UPDATED Aug. 22, 2014 – On the evening of Aug. 11, prayers for peace in the Middle East rose from the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver in English, Arabic, Aramaic, Syro-Aramaic, Armenian and Hebrew in an unprecedented display of unity.
The interreligious service, led by Archbishop Samuel Aquila, was announced just five days earlier and spread to faith communities via social media, email and pulpit announcements and drew a crowd of 900 people.
“We have come together with bishops, with a Jewish spiritual and academic leader, with Christian leaders, with Muslim imams and sheiks, and with you, that we can freely still call brothers and sisters in God, in Jesus, or in the prophet,” Father Andre-Sebastian Mahanna, director of the Office of Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon in the United States and pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Church in Lakewood, said in opening comments.
The hour-long ceremony began with a procession of 18 religious leaders representing the Roman Catholic Church, both Latin and Maronite rites; Syriac, Armenian and Antiochian Orthodox churches; Western Christian churches including Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopal, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and Faith Bible Chapel; and Jewish and Muslim monotheistic religions. It was a response to Pope Francis’ call to reach out to all religious groups, reacting to increasing and devastating violence in the Middle East.
“What we need to do this evening,” Father Mahanna continued, “is to start having an ongoing discussion, not between one another, but with each other with God Almighty.”
Sealing that commitment to ongoing dialogue, the religious leaders (see list below) signed the Peace, Love and Co-Existence, or PLACE, initiative, prior to the service during a private reception. PLACE asks President Barack Obama “to work urgently through diplomatic channels and ethical intervention to stop the murder and persecution of Christians in the Middle East,” and “with equal urgency to oppose the persecution of Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.”
It also calls on religious leaders to “lead by example and advocate for the safety and the right to exist for all Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities in the Middle East.” Father Mahanna said he hopes the initiative will spread all over the United States, as well as to the Middle East “where hearts are most hurt.”
Following the ceremony, the PLACE petition was posted on the Archdiocese of Denver’s website, www.archden.org/prayer-peace for all to review and sign. As of Aug. 21, the petition had 411 signators. Along with signatures, many have left comments calling for ongoing prayer and fasting, as well as other messages of support.
“I whole heartedly support this peace initiative,” wrote Colorado author Brad Tyndall. “If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know. I have been doing… presentations to groups for years and enjoy pointing out the many similarities and beautiful aspects of Islam for Christians and others.”
Several expressed their understanding of the concern as an interfaith issue.
“It is time for all people of good will to stand up and be counted, especially for those being persecuted for their religious beliefs,” wrote Deacon Jay Garland from St. Jude Parish in Lakewood. “This is an ecumenical moment for the religious community to unite in the face of evil and the spirit of the age.”
Signer James Burnik expressed his hope for peace simply: “Wouldn’t this be a glorious day if, years in the future, people looked back and said that this was the beginning of true world peace?”
The solemn evening continued with prayers for peace from Deacon Elias Naoum of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Denver, chanting in Aramaic; Dikran Hagopian, a layman from the Armenian Orthodox Church and native of Mosul—an Iraqi city captured by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in July, which banished all Christians from the city that had maintained a Christian presence for more than 1,700 years—praying in Armenian; and Loulou Najjar, a laywoman of the Antiochan Orthodox Church, who read in Arabic. Each intercession, read in English as well, was followed by an interfaith “Alleluia” accompanied by a single guitar.
Readings were proclaimed from the Quran by Imam Hamdi-Basha (49: 10-13), the Torah by Dr. Shaul M. Gabbay, senior scholar at Korbel School of International Studies at University of Denver (Shabbat Evening I, “Sim Shalom” or “Grant Peace”), and finally the Gospel (Matt 22: 34-40) by Archbishop Aquila. 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.
“This evening we have heard from the Quran, the Torah and the Gospel about the importance of loving God above all else and loving our neighbor as ourselves,” Archbishop Aquila said in an address following the Gospel. “The truth that runs through all three of these passages is that anytime we move away from the love of God, we move away from to love of our neighbor.”
Atrocities committed in the Middle East demonstrate a radical version of Islam “imposing brutal force and violence” and are not based on a true religion, he said. The scenes of innocent people, including children, being driven from their homes, buried alive, beheaded, raped or cut in half are “scenes that many thought were impossible in our day.”
“It must not be said that we were the generation that stood idly by while evil consumed our brothers and sisters,” he said. “We cannot be a generation that embraces the culture of death, but rather we must be those who love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and loves our neighbor as our self.”
The first reaction must be prayer, he said.
“God may use the hands and feet of aid workers, the decisions of political figures, or soldiers’ actions to defend a defenseless people, most especially defenseless children, but it is still He who acts,” the archbishop said, adding that prayers must include “every single person who is experiencing the scourge of violence or persecution because of their faith, regardless of their religious affiliation.”
But we must do more than pray, he continued.
“You can also donate to charities that are active in these afflicted regions, call your local congressmen and senators to express your concern and ask for sustained intervention to protect those being persecuted,” he instructed. “You can take a public stand for religious freedom by your words and actions. Every single action and prayer counts.”
The service continued with a reading from the Psalms by Father George Shawareb of St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church in Arvada, an Anglican prayer offered by Father Peter Eaton of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Archbishop Aquila leading the congregation in a concluding prayer for peace written by Pope Francis, the sign of peace, and concluded with a resounding rendition of “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
Signers of the PLACE document included: Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Cheyenne Bishop Paul Etienne, Father Andre Sebastian Mahanna; Dr. Shaul M. Gabbay, senior scholar at Korbel School of International Studies at University of Denver; Sheik Dr. Ahmed A Nabhan of Masjid Al Salaam; Archbishop Mor Titus Yeldo of the Syriac Orthodox Church in North America, Deacon Elias Naoum of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Denver, Father George Shawareb of St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church in Arvada, Bishop James Gonia of the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Imam Hamdi-Basha of Masjid Nur, Father Peter Eaton representing the bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado, Imam Kacem Djilali, and Muslim leaders Emamudin Ghiasi and Hussein Amery. Also attending the prayer service were Pastor John Malito of Faith Bible Church and Dean Wandry of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
VIDEO: Watch the prayer service here
SIGN: Sign the PLACE initiative here
SUPPORT: Support aid workers in the Middle East
Catholic Relief Services
Aid to the Church in Need
Catholic Near East Welfare Association