Father Benedict Kiely of Stowe, Vermont, and Archbishop Alexander Sample stand in the vestibule of St. Mary's Cathedral after a prayer service for the persecuted Christians of Iraq, Syria and other countries of the Near and Middle East. (Catholic Sentinel/Kristen Hannum)
Father Benedict Kiely of Stowe, Vermont, and Archbishop Alexander Sample stand in the vestibule of St. Mary's Cathedral after a prayer service for the persecuted Christians of Iraq, Syria and other countries of the Near and Middle East. (Catholic Sentinel/Kristen Hannum)

Speaking from the pulpit at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Monday night, Father Benedict Kiely told those in the pews horrifying stories of modern Christian martyrdom that equal the barbarism of the ancient world. “Christ is being persecuted on a level not seen since the first three centuries of Christian history,” he said.

Father Kiely asked those in the cathedral to consider the deaths in February 2015 of 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians, guest workers in Libya. The terrorist group ISIS kidnapped and murdered the men, and then released a video of the crime. The dying victims called out to Jesus as they died. An African man later identified as a non-Christian, Matthew Ayariga of Ghana was among the martyrs. Upon witnessing the immense courage and faith of his friends, when the murderers asked him if he rejected Christ, Ayariga told the terrorists, “Their God is my God.”

“In that moment, Matthew became a Christian,” Father Kiely said. “In that moment, Matthew became a witness and a martyr.”

Father Kiely is a parish priest from Stowe, Vermont, but he is also the founder of Nasarean.org, selling bracelets, lapel pins and zipper hooks marked with the Arabic letter “N,” designating Nazarene, which ISIS put on homes of Christians. Father Kiely founded the organization to raise awareness about the persecution of Christians in the Near East and Middle East, an ancient Christian homeland.

“As far as I know, this is the first prayer service for the persecuted Christians presided over by a bishop at any cathedral in the United States,” Father Kiely said. “That’s a pity. We should all be praying regularly. If this issue doesn’t move us to action, nothing will.”

Father Kiely asked four things of his congregation, beginning with prayer. “Prayer isn’t the last resort, it’s the first,” he said. “It spurs us into action; it doesn’t preclude action.”

The Dominican Sisters in Iraq have asked visitors many times to pray for them. “I would suggest a rosary at least once a week,” Father Kiely said.

Second, Father Kiely asked people to stand in solidarity with those being persecuted. As Pope Francis said after the 21 men were murdered in Libya, “The blood of our Christian brothers is testimony that cries out. Be they Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it doesn't matter: they're Christian!”

Father Kiely asked people wear one of the Nazarene bracelets, saying that people would ask about the symbol on the bracelet and that was a great conversation starter for spreading the news.

Third, Father Kiely urged charity. He recommended donations to the papal agency, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Fourth, Father Kiely asked people to become advocates for the persecuted Christians. The State Department recently declared what was happening a genocide, but that came only the Knights of Columbus and other groups lobbied for years.

Father Kiely concluded by saying that it’s not all about American and European Christians giving to persecuted Christians. “They give us much,” he said. “Their faith convinces us comfortable, lethargic and slack Christians of the West.”

After the prayer service, Dr. Saad Jazrawi, a Christian immigrant from Iraq, said Father Kiely’s talk had awakened many emotions for him. “Many have been martyred, and people don’t hear about it in the news here,” he says.

Mark Kortbaoui’s parents came to the United States from Lebanon, where most of his family remains, attending Maronite Catholic churches. Kortbaoui, who attends St. Sharbel Church in Southeast Portland, said that the reality of persecution, by ISIS and others, was scary. “But you have to keep moving forward in your faith,” he said. “You can’t live in fear — and prayer is most important.”