Aiding the Oppressed: Network of Shrines to Help Persecuted Christians Underway
‘If we are not praying in a consistent and constant way for other members of the Church — wherever they are — who are being persecuted for their faith in Christ, how can we claim to be faithful followers of the Lord?’
“We are delighted by your prayers as oppressed Christians of Iraq,” said Yohanna Towaya, a Syriac Catholic grandfather who was made destitute under ISIS and now experiences daily uncertainty and hardship in northern Iraq. “We are in dire need of them. This unites us as the Body of Christ.”
Towaya was speaking to the Register Nov. 30 in light of three shrines to persecuted Christians established over the past four years by Nasarean.org, a Vermont-based Catholic charity dedicated to helping Christians facing persecution.
The first such shrine was installed in St. Michael’s Church in Midtown Manhattan in June 2018. It enshrines the icon of Our Lady of Aradin, “Mother of the Persecuted Church,” which depicts the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus as Iraqis dressed in traditional wedding attire.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York described the shrine as “timely and relevant” and a “place of quiet reflection for all those who cherish the gift of religious freedom.”
Since then two more have been established — at Our Lady of the Assumption & St. Gregory Ordinariate Church in London, and at St. John the Beloved Church in Clinton, Massachusetts — and more are planned. Nasarean.org is currently looking at establishing a shrine in Sweden next year as many Christians have emigrated there from the Middle East.
“Prayer for our suffering brethren is an essential part of believing in the Church as the Body of Christ,” said Nasarean.org’s founder, Father Benedict Kiely. “If we are not praying in a consistent and constant way for other members of the Church — wherever they are — who are being persecuted for their faith in Christ, how can we claim to be faithful followers of the Lord?”
‘Wonderful Occasions of Prayer’
Father Kiely, a priest of the ordinariate in England, told the Register that the idea for the shrines came about because he believed occasional intercessions at Mass were insufficient “when you think that Christians are now the most persecuted religious group in the world.”
Nasarean.org therefore aims to install these dedicated places of prayer in many diocese — preferably cathedrals, but otherwise in churches designated by the bishop. Father Kiely said the three shrines already established “have all been wonderful occasions of prayer” and greeted with “much enthusiasm.”
“What touches me most is the fact that our brethren in some of these countries like Iraq and Lebanon are so grateful for these shrines,” Father Kiely said.
Father Benham Benoka, a Syriac Catholic priest in Bartella in the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, told the Register Nov. 30 that it is "wonderful to build shrines for the persecuted Christian around the world.”
Father Benoka, who for years has faced harassment and intimidation from Muslim militias in his diocese, gave two reasons why he believed they were so important: to provide “warning signs” for western Christians so they “remember brothers and sisters who are suffering from persecution and being neglected in other countries;” and to remind Christians in the West of their own historical suffering from persecution so that they remain alert to the evil one “working in different ways to steal the grain of faith from their hearts.”
Each shrine’s focal point is an icon. The London shrine’s icon was written by Basilian Sister Souraya Herro from Beirut in Lebanon. Currently working on several other icons for clients in the U.S. and a cross for a parish in Lebanon, Sister Souraya will be writing the icons for all new shrines, Father Kiely said.
She told the Register Nov. 29 that the London shrine “means as much to me as it does to all persecuted countries” and that “just knowing that there are people in other countries who think of us, pray for us, and help us, makes us not lose hope and increases our faith in a loving and merciful God.”
Sister Souraya herself has personally experienced persecution. She told the Register that before entering the monastery, her family lived in a Muslim environment from where they were eventually forced to leave.
“We left our home and our livelihood, my father lost his job, and we were cut off from our surroundings, from our school, and from our friends,” she said, adding that she has also suffered persecution as a Lebanese citizen “in this small country that has never known peace.”
Bishops’ Blessing and Approval
For dioceses and parishes looking to have a shrine of their own, Father Kiely said the blessing and approval of the bishop is “essential because it shows that he is committed to the importance of prayer for the persecuted,” and because it gives the shrine an “official” status that then “encourages the faithful to take an active interest in the story of persecution.”
He added that this is crucially important, as the issue is “barely mentioned in the secular media.” As an example, he recalled speaking in parishes about the mass slaughter of Christians in Nigeria and receiving the common response from people that “they didn't know this was happening.”
Although he believes it’s right to blame the media for ignoring it, he also said the Church “bears some responsibility for not prioritizing the issue” and he is especially disappointed by the response of some bishops. “It saddens me, and it needs to be said, how many bishops appear to be uninterested in establishing a shrine, even to the point of refusing an offer,” Father Kiely said. “I must confess I find it incredible.”
He contrasted such a response with the lesson of the Acts of the Apostles, when St. Peter was put in prison and, after the Church “prayed constantly” for him, he was freed. “Why would we doubt the effectiveness of prayer, or its importance?” Father Kiely asked. “Our duty is to pray to help alleviate their suffering, and the prayer also strengthens us, giving us fortitude in the face of the growing persecution we are witnessing at home.”
Father Kiely also stressed that although “prayer inspires action, it is not a substitute for action,” and that “once people begin to develop what I call a ‘passion for the persecuted,’ they will naturally find other ways of helping and advocating.
“Obviously there is charitable giving, but also raising awareness amongst other believers, and advocacy with political representatives.”
Mother of Persecuted Christians
All the shrines have, or will have, icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with the title “Mother of Persecuted Christians” and all future icons will have “Mother of the Persecuted” written in Syriac/Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Each shrine is funded by donations to Nasarean.org where a webpage is dedicated to the icon project and where donations can be made online.
“Most of the shrines can be established, from start to finish, for around $5,000, so it is comparatively inexpensive for such a needed mission,” Father Kiely said. “And if we hope to have many shrines, we always need more donations.”