In the early Church, witnesses to the faith who had been persecuted and tortured but not killed were known as “martyr-confessors.” It’s been one of the great privileges of my life to have known such men and women: Czech priests who spent years as slave laborers in uranium mines; Lithuanian priests and nuns condemned to Perm Camp 36 in the Gulag; a Ukrainian Greek Catholic scholar who knew the bone-chilling bite of the Siberian winter because of his fidelity to Christ and to the Bishop of Rome. These modern martyr-confessors are part of that “great cloud of witnesses” who form a living link between the Church here and now and “the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12. 1, 23).
I treasure the memory and the friendship of these great souls. All their stories are remarkable; so was the equanimity they exhibited as I got to know them – the sense they conveyed, quite naturally, that it was a privilege to suffer for the faith. Comparative martyrology is out of place in such a company of heroes. Still, none of the martyr-confessors I have met had a story quite like that of Father Douglas Bazi, of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Erbil, whom I met three weeks ago.
Simply because he was a Christian and a Catholic priest, Father Bazi had had his teeth knocked out, his nose smashed, and his back broken with a hammer. And that was before ISIS turned large parts of Iraq into a killing zone in which Christian lives were automatically forfeit. Today, Father Bazi lives with his exiled people in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of crumbling Iraq. The ISIS assault on his people, he told me, was but the latest of eight different assaults on Chaldean Catholics over the last century, which have reduced what was once a population of three million to about 180,000. In the brutal politics of a region where the withdrawal of American power has led to seven demons worse than the first, Chaldean Catholics are especially at risk because, as Father Bazi put it, they “can’t play the game the way the others do” – they can’t indulge in revenge killings because their faith forbids them to do so.
Father Bazi was in Washington to bear witness for his people in the U.S. House of Representatives, which, a few hours after we spoke, voted unanimously to declare that what ISIS is doing to Christians in Iraq is “genocide.” Three days after that, Secretary of State John Kerry met a congressionally mandated deadline by actually using the “G-word” – “genocide” – to describe ISIS’s assault on Christians, Yazidis, and Shiites in the areas of Iraq and Syria under its control. The new thing, and the welcome thing, in Secretary Kerry’s statement was the mention of Christians as targets of genocide.
That statement would not have happened without the relentless, persistent work of human rights campaigner Nina Shea, who has lobbied for redress for persecuted Christians in the Middle East with a tenacity that deserves the highest respect. It wouldn’t have happened without the leadership of Congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, who introduced the House resolution that passed on March 14 while Father Bazi looked on from the House gallery. And the Kerry statement wouldn’t have happened without the prod of a report, “Genocide against Christians in the Middle East,” prepared by the Knights of Columbus and the organization “In Defense of Christians:” a remarkably detailed account of anti-Christian persecution, destruction, and slaughter that was addressed to the Secretary of State and contained a legal brief arguing that the “G-word” should be invoked and the matter referred to the Criminal Division of the Justice Department and the Security Council of the United Nations.
Father Bazi was aware that merely saying the “G-word” would change nothing on the ground for his people. But he welcomed the congressional resolution and the administration’s action because it called this ongoing atrocity by its proper name and would thus give his people hope that someone knew, and someone cared. That caring, I suggest, should now extend to helping Chaldean Catholics rebuild their communities in the West.