When the Shrine of Mary, Mother of Persecuted Christians, is blessed in London next week, it will be a historic moment.
Fr. Benedict Kiely, the English priest behind the project, believes it will be Europe’s first shrine dedicated to prayer for believers currently suffering for their Christian faith.
He acknowledges there are other European churches that could contend for that title.
“People say, ‘Well, San Bartolomeo all’Isola in Rome is for persecuted Christians.’ Yes, it’s got chapels and it’s dedicated to the modern martyrs. But it’s not a specific shrine for Christians being persecuted now,” he told The Pillar in a phone interview.
“This is the first shrine in Europe specifically dedicated to prayer for the active persecution of Christians now all over the world. It’s certainly the first shrine in Europe dedicated to Mary, Mother of Persecuted Christians.”
The shrine will be dedicated at 6:30 p.m. local time on Sept. 8 at the Ordinariate Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory, in London’s gritty, bohemian Soho district.
The shrine’s genesis dates back to 2014. That was when Fr. Kiely - who wears distinctive brightly colored trouser suspenders and round spectacles - received what he describes as his “call within a call.”
“It wasn’t too Charlton Heston - a voice from the clouds,” he noted. “In August 2014, I was a parish priest in Stowe, Vermont, and I heard that for the first time in basically 2,000 years, there was no Mass being said in Mosul. Mosul is Nineveh, where Jonah’s tomb was before ISIS blew it up. I just remember thinking, ‘How can we help? How can we assist?’”
“From that point, I started to get more and more involved. I went to Iraq for the first time in May 2015 and I’ve been eight times now, and to Syria and Lebanon. I just felt that call growing to dedicate my whole priesthood to aid and advocacy for the persecuted.”
In 2016, Fr. Kiely founded the charity Nasarean.org. It helps persecuted Middle Eastern Christians remain in their home countries through “mini micro-financing” that enables them to set up small businesses.
“I specifically focus at the moment on the Middle East in terms of aid but the advocacy is for the whole world,” said the priest, who is incardinated in England’s Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
“Wherever Christians are being persecuted, I’m trying to advocate for them and raise awareness and prayer.”
In 2017, Kiely's work led to the opening of what he contends is the world’s first shrine specifically dedicated to prayer for the persecuted Church, at St. Michael’s Church in New York City.
At the center of the London shrine will be an icon of the Virgin Mary with the words “Mother of the Persecuted” written in Aramaic, believed to be the language of Jesus.
The icon was created by Sister Souraya, a Syrian nun of the Basilian order. Nasarean.org helped to rebuild her icon studio outside of the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
“She’s a Melkite Greek Catholic,” Fr. Kiely explained. “Her convent is in a place called Zouk. She and a couple of other sisters do the icons. But they’re struggling like all Lebanese. They have elderly sisters and can’t get medicine for them.”
The priest, who will turn 60 next July, laments the lack of Western media coverage of the crises that have brought Lebanon to its knees.
“They have no power 22 hours a day. They virtually can’t use their banks. There are no prices on restaurant menus because the prices change every day. The Christians are leaving again in droves. It’s just a disaster,” he said.
Fr. Kiely envisages the London shrine becoming a magnet for Christians of all backgrounds.
“Being at the ordinariate church, which is open every day in central London, it’s for everyone - people of the diaspora of whatever country. Nigerian Christians can come and pray. Chinese, Indians, Burmese, Iraqis, Syrians, Indians...”
The priest hopes the shrine will also raise awareness of anti-Christian persecution, which he thinks is vastly underreported. According to the advocacy group Open Doors USA, more than 360 million Christians worldwide face high levels of persecution and discrimination, and 5,898 were killed for their faith in the past year alone.
“Many Catholics just aren’t aware of the intensity of worldwide persecution. So this is part of that process of trying to raise awareness, but having the spiritual at the very center,” said Fr. Kiely.
“I always say, prayer isn’t a last resort, it’s a first resort. And also, prayer is not an excuse for inaction, prayer should prompt action. So I would hope that when people come to pray, they will also try to get involved in some way.”
He underlined the importance of having a European focal point for prayer for persecuted Christians.
“First and foremost, as the body of Christ, we’re called to pray for our brethren all over the world. Even if we’re not experiencing that active persecution ourselves, we are called to be praying for our brethren,” he said.
“Secondly, Europe is full of people from all the countries in the world where persecution is happening. So that’s why I said it’s important for the diaspora, for Nigerians and everyone else, that they can come and pray for their families and their brethren.”
“And then thirdly, yes, we don’t have blood persecution yet. But we have growing intolerance of Christianity. We think of Päivi Räsänen, a sitting MP being charged for quoting the Bible on marriage. So persecution may not be bloody yet, but intolerance is increasing all over. It may be a place to pray for a bit of fortitude for the future.”
Fr. Kiely urged bishops who would like a similar shrine in their dioceses to contact him.
“The next shrine is going into a church in Worcester, Massachusetts, in October, with the blessing in the presence of the bishop of Worcester. That will be dedicated as a shrine for that diocese,” he said.
“The very special thing is that it’s going to be the world premiere of the first ‘Mass for Persecuted Christians,’ written by the Catholic composer Paul Jernberg.”