June 20, 2018

Looking Forward to Religious Freedom Week

By Andrea Picciotti-Bayer *
Our Lady of Aradin
Our Lady of Aradin

The plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East is shocking to American sensibilities. Because we are only occasionally reminded by the press of the daily horrors Christians in Iraq and Syria face, our attentiveness in prayer and charitable-giving wanes. This coming week, American Catholics are called to renew our concern for those who suffer because of their commitment to their faith here at home and abroad. This is an invitation we shouldn’t ignore.

Starting June 22, the feast of saints Thomas More and John Fisher, the Catholic Church in the United States will celebrate Religious Freedom Week. The theme of the week – “Serving Others in God’s Love” – is a two-fold call to live faith “as a mission of service and mercy” here at home and “pray for our brothers and sisters who face intense persecution in other parts of the world.”

Experts like Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, have noted that with respect to the global state of international religious freedom “things have gotten worse, not better.” Hints of the suffering of Iraqi Christians can be found in the State Department’s annual report on International Religious Freedom. According to the report, “Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous [government-operated] checkpoints” that impeded movement in and around Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Even more disconcerting are the reports from Fr. Benedict Kiely, founder of the Nasarean organization. He notes the growing despair among the few remaining Christian families there as promises from U.S. officials have gone unfulfilled.

In October of last year, Vice President Pence announced that the United States would shift aid to help save Christian and Yazidi communities decimated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from ineffective U.N. relief efforts to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Earlier this month, Pence rebuked the agency for falling far short in their efforts – going so far as to demand the agency’s head travel to Iraq to assess issues that could be responsible for delay and report back. Hopefully USAID’s feet will continue to be held to the fire so that effective, on-the-ground, humanitarian efforts can successfully access these important funds.

In addition to America’s commitment to offer effective humanitarian aid to persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East, we must be vigilant in our prayer for the persecuted. These prayers should be directed both to the physical well-being and safety of our brothers and sisters persecuted because of their faith and so that they do not lose faith. The fortitude of those who remain in the very birthplace of Christianity is tested daily and they need our spiritual support.

Earlier this month, at the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in the heart of Manhattan, an image of Our Lady of Aradin was dedicated. The image is the first of its kind in the U.S. specifically dedicated to the plight of the persecuted. The image comes to America thanks to the Aradin Chartible Trust and Father Kiely’s Nazarean organization.

The icon depicts Mary in the traditional dress of an Iraqi bride carrying the child Jesus. The border is written in Aramaic, a language still spoken in Qaraqosh, the home of Mouthsna Butres, the Iraqi Christian artist who "wrote" the icon. Butres was driven from his home, along with other Christians, in August 2015 and he resides with his family now as refugees in Lebanon.

The icon of Our Lady of Aradin is Marian consolation to those who have fled their home countries due to religious persecution. The image also inspires thanksgiving among those blessed with freedom to believe and practice our faith. A pilgrimage to visit this image should be at the top of the list for any Catholic living in or visiting New York City. But a visit to the Big Apple is not a requisite for devotion. Seeking her maternal care for our brothers and sisters experiencing persecution can be done even from our own homes.

Religious Freedom Week offers a renewed opportunity for prayer, sacrifice and financial contributions from U.S. Catholics on behalf of Christians persecuted in the Middle East.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation. Her legal career has been dedicated to civil rights advocacy.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.