In his address to the nation Sept. 10, President Barack Obama indicated he would delay a possible military strike against Syria while pursuing a diplomatic path to ending the crisis.
Three days prior to the speech, Catholics around the globe responded to Pope Francis’ call for Catholics and people of good will around the globe to pray and fast for peace.
Images of the bodies of more than 1,000 victims wrapped in white burial shrouds — many of them children — killed by a chemical weapons attack Aug. 21, sparked global outrage. The two-year civil war in Syria has claimed 100,000 lives and driven thousands from the country and into refugee camps.
As the Obama administration signaled that the United States was contemplating a military strike on Syria for its use of chemical weapons, Pope Francis made his impassioned plea for peace, calling for a day of prayer and fasting.
“I wish to make add my voice to the cry which rises up with increasing anguish from every part of the world, from every people, from the heart of each person, from the one great family which is humanity: it is the cry for peace!” Pope Francis said in his address to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square Sept. 1.
Fr. Kurt Perera, parochial vicar at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix, took the pontiff’s plea to heart and organized a prayer vigil to coincide with the one that took place in Rome Sept. 7.
Jen Pitera, director of youth ministry at Ss. Simon and Jude, estimated that about 1,000 Catholics from around the Valley made their way to cathedral at some point during the five-hour vigil. The day began with Fr. Perera reading Pope Francis’ letter to the faithful and included a bilingual recitation of the rosary, the Divine Mercy chaplet, Benediction, adoration and confession. Prayers were read by various representatives of the community every 15 minutes throughout the event.
The Arizona Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the four Catholic bishops of Arizona, released a statement Sept. 9 in which they called on the state’s congressional delegation to urge President Obama to seek a negotiated political statement rather than a military strike. The statement also condemned the use of chemical weapons.
“This tragedy cannot continue. We ought not to fuel violence but seek a negotiated resolution. We ought to learn from the Iraq tragedy that rushing to conclusions without clear evidence can have disastrous consequences,” the statement read in part.
Fr. Felix Shabi, a native of Iraq and the corbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Vicariate of Arizona, added his voice to the outcry against military intervention.
“Every military action will cause damage and the killing of innocent people,” Fr. Shabi said. “We cannot create peace by the sword.” U.S. military action, he said, would harm the fragile Christian minority of Syria.
“As we experienced in Iraq, and as they are experiencing now in Syria as well, the innocent people, most likely Christians… are very easily targeted and would be extinguished,” Fr. Shabi said.
Fr. Peter Boutros, pastor of St. John of the Desert Melkite Catholic Church in Phoenix, agreed. The Melkite patriarchate is based in Damascus.
“What we need is a peaceful solution,” Fr. Boutros said. “Our churches are being destroyed,” he added. Maaloula, a Christian village that was home to ancient monasteries, was captured by rebel forces that damaged the churches. “The government forces came and kicked them out.”
Fr. Boutros said he agreed with the need to eliminate chemical weapons, but not by way of military intervention.
“Let’s go and take the chemical bombs, I agree with that,” Fr. Boutros said. “but don’t go with force and give the power to those people who are going to destroy Christianity.”
Bill Hallinan, a St. Thomas the Apostle parishioner, attended the local prayer vigil for peace decked out in his Veterans for Peace T-shirt. Overcome by emotion, he pointed out the quote from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower emblazoned on the back of his shirt: “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, as only one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
Hallinan, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, said he opposed the Obama administration’s pursuit of military action in Syria.
“America is a nation that has become insane with murder,” Hallinan said, pointing to abortion as well as the wars in Vietnam, Korea and Iraq.
Scott Yeager and his son Jacob, 9, also from St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, came straight from football practice to attend the prayer vigil.
“We’re here to pray for peace. More bloodshed isn’t going to help anything,” the elder Yeager said. “We’re all human and we’re all here for the same purpose, whether we are Syrian or Chinese or Russian, it doesn’t really matter. We need to do what we can as Catholics to improve the world for everybody.”
Lily Alvarez of St. Jerome Parish blinked back tears as she explained that God had called her to take part in the prayer vigil at the cathedral.
“The world is in need of peace,” Alvarez said. “We need God’s protection and comfort — we need to turn to Him.”
Fernando Rojo, 17, read a prayer in English and Spanish that God would “bring peace into the world by bringing peace into the hearts of all.” He said he hoped there would be a non-violent solution to the crisis in Syria.
“There are other ways of having a resolution,” Rojo said. “Everyone needs to give their part for world peace. I gave my part so hopefully everyone will give their part.”
Tatym Bonheimer, a Ss. Simon and Jude eighth-grader, said she and fellow students are praying for peace and studying about the Middle East and the ongoing violence there. Bonheimer read the prayer for peace from the Roman Missal.
“Kindle in the hearts of all men the true love of peace, and guide with Your pure and peaceable wisdom those who make decisions for the nations of the earth,” the prayer read in part.
In his Sept. 10 speech, Obama said that he intended to keep pressure on the Assad regime and that he had ordered the military to “be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” A U.S. military response, he said, would be a “targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.”