As ISIS terrorists forced Father Behnam Benoka and his fellow Christian people from their homes last summer, they left behind possessions, money, documents, and history.
Carrying nothing but faith, Benoka, the former rector of the seminary in Mosul, Iraq, set up a makeshift health clinic at a refugee camp for internally displaced minorities near Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
As he went about recruiting volunteer physicians to dispense free medicine and health care to desperate Iraqis, Benoka received a blessing from a faraway — but closely connected — source: the most powerful religious figure in the world.
Indeed, at his lowest moment last August, Benoka wrote a letter to Pope Francis, asking for love and blessings. Francis answered the prayer with a phone call, vowing to Benoka that “I will never leave you.”
“I wrote to him that we are dying, we are suffering, I am afraid that his children, his little children are dying, please help them, help us,” Benoka says.
“He called me. He told me certainly, sure I am with you, I will [not] forget you, I will [do] all possible to help you.”
More than a year after the phone call — near the anniversary of when Iraqi Christians, Yezidis and Shabaks of the Nineveh Plains were forced to flee their homelands — Benoka visited the United States for the first time, to coincide with Francis’ arrival in America.
The two were not to meet while they were here, but Benoka, who came to Washington, D.C., to lobby for financial and moral support for displaced Christians, closely followed Francis’ message.
“He is our father — he could go to places we cannot,” Benoka, 37, told The Daily Signal in an interview Thursday.
“As the messenger of the church, of the Christian persecuted, I hope he can defend us to the authorities. I hope, especially now in this great nation, in the U.S.A., he could [share] our message, to authorities here in Congress, the White House and U.N., to speak against our genocide, and to defend us here. That is our hope.”
Today, Benoka runs two clinics, where 60 staff members can provide services such as dental care, pediatric care, ultrasounds and even surgery.
But that is not enough. Benoka says there are some people too sick to serve. There is a shortage of medicine. It would also help to operate his clinic out of an actual building, not a tent, as he does now.
More than anything, Benoka would like to restore Iraq’s rich Christian history. For that to happen, Iraq’s Christians will have to overcome the greatest period of violence against them since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I, 100 years ago.
“It is very hard so see the suffering. We are losing them. The world is losing Christians from Iraq. That is a big loss for humanitarian heritage. Yes, we would like to live in peace and security. But we would also like to continue our culture. We are going to disappear.”