Ecumenical Prayer for Peace in Middle East Brings ‘Bridge Builders’

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At the Solemn Evening Prayer for Peace in the Middle East, Cardinal Dolan bolstered those near and far afflicted by the relentless conflict.

Patriarch Bechara Peter Cardinal Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, was the guest of honor at the June 27 gathering in Holy Family Church on East 47th Street in Manhattan.

The patriarch was in New York as part of a pastoral visit to the United States in late June and early July.

“We so appreciate you, we’re grateful for your visit and we welcome you to New York very heartily,” the cardinal said to the patriarch, calling him “a friend” who was among “very good friends” that evening.

“We admire you,” the cardinal continued in his homily, “who rather holds his hands together in prayer, whose hands are often raised in blessing, whose hands are often held up to stop bullets and bombs and bloodshed, and whose arms embrace all…in a region which causes us sometimes to cover our ears, lest we hear more and more bad news.

“You instead encourage us to open our ears to hear God’s Word of justice and peace, to listen to Jesus’ call for reconciliation and mercy.”

“In acres of the earth, whose people are exhausted and often wail, ‘There is nothing we can do,’ you do so much—for refugees, for dialogue, for rebuilding, multiplying good works, as St. Paul encourages, in a beautiful country so sadly blistered by battle and blood….”

The service was held on the feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria. The patriarch referred to the saint in the concluding prayer before his remarks and the final blessing.

Cardinal Dolan hosted the liturgy along with Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron, headquartered in Brooklyn. Archbishop John Myers of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., was also present, as were numerous clergy, men and women religious and laity.

“A special word of welcome is extended to our Orthodox and Eastern Christian brothers and sisters, who join us tonight in prayer,” said Father Gerald Murray, pastor of Holy Family.

He also recognized members of the United Nations’ diplomatic corps and others who work there “to promote her mission of securing peace and freedom for the people of the world, especially in the Middle East.”

Holy Family is known as the United Nations parish because of its proximity to the U.N.’s headquarters.

After the service, Patriarch Rai, Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Mansour greeted people outside the church.

“What we saw tonight—ecumenical prayer, where people work with government, people work with humanitarian NGOs, people work with the Church—this is Lebanon, this is the best of Christians of the Middle East,” Bishop Mansour told CNY.

“That’s why it’s so important for Muslim and Christian alike to survive the wars and the chaos of the Middle East.”

Bishop Mansour said he was grateful to Cardinal Dolan “for giving us the opportunity to be who we are—bridge builders here, bridge builders in the Middle East.”

The gathering personally resonated with Vasel Gjonlekaj, 19, a seminarian studying for the priesthood of the archdiocese who belongs to St. Lucy’s parish in the Bronx.

“It’s important to realize that everyone comes from different backgrounds, and with different backgrounds there are different tribulations and difficulties as well,” he said.

“I myself am an Albanian Catholic—we’re a very small minority, we’re only 10 percent in Albania—and so I can kind of relate to these people, to the Lebanese and the persecution as well. We likewise were persecuted by the Ottomans.

“And so it helps me to strengthen my faith and hopefully my priesthood as well so I better serve these people—God’s people.”

Msgr. Joseph Grech, First Secretary of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, said he hopes “peace in the Middle East is reached today and not tomorrow.”

“We need to unite in prayers—everybody, every religion—because with prayer we can find a road to peace.

“Christ is the Prince of Peace,” Msgr. Grech said. “Without him, we can do nothing more.”

Nancy Indelicato, a Lady of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, was among a number of knights and ladies who attended the service dressed in robes adorned with the Jerusalem Cross

“It’s very important for all of us to be here today,” she said, “with what is going on in the Middle East, and not be afraid, especially in light of all that has happened in the United States, with all the terrorist acts” of late.

“We all have to stand up, with courage, for our beliefs,” she said, and “for peace and love and humanity,” added Ms. Indelicato, a member of Ascension parish in Manhattan.

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is dedicated to supporting the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and responding to the needs of Catholics in the Holy Land.

Earlier in the day, the patriarch held a press conference in the offices of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support, at the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan.

Cardinal Rai addressed those assembled with the assistance of a translator, Archbishop Paul Sayah, his vicar general.

Regarding future prospects for the Middle East and the world, Cardinal Rai said a political solution to the conflicts ought to be the priority.

The international community should commit itself to establishing a just, global and permanent peace, he said, and work to secure the return of all the refugees to their homes and land, because the great risk is that refugees may become easy targets for those recruiting terrorist organizations.

The international community is now fully aware that terrorism has become a dangerous phenomenon, both locally and globally, the patriarch added.

Along with a peaceful solution to the conflicts in the region, moderate political regimes ought to be encouraged, he said, so that people may be able to enjoy stability, basic human rights and especially religious freedom and freedom of conscience.

As a final consideration, Cardinal Rai said the absence of Christians in the Middle East, or the weakening of their cultural influence, would impoverish both Christians and Muslims, as it harms the culture of dialogue and coexistence desperately needed in the world today, if one is to promote multiculturalism as a viable way of life, both in the East and West, Cardinal Rai said.

Christians should be helped to remain in their countries, to live in harmony with their compatriots and to witness to their Christian values, he said.

In an interview with CNY after the press conference, Cardinal Rai highlighted the importance of hope.

“We’ve been here for 2,000 years. We built those countries. We built those cultures. We cannot just pack up and go because now we are in difficulty.

“Christianity was born in the Middle East. We are entrusted with the safeguarding of that tradition. Christianity is within our hands, to try to keep that treasure alive.”

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