DENVER (CNS) — A group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in the Denver area spoke out Aug. 11 against religious intolerance and violence against any ethnic or religious group and launched a new initiative called “Peace, Love and Co-Existence.”
Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila organized the initiative with Father Andre Mahanna, who is pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Church in Lakewood and is director of the Office of Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations for the U.S. Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon, which is based in St. Louis.
The initiative invites religious leaders to sign a joint statement asking President Barack Obama “to work urgently through diplomatic channels and ethical intervention to stop the murder and persecution of Christians in the Middle East.”
It also asks Obama to act “with equal urgency to oppose the persecution of Jews and Muslims … in the Middle East.”
About a dozen religious leaders held a morning news conference to announce the initiative, called PLACE. They also came together for a prayer service that evening at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver.
“The existence of persecution in the 21st century is a scandal to all human civilization,” Father Mahanna said in opening remarks at the service. “It is against all people who believe in God, culture, civilization and the common good. … We are witnessing hatred.”
“God is hurting, God is in pain — even though all our theologies would tell us God has no emotions,” the priest said. “God as the father has feelings for humanity and he suffers when his children are being eaten up by evil,” referring to the brutality of the fighters of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
The militant force has captured a wide swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, torturing and massacring civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands of people — particularly Christians, Yezidi and other minorities — from their homes.
Archbishop Aquila, in his remarks after the Gospel reading, urged all to pray for the Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious minorities currently “affected by the violence that is convulsing the Middle East.”
“The situation is tragic and begs us to raise our voices in prayer for those innocents being persecuted and murdered,” he said.
“A test of the truth” of any religion is whether “it unites the love of God with the love of one’s own neighbor,” he explained.
“The atrocities being committed in the Middle East demonstrate that the radical version of Islam that the ISIS fighters are imposing with brutal force and violence is not a true religion,” he said, adding that a person cannot love God and then seek to destroy human beings God has created in his own image and likeness.
Archbishop Aquila said action against atrocities and such evil begins with prayer. “We must pray with conviction — prayer is our most powerful weapon,” he said.
“All of us have a duty and an obligation to raise up a ceaseless prayer with one voice on behalf of our persecuted brothers and sisters,” he continued. “We are called by our common humanity and in seeking the common good to pray for every single person experiencing the scourge of violence, persecution.”
But action doesn’t stop with prayer, the archbishop added.
He urged people to call their representatives and senators in Congress to express their concern and ask for “sustained intervention to protect those being persecuted” and also to take “a public stand for religious freedom by your words and actions.” He also suggested donating to charities active in the “afflicted regions” as another way to help those suffering.
If people ever feel discouraged by unending violence in the Middle East and elsewhere, Archbishop Aquila said they should recall these words from Blessed Teresa: “God does not call me to be successful, God calls me to be faithful.”
“We are called to be faithful to the God of love, the God who calls us to build a civilization of love and peace,” the archbishop said.
In addition to urging the Obama administration to take action against the ongoing “wave of hate and murder” being carried out by ISIS, the statement signed earlier in the day by the religious leaders asks that “all Muslim sheiks, imams and clerics in mosques and Islamic centers in the United States join us in calling for an end to the killing of innocent human beings.”
“It crucial that groups of authentic Muslims, Christians and Jews in the United States lead by example and advocate for the safety and the right to exist for all Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities in the Middle East,” the statement said.
“The right to life, the right to live free from oppression, the right to a safe home, the right to freely practice one’s religion, the right to peaceful coexistence based upon a mutual respect for our shared human dignity” are all rights that come from the Creator, the statement said.