'I will never leave you,' pope tells besieged Iraqi priest
Pope responds to priest's anguished letter with a phone call
Picture: Catholic News Agency/Daniel Ibanez
- Elise Harris for Catholic News Agency
- September 3, 2014
After sending a letter to Pope Francis on the plight Iraqi refugees fleeing ISIS violence, Fr. 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,'” Fr. 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.
Fr. Benoka is currently running a make-shift clinic in Ankawa, Iraq, near Erbil, 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 3 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,” Fr. Benoka explained, stating that the voice then said in Italian “'I am Fr. 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.”
Source: Catholic News Agency