When Nadur archpriest Mgr Jimmy Xerri welcomed Fr Douglas Bazi to Malta, the Iraqi priest made one request: to have a bottle of water by his side at all times.
“Fr Xerri doesn’t know the reason why but when I was kidnapped in 2006, they kept me for five days without water,” Fr Bazi said.
“Now, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I stretch my hand out to touch the bottle of water and remind myself that I’m still alive.”
The 43-year-old priest was invited to Gozo to celebrate l-Imnarja, the feast of St Peter and St Paul, because, Mgr Xerri explained, the islands should not celebrate the feast of two martyrs without thinking of the living martyrs of our time.
Fr Bazi works in the Chaldean Diocese of Erbil, the capital city of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq which is now home to thousands of Christian refugees who fled Mosul after the Islamic State took over the city last summer.
Forced to leave their homes after the IS (known as Isis) ordered them to convert to Islam, pay a hefty tax or be beheaded, the refugees have grappled with confusion, loss and anger.
About 564 families are living in a refugee centre in the courtyard of Mar Elia church, cared for by Fr Bazi.
The priest is a man with his own story of suffering. He experienced the Iran-Iraq war of 1991, with compulsory military service under the regime, the international embargo, the 2003 war and the years of chaos since. Conflict has been relentless, with the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam being embroiled in their bloody feud.
“It’s also about who gets to own what land,” Fr Bazi explains.
“And it’s not just about the oil but also about water. There are times when water is more expensive than fuel. War is also good business, of course.”
In the 2006-2007 civil conflict between Iraqi Sunni and Shia factions, Christians were like sticks between two fires. Fr Bazi, who was based in the capital of Baghdad, was shot in the leg with a Kalashnikov AK-47 after militants opened fire.
They asked me why I wasn’t afraid of death.I told them: ‘For me, death is the beginning. For you, it is the end
His church was blown up after a bomb was planted next to it and five missiles were fired during Mass. They missed the church but people around the building were killed.
One day in 2006 after Sunday Mass, Fr Bazi was visiting relatives when his car was stopped in a road block on the highway and he was abducted by Shia militants.
“Their reasoning was that if you attack the shepherd, the sheep will disperse. I was kidnapped for nine days but it seemed so much longer than that. The memories are etched in my brain and will never leave me. I was convinced they were going to kill me.”
His captors beat him with a hammer and broke his nose, his teeth and a disc in his back. They placed an empty revolver against his temples and would press the trigger.
But the fear they sought to inspire in him only produced selflessness. “When you are in that situation, you don’t think about yourself. You only think of the people you’ll be leaving behind.
“Sometimes I was aggressive with them. I told them: ‘If you’re a man, 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. For you, it is the end’.”
He was released after his Church paid off the requested ransom. In 2013, Fr Bazi moved from Baghdad to Erbil.
Last July, the IS gave Christians 24 hours to leave their homes in Mosul with just the clothes on their back. Stopped at multiple checkpoints on the way out, they were robbed of their money, passports and even their wedding rings.
In all, 120,000 Christians flooded into the towns of Kurdistan from Mosul.
The Church has clothed them, fed them and provided them with medical care. However, many of the displaced cannot get jobs because they do not speak Kurdish, meaning there is an increasing desperation to leave.
The Church is also building rudimentary schools to cater for the education of thousands of children.
“Yet despite the anger, pain and frustration, they do not blame God for what happened. Rather, they thank Him for saving them from Isis.”
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