Franciscans Respond to Attacks on New Zealand Mosques

Jocelyn Thomas Features

Robert Lentz and Michael Calabria, right, offer their condolences at a mosque in Western New York after the Christchurch terrorist shootings. (Photo courtesy of the Olean Times Herald.)

“In the name of the Order of Friars Minor, I wish to express our heartfelt condolences and prayers to the families and friends of the people so brutally murdered today, to the Muslim community of Christchurch and of New Zealand, and to the countless people throughout the world who mourn them.”

So began a message from General Minister Fr. Michael Perry, OFM, on March 15 as he and people around the world reacted to the tragedy far away in geography, yet close in emotion and concern.

Services at the Grotto at Siena College in commemoration of the massacre at Christchurch. The iman and Larry Anderson are in the background. (Photo courtesy of George Camacho)

“Before such incomprehensible hatred and unfathomable pain,” Fr. Michael said, “I echo the words spoken earlier today by our brother Fr. Michael Calabria, president of our Order’s Special Commission for Dialogue with Islam and director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at St. Bonaventure University.”

Since learning about them nearly two weeks ago, friars and partners-in-ministry around the Province have responded to the attacks on two mosques in New Zealand with prayer and messages of support and solidarity. They have gathered at houses of worship and on college campuses to remember the 50 victims of the tragedy on the South Island.

“In the aftermath of the tragic attacks on the Muslim community in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies wishes to express its deepest sorrow for those whose lives were taken as they attended to prayer. We pray for God’s mercy upon them and comfort for their families and friends. As is written in Surah Yā Sīn (36.12): “Truly we shall give life to the dead,” said the message posted by Michael Calabria, OFM, on the website of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies.

Grieving and Praying in Western New York
The community of St. Bonaventure University in Western New York showed its support in writing and in person.

On Friday, the day Americans learned of the mosque attacks, Michael and Robert Lentz, OFM, went to the local mosque, the Islamic Society of Southern Tier in Allegany, as members gathered in prayer to guarantee the safety of their Muslim neighbors. An article in the Olean Times Herald, titled “Franciscans Show Support to Local Muslims Gathered for Prayers,” reported on the event, describing the warm reception the two friars received.

On the day of the shootings, Michael felt “compelled to reach out and show support for the local Muslim community,” he told the Olean Times Herald. Michael and Robert both felt it “was their duty as Franciscan Catholics who endeavor to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ to show their love and support for the Muslim community,” according to the article, which quoted Michael as follows: “I also felt it was a necessary gesture due to all the support the Muslim community has given to me in my role as director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, and how they have welcomed me into their community as a brother in faith.”

Participants in Siena’s March 18 prayer services for the victims of the Christchurch terrorism incident. (Photo courtesy of George Camacho)

Michael further detailed his feelings in an editorial to the Olean Times Herald that was published on March 19.

“Muslims are not only my brothers and sisters in faith, but they are my neighbors, friends, my colleagues, students, and fellow Americans,” he wrote. “Although there is the common misperception that Muslims are new to the United States, it is a fact that there have been Muslims in this country since before my Irish and Italian ancestors began to arrive in the early 20th century, and indeed then were part of the great waves of immigrants who came to America in search of a better, safer, and freer life. Today several million American Muslims, both native-born and naturalized, continue to be part of the rich fabric of American cultural and religious diversity, and active participants in every profession and walk of life – as they are in many countries around the world, like New Zealand. They are an integral part of our local Allegany and Olean communities, and many of them in the medical profession labor every day to keep us healthy and alive.”

He went on to say, “In the aftermath of the terrible carnage in Christchurch, this is not a time to debate religious truths, cultural diversity or history. It is a time to grieve, to grieve the loss of the 50 men, women and children who died attending to their sacred duty to pray, to offer our prayers for them and for those who mourn their deaths. It is a time in which we might all pray: Lord, ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred, let me sow love.’”

On March 19, the Muslim Students and Allies association Association on the SBU campus, in association conjunction with the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, held a prayer service in the McGinley-Carney Center for Franciscan Ministry to honor the victims. Michael wrote a prayer for the service, incorporating some of the 99 names of God in the Muslim religion.

In Buffalo, Jud Weiksnar, OFM, representing the Franciscan family, participated in a vigil on March 17 at the Islamic Society of Niagara Frontier.

“I began by saying, ‘May the Lord Give You His Peace,’ as St. Francis instructed us,” said Jud, who had met one of the organizers, Dr. Khalid Kazi, at a meeting of the Interfaith Climate Justice Community. “I spoke briefly about this year being the 800th anniversary of St. Francis’s visit to the Sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamil, and how since that visit, Franciscans and Muslims have shared a special bond. The Franciscan Family feels a special pain when Muslims are targeted as they were in New Zealand. I ended with the blessing, ‘May the Lord Bless You and Keep You,’ and mentioned that Francis likely shared that blessing with the Sultan.” Details are available in a TV report which emphasized that Western New York comes together in times of tragedy.

Reflecting and Remembering in Albany Area
Outside of Albany, N.Y., a prayer service for the Christchurch victims was held March 18 at the Siena College grotto. Student leaders from the Muslim Students Association organized and facilitated a prayer service for the Siena College community.

The goal of the afternoon event, according to George Camacho, OFM, assistant director of Siena’s Cross-Cultural Center, was to stand in solidarity and honor the victims and families of the mosque shootings.

Commemoration at Siena College of the Christchurch shootings. (Photo courtesy of George Camacho)

Senior Faiha Zaidi, a Closter, N.J., native, opened the prayer service with “As-Salam Alaikum,” which translates to “peace be upon you,” a common Islamic saying used by many Muslims around the world to greet one another. Faiha added the following: “Moments before his life was taken, the first victim greeted the shooter and called him his brother. We live in a time when too often a fear of the different, of the unknown, gives way to prejudice, to harmful rhetoric from the media and other sources of influence. This man, who in his last moments invoked peace in the literal face of hate, is as best a picture of Islam as there is. Peace. In spite of the darkness, the world still turns and it remains as beautiful as ever. We continue to pick each other up time and time again, taking care to remember the fallen. Today, we can stand a little closer, love a little harder, hope a little stronger. And, we can pray. We can pray for the 50 lives lost, for the grieving families, for the survivors trying to put their lives back together.”

Lawrence Anderson, OFM, Siena College’s chaplain who emphasized the manifestation of true bravery and strength through healing, and not through brute force, led those gathered in reciting the Prayer of St. Francis.

“Aidan Sullivan of Chester, N.H., and a member of the Student Ministry Board, offered a powerful reflection and call to action for the Siena College community by reminding us of the importance of reaching out to those who we may consider different and treating them with love and respect, as that is God’s call and Jesus’ example for all of us,” George said.

As she closed the service, Nabila Akhter invited attendees to “continue to foster a sense of peace and acceptance within our Siena College community and in the world beyond.” She then invited all assembled to each light a candle as an expression of hope, followed by a moment of silence and dismissal.

In Silver Spring, Md., near the nation’s capital, the community of St. Camillus – adults and students of St. Francis International School – held a memorial service on the morning of March 22 to remember the victims of the New Zealand mosque attacks and to “renew our pledge to be people who fight hatred, bias and injustice through active peacemaking and dialogue.”

Near Chicago, four friars stationed at the interprovincial post-novitiate formation house  —  Joshua Critchley, OFM, Jason Damon, OFMJuan Turcios, OFM, and Jay Woods, OFM — attended a vigil with a fellow student from Catholic Theological Union.  It was held March 16 at the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove, Il.

– Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

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