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Faculty, students urge solidarity with Mideast Christians

Pace High finds a teaching moment in ongoing turmoil in Iraq

Pace students will be selling special T-shirts that bear the Arabic letter equivalent to

Photographer: COURTESY PHOTO

Pace students will be selling special T-shirts that bear the Arabic letter equivalent to "N," a reference to Nazarenes, or Christians, which terrorists have carved onto the doors of Christian families in Iraq as a means of intimidation.

MIAMI | The brutality and ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria including the murder of two American journalists this summer has stirred faculty and students at Msgr. Edward Pace High School to ask: "What can I do?"

Pace religion teachers and the campus ministry office have tried to provide the answer in the form of a lesson plan timed for the start of the school year. Pulling together a variety of resources, they came up with an ongoing "teaching moment" that incorporates calls for structured prayer, student letter-writing and other academic disciplines such as geography and history to better understand and respond to the humanitarian crisis.

Church and world leaders are looking for ways to abate several ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, including the civil war in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian standoff in Gaza. More concerning in recent weeks is northwestern Iraq, where militias belonging to the Islamic State terrorist group have forced Christians and other minorities from their homes. The group has claimed responsibility for the high profile execution of freelance journalists James Foley, a graduate of Marquette University in Wisconsin, and Steven Sotloff, a Miami native.

"We started the year with a reflection service to encourage the students to keep up with current events," said George Rodriguez, chair of Paces theology department. The school has approximately 850 students enrolled.

"So many students have been coming up to me since then and saying,'Hey Rodriguez, did you see that this or that happened?'"

Within all the theology classes, grades nine through 12, students at Pace will:

  • Dedicate some of the first lessons to the study of persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria.
  • Write letters to various lawmakers urging policies that help protect religious minorities in the Middle East.
  • Write letters to families in the Middle East who have been displaced or injured by the conflict. 
  • Participate in special time for morning prayers of solidarity with persecuted Christians in the schools chapel.

The Pace students will also be selling special T-shirts that bear the Arabic letter equivalent to "N," a reference to Nazarenes, or Christians, which terrorists have carved onto the doors of Christians families in Iraq as a means of intimidation.

There has been mass exodus of Christians this summer from the Iraqi city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and where militants have told Christians and others they "must convert to Islam, pay a fine, or face 'death by the sword. '"

Funds from the sale of the T-shirts and student letters will be forwarded to Church or Vatican-sponsored humanitarian agencies who are assisting displaced Christians in the region, according to Rodriguez.

"Sometimes teachers call these learning moments but for us this is also an action moment," he said "The students learned to write letters to government officials and how to access addresses and locate their own lawmakers and to write letters."

"They demonstrated they were aware of the problem, expressed their feelings about that, and (called) for smart action in solidarity for suffering Christian minorities, "Rodriguez added.

He worked in tandem with the schools principal, Ana Garcia, and campus ministry director, Andres Novela, in developing the program.

Rodriguez said he was personally moved by the beheadings of the two journalists and is hoping the Church worldwide does everything it can to address the violence.

"I am brought to tears just to think about it," he said, adding that the situation bears comparison to the Nazi Holocaust and the need to speak out. "There were times I just wept for these people and their families. This was so barbaric."

Pope Francis, who has sent condolences to the families of the two slain journalists, recently urged the world to find solutions to the Mideast turmoil through means other than more violence and wars.

The pope's message was presented Sept. 7 to people taking part in the International Meeting of People and Religions, organized by the Rome-based lay Community of Sant'Egidio and hosted by the Diocese of Antwerp, Belgium. The gathering was a kind of international summit of religions dedicated to peace and dialogue and to countering fundamentalist ideologies and violence.

"We can't wait we have in our Church something we can respond with and that is faith and prayer," Rodriguez said. "We are praying for the Obama administration, that they will be led by the Holy Spirit."

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