An estimated 900 people of the three Abrahamic religions packed the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver Monday night for an interreligious prayer service for those suffering in the Middle East.
Archbishop Samuel Aquila hosted the Aug. 11 event together with the ecumenical and interfaith office of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, in response to the murder and persecution of Christian, Jewish, Shia Muslim, and Yazidi minorities at the hands of the Islamic State, a Sunni organization in Iraq and Syria.
Fr. Andre Mahanna, director Maronite eparchy's interfaith office, opened the service, explaining that the danger of persecution reaches beyond the members of those particular minority groups.
“(The violence) is against all people who believe in God, in culture, in civilization, and in the common good,” he said. “It is against the honest faith that humans are good beings, that what God created … (is) something good.”
Fr. Mahanna then asked all those in attendance to clap their hands as a gesture of solidarity in peace and against the gruesome murders and tortures of recent weeks in the Middle East.
“Let us clap our hands to make a statement … that the sound of our hands joined together in prayer and in true human love are way stronger and more effective and way more powerful than the sounds of the bombs (ISIS) are using to kill every human being on earth, starting in the Middle East.”
Intercessions were then led by religious leaders representing various religions, including Catholic and Orthodox Churches from the Middle East; Protestant and Catholic representatives from Western Christianity; rabbis; and sheikhs and imams.
Following the intercessions were readings from the religions' three holy texts - the Quran, the Pentateuch, and the Gospel - and an address from Archbishop Aquila, who said the test of a true religion is whether it promotes both love of God and of neighbor.
“The atrocities being committed in the Middle East demonstrate that the radical version of Islam that the ISIS fighters are imposing with brutal force and violence is not a true religion,” he said. “It is impossible for a person to love God and then seek to destroy the crowning achievement of his creation – the human being whom he has created in his image and likeness.”
Archbishop Aquila observed that amid the recent violence he was reminded of St. John Paul II, who called the faithful to build a civilization of love rather than one of death.
“It is up to each one of us to choose the civilization of love,” he said, reminding the faithful that prayer must be the first and most important response to this violence, but does not have to be the only response. He encouraged those present to donate to charities helping the Middle East, to contact lawmakers about sustained intervention in the Middle East, and to take a public stand for religious freedom.
“It must not be said that we were the generation that stood idly by while evil consumed our brothers and sisters.”
Religious leaders at the prayer service also signed the PLACE (Peace, Love, And Co-Existence) initiative statement, which denounces the preaching of hate and condoning of violence, and asks President Barack Obama to intervene in the Middle East, through ethical channels, to stop murder and persecution.
The initiative was organized by Fr. Mahanna and Archbishop Aquila and includes the signatures of various Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish leaders.
Matthew and Teema Cyriac, Catholics who attended the prayer service, told CNA that the event helped showcase the common ground people of various religions have in this effort for peace.
“Our commonality is the gift of our life as humans,” Teema said, “and this is a time for all of us to come together to pray for our brothers and sisters who are struggling in the Middle East.”
“I think its moving every time we come together is that what unites us is so much more than what divides us,” Matthew added. “And it’s good to be reminded of that, that first and foremost we are God’s creation, and living in love is the way to go.”
Rabbi Stephen Booth-Nadav of Wisdom House in Denver said the prayer service was an opportunity for people to set biases aside and come together united against violence.
“I think the reason so many people showed up here is they realize that what’s needed is not taking sides, its saying ‘enough of the violence’ for everybody,” Booth-Nadav said. “It was very powerful, to bring people together - no politics, just peace.”
Karly Fabian, a Mormon, said the event helped her realize what she can do to promote peace.
“I liked the part in the song where it said let there be peace, and let it begin with me, that’s kind of what I was focusing on the whole time: ‘Okay how can I be more peaceful?’” she said. “Because I don’t know other than prayer how much of an impact I can have in the Middle East, but I know that I can start with me and rid hatred and anger from myself.”
Archbishop Aquila told CNA that he and Fr. Mahanna were in the midst of planning the service when the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ international justice and peace committee, Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, called for a day of collective prayer for peace in Iraq on Aug. 17 following the call of Pope Francis.
Other dioceses are also organizing their own peace efforts. Holy Innocents parish in the Archdiocese of New York also held a prayer vigil for peace Aug. 11, which included Mass at the parish followed by a candlelight prayer rally at Manhattan's Herald Square.
The Archdiocese of Washington is encouraging Catholics to say a prayer attributed to St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
The archdiocese is also encouraging fasting and sharing the story of persecuted Christians on social media under the hashtag “#WeAreN.” The hashtag refers to the first letter of the word “Nusrani,” indicating “Christian.” Militants are painting nun, the Arabic equivalent of “N”, on the homes of Christians to target them for harassment and violence.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has called all 219 parishes in his local Church to participate in the Aug. 17 day of prayer. A holy hour will be held at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, and Archbishop Chaput has asked the faithful of the diocese to remember the plight of Christians in the Middle East especially during Adoration and the recitation of the rosary.