Father Benedict Kiely is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Stowe, Vt., and director of continuing education for clergy in the Diocese of Burlington. He’s also urgently concerned about his brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria and has started a website — www.nasarean.org — selling bracelets and lapel pins and zipper hooks with the Arabic letter designating “Nazarene,” which the Islamic State put on the homes of Christians. The letter has become a symbol for solidarity with these Christians being driven out of what has been described as the cradle of Christianity. All proceeds from the items will go to the efforts of Aid to the Church in Need to help the Christians there. Father Kiely talks about the crisis and the Nasarean.org effort with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is the responsibility of Christian Americans to Christians being persecuted in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere today?
Father Benedict Kiely: Scripture and the constant tradition of the Church tells us that we are one body. When one part of the body is suffering, we are all suffering. That is not pious nonsense; it goes to the heart of what being a member of the body of Christ means. It is very easy for us who are comparatively free to have a sense of “out of sight, out of mind,” but when we see a picture of a fellow believer crucified, or see a Christian baby decapitated, or hear the impassioned pleas of bishops and priests in the region, if our consciences are not disturbed it is fairly certain we are not really committed to faith.
Our responsibility is threefold: prayer — which is not a “last resort,” but a first resort; second, our own personal witness and public testimony (for example, wearing the products we are promoting); and finally, charity — actively supporting relief efforts and the political process.
Lopez: Why is this particular symbol so important?
Kiely: The symbol of the Arabic “N” — or “Nun/noon,” the first letter of the word “Nasrani/Nasarean,” a term of contempt for Christians – is being painted on the houses of Christians by the Islamists, to identify the Christians in the same way the Nazis used the Star of David to identify the Jews. Like the cross, the central symbol of Christianity, an object or sign of contempt can be transformed to be a sign of hope, solidarity, and support. It says, quite simply: “We are with you, praying for you, and supporting you!
Lopez: What’s the spirit in which a lapel pin or bracelet should be worn? What more should we do?
Kiely: People feel helpless. One of the reasons I began this charity was that, after preaching one Sunday about our persecuted brethren, a fellow approached me — someone involved in the world of the military — and said, “All very well preaching about it — but what can we actually do?” Wearing the items is an act of witness — our solidarity, prayer, and charity is perhaps small, but important.
Lopez: Why are you raising money for Aid to the Church in Need? How can anyone be sure the money gets to the Christians who need help?
Kiely: That is an important question. I decided that the best thing to do would be to have all the money we raise from this project go directly to one charity with “boots on the ground,” Aid to the Church in Need, which has been in existence since the end of the Second World War. The Church is at the same time both international and very local. Aid to the Church in Need is well-positioned to ensure that those in need will receive the help they need.
Lopez: You’re a parish priest. How did you get involved with being a source for lapel pins and bracelets? Why is it important for you to be doing this?
Kiely: Yes, I’m just a parish priest of a little parish in Vermont, far from all this horror. Yet what has been happening to the Christians of the Middle East has been troubling me for years. It has not really been noticed, despite the fact that the last three popes have continually pointed to the dramatic challenges Christians have been facing in those lands. Yet hearing the news of the fall of Mosul, and the fact that Mass, which has been celebrated there for 1,600 years, would not be celebrated that weekend, just hit me like a thunderbolt. I was doing my daily walk — saying my rosary, and trying to respond to that question of the man who asked, “What can we do?” – and it came to me. It must be simple, cheap, and involve the symbol of the Arabic “N.” Through the great help of a couple of my parishioners and a brother priest who has some great contacts, we have managed to get this all up and running within the space of a few weeks.
Deep down, though, it’s a matter of conscience: They are my brothers and sisters. They are not out of sight. And Christ will judge us all on our response to this unfolding genocide.
Lopez: What happens to Iraq and Syria if Christians are gone? Why is it so important for them to be there?
Kiely: It is their land, they have lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors for centuries. If they are driven from Syria, Iraq — but also Egypt and the Holy Land — a culture will be destroyed.
Apart from the human tragedy of thousands of families who have lived in the same place for generations being forcibly removed – why, when we launch appeals and campaigns to save whales and turtles, and spend vast amounts of money to divert rivers and streams to avoid harming nesting frogs, will we not expend every effort to save a civilization? That is, perhaps, a rhetorical question. To many, Christians don’t matter.
Lopez: As was seen at a recent conference in Washington, D.C., the region where all this is happening has great passions, extremism, misunderstanding, pain, and hate. Is there really any hope?
Kiely: Hope is a theological virtue; optimism is what politicians promise.
Lopez: Why is religious freedom so important? How does what’s going on here have anything to do with what’s going on there?
Kiely: The Second Vatican Council said quite bluntly: The “right of the human person to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order of society as to make it a civil right.” We are witnessing in this country, and all over the rapidly secularizing Western world, the rapid diminution of that right. The change in wording from “freedom of religion” to “freedom of worship” is not just matter of semantics. It is about the exclusion of religion from the public square. What is going on here has a great deal to do with “what is going on there” — calling the defense of marriage “hate speech,” the boycott of companies that try to practice their business according to Christian principles, and that most egregious attack on religious liberty in this country, the so-called “mandate” of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Lopez: Who is Our Lady of Saidnaya, and how is she important to this project and to the people we need to help?
Kiely: Our Lady of Saidnaya is the patron of our charity, www.nasarean.org. This is a spiritual work — what the Church calls a “corporal work of mercy.” The monastery of Our Lady of Saidnaya is about 20 miles from Damascus, Syria. The monastery is one of the oldest in the region — at least 1,600 years old. It contains the icon of the Virgin Mary known as the “All Holy.” Ancient tradition says that this is one of the four icons of Our Lady believed to have been painted by Saint Luke. For centuries, both Christians and Muslims have come to the monastery to pray before the icon, for protection and healing. The Islamic State has attacked the monastery several times — it has not fallen. What better patroness could we have?