New Boston Post – Recently, a group of religious leaders from different denominations in the Lowell region met to discuss the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. What started as an informal get-together has become a united coalition of churches, pooling their spiritual and material resources to help some of the world’s most victimized people. It is the first time Christians in the region have worked together on such a large-scale initiative.
The culmination of their efforts will be an interfaith “Ecumenical Prayer Service of Christian Unity” on Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lowell. The service is open to the public, and will highlight the hundreds of thousands of Christians who are being persecuted and killed in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. The clergymen are working with their respective congregations and the local community to inform people of the atrocities, and to raise money for relief efforts.
A unique feature of the multi-denominational initiative is that all donations will be combined and distributed to three trustworthy charitable organizations: Catholic Charities, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), and the Armenian Relief Fund. Donors may select among the three according to their personal preferences.
The enterprise was conceived and promulgated by Rev. Terrence O’Connell of St. Joseph’s Shrine and Chuck Saba, owner of Bishop’s Legacy Restaurant in Lowell, who developed the plan with Rev. Leonard Faris of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. The founding team met with Rev. Daniel Crahen of St. Patrick Church, Rev. Peter Rizos of St. George Greek Orthodox Church, Fr. Ernest Couloras, a retired Greek Orthodox priest, and Fred Simon, a parishioner at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, to discuss how to implement the plan.
Since then, many other churches have joined the operation, such as the Armenian Christian churches in Haverill and Lawrence. A number of Protestant denominations have also been contacted to expand the effort.
Rev. Faris has been an indefatigable organizer of the Jan. 24 event, which will take place at his church. He explained that, despite the relentless persecution from groups such as ISIS, the majority of Christians in the Middle East do not want to repatriate to other countries. They have deep roots in the area, and do not want to leave their businesses behind. Additionally, many have family members, especially the elderly, who are unable to travel.
“Many of the refugees don’t want to leave their homes because they know once they leave their country they’ll never go back,” Rev. Faris noted. “Most of them will never hear again from their relatives. So we want to help them stay in their homelands, since that’s what they prefer.”
Rev. O’Connell concurred: “The effort is to help people on-site, so they can either stay in their own country or to return to their homes.” He added that the victims are singled out for their faith: “It’s a tragedy for the refugees because they’re being persecuted for their religious beliefs.”
Rev. Faris expounded, “ISIS has no value for human life – Christian or Muslim. If you don’t follow their ideology, you’re killed. Unfortunately, Muslims are getting a bad name from ISIS. We need to remember that moderate Muslims are also getting slaughtered.”
Accordingly, the funds collected for relief programs will help both Christian and Muslim refugees, since the organizers wish to help all victims. Rev. Faris explained that when individual churches send contributions, they are often confiscated or stolen, especially by ISIS operatives. As a result, churches are wary of sending anything on their own since it will likely go to the wrong hands. To ensure the donations go directly to the designated beneficiaries, the ecumenical coalition is combining their resources and distributing them to three well-established relief organizations.
The cooperative effort among so many denominations in the Lowell region reverberates far beyond the local level. The ecumenical initiative is more than a gesture: it is a formidable example to believers and persecutors alike that Christians can cooperate and support each other in adversity.
Rev. Faris is enthusiastic about the response from the participants and the historic nature of the enterprise: “This is the first event of its kind in the region.
Lowell is a city of immigrants and we all get along and work well together. There is no animosity between us. We’re multi-cultural, and our churches are open to all who want to come and pray. As Christians, we have more in common than what divides us. This harmony can also happen in the Middle East.”