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The church of martyrs

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Ever since St. Thomas the Apostle began preaching in modern-day Iraq, Christianity has been called the church of martyrs. First they were persecuted by the Persian pagan kings, then by the Muslims.

"I would not be exaggerating if I said the blood of the martyrs is more than the oil in Iraq," said Father Douglas Al-Bazi, an Iraqi priest who spoke at St. John the Beloved Church in McLean May 12.

The rise of the Islamic State has caused even more suffering for the Christian population, as seen in the documentary Marked: The Untold Story of Iraqi Christians, shown prior to Father Al-Bazi's talk. In IS-controlled cities, Christians were told to convert to Islam, pay an exorbitant tax or be killed. Tens of thousands of people fled their homes, many of them coming to Father Al-Bazi's church in Irbil.

"We were normal people," said Father Al-Bazi, a Chaldean Catholic. "Families had cars, cell phones." Now they are displaced and homeless, living in tents with limited access to medical care and few job opportunities.

"My town received 75,000 people overnight on Aug. 6, 2014. (When they arrived in Irbil) they were everywhere, confused. They were living with daymares, shouting but they didn't know why," he said. "Many people felt like, 'Why should I live? I already lost everything.'"

Even before IS, clergy were targeted by Islamic terrorists. Father Al-Bazi told the audience that his church had been attacked during Mass, and that he was shot in the leg during a drive-by shooting in front of the church. "As a priest in Iraq, before ordination you know you are not going to die naturally. We know that very well," he said.

Years ago, he met up with a priest friend traveling from Mosul. While there, Father Al-Bazi suggested they take photos, because the church in Iraq does not have photos of every priest on file.

His friend liked his photo. "I want them to remember my smile," he said to Father Al-Bazi. Shortly after the picture was taken, the priest was kidnapped and killed. Father Al-Bazi's picture of him is the only one in existence. "Every time I see it I feel guilty," said Father Al-Bazi.

In 2006, Father Al-Bazi was followed before being dragged into the trunk of a car, he said. They covered his eyes and tied his hands before breaking his nose and putting him in a storage room.

Though they threatened him with abuse, Father Al-Bazi said he just laughed at them. "I spent years in seminary so I consider my time with you like a picnic," he told them. "Here's some free advice: never tell a terrorist time with him is like a picnic."

Father Al-Bazi was left for four days without water. He sat thinking about his mother and sisters, and praying the rosary with the chain that bound him - Hail Marys on the 10 links and the Our Father on the big lock, he said. He was given water on the fourth day, but later was beaten with a hammer and burned with a cigarette.

During that time, he tried to evangelize his kidnappers. Though they beat him at night, often during the day they would ask him for advice. One kidnapper asked if Father Al-Bazi would forgive him if they ever met again. Father Al-Bazi replied that unless the man was torturing someone else, he would forgive him and they could go get a chai tea. "You and your people are really strange," said the kidnapper.

After nine days, Father Al-Bazi was released after the church paid his ransom. Whatever his suffering, he hopes it points to the suffering of all Christians in the Middle East. He fears they may never have a home in Iraq again. "Forget me, remember my people," he said.

He implored American Catholics to talk about the genocide happening in the Middle East, to financially support the Iraqi Christians and to keep them in prayer. "We belong to each other," he said.

Father Christopher J. Pollard, pastor of St. John the Beloved Church, knows his parishioners were amazed to see a man so harmed by Islamic extremism and sharia law, yet so full of good humor and forgiveness. He hopes Father Al-Bazi's talk will strengthen their trust in God and their support for those persecuted in Iraq. "Christians often don't get through the usual refugee process so whatever we can do either through lobbying the government or through our own Catholic agencies, we need to make sure we're helping the Christian refugees," he said.

Support Christians in Iraq

Go to helpiraq.org.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016