Photo: An Iraqi refugee carries a mattress at a camp near the northern city of Irbil in June. (CNS photo/Stringer, EPA)
By Elise Harris
Vatican City, Sept. 1, (CNA/EWTN News) – After sending a letter to Pope Francis on the plight of Iraqi refugees fleeing ISIS violence, Father Behnam Benoka received a phone call from the pontiff who gave his blessing and assured of his prayers.
“’I read your letter,’ said the Pope. He said he was very sorry for everything that was happening to us and he said, ‘Know that I am with you in prayer always. I never forget you,’” Father Benoka told CNA Aug. 31.
Pope Francis told him, “I’ve personally sent Cardinal Filoni to check on the situation there for me. Tell everyone that Pope Francis called you. I never forget you and I’ll never leave you,” the priest added.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, visited Erbil as Pope Francis’ personal envoy from Aug. 12-20.
Father Benoka is currently running a make-shift clinic in Ankawa, Iraq, near Irbil, which he formed following an influx of thousands of refugees who have fled the violence waged by the militant Islamic group ISIS in surrounding cities.
Erbil, where more than 70,000 Christians have fled from the Islamic State, is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and is within 50 miles of territory held by the Islamic State.
To receive a call from the Pope, he said, felt like “when you’re a kid and you have a problem or an emergency and your Mom and Dad are the first to come to mind because you know they’ll defend and protect you.”
“It was like that, calling the person that could help us the most. I was able to get word through to him, and it felt like this, like a true father.”
When he received the Aug. 19 call, which lasted three minutes, the priest explained that he was on his way to the bank to deposit donations that were received to help with the needs of the clinic.
“I was in a taxi heading to the bank to get the money. It was 50 degrees Celsius and there was no air conditioning at 11:10 in the morning nearing the height of the heat,” he said, when he got a call from an unknown number.
“’Nam?’ I said. That’s the way we answer. There was a ‘Pronto?’ in Italian on the other end,” Father Benoka explained, stating that the voice then said in Italian “’I am Father Francis.’ ‘Who is it? Who?’ I asked. I couldn’t hear very well. ‘No! It’s Pope Francis!’”
“I was in shock for a few seconds. I looked at the taxi driver to see if it was something like candid camera. It didn’t look like it. Then, I thought it could be a friend playing a joke on me. But I had heard that voice before when I was in an audience with him. It was really the Pope. It was the same voice.”
People in the area “are very happy” to hear about the conversation between the Pope and their priest, Father Benoka said, noting that “They were very struck and said that we really needed this.”
The Islamic State has forced more than 1.2 million Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims from their homes in Iraq since June, under threat of death or heavy fines if they do not convert.
The city of Qaraqosh fell to forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – known as ISIS – last month. The town was one of Iraq’s largest Christian towns until the Kurdish military forces known as the Peshmerga withdrew from it.
Qaraqoush is located roughly 19 miles southeast of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which Islamic State forces captured in June.
Thousands of Christians and other minorities fled Mosul following a July 18 ultimatum demanding they convert, pay the jizya tax or be killed. They scattered to other towns in the Nineveh province and in Iraqi Kurdistan.
After the fall of Qaraqosh, tens of thousands of refugees arrived to Erbil and Ankawa overnight, the priest explained, stating that right now the situation is very difficult, and many have gone missing, or been taken hostage with no knowledge of their well-being.
“There are numerous hostages about whom we don’t know much right now. Young girls, women, kids, men. They might be in Qaraqosh. We don’t know where they are. Most are Syro-Catholics,” the priest explained.
Both “A three-year old” and “a 30-some year old woman and others” were taken by ISIS while fleeing Qaraqosh, Father Benoka explained. “We don’t know what has happened to them.”
His clinic, which is referred to as the “Emergency tent,” is “the most used medical facility in all of Ankawa,” the priest noted, revealing how they currently assist an average of 500 people a day through both local doctors who have volunteered their time, as well as those who have arrived as refugees themselves and are working on a volunteer basis.
Father Benoka reported that at least one person dies in the clinic per day, mostly of whom are elderly, and that many are suffering from over-exposure due to the intense heat and long hours spent in the sun as they fled.
Living in sub-par conditions, people suffer from both mental agitation and hysteria due to the trauma they have undergone, the priest explained, noting that one woman even attempted suicide, and that a case of leprosy has been found.
Funding for the clinic is currently being received through specific individuals in Spain, Sweden and Iraq, he said, however no other, larger organization, has volunteered to offer assistance.
“You can imagine that we’re not going to return now to our houses!” the priest lamented, “There are armies in our streets. What’s going to be left? What will they have done?”