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.
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.
“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.”
Aid to the Middle East
Several Catholic organizations are responding to the crisis in the Middle East with material support:
Catholic Relief Services
Aid to the Church in Need
Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA)