More than 35 clerics representing the Catholic, Orthodox and Islamic faith traditions of Lebanon met in Brooklyn to pray for victims of a deadly explosion in Beirut and for an end to the decades of violence and instability in that country.
Ordained and lay participants taking part in the Aug. 25 gathering at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral implored the church's patroness in song, chant and prayer to restore peace and civility to the region.
On Aug. 4, a massive explosion of fertilizer stored at the port of Beirut killed at least 180 people, wounded 6,000 and displaced as many as 300,000 others from their homes. The disaster was the latest in a series of devastating challenges to the political, financial, religious and humanitarian institutions of the country.
During the past 45 years, the Lebanese people have experienced civil war, government upheavals, financial collapse, joblessness, challenges to the practice of religion and the crippling COVID-19 pandemic. The explosion destroyed the government's three-month emergency supply of grain and threatened an already unstable food supply.
Participants at the prayer service reflected on their shared connection to Lebanon, the importance of working together and relying on divine guidance to persevere.
In his homily, Archbishop Joseph Zahlawi, Metropolitan of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, said the blast's shock wave was not confined to Beirut but felt by Lebanese all over the world. The shards of broken glass "pierced our hearts" and the images of destruction to property and especially people "have been engraved in our psyches forever."
The archbishop said the solution to this tragedy, and so many that preceded it, lies with the Lebanese people and the faith that has sustained them for centuries. Rather than sink into despair and lash out at those with whom they disagree, Archbishop Zahlawi said: "We must live our faith and show those around us the light of Christ through our actions."
"This is what will save Lebanon. This is what will save America. This is what will save the world from death and destruction, racism and bigotry, selfishness and greed," he said.
During the service, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York said: "Lebanon is an icon for everything that our good God intends for his church. So when Lebanon suffers, the human project suffers."
Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielien, prelate of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, said the event expressed solidarity with brothers and sisters who walk through the valley of death in the current social and political crisis. He said an internet image of a disabled man in a wheelchair cleaning a Beirut street after the explosion touched his heart deeply and reminded him that events may handicap the body but cannot dampen the spirit.
The service closed with a recitation of the Our Father led in Arabic and English by Sheikh Sami Merhi, chairman of the Druze Council of North America.
In an interview with Catholic News Service, Bishop Yousif Habash of the Syrian Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance of Newark said all of Christianity is targeted by "the Herods of today," particularly in the Middle East.
He said in decades of efforts to uproot Christians from his native Iraq, "Christianity is targeted and unwanted because it scares people who hate justice and peace. Even its silent existence makes people jealous. They love darkness more than light."
Bishop Anba David of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of New York and New England said it is important for the Christian communities to "show love and solidarity as members of the Body of Christ who are going through pain and suffering."
"We are also a church of pain and persecution and we understand that the tragedy is beyond tolerance. So many lives have been lost and people have been wounded. Our hearts are with the Lebanese people," he said. He encouraged both prayer and practical assistance.
Archbishop Dionysius Kawak of the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of the Eastern United States said he believes "in the force of prayer. We need to at least be united by prayer to ask for peace, tranquility and divine protection."
Msgr. Peter Vaccari, president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, told CNS that his organization established an office in Beirut in 1949. In the current emergency, it is providing food and medicine, as well as funds to repair homes, schools, dispensaries and churches.
The prayer service was organized by Christian Arab and Middle Eastern Churches Together, a loose association of concerned clergy and religious established in 2002. Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Maronite Diocese of St. Maron of Brooklyn, who is a former leader of the group, said: "Lebanon is on the radar again for people to care about. To be honest, I think something good will come of this."
Opening the prayer service, Father Dominique Hanna, rector of Our Lady of Lebanon, said, "We might think that Beirut is destroyed, but, believe me, she is not."
"The cedars of Lebanon are Beirut's protectors and anyone who conspired to destroy Beirut has to destroy those enduring cedars too. Keep in mind that the cedars are God's trees. The cedars belong to God and so does Lebanon."