Here is a piece I did for the Dallas Morning News when the news came out the other day, that the torture of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib included forcing them to blaspheme Islam. I was emailing with a friend, an editor at DMN, about it and said that it reminded me of the Communists forcing Christians to do similar things in their prisons--this seems to be a staple of torture. My friend asked me to write it up as a column and so here it is.
I apologize that there is some very ugly material described here, and invite you not to read it and just skip this post.
While most of the world is reeling at the ugliness perpetrated by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, I've had the feeling I've seen it all before. Rather, I've heard it, from a white-haired Romanian priest who suffered in the dread
The genius of
Prisoners were compelled to confess their own crimes against the state and to betray others, even beloved family members. But since the point of Pitesti was not just extortion of information but re-education (that is, brainwashing), the work proceeded in a series of "unmaskings." The phase of "public moral unmasking" required the prisoner to blaspheme and renounce their deepest emotional ties and spiritual convictions: "I lied when I said 'I believe in God.' I lied when I said, 'I love my mother and my father.'" Everything that held the personality together had to be destroyed. Christians were compelled to participate in blasphemous versions of Romanian Orthodox liturgical rites: a parody baptism was performed as their heads were dunked in a bucket of urine and feces.
Prison authorities devised black masses which, according to "The Black Book of Communism," were "extremely pornographic" and "rephrased the original [service] in a demonic fashion." "The Virgin Mary was called 'the Great Whore,' and Jesus 'the xxxx who died on the cross.'" On Holy Saturday in 1950, a day that for Orthodox combines the greatest Lenten solemnity with Easter hope, a seminarian was chosen to play the priest. He was stripped naked, clothed in a robe stained with feces, and around his neck was hung a phallus made of bread and soap, powdered with DDT. The other prisoners, who would in a usual church service pass before the priest and kiss the cross in his hand, were made to line up and kiss this blasphemy.
That's not quite all. In the final phase of unmasking, prisoners were required to prove their full conversion by torturing other prisoners, including their best friends. "It was in this fourth part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves," Fr. George says. This ingenious step insured that the spirit would be utterly broken, and that distrust and misery would make cooperation in an uprising much less likely. It also meant that the prisoners got no rest; tortured by authorities all day, and at night by a cellmate.
The Devil's malice may no know bounds, but it seems his creativity has limits. Wherever people want to hurt, humiliate, and coerce others familiar elements keep resurfacing: sexual abuse, excrement, and blasphemy. Note that last. No matter how much a culture thinks religion doesn't matter, it still keeps coming up. An indispensable element of torture is forcing people to blaspheme their own religion, as a Muslim former Abu Ghraib detainee has told
What happened to Fr. George? He was detained in
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