Catholic prayer service for peace draws interfaith worshippers
By Wayne Laugesen
SHEIKH Karim Abuzaid, an imam (prayer leader) of the Denver Islamic Center, addresses worshippers
FOXFIELD, Colo.—An Islamic imam stood in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and beneath a large hanging crucifix that holds a relic of the True Cross, to chant a portion of Sourat Maryam—the 19th chapter of the Quran, which tells the Islamic version of the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus.
The imam wasn’t there to symbolize the tensions that are notorious for separating Christians and Muslims. He, among others, presented a message of unity and peace and a pleading to the one and only God that peace might prevail in the Middle East.
The imam’s recitation was part of a two-hour-plus Feb. 23 prayer service for peace in Syria that brought local Islamic leaders, priests, an Antiochian Orthodox priest and a Jewish professor from Denver University together at Our Lady of Loreto Catholic Church.
Sheikh Karim Abuzaid, of the Denver Islamic Center, hugged Msgr. Edward Buelt, pastor of Our Lady of Loreto, and other clerics who gathered together in the lobby of the church in advance of the liturgy.
“This is how it should always be,” Sheikh Karim told the Denver Catholic Register, moments before the prayer service began. “My religion is one of peace, and we must work together and pray together toward peace throughout the world.”
Though Sheikh Karim and other Muslims at the service do not worship Jesus as their lord and savior, they were comfortable in an environment of Catholics who do.
“We love Jesus,” Sheikh Karim said. “I cannot be a Muslim without believing in Jesus and loving him. To us, he is a messenger to help us inherit the everlasting paradise.”
About 80 worshippers, mostly Catholics, participated in prayers that were chanted and spoken in English, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic and Eastern Syriac (liturgical language of the East Syrian rite).
Father Andre Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Church—an Eastern Catholic parish in full communion with Rome—wrote many of the night’s songs and performed an a cappella version of “Ave Maria” so powerful it brought some in the assembly to tears. Father Mahanna grew up in Lebanon, south of Syria, and told of hiding in a cave with his family for 60 days as a child when the Syrian Army invaded Lebanon.
Talks by Father Mahanna and others, after music and prayers, defined the theme of the night as “mercy and reconciliation.”
“The true victim of these wars are them (children),” said Father Mahanna, pointing at six robed children who stood as altar servers throughout the service, which did not consist of Mass.
The prayer service came in the midst of recent escalations in the Syrian uprising, a civil war of clashes between armed rebels and the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The conflict began in March of 2011, when demonstrators took to the streets after the government arrested and allegedly tortured 15 schoolchildren for writing anti-government graffiti on a wall. Peaceful protests turned violent after the Syrian Army opened fire on protesters, killing four.
None at the prayer service wanted to talk about politics of the war, or whether the United States should get involved. They had no interest in taking sides regarding the complicated issues motivating the war. They only wanted to pray for peace.
“Wherever two or more are gathered, Jesus is there,” said Msgr. Buelt, before the service began. “So we are absolutely, 100 percent guaranteed that Jesus will be with us tonight to
hear our prayers.”
Msgr. Buelt said the prayer service would also help improve awareness among Catholics and others of the dangers facing innocent people, Christians and others, caught in the Syrian conflict.
“We are in danger of losing the Christian community in the Middle East,” Msgr. Buelt said. As Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, Muslims and Jews all worship the same God, Msgr. Buelt said it is time we start focusing on our mutual heavenly Father rather than political and philosophical differences that get people killed.
Our Lady of Loreto has a disproportionately high number of members who are either from Syria or have close ties to the country. Among them is prominent Denver businessman Joseph Sekrieh, owner of Denver’s famous Vollmer’s Bakery, who grew up Catholic in Syria and worries today about the majority of his family who remain there. Sekrieh emigrated from a small Christian region of Syria at age 18 to attend college in Iowa.
“Nearly my whole family is over there,” Sekrieh told the Register. “My brothers, my mom, my sisters, my nephews and my cousins. I thank God I am still able to make contact and talk to them, but I am very worried.”
Sekrieh’s good friend Shaul Gabbay, professor of international studies at the University of Denver, attended the prayer service and delivered a prayer in Hebrew about the exhaustion of the righteous, who are tried by suffering. The prayer service fell on Purim, a Jewish holiday that celebrates the deliverance of Jewish people in the Persian Empire from a plot by King Ahasuerus to kill them.
“The whole notion of Purim is that the Jewish people were saved, and we are praying for just that type of miracle tonight,” Gabbay said before the prayer service.
Few observers of the Syrian conflict believe the Assad regime can last much longer, which worries Gabbay.
“Christians are at least sheltered by the current Assad regime,” Gabbay said.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population of 22 million. A broad spectrum of geopolitical experts fear they may eventually end up in the crossfire of rival Islamic groups, as has been the plight of Christians in Iraq.
Imam Ibrahim Kazarooni, of Boulder, spoke to the assembly and explained that we should not blame legitimate differences in religious beliefs for atrocities in the Middle East. It’s not about a chosen race and a non-chosen race, Kazarooni explained. It’s about extremism.
“Everyone must stand up to challenge the extremists in their communities,” Kazarooni said, relating that he knows of extremists among Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and other religions and cultures. “These people are about
either/or,” Kazarooni said. “It’s my way or the highway. You are 100 percent with me or 100
percent against me.
“The crisis in Syria has created its own moral imperative, which obligates all of us … ethically and morally, not only to pray for peace but to work as hard as possible for peace in Syria and the rest of the Middle East. … Extremists separate us all, one by one.”
Father Mahanna closed by imploring: “God is the nucleus of our existence on earth,” and said that humanity “commits suicide” by marginalizing God.
Wayne Laugesen: www.twitter.com/WayneLaugesen