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Iraqi Priest Recalls Kidnapping Ordeal

by Peter Lamprecht

4/30/07 Iraq (Compass Direct News) – Strangely enough, Iraqi priest Douglas Yusuf Al-Bazy laughed and joked as he began to retell the details of his kidnapping and torture.

“I’m not afraid any more,” the Chaldean priest said. “When you meet the face of death, you aren’t afraid of death after that.”

Kidnapped priests were on my mind when I arrived at St. Peter’s Seminary in the northern Iraqi town of Ankawa . I still did not know whether anti-Christian sentiment lay behind Christian kidnappings, or whether Christians were merely the victims of money-making gangs out to target anyone with wealth.

In Iraq , tales from Baghdad and Mosul about Islamic taxation, forced conversion to Islam, anti-Christian kidnapping and church vandalism were almost as numerous as the region’s road-side black market fuel stands. But it had proved almost impossible to find ‘black-gold’ eyewitness accounts.

“Hello, I’m Father Douglas,” a young man in a blue shirt and khaki vest jacket had said as I walked into Babel College’s new building, 30 minutes earlier than my scheduled appointment with the seminary’s dean.

“Father Douglas Yusuf Al-Bazy?” It was tough to contain the excitement in my voice.

“Yes, am I famous?” the once-kidnapped priest smiled.

St. Peter’s Seminary, along with its lay counterpart, Babel College , had been forced to close its Baghdad campus in December and relocate to Ankawa, outside of Erbil , after the third kidnapping of a staff member in five months.

Some church leaders had downplayed the kidnappings in August, September and December as nothing more than the kind of money-making schemes that have plagued Iraqis of all religious backgrounds.

The evidence appeared to support this theory. A total of five Baghdad clerics kidnapped between July and December 2006 had been released after ransoms had been paid, according to Christian sources.

In addition, reports of kidnappings of Sunni and Shiite citizens dwarfed the number of Christian abductions.

Maybe missing priests were merely victims of gangs who couldn’t care less if their captives were Sunni, Shiite or Christian. I hoped the Chaldean priest before me would provide some clues about the kidnappers’ motives.

Al-Bazy said he had finished celebrating mass and was driving on Baghdad ’s Al-Kanat highway when four cars surrounded his vehicle and forced him to pull over on Sunday morning, November 19, 2006.

Men from the vehicles blindfolded Al-Bazy at gunpoint and pushed him into the trunk of his car. The priest said his captors drove him around for some time before eventually escorting him to a house after nightfall.

“They turned on the TV to the Al-Quran channel and turned up the volume before questioning me,” Al-Bazy said. “They didn’t want their neighbors to hear me, and they wanted them to think that a good [Muslim] family lived in the house.”

The Chaldean priest grimaced as he recounted how his captors had broken his teeth with their knees, burned off his mustache with cigarette butts and used pliers on the most sensitive areas of his body.

“The hardest day was the sixth day,” Al-Bazy said. “That’s when they used a hammer on my whole body. They put an empty pistol to my head more than 100 times and pulled the trigger. My soul died over and over again.”

It was on the sixth day that the priest said he finally begged his captors to kill him. The men responded that he was their first captive to have ever asked to be killed.

“It is different between us,” the priest told his kidnappers. “Maybe for you death is the end, but for us death is only the beginning.”

“Stop talking like that, we don’t understand what you mean,” his captors responded.

Survival Strategies

The cleric said that psychological exercises, a sense of humor and his faith in God had kept him mentally strong in the face of torture.

The chain binding his hands was 10 links long, allowing him to pray the rosary, Al-Bazy said.

“Normally, I don’t like to pray the rosary, it’s sort of boring to repeat it over and over again,” Al-Bazy commented. “But when you’re in a situation like that, it’s meaningful.”

The priest also used the chain to make notches in the wall to keep track of time. To mentally escape the torture, he said he divided his thoughts and focused on what he would have been doing in his normal daily routine.

“I prayed to God, ‘Lord I haven’t always been very faithful to you, and I’m trusting you for my salvation, however you want to do it,’” Al-Bazy said. “‘But please, please don’t forget me.’”

The hardest part of his captivity, Al-Bazy said, was the lack of water and food. He said he began to have visions of friends and family members offering him water, only to come to his senses and realize that they were not real.

“‘Look at yourself,’” Al-Bazy said one interrogator told him in disgust. “Do you really want to keep living like this?”

“Actually, I used to live in the seminary, so being here is like a picnic,” Al-Bazy quipped. At this, he said two guards broke out laughing – while a third beat him.

The priest said that he knew his life may have been on the line when his captors eventually asked him which group he thought they were from.

“I know that if the situation were better, all of you would be in other jobs as teachers, doctors and lawyers,” he responded carefully. “But because times are so bad, you’ve been forced to work with the resistance.”

The priest said that his response opened a floodgate of emotion among his captors. They each began to tell him their own stories and how they had been forced into their work as kidnappers.

“It was like confession,” Al-Bazy said. “But I was bound and blindfolded with my hands tied behind my back, and they were talking to me about their suffering.”

Looking for More than Money

Sitting in the brightly lit, carpeted office at Babel College across from Al-Bazy, it was difficult for me to imagine that he had lived through the ordeal. Reconstructive surgery in Italy had done wonders to cover over the scars on his smiling face.

“So who were they and why do you think they did it?” I asked, echoing his captors’ question.

The priest said his captors told him that someone higher up always gave them a name and price for a person they were to kidnap and then paid them upon delivery.

“One of my captors told me, ‘They pay us, they give us houses, police cars, ambulances and walkie-talkies,’” Al-Bazy said.

“‘So who do you think we are?’” the captor asked Al-Bazy.

Al-Bazy said that he believed his captors had specifically targeted him as part of a wider campaign by armed groups to rid the city of intellectuals who might challenge their legitimacy.

“They explained to me, ‘If we were just looking for money, all we would need to do is kidnap two people and we could live comfortably,” Al-Bazy said, his face growing serious.

He said that the single easiest way to target the hundreds of families at his Baghdad parish, St. Elijah’s, had been to take out the church’s only priest, himself.

“If the priest disappears then the community will disappear,” Al-Bazy said.

He said Christians were targeted for several reasons, including the fact that they were well educated, generally well-off financially and unprotected with no militia of their own.

But he said his captors had appeared to view Christians and their beliefs as a threat.

“The interrogated me about the church, about relations between Kurds and the church, about relations between the government and the church and about the pope,” Al-Bazy said.

“I paid for the pope’s words,” the priest said, referring to a controversial speech by Benedict XVI last September that was viewed by many Muslims as offensive to Islam.

Our interview at an end, I joined Al-Bazy and his colleagues for lunch and listened as they joked about how they had intentionally refused to pay his ransom in order to bargain for a better price and give him more time in captivity to lose weight.

“I can’t wait until you’re kidnapped and I get to negotiate for you,” Al-Bazy warned a fellow teacher.

I wondered whether Al-Bazy was the only one who believed he had been kidnapped with the intent of targeting Baghdad ’s Christians.

“Twenty-eight days is not about money,” Father Bashar Warda, Dean of St. Peter’s Seminary said in reference to the August 2006 kidnapping of Father Saad Sirop, as we talked after lunch.

Though it was the second in a series of Baghdad priest abductions that included Al-Bazy’s capture, Sirop’s kidnapping was the first to receive international attention.

“That immediately started a process of hardening the lives of Christians in the area [of Dora],” Warda said. “There was a message behind the kidnapping.”

Quiet War Zone

Warda summarized how seven churches in Baghdad ’s Dora district have either completely shut down since August or only hold services once a month.

Having just visited Dora earlier that week, Warda said that the neighborhood had been quiet but had looked like a war zone.

The district has seen some of Baghdad ’s most intense fighting between U.S. troops, Iraqi police and Sunni militants. In recent weeks Islamist groups in the area have evicted Christian families by threatening forced conversion to Islam.

Warda said that later that afternoon the seminary would be receiving a Christian family driven from their home in Dora by an Islamic tribunal earlier that week.

The seminary dean, who travels regularly to Baghdad , said that he hopes to help Christian families remain in Baghdad , even if it means moving from more dangerous areas to more peaceful ones.

“We have a role there, to stay on as a mission,” Warda said. “We are the only ones who can talk about reconciliation because we have been given reconciliation by God.”