It was an emotional press conference at the Kosice, Slovakia, landing field after 149 Iraqi Christian refugees disembarked on December 10 to start their new lives as strangers in a strange land.
In front of international media, their spiritual leader, Father Douglas Al-Bazi, named the behind-the-scenes heroes in the rescue mission. And then he borrowed from a classical Jewish rabbinic text, the Mishnah.
He thanked Aron Shaviv and his associate Michal Repa, saying, “There would be no evacuation and resettlement without your ability to open the doors for us. Please consider us as your life-long friends and family. We know that you understand, ‘When you save a life, you save all of humanity.’ Thank you for helping save so many.”
The priest must be excused by those who recognize this famous Jewish saying from Mishnah Sanhedrin and sense the translation is a little off. The Mishnah was written in Hebrew, not in Al-Bazi flock’s native tongue, Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke to his disciples, and the rare lingua franca of these Iraqi Christians.
Al-Bazi’s congregation, almost a quarter of which is now in Slovakia, hail from the northern Iraqi/Kurdi town of Qaraqosh. What was once the center of Iraqi Christianity was invaded by ISIS in August 2014. Tens of thousands Christians fled overnight. Facing a terrible dust storm, many abandoned their vehicles and walked the 50 kilometers to the nearest big city, Erbil, Iraq.
In Erbil, some 560 Christians from Qaraqosh sought refuge at Al-Biza’s Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church. Originally sleeping under the open sky, they soon moved to tents, and then to the semi-permanent “caravans,” the mobile-home like structures in which hundreds currently dwell.
So how did Shaviv, the Israeli founder and CEO of Shaviv Strategy and Campaigns, get caught up in the Iraqi Christian refugee crisis?
The international political strategist, who, in addition to working on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent reelection, has fought alongside 10 European heads of state on their political campaigns. As a key member of their teams, he potentially could get the refugees’ plight heard, when others could not.
In short, in order to get the Iraqi Christians resettled somewhere close by — hopefully in Europe or maybe a sympathetic country such as Israel — Shaviv and his Bratislava-based associate Repa had to go knock on a lot of doors.
The real heroes in the story, said Shaviv in a conversation with The Times of Israel this week, begin with Al-Bazi, who started the rescue operation through an SOS call to the US-based Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
Al-Bazi’s concern in getting his congregants to safety came from personal knowledge of what extremist Muslims are capable of: In 2006 he was shot in his leg and kidnapped by Islamic extremists who, over a nightmarish nine days, tortured him — breaking his teeth, back and nose. His leg still carries his souvenir bullet.
A few days after the refugees made it to the Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church, ISIS fighters entered the town and gave Al-Bazi and the Christian refugees a 24-hour ultimatum: “Or be killed, or convert,” said Al-Bazi in an hour-long 20/20 special on the rescue mission.
The refugees knew this was no idle threat: Just before invading Qaraqosh, ISIS had entered and destroyed its surrounding towns, kidnapping and raping women and girls, killing their male relatives.
In the meantime, the fighters desecrated Erbil’s churches and, removing the crucifixes, mounted the ISIS flag on their spires. They destroyed or marked Christian homes with an Arabic letter denoting “Nazarene” or Christian.
“When people arrived, they were completely lost,” Al-Bazi told 20/20. Many, he said, had lost the will to live. It was clear to him that there is no longer a secure future for Christians in Iraq.
‘Do you think we have choices? We don’t have choices here. I’m surprised my people still exist here’
According to The Guardian, one million Christians, meaning at least two-thirds of Iraqi Christians, have fled the country since the fall of Sadaam Hussein. Other estimates put the current figure closer to 200,000.
“Do you think we have choices? We don’t have choices here. I’m surprised my people still exist here,” Father Al-Bazi said.
The Hudson Institute, understanding the complex nature of the Iraqi rescue operation and surrounding security checks of any potential refugees, contracted those whom Shaviv calls the real heroes of the story: Joseph and Michele Assad, former CIA agents who specialized in counter-terrorism.
For Joseph Assad, the assignment was personal. As a 19-year-old Coptic Christian, he fled religious persecution in Egypt and gained asylum in the US. Aside from a baseline humanitarian impetus, Assad says that in seeing how the Iraqis wanted a better life for their children, this rescue became for him a matter of “giving people hope. Giving them the chance, that somebody once took on me.”
The 20/20 special dramatically depicts the Assads’ work during a suspenseful few days before the flight to Slovakia, of getting final clearances, finding the most secure path to the airport, nervously waiting through an unexpected 48-hour closure due to Russian bombing, and the subsequent rehiring of a new charter plane.
‘They took our houses, and we became one family. They took our churches, and now we became one church… Actually, we took from them, everything’
At Al-Bazi’s compound, nearly half of the 560 refugees are under age 18. And although the facilities are bleak, with hundreds of refugees making use of only a few toilets, sinks and showers, school began within the first week of their arrival. Today there is a computer lab and a trauma room.
“They took our houses, and we became one family. They took our churches, and now we became one church… Actually, we took from them, everything,” said Al-Bazi, who previously ran a school in Baghdad.
However normal Al-Bazi and his staff have tried to make this most abnormal situation, when interviewed, crying teenage girls said that even the name ISIS evokes fear in them.
Knowing what it is like to be marked as a Christian, Assad told 20/20, “We are rescuing people that are the most vulnerable.”
The Assads contacted their old friend Shaviv to help smooth the diplomatic road and secure a safe landing-pad for the refugees. In conversation with The Times of Israel, Shaviv said, “I didn’t ask too many questions. I just said let’s see what we can do.”
And so, along with Repa, he got to work, combing through and contacting his network of political connections. The team tried at least a dozen countries before getting a hearing in Slovakia.
‘The determining messaging that got them to really identify and take ownership was that this is the last Christian community on earth that speaks the language of Jesus’
“My policy was the path of least resistance — the first country that showed any kind of positive leanings was Slovakia,” said Shaviv.
The strategist explained that it was important in Slovakia, still a very traditional Catholic country, to get both the Vatican and its local religious authorities involved.
“We thought that the right approach was to get the Slovak church to take ownership and say these are our people,” said Shaviv.
And after many trips to the Vatican, it came on board in saving its Iraqi Catholics.
“The determining messaging that got them to really identify and take ownership was that this is the last Christian community on earth that speaks the language of Jesus,” said Shaviv.
The Vatican’s Slovakia emissary aided in many aspects of the refugee’s potential absorption, including in working with local charities to find a suitable facility for their first six weeks of intensive language training and acclimation.
Shaviv said that several factors contributed to the Slovakian government’s commendable willingness to accept the refugees. For one, although it was the first European Union country to state it was not willing to accept Muslims during the massive waves of migrants and refugees reaching European shores in 2015, like all EU countries, it must fulfill a refugee quota.
This quota has drawn mounting resentment from Slovakia and other EU member nations. The Associated Press reported that on Tuesday, four Central European members, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, which form an informal grouping known as the Visegrad Four or V4, rejected any compulsory refugee quotas.
This came as no surprise. Earlier in January, AP reported that Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said integrating refugees is impossible, saying “the idea of multicultural Europe has failed.” Fico further said his government sees a “clear link” between the waves of refugees and the Paris attacks.
However, the Al-Bazi refugees, Shaviv said, would be coming with security vetting done by the Assads, and are a homogenous community.
“There were no unknowns — no ‘free radicals’ in the system,” joked Shaviv.
The other driving force that sweetened the Slovakian pot was Glenn Beck’s charity and his Mercury One’s Nazarene Fund, which has raised more than $12 million for resettlement efforts. In essentially funding what Israelis would call an “absorption basket,” to streamline their integration, the refugees will receive housing, learn Slovak and be trained for jobs for about three years.
The mainstreaming of the Iraqi refugees is of upmost importance to Slovakia.
Peter Hulényi, the Slovak ambassador to Israel, told The Times of Israel this week that for a country to act responsibly, it must take into consideration the refugees’ absorption. As such, he said that for Slovakia as a nation, “it is much easier to absorb Christians,” who have at least faith in common with native Slovakians, regardless of their origin states.
He explained, “It’s not as though there aren’t Muslim refugees in Slovakia, there are of course. But the Slovak concern, and the responsible concern of any country is absorption, and we are better able to absorb Christians.”
Hulényi applauded the coordinated international response and welcomed the close cooperation with each of the countries involved and that of the NGO sector.
“The rescue operation also illustrate an effort of Slovak government to help most vulnerable refugees, particularly Christian families with children from Syria or Iraq, as they belong to most vulnerable communities and as they are most likely to stay in our country,” said Hulényi.
There are still over 400 refugees in Al-Bazi’s church compound. Even this week, Shaviv and the priest were in Europe, knocking on doors and looking for other host countries.
There may soon be room for optimism, however. Beck announced on his website in early January that there are two countries already on the table. Is one Poland, which in July absorbed 42 Syrian Christian families under an initiative by the late Lord George Weidenfeld, who died this week. Maybe even Israel?
Shaviv would neither confirm nor deny any suggested nation state.
“We’re going to finish the job; we’ll finalize that, and move on,” said Shaviv.