VATICAN CITY — An elderly couple who lost everything after fleeing their home due to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) violence met with Pope Francis on Sunday, saying the encounter gave them hope because they know they are not alone.
“The call of the Holy Father for the whole world to pray for Iraq has meant a lot to us because in this call we have seen and heard the suffering of the Holy Father due to the persecution of Christians, especially in Iraq,” Mubarack Hano told CNA Sept. 29.
“This also gives [us] strength and courage because it’s not only us who are suffering, but we have also seen that the Holy Father suffers with us.”
Mubarack Hano, 74, and his wife Agnese, 68, come from the Iraqi city of Qaqraqosh, which was formerly known as the Christian capital of the country. They married in 1965 and have 10 children — one of whom is a priest — and 12 grandchildren.
After receiving word on Aug. 6 that ISIS forces were coming to their city, the couple gathered their children and grandchildren and fled during the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
The family traveled to the nearby city of Erbil and ended up in a refugee camp, where they have been living since.
Mubarack and Agnese managed to come to Rome with one of their daughters in order to participate in Pope Francis’ Sept. 28 encounter with the elderly and grandparents, during which they met the Pope and exchanged a few brief words. They will return to their Iraqi refugee camp in the coming days.
Speaking of the encounter, Agnese told CNA that “It was a great thrill to meet the Holy Father, the Pope who gives this courage and this hope to all of us.”
“We pray for him as he also prays for us,” she said, “and we hope that with his prayers everyone will return to our home.”
Mubarak recounted the meeting, saying that when the moment for the meeting arrived, Pope Francis stood and walked toward them, embraced and welcomed them like a father “who wanted to see his children that arrived from far away.”
“He told us, ‘Have strength. Don’t feel alone anymore.’ He’s our father, our spokesman in all of the world.”
Agnese explained that what struck her most about the Holy Father was his “simplicity, his welcome and his embrace of us,” recalling how when the Pope embraced them “I burst into tears, and I felt that the Holy Father was very close to us.”
“Me, as a mother, and as all mothers, I feel even more the suffering of everyone’s children and grandchildren, and also our suffering, as mothers, as grandmothers.”
“We have lost our church where we would go pray, which for us was very important,” she said, noting that “something we’ve always taught our grandchildren is to pray to the Lord in the house of the Lord. But we don’t have the house of the Lord anymore.”
To speak of the future of Iraq right now “is very complicated, is very difficult,” the couple explained, because many people don’t have hope that they will return.
“They want to escape, to leave everything because they think of the future of their children, that maybe there will not be a future anymore, especially for the Christians of the region,” they continued, pointing out how Christianity has existed in Iraq since the beginning, “even before Islam.”
Despite the fact that many have lost the hope of returning to their homeland, the Hanos said they still maintain it because “we have the right to live in that part of Iraq. We are the eldest people in Iraq, before the arrival of Islam. We will always remain.”
An Appeal to All Christians
Right now the couple explained that their son who is a priest, Jonah, is partnering with other priests in the refugee camp to give assistance to the families living there, and is also working to help Christians throughout the region.
“Me, as a mother, I find strength in the Lord to keep smiling. But all the suffering I keep in my heart,” Agnese said between tears. “I don’t want my children to see my suffering because I want my smile to give them hope. I give them courage, but I keep all my suffering in my heart.
“We make an appeal to all Christians in the world to pray with us and for us that the Lord helps us not suffer anymore and to live in peace, like all other people in the world,” her husband voiced, “and we want others to see us as brothers and not like enemies.”
“We want every Christian in the world to pray for us and for all that we have suffered for a simple reason: we don’t want this to happen to any Christian in the world.”
He also praised U.S. military intervention in Iraq, and encouraged other western countries to follow suit and “act quickly,” saying that “they have to do this operation more quickly to help us return home.”
Observing how Pope Francis has always been close to them throughout the tragic events which have unfolded since June, Mubarack offered his thanks to the Holy Father, and recalled how they invited him to visit Iraq “to see with his own eyes, how his faithful children” are living.
“He said, ‘I would willing go to Iraq, but it also depends on many other things,’” Mubarack recounted, saying that after their encounter the Pope “has given us hope and we now feel stronger.”