AN Iraqi-born priest who was kidnapped and tortured by Islamic extremists for nine days says Australia is seen as “the promise land” for thousands of Christians still suffering from genocide in the Middle East.
Bagdhad-born Fr Douglas Bazi of the Chaldean Catholic Church told The Catholic Leader that Australia was leading the way in welcoming thousands of Christians forced to exile their homes because of Islamic State.
“I appreciate people from Australia for one, their prayers, two, opening their hearts before their arms, and three, opening the gates to our people, our people who have suffered from this violence,” Fr Bazi said.
“My people look to Australia as the promise land.
“My message to the people of Australia is my people are going to forget those who put us under a genocide, but we are never going to forget the people who stand for us, especially those of you in Australia.”
The message from Fr Bazi, who will visit Brisbane next month to speak about his kidnapping in 2006, comes more than a year after he pleaded with the Australian Catholic Bishops to prioritise taking in Middle Eastern Christian refugees.
In late 2015, while Fr Bazi was living in Erbil, Iraq, he received a visit from seven Australian Catholic Bishops including Melkite Eparch Robbert Rabbat and Chaldean Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona.
As his parishioners talked of the suffering and hardship faced by Iraqi Christians, Fr Bazi offered an emotional plea to the visiting episcopate.
“I told the Australian Bishops that I’m proud that I am an Iraqi, and I would never think one day that I’m going to leave my country,” Fr Bazi said.
“I always think like a soldier, to give all my blood until the very last drop, but now I have to think of my kids as a mother.
“I said to the Bishops, ‘I beg you to open your gates to my people’.”
Fr Bazi said he was grateful that the Australian Bishops had welcomed hundreds of Iraqi refugees fleeing their homeland into parishes around the country, including communities who arrived in Brisbane.
But he warned that this was no time to stop praying.
“We have to keep praying and make the government to accept more cases,” he said.
“There are thousands still suffering.”
Prayer is more than just a token action for Fr Bazi, who said he only survived a kidnapping and eventual release from a group of fundamentalist Muslims by the power of prayer.
Born and ordained a priest in Baghdad, Fr Bazi said his kidnapping, which made headlines around the world, was linked with violent attacks on Iraqi Christians following the US army’s invasion into Iraq in 2003.
The extremists bombed Fr Bazi’s church and twice he survived gunfire attacks on his parish community.
One of those times, he watched at the front gate of his church as the Shiia Militia opened fire on the sacred building.
He looked down to see “a fountain of blood up from my leg”.
Two months later, Fr Bazi was driving down the highway having visited friends following his Sunday Mass when a group of armed men with covered faces stopped his car.
He was removed from the drivers’ seat and thrown into the boot of his car and taken to an unknown location.
On the first night one of the kidnappers broke his nose and he was locked in an “ugly, smelly” chamber with his hands tied by chains.
“I used the chains to pray the Rosary,” Fr Bazi said.
“There was a big lock in the middle which I used for the Our Father, and then chains left from that which I used to say the Rosary.
“Before when I have to pray the Rosary, I always look to the finish.
“I don’t remember when I finished the Rosary in that chamber, probably hundreds.
“It was not because I was afraid, more it would make me relaxed, it would strengthen me.”
He did this for nine days, and said if his torturer’s goal was to destroy him, as a Catholic priest “it would take decades”.
Fr Bazi went without water for four days and was repeatedly questioned about being involved in suspicious espionage activity.
He said his abductors tortured him everyday but over time he became like a spiritual father, listening to their problems.
“They asked me for forgiveness,” Fr Bazi said.
“I told them ‘I’m a free man, and if I’m not going to forgive them, I will be like you’.
“As a Christian, we have to forgive.
“They could not understand me.”
An attempt to locate Fr Bazi riled the captors, and the following night the Chaldean priest had a hammer ploughed into his face, back and knees smashing his teeth, breaking two discs in his spine and breaking his patella.
Nine days after his capture, his archdiocese paid a sum of money for his safe return and he was released.
He left his cell, walked to the nearby church and was greeted by a priest who hugged him and said: ‘You are brave, my son’.
“I started to cry a lot,” Fr Bazi said.
Eleven years since his capture, the Chaldean priest still has nightmares “from time to time”.
He sleeps with a bottle of water next to his bed so when he wakes he knows he is still alive.
For years he couldn’t smile because of the injuries to his face and has only recently had the courage to take a selfie.
One of his first was taken last July as he stood in Mosul, the city of ISIS, with the flag of his new home, New Zealand, where he is leading a Chaldean community of 300 families.
His prayers are now directed at changing policies in New Zealand to allow Iraqi refugee children to live in his new home and he is using Australia as a blueprint.
The latest campaign is called Project 52, and aims to sponsor 71 disabled children living in Iraq to come to New Zealand.
“I try my best to knock on doors to make the government of New Zealand open its doors,” Fr Bazi said.
“I had many meetings in our Archdiocese and I’m always using the Catholic Church of Australia as an example of how we are able to do that,” Fr Bazi said.
Fr Bazi will make his first speaking appearance at Brisbane’s annual Spirit in the City conference on October 7 and will also be speaking to Australian media during his visit.
Spirit in the City will also include talks by Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Oratory priest Fr Adrian Sharp, South Brisbane parish priest Capuchin Father Lam Vu, and young Catholic Ora Duffley who volunteered with a Christian organisation supporting Iraqi refugees, among others.
Founded by staff and clergy associated with the Queensland University of Technology in 2014, Spirit in the City is a popular Christian conference tackling questions of faith, culture and public affairs.
This year the conference has been consecrated to Our Lady of Fatima and the Feast of the Rosary.