Interreligious Prayer Service Remarks, Aug. 11, 2014

Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception

photo: DCR/Bernard Grant

photo: DCR/Bernard Grant

My dear brothers and sisters, I am grateful to every one of you for your presence here tonight. We have come together to pray for those Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious minorities who are presently 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 who are being persecuted and murdered.

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.  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 the love our neighbor.

This is also a test of the truth of any religion. Does it unite the love of God with the love of one’s neighbor? 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.

It is impossible for a person to love God and then seek to destroy the crowning achievement of His creation, the human being whom he has created in his image and likeness.

Last Friday, the Pope’s personal representative to the United States, sent me an appeal from Pope Francis on behalf of those who are suffering in Iraq.

He said to every bishop of the United States: “[O]ur brothers and sisters are persecuted, they are pushed out, forced to leave their homes without the opportunity to take anything with them. To these families and to these people I would like to express my closeness and my steadfast prayer. Dearest brothers and sisters so persecuted, I know how much you suffer. I know that you are deprived of everything. I am with you in your faith in Him who conquered evil!”

Yesterday, after praying the Angelus prayer, Pope Francis repeated his condemnation of religion being used to condone violence. “Hatred is not to be carried out in the name of God! War is not to be waged in the name of God!” he declared.

One only needs to look at the latest headlines to see why he is so concerned. Christians’ homes have been marked with the Arabic letter “N” for Nazarene. In the case of Shiite Muslims, their homes have been spray-painted with an “R” for Rejecter. Members of the Yazidi ethno-religious group are being branded as “devil worshippers,” and some 40,000 of them have been driven by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) militants into the Sinjar Mountains west of Mosul, near the border with Syria.

Today in the news we heard of 500 of the Yazidi being buried alive.

These are scenes that many thought were impossible in our day. But here we are, it is 2014 and the Islamic State’s fighters have made beheadings, rape, extortion, systematic persecution, and the murder of children (whom they have cut in half!) all too real.

I am reminded of the quote which is most frequently attributed to the English statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

We have seen this throughout history and we cannot be good men who do nothing.  What can we do? How can we resist this evil?

Our first reaction must be to pray, as we are doing tonight. We must do so with faith that the Creator of all is truly in control of our world and can save our brothers and sisters. We must pray with the conviction that prayer is our most powerful weapon. God may use the hands and feet of aid workers, the decisions of political figures, or soldiers’ actions to defend a defenseless and helpless people, most especially defenseless children, but it is still He who acts.

All of us have a duty and obligation to “raise up a ceaseless prayer with one voice” on behalf of our persecuted brothers and sisters, as Pope Francis recently said. And when I say “our brothers and sisters,” I do not mean that we should each pray for those who belong to our own faith. We are all called by our common humanity and in seeking the common good to pray for every single person who is experiencing the scourge of violence or persecution because of their faith, regardless of their religious affiliation.

We all believe that mankind was created out of nothing by God, and that we have a special dignity because of that. Our shared, God-given dignity is what makes us brothers and sisters with one another. And this is what makes it possible for all of the religious leaders you see here tonight to stand together against evil, against the assault on our fellow man.

One cannot help but recall St. John Paul II and his call to the world, to every person of good will, to build a culture and civilization of love.  Or to embrace the civilization of death.  That is the battle we find ourselves in today.  And it continues.  But it is up to each one of us to choose the civilization of love.

And so we must do more than pray. Our Creator entrusted us with free will, and we must use it to choose the good and act in favor of it. To that end, with the direction of his bishop, Elias Zaidan, Father Andre Mahanna and I have been working to promote the Peace, Love and Co-Existence initiative.

The inter-faith PLACE initiative is a statement of our united purpose, as well as a petition that asks President 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.”

Just before this ceremony, I signed the PLACE statement with Dr. Shaul Gabbay, Sheik Ahmed Nabhan, Father Andre Mahanna of the Maronite Catholic Church, Deacon Elias Naoum of Syriac Orthodox Church, Father George Shawareb of St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church, and other leaders..

We hope, through this action, to love our neighbor as ourselves by calling our leaders’ attention to their plight and asking them to defend the tens of thousands of innocents fleeing ISIS.

So many of you here tonight are not clergy but lay people. You might be asking, “What can I do?”

First, you must begin by praying for those being persecuted and for the conversion of those who are carrying out these heinous acts. I urge you though not to stop there. You can also donate to charities that are active in these afflicted regions, and call your local congressmen and senators to express your concern and ask for sustained intervention to protect those who are being persecuted. You can take a stand for religious freedom by your words and by your actions!

Every single action and every prayer counts. I am reminded of what Mother Teresa said when she was asked if she ever got discouraged by the number of people who were still in need, despite the thousands of poor and suffering people she picked up off the street. She replied, “No. God does not call me to be successful; God calls me to be faithful.”  And whether we are Jewish, Muslim or Christian, we are called to be faithful to the God of love, to the God who calls us to build a civilization of love and peace.

May all of us adopt her attitude and be faithful in defending our fellow human beings, especially the most innocent. One can only weep as one gazes upon children who are being murdered.  We should not worry about how big the problems that led to this situation are. Instead, we should be faithful and seek to give glory to God by loving our neighbor through prayer and action.

It must not be said that we were the generation that stood idly by while evil consumed our brothers and sisters. 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 love our neighbor as our self! May the God of peace and love bless each one of you abundantly and help you to build that civilization of love in today’s world.

 +Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila, Archbishop of Denver