Baltimore Basilica stages Interfaith service for Peace in Iraq

As people of different faiths gathered Sunday at the Baltimore Basilica for a prayer service for peace in Iraq, Archbishop William E. Lori implored the crowd to keep praying after news of the crisis no longer dominates headlines.

"This suffering has deep, deep roots, and it will require our faithful attention for a long time to come," the Baltimore archbishop said during the one-hour ecumenical and interreligious service that included religious leaders from Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths.

The service — attended by hundreds, in part because of its interfaith foundation — comes amid daily news accounts of an area of the Middle East under siege from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a militant group that has seized control of large swaths of both nations while pillaging resources and forcing thousands to flee their homes.

On Aug. 7 President Barack Obama authorized air strikes if necessary to protect American interests in Iraq. Nearly two weeks later, ISIS released a video showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley and threatening the life of another American if airstrikes continue.

The religious leaders repudiated ISIS' actions and cautioned the crowd of about 350 to denounce any group that claims violence is based on Scripture.

"What drives extremist religious militants to carry out such barbaric atrocities as beheadings, murders and rapes?" asked Rabbi Michael Meyerstein, president of the Aleph Group. "The furor in which they attack hopeless victims, is rooted in a basic, gratuitous hatred of their fellow man, and perverted interpretations of religious teachings."

The Rev. Wolfgang D. Herz-Lane, bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said unity and solidarity of people of faith is needed in to grapple with atrocities at home and abroad.

"What better way to heal the troubles of this world," Herz-Lane said, "than to come together as brothers and sisters in faith, believers in the one God, to pray together, to stand together, to ask for God's guidance and strength and to say to one another, 'We are not afraid.'"

Also taking part in the service was Cardinal Edwin F. O'Brien, former Baltimore archbishop who is now grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

"True religious faith inspires only acts of hope," O'Brien said. "Truly no … religion can make pure the intrinsically evil acts being perpetrated on the Iraqi people today."

Earl El-Amin, resident imam of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore, said the city's religious leaders coming together for a singular cause is nothing new.

"This event is something that is happening in wake of what is happening in Iraq, but we have been working together for 20-25 years," said El-Amin. "It's very important for us as religious leadership to show the Baltimore metropolitan area, as well as nationally an internationally that relationships have developed."

Lori said that he extended the invitation to the area's religious leaders amid a call for a prayer for peace by Pope Francis in June. He added, "We have all been feeling the need to come together. There have been so many heartbreaking stories in the news, certainly in the United States, but especially in Iraq, and I think people of faith sort of have an instinct to come together."

The service included a one-minute silent prayer as well as an offertory for relief efforts in Iraq that are being orchestrated by the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

Mark Melia, CRS executive vice president for charitable giving, said that the organization has helped provide food, water, cooking and sanitation kits and tarps for shelter.

"Our hope is to provide education for children," Melia said, adding that the group intends to provide additional resources "so that people can get on with their lives and to hopefully move toward long-term resettlement, because people will need a place to live as the winter months approach."

The service was lauded by such attendees as Joe Kelleher of Baltimore, a civilian adviser for Johns Hopkins who said he once worked in the Middle East and still has friends there.

"What we've seen today [in the region] is nothing like I've never seen before," Kelleher said. "All denominations over there in the Middle East … so many of them are gripped in tremendous fear right now."

Jennifer Hilaman of Martinsburg, W.Va., said more religious groups should conduct such services, adding, "We have to work on tearing down generations of hatred."

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