Erbil, Iraq, Apr 18, 2015 / 13:05 pm America/Denver (CNA).
A car bomb explosion in front of the American consulate in what is considered the safest city in Iraq has left many unnerved and anxious, praying that nothing else will penetrate the stronghold.
“Certainly, everyone will be very concerned about this situation. We hope nothing more comes. We hope this refuge remains solid and strong, safe. This is what we hope because we have nowhere else to go,” Fr. Behnam Benoka told CNA from Erbil April 17.
Fr. Benoka is a priest from Bartella, a small Christian city near Mosul. He is currently the vice rector of the Catholic seminary of Ankawa, and has founded several field hospitals that serve refugees in camps outside of Ankawa, Erbil.
Ankawa is a Christian city in the governorate of Kurdish capital Erbil, where more than 70,000 Christians fled after their villages came under attack by the Islamic State (ISIS) last June.
Until now Erbil has been considered the safest city in Iraq, and attacks there have been relatively rare.
However, after yesterday’s car bombing in front of the U.S. consulate and near the hub of the Erbil diocese killed 3 and left 14 wounded, many are growing increasingly concerned about their safety.
Reuters news agency reports that the blast, which the Islamic State claimed responsibility for, was followed by gunfire and a cloud of dark smoke. It is believed that that the consulate was the main target.
The last major attack in Erbil took place in November when a suicide care bomber detonated himself outside the governor's office, killing five. That attack was also claimed by the Islamic State.
“This attack in front of the American consulate and near the Catholic bishopric of Erbil may cause the people some serious unease as they think and rethink what to do, where to go, what will happen, if there's anything more to come,” Fr. Benoka said.
It’s not just the local people who are worried, but many who come from other cities to work in Erbil and help refugees are also concerned, including both governmental and non-governmental organizations, the priest explained.
“We hope the evil stops here. We hope there's nothing more,” he said.
After beginning their bloody campaign last summer, ISIS forces have since established a caliphate and have persecuted non-Sunnis in its territory, which extends across swaths of Iraq and Syria.
ISIS has forced more than 1.2 million Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims from their homes in Iraq, under threat of death or heavy fines if they do not convert.
Last August Fr. Benoka was the recipient of a phone call from Pope Francis, who called the priest after receiving his letter detailing the plight of the Christians persecuted by ISIS.
Fr. Benoka told CNA afterward that he was “shocked” to receive the call, which lasted 3 minutes, and thought it had been a joke. However, he soon realized it wasn’t a prank, because he recognized the Pope’s voice from being in an audience with him prior.
The Pope, the priest recalled, “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.’”
He said that 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.”
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, visited Erbil as Pope Francis' personal envoy from Aug. 12-20, 2014. He returned during Holy Week this year as a sign of Francis’ love and solidarity.
When asked whether or not he planned to stay in Iraq after this latest attack, Fr. Benoka said, “I'll be here as long as the people are. I'll move with the people. As long as they're here, I'll be here.”