By Christopher White, National Correspondent
NEW YORK — President Donald Trump’s assertion Jan. 8 that the United States is ready to “embrace peace” was welcomed by American Catholic leaders, who called it a “relief” from mounting tensions with Iran.
“We join in the hope expressed today that the people of Iran share in the promise of a great future, and that the United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it,” said a joint statement from Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and Bishop David Malloy, chairman for the USCCB committee on international justice and peace.
“We urge once again that all parties, in these critical days, embrace peace rather than violence,” they wrote in response to the violence of recent weeks. “Peace has been all too elusive – in recent memory alone, war has caused hundreds of thousands of lives to be lost, as well as untold suffering and endemic instability.”
The president’s ten-minute remarks, delivered in the Grand Foyer of the White House while flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and military leaders, condemned Iran as a source of “corruption” within the Middle East and said he was asking NATO to step up its involvement in the region. The president also announced that he was imposing stricter economic sanctions on Iran.
“The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it,” he maintained.
Trump’s remarks came less than 24 hours after Iran took credit for firing more than 20 ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq in retaliation for Trump’s decision to kill Iranian military leader General Qassim Suleimani last week.
The Iranian attacks on Wednesday did not result in any casualties, and despite the fact that the Ayatollah has labeled them as a “slap in the face” to the U.S., Iran has maintained that it does not seek war against the United States.
The president “taking a step back from the escalatory rhetoric is certainly welcome by Christians in Iraq and around the world,” said Maryann Cusimano Love, a professor of international relations at the Catholic University of America.
Cusimano Love, a consultant to the U.S. bishops’ international justice and peace committee, noted that the president spoke of the possibility of dialogue with Iran, which she said was cause for hope, as it has been “absent so far,” from his remarks on the situation.
Dialogue, she said, is the Church’s only response.
“We don’t get to dialogue with the people whom we agree. That’s why it was challenging for Christ…and that’s true today,” Love observed.
Similarly, Stephen Schneck, executive director at Franciscan Action Network, told The Tablet that while the president’s remarks were “overflowing with provocative threats against Iran,” he noted that the president urged Iran to work with other nations for the possibility of a new deal on nuclear weapons.
“Can we hope that this is a subtle sign the Trump administration is truly open to dialogue with Iran to pursue a path toward peace in the region?” he wondered.
Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, told The Tablet that “the president is right to urge NATO and other international partners to take a more active role in the region and to foster conditions that encourage stability and security for all its inhabitants,” while also saying that the president is justified in his use of force to protect American interests.
“Protecting religious freedom for all people is essential to these efforts, particularly for the people of Iraq and Iran. It is also directly connected to America’s national security.”
Further, Farr faulted Suleimani for “stoking sectarian tensions” in the region.
“These actions have been devastating for the region and costly to Americans and our allies. They have directly contributed to the massive exodus of Christians and other religious minorities from the region,” he said.
Both Love and Schneck noted that Iran’s strike on Wednesday was a “limited, proportional response” and that the president seemed to be noting that.
“The Iranian missile strikes against the US military facilities in Iraq seem to have been aimed very precisely to avoid risking American or Iraqi lives, thereby offering the Trump administration a face-saving off-ramp from further escalation,” Schneck said. “Thankfully, Trump this morning took up the Iranian offer for de-escalation.”
“In what matters, Trump has backed down. Deo gratia!,” he told The Tablet following the president’s remarks.
Prior to Wednesday’s attacks, Archbishop Gomez had already released a statement on Tuesday calling for peace.
“In the face of the escalating tensions with Iran, we must pray urgently that our world’s leaders will pursue dialogue and seek peace,” he said. “Please join me in asking our Blessed Mother Mary, the Queen of Peace, to intercede, that Jesus Christ might strengthen the peacemakers, comfort the suffering, and protect the innocent and all those in harm’s way, especially the men and women in our military and diplomatic service.”
Other bishops throughout the nation have taken to social media in the last two days to offer their own calls for peace.
Bishop Curtis Guillory of Beaumont, Texas sent a tweet saying “Please join me now in praying for the safety of our military in Iraq and that all leadership be guided by God’s wisdom to bring about a peaceful resolve to this crisis.”
“Prayer for peace protects us from taking peace for granted and sharpens our desire for true peace and not simply absence of conflict,” wrote Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas.
While not specifically mentioning the conflict, Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, Texas issued a statement speaking of the need for reconciliation.
“Jesus wept twice: over Jerusalem and over the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus longed for humanity’s reconciliation and peace,” he wrote. “Now, we need reconciliation and peace. Jesus hear our prayers.”
In a follow-up message he wrote: “Any genuine effort to build peace improves the situation we are in. Many genuine efforts will be needed. Let’s start.”