Denver Christians, Jews, Muslims to gather to pray for Mideast

Demonstrating his deep concern for growing violence against innocent people in the Middle East, Archbishop Samuel Aquila invites people of all faith backgrounds to an evening of interreligious prayer at 7 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver.

“We must pray and fast for our enemies,” Archbishop Aquila wrote in a recent column, “and their change of heart as Jesus commands us in the Gospel.”

The initiative is a collaborative effort of the Archdiocese of Denver, with the Office of Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon in the United States, directed by Father Andre-Sebastian Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Church in Lakewood and a native of Lebanon.

At the interfaith service, Archbishop Aquila and Father Mahanna will be joined by Christians from the Middle East, both Catholic and Orthodox from Aramaic, Syro-Aramaic, Coptic, Greek and Armenian traditions; representatives of Christian churches of the West, both evangelical and Catholic; and members of the Jewish and Muslim monotheistic religions.

“We are coming together as a people who believe in God … proud of our diversity, yet honored to call one another brothers and sisters, to celebrate and protect the civilization of diversity, peace, love and co-existence,” Father Mahanna told the Denver Catholic Register Aug. 6.

The service will include a procession of Christian symbols, along with the Jewish and Muslim holy books, the Torah and Quran respectively, to be processed with dignity into properly assigned places for the proclamation. There will be prayers from the Catholic, Jewish and Islamic traditions; as well as hymns and universal prayers for peace. The “Our Father” will be chanted in all of the historical sacred languages: Hebrew, Syro-Aramaic, Greek and Latin; as well as English; and prayers will be chanted in Arabic.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople meet in the Vatican Gardens to pray for peace on June 8.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople meet in the Vatican Gardens to pray for peace on June 8.

Readings will be proclaimed from the Torah, Psalms, Gospel, and Quran. Pope Francis made Vatican history June 8 when he allowed for Islamic prayers and Quran readings during his meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to pray for Middle Eastern peace.

The Denver prayer service responds to a call from the Holy See, Father Mahanna said, for Christians to reach out to all religious groups. During the event, Archbishop Aquila will deliver a solemn statement of solidarity on behalf of the religions gathered.

“We are advocating for the safety and the protection of innocent lives,” Father Mahanna said. “For all people who are the children of Abraham and all ethnic groups undergoing slaughter.”

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three primary Abrahamic religions, tracing their common origin to Abraham.

“(We will pray for) Christian victims who are displaced and for the Jewish people who are being hated,” Father Mahanna said. “And of course for the many innocent Muslim people who are paying for the false ideology that has nothing to do with the real Islam.”

Christians and other people of faith, as well as some of no faith, in the Middle East have experienced unprecedented aggression this summer, perpetrated by the radical militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Violence last month included banishing all Christians from the city of Mosul, Iraq, forcing those who did not convert to leave their homes and uproot their families.

A man checks his bag after fleeing from Mosul, Iraq  June 11.

A man checks his bag after fleeing from Mosul, Iraq June 11.

“For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,” said Patriarch Louis Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, after the July 19 deadline passed for Christians to convert or leave the city that had maintained a Christian presence for more than 1,700 years.

Escalating violence is also affecting Israel, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, where many are being murdered, or stripped of possessions, because of their faith. According to a report issued by the U.S. Department of State July 28, the world has “witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory.”

In Syria, as in much of the Middle East, the Christian presence is “becoming a shadow of its former self,” the report continued. “Individuals were subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse, perpetrated and sanctioned violence for simply exercising their faith.”

Though no simple resolution to the resulting tragedies is readily apparent, “as people of faith we cannot help but be moved to respond in some way,” Father Mahanna said. “The multi-cultural gathering will celebrate the value of all human beings and energize people of faith in Colorado to demonstrate their solidarity with those in the Middle East.”

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is located at 1530 Logan St. in Denver. For more information, visit www.archden.org, or to join or share the Facebook event, click here.

Aid to the Middle East
Several Catholic organizations are responding to the crisis in the Middle East with material support:

Catholic Relief Services
www.crs.org
877-435-7277

Caritas
www.caritas.org
703-549-1390

Aid to the Church in Need
www.churchinneed.org
800-628-6333

Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA)
www.cnewa.org
212-826-1480

 

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.