As persecution of religious minorities intensifies in Iraq, in the U.S. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders have joined together to ask the Obama administration to work “urgently” to end religious persecution in the Middle East.
“We see today that there is a great universal danger coming to conquer all of the world, including our democratic civilization, in the name of a very strict, falsely represented and false religious dogma that has nothing to with mainstream Islam,” Father Andre Y-Sebastian Mahanna, director of ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, said at an Aug. 11 press conference in Denver.
“We still believe that there is hope to save a civilization of diversity and freedom for the sake of peace both in the East and the West,” said Fr. Mahanna, who helped organize the initiative.
The Peace Love and Coexistence (PLACE) Initiative aims to bring together Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders against religious intolerance and violence against any ethnic or religious group.
The initiative comes as the Islamic State, a Sunni Islamist caliphate, has targeted religious minorities – Christians, Shia Muslims, and Yazidis – for violence, theft, and persecution in the areas under the group’s control.
The initiative’s leaders signed a joint statement asking president Obama “to work urgently through diplomatic channels and ethical intervention to stop the murder and persecution of Christians in the Middle East, their violent displacement from their native homelands, and the destruction of their homes, properties, churches and places of worship.”
The statement also asks Obama to oppose the persecution of Jews and Muslims “with equal urgency.”
The statement urges religious leaders to “lead by example” by advocating for the safety and rights of all Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities in the Middle East.
Fr. Mahanna announced the initiative at the Archdiocese of Denver's St. John Paul II Center. He was joined by Archbishop Samuel Aquila; University of Denver international studies professor Shaul Gabbay; and Sheik Ahmed Nabhan of the Masjid Al Salaam Aurora Islamic Center.
Archbishop Aquila said the PLACE statement is “a vital initiative” given the rise of the Islamic State.
“This is a case where we have an aggressor who is determined to impose its rule on innocent, defenseless human beings, through killing and brutal oppression.”
“The Islamic State will not engage in dialogue. Its only language seems to be murder, forced conversion and gunfire,” he added. “For these reasons it is necessary for the international community to protect the defenseless.”
The archbishop said he was encouraged by the administration’s humanitarian and military efforts to protect those threatened by the Islamic State.
He added the militants were also abusing religion. “Violence can never be carried out in the name of religion,” he said, citing Pope Francis’ appeals for peace.
Nabhan, an imam for 35 years who has lived in the Denver area since 1993, likewise denounced the Islamic State.
“On behalf of the Muslim community in Denver, Colorado, I would like to raise my voice against ISIS and would like all of you together, Muslim, Christian, and Jews, to (cut) off the way of evil, everywhere,” he said.
“This is our responsibility to our Lord,” he said, urging peace, mercy, and affection.
Gabbay said that Jewish communities are “deeply, deeply concerned for the tragic persecution of Christians.”
“We believe that saving one life is equivalent to saving a whole world. We pray for peace, love, human dignity and safety for all minorities. We are united with our brothers from all different religions.”
He said he is “extremely honored” to be a part of the PLACE initiative, calling it “a light in the darkness.” He prayed for strength and wisdom to combat the “human tragedies” facing religious minorities, particularly in such countries as Iraq and Syria.
Fr. George Shawareb, pastor of St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church in the Denver suburb of Arvada, also voiced support for the initiative.
A relative of one of his Iraqi parishioners had urged action to “make sure someone hears our voice.”
“People are dying. Countries are being destroyed. We need your help,” the priest said.
The statement calls on Muslim leaders in the U.S. to join the call for an end to the killing of innocents.
“To advance this cause, it is crucial that groups of authentic Muslims, Christians and Jews in the United States lead by example and advocate for the safety and the right to exist for all Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities in the Middle East.”
The statement condemns and denounces “the preaching of hate against Christians, Jewish and Muslim people, who all have equal rights to live together safely in their homelands and nations in the Middle East.”
The statement says that basic human rights come from God. It endorses the right to “peaceful co-existence based upon mutual respect for our shared human dignity.”
The Archdiocese of Denver has organized an interreligious prayer gathering for Middle East peace at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Aug. 11.
The prayer gathering was to draw representatives Catholic and Orthodox Churches from the Middle East; Protestant and Catholic representatives from Western Christianity; and Jews and Muslims.
The prayer service is set to include readings from the Pentateuch, the New Testament, and the Koran, as well as hymns and prayers for peace.
Scheduled prayers included Arabic-language prayers as well as the Our Father chanted in Hebrew, Syro-Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and English.