Upon facing imminent death, they say that images encompassing a lifetime of memories, of joys and sorrows, flash before our eyes in an instant.
For Father Douglas Bazi, that experience was very real, happening in the moments it took for his body to fly backward many meters through the air … propelled by a bomb blast that destroyed his beloved church in Baghdad.
“[Terrorists] blew up my church, St. Mary’s, right in front of me,” said Father Bazi, an Iraqi-born Chaldean Catholic priest, during a recent visit to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. A bag had been left beside the main gate, he remembered, prompting Father Bazi and a church guard to walk toward the entrance to investigate.
Luckily, they were still seven or eight meters away when the bomb detonated.
“When we awoke there was a lot of dust and we were [temporarily deafened] by the blast,” described Father Bazi, his eyes both intense and caring, his manner gentle and kind — and seemingly driven to share the story of “my people,” the oft-forgotten Christians in Iraq, during his humanitarian trip to select U.S. cities.
“We were shouting at each other, ‘Are you OK?’ and we were watching each other say the words, but we were not able to hear anything,” he told Angelus News.
And that story is just one of innumerable tales of tragedy his people are living through every day, from decades back to the present day, explained Father Bazi. As a boy growing up in Iraq, with aspirations of someday becoming a pilot, war was a “habit” — the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War and the embargo against Iraq.
Although war had been a way of life for decades, things became unimaginably worse from the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq to the present.
“Everything changed in Iraq; [everyone] was fighting each other,” he said, including the Shiites against the Sunnis and the emergence of Al-Qaeda. “And as Iraqi [Christians we] are always in the middle. … We were between two fires always.”
And those fires grew and became more menacing with each passing year.
On Nov. 19, 2006, while serving as pastor at a church called Mar Elia, Father Bazi was on his way to visit some friends. Suddenly the highway in front of his car was blocked by two vehicles. In quick succession armed men exited and ran up to his car, spouting obscenities — and Father Bazi found himself with an AK-47 in his face. They grabbed him and dragged him into the trunk of a car.
“They took me I don’t know where,” Father Bazi recalled earnestly. “When we arrived … they came [and told] me: ‘We are going to open [the trunk], but if you are going to open your eyes, we will put bullets between them.’”
He was blindfolded, pulled out and onto the ground, where he was struck in the face and felt blood gushing when they broke his nose. They took him inside a house, where they chained his hands together and put him in a “stinky” storage room with a toilet, where he would spend almost 10 days, not knowing if he would survive.
Father Bazi endured a barrage of constant accusations from his extremist Islamic kidnappers, from being called an “infidel” to “an American spy.” They withheld water and food for four days. And he was psychologically manipulated.
“During the day I’m like a spiritual father to them. … They would come in and ask me questions. ‘What should I do with my wife?’” he said. “I was tied and blindfolded, giving advice to them.”
And at night he would endure physical torture at the hands of those same advice-seeking captors when their leaders would arrive. Some of his teeth were hammered out. He was burned across his body. He was struck so savagely his back was broken.
Yet the next day his tormentors would always go to him and ask for forgiveness.
“This is the situation,” said Father Bazi. While many are Islamic zealots, blindly following a completely warped version of religious ideology, others are driven more by extreme poverty and desperation, and “are being used by other people.”
Through it all Father Bazi said he was prepared to accept God’s will. He found spiritual solace in praying the rosary continuously, using the chain that bound his hands — the large lock was for the Our Father and each link was for a Hail Mary.
“It is better to be dead and in the hands of God, than to be alive in the hands of the devil,” he said. His only request: If they killed him, “just let my people know.”
But that never happened, as he was finally released on his ninth day of captivity.
“I think God left me alive because he thinks that I’m still useful,” said Father Bazi.
He returned to his parish, returned to his people and suffered the emotional trauma of his experience largely in silence. It wasn’t until ISIS took over Mosul in 2014, and he was interviewed by an Egyptian TV channel, that he began to share his story.
Father Bazi currently resides in Australia and is an international speaker on Christian persecution and genocide in Iraq, Syria and the Middle East.
“But when I talk about myself, I am always saying, ‘Please don’t look to my story; look to my people, the people behind my story,’” he pleaded. “My people, they are struggling, much more than I am.”
Today the Diocese of Erbil is caring for displaced people (“I never call them refugees,” he said) who have escaped from the Islamic State. They are presently assisting about 75,000 men, women and children. Thanks to generous monetary support from around the world via charitable agencies, they have built four schools, three clinics and one trauma center, and to date they have relocated the affected families in his diocese from temporary tents into stable housing.
“I hope that this year also we will have a hospital. Always the Catholic Church has a big heart,” he said, noting that they offer help to any and all in need, including Syrian Catholics, Orthodox, Armenian, Yazidis and Chaldeans.
Earlier this year, after the U.S. government finally declared that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria, Father Bazi’s former parish gratefully responded by recording a special “thank you” video message featuring church children and mailing it to the State Department.
“Now, because of the media, [more people are] realizing, ‘Oh there are Christians in Iraq,’ because many people thought we are Muslim and we became Christians a couple of years ago,” he said smiling. “We are Christians from the first century!”
Despite the suffering Father Bazi has endured and witnessed, he does not wallow in bitterness, he stressed. And despite the unfathomable losses his people continue to face, there is one thing they never lose: their faith in God.
“My people lost everything in one day. Even so, not one of [them] blames God for what happened,” he said. “My people they will tell you, ‘We thank God because he saved us.’ … They lost everything [and] they are saying, ‘Thanks God.’”
And in spite of the chaos, destruction and tragic loss of life that still plague his native country, Father Bazi speaks vehemently against revenge.
“Those people are killing us because they think we are ‘infidels,’” he said, adding that to respond in kind, through vengeful slaughter, is not the Christian answer.
“If we want to live together, then we have to believe in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean that we are [weak or that we forget],” said Father Bazi. “I cannot change the past, but forgiveness can change the future. Let’s give a chance to our kids [for] a future and live together. This is forgiveness.
“My people will forgive, but they will not forget who will stand with them,” he continued. “In our culture, when we are enduring the pain, we don’t actually remember who put us in pain, but remember who [pulled] us from that pain.”
Above all, Father Bazi hopes that people will not forget the plight of his homeland.
“Pray for us,” he asked. “Pray for my people, help my people, save my people.”
Those who would like to help support Christians in the Middle East, can go to: www.kofc.org/Iraq.