Denver’s religious leaders plea for peace as Iraq horror escalates

As Middle Eastern religious minorities faced escalating threats and brutal force at the hands of Islamic militants, Denver’s Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders gathered in solidarity at a press conference this week to declare the violence in Iraq “a grave offense against God and humanity.”

Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver stood with representatives of the three Abrahamic religions Aug. 11 to announce their united prayers and call to action against the religious intolerance and slaughtering of innocent Iraqis through the PLACE (Peace, Love and Coexistence) initiative, calling for the defense of human rights and religious liberty.

“We cannot be silent in the face of these attacks on our brothers and sisters in the faith, as well of those of other faiths who have been subjected to the same treatment,” Archbishop Aquila said during the conference at the St. John Paul II Center in south Denver. “All this gravely offends God and humanity. Hatred is not to be carried out in the name of God. War is not to be waged in the name of God.”

The initiative asks President Barack Obama and international officials “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.”

The statement 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.”

Lakewood parish priest Father Andre Y-Sebastian Mahanna, also director of the Office of Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations in the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon, drafted the document with Archbishop Aquila.

Father Mahanna, a Maronite Catholic, said the leaders are standing to defend a civilization of diversity.

“We join together in condemning and denouncing the preaching of hate against Christians, Jewish and Muslim people and the other minorities who all have equal rights to live together safely in their homelands and nations in the Middle East,” he said to media at the conference.


Archbishop Samuel Aquila, center, shakes hands with Sheik Ahmed Nabhan of the Aurora Muslim Society after a press conference Aug. 11. Photo by Bernard Grant/DCR.

Together with Shaul Gabbay of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, and Sheik Ahmed Nabhan of the Aurora Muslim Society, the archbishop and Father Mahanna said they would sign the PLACE document. Father George Shawareb of St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church in Arvada and Deacon Elias Naoum of the Syriac Orthodox Church also spoke at the conference.

Jewish Professor Gabbay called the initiative “a light amid darkness.”

“This is a local initiative which might shed light on this darkness. There is a lot of darkness, but one candle can lighten a large space,” he said during the conference. “We pray for peace, love, human dignity and safety for all minorities.”

Muslim sheik Ahmed Nabhan said they must “work very hard” to cut out evil from the world and preserve peace and mercy.

“This is our responsibility toward the Lord,” he said.

The press conference took place amid a still precarious existence for Christians and religious minority refugees in the Middle East. Some 200,000 abandoned their homes and fled this summer after the radical militant group dubbed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forged its way through Iraq threatening conversion to Islam, taxes or death. Uncounted numbers have become casualties.

The world watched as minorities fled to the East from the Christian-hub of Mosul to Erbil where food is scarce and the future uncertain. ISIS’s continuing threat prompted President Obama to authorize airstrikes on the extremists’ artillery and military vehicles to halt the potential slaughter of minorities in Erbil. U.S. planes also dropped food and water in crates last week to refugees near Erbil.

ISIS militants took control of parts of northern and western Iraq in June, including Mosul. They seized Iraqi army weaponry and vehicles and also took control of a third of Syria. Last week, they overran Iraq’s largest Christian town, Qaraqosh, and captured the Mosul Dam, which controls water supply to millions of Iraqis.

The Islamic group also threatened last week that it would not stop until they “raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”

Father Mahanna said, “These threats must not be taken as a joke.”

The interfaith leaders were joined by a dozen more that evening for an unprecedented interreligious prayer service for peace in the Middle East at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver.

“Our response must be one of prayer and action to help save those in danger,” Archbishop Aquila said. “It is important for us whether we be Jewish, Christian or Muslim that we understand that truth that is common to all of our faiths—our God is a God of love.”

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash