As politicians in Washington continue to debate a U.S. military strike on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons, Catholic voices in Denver and abroad grew louder about the dire consequences, culminating in a global vigil for peace.
Pope Francis called a military solution to Syria “futile” and petitioned faithful to a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world. He led a vigil Sept. 7 before some 100,000 in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.
In Denver, Archbishop Samuel Aquila led a five-hour prayer vigil amid an accelerating tempo of pressure toward military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime is accused of using sarin gas to kill more than 1,400 people in August.
The archbishop echoed the pope in condemning the use of chemical weapons and the importance of seeking peace first.
“Should a strike take place against Syria, it will be very easy for the entire tinderbox of the Middle East go up in flames, creating perhaps another world war,” he told faithful gathered for the vigil at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver. “It is important for us to understand the complexity of the situation, but more important yet is our prayer, joining our hearts and minds with all Catholics throughout the world.”
The vigil was punctuated with Benediction, song, reciting the rosary and periods of silence. Parishioners came from across the diocese and filled the 800-seat Cathedral Basilica to dedicate an hour to prayer. Others, like Regis University and St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Denver, held their own vigils.
Alex and Elisabeth Kilates of the Cathedral Basilica said they came to pray for Syrians.
“We’re part of the mystical body of Christ,” Alex said. “It’s not about whether or not we’re going to go as a country to attack the Syrian government.
It’s really about the people and their suffering and praying for them.”
Shirley Montoya of the Cathedral Basilica said it’s important for Christians to pray, fast and “just keep love in our hearts.”
Engulfed in strife
Debate on a response to Syria arose as confl ict in the country escalated.
Tensions in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the two major denominations of Islam, were amplified under the Syrian regime of President Assad and his family. Assad, a part of the minority Alawite clan of Shia Muslims, faced rebellions from disgruntled Sunnis and other Syrians. Some are religiously opposed to his regime, others want political change.
Then civil war erupted in 2011. Some 100,000 people were killed, 4 million were driven from their homes and 2 million fled. Recent evidence of chemical weapons caused the world to take notice. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called its use crossing a “red line for the world.”
U.S. bishops joined to condemn the violence in a letter to Congress Sept. 5. They wrote their concern is on the “humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria and on saving lives by ending the conflict, not fueling it.”
Locally, experts say it’s the alliances in the Middle East that make a strike risky. If Syria is hit, its allies Iran and the Hezbollah, a terrorist Shiite organization in south Lebanon, are expected to come to their aid. These allies also threaten to strike Israel.
“The problem is that we could have a domino effect,” said André Villeneuve, a professor of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, who lived in Israel for 12 years. “Syria is saying they’re going to attack Israel if the U.S. attacks them. The threat of a third world war is not exaggerated. That’s why we need a lot of prudence and certainly a lot of prayer.”
Spreading peace In solidarity with the pontiff, churches and dioceses worldwide held vigils for peace. Before the vigil in Rome, Catholic leaders met to draft a letter titled “People for peace in Syria” addressed to Congress.
Father Andre Mahanna of St. Rafka Maronite Church in Lakewood was among the writers. He said the letter urges a full understanding of Syria and peaceable solutions.
“The government should always take into consideration the perspective of the Church for it communicates closely with people, and it knows the reality of their problems and does offer solutions,” he said.