A French-Catholic Humanitarian Tells His Story of Islamist Captivity in Iraq
For 66 days in 2020, Alexandre Goodarzy and three colleagues with SOS Chrétien Orient were held captive.
ROME — In January 2020, Alexandre Goodarzy was bundled into the back of a car in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad along with three other colleagues belonging to SOS Chrétien d’Orient, a French-based charity helping people in disaster areas requiring humanitarian aid.
Fearing for their lives, the four Catholic charity workers were held captive by Islamists for 66 days, during which they were threatened with execution, dragged from hideout to hideout, and psychologically tortured.
In this May 16 interview with the Register, Goodarzy recounts the terror of that ordeal, how his faith helped him through it, and why it was, ironically, the coronavirus that rescued them. He also explains what motivated him to work to defend persecuted Christians in Syria and how the country’s people are dealing with continued hardship today.
Goodarzy gives more detail of the kidnapping, explains more about the work of SOS Chrétien d’Orient in Syria and the Middle East, and shares other dangerous episodes he has experienced while working in the region in a new book: Kidnapped in Iraq: A Christian Humanitarian Tells His Story (Sophia Institute Press, 2022).
SOS Chrétien d’Orient was co-founded in 2013 by young French Catholic Benjamin Blanchard and grew out of La Manif Pour Tous (March for All), a popular movement in France that led to millions marching for life and against same-sex “marriage” and adoption. Since its creation, 2,500 young SOS Chrétien d’Orient volunteers have been deployed in mission countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, to provide material aid and moral support to the poorest families.
Alexandre, what motivated you to write this book, Kidnapped in Iraq: A Christian Humanitarian Tells His Story?
For a long time, I have wanted to share my experience in Syria, what was happening there. Above all, I wanted to also explain what drove me to go there and then to bear witness to what our brothers are experiencing on a daily basis in these times of war. It is impossible to do otherwise when you hear most of the media distorting the reality and, sometimes worse, ignoring it completely.
Giving a voice to the Syrians was a duty. My kidnapping was an opportunity to start writing seriously. It also allowed me, on a personal level, to turn the page.
Could you tell us briefly about your kidnapping ordeal? How did it happen, why did they capture you, what did you experience, and how were you released?
We went to Baghdad to register our charity. It was Jan. 20, 2020, and Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s No. 2 and leader of the Shiite militias from Lebanon to Afghanistan, had just been shot by a U.S. drone 17 days before our arrival on the road to Baghdad airport, on Jan. 3, 2020.
Four hours after I landed in the Iraqi capital, I’m in a cab with my three colleagues — Antoine, Julien and Tarek — when a vehicle overtakes us on the left and pulls up in front of us in order to block the road. A second car is positioned just behind us to make any escape impossible. Immediately, five or six hooded men, armed, in combat gear, are yelling while pointing their weapons in our direction. We are pulled out of our seats and thrown into their two large GMCs. Separated in two cars, I find myself with Antoine, where we are stripped of all our belongings. They ask us who we are and what we are doing there. They shout in Arabic. We don’t answer. We don’t show that I understand them, as I don’t want them to know that I understand Arabic. Finally, the four of us are put in a very dirty shed in the middle of nowhere.
During these 66 days of captivity, we are carried from one hideout to another. Each time we change location, we are led to believe that freedom is approaching, that we’ll finally be free. A light is constantly on in our places of confinement. First a hangar, then a 6-by-3 meter room made of sheet metal, then a concrete basement where we are locked up, and finally in a kind of building that has obviously just been built. They seemed to have built a prison just for us. We experience mock executions, automatic weapons firing all around us every time it gets dark. Every time we sleep, they are shooting around us, at the hyenas that roam the area after dark. At the foot of our door, they play chants from the Quran on a loop from morning to night, day and night, for a week. They feed us, but sometimes they forget about us. Sometimes we don’t eat anything for more than 24 hours. Once we had only two cans of tuna for four people for two and a half days.
One night, from our basement, we could hear people being tortured above us. A man and a woman were dying. We could hear them groaning in pain and dying. They were torturing us psychologically. They told us that we would never get out of our prison.
How did you deal with your Islamist kidnappers? Were you ever concerned they might make a spectacle of you, perhaps releasing a video before execution, as has happened in the past?
The exchanges between them and us were limited. There was no interrogation as such, except after 48 hours of confinement when they pretended to present themselves to us as intelligence agents. We were blindfolded, and they asked us who we were and what we were doing in Iraq. When we said we were humanitarians and that we were helping Christians, they called us liars and accused us of espionage. The verdict was out.
The men who kidnapped us were members of Asaeb ahl al Haq, one of the many Shiite militias that make up Hashd ash Shabi [otherwise known as Popular Mobilization Forces, 67 different armed mostly Shia factions formed in 2014 to fight against the Islamic State].
Were you able to make contact with your wife and son, and how did they deal with your kidnapping?
We had no contact with the outside world at any time and with no one. When we asked to at least be able to tell our families that we were okay because we knew they were worried, the commander of our guards became angry. He firmly told us that the 20 or 30 years we had spent with our families were already enough, that our fate was sealed and that we should never ask for such a thing again: Family, loved ones were history, and now we had to forget them forever. “Your life ends here,” he threateningly concluded.
You were captured around the time the COVID emergency was beginning. Were you concerned that you would be forgotten and a rescue would be out of the question?
The pandemic hadn’t started yet, but it was about to. From where we were, we knew nothing of the outside world. Our daily life was spent within four walls, and we were never given any information about life outside.
Personally, I had little hope that we would ever be found. We knew that the U.S. and Iran were escalating their violence, and we feared that we would be caught in the crossfire.
We suspected that one way or another there would be exchanges between our kidnappers and the French state. But how long would the negotiations last? Would we come out of it unscathed? There were thousands of questions and not a single answer.
We had to acceptingly abandon ourselves in order not to go crazy. God was our only help.
How much did your faith and prayer life play a role in sustaining you through the trauma of capture? How did you spend your days?
We could not have held on if we didn’t entrust our situation into God’s hands. We went through several phases. I personally started by praying, almost mechanically. I was afraid of dying. Then I went through a phase of rebellion: I was angry at God, angry that he remained silent. Later, I stopped fighting against the Lord. I accepted my fate. I entrusted our situation to him and tried to understand the positive side of living in such a situation. I started to pray for my purification, my sanctification. I understood that the Lord was allowing this trial to cleanse me of everything that attached me to hell while I was still alive. I lived this imprisonment like a severe Ignatian retreat.
Could you tell us more about your release?
As crazy as it sounds, it was the coronavirus that set us free. On March 26, 2020, we were finally free. If the virus hadn’t happened, we might still be there, or dead for a long time. The day the men who held us captive told us that we were to be freed, we did not believe them. They had already taunted us several times and made us believe many times that our release was imminent. It was painful each time to realize that we were not actually going to get out.
On that day, he tells us it’s different. We don’t react. We almost don’t want to listen. Then he tells us about a disease that is ravaging the world. We seriously think he is still laughing at us. He mentions deaths by the millions all over the world. What he describes to us looks like an apocalypse. Sensing our disbelief, he turns on a television and puts on the BBC. Everything he was describing was real. The capitals of the world are shown with always the same images: empty streets, masked people, controls, dead people in hospitals. We can’t believe it! Then we realize that if he is telling the truth, that if we are getting out, it is because of this virus!
If we died of the coronavirus, it would have been difficult for them to explain it to the French authorities with whom they were surely negotiating. Keeping us long enough to raise the stakes is one thing, but giving back four corpses because they were not able to protect us from an epidemic was another. From a hoped-for spoils of war, we were finally discounted. We were no longer valuable. And if we died, then we would only bring them retaliation.
As they told us when we entered the cell to announce our release: “As of today, you will all be with your families in less than a week!” And that is exactly what happened. …
You describe in the book how Syrian Christians have often faced kidnapping by Kurds. Can you describe what they underwent? What kind of persecution do Syrian Christians have to face today?
Since the beginning of the war, the Christians of the Syrian Northeast have been subjected to real blackmail by the Kurds of the PYD [Democratic Union Party of Syria]. The weakening of the central power (in Damascus) has given them the illusion that they could finally create a Kurdistan. They are imposing images of their martyrs, those of their leader, Ocalan, systematically throughout the region and are putting pressure on the inhabitants.
The Christians are paying the price for their loyalty to the government. I have seen scenes of fathers weeping in front of their priests because their son has been imprisoned. They would not release him until he agreed to join the Kurdish Army (YPG). If he doesn’t want to, then his family has to pay a heavy fine. The poor father I saw weeping didn’t have the money to get his son out of prison.
The Kurds took advantage, from the beginning of the conflict, of the growing presence of the Daesh [Islamic State] a little further south of the Jazira region [Northeast Syria], to seize Christian villages under the pretext of securing them. The houses have been looted, the crops of the land plundered, the agricultural equipment stolen. Christians in the countryside have been literally stripped of everything they own. The Kurds then sell everything in Turkey with the help of their PKK brothers [a Kurdish militant group] to feed the war effort against the Islamic State, but especially against Ankara.
In the cities of Jazira, the Kurdish language has been established as a regional and administrative language. In the schools, the teachers must teach the entire curriculum in Kurdish. An institutional Kurdishization was established in 2012.
The Christians have remained loyal to the Syrian government, despite everything, by not responding to Kurdish pressure. But what they feared most was not so much Kurdish stupidity, but, rather, the Turkish cruelty that would soon counterattack. Neither the Syrian state nor the Turkish state has any interest in seeing a Kurdish state being formed in Northeast Syria. The Christians know that the Turks will take their revenge on the Kurds at some point and that on that day the Turks won’t make small talk with the people of the region.
History has proven them right. On Oct. 9, 2019, the day of the American withdrawal, the Turks launched an offensive against the Kurds in the region, and all the Arab, Kurdish, Christian inhabitants became their target.
What precautions have you taken to perhaps better ensure your security in the future — in Syria and elsewhere?
We have always respected security procedures, but there are situations where no matter how careful you are, what has to happen happens! The Quai d’Orsay [France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs], which was responsible for our liberation, strongly recommended that we not set foot in Iraq again. I confess that I don’t want to go back there either. The kidnappers had warned us when they released us: “Don’t come back, and tell the French not to come to Iraq! If we find them, they will not get the same special treatment as you; we will execute them without warning!”