Rather like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, everyone who is of a certain age remembers exactly where they were, and what they were doing, on that beautiful sunny day of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. The horror that unfolded that day in lower Manhattan, in Washington, D.C., and in a field in Pennsylvania, though in a sense impersonal, was, in fact, profoundly personal: America was under attack.
That fateful day, 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. Now, in 2018, attacks on Christians are happening on a daily basis somewhere in the world — and yet, as Pope Francis himself has said, these are “not newsworthy.”
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.
In the summer of 2014, one brand of Islamist terror, known as ISIS, swept across the Nineveh Plain of Iraq, home to Christians since the time of the Apostles. The Islamists, including 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.
Visiting Iraq for the first time in 2015, not long after the genocide occurred, I was struck by the tremendous power of the faith of the people who had left everything they owned because they refused to convert to Islam. “Convert or die” was the choice given to them by ISIS as those evil marauders invaded towns and villages.
On multiple visits since, when asked how we in the West can help them, the first answer always given, without hesitation, is prayer. Yet even regular prayer seems to be too much for many Christians here in the West who are enjoying, for the moment, the peace of religious freedom. A recent poll from the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need found that, for the majority of U.S. Catholics, the worldwide persecution of their Christian brothers and sisters ranked at the bottom of their priorities — below global warming.
Answering why Christians in the West seem to pay so little attention to their suffering brethren is almost impossible. Is it apathy, indifference or, to be more hopeful, lack of knowledge? Yet once again, as I walked just a week ago through the shattered old city of Mosul — still filled with bodies and bombs — and spoke with Christians who had suffered so much, the request for prayer came again and again. There must be a place where, in a special way, both victims of persecution and the “free” Christians of the West can pray continually for the persecuted church.
On Tuesday, June 12, in the heart of the very city struck so dramatically in 2001, that much-needed place of prayer, the first of two shrines for the persecuted in the western world, will be blessed in a special ceremony at St. Michael’s Church on West 34th Street. The pastor, Fr. George Rutler, anointed and comforted victims on 9/11. And now, in his parish, the Shrine of Our Lady of Aradin, Mother of the Persecuted Church will be, as Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan has written for the event, “a gathering place of quiet reflection for those who cherish the gift of religious freedom.”
Christians, from the very beginning, have given special value and honor to images and special places of prayer and devotion. The icon, depicting the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus, has the figures dressed in the traditional wedding attire of Northern Iraq. Aradin means “Eden” in Aramaic, the name of the little village where the icon was commissioned.
All around the icon are the words of the “Hail Mary,” written in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and Mary, still spoken in parts of Iraq and Syria. The artist, Mouthana Butres, was driven by ISIS from his home in the ancient town of Qaraqosh on the Nineveh Plain and is now a refugee in Lebanon.
Although the image depicts the Virgin and Child as Iraqis, the shrine is meant to be a place of prayer for all the persecuted church — those who have experienced persecution and are now living in freedom, and for western Christians to pray for their brethren. As Cardinal Dolan has said, the shrine, he hopes, will be a place “to pray for all the displaced Christians of the Middle East,” and for the whole world.
Some might ask whether prayer is a weak response to the terror of persecution and why do we need an image to pray before? Authentic prayer will always inspire some kind of action — or it is just a pious comfort blanket. 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. Saint John Paul II once said that, in God’s providence, there is no such thing as coincidence. And so, in the city so devastated by hatred and terror, Cardinal Dolan writes, “How timely, and how relevant, that we welcome our Mother to the heart of New York.”