says. “I was placed in a utility room outside a house. I felt someone’s knee in my face. My nose was bloodied and broken. Crimson rivulets ran down my face. My heart banged against my ribs as if it wanted out.”
Fr Al-Bazi pauses briefly, then continues in a deadpan manner. “One of my captors came to wipe my bloody nose and he warned me not to open my eyes, otherwise he would put a bullet through me.
“They tried to give me false hope, telling me that there had been a case of mistaken identity and I would be released soon. A barrage of questions were pummelling my mind. Then I heard the sound of a chain scraping the floor. This was the beginning of my gruelling ordeal which lasted nine days.”
The first question his captors – Islamist militants –asked was whether he was Sunni or Shia. “In those days it was a crime punishable by death if you wrongfully accused someone of an incorrect faith. I told them they were individuals deprived of a good education and upbringing and people were taking advantage of them. A kind of stillness descended on the room. Suddenly they burst into vociferous conversation, blathering about the misfortunes that had befallen their families and resulted in them being what they were today.
“The gang told me they would call the Church and demand a ransom. One of them said: ‘How much do you think your people will pay – $1 million?’ I told him: ‘I am not the prime minister. I am just an ordinary priest. Do not get your hopes too high. Besides, you should wait for a few days before making a call: you will look more professional.’ He muttered a derisive comment and said: ‘Normally the people we bring here plead for their lives, but he does not seem to care.’ ”
At night, when Fr Al-Bazi was alone, he felt a chaotic surge of feelings and memories. “After being deprived of water for several days I started to hallucinate and saw my mum and sister and many people passing by and asking: ‘Do you want water, Father?’ Next morning they came and gave me some water. These days whenever I wake up in the middle of the night I stretch my hand out to touch the bottle of water. It reminds me that I’m still alive.”
As he goes on with his story there is a touch of defiance in his voice. “Sometimes I was aggressive with them. I told them: ‘If you’re men, you would put a bullet in the gun and kill me.’ That only made them beat me harder. They asked me why I wasn’t afraid of death. I told them: ‘For me, death is the beginning. But for you it is the end.’
“One of them heaped insults on me. I felt his glare on me like the heat of the blistering sun. He placed an empty revolver against my head and pressed the trigger.”
But the fear they sought to instil in him only seemed to increase his selflessness. “When you are in such a situation, you don’t think about yourself,” Fr Al-Bazi says. “You only think of the people you’ll be leaving behind. I told them: ‘Before you kill me, I have one request: please inform my people that I am dead.’”
Curiously, when they weren’t threatening him, his captors treated him as a spiritual father. Often they would complain to him about their hardships and ask his advice. During the day they addressed him as “Father” but at night as “infidel”. In the morning they would apologise for hurting him, claiming that his body had to show signs of torture, otherwise their boss would punish them.
“One of them had problems with his wife and he asked me to guide him with his marriage,” he recalls. “I told him that he must love his wife and respect her and be tolerant towards her. Another one always complained about his knee and would seek my advice on how best to treat it.
“One of the captors told me I had a big belly and should start thinking of how to reduce it. He gave me some guidance on how to lose weight, and we became very close. He told me: ‘Someone is coming tonight to interrogate you and whenever I hit you, make sure you scream. If you don’t, he will ask me to hit you harder.’ That night I was interrogated and as the beating started I did not scream. After they left he was furious with me and shouted: ‘I told you to scream when I hit you! Why didn’t you?’”
Fr Al-Bazi kept track of time by marking days on the wall with his handcuffs. In a voice brittle with emotion, he says: “As I looked at my chain I realised that it had 10 rings. I used them to recite the rosary. It gave me solace and hope. This was one of the deepest and most moving rosaries that I ever prayed in my life. I kept praying and hoping it would never end. It was the strength of my faith that illuminated my tortuous journey and helped me to survive despair in captivity.”
Fr Nadheer Dako, a Chaldean Catholic priest who now lives in London, served as a negotiator. “The kidnappers contacted me and allowed me to speak to Fr Douglas and he told me what had happened to him,” he says. “The gang demanded a very high ransom for his release. After several attempts we failed to agree to a lower ransom and I told them that the Church considered Fr Douglas as one of its martyrs.”
Fr Al-Bazi says the kidnappers seethed with anger. “They told me: ‘We have all night to take out all your teeth, and you have plenty of them.’ And the beating began. They hit me with a hammer on my jaw and broke my front tooth. This was followed by several hammer blows to my back which resulted in two broken vertebrae. The pain was excruciating. My mouth was pumping out blood.
“One of them told me: ‘We are going to cut off your head and replace it with a dog’s head. Then we will cut your body bit by bit.’ His friend replied to him: ‘Are you stupid? You should cut the body first and then the head.’ My laughter at their asinine conversation made them angry and they started beating me with their pistols. They said: ‘Why are you laughing? You are not at a picnic.’ I told them: ‘When I am dead you can do whatever you like with my body.’”
Throughout his captivity Fr Al-Bazi was given bread and cold tea. The kidnappers would leave him for several days on his own, shrouded in darkness. He used humour as a defence mechanism. “On the seventh or eighth day they brought me some cold tea and half-rotten bread. I tried to make a joke and told them: ‘Why did you bring me cold tea? Is it because I am a Christian?’ One of the captors murmured in a condescending tone: ‘His life is in our hands and he is complaining about his tea.’
“The most hurtful thing I endured, more than the physical pain, was the vile insults they directed at me, my family, friends and my Church. They realised that this was my weakest point. I felt nauseated whenever I heard their words and tried to withdraw into my own world.”
On the 10th day the gang told him that a ransom had been agreed with the Church and he would be released. “I was put in the back seat of a car and I could hear the gun: ‘Click! Click! Click!’ My nerves throbbed with anticipation. I thought I was drifting perilously close to death.
“One of them told me that he was the one who had broken my nose. He asked whether I would forgive them for what they did to me. I was shocked by the tenderness of his voice and I told him: ‘Yes, you are completely forgiven.’ And he said: ‘Do you really mean it from the bottom of your heart?’ I said: “Yes, and maybe one day we will meet and have lunch or tea, provided your hands are not covered in someone else’s blood.’
“When the car stopped, they told me to walk straight ahead without looking back and that I would find my keys in the ignition of my car. Of course, there was no car. I took a taxi and told the driver I had no money to pay him. He looked at my state and told me not to worry. He dropped me at the nearest church and when the priest, Fr Jamal, saw me he rushed towards me and gave me a warm hug.
“Now, amid the welter of anguish, I felt a strange sense of relief. Finally knowing my ordeal was over, I burst into unstoppable tears. That first night I kept all the lights on. I also turned the radio and TV on just to believe that I was alive.”
Fr Al-Bazi says he holds no animosity toward his kidnappers. He now lives in Ankawa, northern Iraq, where he has built a refugee camp for Christians fleeing ISIS. He tells me he wants to return to Baghdad and meet the men who held him captive.
“I forgive, but I will always remember,” he says. “I cannot forget the pain, the loneliness, the ache. But I will never remember to inflict retribution on them. I pray to God that he takes away the evil from their hearts.”
Robert Ewan is a British-Iraqi freelance journalist
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