NEW YORK CITY ― The city that touts the greatest ethnic diversity of any single spot on the globe celebrated the Catholic Church’s first shrine dedicated to persecuted Christians around the world at St. Michael’s Church in Midtown Manhattan Tuesday.
The city, which was attacked by terrorists Sept. 11, 2001, now stands as a “Beacon of Christ’s Peace” ― a place described by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan as “a gathering place of quiet reflection for those who cherish the gift of religious freedom.”
Christ warned his followers repeatedly in the Gospels that they would assuredly experience persecution because of their love for him. St. Paul’s letters are replete with such warnings, as well.
“This is a conflict that has been going on for centuries and will not end until the final victory of Christ,” explained Father Benedict Kiely, founder of the Our Lady of Aradin Shrine.
The newly inaugurated shrine at St. Michael’s parish enshrines the Our Lady of Aradin, “Mother of the Persecuted Church” icon, which depicts the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus as Iraqis dressed in traditional wedding attire. Cardinal Dolan called the icon “timely and relevant” in a formal letter of blessing and congratulations. Cardinal Dolan was not in attendance for the inaugural June 12 Mass, but sent representatives along with his letter.
Though the two are depicted as Iraqis in the icon, the shrine is meant to be a place of prayer for the entire persecuted Church, including those who live in relative freedom in Christian-dominate countries.
Aradin means “Eden” in Aramaic, the name of the village where the icon was commissioned. Aramaic is the language Jesus spoke and is still spoken in parts of Iraq and Syria, both colloquially and in the Church liturgy.
Around the icon’s border are the words of the Ave Maria prayer written in Aramaic.
Mouthana Butres, the artist who wrote the enshrined icon, was driven from his home in the Christian town of Qaraqosh on the Nineveh Plain by the Islamic State and is now a refugee in Lebanon.
In his letter to Father Kiely, Cardinal Dolan wrote, “How timely, and how relevant, that we welcome our Mother to the heart of New York.”
“Throughout the world, but especially in the Middle East, Christian brothers and sisters are facing persecution, ethnic cleansing, martyrdom and genocide,” explained Father Kiely.
Christians are the most persecuted group in the contemporary world. In a recent letter to the United Nations, the Holy See reported that more than 100,000 Christians are violently killed every year because of their faith.
Every year, the Christian nonprofit organization Open Doors publishes the “World Watch List,” which lists the worst 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. The 2018 “World Watch List” includes the following countries as its “top 10”: North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Iran.
The International Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need reports that the religiously motivated ethnic cleansing of Christians is so severe that they are set to disappear completely from parts of the Middle East within a decade. The need to give aid is dire, as Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq, has told the Register.
“The attacks on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, marked by so much suffering and pain, but also by so many acts of bravery and courage, alerted the world to the growing reality of radical Islamic terrorism,” Father Kiely said in an interview with the Register. “Now, in 2018, attacks on Christians are happening on a daily basis somewhere in the world. There is not a single news or commentary show in today’s media landscape that regularly covers the daily vicious attacks on men, women and children solely because they are followers of Jesus Christ.”
Father Kiely, a man of calm but prayerful and focused demeanor, told the Register, “In the summer of 2014, ISIL/ISIS and other Islamic jihadists swept across the Nineveh Plain of Iraq, home to Christians since the time of the apostles. The Islamists, including ISIL/ISIS and other groups, also overran much of Syria, bombing Damascus, where St. Paul was baptized. In Egypt, Christians have been slaughtered in churches, in villages and in their homes. In Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia — even in Europe — Christians are being persecuted to the point of death for their faith. Yet this is not newsworthy.”
Father Kiely visited Iraq for the first time in 2015, not long after the Christian genocide began there. “I was struck by the tremendous faith of the people who had left with absolutely nothing because they refused to convert to Islam. ISIL/ISIS terrorists demanded they ‘convert or die’ ― instead, they chose Christ,” he said.
“I was in the devastated city of Mosul a bit ago, and it was still filled with bodies and unexploded bombs at that point. The Christians there have suffered so much, and they constantly asked for our prayers. Our shrine is a place for both victims of persecution and the relatively free Christians of the West to pray continually for the persecuted Church.”
As Cardinal Dolan remarked, the shrine will be “for all who cherish religious freedom” and “a place to pray for all the displaced Christians of the Middle East and for the whole world.”
When asked as to the appropriateness of a shrine and an icon dedicated to persecuted Christians, Father Kiely become thoughtful and pointed out that the faithful have always given such value and honor.
“Authentic prayer will always inspire some kind of action. Just as we all hold a photo of our loved ones near our hearts to remind us of their love and their closeness, so Christians, from the very beginning, have given special value and honor to images and special places of prayer and devotion,” he said.
Before creating the Our Lady of Aradin Shrine, Father Kiely founded Nasarean.org ― an organization dedicated to helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East and throughout the world
“We are at a Lepanto moment in Western history,” said Father Kiely. Lepanto refers to the 1571 naval battle that turned the tide for Christian forces, outnumbered 10-to-1 against Muslim invaders of the Ottoman Empire in the waters off southwestern Greece.
This shrine is not without precedent. There are shrines to many martyrs of Islamic and atheistic persecution, including the Shrine of the Martyrs of Otranto, the site of a Muslim invasion of Italy in 1480 in which 813 Christian men and boys were slaughtered when they refused to convert to Islam.
“We must pray with the same fervor that the Christians prayed then to save Western civilization, not just from the danger of radical Islamist extremism, but from radical, aggressive secular liberalism. Prayer for the Persecuted Church is a Christian duty,” said Father Kiely. “The witness of persecuted Christians inspires us to speak the truth in love and to bear witness, even to martyrdom, in our society. In other words, have some guts to live the faith.”
Angelo Stagnaro writes from New York City.