The first time a band of Islamic State militants “visited” the monks, they presented the monks with a kind of suggestion, in a nonthreatening manner: “Why don’t you become a Muslim?”
Already, the four monks at the ancient Syriac Catholic Mar Behnam Monastery in Khidr, Iraq, had felt they were under siege. Ten days earlier, on June 10, 2014, five carloads of militants roared through the peaceful road leading to Mar Behnam, announcing through megaphones that the Islamic State was in control. Not long before that, the Iraqi army had withdrawn from a checkpoint near the monastery, located southeast of Mosul.
“Visits” from the terrorists the next few weeks intensified: banging on the monastery doors and accusations of the monks being infidels.
“Quite frankly, we were more than frightened,” said Syriac Catholic Father Youssef Sakat, who had served as Mar Behnam’s superior.
The monks kept up with their regular daily routine of prayer and Mass in the monastery, which dates back to the fourth century. They prayed for protection through the intercession of St. Behnam, a martyr, with faith that “we were in a blessed place,” mindful that generations of Syriac Catholic Christians had also faced persecution, and still the faith had endured, Father Sakat told Catholic News Service.
The monastery “was built by local people, stone by stone,” he said of Mar Behnam. “I’m sure they put their hearts into their work. I feel it was made with love.”
Under Father Sakat’s direction since 2012, Mar Behnam had flourished, welcoming up to 250 visitors on weekends — even from around the world — for retreats and lodging with the goal of helping people to better understand the monastic life. The monks would engage the children in lively faith-based activities.
“We wanted to show them that Mar Behnam is their home, too,” Father Sakat said.
A Muslim friend the monks trusted was keeping them abreast of the worsening situation, but even he was becoming fearful.
“I’m sorry, Father, I can’t come to the monastery anymore,” he told the priest. “Even I’m being watched. It’s becoming very dangerous. They want to kill you.”
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