It has been more than four decades since Father Michael Bazzi left his home country of Iraq. But the plight of Christians there at the hands of militant Muslim groups remains at the forefront of his mind.
“Today, there is no future (for Christians),” Fr. Bazzi, pastor of Saint Peter Chaldean Catholic Church in El Cajon, Calif., told CNA on June 18.
“These people, they hang, they behead people who don't believe in their faith,” he lamented. “Our village had 15,000 Catholics when I was there. Would you believe today there are how many: only 150 families.”
He explained that Christians in Iraq are targeted for the faith, as well as caught in the midst of fighting between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
“Our church is in trouble today. As long as Iran exists, Shia exists. And they are the majority in Iraq. And as long as Saudi Arabia is there, and the Emirate, that means Sunni has to exist ... (But) those people go against each other because of their faith. And as Christians, we are always caught in the middle.”
Fr. Bazzi is a native of Mosul, which was one of the first major Iraqi cities seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Group (ISIS).
The militant group aims to establish a Sunni state within Syria and Iraq, which is a majority Shia region. ISIS launched its offensive in Iraq in early June, overtaking its second-largest city of Mosul on June 10. ISIS now controls most of north and north-central Iraq, including the city of Tal Afar.
Civilians who choose to stay in ISIS-controlled areas must follow an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. According to the BBC, ISIS has offered Christians in seized areas three choices. They can either convert to Islam, face death or pay a jizya tax in exchange for their safety while observing certain conditions.
Those conditions reportedly bar Christians from public prayer and display of religious symbols. Christians are also reportedly banned from making renovations to churches, and women must wear the Islamic veil.
The Sunni militant group's persecution has further decreased Iraq's dwindling Christian community. Many Christians have sought refuge in neighboring countries or the autonomous Kurdish region in the north.
The Christian diaspora from Iraq and the Middle East isn't exactly news to Fr. Bazzi. He remembers facing persecution for his Christian faith while growing up in a suburb of Mosul.
Fr. Bazzi said that when he was younger, his village was entirely Catholic. As a boy, he attended Catholic school. Then, his community started growing as strangers began moving into the region.
“People we never met, people we never knew: Muslims,” he said. “They started to settle…and people were just in trouble with their traditions, with their religion, with their faith.”
Fr. Bazzi said the new neighbors aimed “to root Christianity from Iraq,” and he began to be treated as a “second-class citizen.”
He described being looked at “as a second-class person, as not normal,” and viewed as “a blasphemer, an infidel.”
This second-class treatment developed into persecution, which eventually inspired Fr. Bazzi's vocation to the priesthood. He said he was eager to teach young people in his region how to defend their Catholic faith.
Fr. Bazzi was ordained a priest in Baghdad in 1964. After serving for several years in his home village, he moved to Rome for his studies. In 1974, he moved to the United States, spending time in Wisconsin and Michigan before settling in California, where he now serves as pastor of Saint Peter Chaldean Cathedral.
The priest said the Chaldean community in the area has multiplied as more Christians have left Iraq due to persecution. Today, he says the Chaldean community accounts for nearly a quarter of El Cajon's population of more than 101,000 people. And spirits are high.
“We have two churches, we have the bishop and we are living so happily,” Father Bazzi said. “But, the problem is that we are so eager to get back home to our country.”
Unfortunately, this dream may not become a reality.
“Today, there is no future (for Christians),” he said. “To them, that’s what their God tells them to do – kill for the sake of their God, Allah. How can you resolve that?”
For himself, Fr. Bazzi says he brought a bag of dust with him from Iraq when he left all those years ago. To this day, he says he sleeps on it.
“I'm an American,” he said. “And I pledge allegiance to America. But, always you remember your birthplace, your country. You survive.”
Fr. Bazzi said he doesn't consider U.S. financial intervention a viable solution to the rapidly disintegrating situation in Iraq. He warned that US intervention may instead foster sectarian divides between the Shia-backed government and the Sunni minority in the country.
Instead, Fr. Bazzi said Iraqi Christians must pray and trust in God.
“We are praying for those persecutors because that’s what Jesus told us. And we are praying for those people who are still left behind...We believe what Jesus said 'If they persecute you in this city, go to another city,' and that’s what we did.”