Halfway between Kirkuk and Baghdad is a landmark intersection where the roads part and someone always sells citrus, pomegranates, dates, and nuts beneath some shade. It's a welcome stop on the four-hour drive, especially in the heat, and a happy diversion from checkpoints. Fadi Benosh, a youth pastor in Baghdad who spent the day in Kirkuk planning school activities and church programs, was on his way back to the capital, refreshed from just such a rest stop when his trip came to a full stop: Six men suddenly appeared in front of the taxi in which he was riding wearing masks and carrying "many, many kinds of weapons," Benosh recalls.
The men hustled Fadi from the taxi, stuffed him into the trunk of a car, and raced away. Already there was another man in the trunk. In all, this group of kidnappers would hustle six Iraqis from taxis in the vicinity that afternoon and transport them to a cave in a mountain. "I feel my life stop in that moment," said Benosh, "'Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,' I called from the trunk. I could not think of anything else."
Benosh, 30, was the second Iraqi pastor to be held up near the same fruit stand-and also the second to survive the ordeal. He was held for six days, he told WORLD, fed only jam and cheese at meals ("but I don't have an appetite to eat," he said) with little water to drink and no change of clothes. The kidnappers described themselves as "mujahedeen" and Benosh believes they were connected with al-Qaeda in Iraq or one of its Sunni-dominated affiliates. The kidnappers spoke with local accents.
Benosh does not believe his was a targeted kidnapping, as the five others captured along with him were Muslims. But once a captive, he was singled out to die. "We have to kill the Christian one, the one who doesn't believe in God, who is kafir [Arabic for 'unbeliever']. We have to kill him," one of the abductors said repeatedly.
The kidnappers questioned Benosh about his beliefs at length during that week and told him he must convert to Islam. In the end one man was killed-but not Benosh. "They took him and I heard his voice shouting and crying," Benosh said. He told WORLD that the abductors took the man where he could not be seen and killed him with a knife. From the sounds, Benosh believes he was beheaded. After that, Benosh and the others were driven away from the cave and released.
Benosh said he survived because of prayers raised on his behalf around the world. Even as he was jammed into the car trunk, he retrieved his cell phone from his pocket, and as the car sped away with him captive, he phoned the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) church in Baghdad where he has worked since 2004. At the news many prayer vigils for his release began, from Baghdad to Alliance World Fellowship (AWF) headquarters in the Netherlands, according to AWF president Arie M. Verduyn.
Benosh said, "I sensed that God was with me and talked to me all the time." Near the end of his captivity, the kidnappers handed him a large bag filled with ID cards and told him the cards belonged to victims they had killed. "Look for your own ID," they said. But it was not in the bag, and the abductors told him, "We don't know why, but we will not kill you."
Every day a dozen-and more-Iraqis are reported kidnapped or missing. Every morning police vans arrive at Baghdad hospitals bearing the dead bodies recovered overnight, a gruesome collection of often tortured and beheaded kidnap victims. For al-Qaeda in Iraq and its splinter groups, kidnapping Iraqis has become their stock in trade, a way to make money collecting ransom, but more importantly, a way to sow chaos and fear on the streets.
The number of Shiites and Sunnis kidnapped dwarfs the number of Christians abducted, but Iraq's tiny Christian minority has not escaped this particular brand of terrorism. Five Baghdad clergymen were kidnapped between July and December 2006. All were released after ransoms were paid. Last October a Syrian Orthodox priest was kidnapped and beheaded in Mosul.
Pastor Maher Dakel of St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad disappeared in 2005, along with his wife and son, all believed to be kidnap victims, although no ransom demand was delivered nor have their bodies been recovered ("Let the future begin now," Oct. 15, 2005). The surviving member of the family, Dakel's daughter Rana, was part of prayer vigils for Benosh's release.
Five months ago, St. Peter's Seminary and Babel College, which serve Iraq's Chaldean Christian community, closed their joint Baghdad campus and relocated to northern Iraq outside the city of Irbil after the third kidnapping of a staff member in five months. One victim, Chaldean priest Douglas Yusuf al-Bazy, had finished conducting mass at St. Elijah's parish and was driving on Baghdad's al-Kanat highway when four cars surrounded his vehicle and forced him to pull over on a Sunday morning last November. He was blindfolded at gunpoint and pushed into the trunk of his car, he told Compass Direct news service.
Eventually he wound up in an insurgent safehouse in a Baghdad neighborhood, where his captors turned up the television volume before they questioned and tortured him. They beat him with a hammer, kicked him until teeth fell out, and burned his mustache with cigarettes. Most of the time he was bound and blindfolded, and received little food and water. Released after nine days, he required hospital care in Baghdad and eventually went to Italy for reconstructive surgery.
Whether kidnap victims are targeted or part of random roundups, terrorist groups have developed methods to the kidnapping madness. Those who have been released say their captors are in constant communication with other cells and higher-ups. Bernosh said his captors spent hours on cell phones discussing with superiors who among his group should be killed. Christian Science Monitor journalist Jill Carroll, held hostage for nearly three months last year, testified to a command structure surrounding her abduction so well organized it was nearly bureaucratic.
U.S. forces killed one of her captors, Muharib Abdul-Latif al Jubouri, a spokesman for the Sunni militant umbrella group Islamic State of Iraq, earlier this month. He also was linked to the 2006 kidnapping and shooting of three workers, including American Tom Fox, from Christian Peacemakers Teams.
Iraq's Christian community finds itself particularly vulnerable to organized, militant kidnappers. Al-Bazy says he believes he was targeted for kidnapping because he is regarded as part of a community seen as intellectual, not easily intimidated, and in some cases closely tied with the West. Shiites and Sunnis may be fighting each other in Iraq, said regional church leader Sami Dagher, "but keep in mind, we are hated by both."
Dagher, president of the Alliance Church of Lebanon and director of a humanitarian relief center serving Iraq, said the intimidation of Christians in Iraq is working. The CMA church in Baghdad at one time was the largest and fastest-growing church in the city, with 800 people attending its Sunday morning service in war time. Now attendance has dropped to about 400.
In Baghdad's Dora district, home to historic churches and some predominantly Christian neighborhoods, seven churches have either shut down completely or reduced services to about once a month. Islamist groups have gone door to door to evict Christian families. They blackmail them to pay an exorbitant tax, to become Muslims, or to leave, said Dagher.
As a result, many Christian families across Iraq are leaving. Of approximately 1.2 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, Dagher believes the majority are Christians.
For that and other reasons the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom took the unusual step earlier this month of putting Iraq on its watch list of countries that violate religious freedom. The commission stopped just short of labeling it among the worst perpetrators of persecution-a designation it has not received since the days of Saddam Hussein and one that could lead to U.S. economic sanctions. Dagher said such a move would be wrong and could lead to further harm against Christians: "Persecution of Christians in Iraq does not come from the government. By law the Christians can worship freely. Persecution comes from the fanatics."