Seven young women in Kirkuk credit the Virgin Mary for their safety
after spending a harrowing eight hours hidden underneath beds while
Islamic State group fighters used their room as a hideout during an
assault on the city.
“The Virgin Mary was with them,” Fr. Roni Momika told CNA Oct. 23.
The priest, who ministers in refugee camps of Ankawa, Erbil in
northern Iraq, was in cell phone contact with two of the girls while
they hid under the beds. They gave him a play-by-play account of what
Seven women, university students in Kirkuk, found themselves
threatened by the Islamic State group’s assault on the city Friday, Oct.
“ISIS entered the house of our students, the girls,” the priest reported.
When they heard the militants coming, the women quickly darted under
four beds in one of the rooms, where they remained undiscovered for
eight hours as ISIS fighters used the room as a refuge to eat, pray and
hide from Iraqi Army forces.
“I was speaking with them all the time,” Fr. Momika said, noting how
there was “a strong girl” who told him “Father, I will continue speaking
with you and tell you all our news and what ISIS is saying.”
For the duration of their time there, the militants not only ate and
prayed, but used the beds to care for two of their fighters who were
“On one bed there is a lot of blood,” the priest said.
He shared with CNA some photos taken of the room after the soldiers
left. He explained that “when ISIS was attacked by our army (the Iraqi
Army) there were two people from ISIS injured, and ISIS put them here on
these beds...and under the beds were the girls.”
Fr. Momika said he was in constant contact with the girls, telling
them not to forget their faith, and to “pray to the Virgin Mary, she
will come to help you.”
In what both the priest and the girls view as a miracle, “ISIS didn’t
see them,” Fr. Momika said. One of the girls told him later that “when
ISIS entered our room, they didn’t see us (and) we feel that the Virgin
Mary closed their eyes from seeing us.”
The attack on Kirkuk took place amid a wider offensive on the part of
the Iraqi and Kurdish armies to retake the city of Mosul, which was
taken by Islamic State group forces in 2014 and declared a caliphate.
On Oct. 17 Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the ground
offensive to retake Mosul from the clutches of Islamic State, which has
been months in the making.
In addition to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, U.S. troops, British and
French Special Forces, and a number of Turkish soldiers are supporting
the Iraqi army in the battle, which was initially expected to take
between several weeks to several months to complete. However, the
process has been going quicker than expected.
Mosul is the last major stronghold the Islamic State has in Iraq.
They have been steadily retreating since the end of last year in battles
against Iraqi and Peshmerga forces, as well as airstrikes from the
The attack on Kirkuk left some 80 people, mostly security forces,
dead. It was largely seen as an attempt to distract Iraqi and Kurdish
forces from the Mosul offensive.
According to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, at least 30 members of
ISIS were still holed up in different parts of Kirkuk. However, the
assault was officially declared over as of Saturday morning.
Fr. Momika explained that the seven girls were among more than 100
refugees taking university classes in Kirkuk after being driven out of
their hometowns by the Islamic State group in 2014.
Many of the girls come from Mosul and other cities nearby such as
Bartella, Alqosh and Telskuf, he said. All of them had studied at the
University of Mosul before the invasion.
Although their families are living inside the refugee camps in Erbil,
the girls, in addition to a number of boys, wanted to continue their
studies, but were unable to attend university classes in Erbil.
They then enrolled at the University of Kirkuk. Since traveling back
and forth everyday was dangerous, they stayed in houses the Church had
been renting in the city, returning to Erbil on the weekends.
Fr. Momika said he is happy that all of the students escaped
unharmed. Two of his fellow priests, Fr. George Jahola and another named
Fr. Petros, who was ordained with him Aug. 5, traveled to Kirkuk
Saturday to pick the girls up and bring them back to Erbil.
He also spoke about the liberation of his hometown, Qaraqosh. The
town was formerly regarded as the Christian capital of Iraq before the
invasion in 2014 forced 120,000 people to evacuate in one night. Most of
its residents are now living in refugee camps in Erbil.
On Saturday Iraqi and Kurdish forces entered Qaraqosh, which sits
about 20 miles from Mosul. Although the town is said to be largely
empty, Islamic State group militants have destroyed much of the city.
They left landmines strewn along the road to Mosul.
Fr. Momika said that Iraqi soldiers have raised the Iraqi flag in Qaraqosh, replacing that of the Islamic State.
“Qaraqosh is liberated,” he said. He cautioned that there are still
dangers, like Islamic State group fighters who are hiding throughout the
He passed on a report that Islamic State fighters “made a big, deep
hole” in the ground, climbed into it and “bombed themselves” as the
Iraqi and Kurdish armies advanced.
The priest, who was still a seminarian when he himself forced to flee
the city, said he finds it hard to talk about what happened to
Qaraqosh, “because we saw some photos, and they made us feel sad.”
“There are a lot of places destroyed, and ISIS burned our church and
ISIS broke all our crosses that were above the churches,” he said. A
very important church in the region had been destroyed.
“It’s difficult for us because it’s our history. It’s a big church in
the Middle East, in Qaraqosh,” he said, explaining that the sight is
similar for the neighboring town of Bartella. That Christian village was
recently liberated by the Iraqi Army.
“Yesterday the priests, they entered the church in Bartella and they
saw everything was dark, because ISIS burned everything,” he said.
He voiced hope that there would be no sight of Islamic State
militants in Qaraqosh as the city is secured over the next few days. He
had a request: “pray for us.”