Friday, January 5, 2018
Priscilla A. Greear - Florida Catholic
KEY BISCAYNE | In summer 2014, Father Benedict Kiely meandered outside his mountain parish in Stowe, Vt., before Sunday Mass. As ISIS overtook Mosul, Iraq, he prayed on how he could somehow help the persecuted Christians of the Holy Land. Little did he know that by spring 2015 he would travel to Iraq to witness the strife and eventually devote his life to raising awareness of Middle Eastern Christians’ suffering plight.
“If you had told me in January 2014 that you will stop being a parish priest and go to Iraq four times I would have said why would I ever want to go to Iraq and get killed?” recalled Father Kiely, who was released by his bishop in July 2016 after 17 years of parish ministry. “I’m in my second year right now without a salary. As I say, I’m not telling you this so you can start crying for me but I have to do this, the Lord wants it. So I’d like you to see the wider vision — have passion and determination for the persecuted.”
The Vermont clergyman spoke Dec. 11 to a packed hall of parishioners at St. Agnes Church on Key Biscayne, commending their bravery for turning out amid a bonafide Miami cold front. With a crisp British accent, the native Londoner proclaimed that he spoke “as God intended it.”
A parishioner, Dr. Grazie Christie, invited Father Kiely to the parish as a way to heighten the consciousness of the faithful as they turn their hearts to Bethlehem during the Christmas season.
Pointing to the example of Christian martyrs who are not afraid “to live their beliefs to the point of death,” Christie said she hoped the priest’s lecture would inspire parishioners not only to pray for their persecuted brothers and sisters but to reflect on their own lives and “how we can be better Christians and better people.
Father Kiely said that while ISIS was recently defeated in Syria and Iraq, its ideology lives on and has existed since the birth of Islam. He described the persecution and ethnic cleansing he has seen on the front lines of what was declared by the United States as a genocide of Christian, Yazidi and other persecuted minorities.
“I’m reporting to you what I’ve seen and heard from men, women and children who’ve been driven out and lost everything for their faith. If you only take away two things tonight from this talk it would be to have passion for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ — to have passion is not to be lukewarm,” he said. “The second thing is to have determination to do something for them.”
In August 2014, some 120,000 Christians were driven out of the entire Nineveh Plains around Mosul, the biblical city of Nineveh and the prophet Jonah. Many fled to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Catholic Church is overwhelmed in aiding refugees.
“You have the beautiful opening of Christmas night when Quirinius was governor of Syria and the census was taken. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt are the Holy Land, it’s not just Israel,” he said. “In August 2014, we had awful news that Christians were out, they had all been driven out by ISIS…It was the first Sunday in nearly 2,000 years that there was no Mass in Mosul.”
As ISIS enslaved, killed and banished Christians, Yazidis and others, Father Kiely recalled preaching on Christian persecution. After Mass, a parishioner with a marketing business — a Cuban Miami native — approached him, ready to take action. Together they brainstormed the production of bracelets, pins and magnets depicting the Arabic “nun,” the first letter of the word Nasarean.
“I said, ‘Well we can make those bracelets and at least if you put the bracelet on you’ll remember to do three things: You’ll remember to pray for these Christians, we’ll show solidarity and by the little bit of money it raises we’ll give to charity.’ The point is ISIS marked the homes of Christians with the Arabic n meaning Nasarean. This is nothing new from the time of Muhammad,” he said, himself donning a lapel pin. “Christians in the Middle East do not like that symbol because it was a sign of contempt. It actually then became a sign of solidarity.”
Within a month he appeared on EWTN and later FOX News arrived in Stowe — where he was amazed to sell some 12,000 bracelets over two days. Eventually he established the nonprofit Nasarean.org, which supports Aid to the Church in Need and has begun micro-financing Christian businesses.
Father Kiely showed a video taken from his trip in March to the abandoned Karemlash near Mosul that once had 10,000 Christians. As bombs exploded in the distance, he walked on abandoned streets past burned out cement houses. He stepped over glass shards to enter a decimated church with a bullet-ridden altar, destroyed crosses, and dug-up graves. After their defeat, the terrorists had booby-trapped the front door for the returning priest.
Father Kiely said it’s not “Islamophobia” to state reality, later citing a need for reform in Islam to stamp out violent strains. “We love our brothers and sisters but we also tell the truth in love,” he said.
And Christian persecution is global. “When our brothers and sisters are being persecuted, Jesus is being persecuted. Pope Francis has said it’s on a level not seen since the first centuries of the Church… Once in a blue moon we hear about Boko Haram (Islamic militants) and the girls, all Christian of course who were kidnapped. Thousands of Christians were killed in Nigeria. It’s not on the news; much more important stuff is on the news like football.”
He challenged Miami Catholics to pray steadfastly, support Nasarean and advocate that persecuted Christians be given immigration priority. “To be authentic prayer it must inspire action. I’d encourage you to help. We send everything we collect. We can give through our prayers, solidarity and charity,” he said. “Christians over there feel abandoned.”
But as Pope Francis and his predecessors have said, the greatest challenge is to be “credible witnesses of the Gospel faith, people who will communicate and convict others by their lives.”
He showed a picture of 20 Coptic Christian Egyptian men and one non-Christian in orange jumpsuits kneeling on a Mediterranean beach in Libya who refused to renounce Christ before being murdered by ISIS. “They give us fortitude in faith and that’s a beautiful gift because truth will set us free.”
Afterwards, Rosario Keif reflected on the lessons of the Holocaust. “This is the nagging question, how people trying to be good can remain silent. I don’t want to remain silent about this. I’m not comparing this to the organized Holocaust in Germany and Europe. It’s definitely not as organized but it’s of our time.”
Laura Pearson donated frequent flyer miles and made a contribution to Nasarean. “This is an extension to me of respect life ministry,” she said. “We’re all from Europe and the Middle East gave Europe Christianity.”