POPE Francis has telephoned an Iraqi priest working in a refugee camp in the war-torn northern part of the country to express his closeness to persecuted Christians in the region.
The Pope made the call after the priest, Fr Behnam Benoka, sent a message to the Holy Father via the “Viber” messaging system. The message was sent to Rome-based journalist Alan Holdren who turned it into a letter and handed it to Pope Francis on the papal flight back from South Korea.
In the message, Fr Benoka turns to the “Holy Father, our merciful shepherd” and writes: “My name is Behnam Benoka, priest of Bartella, a small Christian town near Mosul. I am vice-rector of the Catholic seminary in Ankawa. Today, however, I find myself in a tent that has been erected with a staff of doctors and volunteers who are giving medical care to our brothers fleeing persecution.”
Fr Benoka explained to the Pope the tragic situation faced by hundreds of thousands of Christians: “Your holiness,” he writes, “the situation of your sheep is miserable; they are dying and they are hungry. Your little ones are scared and cannot hide anymore. We priests and religious are few and fear not being able to meet the physical and mental needs of your and our children.”
The priest does not fail to express gratitude for the Pope’s continued appeals to end the suffering of persecuted brothers and sisters in Iraq. “I would like to thank you so much – really thank you – because you always carry us in your heart, placing us on the altar where Mass is celebrated so that God erases our sins and has mercy on us, and hopefully take this cup away from us.”
The letter continues by expressing concerns and asking for a blessing: “I am writing with tears, because here we are, in a dark valley in the middle of a large pack of ferocious wolves. Holiness, I’m afraid of losing your children, especially infants who are struggling every day and weaken more and more. I’m afraid that death will take some away. Send us your blessing so we have the strength to go on and maybe still resist. I love you, Behnam Benoka.”
Francis’ reply was not long in coming. A day after his return to Italy, on the morning of August 19, the Pope called Fr Benoka to express how deeply moved he was by the letter. According to what he told us, the Pope expressed his gratitude for the volunteers at work in the refugee camps.
In the telephone conversation, the Pope also reiterated his full support and closeness to the persecuted Christians, promising he would continue to do his utmost to help give relief to their suffering. Finally, he imparted his apostolic blessing asking the Lord for the gift of perseverance in the faith.
In August, Pope Francis donated $1 million to help Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq who have been forced from their homes. The funds were given through his personal envoy to Iraq Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who visited the country in August.