Damascus (AsiaNews) – Fr Hani Abdel Ahad looks tired (see photo). Even when the 33-year-old priest laughs, there is no mirth in his smile. His speech is slow and his gaze distant. From the pain. Father Hani was abducted on 6 June in Baghdad. Only three days earlier, Fr Ragheed Gani, a Chaldean parish priest, and three deacons were shot dead. His kidnappers demanded a “huge ransom” but money was not the only reason behind their deed. His testimony shows that whilst abducting Iraqi priests is a lucrative industry, “religion” is also a motive. The ultimate goal is to sow terror in the Christian community so as to force it into exile. The latest coordinated attacks against Christian targets on Epiphany are a case in point.
Father Hani was released after 12 days as a captive. “I am fine,” he said then, but seven months later the young Chaldean priest is still trying to heal. In the hands of his abductors he was tortured and threatened in a number of ways. Every day his tormentors tried to get him to convert to Islam. Failing this they broke his nose and a vertebra. His spine was also hurt. And there are less obvious wounds due to “many things I can’t talk about,” he said.
He is now in Damascus in charge of a Chaldean parish in the village of Sednaya after being forced to flee with his family.
“Here in Syria there is no life,” he said. “We are just waiting for Western powers to let us leave so that we can try to a build a future, which is only sustained by our faith.”
Father Hani, had you received personal threats before your abduction?
When I was abducted I had come back to Iraq just a year earlier from Lebanon. I was in Beirut from 2002 to July 2006 where I studied and graduated in ‘Comparative Religion.”
Initially in Baghdad I was in charge of young students at the Minor Chaldean Seminary. The building had been attacked several times by militias and terrorists. And for a while they had started throwing bodies inside just to scare us. The seminary is located in a “sensitive” area on the boundary between the Shia neighbourhood of Kadhimiya and the Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya. I reported the incidents to the police but no one lifted a finger. In November 2006 only three students were left and so I was assigned to the Divine Wisdom Parish church. Only a few parishioners were able to make it to Mass, and when they did they tried to stay as little as possible, sometimes just the time to say a few prayers. I was threatened almost every day and several times men on motorcycles would circle around me, subjecting me to their verbal abuse. But I stayed anyway to do my job.
What happened on 6 June?
Tensions were rising every day and then 6 June happened . . . that terrible day.
I had just finished some work in church and was going home. I was walking with the four kids that were abducted with me. Suddenly, some militiamen on two motorcycles told me to stop and show my papers. “We only want to know who you are because we have never seen you here,” they told me. I told them I was priest. At that point, a car pulled up right away with a masked man inside who said: “The priest comes with us.” The kids were told to get on another car. Only when I was released did I find out that they were allowed to go the day after I was taken. Initially I tried to joke and keep calm, but maybe that was worse because they got cross and warned me: “If you keep talking we’ll blow your head off!” They blindfolded me and took me to a house where they kept me naked in a bathroom for four days.
How was your captivity?
During those 12 days they did everything to me; it was barbaric. Every day they asked me to convert to Islam, forcing me to recite the Qur’an and teaching me Islamic precepts. They constantly told me that we Christians were infidels. I got a real lesson on how far their hatred for Christians goes, how it motivates their action. They told me they want to take revenge on me for the attack the Lebanese army launched against the Fatah al-Islam group (in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp just outside Tripoli in May-July 2007). They accused Christians of supporting the United States and when the Pope met President Bush visited (9 June) they started torturing me even more. They taunted me, telling me: “Now, tell your Pope to come and free you!”
We moved then and things got even worse. They hung me by my hands to the ceiling as they continued their indoctrination. Unfortunately, they found my flash drive in my pocket. It contained an article I had written in which I compare Islam and Christianity and so they accused me of being an enemy of their religion and for this reason I deserved punishment. In this second phase they really played the psychological terror game. I saw another hostage killed, an officer with the Iraqi police. They asked him if the police provided weapons to the Shiites; he did not answer. They tied him up like they do with lambs, put him in a corner and then killed him. Then, they let me know I would be next. They told me that my ‘trial’ had ended and that I had been sentenced to death. I think however they only wanted to scare me. One of them explained it to me: they would not kill me because my Christian blood would have fouled the house preventing them from praying there anymore. When they talked to me they always referred to me as “piece of filth.” But now I can’t talk about it anymore; time must pass . . . .
What do you think about your abductors and their motives?
They knew what they were doing, well-trained and well-organised professionals with good weapons and smart. I couldn’t see their faces, but I could hear them talk and their accent was certainly Iraqi. There were other Arabs in the group but I think the worst ones were Afghan. I don’t know what makes them tick but I surely got the idea that money was not the primary goal. They abducted and tortured me for my religion. Before releasing me they warned me: “You and your families must get out of Iraq—wherever you go we’ll find you.” For them I was a symbol of the hated Christianity and they knew that by attacking me they were going to scare many others.
What happened after you were released?
I went to the authorities to report my case, tell them about the threats and torture, but nothing was done. For security reasons I was forced to leave for Syria with my family; staying in Iraq was too dangerous for them also. But right now we are not living; only our faith gives us hope for a better future. Up to the last moment my father was absolutely dead set against leaving Iraq. He had worked as an executive for a French company; he speaks three languages; he is a cultured man. Here, he is just another refugee, relying on food handouts from Caritas, UNHCR and the Red Cross.
Will you ever go back to Iraq?
At present I am parish priest in Sednaya, a few kilometres from Damascus, but my relatives and I are hoping to get a visa for the United States or New Zealand. I don’t want to go back to Iraq; Iraqi Christians here in Syria have only one dream, get to the West.
It is true that many refugees are returning to Iraq but they are mostly Shiites and they are going back for a variety of reasons. Even if the situation is not safe yet, many people are driven by desperation. But I think people have also gotten used to the violence. It is as if it was less frightening. I was in Iraq for a year and lost everything; I came within an inch from losing my life as well. God and faith are the only thing that are still ours. No one will be able to take that away from us, not even the worst violence. They shall not succeed.