It all began on August 11, 2013, with the P.L.A.C.E Initiative for peace and coexistence for all the children of Abraham in the Middle East during the Interreligious Prayer Service at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver, Colorado.
The PLACE Initiative was a document cosponsored by Archbishop Samuel Aquila and Fr Andre Y Sebastian Mahanna representing Bishop Elias Zaidan of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon, USA that promoted the protection of Christians in the Middle East, invited Muslims to publicly denounce the religiously motivated violent killing of Christians and other minorities by Muslim ISIS, and promoted the protection and coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims to live in one World, preaching a God of love and denouncing in such a way any religious violence in the name of God. Over 17 religious leaders in the Denver metropolitan area signed the document, including 5 major Muslim Sheikhs. Our goal has become more and more a conscience issue to save the lives of the persecuted Christians and other innocent people of various religious and ethnic groups who since 2006 have been the target of ethnic and religious cleansing and persecution.
The first realization of the PLACE Initiative came with an Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast that was held on May 15, 2015. The event was co-presided over by Bishop Zaidan, Archbishop Aquila, and over 37 Religious Christian leaders. More than 250 people came to share in our awareness-raising prayer breakfast that Friday morning. We told people to come only to learn about the plight against Christians so that they could then tell a friend about the genocides that are taking place against Christians. They responded by giving over 23 thousand dollars over one and a half hours. That day, these people, who came from different Christian-based churches, both apostolic and evangelical as well as non-denominational, made a strong statement: "We are here for the love of Christ and in support of our persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East, and we want to help."
After this initial event, checks kept coming in and reached nearly 30 thousand dollars in total. Father Andre began meeting regularly with his church's pastoral and stewardship councils, as well as with community members John F. Medved and Peter Boyles, to discern next steps. John Medved, as one of the founding members of the Mission of Hope and Mercy, was always a great believer in this mission; Peter Boyles was our media messenger who from the earliest days carried this mission to the hearts and minds of every American he could reach through his daily morning radio show.
In June 2015, Mr. Boyles and Father Andre went to Lebanon with Senator Sam H. Zakhem to do an on-site assessment regarding the proper distribution of the funds that had been raised from that first prayer breakfast. There they encountered most of the religious and political leaders of the country. They met with the Maronite Patriarch, Patriarch Rai, and learned about the great need for aid and assistance; at the same time, they discovered that, due to the ongoing suffering and the magnitude of the tragedy of the Christians and other peoples as well, there was not a clear understanding of either short- or long-term needs, nor was there a clear vision as to what the future of the Christians would be in even a couple of years from then. There were no proposed solutions nor dynamics for a strategy; there was not even a mechanism of communication by which the story of these many Christians could be told.
After meeting the refugees in St. Elias Maronite Church of Jesr El-Wati in Beirut, Mr. Boyles and Father Andre decided to act by giving 180 gifts to children, hundreds of diapers for babies, and food packages for hundreds of families. They also gave these types of emergency provisions to 200 families on July 25 and 26, 2015. They decided that they needed to give these people hope by telling their story and to show them mercy by both giving them assistance and raising awareness.
From there, the Mission of Hope and Mercy was formed, an organized entity that would carry the name of Saint Rafka, who lived under the pressure of persecution during the 1860 A.D. massacres against the Maronite Christians in Mount Lebanon. Father Andre consented to lead this effort. The fruit of the PLACE INITIATIVE Event on August 11, 2013 was the founding of the Mission of Hope and Mercy on October 15, 2015.
The Mission of Hope and Mercy continues to hold regular ecumenical and interreligious gatherings to foster and promote the culture of mutual respect, peace, love and coexistence amongst all the children of Abraham. And it continues to bring hope and mercy to persecuted Christians in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East and Africa.